While going through a stressful patch in my life a few years ago, I rediscovered the mystery genre. Particularly the cozy mystery genre. These are the stories where the heroine, usually part of a knitting club or a restaurant or a bookstore, suddenly finds a dead body. This launches her into an amateur investigation, questioning the natives of her quirky hometown, and discovering the murderer before the police do a la Hercule Poirot.
There’s a whole subset of these called paranormal cozies. Here the sleuth will be a witch of some kind, or be able to see ghosts, or be psychic in some way. Often there will be cats that talk and help her solve the mystery. Also, interviewing ghosts of the murdered always has its thrills. There will be magic, usually in small doses. But otherwise it’s the same quirky characters, the same small town, the same heaping doses of good food, books, and humor.
After reading a few piles of these, I went looking for cozies with dragons in them. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” I thought, “if the sleuth could turn into a dragon?” I’ve loved any kind of shapeshifter for years, but the shifter genre is predominantly hardcore porn these days. I’d like something lighter. Like a dragon shifter who solves murder mysteries, interviews quirky residents of her hometown, eats lots of good food, and trades zingers with her friends.
I couldn’t find any. NONE! Oh, I found every kind of witch you can imagine. I found witches + werewolves, even. But no dragons.
So I took the worldbuilding I had learned from Grimm and began building my own world.
Imagine the world of Grimm, where instead of wesen all over the place, there are a couple kinds of people who shift into dragons, or a smaller subspecies called drakes. Drakes have ice breath instead of fire. Dragons hate them, so drakes live on reservations for their own protection. Instead of Grimm, we have slayers, who can identify both kinds of shifters. But slayers don’t actually slay dragons anymore–they just see them. Sometimes they become lawyers who sue dragons, because the worst thing you can do to a dragon is to take away their horde, right?
So into the middle of this interesting world comes Tianna Tokala, shy, introverted drake who takes a job in an ice cream shop in Carefree, Arizona. Her boss, a dominating dragoness, winds up dead after eating ice cream Tianna had just made. Now Tianna is not only a suspect because of her cooking skills, she’s a drake suspected of killing a dragoness, which brings in a whole extra element of intrigue. Tianna and her friends Katie and Bruce must team up to figure out the real killer before more people wind up dead. Or before Tianna winds up behind bars.
The first book, A Dragon by the Tail, will launch in a few weeks. I’ve almost finished writing the second book, and I’m mulling over the third. They’re super fun to write, and these characters and this world are totally adorable. I hope readers love them as much as I do.
Grimm’s final season aired a few weeks ago, and there was much lamenting among its fans. People are hoping for a sequel. It was a fun show for those of us who wanted something a little darker than Once Upon A Time. It was a police procedural show where the hero cop is a Grimm. That is, he has the supernatural power to see Wesen–fairytale monsters who live among us in human form. Basically, it was urban fantasy.
Each week, we tuned in to see some new wesen committing some interesting crime, and to see our sleuth figure it out while trying not to reveal his Grimm secrets to the world at large. Over the course of five seasons, friends became enemies, enemies became allies, and layers of intrigue are slowly revealed as the Royals (the princes and princesses of fairytale fame) try to take over the world. Yet somehow, the human populace at large remains unaware of the wesen subculture, even though their lives are being impacted by the politics of fairytale creatures.
The worldbuilding was great fun for a TV show that pretty much only got off the ground because of the werewolf sidekick. Here’s what I picked up:
If your fairytale monsters live in plain sight, make sure they’re tied tightly to folklore. Ghosts, aliens, Krampus, sewer gators, and the Loch Ness Monster are all various kinds of wesen. Each species has its own motivations and needs that make them sympathetic. For instance, the episode with the aliens mutilating cattle turn out to be a type of bioluminescent wesen whose women have to eat beef ovaries as they get ready to give birth. Oh, and other wesen hunt them for their glowing skin.
The government makes sense. Over the course of the series, we meet the Wesen Council, a governing body of monsters who make sure that the monsters don’t reveal themselves to humans. The Royals, on the other hand, function like some kind of Austrian mafia. They have far-reaching dealings with humans and their governments. We also meet a secret government organization that tracks the movements of wesen and Royals and tries to neutralize threats.
