A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, May 20, 2022

The Council of Nicaea and Subatomic Physics


Today was he opening day of the Council of Nicaea, during which St Nicholas (Yes, that St Nick) punched Arius in the chops as part of a scholarly discussion on the nature of the Son. Was he a Man or was he God? The Council decided Yes. He was both. At the same Time. And not a diluted blend of one in the other, but fully each and both. If this seems screwy -- How can He be both? -- ask yourself whether an electron is a particle or a wave.

So I Nicaea paved the way for modern subatomic physics. Who knew.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Scrivening 7: Who was that Character I Saw You With Last Night?


Assuming you are not a Baker Street Irregular, can you describe off the top of your head the plots of these stories:
  • “The Adventure of the Five Napoleons”
  • “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge”
  • “The Adventure of the Empty House”

Now, can describe the character of Sherlock Holmes? 

Of course you can. Often, Character trumps Plot in making a story click. Indeed, Henry James declared, "Character IS Plot!" How a plot proceeds will depend on the Characters who move through it.

Examples of memorable characters include Hercule Poirot, Indiana Jones, Kim, and others. Sometimes, a character is a one-off. It is hard to imagine Kipling's Kim without the character of Kim himself. Replace the central character of an orphaned child of a British soldier and Indian mother knocking around the Raj and it becomes an entirely different Story. It is equally difficult to imagine Kim II: Secret Agent. 

But some characters, like Poirot or Holmes or Travis McGee, go on to fresh, new adventures. Mysteries seem especially suited to series. David Copperfield does not. Captain Nemo is an intriguing character, but Verne used him only twice.

A Situation and a Character

Consider the following Situation:

One day, Jimmy decided he would drive the family car to St. Louis. 

Not very interesting, TOF hears you say. So, let's up the ante:

As the dust from the meteor strike began settling over the ruins of Denver, Jimmy decided he had better take the family car and high-tail it to St. Louis before the engine became choked with grit.  

Now we're cooking. We've got the meteor strike, we've got a reason for taking the car, and we've got a destination. But who is Jimmy and why should we care if he gets to St Louis or not? If we want to make the Situation fraught, "Jimmy" must be a Character, not just a name.

...but first he had to tie wooden blocks to his sneakers so his feet could reach the pedals. 
Wait! What? Jimmy is a kid? What happened to his parents? Does he know where he is going? When did he learn to drive a car? All sorts of questions pop up. But they are different questions than we would ask if Jimmy were an ex-Special Forces soldier trained in survival techniques. Either Jimmy can make an interesting Story, but they would be different Stories. Because Character really is Plot.

Fables and Romances


The word for novel is in many languages roman, which gave rise to romantic and romance, though not in the sense of modern publishing categories but more in the sense of romance languages.

The early medieval period had stories, often in verse, called the chansons de geste, songs of heroes. These fables were like ancient myths and legends. A typical example is Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne [The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne], sung ca. 1140. This told how Big Chuck and his peeps traveled to Jerusalem. Along the way, they drop in on the Eastern Emperor and learn that Constantinople sits on a rotating disk atop a tall pole. [Think "medieval space station".] Spoiler alert: it does not. But the image fulfilled the allegory of Byzantium as a fabulous realm full of wonders. No one cared about journalistic accuracy.

In a fable, archetypes perform iconic deeds in an allegorical setting. Hero, wise queen, brave traitor, cowardly traitor, beautiful princess... We know what they are expected to do; not because of their motivations, but because that's what their type does. Fables are still being written, sometimes on purpose. In the modern era, a fable may feature young iconoclast scientist who sees a danger/opportunity no one else does, old fogy scientist who doesn't believe him, beautiful daughter of old fogy scientist, plucky rebel, and so on.

But sometime in the 13th century, something new developed. It was called novel because it was new. This new kind of narrative developed from poems like
Meier Helmbrecht, by Wernher der Gärtner, ca. 1250. (Note that we now start learning who the Authors were.) This epic featured, not a knight or a king, but a peasant who runs off to join the knights but winds up serving a bandit chief and gets hanged by the very peasants he had imagined he was championing. Helmbrecht subverted medieval tropes long before George R. R. Martin. [Think what Helm and brecht mean in German.]

These romances featured realistic characters moving through realistic landscapes and acting from their own motives and purposes. Of course, the kitten is not a cat, an acorn is not an oak, and Helmbrecht is not War and Peace. The novel has developed greatly in the past 700-plus years.

Walk-on Characters

Novels typically feature multiple Characters, each with his or her own motives and purposes, and is a tapestry woven from these many threads. Every character is the hero of his own story. But not all Characters are created equal.

Archetypes and stereotypes still serve a purpose in realistic fictions. They are the background characters, the walk-ons that give a milieu the sense of being "lived in." But we don't want to spend much time on them. The cabby, the skycap, the ticket agent are merely a cabby, a skycap or a ticket agent doing things that cabbies, skycaps, and ticket agents  typically do. They need not be characterized.

Consider the following example by Orson Scott Card (Writer's Digest,May 1, 2012)

Nora accidentally gave the cabby a $20 bill for a $5 ride and then was too shy to ask for change. Within a minute a skycap had the rest of her money.

There is no need to flesh them out beyond this. We know what cabbies and skycaps are and what they do. Characters who fit a stereotype are familiar. The reader may fill in the "background details" himself. 

