Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Name of the R'Ose
What to call your fantasy characters

David Isaak had a predictably stimulating post over on Tomorrowville about how difficult it is to find just the right name for your characters. If you haven't read it, you might want to now, as I'm going to explore the question in the specific, and potentially treacherous, field of fantasy fiction. Val Kovalin treats a similar topic over at Obsidian Bookshelf so thoroughly that I'm not going to retread that ground. Instead I want to look at how I go about choosing names for my characters, and what I hope to achieve in my choices.

My first aim when choosing names is to create a sense in the reader's mind of a coherent underlying culture. I'm looking for names which are 'the same, but different'. In The Dog of the North, for instance, I'd conceived Mettingloom as a frozen Venice, and I wanted the names to reinforce that. It wasn't a great leap from there to employ Italianate names (which also, for some readers, gave these episodes a Shakespearean feel, which can't be bad). So I ended up with names of my own devising, like Fanrolio, Tardolio and Goccio. I also researched Italian names in use in the Renaissance but which aren't popular today (Davanzato, for instance). Then I played with Shakespeare by Italianising some of his names (Laertio, for example). The result, I hope, is a set of names which not only looks consistent to the reader, but also carries some of the connotations of the source culture. It's a short-cut to helping the reader understand from the start that Mettingloom is going to play out like Renaissance Italy.

I also want my names to look good on the page, and to be pronounceable. Using real, or minimally adapted, names helps here (Jehan and Enguerran, for instance); if real people had the name, someone must have been able to pronounce it. In Dragonchaser, I gave a lot of characters Lithuanian names like Giedrus and Skaidrys - these names have a latinate feel (it's only a slight oversimplification to describe Lithuanian nomenclature as latinised Polish) without the overfamiliarity of actual Latin names. I love the look of Polish names but I would never use them because they are just so difficult--and often counter-intuitive--for Anglophone readers to pronounce.

Sometimes there are difficult choices to make. For The Last Free City, where the inspiration was Renaissance Dubrovnik, I wanted to use names with a Serbo-Croat cast. Some of these names are unproblematic (Todarko, for instance, provides no difficulty of pronunciation) but others are trickier. Many Slavic names end "ic" but are pronounced "itch": I chose to avoid names structured in this way. On the other hand, I did retain the "ij" spelling where the "j" is essentially silent: there is a danger here that the reader will pronounce the "j" in the character I've called "Zanijel". I think it's worth it for the look of the word.

I tried to add an additional layer of subtlety in The Last Free City by giving the houses (essentially the family names) an Italian feel, so that they felt different to the personal names: my intention here was to imply a cultural richness and evolution over many centuries. If it works, great: if not, the reader is no worse off.

Sometimes--I freely admit it--I just like to have a little bit of fun. I spent a long time alighting on a suitable name for the eponymous "Dog of the North". I wanted to have something with a French feel (because he comes from the Emmenrule, where I'd used largely French nomenclature) and eventually settled on Beauceron--which, pleasingly, is a breed of dog...

Everyone has their own method for naming their fantasy characters; some are more successful than others. My last advice on the topic is that if you want to use an apostrophe in the name, think very very carefully. The odds are your name will look better, and be easier to pronounce, without it.
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Monday, May 24, 2010

The Treacherous Tool: Coincidence in Fiction

Novice writers are invariably advised to steer away from building coincidence into their stories, for good reason. Unless it's handled deftly, coincidence can break the reader's belief in the sequence of events, or even in the writer's competence.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that coincidence is permissible in only two circumstances: as the event which initiates the story, or to make the protagonist's situation worse. So in The Prisoner of Zenda, the reader is not alarmed by the resemblance between Rudolf Rassendyll and Prince Rudolf because it is a given at the start of the story; but if Rassendyll were to appear halfway through the novel and, oh, look! he's a dead ringer for the Prince, the reader might understandably strain at that. (In this case, the coincidence is explicable because the two Rudolfs are related, which also helps). Thomas Hardy built a career out of the kind of coincidence that makes the protagonist's task harder: in one of the many examples in Tess of the Durbervilles, Tess has split from the monstrous Alec, only to encounter him again in his new guise as hellfire preacher while she goes about her business. Their encounter drags her down to her ruin.

