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I’m very glad I had the chance to finish this book last week. I’d been excited to read the final book in the trilogy, and I wasn’t disappointed. To remind you all what’s happened so far, please check out my review of Magic-Price land my review of Magic-Scars.
Spoiler Free Summary: Magic-Borne is the final book in the Crown of Stones trilogy. It takes place pretty soon after the events of Magic-Scars. Ian is trying to solve the mystery of his scars, save a loved one, defeat his father, and find a way to bring peace to the land. We get a lot of questions answered and the readers will get a complete resolution, which is all any reader of a series can ask for these days.
Character: Ian is still amazing. His arch shows a lot of progress from the character we met in Price. He shines more in this book. I’ll admit I missed some of the other characters who, while still in the book, didn’t get as much air time as I’d have liked, but Ian is, and should be, why people are reading the series. In my review of the last book, I’d noted I would have liked more from them, but I think pulling back a bit was a sound decision. Jarryd had some major impact moments that showed his evolution in some pretty powerful ways, but the rest of the characters simply don’t get a lot of face time. It’s understandable given the ending, but I won’t lie that I wished they had a bigger role.
Exposition: This is about the same as the last book. Schneider has a knack for blending exposition with description to help the reader avoid large blocks of data dumping. I almost never notice the exposition in her work.
Worldbuilding: So what I have to do here is admit that if someone shouts that the ending “seems” convenient (or at least the plot device that brings about the end), I couldn’t get too angry because I’d understand what they see. I’d like to argue though that what Schneider did here is not MUCH different (if not even done better) than what McCaffrey did in Dragon Riders of Pern. Before anyone throws stuff at me, realize I’m only drawing a correlation between plot devices.
Pern is my favorite series (by a lot) and will always be. But if the plot device in that series didn’t bother you, the plot device in this one shouldn’t either. Schneider did a great job closing all the loops here and letting the readers learn about a complex magic system as they needed to. She sets up the ending to be complete and fulfilling while simultaneously leaving the door open for more books from that world.
Dialogue: I’d say the dialogue in Scars was better. There were scenes and arguments in Borne that felt a little quick for me. As I write this, I’d have to say Scars was my favorite in the series on a lot of fronts. That doesn’t take away from what this book is and could be. The biggest difference stylistically was the pace of the dialogue. Even the amount of dialogue felt a bit more rushed in this book. This was not to a degree as to degrade the quality, just not the same crips, visceral dialogue we saw in Scars. It’s still a great book. I just felt this was a weaker element of the book.
Description: I mentioned problems with how I saw characters in the review for Scars, and Schneider followed up her novel with much more character description. Her extra attention to smaller character details made the book that much more visceral than the last. I thought this was a great blend between setting, scene, and character description. This was an improvement from Scars to Borne.
A note on content: I don’t think this book is as explicit as Scars. There are some adult scenes in this book too. This still serves as a plot device as intimacy is a theme that shifts through each book. Where as with straight romance (note, I’ve only read two), you tend to see scenes like this for the sake of scenes like this. Here, you get steam and impact for the character. That’s something I appreciate.
Overall: I stand by my opinion that Scars is the best of the three, but this book is a very satisfying and complete conclusion to a great story. Where Scars upped the drama and the emotion, Borne lets us slip into the the resolution like a warm bath. I appreciate how this story tied up all the loose ends and let us leave this world feeling as if we’ve seen all there is to see, for now. This also holds true to how I usually feel about trilogies. I tend to like the second act best because that’s where the most drama is. That makes this book a perfect conclusion. No, it’s not the most exciting book because it can’t be. A reader has to leave a story knowing there’s nothing more (in a manner of speaking) to be seen from this arc. Borne does that. If Schneider ever decides to go back, I’m going to be immensely pleased. This was a sold, complete, well told story with an amazing protagonist and a fascinating twist on a few old tropes.
Thanks for reading
After more time and revisions that I could ever count, I’m so very proud to say that my second book is ready to send off for review and, more importantly, publishing! I don’t know that this feeling will ever get old for me, but I plan to enjoy every moment I can every time I reach this stage. About a year-and-a-half ago, I published The Journals of Bob Drifter. I had no idea what to expect, and I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to publish my book.
Caught is different. I’ve mentioned a few times. It’s darker, but I feel like it’s a step forward for me as an artist. I learned a lot from Bob, and I’ll always be proud of it, but if I’m not pushing myself to reach new levels of skill, I’m going to be irrelevant before I’m even heard of.
This process is still going to take some time, but it’s a matter of weeks now instead of months. I want to send it to some reviewers (Kirkus and Red City) for cover blurbs. While they take a swing at it, I’ll probably address some style issues and do another proofread. One thing I regret about Bob was not doing another proofread. It’s a problem that I’m not sure I’ll let stand for much longer, but I don’t have to make that mistake with Caught. So there will be a lot going on here in my life. I’ll be setting up my book for publishing, waiting for the reviews to come back, and taking that time to do another read-through just because I care that much about fixing any mechanical issues that may pop up in the book.
