Possession is 9/10th’s Of My Protagonist

The Author At Work

Last night, as I was dawdling along and trying for the zillionth time to tie up or trim off a pesky dangling plot thread, one of my characters popped up and engaged my brain in a very interesting debate about heaven, hell, life, death, love, loyalty, need, want and morality. By the time I came up for air, my Paranormal-Lite story had arguably reached a point where the Lite might not apply anymore. And I suddenly had five pages of pretty amazing dialogue that–even if it doesn’t make it past the final edit–is going to change my perception of this character forever. Fortunately in a good way. It doesn’t always work out like that.

The thing is, this particular character has always been a fairly sharp individual – very pragmatic and common-sensical – but in the three or four years I’ve known her, she never once gave me an indication of this sort of uber-deep thinking capacity. And now she, like several other characters in my authorial stable, has proven that she’s a heck of a lot smarter than I am.

I’ve always had an inferiority complex, mind you, but it’s a little ridiculous when even the people I make up in my head, can run intellectual circles around me.

Please tell me that I’m not the only one this has ever happened to.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about characters who are more talented than I am. That’s easy. If I want talent, well, let my protagonist sit down to play relevant bits of Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 in E-flat major for Two Pianos, K. 365. And lo, there is talent. I don’t have to play it. (I never got past “Ponies At Play” when I took lessons with Mrs. Stolis when I was like, seven.) It’s sufficient that you know it was played and played well. Want a different kind of talent? Just slide a Super Bowl championship ring on Mr. Protagonist’s finger. Or wealth? Give Ms. Protag a Limo and driver named Raoul. No problemo! How about something a little less measurable like courage? Badabing, a few seconds at the keyboard and my protag just took one for the President and double-tapped the bad guy to boot.

I’m not necessarily talking about planned intellect either. I mean, when it comes to really smart characters, the writer can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk all over the page. The evil mastermind has to be a mastermind in more than just job description. But you can plan for that. You can research other evil masterminds, and do up outlines or storyboards or 3×5 cards, and have Roget’s Thesaurus and My Big Book O’ Thermonuclear Dynamics on standby for on the fly research.

Nope, I’m talking about the ambush. I’m talking about the character who’s puttering along in a nicely crafted little story arc and suddenly stops, turns around slowly and says in a slightly menacing (or at least condescending) tone, “You think you know who I am. You don’t know Jack.” Or Jill. Whoever. And they jump the tracks, kick over the house of cards, and take you on the mental metaphor of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with stuff that you could not in a million years have come up with on your own.

Except that you did.

Somehow.

It’s like getting kicked in the head and becoming a temporary savant. Or like crashing a Mensa cocktail party. Again, it’s all in a good way, but it’s a little bizarre when your brain gets hijacked and your only apparent value is being able to take dictation. It’s slightly … creepifying.

I’m going to throw this out there for all the writers who meander in, and I’d really love to hear about your experiences. Heaven forbid I find out I’m on my own, because I really can’t afford a Pshrink on my salary.

Has this ever happened to you? Do your characters ever give you more than you ever asked for? Are they brighter than you? Do they let you know it? Do they make you wonder where the heck they came from?

Do we need to start a support group?

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Getting the Jump on Short Stories

I’m no literati, nor do I play one on TV. (For the uninformed, literati isn’t a type of vampire, although maybe it should be!) But when I look at the ongoing shift in publishing from print ‘n paper to eBook, there seems to be more and more of an inevitability about it. This is good in some ways and maybe not so good in others. The debate is ongoing.

Having said that, I’m going to hit on a literary form today that I think might receive a real boost from the advent of eBooks, Kindles, Nooks and all that downloadable jazz. I’m talking about the short story.

