"If there is a special hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works, with all the misconceptions, the omissions, the failures that any finished work of art implies."
~ JOHN DOS PASSOS
I sometimes live in that special hell, and when it is in full session, I feel like I'm the only one who's ever been thus mired. My reading suggests to me that my experience is typical of most indies. I've had works on the public stage for three years now, and while I haven't had the joy of being widely reviewed, only two out of nearly two-score reviews have carried a rating of less than four stars.
And yet, constant lack of belief assails. The Imp of Self-doubt perches on my shoulder and whispers seductively in my unprotected ear.
"Do you really know what you're doing? You dropped out of high school, where you earned lousy marks in English. Do you know the difference between a preposition and a conjunction? Can you diagram a sentence? Well, can you? And what is up with this so-called style you write in? Pure adventure fiction? No sex? No one having their intestines ripped out while they watch in agony and horror? There's a reason that went out of fashion in the 1950s, you know!"
I don't know where this little guy comes from, but he is unrelenting. A lot of people, including some who read this blog, consider me a good writer. I have the reviews to prove it.
"Tight plot... gripping action... realistic dialogue... compelling characters."
And yet, he won't go away.
Where does he come from? He is born, I believe, in childhood, a nasty sibling created by thoughtless parents, the ones who are never satisfied. You've heard them...
"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
"You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." [I was born and raised in a major city, and didn't know the country existed before I was about 12.]
"If brains were gunpowder, you couldn't blow your nose."
"You can tell a Tyler, but you can't tell him much!" [Dad bailed early and was hated forever. Come to think of it, he was also from the country.]
He is nurtured by condescending minor functionaries, and empowered by the demanding martinets so often encountered in the workplace. Snotty salespeople and pushy marketers make their contributions, as do those more recent constructs, internet trolls. I have never been able to eradicate that particular imp from my psyche. As a side-note, parents, be careful what you say to your young children. There is a period in their lives, before they become obnoxious teenagers who despise everything you stand for, when they believe everything you tell them, and unhearing the snide sarcasm that highlights our shortcomings is more than most of us can manage. This is a subject for another article by a trained professional, but a word to the wise couldn't hurt.
So I guess my point here is that the self-doubt is sometimes more than I can manage, and more often than I should, I let it spill out into my public presence. You guys, the regulars, the friends, the followers, have been a wonderful support group for my efforts, and you deserve better than I have provided. I know that I doubt my own ability as a writer. Thanks to modern social media, you know it too! I have been having a terrible time with it this last week, questioning as I do when it gets bad, whether I'll ever write again, whether I should write again. It has shown up here, to the detriment of the last few posts.
I promised not to do that anymore, and I failed. Let me offer a new covenant: I'll promise to try my best to keep this crap out of my presentations, and I will ask that you call me down if you see it. Perhaps that will make it more distasteful for me to let it out of the box than it is to give it free reign. If you do see it crop up from time to time, I ask you to understand that it is a huge, powerful monster I'm fighting, and keeping it subdued is a full time endeavor.
As to no longer writing, pay that no mind. I am, as I have said, mired in post-production of Beyond the Rails III, which requires all the skills that I have no interest in, editing, proofreading, wearing out a thesaurus, things like that. I want to be writing! I have plans. The notes for Stingaree, my novel of steampunk San Diego, are at a crossroads, and need my full attention, and I have plans for a spinoff series from Beyond the Rails. These are the things I want to be engaged in, not crossing Ts and dotting Is. These bring out the imp, and he brings all of his tools with him. Bear with me, soon BtR III will be in the wake, and I'll be on to the Next Big Thing; this, too, shall pass...
And now, on to happier pastures. This is for Karen J. Carlisle, a talented fellow indie who left this comment on last week's post:
"Looking forward to the relaunch. I love hearing character background stories."This is for you, Karen. Hope you find it to your liking!
* * *
"It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does."
~ WILLIAM FAULKNER
Faulkner explains it well. The germ of a novel begins to form in your mind: "It's a story about this romantic adventure in a far off land with pirates, and tribesmen, and a lost city, and a fabulous treasure, and a happily ever after ending." You begin to solidify events and settings, and the flow of a plot, and shortly you need to consider what sort of characters are going to populate your world.
