Thursday, August 6, 2015

Go Fish

            Wow.  If anyone’s still reading this, I’m amazed.  I’ve been absent for a long time, and I am very sorry for that.  There was a whirl of conventions, a bunch of rewrites, edits on the rewrites...
            It’s all kind of a blur, to be honest. 
            Anyway...
            I wanted to dive right back into things with a quick talk about fish. Well characters as fish. A fish out of water, as the saying goes.
            If you don’t know the saying, it basically means someone’s unfamiliar (and usually a bit uncomfortable) with the situation they’ve ended up in.  When the small town girl moves to the big city and has to find her place, that’s a fish out of water story.  When the big city boy moves to a small town and has to figure out his place, that’s one, too.  And when the special ops veteran has to babysit three adorable little kids for a month. The idea has a pretty broad scope.  It can refer to feeling a bit awkward at a party where I don’t know anyone, or being dumped on the side of the road somewhere in eastern Europe and having to find my way home while dealing with ninja werewolves every night.
            If you’ve been following my rants here for any amount of time, this idea may sound kind of familiar.  It’s because I’ve talked about the flipside of this as a problem once or thrice before.  It’s when a character is so completely prepared for everything that nothing is a challenge for them.  They’re never worried about anything because they’ve got the skills and the tools and the weapons and the flares and the antibiotic ointment and the European voltage adaptor and so on.
            If my character is always prepared, that means they’re more or less in control of things. And if they’re in control... well, there isn’t going to be any conflict, is there?  He or she will just kind of amble around and face... well, no challenges.
            I don’t know about you, but that sounds dull as hell to me.
            Our characters thrive and grow when they’re forced to learn new things and deal with unexpected situations.  This is basic character arc stuff.  My character starts here and ends there.  And I shouldn’t be talking about his or her position on the couch when I say this.  Through the course of my story, my characters should grow and change.  Circumstances should make them reconsider choices.  Necessity should be the mother of invention.
            And it’s not a solid rule, but I’d bet in a good three-quarters of our favorite stories, this growth isn’t something the character chooses. It’s a sink or swim situation. Going home to my normal life isn’t an option.  I either need to make things better or they’re going to get a lot worse.
            What’s my point with all this?
            At some point in my story, my character should be a fish out of water.  Pretty much needs to be, really.  They should be gasping, floundering, unsure what’s going on and why, and how they’re going to get out of this situation.  Maybe not gasping and floundering in a strict literal sense, but on some level they need to be baffled and looking for solutions.  It doesn’t matter if my story’s about love, work, faith, personal discovery, computer simulations, alien invasions, terrorist attacks, or Lovecraftian horror.  Some part of this needs to be something my characters have never seen before, something they aren’t prepared to deal with.  
            Y’see, Timmy, that’s how my characters learn and change. Which is how they get an arc. Which is one of the key elements of great storytelling.
            If they’re never put in that unfamiliar, uncomfortable situation—or if it’s impossible for them to end up in one—what motivation do they have to move along that arc?
            So pull your characters out of their comfortable fish bowl and toss them up on dry land.  Or up a tree.  Or into the most awkward family reunion ever.  Especially if it’s not their family.
            Next time...
            Well, since I’ve been away for a bit, I wanted to toss the floor open to all of you.  Is there anything specific you’d like me to blab about?  A character or structure or dialogue issue that’s been gnawing at you?  Please let me know in the comments below and I’ll offer my best thoughts on it.
            And if no one says anything... I don’t know, I’ll go back and look at some earlier stuff.
            Until then, thanks once again for your patience.
            Now... go write.

6 comments:

  1. Ha, you won't get rid of us that easy! We'll always be here, impatiently pressing the refresh key. ;)

    Tbh I for one am just happy you're still posting here, given your stack of other commitments.

    Ooh, there's something - do you have any thoughts on working on multiple projects at once? Like editing one, drafting another, plotting a third? Is that something you do? I've heard other bloggers talk about stacking projects so they always have multiple things on the go.

    Aside from that, I'm still struggling with how writers develop an interesting narrative voice - character voice I think I'm getting the hang of, but the narrative bits still sound like me reading a grocery list.

    If I think of anything else I'll let you know!

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  2. I like Rakie's question. I'd love some insight about working on one or several projects at a time. I have convinced myself that my work will suffer if I split my mind, but I've never tried.
    For my own question, do you fee that an author should stick to one genre for the most part? I'm finishing up a zombie novel that I started five years ago, and have finally found my rhythm for writing most days. However, I'm sick of zombies. I'm sick of horror. I want to go write something as far from my current genre as possible. Will that throw my "fans" for a loop? (Fan would probably be a more accurate term). I envision my website having pulldown menus with each genre so they can know exactly what they're looking at. I notice that you and most other authors pretty much stick to one thing...

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  3. This isn't really a post topic, but more of my curiosity: Your Ex-Heroes series has been described as a "comic-book novel" (and is even listed under graphic novels on amazon). Super-heroes often have space-opera type adventures. Any chance we'll be seeing something like this in the Ex-Heroes series?

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  4. Rakie and Nathan -- thank you both for sticking around despite my erratic schedule and for the ideas. I'm not sure either of them is a full post, but maybe I'll just do one "answering questions" post and do it that way. Sound okay?

    Kevin -- I've tried to copy a few different comic book tropes in the Ex-Heroes series, and I've played with the idea of "going into space," but I think it's really too far from the overall theme of the series. Plus, there's the whole "how" issue, since NASA hasnt' been doing much there for five or six years now...

    By the way, you can always ask this stuff over on Twitter or Facebook. I'll answer pretty much anything non-spoilery, an deven spoilery stuff if you ask it in a private/direct message.

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  5. Heck, I'm still checking your 40k blog from time to time.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on plotting and pacing. I'm struggling with knowing when to do what plot elements so things don't drag and so they seem natural, and don't feel like the story is on rails. Maybe these aren't even related or the right questions. Thanks!

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  6. I try to do the 40K blog once a week, too, but it's tough. Especially on bigger projects. I need to line up some more small, fast ones.

    Pacing is a good idea for a post. Kind of ties to structure. Let me play with that...

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