Monday, January 27, 2014

Writing Annoying Characters

Holmes: Shut up.
Lestrade: I didn't say anything.
Holmes: You were thinking. It's annoying.
         —Sherlock: A Study in Pink 
Try not to write annoying characters. Making a character unattractive is perhaps the simplest task a writer could ever set themselves, and that is why it is so, so easy to do exactly wrong. Instead of rendering an engaging character who antagonizes other members of their story, writers all too often erect effigies to annoyance itself with little else to offer the story than a headache for everyone involved, including the reader.

Why would you want to annoy your reader?

I have never met a wholly annoying person whose company I enjoyed. I have universally wished them harm, if not at least inconvenience and distress. I have bullied them intellectually, probably unfairly, whenever I've had the energy for it. And these have all been real people—or so I've assumed—with lives and families, sometimes even goals, at least those with the capacity to imagine much beyond their next meal or text message; imagine how unforgiving I am of fictional annoyances. How often have the overdone antics of an annoying character made you want to throw a book across the room and never pick it up again? Why do this to someone else?

Hopefully by now you have shaken from the dusty storage of your brain a number of annoying characters from books or otherwise who you feel added to their stories; maybe you even enjoyed them greatly. Excellent. Hold on to those examples. I suspect these characters were not overstated. I suspect they mostly annoyed us indirectly through their antagonism of our protagonists. Even Lucius Malfoy, a popular and adamant pest, does not torment Harry Potter and company beyond what we would expect of any other age appropriate Slytherin. What is most important, though, is that the conflict he, or other such characters bring to their stories is interesting. We want to see how other characters will interact with them, and potentially put them in their place.

So if you're dead set on writing an annoying character, be careful who you are annoying, and don't over do it. Remember annoying characters, however ridiculous or petty or twisted, are people too. In other words, don't write annoying characters; write interesting characters who annoy people.

Do you have any beloved annoying characters, or can you think of any who added a good bit conflict to the story, however minor?  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

After the Last Page

“'Who can say whether we shall ever see them again?' said Morrel with tears in his eyes.
'Darling,' replied Valentine, 'has not the count just told us that all human wisdom is summed up in two words?—“Wait and Hope.”'” —Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo.
There is a unique sadness waiting at the end of every great book.

I finally finished The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I say finally, but I think that conveys a sense of relief that I don't at all feel. My heart was heavy when I took away my bookmark and laid the weighty volume aside. The Robin Buss translation that I read from Penguin runs just over 1200 pages—more if you count the notes, which of course I also read . . . mostly. To be clear, I do not consider this an accomplishment. I have not since checked one more capital 'c' Classic off of the sacred list handed down to me by my former professors, those high priests of the English canon. I read Dumas because I love his pension for the dramatic—those lofty notes of Romance.

I probably spent about five months with the book. When you spend that long with characters who you like and who capture your interest, watching them navigate equally engaging settings, the effect of parting is modified somehow, if not enhanced. You get to know them, obviously, but more than that, you become comfortable in their company. You look forward to sitting down with them, as with dear friends, and losing track of time. And suddenly, when you reach that white gap after the last page, it is distinctly the end of more than just a story. It's like moving away from a town you can't ever go back to. That favorite spot where you used to sit, half in the sun with a hot cup of something within easy reach—that place is gone. You'll have to find its steady reassurance somewhere else.

Its the time that makes the difference. The longer you spend, the harder it gets. I've read shorter works that I have enjoyed more intensely than The Count of Monte Cristo, but my enthusiasm for the work often carries me past the last page, even if there is an acute pang of regret that the story is now over. Not surprisingly, I have been the saddest at the conclusion of anime series, such as Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. I'm having trouble thinking of live action experiences that produced the same effect. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind, but I think the yearly release of the films gave me adequate opportunity to prepare myself. I'll probably have a hard time when Sherlock airs its final episode, but lets none of us think too long on that inevitable tragedy.

Dumas's novel should have such modern day series for company. The Count of Monte Cristo is not a novel as we understand the term today. The novel was released in eighteen monthly installments from August 1844 to January 1846, and was only later collected as a complete novel. This is the long running series and subsequent blueray box set of its day. Anyone who reads The Count of Monte Cristo should do so with this understanding in mind. The book does not follow what we have come to accept as the traditional structure of rising narrative tension. There are smaller climaxes throughout the novel which you could point to as the finale of a given season, after which the story collects itself and begins building again.

Anyway, it was great. The book was a journey, from the bustling port of Marseille, France, to the lightless dungeons of the Chateau d'If. Dumas fills the page with the uninhabited Isle of Monte Cristo from which the profoundly betrayed Edmond Dantes takes his alias, and on from there to carnival in Rome and Parisian society and elsewhere. We see Edmond Dantes transform from a naive, but good-hearted merchant sailor, to a terrible instrument of revenge in the form of the Count of Monte Cristo. Admittedly, I can only read about a character 'emotionally turning their eyes heavenward' so many times before the phrase ceases to communicate any sentiment, but nonetheless, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Clearly I am not alone in my appreciation—no, my outright demand for more of what I like. Not only do so many people seem ravenous for the next novel series, but we continue to find ourselves in a golden age of television (thanks again, Mark Gatiss). In some ways, I suppose, I measure my affection for a work by how profoundly I feel its loss when it is over, as well as my dread of that moment. I could read the book again, or watch the episodes over, but it's never the same. All I can do is steel myself for the coming famine and return to the hunt for the next piece of wonder.

