Likeability and Transformation

I recently finished the third book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (just over 1,000 pages long) and was looking forward to reading the next in the series, but my wife had just finished reading The Fire Chronicle by John Stephens and couldn’t wait to discuss it with me, so I put Martin on hold. The Fire Chronicle is the follow-up to The Emerald Atlas and is just as exciting and well-written. I read when I was able (my wife read it aloud to me while I was unable) and within a couple of days, the book was done (so our discussion could begin).

9781441261021I’m looking forward to getting back to A Song of Ice and Fire, but since I’m already on a break (and the next installment is another 1,000 pages or so), I decided to try an author that I’ve never read before. The author is Patrick W. Carr, and I’m reading A Cast of Stones, the first in The Staff & The Sword series from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group (which owns Baker Book House (where I work)). I got the book free as one of my perks for working at the bookstore, and I really want it to be good, both because it will help the company who pays me and because it lends credibility to the genre in which I hope to publish.

Reading a new author is a lot like going on a blind date. You have no idea if you are going to be compatible or not, whether you will enjoy their stories, their voice, or how detail-oriented they might be. But if you love reading and are willing to put yourself out there every now and again, you might just find someone who you really like.

Of course, sometimes it takes a bit of time to get to know them. That’s how I feel right now. If reading were speed-dating, Patrick’s book and I would not be leaving together. The first chapter didn’t thrill me. I’m going to finish the book since I want to give it a real chance, but I want to focus on why we got off on the wrong foot.

In the first chapter, the main character is introduced by being thrown out of a bar. He is drunk before 10am. He a jealous man with internal problems. And that is fine. But he doesn’t start as a likeable guy. He seems more sad than anything. And as in dating, if your first impression of your blind date is that they are sad, jealous, and haunted by some horrible baggage, you probably looking for an excuse to leave early. But what do you do if the plot of your novel requires the reader to see the character before their redemptive transformation?

Having just come off the heels of George R. R. Martin and John Stephens, two authors who write incredibly likeable characters, I have some thoughts.

Likeability has little to do with good vs. evil

Martin handles this with ease. When first introduced, most of his characters are either starkly good or bad, but they are all intriguing. We like the good characters because they are innocent, upright, and inspiring. And we like the bad characters because they are mysterious, mischievous, and ultimately relatable. Often, we are curious where they went bad, because very few are wholly evil, just a bit twisted.

Transformation requires a shift in the reader’s perspective, not necessarily a shift in the character’s actions.

In The Fire Chronicle, Stephens re-introduces a character from the first in the series, but in a completely new light. We are given insight into the motivations of the character, rather than a change in any of the character’s actions. As readers, we better understand the “why” without changing the “who”.

Consider a different starting point.

If I’m not going to like the “before”, do you really want to lead with that? An unlikeable main character doesn’t make a good hook and the only people who are going to continue are either optimistic or stubborn. Maybe you should ask yourself if you can reveal your likeable character’s unlikeable past in another way. Perhaps a flashback, or a tale around a campfire, or anything other than a bad first impression.

These are only three ideas. If you have others, I’d love to hear them below. Now, off to give my own characters and stories the gimlet eye to make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes.

When Bad Things Happen to Characters (and then Keep on Happening)

So, I finished A Game of Thrones. I’m not bragging. I was just caught up in it.

But I met up with my friend Bob the other night to do some writing and we spent a few minutes talking about the book (he joined my book club – see here). Bob is having a tough time getting into it. Admittedly, it is an 800 page book with a huge cast of characters and Bob has little to no time to read, but the same things are true of me and I had no trouble getting hooked on A Game of Thrones.

So what is the difference?

The difference, I think, is that Bob is a modern knight who believes in chivalry and noble fights. And I like the evil characters almost as much as the good ones.

Bob told me that there was only one or two characters that he really liked and that he was sure that if he keeps reading, within three chapters or so something horrible would happen to them. He isn’t wrong.

Authors cause terrible things to happen to their characters all the time. They do it to increase tension in the plots. They do it to show the mettle of their characters. They do it in order to make the resolution all the sweeter because the stakes were as high as they could be. They do it for shock value.

I was relatively young when I first read 1984 by George Orwell. *Spoiler Alert* Big Brother wins. When I read the ending for the first time, I had to read it again just to make sure that I didn’t miss something. This was completely unlike any of the fairy-tales or sitcoms that I was used to, where everything works out in the end. At the realization that not all stories had to have happy endings, my worldview changed and with it my reading preferences.

I went on to devour the works of Kurt Vonnegut. A friend passed me a copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 because he didn’t like it. I drank it down like an alcoholic drinks down a bitter ale. Dystopian books took prominence on my bookshelves. They became a part of who I am.

In a way, I’m glad that Bob isn’t having an easy time reading A Game of Thrones because it means that the world isn’t full of jaded folk like me. The world needs more people like him.

A Monty Python Fan’s View of Writing in Groups

I’m a pretty big Monty Python fan. I wanted to share this because as a member of a writer’s group, I found insight in Eric’s experience of writing with others.

Now, I realize that Eric Idle was writing comedy sketches to be performed with other members of the Monty Python troupe, but the process of writing in the same room as someone else is the same.

My own writer’s group, the Weaklings, is made up of very different types of writers. I write flash fiction and YA fantasy and I work best in public settings while listening to music. My friend Bob writes epic fantasy tomes and can seemingly write anywhere with anything going on. Andrew writes in silence and preferably in seclusion. And Matt writes poetry, which is as far from my understanding as writing upside-down while wearing a pink tutu (I don’t actually know Matt’s process that well, so maybe he does this).

During the 3-day Novel Contest, however, we all write together in the same room. When we write communally, there is a synergy of ideas, a free-flowing exchange of new perspectives that brings out the best in our work. When I get stuck in my manuscript, I shout out the problem to the world at large and my writing friends shout ideas back to me. When they write themselves into a corner, they shout out and I shout back.

Those of us who need music use headphones. And when our eyes begin to melt from staring at the screen for too long, we stop and eat together, encouraging each other along the way.

I say all that to say this: a good writer’s group has been vital to my experience as a writer. There are some folks out there who say that writing is a solitary journey of hardship, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. Sure, when you are putting pen to paper, it is your hands following the instructions from your brain and you have the ultimate freedom to make your story do what you want it to, but there is value in sharing the experience.

If I am allowed to give a little advice, write with someone else this week. Maybe you’ll be frustrated by how they plan out every little detail before figuring out the larger story. Maybe you’ll both have such a good time together you won’t get any writing done. Maybe you’ll write in silence and question why you invited the person along in the first place. And maybe you’ll find someone who you can bounce ideas off and it will make your writing come alive.