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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Little Writer Who Cried "Troll" and other stories


Newsflash: Not All Negative Reviews Are The Work of Trolls



In the good old days, trolls lived under bridges, and were presumably illiterate, and ate people but were easily fooled by little gruff billy goats. Or, they had amazing hairstyles and jewels about their person, and were popular with children. Nowadays, they seem to lurk anonymously on internet forums and upset people.


Check out the Wiki definitions here and here



Sometimes, it's very obvious when someone is trolling you or an article or whatever. Sometimes they are just plain abusive, or just have a negative opinion they need for whatever reason to get off their chest, or a compulsive need to argue with someone for the sake of it. Threats and abusive language - that's all trolling, and that's not cool. They usually post short comments like, "You're all so stupid, I'm laughing at you all right now" and generally baiting people. Some people are unintentional trolls, of course, and they are sometimes just as bad.




However, in the world of beta-readers, readers and those who comment on your work, "trolling" can be more problematic. When a writer is new, before they have toughened their skin into a full-blown exo-skeleton, it's very easy to hide behind the concept of trolling and cry "troll" at every opportunity when someone says something about your work that you don't like.



They may not like it for actual reasons of their own but don't have the ability or the vocabulary to express themselves and say why they don't like it. Someone who gets a bad review and then says "I was trolled" needs a few more bad reviews, clearly, because they need to get used to people not liking their work. People who get a bad review, feel sorry for themselves, then shake it off and learn from it, are the ones who get better at what they do. 


But the trouble with trolling is, because it's a genuine problem, people use it as an excuse. They salve their egos with that soothing thought, they didn't like it, because they are a troll.


The truth is, you will always find someone who hates what you've written, someone who gets bored of it, someone who doesn't get it, someone who just doesn't care, and someone who likes it fine but not enough to continue beyond a certain point. You'll also find people who really like it, people who love it, and people who even fangrrrrrrl over it. The danger is to be so caught up in chasing the positive reactions that you can't handle the negative ones. And so, your fragile ego wrapped in the cotton wool and candyfloss of "OMG! You're SUCH a great writer!!" and "This is the best thing I've ever read", knowing they are genuine comments from genuine fans, cannot handle the "this sucks", or the "I thought this was pretty unimaginative", or the "what the fuck is this shit" when it comes along.

Now, I get why trolling is (rightly) discouraged. But there's a massive difference between writing a one-off comment like the above, and coming back again and again to write the same comment in different ways with increasing levels of nastiness and frustration. There's a big difference between thinking, this person won't leave me the hell alone, it's really creeping me out and upsetting me, and thinking, ouch, a single negative remark with no feedback! That really hurt my feelings! But it's ok, I'll be ok, I will get through this, because I can call TROLL! TROLL! TROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLL!







No one says TROLL when someone says "good writing", or "I like this". It's just as vague and unhelpful as "this sucks" or "I didn't like this." The only difference, then, is the opinion conveyed in the vague few words.


People who have something negative to say are also entitled to their opinion, and they should be allowed to say it without having you retaliate or jump down their throats. They don't owe you anything. They don't have to automatically like your work just because they picked it up and thumbed through it, or downloaded it onto an app on their device. And if people who have something nice to say are allowed to say it in erudite, dumb, grammatically perfect, grammatically disastrous, or just good old vague ways, so too should people who didn't like it be allowed to express themselves in the same ways. Don't accept positive comments if you don't want to accept negative ones: they are two sides of the same coin. Or rather, they are the same side of the coin, because (to stretch this metaphor to breaking point) the other side of the coin is not writing for the public at all.


If I have a sweary negative comment that's a one-off, I ignore it, and if it's been flagged as "offensive" and therefore is in a queue to be reviewed by the powers-that-be, I'll un-flag it. I have, in fact, done just that. And why? Because they have the right to use the words "shit" and "crap" if they want to, if that's what they think. That's fine. I allow people to use the same sort of emphatic language in positive comments, so why shouldn't people who don't like it not be allowed to swear? "What the fuck is this shit, it sucks, " is NOT REALLY trolling. "Hey, bitch, what the fuck is this shit? You suck" IS trolling. The difference is that the first instance is a rhetorical question, and the gut reaction someone had to reading my work and just not liking it. The second is directed at me as a person, and uses personal, intrusive and abusive language. The first is directed at the writing, which is fine - the writing can't hear, or feel, or be upset. It's a product, and the question of whether it's good or bad is entirely subjective. Feeling upset on behalf of your writing does not make the negative comment any less valid, I'm afraid. The second version, however, is personal, attacking the person behind the writing, and that's the key difference. A person can feel, and be upset. And that's the intention behind the comment.


