CONTRIVORTIONIST

Contrived is a Four-Letter Word

Few things irritate fiction readers more than a story peopled by characters who act and react without any apparent reason for what they’re doing and saying. No reason, that is, except to illustrate the author’s message. Or prove the author’s point.

Well, you say, don’t we all have a message or point in what we write? Isn’t fiction about letting our characters take the readers on a journey of discovery and even realization? Yes…and no. Writers of powerful fiction keep in mind that the story trumps all. The story, and the characters who people it, should be crafted such that it all presents ideas, challenges understanding, and encourages discourse. It should feel authentic. If a character faces a struggle, we need to understand why he is struggling. If a character experiences joy, we need to know why that even brought her joy. When a fiction writer just has characters do and say what will prove their point or “teach” their message, without showing the why behind it all, without laying a sound foundation for the character to do and say what he is doing and saying, that writer is no longer writing fiction, but delivering a sermon. Or even worse, a story that’s…wait for it…contrived.

Dear ol’ Webster defined contrived as: “having an unnatural or false appearance or quality :  artificial, labored.”

When it comes to fiction, I define contrived as “weak writing.”

Think about it. The last thing you want your readers doing as they read your book is constantly stopping, frowning, and asking, “Why did he do that?” or “Why did she say that?” I’m not talking about the good kind of “why,” where readers want to keep reading to discover the answer to the mystery or the story question. No, this kind of why means the characters aren’t doing their jobs. They’re on the page, acting and speaking…but it doesn’t mean anything because you haven’t given reasons for what the characters are doing.

Suppose you have a hero who is constantly second guessing himself. He goes one way, and then another, and then another entirely. If we don’t understand what’s making said hero do such things, we end up thinking he’s weak, wishy-washy, and even irritating. “Make a choice, idiot, and stick with it!”) But if we know WHY he’s acting that way it changes everything. When we know that our hero was abused as a kid, that every time he took a stand he was punished, that every decision he’s ever made has been ridiculed…then we realize that he’s not operating out of being a twit, but out of a deep-rooted fear. When we understand the why, we are far more willing to go along with what, on the surface, is maddening behavior. Understanding the why gives readers a sense of empathy, and even encourages them to root for the character. (“Come on, dude, you can do it! Grow a spine!”)

Remember, though, the reason, the why, has to be sound. It can’t be just, “I’ll have him say this because it’s what I need him to say now.”

Yes, we novelists have created our characters. And yes, we have reasons for writing the stories we’re writing (and that applies to general market writers as much as Christian writers…we all have a message at the core of what we write), but folks, do your characters–and your readers–a favor and make sure your characters aren’t just puppets on the page. Flesh them out, let who they are and why they are, what drives them and what terrifies them, what delights them and what upsets them, unfold with the story. Let your characters come alive on the page, let them be authentic in what they say and do, and let them have solid reasons for it all.

When you lay a solid, credible foundation of why, story, your characters, and your readers all benefit.

 

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THE YEAR OF CHARACTER

THE YEAR OF CHARACTER

I’m sitting here tonight (last night actually) working on the major characters that will be a part of my fictional book and novel series. I’ve spent much of the past week doing the same.

One invaluable thing I learned from James Patterson’s Master Class on commercial fiction is the importance of ongoing, serialized characters that others adore. I’ve known this intellectually for a long time based on my own reading history both as a youth and throughout my life (John Carter, Tarzan, Spock, Jesse Stone, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Batman, etc.) but looking back on my fiction writings I’ve realized that it hasn’t really sunken in until now. It had sunken into my mind long ago, but not into my soul. Not until now however. But now, finally, I am fully getting it.

I’ve always been a “Story-First” kind of guy and looking back upon it all I suspect I very much now know why. I was trained and self-trained to write stories through D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) and through game writing in general and D&D was indeed the very most excellent practice and training for story-development. But because I so rarely played and was almost always the DM or GM (Dungeon or Game Master) and was always the one creating worlds and writing the stories I never concentrated much at all upon “Character Development.”

That is to say I always let my players develop and run their characters with as little possible interference from me as I could ever get away with. Therefore almost all character development was in their hands and I become STORY AND PLOT AND WORLD FIRST and in many senses, I just habitually adopted the idea of STORY ONLY. Character-Work was for them, I was the World Man.

