Saturday, 30 June 2012

Basing characters on real people - Part Two

This blog is the second (and last from me) on what I've learned concerning whether and how to base characters on real people.

Yesterday's blog considered the first five approaches below, and today's deals with items 6-10:

  1. Basing characters on yourself
  2. Using physical traits (looks) of other people
  3. Using speech patterns (dialogue)
  4. Using mannerisms (‘handles’)
  5. Borrowing personality traits from friends and enemies
  6. Mixing personality traits of different people you know
  7. Extending personality traits
  8. Upsetting real people with their characterization
  9. Creating characters from scratch
  10. Letting characters write themselves

6. Mixing personality traits of different people you know
This one is real short. I tried it several times, including very recently, and it doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s like making good cocktails and can be done, but I have never managed it. I think it’s because I have clear visions of people I know, and can’t cut and paste them into each other. I’d rather create one from scratch (point 9) or extend personality traits (next).

7. Extending personality traits
This is something worth doing, particularly if you are writing any sort of thriller fiction. If you are writing more literary fiction, I’m less sure it’s a good idea.

Essentially, you take your basic character and imagine them going that bit further, that much wilder, saying what they really think rather than what we usually end up saying in reality (and wishing later we’d said so much more, or less). I usually do this in two stages, particularly with dialogue. First I get the basic dialogue down, then I’ll come back to it later and ‘up the ante’, raising conflict. You let the characters go further, and bring out certain traits (fear, love, anger, greed, hatred, whatever) to the fore. This doesn’t have to result in action – you can show what the character is thinking of saying or doing, but not have them do it; this can sometimes be more effective in making the character memorable in any case, because it is more like us.

Here’s Micah, at a pivotal moment in book 1, when he ‘loses it’. Notice I bring Vince in to restore a sense of reality afterwards.

Vince was half-way to the door. He sighed, turning around. ‘Look, I know you’re trying, and you mean well, so I’m going to give you some advice you’re probably not going to listen to. I ran the profile on you, so I’m going to tell you who you are, so that maybe, just maybe you can help yourself, though I doubt it.’
Micah leaned backwards against the desk.
‘You got fucked up by your father, Micah. You’re in his shadow. Daddy hero syndrome. We know all about him, what a prick he was to you and your family – heroes, always a black side, eh?’
Micah had thought it a million times, but never heard it from someone else.
‘So you want to be a hero, too, maybe a different kind. Am I right?’
Micah’s throat locked tight.
‘Well let me save you the bother. He’s dead. You need him to recognise you, accept you, whatever, and it won’t happen, Micah, because… the sonofabitch is dead. So, step out of the shadow. He screwed up your life while he was alive, now you’re doing it for him.’ Vince spun around and headed out. ‘Get a life, Micah, your own.’
Micah breathed hard. Dozens of buried memories resurrected themselves. All were between him and his father, all were unpleasant: the put-downs, the patronising lectures, and the ever-present disappointment in his father’s tone. Micah’s fists squeezed hard. Uncorked anger rose inside him like bile.
Nobody, in all these years, even his sister, had ever validated him – not once – about his father. All the press, the vids, had nothing else to say but that he was the Great War hero who sacrificed everything for God and country, Colonel Victor Sanderson, the Gray Colonel… Micah remembered the storm shelter, his father labelling him a coward after the nuclear attack. He realised he was still trapped in that one, terrified, fifteen year old boy’s humiliating moment.
Without thinking, he grabbed the arms of his chair, raised it above his head, and with an anguished cry brought it crashing down on his computer. He raised it again, slamming it down even harder, denting the metal. He swept everything off the desk, sending tortured fragments clattering across the floor. Two guards rushed in, then grounded to a halt.
‘Calm down, Son,’ one of them said.
Micah didn’t know what his face looked like, but they didn’t approach any closer.
He cast aside the twisted chair and glared at them. ‘I’m nobody’s fucking son.’
            Vince re-entered, glaring at the mess around Micah’s feet. ‘Christ, Micah, do I have to get you escorted off the premises, or call a shrink? Forget the privileges, I’m bringing the Mil in now.

I just watched the final episode of Stargate the other night (pretty good, actually), and in it Daniel has a complete rant against Vala, which goes a long way beyond his normal character 'envelope'. But because of the situation they are in, it is not only credible, but moving, and essential to the plot and rounding off of the entire series.

Incidentally, a good device in any writing is to have one or two characters discussing another one. That’s what we do in the real world, right? And word of mouth is often taken more seriously than the narrator’s ‘voiceover’. You can also build up a character this way by having several people at different times describe the character or make reference to his or her attributes, all from slightly different (or even completely opposite) standpoints or angles. This can be a good way to set up a character, or even to set up a false impression of a character. For example. a classic (as opposed to timeworn) approach is to hear that someone is really bad or good, and then find out they are not. This works better if other characters have ‘set you up’ than if the narrator has done it. It means you will feel like you know the character better than anyone else in the book. I do this with two particular characters in my book, Gabriel and Louise, neither of whom are based on any real people. I think this kind of authorial gymnastics gives the author a way to get to know the characters better, deepening them. People often tell me they remember these two characters above the others, actually, definitely wanting one of them to live, and the other to die, die, die!

