Archive for the 'characterization' Category

Sep 02 2010

ArmadilloCon report

This was The Kid’s first convention, and he enjoyed himself quite a bit, mostly hanging out in the gaming room with his Dad.  I got to attend three panels and took some notes, which I’ll share here.  It was nice getting out to a convention again, I’m looking forward to being on more panels in future conventions, though being a guest as I was at this one (last minute attendance decision) is also fun. I had some great conversations with Irish Eyes and my own beloved Nathan that helped me pinpoint where some of my current struggle with the setting in the novel has been, which will be its own post perhaps later.

I missed one of the panels I’d really wanted to attend, about the future of NASA and private spaceflight, so if anyone has notes from that panel please share!

When a Story Becomes a Series

This was one of the panels Steve was on, the full author list being: Steven Brust, Amanda Downum, Carol Berg, Julie Kenner, and Stina Leight.  I was hoping for much more out of this panel that I received, I’ll admit.  I asked a couple of questions pertinent to my current projects and got what I felt were incredibly generic and basic writer-101 advice in return, though I’m fairly sure they weren’t writer-101 questions.  I also didn’t like that the moderator wasn’t paying attention to certain panelists overriding less vocal panelists; in particular I don’t think we heard from Ms. Downum nearly as much as I’d have liked.  I wasn’t sorry I attended the panel, but I also don’t think I came away from it with any new insights into my work, like I did at some of the other panels.

However, I did still take several notes from the panel:

They started out with an interesting bit of definition; “episodic series”, where multiple nearly-stand-alone stories are connected by a larger world or setting or characters, and a “series arc”, one larger story arc told in multiple story-sized pieces.  The next half hour was mostly 101 advice that works for any story, such as looking for a point of conflict to find where the story begins, or start the story when something changes for your characters, and Steve’s standard “start with a cool opening sentence and write from there.”

In the second half they finally got back to more series-specific talk.  There was panel agreement that a book in a larger series should still stand alone enough to tell a story and leave the reader with some feeling of satisfaction (though connecting threads to other stories are fine).  Steve advised that a writer not hold anything back for another book; even if you are writing a series, use up all your good ideas in the first book.  Don’t worry about it, you’ll have more ideas later, and you don’t want to half-ass the project in front of you.  Accept that not every reader will get everything you write or like everything you write; don’t let that change what you write.  One suggestion for the really important story points was don’t tell the reader directly at all, just give them clues and let them figure it out.  More panel consensus that hand-holding the reader through recapitulating every detail of previous stories with each sequel was one of the faster ways to alienate your fans.

They wrapped up with talking a bit about getting stuck on longer projects like series.  They advised to “retain your passion” for your story to avoid falling into formulaic prose, though when asked they couldn’t easily advise the audience on how you would actually retain it or revive faltering passion.  They recommended to write stories you want to read, since likely at least some other readers will share your tastes.  One panelist said that any time she got stuck she found that she wasn’t writing the correct action or piece of the story, and she stops and goes back to looking closely at her characters to figure out a different path.  She found that usually the flaw was in the realm of too much exposition and not enough action.

LBGT issues in speculative fiction

This was definitely my favorite panel at the convention, so much so that I didn’t take very many notes, the conversation and questions were so engaging.  I got to meet a fellow Unspeakable Horror:From the Shadows of the Closet anthology author, Lee Thomas, who is fabulous as a panelist.  The other authors on the panel were Nancy Jane Moore, Rose Dimond, and Katherine Beutner.

One panelist advised to read YA (young adult) spec fic to see some of the up-and-coming treatment of gays in genre fiction; even though there  isn’t explicit sex in YA, she felt that they were still doing a good job addressing some of the social issues.  Lee Thomas mentioned that he’d like to see more stories that were well done that were in some way specifically about the gay characters, rather than more stories that happen to have gay characters in them.

They recommended the book Writing the Other, for anyone who wanted insight into writing outside your own cultural experiences.  Several publishers that do well with queer themes were mentioned, including Lethe Press, Bold Stroke, and Dark Scribe Press.  They also mentioned several authors that the panelists felt were doing good work with queer themes in spec fic, including Emma Donahue, Rob Dunbar, Steve Berman, Paul Bens’ Kelland, Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword, and Kat Valente’s Palimpsest.

The City as Character

This was the final panel I attended at the con, which was reasonably good.  The largest irritation here was again with the moderation, though this time the moderator apparently forgot that the audience was present and that all those arms in the air weren’t actually stretching.  The panelists here were Martha Wells, Patricia Sarath, Amanda Downum, Gordon Andrews, Ilona Andrews, and Stina Leight.

A common problem with a story city is that it often feels like an incomplete stage set, or like the false-front towns of old-western movie sets; if you move away from the story action your setting goes blank.  You want to go for a world that feels like it is rich and complex and vibrant and still exists whether the reader is present or not.

One person recommended to start with things that already exist, then alter pieces toward the fantastic based on what the needs of your particular story are.  A city with a sense of history and secrets helps.  Different ages within a city are also important; very few cities have all their parts built in a similar time frame, yet many writers make this mistake with fictional cities.

