Conflict, Character and Creativity — A Guest Post By Peter Grant

*My friend Peter Grant offered me this guest post, and of course I jumped at it.  As I’m going through a slew of character building experiences, and yes, this will translate into writing at some point.  But letting your characters grow and improve is also a problem, and I enjoyed Peter’s view of it.*

 

They say dealing with problems is character-building. I say dealing with characters is a problem!

Last year I published three books:  the first two novels in a military science fiction series, ‘Take The Star Road’ and ‘Ride The Rising Tide’, and a memoir of prison chaplaincy, ‘Walls, Wire, Bars and Souls’. I’d planned to publish a fourth book, the third novel in the SF series, but beta readers of the manuscript came back with some very trenchant suggestions for changes. Furthermore, feedback from reader reviews of the first two novels on Amazon.com suggested that I needed to improve my characterization, and incorporate more conflict so as to make my protagonist less of a ‘golden boy’.

This was problematic for me in many ways – and for several readers as well. It seemed to me that reactions to my first two novels varied according to the background of the reader. Those varying reactions, and how I’ve been trying to respond to them, have taught (and are teaching) me a lot about the craft of writing. I thought others might find the process interesting.

First, I’ve been annoyed by a great many military SF books that are quite obviously written by people who have no military background themselves (or, if they have some military background, don’t have combat experience). It shows very clearly. I wanted to write in a way that was true to military life, recognizable by those who’ve ‘been there and done that’ whilst also informative and educational for those considering volunteering for military service. I think I’ve largely succeeded in that (at least thus far). For example, one beta reviewer of Volume 3 said (paraphrased): “The protagonist’s actions are instructive in themselves and I wish I’d read some of this before I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant; I’d never have made a particular mistake. Expensive lesson.  Hopefully, some young reader will remember your lessons as performed by the protagonist.”

However, some (not all) of those who don’t have a military background appeared to find that aspect of my writing boring, or frustrating, or not germane to the plot. I had to figure out how to write in such a way as to retain the interest of both groups without losing the practical, real-world focus I was looking for. This wasn’t helped by some of the comments on Amazon, many of which were positive, but several of which were negative – often in ways I couldn’t precisely identify. They often contradicted each other. For example, from five reader reviews of ‘Ride The Rising Tide’:

  • “The characters are good, the plot is well developed, and a lot of pleasure is here.”
  • “… in the third book, I definitely hope he fleshes out his main character much more and makes him a more three dimensional person. I’d also like a lot more plot development that doesn’t seem like a perfunctory effort at getting out a sequel.”
  • “The second book took a character I related to, and liked, and grew him into a character I’m excited about, care about, and want to see how he progresses.”
  • “I have to say I was disappointed by the story. The action is limited, the dialogue is more about how things work rather than building up character development.”
  • “Good characters well developed in a great story. Who could ask for more.”

With such contradictory perspectives, it was difficult for this relatively inexperienced author to figure out how (and what) to improve in Book 3.

One of my beta readers, who provided a stellar, thorough, in-depth critique that pulled no punches and was (I think) very accurate, picked up both positive and negative aspects of my protagonist. I think she summed up what a number of my readers were trying to express when she said (again, paraphrased): “The protagonist’s ‘perfection’ makes the outcomes predictable: there is an incident, danger is involved, but the reader can rest assured he will come riding to the rescue (his ‘steed’ being his ability to always come up with the perfect solution), and he will get an award of some sort. Yes, we get it: he is the good guy. As I said before: a little TOO good.”

On the other hand, when I broached the subject on my Amazon author forum of developing my protagonist’s character and making him less of a ‘golden boy’, a reader responded: “I’m sad to hear this. Please remember that sometimes a person can just kick butt and get everything right. Sometimes people are happy! Sometimes the good guy wins for heck sake. /sigh I await the hammer to drop.”

I had to find a way to ‘improve’ my protagonist’s character and make him more interesting without putting off those who liked him as he was. I therefore tried to learn more about character development and conflict. I found these two books particularly helpful:

However, both were also frustrating, in the sense that I didn’t fully identify with the approach of either author. Reading further afield, I found even more disagreement between other authors and these two. It’s quite a dilemma for a novice author. Who to believe? Whose advice to follow?