If your hero has superpowers, make sure they’re explained. Over the course of the series, Nick gains not only the power to see wesen in their true form, but also crazy powers of hearing, strength, and the ability to hold his breath for long periods. But it feels logical, because we see him go through crazy, terrible stuff, and the powers are the side effects of almost being dead. Or something.
Don’t be afraid to jump the shark. Urban fantasy, in particular, seems to revel in this. Whether it’s the wizard in the Dresden books raising a zombie T-rex, or Nick taking off his sunglasses in the middle of a wesen wedding (wesen identify Grimm by their eyes), or a formerly dead character reappearing as a brainwashed superweapon. This genre is all about following the worldbuilding to its logical conclusion. And that means finding the most bonkers, broken thing you can and slapping the audience in the face with it.
Don’t forget the cozy elements. Every week, I’d chat with my mom about the latest episode. “It was so nice,” we’d sigh. It didn’t matter how grisly the murder had been. That wasn’t why we watched it. We tuned in each week to see if Nick was going to tell his girlfriend that he was a Grimm, or see if Monroe and Rosalie would get together, despite being different species of wesen, or to see if Monroe would trot out some obscure wesen factoid with his typical nerd delivery. We watched to see how Hank, Nick’s partner, handled wesen murders without understanding anything about that world, and if anybody would ever tell Wu, the other cop who always delivered the best one-liners. We loved the character development.
I’ve noticed in other urban fantasy that if they can nail these particular elements in their worldbuilding, I’ll typically follow those series through hours of TV or multiple books. Sure, there’s plotholes. But we stick with it because we’re so invested in the characters that we don’t mind.
My kids recently got interested in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. This interest waxes and wanes, depending on who is raising chao at the time.
Anyway, this time when they got on a Sonic kick, I said, “Do you guys want me to read you my old Sonic stories?”
Their answer was Very Yes. So I started trying to read them the very first one I wrote when I was 15.
If I knew then what I know now:
1. Melodrama is not plot. I had pages and pages of little random dramas, but nothing really moving forward in the story.
There’s also quite a few loops. Professional writers use them to hit word counts. A character goes out to accomplish something, fails, and winds up back where they started. It adds nothing to the story, but hey, it added 5k more words. This is why fantasy books are so thick.
Solution: cut that fluff and keep that story moving. If I did this with the fanfic in question, it would go from 50k words of wandering fluff to 13k of tightly-written awesome.
2. Bring the Big Bad in EARLY. In that first story, Metal Sonic is the main antagonist. But he doesn’t show up until about the 3/4ths mark. My enthusiastic teen self built the plot like a Lego tower. Let’s add on THIS and add on THAT and who cares if it makes sense? The plot muddles around with weaker secondary villains before finally settling on the Big Bad.
Solution: have Metal Sonic actively oppose the heroes from the start. He’s terrifying. Let him terrify the reader.
3. Casts of thousands work fine for epic fantasy, but not for smaller-scope urban fantasy. I had eight main characters. Count ’em. Eight. And I really only liked four of them. So that’s who got all the character development.
Poor Tails. I apologize for always leaving you out in the cold. You get more love later in the series, I promise!
Solution: cut everybody not necessary to the plot. They can stay home and have an adventure next time.
4. The idiot ball: don’t give it to anyone. Ever.
This is when a character who has been competent up to this point does something randomly stupid to move the plot along. Horror movies are full of these.
“Don’t go into the house alone!”
“Why are the lights out?”
“I’m going to ignore the spooky sound coming from the back of the house.”
“We know the bad guy attacks girls when they’re alone … let’s go hunt for him and leave our girl alone!”
Solution: Characters have to do things that logically follow. Sure, people are stupid in real life. But this is fiction. It has to make sense. Give the characters some freaking survival instincts.
5. You know that perfect character who is perfect and never gets scared and has all the answers and is better than all the other characters? She’s called a Mary-Sue. She’s the author’s self-insert into the story.
