Tag Archives: character creation

A fantasy author’s approach to D&D

Over the past few weeks, I’ve become well acquainted with a gnome barbarian by the name of Ozric.

Painted miniature of a bald, muscular gnome wielding a sword and shield

Ozric, gnome barbarian

That could prove to be my first mistake: choosing a gnome barbarian for my first foray into Dungeons & Dragons. Even an uninitiated noob like myself knows there are more suitable combinations of race and class—a halfling rogue, an elf wizard, a dwarf barbarian—but I couldn’t resist. A gnome who aspires to be a badass warrior is too fascinating to ignore.

As a newcomer to the game, I know I should prioritize winning, but the writer in me craves a good story.

Even if that story means little Ozric will have to defy the odds to survive.

An inauspicious origin

Now I’m no stranger to fantasy. My first series, The Renegade Chronicles, falls firmly in the sword-and-sorcery genre.

But I’ve never played D&D, not properly. Oh, my cousin and I bought a reduced-price starter kit decades ago. Alas, we were too young to puzzle it out, and so I was left to get my fantasy fix from 8-bit Nintendo RPG games inspired by their tabletop counterparts.

Years later, I discovered DragonLance books—novels that served as companions to the D&D modules (campaigns?) by the same name. By that point, Magic: The Gathering was gaining in popularity, so I tried my hand at that card game.

Any hope of finding a group with whom to play D&D fizzled like a fireball with insufficient mana. Or so it seemed.

Fate intervenes

You wouldn’t think a man in his late thirties could come across so many disparate conversations about D&D at the same time. Jake Weiss, the cover artist for the The Renegade Chronicles offhandedly mentioned he was interested in starting a D&D club. Then a fellow Cub Scouts leader told me he was creating a campaign to play with his sons.

Finally, my sister was invited by some of her work friends to give tabletop gaming a try. She enjoyed it so much, she helped my kids roll their own characters and has, to date, DMed a couple of sessions for not only them, but also my mom. It didn’t take much coaxing to talk my wife and me into creating characters of our own.

And here I thought D&D was dead, along with any chance for me to experience it.

Full disclosure: as of writing this, I still haven’t actually played D&D, but after taking the first step—discovering Ozric’s stats and selecting his abilities—I’m awfully eager for my first session. Meanwhile, the writer and world-builder in me can’t sit idle.

How does a fantasy writer prepare for a story-based game? In a word, research.

Quest for knowledge

Cover of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook

Don’t leave the tavern without it!

Like any adventurer worth his d12, I first sought out a tome containing what I needed to prepare. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I read the D&D Player’s Handbook from cover to cover. (OK, so I skimmed through the chapter on spells. Sue me.)

Now I know the rules, more or less, but reading about an alternate reality and actually visiting one are two very different things. I asked around for the best way to familiarize myself with D&D and received a unanimous answer.

“Watch Critical Role.”

A handful of episodes into their second campaign, and I have to admit I’m feeling more comfortable with the nuances of the game—though my sister warned me not to expect a Matt Mercer level of quality from her dungeon master experience.

Equipped with an idea of how a story might unfold as well as the rules of the world, I was ready to turn to one of my favorite exercises as an author: characterization.

A gnome by any other name

Creating characters has always been the best part of storytelling for me. Even the most exciting adventure is doomed to fail if the cast falls flat. That’s why I’m a firm believer of getting to know my characters extremely well before putting pen to paper.

For my major characters in both The Renegade Chronicles and my new series, The Soul Sleep Cycle, I slogged through fifty or more questions, forcing myself to invent/discover details about the people populating my story.

I did the same for my gnome barbarian, and one of the first things I learned was “Ozric” isn’t even his real name.

Over the course of four hours—and 7,000 words—I ascertained plenty more about Ozric’s personality, motivations, and backstory. He’s probably more complex than the average barbarian, but if I’m going to give voice to a character, I have to know him. That goes for novels and D&D alike.

Revelation

A writer typically lives within his story for months and maybe even years before it goes out into the world. Even after beta readers have provided feedback on a manuscript—even after a publication date has been decided upon—nothing makes a book feel more real than seeing the cover for the first time.

