By The Hilt

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us." ~ Emerson

Character Building: Or, Suck It Up Princess

In my previous post, The Voices In My Head, I talked about how to identify a good character, but how about creating one?  I believe the key is this: flaws.  Good characters must have flaws: bad guys and good guys both.  No one is perfect in real life, so when you try to create someone perfect in fiction, it turns out flat and unbelievable.  Flaws are what make us human, and they’re also what make  us interesting.  There is little less interesting than a flawless character.  I think that’s why I always found Superman really boring – he only has one flaw/weakness, and it’s not a very interesting one.  It’s all or nothing.  No, great characters need flaws that are interesting, flaws that cause them to crumble when you least expect it, and, conversely, can be overcome when you least expect it.

Good characters also need to be developed.  They need to grow over the course of the story.  They need to learn, and adapt, and overcome.  Otherwise they’re just flat, and flat is boring.  Flat is fine for minor characters, at times, especially ones that are more plot devices than characters.  On the other hand, having more rounded characters will make your story that much richer.  But your main characters must grow, or else the reader will just get bored or frustrated with them and abandon your story.  The thing is, you can’t start out with a character that’s fully developed – it’s a process.  So either your character grows, or remains flat.  There is no third option.

Another vital aspect to characters is realism.  Now of course we have to keep in mind that obnoxiously true quotation: “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”  On the other hand, sometimes your characters and your plots does need just a tiny bit of something that just plain doesn’t make sense.  Characters, like people, can hold two contradicting beliefs.  They can do things that are totally irrational, even if they were otherwise the most rational entities in the world.  Things can happen for seemingly no reason.  Of course, all these things need to be carefully measured and balanced against the above quotation.  But adding just the right amount will make your characters more real and believable.  (This, of course, links in with flaws.)

Your characters also need to be motivated, and you the author need to know by what.  No one acts completely without reason.  Even if a person is unaware of their own reasoning before or during – or even after – a given action, that doesn’t that there is no motivation.  Knowing the rhyme and reason of your characters is vital for each of them to remain the character that they are.  A character acting irrationally is fine; a character acting outside of the bounds of their own character is not fine.  Characters need to act in character at all times to remain coherent entities.

And of course, your characters need a degree of complexity, an aspect which includes almost everything else I’ve mentioned. People are never simple; your characters shouldn’t be either.

So what do you think it takes to make good characters?  These are just a few random musings; what have I missed?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

Words from Elmore Leonard

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”  ~Elmore Leonard

I got this quotation when I posted one of my first entries here.  WordPress helpfully displayed it on the left bar that appears after you immediately post an entry.  When I read it, I laughed.  Mostly, I laughed because it reminded me of something, a conversation I’d had very recently before seeing the quotation, but let me say something first.

I try to write like that, for a couple of reasons.  Let me say that I’ve never been a fan of The Lord of the Rings series.  Or anything by Tolkien, really.  I feel he’s too… verbose.  I remember slogging my way through the first LOTR book and noticing a particularly lengthy and boring description of a hill that actually had no (or very little… I can’t remember exactly, it was quite some time ago) significance to the story.  In short, I hated it.  I remember being read The Hobbit when I was in grade four and liking it somewhat, but I tried reading it later and didn’t care for it anymore.  I never did read the other two of the LOTR series.  I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  So when I write, while I like a certain degree of descriptiveness and world-building, I try to keep it balanced.  I include enough to create a mental picture, but not so much my readers will get bored.

But back to why I laughed; not long before I first read Elmore Leonard’s words, I’d been getting some close friends and family members to read my first book.  The first draft (quickly proofread, but only for spelling and obvious stuff like that) was done, and of course I was immensely proud and wanting feedback.  The bit of feedback two gave me related to that quote, but in opposite ways.  One thought I was too “flowery” in my descriptions, and said I ought to cut them out.  The other said that he wanted more world-building, more descriptions, in my story.  I found myself agreeing more with the latter critic than the former, but it just goes to show that you can’t please everyone.  On the other hand, I now have a handy quotation to defend myself with if anyone complains too much about the latter!

What are your thoughts on the quotation?  Are you the sort to include too much, or too little?  Please, share your thoughts!

