Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Annoying Main Characters and Good Bad Guys





This last month I've read a number of different genres: fantasy, mystery, romance and literary fiction. I'll try any book that looks interesting. The last book I finished, however, clearly brought to mind something I've been seeing happen more often in all types of books.
As writers, we've all seen the advice to make certain our main characters are not perfect. Give them flaws and make them more human, the advice reads. And it is good advice, when not taken over the top. What I'm starting to see more and more often is the main character protagonist who is so 'human' that you start getting annoyed as you read about him. He's so dedicated to his work, for instance, that he's absolutely blind to the most obvious problems in his home life. The author is certain to write how much he loves his family, would do anything for them, etc. -- but it's apparent that only applies to the hour he's home before going to bed. After awhile you can't really believe the MC is this stupid, and if he is -- why should you care about what happens to him? His flaws don't make him human, they make him annoying. They are painted on with so thick a brush that he starts to become a caricature, and no amount of 'I love you' lines repeated to his children is going to make you believe it's true.
Then there's the second problem, and one that's often in the same book.
Authors are also admonished to remember that their antagonists are human, too, and that everyone has a good side. Don't make your bad buys one-dimensional, and you must provide them with good sides as well as bad.
So the author who lays the flaws on the protagonist now is equally heavy-handed with the antagonist in making certain he has a good side. And do you know what happens? The person you like best in the novel, the one who is far more interesting and fun to read about than the MC. . . . right. He turns out to be the bad guy.
When this happens occasionally, it can make an interesting twist. When it starts happening so often that you can pick out the bad guy not by hints and clues, but by the fact that he should have been the protagonist, then it's become a problem.
"But this is more realistic!" some of you will cry.
And maybe it is.
However, I don't read fiction to be shown the real world. I also don't read fiction to learn about the true nature of mankind. I know some people enjoy those sorts of books, and while I'll take an occasional dose of it, I'm really looking for an adventure. I want the good guys to win a hard-fought fight, and when the bad guy turns out to be a better character, the win is often annoying.
Is there a cure for this?
No.
Authors are going to continue to press the bad side of good characters and the good side of bad characters, and there's nothing wrong with this. However, we can hope that after a while the authors will be less obvious in these characterizations. The man will spend more time with his family, but think about how he should be handling something at work. We can empathize with that kind of thought and know that he's doing the right thing. And rather than having him be totally blind to the problems at home, simply because he isn't around enough to see them, the other characters will have to actively hide things from him. Wow -- what a difference that makes in how you feel about a number of characters.
And the bad guy? The bad guy will occasionally betray himself by being too slick or being snide. He can be forgiven, of course, before we understand his true nature. After all, everyone has a bad day. He can still donate time at the local mission and feed stray dogs. Just make sure there are moments the readers can look back on and say 'Oh, that was well-written! There was a clue (or two) about his character!' This isn't about plot. There should be those hints as well. However, if the characterization is so far outside what is happening in the plot, the events themselves become less believable and the reader can feel betrayed and tricked. That's not often a good thing.
Of course, then there's the books where everyone is annoying, whether they are protagonists, antagonists or occasional by-stander. Yeah, true-to-life. Give me an adventure and someone I can cheer for instead!


Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Flash # 104: Good Fortune



"We're cleared," Daniel said as he pushed back from the comm station. He glanced around and nodded. "Do we have leave, Captain?"
At least he was polite enough to ask for it. Her last comm officer had been left behind on a fringe world when he pushed her one too many times, thinking he could win command. Not of her ship. Daniel, at least, knew who was in charge.
At least that had been part of the reason they dropped him off. Besides, he wasn't a very good comm officer.
Daniel, the only one in the control with her, waited patiently.
"Leave for everyone," she said. "Two days local, plus tonight. Announce it. I expect them all back early in the morning of the third day. They can all collect their payment chits, too."
She could almost feel the joy spread through the ship as she quickly released the codes for their chits. Two days on Terra Nova was a gift. They'd worked hard. They couldn't off-load their shipment for three days since the buyer had to come in from out of town. There was no reason why her crew of eight shouldn't enjoy some down time.
She let them all leave and they didn't take long. She sealed the ship closed, announced to the Port Tower that no one should be going in and out without her authorization, and then headed for the market. She couldn't see any of her crew; they'd scattered to the winds.
Captain Tamary always felt odd when she went searching out fortune tellers as soon as she could, no matter what the port. There was something so plainly old-world to it that her crew laughed and didn't come with her any more.
She hadn't been to Terra Nova in a few years. This one was close enough to earth that there were often the Old Ones here. She'd met with more than one in her previous visits.
Tamary had been away for a while, though. Things had changed. There'd been trouble in the Inner Worlds while she was off in the fringe . . . But she had been off in the fringe because a very wise Old One had told her to get clear of the area before the trouble started.
The market area had changed a bit. She had trouble finding the little tent, hidden back in a shadowy corner. It looked out of place here, with the arcane symbols embroidered into the cloth. She didn't like to think how much work that must have been. She suspected the tent was ancient and from earth -- and probably worth more than most things for sale here in the market. Even the illegal things.
An aircar swept overhead just as she opened the flap and stepped in, but once through that opening all link to the modern world disappeared.
"Ah, there you are," the woman behind the table said, her fingers fluttering. She spoke as though Tamary had just stepped out for a few minutes, instead of being gone for years. "I expected you two days ago."
"We got held up by a storm on Tempest," she replied. "I assumed you knew."
The woman made a sound of amusement and bent over th table, looking into the crystal ball. Colors swirled.
"How do you do that?" Tamary asked.
"Magic."
"Huh. What do you have for me?"
They wouldn't have much time. Someone came to the flap and paused there, even as the woman leaned forward and the colors swirled more brightly.
"You live a life of movement, of flux. The doors are opening --"
The person walked away.
"Not much time," the woman said, leaning closer. "The spy?"
"Was quite annoyed when I kicked him off ship on one of the least populated backwater worlds of the Pavo Fringe. What an unpleasant bastard."
"Good. Your cousin escaped from the rebel prison and he's on Grant. You need to go get him before the boy gets into more trouble. He has information. Take it to Paradise. I'll meet you there in three months."
"Fast turn around," she said softly. "Must be important."
"We think so. Do you have any questions?"
"Yes. How old is the tent?"
She glanced around, startled and then laughed. "It was in the family a hundred years or more before humans went to the stars. And it will be yours if you ever settle down."
"That's not going to happen, Aunt Rosa."
"I suspect not. I've certainly not seen it in any of my readings."
"I never know when you are joking or not, you know."
Aunt Rosa smiled. "Go. Spend some time with your new crewman. You'll like him."
"I am not going to go hunt him down just because you want to play matchmaker, Aunt Rosa," she said and stood.
"No, of course not."
She gave the woman a very brief hug and hoped she found time to stop by before she left world again. Tamary missed her family.
She went to dinner. She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised to run into Daniel there. Well, at least she didn't have to eat alone. . . .