Yesterday I finished Iain Pears' recent novel Stone's Fall, a mystery of betrayal and identity mixed in with banking and espionage unfolding between the 1867 and 1909. Until the last 20 pages I would have recommended it unhesitatingly: it's immaculately plotted, beautifully written and highly atmospheric. The central character, John Stone, is a rapacious capitalist; the novel begins with his death and then spends the next 600 pages explaining it. Pears is an experienced writer of detective fiction, but in this case, the solution to the mystery is a coincidence of such crass implausibility as to wholly devalue what went before. It's a coincidence which makes things worse for the protagonist (it leads directly to Stone's death), so it fits the received wisdom of acceptable coincidence: but it is so overblown, so utterly improbable that the reader can do nothing but recoil. Clare Clark, reviewing Stone's Fall in The Guardian, was similarly dismayed:

It is regrettable, then, that the urge to contrive a final twist to the tale proves too great for Pears to resist. This sprawling, unconventional, occasionally dazzling novel ends with an unconvincing and unnecessary denouement which serves only to undermine the foundations of the elaborate edifice he has worked so painstakingly to create.

Pears is a talented writer; I greatly enjoyed An Instance of the Fingerpost and would read more of his fiction. If so accomplished a writer can be betrayed to his doom by the treacherous allure of coincidence, the rest of us should beware of the risk.
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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Burble of Blurble

I don't know about you, but as a reader and as a writer I dislike the blurb that you find on the back cover of books. The blurb acts as a marketing tool to capture the reader's attention and persuade them to read the book. To do they need to be snappy and engaging, and there are two main ways techniques: to oversimplify the book to grab attention, or to give away key plot details. As a writer I can't say either thrills me, although as a self-publisher I've had to write my own. While a blurb may convince you to buy a book, it also weakens and cheapens the reader's experience.

Consider this:

Winter on the lawless plains of the Emmenrule. En route to her wedding in the fortified city of Croad, the beautiful Lady Isola is kidnapped. What is worse, her captor is the infamous Beauceron. But, ruthless as he may be, Beauceron is no ordinary brigand: it is his life's ambition to capture Croad itself – and he will stop at nothing to achieve it.

It's the start, of course, of the Macmillan blurb for The Dog of the North. As blurbs go it's not bad (and I was consulted on it) but it does give a carefully-crafted opening chapter away. Blurbs invariably do; the writer who tries to ensare the reader by creating and resolving a mystery in Chapter One is often undercut by the blurbmeister. It doesn't make too much difference to The Dog of the North, but have a thought for Ryan David Jahn:

Katrina Marino is about to become America’s most infamous murder victim.
This is Katrina’s story, and the story of her killer.

That's the whole plot of Acts of Violence given away in two sentences. It's a book I greatly admire, but how different would my reading experience have been if I hadn't known from the outset that Katrina Marino would wind up dead (especially as it takes her most of the book to die).
The question of blurbs was brought about when I read the first chapter of Neil Gaiman's American Gods online: divorced of blurb. I had the experience--almost unknown today--of reading a first chapter as the writer intended it to be read, uncorrupted by publicity. Had I chosen to read the blurb first, it would have said this:
After three years in prison, Shadow has done his time. But as the time until his release ticks away, he can feel a storm brewing. Two days before he gets out, his wife Laura dies in a mysterious car crash, in adulterous circumstances. Dazed, Shadow travels home, only to encounter the bizarre Mr Wednesday claiming to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a very strange journey across the States, along the way solving the murders which have occurred every winter in one small American town. But the storm is about to break... Disturbing, gripping and profoundly strange, Gaiman's epic novel sees him on the road to the heart of America.
Two points here: first, I wouldn't have bought a book based on that flaky-sounding blurb, but I was captivated by the first chapter; and second, the build-up to Laura's death is effectively controlled and shocking to the reader (and we don't learn about her adultery until about Chapter Four). That shock would be rather less for the reader who has read the back cover. You'd be left admiring the writer's skill rather than experiencing an emotional reaction.
Blurbs, I suppose, are a necessary evil. But an evil they remain.

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Seven things I've learned so far

These valuable insights, arcane wisdom gathered over many years of midnight toil, are not to be found on this blog. Instead, you have to point your browsers over the Atlantic (or keep them there, depending on location) to Chuck Sambuchino's excellent Guide to Literary Agents. Why not hop over and scout around? Chuck's site is about far more than literary agents and you're sure to learn something--even if not from me...
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Monday, May 10, 2010

Dazed and Amused

Last week I posted about "Mary Sue", the practice in which the author inserts an idealised version of himself into the narrative, usually to detrimental effect. To my mind, Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy succeeded in spite rather than because of the co-protagonist's resemblance to the author, but we'll leave that aside for now...

