Tag Archives: main character

Review of Secondhand Heart

Secondhand-Heart-FOR-WEB-200x300I just finished reading Secondhand Heart by Kristen Strassel, and I found it sexy, surprising, and touching. It got me right in the feels.

I took a liking to the main character, Daisy, right off the bat. She’s got a great attitude with just the right touch of snark. She’s not afraid to say “fuck” when she wants to, and she’ll get right up in someone’s face when they need to be put in their place. I also felt bad for her, learning early on that she’d recently lost her husband and was overwhelmed by the pity and pampering everyone was directing at her when she really just needed some time alone. I also found it refreshing that Daisy wasn’t your “typical” romance novel heroine. I’ve read a number of romance novels lately where the main character has a perfect body, perfect hair, and is generally unattainable in every way. It usually makes me feel like the author is trying to write an idealized version of reality in order to fulfill some fantasy. Daisy, on the other hand, refers to herself as “chubby” in the opening chapter, and throughout she comes off as a more realistic, ordinary woman. She struggles with her body image throughout the story. I found this easier to relate to as a reader.

I lost some of that relatability when the male love interest, Cam, was first introduced. He’s immediately described with a focus on his unattainable hotness:

 “The faded denim made his thighs look amazing. Who the hell checked out thighs? Well, if you saw these thighs, they were worth checking out. On The Spotlight, Cam had been an overgrown, almost goofy kid, playing a role. Doing what he was told. Now, on this tiny stage just feet away from us in this club, it was obvious he was all man. All smoking hot man.”

This seems to be a common, and in my opinion overused, romance novel trope. Even though the female lead is an ordinary woman, her love interest is “smoking hot” and the initial attraction is all physical (combined with the fact that he’s a somewhat famous musician, and wealthy enough to own his own bar/nightclub). As a male reader, I get a bit uncomfortable reading such a description, because it makes me feel like these stories set an unrealistic standard for male beauty. I tend to hear people complain more about unrealistic media portrayals of female beauty, but it happens with men too. It made me wonder whether Cam would turn out to have other, more worthwhile character traits to explain Daisy’s interest in him (intelligence, personality, a sense of humor, kindness, etc.). These things didn’t factor into the initial attraction, so I made a point to watch carefully as I read on to see if they’d come up later on.

By about halfway through the book, it seemed like the entire basis of Daisy and Cam’s relationship was their sexual attraction to each other. Daisy even acknowledges this at one point when she says, “But everything with us is about sex.” The fact that she acknowledged it made me pay even more attention to the development of the relationship. Between the earlier focus on physical attraction and the later development of their sexual relationship, I was curious to see if there would ever turn out to be something more between them, something emotional and serious and worth building a long-term relationship off of. Most of the second half of the book focused really well on addressing these issues, and Cam started to develop a lot of depth. It was enough that by the end of the book, I was thinking of him more as a kind, caring, chivalrous kind of guy, rather than a rich piece of man-candy. I still couldn’t relate to him in many ways, but I did end up liking him by the end.

A secondary plot in the book followed the main character’s sister, Ev. Ev is pregnant and about to get married, and there’s some hints of jealousy between her and Daisy. This leads to some conflict between the sisters that adds more tension to the main Daisy/Cam relationship, though on one level it was underutilized. This is because Ev’s fiancé, Roger, is almost never seen. He’s referred to regularly, and Daisy always describes him in unflattering ways, but the reader doesn’t get to meet him. As a result, I could never quite tell if Roger was actually a jerk, or if Daisy was being too hard on him because of her own biases. He finally appears on the page during a tense high point in the story, a moment charged with a lot of emotion. But it was hard to connect with Roger in that moment, because it was the first I’d seen of his character. Roger actually ends up being the catalyst of a key turning point in the story, but at the same time, I felt like I never got to know him. I would have liked to see more done with his character, considering how crucial Ev was to the story and how big of an impact this turning point has on the final chapters of the book.

Aside from the story and the romantic relationship itself, I also considered the overall writing style. The prose and the voice of the main character were very strong. Daisy has a lot of sass, and her voice in the story comes off as very genuine and down-to-earth. The only issues I had with the writing itself were 1) A handful of typos and formatting errors that cropped up every other chapter and 2) Not enough use of “he said/she said” dialogue tags to make the speaker clear (80% of the time, context clues indicated who was speaking, but there were plenty of times I got lost and wasn’t sure who the speaker was). These issues didn’t detract from the story, but they were a bit distracting. Which is a pity, because it’s a beautiful story, with amazing characters and some twists that you will never see coming.