I don’t have a release date yet, but I’ll announce that as soon as I get a few things figured out. What matters to me is first that my dream has come true a second time. That doesn’t happen without God’s help, and a lot of help from some very important mortals as well.
I’d have to start here with my mom. The reason for that is she had a nightmare once. She told me about it. I filed the thought away and the result is this book. I love my mom. I think a lot of my creativity and drive comes from her side of the family, and this book is a result of her many conversations with me about stories.
Ben is my alpha reader, editor, best friend, and pretty much whoever else I need in life. He is and will ever remain the first person I send my books to. If I never sell another book (I’d rather sell a million), I’ll keep writing them so long as he enjoys them.
Rosa was the first person to read this book (and a very rough draft at that) after Ben. I’d just gotten to know her and she picked this up to read and wouldn’t put it down. She took it home and read through it. That was one of the first times anyone just read my work for the sake of reading. It was a big moment for me. This was before Bob came out, and I was very nervous about sharing my work. She’s of the opinion this book was better. I have a soft spot for Bob, but I’ll admit I feel confident this book is, at the very least, written better, especially after all the editing.
Marco Palmieri of Otherworld Editorial took what I thought was my final draft and showed me how to make these characters even more impactful. He did this during an incredible transition in his career and some emotional struggles as well. Even then, he and I sat over a phone call and hashed out the character and plotting of the book to find ways to amp up the development and growth of the characters.
Quintessential Editor did a few passes on my book. He’s my continuity editor on this project, and I’ll keep working with him as long as he keeps putting up with my random messages and Naruto interruptions. Corey, thanks for your unwavering support.
Peggy has become a huge supporter of mine after Bob. She’s read a few key scenes here and there, and I can’t wait to see what she thinks of the finished product. She’s a one-person sales and celebration team who I’ve come to admire more and more since meeting her.
There are more, but these are the people who I wanted to give special appreciation to as I head into the publishing process.
So what do you do when you accomplish a life-long dream for a second time? You start writing another story. I’ll plow straight into Sojourn in Despair so that project can be finished by deadline.
Thanks for reading,
I’ve made no bones about the fact that marketing is something I don’t understand. Oh, I have as much economics training as the next Associates Degree holder, but to be honest, I only know enough to know I don’t know what I’m doing.
My idea is to create a marketing journal. I’ll track what I try and how it works. Then I realized others might be interested in seeing what I’m doing. Maybe they know how to do it better and will help a guy out, or maybe they’re like I am, and this will help them at least be as successful as I’ve been.
This is my first entry under this Marketing Journal tag, and I don’t know how often or regularly I’ll post these. Most marketing campaigns have some sort of cost associated with it, and money just isn’t a thing I have.
I noticed Goodreads has started an add campaign system a while ago, so I thought I’d give it a try.
How it works: Well, if I can figure it out, it’s pretty easy. You start by clicking here. It’s the summary and description of how it works in general.
Like I said, advertising usually costs money. For this campaign, I set a limit of $50. For anyone smarter than me: is it completely unreasonable to think the money you invest in campaigning should at least result in the same amount earned in sales? What’s the ration of profits earned against advertising dollars? For me, I would consider this a gain if I simply get 50 people to add my book to their TBR lists. I’d be ecstatic if I sold 50 copies of my book. But I need to be told if that’s just a pipe dream.
I have a daily cap set at $5 a day. That cap is based on my Cost Per Click. I established my Cost Per Click originally at $0.5. So when I started, if 10 people clicked my link, I wouldn’t get any more clicks, but I wouldn’t lose any more money from my budget. I’m not sure how big a deal that is to be honest. My whole campaign is built to end when the $50 I invested runs out, so weather that runs out in a day or a month, I’m not concerned either way.
Now we come to the part I think might be of interest to those like me. I set up my add to target women who like a group of genres. I was very broad, basically clicking any genre my book comes anywhere near to fitting in. The first day I had 70 views. The second day I had 73 views. I didn’t have anyone click my link. I’ve mentioned before that interaction matters to me. So I changed it up. I shifted so the campaign only targeted men.
I’m a man. I wrote a book I liked. I wrote a book my best friend and brother in law might like. But when I looked at Goodreads and Amazon, I realized that the BULK of my sales and 5-Star Reviews were, in fact, from women. That’s why I chose women first. Watch this: When I shifted from women to men, my views plummeted from 73 to 22. I can say I wrote this book for whoever I want, but the fact is, women are more interested in my book than men. I shifted the campaign back to women the next day and ended with 100 views. After four days, I had 165 views, but no clicks. Time to switch it up.
