Know Me for a Little: The Heroic Protagonist

I’ve been trying to articulate, for a friend, the problem I’m finding in the depiction of a protagonist who does not appear, some sixty thousand words in, to be on the path of personal change.

This is a vague accusation to be levelling. I’d be heartbroken, though, if someone told me that, after sixty thousand words, my characters still read as the same people they were at the beginning of the story. (Heartbroken, and then looking at what I can do to fix that, but heartbroken nonetheless.) How can I not be, when I spent so much time with these fictional people, when they are different facets of me, when I breathed life into the words that comprise them?

I’ve heard, many times, that a good heroic protagonist doesn’t end the story the way they began it.

What does that even mean, though? Why is it important?

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Silence in Mimicry

The knock sounds just as Klirran places her brush and comb on the bed, careful not to touch the rough outer blanket, in a line beside her soap, washcloth and toothbrush. She scowls, glances at the washstand—the soda is right there and it’ll take an instant to grab it and finish the line—but the second knock is louder, followed immediately by a third. Impatience. Not Inmera, since the Cloisters won’t need to talk to her about this newest occurrence, and everybody else knows not to disrupt Klirran while packing if the option to leave her alone exists. Emergency, then, or annoyance. Emergency means yelling, though. Calls to grab her gear and come. Annoyance. Klirran sighs, but she grasps the doorknob, the brass worn smooth and shiny under her hand. How many people have used this little guest room? How many felt trapped here?

She turns the key with her other hand, marks the way the loops of the bow leave red-grey momentarily-throbbing indents against her fingers, pulls the door open.

A woman, her tall and lean body tense and pulled inwards, the green silk sleeves tugged tight over her folded arms. Klirran can’t decide if she wants something to grip or if she wants to make the fabric prominent, although with Caiára it is likely both. Anger, certainly. Always is with her.

Sacrifices, though, don’t forget the green, and neither should Klirran.

This is a first-draft piece, so my apologies for its present roughness. It’s also my first piece in this character’s POV. Klirran is an intersex, bisexual, poly, autistic healer mage who is smarter than you and doesn’t care if you’re bothered by knowing it.  I loved writing her, even before I got to write in her POV, because she’s confident in her own intelligence, ability, sexuality and gender. It’s wonderful to write a character who is confident (unlike me) and confident despite the societal indoctrination we (non-majority) people get that strips confidence away from us. She doesn’t waste time trying to be something she’s not, and that’s something I’m very much trying to learn.

That last thing is why this piece is important to me, the writer, and why any future reader reaction is downright irrelevant.

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The verbose help guide: dialogue and character

Hey, I have 100 WordPress followers now. Maybe I should do a celebratory giveaway or something.

Last time I talked about setting out dialogue.

Today I want to talk about characterisation via dialogue.

Dialogue, as a reader, is hands-down the thing that makes me engage in your writing (if you write fiction). As a writer, it’s the thing that makes me write. You see, I’m not a visual reader. I don’t see this talked about often, such that it took me twenty-nine years to know this absence of response to visual media (as opposed to a preference for other methods of engagement) is in fact a thing: there seems to be this assumption that everybody has the ability to see things inside their heads on some internal movie screen. I don’t. I don’t have, and never will, see anything I write in my head. It wasn’t until a teacher (speculative fiction writer and poet Tracey Rolfe) mentioned that she also doesn’t have this ability (she knows things on an abstract level, but she doesn’t see), and this is why she works so hard on visual description in her writing, that the penny dropped. Other people see things when they readWould you believe that I had no idea this was the case? It explained so much: visualisation techniques recommended by psychologists and other sundry pain specialists resulted in frustration, annoyance and tension such I’d end up wanting to tear my eyeballs out of my head (sadly, no hyperbole). I never understood why they set such store by this thing or how it was even possible to do. To me it was absurdity.

I don’t interact with the world on a visual level. I can tell by your tone of voice what your mood is, but I’m never going to know the colour of your eyes or how many times you’ve worn that pair of shoes. However, readers who are not me expect (especially in speculative fiction) a moderate to high level of visual description, the painting of images via words. We might laugh at the extremes of Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin, who describe everything and at length, but most of us still expect the words an author writes to provoke a mental image. I work hard to describe as much as I do (and to find the right balance of description: because I don’t see anything or even desire it, I don’t know on an instinctual level what is too much or too little) and I’m nowhere near mastering visual description in the way I need to be a great writer.