Characters who violate a stereotype, otoh, can become interesting. They stand out from the crowd of "extras." We can characterize minor characters with 

  • a single trait, 
  • an eccentricity,
  • an exaggeration
and so on. The reader will remember the character with the scar on his cheek or who constantly fiddles with an old-style silver dollar, which may useful if that character makes a return appearance. Consider our friend, the cabby, from the previous example:

The cabby chased Nora into the airport, hollering, “Hey, lady! You gave me too much!” Nora tried to quiet him, but the cabby would not hear of it. “I like to earn my money, lady! Five dollar ride; one dollar tip. You got fourteen bucks coming back.”

That makes the character a bit more memorable and if on her return Nora hops into the same cab, the reader may enjoy a frisson of recollection. Here is a supporting character sketched in Donald E. Westlake's crime comedy, Nobody's Perfect:

“Hello, Dortmunder.”  Tiny had the voice of a frog in an oil drum, but less musical. “Long time, no see.”
Dortmunder sat opposite him, saying, “You look good, Tiny,” which was a palpable lie.  Tiny, hulking on the little chair, his great meaty shoulders bulging inside his cheap brown suit, a shelf of forehead bone shadowing his eyes, looked mostly like something to scare children into going to bed.

This is more than "Tiny was large and scary-looking," but not too much more (although he does become a repeating character in the series and we learn more about him).

Building a Major Character

Creating a Major Character involves several aspects. A character may spring complete from you forehead, as Artemis did from the brow of Zeus, but often it's easier to build him/her up from sketch to oil painting.
  1. Getting idea from observation or experience;
  2. ‘First broad strokes’;
  3. Find core of character;
  4. Add paradoxes;
  5. Add emotions, attitudes, values;
  6. Add other details

1. That was no Character, That was my Wife

It is generally a bad idea to put actual friends, family, or colleagues into your fiction. Who knows at what they may take offense? However, there is a tradition in Science Fiction called Tuckerization, after Wilson Tucker, by which Authors do exactly that, sometimes under their own names, sometimes 'in disguise.' The Niven/Pournelle/Flynn yarn Fallen Angels is replete with actual fans, many of whom bid in a auction for the honor of being included. Harry Turtledove described a starship pilot named Mike Flynn in his Worldwar: Colonization series, probably in answer to the appearance of a Balkan expert, Capt. Dove, in the Flynn novel Rogue Star.
But more often, the Author will use bits and pieces of friends and acquaintances, not the whole person, assembling them as Frankenstein did his monster, although one hope swith happier results. Suppose your friend is a devout stamp collector. Another friend drives classic English sports cars. You may have a Character who drives a restored hunter-green TR-3 and who collects Czech First Issues. In my as-yet unpublished novel The Shipwrecks of Time, I used my wife as an armature to build Carol Harris, primarily using her physical stature and personality. But I changed things around, too. Carol was from Texas, not Oklahoma. Her father died and she was  raised by her mother rather than vice versa. I also added totally alien traits because while Carol was built from the Incomparable Marge, she was not in fact the Incomparable Marge.

The Author then has an obligation to closely observe people: at the diner, at the Little League game, on the street, harvesting bits and pieces of traits and behaviors that can be assembled into whole characters unlike any of the individuals observed. When I described the scarred man with a chin "like a coat hook", it was based on a stranger I glimpsed once on the Vienna U-bahn.
Some of the things to look for include:
  • Body: physical appearance
  • Acts: What a character does
  • Reputation: What other characters say about him
  • Habits: What a character does without thinking
  • Tastes: What a character likes to do
  • Talents: What a character can do
  • Network: Different folks for different strokes
  • The Past: What led him to his current state
  • Motive: Why he does it
A word about Networks. A person does not act the same way toward everyone he knows. Relatives, friends, co-workers may see a different person, displaying different traits and attitudes. Try not to make your characters monolithic.

Motive and Purpose

Keep in mind that each of your characters are moved by two things
  1. Motives, which stem from his past and "push" him
  2. Purposes, which lie in the future and "pull" him toward a particular goal
Those of you with Aristotelian leanings may recognize Motive and Purpose as Efficient and Final Causes for the motion of the Character.

Purposes are generally explicit and known, but the Character may not know his own Motives, though the Author dang well should. 
  • Why did Bruce Wayne become the Batman?
  • Why did Elizabeth Bennet initially reject Darcy? (Pride and Prejudice)
  • Why did Sherlock Holmes become a private inquiry agent?
  • Why does John Book not have a woman in his life? (Witness)
  • Why does Donovan accompany the harper out to the wild planets? (Up Jim River)
  • Why does Conagher stand by Seaborn Tay, a man he barely knows? (Conagher)
Lance pursues a life of dissolution perhapsbecause he wants to show his old man a thing or two, though he himself may be unaware that this is why he drinks and wenches. Part of the narrative suspense lies in gradually revealing to the Reader just what those motives are.
In Eifelheim, the Paris-educated Fr. Dietrich seeks to aid the shipwrecked aliens in part to atone for dark deeds done twenty years earlier. These deeds are gradually unveiled to the Reader in the course of the narrative. But, in the same novel, the gay character with a crush om Dietrich is never explicitly 'outed' in the text.