I eventually came to the realization that I’d have to develop my own approach. Whilst it would incorporate ‘lessons learned’ from those who’d walked the writing path before me, it would be a synthesis of their views, my own personality and way of expressing myself, and the life my characters and series took on for themselves. (They do appear to have minds of their own that way!) I certainly wouldn’t be able to get it 100% right in a single book. My approach would therefore be to deliver the best story and characterization I could in Maxwell Volume 3, then improve it further in Volume 4, then improve on Volume 4 in Volume 5, and so on ad nauseam.

I’m now into my second revision of the manuscript of Volume 3 since my beta readers submitted their reviews. I won’t pretend I’m altogether happy with the result (yet). It’s been frustrating to try to envision my protagonist through the eyes of others and see how he can be improved, but I’m plugging away at it. I hope to have the book ready for publication by the end of January 2014, if all goes well. I don’t want to delay publication much beyond that, because that would be fiddling for fiddling’s sake. I’m mindful of the old proverb that ‘The best is the enemy of good enough’, and if I fiddle forever, I’ll never be able to write Volume 4! Rather, I have to do the best job I can right now, get Volume 3 out there, learn from reader feedback, and incorporate that into the next book.

I’m sure many of you have faced precisely the same problem in your own writing. I’d love to hear from you in Comments about how you tackled it. Hopefully we can learn from each other’s experience.

 

 

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44 responses to “Conflict, Character and Creativity — A Guest Post By Peter Grant

  1. Real people tend to win or die in military action.
    A rare exception might be a friend of mine that got rescued by his team after some gruesome time spent at the hands of the enemy.
    Some readers would consider that (and his opportunity to bring the other players in that drama back for an anniversary rematch) not “true to life”… and they might be right for most people’s lives.
    Your characters; though, just might be some of society’s wolves, winning every fight but their last.
    I think you are on the right track… you can’t please everyone.

  2. “The protagonist’s ‘perfection’ makes the outcomes predictable: there is an incident, danger is involved, but the reader can rest assured he will come riding to the rescue (his ‘steed’ being his ability to always come up with the perfect solution), and he will get an award of some sort. Yes, we get it: he is the good guy. As I said before: a little TOO good.”

    One could make the same argument about any number of book characters. The one that immediately came to mind was Bandit Six in Ringo’s Last Centurion. Yet it is obviously a popular book.

  3. Nobody is good at everything. So sometimes the writer has to put his “perfect” protagonist into a situation that tests his weak areas. Or where his strengths are a liability, rather than an asset. Having no possibility of fail takes away a lot of the tension in a story.

  4. My opinion on Maxwell is that it is good that he is the golden boy, something that is missing from far too much literature today. I believe the problem you are hearing from your readers is not that he is too good, he is too lucky. An example. In book one he just happens to be the guy that overhears about the need for a troopship and just happens to be the guy that comes up with the humanitarian project and just happens… It isn’t that the readers aren’t happy with his success, it is that he is too lucky as well. One success piled on top of another without breathing room tends to make the WSOD get harder and harder. Nothing wrong with any of his successes, just the unrelenting stream.

    • Social scientist Arthur Brooks having written extensively on the nature of happiness found one important factor to be what he termed “earned success.” We humans are prone to dismiss success which we view as attributable to luck and esteem success viewed as earned.*

      Applied to the circumstances as described above, if we perceive the “luck” in overhearing things to be a consequence of the hero’s prior actions — because he was kind to a beggar boy, that boy brought him news or put him in position to overhear — we react differently than if we think the author was just pushing the pieces on the game board into place. While there is ultimately no difference (it is all crafted, after all) we prefer to not see authorial fingerprints on the pieces in play.

      *At one point society deemed “luck” to be a consequence of character — good things happening to good people, or a character “favored” by the gods — modern readers are too cynical sophisticated to accept such plotting.

