Tomorrow’s Authors: John Stum.

Today, the fourth in my series on the fantasy authors of tomorrow. Our guest blogger is John Stum, who will be telling you his views on fantasy, why he writes and also about his current work-in-progress.

  • Russell Proctor

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My name is John Stum and I am currently working on a new novel called Prince Phillip. It is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale with a focus on the young Prince who was destined to break the spell. The book will follow his life, struggles, and lessons as he becomes a man worthy of breaking the curse. I thought it would be fun to look at a character that did not have a whole lot of time dedicated to him but was important to a classic story.

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I grew up on the classic Disney movies as well as the stories of knights and epic battles. It helped frame a lot of my views on what a man was as well as provided me with childhood heroes. Those characters, however, were always presented as fully formed and complete. As an adult, I understand that there is a lot more nuance and grey areas to life, a lot of things that have to happen to shape and form a person. Prince Phillip is my way of examining those factors. It is not necessarily a children’s story I am telling. It’s going to get a little dark and adult. But those stories are always some of my favourites.

 
It ties in with my favourite authors. After I started to crave deeper stories than Disney, I read authors like Anne MacCaffrey and her Dragonriders of Pern, Raymond Feist and his stories in Midkemia, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I still enjoy light-hearted series. The Chronicle of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander is one of my favorites and I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to enjoy Harry Potter or The Hobbit. Those books all influenced me and my decision to get into fantasy writing.

 
Tales of heroes on noble quests with magic and adventure are important for the soul. They inspire thought and creativity. Many genres look at the way the world is, and a lot of them examine it the way the author thinks it should be. These genres are still bound by rules and logical thought. Fantasy throws that all out and looks at the impossible. By stepping out of the realm of reality, fantasy allows us to really see our world and ourselves. It opens us up to impossible things allowing is to truly push the bounds of reality. Fantasy is beautiful like that and one of the reasons why I love it.

 
Of course fantasy does have some baggage to it. It can feel like an old and outdated genre. We live in crazy times, though, full of rapid change. I think audiences want something familiar to cling on to. We are seeing it in Hollywood with how many movies rely on nostalgia to produce feeling and connection. This is where fantasy has an advantage. It is a nostalgic genre, but one capable of producing something new and unique.

 
Already, the trend in fantasy seems to be the number of sub-genres that are coming out. Grimdark, urban fantasy, supernatural, etc. The fantasy umbrella is splintering out to smaller and smaller niches with the rise of self-publishing and the relative ease of indie authors to find their market, at least compared to ten years ago.

 
This does lead to some annoying things about fantasy. The order surrounding fantasy creatures is getting eroded. Vampires and zombies, which may fall more under horror but still share a fantasy link, are no longer morally or existentially terrifying. Anne Rice made her vampires beautiful and desired, but Interview With a Vampire still showed the tragedy and horror of that existence. When lore is not being eroded, it is being clung to with dogmatic obsession. There is the perfect elf that seems to exist only as a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. Fantasy does lend itself more to that problem than other genres.
This is not an indictment of stories like that. I have enjoyed several when they are done right. If the author has found a voice and an audience, then great. I wish them nothing but the best and continued success. I just personally find stories like that sacrifice a lot of potential themes and messages at the expense of these issues.

 
Overall, fantasy is a fun and exciting genre. It offers a lot for potential readers and has many bright horizons ahead of it.

 
You can follow me through most of the normal social media outlets. I am on Twitter @steelstashwrit1, Facebook at www.facebook.com/steelstashwrit1, or my blog at www.steelstashwriting.com. Be sure to like and follow for more information and progress on Prince Phillip or sign up for my quarterly newsletter at http://eepurl.com/diOmdH.

John Stum

 

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Tomorrow’s Authors: Debdip Chakraborty

 

Today’s post continues the series of interviews with unpublished writers of fantasy. While they are still struggling to finish their works or await publication, they represent the fantasy we’ll be reading in years to come. The interview on this post is with Debdip Chakraborty.

