I’m Damaged. Love Me!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately.

(Muse:  This can only end badly.)

Shush.  I’ve been thinking about damaged and broken protagonists and what makes them appealing to the reader.

Everyone loves the hero:  the knight in shining armor, the Superman, etc.  They embody the best in humanity and are raised up as a shining example of what we should strive for.  But how relatable are they?  Not very, says I; it is very hard to relate to someone who, on the outside, comes off as perfect.  Humans by and large are not perfect, so if the main character is invincible, overly powerful, has no flaws, it can be very hard for the reader to connect with them.

As a personal example, I offer up Richard Rahl in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series (never mind some of the seedier issues in the books).  As the protagonist, Rahl seems unbeatable.  Every woman in the book thinks he is the most handsome man on the planet.  His morals are above reproach.  Everyone finds themselves eventually agreeing with him, even his sworn enemies.  Okay, I get it – author avatar and wish fulfillment, and all that.  But to me, I had a very difficult time connecting with the main character or even worrying about what happened to him.

Now consider Tanis Half-Elven from the Dragonlance series.  His central existence makes him a shattered soul:  born of a sexual assault, wanted by neither the elves nor humans for his “tainted blood,” he is essentially banished from either side of his heritage and bears the psychological scars from that upbringing.  Wow, now there is some damage – and some relatability!  Who has never felt unwanted in their lives?  Outcast, or shut out of the cool-kids club?  Instant connection and the I believe the entire series would have been weakened without that facet of the protagonist’s development.

When I sent Omega Mage out for beta reads, one of my readers told me that they liked the damage in the main character, who is haunted by the loss of his family and is forced into some unsavory habits that he justifies in the effort of finding his son.  We all have self-doubt, we all have regrets, and we all sometimes make excuses for why we are acting the way we do.  In Pilgrimage to Skara, the protagonist has never accepted the betrayal of the woman he loves and her pulling his puppet strings causes him to question himself through the duration of the story.

And as an aside, I think it is more fun for the author to write about damaged character.  If a character can solve any challenge without problems, loss, or even a little introspection, what’s the point?  Too easy.  As writers we should challenge ourselves as well, so trying to work through a broken character’s actions and justifications feels like the right thing to do.

So how do we get there?

First, I would consider the character’s history.  It doesn’t have to be dramatic but we all have trauma in our history that has shaped us.  Maybe it is just a something as simple as falling off a jungle gym and breaking a leg as a kid that makes the character afraid of heights.  Maybe it is something worse.  But mine the backstory for things that can take a character in different directions.

Second, we are all tempted by our baser instincts.  Does the character have an addiction?  Are they lecherous?  Are they enthralled by social media to the detriment of other priorities?  This can be especially effective if it is understated and tweaks the character vice being a story driver, or if in the subtext, the character is actively fighting against their desires.

Third, there is necessity and other actors.  Does the character feel like they are driven to do things by outside forces?  Are they forced to steal to feed a starving family?  Do they live in an environment where it is kill or be killed and they have to murder to survive, even if they don’t like it and are haunted by it?  This again can be a fine line to walk without being over the top but I think it is effective.

In the end, the point is to make the character someone with whom the reader can empathize.  The reader needs to feel themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, understanding their decisions.  This can be done from a place of strength but I believe, instinctively, we tend to recognize each other’s weaknesses just as much, if not more so – and that makes a connection easier and faster.

Anyway, that’s my rambling thoughts for this morning.  As always, feedback is most welcome.

(Note:  Author Laurel Dewey offers a useful perspective here on her blog on how to build broken protagonists.)

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The year in review and a look ahead

So….

I have returned.  I took another trip to the desert southwest.  Ironically, I returned the same date as I did last year (see this post).  Sadly – and perhaps ironically – I must report that my output for the year 2011 was as bad as my output was for 2010, had I reported it at this time last year.

(Muse:  That's not ironic; that's just pathetic.)

Yes, well…anyway, let's review:

– In 2011, my best achievement was finishing Omega Mage, revising it, and getting it out for peer review.  Thus far, feedback has been very mixed.  I've read worse in print but that is no consolation.  I'm now considering sitting on it and retooling the whole storyline.
– I also penned (typed) over 50K words in my second novel effort.  As a whole, Pilgrimage to Skara will be a better story.  The plot is better, the characters are less super.  Maybe that was my problem with Omega Mage:  I was too afraid to kill my darlings (i.e., I was too in love with my own writing to make the necessary changes to make it better).
– My submission rate was atrocious but I did get to see four stories in print this year, making it my best year yet for that.  Not much by some standards, but better than normal for me.
– I peer reviewed a handful of books and stories – though again, not as good as could have done.