So you seek out a how-to book about character construction, fill out the template, and think that now that that's settled, you can go ahead and write your book, moving characters in and out of scenes like manikins, and they will do exactly what you tell them, end of discussion. A noble theory; in practice, not so much. Ordering characters about in a work of fiction can be a lot like herding cats. You can have these great ideas for what you want them to do, but once they have come to life in your imagination, they become real people to you with complex personalities and motivations, and won't do anything that is contrary to those motivations. Put in its simplest form, when you write a hero who is heroic through your entire book, you will find when you come to the end, that he will not murder the villain, no matter the provocation, no matter how much the villain might deserve it, because he isn't a murderer. Oh, you might write it that way, but you know as you're writing it that it doesn't feel right, and you know as you're writing it that you're going to change it.
Understanding this broad, basic truth, you can now extend it to lesser drama. How does he perform in a game of chance? A fight? A romantic competition? Heroes are heroes, and they have to be heroic. This is why writers and actors love their villains. A villain can chew the scenery like Vincent Price, he can sway minds to evil like James Earl Jones (Thulsa Doom in Conan), or he can commit the evil himself like Darth Vader. The hero has no such outlet; the hero is, well, the hero.
What does that mean?
The hero must be virtuous. He must have a well-defined sense of right and wrong, of moral justice as opposed to legal justice; the two things are often diametrically opposed. If he cannot recognize evil when he sees it, how can he oppose it?
The hero must be courageous. It isn't enough to recognize evil. The hero is made heroic by his willingness to place his mortal existence between the evil and those it would harm, be they family members, strangers, or entire civilizations, and that takes more courage than most of us have; that's why we admire heroes, real and fictional.
The hero must be competent. He or she must be sensible, logical, clear thinking, and stable enough to bring those skills to bear against a problem that seems too large to be solved.
The hero must be likeable. There isn't much to elaborate on here. It's hard to be heroic if people don't like you!
So, Virtue, Courage, Competence, and Likeability, the four walls of the hero's prison. What happens if you miss one of these holy marks? Leave out Virtue, and what you are left with is a villain, or at best, a henchman. Leave out Courage, and you have a Monday-morning quarterback, an uninvolved observer who will spend the rest of his life wrestling with the question, "You were there. Why didn't you do something?" Leave out Competence, and you have a slapstick hero, which still works if you are writing comedy; think Beverly Hills Ninja. Leave out Likeability, and you are left with an antihero. Again, these work, but they require a special set of skills to execute well. Paul Newman in Hombre or Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns are prime examples.
Now that you know what qualities your hero is going to have (and you always knew; it never changes), you need to know who he is and what brought him here, and if you work this backstory out in sufficient detail to make the character, his actions, and his dialogue come to life, you're going to know six times more about the character than your readers will ever see on the page.
So let's delve into Clinton Monroe; owner and captain of the airship Kestrel, and as such, the hero of Beyond the Rails. You see him in the books as moral and competent, but a bit reluctant to get deeply involved in other peoples' problems, at least at first, and with no use whatsoever for drunks and government officials. It is enough for readers that he is consistent and believable in these traits, but not for the writer. Backstory informs the character far more than some action he took in the last chapter, so let's see what we're looking at there.
Clinton Monroe is about 45 years old. I didn't pin him down to an exact age, because I have no plans to age this crew. I'm told that Nero Wolfe, a widely-loved fictional detective, wasn't aged over a period of decades; apparently, this is a viable approach, and I'm using it. He stands about 5'8" tall, is slender and shows no outward sign of arthritis or other age-related issues. He has white hair kept fairly neat, and a van Dyke beard to match. His clear blue eyes are close enough to 20/20 to preclude the need for glasses, a cliché I adopted from nautical literature about "clear-eyed sailing men." His speech is that of an educated gentleman, but as we shall see, that is an affectation he came by later in life.
