The Character/Caricature Balance

Image result for caricature

One of the most important things we can do as writers is to acknowledge our weaknesses and then work on them. I think too often we get comfortable with “our thing” and then try to hide our weaknesses by going all in on our strength.

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time over the past five years or so really studying and working on prose style and story structure. I write a book according to something like the Story Grid method. Then I see what works and what doesn’t for me, and then move on to another technique like John Truby‘s method. Iterating this process a dozen times has brought me a rich understanding of structure.

I think there’s no doubt that characterization is my weakest point. I’ve had a philosophy for a long time that characters should be “real.” This means my characters often act in contradictory or paradoxical ways. They have subtle and complicated reasons for doing things that only come out in subtext.

You might be thinking: wow, that sounds great! But then you actually read it and every character sounds the same and has no interesting characteristics. I tend to write an “everyman,” and they all sound boring and similar.

This is especially problematic in fantasy writing. There is a general trend in fantasy to create caricatures instead of characters. This means one feature is exaggerated to the point of becoming a one-dimensional defining feature. These flat characters can be boring and predictable.

For example, a book might have one character’s defining trait as loyalty, the bad guy as greed, the sidekick as humor, etc. I don’t have to tell you why this is a bad thing, but I will make an argument for how it can be good if done properly.

When writing caricatures, it is very clear how the character changes over the course of a novel. The one subplot has the cowardly character, and they have to learn to be braver. Their arc will culminate in a test of bravery, and yay, they succeed! It’s exhilarating and emotional to read these things.

Another reason caricatures can be good is that they create very clear differences in stories with many characters. It’s easy to keep track: that one’s the trickster, that one’s the nerdy one, etc.

Unfortunately, I see a bunch of positive reviews of books that take this too far with claims like “I loved the variety of characters.” Or worse, that the characterization is great. Caricatures can create an illusion of depth by keeping the motivations clear and consistent.

As I’ve started exaggerating certain traits of my characters toward the caricature breaking point, I’ve seen reviews get more and more positive. So people obviously like this.

I’m still struggling with this balance. It’s bad to have no defining traits, because then the character will be boring and spastic. It’s bad to be all caricature, even if you trick some of your audience. So it’s a balance, and one that’s far trickier than I initially thought.

So far, the best method I’ve come across is to have a fleshed out backstory that is the cause of a character flaw. The flaw gives the character a clear sense of growth as they learn to overcome the flaw.

Then, if you use the backstory to inform character actions, the character will have a consistent demeanor without being focused on a single trait. This will allow the character to still have some unpredictable behavior, and since the backstory isn’t explicitly spelled out, it allows you to keep some of the motivation as subtext.

This balance brings out some of the positives of the caricature while maintaining the depth and richness of a true character.

Of course, the main thing I’ve learned over the years is that everyone seems to have a different method for everything. What one person thinks is the only method could not work at all for another person. That’s why I’ll keep reading and exploring to find my own way.

 

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New Site and Future Plans

We’re closing in on September, and since my brain still thinks of Sept-Sept as “the proper year” from all that time in academia, I got to thinking about my plans for this upcoming year.

I decided it no longer made sense to have my internet presence so spread out. I originally created “matthewwardbooks.com” as the professional site containing the information about my writing and career. That way I could spew an unprofessional mess of random thoughts at this blog without worrying about how that would look.

I’ve now migrated that site over to this blog (it redirects). I’ll probably keep experimenting with the look, themes, sidebar, menus, and those things for a few weeks. I’ve gone to a cleaner theme and removed the header image, since that seemed to do nothing but clutter things.

Nothing should change for regular blog readers, but I’m considering changing the name of the site in general. It’s a bit hard to do this without it changing the name of the blog in RSS aggregates and social media, etc, which could be confusing to longtime readers, but I’ll keep thinking about it.

So, why did I do this?

The main reason is that I’m basically killing off my name as a writer. I currently write under three names: my real name, a romance genre pseudonym, and a LitRPG/GameLit pseudonym.