Goodreads also has a feature that allows you to target people who rated a group of Authors. So if I select authors I think my book is like, anyone who gave all of those authors 3 or more stars will see my add. This is awesome. I chose Dean Koontz, Christopher Golden, Mike Molina, James Patterson and Dan Wells.
I had 23 views.
My theory is that the list of authors I gave is very broad. Only two come any where near each other, and even that is a stretch. So if only a small percentage of people read that combination, it reduces my reach. Now, this would have been fine if those 23 views also mean 23 clicks, but it didn’t. In the interest of science, I switched it from women who liked those authors to men. Again, I dropped to 16. Still no clicks.
So I changed my approach. I switched my audience to women again. Then I went back to genres. This time, I reduced the number of genres to those I felt BEST represented Bob. I chose Ebooks, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Paranormal, and Thriller.
In one day, I received 3,562 views. I also received 3 clicks. Two people added me to their TBR lists. The next day I received 3,362 views and one click. I was very happy with the views and the clicks were improving.
The help section in Goodreads recommends if you want to increase your click through percentage (CTR) (percent of people who click your link from those who view your add) to change the add summary. At this point, my add was an image of the cover with the following: “Dead Like Me meets Supernatural. A story about life from the perspective of those who watch over the dying.” In an effort to increase that CTR, I changed it to, “Dead Like Me meets Supernatural. A substitute teacher must collect the souls of the dying. How does one live, when his real job is death?”
Whenever you change your ad, it takes a few days for Goodreads to approve your ad. So my ad shut down for a few days until it was approved. When it came back up, I received 2,720 views, but no clicks. I’m going to let this campaign run for a few more days with these settings. If I don’t get back above 3,000 views, or I don’t get any clicks, I’ll go back to the original add and see if those numbers climb back up.
That’s where I’m at right now. I’ve had 10,040 views and 4 clicks for a CTR of .04%. (Goodreads says the results span from .05-.5, so if I can get to .25, I’ll call that a solid first time average).
I hope this helps those trying to figure out ways to reach viewers. Of all the campaigns I’ve tried outside of conventions, this is one I feel best about because I already know I’m getting my add in front of interested readers. That’s priceless to me. Facebook and Twitter adds can be refined to interests, but people are finicky. I would not call someone who likes Harry Potter a fan of Fantasy. The reading of one book doesn’t make you a fan of genre. I’ve read two romance novels. I hate romance. I actually liked one of those books. I read it because I wanted to learn from the structure and style. Any genre is the same really in that regard. BUT, to be able to target readers who like those genres or the authors those book match is awesome! I’ll keep you all posted in how this goes.
Until then, thanks for reading,
I honestly love character studies. I started them in high school and learned how to write by doing case studies. Just as I was pondering this very post, I ran into Adam’s blog post about how villains become villains.
I’ve grown up spoiled with stories. I’ve gotten to read, watch, and listen to a ton of great stories in a litany of formats. The most common trend I see these days is the sympathetic villain. Perhaps a more accurate term in this case is a “relatable” villain. Let’s face it, people just don’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll be a horrible person today.” People are motivated to take action.
This got me thinking about a character study I’d like to share with you. The most fascinating villainy turn I saw was linked to a phrase of mine. “The Devil isn’t the monster, he’s your best friend.” I hope the Lord understands my metaphor and his worshipers don’t judge. Let me explain the theory. I don’t think the devil is one who threatens and yells. It’s far easier to ENCOURAGE sin. So that’s the meaning. The guy who says, “Why not? Everyone else does it? Why not? Who’s it really hurting.” Temptation is the enemy of faith, and those “reasonable” steps away from what one should do is how that highway to Hell gets paved. Now, I promise, this isn’t a theological post. It just sets up this amazing story arch.
Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy is great just to read and enjoy, but I invite you to read it (or even better read it again) and pay close attention to Dorian Ursuul. His arch is amazing. You see. He’s a good guy. He has his struggles. He even has this intense desire to step away from the fearful reputation of his father. He’s a good guy right? Well…sure. But let’s try to avoid spoilers as much as we can.
The first thing that happens is he has to take the position his father had. It’s all fine and good to CLAIM to want to be benevolent and kind, but that doesn’t always work out in practice when you’re in charge. Dorian starts by hating himself and making concessions as to why it’s “necessary.” Indeed, as a reader, I found myself noting that, “yeah, what are his options?” Quite frankly his option was to live the bad guy or die a man of principle. Who doesn’t understand that?
What Weeks does masterfully is up the anti. Dorian does something else that isn’t’ very nice, but he has his reason. Then he does something slightly worse. By the time he makes his fifth or sixth “bad” decision, the readers have come to see him as having “gone bad.” Even if his reason is the most noble on the surface. This proves what I said above. Villains descend into darkness. I have a book on my own inspired by that very premise.