Short stories, at least those written for a readership older than the age of 5, have always struck me as something of an elite (but not in a bad way!) form. You find them in literary magazines or The New Yorker or rather austere looking anthologies. They’re connected with names like Raymond Carver and Larry Woiwode. They’re not traditionally geared toward a mass market. Or at least, they haven’t been. There wasn’t much point, when all’s said and done. Not enough money in it, to be blunt.

But today, with technology that negates a lot of the traditional printing costs that made shorts a non-starter, can allow you to carry a library of 3,500 books that weigh less than ten ounces total and can fit into your purse…well, publishers have options, writers have options, and most importantly, readers have options.

Enter Jen Wylie and a story called Jump.

Jen might have come up with the best tag line for a book I’ve ever seen:

If you were told to jump off of a bridge, would you?

When I ran across that little gem, I knew I was going to read the story. In fact, Jump has the distinction of being the first e-book I ever purchased. It’s not going to be the last. But make no mistake, it is a short story. (Published by Echelon Press Shorts, in conjunction with Echelon Explorations) Jump clocks in at a lean, mean 3,288 words. And yes, it’s certainly affordable, even by eBook standards, which are pretty darned affordable already.

What it also offers, is a style that’s very accessible to the every-reader. It starts smack in the middle of the action, has an engaging spunky heroine with a nice way with internal dialogue, and it keeps you guessing as the story progresses. It also contains some very useful information, such as: if you think you might be accosted at knife point on a bridge in the middle of the night, a mini-skirt is probably not appropriate attire. Food for thought there, definitely!

I asked Jen what her thoughts were about short stories in general. “I love shorts,” she says. “With writing and editing and kids, I rarely have time to sit down and read a full novel. Shorts let me get a story in when I have a moment! Even in the past I always loved them and was a big fan of the Sword and Sorceress Anthologies.

Jen brings up a good point and a simple truth. A lot of people seriously don’t have the time to sit down and churn through a full length novel. In fact, in a lot of ways—ways I don’t necessarily approve of, mind you—we’ve become a society that embraces brevity. We text. We tweet. We LOL at each other. Our attention spans are, perhaps, getting a little shorter then they ought to be.

That might not be great news for society, but it does make me believe that short stories, and even novellas, are well positioned to fill an ever widening niche among reading consumers. Jen seems to think so. Jump is (as of this writing) at number one on the bestseller list at OmniLit. And while she has her first full length novel coming out in May of this year, it will be preceded by more shorts scheduled for March. I’m looking forward to them!

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Good Character: Perfection – AKA: The Big Yawn

Anyone who’s played around in the world of fan-fiction knows who Mary Sue is. Mary Sue is perfect. She’s beautiful…most likely with at least one physical feature that either lends itself to poetic cliché (hair that shimmers like a raven’s wing) or is honestly a physiological impossibility for Homo-sapiens.  (Violet or gold eyes anyone? How about one of each?) She probably comes from some sort of dreadful background–maybe an orphan, much abused, raised in poverty–yet overcomes it all without breaking a nail or suffering from PTSD, and saves the world without breaking a sweat. Men want her. Women want to be her. Children and small animals adore her. Unicorns flock to her and roll over at her feet for tummy rubs even if they’re breaking into the pages from an entirely different genre. She’ll probably have a flowing name of many-vowels like Aulienniayaia. She will not be named Gert.

When I was immersed in Pern Fic, I knew of one Mary Sue who had rose petals strewn in her path. Actual rose petals. By peasants. With much wailing and gnashing of teeth. And why? Because she was moving across town. (And she rode a dragon that wasn’t so much a gold color as… apricot. I don’t personally believe that anyone who rides an apricot dragon is rose-petal strewing material, but I digress.)

Yuck.

But the point is the perfection. The noble, handsome guy who wears artfully torn shirts out of habit just so his chiseled physique has a chance to gleam, and who will face down his foes unflinching. The ethereally beautiful woman who can balance the entire universe with a single word uttered from glistening ruby red lips. You know who I mean. You can probably name a few. You might even have written a few. I know I have.