8. Upsetting real people with their characterisation
As mentioned, this can happen. It is a good reason for never using a real person to make an identical character in a book. You could in theory be sued for libel, and most publishers (especially in the UK where libel protection is excessive) will not want to face down a libel case, though normally this only happens with memoires. In any case, my books are set fifty years in the future, which should give me a good defence case, LOL.

More to the point, most fiction is about entertaining the reader, and this shouldn’t be at the cost of personal relationships. Most people feel honoured if they see their names. A friend of mine has the same name as Josefsson, one of the not-very-nice characters in the book, but he knows it’s just the name and maybe some of the looks, the rest is completely different.

Don’t put friends in your books just to please them, because as said earlier, it can backfire, and it will detract from the story and its cohesiveness. At the end of the day it is a work of fiction, and should be about the story and the fictional characters that make it. It is a bit like ‘cameo’ appearances of famous people in a movie, where you see them for a second and then they are gone. It is a bit of fun, but when it happens, it takes you out of the film and reminds you that you are watching something rather than being entirely caught up in it. A reader will detect that there is something not quite right about the character in the story if they don’t really belong there.

I used to tell people if I was using them in some way in the story. I don’t anymore. It’s not about them, it’s about the story, and giving the reader a good reading experience.

9.  Creating characters from scratch
I do this more now, having come through the other steps. Some writing coaches tell you to do a questionnaire on each character, e.g. how many siblings, where they come from, how old, etc. etc. I tried it, but I found it too much like a shopping list approach, not leading to anything – or anyone – whole. Having said that, it is important to give readers the odd snippet that they have (or had) a life ‘off-page’. Kat is a good example. In all three books there are oblique references to her uncle and a former life of luxury which she gave up, though there are almost no details because for some reason she is ashamed about it. I’ll tell you this much: something bad happened, but you, the reader, will never know, because it is her secret, and it’s part of her character. That’s real, isn’t it?

There is something refreshing in creating a character from scratch, one that does lift off the page. Rashid is another completely made-up character, yet many readers remember him, even though he is not that central. Usually such characters have arisen as counter-points to other characters, and because the plot demands it. Rashid is Indian (yes, I know it’s not an Indian name, that’s explained in book 2…), and I wanted him there because the book was too ‘West-centric, and I needed a good counterpoint to Blake. Here’s when he and Blake (and Kat) first meet, seen through Kat’s point of view:

She’d heard no footsteps, and spun around awkwardly in the cramped cabin to see a silhouette: human at least, no space suit either. Blake’s pistol was already drawn, but she left hers where it was as the man pulled the door closed behind him and she got a good look at him: a tanned man in khaki shorts and threadbare tee shirt, unshaven for a few days. He was shorter than both of them and had open sandals on his feet. He put his palms together in front of his chest like he was praying, and gave a short bow.  
Before either of them could speak, the newcomer greeted them in a lilting, almost musical, voice. ‘Welcome to my home.’
Indistani! She’d had several good Indian friends at the academy, before the reunification with Pakistan and Bangladesh after the War, so she recognised the accent well enough. She smiled at the man, and without thinking, being closer to the door than Blake, held out her gloved hand. After a heartbeat’s hesitation, the man stepped forward and took it, at first gingerly, then he shook it firmly, with both hands. Kat saw the man up close now, probably early thirties, with deep brown eyes, seemingly back-lit whites surrounding the irises. Kat turned to introduce Blake.
‘My name is Katrina Beornwulf, and this is –’
Blake holstered his weapon, but left the securing clip undone – she didn’t doubt he could draw it fast if required.
‘Captain Blake Alexander, Eden Mission, New World Alliance, Sir. And you are?’
The man considered Blake, then turned to Kat.
‘Why are you wearing your helmet?’
Kat cast an ignored glance at Blake. The man continued in his Indistani-English accent. ‘The harm from this planet will not come from its atmosphere. Please, both of you sit down.’ He gestured to the makeshift bed. Kat again looked questioningly to Blake who, clearly having never encountered a protocol for this particular scenario, indicated to Kat to sit, but gave a firm shake of his head when Kat gestured with a finger to her helmet. Not surprised, she sat, as did Blake, though he remained at the edge of the cot, on his guard. The man opposite pulled up the cushion in front of the computer terminal.
‘You know, after a hundred years of computers, even us Indians have nearly forgotten how to sit cross-legged on the floor.’ He beamed at them.
Kat smiled back, hoping to compensate for Blake’s iron regard. She guessed what he was thinking. It looked as if there had been a struggle in the cockpit, and one crew member was alive, the other dead, possibly killed before the crash. But she couldn’t believe this man a murderer, or even capable of killing; his whole demeanour was so gentle. No, she thought – genteel, that archaic word almost lost by its near irrelevance to modern Earth’s post-War manners, though she’d grown up in such a household in Oxford. She hadn’t missed either that he referred to himself as Indian and not Indistani, but then he didn’t fit the bill of a separatist either.

