Friday, June 20, 2014

BUILDING YOUR HERO

How bout with the gun.
Do I still look like a Girl Scout with the gun?
There was a film made in the 1991 called Out For Justice in which Steven Seagal moves about the neighborhoods of Brooklyn seeking his former childhood friend and killer of his partner.  He spends the film beating the tar out of a variety of different Italians and other locals with little to no combat training and finally catches his buddy and beats him up in short order as well.

Out For Justice has a simple appeal and Seagal is not without charisma, so his calm dispatching of a variety of thugs and mobsters with aikido with a somewhat annoyed look on his face is fun to watch.  As Seagal movies go, its not his best, but its far from his worst.  There's something about it that is flat and disappointing, though.

At no point in the film - or any of his films - does the viewer get the impression he's in any danger.  Seagal's character Gino Felino never seems to be concerned or challenged at all. There's never a moment of doubt, never a time when you are not sure he'll succeed.  From start to finish he strides around the neighborhoods dismantling everything and everyone he meets with the same calm slightly annoyed continuous momentum.

Now, in a way this works because Felino stops being a human being so much as an implacable force of justice; he can't be stopped, reasoned with, questioned, or intimidated.  Seagal is not portraying a human being, he's a sort of android of justice that moves through the world of humans Terminator-style until he finds his quarry.

But as heroes go, he's pretty disappointing.  Even in his best films (Above the Law, Marked for Death - all Seagal film titles can be preceded with "Steven Seagal is...") Seagal seems to be impassive, as if nothing can ever really challenge him.
FLAT HEROES
And that's something writers will at times do in their stories.  Loving their hero and wanting him or her to seem powerful and capable, their good guy steamrolls over the opposition, crushing everyone, seeing them driven before them and enjoying the lamentations of their women.  Its a tempting proposition because it makes your hero seem so much better than everyone else's.  If I wrote Harry Potter, you think, he would have cast x spell and not been such a whiny punk!

The problem with this approach is that the hero never grows or is very interesting.  Raw unstoppable power is impressive, certainly, but it has no character.  A freight train is nearly unstoppable but its not very interesting to write about.  The Hulk is only interesting if he faces some kind of challenge or difficulty to overcome.

And its how they overcome these difficulties, and what it does to them as a person, that makes a hero intriguing and worth reading about.  Consider the differences between Gino Felino and, say, Detective John McClane from Die Hard.
  • Felino is massively skilled, far more capable and impressive than every other person in the film combined.  McClane is just a talented cop out of his comfort zone, heavily outnumbered and often unarmed against men with machine guns and C4.
  • Felino barely is scratched through the entire movie and everyone he faces is completely outmatched by his consummate skill in martial arts.  McClane barely survives and is covered head to toe with bruises, cuts, and wounds.  
  • Felino never doubts his actions and is never concerned in any situation.  McClane is so depressed and feels so overwhelmed that he fears he has no chance and reaches out to his cop buddy.  
  • Felino's final confrontation with the evil Richie Madano is a foregone conclusion; you only wonder in what awful way he's going to dispatch the villain, not whether he'll be able to or not.  McClane is beat up, disarmed, and captured when he faces the final villain, with his wife held hostage and two men armed with guns against him.  You're not sure how he's going to even survive, let alone get his wife away.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

THE IDEA FACTORY 2

JasonSomething I get asked on occasion - especially after someone has read one of my books - is "where do you get your ideas?" I suppose almost every author has heard this question, in any format. I usually answer "I don't really know" which isn't exactly true, but its the most useful answer at the time.

The truth is, I get my ideas from everything, everywhere. There's not some special source, I don't have a muse fly down and sit by me whispering things in my ears. I don't have a book I reach for or some special technique.

I've been writing stories for almost all of my life - perhaps all my life, although I don't recall my first few years beyond a few scattered images: cucumbers by my grandparent's home in Durango; sitting at the top of a slide across from the back door in New Mexico. But when I go to sleep or have time on my own, when I would play outdoors or on a long ride, I would make up stories. I've done this my whole life without really even thinking about the significance of it, little tales that I pick up later on in the day from where I left off, or start up again as I lie in bed going to sleep.