Similarly, I had the privilege of seeing Ozric in three dimensions, thanks to the painted miniature my sister produced for me. That same night, she texted me a note containing secret information only he knows.

The game is afoot!

Anticipation

Painted miniatures of a gnome barbarian and his companions

Ozric and friends

Very soon Ozric will meet Phoebe (a dwarven cleric played by my daughter), Johnny (an elf rogue played by my son), Cordelia (my wife’s half-elf ranger) and Saphira (my mom’s halfing cleric). We’ve even convinced my step-father to join us as a half-orc fighter named Spencer.

Like any good storyteller, my mind is already running amok with ideas of how Ozric will relate to the members of his motely party and how he might approach the problems likely to arise.

You might be asking yourself why the fantasy writer isn’t the one DMing the campaign. For one thing, it’s incredibly intimidating to jump into that role without any prior D&D experience. For another, I’m afraid I’ll enjoy it too much.

It took four hours to flesh out Ozric; I can only imagine how long it would take to plot out a campaign. If I’m going to wrap up The Soul Sleep Cycle next spring, I can’t afford to get too distracted.

Crafting Ozric’s story in real time will have to suffice—assuming my little gnome berserker survives his first battle.

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Cover reveal: If Sin Dwells Deep

By auspicious happenstance, my 100th blog post coincides with another milestone: the completion of my next book’s cover.

Behold!

If Sin Dwells Deep will be published as a paperback and for Kindle on Oct. 2, 2018. The Kindle version will be available for preorder at the end of the month IS AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER NOW!

Here’s the back-cover text to tide you over until then:

Even good girls have secrets.

When straight-laced Allison sleeps, the rebellious goddess Syn wakes. Having a fling in the dreamscape may seem like harmless fun, but when a sadistic predator learns her true identity, the fantasy begins to bleed into real life.

If Sin Dwells Deep—a parallel novel to If Souls Can Sleep—exposes the hidden world of dream drifters and explores the war between gifted government agents and those who would use their abilities to corrupt life, death, and that which lies beyond.

Because I’m up to my elbows in pre-release book marketing tactics (which will likely include penning some guest posts), I’ve elected to use the rest of this article to highlight some of my favorite posts from this blog.

Without further ado, here’s my Top 10 blog posts…so far:

10. Celebrating a writing milestone? Listen up!

About three years ago, I created a soundtrack for a novel I was working on. The songs all—directly or indirectly—tie into the plot and characters of If Sin Dwells Deep. (Available soon!)

9. It’s a…business!

This short but significant post announced the birth of One Million Words LLC, my indie publishing company. The business, now 2½ years old, resembles a toddler today: lots of unexpected fun and requiring constant supervision.

8. How to make a person

No, this isn’t sex education. I once used this blog to share writing tips, and this post featured a series of interview questions to get to know your characters better and transform them from two-dimensional ideas to full-fledged human beings.

(Pro tip: I recently used these same questions to flesh out my new D&D character.)

7. Why sci-fi and fantasy?

I get asked this question a lot.

6. What every writer needs

Spoiler: it’s an audience. I followed this post up with three others related posts: What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). While I think this series could be helpful to other writers, I’m including it here because it also gives readers a glimpse into a writer’s journey (and psyche).

5. The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical

The odds are I’ll never make a video game about grammar, but what I love about this post is the reminder that writing doesn’t always have to be a serious and that writers should always have a dream or two in their back pockets.

4. ‘Who is your book about?’

I composed a “Meet the Renegades” blurb as far back as fall 1997, when I was drafting the first chapters of what would eventually become Rebels and Fools. That guide was meant for the English instructor reviewing my chapters for an independent study class. It was with great excitement that I introduced the rest of the world to Klye Tristan and the gang.

3. Friends and family of writers, beware

Another common question from readers: where do you get your ideas from? The answer: just about everywhere, including the people closest to us.