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I was born into a world of books and writing, so I guess I was fortunate enough to be born in a family which had tremendous love and nurture of literature and art. My granddad was an avid reader, which he passed on to her daughter, my mom, and she is the woman who has given me every thoughts and ideas and made my life much more interesting with books.

As I kid, I liked isolation, and my ideas were always too weird or laughable to share, so I used to enjoy more of the characters that I read than the company of people. The interactions with characters in my head made me to pick up writing my own fan-fiction, which later changed into my writing.
Years turned, and after drifting through books, of all genres, shapes and sizes, I felt fantasy is the genre which speaks the most to me, and resonates with me.

 
1. Tell us about your work-in-progress.
Being an unpublished author is hard. You’re stuck in a boat, sailing in a vast sea, your destination is nowhere in sight. And you don’t want to go back to the land you just left. I guess that’s what I feel right now. More so, because I’ve miles to go before I finish my first draft. The dreaded first draft.
Currently, my main project, a planned fantasy trilogy named Ode to the Fallen, is stuck in the first draft.
It is about an Imperial Prince, who never dreams of power for himself but only kills and conquers in the name of his father, the Emperor, even if it means killing his kin. There is also a sorceress, who is seeking to revive a High God, fallen and broken; however, she knows that time is running out. A cannibal and barbarian veteran soldier seeks to wreck vengeance for cleansing the sins of the past. All their paths will cross once the world will be opposed by a far greater and ancient threat that’s beyond their comprehension or power. Hopefully, by 2018, I can end up finishing with the draft of the first novel of the trilogy.
Apart from that, I do have a sci-fi in work, still at the nascent stages, a few ideas of comic books, and a host of poetry.

 
2. Why do you love fantasy as a genre?
The boundaries of this genre are limitless. While most of the other genres do get tamed by having a “realistic boundary”, fantasy (sci-fi is considered as a sub genre within fantasy) provides an author with the concept of endless loops and probabilities.

 
3. Who do you see as your writing influences?
I was a four year old when my granddad introduced me to the world of literature and arts. It all started with the Hindu and Greek epics. Around the age of twelve I discovered my passion of writing and “Papa” Tolkien’s books. Those shaped my genre of writing: fantasy. Over the years, two other primary influences came into my life: Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker. Both of them are towering geniuses when it comes to the genre of fantasy and literature. They’ve pushed the aspects of fantasy and set a new bar where I feel few can reach.

 
4. What is the future of fantasy? Do readers still want the same old thing or are they looking for something fresh and “different”? Are there things about the genre you find worn-out or over-done? Is there a particular direction you’d like to see fantasy take as a genre?
The future of fantasy as a genre really does seem bright. With the old guards of the genre going strong with their new series, fantasy as a genre since the post 2000s has seen a host of new and emerging authors who’re fit to carry on the battalion. Fantasy as a genre has much gained the hype and deservingly so, with the adaptation of the A Song of Ice and Fire series by the HBO popular show A Game of Thrones. George R. R. Martin does deserve every ounce of credit for popularizing the genre.
There are readers on both ends of the spectrum. There are some who want the fantasy with tropes, the known tropes, just to get a familiar setting. There are also readers, who want fantasy to be with new ideas/ thoughts. Both does have its pros and cons.
While having the known fantasy tropes does possess the readers with familiar grounds, and not to scramble too much and being clueless, the author does have a fear of being a “Tolkien” or any other author imitator.
However, present things too fresh and new, and the readers may feel clueless as well. Having everything original doesn’t mean that it is going to work as well, and that itself is also a trope.
I feel a proper mixture of good old fantasy tropes, and originality always does the trick. While the fantasy trope will give the reader a familiar ground to focus, the author can show his/her versatility/creativity by planting the original thoughts along the way.
The worn-out processes of fantasy are the same Tolkien rip offs of the genre. For me, as much as I’m a huge fan of Tolkien, I do think the author prevented (for sometime at least) the genre growing. A farmer boy goes out to defeat the dark lord, whose sole person is to conquer the world, guided by a mentor (who dies halfway through the book). Those need to stop. The same old repetitive formula of light versus dark doesn’t really work out these days. Characters should be gray, no shades, multi-layered; not all characters have to be likable.
Also, as much as I love this new wave of grimdark fantasy that’s up and coming, I don’t understand grimdark, gore, and violence, just there for pleasing the masses.
There is a host of fantasy series that I’d love to see come up as shows or movies. So that definitely is a direction where fantasy should head.