I have had to report this sort of abusive language, which is a totally different thing. I once had a really random string of comments that were sent to me privately by an individual who had found my author page and worked themselves up into a frenzy, accusing me of hacking their account at one point when their Facebook glitched (!! this wasn't even on my Facebook author page, it was a different, unrelated site) and calling me a "bitch" repeatedly and demanding to know what I had done and "who the fuck" I REALLY was. *X-Files theme plays* I managed to calm them down, and then reported the incident, as I was quite concerned about their mental health. They even thanked me for taking the time to sort out their technical problem in the end, which was a little bizarre. The whole thing had started with them observing that my work was disturbing and that since I had a PhD in "science" (I don't, it's in history) I should do something better with it than meddle with the occult (I think they thought my dark fantasy series was somehow real). I'm not sure that counts as a troll - I think they genuinely believed they were being helpful, and clearly had some problems.


Then I see writers throwing little hissy fits over bad reviews which make some valid points, but some points which are just clearly personal preference, and slamming the TROLL label on without taking anything on board, even if it's a genuine review. I've seen that happen - and sadly, it takes those writers a lot longer to hone their craft than it would do if they just accepted they are not freaking Tolstoy. And this, ladies and gents, is the trouble with crying troll.




Saturday, 15 November 2014

#AmWriting

So, I'm writing. I've got several projects on the go at the moment: two main ones, and one I'm turning over and over in my head.



First, I have my ongoing WiP, THE CROWS. 

THE CROWS is about murder, identity, and the fleech's art of getting by. [Don't know what a fleech is? See Chapter 1]. It's about the paranormal, the wyrd, and the eldritch happening in a seaside town to a woman getting over a break-up, a redundancy, and losing her flat. It involves a crumbling renovation project, a mysterious local society, and relationships.



Then I have my new WiP, THE BOOK OF DEATH.

THE BOOK OF DEATH is the fourth in the Faustine Chronicles series, and I've blogged a lot about the difficulties of writing that as an ongoing family saga. BoD is set seven hundred years after the end of the third book, THE BOOK OF CHANCE. The whole saga has been following the Celtic Hero Cycle, from the conception of the hero (BOOK OF FATE), the childhood of the hero (BOOK OF TIME) and acts of the hero as a young man (BOOK OF CHANCE). The last one in the cycle should be the death of the hero, but that's not really how I see BoD ending. So perhaps there will be another. But I don't know about that!



Both are giving me problems, for different reasons.

THE CROWS - because I am experimenting with narrative, and ways to split the narration to generate suspense and at the same time create a sense of realism. I want to swap between three scenes in one chapter, and see how that works. I want to offset a mundane or "normal" activity - like a date at a restaurant - with two other pairs of characters, each involved in more sinister actions, building to an overlapping climax. Troublesome, n'est-ce pas?!


BOOK OF DEATH - because 700 years have passed, and, due to a temporal accident, no one can ever go back. Yury, the hero, is stuck in the Underworld and when he comes back, nothing is the same. His immortal family have developed, moved on, lived their lives without him, and he barely recognizes them, or the new world into which he re-emerges. It's psychologically challenging, and it's also a real test of my world-building skills. The problems involve the dynamics of the family, whom the readers are very familiar with, changing in realistic and drastic ways, and the world they knew in the previous three books being almost completely reconstructed. Just as Yury is thrust into a world that doesn't make sense to him, and a family he struggles to accept despite their willingness to accept him, so to is the reader, but before the reader and even before Yury, so am I. And I'm finding it just as bewildering. This one may take a while.



My next idea: Haunted Forests of the Mind

A few things have really struck me. They have no place in the WiPs I've already got going on, but there are elements swirling around which don't marry up with each other either. I've been fascinated by two "real-life" stories - Hoia Baciu forest in Romania, and the disturbing tale of Lerina Garcia. Are there sensible scientific explanations for these things? Personally I believe so, but I really don't care. I don't care, because the stories are fascinating.