Several recommended that you travel enough to get an understanding of how different cities have different personalities or flavors or impersonalness qualities.  And don’t forget that a city ultimately depends on the people living in it to shape that particular personality flavor.  The setting reflects the characters who reflect aspects of the setting in turn, each altering the other.

Figure out which are the defining moments that shaped your city, and how those caused ripples of effects through the city’s timeline.  The environment and climate that the city is in are also quite important for city characterization.  Was the city a planned settlement?  If so, it will likely look much more homogenized with grid-like roads, as opposed to a city that “just grew” over time and changed amoeba-like to fit the inhabitants’ needs.

Cities are often thought of as working in isolation in stories, but even in the ancient world that wasn’t so; they had interconnected trade routes, a network of exchanged goods that were vital to a city’s survival.  The city reflects its history, it is effectively the warehouse of collective experiences over time of the inhabitants of the city.

Expectations can work against you perceptually.  The example given was Harlem, which is assumed to be a poor and “scary” neighborhood, but also contains some of the most beautiful architecture in America.  Quirky or inconsistent elements of characterization such as this will help give the feel of a personality to a story city.

Much good information on these panels, hope you find it helpful for me to share!

3 responses so far

Aug 09 2010

Deeper In…

Published by under callie,characterization,Writing

You know the feeling you get when you’ve walked into a room, and when you enter it you know exactly what your errand is, and the next moment you find yourself standing aimlessly in the middle, mind blank, with not the first clue as to why you entered in the first place?

Now imagine being stuck there — perhaps for days, perhaps weeks; in that state there’s no measurement of time, no significant changes to show the imprint of time’s passing.

I came back to initial awareness with the feeling that a long time had passed. The scenery around me kept melting and shifting. At first it was too confusing to make sense of, but after staring at it, I realized that it looked more like those time-lapse nature films of roses blooming or a rabbit corpse decaying, sped up to near-incomprehension. Images of places and people burst into being, moved and changed with lightning speed, then broke off or faded away to be replaced by the next series.

Some time after that, I noticed that I wasn’t actually a part of the chaotic landscape, that I stood on unchanging ground and felt independent of my surroundings. I thought that I might want to further examine my immediate area. I wondered why it had taken so long for me to think that, then was distracted by something at my feet.

A single feather lay there, glittering in the reflected light of the moving backdrop. A moment’s reflection reminded me that feathers didn’t usually sparkle, so I bent down and picked it up by the rachis. This proved to be a good decision, as the shaft was a piece of thin, slightly flexible polished steel, smooth itself but ending in a wickedly sharp calamus. The quill wasn’t the only deadly feature of the feather; the rami overlapped in such a way that the ends of the barbs fit together into an edge that could easily slice into flesh. I ran my fingers carefully down the calamus and found my fingertips covered in the crumbly red dust that covered its tip. A sniff gave me the faded tang of dried blood, and I felt calmer.

I think I held the feather for some time before more thoughts arrived. They formed the shape of figuring out this place felt not only weird but dangerous, and leaving might be wise. When I turned around, it looked as if a white hallway with fluorescent lights stretched back into hazy dimness behind me. All around, chaos still spun pretty pictures into horrors at high speed, so I stepped into the hall.

I passed by a room with white-coated people lounging around a table and smoking, a vending machine in one corner with motor cycling erratically which provided an odd harmony to the workplace griping. …the children were talking again today about the boy who found his way out of here…of course I punished them…can’t have those notions getting into these poor unfortunate heads… I felt strange urges tickling at the edges of my mind and hurried further down the hall. I seemed to be garbed in a white coat of my own, and there were now doors lining either side, each with a thick pane of glass set at eye level and a large locked handle.

I decided to ignore the doors and walk until I found something that looked like an exit, but that idea didn’t seem to be in control of my body. I found myself moving toward the nearest viewing window.

That was the first time since regaining consciousness that I realized I was furious.

Comments Off on Deeper In…

Mar 08 2010


Published by under callie,characterization,Writing

Z’Aria’s fingers shook a little as she held the paper. She read it through a few times before dropping her hands, the paper clutched in her sweaty palm. She seemed like she didn’t know where to look, her eyes scanning around rapidly.

“Explanations in this place aren’t easy, you know.” Z’Aria glanced over her shoulder briefly, then back. “I was in an accident a while ago.”

Callie looked where Z’Aria had and saw nothing more interesting than typical overpass intersection debris scattered across the concrete. “Did it happen as the paper described?”

Z’Aria looked uncomfortable. “Pretty much. My memory from then is all choppy and stuck together.”

“What happened after you landed? How did you survive the crash?”

I woke up here. Well, over there.” Z’Aria indicated the area behind her. Callie rose and went to look more closely at the spot, Z’Aria trailing her slowly.

The glitter of broken bits of glass reflected in the sodium lights of the overpass. Callie could see a twisted hubcap lying against the nearby pillar, and a few other shards of metal and plastic that were originally attached to a car.

“What happened to the car?”

“It stayed here for a while. I didn’t like looking at it, though. I went off exploring, and when I came back I guess it had finally been towed away.”

“Why did you come back?”