I had several Indian friends at University, and have travelled there several times, and wanted to bring out that ‘genteel’ aspect of their character, though Rashid has another side, too. The funny thing is that I now have a friend who has read the book, loves the Rashid character, and is quite like him (he is a Sikh). It’s a funny old world…

10. Letting characters write themselves
In book two, Eden’s Trial, I had a character called Hannah, again, completely made up. I tried to kill her off early on, but she resisted, made her case, and so I held back. I swear that’s how it felt. Also, my writing group said she was an interesting character, even though they knew she was not central. Another character who wrote herself was Angel, who appears in two chapters in Eden’s Trial. I have no idea where she came from, she just took over my keyboard, and emerged, so to speak. Despite just appearing in two chapters, a number of readers have asked when she’s coming back…

There was a short hiss and a dull rumble, like a train carriage on tracks, as the door swung aside into a recess. A sheen of water vapour lingered in the air, then dissipated like wisps of dew in the morning sunlight. Micah’s eyes narrowed, then widened.
            A lean, muscled woman in her thirties, completely bald, with sharp jade-coloured eyes, stepped toward them, looked straight at Micah, ignored the rifles, and held out her hand. “Angelica Rushton. You can call me Angel. Nice to meet you.”
            Zack lowered his rifle. Ramires didn’t.
            Micah gingerly met her hand, and shook it. “Micah Sanderson. How –”
            “And this is Starkel.” She jerked a thumb behind her, as the second airlock occupant stepped out of its shadow. Zack’s rifle jerked back into readiness as the tall, black-clad figure glided into view, silent as a zero-G dancer, and muscled to boot. Micah’s instincts told him to be very careful, even before he noticed that the man’s eyes – irises included – were pure black.   
            “It’s okay everybody,” Angel said, “he’s eaten.” She turned to Zack. “Speaking of which, and I know this is going to sound weird, but do you have any meat onboard? You know, honest-to-God meat?”
            It went smoother from there.

In summary, here’s some things to strive for with characterization:

  • A reader should be able to pick out a character from a police line-up (looks)
  • A reader should be able to recognise a character by watching them at a party (looks plus mannerisms)
  • A reader should be able to recognise who is speaking without dialogue ‘tags’ (e.g. ‘said Jen’)
  • Readers should be able to gasp at what characters sometimes do, or punch the air thinking ‘Yes!’ when a character screams at her boss, or bite their lip when a character holds his tongue when she should scream out, all without losing a jot of credibility.
  • People in your writing group should be able to say to you, as I remember them saying to me in an earlier draft, “Look Barry, I’m sorry, but Blake simply wouldn’t say that!” That was the first time I realised I’d created a character, and for me, it marked the crossover point from writing as a hobby, to a passion.
Good luck. 

Friday, 29 June 2012

Basing characters on real people - Part One

One of the comments I get from readers is that my characters feel real, even if there are a lot of them (it is a ‘multi-protagonist’ book). This was not always the case. In early drafts of the first book, The Eden Paradox, the characters were a little stiff, two-dimensional: ‘ciphers’ in writing jargon.

This is neither what the author nor the reader wants. As readers we want to know some of the characters better than real people in our lives, characters who stand out, lift off the page, or as Hemingway put it, leave footprints in the snow. Characters we will remember, for good or bad.

So, I decided to ‘borrow’ from some people I knew. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. In this blog I cover the following steps, which for me were a progression, and led to having some (apparently) memorable characters:

  1. Basing characters on yourself
  2. Using physical traits (looks) of other people
  3. Using speech patterns (dialogue)
  4. Using mannerisms (‘handles’)
  5. Borrowing personality traits from friends and enemies
  6. Mixing personality traits of different people you know
  7. Extending personality traits
  8. Upsetting real people with their characterisation
  9. Creating characters from scratch
  10. Letting characters write themselves

1. Basing characters on yourself
It is a truism that an author’s first novel in particular will in some ways be about the author, that his or her traits and mannerisms will creep into at least one of the characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing. My first reader said I was in two of the characters: she told me I wanted to be Blake, the archetypal hero, but in fact I was in reality more like Micah, the main protagonist, who is actually an anti-hero. I laughed, because that’s what you do when you hear something about you that has both the ring and sting of truth. ‘Write what you know’ is the best way to successful writing, and certainly some (though not all) of Micah’s interior monologues were exactly how I would think and react, if in such situations.