Hoia Baciu forest near Cluj is allegedly haunted, contains portals to other worlds, has balls of unexplained light floating around in it that apparently transmit diseases "if they enter your aura", and is generally absolutely terrifying. It has been a prime location for paranormal investigative shows like Destination Truth, which made for some pretty compulsive viewing.

Here are some links, including the alien theories:

1. It Was Aliens, Dude!
2. Official Website for Hoia Baciu, the World's Most Haunted Forest
3. Wikipedia Never Lies
4. It's Number 1 in the Top 7 Most Haunted Forests...


The story of Lerina Garcia is also weird and disturbing. Basically, one morning she woke up and found everything was slightly different, and not how she remembered it from the previous night (or indeed the previous few years of her life). It sounds a bit like a psychological condition where you suddenly don't recognise your loved ones, or think they've been replaced with imposters: but in this case, it's her whole life.

A version of her story is here on Redux.

So...

What if a woman wakes up to find herself in a different place, with little things not the way they should be? What if she has to adjust to a new life in the wrong dimension, her office in a different part of the same building, her friends not quite the same, and the sum of all the little differences adding up to a new identity - or madness? And what if, in all of the unexplained confusion of it all, she dreams of a forest... a forest that might take her back there, or might take her anywhere.

It's kind of a suicide metaphor, I guess: finding out what it would take for her to risk everything by finding and ultimately entering the forest. Or maybe not that bleak - maybe it's a metaphor for self-discovery and the bravery to pursue the path of who you really are. Or about embracing the unknown and risking change. I don't know what it's about yet.

I don't know how to write it yet.

If someone reads this post and writes it before me, I'd be very interested in seeing how it turns out.



In the meantime... au revoir! I shall be getting back to it. If you're interested in my work, come find me on wattpad - CelticRose account for the Faustine Chronicles, CelticMedusa account for The Crows - or on Facebook, or on Twitter.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

I Have Returned -!

Update:


Sorry to have been away for so long. In the meantime, I passed my Viva and now have a PhD in Medieval History: hence radio silence while I completed the thesis and prepared. 

I now have until January 7th to resubmit the thesis with all the corrections (minor) agreed upon in the Viva. 



In other news, I have finished the third book of my dark fantasy series which can be read for free at the moment in its rough, unedited state, so if you would like to beta-read it for me (or just enjoy it before I get on with butchering it later) then feel free to check out THE BOOK OF CHANCE.


In OTHER other news, a short story of mine is in a charity anthology being published by PSG Publishing.  The anthology is called CHAMBER OF MUSIC, and my story is "The Snake Charmer's Pipe". Anyone who has read BOOK OF TIME may recognize one of the characters... it's a stand-alone spin-off of the Faustine Chronicles, so I hope it meets the approval of Faustine Chronicle fans!

Watch this space for more!


Monday, 28 July 2014

The Zodiac Posts: AQUARIUS [1]

The Water-Bearer and The Silkworm

Theme #02 for this series of posts is Aquarius, so my challenge is to think of two topics that I can blog about taking "Aquarius" as my theme.

Capricorn is, I'm told, an Earth Sign, and apparently Capricorns tend to be family-centric individuals, so I took that as an idea and wrote about developing characters over time - e.g. in a family saga - and the difficulties that presents, and then discussed ageism in fiction and positive portrayals of maturity in KidLit.

This time, I've got more of a challenge! Should I write something based on the Aquarian traits (although different sites say different things) or perhaps on what the water-bearer is, or represents, or what?

Tricky.

I discovered a 1922 text available via sacred-texts.com that gives me something interesting to work with:

Those born under the influence of Aquarius possess extremely complex minds and dispositions often unconsciously as well as consciously absorbing impressions and information on all kinds of topics and out-of-the-way subjects, their interests being widely spread and far-reaching; and, as their symbol the Water-bearer suggests, their diffusive natures give them an extraordinary facility in the passing on of knowledge to others in a manner easy to understand, their well-stocked minds full of reminiscence and anecdote making them most interesting companions when they choose.
This actually fits in quite well with a book I've recently read - THE SILKWORM by Robert Galbraith. I wanted to write a review of this book ever since I finished it, and this topic fits in pretty well with that! I'd like to blog about the book from the perspective of conscious and unconscious writing, which is something that really interested me - and bothered me - about the second detective novel in this series.

