Checking Boxes

Writers are a lot like cats, they just hate people, especially their characters
Writers are a lot like cats, they just hate people, especially their characters!

I had to take a step away from my computer yesterday when I saw a question.   “WIP has trans character and autistic character. Adding POC because the world feels way white. Do writers people their books other ways?”

My short answer… yes.  In fact, if you pause to consider the racial/ethnic/cultural/religious/sexual makeup of your cast, it should be in terms of the story and the world setting.  Worse, in my opinion, is calling attention to it.  You aren’t being “diverse” or “inclusive” you are checking boxes, you are making an outward display and nothing more than that.

Think of it this way: you shouldn’t be making friends in order to check off boxes, why should you write your characters that way?  If the first thing that identifies a character for you is something beyond his/her central defining characteristics, then you are literally only going skin deep on your characterization.

Any of these characteristics that are hot-button topics in today’s media are literally secondary to the story you’re telling.  If you’re writing some deep, societal-driven message fiction where this is central to the story… sure, go for it.  If you’re writing epic fantasy with heroes fighting to save the world… that stuff needs to take a secondary role.

Yes, a character dealing with internal or external conflict about his racial/ethnic/cultural/religious/sexual differences can be a subplot… but it’s a very trite one.  Friends or family or strangers not accepting the character for who he is?  That comes across as the standard coming of age story, regardless of whether that’s because he wants to be a hero and or because he is a black, dwarf, worshiper of Hel who secretly wants to be a princess.

Sorry to break it to you, but that comes across as lazy.  Worse than that, it’s insulting to readers.  If you’re waving a flag in the air, going so far as to post to public forums about how “inclusive” you’re being, what you’re really doing is showing that you think your readers need to be beat over the head with how great you are.

It shouldn’t matter if your character is gay, black, or worships the purple goddess of night.  If your characterization is weak enough that these are the only things that your readers can identify them from… then you’re not really writing very deeply at all.  You should strive to make your characters vivid, realistic, and above all, entertaining (that’s why readers are reading, right?)  People aren’t made up of their outward appearances; they’re made up of the morals and ethics they follow, the things they value, and the choices they make.  Measuring against that, the secondary things that identify them such as physical characteristics, religious preferences, sexual preferences, and the like are simplistic.  They really don’t have much of a place in the story, unless they’re a central feature to the character.

A religious fanatic bent upon forcing the world to convert or die is a very tired trope.  It’s often used because a writer is lazy and doesn’t want to go through the effort to characterize or define the motivations of his villain, he just needs a bad guy to fill the role.  If you don’t go beyond that, you’re doing a disservice to the reader, no matter how well developed your other characters may be.

Similarly, having a character who is a “victim” category is just as insulting.  Not only do you rob those “victims” of being real people, setting them up as cardboard cutouts of “good” because of some outward physical characteristic, but you do your readers a disservice by forcing them to relate to your character by those outward characteristics.

In short, write the characters that your story needs… but don’t feel the need to put someone of a “special” category into your story just to check a box.  The characters should be defined by the choices they make, not because of some outward characteristics that they have little or no control over.

 

Advertisements

Fate of the Tyrant Snippet One

Here’s the first snippet for Fate of the Tyrant!

Prologue

 

Commander Covle Darkbit

Near Tymbark, Duchy of Masov,

12th of Ravin, Cycle 1000 Post Sundering

 

Covle Darkbit had undergone something of a transformation over the past months of bitter cold-weather fighting.  His perfectly trimmed beard and mustache had become a ragged, unkempt thing.  His finely tailored tunic and hose had been replaced by a practical — and warm — woolen coat and heavy overcoat.  His cheeks, normally slightly plump from his love of good food and wine were gaunt, kept from the edge of starvation only through ruthless efforts to keep himself and his men fed.

The internal changes, though, would have surprised those who had not known him before he took up Lord Hector’s service.  He stared through the sparse trees with a hungry look.  Yet he remained motionless, a patience driven home by the hard fighting here in the borderlands between what Lady Katarina and Lord Hector’s armies claimed.

Covle would never have waited motionless for hours in the miserable cold and snow, not without the desperate patience earned through dozens of skirmishes in these border lands.  He had seen several of Lord Hector’s other mercenary commanders give in to eagerness or impatience… which was why only his force remained of those sent by Hector to savage the rebels.

Well, he admitted, that and the fact that I have some help.  He stroked the hilt of his sword, warm to the touch, a gift from Xavien at their last meeting.  Xavien had told him that it would draw power from those it killed and that it was an old, and valuable, weapon.

At the time, he had felt flattered by the gift and took it as a sign that Xavien did not blame him for the mess at Zeilona Gora.  Now, it was just a tool to keep him alive.

The sun came out from its hiding place in the clouds.  He squinted against the sudden glare of sunlight on snow.  What a sad, pathetic thing I have become, he thought, a thing of the cold and darkness.  Yet he felt a cruel smile part his lips as his patience was finally rewarded.