:tears out hair:
Solution: Give her some freaking FLAWS. Let her make MISTAKES. My GOSH. I hate this character so BADLY. And she’s MINE.
I apologize to everybody who waded through my old stories. They’re awful and painful and … :whispering: … still available. I’d take them down, except I still get the occasional message from a fan who remembers them fondly.
Long story short, the kids and I skipped the first five stories. We’re just going to hit the ones where new characters get introduced. We’ll see if my writing gets any more succinct as we move forward in time.
I’ve been writing a couple of little cozy mysteries lately. Both my killers have been women, which has opened up a whole line of debate in my head: namely, why are female villains so much more frightening than male ones?
I was listening to Elizabeth Elliot over the weekend, and oddly enough, she touched on this very thing. She was talking about what it means to be a woman, and she had this interesting observation.
“I was having a conversation with my brother several years ago, discussing the topic of feminism. He pointed out that men are always the great generals, and statesmen, and artists. Women don’t do this because women are so much closer to the heart of things. They are occupied with helping, with nurturing, with caring for the weak, the hidden, the imprisoned, and the betrayed.” (Quoted verbatim because I can’t get back to that particular broadcast.)
But this gave me an interesting perspective. What makes the White Witch so scary? What made the original Maleficent so chilling? Why is the evil stepmother a universal trope throughout all fairy tales?
If women are closer to the heart of life, that makes them uniquely poised to strike and harm that heart.
King Solomon once observed, “A wise woman builds her house, but a foolish woman tears it down with her hands.”
There’s nothing more defenseless and harmless than a human child. Women have the wonderful power to birth and raise the next generation. But when a woman embraces selfishness rather than her innate power of helping and nurturing, she can also destroy that life–emotionally, physically, spiritually.
That’s where the evil stepmother trope comes in. The woman who takes in children who aren’t her own and works tirelessly to destroy them, whether it’s with poisoned apples, abandoning them in the woods, or condemning them to work in the ashes as a servant. Each of these things are carefully calculated to destroy the child either physically, spiritually, or emotionally.
What makes the White Witch so disturbing? Is it when she feeds Edmund the corrupting Turkish Delight? Is it when she turns the partying animal folk to stone? Or is it when she ceremonially kills Aslan?
In my opinion, it’s not the barefaced violence that makes her frightening. It’s the diabolical backstabbing, the curses, the poison, the lies. She’s even scarier in the Magician’s Nephew, because you get to see her talk about how destroying all life with the Deplorable Word (basically a magical nuke) was totally her right.
Men can be wicked, too. But a man will generally shoot you or rape you. A woman will poison your coffee. That’s the fun of the mystery genres. We WANT a diabolical killer who eludes the police with superior clue-hiding skills. That’s why men and women are both fair game for murderers–but a female killer is slightly more chilling. Because she’s reversed her role as a nurturing, caregiving woman and become the opposite–one who takes life instead of giving it.
The wicked stepmother is indeed wicked on many, many levels.
Sign-ups for this year’s Realm Makers conference went up yesterday. All my writer friends are excitedly talking about it, exchanging yarns from last year, and looking forward to going this year.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting here thinking, “The only way I could possibly go to RM is as a panelist, and even then they’d have to twist my arm.” Which set me daydreaming about what topic I’d talk about. Which led me to probably the biggest question all writers have.
HOW YOU DO IT.
One thing you must know first about all marketing: nobody knows what works. If publishers knew what books would sell, all books would be bestsellers. The ideal marketing is to put your product in front of people who want to buy it. But how to find those people? And how to entice them to buy your product at all?
Targeted marketing has become a big deal. Facebook ads that show ads only to a certain demographic of people who are the most likely to want the product. Or Amazon ads that only show you books similar to other books you’ve bought. (How many of us shop the also-boughts? I do!)
When I was in college for digital design, the whole focus of the course was on advertising. I learned a whole lot about advertising that I didn’t want to know. Want to know what I learned?
Ready for this?
All marketing boils down to hitting three points:
Lust of the flesh
Lust of the eyes
Pride of life
That’s all there is to it.