Born in Manchester, older sibling to one sister, Monroe was the scion of a working class father with no great prospects. As a child, he worked as a newsboy, messenger, and desk clerk before accepting the Queen's Shilling and enlisting in the Royal Aero Service. As an enlisted airman of conscientious bearing, he rose through the ranks of junior petty officer quickly, and during service in the New Zealand Uprisings of the 1870s, was brevetted to Lieutenant for exemplary service. In the subsequent actions against the Zulus and their Prussian allies in 1879-80, he was a commodore (military rank of commander) in command of a division of four frigates, light scouting and screening vessels equivalent to the modern destroyer. Leaving one of his ships to guard a supply center, he went on to support a fleet action. During his absence, his detached unit was lured out of position against orders, and the supply dump was sacked. The officer in charge lied to the board of inquiry, implicating Monroe, and because he had superior family connections, Monroe was found to be at fault, and relieved of his commission. Disgraced and humiliated, he traveled up the coast to Kenya, a remote backwater colony, and crawled into a bottle. After a couple of years as a lush, he sobered up, called in a marker in the form of a loan from one of his last friends in the service, and bought a broken down river lighter and the gasbag to lift it, becoming one of the first operators in the air cargo trade in the colony. His wide experience gives him great facility in dealing with people of every rank and station, but he has never regained his trust of the Queen's Government, nor his tolerance for drunks.
Monroe lives aboard his ship in a small cabin, and his friends are primarily his crew, a group of people with widely diverse backgrounds who he likes; it's a requirement of employment. He has never wed, and has no offspring, but feels no pressure to acquire them. He lives each day as it comes, knowing how quickly and unexpectedly things can be yanked away. He has made friends with almost everyone he has dealings with except the British authorities, about whom he has mixed feelings. Generally, he treats them as well as they treat him, and given that his background is known to the senior officials, that isn't always positive.
His private life is pretty much the same as his personal life. Usually, this part of the assessment is given over to hobbies and vices, but Monroe's life is his work and his ship; his job, in other words, is his life, and he is fortunate to love it. In lieu of a hobby, he throws himself into the minutiae of operating his ship and serving his customers.
This also means his work life is his real life. His friends and his allies are the same people, his crew, and to a large extent Faraji, owner of the open-air bar and grill on the north side of the Queen's Royal Hotel, his crew for obvious reasons, and Faraji for steering business his way, and keeping him abreast of the local gossip. One should note that with a traditional character, he will have a job that either drives the story, such as the case with a doctor, cop, or journalist, or that interferes with the story, as when the person is a middle-manager at a big box who can't afford to be fired, but who has to deal with the crisis that forms the plot of the book. I made Monroe a man who literally lives his job, and if you say I took the lazy way out, maybe you're right, but it works. Note also that when a person has a traditional job, his friends and allies, as well as his enemies and opponents, need not be the same group. The senior British officers fall into this category, often holding Monroe in contempt while working with him for the good of the colony, and the subjects of the Crown who live there.
There is a factor I call the Double-Edged Sword, a character trait that will prove to be both a strength the character falls back on, and a weakness the villain can exploit against him. In the case of the hero, it is nearly always his integrity, as is the case here. It is hard to blackmail or swindle Monroe because of his adherence to the principles of right and good, but villains can operate around the edges of that integrity, knowing that he won't take the easy way out by murdering them, for example.
And that is what makes Clinton Monroe tick. A character sheet with this level of detail will set you on the road to a living, breathing character who steps off the page and draws the reader into your story. I used to think it was necessary to complete this before you started writing, but I've learned better now. People aren't born with their parents knowing everything about them, and characters needn't be either. You can begin with a physical description. That will get you started. Set aside a few pages in your notebook or Word program, whatever you use, and describe him or her. Then every time you come to a point where you have state whether she likes classic movies, favors fine food or fast, dresses elegantly or slouches around in sweats and a tank, add it to your character study. If she drums her fingers on the table when she's irritated, make note of it, and don't have her pick at a mole the next time. Your readers won't stop to notice consistency, but be inconsistent once, and they'll never forgive you. Try to remember after you've forgotten everything else I've written here that authors don't write books; characters do. Make your characters come alive, and they will take you with them on their journey to excellence.
Apparently, this immersion stuff really works. I'm feeling better already.
You'll note that it isn't Monday. Having spent yesterday getting this ready to post, I see no reason to adhere to a schedule. I announce my posts on Facebook and The Steampunk Empire, and if you aren't receiving notifications there, just drop in every few days, and see if there's anything new. I'll try to keep it fresh and current.
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!