 
5. What have been your struggles as a writer? What have been your personal triumphs?
Struggles to cope up with my depression, loneliness and suicidal thoughts have been my real obstacles towards getting my goals done. Although it does help me to project my thoughts on the characters, the plots, and the settings across the writing, it can at times come out as nihilistic, grim, and give a reader an overall sense of bleakness.
The triumphs do include when I try to get my thoughts on the page. The scenes or the characters which were so fleshed out in my mind when they take life in the page in front of me do seem a major satisfaction.
The idea is to keep pushing till you’re exhausted. A blank page sits in front of you, and even if you’ve to write a scene spanning only ten minutes of the story time, you can take at least a lot of time, to think, process and write down in real-life time.

 
6. What fantasy books or films have you enjoyed and why?
Favourite Fantasy Books (In no particular order):
Deadhouse Gates, Midnight Tides, Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson: This is a series which influenced me to take the risks, to go beyond the genre classics that are out there, and makes me want to take risks.
The Darkness that Comes Before and Warrior Prophet by R. Scott Bakker: Such an exquisite piece of literary fiction. A work of such original nature has never been seen in the genre of fantasy.
A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin: The depth of character arc and treatment, has been seldom seen in this scale.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy has to be one of my favourite fantasy film series. The visual aspects of the film, and the grandeur make me become a twelve year boy again, sniffing through the pages of the Tolkien’s epic series.

 
7. What fantasy books and films have you not liked and why?
The Twilight series were pretty dull, and it seemed like a romantic thread, with nothing in it.
The Mythica series didn’t also do much justice with the genre. It took the same old tropes, and there was no purpose in the overall story.
Neither did I like the later Harry Potter films. They scrapped and changed a lot from the books for my liking.

 
8. Why is fantasy an important genre?
The feel of fantasy is that, it speaks to everyone, regardless of caste, creed, sex, orientation. It binds all the readers, under one umbrella. The feeling of awe, and the creation of something original can only be derived by this genre.

 

 

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I wish Debdip all the best for his future writing. His work-in-progress certainly sounds interesting, a combination of different and unusual characters. His insights into the future of fantasy also show someone committed to keeping the genre alive and well. Keep an eye out for his Ode to the Fallen series!

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

(Featured picture courtesy of Dreamstime and Creative Commons.)

 

 

The Yes and No of “Wonder Woman”

WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS REGARDING THE FILM “WONDER WOMAN” (2017). 

I’m not a fan of superheroes. After all, I’m 60 years old and what is a 60 year old doing in a fan-world made up (on the whole) of people much younger? I don’t deny they can be a lot of fun, and it’s not the genre itself, it’s the idea of the superhero I just don’t “get”.

But that has nothing to do with this blog. I’m not here to trash the superhero genre of fiction. I can see why many people love the concept, and that’s great.

So ordinarily, I wouldn’t watch a film like “Wonder Woman”. Just not my thing. But I did decide to watch it because I’d heard a lot of people saying great things about Gal Gadot’s performance in the title role and I also wanted to see what DC would make of a female superhero. (Or is that superheroine?)* I watched it on DVD, which I actually purchased over the counter, so I invested not only time but also money. I also knew the film was set during World War One and since I am fascinated by that historical event I also wanted to see how “real” the war would be slotted into a fantasy film.

Let me say I really enjoyed the film, probably more than I thought I would.

I thought Ms Gadot did a wonderful job. Her Diana was suitably regal, tough, naïve and just plain likable. She could do humour well and the character served as a great role-model for women. Her reaction to the historical era, which clashed so much with her own upbringing and world outlook, worked really well. I also found the supporting actors did a great job. I have no beef with the special effects, the production itself or the performances.