2. First Broad Strokes

Once you have an idea for a character, try describe him (or of course her, and in SF, it) in one sentence. Just a few broad strokes will do it. For example:
  • A lone woman on a quay gazing out to sea (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles)
  • Tall and spare with a hawklike face; cold, logical, calculating (Sherlock Holmes, Doyle)
  • Short and stubby, always with an umbrella; humor, wisdom, insight (Fr Brown, Chesterton)
  • Belgian, with an egg-shaped head and a passion for order (Hercule Poirot, Christie)
  • “His mind had been split into several personalities by an experiment gone horribly wrong; or, even more horribly, right.” (Donovan buigh, Flynn)
You want, as Nancy Kress advises, to "create a visual image, so the reader can picture the character in some important way." Though you should avoid "police blotter" descriptions: height, weight, age, etc. It's okay to mention such things, but they should not constitute the introductory description. You want to "reveal something about the person inside that image" and "convey an impression of someone unique and interesting."

Stephen King introduces Carrie White as Follows
Carrie stood among [the girls in the locker room] stolidly, a frog among swans. She was a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color. It rested against her face with dispirited sogginess and she simply stood, head slightly bent, letting the water splat against her flesh and roll off.
Of course, he could have just said that Carrie was passive and unattractive, but that would be telling, not showing.Notice how his choice of words reveal these traits.
Here is how I introduced the scarred man in The January Dancer. The story is told from an omniscient viewpoint.
His face, emerging from the darkened alcove at last, is shrunken, as if he has been suctioned out and all that remains of him is skin and skull.  His flesh is sallow, his cheeks hollow.  His chin curls like a coat-hook, and his mouth sags across the saddle of the hook.  He does not look like Death.  He looks like Disapproval, and that is worse, for Death is at least impartial.  His hair is too white, but there are places on his skull, places with scars, where the hair will never grow back.  His eyes are restless.  They dart ever sidewise, as if something wicked lurks just past the edge of his vision.
 That he is cynical and sarcastic will come as no surprise after that introduction.

3. Find the Core of the Character

Characters, no less than other elements of your fiction, need to be researched. We have a few broad strokes now, but we must drill deeper to understand the Character. Investigate their
  • Historical setting when she or he lived
  • Locations where she or he lived
  • Ethnicity
  • Social background
  • Education
  • Religious background
  • Occupations
Nothing throws the reader out of a story like an unrealistic detail. If your Character is a glass-blower, you must research glass blowing. If she is a daughter of a Presbyterian parson, you need to learn something about Presbyterian parsons, and how they raise their daughters. If she was born in the 1960s and raised then in the 1970s and 80s, in Iowa, learn something about mid-century Iowa. This research may be done through books, or through interviews or travel.
For example, when John Dunning was considering a novel involving a Washington State Ferry that disappears on the Bay due to the Bermuda Triangle shifting location, he contacted WSDOT and asked for information. They happily sent him schedules, deck plans, ferry names, and a host of other datan-- most of it nowadays available on the Web. [Later, when he had decided that a disappearing ferry was not "his" book, he gave the idea to me and I used it for the novella "Dawn and Sunset and the Colours of the Earth." I drew as well on my own visits to Seattle for background and descriptions and on Nancy Kress, who was living there at the time.] 
Even if your Character is an Elf or lives in a future society, this work must be done. What are elves like, what are the features of the future world? In some ways, this may be more difficult than using historical characters or or those living in the present world. For example, for Pastor Dietrich in Eifelheim, the one word answers to the points raised above were:
  • Time: 1348
  • Location: Schwartzwald, Mark Baden
  • Ethnicity: Schwäbisch
  • Social background: Born lower class
  • Education: Univ. of Paris, master of arts
  • Religious: Catholic
  • Occupation: Parish priest
Most of these required some degree of research. What was the recent history of Baden? Who was the Markgraf? What would Dietrich have read at the Paris Uni? There was a peasant uprising in the Baden twenty years before the novel begins. How was Dietrich affected by it? And so on. Some of this was researched  while writing -- I didn't need to know the name of the ruling graf, but it was a bit of color I could put in during revision. but that runs the risk of having to go back and rewrite something that has become incompatible with history or doctrine or Paris.

3. Find the Character's Core

The Main Motivating Trait will color all the Character's actions. If he is proud, pride will inform in some way whatever he does. This can be revealed to the Reader in various was, for example
By Action
  • When Adam saw the bloody body in the library, he shouted in alarm, “Gareth! Oh my God! Oh my God!” and nearly swallowed his fingers.
  • When Betsy saw the bloody body in the library, she began to search for a weapon. Gareth had been stabbed; but with what?
  • When Carl saw the bloody body in the library, he looked about warily. Gareth’s killer might still be nearby.
  • When Debbie saw the bloody body in the library, she muttered, “So someone finally did the rotter in.”
  • When Eddie saw the bloody body in the library, he crossed himself and prayed for Gareth’s soul.
 By Words
  • “I’d like to loan you the money, boy,” Cavendish told his nephew. “I really would. I like you. But do you truly need it?” He looked at the contract Lance had shown him. “And do you need this much?”
  • Cavendish compared the two cell phones. He didn’t need all the frippery on the second. The first would serve, and it cost two-thirds as much. “I’ll take this one,” he told the clerk.
  • “Be sure to turn off the lights before you retire. And make sure all the windows are closed. I’m not air-conditioning the world, y’know.”
Of course, the Author could just say that "Cavendish was stingy," but that would be telling, not showing. Character may be revealed by
A change in appearance or expression
    Adam’s smile froze and he turned white when he saw the cop.
Subtle action
    Adam sighed with resignation as the policeman approached.
Obvious action
    Adam mutely stuck both wrists out and waited for the cuffs.
    “Go ahead and arrest me,” he said.
Narrative analysis
    Adam's first impulse was to run, but he thought that in jail he would at least be safe.
Characters will have multiple traits. For example, Nero Wolfe is honest, just, and indolent. So he can react with honesty, justice OR indolence.
Do not change traits to suit plot. If Adam is shown as selfish throughout, he cannot suddenly solve the Main Story Problem by heroic self-sacrifice. At least, not without foreshadowing. Cf. Rick Blaine in Casablanca.