2. Why writers groups still matter

I wrote this treatise on the importance of writers groups more than five years ago, and I still believe strongly in the message. In fact, a fellow Allied Authors member and I tackled this very topic on the Read.Write.Repeat. podcast, which will air later this month.

1. Storytelling can take many forms

Predating my life as a writer, I told my stories by other means. Before the cast of The Renegade Chronicles made it to the page, they were LEGO minifigs. As a nod to my humble roots, I transcribed the characters from If Souls Can Sleep into the same medium, bringing my fiction full circle.

I’d like to thank all of my readers over the years. I hope you’ll enjoy not only my next book, but also many more blog posts to come.

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Free e-book for Renegade Chronicles fans

Hence forth, let Sept. 13 be known as Reader Appreciation Day!

As a thank-you to my readers—and in hopes of reaching more—I’ve created a free compendium for The Renegade Chronicles, my fun fantasy saga featuring anti-heroes aplenty.

Cover of "Capricon and Beyond: The Renegade Chronicles Compendium"

Download Capricon and Beyond: The Renegade Chronicles Compendium for FREE here.

Available for Kindle, Nook, and just about any other e-reader you can name, Capricon and Beyond provides an in-depth look at the world of Altaerra—from the island of Capricon to greater Continae to far, foreign shores.

The e-book compiles a variety of resources for those interested in learning more about the people and places that populate The Renegade Chronicles as well as those who want a behind-the-scenes look at my world-building process. The glossary of more than 250 names and terms will serve as a handy quick-reference guide for “visitors.”

Capricon and Beyond also contains a never-before-published prologue for the series, starring “the Stranger.”

Other content includes:

  • Character profiles
  • Maps of Capricon and Western Arabond
  • Historical and cultural notes
  • Sketches drawn by yours truly

Sign up for my newsletter to receive the link to your copy of Capricon and Beyond.

And have a happy Reader Appreciation Day!

New to Altaerra? Learn more about The Renegade Chronicles here.

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Coming soon: Renegade Chronicles compendium

An editor of mine once said, “No one wants to know how the sausage is made.”

He was referring to journalistic processes—the hoops reporters jump through in order to research, interview, and write stories as well as edit, paginate, and publish them. Readers care only about the quality of finished article, not all of the work that went into it.

That might be true of newspapers, but as a lifelong fan of fantasy, I know that those who venture into fictional realms often appreciate additional glimpses into the wider world, including supplementary explorations of characters and cultures and even the author’s method for creating them.

Think of them as travel guides.

In the spirit of giving fans a more in-depth look at the people, places, and peculiarities of The Renegade Chronicles—and an excuse to return to Altaerra—I’m in the process of creating a (FREE!) compendium called Capricon and Beyond.

While I put the finishing touches on the e-book, please enjoy this excerpt. It’s a character profile I composed for a certain rogue knight prior to writing the first draft of Rebels and Fools.

Black and white sketch of Dominic Horcalus, Knight of Superius

While I’ve never been more than a dabbler in drawing, I occasionally made time to sketch the natives of Altaerra.

Dominic Horcalus

Horcalus comes from a long line of Knights of Superius. Like his father and his father before him, Horcalus stands tall—about 6’2”—and keeps himself in excellent physical shape. The muscles on his arms, legs, and chest are well-defined, and there’s hardly any fat on his body. His eyes are gray; his hair, brown. A full, neatly-trimmed mustache graces his upper lip. Despite a rather hawkish nose and sharp chin, Horcalus is a reasonably handsome man.

Horcalus’s usual garb consists of combination plate-and-chainmail armor, a shield of some sort, an open-faced helmet with a nose-guard, and his trusty longsword.

Horcalus presents himself with an air of quiet dignity. He acts and speaks proudly, though not haughtily. He has excellent posture, looking comically stiff at times. He doesn’t fidget, and maintains a composed, stoic exterior unless something has him greatly discombobulated. His tone tends to soften, and he is more likely to smile when interacting with women and children.

Horcalus’s speech is the epitome of proper. He’ll almost always use two words in lieu of a contraction. He may use an outdated or archaic phrase or expression without realizing it.