Not that I couldn’t write or develop characters, I did have several characters of my own I played and I developed some very complex Non-Player Characters (NPCs) but that kind of thing happened rather rarely compared to my World Building and plot and background elements development and so Character Development became a secondary and almost a background issue to me as a fiction writer and story teller. I realize now that I have for most of my life had this sort of subconscious psychological habit of developing stories in complex detail but sort of letting Character Development handle itself in a laissez-faire fashion when I did not outright ignore the issue.

But now that I realize this fault and oversight in my own writings, and the way I go about writing, I have decided that for me this will be the Year of the Characters. This year Characters and Serialized Characters become equally important to me as Story and Plot and World Building.

This is to be my Year of Character, and the genesis of the development of the Great Characters of my Fiction Writing Career.

This year I build Men and Characters and not just Worlds.

THE NECESSARY TRUTH – HIGHMOOT

“The necessary Truth about them is that, in the end, all modern men will do exactly as they are told, but not a one of them will ever do what is truly necessary.”

From: The Curae

THE ABILITY HOARD

This is an introductory essay I wrote for my gaming blog but it has far wider applications, especially in the realms of Business, Career, Self-Development, Writing, and Work.

THE ABILITY HOARD – AN INTRODUCTORY ESSAY ON PERSONAL AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

When it comes to my own characters (be they fictional or gaming) and even the players and characters I DM I think of Skills, Capabilities, Abilities, Attributes, (innate personal and individual features) and so forth as much more important character elements and possessions than magic items, spells, money, and other types of what is normally thought of as “standard treasures.”

To me the single greatest types of treasures a character (or a real person) can possess are what they can actually do for themselves (and for others) in the world, devoid of all outside help, material/materiel, and extraneous accoutrements. So I’m going to call this idea and post the Ability-Hoard, or the Treasure of Personal Capacity. I think that this is where the true emphasis of “characterization” should be evident, and most brightly shine.

Let me, at this point, briefly define the Ability Hoard…

The Ability Hoard is that accumulated set of skills, talents, abilities, capabilities, extraordinary qualities (be they physical, mental, psychological, or spiritual), educational and individual merits, virtues, and sensory capacities that a character or person possesses which allows them to resolve difficult problems or to gain some beneficial advantage over others or over a particular set of circumstances.

SWEAR TO ME!!!

Today is Batman’s Birthday. Since he is by far my favorite Comic Book Character I thought I’d post this nice little article on him today. See the article title for the link and additional materials.

Birthday for Batman: The Dark Knight turns 75

Check out a photo gallery of Batman comic book covers throughout the years, including the Dark Knight’s first appearance 75 years ago.


Thousands of characters, many long forgotten, were introduced to readers who plunked down dimes to buy comic books during the dawn of the industry.

Chin Lung?

Speed Saunders?

Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise?

They all appeared in a comic book series titled Detective Comics in the 1930s.

Batman first appeared in the 27th issue of Detective Comics, published in 1939. His exploits have been published continually ever since. Though the Dark Knight possesses no “real” super powers, he does have staying power…

THE SORE MAN OF OLDE TOWNE

Last year I wrote a graphic novel entitled, “The Sore Man of Olde Towne.”

I am looking for an artist or artists to do the artwork for the Sore Man. (There are actually two parallel sections to the GN separated by a considerable period of time and I desire the style of artwork to be very different for each separate section.)

What I desire to do is for the artist to do the artwork to accompany the Sore Man (I have already written the entire script) and then when we sell it we split all profits 50/50. We’d enter a contract to that effect. But the artwork would have to be done to my specifications to fit the nature of the story. I already have design sketches and notes prepared for the layout I envision. The artwork will be a vital part of the overall story so it must be done to very high standards.

Below you will find a short portion of the Sore Man to give you some idea of the story and style I am shooting for. If you are interested in the project then contact me and we will begin discussions. If everything works out well then we’ll sign a profit-splitting contract.

If this venture succeeds in the way I suspect it will then I could very well look upon this first collaboration as an on-going and long-term partnership.

Thanks,

Jack.

________________________________________________________________________

THE SORE MAN OF OLDE TOWNE

(Newe Version)

The Sore Man of Olde Towne
Cuts deep in the dark
The Sore Man of Yore Towne
Of measured remark

The Sore Man of Olde Towne
Did all men dismay
The Sore Man of Yore Towne
Of all men held sway

The Sore Man of Olde Towne
A wolf in the night
The Sore Man of Yore Towne
A frightening sight…

A MAN, HIS HORSE, HIS DOG, AND A BOY

Awhile back I took Sam for a walk in the woods. While we were out I had what to me was a very good idea for a short story – a Western.