That’s not why I’m here now.

All that I just said above was the “yes.” The “no” comes at the end of the film, the last half hour or so. Actually it may be longer or shorter than that, I was so absorbed in the film I lost track of time.

Halfway through the movie there is a brilliant sequence where Wonder Woman steps out of the trench alone and walks into No-Man’s Land carrying nothing but a sword and shield and proceeds to remove the heavily-armed Germans occupying the village of Veld. I loved this sequence. It had excitement, action and danger. The moment when Diana is cowering (yes, cowering) behind her shield as it takes the full force of a machine gun aimed directly at it is superb. The look on her face shows the doubt that has started to creep in that she might not make it out alive. She is rescued by her merely mortal friends–this, too, is superb and shows even superheroes need help occasionally. It was a wonderfully “real” moment in the sequence. The silly gymnastics and slow-motion FX didn’t jar at all (as they usually would with me). The idea of a woman (almost) single-handedly taking on hundreds of enemy with nothing more than her own battle skills and lightning-fast reflexes was the highlight of the movie for me.

Another very effective moment came after the battle when Diana and the others were having their photograph taken by a villager. The exhausted look on Diana’s face shows the liberation of the village had a personal emotional cost for her. The overcoat thrown over her superhero outfit is a magnificent touch that demonstrates deep-down she is just another person, scarred by war and thankful she is still alive at the end.

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And then there’s the battle at the end, when she’s fighting Ares. This is the “no”. This battle between a god and the daughter of a god (a demi-goddess) is far removed from the “real” and frightening combat we witnessed earlier. Here, the SFX take over, the immortality of the characters intrudes itself and I lost interest in the plot.

Until then, it all worked. Diana was fun, kick-ass and had a touch of humanity about her. Of course, the Amazons weren’t exactly human, they were specially created by the gods as superior warriors. They could, however, be killed by ordinary bullets, something I’ll get back to. In this last sequence between Diana and Ares, we sit back for a long info-dump by the bad guy who gives us some background as to his motivations and explains Diana’s origins. (Meanwhile all hell is breaking loose with the ordinary soldiers trying to destroy a gas laboratory before the rest of humanity is destroyed, but never mind that–this is important stuff and the gods are going to force us to listen.) And here’s the important thing: at this point in the movie Diana casts off her last traces of humanity and becomes a goddess in her own right.

And I lost interest.

Gods are hard to write. They are just so damn powerful. They start throwing tanks around, creating explosions, defying the laws of physics and proving even more than your usual superhero that we humans are utterly weak, worthless crap. Sure, Diana’s friends do succeed in destroying the gas laboratory and Steve Trevor (played admirably by Chris Pine) sacrifices himself for the cause, but that’s stuff any suitably brave and committed mortals could have handled. The battle between Diana and Ares is what disappointed me.

It’s those damn bullets, you see. Diana proves herself almost invulnerable in this sequence. So why was she worried about bullets earlier? Ares kicks her butt several times and she just stands up again and keeps fighting. Not a scratch. A goddess. Her fellow Amazons aren’t immune to bullets, and for the bulk of the film Diana spends a lot of time knocking them aside with her arm braces (and hiding behind her shield from a machine gun). So why now does she seem utterly impervious to any form of mistreatment?

In my opinion, the final battle between deities became “unrealistic”. I use that term not because I thought the rest of the film realistic, but in the sense that I lost my concern for Wonder Woman. I no longer feared she could be killed or even hurt. She absorbs the power of a god and redirects it back at him. At least, her arm braces do, which isn’t quite the same thing. We know, and she knows, they can do that sort of thing from a sequence early on in the film, but the realisation still doesn’t quite ring true.

Gods are hard to write. Gods fighting each other even harder. Had Diana remained “mortal” and still kicked Ares’ butt I would have stood up and cheered. But making her a goddess just levelled the playing field and suddenly I didn’t care anymore.

Still a great film. I’ll watch it again, but maybe skip over that last fight scene. The earlier one recapturing the village of Veld knocks the later one out of the ring. The Veld sequence belongs at the end of the film as the climactic battle, not half way through.