4. Add Paradoxes

The Character's Core implies other traits: If your Character grew up on a farm, then then he is probably familiar with animals and with jackleg mechanics from tinkering with farm  equipment. If she is a stockbroker, then… probably not so much, although she may know mathematics, computer modelling, finance,  and other arcana which, like our farmer's skill set stem from their occupations. IOW, some traits are logical consequences.
But if all the Character's traits were simply consequences, the Character would become a Stereotype. Paradoxical traits are consistent with the Main Motivating Trait but do not stem from it. Nero Wolfe has a formidable intellect and a fierce sense of justice. But he also drinks beer and... breeds orchids. So, too, may our farmer enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and our stockbroker collect butterflies. 

5. Fleshing Out the Character

Now it's time to give that bundle of traits a bit of decoration, to put flesh on the bones. 
a) Behaviors are not traits, but may reveal traits. They include verbal tics, habits, clothing, and  the like. Adam says 'y'know' when he speaks; Betsy often ends sentences with a Wisconsonite's "aina?" Chuck habitually picks his teeth with a wooden matchstick; Debbie twirls her finger in her hair. Perhaps Lance expresses his flamboyance by wearing brightly colored berets; while Cavendish's shows his stinginess by use of a squeeze-open change purse.  
b) Emotions – how does the Character feel in the scene? You may not reveal these feelings to the Reader all the time, but the Author ought to know what they are. When Adam sees Betsy across the crowded room is he happy? wistful? envious? enraged? Whatever he feels, it will inform his actions and dialogue in that scene.

c) Attitudes, values, concerns.
Don't make your Character your personal soapbox. He should express all the things he believes in, not all the things you believe in. The Author ought to be able to write with empathy a Character whose attitudes, values, and concerns differ from his own. For example, don't make your antagonist a bundle of all-the-values-I-don't-like. Remember, Hitler was a vegetarian and loved animals. Maybe Lance is a womanizer, but maybe he also gives generously to charities. Such paradoxes of attitudes and values keep the characters interesting, Otherwise, they are reduced to Caricatures.Caricatures.

 The Backstory

One of the things that gives your Character dimension is his or her backstory.
This consists of past events and influences that
  • directly affect the front story OR
  • shape the character without being explicit 
The Backstory often provides the Motives for the Character's actions. For example, Lawrence Block's Character, Matt Scudder is an alcoholic ex-cop (so far, a stereotype) who also gives 10% of any money he collects to the poor box of the nearest church (hunh?). We learn in the course of the novel Eight Million Ways to Die that while off-duty one day, he busted up a murder-robbery, killing two of the killers and wounding the third. For this, he was given a medal. But one of his shots had ricocheted and killed a young girl. That was why he quit the force, dove deeper into the bottle, and compulsively tithes.

Write a Character biography, addressing his
  • Physiology
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
Then throw it away. You will be tempted after all that work to tell the Reader all about it, leading to the Dread Infodump. The Reader doesn’t need to see the whole background. But you need to know it.

Michael Collins suggests you create the backstory as you go. Revising it as needed.
"Something may happen in the present [the story] and I’ll say, “I have to change the past.”
– Michael Collins
Create a character questionnaire, a set of questions to ask each major character in your story.Then, interview each character in your imagination.
It will be ess important what happened to them than how they felt about it.
Compare the character bios side-by-side to ensure that their traits are distinct and to predict how they’ll interact when they are in a scene together. 
Create a chronology that shows the changes that the character will experience over the course of the story. It may be helpful to extend this character arc to cover events before and after the story

Call Me Ishmael

The Character should have a  name. In fact, that is usually the first thing the Author does, although sometimes the Author will change the name later on. TOF once wrote a story, "The Promise of God," with a minor character named Alice but halfway through changed her name to Agnes.

In mainstream fiction, Characters generally get mainstream names, but it is useful to come up with names off the beaten track. These can be more memorable. Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Travis McGee, Matthew Scudder, Luke Skywalker are examples. The following are character names from my own SF novel, The Wreck of the River of Stars.
  • Evan Dodge Hand    captain
  • Stepan Gorgas    first officer
  • ’Abd al-Aziz Corrigan    second officer
  • Eugenie Satterwaithe    third officer and sailing master
  • The late Enver Bey Koch    engineer
  • Ramakrishnan Bhatterji    engineer
  • Mikoyan Hidei    engineer’s mate
  • The Lotus Jewel    sysop and purser
  • Eaton Grubb    biosystems/life support/cook
  • Fransziska Wong, M.D.    ship’s doctor
  • Timothy “Moth” Ratline    cargo master
  • Nkieruke Okoye    first wrangler
  • Raphael “Rave” Evermore    second wrangler
  • Twenty-four deCant    third wrangler
  • Ivar Akhaturian    least wrangler
  • Bigelow Fife    passenger
TOF has used telephone directories, class attendance lists, and other sources, often picking a first name from one person and a surname from another.
Another source of names  is genealogy. Look at some US Censuses. Among names dangling from TOF's extended family tree are Missouri Philpot, HB Hammontree, and Morning Brown.
  1. Avoid famous/shopworn names. You can combine familiar names to make an unfamiliar (and so memorable) name. Example: Donna + Veronica → Donica
  2.  Make the names easy to pronounce:
  • Bilbo Baggins is easier than Eshq’laq
  • Lavinia is easier than Eloweine (it's the same name)
3. Don’t give two characters similar names: Example: Craig and Greg. In fact, it's a good idea to avoid names with the same first letter and syllable count. Example: Evelyn and Emily both start with E, both contain LY, and both have three syllables. This is especially so if they must share a scene.