853 words

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Flash 103 -- Escape


    The worst part of the trouble hadn't been being arrested by the Trisban guards. It hadn't been the trial and the accusation of being an assassin. He'd planted the rumor himself.
For Danus, the worst part was the realization he might be too late to save his friend.
The cells were far worse than he'd expected. Rats ran down the stairs; sleek fat things and fearing nothing. The place stank.
However, at least they put all the prisoners in one cell. The metal bars of the door clanked shut behind him with a sound like a death bell as Danus stared into the dark, listening to men cursing.
Taking a deep breath was out. He didn't want to breathe in the foulness.
"Sankin?" he asked moving away from the door. He'd heard the guards leave. No one would be listening. "Sankin, pray gods tell me you are still here."
"You are a fool Danus."
His eyes hadn't fully adjusted, but he could see someone moving towards him, pushing others out of the way. Sankin. Danus caught him by the arm. His friend had lost weight.
"Your sister is upset, Sankin. You do know you can't hide here from her for long, right?" he said.
Sankin laughed. "You, I trust, have come with a plan?"
"Have I ever let you down?"
Sankin grinned. He looked as though he hadn't smiled much of late. A half-healed cut showed beneath the beard on the right side of his face, probably infected given this place.
"San." Danus leaned against the wall, relieved.
"You can't do magic in here, you know," Sankin said. "I saw it kill a mage; he started a spell and it just struck him with lightning. I had rather hoped you could do something from the outside."
His friend sounded worried. Danus reached over and patted his arm. "Your sister and I did all the study of this place we could. I known about the spells on this place. I need something sharp, San."
"They don't give us no knives, boy," someone said, snorting as though he were a fool. The local accent was strong, but he understood very well the menace behind the words. They went for the weak here.
"I imagine not. I expect someone here has a piece of wall that's broken off and sharpened, right?"
Several men had gathered closer, all of them snarling. He didn't blame them, but the last thing he wanted was to have trouble with those whom he might help. Right now he didn't care if any of them were here for legitimate reasons.
"I am going to get the door open," he said. He made certain he sounded as though he expected this to work. "Once I do so, the rest of you can do as you please while I get San to safety."
The men glared.
"What have you got to lose?" Sankin asked, someone who had been here for several months. One of them.
A man handed over a piece of stone. "This do?"
"Yes, thank you."
Danus rolled up his tattered shirt and jabbed the rock into his arm half way between the elbow and the wrist.
"Danus! What the hell are you doing, you idiot?" Sankin demanded, sounding more like himself at least.
"Idiot? Going to give them a bad impression of me," he said. Blood welled from the wound. "Had to bring magic in the hard way -- already made."
The pain made his hand shake. Sankin took hold of the wounded arm and then took the stone as well --
But another man took it from San's hand. "Do this quick like. How much?" he said.
"Cut up until you see the tip -- tip of a long black stick."
He'd used magic to put the wand in place. He wished he dared use it to get the thing out again. Pulling the short wand out from under his skin almost made him faint. Sankin tore cloth from Danaus shirt -- the cleanest here -- and wrapped the wound. Someone else cleaned the wand.
"Spell to destroy the door," Danus said. "Just need to trigger it. Everyone stay back."
They all moved away except Sankin.
"Get back, you fool. I'm doing this for you."
Sankin remained. Danus sighed. He rubbed his finger over the wand; no words spoken and no magic from him. As soon as he felt a flicker of magic, he tossed the wand at the door.
The spell was enough to blow the door out -- away from them, he'd been careful about that magic when he made it -- but the lightning helped, too. It not only made a much wider opening, but finding no one to attack, swept down on the guards when they rushed in.
"Well," Danus said. "That went well."
The others rushed out, yelling as they fought their way up from the dank, deep area. Some had been wise enough to grab a weapon from the already dead guards. One even handed a sword to Sankin.
"Let's go," Sankin said.
Danaus nodded.
And that was when part of the roof fell and hit him on the head.
He awoke on a ship.
"What the hell --"
"Ah, better I see," Sankin said. He sat on the deck beside where Danus laid on blankets. The fresh air felt wonderful. "Not the best accommodations, but we needed to leave Trisban immediately. Nasty thing, the revolution started by escaped prisoners."
"So, your job is done? You got the trouble going?" Danus asked, remembering why his friend had been in the country.
"Yes. Now we can go home and face my lovely sister the queen and not have her upset at either of us."
"Until she sends us out again."
"Maybe we should emigrate."
"Then she'd send people after us."
"We're stuck. Rest. At least we have a couple weeks before we get home. We're having a vacation."
"I always imagined a vacation on a tropical isle, not the deck of a fishing trawler. But I'll take it."