The question of authors appearing as their own protagonists came to mind again when I picked up Gavin James Bower's Dazed and Aroused, a story about a male model written by a former male model. Alex, the protagonist, is not a likeable character: he shags and snorts his way up--and ultimately down--the greasy pole of modelling stardom without once evoking the reader's sympathy or experiencing any emotion beyond mild irritation. If Alex is a Mary Sue for Gavin James Bower, then I wouldn't much like to meet the author.

As things happen, in the course of hobnobbing with the stars, I have in fact met him (at Chichester Bookswap last month) and I'm pleased to report that he's nothing like Alex. Although Alex is drawn from the author's experience, he is no way a proxy, and Bower's literary aims are rather more ambitious than fictionalised autobiography. It's a huge risk for a writer to craft a novel with no sympathetic characters--particularly when the central character is both dislikeable and inarticulate. In 50,000 words (Bower wisely keeps it short), he presents us with a sharp satire of celebrity, consumer culture and fashion, and although there are no jokes, it is shot through with a dark and mordant humour. The influence of writers like Bret Easton Ellis is clear, but Bower is confident in his own voice and the ability of the reader to understand the narrative game he is playing. Reviewers generally got it too: my favourite response came from Damian Barr: "so shallow it's almost deep".

Even if you have no interest in the fashion industry, you'll find plenty to enjoy in Bowers' merciless eye and sharp prose.Justify Full
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Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Literary Project

Fellow-writer Gemma Noon runs a great blog called The Literary Project, where she regularly interviews writers and industry professionals. This week she's focusing on Macmillan New Writing, and today, you guessed it, I'm under the spotlight. There are plenty of interesting pieces and great insights for the aspiring writer, so why not hop over there?
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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Some characters have a lot of sex

This is pretty incontrovertible, but I'm thinking specifically of fiction here. The thought is prompted by Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which I recently finished. Before he became bestselling novelist, Larsson was also a crusading journalist. His protagonist, Blomqvist, is also a crusading journalist. Blomqvist is a rumpled middle-aged man, beginning to run to seed (hey, aren't we all?). This doesn't stop every bloody woman in the trilogy finding him devastatingly attractive: most of them end up sleeping with him. The age range of his conquests runs the gamut of early twenties to early sixties, and he even gets a complaisant cuckold to give a nod of approval to his relationship with a long-term mistress. There's clearly a strong element of wish-fulfilment here (or, less plausibly, autobiography). Larsson no doubt had a lot of fun in this aspect of the trilogy but as a reader I found it somewhat irritating. Might the series not have read better if somewhere in Scandinavia there was a woman who found Blomqvist a seedy lecher? I enjoyed the series (although I found each book progressively less interesting) but this rather crass insertion of the author* did jar.

It's something we all as writers need to be aware of; it's very easy to put a "Mary-Sue" in your novel. One of my readers noted that all the women in The Last Free City are implausibly beautiful (although even my protagonist, a notorious womaniser, doesn't sleep with all of them). There's a balancing act between creating an attractive fiction, the expectations of your genre and what you can pull off in the way of rounded characterisation. The writer needs to have a degree of empathy, of identification, with all his characters; there is a real risk of becoming too close to the protagonist. There are several amusing online tests to determine of your main character is a Mary-Sue, but if you're a heterosexual male the only questions you need to ask are: "Are woman attracted to your protagonist as a matter of course?" and "Does he sleep with most of his female acquaintance over the course of the novel?". If the answer to both is "yes", you probably have a Mary-Sue on your hands.

The Millennium Trilogy, of course, is one of the publishing success stories of the decade, but what makes the books quirky and distinctive is Blomqvist's co-protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, the emotionally-damaged computer hacker. Salander is as implausible (in a different direction) as Blomqvist, but she is such great fun that the reader embraces the implausibility.

My piece of advice for today is this; if you're going to put yourself in your novel (not necessarily a disaster), try to make sure you don't sleep with too many more people than you might in real life.

* "Mary-Sue" is the term often used
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