Okay enough talk about the past.  (Muse:  Yeah, what have you done for me lately?)  Shut up!  Just some off-the-cuff goals for this year:

– Finish Pilgrimage
– Start a the first book of my trilogy*
– Complete at least fifteen short stories
– Submit thirty times

* – may change if the super-secret project I mentioned around labor day (here) gets no traction and I have to take it up

Okay, we'll see where we go with that.  I expect to spend some time in the Middle East this year … about 75% sure it will happen for six months or more.  Believe it or not, that will go a long way to removing distractions.

So … on 4 Jan 2012, I expect to be back here reviewing this post, lamenting how poorly I've done.

Wish me luck.

Daily Update #23

So ….

– I'm about 55K words into Pilgrimage.  It's going well but I think I am spinning it into a different direction than when I started.  I'm not sure how I feel about such a change; I think it will make the story better but will require some re-writing of earlier sections.  In a short story, it's not a big deal.  In a novel, it'll be harder.

– Omega Mage is still out for peer review.  Not a lot of progress on that front.  I am still reading two other books – one for Critters credit, which I have almost finished, and a free one I downloaded from Amazon, which I will review when I'm done.

– Mrs. Axe wants me to write a dark Christmas tale.  I have a couple of different ideas so I think I am going to back off Pilgrimage for a couple days and see what I can kick out.

– I still have a couple of submissions out but I need to get some of my recent rejections turned back and out again.  The good news is that my story "A Capella" should be coming out in the Arcane Anthology from Cold Fusion Media here sometime soon.  This was one of my favorite stories – and I think one of my best efforts.  It was also the one that freaked my mother out, so that's a mixed blessing (i.e., it must have been creepy since she'd pretty tough but I shouldn't be thrilled with spooking mom).  I wonder if other writers struggle with that too.  Anyway, it'll be out in the near future (will post when it's out).

– I bought a Kindle a few months back and I still really like it.  I signed up for Amazon's daily Kindle deal, which is kinda neat:  every day, they send a notice to your inbox with a book on special for that day only.  The markdown is extreme; something that is normally $8-10 usually drops to $2.99, and books that originally cost less will often drop to $0.99.  There's a lot of debris but I check every day to see if anything is good.  Of course, the one time I saw something that sounded really good (a historical look at John Wilkes Booth and how he came to the position he was in), I procrastinated and ended up not buying it.  What's the lesson?  Don't sit on your ass, I guess.  If Amazon could do anything to improve this process, I would like to see the daily deal tailored to your buying habits.  Maybe they can't arrange for that many markdowns (to support different folks' reading tastes).

That's it for now, true believers.  Until next time….

Daily Update #21

A few updates ….

– Omega Mage is out for some beta-reads (it barely qualifies, they are almost alpha reads), after which I will be ready for some other folks to read it – some folks who offered to do a novel-swap right on this blog.

– I wrote about 2K words this weekend for a tailor-made anthology story.  Oddly enough, this is for an publisher that I swore I would never submit to again.  Also oddly enough (or not), I am twisting the theme a little – probably enough that even if they like my writing, they will not like that fact that I am going in the opposite direction of the implied theme.  That's okay; maybe it will find a home somewhere else.  Besides, this is the first short story I've done in a while.  I should be able to finish  my first draft in the next day or so.

– Still haven't really started writing Pilgrimmage to Skara.  I need to get off my duff.

– Since Omega Mage isn't quite ready for Critters, I tossed another story up there – a story called At The Door, which is one of the first period pieces I ever wrote (set in turn-of-the-20th century Russia).  This is the second version, which I like quite a bit better, so we'll see what the Critters crowd says.  Even though it's scheduled to be up for review on 7 Sep, I don't expect it until 14 Sep (it'll be moved down by the people winning instant reviews).

– Speaking of Critters, I read five stories from the site this weekend.  I could not bring myself to review a single one of them.  I don't know if I had a rare moment of weakness and I was being nice (because all five reviews would have been necessarily harsh), or just being flat-out lazy.  Equal chances for either cause.  Fortunately, my novel reviews this calendar year have kept me in good standing.

– I still have four stories out for consideration.  I recently received a rejection from Electric Spec, saying it made it to their final round of consideration before being kicked.  That is the THIRD story I've sent to them following that arc.  It's like making it to third base only to hear, "Yeah, but I have a headache now."  It's becoming personal – I have to keep sending stories until I get one through, just to show 'em.