Here's why.

For those of you who are unaware (and this isn't a spoiler - it says so on the dust-jacket of the book and in every review), Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of J. K. Rowling. This piece of information has completely ruined the Cormoran Strike series for me now. I read The Cuckoo's Calling, the first book which made it to the bestseller list and sold a modest few thousand copies - average for a crime bestseller, I believe - and got good reviews from critics who noted that it didn't read like a first novel. They were right - a lawyer tweeted and spilled the beans that Robert Galbraith was in fact none other than Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling, and immediately caused uproar. Fans of Harry Potter rushed to buy this latest secret gem. Reviews of The Casual Vacancy were mixed, and I have to admit I didn't read it. I didn't have a lot of faith in it... but The Cuckoo's Calling, which achieved quiet acclaim all on its own, that I did have time for, because it was clearly very good

I read it, and only on a few occasions did I think, ah yes, I see J. K. Rowling behind that dialogue, or that sentence is very Rowling-esque. You know, it's the style and the way the sentences are constructed that give the game away - the syntax an author uses is a kind of fingerprint, and every narrative voice is unique to its author in some way. Even though I tried to pretend I didn't know who Robert Galbraith really was, I kept seeing the veneer slip every so often because I was, at times unconsciously and at others consciously, looking for the clues. That annoyed me, because it's a great detective read. It really annoyed me because I'd been tempted to buy The Cuckoo's Calling when it first came out, and couldn't justify the expense at the time, because I was flat broke. If only!

The furore about the real identity of its author also didn't bode well, in my opinion, for the second novel.

Rowling had consciously written the first detective novel in a style that was slightly different to her usual one. The voice and feel and tone were different. Her narrative, while still sprinkled with Rowlingisms, had obviously been edited and carefully pruned to make it appear as if the author was (a) male, (b) genuinely an ex-army guy, and (c) a new author fresh to the Crime Fiction scene. It worked very well. It was very well written, it flowed beautifully, the dialogue was realistic and the insight into the world of the paparazzi, the fashion industry, and the internal world of the main characters, Strike and Robin, remarkable. It was a great read.

But, with the second novel, the secret was out. There was no point in going through all that care and attention to get that novel at the same level as the first, because everyone knew. So, sprinklings of Rowlingisms became, as I'd feared, blatant peppering. She hadn't bothered to disguise her hand this time, and it showed. I felt a little cheated of the mature sparkle of the first one, as if the second one had had less conscious time and effort put into it. The story itself is great. It's dark, twisted, and bits of it freaked me out a little. I'm still haunted by some of the scenes and the descriptions, and I'm still thinking about the cast of characters a few weeks on after finishing it.

But what irked me was that in terms of its writingThe Silkworm felt, to me, like watching a play where the curtain had gone up too early and ruined some carefully planned surprise, so that the actors behind said curtain were left to play the scene anyway knowing that everyone in the audience already knew the punchline but would applaud wildly no matter how the lines were delivered.

I didn't guess the end of the actual plot - I suspected, but I didn't quite have it all together. I say this as a veteran of crime and detective fiction. I read more crime and detective novels than fantasy novels! In fact, I hardly ever read fantasy novels. I don't dare, any more, in case it turns out my ideas are not at all original and I've actually been unconsciously ripping off some published person for years. Epic fail. That said, I do occasionally tentatively Google, just to make sure I'm not going to end up being sued for accidentally plagiarizing something I've never read.

I digress.

The point is, while the story was brilliant, the plot worked well, the pace was fine, the ending delivered, and the characters were all spot on pretty much, and I'd love this series to continue, I just can't help but feel it's lost something because it's now well known that there is no Robert Galbraith. I liked Galbraith's writing. It was fresh and polished. Now, I'm reading a Rowling novel that isn't so fresh or polished, and actually has Dumbledore quotes paraphrased and coming out of the mouth (or rather, being thought in the head of) a character that is supposed to be new to me.

Exploration of death and murder and what it takes to be a killer are themes Rowling has looked at with great effect in the HP series, and naturally returns to in the Strike novels where people are being disemboweled, pushed over balconies and covered in acid, not to mention stabbed and shot at. But really? A whole paragraph about murder not being easy, and the phrasing making it sound like almost the same speech? (Potter fans will know what I'm talking about here).