If you like romance, country music, and down-to-earth girls who know how to live life the way it should be lived, I definitely recommend Secondhand Heart. It’s on Amazon in ebook and paperback, and you can find it on Goodreads.


You can find Secondhand Heart on Amazon.com, along with Kristen’s other books, Because the Night, Night Moves, and Seasons in the Sun.

kristenpic 2You can also find Kristen on Twitter, Facebook, her website, or her blog, Deadly Ever After.
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Something at Stake

I mentioned in my last post that I would be working on some of my short stories for Arcana Revived in the near future. I’ve also mentioned that I was getting a couple of those short stories critiqued and workshopped by my classmates in my Rowan University graduate fiction workshop. I noticed a common theme during the class workshops, both of my own story and of others from the class, which seems to come up often enough to be worth discussing. It’s the issue of making sure your characters have something at stake.

This seems to be an issue that mostly relates to first drafts and works that are in their early stages of development. The idea is that no matter how interesting the individual events in the story are, the characters involved (most especially the main character) need to have something at stake. If they don’t have anything at stake, anything to lose, anything to gain, or any chance to grow, then their story may end up being pointless.

There’s a few different ways that this issue seemed to come up in the stories we workshopped, so I’ll go over each one individually.

The Stakes Aren’t Apparent at the Beginning

This seems to mostly be an issue with the stories that were actually the early chapters of a novel. The problem occurs when there are interesting characters in an interesting situation but with no apparent reason for them to be there. For example, one of my classmates was writing a story about a character who was being dragged along as a guide/sidekick/partner to the Spirit of Vengeance while they went on a quest to do . . . something.

That “something” part was what was missing. The section we workshopped (which was basically the first chapter of the draft) didn’t give us any reason for the characters to be on this “quest.” The characters were interesting (think Jay from Men in Black meets a ghost who has the same creepy powerful vibe as Agent Smith from The Matrix). The idea of traveling with the Spirit of Vengeance on some kind of quest was interesting. But in the opening we read, we didn’t know what the quest was or why it was important for the main character to be on it.

This mostly seemed to stem from the fact that this was an early opening draft where the author was still exploring the characters and learning what they were all about. It’s a common thing in early drafts. Sometimes it takes a while to explore the characters and learn about them. However, once you’ve done so, it may prove necessary to cut the early “exploratory” sections of the piece before final publication.

The Point of View Character Isn’t the One with Something at Stake

This is a different issue than the one mentioned above, where the “main” character of a story is just along for the ride. Some of the stories we reviewed had characters who were reporting on a lot of interesting things happening around them (happening to friends, family, or others), but who had no personal stake in the events.

As an example, consider what would happen if you took a story like The Hunger Games and told it from the perspective of someone watching the Games from home. You could have them watch every event that Katniss goes through, tell the exact same story . . . except the person watching wouldn’t be the one with something really at stake. Even if it were Katniss’s mother or sister, they don’t have as much at stake in the story as Katniss herself.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a character has to be the most directly involved in order to be the point of view character. Dr. Watson was Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick, yet he was also the one telling the story. But he was directly involved in events and had a personal stake in their outcome.

The Stakes Aren’t Personal Enough

While my story, Next Spring, was being workshopped, some of the reviewers raised the point that the main character, Callia Gainsborough, didn’t have enough of a personal stake in the conflict as it was being presented. This is something that will be easy enough to fix during revisions, and the central cause was that the story focused a little too much on the supporting character, Ethan. Ethan’s role was meant to be minor, and his interactions with Callia in the story were meant to show how Callia would react to certain events. Yet since most of the story involved Callia merely reacting to Ethan’s actions and behavior, the result was that she didn’t seem to have much at stake for herself, her own needs, and her own character development.

The solution is simply to revise the story with a greater focus on Callia’s thoughts and emotions. There are issues that Callia is struggling with: the changes in her life, her loneliness, her need to find her place, and her as-yet-unexpressed feelings for someone she’s only previously been friends with. Focusing on these issues will give Callia more of a personal conflict to overcome (even if the conflict is mostly an internal one). Then, her interactions with Ethan simply become a catalyst for how she decides to look within herself.

The good news is that the basic structure of the story–the events that laid out from Point A to B to C–are already there. This will allow me to go back and add more depth to the character without having to alter the overall course of the story.

The Character Doesn’t Demonstrate Change

An important part of any story is having a character grow and change during the course of it. During a short story, this can be difficult, since you don’t have a lot of time to work with. However, a character can undergo a significant change in a short amount of time.