For decades, telling these tales, I refined my ideas and style, inventing dialog, situations, plots, resolutions, crises, settings, and so on that started out simple and silly and got better and better over the years. It was just a way of passing the time. Most of the time I put myself into these stories as the protagonist, sometimes I'd have dreams about events and remember them.

So when I write, all these stories are in my head, stored away in some corner and unconsciously or consciously, I pull on them when I work on a book.

Like everyone, I'm heavily influenced by what interests and excites me in my life. When I read a book I particularly like, I remember portions of it, replay them in my head different ways. When I see a movie that isn't all that great, later on in my mind I rewrite scenes and change the story to fit what I figure would be better.

And then there are inspirations. For example in my books Snowberry's Veil the entire book started out with a concept: a wagon train in danger, so the guide runs off like a dying quail and leads the danger away to his own peril. In Old Habits the entire scene of him being chased through the city over rooftops and through buildings was inspired by the computer game series Thief. I have several pages of materials by my bed with scribbled notes. The most recent one goes like this:
A man shows up at our hero's house with papers and money. The man found them on a body of someone killed and gathered them. He had to use some of the money to survive, but earned it back and tracked down the person the papers were addressed to. It took a year, but he finally got it done. Our hero has no idea who the dead man was, why he's getting money, or what the significance of the letter is, and the story is him finding this out and why the man died.
Now, that's not enough for more than a few chapters, but its the intriguing basis for a plot, which I can perhaps use some day. It works best as a western, but with some changes can be used elsewhere.

Like everyone I'm influenced by my friends and life, and my stories tend to show that. I have a very strong sense of justice and the tales I tell tend to follow that theme. My heroes usually are flawed but incredibly capable because I find that kind of character more interesting than hapless losers or ordinary Joes like me. I write the kind of thing I want to read, and sometimes I write what I wish someone else had written in something I've read before.

One of my strongest inspirations is to take an existing tale and plug it into a different setting, creating an entirely new story. Old Habits is an example of this. I have a short story, or series of short stories in mind inspired by Call of the Wild telling the tale of a warhorse from birth through several owners cruel and honorable and the battles he faces, from the horse's perspective. I have a whole list of ideas like this, such as a fantasy version of Treasure Island or the story of a Jason-style monster (from the Friday the 13th movie series) but as a good guy; imagine an indestructible zombie... hero.

All of these ideas are bouncing around in my head, and I write most of them down so I can find them again in case I forget. But they're still in my memory which so far is pretty reliable, for this sort of thing, at least. I like how C.S. Forrester explains it. He says he gets ideas of this sort, then he lets them stew a while. He compares it to sinking a log down into the ocean and letting it sit for months. Then every so often he dredges it up and looks at the barnacles, seaweed, and shells on it to find out what's grown and how its developed. When he likes it enough, he uses it. That's kind of what its like for me.

I'll never get all these ideas on paper, I won't get every book in my head written, but I suppose that's true of most authors. Someday I even hope my books will actually sell well enough to sustain a modest living. But until then I'll keep coming up with ideas and trying to write something around them.

Incidentally Neil Gaiman has a great essay on the topic I recommend you read as well if you are still wondering where writers get their ideas.

Monday, June 16, 2014

ROMANCING THE BOOK

Under a tree during a thunderstorm; soon to die
One of the most basic parts of life is romance; the attraction between two people that builds into love and a long-term relationship.  The romance novel industry is a large part of the publishing business and most books, even if not a romance, will contain a romantic subplot.  My first book Snowberry's Veil has just such a storyline; Erkenbrand's attraction toward Thealea help shape many of the decisions he makes.