– Read an interesting blog on one getting their spec fiction writing career started right here.  I didn't agree with all of it but I am heartened to see less-known authors putting their thoughts on the subject out there; I thought I was the only nerd who told people how to write.

Not much else going on.  I have been back from the desert for a week and am bored and lonely already.  Beer and tacos for dinner should be just the cure.  And just in time, since the next three days of work will be awful.  Bloody awful.

Maybe I should get some wine, too.

[Edit:  I have no idea why the last few entries have been double-spacing between paragraphs.  I'll check into it – to be continued.

The Next Endeavor

So….

Omega Mage is done, and off to Mrs. Axe for a review.  She’ll scratch it up and return it to me for further editing.  After that, perhaps I’ll run it through Critters for a beta read or two.  Any reader here (all four of you) that would like to offer feedback is welcome.

Lacking something better to do, tonight I started outlining the next book.  Working title is "Pilgrimage to Skara," so that will be the tag with which to find updates here.  It’s either that, or sit here and watch that stupid rabbit outback eating the grass (at least I know where to go when I run out of chicken).

This’ll be a little different than the last one, and is not a sequel of any kind.  It is a little more typical fantasy than Omega Mage (still hate that title).  But if it works out, I think there will be enough moving parts and political intrigue to kind of keep the reader guessing until the end.  Plus, I believe the nature of the story will allow me to develop more characters than Omega Mage.

Okay, back to work.

Round Two, Complete

Okay, finished my second run-though on Omega Mage.  I added over 8-9K words, taking it to either 91.3K words (MS Word) or 95.0K words (my internet Java tool), depending on what you believe.  I think it is much more solid than it was, with better background and better dialogue.  Of course, time will tell.

One more quick read this week – i.e, just scouting for broken sentences and such, and it is ready for the beta readers to break my heart.

Still need a better title, though….

Daily Update #20

So….

Not much daily about these updates, is there?  No, it’s just a random collection of jibber-jabber about my writing, on a semi-regular schedule.  But it is an update, and I only do one on any given day, so….

(Muse:  That’s weak, man.)

Shut up!  Anyway, ….

– I am hip-deep in my Omega Mage rewrite and revision.  It’s going well; I am closing in on finishing the 10th of 13 chapters.  Along the way, I’ve added about 7500 words to the novel, by way of expansion, expanded dialogue, etc.  I changed up one of the fundamental concepts in the novel and I think the story is stronger for it.  I have a couple of alpha readers (i.e., Mrs. Axe) chomping at the bit to read this, so I have to get it done.  Coming along , coming along.

– I had a rejection this week, kind of an odd one.  Waaaay back (three years ago), I submitted a story for a themed anthology.  I was initially rejected, with a holdover request for possible use in the second volume with the same theme.  I complied and left it alone.  Seven months or so ago, I heard back from the editor on the second volume, who asked for some rewrites, most of which were warranted.  I complied, sent it back in, and waited.  This weekend, I checked.  The names/stories for the second volume are up and posted.  Mine was not included.  I never received a rejection notice on the second rewrite.  I hope that was an oversight on the editor’s part, not a blow-off.  I’ve been following the editor’s site for a while and I am inclined to believe the former.  I tried to take the high road, wrote back and wished the editor well.  Still ….

– As I mentioned, I did make a sale earlier this week, at least.  That helped balance it.  No news as to when the issue is in print, but I will keep checking.

– Last year, I wrote what can only be described as a "fucked-up story" called "The Final Wife."  I wrote about it a bit here; it’s intentionally supposed to be make the reader uncomfortable.  The other day, I gave it to someone to read.  Their only response was, "What’s wrong with you?"  Mission accomplished.

– As I ran my mouth with my coworkers this week, I had some ideas percolate up for short story ideas.  More specifically, I (we) settled on three different opening lines.  Despite my assurances to the boys, I ultimately had to write them down, as I otherwise would have forgotten them.  I have finally (finally!) gotten in the habit of writing down my story ideas.  No idea how many stories I’ve lost that way, and that got me thinking.  I wonder how many stories – including some of potential genius – have been lost by collective humanity just because they didn’t write down the idea.  The mind shudders from such a concept.  Anyway, I have a good vector on where to go once my revision is done.  I have 4-5 ideas I have to get done now, and a few short story revisions.  I also have my next book idea lined up.  More time … I need more time.