Why am I telling you this?

Dialogue is my entry point into a book. I’ve got fantastic auditory processing in terms of memory and comprehension if I’m in an environment where my sensory processing issues aren’t overburdened by competing noise (I don’t go to clubs because I hear everything, which means I hear nothing, and I’ve been to many a restaurant, bar or cafe that’s almost as bad). I can hear and recollect (flashback, even) words people spoke, complete with pitch, tone and emotion. When I read each character has a different-sounding voice in my head (and their dialogue voice sounds different from their prose/narration voice). None of this makes me unique or special, by the way. We all do it. It’s just that for me, in the absence of my inner film screen, I am more reliant on my inner radio to develop a connection with the characters. I can appreciate what they look like on an abstract level – ooh, the protagonist wears metal band T-shirts – but I’ll never see it. I will hear everything they say. Good, human, real-feeling, emotional, distinct dialogue – not necessarily clever dialogue, snappy dialogue, funny dialogue or witty dialogue – matters to me because it’s how I build a sense of your character beyond the abstract. It’s how I slide into their skin and journey with them through your book.

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The verbose help guide: dialogue

I told Julia Kyle that I’d been reading a bunch of self-published and indie queer ebooks, most of which I didn’t dislike but did leave me in want of books about queer, trans and non-binary leads with mainstream-standard (good mainstream-standard, because we can all point to any number of awfully-written mainstream-published novels) copyediting and/or structural editing. I’m not even talking content, here (the amount of women, the handling of queer relationships, the fact non-binary people don’t exist, the way authors slept through Year 12 Biology because they don’t understand how a fever works, the repeated failure to write horses in anything approaching a correct fashion). I’m talking the nuts and bolts of sentence construction and ebook design. I’m talking the things I’d love to never see in a book, the things I’m editor enough that I can’t unsee or ignore, the fiction-writing basics that are in fact not-basic enough they slip past even attentive and edited self-published and indie writers.

Julia made the mistake of asking me if I’d write a post on these things: what to do, what not to do, how to avoid it.

I may have cackled. A lot. And responded with enthusiasm enough she quoted me on Tumblr. Someone wants me to talk about all the things running through my head every time I crack open a book? Someone has given me permission to get on my editorial high horse? Fuck and yes, mate.

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Queering words: a field guide (part 2)

Hello. Last time I discussed the two basic rules for approaching the language used by the queer people in your life, which can be boiled down to don’t be a douche, but sometimes we say things that seem reasonable to us without understanding that they’re not-so-reasonable to the audience. After all, empathy, sensitivity and respect aren’t exactly qualities prized in Western society, and privilege makes it hard to develop these traits with regard to minorities. How does one be a genuinely empathic person if one doesn’t have some experience of pain and suffering? How does one relate to that pain if it is only an abstract concept?

I think this is why so many allies complain about misandry, reverse racism, heterophobia, cisphobia and other such reverse/anti isms coming from minorities. Think about it. If you haven’t been hurt, if you live in a society where you are privileged and prioritised, having somebody call you a cracker or a fucking cishet is probably going to feel like a hit to the face. Of course, there’s no systematic oppression behind those words, nothing but a tired, frustrated and hurting minority voicing their pain, but when one has no or little experience of pain, when society is set up to tell you that you are amazing, special and deserving of having every fucking book written about you, it probably feels like oppression. Imagine a spoiled rich kid getting a shock because his parents tell him he can’t have a new iPad after he threw the old one on the kitchen table and cracked the screen. We, who are not rich, just roll our eyes. Allies who don’t share the minority status in question are that rich kid. We minorities know it’s nothing like the knowledge of waking up in the morning knowing that people loathe you so much they deny you basic human rights, a scratch compared to a broken nose, but allies don’t. In my experience, the best queer allies are those who have hard-earned knowledge of oppression in other ways (my friends who understand chronic health problems, mental illness and misogyny, for example). They are the most able to put themselves into my shoes and do what they can to make life as easy as possible for me.

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