Guest Post: ChiWriMo Member, Charles Ott

Character Evolution

By Charles Ott

Here’s a quick recap of a couple of million years of human evolution. We started out from a band of apes who left the trees and moved out onto the grassy African savanna. The advantage of this was that it got them, so to speak, out of the high rent district: there was too much competition for resources in the forest, so they moved to where they could eat better.

Once they were in the high grass, they learned to walk on their hind legs. All apes will do this occasionally, but our ancestors learned to do it most of the time (thereby developing our human big butts). Advantage: you can see over the grass. When you’re standing up, your forepaws become useful as arms and hands. Advantage: you can hold sticks, throw rocks or carry food back to your family. They also learned to hunt cooperatively (probably the most important step toward humanity). Advantage: they could bring down game a single hunter can’t tackle.

Once they had hands, their brains began to develop to make better use of them. Advantage: all the things you can do with brains and hands. This is where our ape ancestors really began to differentiate into humans, because they had upright posture, hands, cooperation and bigger brains.

As a writer, here’s the take-aways. First, the apes don’t know that they’re on a path to something. The proto-humans don’t know they’re proto-humans, they get up every morning to take care of important ape business. When you’re in the middle of the process, you don’t know there’s an endpoint.

Second, the only reason the proto-humans took each of those steps is because there was an immediate advantage to them to do it. That is, they did not learn to hunt cooperatively because cooperation would lead to being the top of the food chain everywhere on Earth, they did it to get lunch that day.

All fiction is about a character making a journey. Let’s say you’re writing a novel about a lady vampire who enjoys rambunctious sex with other vampires. She offends one of the guy vampires and has to fight an epic battle to get rid of him. At the end of the book, she has learned that she’d better treat her partners well because she’s going to be encountering her ex-boyfriends for the next couple of millenia. (Yes, you can borrow this plot, and no, I don’t actually think you should write anything so hackneyed.)

The trap you want to avoid in writing this story is to have your character make any step in this process because it will help her reach the understanding she needs at the end of the book. Every step she makes, she must take because there is some immediate advantage to her, even if it’s only to survive until the next day.

Because she has a brain, every rotten thing that happens to her (you’re going to pile it on, right?) teaches her something that contributes to the end of the book. But she must realize these things only because those thoughts have an advantage to her right then. For example, she runs away from her offended ex-lover and seeks shelter with other vampires, but they kick her out because they’re siding with the ex-boyfriend. Your character realizes that cheating on her man offends not only him, but his friends. This is an important step in her progress, but the reason she learns this lesson is that she realizes she’d better stay the hell away from other vampires until she makes sure they’re not friends with her ex.

Your characters must live here-and-now in their world, even though you know what’s going to happen to them in the long run.

 

Check out Charles’ novel, The Floor of the World, available from Amazon.

Guest Post: ChiWriMo Member, Charles Ott

You Know What I Mean?
By Charles Ott

I think we spend too much time worrying about describing things so that a reader will see them clearly. The plain fact is that no reader is ever going to see what you saw in your mind when you wrote that lyrical scene. The reader is going to see what’s in his mind – and that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

My favorite description of a facial expression is from Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Someone has just annoyed Wyoming Knott and she makes a face “like a little girl saving up more spit.” Now, I’ve met a lot of little girls in my family (and, I suppose, have annoyed all of them at one time or another) and I’ve never seen a little girl actually save up more spit. I’d guess you haven’t either. And yet, we both know exactly what that face would look like, don’t we?

It’s really quite magical: you can describe something that you’ve never seen, show it to a reader who’s never seen it either, and yet somehow those words can create a vivid image.

Hemingway was famously terse in his descriptions, and I’ve heard it said that you can’t really understand his books unless you also saw the same photographs in Life magazine that he saw. The days when you could assume that almost every reader saw the same magazines (Life and Saturday Evening Post, for you young folks) are long gone, and yet we still read Hemingway. Our home-made, wrong impressions of his scenes work just as well for us as the more correct impressions of two generations back.

Here’s an example from the lyrics of Paul Simon’s song Late in the Evening:

First thing I remember, I was lying in my bed
Couldn’t’ve been no more than one or two
I remember there’s a radio, comin’ from the room next door
And my mother laughed the way some ladies do

If you look hard at these lyrics, you have to come to the conclusion that there’s no description going on there at all. Everybody has heard the radio, always playing different music, and all ladies have some kind of laugh. All of us have fragmentary, context-free memories from early childhood. With a rigorous reading, we’d have to conclude that there’s no information at all in these lyrics.

But you can just hear that radio and that odd laugh, can’t you? Of course you can, pieced together from your own experience, whatever that has been.

Science fiction faces this problem all the time, because it often requires the writer to describe something that nobody has ever seen. From Edmond Hamilton’s Battle for the Stars: “Cluster N-356-44 … was hellfire made manifest before them. It was a hive of swarming suns, pale-green and violet, white and yellow-gold and smoky red, blazing so fiercely that the eye was robbed of perspective and those stars seemed to crowd and rub and jostle each other … pouring forth the torrents of their life-energy to whirl in cosmic belts and maelstroms of radiation.” Okay, I have a taste for purple prose – so sue me. You still got the picture, didn’t you?