This book will give you FEELS. (Lust of the flesh).
This book has a PRETTY COVER. (Lust of the eyes, and boy do I buy books with pretty covers).
EVERYBODY ELSE IS READING THIS BOOK AND IF YOU READ IT YOU WILL BE COOL TOO. (Pride of life. I think a lot of lit-rit-chewer falls into this category. Like Mark Twain said, literature is something everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.)
Cozy mystery authors who write mystery + knitting or mystery + baking can target the baking or knitting communities.
Really, it’s not rocket science–hunt down the people who are interested in your topic. Then you have to work on your presentation. Instead of bombing into the party and screaming BUY MY BOOK, you have to rub elbows, hobnob, make friends. Maybe do a guest post here and there on blogs, or run an ad on their network. Do it quietly. People have to see an ad at least six times before it registers enough for them to make a decision about buying.
But if you spam their social media with BUY MY BOOK over and over, you’re going to get blocked. I see this happening with politics right now. The media is hawking so much hate and rage that people are blocking it out. The louder they scream, the more they get ignored.
Kristen Lamb has a great social media marketing book called Rise of the Machines. In it, she goes into the neuroscience of how we ignore ads. We’ve been saturated in advertising for so many decades that our brains have actually evolved resistance. We physically don’t see the ads anymore.
I notice this as we drive down the road. My hubby will say, “Did you see that billboard?” I look around. “Huh?” I didn’t see any billboards at all. My brain has filtered them out.
Big fat graphic ads don’t work so well. You know what work? Links. Like these. People click little links like these WAY more often than the huge ad graphics.
Write more books. Talk about them when they launch. Quietly run an ad on a different book newsletter every month. Indielister is a goldmine of a database of ads and results. Keep an ear to the ground for industry news. None of the steps are hard, but they do require getting educated.
Now go out and make people lust after your products!
I’m being hosted on Ralene Burke’s blog today as part of her confessions series!
“Please, please, can we have a Sega Genesis?” my brother wheedled. “I’ll buy it with my birthday money!”
Our parents hemmed and hawed. This was the 1990s. Focus on the Family had been cranking out anti-videogame propaganda for years–anything from it ruining a kid’s grades to being a gateway to porn. But finally our parents said that we could buy a Genesis on one condition: they approve the games we bought.
The light was green! We bought our first video game system (and every single system after that). We played Sonic the Hedgehog and Jurassic Park and the maddeningly difficult Disney games. Batman Forever became a fixture.
Then–horrors–one hot summer day, our parents decreed that we spent too much time on games. “One hour a day,” they admonished. “Go do something else.”
Mutinous, I stalked upstairs to my desk. As a homeschooler, I had a very nice desk … Read More
I’ve been knee-deep in revisions for months now, it seems like. The third Malevolent book, Malicious, is developing in all kinds of directions I didn’t foresee in the first draft. Heck, the first draft, I didn’t know what the plot was until I was almost finished. The plan is to release books 2 (Malcontent) and 3 (Malicious) a month apart, but I don’t know if I can do it.
So as I’m chewing on the various aspects of monsters and what makes them monstrous, I keep asking myself about what it means to be truly human. I’m beta-reading a book right now about a kid who turns into a vampire, and it raises the same question. What separates us from the monsters?
It’s interesting to see this definition of humanity: humaneness; benevolence.
“he praised them for their standards of humanity, care, and dignity” synonyms: compassion, brotherly love, fraternity, fellow feeling, philanthropy, humaneness, kindness, consideration, understanding, sympathy, tolerance
Isn’t it interesting that the higher virtues are the pinnacle of being human? When you talk about “the vampire seemed so human”, you don’t mean that he had four limbs and a face. You refer to his benevolent nature.
On the flipside, we also have the word inhuman:
lacking human qualities of compassion and mercy; cruel and barbaric. synonyms: cruel, harsh, inhumane, brutal, callous, sadistic, severe, savage, vicious, barbaric
This is where you get monsters–the werewolves and vampires, the evil kings and wizards of fantasy, the evil aliens of science fiction.