4, But siblings can have similar style names. Tiffany is not likely to have a brother named Billy-Bob. 

5. The name should be appropriate to:
  • Genre. Sebastian Gregoire would be good name for a character in a Romance, Orrin Sackett, for a Western.
  • Time  of birth. Wilma was a popular name for girls in the 1940s, not so much in the 2000s. No one in 1870 would have been named Skyler or Tiffany.
  • Geography. Check the naming conventions in the region whence your character comes. In Hungary, the surname comes first, then first name, then title. Kovacs Imre ur. In Tamil Nadu,the father's name is often the surname: Anthony George (abt. 20% of Tamilians are Christian). In Russia, full names are personal-patronym-family: Ivan Smoilovitch Petrov. It is not impolite to refor to someone by their unadorned surname: "Good morning, Petrov." In addition, degrees of familiarity modify the personal name: Ivan → Vanya → Vanka → Vanushka.

Distinguishing Your Characters

  • Different names and physiques
In The Wreck of the River of Stars, Abd al Aziz Corrigan, an experienced spacer, is from the Asteroids. His limbs are long and spindly and his skin is darkened by radiation-protective enhancers. Mikoyan Hidei is a young Amalthean 'elf' from the interior of a Jovian moonlet. She is described as androgynous, which leads to a tragic misunderstanding with another crew member, who thinks she is a lad.
  • Different suite of traits

    The Wreck of the River of Stars used the sixteen Meyers-Briggs personality types to define the sixteen characters. 
        Abd al Aziz Corrigan is sketched as an ISTJ: "Serious and quiet. Practical, orderly, matter-of-fact, logical, realistic, dependable. Takes responsibility. Makes up his own mind what needs doing and works toward it despite protests or distractions. Distaste for the fancy."
        Mikoyan Hidei, otoh, is ISFJ. "Quiet, friendly, responsible, and conscientious. Works devotedly to meet obligations. Thorough, paonstaking, and accurate. Loyal and considerate. Concerned how others feel."
  • Different purposes and motives
  • Different ways of speaking
“Why ain’t we takin’ the direct route?” asked Vermain.
“Direct route blocked by debris,” Fanghsi answered. “Roundabout safer for niyōs.”
“Well, that certainly settles the matter, then,” Winnie commented.

In his historical novel, An Elephant for Aristotle, L. Sprague deCamp gave characters from different city-states different accents. The Thessalians speak with a Scots burr. Athenians with an upper-class English one. Spartans drawl; Argives used archaic "thou" and "thee" and "wouldst." Those familiar with ancient Greece realize that these accents are weirdly appropriate. Ionian Greek did not use an initial rough breathing, so Ionians talk like Cockneys.


  • Get ideas for characters from observation and experience.
  • Paint a broad concept for the character
  • Research character context
  • Find core of character/main motivating trait
  • Try out some incidents exemplifying that trait
  • Add traits that follow logically [or at least do not contradict the first]
  • A paradoxical trait will add character interest
  • Add emotions, values, attitudes to deepen the character
  • Add details, such as beliefs, clothing, tics, etc., to make the character unique and special.


Whipple ambled along the beach with the eager dog. Now and then, he threw a stick into the surf, and the Lab immediately dove into the water to retrieve it.
1. Give two possible interpretations of Whipple’s actions. Develop each into a character sketch.
2. Pick a type: Doctor, lawyer, gas station attendant, serial killer, et al.
Brainstorm traits/qualities that this person is likely to have.
  • Those which necessarily follow
  • Those which add character heft and do not contradict
  • One which is quirky or paradoxical.
3. Now imagine two doctors, lawyers, gas station attendants, serial killers,…
Brainstorm contrasts that would distinguish them

4. Interview your character. 
5. Write a short story about your character 
  • At a different age, outside the story context
6. Have your character write a 1st-person scene (not for the story)

7. Take your characters to dinner.
  • Imagine them all chatting together around the table


  1. Card, Orson Scott. Characters & Viewpoint (Writer's Digest Books, 1988)
  2. Kress, Nancy. Dynamic Characters (Writer's Digest Book, 2004)
  3. Seger. Linda. Creating Unforgettable Characters (Holt Paperbacks, 1990)

Monday, April 4, 2022

Scrivening 6: Just One Dang Thing After Another

'A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.'

-- E.M. Forster,
in Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing

Previously in this series, we covered the Structure of a Story, including the Title, the Beginning, and the Body and Conclusion. Now, we will take a different dimension viz., Plot (this post) then Character (next)

Plotting along

Recall that fictions have four main structural dimensions: 

  1. Idea: what the Story is About, its Theme.
  2. Setting: the milieu in which the Story takes place; i.e., time, place, atmosphere, etc., the Worldbuilding
  3. Characters: the People who act out the Story. 
  4. Plot: the Events through which the Story is acted .

The Idea dimension is not shown.