But not all. In fact one of my first professional reviewers of an early draft said of Micah that he could be a bit of a jerk. I laughed again, a bit more forced this time. That was when I learned the most important lesson, the main one you should take away from this blog: don’t base any character completely on someone you know (unless you’re writing a biography, of course). I’ll return to this point in part two of this blog. The clear advantage, though, is that your novel will have a definite ‘centre of gravity’, and, after all, most readers will never meet or get to know the author personally, so what they actually think of your character is less important than the fact that they will remember that character.

The risk, however, is that the character based on yourself will skew the book in your favour, and can be an ego-centric exercise in getting the things you always wanted but never had, saying things you wished you’d said but never did, in other words, living out your life in fiction to make up for some unsatisfactory real-life experiences. The reader will notice this, maybe not consciously, but will probably put the book down. That was why I made Micah an anti-hero, and gave him such a hard time.

2. Using physical traits of people you know
When a reader ‘meets’ a character, they need something to latch onto, what is called a ‘handle’. The easiest one by far is physical looks. But saying ‘she had long dark hair and penetrating emerald eyes’ won’t stay in the reader’s head for very long. Here’s how I describe Blake, the first time you meet him, through the eyes of Zack:

The harsh red flicker from the Ulysses holo reflected off Blake’s rusty hair and chiselled features, lighting up the bow-shaped scar above his right eye from hand-to-hand combat in Thailand, and the pockmarks on his left cheek from the gassing at Geronimo Station. Blake had lost a lot of men in the War, but always got the job done.

What is interesting is that this face is based on someone I once met, then never saw again, but I can still remember and picture his face. Think about it – it’s not a bad approach, right? But don’t picture someone famous, the readers will recognise you as a thief…

And here’s Zack, whose personality is based on a friend, and whose physical characteristics are completely made up:

Kat nudged her forearm upwards just enough to reveal Zachariah Katain, his large, oval black face grinning downwards, framed by wire-mesh eyebrows and a gleaming bald pate. His jaw stuck out, as if permanently mocking life. His eye-lids were a different story – they always seemed to be a fraction closed – alert, as if targeting something. She’d met other vet attack-pilots who’d had that same perpetual hunter look, like they couldn’t switch it off any more. It reminded her that although Zack appeared to be a regular, jovial wife-and-two-kids guy – because he was – he also had that killer instinct just underneath the surface.

What’s interesting about Zack is that a lot of readers like him, but forget he is black. I have no idea why, or what that means. Maybe I need to mention it a few more times, but to me colour isn’t much of an issue (in the future, at least).

Here’s Micah, described by his work buddy Rudi:

Rudi stretched his hands forward, framing Micah between thumbs and indexes as if taking a holopic. ‘I mean, look at you. The basics are okay – no hunchback, all your own teeth, body parts in the usual places. But the wiry fuzz on your head, the bulging eyes – is that a thyroid thing, by the way? And as for dress sense...’ Rudi’s hands returned to their habitual position, clasped behind his head. ‘Does your Mom still buy your clothes, or what? No style. That’s the problem, Micah. The girl you want is pure class, you’re not.’

Micah’s looks are based on someone I know well, who hasn’t read the book, and I’ve not asked him to either…

I don’t describe him much, actually, because the reader gets to be in his head a lot, and knows him that way. This is an important point. If you want the reader to identify with a character, but you over-describe him/her, nailing them down completely, then most readers will find it less easy to slip inside that character’s skin. Some of my favourite Scifi books have very little (or even no) description of the protagonist, you just get a feel, an image in your head of what they must look like. This is one reason why sometimes we go see films of our favourite books and are disappointed, because the characters on the silver screen look wrong. A good caster can overcome this, though, as in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, for example, whereas in every version of Dune I’ve seen, the character Paul Atreides on the screen is somehow dead wrong.
Try and avoid clich├ęs and tropes (tall dark stranger… yawn), and ideally mix in a bit of personality with the physical attributes: e.g. as in my character Jen, who was almost pretty, a little on the plump side with short blonde hair, showed a bit too much cleavage, and had bottle green eyes that spent most of their time looking sideways at people when they weren’t looking back. Do you see her? Will you recognise her later on in the book? Do you want to know what makes her show cleavage and look at people sideways? Do you know someone like this? Do you already have a gut feel what she is like as a person? If you’ve read any of the Millennium books by Steig Larsson, I only have to mention a certain female character’s crooked smile, and you know who it is. In ten years’ time, you’ll still know.