This arch is all about how power corrupts. As Dorian progresses, he makes every decision for a number of reasons, some of which make perfect sense. His descent was gradual and unfortunate.
This is a POWERFUL storytelling tool I’m surprised hasn’t ben made more useful in fiction. It makes the villain sympathetic more than a plot devise. I won’t lie. The main character, “Grimm,” in The Journals of Bob Drifter, is a plot device. I don’t hate any storytelling techniques on it’s surface. I’m simply trying to provide writers a tool for an underused structure they may want to consider.
I hope the example I gave makes sense. I really fight to avoid spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, you should JUST to follow THAT character’s story line. It’s amazing storytelling.
Thanks for reading,
As I type this, I’ve sold less than 300 copies of my first book. I’m ranked 532,049th among Amazon’s authors. My sales graph looks like a jumbo slide at a theme park.
Writing a book is hard. It takes time and effort. Authors shove all of their heart and souls into their work, and they care about what they do. Here I am looking at all of this data, and it can be discouraging.
This is not a blog about giving up. If you’re reading this, and you think I’ll ever stop, you must be on my page for the first time.
What I’m trying to share with everyone out there is how discouraging it can be some times. I talk to my author friends about it all the time. This, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons people never write a book. They see the completion of a novel as a step to success (the sale of said novel).
What I want to do now is share with you all how I deal with discouragement. I’m in NO way an expert. But of all the things that get me down, writing isn’t on the list. Sales, marketing, and life, oh my do I have a list! But discouragement can only win if you give up. I’ve spoken about this a lot. So what keeps me going? What keeps me typing when I’m setting new all-time lows? What keeps me marketing?
You fail when you quit: This is something I was taught even as a kid. To my own detriment, I’m one who refuses to quit. I’m fiercely loyal. I’m ABSOLUTELY dedicated. When I say “I will,” I do. So when I start to feel like a failure, I try something. I try ANYTHING I can think of that I think will help me improve. I try a new marketing scheme. I try a new sales tactic.
In my life, I’ve learned that if you want to HAVE something, you must, in fact, DO something. Now…I’m a man who like momentum. I’ll take the longer, slower way to work if it lets me keep my car in motion. Try though other friends have, I refuse to believe the answer to getting anywhere is stop. The downside to this is sometimes that effort is misused. I try not to waste energy, but in this, my nature trumps my actions. Whatever happens though, the moment I feel low, I consider what I CAN do, and I do that.
Remember Where You Started: Even if I NEVER sell a book again, I’ve still written a book. It’s not easy. You see, in reference to my earlier statement, I see sales as sales. I don’t consider the sale of said book to be the goal of writing. Finishing a book is the goal of writing. Selling said book is the goal publishing the next book. No matter how low I get, I realize nothing stops me from writing another book.
This does a lot for me in other ways. Bob was my first novel, and if I had it to do again, I’d have waited to publish one book until I had three ready to go. I had no idea how powerful having multiple products was. I would categorize the decision as a mistake, but it’s not one from which I can’t recover. Caught will help. Maybe 1,200 gets me an agent? Maybe the next book gets me on the NYT Best Seller List. Even if they don’t. The data shows having more books out helps you sell more books. So even if I’m the worst selling author ever, I’m still an author. As I type this, my book is on my little trophy case. I get all sad and whiny, and then I look to my left. That’s MY book. I wrote that!
Finding Wins: This is a harder concept to grasp. For me, one of my most powerful wins is that the bulk of my readers like my book. According to Goodreads, 95% of people who rate or review my book like it. 80% offer four stars or more. Even the three-star reviews are very kind and usually have something very fulfilling to offer an author who’s having a bad day. Another win for me is starting or finishing another project. I can finish edits to Caught and tell myself, “This one will do better!”
Talking To People: This is critical. We writers can be pretty miserable at times. We’re actually very fun people on the whole (well, maybe I’m not, but I’m not all that normal a guy to begin with). The thing is we’re artists, and we artists are emotional beings. I’ve had several conversations with all my writer friends.
Sometimes I’m there telling them how great they are. Sometimes they’re around to remind me the same. This isn’t just writing. When life in general gets me down, I have friends that I can turn to. Don’t mistake the desire to move on as “happiness.” This isn’t a post about how to be happy. I’m a fighter. I am constantly fighting the me from yesterday, and I hate that dude. I want the me of today to be better, and that’s a very hard code to live by. But I find the strength and will to keep going when I talk to those I love. Sometimes we bounce ideas off of each other. Sometimes they just sit and listen because they know that’s all I need. No matter what though, they’re there for me, and that means everything.
So those four things are what keep me going. I understand that one of them amounts to, “just keep going, cause screw giving up,” but it works for me. My friends hate this phrase I quote, “I am Orwell’s Boxer, and I will work harder.” But that’s me in a nutshell. I’ll never stop. I’ll never give in. I may end up old and in a metaphorical glue factory, but I’ll never give in. When I feel the temptation to get too self pitying, any one or combination of these things helps me get moving again.