“I found a lot, out there. But not my answers, maybe not even my questions. Here is where it all started, you know? So I thought maybe if I came back here, I’d find the next step.”

“What happened then?”

“I made myself more comfy, got enough from the kindness of those passing by to survive. I spent time watching the sky; back home I used to know all the constellations, but not here. It didn’t happen all at once, you know. Seems like it did thinking back, but not all at once. Just really fast, you know? Days, weeks, everything changes.”

“What changes do you mean?”

“Oh come on, you have to have noticed. Everyone went to sleep, or went away. No one passes by here anymore, you’re the first person I’ve seen in forever.”

“I don’t get out and about very often.”

“Oh.” Z’Aria looked lost in thought for a minute. “Where did you say you were from?”

“I didn’t. Does it matter?”

“I guess not. I remember talking to some kids who warned me about the lady that lived in The Box, who didn’t come out very often.”

“I think I remember overhearing neighborhood children calling my house by that name.”

Z’Aria studied Callie for a long minute. Callie sat patiently through the examination.

“Did I help you with your questions?”

“I might have a few more. You said you went exploring, do you remember the places you went?”

“I sure do, I made bunches of friends. Well, they probably aren’t there now, but it was mostly nice.”

“Well, Z’Aria, perhaps it is time we explore again.”

“You want me to show you the places I found? I can do that, I like being Helpful!”

Callie pointed to the crumpled paper that Z’Aria still gripped tightly in her hand. “Do you mind if I keep that for the moment? There might be further clues we find that it connects to.”

Z’Aria readily returned it. “It’s not really a memory I want to keep too clear, I don’t mind if you hang on to it. You seem nice enough to me.”

Callie raised an eyebrow. “Now, if you’re ready, let’s learn more of what there is to know around here.”


They returned to more populated areas after a short walk along one of the streets branching off from Z’Aria’s overpass. Z’Aria was full of casual chatter but no useful information yet, and Callie suppressed a bored sigh.

Z’Aria pointed over to a single-story business building, vaguely medical in appearance. “That’s a pretty creepy building, I used to see parents taking children there all the time. The parents always looked angry going in, and happy coming out. The children looked pretty miserable the whole time, though.”

Callie took a second look, but the parking lot was empty and the building looked closed. “Perhaps we’ll keep walking, it doesn’t appear that there is much there now.”

“There isn’t much anywhere anymore.”

“You keep saying such things. Do you know why?”

“The few left that I’ve met all have different opinions.” They moved on in silence quiet enough to hear the occasional thin scrape from discarded paper, dragged along the concrete by the wind.

They next found a faded and paint-chipped sign next to a path overgrown with scraggly weeds which proclaimed “Constant Conservatory”. Callie studied the path branching off from the paved road they stood upon. “What do you know about this area?”

“It was really well visited a while ago, but no one really goes now. They had this really cool whirlpool thing, but I haven’t looked lately, it might not even be there anymore.”

“Let’s look more closely, shall we?”

They followed the path until it opened into a clearing surrounded by trees, branches growing over the clearing to form interlocking patterns against the starry sky. A deep depression centered in the ground might once have been a “really cool” whirlpool, but was now barely a third full of water that appeared stagnant. Callie watched it for a bit and saw that there did seem to be a very slow circular current tickling the surface occasionally. It was out of touching reach even if she knelt down by the edge.

“Dear Goddess, this isn’t what I remember. So sad.” Z’Aria looked pale and a little ill.

“It seems like it could be repaired with a little work.”

“Sure, but by who? That’s not anything I know how to do.”

“Let’s continue on.”

Z’Aria led the way back to the main road eagerly, restarting her chatter as they traveled more comfortable territory. “Further this way is another neat place, they had tons of nice people – well, most of them were nice – living in this big house. Mostly adults but they had a cool kid there too, she liked to talk to me.”

“If there were many people there, perhaps there will still be some remaining.”

They rounded a sharp curve in the road and stopped suddenly, their path blocked by what appeared to be a solid glass wall. They could see a large building further down the road, but the details were blurred by the distance and thickness of the glass. Z’Aria reached out to first touch the barrier, then knock on it.

Callie watched with interest. “Was this here before?”

“No, I haven’t visited in too long, I guess.” She knocked again, but didn’t look hopeful.

Callie shrugged. “Where do we go from here? I don’t know much more now than when I met you.”

Z’Aria frowned. “Let me think a minute.” She looked off down the road, and so missed the movement behind the glass coming toward them. As it drew nearer it resolved into the shape of a small person.

Callie guessed it was the friend whom Z’Aria had referenced. The kid was carrying a notebook and pen. Callie cleared her throat for Z’Aria’s attention. “We have a visitor of sorts.”

Z’Aria looked behind her and saw the child. She waved her arms happily and yelled “Hi, Iris! I missed you!”

Iris pointed to her ears and shook her head, then opened her mouth and said something that neither Callie nor Z’Aria could hear. Z’Aria took a deep breath in preparation for yelling louder.

“I think Iris has a better solution than shouting, Z’Aria.” Callie looked steadily at her companion until the other finally turned her attention to the kid on the other side, who was holding up a paper with writing on it to her side of the glass where they could read it: Everyone at the House is asleep. They won’t wake up!