So, to be truly human, one must exercise the virtues. To be a monster, one exercises the base nature. And it’s WAY easier to be a monster than it is to be a human. That struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. The Apostle Paul’s cry of, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do, and don’t do the things that I want to do?”
As I’m chewing through these books, they constantly raise questions like this. If a dangerous monster protects the girl he loves, is he humane? And if a human being whose job is to protect people from the monsters suddenly begins destroying the people she should protect, is she the true monster?
I think that’s one reason people like the paranormal romance genre. We love the contradiction of the all-powerful monster who gentles himself in the presence of the one he loves. We want to see the transformative power of love and redemption. I mean, think about how people adore anti-heroes. We just love the semi-bad guy and root for him to join the heroes.
So, really, our humanity (our virtues) is what makes us human. It’s possible to be a member of the human race and be utterly inhuman. It’s also possible to not be human (like with an alien) and yet be completely humane.
What do you think? Is this something you’ve ever wrestled with in your reading or writing?
In my circulation around the internet, I keep hearing about this book called the Bestseller Code. It’s not out yet, but a chapter of it is available for free on Amazon. Ever curious, I grabbed it and read it.
Here’s the summary:
This sneak peek teaser – featuring literary giants John Grisham and Danielle Steele – from Chapter 2 of The Bestseller Code, a groundbreaking book about what a computer algorithm can teach us about blockbuster books, stories, and reading, reveals the importance of topic and theme in bestselling fiction according to percentages assigned by the what the authors refer to as the “bestseller-ometer.”
Although 55,000 novels are published every year, only about 200 hit the lists, a commercial success rate of less than half a percent. When the computer was asked to “blindly” select the most likely bestsellers out 5000 books published over the past thirty years based only on theme, it discovered two possible candidates: The Accident by Danielle Steel and The Associate by John Grisham.
The computer recognized quantifiable patterns in their seemingly opposite, but undeniably successful writing careers with legal thrillers and romance. In Chapter 2, Archer and Jockers analyze this data and divulge the most and least likely to best sell topics and themes in fiction with a human discussion of the “why” behind these results.
The Bestseller Code is big-idea book about the relationship between creativity and technology. At heart it is a celebration of books for readers and writers—a compelling investigation into how successful writing works.
Intriguing idea, right? How can a computer algorithm pick out bestsellers?
Well, when you dig into it, it’s really stuff that readers know intuitively, but never really articulated. Here’s some excerpts:
If we compute an average proportion for each topic in all the books by each of these authors, it certainly seems that Steel and Grisham learned something from the old maxim “write what you know.” The author who dreamed of baseballbut then became an attorney has “Lawyers and the Law” as his most prevalent theme, followed by “American Team Sports.” Steel, who has been through five marriages, raised nine children and lost one, writes mostly about “Domestic Life,” “Love,” and “Maternal Roles.”
Roughly a third of all the paragraphs Grisham has ever written deal directly with the legal system, and similarly Steel has given almost an exact mathematical third of her pages over the years to the theme of domestic life, or even more specifically “time spent inside the home.”
Grisham and Steel each have only one signature theme, not two, that takes up a whole third (on average) of each of their novels. This likely helps with their branding. All the many other topics each writer employs are used in tiny percentages. Grisham’s second-most-used topic across his canon is American sports, but it is the subject of only 4 percent of his pages, and this average is no doubt as large as it is because it gets a big bump from his non-legal thriller Calico Joe— a book that is entirely set in a world of baseball. Many of Grisham’s other secondary themes are no big surprise: money (3 percent), cops (2 percent), and government intelligence (2 percent).
The less immediately obvious topic, at almost 4 percent of all of Grisham’s pages, is a topic we call “everyday moments.” The name is deliberately vague and undramatic. The scenes in which this topic shows up prominently may involve two people chatting, or sitting on a sofa watching TV, or walking down the street. Not much is going on but day-to-day living. Its presence as number three in Grisham, after law and sports, is important if only to indicate a writer who is aware of pace. Everyday interactions between characters are there in order to vary the pace of the drama and avoid melodrama. It is the kind of topic no one would likely think they read for, but if these scenes that offer breath and reflection are totally absent, a reader is almost guaranteed to complain.