To all the mourners with hunger pains, happy hunting.

As it happens, I have at least found some relief in Naomi Novik's gem, His Majesty'sDragon. Laurence and Temeraire, you darlings!  If you have any works that have especially touched you, share it below.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

This is Basically How You Do the Whole Writing Thing

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”—Stephen King, On Writing.
Ask any author for their rock bottom advice on how to do what they do, and they will give you some version of the same answer. You have to invest in your art. Read a lot and write a lot.

Reading a lot isn't actually enough, though. A friend of mine reads all the time, probably more than I do. She definitely gets through more books in a year than me (I guess I'm a slow reader), but she also doesn't have very good taste. That's no slight at my friend. She likes some very good books, but she also likes a whole lot of bad books with equal enthusiasm. She isn't a discerning reader, but she doesn't have to be. She likes the books she likes because of the cool things they do to her head, regardless of any bad writing or other awkwardness along the way.

Essentially, my friend is a passive reader. She lays back and watches the story roll by, and when it's over, she reaches for the next paper-bound, positive experience. I used to be the same myself, but if you want to be a writer, you can't read this way—not all the time. You can't just measure your reading by how much you enjoy each book, you have to focus on why.

Read actively. Pay attention to what you read and how you respond to it. Note when a scene is really exciting or engaging to you, and try to understand what the author is doing to achieve that result. How do they set up effective tension, for instance? Start where your novel of choice starts, at the most basic level of craft. How does your author begin? How do they set a scene? Which details do they share, and which do they leave out? Why? What do they actually tell you, and how much do you infer? How do they introduce characters? How do those characters take shape as the story continues? What problems, goals, or events drive the narrative? And so on.

The bad is often easier to diagnose. If you find the opening of a given novel long winded, figure out why the opening bores you, and what shift in the writing or action eventually captures your attention. If a character is annoying, why? What do you think the author was trying to do with that character, and how could they have been more successful? What do you wish they had done instead?

Don't think you have to keep all these questions in your head at the same time. Pick some aspects of your own work you would like to improve, and monitor your reading for those elements. Otherwise, pay attention to what stands out, for better or worse.

Now, in your own writing, avoid all the bad stuff and exploit all the good stuff. That's basically it. You have all you will ever need lining your shelves at home, and at the bookstore and the library. Invest in your art. Read good books and try to understand what makes them good, if they are. Use these works as the models for your own writing. The key is to really dig in to what you are reading. Test it. Question it. Understand it. Don't just watch it go by.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Talent Doesn't Matter

“Be too stupid to quit.”—Mike Krahulik, Penny Arcade
Talent doesn't matter. Forget about talent, it will only hold you back. No inborn gift will lift you from a meager scribbler to the high seat of a genuine author. What you need, all you need, is low-down ornery single-minded stubbornness. A method will also help.

Passion without direction won't amount to progress. You're writing will stagnate, even before you feel you've written much of anything, and you'll throw your hands up in despair, or more likely bang your head against your desk (hopefully it's your desk). You have to develop a method for improving yourself, however incrementally. Not only your writing, mind, but yourself. If you rarely write because your sleep schedule is a mess and you frequently have headaches, then you have to address your health. If you find it hard to focus when you sit down, then you have to learn to settle your mind. If you're lazy, and you are—I know I am. The only thing that keeps me active is the certainty that if I stop I will turn back into a slug and hate myself again. So if you're lazy, you have to decide to act, and make productivity a habit.

You have to be stubborn because whatever you need to improve, your progress will be gradual. Learning to write well is an awful lot of effort. There's no way around the work.

What does worrying about talent get you? Nothing. Wasted time, that's all. It's an excuse to stop working. “This is hard for me. I must not be talented. Pooh." Readers care about the finished product, not how much effort it took to produce. Finished products, well executed, always seem effortless. I always imagined my favorite authors were a breed of inspired madmen, their stories whirling through their heads before they ever sat down to write, and all their effort lay in snaring their visions and plunging them onto the page before they collapsed, exhausted from the marathon session.

Nonsense. A perverse fantasy. Artists aren't like that. The ones that think they are make crap, and only crap. They're tedious people. You won't be good at writing when you start, just like you aren't good at anything else right off unless you've had some relative experience, and you won't be good at it for a while. You'll have your share of bad writing all along the way. Even as a working author, you will never avoid the ghoulish lump of rambling, half formed ideas that is the first draft. Inure yourself to the revulsion of handling lifeless writing. Strap the corpse to your back and carry it home. You can stitch it up in time, and, smoothing its features, make your project a living thing.  Even a beautiful thing.

Of course you don't have a natural predisposition to be good at crafting stories. Look how ridiculous that sounds. The only predisposition you need is the desire to write, and you've already got that, or you wouldn't be here.

What you lack you can build. Be stubborn. Be thick-skinned. Be hard-headed. Write all the time, and be too stupid to quit.

Who are some of your favorite authors, and do you know how hard they had to work to be where they are now / write what they did? Let me know in the comments below.