“Did you bring paper or something to write with? I only have the paper with which I found you.”

Z’Aria raised her hands helplessly. “I didn’t think to grab anything.”

Callie looked back at the wall. Iris’s paper now read: Help us.

Z’Aria nodded like a dashboard decoration in response, until Callie placed a hand on Z’Aria’s shoulder and effortlessly turned her away from the view through the glass. “Where does one find help for them in a place like this?”

“That’s hard to answer.”


“I remember someone who helped me once. We’ll try there.”

5 responses so far

Feb 25 2010

Finding help?

Published by under callie,characterization,Writing

She paused again to scan the horizon. It was harder to tell at night, but the street had grown larger and with more commercial and industrial blocks for some time now. She thought the pattern of street lights ahead showed an overpass intersection not far off. She pulled out the paper and unfolded it, holding the sides firmly with both hand to protect against the errant breezes.

It began the way Z’Aria had always envisioned it would:

She accelerates carefully up the ramped access, breathes calmly and evenly as her car makes the first curve with no incident, just like every time, and now she is coming around the second curve, she can see the down ramp, but she’s no longer turning, there must have been an impact pushing her forward yet she can’t hear anything can’t feel can’t see anything but the looming expanse of concrete and such a lovely blue sky, and then there’s nothing but the sky expanding endless and forever and oh if only she could keep soaring up up up and away from crappy jobs and ended relationships and failed expectations and deathtrap overpasses

and it’s still cresting, still peaking, and she must be out in that sky for the end of this. Quickly now, her fingers work of their own accord easily and it’s freefall, baby, as close to space as you can reach, leave the metal casings and the boxes behind and if at no other moment than now own this blessed given body in one glorious endless rushing instant

she can see the concrete far below and the car falling and knows she is falling too but turns face upward to bathe in blue and white and now she is not falling but flying, soaring, cresting as she lives every inch of her skin in full beauty and she matters.

No one could have been more surprised than Z’Aria when she opened her eyes to a sliver of new moon against a backdrop of unknown constellations above her, as she lay sprawled upon the hard ground.

She was operating on the presumption that, however disguised, it was this madhouse’s version of a set of directions. It was perhaps a more bold and rash assumption than she usually made, but this didn’t seem an entirely logical environment. And the paper had shown up as she’d followed Carrie’s directions to be on the move. And there was a similar intersection just ahead. And that was entirely enough doubt and self-justified reflection on her own actions for now; she shook her head slightly and replaced the paper in her pocket. She’d decide what to do next when she learned what the overpass held.

Deserted overpasses at night gave an eerie sensation when one stood near them. Though it wasn’t her first time to learn this, she enjoyed the reminder as she surveyed the soaring concrete pillars and arcs interweaving the night sky above her. She checked the stars quickly to confirm that there were no visible familiar constellations, then turned her attention to ground-level. At the overpass nearest the ground, she saw what appeared to be a homeless crash space nearly hidden in the shadows under the right side of the bridge. When a second scan of the immediate area brought nothing more interesting to inspect, she moved close enough that she could more clearly see what the shadows held.

Whoever squatted here had been around for quite some time. In addition to layers of salvaged cardboard and blankets making up a nest of a bed, there was a little kitchen area, with an overturned milk crate with an unlit Pepsi-can stove set on top, and a closed cooler. Another milk crate held several dumpster-scrounged paperbacks, all stripped covers and crinkled edges and missing pages. A quick glance through the stacks showed mostly romance novels and pulp fantasy. A trash bag next to the books held changes of clothing that hadn’t seen the inside of a laundromat in weeks. No panhandling signs that she could find, however. She scanned up near where the slanted concrete met the underside of the road, and could just make out a bucket covered with a board where it wasn’t easily visible from the ground — probably where the missing book pages ended up when they were done being read.

There was nothing in view that she thought a human could adequately hide behind, and no one in sight, so she moved back far enough from the overpass that she could more widely scan the area. After a few moments she noticed a strange outline on top of the crash barrels at the gore of the exit ramp. No vehicle had passed on any of the deserted intersecting highways since she’d arrived, so she felt no sense of immanent danger as she walked up the long slope. She kept to the inside rail anyway.

The odd outline resolved into definition: a person, stretched out prone on top of several barrels, staring up at the stars overhead. The sand-filled barrels were the mix of worn and newer that indicated an old accident. Before she could check for signs of life the person spoke, the voice recognizably female.

“The Moon won’t be out until later, but I like waiting for Her up here.”

She shuddered at this, now worried that she’d trekked all this way to find another Carrie, which she wasn’t sure she had the fortitude to tolerate twice. “Is that your place under the bridge?”

“Yes.” The person sat up and climbed down off the barrels. She was dressed in enough layers to keep warm against the slight chill of the evening, the clothes at least marginally cleaner than the ones in the trash bag. Curly black hair wisped around her reasonably clean face from where the rest was pulled back into a loose braid. She had the sort of sturdy curvaceous frame often found on healthy farm-raised girls, and hadn’t been indigent long enough to lose her body definition to an inevitably poor diet.