However, romance by its self is a pretty weak book.  In my opinion, you can't really write a full story based on a romance alone.  Yes, many books have been written around romances, but they run into predictable problems.
See the basic story arc of a romance is this:
  1. Two people meet
  2. They get to know each other better
  3. They get together (marry, declare love, etc)
And that's it.  That's a pretty short story.  Sure, its thrilling and wonderful to be the two people involved, but there's not much actual story there.

ITS COMPLICATED
Before you start throwing things at me, bear with me a moment.  What I mean is this: unless you add something else to the story, you don't have a lot of book.  Which is why every romance novel has a long series of often absurd complications added to the story so that its long enough to go to print.  Boy meets girl, but girl lies about her past, or boy pretends to not like girl, or there's someone else in the picture so he gives up, or the girl can't decide between them, or the boy's family keeps them apart, one of them thinks the other is dead, on and on.

And while you can make this system work, most of the time its not done very well.  The complications added to the story are often contrived and implausible.  The whole romance story hinges on someone not asking a question or being pointlessly stubborn.  The complications are too often a series of events no rational ordinary person would engage in or put up with.

Now, that's fine if you're doing a comedy or something absurd, but if you're trying to have your story taken seriously, it becomes difficult to tolerate.  Certainly it can be done; the Harry Potter books are built around a series of events which simply asking a few questions of adults would have avoided in many cases. 

Its fine to have complications to a story; all story types require complications to be a full book.  That story of a guy on a quest only works if things go wrong; Lord of the Rings would have been a pretty short book if nobody got in trouble.  Frodo takes the ring with his 8 buddies, they ride to Mt Doom and chuck it in.  The End.

The problem is that so often in romance books the complications are there not to tell the story but to make the romance take longer to resolve.  They are not a natural and interesting consequence of the characters and setting, but an imposition by the author to create conflict.  Again, this is done in other types of stories (especially ones like the "caper" such as a bank heist) but it seems like in romance stories, publishers and readers have a far greater tolerance for bad complications and contrived events than other books.

It seems that more than most, perhaps all, other genres in books, romance attracts cliches, contrivances, and poor structure of storytelling not because romance writers are poor authors, but because the readers and publishers will tolerate them to a greater degree.  Certainly there's awful writing in every genre, but generally that's recognized as lousy and does not achieve greater acceptance and publication.  Its romance where so often the complications become absurd and even insulting, but are tolerated.

Often, these complications have nothing to do with the romance.  In fact, a lot of stories that are considered romance aren't really at all.  Romeo and Juliet is considered one of the greatest romance stories of all time, but in truth its a tale of conflict between two families that ends in tragedy.  The romance is the device by which Shakespeare tells the story, but its not the story at all.  The story of the two kids is the way Shakespeare pulls you into the tale of conflict and illustrates the horror of this feud.

NOMANCE
At the same time, if you're writing a book, romance is a very valuable, important component. Romance generates situations and challenges that otherwise might not be possible in a story.  It is a simple, reasonable device to motivate characters.  Outside of insanity, its difficult to buy that Batman can be so driven by the tragedy of his parents dying that he still wears that costume and gets beat to a pulp regularly.  But the love of a woman can make a man do pretty crazy stuff he would otherwise not consider and just about everyone understands that.

Further, the feelings your characters have toward each other will reveal things about them that might not be possible to show in another way.  It develops their character and personalities more fully and helps move them toward a change and growth over the story.

And of course, it helps bring in readers.  Ladies, I know it sounds like a stereotype to some of you but its generally and reliably true: y'all like romance.  Putting a romance in the book is a good way to attract female readers.  Its not that all women love romance and no guys do, its that on the whole, the average female reader will be more attracted to your book if a romance is in it.  And that means more sales, better word of mouth, and more eyeballs on your book.

And finally, a romance will bring an aspect to your writing that if you have not attempted it before will stretch your skills and challenge you as a writer. Like any sort of story, romances require using ideas, situations, and characterization that are distinct from other types of stories and that means storytelling that is distinct.  You'll use writing muscles you haven't before, and that's good for us as authors.

So its not that romance is bad, its that bad romance is so acceptable so often, and ought to be avoided.