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

The Voices In My Head

“Shut up, voices, or I’ll poke you with a Q-tip again.” – source unknown

Characters are those pesky entities that many writers coexist with inside their heads.  Mine can be very vocal and distracting, pulling my attention away from matters at hand with no concern for how important those matters may be.  Then again, when time and circumstance allow, I can daydream for hours with them.  They make long car rides enjoyable and provide a kind of company when I’m bored.  Pesky though they may sometimes be, I don’t know what I’d do without them.

In every free moment, my mind will typically drift towards whatever story or characters are foremost in my mind.  I spend so much time with the “voices in my head” (so affectionately dubbed), that I wonder what other people think about when their mind isn’t occupied with pressing matters. Evidently these voices are both a blessing and a curse.  But on to the object of this blog entry: the characters themselves.

What makes a favorite character?  My favorite character is probably Herald Alberich of Karse, from Exile’s Honor by Mercedes Lackey.  He’s a strong character, steadfast in his convictions and, I’ll confess, I also love him because he’s a bit of a BAMF.  He’s far from flawless, but I love him just the same.  But why do I love him?  In part, it’s likely because I see a part of myself in him, or at least, how I would like to see myself, or what I aspire to.  Strength of conviction and strong morals are something I value a great deal.  And as for being a BAMF… well, that particular acronym will never describe me (since physically, I’m a total weakling), but it sure is fun to imagine.  But to extrapolate from this, looking at what makes a character a favorite is too personal to each individual to turn into a writing target.

So what makes a good character?  I must admit, the voices in my head aren’t always my characters, and my stories.  If I’m reading a good book, or have watched a good show or movie, those stories and characters can find their way into my consciousness too.  So all picky, technical or more objective attributes aside, that is how you tell if a particular character or story is a good one; it gets inside your head and won’t go away.  But what about those more objective standards?

I’ve never been one much for sticking to hard-and-fast categories for things.  I do like to analyze and dissect things (not physically, just mentally), but I’m smart enough to recognize that any generalizations that result are just that – generalizations, and not rules or laws.  What works for one person may not work for another.  No matter what kind of rule you write, something, somewhere, will break it.  Life and all the elements in it is far too complex to be captured in any paltry human rule, even when it comes to the human aspect of creativity.

In my books, a character is a good character if the reader reacts the way you want them to: hating the characters they’re supposed to hate, and loving the ones they’re supposed to love.  I always think of Delores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series.  Do you love to hate her as much as I do?  It’s in her design.  We’re supposed to hate her.  And it goes even further than that; we love to hate her.  That’s how we know she’s a good character.

So what are your thoughts, dear readers?  What do you love or hate about various characters?  Who are your favorite (and least favorite) characters?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

Plots, Schemes, and General Nefariousness

It was the butler!

It wasn’t the butler!

You only thought it was the butler!

You only thought it wasn’t the butler, but it is!

How important is plot?  Obviously, very, so let me rephrase that: how important is an original plot?

Let’s face it; coming up with an original plot idea these days is virtually impossible.  With the abundance of stories out there, almost every plot has been written.  When it comes down to it, all plots today are recycled, just with a new “twist” or “spin.”

So what’s a writer to do?  All of this just reinforces my conviction that plot is far from being the most important part of the story.  It’s still obviously better to have a better plot than a worse one, and the plot can still make or break the story – but that still doesn’t mean it’s the most important element of a story.  I’ve always been a firm advocate that characters are the most important element of a story.  You can tell the same story a hundred times and love every single time if the characters are good enough.  For me, characters are what make or break a book.  If I like and connect with the characters enough, the story will suck me in and make the experience magical.  If I dislike the characters enough, I might not even finish the book.

Of course, there’s another way to get around the “plot problem.”  Simply put, some writers don’t write for the sake of the story.  (“Story” here means the cumulative total of plot, characters, world, etc. in a novel.)  Some write to convey a message.  For example, dystopian novels.  I’m thinking of books like The Giver, by Lois Lowry, 1984, by George Orwell, and A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle.  I’m also thinking about movies like Gattaca.  I’m not saying these are bad stories, but I know that while I came away thinking them interesting and enjoying how thought-provoking they were, I didn’t really like them as stories.