“You have a nice set-up.”

“Thanks!” The woman beckoned her to follow back to the crash pad. “Come on, we can sit on the crates down there and talk. I’m Z’Aria.”

She followed Z’Aria after checking to make sure the paper was still secured. Z’Aria became more energetic the closer to the ground she was, and seemed positively burbling by the time she reached her squat, humming as she arranged the milk crates for better seating.

“I didn’t get any ice today so the sodas aren’t cold, want one? What’s your name? How long are you staying? I don’t usually get visitors, especially not these days.” Z’Aria held out a Sprite.

“Most people call me Callie,” she replied as she took the offered drink. She waited until Z’Aria had opened hers and started in before pulling the tab and taking a sip. “If you want to talk, I certainly have some questions.”

“Oh yay, questions! I like being Answer Girl.”

Callie guessed that Z’Aria would likely end up as irritating as the bartender, given time, but at least for now she seemed more helpful — and more tolerable. She pulled the creased paper out of her pocket.

“Let’s start with this.” She held out the paper to Z’Aria. “What exactly is this? Can you explain why I was able to find you with it?”

Fun Research for this entry:
beverage can stove
gore (road), gore (definitions)

3 responses so far

Feb 18 2010

At The Bar

Published by under callie,characterization,Writing

The sign above the door was soot-stained and swayed gently in the same breeze that scattered litter across the landscape. “The Bar” was stenciled in block letters under the dirt: campy yet convenient name, that. Nice balance. Her main interest in the establishment at the moment, title critique aside, was the equally dirty window that seemed to show a light on inside. She angled her head to correct for the possibility that it was simply a reflection from the nearest street lamp, but moving didn’t change the perception of light coming through the window, however dimly.

The other buildings she had checked in her walk along the street had been either locked and dark, or empty and dark. An abandoned house she’d found in a cul-de-sac even had the dining table set with an uneaten meal, though the food had decayed into unrecognizability. A modern Roanoke, right in her own neighborhood. She reached for the solid wooden bar door and was unsurprised to find it unlocked.

The light she’d seen from the window was over the bar itself; the rest of the tavern was as empty as the other buildings. The tables were clean and ready for the customers that didn’t come, lacquered surfaces glowing dimly blue in the after-hours security bulbs set into recesses in the ceiling. A single spot of red over the door she’d just entered marked the only visible exit. She made the obvious choice and moved toward the bar.

Its surface was scarred from visible years of high use. She ran her hands across the rough grooves and scratches, the edges worn so rounded that she was safe from splinters. She cleared her throat to speak out, but the small sound was enough to draw someone from the shadowed doorway behind the bar: an average-sized woman, probably around ten years younger than herself, brown hair pulled tightly into a small bun at the base of her neck, lightly stained white apron covering black pants and matching long-sleeved shirt. The sleeves seemed a bit off, for a bartender, but it isn’t like this one was going to be busy enough to stay warm on the job, from the looks of things.

“Hey there, what’ll you have?”

She looked sharply at the bartender; while the question seemed normal for the setting, it certainly wasn’t for the current situation. The bartender sounded pleasant enough, but there seemed to be something a bit off. Perhaps it was just that she kept avoiding eye contact, staring around at the door and tables with an almost confused look.

“Information, if you’re serving. I’m not really thirsty.”

The bartender blinked a bit, as if the deviation from routine had caught her attention momentarily. She glanced toward her patron and answered, “We might have some of that left on tap.” She set a glass on the bar, as clean as the pristine tables, and drifted back to staring at the entrance.

She examined the bartender closely and thought quickly. There was no mirror behind the bar, another oddity, so she picked up the empty glass and moved enough to one side of the angled bar that she could watch the entrance as well as the bartender. Setting the glass back down in front of her, she learned forward so that she could read the bartender’s nametag.

“So, ‘Carrie’. Rather quiet in here tonight, isn’t it?”

Carrie looked over at the glass, but didn’t raise her gaze. “When it’s this quiet, you can listen to the hum of the electric lights. Sometimes I can hear songs hidden in that sound.”

“And do those songs tell you where your customers have gone?”

“Not really. But I know some of that, too.”

She gripped the handle of her thick glass, briefly, but made her fingers relax. Frustration wouldn’t help this situation get any more understandable. “Where, then?”

“Some of them are sleeping. A few faded away. Most can’t get past the blocks.”

“And where are those?”

“They don’t really look like blocks. But the people don’t visit me anymore.” Carrie picked up a towel and began wiping down the clean bartop.

“Where did they come from?”

Carrie looked up just long enough to meet her eyes, then back down at her empty cleaning. “They aren’t signed by the builder. Maybe they grew.”

She let go of the glass that she couldn’t keep herself from clutching tightly, and folded her hands into her lap. “What about the other people on this street? I haven’t seen a roadblock.”

“They left. Or maybe they were taken. I couldn’t see anything.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“Silence has its own songs, have you noticed?” Carrie ceased her wiping motions and stood still, head slightly angled so that one ear was turned upward.

“Yes.” She found herself staring intently at the wooden baseball bat propped against the back wall, and shifted her focus before her thoughts could take further shape. “Where do I learn more?”