These dimensions are independent of one another. You can have an exciting plot featuring cardboard characters; vivid characters in a ho-hum plot. Nancy Kress once said of a national best-seller that the characters had all the depth pf wallpaper -- but she could not stop turning the pages. The best fiction hits on all three scales rounded characters in an intriguing plot in a vivid setting. If in addition the fiction has a captivating Theme/Idea, you hit the quadrafecta.

When I showed the Story Cube to Nancy many years ago, she suggested the Wordsmithing (Gallishaw's "charm of phrasing") by which the Story is expressed as  a fifth dimension. 

It is an excellence of a Story, to be sure, and inseparable from it, but it is not a distinct dimension of the story. Compare the writing to Form in Aristotelian hylemorphism. (You weren't expecting the Ol' Stagirtem were you?) Matter (hyle) is pure potential. It is Form (morphe) that makes it real. Imagine imagine Don Quixote written in the Form of a travelogue or as if by Ernest Hemingway. It would not be the same book!

What Gallishaw terms "charm of phrasing" as one of his Laws of Interest cannot be taught, though it can be learned. Plot, characterization, worldbuilding... these are mechanical skills and like saws, hammers, and planes, their use may be taught. But that doesn't mean you can build a cabinet. Hemingway, when asked what the hardest part of writing was, answered, "Getting the words right." There are authors who are read for their style as much as for their mechanics. R.A.Lafferty is one. (Arrive at Easterwine, Okla Hannali, The Fall of Rome, "Land of the Great Horses," "Narrow Valley," "Nine Hundred Grandmothers," and so on.)

Nine and sixty Ways

In "Body Building" (Part 4), we saw that the Plot of a Story is the sequence of the Fifth Steps of Encounters (i.e., the Crisis Points) arranged for best artistic effect. How to arrange them is plotting; but...

"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays and every single one of them is right!" 

-- Rudyard Kipling, "In the Neolithic Age"

 Plotting is tough work. It must cohere, part to part. It must fulfill its inner logic. It must flow from the characters acting for their own reasons, not what the writer orders them to do to satisfy a plot point. But even masters fall into plot holes. Spider Robinson once pointed out a gigantic plot hole in the movie, Citizen Kane. The entire film involves a reporter trying to discover the meaning behind Kane's dying word, "Rosebud." But the movie shows Kane uttering this word while alone. The nurse enters the room after he has died. So how did anyone know what his last word was? 

I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try
to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible... The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate.

--Stephen king, On Writing

Some writers make detailed plots ahead of time. You wouldn't try to build a house without a blueprint, right? This might include maps of the locale (esp. if it's fictional) and precis of the characters, as well as a step-by-step of the events. 

Other writers prefer to "pants it." They just sit down and start writing, to find out for themselves what happens. In effect, their first draft is their outline. But this runs the risk of losing track of the plot; especially if there are multiple characters, story lines, etc. 

TOF often uses "retrospective plotting." He pants it until he gets into the kimchee, then backtracks and outlines what he's already written. In The January Dancer,he had multiple characters on different planets doing different things and travel from one place to another consumed time. You couldn't have a cowboy cross Arizona on horseback in a single day, nor take the subway from Harlem to Penn Station in a minute and a half. For the work-in-progress In the Belly of the Whale, he made a matrix, one row per character with the columns being the chapters, to keep straight what had to happen before/after other events.

Most plot 'formulas' are not especially helpful. Still, don't start cooking unless you have a recipe.

Making a Dent in the Plot

Lester Dent, who wrote most of the Doc Savage novels under the house name
Kenneth Robeson, produced a fairly rigid plot outline that works for the old 6000-word pulp stories of action/adventure (but would not work at all for a romance. For that matter, few "novels" these days run 6000 words). He comments that his 'formula' is more like a checklist to help the writer not miss any key points. He was under no illusion that he was writing Literature, just "reams and reams of sellable crap."

He recommends first deciding on one or more of the following:

  • a different murder method for the villain to use
  • a different thing for the villain to be seeking
  • a different locale
  • a menace which is to hang like a cloud over the hero

"Different" here means not the same-o, same-o. Even if the villain just shoots his victim, have the shootings take place in unusual circumstances or the body laid out in unusual fashion. And for a treasure try something different from the usual money or jewels. Maybe bearer bonds (Die Hard) or letters of transit (Casablanca). Once these things are decided, locale suggests itself.

Then you divide the 6000 word "novel" into 1500-word sections. In each section, hit the following points.


  • First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved — something the hero has to cope with.
  • The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
  • Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
  • Hero's endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
  • Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.


  • Shovel more grief onto the hero.
  • Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
  • Another physical conflict.
  • A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.


  • Shovel the grief onto the hero.
  • Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
  • A physical conflict.
  • A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.


  • Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
  • Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
  • The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
  • The mysteries remaining — one big one held over to this point will help grip interest — are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
  • Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the "Treasure" be a dud, etc.)
  • The snapper, the punch line to end it.

Rule of Three

In other words, it's One-Two-Three-Finale. If you up the stakes twice or toss two obstacles in the hero's path, the reader may not find the ending worthwhile. Four crises or obstacles may lead the reader to shout Just Get On With It. Three crisis points of increasing difficulty seem satisfactory. But like all "rules" in writing, they can be broken. The trick is to know when and how to break them.


"Your brain is not a storage device; it's a processing device." 