The two pseudonyms were chosen to keep genres separate for advertising and “clean also boughts” (if you don’t know that phrase, don’t worry about it; it would take too long to explain here).

But they were also carefully chosen to be searchable and identifiable. One thing people don’t really think about when they start writing is if their name is “usable.” Well, it turns out my name is not usable at all. It’s about as bad as possible.

Matthew Ward writes the Fantastic Family Whipple series. Another Matthew Ward is a translator of French literature. Another is a dead child whose mother channels him and writes his stories from beyond the grave in his name. Another is a self-published fantasy writer (who isn’t me!!). Another writes cookbooks and diet books. And so on.

Yeah. Not good from a branding standpoint or Google or even just trying to figure out which other books are mine if you like them. Using my real name was an epic mistake.

My real name books are somewhat “arty” and not all that marketable. The books under my pseudonyms are in line with genre conventions and are doing reasonably well. So, it only makes sense from a professional standpoint to stop writing books under this name. Hence, paying for a separate professional webpage for a writer who is going to cease to exist doesn’t make sense, either.

I’ll bring up one more point as a word of caution for people considering self-publishing under their real name.

People know me from this blog, and this has led to some pretty questionable behavior from someone who wants to sabotage me for some reason. I assume they asked for help with something in the comments section, and I didn’t do their homework for them. So they retaliated out of anger by leaving me 1 star reviews.

If that was you, I would greatly appreciate it if you would delete that now that you’ve had time to cool down. It’s easy to forget that this is my livelihood now. I’m a real person. You think that leaving a fake 1 star review is just going to “troll” or “anger” me, but it actually hurts my business. It’s a very serious thing to do.

Anyway, because I have ten years of content on this blog plus people who know me in real life with various opinions on my life choices, things like this are bound to happen again in the future.

So I have to take that into account from a business standpoint. It’s just not worth the risk of spending 1.5 years working on a single work of art to have it get trashed by someone who hasn’t even read it merely because they don’t like that I left math (or whatever their reason was).

Undoubtedly, I’m going to have the itch to produce something strange and important that defies genre conventions within the next year or two. So I’ll have to figure out what to do about that, because I’ll definitely write it. That might mean using a new name that I advertise here, or I might keep it secret. Or maybe after a few years, I decide it’s not that bad to use my real name again.

I’m going to keep blogging here as usual. Nothing about that will change.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on the new setup. Likes? Dislikes?

Kindle Unlimited

So, I hate to be “that guy,” but I thought readers of this blog might be interested in this. I took some time off of the Year of Mystery series (I’ll have another post this month), and I tried to write a post on Universal Basic Income. But that got messy, and I never got around to cleaning it up. Sorry.

Here’s the shameless pitch:

For Amazon Prime Day (in other words: this month), you can get three months of Kindle Unlimited for $0.99 (it would normally be $29.97). If you don’t know what this is, it’s basically Netflix for books.

You can read an unlimited number of Kindle books while subscribed, as long as the books are in Kindle Unlimited. Don’t worry if you don’t have a Kindle, there’s apps for browsers, tablets, and phones that let you read Kindle books pretty much anywhere.

I personally use it around 4-6 months a year and just cram all the books I want from the service into that time period. Then I buy books not in KU for the rest of the year.

I know what you’re thinking: but there’s nothing good in it. It’s just a bunch of poorly edited self-published stuff.

First, that’s not true (see below). Second, even if it were true, for just $0.99, you could try out the first chapter of hundreds of new authors until you find someone you like at no risk.

Here’s just a few of the books you could read:

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison

Hollywood, by Charles Bukowski

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling

Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard

And so on. These are major novels by powerhouses in their genres. Do what you want, but if you find even one book, it will have paid for itself. It’s something I think is great for writers to have for short periods of time to see what’s selling best without having to buy a hundred books.

To get it, click the above banner or here.