“Not here.”

“I noticed.”

“Activity is the currency of the day. Keep moving and you’ll likely find more of the songs you seek. There are nothing but echos left here.”

She took Carrie’s advice immediately, as she wasn’t sure how much longer she was going to be able to sit calmly in that conversation. As she passed under the exit sign, she could hear Carrie ask, “Is an echo its own song or a memory?” and she hurriedly pulled the door shut behind her. At least now she had some clue of just how bizarre things had likely gotten elsewhere.

She decided to continue down the street away from the already-explored areas, though that way showed only more of the same dark and deserted structures. Another gust of wind blew a piece of crumpled paper against her foot and she retrieved it, smoothing it out enough to read under the glow from The Bar’s outside light. She frowned, and read it again. She carefully folded it and placed it into her right pants pocket, then moved off down the road in her chosen direction with more confidence.

2 responses so far

Feb 10 2010

Opening the Door

She awoke with the last dream image still in her mind — an empty street, all the buildings along both sides with their doors standing wide into the road, irregularly spaced night lamps illuminating a light mist. More open doors. She knew her subconscious would eventually get its full message through; the obvious interpretation was that it was time for another adventure outside, but it didn’t hurt to wait and confirm such intuition. Reading more would help shift mental gears, and thankfully it seemed like there was nothing currently stopping her from enjoying her book.

The prose was delightfully vivid, and she was enjoying the interweaving of metaphor around jailer and prisoner, parent and child, insanity and the fight for sanity, the power exchange and attempts at same. She caught herself staring through the words after reading the scene with the first escape attempt, her fingers absently stroking the smooth page as her thoughts took her back through the street of open doors. She closed her eyes briefly to erase the image, and returned to the text. After a while she set the book aside. It was engaging her interest but not enough to banish her dream, and she could not ignore the rumblings of her stomach any longer. With a little sigh and a last pat on the cover of the closed thriller, she arose from her couch and went to the kitchen.

She was definitely in the mood for violently chopping vegetables, and not of a mind to wait long for food, so stir-fry was an easy choice. She started a single serving of rice in the cooker, then pulled out a strip steak, an onion, a red and an orange bell pepper, and a bag of fresh-frozen green beans. The slicing and dicing was as viscerally satisfying as it always was, and she found herself humming as she combined the ingredients with her favorite custom sauce blend in the hot skillet. She didn’t recognize the tune, but that had happened before. Just as she felt the stir-fry was ready, she heard the clicking sound of the rice cooker completing its cycle.

Dinner preparations always helped repair her mood, especially when the timing worked out just right. She carefully arranged a perfect circle of pristine white rice on a dark blue dinner plate, and then scattered two scoops of the colorful skillet contents across the top. That, chopsticks, and a simple clear glass of water were all she carried with her to the table in the dining area that filled one end of the kitchen.

After her satiating meal, she did the necessary clean-up — putting the leftovers into a storage container in the refrigerator for lunch tomorrow, rinsing the dishes and putting them in the dishwasher, giving a quick wipe with a sponge to the counters and stovetop. She decided a dirty martini with her after-dinner reading would complete her evening nicely, and retrieved the appropriate glass from its place next to the cereal bowls in the cabinet. She set the glass on the kitchen counter and went to the refrigerator for the jar of olives. As her fingers closed around the cool cylinder hidden behind other bottles in the door compartment, she brushed something hard under what felt like a piece of tape, and her eyes widened for a brief moment in disbelief. She pulled out the olive jar and turned it around to confirm her suspicion: the key was taped to the back, over the nutrition label so the tape would hold.

One corner of the tape had peeled back where it went too far onto the glass, and her fingers played with the curled edge for a bit before she peeled off the key, taking bits of the label with it. She ran her fingers over the key’s surface but stopped when she encountered the sticky tape residue. Washing it was the first priority then; half a minute at the sink with soap and water and a good rinse were sufficient.

She thought for a moment about having her drink before trying the door, but decided it would make a better end to her adventure than a beginning. She left the glass on the counter to remind herself, but returned the olive jar to its place so it could remain properly chilled. She thought about leaving the key on the counter while she changed clothes, but that had failed her at least once before, so she kept it folded into her palm.

Now dressed more appropriately for the outdoors, she checked the window in the door to ensure that no one was near, but the visible area was as deserted as usual. She tried the key in the door lock. It slid in easily and turned smoothly on the first try, also not a given from past attempts. She didn’t hesitate as she turned the knob.

The door opened onto a shadowed path, made darker by the presence of full night. A cone of light from a street lamp at the end of the way seemed to show that she was down a short alley off a larger road. A brief burst of wind carried a crumpled piece of paper past her ankle. She moved to where she could see the main road better, and wasn’t surprised to find it was the street from her dream. More discarded paper littered the roadscape than she remembered, and there were less lights here, but those were minor variations in detail.

Here, unlike her dream, all the doors were firmly shut.

