Character Pain and Authenticity

Oct 18, 2010 12:53 pm
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I recently noticed something I’m not happy about: in The Hands of Cally Wu, Cally acknowledges her pain.

Now, this is a positive thing in real life. Acknowledging your pain – realizing: what is happening to me is bad; what this person is doing is wrong; I should change this situation before I get hurt worse - is a very healthy thing. It’s something you see primarily in people who’ve dealt with trauma and gotten out on the other side. People like that safeguard themselves. It can come across as selfish, but it’s a good thing. You’re doing what it takes to survive. It can be a relief to see characters respond to trauma in such a productive way, especially if you care about those characters.

In general, I prefer this response over characters who dismiss their pain. “Strong” characters who brush off their pain like it’s nothing annoy the crap out of me. It’s a pet peeve, I guess *g* While avoidancy happens in real life, it seems to be much more common in fiction.

I do understand people’s reasoning for going with that option. Heck, I’m doing it myself in Heirs. Having characters respond to their pain in productive ways rarely makes for good conflict. It can also border on “woe is me”, depending on the writer, and no one wants to read that.

But avoidance has its downsides, which is why I’ve been avoiding it for both Cally and Lillian (from Always Read the Fae Print).

For one, “strong” characters ignoring their pain is kind of overused. It’s a coping technique, not an end goal. These characters are damaged. You can only ignore that for so long.

If the writer acknowledges this – cool. But even then, few writers manage to tackle it in ways we haven’t seen a million times before.

Another downside: At some point, you just want the character you’re reading about to deal with things. If you’re rolling your eyes at the character brushing things off yet again, it’s not a good sign. Confront the elephant in the room and move on with the story.

The thing is, there are more options than just avoidance vs. dealing. When I went over the changes I need to make to The Hands of Cally Wu, I realized that I needed to change her way of thinking about her pain. Acknowledging it doesn’t work for her. She’s been in the same situation all her life, and there’s no way out.

At that point, you don’t acknowledge your pain. You can’t. You deal with it the best way people know how to, and it usually means fooling yourself. You normalize your pain. You defend your situation. You think: it’s not so bad. Other people have it worse. It’s not like this all the time. I shouldn’t complain.

That realization hit me pretty hard. This coping technique is tremendously unhealthy and painful and wrong, but it’s damn common. I know I’m familiar with it, and so are many of my friends – but people who haven’t been there rarely understand. That might be why it’s so hard to write about.

But when people do it right… it hits the reader in the gut. It makes them squirm and want to hug the character and yank them out of there because: no, honey, it is that bad, you don’t deserve this, stop doing this to yourself.

It’s frustrating to read about, sometimes. It’s risky: people might roll their eyes. People might not want to read about someone who’s that self-destructive, who makes excuses for their situation with no attempts at making it any better. For some, it’s probably as much of a pet peeve as “tough” characters are for me. (They might even fall into the same category, depending on how you look at it.)

But it’s also honest. It’s authentic. And I think it’s a part of going there; of taking the risk and doing what it takes to yank the most painful parts of the story to the forefront, even if it means alienating some of your audience.

Not all stories need this. Not all characters respond this way – but this story needs it, and Cally does respond this way, and I think this is going to help me a lot in moving the novel forward.

Thoughts are, as ever, welcome.


WIP Wednesday: The Book That’s Definitely Still Booking Along

Aug 11, 2010 11:16 pm
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This is me rocking back and forth, murmuring, it’s not enough. not enough. need to write faster. do I need sleep? no. more writing!!

23800 / 75000 words. 32% done!

(For the record, I do tend to rock back and forth, but there’s not much murmuring involved in real life.)

Anyhow. That’s going all right. After a long period of ‘up’, the ‘down’ has started to set in, but that’s par for the course as far as novels are concerned, eh? I just need to keep telling myself to take risks, go there, do the unexpected, up the ‘holy shit!’ factor, and all those good things.

Instead my brain is just like, “But I am writing teenagers. I really want an awkward date scene.”
And I am all like, “No. There are demons. Make the teenagers fight demons! Excitement!”
And my brain goes all, “How about an awkward almost-kiss?”
Me: “No.”
Brain: “Awkward IM conversation!”
Me: “NO.”
Brain: “Then maybe an awkward–“

Apparently, there is lots of awkward in demon-killing. Sigh.

So, the obligatory snippet du semaine, in which Our (newly-deafened) Esteemed Hero, who can sense and copy other people’s powers, chases an unknown suspect.