Other authors carry their stories in other ways too – science fiction and fantasy especially sometimes get away with mediocre plots and characters by creating a world so incredible that you become absorbed into it that way. (See James Cameron’s Avatar for a great example.  I love it, but let’s face it – it’s just Disney’s Pocahontas all over again.)  And I’m not saying that any story that doesn’t focus on its characters as the most important element is miserable – far from it – but I would argue that all the best books have the best characters.

So what say you, my readers?  How important is plot to you?  Would you rather read a twisty mystery novel with a great plot but horrible characters, or would you rather read a book with an unoriginal plot but characters you love?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

To Plan, Or Not To Plan?

That is the question, of course.  (Yes, I stooped to that terrible of a Hamlet reference.  Welcome, blogosphere, to the dregs of my writing.)

I must admit that planning isn’t something I’m terribly good at, at least when it comes to my writing.  I usually start with an idea, or a character, and let the story unfold from there.  Take my unpublished novel, for example.  I knew how it started, and one or two things I wanted to happen along the way, and very generally speaking, how it ended (very, very generally speaking).   And this is how I’ve always written.  I know the beginning, a few, very small, vague bits of the middle, and very vaguely, the ending (usually as vague as, “they defeat the bad guy” or some such).  If that.  For the most part, the vast majority of the novel is as much a surprise to me as I write it as it is for a reader reading it.  I’ll write  a part, and think of the next either during or after writing of that part.

Now I will stand back and acknowledge that this isn’t how “good” writers write.  However, I’ve tried those “good” techniques of writing out an outline with detailed notes for what will happen where, when, how, and with who.  I never wrote that story.  By the time I got to the actual writing, I was bored.  There was no excitement; it ended up more like writing a  history or a report than a story.

Sometimes I envy people who can utilize the “good” writing strategies.  I think it might be nice to be able to remain so in control and to know what the future holds.  And I know those strategies really do work for some people.  My best friend, who also writes, is one of those people.  But I can’t do it; not won’t, can’t.  It just doesn’t work for me.  It kills my creative energy, somehow.  Sure, when I get an idea, I’ll jot it down, and I may or may not use it at a later date.  But it won’t go in an outline, I can tell you that.  I like to take the journey with my characters.  It’s more exciting, and for me, more genuine.  I realize that I’m also limited my ability to weave a more complex plot, but while I occasionally enjoy a nice, convoluted story, that’s not usually what I’m in it for.  (“It” being the reading/watching/etc of a storyline.)

For me, writing is art, like drawing, or music, or any other form of creative expression.  As such, I need a certain degree of spontaneity.  I need to get excited about something to write it out, and if I’ve already picked it over ten times before I get around to writing it, then the excitement is all gone.  And that’s not too bad sometimes, for some parts, since you can just slog through it until it gets better, but a whole story?   It’s not gonna happen.

When it comes right down to it, every writer is different.  I’ve read advice given by published authors and other writers, and some say to make a detailed outline and know everything will happen before it starts.  But then others say not to bother planning (in fact, I think I read one that said even “whatever you do, don’t plan”) and that’s when you must acknowledge that no two writers write in the same way.

My blog posts are also not terribly well planned out.  Can you tell? (Probably.  But then, these are even less planned than anything else I write)

So which are you?  Are you a planner  or someone who just wings it, like I do?  Do you have any particular stigmas regarding one or the other?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

Romancing the Reader

How important is romance in fiction?  After taking a quick browse through all kinds of fiction and seeing how incredibly, virulently abundant romance is, one would be tempted to reply, “it is monumentally important!  Clearly, one cannot have a novel without romance!”  I disagree.

I’m not saying that I think fiction should cease to include romance in stories.  Nor am I saying that I don’t enjoy romance sometimes, in some books.  What I am saying is that there’s too much, that a fiction novel can be good – even excellent or amazing! – without it, and that it’s gotten downright cheap.  That’s right; I feel that the majority of romance in fiction these days is cheap.  It’s a cop-out, a shortcut to intensity.  Writers have gotten lazy.  Instead of working to create, illustrate, and build a relationship between two characters that’s genuine and meaningful, the shortcut is to say “Oh, they fell in love.”  Voila, done!