What works for you? Do you have some motivation that keeps you moving when everything and everyone says you should stop? Share it down below or post it on your blog and throw up the link.
Thanks for reading,
(AFTERWARD: The day after I typed this, I sold a book. I also received one three-star review and two, five-star reviews since writing this post. So you see, just keep going. No matter how low you are, the only time you fail is when you quit.)
So I often talk about a lot of books and things of that note, but a few people have asked me about my favorites, and I thought now was as good a time as any to share a few with you. I’m probably already talked about these in one way or another, but I think it’s a good idea to have them all in one spot. After considering my options, I’ve decided to give you my top five, because everyone likes a good countdown. These are my all-time favorite. They are books I’ve read more than once simply because I love them.
Note: I talk a lot about a lot of writers, and they’re all amazing. This is my top five ever. These are the books that I’d drag out of a burning building (and that’s saying something since we’re actually talking about 28 books in reality). This isn’t to say I don’t like others. I even love some. But these are the ones I love most.
5) Beowulf: Probably the first book I was ever made to read in school that made me realize that books existed that I actually liked. There’s a lot here in this story. Beowulf is probably why I’m drawn to the types of characters to which I’m drawn. I created a role playing character named in his honor.
4)What Men Live By, by Leo Tolstoy: This is actually a short story, but any anthology of his work that includes this story is something I’ll read more than once. I’m a huge fan of Tolstoy. I usually find a way to weave him into my books, (including The Journals of Bob Drifter). This story strikes a lot of chords with me, and is actually a very good case study for character and foreshadowing. The message of this book is what drew me in. I’ve loved it since the first day I read it.
3) Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson: I’ll confess. I read this because I learned that Sanderson was finishing the Wheel of Time (see below). I wanted to get to know him so I would just judge him on what he “didn’t do that I thought Jordan WOULD do.” So I read his blog when he spoke about Jordan’s passing. That alone helped me see what a good man he was. Then I read Mistborn. Game over! He’s the best in the business. He’s a brilliant writer and an amazing individual in the community of authors. On my list of “writers whom I drop what I’m reading for,” he’s number one.
2) The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan: I’ve read this series no less than eight times. It’s a huge story with so many wonderful characters. I actually think readers are VERY polarized with Jordan and his work, but I love the series and can’t wait to see it in live action if it ever actually happens.
1) The Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey: This has been my favorite series for decades. I fell in love with Ruth. I love the Master Harper. It’s one of a few books I freely confess to openly weeping over while reading. It’s so beautiful and touching. The drama between characters just pulls in the reader. The covers are simply amazing. Every time someone asks, “If I want good fantasy, where do I start reading?” This is my answer.
So this is short and sweet, but I thought I’d share. I’ll probably drop a few more favorite five every now and then. What are your favorite five stories of all time? Post in the comments below. I’m always looking for books to add to my TBR list.
Thanks for reading,
So I read a blog from Quintessential Editor a few days ago in which we discussed character or conflict. He and I may (I’m actually not sure) disagree on what makes a book great. I’ll vote character every time, and I have my reasons, but the blog inspired me to offer my view on what turns out to be how I evaluate characters.
I love Writing Excuses. It’s a great podcast, and they did a podcast a few years ago (back when I had the luxury of listening every week) that helped me understand why I like books. I’ve said it a few times. I like sympathetic, proactive characters. The podcast to which I’m referring is the one on character sliders. In it, they discuss how to evaluate characters by Sympathy, Competency, and Proactivity.
I’ll let you listen to the podcast for the explanation because they’re awesome, hugely successful authors, and I’m an Indie guy trying to find my way in the world. I will make one argument.
Sanderson explains that Sympathy is the “how likable a character is.” He’s my Yoda in every regard, but I don’t know that’s true. I think Sympathy (at least to me) is how strongly I feel about the character. Whatever the emotion, if I feel it strongly, I’m drawn to the character. The formula works regardless, but I see sympathy as “strength of emotional reaction” and not strictly “likable.”
What I thought I could add or build from this wonderful tool was how to use it when writing a book. I don’t see this as a character development tool myself. Rather, I try to anticipate how readers will see the character. I’m editing Caught still, so I’d like to use Sal. In the previous draft, he was proactive and sympathetic.
My editor and I disagreed on his arc. What I wish I’d argued then is that he wasn’t actually very competent. He tried several times and several ways to do something before he gained more power. His argument, in the interest of being fair, was that Sal struggled and failed so many times, and never reacted to those failures.
I kept this in mind while revising. I kept in in mind while writing for the other characters as well. I want my readers to say two things when they read my books. “I (feel strongly) about his characters” and “they’re always moving.” I hope they hate the characters I want them to hate, and I hope they love the characters I mean for them to love, but as long as they feel strongly, I feel I’ve succeeded.