      I leaped from the car, skidding on the sidewalk and moving before I knew it. The signature faded with distance. No sign of whoever it belonged to yet.
      From the car, I’d had sight of the front and left of the house, and Felicia from the back—that left one blind side. Must’ve snuck from a window.
      I didn’t turn to see if she followed: I sensed her doing so already. Good. I kept running, following the signature away from the troll, past the house and through the trees. Felicia followed behind—maybe a dozen feet, I couldn’t tell exactly, not with all my attention pinpointed on the faint trace of the signature ahead of me.
      A thin shape ran across an open patch of grass, then into the next cluster of trees, showing only flashes of a green shirt and long legs. Definitely a guy. And definitely the owner of whatever signature currently buzzed around my head next to Felicia’s.
      We reached the other side of the block. The grass turned to pavement, sending shocks through my legs. The guy weaved around a parked car, swung around a building and out of sight.
      Years of rigorous training had kept me in shape. My hospital stay had dented that, but when getting back to training after—I’d focused on strength more than speed. Reflexes over staying power.
      In other words: To my eternal shame, this guy outran me.

Mmm, teenage boys with deeply hidden inferiority complexes. Gotta love ‘em.


Community: Why Y’All Should Watch It Right This Second

Jun 26, 2010 8:09 pm
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Man, I’m stealing blog topics lately like… um… is there any kind of animal out there that regularly steals blog topics? No? Okay. That’s probably what makes that simile fall kind of flat.

Anyway, this blog post was inspired by a) Jodi Meadows’s excellent post on the things Stargate SG-1 taught her about writing and b) the unrelated realization that, yes, I love TV shows as more than just distraction from writing. I know a lot of people harp on how you shouldn’t watch TV if you can read/write instead, it’s just a waste of time, etc. etc. but I really think that, in addition to the sheer entertainment value and closing-off-your-brain factor you sometimes need as a writer, it’s a great way to study storytelling. It won’t teach you to write prose, but it can teach you plenty about other things, and studying how and why TV shows do what they do can be an excellent way to learn.

Which is a kind of long intro to me saying that, holy crap, I love the TV series Community and if you haven’t seen it yet, you ought to do so. Right this second. Or at the very least when the DVD-set comes out. It’s a very smart comedy which far exceeded my expectations based on its rather standard premise: community college! band of misfits! shenanigans ensue! It’s probably my favourite comedy series in a long time, on par perhaps only with Better Off Ted.

(Which you should also watch.)

Warning: as I discuss what I think Community does right, I’ll use comparisons from certain shows who try to do similar things but don’t pull it off, in my opinion. By ‘certain shows’, I mean Glee. I’ll try to be fair, but my unparalleled loathing of Glee1 may colour my analysis. Fair warning!

1. Know Thy Tropes
Whether you want to avoid them, subvert them, or ridicule them all to hell – know them. Your audience will, too, and they’ll appreciate being taken by surprise or seeing a clever spin on something they recognize.

This means reading/watching in your genre, and spending a lot of time on TV Tropes. If you don’t know the site, prepare to waste an ungodly amount of hours there.

(Note to self: next time you link to TV Tropes, do it at the end of a post, or you’ll lose readers.)

2. Go There – But Know Where You’re Going
This applies to anything ~controversial~ or otherwise shocking: go there. Don’t back down, don’t play it safe. It’s okay to be outrageous.

But please, know what you’re doing. Don’t just do random shit for the sake of being edgy and then wonder why people are annoyed or offended when you fuck up.

Community is a silly comedy and they regularly tackle issues of racism or sexism in the least PC way possible, and they succeed2. Glee is a silly comedy that regularly tackles issues of sexism or racism in the least PC way possible, and they fail on multiple levels, because they’re doing it for kicks without understanding what they’re doing. Sometimes this results in laughs. But usually, when it comes to the issues they address, they do more to alienate the groups they’re trying to support than anything else. I think that’s a shame. With that kind of cast and talent, they could do so much better.

3. A Little Goes A Long Way
Community is a comedy show and it KNOWS this, but it can still tackle solid drama. In one episode – minor spoilers to follow - the students have a Halloween party. One of them, Abed, dresses in a Batman costume and plays the role awesomely, raspy Christian Bale voice et al. Jeff, the lead of the show, is embarrassed by his friends’ immaturity and tries to avoid the party, but keeps getting dragged in. At one point, he snaps:

Jeff: Britta, I don’t care about your high school soap opera. Abed, you’re not Batman.
Abed: I know I’m not Batman. You could try not being a dick.

Paraphrased, since I can’t seem to find the quote online. When I watched this, I went, ouch. When I rewatched the episode with a friend, he gasped.

It’s so simple, so direct, and it works so damn well for both characters. There’s no need to harp on the point whatsoever.

4. Make Up Your Mind
For the most part, Community doesn’t try to be something it’s not, and I love it for that. It’s the same reason I love shows like Chuck: they don’t take themselves too seriously. This doesn’t mean that Community can’t do drama on occasion. Just watch the episode Introduction to Film.

But it does mean that it knows its genre and doesn’t bounce between different styles. Only very few shows (Buffy!) can pull that off without giving the viewer a mental whiplash.