3. Using speech patterns (dialogue)
Finding a character’s voice is really important, especially if you have a lot of characters, as otherwise they will sound the same, and your writing will appear flat, it won’t engage. The character Sandy in my book is based on a real person, in particular what she says. I can never get the last word with this person, in real life or on the page. Here’s an example, from a scene where Sandy is being interrogated by Vince, a Chorazin Interpol agent, who himself is a no-BS hardball. They are in a small room, on two chairs, facing each other, no table in between:

Sandy leant back in her chair. “Are you going to ask me all the shit again about Keiji’s murder? About what I saw, which was pretty much nothing. Why I hid?” She inhaled deeply, blowing out a long plume of smoke sideways, not at him. “That’s the way it always goes in the vids, isn’t it? Ask everything four times, story cohesion, all that bullshit?”
            She watched him as he uncrossed one leg and crossed the other. Muscular thighs. Shit, she thought, as she flushed, I don’t believe this. What’s this crap I suddenly have for bald-headed, athletic, blue-eyed men? She wondered if he’d noticed; of course he had.
“No,” Vince said. He spoke with an unexpected nonchalance. “As you say, that’s what they do in vids. In any case the Sensex cleared you three hours ago of being Mr. Kane’s murderer or an accomplice. According to your deposition you saw little, given your relative position to the killer.”
Yeah, right, she thought, I was giving Keiji a blowjob under the desk when the killer walked right in.
“…and you yourself were potentially a target, depending on what the killer thought you knew. But staying there all that time was a little extreme, don’t you think? The killer had made his getaway. You could have left.” 
Sandy crossed her legs, then changed the cross. His gaze didn’t falter. She looked around for an ashtray. She flicked a small head of ash onto the floor, and took another long drag.
“You know that blondie Chorazin is screwing Micah? I had a ringside seat. She’s kinky, you know. A bit out of his league.” She watched for a reaction, a movement, a flicker of the eyes. Something; anything. Nothing. She pressed harder. “They must train you people pretty good not to react to shit like that. Must take stuff out of you, huh? You must lose something, you know, a piece of yourself.”
Vince’s eyes intensified then broke her gaze. He stood up and walked around to the back of his chair. “Actually, it’s more like they put ‘stuff’ in.” 
 She gave a short, hollow laugh. “Good grief, a piece of Chorazin philosophy! I’m honoured.” She took a last drag and dropped the cigarette on the floor, stubbing it out with her shoe. She ground it longer than necessary with her heel, not looking at the messy stain.

Zack is also based on a real person, especially what he says. He’s a more rounded character, a counterpoint in amongst a stiff military group. Here he is with Pierre, who is Zack’s polar opposite, a scientist, (also based on somebody who hasn’t read the book, though in this case I do ask him to):

‘About time,’ Zack said.
Pierre primed a contact syringe, and in one smooth movement flicked it switchblade-style towards the side of Kat’s neck. There was a hiss, like a sharp intake of breath. A wash of deep red crawled across her face then vanished.
            ‘Will it calm her down?’ Zack frowned at her normally smooth, fine-featured face, now crumpled like a piece of paper, slick with sweat.
            ‘No, but she’ll realise she’s in a dream. If she remembers, she can control it.’
            Zack looked down at their youngest crew member. Yeah, if she ain’t too shit-scared. Her chest rose and fell with increasing speed. ‘Her vitals okay?’
            Pierre tapped the holopad next to the cot – several red spikes radiated outward, but none pierced the edge of the surrounding green hexagon. ‘Tolerable. In the dream she’s running, so her lungs work faster.’
            Zack chewed his lower lip. The nightmare was coming more regularly the closer they got to Eden, and Kat reckoned it wasn’t a normal dream, always exactly the same. So they’d decided to try a lucid dreaming technique, injecting a stim during the nightmare, so she could maybe control it, and recall what was chasing her.
            Pierre gazed into the mid-distance as he discarded the syringe. ‘Do we run because we’re afraid, or are we afraid because we run?’ He said it as if reciting, a hint of his Parisian accent lingering.
Zack sighed, wondering for the hundredth time why Pierre wasn’t back in MIT, surrounded by his best friends – equations and a muon-scope. ‘Spare me the psy-crap, Pierre.’ He glared at him. They both knew why she was running.
‘I have to go. I’m finishing some tests. There’s a strange variance –’
‘Whatever.’ Zack gave him a sideways look. ‘I thought you liked Kat?’ 
Pierre hung there for a moment, fish-mouthed, then spun on his heel, and retreated to the cockpit.
            Zack re-focused his attention on Kat, planted himself on a mag-stool, and leant back against the graphite-grey inner hull. ‘Take it from me, kid, sometimes it’s okay to run. You run as fast as you damned well can.’