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  • A lot of occupations these days are gender-neutral. “Actress”, for instance, is not a word often used these days. Actors are “actors”, whatever sex. “Poetess,”, “Aviatrix” etc are out the door. They are poets and pilots. So I’m not sure if superheroines are legitimate anymore, or if they are all just superheroes.

Russell Proctor  –  www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a cliché is (a) a hackneyed phrase or opinion or (b) a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person. I used to have a dictionary of clichés, I think also published by Oxford. The precise purpose of such a reference source eluded me. Perhaps it was so people could check they were not using clichés in their writing or speech.

Because, of course, we must avoid using clichés. In this post I’m not so much concerned with the first definition above. We all recognise these things for what they are pretty quickly:

Not in a million years…

For all intents and purposes…

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

As heavy as lead…

Millions of these things are espoused daily and eliminating them isn’t too hard with a careful edit. But today I want to discuss the other definition, which is far more insidious in writing and film. The situational cliché. The story that goes along predictable lines and ends the same way lots of other stories have in the past.

There are lots of these too. I mentioned one years ago when I reviewed a film, Hansel and Gretel. There it was what I called the “too cool to look” hero walk. You know the one. The hero has just beaten the bad guy and lit the fuse for an explosion. As the bomb detonates in the background the hero is seen walking towards the camera, dead-pan expression on his face or maybe lighting a cigarette, not bothering to glance over his shoulder as the explosion blows the final shreds of the villain away. It’s meant to show that the hero is ultra-cool, so cool in fact he can ignore an event that would have everyone else ducking for cover or at least turning around to look at*. So cool he doesn’t need to run.

It’s been done a lot. It’s a cliché. It’s the sort of thing writers need to avoid.

I myself had a recent problem with a cliché ending to a series I’m writing at the moment. My cliché was “the hero sacrifices herself to save the world but isn’t really dead and comes back when everyone least expects it and manages to destroy the bad guy…” I wanted to avoid it and it took a while to do so.

The Star Trek film franchise did this a lot. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is killedHe’s back in the next movie, not really being dead at all of course…well, sort of but not really. Even the Enterprise has been destroyed a number of times but there is always a new one just being completed the crew can transfer to. Handy, that.

There are book series out there that have cliché endings. Lots of them. The Harry Potter series for instance. Harry gets killed and brought back to life because he’s not really dead…well, he is, but not really. In his book Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, Jim Adam states that J. K. Rowling uses the cliché of the Christ-like sacrifice to save mankind (or in her case Wizard-kind). The hero needs to die, to sacrifice his or her own life, in order to save the lives of others.

That’s been done too.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christ-like sacrifice, except that it’s been done. A lot.

And this was the problem I had. It took a while to solve it, required me to consult with my editor, and is going to necessitate a heavy re-write of the last part of my final book in the series, but at least I am happier with the ending.

Cliché is an easy trap to fall into. Movies, especially the plethora of prequels and sequels they engender, are full of them. Books, too. A good writer should be careful to spot them as they arise and deal with them before it’s too late.

Damn! Before it’s too late… A cliché!

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* It always strikes me as a bit weird: surely the only person not looking at the explosion is the one who set it off. Think about it. The villain blows something up and the police don’t know who to arrest. Try arresting the only person in the street NOT looking at the explosion!

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 3: Affective Memory

In the last two parts of this short series (don’t worry, this is the last) I proposed a method of character creation for the writer which is based on the method actors use to create a persona for stage or screen. It’s called the Method, and was developed through rehearsal by Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky.

In this last part I’ll discuss two other means that can be used to flesh out story characters, and to help when the writer is a bit uncertain how a character might act in a given situation.

The first is called The Magic “If”.

You’re writing a story. It’s going well, and suddenly you place your character into a situation and wonder how they might behave or react to what is going on.

“Well, let me see…” you think, staring out of the window at the passing parade of human beings, and suddenly realise you have no idea what they should be doing in terms of the story. “I’m not him!” you wail. “I created this person but I’m not him! How would he react?”

