“How does it feel to be a Methuselah, kid? Happy enough you ruined the last timeline? The Big Guy is pissed off. Actually, he’s fuming. He wants to talk to you. You know what this means. I’m sorry it came to this. You have until tomorrow.”
Some of you might have heard the question, “What’s more important? The story or the characters in it?” When I had just started writing, I wholeheartedly used to answer that the story was more important than anything. “Take the world’s best characters,” I used to say, “and put them in the world’s most boring story ever written. See what happens then.” In part, this is true, but only in part and a very small one at that.
Imagine the best and fastest car in the world. Which is it today, Bugatti Veyron? Is it still the fastest supercar? You can probably tell I’m not into cars that much. Now imagine the Bugatti doing absolutely nothing other than sitting there, all polished and shining. But immobile. Just parked there. How long would it excite you for?
Now picture a Citroen 2CV.
It’s an old car. It’s a funny looking car. It certainly isn’t fast. In fact, its best feature is that it’s too damn hard to tip it over. But it’s moving. Or crawling, in this case. Still, it’s doing things. It’s panting up a small hill and it comes bouncing down after it reaches the top. The centre of its gravity sways left and right like a pendulum as it comes crushing down the slope at the supersonic speed of 80 km/h (50 mph). But it’s moving. I’m willing to bet that after you got your breath back from the uncontrollable laughter, and finished taking selfies in front of the Bugatti (no duckfaces please), you’d stop staring at the glamorous supercar and paid attention to the 2CV. If not for an interest in the car itself, then an interest in seeing how many parts of it would fall off by the end of its journey. And all because it’s doing more than just sitting there.
Pick a story. Any story. Remove the characters. What do you get? Not much.
So, if gasoline and petrol are the fuel that powers cars and almost every engine there is, then characters are the story’s fuel. Even the simplest of fairy tales and stories that parents and grandparents tell kids to put them to sleep need characters to set them in motion. Without them, what we end up with is a world that feels almost dead. Or a story that nothing happens.
So what does it take for a writer to create believable characters?
Some writers are visual people and require a picture or a sketch of the character they’re about to create. They need to see the character’s face in order to get a feel of their actions, their behaviour, perhaps even the sound of their voices. Some writers use Pinterest for this and create boards to help them visualise their creations, and imagine them speaking the character’s lines. A lot of readers are like that.
Occasionally, I do it too, but not in terms of the actor’s appearance, rather how I’d like the lines to sound and perhaps how I’d like my character to behave (anyone who has read my work knows I use a lot of action tags – which is not necessarily a good thing, by the way) between dialogue lines.
Disclaimer: I don’t imagine famous actors playing the role of my characters just because I want to see my work on the big screen. On the other hand, I also don’t object to it, so if you’re someone who’s on the lookout for ideas for new movies, let’s talk business.
Some of the writers who employ this technique swear that it helps them create better and more realistic characters. I can’t really tell if that’s true for the readers as well or not. Usually what us writers have in our minds is different from what a reader creates with theirs. After all, part of the magic of reading and writing is this.
Other writers interview their characters. The way this works is rather simple; writers ask their characters a long list of questions about their past, their wants and their fears, how they’d handle a situation, how they’d reply to a question etc. What those writers expect to achieve with this is not only to get a better understanding of who the (imaginary) person sitting across them is, but also, through the multitude of questions, to actually “hear” their characters talk and sketch their mannerisms out.
Some writers employ personality evaluation. I did this for my current WIP (work in progress). In this case, after having employed one or more of the other methods mentioned here, tries to understand their characters’ MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). This instrument gives answers to questions about what kind of person our character really is. Is he/she an introvert or an extrovert? Someone who perceives the world through their intuition or through their senses? When faced with a problem, does he/she use logic to solve it?
When used properly, this indicator is a powerful tool in a writer’s hands. Thanks to it, we have a far better idea of how our characters are supposed to act when pitted against the multitude of problems we, the creators, throw at them, especially in stories that are less about the action and more about character interaction.
Another way to have a better understanding of our characters, is by answering some key questions about them. For example: what are the character’s abstract wants? For those familiar with the Snowflake Method, this question is related to the character’s motivation. The answer to this question is always related to the character’s past and has shaped him/her into the individual we see in the story. Another key question is, what are the character’s concrete wants? In other words, what are the character’s goals in the story? This is what drives the character forward. It’s almost always related to the events taking place in the story.