The story is basically this. A bounty hunter goes out looking for a small gang of outlaws. His dog finds a young boy, about 15, who has been taken in by the two outlaws. One of the outlaws shoots the bounty hunter’s dog and the bounty hunter kills the two outlaws, and then makes the boy help him rescue and save his dog from dying of the gunshot. (Which they do at the time.)

The bounty hunter decides to himself that as they’re saving the dog that he will sort of adopt the boy and turn him from his previous life of outlawry.

Though he never really comes out and legally adopts the boy or gives him his name. He does give the boy an alias that was his grandfather’s name, the same grandfather who had raised him, though the boy doesn’t know that until much later.

Anywho I liked the story so well that I came home and spent most of the afternoon working it when I wasn’t having to do other things. It will be sort of a long story; I’m to fifteen hundred words already.

It doesn’t run from beginning to end yet, I can see the whole thing in my head but I’ve been writing down the scenes as they come to me. The lines are scene break points. Like I said it’s not woven together yet, just scene parts. Some in order, some not. It’s told form the point of view of the main character, Thomas Hodgkins.

If you wanna comment then you’re welcome to.

There’s some cussing in a good cause at a few points, nothing gratuitous. It’s man-cussing, out of anger. But I’ve warned ya, so you know it’s there.

It’s called, A Man, His Horse, His Dog, and a Boy.

Have a good one folks. I’ve got a lot to do today, but hope you enjoy it.

 *           *           *

A MAN, HIS HORSE, HIS DOG, AND A BOY

____________________________________________________

“Oh, a little Irish tow-head, huh?” he said. “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

____________________________________________________

“What’s your name boy?”

“Thomas,” I told him. “Thomas Clancey.”

“Well, Thomas Clancey, just by fortuitous accident my grandfather’s name was also Thomas. So I kind of fancy you keeping that part. As for the Clancey you’re gonna lose that.”

“Why?”

“In case that name is attached to any robberies or other outlawry.”

I thought about that awhile as we walked.

“What’s gonna be my last name then?”

“Well, let’s see… my grandfather’s last name was Hodgkins. So you can be a Hodgkins from now on.”

Thomas Hodgkins. It seemed okay.

“What’s your last name?”

“Wellford,” he said. “But you don’t want my last name.”

“Why is that?”

He stopped moving. The question seemed to surprise him.

I could see him thinking a bit and then he seemed to catch himself. So he clicked his tongue and set his horse back to walking again.

“You just don’t kid. You just don’t,” he finally said.

__________________________________________________

“I hate you!” I said. “They mightna been much but they was all I had, and they were partners with my pa, and you killed em.”

He turned on me like a copperhead and for the very first time I saw a black fury rise up in him that froze my blood.

“Tough shit!” he hissed, and his hiss was louder than a close wolf howl. “Those two was outlaws and murderers and horse-thieves and train robbers and I’m glad I killed them and if you turn out like that boy I’ll gladly kill you too.

Shoot my dog, threaten me, kill women, raise a little boy to be a piece of shit like them. Goddamnit!” He reached out and grabbed me by the collar and yanked me almost off my feet, then threw me to the ground like a dead, skint hare.

Then he pulled out his gun and pointed it straight at my chest.

“Boy, you learn one thing and you learn it right now – this very second. You ain’t gonna be like that. You ain’t gonna be no damned outlaw, not anymore, not never again. Or I’ll kill you right now and save us both the trouble.”

He trembled at the trigger for a moment as if considering whether I was really worth killing. I closed my eyes and waited.

Then he exhaled loudly and seemed to get ahold of himself again. At least for the moment. I opened my eyes to see him look at the gun, then at me, then back at the gun. He raised his pistol into the air and fired three times in quick succession. I flinched at each shot

“Goddamnit!” he shouted. “Do you want me to shoot you right now because I can do it and leave your body for the buzzards and scorpions? They gotta eat too.”

When I didn’t reply he almost whispered, “Well, do ya?”

“No…” I said tightly. I was furious inside as well but too afraid to show it.

He holstered his gun, kicked sand in my direction, and then lowered himself to stare straight in my face.

“From now on boy you’re not gonna be no outlaw. You’re not gonna be like those two bandits I killed and you’re not gonna be like your robbing, murdering old man. You’re gonna be something different. Very different. Now git off the ground and stand up like a man afore I decide to beat you senseless.”