 

Year of Mysteries, Part 5: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

I’ve put off writing about this book, because I was left pretty conflicted on how to feel about it. As a mystery, it was deeply unsatisfying. But as a novel, it scratched some itches I didn’t know I had.

The book drew me in quickly. It starts with the death of a boy. It looks like an accident of falling off a roof. But Smilla’s Inuit heritage allows her to read other signs in the snow. Plus, it comes to light that the boy was deathly afraid of heights and would never play on the roof.

It turns into a classic small girl against big machine of the police/government. The book beautifully weaves in a bunch of language for different types of snow, and we start to see how someone could be attuned to signs in the snow.

One particularly enlightening scene was a description of how jumping would leave certain snow impressions depending on the direction of the jump. I started to believe she had “real” signs of foul play from the snow instead of just some abstract “feeling.”

The book uses a lot of politics of opposing forces like Greenland/Denmark, Inuit/European, and Tradition/Science. It worked as a literary device to make the reader empathize with Smilla feeling like an “other” in the world. My guess is these were real-world politics and not just invented as a device.

The translator did a great job. The prose had an almost Proustian quality to it. He would do deep dives on mundane things, and it somehow felt interesting and relevant. Other isolated sentences were strange and wonderful and humorous at the same time.

Here’s one of my favorites:

Bertrand Russel wrote that pure mathematics is the field in which we don’t know what we’re talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false.

That’s the way I feel about cooking.

At some point near the middle, this book totally loses its focus. It goes off in strange directions, and we lose sight of the original mystery. One might say the mysterious death at the beginning is the “inciting incident” of the novel, but it is not the focus of the novel.

I won’t reveal the ending except to say that although we get a definitive answer to who/why the boy was killed, the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether the killer is caught and/or killed himself. This worked in the context of the novel as a general book about ambiguities and life, but it didn’t work as a conclusive ending to a murder mystery.

We veer so far off course of any intentional investigation by the end that learning the truth feels almost accidental. I think this is the source of dissatisfaction. It’s like the information happened to the main character rather than the main character bringing about the information through her deliberate actions.

Once I resigned myself to the fact that I was reading something different from what I thought it would be, I was able to settle in and enjoy it on its own terms. The book is well worth reading as an intriguing work of literature dealing with interesting linguistics. It is probably not for a fan of traditional mystery novels.

If you want to follow along, the next book in The Year of Mysteries series will be A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne.

Why It Works: Primer

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Time travel sucks as a genre. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Yes, the whole genre.

Everyone knows about the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before he conceives with your grandmother, there would be no you to go back in time and kill him.

But many people misinterpret the paradox as being about specific inconsistencies you can trace, when in fact it’s more of a chaos theory issue: the tiniest change of the past could radically change the “present” in unforeseeable ways.

This could happen if the person goes to the past and doesn’t even physically interact with anyone. Merely being seen by a person could alter their day, which leads to change after change after change…

Pretty much every book or movie I’ve seen with time travel has been terrible. It either ignores this problem, has the problem but tries to explain it in an unsatisfactory way, or it succeeds in explaining it but destroys the story in the process.

I honestly believe no one should ever write a time travel story, because it’s going to be a disaster no matter how hard you try. It’s not worth the effort. If I ran an SF magazine, my first rule of submissions would be: no time travel stories (rule 2 would be: no first-contact stories).

But then we wouldn’t have Primer, which actually kind of works. Let’s look at why.

The first thing is that when the main characters go back in time, it’s accidental. This is very important in not creating a causal loop. If your character has to go back in time to change something to save the world, then when they succeed, there will be no reason for them to go back. Hence, the paradoxical loop. Making the initial travel accidental is an interesting way to solve that problem.

The second thing is the physicality. There’s something strange about old-school time travel (think The Time Machine), where a person and/or machine materializes out of nowhere in the past. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you think about it a lot. If the machine wasn’t there in the past, what does it mean that it suddenly is? This is a much deeper philosophical issue than people give it credit for.