Before I am burned as a heretic by the internet, I too am a Potter fan. Oh yes... I queued up at midnight for the final book, and saw a midnight showing of the final film. I phoned my High School best friend after Desert Island Discs to discuss Rowling's interview. I rang various friends after her first TV interview and we fed off that for weeks. I printed off whole Sequoia-worths of fan rumours about the next books and brought them to school to share and shout at other obsessive teens with at break and lunch and in between classes. And in classes. I seriously considered auditioning for Hermione and actually genuinely thought each film was the best film I had ever seen until I became older and a tiny bit more discerning. Oh yes. Let it not be said that I am not a fan.

I'm not saying that revisiting themes are a bad idea - quite the opposite. It's just the way you put forward these perspectives, and the way you handle the material, needs to be fresh and polished, otherwise you run the risk of it looking like recycled writing. It seems to be unconscious, embedded and a part of Rowling's psyche and deeply held life-philosophies, but that's the kind of thing Robert Galbraith would have hidden better - consciously scouring the manuscript for giveaways like this and rephrasing them into shadows of their former, obvious selves, so that people might assume "Oh, Galbraith has read Harry Potter and agrees with Rowling about murder not being easy to commit, much like Gaiman has read the Discworld series and agrees with Terry Pratchett about that belief-creating-and-sustaining-gods philosophy". Reading that section of The Silkworm, it was obvious that Galbraith had not read Rowling, Galbraith was Rowling. And that, for a minute, jolted me out of the world of Strike. I felt like a paying member of an audience whose surprise had not only been spoiled by the premature curtain raising, but who was now acutely aware that they were watching a play. That was a real shame.

I would absolutely love it if Rowling could forget that everyone knew who she was. I would love it if she wrote the third in the series with the same pretense and care as the first one. I would love to see her writing style developing and growing into something new and exciting, while still retaining that familiar sparkle of wit, whimsy and magic. She does all that so well. And I sincerely hope that the next time she or another famous author chooses a pen-name, they don't get outed before they are ready to do the Big Reveal, even if that turns out to be posthumously. It ruins it for the rest of us who like to guess, and like to experience new novels on their own terms, without the overhanging shadow of unconscious judgement and comparison clouding over what would otherwise have been a dazzling read.

That said - I loved The Silkworm. Loved it. Go and read it, and maybe you'll see what I mean!




Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Zodiac Posts: CAPRICORN [2]

#WeNeedDiverseBooks b/c I rarely saw my older family in KidLit & then often as figures of fun...




I was surprised when reading through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on twitter that while sexuality, gender and race were prominent issues, no one mentioned the need for older characters in KidLit to be more three-dimensional, or for there to be more books where the child protagonist is raised by their grandparents or elders. I'm not the best at fitting my thoughts into 140 characters, so when I tried to find out why this was, people thought I was accusing the campaign of being ageist. Only one person who read my original tweet Interested in views on in fiction - didn't seem to cover too many older characters or portrayal of older ppl? recommended a Children's book that featured elders in a positive and respectful light. [I'd thought the "in KidLit" was implied by the use of the hashtag! Oops!]

So, here's another blog post inspired by the "maturity" aspect of life and literature, represented by Capricorn... because pretty pictures. And the challenge of doing twelve  different blog topics inspired by zodiac personality traits. 

So, after I had managed to clear up the embarrassing misconception that I was accusing an excellent campaign of being ageist, I managed to engage in some interesting conversations with people. It turns out, I'm not the only one who has noticed the absence of elders or a positive model of maturity or growing old in KidLit, and it intrigued me that while one person instantly understood what I meant, there were three or four others who misconstrued my question. Admittedly, my question was badly phrased. #HowBritishOfMe [!]

Are we blind to an aging population, and do we think that children are just too young to notice the old? 

The Guardian reported in October 2011 that the UK was one of the worst countries in the EU for ageism, with the belief that old age starts at 59, and that "youth" ends at 35. In Greece, old age was thought to begin at 68, and youth ended at 52. 

Daniel Boffey wrote, " the statistics show that, while there is admiration for the elderly, more people pity than envy those they regard as old, suggesting a perception that age brings weakness and unhappiness."