  5. Egregious Charles

    Perhaps a comparison of Harry Potter just in the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (they got better afterwards), and Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings (the books), would be illuminating. Both are deeply good characters, pretty much “unflawed” in terms of modern critcism. Harry Potter is wish fulfillment fantasy; he always does the right thing, and everything goes right because of it. He gets honors and admiration from all but the villains. Frodo Baggins on the other hand does the right thing despite understanding that it will go horribly for him. He is honored in Gondor, but in the end he gets to go home to obscurity in the Shire short one finger and forever harmed by the Ring. And he didn’t really expect even that much. Who wouldn’t want to be Harry, and who would want to be Frodo? Harry Potter is fun to read, and obviously immensely popular. Yet Frodo is the inspiring one; Frodo is the one I’d like to be like, and obviously also immensely popular. (Even though Tolkien’s language is difficult for people who only got public-school education.)

    Flawed characters is a sophomoric idea of adding depth. Flawed outcomes, situations where doing the right thing is truly different than winning, let the character show real depth, and shine from those depths of character.

    • Egregious Charles

      I should add that flawed outcomes can be overdone; the world only needs one Book of Job. For example, Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows really overdo it to my mind.

    • Minor quibble: if, in Philosopher’s Stone Harry had just minded his own @#!$ business, Quirrelldemort would have never been able to get the fricking stone. Dumbledore’s ward could only by defeated by somebody like Harry, with no personal desire for the stone.

      • Well, he may not have been able to get the stone (though I would argue, based on the other things stated in the series, it’s possible that he eventually could have figured out how to break the spell), but he would have still been around to poison the school from the inside. Ultimately, in the first book, Harry was more of a necessary prop than a character who actively contributed to the resolution of the story.

        Looking back, it could be said that the first book was merely there to establish the main characters and some of their personality quirks to set the stage for the rest of the series.

  6. Nothing like having a good critiquer. They are worth much gold.
    I haven’t read any of your stories – yet. But is sounds as though I might just need to. I like good MILSF.

    • I’ll second the praise for a good alpha and/or beta reader. My whole take on Rada’s back story shifted after an alpha reader with military experience pointed out some psychological points that I’d overlooked. Even though she’s not human, his take applies to her in spades.

  7. Gratuitous amateurish feedback:

    It’s good to be good, don’t change that about Maxwell’s character. But you can be very, very good and still have great, meaningful conflict that grows and thickens the character. I’d take Pam’s advice and put him where the fight is on more dangerous ground, where he has no advantage in experience and must win or fail by his wits.

    It could mean some stumbling, could reveal, oh, a short temper when it comes to certain bureaucratic nitwits or something (best I could come up with at the moment). Sometimes even if one does everything just right, the universe conspires against you still and it all turns to muck anyways. That can be a humiliating, depressing, humbling.

    There are also situations where there is no perfect answer, no really good answer, and all that’s left is a slithering mass of evils from which you must pluck the least vile. Modern fiction is replete with this kind of dystopian thing, and I hope you’ll avoid it! A few situations like that can be believable, a whole book full tend to create TBAR dents in my wall.

    Maybe an evil genius is your style? Bad guys can do everything “right,” too on occasion, just to foul up the plans of the hero. In a way, having so much success so far could play into this. Hitting a stone wall in advancement could be a bit of a shock to him. Will he get discouraged trying to find his way around? Look back on his accomplishments and say “I got lucky”? The bad guy’s usually the hero in his own story, too. Maybe give that guy some wins.

    I like the story so far. Part of the problem with feedback might be that it is so different from a lot from modern s/f in that the main character *is* genuinely good. Flaws are all quite in vogue these days. But you know, Louis L’amour still sells by the truck-ton, and I don’t hear much complaining about two dimensional characters there, and some of his heroes were quite the quite the white knights. Go with what tells the best story, and damn all else. *grin*

    Much luck to you, sir, and look forward to the next book.

    • David Drake’s Captain Leary (in the Cinnabar Navy books) is pretty much a Captain Kirk or the guy from Master and Commander. He has a lot of strengths and not a lot of flaws. But sometimes he gets into some frustrating or funny situations when he can’t use his military or social gifts very effectively, and he’s always got money worries, and often he has to deal with the crazy stuff that his own friends and the sailors get up to. Without it getting hopeless or depressing, sometimes there’s just no good answer and a lot of bad ones! Also, he often has afterthoughts about whether certain actions could have been done better, or he explains to a friend why his reasoning was to do X instead of Y or Z.

