How does Superman shave?

DSC01007I was flipping through some coupons that came in the mail when I happened across this ad for Gillette. It asks the question, “Want to look like the Man of Steel?”

The implication of the ad is that you can look like Superman by using the same razor that Superman uses. But does Superman use a razor? Wouldn’t the super strong hairs on his chinny chin chin destroy any blade that attempted the job? Perhaps Gillette shaving gel has minute amounts of Kryptonite blended into its formula, momentarily weakening Superman’s face and allowing a human razor to do its thing. Or maybe the implication is that Gillette razors are strong enough to shave the Man of Steel without needing to resort to Kryptonite. Anyway, when I saw the ad, I was confused.

The whole thing made me start thinking about the abilities that we give our characters when writing. Specifically, I was thinking about the limitations on those abilities. When I want to create a compelling character, one of the first things I do is think of some flaws. In order for the character to remain likeable, the flaws can’t outweigh the strengths, but they must be present if people are going to relate to my character. After all, people are flawed.

But what about Superman? What are his flaws? Some might be tempted to say that Kryptonite (and magic) are Superman’s only weaknesses. While that may be true physically, I believe that his very strengths are his flaws. He has no oversight, no force than can govern his actions. Humans are wholly dependent on his choice to be good, in spite of the fact that he could do whatever he wanted at any time. And so, the struggle with Superman must happen within himself and against his baser nature (if such a thing exists within him). The ultimate struggle in Superman’s life is not external, it is internal. Maybe that is what makes him a relate-able character.

Anyway, since I mentioned it, here’s how Superman really shaves:

Flash Fiction Challenge | 50 Words, 1 Character

Do you recognize these characters?
(click to make it larger)

I was just thinking that it has been a while since I’ve offered a contest on the blog. This contest is inspired by Bob Evenhouse’s recent post, “What Makes a Good Story Good?

In his post, Bob asks what the most important element is in determining the value of a story. I posit that it is the characters that make me either love or hate a book. There are many books that I love the plot or the author’s voice, but first I must love the characters. Not that all characters are loveable, perhaps I will love to hate them. Anyway, I must feel something strongly toward them.

So what is the challenge?

Simple. You have fifty words to flesh out a character that you think would make a book lover love your book.

Not writing a book? That’s fine. Use the fifty words to create a character that you would want to read about.

You can post your fifty words in the comments – 0r – post a link to your own blog where your entry can be found.

The deadline is August 31, 2012.

There is no prize but the feeling of a job well done and possibly the praise of your peers.

Creating Characters

I love characters. I love coming up with their names. I love discovering their quirks. I love finding out how they act when thrown into a problem that i have invented for them. It is a powerful feeling to determine the destiny of a character. It is godlike.

Names | When deciding what a character will be called, I consult a few different sources. If you don’t have a good Baby Name Book, it is a worthwhile purchase. Just be careful not to leave it laying around if you are of an age or situation where getting pregnant will cause undue concern or excitement.

In addition to a name book, I have a name journal where I write down good names that I hear.

If you are at a complete loss, try a phone book (the phone book companies just keep cranking them out for some reason, so we might as well use them for something, right?).

Quirks | Sometimes, a character’s name will suggest the quirk. When I came up with the main characters for my anthropomorphic flash fiction series, Thom and Tom, I was focusing on the different spellings of the shortened name for Thomas. In Thom, the h is silent, but not invisible. In Tom, I decided that the character would be the opposite, invisible, but not silent.

For other quirks, I just let my mind wander. I have a tendency toward the pairing of disparate things. One character that hasn’t found a story yet is an Amish man with a pacemaker. I don’t know why, but I find that sort of thing funny.

Another approach is to take a normal feature and exaggerate it. Maybe someone is abnormally tall, or super smart, or like Kurt Vonnegut sometimes gave his main characters, they have a large phallus (You never know who’ll get one).

Last, you can always base characters on real people, or a mash-up of different people that you actually know. Just make sure that they either don’t mind you using their likeness, or that they will never see your fictional treatment of them.

Situations | Once you have a group of characters, invent a situation for them. I know that everyone’s writing practices are different. Because I am character focused, I let my characters determine my plot. Others will come up with the plot and then let it determine which characters are needed, often coming up with the characters at that time. I don’t do that. I like coming up with characters too much.

The one on the left is me.When creating a situation, sometimes I just pick a few characters from my list and imagine them in the same room. How would they react to each other? What are they talking about? Is one of them the odd man out? Which of them could be a main character and which are the supporting cast? Which one is your favorite? What actual place in reality could you find this collection of people?

Once you decide on a basic setting for your characters, they will need a strong problem to overcome. Once you have setting, characters, and a problem to solve, you just have to decide how long and complex to make the story. Is it flash fiction? Short story? Novella? Novel? Maybe a Tolkien-esque tome?

Things to Remember | After they are created, let your characters surprise you. I didn’t understand this advice until the opportunity arose for me to use it. If, when writing, one of your characters says something or does something that seems unlike how you originally intended, go with it. It will likely make your character richer and more memorable, and your story will be better for it.

How do you come up with characters?