2 responses so far

Feb 05 2010

Characterization discussion: Internal Logic

(crossposted from Words Words Words)

Among the many and ongoing interesting discussions at our home, we’ve been talking about the concept we’re calling “internal logic” for a character. Internal logic here means that, among other things: an action that to an outside observer appears irrational, wrong, or evil, from the internal viewpoint of the character will be a justified, logical, and right action to make. It’s a useful thing to examine for most characters, but especially helpful in creating believable antagonists in a story.

Tolkien got around the need to deeply explore this by creating a world where evil really did exist, and some creatures did things because they were bad evil things to do. In this sort of scenario, you don’t have to worry too much about internal consistency for a antagonist’s actions as long as you have the formula “evil is good”. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s many imitators have generally not done as well as he did, and these days most people who encounter the Evil Overlord stereotype are likely to assign a label of “campy” “trite” or “overdone” to whichever story has the latest iteration of the trope.

Another loophole to spending a lot of time with discovering a character’s internal logic is the “Rendezvous with Rama” effect. For those of you who haven’t read or don’t remember the original story *spoiler alert skip to the next paragraph* an alien ship passes through our solar system, refuels from our sun, and departs. We send a ship out from Earth to explore the large alien ship, see lots of really interesting things, and learn nothing much about the aliens who created the ship. It’s the ultimate story in creating aliens with very alien motives that have little to nothing to do with humans except in passing.*end of spoilers*

Similarly, in Steve’s book Issola, the Jenoine are massively powerful and very alien, doing things that from the view of both the reader and the characters are hard to understand. Since that’s rather the point, we don’t really need to understand further about the Jenoine’s internal viewpoint.

With both of these examples, the unfathomability is the point of both the alien ship and the Jenoine. With characters that come closer to human-like actions and understandings, internal logic considerations become more of a factor. The world from the outside-looking-in and the inside-looking-out are often far different for people, and even for non-POV characters you might need to know something about their internal motivations. So how do you depict this?

One of my own characters tends to organize their environment in ways that to my first impressions seem counter-intuitive. It’s not a way that I would organize things, and sometimes doesn’t seem to make logical sense from my perspective. However, when I ask myself “why would [said character] arrange their things in that way?” I nearly always have an answer that comes to mind that makes sense from the viewpoint and life experiences of the character. Even if the internal explanation for the room arrangement doesn’t make it directly onto the written page, the fact that I as the writer understand why the character does a certain thing means that it’s more likely to reflect that knowledge in little bits of characterization throughout the story that will bring that understanding to the reader.

Read the rest of the entry where Steve shares his thoughts over on our household blog, Words Words Words. You can comment either here or there.

4 responses so far

Jan 28 2010

A Box Has No Windows

She fumed as she was thrown out of the story abruptly.  These interruptions were beginning to be intolerable.  She had planned to be reading for the afternoon, and now had several empty hours to fill again.  Usually the lack of windows in her rooms didn’t bother her; she was as uninterested in looking out of them as she was in anyone having an easy line of sight into her home.  At this moment, she’d likely be smashing the glass.  With a last frustrated glare at the firmly-closed book cover, she rose from the couch and left her sitting room to check the door in the main room.

Locked, as it usually was, and no key readily available.  The viewing window set into the door at eye-level was no help either.  There was no one out there to see regardless of which angle she peered from.  She dropped back the dark blue curtain covering the door’s window and spent a few moments absently stroking the edge of the velvety fabric as she thought.  When no brilliant epiphanies ignited her mind for the wishing of them, she decided to work off some of her irritation with exercise.  A session with the free weights should tire her out enough that a shower and nap might follow nicely after.

Her exercise area was at the opposite end of the large main room from the door, angled in such a way that someone working out could easily view the media screen on the left wall.  She didn’t load anything to watch.  The exercise mat was clean; she always wiped it down carefully after each session.  Her weights were on a rack against the wall, and her innate design preferences were evident here.  The weights themselves were neatly aligned in the rack and evenly spaced with each other, but there appeared to be neither increasing nor decreasing organization along the shelves in terms of relative weight.  She selected a pair of twenty-pound hand weights from where they lay next to a two-pound barbell plate and set them down at right angles to one corner of the mat.  She stripped down to her bra and the thin linen pants she was wearing, draping the rest of her clothes on a rod she’d attached to the back wall for just that purpose.

Maybe after her nap she’d be able to read again.  The image of her door standing open, her rooms empty, kept appearing in her mind as she worked up a thin sweat.  She tried to manipulate the image to view it from different angles, but it remained stubbornly static.  Empty rooms; an open door.

If she couldn’t read, she’d find where the key was.  Perhaps it was time to venture outside again after all.

2 responses so far

Jan 26 2010

Discussion: story-hopping characters

Published by under characterization,Writing

In contemplating various areas surrounding the creation of a series character (instead of one that exists within the pages of a single story), we end up having some fairly interesting discussions here at the Dream Café.  One of the most recent conversations involved an observed trend among a few of the writers we enjoy reading, that of creating a character in one story that then appears in an otherwise unrelated story later on.  (Note that this is subtly different from the concept of a character having more than one series of stories.)

