It’s a Christmas horror story (as always, not the splatter type) about Ian, a middle-aged loner who lives with the memories of his daughters and grandson, rather than with them, a man who lives on the hope that his loved ones will remember him during the holiday. In the meantime, his nearly paralysed arm starts twitching uncontrollably. A couple of weeks before Christmas, his last friend leaves the country, and Ian finds himself with no one in his life. Day by day, he feels life ebbing away from him.
And this is the cover
The story was originally published on 9Tales Told In The Dark issue 12, literary magazine on April 2016 and it’s the third and last story I’ll publish this year. Like the stories I published before, Wisps Of Memory costs $0.99 and is available worldwide.
I hope you like it. If you read it, consider reviewing it on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other site you frequent.
As an added note, if you like free books, have a look at this giveaway I’m hosting on Instafreebie. Myself and more than forty other writers have teamed up and are giving away some of our horror and thriller stories (click on the image below to go to the download page). Not a bad gift for the holiday, right? What have you got to lose? They’re all free 😉
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.
Confession time folks. I haven’t submitted a new short story to any literary magazine since Xmas 2016. At that time, I submitted a cyberpunk short story which, as of writing this, will be the basis for a future novel. The story is still under consideration by that magazine (yes, it can take this long, and sometimes even longer), and it’s officially the story that has taken the longest to get a response. The fact remains though: since then, I haven’t submitted any other short story nor have I written a new one. Now, I’m about to submit two: a flash fiction one and a short one, both written more than a year ago.
The reason? I was too busy editing and revising my novels. Too busy submitting my first novel to agents. Too busy wrapping my head around promotion and marketing strategies for my self-published work. Too busy with a new job. Too busy with parents’ health problems. Too busy in general.
I started drafting both stories way back in 2016. Late spring, if my memory serves me. Nothing new since then. I don’t think I’m going through a dry spell (God, I hope not). It’s just that I’ve focused on longer stories than short ones. I don’t know if I’ll work on another short piece any time soon (at some point, I probably will, perhaps a teaser prequel to one of my novels), but for the time being I feel I should focus on novels. Especially now that I’ve had a taste of the turbulent waters of self-publishing.
So for me, submitting these two stories is a big deal. Wish me luck, folks. I’ve set the bar high for both.
Many thanks to all those who read earlier and badly written versions of this story, and provided me with precious feedback.
It’s been a week since my latest horror story, At Horizon’s End, went live and it has already garnered a couple of five-star reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, as well as on reviewers’ blogs. You can read these blog reviews here, here, and here. If you’re looking for a quick read, and you’re into horror with a twist of sadness, At Horizon’s End may be a good fit for you.
Some people asked how I came up with the idea and the title of the story.
To explain the idea, I’d have to introduce you to my way of developing stories. Originally, the idea was to have Death in a conversation and a mortal, contemplating Death’s job. For some reason, to this day, I picture them talking over a chess board. I don’t know why, but the image is stuck to my head. Anyway, that idea branched off into having the mortal being the next one Death would take. Which seemed interesting, only I’ve already published
something similar earlier in my career. So, I decided that the mortal should be a child, because of the antithesis it would create (children represent life and future, whereas death, well, the end of life and future).
At that moment, the idea of having something as massive and hard-to-process as death, contrasted with a child’s innocence simply appeared out of nowhere and it made sense. So I revised the story accordingly. But then I had to do something to answer the question, why would Death be talking or playing chess or interacting in any way with a child? That was the final blow to my chessboard picture. Bye bye chessboard.
Instead, I came up with the idea of having Stella’s mother’s passing (Stella is the child in the story). Which, in turn, led to the idea of having Death second guessing himself when he took the child’s mother. Given my Greek heritage where Charon (a name we still attribute to Death here in Greece) ferried the dead in a one-way trip, my story’s Death was also unable to return someone from the afterlife to the lands of the living. Which finally gave rise to the question, how would Death handle such a problem? To answer that question you’ll have to read At Horizon’s End.
How I came up with the title is a different issue. In the story, there is mention through Stella’s memories of the way her mother used to refer to the afterlife. Now, at the time I was listening to a song from Paradise Lost (a band I like a lot), called As Horizons End. Though the song has absolutely nothing to do with the story, it was one of those moments where epiphany knocked on my door. In my mind there was no better way for a parent to explain to their four-year-old child the concept of death. How can anyone explain to a child that they will never see each other again and at the same time attempt to relieve the pain of loss? How else better to soften such a blow, if not by telling them that they will meet again at some point? So when I heard the song, it just clicked.
Lastly, you may want to take a look at the Interviews section. Viking Reviews was kind enough to interview me a couple of weeks ago. If you want to know a little more about me, but never dared ask, this is a your chance 😉