Horcalus’s childhood was not so unlike many other boys borne of Knights. His father was stern but loving, making sure his son was well-disciplined and teaching the boy everything he knew about life and the Knighthood. Horcalus became his father’s squire at a remarkably young age and then went to Fort Splendor to train as a novice when he was fifteen years old.

Horcalus loves a challenge and delights in a hard-fought victory, though he is ever a gracious winner. He spends much time engaged in mock-combat, honing his skill, teaching others what he knows as well as learning from their techniques. Aside from physical trials, he likes games that improve his intellect and sharpen his wit (e.g., solving at riddles and playing chess). He has little interest in games of chance and shuns gambling.

Horcalus is not quick to laugh, but that is not to say he is devoid of humor. He’ll laugh at clever joke but seldom at another’s expense. He hates lies and engages in a lie only when it’s unavoidable. He’s a very bad liar, actually. His conscience holds a tight reign over his actions.

Like most Knights of Superius, Horcalus is extremely patriotic, but Horcalus does his best to accept people of every nation. Like many humans, he has his misgivings about the other races, but he is never less than polite to the occasional half-elf or gnome who crosses his path. He distrusts magic-users, but his greatest prejudice is against people who foment disorder and take advantage of their fellow man.

Horcalus is a stalwart optimist. He became a Knight to help make the world a better place. So long as he is fighting for the side of peace and justice, Horcalus enjoys life. Conversely, when he becomes a member of the Renegades, the disgraced Knight finds life nearly unbearable.

Horcalus serves Pintor the Warriorlord by adhering to the virtues outlined in the Knighthood’s code of conduct. He knows several prayers by rote. More often than not, when he prays, he is asking for guidance or forgiveness. Horcalus also honors the other Gods of Good, though he doesn’t really address these other deities by name.

While Horcalus did have a childhood sweetheart, he won’t fall in love until many years after the Renegade War. Horcalus thinks love is important, and he wants a wife and family, but the quest for a soulmate is far more difficult than anything the Knighthood has ever asked of him. He always figured the gods would provide him with a capable woman when and if they see fit. Horcalus wants children too—particularly a son to follow in his footsteps as a Knight of Superius.

Horcalus made many friends while in the Knighthood. His best friend and mentor is Chester Ragellan. He develops relationships with Klye Tristan, Arthur Bismarc, and Lilac Zephyr during the Renegade War.

More details about the release of Capricon and Beyond as well as other exciting news for The Renegade Chronicles will be released soon. Until then, may the Warriorlord watch over you!

It’s here! Download Capricon and Beyond: The Renegade Chronicles Compendium for FREE.

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And we shall call him…George

King George V

King George V (1865–1936) — Attribution: Luke Fildes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An avid collector of names, I recently found myself interested, for once, in news about England’s royal family.

When hours and then days passed before the name of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s newborn son was announced, I couldn’t help but think about how much pressure must go into naming the future King of England—and speculate that the chosen appellation was bound to be impressive.

Nope.

Earlier today, official sources reported that the noble infant’s name is George Alexander Louis.  But you can call him His Royal Highness Prince George Cambridge.  For now.  Eventually, he’ll be King George.

Now where have I heard that name before?

Well, for starters Great Britain has churned out six King Georges going back as far as 18th century.  Worldwide, there have been at least twenty-nine King Georges, including a dozen from Georgia (go figure).  With the U.K.’s recent royal birth, we’ll likely see an even thirty in the years to come.

In hindsight, it was foolish of me to expect anything except a conservative and traditional name for the future monarch.  I can’t pretend to know the vetting process for princely names, but something tells me the Queen Mother would have vetoed “Prince Xander” or (gasp!) “Prince Gunner.”

Besides, the top boys’ names—particularly, the top ten—announced annually tend to be pretty predictable and old-fashioned.  Odds are we were going to see a John or James or George being carried out of that London hospital for his first press appearance.

Despite my disappointment in the common first name, I can’t criticize the royal family for their choice.  Picking a name for any baby can be a daunting task.  So many connotations.  So many possible consequences.