-- Harry Bingham, Jericho Writers 

That being the case, don't try to keep everything in your head. Use structures, notes, outlines, and so on. Otherwise, a character with an icy gray stare in one chapter may have eyes green with envy in another. TOF once wrote a story in which a walk-on character was named Alice when she first appeared, but became Agnes by the story's end. The editor didn't catch it, either.

A useful trick is to give each Scene a title to remind you of the scene purpose of conflict. For example, a scene introducing Adam Apple can be titled Adam On-stage, a scene showing clash between Adam and Betsey Boop can be titled Adam and Betsey clash. (You don't have to be clever with scene titles. You will eliminate them in second draft, anyway.) This helps create the outline, either prospectively as a guide or retrospectively as a sanity check. For example, In the Belly of the Whale has the following scene titles, each of which introduces a character and a plot problem:

1.    Role Call
The Whale as she was – In the Burnout – ‘Excellence, we have a problem’ – Damned capewalkers – Nobody’s body – Ling-ling shows her ankle – Kicking the can down the road – A pedestrian observation. 

Some strategies for plotting your book, outlined by Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers are as follows:

1. Use a Three-Act movie structure. 

Act I. The first 25% is the Set-up. Give the reader a sense of the status quo. The Chief Actor is called to action. There is debate/uncertainty. The Actor initially refuses, but then sets forth [at least metaphorically].
Act II. The Middle 50%. Introduce the love story or other secondary storyline. The main story starts to unfold. At the midpoint, everything seems great (or awful). The Baddies start to close in
Act III. The final 25% is Crisis and Resolution. All is lost The dark night of the soul. Introduce a fresh idea/inspiration. The protagonist sets out with new determination into the grand finale.

2. What if? Dream up a situation and let your characters flail. Stephen King's strategy works if there are not too many characters or timelines to keep straight, the structure is loose, and there is no a complex mystery. Otherwise, you may get tangled up in your own ad hockery.

3. Suspense/mystery structure. In the suspense structure, each chapter destabilizes the current status quo. Jane Austen
structured her novels this way. In a mystery structure, the emphasis is on what happened in the past, and the plot is driven by clues and revelations, as in Christie's Miss Marple stories. The mystery need not be a crime. Think of ghosts, family secrets, a curious letter, odd behavior of a friend, et al. If you place the "detective" in jeopardy as well, you add suspense to mystery. and start two plot drivers.  See Jack McDevitt's A Talent for War.

4. Snowflake. Build your novel up in layers. Start simple and add more detail as you go along.

a. Write a one-sentence version of your story. <20 words
b. Expand to a one paragraph version (3 disasters + an ending, as Dent, above)
c. Write a brief sketch for each character
d. Expand the story to a one page version.
e. Expand the character sketches to one page/character.
f.  Expand  the story to a four-page synopsis.
g. Finalize your characters.
5. Parallel Notes

Starting with the one sentence as before, make three parallel sheets and add to them as you go along..

a. Story notes. What is the Status Quo? How is it disrupted? What disasters will overtake the Chief Actor? Add other Big Scenes as they occur to you from time to time.
b. Character notes. List the major characters, add their past, their goals, their personality traits, personal appearances, et al.. This may protect you against contradicting yourself as you write.
c. Setting notes. Where does the story take place? In SF and fantasy stories, this may be a complex set up (Ringworld; Middle Earth); but think also of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or "Ed McBain's" Isola for his 87th Precinct procedurals.
TOF used this method for The January Dancer. He made maps, calculated travel times between stars, interviewed characters, et al.

People, being people, cannot resist analyzing and classifying things, and Plot is no exception. George Polti famously analyzed ancient Greek and Latin plays as well as French novels, and came up with a list of 36 Dramatic Situations for all literature. Some WWWeb crawlers have supposed these to be 36 possible Plots; but they are not Plots. They are Dramatic Situations that may arise within Plots. Several may arise in the course of a Novel. Also, they are very broad and generic. For example,  
#6 Disaster is described by Polti as "a calamitous event occurs" (well, duh?).
What an author might do with a Situation so broad includes such diverse things as the collapse of a galactic empire (Foundation, Asimov), a natural disaster (The Rift, Williams), or the loss of a spouse (Gone Girl, G. Flynn). Anything that makes the Chief Actor's world collapse around him.
Likewise, Polti's #31, Conflict with a god betrays its origin in ancient Greek drama. On the face of it, this one may seem obsolete in the Late Modern Age. But we can interpret it as conflict with an all-powerful person or institution (1984, Orwell).
Reviewing Polti's list may give you ideas for the kinds of Encounters you will choose for your story. For example, imagine the following plotline:
26. Crimes of love. A Lover and the Beloved break a taboo by initiating a romantic relationship. (See Dick. See his sister Jane. See Dick do Jane).
27. Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one. The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One. (See older brother Mac walk in on Dick and Jane while they are doing it.)
28. Obstacles to love. Two Lovers face an Obstacle together. (See Dick and Jane bug out.)
05. Pursuit. The fugitive flees punishment for a misunderstood conflict. (See Mac chase Dick and Jane through fields and forest.)
01. Supplication. The suppliant appeals to the power in authority for deliverance from the persecutor. (See Dick and Jane reach the North Pole, where they appeal to Santa. Santa, who knows who's naughty or nice, reveals that Dick is adopted, so Jane is not his true sister. Mac kills him anyway, not getting the memo in time.)