We came up with several examples which I’ll discuss, but I encourage anyone reading to mention their own examples in the comments of anything we didn’t cover here.  Nathan suggested that the intersection of Isaac Asimov’s Robot and Empire series (referenced vaguely to avoid spoilers) is one example of this story-hopping idea.  I think that Dean Koontz comes close to this in his Christopher Snow series, which is set in the same world of, and references some of the events that happen in, his previous novel Watchers.  (To my knowledge there is no actual character overlap between the two, but I admit I haven’t read all of the Snow novels.)

Nathan also suggested the “Fizban the Fabulous/Paladine” character from the Dragonlance series, where a clumsy-but-likable wizard also happens to be a major lawful good deity.  Heinlein has some interesting character and story intersections when he introduces the food-processor-effect of the “World as Myth” concept.

The character Enoch Root from Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon is a closer reflection of the story-hopping character, with Root possessing an elixir of life that allows him to resurrect and be present in different times and places.  Root influences other characters around him toward actions of importance on surrounding events, as well as resurrecting a couple of other characters with his elixir.

A well-documented and analyzed example is Stephen King’s Randall Flagg.  He appears in nine novels, including The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, and the Dark Tower series.  While in those series he plays a major antagonist, and more minor roles in other appearances, his role as a sower of chaos, dissension, and destruction remains a constant theme.  The character doesn’t always keep the same name but often (though not always) will use the initials R.F.

For a third and yet again different take from Stephenson and King on the story-hopping character idea, we can look at Devera from Steven Brust’s body of work.  Devera appears in every published Brust novel, both the series and the stand-alone novels.  She is always a secondary character, a reality-walker with a very fluid definition of time, and usually appears as a brown-eyed pre-pubescent girl.  In several novels the mention of her is obscure or vague, while in others she has a more active though still secondary role.  However, the most active role she takes in the novels (The Phoenix Guards, Taltos) is that of a messenger, passing information along at a key plot point.  The rest of the time she seems more an observer than an active player.

It seems like it would be difficult to have a recurring character, especially in unrelated stories, and not have that “grow old” for the reader after a while.  While I think the ones I’ve mentioned do a better job of retaining interest in seeing the character show up again (especially Devera) I also recognize that is at least in part a subjective assessment, so opinions on the success of interest retention may vary.  What do you think?  I know the idea of a story-hopping character delights me in theory, but actually doing so with ongoing viability seems a daunting reality.  What are some other examples of this or something similar that you’ve encountered?  I stuck with literary examples here but you can feel free to branch out into other media.

3 responses so far

Jan 16 2010

Inside the Box

Published by under blwio,callie,characterization

Her suite of rooms seemed more confining, lately. She had been living here for some time now–longer than she was used to staying in one place. This morning she meandered, stopping at whim to examine things more closely before wandering on. She wasn’t much inclined to watch visual media regularly, and today felt just dreary enough that mindless computer entertainment didn’t appeal either. Her touch lingered briefly on the dressform next to the drafting table, still draped haphazardly with several samples in a riotous conflict of colors. She didn’t have an inspiration for this piece yet, and wasn’t in the mood to look for one today.

Outside her suite was its own set of problems to deal with, and again not something she felt like handling this morning. The others called her area The Box, and for all she knew it even looked like one from the outside. Inside, however, everything was apportioned as she liked it, and even on aimless days like today she took pleasure in each room’s decor. She finished up her walk in the sitting room, and decided that reading a book would do for a temporary distraction.

Her three full-sized bookshelves were made of identical black particleboard and arranged along one wall in a uniform line. The books themselves were a chaotic mix of hardbacks and paperbacks, most of them well-used. They were arranged alphabetically by author and then by title from left to right; the first unit held A-J, the middle K-R, and the last the rest of the alphabet. She tended to pick each week’s reading selection by a blind grab, but balanced her randomness with the ordered formula by which she chose the shelf to pull from. This week it was the middle bookshelf’s turn, top shelf. She closed her eyes and shook her hand back and forth a bit before moving it around in loops and spirals through the air in front of the shelf. When it felt right she pushed forward, her fingers ready for the first brush against a bound spine…ahh, a hardback this time.

She opened her eyes and examined her selection. One of the classics in its genre, but not one she’d previously made time to read. The author photo on the back could not possibly escape notice. She spent an interested minute analyzing her reaction to the pose; it looked like an attempt at “intense, thoughtful and brooding” had become instead “nervous, weird, and slightly dorky”. She suspected the closed-off body posture contributed heavily to eroding the overt intent of the picture. When she tired of this game, she read through the dustjacket teaser for the story inside and now her interest was fully engaged. A thrilling premise, not to mention one that started all sorts of fascinating ideas and possibilities cascading through her mind.

She curled up onto the firm but plush couch, which was just the right length for her to stretch out in comfort, with pillows propping her upright and a blanket tucked around her legs and toes. Bringing the pages close to her face she inhaled deeply, savoring the papery, musty used-book odor. She ran her fingers lightly across the covers; as she reached the closed pages, she gripped their edges and riffled them quickly front-to-back as one might a flip-book, enjoying the buzz-whir sound and the tickling feel against her hand. This pre-book ritual, she found, put her into a pleasant frame of mind and ready for hours of reading enjoyment. Sensory demands thus satisfied, she turned back to the first page and began to read.

2 responses so far

Next »