Pre-NaNo #4: Characters

For everyone heading into NaNo in a couple weeks, and anyone looking to develop real, breathing characters, here are some excellent points to consider.

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To Build A Story: The Feels

I think emotion is probably the hardest thing we face as writers. We all know emotion done well when we read it. That moment of gut-wrenching, swooning, heart-pounding emotion–otherwise known as the feels. 

But how do we create that? How do we effectively translate emotion to the page, and make our reader truly feel? There is a delicate balance between emotion and melodrama, or emotion falling flat altogether. 

This is partly because emotion is such a complex, abstract thing. Human beings have such an amazing capacity for emotion–both high and low, and everywhere in between. How is a writer supposed to capture something like that into words?

I think the first key to making emotion effective is remembering that characters are people. I have said this before, but I will say it again. When you remember that characters are human beings, emotion becomes a lot easier. This makes it easier to avoid both flat emotion and melodrama. 

For instance, you might overplay emotion for dramatic effect. But when you examine the person who is experiencing that emotion and their situation, you might rethink that. Instead of bursting into tears or collapsing from shock, they might experience denial, or show their emotion in more subtle ways, such as a wavering voice or a clenched hand. 

How would that person really feel in that moment? 

On the other hand, you might downplay or even forget emotion in lieu of plot and action, or throw it in as an afterthought, and the emotion falls flat completely.

I think that is the second key, matching every instance of action with proper reaction–and emotion. I think emotion is the true heart of action and climax, but in order for it to truly be effective, there also needs to be the effect of that. 

This is something I have to be conscious of. Sometimes, it can seem like there is emotion in the action, and that that is enough, but it is still not in order to be effective. For example, in Nightfire, when Kera sees her mother ripped, she becomes very emotional and lashes out. But after that, she doesn’t have a personal reaction. She goes right into searching for her sister. Yes, there are scenes later where she considers her mom and feels sad and everything, but she never really grieves, and never initially deals with it.

So, I added a scene after the attack where she is laying with her mother while the others are asleep, and she tries to process and come to terms with this new reality she has been thrust into. Though her mother is still alive, her mind is not there, and whoever she was is gone. So Kera has to grieve for that. And this is also the first time she realizes the ramifications of not having her mother–things as small as not hearing her sing all the time, or as big as her not being there to help look for Hana, when Kera needs her most. 

I realized how much more powerful her mother’s loss is when the emotion goes further and deeper than the initial reaction and scattered sad scenes. There had to be that first reaction. The girl holding her mother against her and pleading with her to wake up, to come back, though she knows she can’t. A girl who has been surviving her whole life but for the first time faces the world on her own, and is scared and uncertain. That is what makes the loss powerful, not her initial scream and shock. 

So, which side do you lean towards–melodrama, or flat–or have you achieved a balance? How do you best capture emotion in your story? How do you make readers feel?

Book Review: ALTAICA

Altaica by Tracy M. Joyce is the first in the Chronicles of Altaica series. I received this from the publisher, Odyssey Books, through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Summary on Goodreads

“Look at her – she’s Hill Clan. Even the Matyrani don’t like them …”

Isaura – little is known about her race, but much is whispered. Born to refugees, she grows up enduring racism and superstition within a community that fears her. She has few friends, and those she treasures. Trapped, she longs for escape to a different life. 

Escape is only the beginning of her troubles. Having fled an invading army with her friends, Isaura is faced with heinous choices in order to survive. Secrets from her past emerge to torment her and threaten to destroy all she holds dear. Her struggles forge a bond with an ancient power – a power which may transform or consume her. Old hatreds and superstitions are renewed and at her most vulnerable she learns the true nature of those around her.

Her only hope lies in a foreign land – a land rich in tradition; ruled by three powerful clans. A land with a history marked by warfare; where magic as we know it does not exist. Instead what is here, in abundance, is a more primal power.

Survival carries a high price.

Welcome to Altaica.

The Good: Everything. A brilliant, wide cast of characters, unique, rich world, and interesting, exciting plot. I’ve read a lot of fantasy and this was a nice break from the usual canned storyline. Though Isaura was a good protagonist, I found myself attached to and invested in a number of other characters–there were plenty I thought could have been the protagonists themselves. I tore through this book, page by page, and my only regret is that I read it so fast, and I have to wait so long until the next one! 

The Not-So-Good: I had a hard time with this one–there really wasn’t much I didn’t like. Only thing would be a couple of the subplots and characters felt a little juvenile, like petty teenager drama. Contrasted against a complex world and storyline, it didn’t seem to fit for me.

My Favorite Part: I love Asha’s character, and Unmiga and Pio made me laugh aloud on several occasions. The end scene was beautiful and breathtaking–I also loved the tenderness between Karan and Isaura–and I can’t see where Joyce takes this story next. 

The Verdict: Altaica left me speechless. It is a brilliant YA epic fantasy, definitely among the best I’ve read. There are many characters to love, a rich and believable world, and unique and interesting plot. If you love fantasy, you need this book in your life. 

Strong or Stubborn?

Strong female protagonists are showing up everywhere in books lately, and I love it. Katniss from Hunger Games, Neryn from Shadowfell, Katsa from Graceling, Celaena from Throne of Glass. I mean, who doesn’t love a good heroine?

While I love strong heroines, and this recent trend, I’ve also noticed a lot of “strong females” that aren’t really all that strong. They may come off that way, but when they are put to the test, they crumble. An example that comes to mind is Rachel from Defiance (in the beginning of the book). She is very stubborn and defiant (hence the name) and independent, but A: she is easily undermined by attraction to a cute boy and B: when something bad happens in the beginning, she just about loses her mind.

Okay, first of all, I think it’s just ridiculous that a supposedly strong and independent girl would be so easily crippled by a cute boy. I see this everywhere and is part of the reason I can’t stand most romance, especially in YA. Meeting cute boys is not incapacitating as so many books would have us believe. It’s like she meets this guy, and boom, she forgets all about her strength and independence and becomes this helpless little dreamy thing because love. No, it doesn’t work like that. If she really is strong and independent, having a man is not going to change that. A man does not change her identity as a person. In books, or in real life.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having your character be weak sometimes. Arguably, they have to be, in order to be strong. But my first issue with this is that a lot of these characters are “all bark and no bite” — they talk back a lot, make a lot of sharp quips, break the rules, but none of this holds up when it comes to the things that matter. They may be stubborn, or sassy, or sarcastic, but that does not mean they are strong. It frustrates me that people and authors have this image of “strong female lead” and instantly she’s a stubborn spitfire (and also probably a redhead).

In real life, “strong females” are all around us. And no, they’re not the stubborn, fiery redhead. They’re the leaders, the activists, the nurses and doctors, the teachers, the mothers. Strength is not always loud. In fact, a lot of times, strength is quiet. Strength comes from being beaten down, then getting up and still fighting. Strength is working 12 hour shifts in the ER to save lives, no matter how exhausted you are, or staying up all night to take care of your baby, or sharing your story of survival with others to find healing.

If you have a strong female protagonist, reexamine her. Maybe she is stubborn. Maybe she makes sharp quips and breaks the rules. Or maybe she’s quiet and reserved. Words are not the only way to show strength. Show her strength not by what she says, but what she does. Even better, how she handles things. A weak woman can talk big and tough all day, but when it comes down to it, she breaks. A strong woman might not talk like it, but when trials come, she braces the storm.

Don’t fall into the stereotype. Write strong women, not just stubborn ones.