When so many children in less advantaged areas - the very children for whom literacy and education is so vitally important, and the very children who are the least likely to engage with either - are being brought up by grandparents, often single grandparents, or who have more contact with their grandparents than with their parents who are working and unable to look after their children without using their own aging parents for help with childcare, it's important that they too see models of family they can relate to.

When society is telling children to prize their youth (and innate within youth, the toxic concept of subjective beauty) more highly than anything else, including their own individualism and self-worth, then is it a wonder they have no respect for the elderly? Funnily enough, aging is an international issue, too. 


So what do we all have to look forward to, once we pass the end of youth? After all, when you get old, you lose the looks that you spent so much time perfecting as a child and young adult. The elders in society somehow don't feel the need to dress up and impress complete strangers in the street with the latest fashion trends. They talk a lot about their past, and try to impart out-of-date wisdom when everyone knows you can just google that shit. Which you're not going to, because you have facebook, and what's happened TODAY is far more important than ANYTHING ELSE EVER. 

Is this really what children and teens think, though, or is this view itself a stereotype of younger attitudes? According to GrandparentsPlus, 4 in 5 teens say that grandparents are the most important people outside their immediate family. 

Across the country, it is estimated that 200,000 grandparents and other family members are raising children who cannot live with their parents. This may be because of parental illness or disability, drug or alcohol misuse, imprisonment, bereavement or relationship breakdown. These kinship carers ensure that children stay within their families, providing the essential care, love and support they need. However, the carers themselves can often feel isolated and stigmatised, ignored by government policy and practice.
The Grandparents Plus Support Network brings together grandparents who are raising their grandchildren and other kinship carers to give them a voice, to share experiences, to find solutions and to tell government, children’s services, the NHS, drug and alcohol agencies and others what needs to change.


So why aren't they being championed in KidLit and YA as often as they could or should be? Where are these families, and where are the voices telling these stories? Why am I not telling this story? This story is my story, and yet I write about "norms" and two-parent families more often than any other type. I'm not even telling my story. I guess that for me, that's a personal thing that is quite private and often painful to expose to the critical eye of a reader who doesn't see the story I've written through the same filters as I do. Perhaps it's a protective instinct, of whom or of what I'm not entirely sure, and perhaps I'm afraid of what I might write if I did start writing. I don't know. It's not something I've ever really considered before. 

And yet... 

And yet, perhaps the antidote to a lack of self-worth among the younger generation and the lack of respect towards the older generation, not to mention the unnatural pressure put on children to look perfect and "respect their youth" by becoming over-sexualized from a disturbingly young age, is to encourage them to see getting old in a positive light. Just because you lose your firm skin and toned muscles when you age does not mean you automatically lose your value to society or your innate worth as a human being. It does not mean you stop contributing to your community and the lives of others, and growing old is not something to be afraid of. Even growing old as a single person is not the terrifying, lonely prospect we are all told it is. I know a number of fulfilled, happy, full-life-living over 70s, all of whom never married. They are the lucky ones, with a number of friends, active interests, and maintain various degrees of independence. 

Miss Marple, fictional detective created by Agatha Christie, was my childhood hero: older single/unmarried women solve murders, and then go home and have tea with friends! 


I also know older people who have been completely ignored, cold-shouldered and abandoned in their old age, living secluded, lonely lives because no one takes the time to knock on their door and find out if they would like some company and a cuppa once in a while. AgeUK figures show that a staggering one million older people go a month or more without seeing or speaking to anyone

Loneliness is a massive issue for people in later life in the UK. Half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and 1 in 10 people aged 65 or over say they are always or often feel lonely – that’s just over a million people.
Shockingly, half of all older people consider the television their main form of company. - 
http://www.ageuk.org.uk/health-wellbeing/relationships-and-family/befriending-services-combating-loneliness--/


In the UK, we live with an aging population whom no one seems to know what to do with - and I would suggest that tackling attitudes towards older people should begin by normalizing them and the variety and diversity of their lifestyles, with KidLit as a key vehicle for this positive portrayal.


So if children are reading books where it's funny that granny lost something and can't remember where she left it, or is always doing "hilarious" things like putting a goldfish in the kettle (read: has dementia), or infuriates Mum and Dad by mishearing everything they say, then the image you end up with is that getting old is a process that happens to other people, and when it does, should be laughed about. Old people are annoying, smelly, and forgetful. They are often deaf. They are often completely absent altogether. 