There are other minor topics in Grisham, though, ones that we would have been less likely to guess immediately. These topics, with similar proportions to cops and courts, deal with people in their domestic environments (a top topic for Steel), kids enjoying summer at home (with words like “porch” and “bike”), scenes about relationships (also very important in Steel), and family.
Steel’s top few themes appear to put her characters and those of Grisham in very different worlds. After time spent in the home— a topic whose specific nouns suggest the home of a typical nuclear family— she gives 5 percent more of her storytelling to a similar theme we called “family time.” The nouns in this word group suggest a family at home, engaged in everyday activities: dinner, conversation, rest, love, weekends. So far it is all quite low drama. Her third most used topic, though, deals with hospitals and medical care. This topic is made up of words like “nurses,” “doctors,” “ambulance,” “emergency,” and “accident.” It suggests not the long-term stay of a patient with a chronic disease, but instead the sudden and unexpected event that threatens the domestic contentment of Steel’s primary themes.
There’s a lot more in this vein–analyzing the topics in the proportions. It boils down to “people like reading about people interacting in casual, friendly, intimate ways.” Oh, but sex doesn’t sell.
If we take a cross section of almost five thousand novels— five hundred of which are bestsellers and the rest are not— and measure the presence of five hundred different themes across all of them, then the proportion of the whole taken up by sex is just about a thousandth of a percent. If you then measure the content of bestselling novels (and we will explain how this is done in just a moment), this fraction for sex goes down to 0.0009 percent.
It’s hard to believe. Who would have thought that sex does not sell? We tell people and still they do not believe us. But the truth is this: sex, or perhaps more precisely erotica, sells, and it sells in notable quantities, but only within a niche market. Titles within that genre rarely break out enough to win the attention of the mainstream reading market that creates bestsellers.
We know what you are thinking: “What about Fifty Shades of Grey?” Well, that novel (or those novels if you count the whole series) is one quite rare example of an erotic story that hit the lists. … Contrary to what you might expect given the prominence of sex in TV, movies, and the media, the U.S. reading public public of the past thirty years has demonstrated a preference for other topics.
The algorithm actually came up with a list of things that didn’t sell–at least, not on that snapshot of the New York Times Bestseller list. This is where all my spec fic friends are going to cry foul.
Two notable sets of under-performing topics are all things fantastical and otherworldly. Made-up languages, fantasy creatures, settings that don’t exist, space battles, and starships are all statistically far less likely to succeed on a mass scale than the topics of realism in today’s market.
Still, in the many topics that suggest a realistic world, there are some that are winners and others that are losers. Among the good, the popular, and (for writers) the go-for-its: marriage, death, taxes (yes, really). Also technologies— preferably modern and vaguely threatening technologies— funerals, guns, doctors, work, schools, presidents, newspapers, kids, moms, and the media.
By contrast, among the bad and unpopular, we already have sex, drugs, and rock and roll. To that add seduction, making love, the body described in any terms other than in pain or at a crime scene. (These latter two bodily experiences, readers seem to quite enjoy.) No also to cigarettes and alcohol, the gods, big emotions like passionate love and desperate grief, revolutions, wheeling and dealing, existential or philosophical sojourns, dinner parties, playing cards, very dressed up women, and dancing. (Sorry.) Firearms and the FBI beat fun and frivolity by a considerable percentage. The reading public prefers to see the stock market described more so than the human face. It likes a laboratory over a church, spirituality over religion, and college more than partying. And, when it comes to that one, big, perennially important question, the readers are clear in their preference for dogs and not cats.
This is where I start thinking about the data we’ve been presented. Of course, this is all based on one chapter of a very deep book, and I’m no statistician. But I am a reader, and I have a few theories about why these books sell.
First off, for the lack of speculative fiction in the algorithm–this was based off a snapshot of the 2014 NYT bestseller list. This was, I believe, right after the NYT changed its rules to keep indie published books off the list. (Otherwise it would have been pretty much dominated by picture books.)