Kat is not based on a real person, but I like her dialogue, she parries all the time, because of her past, and supreme lack of trust in men, but is very incisive, both cutting and cut-up at the same time. She’s been around in my head so long she’s become real to me. Here’s an extract from the upcoming third book, Eden’s Revenge:

“Hello, Pierre,” Kat’s avatar said. “Platinum suits you. It’s your colour.”
            Pierre felt pleased at first, then caught himself – was he pleased with the simulation, or to see her again? Just an avatar, he reminded himself – let’s keep it professional. He addressed the slim, short-haired brunette with the crooked smile. “You have access to all my premises. We go to meet the female Kalarash known as Hellera. What do you advise?”
            She cocked her head. “I missed you. I thought it would go away, you know, fade. It didn’t. Not much, anyway. Not nearly enough.”
            He had an urge to clear his throat. This wasn’t working to plan. He thought about removing some of the emotional algorithms his brain had reverse-engineered into her avatar, but of course that would affect her intuition. He had to play along…
            “I … missed you too, in a way.”
            She glanced away. “Whatever. Your daughter – Petra – of course you remember her name, it’s the last thing you said to me.” Her eyes flashed dark. Anger, he realised. But she continued, waving a hand dismissively. “You’re seeing something that the Tla Beth are missing, but you’re also avoiding an obvious solution.” She folded her arms, stared at him.

4. Using mannerisms, ‘handles’
I’ve already mentioned the famous ‘crooked smile’ or Larsson’s famous character. Zack is bald, but has a habit of running his hand over his head, as if smoothing non-existent hair down. Micah clears his throat a lot (ahem, I do too, actually). It’s a nervous thing, so I only use it in such situations. Louise flirts a lot with her hair and eyes. Jen skulks around whenever she is amongst strangers. Blake steeples his fingers when making decisions. If you’ve read my books, and I mention the word ‘cigarette’, you’ll know who it is, because he is never ‘seen’ not smoking. But it is memorable because of the way he smokes. You’ll maybe remember that when he stubs out a cigarette, it’s with tangible regret, as if he was shooting a beloved horse. His only notable possession beside his sharp suits, is his gold cigarette case.

Characters can have nervous ticks, scratch themselves, purse their lips, sigh a lot, have hollow or excessive laughs, etc. Watch people, we all have them. They’re useful handles, because we can’t keep saying to the reader, ‘and here’s Jen again, remember, the one with the bottle green eyes?’

5. Borrowing personality traits from friends and enemies
A friend of mine writes vampire stories. When people piss her off in normal life, she casts them in her stories, and they come to a rather nasty demise. Love it. You think you know friends better than enemies. I hope so. But sometimes your vision of an enemy is more crystallised than that of a friend. I used one person I don’t like to represent a bad character in my books. It’s well-hidden, including the fact that I changed the sex for the characterisation. But it works. It also stops ‘baddies’ from becoming cartoon-like rather than real people. You have to let the baddies have a rationality behind their machinations, no matter how twisted. Remember that everyone is a hero in their own version of events, and this goes for any bad character, even evil ones. Here’s an example, without naming the character in case you’ve not read book one:

She leaned back in her chair, clasping her hands behind her skull. Galileo, my dear man, you should have listened to me. If you had, then you could have seen with your own eyes what your brilliance had only just managed to grasp – not just the non-Euclidean solar system, but the rest of the galaxy. And Amadeus – at least we will take your music with us, though you chose to remain so finitely mortal. She thought of the people she had known over the past six hundred years. Most she despised – her perspective was so different that she no longer thought of herself as human, and found humans – earthlings as she had started to call them, hopelessly bound to this doomed planet – their pitiful, short lives and limited vision, their petty selfishness. Humanity left alone would never rise above itself. There had even been a time when she had questioned the Q’Roth-Alician pact, but the longer she trod the Earth the more she knew the inevitable choice was between cull most and upgrade a few, or cull all.  
There had of course been some exceptional men and women – a few. She and others had tried to turn them, most without success. Still – there were five hundred like her, a few even older, roaming the world. They controlled humanity, misguided it, kept it off-balance, bringing it to ripeness for the return of the Q’Roth. Soon – very soon – almost no time at all, this self-obsessed civilisation would be eradicated, and they, the five hundred who knew what was coming, plus another five thousand promising Alicians, would have their own ships and a passport to the Grid. A new existence and legitimacy as a sponsored Level Five species. The hierarchy they had heard about would know this new humanity for the first time and would respect it: our next stage of evolution.

Notice this is all done via ‘internal monologue’. I’ve known a few people with twisted minds (I’m a psychologist). They are very careful about what they vocalise, most of it stays inside, and you watch their eyes, wondering what horrors lie behind… Besides, if this was done as dialogue or narrative, it wouldn’t sound right. Evil stays quiet, a neat trick a lot of SciFi films miss when they get their arch ‘baddie’ to wax lyrical about world domination or whatever. One advantage books have over film.

Using friends is actually trickier, because we are often too close to them to see them objectively enough to get it down on paper coherently. Also, we won’t want to kill them off, for example, when perhaps the plot demands it. So, I borrow traits from friends but change things, so at most half of the resultant character is based on a real person. One of my characters, Pierre, is loosely based on a colleague and friend at work. He refuses to believe it, though his wife can see it, and he doesn’t read science fiction. I joke back that the character Pierre would be far too serious in real life to read science fiction anyway.