      • A storytelling technique I learned years ago is to make your character really good at something, and then drop him in a situation where many or most of the problems he faces cannot be solved by those techniques. However, his skills should always be used in at least one significant way during the story, otherwise they’re just window-dressing and readers will not see them as an important part of the character.

      • He is a hard drinking womanizer, these traits get him in plenty of ‘situations’ in the earlier books before Miranda tames him. Those situations just aren’t the main focus of the books.

      • *grin* Those are some of my favorite popcorn books. Popcorn, because they get gobbled up in a sitting, usually, and re-read every so often. Good description, good story, and fine pacing.

        If I could write that good, I’d never leave the keyboard, save to sleep on giant piles of money. *chuckle*

  8. Writers’ manuals, like cookbooks, must be interpreted to individual tastes. The best will provide general principles for challenges — character development, plotting, backgrounding — and meaningful criteria for evaluating your success. They can offer a selection of techniques from which you can select and adapt according to your own sensibilities.

    Of course, as a professional writer your enjoyment of other’s books is forever affected as you will now read and analyse them according to how you perceive the gears to be grinding and ploy how to steal swipe filch adapt them to your own work.

  9. When I started to get serious about writing I read a book called “How to write a damn good novel.” It was a very helpful primer. One of the main statements was to paraphrase. “Make both of your main characters larger than life.” Sherlock Holmes had his nemesis, King Arthur his, Jekyll and Hyde had both in one body. Superman had what’s his name? Luck always plays in the game just like Heinlein said at the top of the marque or blog letterhead. Main characters have to be both good and lucky- but… they can’t run around trashing alley rats. They have to have a challenge in a big mean S.O.B. just as down and dirty as they are good and lucky. Example- Darkship series- in both stories, the bad guy is like Arnold said in True Lies- “They were all bad guys.”

  10. Peter, I ran into the same complaint about Rada Ni Drako – she was too good, in her case because she had too much experience and technology at her disposal. So as I worked backwards into her story, I shifted a few quirks to become weaknesses/flaws and she became a lot more believable. I had it a lot easier because her tale is all in short stories or novellas, so I can slip bits in and out far more easily than you can!

  11. Re your post about Talent:

    I recently had a professor in a class on fusion reactor physics state something to the effect that:
    “Remember that if any of these steps seem opaque and unintuitive to you that these equations were worked out by geniuses that intuitively already understood what the right answer was going to look like when they began. If you don’t understand it, then you’re just not one of these geniuses, and you’ll have to accept that all this works.”

    (That right there. That pushed all of my buttons; It isn’t pedagogy! It doesn’t help me understand anything about the subject! Head-desk head-desk)

    (Not to mention that he started doing some steps that I’m pretty sure aren’t right in the derivation of the Boltzman kinetic equations…)

  12. I enjoyed book one and will end up reading book so don’t change the character to much.

  13. Mr. Grant,

    I did read about halway into Take the Star Road two months or so back before Thanksgiving and everything else broke my concentration.

    With respect to your main character: I sort of see what some of your critics might be getting at: It might not be that he’s a virtuous character, but for the first few chapters of that book he has *everything* go right for him. A whole series of extremely unlikely lucky breaks land on him. In addition, he seems like he already has his whole direction in life figured out, as well as all the skills he needs to succeed.

    It seems like a character from a poor/impoverished/hard-luck background, while he might be extremely virtuous/hard-workng/talented/goal-driven would have to have certain skills he wouldn’t have had the chance to develop, a lack of knowledge or ability to navigate the entirely foreign society he is trying to break into, and maybe some uncertainty (or naivette) about what he is trying to do – things he would need the guidance and possibly correction from characters who live in that society and would have reason to understand all the details of the situation.

    (My memory is fuzzy about the some of the specifics with time. I may have to sit down and read your novel through.)

    • Comparing my impression from your novel with some of Heinlein’s characters (in, for example, Citizen of the Galaxy, or the one (title escapes me) where he inherits his father’s Navigator’s text):

      Heinlein’s “level 0, starting from the bottom” characters may have been talented (in some cases supernaturally so), but they were also somewhat constrained by their circumstances. Their initial condition wasn’t one of complete knowledge/competence about their world. That’s what Heinlein’s mentor characters were for – they had the outside view that could help these characters succeed.