What are the character’s conflicts, what prevents him/her from reaching the goals? Also, what will the character’s personal challenge be? What will he/she learn at the end of the story?
Of course, in real life there is no such thing as perfection (being a perfectionist, this should also serve as a message to myself…), so writers need to bestow flaws to their characters, if we want them to feel real. Everything mentioned above (the MBTI, the wants, goals, and needs, the psychological traits etc) also create flaws. Characters who are introverts may go to extremes and shut themselves out from the rest of the world. Characters who think less before they act may end up getting into trouble. Those who have suffered a great tragedy in their past (character motivation) often see the world skewed and ill-perceived. Depending on your story and setting, this creates a range of problems for them to overcome, thus making them more realistic.
Much like us, characters should change over the course of the story. It doesn’t have to be something big, as long as there’s change. In my current WIP (my cyberpunk story), my main character changes his view and belief about the corporate conglomerate that governs his world, but he also changes the way he perceives the world he inhabits over time. The change doesn’t have to be a positive thing, unless your genre demands it. It doesn’t have to be something that stands out like a fly floating in milk. It can very well be something subtle, like being a little bit more confident, when dealing with a character who has self-esteem issues, or for a solitude person to accept someone else’s company. The possibilities are quite endless.
In the case of villains, writers should keep in mind that every character is multidimensional, which means that the bad guys, a) always have a reason they turned out the way they are, b) should have a redeeming quality. Which also means, even a villain can change by the end of the story. And yes, this also includes turning into a really REALLY bad guy. Remember, change goes both ways. When done right, villains dominate the story and make it so much more enjoyable.
Of course, that’s all easier said than done, which is why we very often come out of a theatre thinking that the movie was mediocre at best, despite the excellent acting, remarkable direction etc. Or we end up putting a book down and never getting back to it. See, characters are the ones who take us by the hand, turn themselves into vessels, and transport us to their world. They’re the guides. It is their stories we experience. And it won’t matter if the world they take us to is the best and the events that take place are the most thrilling anyone has ever experienced. It doesn’t matter. If the vessel is not good enough, chances are we won’t enjoy the ride.
I’m in the process of publishing my second short story, most likely in a month’s time. It’s a horror story, titled At Horizon’s End. Horror is a genre I feel more comfortable with, primarily, I think, because it allows me to play
with darker and grimmer settings and endings, which I love. Now, to be clear, I don’t write the gory, splatter type of horror. I’m happier writing the psychological type, the subtler one.
Which made me wonder, what does a horror story need to have to be effective? Of course what follows is my take on it, as I understand it and the way I write it. It doesn’t mean it’s the only way.
First of all an effective horror story needs a strong setting. Regardless if your story takes place in a room, a town, on another planet, on a dark spaceship, over frozen forests and mountain ranges, setting can be your best ally, because it creates mood and sets the tone. Take Stephen King’s IT for instance. It’s the simplest setting one can get; a town with a sewer system. But with something sinister in those sewers. When I was reading the story a few years ago, and I was at any point where the heroes were walking or cycling on the streets, I kept thinking that something may pop out of one of the sewers. Even where there was no mention of said sewers at a particular scene. Why? Because King’s descriptions of the sewer in that early scene (I’m trying to avoid any spoilers, which is why I’m being so vague) made me keep it at the back of my head, and made me expect something nasty to come out of there at any moment.
Depending on the story and a writer’s style, a horror story needs to play with some keywords that will draw the reader in. I can’t give you specific examples, since it depends on each writer’s style and how each story evolves.
But when the writer transports you to a dark room with dripping sounds all around, it adds a little something when said writer describes the sound of dragging feet or the sound of creaking floorboards as the house settles along
its beams. The choice of words (dragging and creaking in this example) have a greater impact than writing that someone walked upstairs and sounds came from the house. The choice of words in the latter example is poor.
One of my favourite things to use in horror stories include characters and situations who are contrasting the general idea of the story. For instance, if my story involves Death (personified) at some point , then I will most likely choose a child for a main character (as is the case of At Horizon’s End). Why? Because on one hand we have a child’s carefreeness, which also represents life, and on the other we have the grimness and the frailty of life.