Plot Templates

Some folks have gone so far as to categorize entire plots. Some, like the Hero's Journey, seem to have merit and can be applied to Modern Novels. For example, the SF novel Up Jim River is a Hero's Journey, sort of. Maybe two of them.
In The Seven Basic Plots, by the delightfully-named Christopher Booker, the author describes nine basic plots, two of which he disses as unworthy or something. Again, what we see is a classification so generic as to be nearly useless. Booker's generic plots appear below, but you can no more plot a novel by following these templates than you can ride a bike by reading the schematics. Too rigorous an application will make your novel Blatantly Formulaic. Since all the examples cited by the reviewer are movies, that may say something about the state of the film industry. 
Even worse are computerized "plot generators," in which the "author" inputs certain details, like emotions to be expressed and an Artificial Stupid spins a story out of them, a dystopia foreseen by TOF in the short story "Spark of Genius" (Analog, Jan 1991) well before there was any such thing.
Booker's "basic plots" are
  1. Overcoming the Monster: in which the hero must venture to the lair of a monster which is threatening the community, destroy it, and escape (often with a treasure). Think Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. But the monster might be a band of outlaws threatening a Western town.
  2. Rags to Riches: in which someone who seems quite commonplace or downtrodden but has the potential for greatness manages to fulfill that potential. (Starman Jones, Heinlein)
  3. The Quest: in which the hero embarks on a journey to obtain a great prize that is located far away. (The January Dancer, Flynn)
  4. Voyage and Return: in which the hero journeys to a strange world that at first is enchanting and then so threatening the hero finds he must escape and return home to safety. (Wizard of Oz, Baum)
  5. Comedy: in which a community divided by frustration, selfishness, bitterness, confusion, lack of self-knowledge, lies, etc. must be reunited in love and harmony (often symbolized by marriage). (The Prince and the Pauper, Twain)
  6. Tragedy: in which a character falls from prosperity to destruction because of a fatal mistake. (Macbeth, Shakespeare)
  7. Rebirth: in which a dark power or villain traps the hero in a living death until he/she is freed by another character's loving act. (Sleeping Beauty)
  8. Rebellion Against 'The One': in which the hero rebels against the all-powerful entity that controls the world until he is forced to surrender to that power. (1984, Orwell)
  9. Mystery: In which an outsider to some horrendous event (such as a murder) tries to discover the truth of what happened. (A Talent for War, McDevitt)
What you ought to do is just write your story or novel. Afterwards, you may notice it fits into one of the generic plots. I did not have "The Quest" in mind when I wrote The January Dancer. But it does fit. A flavor of these templates, most of which Booker presents in Five Acts, can be seen in his schematic for
1. Overcoming the Monster
  • Act I. Anticipation: The threat of the Monster becomes known.
  • Driver. The Call: The Hero is called upon to confront the Monster.
  • Act II. Dream: All begins well as the Hero prepares to face the Monster.
  • Act III. Frustration: Coming face-to-face with the Monster, the Hero appears to be outmatched.
  • Act IV. Nightmare: The final battle with the Monster, which seems hopeless for the Hero.
  • Final Driver. Hero overcomes the Monster, escapes (possibly with a treasure or Princess) and gains a kingdom. 
As you can see, this does not help you write Sackett (Louis L'Amour), let alone Dune (Frank Herbert). For example, in Sackett, newly married William Tell Sackett returns from scouting the route ahead to find his wife and covered wagon missing. While searching for them, he is shot and falls over the edge of the mesa [though he is fortuitously saved by a ledge]. The remainder of the novel concerns Tell's recovery and his discovery of his bride's fate, of the monster that killed her; his frustration by the layers of protection the villain can call upon, and the hopeless final battle from which he emerges improbably victorious, with the aid of his two brothers, Orrin and Tyrell. 
Similarly, in Dune, Paul Atreides must confront the monster who massacred his House and family. Baron Harkonnen is vastly wealthy and Paul is a refugee in the desert. But the Atreides were bullfighters, and "Harkonnen" comes from a Finnish word for "bull." Put it together.
Robert A Heinlein divided Science Fiction stories into Gadget stories and Human Interest stories. The latter, he further divided into
  1. Boy Meets Girl, 
  2. The Little Tailor, and 
  3. The Man Who Learned Better
 About these, he wrote:
  1. Boy-meets-girl needs no definition. But don’t disparage it. It reaches from the “Iliad” to John Taine’s Time Stream. It’s the greatest story of them all and has never been sufficiently exploited in science fiction. It has great variety: boy-fails-to-meet-girl, boy-meets-girl-too-late, boy-meets-too-many-girls, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-renounce-love-for-higher-purpose. 
  2. The “Little Tailor.” This is an omnibus for all stories about the little guy who becomes a big shot, or vice versa. [You will recognize this as Booker's Rags to Riches.] 
  3. The man-who-learned-better. Just what it sounds like—the story of a man who has one opinion, point of view, or evaluation at the beginning of the story, then acquires a new opinion or evaluation as a result of having his nose rubbed in some harsh facts.

-- "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction" (Robert A. Heinlein)


What stories or novels have had especially intriguing plots, in your opinion?


  1. Block, Lawrence. Writing the Novel: from Plot to Print. Writers Digest Books (July 1, 1985)
  2. Gallishaw, John. Twenty Problems of the Fiction Writer. G. P. Putnam's Sons; Later Printing edition (January 1, 1930)
  3. Kress, Nancy. Beginnings, Middles, & Ends. Writer's Digest Books (March 21, 2011)
  4. Meredith,  John D. and Robert C. Fitzgerald. Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript. Everyday Handbooks; Reprint edition (January 1, 1972)


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