Bottom line: describe your scene so you can picture it, and trust me, they’ll get it.

 

Check out Charles’ novel, The Floor of the World, available from Amazon.

Guest Post: ChiWriMo Member, Charles Ott

Writing About Characters with Religion

By Charles Ott

I’m about to kvetch about how religious characters are treated in fiction, especially science fiction, so let me start with some exceptions. Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz is a wonderful science fiction novel and, IMHO, one of the finest treatments of the Catholic Church in fiction. Really, if you’re writing about Catholicism in any genre fiction, you need to find a copy of this. James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is an SF novel that’s not only scientifically interesting, the plot turns on obscure points of theology that will delight the geekiest fan. And of course there are many other examples of SF that treat religion well.

But in general, religion in science fiction is a red-headed stepchild without respect for either the faith or the character who holds it. I decided this created an opportunity for me, and I wrote a novel in which one of the main characters is a black Christian man from south Chicago. “Brian Covington” is a scientist who’s not only a Christian, the novel opens during service in a church where Brian is singing in the choir, whapping his tambourine and beltin’ it out like a natural man. A number of friends, all science fiction fans, who read it remarked to me that they would never have gotten past chapter 1 if they hadn’t known that I wrote it.

But I did write it, and along the way I came up with some thoughts about how you can write about Christian characters too.

One: you’ve got to have some critical distance. This can tricky if you are a Christian, but the truth is that this applies even if you’re writing Christian fiction intended for an audience of believers. You must step back and consider how this character will appear to readers who are not of the same faith. As my old pastor used to say, “Folks don’t read the Bible. They read you.” Your character’s inner life must show up in what he does rather than what he believes.

Two: There’s no use writing about a Christmas-and-Easter-Christian. Who cares? If your character has faith, then it must inform everything that he does, and in particular, it must be central to all of his quiet, thoughtful moments. As with anything else in character development, it must show up in what he does during your story.

Three: Having your character proselytize other characters (or even worse, the reader) will explode your story instantly. Don’t even go near this – and this applies even if you’re writing Christian fiction. I mean, seriously, this applies even if your character is a missionary and it’s his job to get converts. Show, don’t tell, and especially don’t preach.

Four: God is not the answer to any problem in fiction. Faith in God might be the answer, but the Big Guy must not take any active part in your story. For my taste, I’d avoid angels, too, but I realize there’s a lot of precedent for angelic intervention in stories. In the world of your story, however, God is Right Out.

Finally and most important: religious faith should not be a “funny hat” that gives a character mannerisms but says nothing about his inner life. As CS Lewis said, “Christianity is not a way of looking at certain things, but a certain way of looking at everything.” If you can describe your character without his faith, then he probably shouldn’t have any.

 

Check out Charles’ novel, The Floor of the World, available from Amazon.

Guest Post: ChiWriMo Member, Charles Ott

Writing “Green” Fiction

By Charles Ott

Admittedly, writing fiction is pretty much an environmentally-friendly, low-carbon-impact activity. The biggest source of writers’ airborne carbon emissions probably comes from the intestinal effects of all those unhealthy snacks we eat while writing.

Still, there’s something to be said for being frugal. “Use it up,” as your grandparents knew, “make it last, wear it out.” (I’m a Boomer, and my parents and grandparents lived through the Depression. I remember being in awe, as a kid, when my grandmother drank the pickle juice out of the bottle after all the pickles were gone, rather than let it go to waste.)

So here’s the frugality part: are you wasting characters? Are you making the best use of the minor characters you create for one scene? At first glance, it seems inevitable: if you wrote in a cool bartender for the saloon scene, he seems to be stuck behind the bar and can’t get out into any of your other chapters. The interesting surgeon stays in the hospital scene, the trash-talking sports reporter stays in the locker room (shame on her!), the gang bosses’ punk tough guy says a few menacing words and then fades into the woodwork.

But if you’re having a tough time plotting, consider moving those characters out of their little boxes and into a place where they can interact with your main characters. Surgeons like to knock back a couple of shots sometimes. Could the surgeon show up in the saloon scene? Does the bartender know him as a regular? What would they say to each other when they see your main characters (a) having an important, emotional discussion that reveals information about the story background background, or (b) smashing chairs over each others’ heads as they brawl, or (c) wondering if seeing the surgeon as a regular at the saloon has any relationship to that failed operation on Aunt Beth?

If you liked a minor character in one scene, it might be that that character would light up another scene by appearing unexpectedly. It might be that a minor character might turn into a major character if you will only give him or her a chance. And besides, your minor character already has a name, an appearance and a couple of lines of dialogue to define her personality. What more could you ask for?

One contrarian note to my fellow science-fiction writers: I don’t care how many damn episodes of Star Trek you’ve watched, the captain of a capital ship does not go gallivanting off to have adventures. He stays on his ship pretty much until it returns to home port, if he doesn’t fancy being hauled by the scruff of his neck before the Admiral. Other, more expendable members of the crew get to have all the possibly lethal fun. Ask any Navy veteran about this.

The upshot is, it’s interesting to put an interesting character out-of-position. Try it, and you might just save, if not the Earth, at least your storyline.

 

Check out Charles’ novel, The Floor of the World, available from Amazon.