And you suddenly realise that you’ve created a monster, someone who doesn’t behave like you at all and so you have no idea what to do. “He’s a serial killer. I’m not a serial killer…how do I know what to do in this situation?”

You just solved your own problem. The Magic If means asking yourself “What would I do if I were in this situation?”

If I were a serial killer…

If I were a King…

If I were in love with a handsome man…

If I were a fifteen year old boy who just got kicked out of school…

There are millions of situations we never encounter. But that doesn’t stop you writing about them. Just mentally put yourself in the same situation as your character and write about what you would do.

And that’s what your character would do.

The other technique for creating realistic characters, linked to the Magic “If”, is called  Affective Memory.

You may have heard the phrase “Write what you know”. It is often regarded as a misunderstood phrase, and it is, since it tends to limit fledgling writers to writing only what they have personally experienced. New writers run the risk of limiting themselves to certain places and character-types, since they think they can’t write about something about which they have no experience.

But, as a number of other writing tips sites have suggested, “write what you know” is about emotions and sensations rather than actual experiences. A writer should write about being scared, sorry, angry etc rather than try to re-create a place or time or situation they have never actually encountered.

The thing, is, I don’t think those sites go far enough. This is where affective memory comes in.

A person who has never lost a family member might find it hard to write about a family member dying in a story. How do they know the sense of loss and gut-wrenching sadness that such an event entails? How do they take their character through that experience if they’ve never done it themselves?

Here’s the problem: you have a great character on the boil, she’s rolling the story along at a fantastic pace, she’s funny and engaging, emotional and thrilling all at once. The readers are going to love her. You love her. “Why can’t I always write characters like this?” you think to yourself, as you slurp coffee and go along for the ride.

And then, in the course of the story, something happens that you have no experience about. And you – and the character – come up against a wall. How will she react in this situation? What would she do? You’ve never experienced this situation in real life, so you have no idea how anyone would behave. How do you “write what you know” now?

Affective memory is applying personal experiences to fictional situations. You, the writer, recall experiences that produced an emotional response at some time in your life and write about how you felt. If you have never experienced the death of a family member, you write your emotional responses to something that you have experienced. Maybe the loss of a pet, or how you felt when you broke up with a friend. Something – anything – that could produce a similar emotion. And write how that made you feel.

Actors and writers are different species. As I pointed out earlier, an actor on the screen usually has to worry about just one character. A writer has to worry about all the characters she creates, and make them real so the audience cares about them. So a writer has a harder job than the actor, in one sense. Using Objective/Obstacle, the Magic “If” and Affective Memory will aid the writer to make characters that are alive on the page.

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 2: Objective and Obstacle

 

(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/10197830/The-worlds-most-dangerous-mountains.html)

If you’ve read Part One of this short series of writing tips, you will have seen the importance of creating interesting and realistic characters, even if they aren’t human. Your characters need real human emotions for your readers to relate to them.

There are many, many blogs and books that tell how to create such characters. My purpose here is to suggest a way of doing it that is the same as how actors prepare a character for a film or play. As a professional actor myself, I’ve used this method lots of times, and I find it works just as well for creating fictional characters in stories.

The essential difference is that actors usually prepare representations of characters that another person has already out down on paper. The playwright or screen writer has already dreamed up the character and the actor uses her art to bring them to life for an audience. A writer of prose must create the character from scratch. Also, an actor usually only has to worry about one character at a time. The writer is responsible for all the characters in the story.

That’s the one main difference. But the writer can use the same techniques as the actor to help invent the characters.

The method I propose here is, in fact, called ‘The Method’ (Great name, wish I’d thought of it). It was developed by Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director who developed it as a rehearsal technique. Method acting, as it’s called, is one of the foremost acting  methods used in the Twentieth century (and is still used today) and is particularly effective in realising consistent, realistic and natural characters.

In this part of the blog I will focus on two things that any actor – and certainly writer – needs to develop for their characters. The first is called Objective, and the second Obstacle.

Every character must have an Objective and an Obstacle.

