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The Coffee Shop Scenario

Creating engaging characters is one of the most important tasks for a writer. Engaging characters can rescue a story with a drab plot, and readers will often ignore a writer’s technical limitations if the characters are interesting enough. Although there are many different ways to define what makes characters engaging, a simple definition would be that engaging characters are those that feel alive to the reader, catching and holding their attention and interest.

Every writer has their own approach to creating engaging characters, but one approach that I like to take is to use what I call the ‘coffee shop scenario’.

The coffee shop scenario involves imagining a character having coffee at a coffee shop. They can be on their own, or they can be having coffee with another character. If I want to create an engaging character, then I need to make sure that I can convey key aspects of that character in the coffee shop scenario in ways that are interesting to the reader. If I don’t know and understand my character well enough to do that, then I need to do some more work on them. These key aspects can include things like personality, appearance, mannerisms, intelligence, and so on.

To help illustrate my point, I’ll be providing two examples. In the first example, Avraniel and Spot from The Unconventional Heroes Series will be meeting a koala for coffee. In the second example, it will be Old Man meeting the koala for coffee. You might be wondering why I’m using a koala, but I just happen to like koalas, and, well, the thought of meeting a koala for coffee happens to amuse me.

 


The blonde elf took one look around the coffee shop, and her lips curved into something that wasn’t quite a sneer. The decor didn’t involve nearly enough fire or metal. On the upside, there was a lot of wood, and wood was wonderfully flammable. She tossed a glance down at the dragon padding along beside her.

“Come on, Spot. Let’s go find that damn koala.” She grinned toothily as Spot gave her a hopeful look. “Yeah, yeah. We’ll get you some cake.” Avraniel made a face. She knew letting Spot hang around Sam so much was a mistake. The protoplasmic horror had passed his cake obsession on to Spot.

Avraniel smiled faintly at Spot’s happy trill and slouched into a chair at a nearby table. On the other side of the table, the koala continued to read through the menu. She grabbed the menu and glared. “Cut the crap, koala. You better have a good reason for calling me out here.” Embers danced around her fingertips, and Spot wagged his short tail, fire kindling in his mouth. “Well? I’ve got bandits I could be robbing and enemies I could be burning. If you’ve got something to say, then now is the time.”

The koala calmly handed her a piece of paper.

“A job, huh?” Avraniel smirked. “If it involves setting bad people on fire and counts for my pardon, you can count me in.” She scowled as she noticed the distinct lack of coffee or cake on their table. “Hey!” she growled at the nearest waiter. “Can I get some damn service here? I want coffee and cake.” She pointed at the koala. “The koala there is paying.”


Old Man walked into the coffee shop. He paused briefly to remove his hat – it would be impolite to leave it on indoors – and took a quick look around to see if he could find his contact. It shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, what were the odds of two koalas being in the same coffee shop? He smiled. Most people would find it odd to be having coffee with a koala, but he wasn’t most people. He was a semi-retired legendary swordsman who lived in a castle with two necromancers, a pyromaniacal elf, a bureaucrat with who knew how much stored away with his magic, an ancient vampire, and a young dragon. Meeting a koala in a coffee shop would probably the most normal thing he’d do this week.

His gaze eventually settled on a marsupial occupying a table near the middle of the coffee shop. He made his way over and took a seat opposite the koala, who appeared to be quite interested in studying the menu.

“Do they have tea here?” Old Man asked. “This might be a coffee shop, but I do prefer tea.”

The koala handed him the menu and tapped it with one claw.

“Ah, yes. Excellent.” Old Man had nothing against coffee, but he was definitely a tea person, when everything was said and done. “So… I understand you have a job you’d like me to do?”


Those two snippets combined are only several hundred words long, yet they convey quite a lot about the characters in them. In Avraniel’s case, even someone who hasn’t read The Unconventional Heroes Series can get a sense of what sort of person she is (e.g., combative, confident, pyromaniacal). Likewise, the contrast between her and Old Man is also obvious. The reader immediately has some idea of who the characters are as individuals, and that makes them more likely to want to know more.