Meet the Cast Tuesday | Pumpernickel and Fork

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I write flash fiction. These stories revolve around a pair of roommates named Thom (a squirrel) and Tom (invisible), but each episode introduces a new character. This week, I’ve decided to introduce a couple of my favorite characters in the Thom & Tom series.

Pumpernickel – True to the roots of his name, Pumpernickel is a flatulent Goblin. Seriously, look up pumpernickel in the dictionary and see if I’m lying. I’ll save you the trouble. I’m not. Anyway, Pumpernickel was adopted by wealthy hedgehogs, and now he’s sitting high on the… hedgehog. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But I’ll spare you the pain of making anymore bad puns, because that’s all I’ll say about Pumpernickel.

Fork – Fork is a kleptomaniac mouse who only takes items too large to actually get away with stealing. This form of self-defeat would normally take its toll on lesser beings, but maybe that’s what makes Fork so special. Or maybe it’s a weird birthmark or something.

Stay tuned because I’ve been debating on actually posting one of the stories. My hesitation is driven by the fact that publishers don’t like publishing something that everyone has already read for free. Although, publishers do like publishing things that have a built-in fan base, so maybe I’ll just post a story or two and you can all become ravenous fans, writing to the publishers of your choice and making them want to publish me. Just an idea.

Anyway, I think that I’ve talked myself into posting something, so check back tomorrow.

Book Review | Spirit Fighter by Jerel Law

Spirit Fighter by Jerel LawSpirit Fighter, the initial installment of the Son of Angels: Jonah Stone series, is the first book published by Jerel Law. According to the “About the Author” section of the book, Law is a pastor with seventeen years of full-time ministry experience who “began writing fiction as a way to encourage his children’s faith to come alive.”

I decided to review this book because the content and characters have some striking similarities to the novel I’ve been working on for a couple years now. The main characters are part angel. They have special superhuman abilities. They are on a quest to rescue a parent from the clutches of fallen angels.

The book is published by Thomas Nelson and is classified as Juvenile Fiction/Religious/Christian/Fantasy. The cover shows a scene from the book showing the main characters, Jonah and Eliza Stone, fighting the ancient biblical creature known as Leviathan, aided by their family’s guardian angel, Henry, in front of a New York skyline. I mentioned last week that it is usually safe to judge a book by its cover. This cover tells me that the book is an exciting biblical fantasy aimed at middle-school readers familiar with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. After reading the book, I can say that the cover fits it well.

The plot goes like this: Jonah Stone is a thirteen year old boy who isn’t very good at sports (he fails the tryout for the basketball team) or school (his genius little sister consistently outshines him). Discouraged, Jonah does what his dad, a pastor, tells him to do, pray. The prayer activates his angelic heritage and Jonah gains super-strength. His parents explain that Jonah and his siblings are one quarter angel, or quarterlings, and that their mother is one half angel, or a Nephilim. Jonah uses his new-found strength the next day to take care of the bully subplot, only to come home to discover that his mother has been kidnapped by fallen angels and that he and his sister are the only ones who can help. Thus they set out on the journey, aided by the family’s guardian angel and a fancy watch that gives heavenly instruction. The pair relies on their abilities, supplemented by the Armor of God to find and save their mom.

In the end, I didn’t care for this book. I had really high hopes, because if Spirit Fighter does well, publishers will see the need for books in this niche genre and my own book will stand a better chance of being published.

Here are a few of the reasons why I felt this way about the book:
The author writes with an agenda. I believe in writing a story for the sake of the story. If it happens to teach something along the way, all the better. But writing a story that sets out to teach something is not fair to the narrative. This may be a good way to write an exciting sermon, but a poor way to tell a story.
The characters are one-dimensional. They don’t undergo any great change as a result of their journey. In spite of being endowed with incredible powers, the main characters relate to situations the same way throughout the novel. They don’t grow. In reference to writing with an agenda, the characters seem to exist solely as a device to tell the reader how he or she should be living.
The story made leaps in logic. There is a scene where Jonah and Eliza come upon a castle in Central Park that they need to break into. The castle is heavily fortified and guarded by evil spirits. How do they get in? Obviously, they need to to reenact the scene from Joshua and the battle of Jericho. Why do they assume this will work? It’s a hunch. That’s it.
There was very little depth to the story. The only minor subplot that the main character had to deal with was resolved by the fourth chapter. This left the entire rest of the book to read without anything to make the story or characters richer.
It was very preachy. I don’t have a problem with any of the content philosophically, but when a large percentage of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the text of the Bible, the author is going to lose me as a reader. Copying is lazy writing. And by including so much scripture, the book will only appeal to parents and kids who are greatly opposed to mainstream/secular books.

It isn’t my goal to tear down the book, and certainly not the author. As his first published work, Law takes on an ambitious tale and gives flesh to an invisible world. The novel is imaginitive and fast-paced. It is well-suited to a young audience and portrays a large amount of scriptural ideas in a way that younger minds might understand.

What I’m afraid of is that well-intentioned people will buy this book as a gift for kids who like Rick Riordan’s novels or the Harry Potter series. Those kids won’t like Spirit Fighter.

I hope the next book in this series is better. I really do.

I’d still like to prove that there’s a place for Nephilim in YA books.

** Tomorrow is the big book giveway. Come back to see how you can win!