999 words

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Flash Friday # 102 -- Limitations


    There are always limitations.
Learning to be a mage was all about learning how to live within those limitations in order to maximize power. Neason had spent most of his life learning not to let stray thoughts leak away his power. At twenty he was well known for his control, and that was why the temple sent him to the valley of Kerisin where a curse seemed to be destroying the crops and orchards. He would have the best chance of finding the trouble, destroying it, and getting back to the quiet, safe simplicity of the temple.
He accepted the work, content to know he would do his best and that he shouldn't have trouble tracking down the trouble.
What he found was Marcella.
She had nothing to do with the curse and everything to do with self-control. Neason had met many women at the temple, of course. Some were mages in their own right; quiet and austere women who were sometimes quite beautiful in their distant sort of ways. They were untouchable.
Marcella was beautiful. She was alive and emotional, and from the moment he went to see her orchard he found himself distracted and fighting for his self-control.
"My orchard was the first touched by this horrible plague," she said, her voice like water flowing in a brook. "It began just after my father died and left this place to me. I can't help but think there is some connection."
"Was your father inclined to curses?" he asked and then thought how callous that sounded. "I mean --"
"He spent a lot of his time cursing everything from the roof of the house to the trees in the orchard. I didn't expect a mage to be so young and --"
He stopped, eyes gone wide. She stopped, blushing brightly.
"How did your father die?" he managed to ask.
"Fell from one of the trees while he was cutting away dead branches," she said, her voice slightly breathless. "He didn't die right away. And . . . And with his last breath, he cursed the trees again. You don't think --"
They had reached the edge of the orchard, a place that should have been filled with green leaves and cherry blossoms. Instead, row upon row of dead, naked trees stretched out over the land.
"You and your father took care of this alone? Just the two of you?" he asked, surprised.
"Father hired workers when the fruit was ready to be picked, but otherwise, he pretty much took care of it himself. I helped; I needed to know what to look for if a blight hit, or how to save the trees during a drought. We did well, really."
"Whatever has happened here isn't natural," he said. He'd gotten his control back, as long as the looked at the trees and not at her. "It could be that your father had some magic and didn't even realize it. Did he live an austere life?"
"Yes. After mother died, he hardly allowed himself any joy," she said. "And I probably make him sound horrible with his curses and all, but he wasn't really. I miss him."
He didn't want to know about her life. He didn't want to think about her here, alone. He'd never thought just meeting someone could be so dire.
Neason walked to the nearest tree and laid his fingers on the bark, his head tilted and his eyes closed. He thought about the father; a man with a little magic, living in his own shell of self-control, might have built up more power than he would have under normal circumstances. Then realizing he was dying, he might have given that last power out in something he never intended.
Neason had a little trouble feeling out the problem, but there it was -- a dying curse left inadvertently by a man who really hadn't hated the land. He could almost feel the man's loss and the fear for his daughter, here alone.
Neason pulled at the strand of darkness, a slow process since it had wound itself up through branches and down through roots. And then he fed a little life back into the tree --
"Oh!" Marcella said, her voice bright with delight.
He finally glanced up at the tree and found it already growing leaves and flowers, the scent heady in the air. The sight even surprised him.
"This is going to take some time, going from tree to tree --"
She threw her arms around him. "Thank you! You were our last hope and I feared -- Oh, thank you!"
She kissed him.
Self-control? That disappeared the moment her lips met his. He also realized she had inherited a little magic from her father, which in that moment of contact blended with his.
For the first time in his life he felt alive, joyful and glad that he could help. The feel of it surged through him, making him regret all those empty years -- but also glad to have saved them for Marcella.
By the time they pulled apart, slightly breathless, the entire orchard had come into bloom.
"Oh my," she said, her gray eyes wide with surprise.
"Well," he said. He had expected to find himself emptied of power but instead, he felt as though he could do anything. "There is a lot of dead crop land around here, too. And gardens. I think maybe we had better kiss again."
She laughed. And they kissed.
That night he sent a note back to the temple suggesting maybe they'd been looking at the control of power in the wrong way. He also said he was not coming back; he'd fallen in love with a cherry orchard and all that belonged there.

952 words

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Don't worry about it, you poor little author


  



(The above works can be found here, except for Autumn Winds, which will be released in about a week.)