Sometimes the change is merely an internal one. For example, as I mentioned when discussing New Spring above, the conflict in the story is mostly centered around Callia’s thoughts and emotions. Simply coming to a decision, revelation, or other emotional triumph can be enough of a change in such a case. In other stories, the change might be more drastic, such as with my short story Radiance, where the main character Maria Vasquez undergoes an actual supernatural physical transformation. Then there are cases where a character grows up in some way by making an important decision that shows an embarkment into maturity. Or a character might make a significant life decision, and in a short story, the reader doesn’t always need to see what happens after that decision. Just knowing that a character is going to quit their job, or move to another state, or try to reconnect with their girlfriend might be enough of an ending (think of the ending to the movie Clerks, where Dante ends with the decision to fix things up with Veronica, but we don’t actually see him do so).

If a character didn’t change throughout the course of the story, it was probably because they had nothing at stake. The stakes of the story should be the catalyst for change. And if you see someone else besides the main character experience growth and change, that’s a good sign that the main character wasn’t the one with something at stake.

There’s likely other issues centered around a character having something at stake. Let me know if you can think of any. Because what’s at stake for me is becoming the best writer I can be.

#ProtagonistPickupLines

#ProtagonistPickupLines is a meme I devised over the weekend. The idea is to come up with lines that a book’s main character might use when flirting with their author. Think of it like the romance writer’s version of “Stranger Than Fiction,” where a book’s character comes to life and interacts with their author.

I decided a fitting way to portray this meme was to use the images of actors and actresses from books-turned-movies (or tv shows):

#ProtagonistPickupLines Katniss

#ProtagonistPickupLines Harry Potter

#ProtagonistPickupLines Aragorn

#ProtagonistPickupLines Richard Rahl

#ProtagonistPickupLines Kahlan_Amnell

#ProtagonistPickupLines Frodo#ProtagonistPickupLines Carrie

If you have any other ideas for #ProtagonistPickupLines, feel free to share them here, or tweet them at me @CantrellJason.

 

Photoshop Experiments: Maelyssa Southeby

Maelyssa “Mae” Southeby is one of the major supporting characters in the Arcana Revived series. She’s also known as “the girl with the belladonna tattoo,” and in addition to her supporting role in the novels, she’s the main character of the short story Belladonna. Her character inspiration is a model I only know by her online username, “Ledabunnymonster.” Here’s an experiment with adding both glowing arcana eyes and the manifestation of Mae’s power pouring from her palm:

Mae with Arcana Eyes
Mae with Arcana Eyes

Suspense Without Death

I’d like to talk about suspense.

I often hear people complaining about certain TV shows, movies, books, and comics by saying that there is “no suspense” because “the main characters can’t die.” This can apply to anything from a TV show like “24” (where everyone knew that Jack Bauer had to live or else the series would end), a book series like Harry Potter where the books are named after Harry so of course he has to live, or to a webcomic like The Order of the Stick, where people always complain in the website’s forums about there being no danger to the main cast because they have “plot armor” (as in, their lives are protected because they’re needed for the plot).

I touched on this subject before in a series I wrote about how to use magic in your writing (You can find that series in three posts: The first post discusses 1. How to make your magic unique and 2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense, the second post discusses  3. How to break your own rules (and do it right) and 4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic, and the third post discusses 5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”) and 6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000).  Specifically, “The Superman Dilemma” is an idea that a character’s powers can be so strong that there is no suspense, such as because Superman is rarely in danger and you KNOW Superman won’t die because he’s Superman. The way I discussed getting around this dilemma is by putting the suspense not in whether Superman lives or dies, but instead in whether he succeeds or fails.

So summarize the concept I went over in the post about “The Superman Dilemma,” it basically goes like this: suspense doesn’t just come in whether Superman will die. It comes in whether everyone ELSE will die. Can Superman save them all in time, or will he fail? In a scenario like this, the suspense comes not only from the loss of other lives, but also from the emotional strain Superman faces when he realizes he wasn’t strong enough to save everyone. Similar turmoils occur frequently in other shows and books as well. A good example is Doctor Who. Everyone KNOWS the Doctor can’t die, because if he does, he just regenerates. But the suspense comes in wondering whether he can save everyone else, and we see his pain and his turmoil every time he fails someone who was counting on him.

Now, the original post I wrote about this dilemma was focused on the magic angle of suspense; specifically, the way you use these ideas to create suspense when you have a character with extreme powers and abilities (whether they be Superman’s superhero powers or the Doctor’s intelligence and cunning). However, this concept can be taken to a different level. What about if you have a character with NO powers?