The indie market has been killing it in speculative fiction. I mean, the Martian was indie–Andy Weir wrote it on his blog and dumped it to Amazon for a buck afterward. Traditional publishers have declared Urban Fantasy a dead genre. Meanwhile, on Amazon, UF is one of the big hot genres. Watch out, Jim Butcher, here comes Domino Finn and a bunch of others, out to steal your crown.
Science fiction, especially space opera, its going bonkers in the indie realm. So is epic fantasy–dragons, wizards, magic, all that jazz. Over on the kboards forum, writers of speculative regularly report being able to live off their earnings in those genres.
Now comes the speculation. This study found a few big things.
An author spends 1/3rd of the book solidly focused on genre tropes. If it’s a Grisham, people want law shenanigans. If it’s romance, they want relationships. If it’s fantasy, they want the fantastic. If it’s space opera, they want space ships and aliens. If it’s Harry Potter, they want Hogwarts.
This is all fine and dandy. But what separates the winners from the rest of the pack is that “human interactions” thing. We don’t read Harry Potter for the epic battles against the forces of Voldemort–we want to hang out with the Weasleys. “We’re not dumb. We know our names are Gred and Forge.”
In the Expanse trilogy by Corey, the heroes spend a LOT of time hanging out in the canteen of the ship, drinking bad space-coffee and debating what to do. There’s a ton of human interaction along the way.
After Harry Potter came out, I read a lot of the copycats that launched around the same time. They were all big on the action and weak on the heartwarming, cozy human interaction moments. They lacked staying power as a result. Out of the whole pack, I think only Percy Jackson managed to rise to popularity.
The Mitford books by Jan Karon were big on human interaction. Each book is pretty much “Father Tim wanders around a little town and talks to people”. There will always be a mystery to solve or an over-arching conflict to face, but at its heart, it’s just a cozy story. I think that’s why it sold like crazy.
Human interactions, marriage, death, taxes, moms, kids, and all the rest of things that feature in bestsellers–those are all what we call high concept. That is, something that everybody can relate to. We all have families. We all have laundry and taxes and death in the family.
So, basically, if you want to write a book that people want to read, you have to write about people dealing with common topics. But the fun of it is setting it in different genres. (In the second Expanse book, one of the main characters is trying to find his kidnapped daughter. So he crowdfunds his search. The resulting donations and trolling he gets ring absolutely true, whether here on Earth or roaming the moons of Saturn.)
As a reader, I know that I love the quiet moments where the characters spend time with other characters. Seems that I’m not the only one.
Back in my teenaged fanfic days, I decided to write a sprawling epic story. A story that basically crossed Digimon with World War 2. A huge conflict that would put our heroes against impossible odds. I wrote a massive war novel in the world of Sonic the Hedgehog.
In battle animes like Digimon, there’s a progression to the power flow. The heroes fight a bad guy. They get stronger. They find the bad guy’s commander. They defeat him. They get stronger. They find the next rank of bad guy, and on up it goes. By the end, the heroes and villain are throwing galaxies at each other.
If I wanted my heroes to get strong, I needed a stronger bad guy. I needed a scary one. So I went to the scariest villain I had read at that time: Sauron from Lord of the Rings.
Sauron has no screen time. He speaks exactly 1 line. Yet he is absolutely terrifying. As I studied the mechanics of how this worked, I realized that it broke down like this:
Heroes can read Sauron’s mind
His Eye is felt
His influence is felt
His armies are seen (and they’re bad)
His Nazgul are seen (and they’re bad)
He controls a freaking volcano
His power can corrupt people from far away (the Ring)
He can alter the weather
The heroes talk about him with dread and horror
Yet the closest we ever get to seeing him is Pippin’s account of looking into the palantir. Sauron is never described.
After LOTR, I attempted to read Wheel of Time. I successfully bored my way through book 2, The Great Hunt. In the end of that book, Rand faces off with the evil skeletal bad guy who is basically Sauron.
And you know what? It wasn’t scary. It was sort of dumb. Kind of like the first Hulk movie. Once he was on screen, the villain’s threat diminished to that of a cackling cartoon character.