In a story, all your characters must want something. Not just the protagonist. Each character you create, be it the hero or a walk-on extra with one line, must have something they need to achieve. An objective. The more immediate and important the objective, the better.

I’ll illustrate this with a hypothetical example. I could refer to any one of the millions of books and stories written, but because not everyone might have read the one I pick, I’m going for an imaginary story I’ll create for the purpose of this blog.

It’s the story of a man who wants to climb a mountain. Let’s called him Bob. Bob’s father was a mountaineer who tried to climb the same mountain in his youth (let’s call the mountain Mt Tain, because that’s…well…Mount Tain, get it?) Bob’s father tried to conquer Mt Tain and never made it. He died in the attempt. Bob now wants to honour his father’s memory be conquering the peak himself.

All well and good. Bob has an objective: to climb Mt Tain. But notice that it isn’t just any old objective. It’s spiritually and psychologically important to Bob that he do this. It will honour his dead father who tried to do the same thing. In a sense, Bob is climbing the mountain for both of them. When you think of your character’s objectives, go for strong action verbs. To climb is better than to attempt. To conquer is even better than to climb. “Be bloody, bold and resolute”, as a certain fictionalized Scottish king once said. Give your characters important, even desperate, objectives.

Right, so Bob has an objective, and an important one. What we need now are obstacles to his achieving his objective. Bob’s problem is he has never climbed a mountain before. This is his obstacle. Mt Tain is a known killer of climbers. That’s another obstacle. Bob wants to do it alone, like his father did. Another obstacle.

Actors don’t act. They react. They respond to events that happen around them. Another character says something and their character responds according to the personality that has been devised for them. An event occurs and they react to it. This is the heart of acting, and it should, in my opinion, be the heart of writing. Let your characters react to what is flung at them.

So Bob sets out on his mountain climbing attempt, and must face certain obstacles that you, the writer, place in his path. How will Bob react to the fact that he’s never climbed a mountain before? Will he train? Get lessons? He wants to do it alone so he doesn’t want to take a more experienced person with him. How will he react to the mountain’s reputation as a killer? Will he seek local knowledge? Will he study what previous climbers did in order to try and avoid their mistakes? And what about going alone? Is he a loner naturally, or will being alone be a new test for him? As a writer, you answer these questions as the story progresses.

Bob reacts to what happens to him in the story. He faces obstacles that prevent him from achieving his objective.

That’s what your characters should do in a story. They must overcome certain obstacles you place in their path. They may not overcome all the obstacles. Solving some may cause other obstacles to spring up. But in reacting to the obstacles, the character moves towards their objective.

One more thing today: your character should not have just one objective. Bob could have a number of objectives in the story. His main objective is to climb Mt Tain. But there can be a whole lot of sub-objectives that must first be achieved. He needs to get climbing lessons. He needs to get enough money, and perhaps even sponsors, to pay for the attempt. He needs to convince his wife to let him go on this mad enterprise. He needs to get to the base of the mountain. He needs to work out the best method of climbing, etc.

All of these are objectives that must be reached before the main objective, climbing the mountain, can be realised. And of course, each of these sub-objectives have their own obstacles. Bob may overcome some of these, and be defeated by others, but they are necessary challenges in his path.

This is what makes conflict. And it is by placing your characters in conflict that you create story. How your characters react to the obstacles is what reveals their personalities.

So: (OBJECTIVE + OBSTA CLE) = CONFLICT → CHARACTER.

Don’t stint on your obstacles. Don’t be weak with your objectives. The stronger, more dangerous choices make for more conflict, and the more your characters can bounce off the conflict the more real they are.

I said earlier that every character needs an objective and obstacle. Even the taxi driver who drives Bob to the airport when he is about to fly to the mountain needs an objective, and an obstacle. The former might be a simple as “Get this guy to the airport in time to meet his flight”. His obstacle might be that he thinks Bob, who has told him of his plans as they chat on the way, is crazy and will die. But the driver, of course, wants the fare. So he overcomes the obstacle by keeping his opinion to himself. That shows the reader something of his personality.