Related post: Choosing the perfect name for your baby (or villain)

Anyway, George Alexander Louis is better than what USA TODAY’s Royal Name Generator was coming up with: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2013/07/12/royal-name-generator/2512673/.  (For the record, my initials somehow yielded “Prince Jeremiah Von Frankenstein.”)

Any dabbler in sword-and-sorcery fantasy has faced the challenge of naming a king or two.  Back when I was world-building for my Renegade Chronicles novels, I delved deep into the histories of various countries and came up with a score of sovereigns (and even one pirate king).  And while the more “modern” monarchs bore respectable names like Eliot and Edward, there were some doozies from farther back, such as:

  • Zebulon, the Emperor of Nebronem
  • Qart’kahn, Chieftain of Clan Qaarm
  • Prince Moorach of the Oaken Kingdom
  • Memndrake Superior (aka The Gambler King)
  • King Fauntio Feldagne V

Far be it for me to disparage other namers of kings.

Nevertheless, the concept of royalty is one of few medieval traditions that have survived to present day—outside of conventions we writers preserve in fairy stories and other fantastic tales.  One could have hoped for a name with a little more…well…whimsy.

Then again, saddling a character (however, well-developed) with the baggage of an unusual name is one thing; doing the same to a living soul is something else.  To christen an actual baby with an alliterative nightmare like Fauntio Feldagne V is akin to child abuse.

Related post: How to make a person

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When it comes to dialogue, don’t trust the word on the street

One of my earliest college writing assignments involved a little espionage.

Having spent plenty of time playacting the part of spy in my youth and, in later years, transplanting such imaginative adventures to written page, I eagerly embraced the challenge my professor put forth.

A mysterious-looking man in a trench coat and fedora...the Dialogue SpyMy mission: to choose a random conversation between two people, eavesdrop and write down every word.

Later that day, I lingered in a classroom building’s lounge where fellow students were wont to while away time between classes, catching up on reading assignments, cramming before quizzes, or just chatting with classmates.

Today, I couldn’t tell you much about my marks other than the fact that they were young women.  I recall even less about subject of their conversation.  Their gossip meant very little to me because I knew nothing about them or the people they discussed.  Nevertheless, I surreptitiously jotted down every word.

Every false start.  Every verbal crutch.  Every grammatical violation.

When reviewing my transcripts later, I came to a few conclusions. For one thing, most people are far from eloquent.  When engaged in casual conversation, we interrupt one another.  We even interrupt ourselves.  Occasionally, we use the wrong words.  And if counted how many “ums,” “ahs,” and “actuallys” sprinkled throughout our speech, we’d be amazed.

In other words, if a writer were to accurately capture human communication and translate it to the written word, he/she would end up with a string of fragments and incomplete thoughts through which a reader would inevitably struggle.  Most of the time, the result would be an incoherent mess.

Which, of course, was the point of my top-secret assignment.

This lesson was reinforced in later years when I worked as a reporter.  Oh sure, some people are capable of providing the perfect quote, a sequence of phrases that succinctly sums up their perspective on a given topic.  But most of us use far more words than we need to.  We ramble.  We utter copious pronouns because, in the context of an interview, the reporter understands what is meant by “he,” “she,” and “it.”

Yet when the reporter goes back to his/her desk to rearrange the interviewee’s answers and evaluate which quote belongs where in the article, it becomes obvious that there is often a chasm between what people mean to say and what they actually say.  It’s truly a treasure when a reporter gets that perfect, impactful quote.  More often than not, however, the phrases and clauses between quotation marks remain rough-edged, unrefined.

When I made the switch from journalism to public relations, writing press releases allowed me to do something I never dared to do as a reporter: I reworked spokespeople’s quotes.  Quite often, I was encouraged to create such quotes from scratch and later run them past my “sources,” who might add a thought here or make a word swap there.  But the finished result was almost always a clear, coherent (if, at times, clearly artificial) collection of clauses that efficiently and effectively communicated the point.