Primer brilliantly fixes this problem by making the machine a box that you have to turn on at the time you want to travel back to. So if you turn on the box right now, you can’t use it to travel back before that time. You get in the box at the future time and travel back without running into the physicality problem. You are physically in the box the whole time you’re traveling back.

Primer also solves the problem of interacting with the world by isolating themselves so that they only interact with the world once. This means they aren’t changing the past. They’re living it out for the first time the time they travel back.

But here’s the most important reason Primer succeeds. It is way too confusing to ever know if they’ve run into a paradox. It succeeds because there’s always more to figure out on subsequent viewings.

This sounds like cheating: make your story so confusing that no one knows if there’s a problem. It sounds like bad writing.

But let’s put it in comparison to every other time travel story where it’s immediately obvious that it all falls apart for philosophical and paradoxical reasons. I’d rather be left with the fun journey of trying to piece it together than a pile of unsatisfying nonsense.

If you’ve read a book that handles time travel well, I’d like to hear about it. Despite being a pet peeve of mine, I still masochistically seek them out in hopes of being proved wrong someday.

On Doubts and Taste in Books

Doubt is a good thing when you’re a writer. It’s an important part of everyone’s journey. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but if you’ve never doubted the greatness of your work, then it’s probably not very good. You probably haven’t grown much as a writer.

Doubt comes in waves. It happens a lot early on, but as you write and publish more and more, you come to have a bit more confidence in your own style and taste. You begin to see the common pitfalls in other new writers without even trying. This internalization means you mostly aren’t making those mistakes anymore.

Doubt starts to come from other places. Maybe you aren’t getting the sales you would like. Maybe a negative review resonates with you. Maybe you read a book on writing, and you realize there’s a big mistake you’re making that you never noticed before. You start to wonder what other mistakes you’re making.

I have a new source of doubt, and it is coming from the strangest place: reading. I used to love reading. I would devour books. I’d be completely transported to another place, no matter the book or genre. I couldn’t get enough.

It makes sense that as my understanding of story grew, I’d start to not like some poorly constructed novels. It makes sense that novels with sloppy prose would fall away. It makes sense that I’d get more discerning in my taste along several dimensions.

What worries me is that I basically don’t like anything I read anymore. I just can’t get into any book. I currently read 60-80 books a year (it sounds like a lot, but that’s one book a week plus some audiobooks while running or traveling).

The scary part is that it’s not like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’ve chosen all 23 books I’ve read this year from “best of” lists or from direct recommendations.

I got into Mystic River in late January, but since then, I haven’t really gotten into any book I’ve read. Oathbringer has a 4.65/5 rating on Goodreads after 42,500 reviews. The book is basically unreadable to me. It’s too slow. It has too many unnecessary details. It’s the type of self-indulgent thing popular writers can only get away with after they hit a certain level of fame (think Stephen King). It only got published in that form because people are afraid to tell Sanderson to cut it down.

I won’t call out every problem with every book I’ve read this year. The point is that I’m really worried that I’ve developed my taste and style in a way that doesn’t match the vast majority of people. These are my doubts. Maybe it’s not that all these popular people are writing bad books; maybe it’s my own writing that’s bad.

I can think of a few other explanations.

First, maybe it’s burnout. There’s not much more to this theory. Maybe 80 books a year is too much. If I just take a break and reset, I’ll find myself getting lost in some good books again.

Second, maybe writing changes the way you read. I still love writing. I really get into my own books as I’m writing them. There might just be something about the active nature of producing a story that makes passively consuming one inherently less interesting.

Third, maybe I actually am on a bad streak. As they say, 90% of everything is crap. If we take that to be a fact, then there’s a high probability of long streaks of crap. Of course, what does this even mean? There are “objectively good” books that people hate and “objectively bad” books that people love.