I’m currently reading The Hunger Games. I haven’t yet seen the movies and I plan on finishing the books before I do so. (Spoilers to follow, so don’t read on if you don’t want me giving away the plot of the book). Now, The Hunger Games has no real magic in it (though the Gamemakers technological ability to do things like summon a giant wall of fire could almost be magic from a literary perspective). The main character, Katniss Everdeen, has to survive the games through nothing but her skills, cunning, and perseverance. Of course, I know she CAN’T die in the first book, because a) there’s two more books and b) I’ve seen previews for the second movie, Catching Fire that show her as the victor. Does this take away the suspense?

No. And here’s why.

Katniss isn’t a superhero, so she’s not expected to save anyone. If she does save one of the other Tributes, she does so because she is pure of heart, not because she’s there to save them. So the idea of “failing to save people” (as with Superman) doesn’t really apply to her. We expect her to have to kill the others. So if we remove BOTH the suspense of her dying (since she can’t) and the suspense of her failing to save others (since she isn’t expected to do so), then what suspense is there?

The suspense of her maintaining her humanity.

I’m about halfway through the book. I just read a scene where Katniss and the younger girl, Rue, are both hiding in the trees, trying to escape the other Tributes. Rue warns Katniss about a hive of genetically engineered wasps, and in exchange, Katniss warns Rue to escape before she unleashes the wasps on the other Tributes down on the ground. Two Tributes die because of Katniss’s actions, but we see this as a victory, because they were trying to kill Katniss first. She wins and defeats her enemies.

However, there are two Tributes so far that are NOT Katniss’s enemies: Rue and Peeta. Peeta is in love with Katniss and saves her life, not only refusing to attack her when he has the chance but warning her when others are coming. So by this point in the book, both Rue and Peeta have proven themselves to be friends and potential allies for Katniss. She won’t want to kill them, even if she’ll willingly kill any of the other Tributes.

This creates suspense, because even knowing Katniss has to live, the reader wonders, Will she have to kill her friends? I don’t want Katniss to have to kill Rue. I like Rue, and I want her to live. But even if she dies, there is suspense because I don’t want Katniss to be the one who kills her. Maybe Rue will be killed by another Tribute. Maybe she will die of the dangers around her in the wilderness. Maybe she will heroically sacrifice herself to save Katniss. I don’t know what will happen, but not knowing creates suspense. More than anything, I don’t want to see Katniss suffer the pain of murdering someone she sees as a friend. That pain, the pain Katniss would feel over having to kill someone she doesn’t want to kill, would be worse than Superman’s pain when he fails to save a life.

So you see, there can be suspense in many forms. Sometimes it’s not a question of “Will the main character die?” Sometimes, it’s a question of “What will the main character have to do to survive?” She might lose something deeper, some part of her good nature. And if she turns into a murderer to save herself, isn’t that a bigger defeat than seeing her die?

Characters

I’d like to talk about characters.

I’ve just finished reading The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to get into a full review of the entire novel (short version: great, imaginative story with stunning detail, but poor structure, plot holes, and problems with the prose), but one particular thing the book left me thinking about is the characters. I feel like the book had too many characters, and several of them came off as flat, undeveloped characters that didn’t serve a real role in the story.

How many characters does your story need? How much detail does each character need? How much do they need to be developed?

You could find thousands of different answers to those questions on various writing blogs. I’ve read a few before, and they all seem to approach the question from a different perspective. Some answer from the perspective of the role the character plays in the story: are they the protagonist, antagonist, love interest, sidekick, or something else? Others approach the questions from the point of view of character archetypes: the orphan hero, the mysterious traveler, the trickster, the wise sage, and so on.

I tend to approach this question from a slightly different point of view: are we being told this character’s story, or are they a minor player in someone else’s story?

Allow me to explain.

If you’re writing a novel from a single character’s point of view, then you’re writing their story. The Harry Potter novels are, when it comes down to it, Harry’s story. There are sporadic times when we see another character’s point of view, but it’s rare in those books to be taken away from Harry and see events going on elsewhere. He’s the central focus. In a situation like this, any other characters exist in roles relative to the main character.

You see this in movies all the time as well. Any superhero movie  tends to focus primarily on the hero. We see a great deal of Batman or Superman’s life, and very little of what is going on with anyone else. If we do see events taking place away from the character, it’s only based on how those events relate to the main character. For example, if we see what Lois Lane is up to on her own, it’s usually only to show the danger she’s about to get into so Superman can come and save her. That still makes it Superman’s story about how he rescued Lois Lane, not Lois Lane’s story about how she was rescued by Superman.