      On the other hand, if you want a character to start from zero knowledge and figure these things out for the first time (blaze a trail of their own wihtout a mentor/outside help) – then some sort of experimentation, trial, and necessarily error on their part would seem to me to be necessary to make their circumstances more realistic and believable.

      Anyway, I hope I’m not coming across as overly harsh. Someone that starts in a state (internal (knowledge) or external (circumstances)) where they can speed-run their world, while theoretically possible, seems unrealistic to me as a reader.

      • Bleh – sorry if that isn’t very coherent. Speed typing on migraine medication ….

      • PS – you’re a few books into your series by now though. However you’ve written Max is how he is. Changing the character by now in these ways may make him inconsistent with his history.

        I’m just giving my impressions as a reader.

        • If you can’t change the character, change the circumstances. He problems he solved easily were just a warm-up, next will come he serious challenges that will leave him bloodied. just step up the game he’s involved in until he is no longer the best.

  14. I have just read the first one, so I can’t comment on the second book. But in Take the Star Road, Maxwell might be a little too lucky or talented (not quite the word I’m looking for, but he might be too physically good or skilled, nothing wrong with his moral goodness). However the thing that threw me is that all the other characters (well except the villains) are WAY to good, and WAY to helpful to Maxwell. Maxwell’s character is fine, but I would suggest that in my opinion you need to insert some characters that are at least nominally on the side of good who are crochety, uncooperative, unhelpful, don’t like Maxwell, etc.

    But that’s just my opinion, and we all know what opinions are like. Also you don’t see me giving out a list of my latest bestsellers, so I’m just another backseat driver. 🙂

  15. I sent a horror short-short story out for critique once. Overall, it was invaluable.

    Pure platinum:
    1. One person pointed out I didn’t do any scene-setting, and the reader was a third of the way through before they could place the action. Oops!
    2. One person pointed out that a description I’d given of the location as long undisturbed contradicted later action in the story, when it was clear there’d been an intruder.

    Not all that useful:
    1. Complaint about vocabulary. No, I don’t have any interest in writing for 4th grade reading level.
    2. Complaint about action writer’s books pedantically claim is not possible. Books are wrong.

    A Matter of Taste:
    Of the critiquers commenting on my pacing and setup (half of those reading):
    1. Three claim that the ending is all too bloody obvious and telegraphed way in advance.
    2. Three claim that the ending came out of nowhere and wasn’t set up at all.

    Obviously, these last two criticisims cannot simultaneously be objectively true. So I figured the story was about in the middle there, and did nothing.

    You’ve got mixed feedback on characterization, which is very much a matter of taste.

    When it comes to characterization, some people want a little. Some people want a lot. Some can’t see it when it’s there. And they all want different kinds of protagonists.

    Some want squeaky clean. Some want a couple of flaws. Some think any protagonist but an anti-hero is shallow.

    Can’t make ’em all happy.

    What were you *trying* to write?

    When you get criticism in an area that varies so much from reader to reader — consider the reader, first.

    If the reader:
    a) wants to read the kind of book you’re trying to write, and
    b) *usually* gets the way you write it …

    … if that person tells you something you wrote doesn’t convey the effect you want, you should consider believing it, and revising.

    http://keranparizek.com/poetry/winds-of-winter/keran-parizek-winds-of-winter.html

    See that? This is the opening scene of a fantasy poem. I had one critiquer who read it and didn’t understand what the dragoness was doing and why.

    I blinked at this. The entire scene is a dramatic monologue in which the dragoness *proclaims* what she’s doing, and why.

    You know what that means?

    That I should rewrite the whole thing from top to bottom?

    Nope.

    It means the person who found it unclear — isn’t my reader. At least not when I’m writing epic poetry.

    And that’s perfectly OK.

    • I like the epic poetry style you used in The Winds of Winter. Is the rest of the poem available somewhere? I’d love to read the rest of it.