So how do you do this? Well, I’m sure there’s a lot of ways, but this is my own spin. At each major plot point (for me, this is when I check my outline), look at your character and see how the plot point might have effected each of these traits. Every time a character fails, he or she seems less competent. Some fans hate incompetent characters. I’m actually not one of them.
Case study: Naruto is a moron. He’s a goof, who’s just winging it. He can’t do a single normal jutsu and really only has the one major trick. But look at how hard he works! Look at how much he cares about his comrades? Look at how he struggles to maintain his bonds. In fact, each time he wins, it’s usually DESPITE his competence. Still, if he NEVER learned anything, he’d eventually get boring. So at certain points, he becomes ever so much less stupid. This is how we see his progression as a character. Don’t mistake progression as moving forward.
Case study: Rand al’Thor is one of my favorite characters ever. In fact, I’d like to compare him to Ichigo from Bleach. I feel Rand works more because there’s more progression. Ichigo gets more powerful. He’s competent, proactive and sympathetic, and he never really changes. Rand becomes all the more compelling because as he becomes more powerful (and we’ll have to discuss something soon), he becomes more isolated and less sympathetic. So you see, he devolves in sympathy as he evolves in power.
Is power a slider? For me it is. Because competence, to me, is the character’s success rate. But there are several characters who win a lot, but still don’t feel very powerful. The first that comes to mind is Ender Wiggin. He’s incredibly sympathetic, competent, and proactive. But none of that matters because he’s supposed to fight an alien race that the human race has feared for generations. Power is a factor in a lot of things, and conflict can be the gauge by which you measure it. So why do I consider it a slider? Because it can be used as a source of conflict in itself, not just a resolution to conflict.
Now that I’ve done a few case studies, let’s turn that microscope on myself. While writing Bob, I was very concerned about the first act because the conflict is subtle. Most reviews regard the first act as the best, which makes me feel good I didn’t cut it from the book. In the first act, Bob is sympathetic and proactive. His proactivity is what causes the conflict. Police notice him, and now he has to evade them. He’s not very competent. He doesn’t know anything about his job. He doesn’t know how to avoid police. He’s not even very good at covering his tracks. This leads to the climax of part one.
When I got to Part 2, I checked up on Bob’s sliders. Sympathy 100% Proactivity 100% Competence: 30% (I’m probably being nice). Power 50%. This might surprise people. While Bob talks about how “useless” his powers are, he’s still comparatively more powerful than most of the characters in Part 1. In Part 2, I introduce Grimm. Now he’s very competent, very proactive. How sympathetic is he? I HOPE readers say they hate him, but I can’t pretend to know. There’s hardly any feedback on him though, so that leads me to believe I miscalculated here. So he’s not sympathetic at all. (otherwise, readers would have said something about him by now). I can learn from this. But what he DOES do, is make Bob seem LESS powerful. That also makes him seem LESS competent. So the progress for Bob is actually devolving and not evolving.
In Part 3, I make Bob more competent. I do this by showing him learn. I had to bring in the “mentor” archetype. I had to give Bob a few wins. This made it so when he got to the final conflict, he looked like he stood a chance.
That’s how I use the sliders. If I ever felt like my sympathy or proactivity values were slipping, I adjusted for it. I encourage authors to do these checks. When you hand the book to beta readers, ask them to send a chapter by chapter evaluation using whatever sliders you use to evaluate the character, then compare those to your own assessment. If they’re the same, I’d say you’re doing it right. If they’re different, that’s when it’s time to find out what you’re missing.
I’ve never really cared much for competent characters. They bore me. Oh there are a lot of characters that I love that are ALSO competent, but for my money, if a character doesn’t make me feel and isn’t doing anything, I hate the story. That doesn’t mean EVERYONE will. Know your genre.
That leads me to my last point. The Mary Sue character. Corey would be awesome and tell you where that term came from, I just learned it an moved on. (The difference between a gardner and an architect if I’ve ever seen one). A Mary Sue is a character that is the most compelling, most powerful, most proactive, most competent character ever. Dear God, do I hate those characters. I argue that if a character is too powerful and too competent, the sympathy bar naturally slides down for me. It’s a risk writers take. But here’s my twist:
Mary Sues don’t happen when all the bars are maxed; they happen when all the bars are equal.
I get this from photography. I picked up that wonderful skill in the Navy, and I’ll love it for the rest of my life. In terms of light, if you have equal values of red, blue, and green, you get gray. You can have 20% of each, or 100% of each. (Zero..well..then you don’t have any color, so that’s black, which, according to Batman is a very, very, very, dark gray). I find characters feel like Mary Sues when all values are equal, no matter those values.