Writer, brainstorming: Okay, so I need something exciting to happen in my book.  I know, I’ll have my knight fight a troll!  Okay, but why is  he fighting a troll?  I know, to rescue a princess!  But why rescue the princess?  Oh yes, they caught a glimpse of each other, and it was love at first sight!  It’s true love, and they will be together forever!

*insert gag*


I say again: no.

Obviously, I drastically simplified that, but so many stories today use “falling in love” (if it can even be called that) as a short-cut; a short-cut to intensity or a short-cut to coming up with motivations for a character.

And then there’s another use of romance/true love that baffles me: the completely superfluous, unnecessary, added-on-last-minute stuff.  Sometimes I wonder if writers feel that including a girlfriend/boyfriend/romantic-interest-of-some-sort is necessary.  The children’s movie, How To Train Your Dragon, comes to mind.  It’s an adorable movie (I recommend it, in fact), with likeable characters and a believable relationship between the main character and the dragon that is cultivated throughout the movie.  But for some reason, the writers felt it was necessary to tack on a girl love-interest – almost as an afterthought.  In the end, the main character and the girl end up together.  Hurray!  …Except that honestly, I would rather have used the whole three minutes they devoted to that relationship on another few shots of fighting or flying with the dragon.  Because I really doubt they spent more than three minutes – out of the whole movie – on that relationship.  It baffles me that it was included at all.

So what say you, readers?  Is it simply that you can’t have a happy ending without romance?  Or is it something more?  I’m sure there’s a cultural commentary in here (in fact, I know there is, but I won’t get into it).

It is my belief that today’s writer needs to wake up – when we use romance, we need to put as much work into it as we would building any other kind of relationship between characters.  And more than that, we need to make it real, and if we include it, it needs to contribute something.  No more cop-outs, no more short-cuts.  Make it believable, and don’t include it just for its own sake.  There’s more to it than that.

Really, I’d like to see more novels out there that don’t have romance in them – there are very few, from what I’ve seen.  But I think it would be a good challenge for a writer.  I think it would force a writer into realizing what a crutch romance can be.   And I know I would love to see more stories that emphasize bonds of friendship, companionship, and family… and please, I would like them to be more mature than children’s stories.

What are your thoughts on this subject?  Have you noticed this?  And if you have, did it bother you?  Have you done this, and did you realize it?  Or do you think I’m wrong, or jaded somehow (which is certainly possible, although I think I have at least some of it right)?

I would also love to hear about any good literature (especially fantasy, my personal favorite) with strong bonds that aren’t romantic.

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

Holier Than Thou: Religion and Fiction

This is a third post on the theme of what writing should include: Right Writing (on morals) and A Place For Opinion (on opinions and agendas).

What place does religion have in writing fiction?  (I am referring here to fiction that is not explicitly religious fiction.)  This is a question that probably annoys atheists to death, but let’s face it: religion and morality are closely tied.  So if one has any religious beliefs, how does the writer of fiction reconcile their religion with their fiction?

J.K. Rowling found one way to do it in her Harry Potter series; she quite successfully avoided the whole issue.  She wrote children’s books, granted, not intended for an older audience (although all ages certainly enjoy them!).  However, she claims to be Christian and she kept any morals implicit in the story without ever mentioning religion.

I am not entirely comfortable with that, however, especially with a modern fantasy story.  Entering magic into the equation of the world’s history changes things drastically.  Suddenly the truth of miracles and other aspects of religion can be undermined by this new force.  Magic, for all that it opens up a whole new world of wonder and, well, magic, can also bring its own world of problems.  Then again, I suppose atheists again have it easy here, as well as liberal Christians (and other religions) who believe more in the essence of goodness than any historical or literal truths.  Moral relativism does seem to be at an all time high, after all.  But the rest of us need to give this some thought.

C.S. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia, chose a different approach.  The Chronicles of Narnia are considered by some to be Christian literature, with his religion written into the stories allegorically in the form of Aslan.  In my opinion, it takes a master storyteller to do that successfully, and even if one is a master storyteller (and I’m not making any claims to that), it doesn’t necessarily follow that this is the road one must choose.