The coffee shop scenario alone will not ensure that you write engaging characters. However, writing characters who can come across as interesting in the coffee shop scenario will help to ensure that you have a fuller understanding of your characters, which will in turn help to make them more engaging.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Purple Prose and Purpmaxity

Purple Prose and Purpmaxity

It has come to my attention that certain writers have raised objections to the use of purple prose. I disagree. If anything, I believe that prose is not purple enough. It should be so purple as to make the eyes bleed, so purple that it actually goes beyond the visible spectrum, courtesy of an excursion into the ultraviolet. Yet even that would not be purple enough. Imagine prose so purple that the very word ‘purple’ is insufficient to express its purpleness. Instead, a new word ‘purpmaxity’ would be used to denote prose having reached the maximum shade of purple possible.

Of course, those same writers will wail and scream about how writing is for communicating with others. Bah! The whole point of writing is to dredge up words that have heretofore gone unremarked since at least the late 1800′s, preferably the late 1700′s lest we come across as part of the great purple-hating hoi polloi. Indeed, it should be considered a mark of grave dishonour if more than a fifth of your readers can actually understand what you are saying.

Instead, your readers should fawn and marvel over your vocabulary, driving themselves into paroxysms of purpmaxity-induced joy, followed shortly by purpmaxity-induced aneurisms as their minds degenerate into inchoate collections of wildly misfiring neurons as they encounter yet another word that hasn’t been used by any normal person since approximately the rise of the British Empire. Naturally, you get bonus points if your readers spend at least ten hours analysing your work for deeper meaning when all you’ve really done is grabbed a thesaurus and hoped for the best.

Allow me, then, to furnish some examples because giving examples would be too easy. Ah, if only we could defenestrate examples, that would be thrilling. Imagine hurling an example out of a window, preferably onto the heads of your unsuspecting enemies. It would certainly make an impact, and I daresay it would make mathematics more interesting.

“Take that!” the teacher would wail, tossing another example of differential calculus out the window, thereby causing the death of yet another poor fellow labouring under the illusion that calculus doesn’t kill.

“Have another!” the teacher would add, only this time it would be some hideous trigonometric monstrosity out to destroy the minds of some poor high schooler via the relationship between the opposite and the adjacent. The surly problem would crash onto the head of the unlucky victim, turning the excruciating into the thoroughly deadly.

But, yes, to return to the examples. Wait, why use return when we could use a better word or phrase? Why not say that we are are embarking on a grand emotional quest, one destined to unleash new frontiers of knowledge that shall surely expand our minds and usher in a new age, one filled with… well, examples of purpmaxity.

You could say that you went to school today, but that would be foolish. Going to school is the normal way of saying things, and we are not going to settle for normal. No, we must exceed the normal, we must surpass it! We must become… abnormal! Wait. Perhaps not. How about extraordinary? No, not purple enough. Yes, we must become more. We must become majestically magnificent.

So, you did not go to school. Instead, you ventured forth to attend the institution of learning to which you had pledged your allegiance. Admittedly, it takes far more words, but more words is better, and they’re longer words too! Surely, that makes them better still.

But have we perhaps missed something? Mere vocabulary may not be sufficiently purple for our purposes. Perhaps we ought to add in other techniques? Might alliteration be of use. I believe it might. After all, the pursuit of purple prose is a proud and profitable use of personal proclivities.

We might even have to add rhyme and rhythm. Ah, I can see it now. Imagine a future where all prose must not only be purple but must also be written in rhyme and iambic pentameter or perhaps haiku if we are feeling particularly pithy about the potential purpleness of poetic pandering. Oh, wait. That was alliteration.

Regardless, allow me to conclude. If one must write prose, let it be more than purple. Let it achieve purpmaxity. Suffice it to say that having prose that actually reads as though it were not written by someone with an overblown sense of pomposity (or perhaps a penchant for psychoactive substances) is not good enough.

Purple is as purple does.


Author’s Notes

I was tempted to write this after being informed that a high school student I am helping with their studies has been all but ordered by certain individuals (not myself) to use purpler language and alliteration in their creative writing, never mind that the story in question is told through the eyes of a child of seven or eight who is in the midst of what can politely be termed a panic attack.