      Also, now I’m curious: which action was it that the writer’s books claim is not possible?

      • Allegedly, you can’t hiss words without an s-sound.

        A moment’s experimentation will prove that wrong. A fair number of continents will produce a breathy noise many people would call a ‘hiss’, provided you’re blowing enough air when you’re pronouncing them.

        No, humans — at least the ones I know — don’t usually talk that way.

        Which was the *point.* The character, despite appearances, was not human.

        That you can make noises most people would call a hiss without putting your tongue in the s-position doesn’t prove that my description was actually good. But it does show that’s a silly made-up rule.

        Once in rec.arts.sf.composition the posters decided to figure out if they could come up with rules for writing fiction that would always hold. The only two that got past the gate were:

        1. You must, somehow, get words on paper or in a file.
        2. Don’t write in a language you invented and refuse to help anybody learn.

        (And I wouldn’t bet on rule 2 standing up under scrutiny.)

        Every other proposed rule had been broken to positive effect by at least one notable work.

        About the fantasy poem currently called “The Winds of Winter”: it’s finished. It’s edited. It’s not yet formatted. The cover artist is debating whether to position a subject in front of a stock photo, or render both foreground and background.

        It might not be called “The Winds of Winter” when it’s published. Martin’s planning to call his next book that. Once he does, no one will ever be able to find mine by searching for the title. So it might get retitled.

        If you want an announcement when it’s been published, I have a mailing list sign-up on my home page. I’ll also be putting up links, when the time comes.

        (I should have updated other parts of that page already. Oops.)

  16. If you like the idea of him being the guy who wins, then run with that — and give him the problems of the guy who wins. He becomes a target, he comes under scrutiny, people want to make use of him for worthy or unworthy goals, etc.
    Another idea: though I haven’t read the books, the comments suggest that your hero isn’t just heroic, he gets praise and reward. How about a “who you are in the dark” moment? The right thing to do is something that will cost him, and he has to decide whether to live with that or not?

    • Given that scenario, the cost should be that which has always come to him: acclaim and honor.

      Several such situations might be appropriate.

      Perhaps letting a wounded enemy escape rather than slaying a helpless foe (especially if he realizes the enemy was fighting against unjust treatment … look into the history of the Amerindian’s exploitation by Indian Agents for factual bases.)

      Or perhaps he cut short an a pursuit, realizing it would lead into a disastrous trap, but unable, because of [Insert drop down menu of alternative reasons], to reveal his sources of information.

  17. I read the Maxwell books a few months ago and enjoyed them but I will agree with the people who think he got a bit too lucky too soon.

    Since you’ve already established that he’s got an ongoing and uneasy interaction with the Tongs, it might be possible to have a moment where he learns the meaning of the phrase ‘if you sup with the devil, use a long spoon.’ Yes, he’s been extremely careful thus far in his interactions and it would be out of character for him not to be but he’s one and they’re many, not to mention possible misunderstandings with his coworkers.

    Dawn

  18. First, I’ve been annoyed by a great many military SF books that are quite obviously written by people who have no military background themselves (or, if they have some military background, don’t have combat experience). It shows very clearly.

    Speaking as a civilian planning to write a book containing lots of WAR and VIOLENCE, what is the most important thing to do to avoid this? What is the most important thing NOT to do?

  19. I’ve read both books. Like them a lot. I’m ok with where you’ve been going with the character.

  20. I read both books too and liked them enough that I will buy the third. I didn’t have too much of a problem with the story start. Chance favors a prepared mind and all that and Maxwell IS special. However, Maxwell continues to be the only one who comes up with miracle solutions. That bothered me too. I don’t mind paragons, but you have to give them paragon-sized problems. Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyl is a good example. Here is someone who becomes the MOST powerful mage of his time (and is beautiful to boot), and what happens? He gets the hardest jobs and the s**t kicked out of him emotionally because his friends become targets. One of the easiest ways to solve Maxwell’s “problem” without gutting the character is to delegate. Allow someone else to come up with the miracle solution once in a while and have Maxwell get behind it enthusiastically. You have several decent supporting characters floating around who can serve. I also like the suggestion about “supping with a long spoon.” The Tongs are potentially very bad enemies.