Determining a character’s objective and obstacle is vital for the actor in creating a part. This same technique can be used to create dynamic characters in stories and novels.

Next time I’ll move on to something called the “Magic If” and how it can be used in writing. It’s trickier than straightforward objective/obstacle, but is magic indeed when used properly.

 

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com

A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 1.

(http://shakespeareslines.tumblr.com/)

Everyone who teaches creative writing will tell you that it’s important to have realistic characters. They must be people the reader can relate to — even like — and the reader must be concerned for the protagonist. This is good advice. After all, it’s characters that make the story interesting.

As a teacher, it’s often my job to get students interested in a particular film or book or, God help me, poem. But kids these days seem more interested in action than people. I tell them that all the chases and gunfights in the world won’t make a story interesting if the audience isn’t interested what happens to the people involved in the chase or fight.

“Ah, but, ” they say, thinking it’s possible to outwit a teacher (innocent lambs!), “what about giant robots? What about aliens? We get concerned for the robots in Transformers. We get worried for Chewbacca in Star Wars if he’s in a fight. And they aren’t human.”

I calmly explain that the reason we’re concerned for them is that they may be giant robots or aliens, but they have human emotions. The reason we think Optimus Prime is one cool dude is because he behaves like one. He doesn’t behave like a robot, he thinks and feels like a human being.

It’s not only convenient that we personify aliens with human emotions so that the reader can relate to them. Human emotions are the only ones we can give them. We don’t know how an alien would emote or think. Chewbacca acts like a human because from our limited anthropocentric perspective that’s the only way we can imagine him acting.

So we think Chewie is a cool dude too.

So we need to give our characters emotions that will get the reader concerned for their welfare. If we don’t care what happens to the character, the writer has failed. It’s the same with the bad guys, too. Every protagonist needs a good antagonist. I’ll write about antagonists later, but for the moment I’ll stick with our protagonists and getting the most out of them.

The problem for the writer is, how do we create different characters? How do we distinguish one from the other? Hollywood is full of actors who only play one character or type of character, usually someone very similar to themselves. I won’t mention any names for fear of getting burned at the stake, but as a professional actor I can definitely say that some other professional actors (some big names too) are the same person in every single movie.

For the writer it’s the same problem. We run the risk of writing the same person over and over because that’s who we are, or who someone we know is, and it’s easy to put them down on paper. But in order to give variety, and above all realism, to our characters we need to bring them life, to make them colourful and vivacious.

So I’m going to propose a way of doing this similar to how actors do it. It’s pretty easy but does take a bit of practice and a lot of self-awareness.

I’ll go into more detail in the next blog, but I’ll leave you with a classic example (literally, an example from a classic).

Hamlet.

andre_skull_tennant_800

(http://andretchaikowsky.com/miscellaneous/skull.htm)

One of the most complex characters ever written, from what is arguably the most famous play of all time, at least in the English language, Hamlet is not just one person. He presents as someone different in every scene. This makes him hard to act, but fascinating to watch, as he runs through a plethora of totally different character types in the course of the play.

When we first meet Hamlet in Act One Scene Two, he presents as a depressed and rather lazy university student. However, he quickly moves on to fearful ghost hunter, determined criminal investigator, pretend lunatic, ruthless psychological manipulator, angry ex-lover, suicidal wreck, whining mummy’s-boy, wanted criminal, pious Christian, fierce warrior, resigned fatalist, murderous avenger and repentant tragic hero.

Phew!

english-what-shakespeare

(https://www.englishclub.com/english-language-history.htm)

That’s what makes Hamlet one of the greatest fictional characters of all time. We never know what to expect from him. That’s also why he’s so hard to act, as the performer has to justify each of these Hamlets to the audience in a way that stitches together seamlessly.

It’s possible to write characters like that, obviously. Shakespeare did. But Shakespeare was pretty darn good, so what hope do we less gifted hacks have?

That’s what I intend to do in the next few blogs, to show you how an actor creates a character. The same techniques can be used in writing. Stay tuned for more.