Now, certain shows have a big problem with this. They try to be satirical high school comedies and then interject it with moments of tearful Very Special Episode-style drama, played completely straight. Even people who have liked Glee since the beginning have expressed issues with this, and the more pronounced it gets, the more people are getting annoyed by how the show can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be.

It pains me to say this, but here goes: In its first season finale, Community did the exact same thing. It went from a trope-subverting ensemble cast to a one-man-show that played entirely by the rules, annoying love triangle included, and it irritated a lot of its die-hard fans in the process.

(See? I can be fair and criticize the shows I love!) 

1 Believe me, I gave Glee a fair shot: I started the show fully expecting to love it, and gave it a full season to redeem itself when it didn’t quite catch on. It just ended up annoying me more and more. Sorry, Glee fans. (I still love the singing-and-dancing.)

2 It doesn’t succeed all the time. I’ve been rather annoyed with its treatment of Britta and Shirley. Still, it does a lot better than 95% of shows out there, so I think the point is valid.


Code Red

Jun 01, 2010 12:17 pm
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Remember my posts on going there?

Yeah. I haven’t been going there.

Part of this is because I’ve just been writing what’s supposed to come next without wondering how to amp it up. For example, the other day, I wrote an important scene Cally had been dreading for weeks and weeks, and took the easy way out. (She meets a character from her past who did evil things. And surprise! … he’s evil. And completely ineffective, to boot.)

I also just realised that, although I finally have a suitable ending figured out, it could be made much worse by incorporating some other elements scattered around the story. Elements that would add to the urgency, to the pathos, all that good stuff… elements I’ve been completely ignoring.

Which means that I probably need to rethink this ending again. Just when I thought I had it figured out after several days of brainstorming.

Bad writer, no cookie. (At least I’m still likely to make my deadline of mid-June. Clinging to that bit of hope!)

Anyhow, here’s a suitably chaotic song from the soundtrack: White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane.


On Going There

Mar 16, 2010 2:01 pm
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First off: Beth Revis has a mother-frickin’ book deal. Booyah! I’m all kinds of excited for her–and I so can’t wait to read that book. (Good thing I have another one of hers to keep me entertained. *glee*)


This new book of mine.

I’m struggling with various aspects. There are some plot nigglets that need to be ironed out. I’m not 100% sure yet how the climax will go–I know how I want things to end up, but not the details of what will happen to get them there. The voice is giving me some trouble. I’m having doubts about the word count, as well.

But one of the main things I’m struggling with now? Is the question of where a reader’s limits lie. As long as they know what kind of book they’re getting, I figure readers will be able to accept a heck of a lot of darkness in their books. That’s handy for me, because my main character might have decent reasons for doing the awful things she does, they’re still awful. She realizes this.

But. Here’s the thing. There’s a kid involved.

And where kids are involved, you don’t have as much leeway. Even if my main character was a friendly, utterly loveable and relatable character, I don’t know if I could get away with her knowingly endangering a kid. Since my main character is, er, none of those things, I worry I’ll kill any bit of sympathy people might have for her.

After endangering the kid, she takes measures to prevent it from happening again, but she doesn’t take the most drastic measure of all, the one thing that would guarantee the kid’s safety–because she’s selfish. For her to do anything else would kill the story arc.

So that’s who I’m asking people to sympathise with. And that’s not even touching the other sensitive issues that are unexpectedly surfacing.

So, I’m struggling. On one hand–too much is too much. I don’t want to turn people off the book. There are limits. On the other, it’s all relevant and necessary to the plot. Leaving it out would feel, well, like I’m wimping out. If I give my main character problems to deal with (like, say, having a bunch of demons in her head), I need to follow through. It seems all kinds of wrong to actively tone down a book, when the goal is always to amp it up. The other day, I read some advice of Nalo Hopkinson’s that rang very true: GO THERE.

I might end up changing things in revision, depending on the feedback I get. But in the meantime? I’m going there.  This is the book of taking risks, after all.

If nothing else, it’ll be a valuable learning exercise. Right? (enter nervous laughter [here])


Taking Risks

Mar 04, 2010 10:46 pm
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This book is very, very different from the other books I’ve written, and I knew it would make taking risks. I just didn’t know what kinds.

I suppose it goes something like this:

Yours Truly: *ponders where to take this quietly emotional scene next*
Ridiculously Over-The-Top Idea: *presents itself*
YT: No. That’s way too much.
ROTTI: Exactly.
YT: You make a compelling argument.

And thus, I wrote the scene. It is long and intense and made me cringe and take a break every paragraph or so. I will probably hate it in a week, but for now, I think it works, and it did a lot to form the tone of this book in my mind.

So, I’m a happy girl.

(Also, this scene is so being named “ROTTI” in Scrivener.)

And I’m still right on track, word-count-wise:

6213 / 25000 words. 25% done!