Unlike how people actually speak…

In fiction, nothing takes a reader out of story quicker than stilted, sterile, and/or sloppy dialogue.  The good news is that you have full control over the words that come out of your characters’ mouths.  Here are some tips for how to handle the infuriating idiosyncrasies of human speech and deliver effective dialogue:

1. Shorten, streamline, then slash some more

Even though people in real life prattle on and on, a writer must be mindful of his or her “word economy.”  That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be reduced to a simple, subject-predicate construction, but short and snappy does wonders for pacing.  A reader’s attention has to be earned, and once you lost it, you might not reclaim it.

Consider each situation.  If two characters are passing each other in the hall at work, they wouldn’t likely engage in a twenty-minute conversation.  But if they’re unwinding at the local waterhole after hours—while imbibed a few alcoholic beverages—then a few run-on sentences might be just what the doctor ordered.

A common error I’ve encountered in rough drafts are conversations that simply go on too long.  Not only do the characters say in three sentences what they could have said in one, but also the subject itself circles back on itself again and again.  The chances of this happening increase dramatically if these artificial people are having an argument.  Real-life bickering is repetitive, but no reader wants to endure page after page of repetitive back-and-forth.

When in doubt, err on the side of fewer words.

2. Intersperse action

Dialogue can be like swarm of locusts, hungrily devouring a scene or even an entire chapter.  That might not be the worst thing in the world, just as long as it doesn’t leave the rest of the narrative desolate and devoid of life.

When a writer really gets into a verbal exchange between two (or more) captivating characters, it’s easy to lose track of everything else.  However, if the result is several consecutive pages of pure quotations, you end up with what I like to call Voices in a Vacuum.

Readers want to experience the story through as many senses as possible.  If a long conversation is needed, remember to plant some action in between speech tags so that the reader has something to” look at.”  And don’t forget the setting.  Where are these people?  Have they really been sitting perfectly still on a couch this whole time?  Is the rest of reality on pause while they bear their souls to one another?  Not likely.

Unadulterated dialogue appeals to just one of the five senses: hearing.  And when we speak in real life, our mannerisms convey meaning as well.  Indeed, body language often says more than our mouths!

Sometimes it can be difficult to silence loquacious characters, but unless their words are moving the story forward in a significant way, get ready to press the backspace key.

3. Replace action

Bad dialogue bogs down the pace; good dialogue encourages momentum.

In an effort to smooth out transitions between straightforward action and dialogue (because dialogue actually is a kind of action), it can be helpful to replace an ordinary description of motion with a voiced reference to an action.

Take this (admittedly ridiculous) excerpt for example:

Professor Improbable laughed wildly.  “With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”

He turned to his slump-shouldered assistant, Rogi, and asked, “Bring me the thermal calibrator at once.”

Rogi reached for one of the many tools scattered on the table and handed a gadget to the scientist, who curtly informed him that he asked for a thermal calibrator, not an infrared coupler.

Rogi tried again and, luckily, got it right.

“Thank you, Rogi.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

Here’s an alternate approach:

 “Mwahahaha!  With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”  Professor Improbable turned to his slump-shouldered assistant.  “Rogi, bring me the thermal calibrator at once.  No, no, no!  That’s the infrared coupler.  Ah, yes, that’s the one.  Thank you.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

The action is implied in the dialogue, and Professor Improbable—whom we suspect always monopolizes the conversation—can recap his master plan without needless interruptions.  Just make sure you don’t waste the reader’s time by having the dialogue and the narration convey redundant information.

4. Develop voice

Dialogue is perhaps the most intuitive element through which one can execute characterization.  A person’s vocabulary and delivery say an awful lot about him or her.  Casual chats, heart-to-hearts, quarrels, exchanges with random strangers—all of these present opportunities to add dimension to a character.

The goal is to give each character an individual voice, a strong voice that will inform the reader who is speaking even before they get to speech tag (e.g., “said Professor Improbable”).  Consider your character’s culture, education level, disposition, etc. when determining which words ought to come out of his or her mouth.