In my mind, it can’t get more contrasting than that. When I was brainstorming for my first novel, The Darkening, the idea of pitting a survivor of an apocalyptic event against the shadow he could cast at any given moment (which is one of the most natural things to occur, since our world is full of light and we rely so much on our sight) was extremely intriguing. For the past year, I’ve been struggling with a horror short story (that keeps getting bigger and bigger, by the way) that takes a married couple, who at first glance love each other. As the story goes on, the events that unfold strip away their humanity and love, while at the same time exposing their secrets and their view of each other, by forcing each of the two to do something horrible in order to carry on living. Selfless love acts versus survival.
Of course all the above are pointless unless the writer uses a villain who is a million times stronger than the hero. That villain could be the world, a phenomenon, something out of this world, or, if you aim for the gory/slasher type of horror story, perhaps another human who is wicked (make sure to give them wants and fears – you want the villain to appear like a real person after all). And all this because the writer wants to evoke fear. No unbeatable villain, no fear. No fear, no horror.
When it comes to pacing, the writer needs to be crafty. In my understanding, there needs to be an exponential escalation of negative effects from beginning to climax. If your story deals with only one negative event, then
you need to build up to that moment, and when it comes, hit the reader as fast as possible, as hard as possible. For example, if your whole story revolves around a character’s choice about whether or not he/she should stand up to Death and challenge him to obtain something very important, then play with the anticipation your pacing can create. Build it up throughout the story, perhaps by having the hero questioning the effectiveness of such a choice, then when the moment comes, have your character make that choice. From there on, take your reader on a roller coaster unlike any other. If it’s a series of bad things happening, make sure each is worse or scarier than the previous, then hit the reader with the worst, the epitome of nastiness, in one swift go. Anticipation depends on pacing. Much like the roller coaster I mentioned earlier, you could start your story slowly, and leave the reader constantly wondering what will happen next, always hinting at the worst (foreshadowing). The writer can also allow the reader to get a glimpse of a positive outcome for the hero, but it has to be snatched away for the negative climax to have the greatest impact. Another way to do it is to hint on how terrible the outcome of the given choice will be, and at the same time, force the hero into a corner where that choice is a one-way road. The writer can also allow the reader to settle at a state of relative peace by having the hero overcoming minor negative effects, in order to amplify the negative outcome of the climax.
If the writer uses anticipation properly, then it creates the next important thing for a horror story: dread. The writer can allow a constant underlying question of “what’s going to happen to the hero next? What will the cost to
the hero’s soul be?” My understanding of dread is that it usually works best if the writer sprinkles a little mystery in the horror recipe. If it’s a given that the hero will die at the end of the story, and the reader knows this, dread is vital to make the story appealing. In the short story I’ve been struggling with for so long, it is an undisputed fact that the heroes will not come out at the end of the story the same way they walked into it. The reader knows this. The reader also knows that things will get better, if the heroes do one thing, which will be catastrophic for the other. So the question becomes, “who’s going to come out with the least damage and how will they do it? What will they have sacrificed in the process? What will the villain do to keep them from succeeding?” The reader knows something the characters don’t (or simply refuse to acknowledge) and that builds dread, which adds to the anticipation.
All the above (dread, anticipation, fear) are visceral emotions the writer needs to play with and ultimately, exploit and amplify. But the writer needs strong descriptions for this, which takes us back to setting.
Finally, the writer could also use tragedy to his/her advantage, and/or drama (but drama only in its modern Greek sense, which means unpleasant effect or unwanted situation, which is different from what ancient Greeks meant when they used the term, and vastly different from what nowadays passes for drama in the western world). If the writer aims for a sense of tragedy, then it’s important to bind it with character flaws and poor choices, and perhaps make use of strong contrasts, like I mentioned earlier. All this should add to the empathy the reader develops for the hero throughout the story, which also allows readers to “experience” what the heroes feel.
Jimmy glanced behind him and gnawed on his lip. The shouting was distant, but getting closer. “Are you going to will the wall go away by staring at it or something? It’s a dead-end. We’re trapped. Come on.”
Ramona reached out, grabbed him, and shushed him. She traced the mortar between the bricks with her finger and closed her eyes.
Jimmy tapped her on the shoulder. “Hate to have to disturb you, weird lady, but they’re coming.” He glanced over his shoulder at the mouth of the alley. By the sound of it, a small riot had broken out not far from them and was headed their way.
He put his hand on her shoulder to shake her, but she slapped his hand without sparing him a look. “If you don’t want to end up encased in the wall, or land in an off-world volcano, or at the bottom of a quicksilver ocean, I suggest you stop interrupting me.”