When it comes down to it, of course, each individual must decide how he or she wishes to reconcile religion with fiction.  In some cases, I’m sure it needn’t come up at all.  But in others, like with morality itself, some of us feel an obligation to ensure that the message we’re sending to our readers is a good one.  Writing has power, and so writers have power; it’s our responsibility to use that power to better the world in what little ways we can.

What are your thoughts and opinions on this matter?  What are your personal struggles with this issue?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

A Place For Opinion

I wrote a related article earlier, found here, on morals and writing fiction.  This article, however, asks a question covering a much broader spectrum than just morality.

We all have ideas and opinions that we’re passionate about and that shape our worldview.  We each have our own opinions about how the world is, and how it should be.  And all of us, even the ones who just want to write pure fluff (or some degree of fluff), write from our own personal perspective, a perspective influenced by those ideas and opinions.

The question, then, is this: how much of our own personal agendas should we include in our writing?  I spoke about morality, and that’s related, but this goes much deeper than that; many of these issues may even drive our desire to write, even those we choose the medium of fiction instead of non-fiction or some kind of religion or rights advocacy.

Some of our ideas and opinions are, of course, going to leak through.  But what about conscious additions?  What about entire subplots that are clearly driven by some social issue or religious agenda?  Does this have its place?  Or should we save it for another medium?

Say the novel is a fantasy story, like I write.  But say the author includes some kind of driving feminist agenda.  Where in the library should this book go?  Feminist literature?  Or just in the plain old fantasy section?  What place do our agendas have in our fiction?  Should we do our level best to exclude them from our stories, or do we have the right to include them?  More than that, is there some kind of obligation to include them?  Are they good?  Or bad?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.

I intend to write a third part on this subject, zeroing in particularly on religion.

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

Right Writing

As a writer, I sometimes worry about my depiction of what’s right and good within my story.  I write fiction, and more specifically, I write for entertainment purposes.  But even so, what we read influences our opinions of the world – what we read changes what we think and how we think.  So as a writer, I feel that I need to be conscious of what I write and how I write it, because it could change what someone thinks, and I would rather change someone for the better than for the worse.

For example, when I was young I loved the Redwall series by Brian Jacques.  As a result, I was influenced to believe very simply that killing bad people is perfectly okay.  Now, however, as an adult, my morality has changed.  Taking the life of another person is a very serious matter, and not something to be taken lightly, no matter how bad a bad guy the person is.  Now the Redwall books were always careful not to glorify killing and war, but even so, warriors who killed bad guys are held up as flawless heroes.  (It is possible that I am misremembering some of the details, but this is how I remember it and it’s definitely the impression I took away from the books.)

My first attempt at a novel had a main character who was an assassin (her name was Taj).  Now I was quite taken with today’s glorification of BAMFs who go around killing bad guys, so I had no problems whatsoever with Taj killing more of said bad guys.  Over time, however, my morality began to mature.  I thought more about what I was writing, and I grew uncomfortable with Taj’s profession, and more than that, her cavalier attitude about the whole thing.  The message I was sending my audience was that not only was killing okay, it was cool.  And I no longer believed that any more.

It took many years and a philosophy degree before I came to realize that I don’t believe that killing is ever truly right.  I realize that sometimes it is, in a sense, necessary, for example when chosen as the lesser of two evils, but it is not right.  Killing is not good, and should be avoided if at all possible.  I know many think me naive for holding this view, but believe it I do.  And this presents a particular challenge.

Writing an action/adventure story that does not condone killing is challenging.  I still have killing happen in my story – I just have to make sure that when it happens, I don’t portray  it as an unequivocally good thing.  What makes this harder is that I also, as someone who desires to be a good writer, don’t want to resort to deus ex machina to save my characters (a popular device, at times, to save a character when the author doesn’t want them to have blood on their hands).  However, I have every intention of rising to that challenge.

Well, that’s all for this post, although I intend to write another related post on opinions and religion and writing.  As always, I welcome any and all feedback, comments, and questions in the comments!

Let me know what you think!  How does your morality influence your writing?  Is this something you’ve thought about or struggled with?  How did you deal with it?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

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