I stood up unsurely and he raised himself to his full height but didn’t threaten me anymore.

“Now repeat after me,” he said. His sense of calm was returning, and for some stupid reason my sense of defiance kicked back in.

“And what if I don’t care to repeat after you old man?” I said.

He shook his head slowly and then slapped me so hard across the face that I fell to the ground again.

“Let’s keep up this bullshit til one of us gets tired of it boy. Wanna lay odds on who that will be?”

I was still angry, but didn’t particularly favor my odds.

I stood up.

“Now repeat after me boy.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I will not be no murdering outlaw like my old man and his no count cutthroats. I don’t have to hate my natural father but I sure as hell ain’t gonna become him.”

I repeated what he said, word for word.

“I’m gonna become something different. Very, very different.”

I repeated it back to him. He seemed satisfied.

“Now boy, you’re gonna keep repeating that to yourself, every day and night until you actually mean it. Until it sinks in. Until it sticks. And then you’ll actually be different.”

I thought about that a second and then said coldly, “Different how? You mean I’m gonna become a lawman or a bounty hunter like you?”

He looked down at me.

“Hell if I know boy, and damned if I care. But you are gonna be different. You can be a cowboy, or a ranch hand or businessman, or a mayor, or a sheriff, or a doctor, or a priest, or a teacher or a circuit riding preacher for all it matters to me. But from now on you’re gonna be different from anything you’ve ever been before. From now on you’re gonna be a real man. We’re both gonna see to it.”

He walked over to his horse, cinched his saddle tight, and adjusted his rifle.

“Now mount up. We’ve got a lotta work to do.”

While he mounted I walked over to my horse, cinched my own saddle, tested it, and swung myself up. When I was set I looked over at him and said, “I’m ready.”

He looked at me, spat, wiped his mouth, and then almost smiled. He reined north and turned away at a trot.

“We’ll see boy, we’ll see,” he said to himself.

And that drifted back to me and kinda stuck in my craw.

____________________________________________________

“You gotta kid of your own?” I asked

“Nope,” he said flatly.

“Gotta woman?”

“Nope to that too boy.” He paused a moment to rest, took off his hat, and swiped his brow. He looked out over the long horizon. He was quiet awhile and then he spoke again.

“Maybe one day I will, maybe not, but iffin I do then she’ll just have to understand that you’re part of the package now. She’ll have to get used to that.”

I didn’t know what to say, but he seemed awful serious. I looked at the ground speculating on what he might mean exactly and then I heard him continue on. I looked up to see him moving away from me and so I started walking again to catch up to him. It didn’t take long, he was lingering for me.

___________________________________________________

“That was the best damn dog I ever seen.” I said.

“Don’t cuss about old Pete,” he answered. “He deserves your respect.”

I didn’t mean anything by it, nothing bad anyway, but didn’t know if he knew that.

I looked in his direction to see if he was mad and he turned to face me. I swear I saw a tear in one eye, but then it disappeared faster than a foxfire.

He looked at me hard for a long time after that and then he reached out and wrapped both his hands around my shoulders and pulled me in close and hugged me like I imagined an old bear would. Then he pushed me back and let me go, looking away at something only he could see.

“I know son. I know exactly what you meant. That was the most fetching dog I ever had.” His voice almost choked, but he wouldn’t let it.”

Then he looked right at me. “And you were the best thing he ever fetched me. So to hell with it all, you’re right as rain. Don’t pay me no heed. He was a helluvah dog, wadn’t he, and he’d have much appreciated your comment.”

He smiled at me and maybe for the first time ever I saw inside him. Right inside him. And he didn’t bother to look away.

“Now if you’ll excuse me I’m gonna go bury Pete deep enough the coyotes can’t get at him, shallow enough God can raise him anytime he wants to.”

I didn’t know what to say so I asked him, “Do you want me to go with ya?”

“No,” he said. “This is my job. I was there when he was born, I’ll bury him now.”

He picked up his working hat, rolled up his sleeves, and then went to closet and took out his shovel. Then he walked to the door and opened it, but before he stepped out he half looked over his shoulder back at me.

“My job is to bury Pete. Your job will be to bury me.”

Then he shut the door and left.

I walked to the window and through the dusty and uneven glass I saw him wrap the blanket tight around old Pete, lift him gently into the wheelbarrow, place the shovel over his body and start off towards the desert. With the sun running down towards twilight the dark took him quick.

So I oiled a lantern and left it lit on the table for when he returned. With any luck he’d be back before it died.