I've read books like this, and, as a girl brought up by her grandparents and great-grandmother, it was upsetting. I also find it a bit worrying that I can think of very few contemporary TV shows that positively portray older characters, whether those shows are aimed at children or not. With a few CBBC exceptions, though! 

I'm not the only one to have noticed this: here's a fantastic blog post from Lindsay McDivitt on Positive Images of Aging in KidLit, with an excellent list of points for writers about crafting older characters and how to (and not to) use vocabulary and illustrations. 

Debbie Reese has also recently blogged about the positive portrayal of elders in Obijwe culture as part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and the inclusion of Native American literature. She reviewed Hungry Johnny by Cheryl Minnema, and it's exactly the kind of thing #WeNeedDiverseBooks is about. 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Zodiac Posts: CAPRICORN [1]

Being Down-to-Earth: Realistic Character Development Over Time

I've decided to start with Capricorn, because the ideas for topics that I came up with for this general sign resonated with me after watching Season 3 of a TV show last night. My life is really very exciting. Clearly. Now, I know I've blogged on this topic before, but I think there's more to say. 


Showing the development of characters over a long period of time is a challenge, because if you were to keep a journal for two or three years, especially in your early to mid twenties, you would barely recognize the person who began writing their innermost thoughts all that time ago. If you begin with characters on the cusp of adulthood, or going through adolescence, as with YA novels, or with characters just emerging into the "adult" world and finding their feet, as in NA novels, the changes wrought in them by time and circumstance and the natural process of aging - which has psychological effects as well as physical ones - is something subliminal and subtle that even the character themselves is unaware of.  No one wakes up in the morning and feels twenty-one. Your concept of who you are is constantly in flux and completely relative to what is going on around you, and you do a great deal of your "growing-up" between the ages of 18-25, typically. Some people are 20 going on 50; others are 20 but still mentally stuck at 17 - but not in every area of their thinking and acting

On the other hand, there are some things that do permeate your subconscious from a young age, and even when you're not so young, and they do inadvertently have an enormous impact on how you are as a person. They can invade your thinking and your behaviour so completely that you're not even aware That Thing You Do is a subconscious response to That Thing That Happened When I Was, Like, Five. It's not even that obvious - it's a combination of things which inform and consolidate our ideas of the world, not a singular event (unless that event had a massive psychological impact). What is going to happen when Protagonist A's concept of normality collides with someone else's, who reacts to things in a different way, because of their not-so-dysfunctional upbringing? 



So imagine, Protagonist A has a dysfunctional family (as most protagonists do). The day-to-day atmosphere of that family is something which has an on-going impact on Protagonist A. You (as the creator and controller of Protagonist A) have decided that they are naturally quite shy and introverted, as a consequence of being bullied at High School and being ignored or used by Mum and Dad as a weapon against one another, as they go through a messy divorce. Protagonist A has never had a long-term relationship, though they have had a few before which didn't end very well. Protagonist A goes away to college, and meets Love Interest, but is being stalked at the same time by Crazy Obsessive Ex. 

Fine. It's straying into Mr Perfect Meets Miss Virgin territory here, but you've got a few issues to add a bit of a grittier edge, and you're trying to reflect a real situation. 

We have all of the angst and drama and the catalyst for general shenanigans, depending on the tone and style of your story, and ultimately, Protagonist A Grows Up and Finds Love and Lives Happily Ev- hang on. 

Supposing you were to fast forward the clock. What bits of their past has Protagonist A overcome now they are in a loving relationship with Love Interest? What have they brought with them? Which of their parents are they turning into as a result of absorbing mannerisms and attitudes and so on from a young age? Do they notice? How does their childhood come out in their actions as an adult, bearing in mind that, according to your back story for Protagonist A, they have had few positive examples of adulthood, few (if any) positive examples of a couple being A Couple, and few positive examples of parenthood? 

In what ways does Protagonist A do a better job, spurred on by Not Wanting To Turn Into Mum And Dad, and in what ways are they just kidding themselves? 

How do Love Interest and Potential Children respond, not really knowing the details of Protagonist A's background? It's a very different thing to seeing someone's parents and thinking, "Well, that explains a lot", and actually living through the experience of being in that family unit every day of your life for eighteen solid years. Now, obviously, it's not all bad. 