These are not the sort of people I would willingly hang out with. I have enough of an inferiority complex already, thank you very much. I can’t relate to them. And I would submit to you, gentle authors, that if your readers cannot relate to your main characters, you’re missing out on something important. You’re missing out on the connection that makes your character real. Likable. Someone who isn’t just going to get cheers because she/he is the heroine/hero but because the audience has invested a feeling of…well, of empathy. Maybe even of friendship.

Many years ago, when I wrote the aforementioned Pern fanfiction, I was asked to come up with a Weyrleader (a head honcho for the uninitiated) and, like the newbie I was, I created B’yard. You can probably guess. B’yard (we’ll call him Bay) was stereotypical hero-material: tall, handsome, black hair, (yeah, yeah, raven‘s wing, shut up) built to centerfold specifications, ice-blue eyes, noble out the wazoo, great in a knife-fight and oh yeah, he could dance. And scars. He had an impressive array of scars. (I know, right? I’m so ashamed.)

It didn’t take me long to realize that as a main character, Bay was not going to be a success. You can’t write much about a guy who does everything right, who gets to be leader by being the best, and who leads his people with wisdom and fairness. He’s not a hero anymore. He’s a freakin’ hall monitor.

So I started to mess him up. By the time Bay’s character arc had ended, we learned that he had the political astuteness of an eight-week old Labrador puppy. He was so locked into “doing the right thing” that he was the most easily manipulated character I’ve ever written. His career ambitions totally wrecked his love life. He was clueless when dealing with anyone under the age of 7, including his own son. His habit of dramatically showing off his scars became something of a joke with the dragonriders-in-training. And his penmanship was frankly crap. He had to hire a secretary for all his correspondence. I could have written about him forever. I definitely learned a lot from him.

These days, when a new character starts tapping at the door of my subconscious and I invite him in for a chat over tea and crumpets, I immediately start looking to see what makes him tick. What are his good points? What are his flaws? What makes him stupid? What makes him smart? What makes him human? What redeeming qualities does he have? Does he have enough baggage to complete a journey? Are we going to have to pick some up on the way?

In my Young Adult historical novel I have two main characters who seem to have nothing in common. Marcus is young, highly-educated, something of an intellectual and a complete snob. He can recite poetry. Lupus is older, slow-spoken, intensely private and content to lead a simple life as a blacksmith. He might know a dirty limerick or two, I never asked him.  Problem: Marcus is a slave and Lupus is his new owner.

Honestly, once those two characters introduced themselves to me, it would have been pretty impossible not to write about them. Not because they’re perfect or stereotypical hero material, but because they aren’t. And that makes them interesting.  At least I sure hope it does!

So, for the writers out there, what are your experiences with character perfection or character flaws?  I’d love to hear your input!

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A Beginning

While this isn’t the first blog I’ve ever started, this is where I intend to hang my metaphorical hat for a while. So come on in, let me take your coat, have a seat right over here. Coffee? No? Sure? Okay.

While my “About” page (renamed Genesis) tells a partial story of my writing life, it doesn’t really say much about who I am today. Allow me to rectify that.

Call me  Sue. I’m a forty-something single mom in a household which contains (besides yours truly) two wing-fluttering teens and a geriatric greyhound. I work full time in a non-writing job, and I’m also plugging along toward an associate’s degree in another non-writing field.

But make no mistake, I am a writer. My first book, a literary novella called, The Bluff was published by Cross+Roads Press in 2003. I’ve had my share of success with short stories and contests too. And recently I was offered a contract by Quake Books for my Young Adult novel, Servant To The Wolf.

I’m a busy bunny, am I not?

In any case, I sincerely invite you to stick along for the ride as I move toward the world of publication once more, hack away at the works-in-progress, ramble about writing in general and maybe even invite a few other friends in to share their own wisdom and experience. Stay tuned!

Thanks for stopping in!

Sue

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