Because panicking children use extravagant language and alliteration. Well, we might as well have the poor tyke combat their panic with haiku, or perhaps they can express their terror through some kind of epic saga, preferably written in Old English because, well, if it’s good enough for Beowulf, it shall certainly suffice here.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

The Importance of the Basics

I am currently helping two children of a family friend with their schoolwork. What has surprised me the most is how little time seems to be spent on the basics in class. Now, this might sound trite, but without the basics, it really is almost impossible to develop a high level of proficiency. This is particularly true for subjects like English and mathematics that build on previous work.

Allow me to furnish two examples.

One of the most important concepts for a high school students to master in mathematics is negative numbers and how they work. For instance, a negative number multiplied by a negative number yields a positive result. In contrast, a negative number multiplied by a positive number gives a negative result. For convenience, this can be summarised as:

  • positive x positive = positive
  • negative x negative = positive
  • negative x  positive = negative
  • positive x negative = negative

Now, the rules for division are the same since division is simply the opposite of multiplication. Where things get complicated (relatively speaking) is addition and subtraction. In simple terms:

  • Adding a negative is like subtracting a positive
  • Subtracting a negative is like adding a positive

What makes this complicated is that when you add a negative number to a positive number, the sign of the result depends on which number (the positive number or the negative number) had a larger absolute value. This means that the sign of the result must be determined on a case by case basis, unlike with multiplication and division where the rules can simply be applied in a more general sense.

What I’ve noticed in the two people I’m helping – and in others I’ve encountered – is that it is very easy to make mistakes when adding and subtracting negative numbers. The most striking thing, however, is how little time is spent drilling students. Instead, they are simply given some rules and a few questions before being introduced to more difficult material.

However, this, I believe, is a mistake. When dealing with something like negative numbers, the best way to make sure that people learn is to not only give them the rules but give them a lot of questions, so they can practice using those rules until they are almost instinctual (i.e., they don’t even have to think before using them). This is especially important when you consider the fact that dealing with negative numbers is something that occurs over and over and over again, and being unable to handle them confidently will only make things harder than they need to be.

The second example that I’d like to bring up is formal writing in English.

As someone who has acquired a PhD, I am perhaps more familiar with formal writing than I would like to be (nothing kills the soul faster than overuse of formal, academic language). I have also had the pleasure of teaching students at a university level. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of university students arrive at university with very little idea of how to write formally in English (e.g., essays, reports, etc.). Indeed, one of the things we would do for students was to hold tutorials giving them a crash course in how to write properly.

But where does this begin? Obviously, bemoaning it at a university level is soothing, but it hardly addresses the problem. The more I deal with high school students, the more certain I become that the problem begins there. Simply put, high school students are expected to do things like discuss the themes and techniques employed in film, poetry, prose, and so on – but without receiving much instruction at all about how to actually do that.

Let me make it clear that I am not heaping the blame on teachers. Two people in my family are teachers (albeit primary/elementary), but I know plenty of teachers. Overwhelmingly, they have noticed the same things as me, and they have come to many of the same conclusions. Alas, they are increasingly being buried under red tape, administrative minutiae, and syllabi that have obviously been written by people who have either never set foot in a classroom or last did so in the age of the dinosaurs.

In any case, let me return to the topic at hand. The ability to identify themes and the techniques used to convey them is not necessarily related to the ability to explain those ideas in prose. Specifically, formal writing demands a certain rigour of thought and a certain style, and simply knowing what you want to write about is not enough.

Consider the basic structure of an essay. You might have an introduction, the body of the essay, and then the conclusion. I am always horrified by how few students realise that simply dividing the essay into thirds is not the correct way to go about it. The introduction and conclusion are not the same length as the body of the essay. If they are, then something has gone seriously wrong.

One of the children I am helping had an assignment in which they had to write an essay about a particular topic. They had discussed it with their friends, and they had, together, come to the conclusion that the above strategy was sound. That is, they thought it would be fine to have one third of the essay be the introduction, another third be the body, and the final third be the conclusion.

This is madness, and the fact that this wasn’t addressed at some point worries me. What worries me even more is that the students aren’t even given one of those handouts where they roughly outline the structure of an essay and what each part should do. Admittedly, these handouts are only rough guides, but even so, this is probably the first real essay that this student has had to write in high school. I would rather they receive too much guidance at this point than too little since it can be very hard to fix bad habits.