Just don’t get carried away.  Even if Rogi ends up having a speech impediment, a reader isn’t going to w-w-w-w-want to h-h-h-h-h-have t-t-t-t-t-t-to n-n-n-n-n-n-n-navigate a-a-a-around too m-m-m-m-m-many v-v-v-v-v-v-v-visual h-h-h-h-h-hurdles.  The same goes for representing accents.  Put in an affectation here and a native word there.  Please don’t pump each paragraph full of apostrophes to imply clipped sounds or otherwise butcher perfectly good words.  Subtlety is key.

Dialogue should round out your characters, but rarely can talk-heavy scenes exist solely for character development.  Every word needs to move the story forward, including quotes.

5. Read it out loud

The best way to gauge whether your dialogue rings true is to read it out loud.  Better yet, have someone else read it to you.  Listen for tongue-twisting syntax and garbled semantics.  Listen for flow.  Are the transitions logical?

Listen for sentences that are just too tidy.  Unless your protagonist is a grammar teacher, he or she is going to end a sentence with a preposition now and then.  For that matter, the rules of proper grammar don’t apply within quotation marks.  Awkward, unconventional sentence structure in dialogue won’t reflect poorly on you as a writer (if the rest of your sentences are grammatically sound), though it will send a message about the character in question.

Every good spy knows the best lies contain at least an ounce of truth.  The trick with dialogue, as with any aspect of fiction, is making something artificial come off as natural.  To become adept at writing dialogue, listen to how the people around you really talk and then make it better.

But not too perfect.

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Don’t let minor characters usurp your MS

At a recent Allied Authors of Wisconsin meeting, I was thrilled to receive unanimously positive feedback on a particular character in the chapter I read.

The only problem is all that praise went to a pretty minor character.

Who appears in just one scene in the entire novel.

He doesn’t even have a name.

In other circumstances, the characterization I conveyed through slang-sprinkled dialogue, eclectic surroundings, and a coffee mug bearing an exquisitely coarse quotation would have been a successful foray in introducing a notable newcomer to the story.  However, because this anonymous Irish store clerk makes such a powerful impression and arguably robs the point-of-view character of the focus he deserves, I must reevaluate my approach.

This isn’t the first time I invented a person when little more than an extra body would have sufficed.  In the second book of The Renegade Chronicles, I needed someone to deliver news to a protagonist.  Enter Baxter Lawler, an irreverent knight of the realm who’s more likely to wield a tankard of ale than a broadsword on any given day.  I had so much fun with Baxter that his walk-on part evolved into a sort of subplot.

Generally, it’s a good thing when a character casts a shadow—when he or she breaks free from the shackles of two measly dimensions—but if a relatively insignificant character steals the spotlight from a leading man or lady, then a writer risks misdirecting the reader’s attention.

So what to do with my all-too-charming employee of Jimmy’s Secondhand Treasures?

The easy answer is to diminish some of the details surrounding him and/or reducing the size of the scene in which he appears.  In other words, I must make him less interesting.  That would demote him to a more utilitarian role and reduce the chance of setting him up as a red herring for the reader.

Or if I think this guy has the potential, I can bring him back for subsequent scenes and perhaps even make him an integral component of the plot.  Why, if I thought this pawn shop employee had real star quality, he might even get his own novel.  Or here’s an even more extreme case: Bean, a background character in Orson Scott Card’s award-winning Ender’s Game, got his own spinoff series, which, I would argue, is even better than the books that focused on Ender’s life.

Sadly, the nameless Irishman will not likely reappear in The Soul Sleep Cycle, but it’s never a bad idea to have an attention-hungry character in one’s back pocket for future projects.  He might even get a name if Jimmy’s Secondhand Treasures becomes a pivotal place in some novel down the road.

Then again, it’s not always a good thing for a would-be nobody to get noticed by the author.  Just ask Sir Lawler, who instead of happily disappearing into oblivion after providing a little exposition, ultimately spent a couple of chapters getting tortured by goblins before losing his mind and then his life.

Bottom line: If a character deserves the reader’s attention, develop away!  But if he or she is the equivalent of a movie extra, it’s kinder to keep him or her out of the true stars’ way.

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