But the main advantages of basing characters on friends is that you know how they would react, what they would say, and so it has more credibility and depth. One of my favourite school-day books was Wind in the Willows, and apparently all the characters were based on friends, obviously some eccentric ones, including Toad of Toad Hall.

Of course your friends might not like the way you portray them. I’ll come back to this in part two.

One psychologically interesting point is that if you base characters on friends, it can be a nicer experience writing the novel, because, let’s face it, writing is a lonely endeavour. I really like Naipaul’s writing, for example, but most of his characters are people I would not like as friends… Same for Coatzee. Maybe that’s what it takes to win Nobel prizes for literature…

More to come very soon...

Monday, 25 June 2012

Why would aliens want our oceans?

To live there, of course. There have been Scifi stories of aliens wanting to steal our water, but honestly, if a species could develop interplanetary travel capability, they could probably sort out a local water supply problem. But as we continue to find new planets ‘out there’, we may find that most of them are relatively ‘dry’. Water is often considered to be a necessity for intelligent (or any) life to evolve (I don’t think other paths are excluded, but let’s go with the flow for a moment). We came from the sea (so we’re told J) and evolved on land, but it might well be that a species could evolve technologically underwater, or else remain parochially attached to the seas and oceans on their world. What if they polluted their world, or suffered an environmental catastrophe, self-inflicted or otherwise? Of the hundreds of planets they might know of, how many would be (a) in their ‘Goldilocks zone’ (able to support their species type with environmental and gravity factors) and (b) contain oceans? Probably very few. Maybe one. Our colloquially and strangely-named blue planet (Earth).

They might covet it. It might take them millennia to arrive, and they might notice a few savages in loin cloths skulking in the rocks, but see that the true seat of a civilisation – the oceans – were marvellously untouched. They would set off, and place their young in hibernation for the journey, to arrive thousands of years later, by which time we’d be skulking around skyscrapers, in some places still sporting loin cloths.

So I wrote Diplomatic Solution to consider this scenario (not a comedy, by the way). I did not state the premise, as above, I simply showed them landing and what happened afterwards. One man tries to communicate with the aquatic invaders to avert a war that will destroy the planet. But how to communicate with them? And at what price?

Not much science fiction delves beneath the waves. As a scuba diver, I wish more would. I’ve done a small amount, with a Mariana Trench chapter in The Eden Paradox, and an advanced alien ship hiding in an underground ocean in two chapters of Eden’s Trial. After all, it’s another world, and I get most of my ideas for aliens from undersea tropical creatures. One thing I don’t do underwater, however, is read or write: too much to watch...

Also by this author:

The Eden Paradox, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones and Ampichellis

Eden’s Trial, available on Amazon

Eden’s Revenge – Xmas 2012…

Friday, 22 June 2012

Embassytown, aliens and language

I found Embassytown by China Mieville easy to put down - it was just that I couldn't help but pick it up again. The writing was mesmerising. The more I read the more I was drawn into this human-alien culture, so unlike any other science fiction I've ever read.

Despite the eloquence and masterful writing, it is not an easy read. Mieville takes the Scifi adage 'resist the urge to explain' to an extreme, so that at the beginning it is very hard to work out what the hell is going on. And when it gets to inter-planetary travel, he avoids every single available warp or faster than light travel cliche and trope and invents the 'immer': fantastic, poetic, and almost incomprehensible - but that is the point, and he carries it off brilliantly.

The titles of the chapters still make no sense to me, even after I have inished the book, but why should they? The reader is an observer, an interloper (a 'floaker', in Mieville's terms)  of a human culture so distant from our own that it seems, and it is, alien, except that human characteristics, especially our weaknesses and fears, prey large on the plot. The protagonist, Avice, is herself very flawed, making it easy for the reader to empathize with the terrible decisions that have to be made in the second half of the book.

The spiders, the Arakei, are never too clearly described, with their fanwings and coral eyes, but they are from the beginning an enigma, as is the arrival of EzRa, which is where the book really takes off from a plot perspective. They do not speak as we do, and in fact the whole book is about language and meaning, and just how difficult it could be to communicate with a truly alien species. The intricacies of how their language works, and the dramatic effect EzRa's arrival has on them, are well-thought-out; this is a deep novel, a masterpiece.

Unlike many science fiction books, the ending was excellent and satisfying. I read this one on kindle, and after finishing it, I paused a few minutes and then went straight back to the beginning, where I had originally been captivated and confused in equal measure, and started reading again. I can't remember doing that with another book, except Lord of the Rings, a lifetime ago.

Doubtless one of the reasons I persevered with it was its focus on language and communication difficulties, and the fact that the aliens in question were spider-like, as I have all these elements in my Eden Paradox series, but this writer is a master, and it was humbling to read. I don't think it is for everyone, but this is serious, high-end, well-written hard science fiction that heads off on a right angle away from most Scifi, into the immer... If there was a nobel prize for SF writing, this would get my vote.