You can also have a central group point of view that functions the same way, if the characters remain together all the time. A movie like Saving Private Ryan is a good example. The entire movie follows six soldiers on a journey together. We’re never separated from those characters, and they’re on the same journey with the same goal the entire time. Other characters who appear serve a role in relation to them. The group encounters people who need to be rescued, but the focus remains on the soldiers doing the rescuing. They encounter other groups of soldiers, but only for as long as it takes to question them about where Private Ryan is. When the main group moves on, we never see these minor characters again.

So in the above examples, we have a single central point of view (whether it’s the point of view of a single person or of a unified group). Other characters exist only in relation to the main character(s). We never see more of those minor characters’ lives, so they don’t need much development. This is a good thing, because in a short book or movie, there’s only room for so much development.

But what if you have multiple POVs?

A lot of people say that for books around 50,000 words or so, you should stick with a single point of view (or maybe alternating between two points of view, such as between the two main characters in a romance novel as their relationship develops). This is because 50,000 words is only really enough time to get deeply into one or maybe two people’s lives. It’s better to focus your attention on them as much as possible so that they get the greatest amount of development. If you split such a novel up between 10 characters’ lives, we’d barely get the chance to know each of them.

Now, longer works are very different. Robert Jordon’s The Wheel of Time series, for example, has 15 books (14 + a prequel) totaling well over 4,400,000 words. There are no less than a dozen “primary” main characters who each have their own ongoing story throughout the series, and then hundreds of other supporting characters that end up tied to one of the main characters. In essence, by the later parts of the series, each main character develops a “team” of their own. Matrim Cauthon has the Band of the Red Hand, and multiple well-developed characters seen with him regularly throughout their many adventures. Perrin Aybara has the combined Two Rivers, Mayener, and Aiel forces he commands from book 6 onward, and his own team of supporting characters. Egwene Al’vere ends up leading the Aes Sedai with her own team of supporting characters.

So by thinking about a story like this, there ends up being several “tiers” of characters. When working on my own novels, I’ve developed four tiers that each character can be divided into. These go from the main characters, to their major supporting characters, to minor supporting members of their teams, to miscellaneous (often unnamed) characters.

An example of this setup would go like this:

Tier 1: Gabriella Palladino (Main Protagonist)
–Tier 2: Gabby’s major supporting characters: Her family (Mother, Father, older brothers Frankie and Anthony, older sister Adrianna, nephew Dante), plus her best friend Callia Gainsborough.
—-Tier 3: Gabby’s minor supporting characters: Classmates at her high school (Jacob, Rick, Charlie, Erica), her brother’s friend Matt.
——–Tier 4: Miscellaneous unnamed students, teachers, police officers, etc.

Based on that kind of breakdown, it would make sense that Gabby would get the most character development. She’s the one who is the central focus of her scenes, and we see supporting characters (such as her family) only as they relate to her point of view. We do not, for example, follow her dad to work and find out what his life is like away from his family. We do, however, follow Gabby to school and see parts of her life away from her family.

And that’s just one “team.” There’s also another team for Tock Zipporah, who has her own central story to follow. She also has major supporting characters, minor characters, and miscellaneous characters who are all a part of her ongoing story.

Here is also where the short stories I’m writing become fun. I mentioned recently that I’m working on a short story, Belladonna, which follows the story of Mae Southeby. Mae is a Tier 2 character in the main set of novels, which means she gets a lot of screen time and action, but we aren’t really reading her story; we’re reading Gabby and Tock’s story. Tier 2 characters can get tons of development, but they’re not the central focus. Writing a separate short story about that character gives them a chance to be Tier 1 in their own story. That’s also what I did with Radiance; Maria Vasquez becomes a Tier 2 character in Gabby’s team in the later books, but in Radiance, she’s Tier 1.

This is also how spinoffs work. The Sarah Jane Adventures gives the character Sarah Jane Smith, from Doctor Who, the chance to move from a supporting character to a main character. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does the same thing with characters from The Avengers. In each of those series, there will be a new set of major, minor, and miscellaneous supporting characters. Plus, if a character from the original series guest stars on them, they technically become Tier 2 since they’re only a guest on the spinoff.

So based on all this, the question isn’t really “How many characters do you need?” It’s a question of “How many Tier 1 MAIN characters do you need?” In a shorter book (50,000 words), there should only be one or two Tier 1 main characters. Each of them can have as many supporting characters as they need, so long as those characters remain tied to the main character. In a longer work (100k-150k), you can easily have three, four, or five Tier 1 main characters, each of which can have their own groups (family members, friends, coworkers, classmates, comrades in a military squad, etc). Just remember who the MAIN characters are, the ones who get the most central focus, and think of the other characters in terms of how they support the main characters’ stories.