Character study: Rey. She’s not that sympathetic. Really. She’s just out there in the desert chilling. You LEARN to care for her, but that’s not the first hour of the movie I saw. She’s competent, but everyone but me remembers how she got captured (like a chump) and messed up the doors (like a fool) when they were first aboard the Falcon. If I evaluate Rey right after meeting Han, I’d say she’d measure out at: Sympathy 10% Competence 10% Power 10% and Proactivity 10%. Remember, Finn is the one who gets her to move. She wanted to go home through the first half of the movie.
Her arc SEEMS Suish (trademark M.L.S. Weech) because she processes equally across all sliders throughout the movie. She gains more power and competence. This makes her more proactive and sympathetic. I love the movie. I don’t mind Rey, but I don’t love her either, because she essentially sat around the desert until someone forced her to move, and even then she didn’t do much until she got captured. Watch the movie, let me know if you think I’m wrong.
So that’s it. Try it on your book. Toss me a few character studies. Let’s make a game of it. Until then, thanks for reading.
Under my new book review format, I talk about how much I enjoy characters. That got me thinking about character sympathy, why it’s important and how to manipulate the reader’s sympathy for a character.
One reference for how to adjust sympathy is Writing Excuses. They’re more successful than I am, and they’re also better at this than I am. The linked podcast addresses the how. They reference another podcast that explains why you don’t have to have sympathetic characters. That’s true. There are reasons to have unsympathetic characters, but I’m not a fan of them. They exist in The Journals of Bob Drifter, but that doesn’t mean I was overly happy about their existence, only aware of their necessity.
What is a sympathetic character. There are a few differing opinions, but I’m going to selfishly hover in my realm of opinions. While some feel sympathetic characters are those readers feel sad for, I don’t necessarily leave it at that. When I talk about sympathetic characters, I’m speaking specifically on characters readers have a strong emotional response to. A character my readers hate (if that’s what I wanted them to feel) is every bit as important as a character my readers love. When I get feedback from beta readers, my worst fear is I’ll ask, “what did you think about Character X?” and the readers will respond with, “Who?” That’s a much bigger problem to me.
One of my betas for Journals hates Richard. When she told me why, I smiled, and said, “Sorry, but that’s exactly what I wanted you to feel.” The degree to which readers hate Richard is one thing, but if they hate him for the same reason my beta hated him, I did my job right. Characters can’t be completely rage worthy any more than they can be completely sympathetic. The masters (who in my opinion are George R.R. Martin and Peter V. Brett) can make you hate a character and then a book later, make you at least understand them. This particular ability allows you to have an extra arch with your characters.
A great example for how to do this? Believe it or not, the WWE. I haven’t watched wrestling in years, but think about it. Shawn Michaels went from hero to villain to hero to goof to hero and all the way around again. Readers look for growth in character, and that’s another term that might be misleading. Sometimes failure tests a character’s metal, and it’s okay for that character to regress. Why?
Now we come to the main purpose of this particular blog. We’re all human. Just on the drive to my brother’s house we talked about what it is to be human. I don’t think people are good or bad. I think they’re people. Sometimes they do good things, sometimes they do horrible things. I know I have. So the most realistic characters react to their environment. I have a few characters who don’t change. I like those characters. I like those who no matter the test, they alway pass. I like the other characters too. I think House, M.D. was a great example here. What kept me watching that show was the thought that, “Maybe this episode, he’ll do the decent thing.” Nope. Never did. It’s the same trick Charlie Brown kept falling for. He’ll never kick the ball and House will never be a compassionate person. (You can argue the end of that series with me in the comments if you want.)
Those characters are unique, but they can get boring quickly. I’ve failed in my life, so I look for characters who have flaws, but are generally decent folk. One of the more common compliments I get for Journals is Bob. He’s a good, white-hat, guy. He has his slumps, but he’s consistently kind and compassionate, and that makes him sympathetic when he’s faced with tragedy. Others don’t like him because he’s too nice. I think the world is just about done with antiheroes, then again, maybe not. I think it’s an archetype like any other. Use tools for a reason.
You don’t need a raging alcoholic day-care sitter any more than you need an incredibly pious prostitute. That sort of extreme can seem forced and/or contrived. Strive instead for people who feel real. All my favorite books have at least one character I genuinely feel some connection too. It’s the part of me I see in those characters that makes me want to see what happens to them. I think this is something to strive for in writing.
That makes me want to close with a few (in no particular order) characters I found very sympathetic. They area also some of my favorite characters in fiction. They are:
Perrin Aybara from Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.
Vin from Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.
John Cleaver from the John Wayne Cleaver series by Dan Wells.
The Warded Man/Arlen from The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett.
All of these characters have great emotional range. Sometimes, they do things that make me proud, other times, I’m angry with them for how they handle a situation. I could have gone on, but I just wanted to give you all a few characters I felt have the qualities I look for when I’m reading. You can feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
In summary: A sympathetic character is someone the reader feels something for. They should be realistic by sometimes failing tests of character. They can be “bad” or “good” as a whole, but no one is all of any one thing. (except for a few carefully chosen characters, which I feel need to be offset by other members in the cast.)