The Eden Paradox is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones and Ampichellis.

The sequel, Eden's Trial, is available on Amazon.

The third book, Eden's Revenge, will be out Xmas 2012.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Cool alien ships & design concept for Eden's Revenge

One aspect I love about science fiction is space ships, both human-designed and alien ones. I never got that enthusiastic about cars, but space ships, well, that's different. Some are deservedly iconic, whether Star Trek's Enterprise and Borg Cubes, Star Wars' Millennium Falcon and Death Star, or 2001's ship whispering HAL and its crew to Jupiter and beyond.

More recently, the ship scenes in Sunshine were just trippy. Some ships are not merely vehicles but alive, notably Farscape's Leviathan hybrid Talyn, with a character all of its own. And lets not forget Stargate Universe and its ship of the ancients, though the external shots were too few for my taste. The Vorlon ships in Babylon 5 are my favourite of all time.

 In books as well, from Iain Banks' Contact vessels and warships in Excession to Peter F Hamilton's Voidhawks, and not forgetting Alistair Reynolds, the images they conjure up are breathtaking.

For years books held sway over the imagination, but with the rise of CGI now even with a fairly predictable and played-for-laughs scifi film like Lock-out, one can sit back every now again and just admire the space art visuals. Ship art and concepts are particularly important for Space Opera, because the idea is to show how big space is, not to make us feel small and insignificant, but to make us feel wonder at the vastness of the galaxy, and the endless possibilities it offers when we can finally get a ride out of our solar system.

Some of the more dystopian series like Firefly, or the quirky film District 9, have ships which are less jazzy, where oil and grease and dirt grace the interiors, and the exterior of the vessel looks like hastily glued together bits of scrap-metal. Of course, it may end up like that, especially the way our global economy is going, although SpaceX's Dragon seem to be doing okay so far. Alternatively, we may have the luxury to have clean and cool ships like in the recent film Prometheus, where the ship was pretty much the only thing I found interesting during the entire film.

In my own writing, for example in The Eden Paradox, our first interstellar ships, the Ulysses and the Phoenix, are more in the Firefly vein, powered by dark energy drives but otherwise cramped, as in the ships and mockups at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington DC. But the alien ships, mainly in the sequel Eden's Trial, as well as Eden's Revenge which I am working on now, are intended to be much more cool. Here's a description of the StarPiercer, from Edens Trial...

Nobody spoke, they just stared. Micah had seen plenty of cool ship designs in vids and games, but this wasn’t just the latest fluidic-chip maxi-sense holo-vid: this was real. And it was much, much better.
            The approaching ship was somewhere between an elongated cone and a javelin, the sleek outer hull laced with metallic scarlet and purple shades rippling from the tip back to the aft section. Its texture reminded him of a moonlit lake, but its sleek lines suggested power, and above all, speed. It was hard to gauge the size, but as it approached Hannah filled them in.
            “It’s a Scintarelli Star-piercer, according to the onboard database, Level Eight design, about two hundred meters in length, minimal jump drive, built for inter-stellar non-Transpace flight. Crew complement two, registering as Mannekhi, a Level Five race.”
            Micah tore himself away from the screen to face her. ‘Two?’

So, for book 3, Eden's Revenge, I want to have a ship on the front cover, so there is no mistaking that this book is science fiction. Of the dozen or so alien ships in my books, I've chosen the Kalarash ship, whose entrance into another galaxy occurs at the very start of the book:

In the darkness of the inter-galactic void, at the edge of the Hourglass Galaxy, a ruby gash opened in the fabric of space. The tear widened to a bloodshot eye, an obsidian pupil irising open at its centre. A ship emerged, shaped like an elongated crossbow. Along its ten kilometer shaft, metallic hues of aquamarine and scarlet morphed characters from an ancient, forgotten language, as if the ship was reading aloud to a universe no longer listening. The eye blinked and was gone, space around it snapping closed as if the portal had never been there. Kalaran had arrived. 

Now I just need to find an artwork designer to do the front cover, one who doesn't cost the Earth...

At the end of the day, or at the end of an episode, whether Star Trek, Farscape, SGU, Babylon 5, or any other series, one of my favourite shots is always to see the hero(ine), whether Picard or Janeway, standing by a porthole on their ship, looking outwards, then the camera pans out slowly, revealing the ship, which then continues on its journey into space or hyperspace, the deep hum of engines (which in reality we wouldn't hear, but what the hell) taking the crew to their next adventure.

Would I volunteer to be on such a ship? Seriously, need you ask? In a microsecond.

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and in ebook on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones and Ampichellis.

The sequel, Eden's Trial, is available on in ebook from Amazon.

Eden's Revenge is coming out before Xmas 2012.
© Barry Kirwan |
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