The LOTR movies suffered from the same problem. Sauron is reduced to a searching spotlight outside a prison complex. Not really … you know … menacing.
So, if I wanted to make my Big Bad scary, I’d have to keep his screen time to a minimum.
So along came Leviathan. He was based on the characteristics from Job 41.
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? 2 “Can you put a rope in his nose Or pierce his jaw with a hook? 3 “Will he make many supplications to you, Or will he speak to you soft words? Lay your hand on him; Remember the battle; you will not do it again!
9 “Who can strip off his outer armor? Who can come within his double mail? 14 “Who can open the doors of his face? Around his teeth there is terror. “Nothing on earth is like him, One made without fear. 34 “He looks on everything that is high; He is king over all the sons of pride.”
Like Sauron, he was invincible, except for one tiny weakness. He was this self-healing nanite-based android with a super-computer brain. He made himself into the Borg King and began assimilating the entire world into his cyborg army.
I used my observations about Sauron and followed them closely. Leviathan appeared at the beginning of the story, at his birth, and the end, at his death. The rest of the book is about the heroes fighting his armies, dealing with refugees, and rescuing each other from cyborg assimilation.
Levi, himself, remains off-screen. It builds this growing, horrible dread the longer the story goes. And the more enormous, horrible things that happen, the more his reputation grows. The scarier he becomes. And we haven’t seen him in hundreds of pages.
And it must have worked, because tons of people begged permission to use Levi in their own stories. I read as many as I could find. Everyone wanted their characters to kill him, too. But nobody had figured out how to make him as scary as I did–they gave him too much screen time.
When Levi is on screen, he’s just a robot dinosaur. Oh, he’s strong and menacing enough. But he doesn’t have the presence of doom that he achieves by staying off-camera.
Now, this won’t work for all villains. Lots of times the villain must have screen time because he’s just as interesting as the hero, with his own journey. Or he’s the hero’s best friend, even. I personally love my villains and show them as much as possible.
But sometimes you just want that backstage mastermind kind of villain who stays out of sight. The really scary one. I think Unbreakable said it best:
I was recently introduced to the Writing Excuses podcast. (“Fifteen minutes, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart!”) Always in the market for more tricks about building likeable protagonists, I picked out that particular episode.
This is my current recipe for a likeable protagonist:
Something interesting about the person themselves, whether it be a hobby, a personality flaw, color-changing eyes, etc.
A goal that the character wants very, very much
A need that the character has that they may not know about
This has served me well in my own books. It even works for unlikeable protagonists–people will follow a jerk as long as they have a strong goal. It’s why The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is so fascinating–watching Bogart try to steal ALL THE GOLD is riveting, even though we despise him for it. (Also, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”)
In the podcast, they pointed out a few more important ingredients that I’d never thought of:
They mentioned that you may have a character who is an assassin. They go out and kill people as part of their job. Yet they’re never held accountable for it–never brought to trial in whatever fantasy world they move in.
Responsibility is another big one. A character needs to have responsibilities, even if it’s something as small as feeding their cat. The character needs human connections, responsibilities, things to care about. This is a great way to make the reader to care about them, too. “They have to look after their disabled little brother? Awww!”
Last, we have the stakes. The character has to stand to lose something if they fail to accomplish their goal. James Scott Bell says that it always has to be death–either emotional death (the romantic couple break up!), professional death (if the young lawyer loses this case, he’ll be disbarred!) or physical death (he’ll be sleeping with the fishes).
In the podcast, they mentioned that in a lot of new authors’ manuscripts, the hero is the least interesting character. To my chagrin, here they dissected Harry Potter. They pointed out that Hermione has a very strong, clear goal (good grades). What’s Harry’s goal? Darned if I know. Same with Bella from Twilight (hey, if we knock one, we gotta knock the other).
So that’s my food for thought about likeable heroes. Heck, it works for an unlikeable character like Katniss. She’s not exactly somebody you’d want to friend on Facebook, but she’s got what it takes to break the Hunger Games, and that’s why we follow her adventures.