I SAID, IT'S NOT ALL BAD, DEAN! 

Honest. But there's no chance your character in a sequel novel is going to have it all together. Zero. Chance. 

The way they are in their late twenties or early thirties with kids is not going to be the same as the last time the readers (or you!) saw them. You need to take into account the fact that, as a person, your character has altered, and try to make those changes realistic in light of their back story, the first novel, and what you know has happened between the end of the first novel and the start of the second one. 

You need to strike a balance between the character being essentially the same, as in the same character the readers fell in love with in Novel 1, but also having changed in particular - and believable - ways.


This is the biggest challenge, and one I'm trying and perhaps failing to fully strike a balance with in my series. 


In my case, dealing with children and all the events that have torn his world apart and sewn it back together has affected Kristof quite significantly. He has mellowed a lot, and picked up traits from his wife Elsa, and is showing a bit more restraint as the weight of real political power and military campaigns and general courtly backstabbing takes its toll. He has also had to accommodate the needs of his four children, all of whom are individuals with their own personalities which will disrupt the original family dynamic as they grow up and push against their boundaries. Kristof had a very difficult and cold relationship with his own father, and is struggling not to be as harsh with his own children. He is willing to allow them to make their own mistakes and to rebel, but that is not because he's a "good father" - it's because he's a good manipulator, and, even though he loves his children, he wants to make best use of them as marital alliance assets, and also make best use of their powers. He's not going to flip out every time his children disobey him - he knows he's already on thin ice with his oldest daughter, Jola, as it is. She witnessed him doing terrible things to people over the years, including his abusive treatment of Gisa, his ward, and that has already driven a wedge between them. The fact that she is queen now is more of a reason for him to rein himself in, which was never his strong point. His explosive temper will break through the veneer eventually, and it will be pretty bad when that happens.

All of this character deconstruction has been an absolute nightmare - and I'm not sure I've got it quite right. That's a job for the editing, when I get around to finishing the first draft!


... Which leads me to my little rant about BBC series Robin Hood, whose character development is all over the place. [SPOILERS, PEOPLE. SPOILERS.]

It's a lot easier to maintain consistency when you're the only one in charge of the character. When several writers are in the pool for scripting the season, the danger is that in one episode or another they will pick on their interpretation and ideas for the character, and then use it to further their plot in ways that act to the detriment of that character. It's the classic conundrum of "how do I get from A to B in this episode so that C can happen next week?" 

It's easy to switch "episode" to "chapter" for all you plotters (and pantsers!) out there, although plotters may have the advantage in that their narrative and character arcs are neatly laid down, leaving less room for tangents. 

Now, I really liked the whole thing with Marian. [SPOILING HAS COMMENCED!!] I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow account of that. But what got me was the way Guy devolved in Season 3 - in particular the episode where he briefly gets to be sheriff - and doesn't learn anything at all. There's a blip in that Season where he is almost reduced to a predictable cartoon villain, whose actions are formulaic and flat. He is just doing the same thing, over and over and over. The surprising moments of depth in his character come out of seemingly nowhere, and you can't really see that developing naturally. It's all a bit abrupt - and Richard Armitage, kudos to that man, pulls it off in such a way that you don't really care that the writing isn't all that great. 

The other thing that really annoyed me was the complete lack of reference to Sheriff Vesey's sister after she fell in the pit of snakes. DON'T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON THAT PIT OF SNAKES. #MedievalistProblems



The relationship between the Sheriff and his sister is explored briefly, and then there's a moving death scene which Keith Allen plays brilliantly... and then... nothing. The sister and her tragic early demise are NEVER MENTIONED again. Ever. And all that potential character development for the Sheriff is completely lost, and the sister is a completely wasted character. 

I'm not sure what that's about. 

I'm sure I could think of more examples - not just in that show, but in other shows (and books - including my own work, on occasions) where the plot is literally lost completely and a character's development gets stunted, flattened out into a temporary (if you're lucky) 2D version of themselves, or just afflicted by a case of Random Identity Crisis where they just forget key parts of their personalities in order to do something to move the plot forward. 

It mildly annoys me when other people do it. When I catch myself doing it, it fills me with white-hot rage. [<< one of my overused phrases - note to self - stop it!]

I will strive to do better. 

Anyone else find the same problems with character development over longer spans of time? Comment and let me know!