Bundled figures moved against the bright snow.  At least fifty of them, wrapped in blankets cut into jackets and laden with packs.  They had only three wagons with them, the oxen that pulled them were gaunt, as near to starvation as their owners.  Refugees from the lowlands, seeking safety and protection from Lady Katarina.  Some part of Covle Darkbit was tempted to allow them past.  More mouths would stretch things even tighter in the southern highlands.  While in the north the farmers were getting in the last of the season’s crops, frost and snow had fallen early here in the highlands.  Covle and his fellow mercenaries had burned stockpiles of food where they could.  Yet he knew that the rebels had some supply routes through the Ryft Guard.  And in spring, these starving refugees would be more hands to help get crops in… and more volunteers for Katarina’s army.

No, he thought, while I would prefer to kill rebels, I’ll leave refugees dead in the road just as gladly.  Besides, these poor fools would have their most valuable possession with them and he had already accumulated a tidy stash of loot from the others he had hit.

The thin snow of late fall slowed them as they trundled along the road.  It tugged at their wagon wheels and dragged at their feet.

“At them!” Covle snarled and his men leapt to their feet.  His handful of bowmen loosed a volley and threw aside their bows to join the charge.

A few of the refugees fell from the arrows, but most of them seemed to hunker down.  Covle felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise as he saw them withdraw to their central wagons.  Most of the refugees he had attacked had either fled or cowered, but this lot had consolidated, almost as if to form a fighting rank…

“It’s a trap!” he shouted out as he stumbled to a halt.

The laden wagons had looked heavily laden… and they were, save with fighting men instead of furniture or supplies.  At least thirty more men rose up from the wagons, many armed with bows.  They took aim and loosed as Covle’s men stumbled to a halt in shock.

Those arrows scythed into his men from close range and Covle felt his stomach sink as dozens of his men went down.  On fair terms, he would have taken any hundred of the enemy with his own company… but now the enemy had the numbers and advantage… and they had already proven the had the element of surprise.

“Fall back!” Covle shouted out.  They closed ranks as his sergeants shouted commands and began to withdraw, even as the enemy started to advance.  Covle felt his mouth go dry as he hoped, for a moment, that the rebels would charge him.  If they broke ranks to pursue him, his men could hammer them, for his men had the better armor and weapons for this fight.

Covle felt his hopes dashed, though, as a big, one-eyed man moved to the front of the rebel formation and slow their movement.  Damn, Covle thought, it would be good to salvage something of this.

The enemy volleyed more arrows towards him, but Covle’s men at their shields up, and Covle swept out his sword to dash a couple out of the air that were headed his way.  He had become used to such feats, no longer certain if his skill had improved or if the sword somehow sensed such threats and used his arm of its own volition.

In truth, Covle didn’t care.  He was still alive… and he would live another day.

He nodded at Savino, his second in command, “Orderly withdrawal, once we get back to the trees we’ll mount and head for Myrtai.  If they’ve a company here, then they’ll be thinner there.  We might take one of their patrols as payback.”

“Yes sir,” Savino said.  The former mercenary captain had signed on under Covle after the losses he took at Zielona Gora.  He hesitated though, “Their leader, do you think that was the Swordbreaker?”

Covle grimaced at that.  The rebels had a number of commanders who had garnered fear among Lord Hectors mercenaries.  Swordbreaker was one of them, purportedly the same who had killed Grel.  Covle didn’t believe that any one man could have killed Grel, the Duke’s Hound.  More than likely it would have taken dozens of men and left most of them dead in the process.

Still, Swordbreaker had a reputation and Covle could understand the importance of such things.  “Him?” Covle scoffed.  “Any man can wear an eyepatch and wave a sword.  Probably half of Katarina’s forces have someone looking like that, just to scare piss-ant cowards.”

He saw Savino nod and look a bit more confident at that.  Then again, if the rumors were right, half of his company had died when they ran into Swordbreaker’s Ghost Company.  Have to put some spine back into the men after this fight, Covle thought.  Though he had mentioned a patrol, he would probably have them burn out some more farmers to give them their confidence back.

Covle gave a last glare at the rebel formation before he turned his attention back to his men.  “Alright, move it out!”

***

You can find Snippet Two here.  Fate of the Tyrant will be available on June 30th

Writing Toolbag: Names

NameThere’s a power in names.  It’s oddly one of the hardest and one of the easiest decisions to make.  Oftentimes when I select a name for a character it’s not a simple decision.

How you name your characters and what meaning those names have will set the tone of your story.  It establishes from the very beginning some of your intentions.  While you can write a serious epic fantasy where the main hero’s name is Dave… you probably shouldn’t.  When a reader sees a name for a character, it sets up some expectations.  You can invert those expectations for humor… but not much else.  If you have Draggor the Daggerlord, Warlord of the Seven Steppes, he probably shouldn’t be a friendly, cheerful sort who isn’t into fighting (except for humor, and even then, only if that’s the kind of story you’re writing).