Later edit:  This post was featured on Passive Voice!

I recently had an encounter with an Indie group on Facebook that truly took me by surprise. They were so set in their ways that I had the feeling I was dealing with a traditional publishing group in disguise. The problem wasn't that they were even wrong for most writers, but that the moderator of the group (and her leap up and down followers) would not admit that someone might be capable of actually doing a good cover themselves or, worse, have spent time as an editor and was capable of editing their own work.

Now don't get me wrong. I think most of us do need help with editing especially. I have had such help and I'm very grateful for those who did the work. I've been told, even by occasional traditional publishers (small press) that I've worked with that my submitted work is extremely clean -- but there are small things that can still slip through and there are occasional blind spots we just don't see. I know this is true of every writers. And every editor, for that matter; I have found problems in edited transcripts too.

So I'm not arguing that this is helpful for most writers.

My problem?

It is the attitude of the group which verges on the traditional publishing pat on the head and 'Don't you worry about anything but the words, little writer. You aren't smart enough to handle art (or editing), too.'

I found this attitude to be more than annoying. I found it counterproductive and the antithesis of the entire Indie ideal. Being told that any author who dares edit their own work or create their own cover ruins the Indie market -- without EVER looking at the individual work done -- is so elitist that it actually took me a few days to believe they were serious. They are sprouting the same things we've heard from everyone who won't take the time to actually examine work before making a pronouncement. It's far easier to make a ad hominem statement and dismiss everything with a single wave of the hand, isn't it? After all, that's what others outside the Indie world do.

Let's look at the cover art side first. Many people do not want to do the art and have no interest in learning how. I can understand that part. It is a lot of work and if you don't have the interest to begin with, then you simply should not bother. Some people think they have the ability, but they need to study other covers and try again. I've been at that stage.

However, a lot of cover art these days is done with pre-made photos and simple templates. It takes practice to find the right picture and get the lettering right, but it is NOT something impossible for any poor little author to do. Branching out from there can be more difficult. I am most certainly still learning, but I'm willing to put the effort in to study other covers and expand my ability. It interests me.  The covers I have above are not bad covers.  I've seen far worse on some traditional works and Indie works hired out.

Telling me (and others who are far better at this than I am) that creating our own covers is ruining the Indie image and why readers don't take us seriously is just plain stupid. There are some truly bad covers out there. You know what? Those people aren't listening to you anyway. So why wouldn't you try to help the ones who are trying to do better, rather than patting them on the head and telling them they aren't creative in anything but writing and don't bother?

And editing? Yes, writers need to edit their work to the best of their ability before they consider publishing or going to another editor. The problem is that the worst of the offenders out there are people who wouldn't bother to edit at all anyway, so holding them up as the example of what every writer is like who doesn't hire an editor is just plain wrong. Instead of pointing to them as a norm (which these people are doing by saying they're running the Indie experience), we should be making certain people know they are the exception. Yes, they'll be held up by others as a sign of how horrible Indie Publishing is, but that's normal in any field. People always want to degrade something they don't believe in, and if you go along with it and say 'everyone has to do X not to be one of them' then you simply play into that mindset.

We should also be telling readers to check out the free samples of any author's work before they buy. If an author is obviously lazy, then don't buy or look at their work again. Don't whimper and moan about how bad other writers are and how they're ruining the Indie world when you keep pointing to them. Instead, take command and stand in front of them instead of behind. You and I have no control over those people and making them important is not helping. We need to move on and point out the really good work, rather than the bad. I think some people are so worried about what others are doing wrong that they've stopped seeing good in people who do not work the same way they do.

Indie authors are a diverse group. We are not all following one path and the way we have reached our current state has been through various trials and learning experiences. There is no one answer for any of us; not how we work, how we edit or where we choose to publish.

We are not on the same path as traditional publications. Stop trying to force us into the same mold or shame us into believing your way is the only way. If these people were truly and Indie group, they'd be finding ways to help even the people who do not work in the same ways they do.  They would welcome diversity and offer help that embraced