I hope this gives you some insight into what I shoot for when I write. If you think you’ve found something I missed, or you just have a good resource to share, let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading,
I’d like to start this story out by telling you about my senior year in high school. I promise, this is relevant. I don’t know about you all, but my algebra class had a rubric which accounted for showing your math. This infuriated me. I’d get the answer correct, but lose a point because I didn’t demonstrate how I got there.
I didn’t know it then, but this was an early indication of my writing style. When you get down to it, there are generally two types. There are discovery writers like me, who think, formulas be damned, here’s the book as I made it up.
Then there are outliners. These are the people who toil and stress over each plot line and scene.
A few of those big names out there have different terms, but they all mean the same thing.
But wait! Matt, you said you outline all the time!
Yeah, yeah I did, but that’s because I, like most authors, have found a little bit of both worlds can be helpful.
The first book I ever finished writing was discovery written. I wrote a chapter a day for a few months and finished a book. I made it up as I went. I knew what my ending was, and I had a few general ideas, but I just sat down and typed. I’ve mentioned before that book never worked, but while numerous drafts are a consequence of discovery writing, the technique isn’t a bad one. I was just so inexperienced and raw, I didn’t know what to do.
The first act of The Journals of Bob Drifter was also discovery written. I had to revise that part a few times, but I was also more experienced. I’d been studying and reading. I was practicing my craft. Then I sat down with my brother (primary alpha reader and main supporter). We set out a few plot points, and I had an idea.
I decided to use my discovery writing tendencies to develop an outline. This let me keep the freedom of letting the story take me where I wanted with the ability to make continuity and development adjustments. I could switch things around without having to do a bunch of rewrites. (Don’t let me mislead you, no matter what you do, you’re going to have rewrites. I just mean I didn’t have to do dozens.)
This is what I tend to do now. I develop my characters. I plot their progress. I do this by typing a summary of their through line of the story. If I hit a scene I really like or just want to flesh some things out, I do. If my pace starts to slow down, I just summarize what’s going on and move forward. I’ve written whole chapters that way. Once all my characters are done and their through lines prepped, I tie them together in an overall outline. Again, as I copy and paste these plots together, I let the 17-year-old me come to all the conclusions he wants.
Remember that story I opened with? I did that then too. I’d write down a formula or do a step or two if I was stuck, but once I felt like I was moving, I just kept going. All I cared about then was getting to the correct answer. All I care about now is getting the outline done.
When I finish, I have my outline. BUT, the discovery writer in me isn’t done yet. After my outline is finished, I start what I call my discovery draft. The rules change a bit, but I still have some freedom. The rule change is I have to complete a manuscript. I do this the way any writer of integrity and skill does.
My fingers still fly across the keypad. I don’t stop for anything. Inevitably, I come to a new chapter, a new character, or pretty much anything that needs description. Description is the molasses in my swimming pool. I get better with every book, but inevitably, I get frustrated, or just flat out bored. So what do I do? I use parenthetical symbols.
The good guy kicked in the door, his 9mm Barretta (CHECK SPELLING) held just at eye level. The room was like a nightmare. (BORING, WHAT MADE IT LOOK LIKE A NIGHTMARE).
Inside the parenthetical symbols, I use all caps and write a little message to myself. I’ll do everything from say (DESCRIBE THE ROOM) to (FIND OUT WHAT SORT TACTIC A HACKER WOULD USE TO RESOLVE THIS SITUATION). I’m not a hacker, but I know people who know people. (NOT ACTUAL HACKERS).
So I just motor through my draft. Sometimes I go back and clean things up. But whatever I don’t fix this time around, I don’t worry about. I just get everything on paper. I use my first draft to address all those notes. I find experts who are willing to help me with stuff and get rid of those. Then the dreaded editing starts.
I’ve found that really works for me. It took just about three years to write my second book. (That first book I mentioned, I wrote it 21 times through a 15-year period). This new system allows me to write about one a year. It still takes a hot minute to edit and make them ready to publish, but not nearly as long as Journals took me.
I decided to sit down today and explain this because it helped me. But what if you’re an outliner.
That’s okay. You’ll probably hate yourself less during editing, but if you find yourself stuck, I don’t want you to be afraid to just pound something out. I have a few friends who can’t turn off their internal editors or cure themselves of world-builder’s disease. If you find that you’re stuck, do something different. I found that I hated how many rewrites I had to do, so I decided to outline in a way that still fits the way my mind works.
So what are you? Outliner or discovery writer? Do you have a process you think works for you? Please share it in the comments below so everyone can try to add a new tool to their toolbox.
Thanks for reading,