You should have some basic idea of culture and societal make-up when you go to pick a name as well.  Yes, you can have Han Li Qan in a European-style medieval setting, but should you?  If he’s that out of place, it’s going to be jarring to the reader.  When you do something like that, you need to have everyone comment on his outlandish name and demeanor or else you’re setting yourself up for difficulties.

Picking names that fit your setting and society is only the first part.  Readers have developed certain expectations.  Impressive titles generally go to important (or at least arrogant) people.  Similarly, most illiterate peasants get by with a single name.  They generally don’t need more growing up in a community where everyone knows them.

In a similar vein, names with meaning or using words as names (such as Craven, Malice, etc) should be done in a way that isn’t too heavy-handed.  If you have a scum-sucking cowardly backstabber who gets named Craven, well, you might be signalling to your reader a bit too much.  Oddly, it’s even worse if you’ve based the character after a real person (yes, I have known a Craven, why do you ask?)  You can use such names to signal things to a reader, particularly if such names are “nom de guerres” and the character has some other name, just don’t do it too often to the point that it stands out.

Use of names from mythology or with religious connotations can similarly be a bit heavy handed.  If a reader sees Thor, Zeus, or Moses, they’re probably going to roll their eyes a bit if they’re not reading book whose basis is those legends or religions.  A show like Supernatural or book series like Dresden Files can get away with some level of this because it draws so heavily from mythology.  Doing so in a fantasy setting not related to Earth can be problematic… especially if you don’t have a culture equivalent to the myths you are pulling from.  You can use names from mythology, but I’d recommend sticking to more obscure figures rather than central ones.

There’s a variety of useful ways to find appropriate names.  One of the most popular is also fairly simple.  Draw from baby books.  It works well enough for real parents, so it should work for your imaginary babies, too.   Most baby books (or websites such as Behind the Name) provide not just hundreds of names, but also origins of names and their meaning.  This is an invaluable resource, particularly if you want to set up an underlying theme.

Another resource is random name generators, but this can be extremely problematic.  You’re going to get a lot of really odd names, often having no central features that tie together to your background.  Pulling from name generators that use a list of existing names would be a better bet.  You can find a variety of those just by searching.

Lastly, a name can be used as a point of contention for your characters.  If someone has been saddled with a name that practically demands they go forth and do battle, you can set up underlying resentment and angst over this.  You can add to this with titles like “The Chosen One” or “The Boy Who Lived.”  These are things that demand a greater destiny… and here’s where inverting expectations can work in your favor.  Maybe that character is a Chosen One… but so are fifty others and they all have to fight it out cage-match style to determine the final Chosen One.  Maybe that prophesy about “Dave” doesn’t mean what the characters think it means.

Using names to set expectations, to build reader immersion is a good thing.  Just as you write, be certain you are using those names to good effect.  Don’t agonize for an hour over the name of the bartender, unless that bartender is going to have a bigger role.  You can just call him the bartender and move on.

On the flip side, if you want to plant red herrings, that’s a good way to go.  Having Dave the Chosen One and Hero meet Dave the Bartender, knowing about the Prophesy of Dave can be a great way to counteract the reader’s automatic assumption that Dave the Hero is going to win out.  It’s also a good way to show that the world is much bigger than the characters you’re writing, that other important things are happening beyond the cast the reader gets to follow.

Lastly, don’t ever let finding the “right” name sidetrack your writing.  You can always use a placeholder (Dave32) that you can come back later and replace.  The most important thing is to finish, then you can come back and fix things.

Kal’s June 2016 Forecast

Wait… where did May go?

The good news I guess is that I’m elbow deep in The Sacred Stars and I hope to have it out to my alpha readers soon.  The fourth book of the Shadow Space Chronicles will continue the military science fiction series as we delve a bit into the Ghornath and just what has been going on with them.  Its a step back from the massive battles of the last book, but with plenty of desperate odds, exploding space ships, treachery, romance, and everyone’s favorite pair of engineers.

I’ve got the final cover for Fate of the Tyrant, and I’ll be pushing that as well as the blurb out here soon, also starting snippets as I lead up to the release later this month.

As I said last week, I’ve been sick so I’ve fallen a bit behind on my writing schedule.  I hope to get caught up this month, which means putting lots of words to page.  My next project is an urban fantasy work, which I’ll be submitting to publishers (if that doesn’t work, I’ll self publish, but either way, it’ll be a while before it sees the light of day).

I hope to have it done by the end of the month or early July at the latest.  My next project after that is the third Renegades book.  I’ll be adopting a more standard novel format for that one, so it’ll have a more linear reading style rather than the collection of short stories and novellas like the previous two books.

That’s all for now, thanks for reading!