Jimmy moaned and wrung his hands together, his gaze oscillating between Ramona and the other end of the alley. Weird lady will get me killed, he thought. “Come on, come on. They’re getting -”
“There,” she said. She brought out a small metallic bundle of spheres and a tiny crystal hammer, then clinked a few of the spheres with the hammer. The spheres rang, floated to the wall, and the mortar glowed. “Take my hand and don’t let go.” She cupped his jaw and squeezed. “You don’t want to let go, understand?”
He nodded awkwardly, the way she held on to his face. Really weird lady.
She patted his cheek. “Good boy.”
The bricks vanished, and a bright light engulfed them. Something pulled at Jimmy – not only physically, but mentally – a force unlike anything he had ever felt before. At some point, Ramona’s hand burrowed into his, warm, strong, soft, radiating confidence.
“Trust me,” she said over a harrowing whistling sound, and winked at him.
I believe I have done all the edits I could think of on Through Stranger Eyes, my current WIP. It’s time for others to have a look at it and identify all the mistakes I have failed to spot. No doubt they’re plenty and will keep me busy for a while. But for me to improve the manuscript, I need you.
So, I’m asking for beta readers willing to take a plunge into my dark futuristic world, into the fears and hopes of Dr Rick Stensladnt (my main character). To try to figure out with him why his life took such a bad turn all of the sudden, who’s behind everything.
Through Stranger Eyes is a 132k word cyberpunk mystery/suspense about Dr Rick Stenslandt who, despite the fact he augments people with advanced cybernetic implants (as is the norm in his world), he refuses to have even the simplest implant in him. Though a purist at heart, he will have to stray from his convictions when an accident deprives him of his sight, and is forced to have an ocular implant. Things take a strange turn for him after the operation, as Rick begins remembering the deaths of influential people, whom he has never met before, deaths that have taken place years earlier. Driven to find out what is happening to him and why, he will risk losing everything that matter in his life; his social status, his sanity, his family, his life.
You may ask, what is Cyberpunk?
“Trying to define Cyberpunk is a difficult task. In short, however, Cyberpunk refers to both a culture and a genre.
Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future. On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice. In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.
Though not a prerequisite, often noir style of narration is employed (again, not all the times). I have tried using this kind of narrative.
If this still doesn’t shine any light (understandable, since the world is gritty and dark), consider the film Blade Runner as the epitome of what a cyberpunk world might look like. That’s one side of the cyberpunk spectrum. The Matrix is also cyberpunk, though with a lot of other subgenres thrown in. If you haven’t watched either of these films, and you’re into anime, then Ghost in the Shell and Akira are the first ones that come to mind (if you know more, please let me know. I’m not into anime, but I really like cyberpunk). In terms of books, William Gibson’s, Neuromancer, and my favourite, Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels, particularly Altered Carbon. If that also doesn’t help, have a look at my pinterest board, designed specifically for this book.
So if any of you have read or watched any of the above and liked them, you’ll feel right at home (hopefully). If not, but you are willing to read an early work (or as early as any work can be after more than a year of editing and fine tuning), if you don’t mind answering long questionnaires about the book, if you are the kind of reader who understands that the only way to help a writer and his/her work is by being brutally honest and point out as many mistakes as you find (and the occasional praise for the things you liked), then please let me know. And if you’re concerned whether or not you’ll hand it back in time, I usually give two months minimum for the readers, because, well, life happens for all of us. After all, I’m not the speediest reader and I’m known to have taken a long time to return a manuscript (hi Yoann!). So, if you want to help, don’t worry about time. We can always extend the time frame.
A few people – people whose opinion I trust, and whose help I value – have already offered to help me. I’m eternally grateful to each and every one of them. Some aren’t writers, just readers. Others are writers (more skilful than I am) who write in different genres, yet their comments is almost always accurate. Some have a keen eye for details and are more editing-oriented, others see the whole picture and comment based on that. Whatever your skill level, whether you write or not, if you want to help me, please leave a comment or let me know in any other way (use email, twitter, facebook, pinterest etc). Those of you who have already agreed obviously don’t have to do it again, but if I’ve forgotten to contact you personally (I apologise, but lots of things are happening, some health-related issues with close family members), please message me and let me know of your availability.
Please be advised, that Through Stranger Eyes has some adult themes and imagery, as well as mild foul language (in other words, it conforms to most genre standards). Just a heads up 🙂