Fourth, my taste is not marketable, which makes it hard to naturally run across the types of books that will truly engage me. I don’t have the patience for the experimental literary stuff that I did in my youth. So the literary scene tends to disappoint me. But the commercial fiction scene tends to be too sloppy for my taste.

My latest book, Specter of the Spheres, tries to straddle this line. It’s high-concept, metaphorical, and has a complicated construction like a literary novel. But it’s wrapped in a fantasy quest and even some sci-fi elements. I’ve learned that this is usually called “slipstream,” and I haven’t read anything in that genre for a long time.

But maybe my doubts have some truth to them. Maybe I need to spend some time re-calibrating what I think is good. I don’t even know where to start with this, though, because I can’t find books out there that I like to read anymore.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 3: Murder on the Orient Express

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As I pointed out when I started the series, I was woefully ignorant of the mystery genre. I picked up Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express from the library. Something surprised me about it. It was far along in a row of books that all looked the same. This is actually the 10th book in the Hercule Poirot series of detective novels.

The general setting of the novel is quite good for creating tension. First off, Christie introduces the main characters very early and gives them all motivations/suspicions for committing the crime. This set me up as the reader to believe it could be any of them.

Note how different this is from the first two mystery novels I read this year, in which one person was the prime suspect, and then as new evidence came to light, the prime suspect would switch out from under you. I enjoyed Christie’s style much more.

The setting ramped up the tension, because the murder happens on a stopped train due to a snow issue. This heightens the tension because without knowing who did it or why, anyone could be next. I mean, they’re trapped on a train with a murderer! How great of a premise is that?

The overall execution I liked much better than Sherlock Holmes, because the plot focused on solving the crime. Holmes felt more like a character study with the mystery as an afterthought.

The prose style of the novel felt very dated. Description was pared down to a minimum. Sometimes all you had to go on was dialogue. I almost took a picture of the book open where there were no dialogue tags or exposition at all on either page. It’s like reading a play where the person speaking isn’t identified.

Outside of that one issue, I ended up really enjoying this one. I saw the appeal of the mystery novel as a genre for the first time. It was straight up fun to try to figure out who did it and why. And the end was…pretty surprising.

Spoiler Warning: We’ll dig in to the details a bit more now. You are warned, though, this book has been around for 100 years and there are many adaptations for film, tv, and stage, so if you haven’t been spoiled yet, I doubt you’re planning on reading it anyway.

The first major twist is that the identity of the victim comes into question. A note is left that seems to identify the victim as a man who killed a girl but got off on a technicality (he was travelling under a false identity). This is an interesting twist, because it shifts everything you thought you knew, including the dead victim, who shouldn’t be able to influence the story.

Part II is highly structured. Each chapter is a single scene with a sole suspect. We get evidence pointing toward each of them. But at the same time confusing, strange things pop up about previous suspects.

I could see some people finding this to be too rigid a structure, because it doesn’t flow like a normal novel. Instead, we get episodic chapters. But I liked the approach, because there are so many characters, this structure lets you keep track of each one separately. It actually reminded me of playing a game of “Clue.” As the reader, you have to keep thinking through the logical consistencies, inconsistencies, and possibilities.

Part III then walks you through these logical steps to connect the dots in places you’ve probably missed. This part reminded me a bit of how Sherlock Holmes works. It focuses a lot more on the deductive genius of Hercule Poirot.

The end result is a little disappointing. Poirot concludes that everyone on the train is in on it. This explains a bunch of strange coincidences, like everyone on the train randomly having strong ties to the girl who had been murdered.

But on further reflection, the ending wasn’t as disappointing as I originally thought. They would have gotten away with it if Poirot hadn’t randomly been called back to London. The only people on the train would have been people in on the crime.

Poirot has used his great mind to come up with a plausible alternate way the murder could have happened in which the murderer gets off the train. This is what he presents to the authorities, and it adds an interesting layer to the ending in which we have to judge whether he did the right thing by taking justice into his own hands.