Looking at the work of the high school students I know, what strikes me is the tendency of the syllabus to focus on themes and techniques, which is all well and good, but the basic purpose of English, to my mind, is to teach students how to communicate using the written word. It might very well be fantastic to be able to know what the themes of a poem are, but if you can’t explain any of that in coherent fashion, then I would argue much of the potential value is lost.

What I would prefer to see is a focus on the basics of communication. Teach students how to write an essay (and other forms of writing, e.g., reports, reviews, etc.) and teach it to them early. Focus on providing the students with a scaffold for formal writing. That is, give them the basic structure of the different forms of writing and teach them how to fill out that structure.

In the case of an essay this would involve not only teaching them the basic structure of an essay (introduction, body, and conclusion) but also how these parts fit together.

For example, the introduction must provide the basic context of the topic (i.e., what you’re talking about and why it matters) as well as provide some idea of the direction the essay will take (e.g., what thesis you will be putting forward/what ideas you will be exploring). From there, the body of the essay discusses the points put forward in the introduction, expanding on them and addressing their relevance to the topic while supporting and advancing your thesis. Furthermore, each paragraph of the body should flow logically into the next, ideally in a manner that steadily builds a foundation for the soundness of your thesis. The conclusion, then, should summarise the main ideas and round off the essay, stating your conclusion while perhaps pointing to future avenues of inquiry.

Critically, I believe these things should be taught in context. That is, students should be given copies of good, mediocre, and bad essays (or other forms of formal writing) and taught what makes each example good, mediocre, or bad. I believe that seeing examples and learning what makes them tick, so to speak, would help so many students develop a stronger grasp of the intricacies of formal writing. Teach them how to take an essay apart, so they can build one of their own.

This would, of course, necessitate taking time away from the study of set texts, but I think this would be time well spent. Once someone knows how to write a good essay, they can use that skill over and over and over again in the years to come. In contrast, learning the details of a particular text will not help someone as much since they will eventually have to move on to another text.

In summary, the basics matter. A strong foundation will not only last for years but also serve a student well across a variety of areas. Knowing how to properly handle negative numbers will make not only high school math but also university math far easier. Knowing how to write a good essay will help not just for the study of one text but also in the study of other texts and even in other subjects (e.g., the social sciences).

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.

And speaking of mothers, I will always be grateful to mine for putting up with some of the shenanigans my sister and I got up to when we were kids. There were things like the Spider Incident, the Wall-Climbing Incident, the Wood Throwing Incident, the Chicken and Corn Noodle Incident, the Eggplant Incident, and so on (there were a lot of incidents).

But throughout all of them, my mother was always a beacon of sanity, which wasn’t easy when dealing with first two children and then three, none of whom were particularly sane. My mother was also the person who most encouraged me to read and try my hand at writing stories. She also didn’t raise an eyebrow when one of my first stories (I might have been five or six at the time) involved grenades and spacemen attempting murder.

So, yeah. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there. Without my mother I wouldn’t be where I am today not only because of all of the love and encouragement she’s given me but also because she gave birth to me. That bit kind of matters. A lot.

Divine Assistance Is Now Available On Amazon!

Are you ready to watch the gods in action? Divine Assistance is now available on Amazon!

Keeping Creation under control is far from easy when you’ve got gods like Mayhem, Mischief, and Rabble to worry about. And what are mortals supposed to do when Life is creating things like the mobra (part mongoose, part cobra, all awesome)? Luckily, there are gods like Death. In between claiming souls, finding a pony for his daughter, and filing his tax returns, he does his best to avoid adding to Bureaucracy’s ever-growing workload.

You can get Divine Assistance from Amazon here. And here is the blurb:

When the Supreme Mother and Supreme Father separated Creation from the Void, they also created the gods, beings of incalculable power who wielded cosmic energies far beyond the petty comprehension of mere mortals. The gods were supposed to preside over Creation with unmatched wisdom and knowledge.

Well, that was the idea.

But what is Death – a god of terrible majesty and splendour – supposed to do when his daughter asks for a pony? Is he really supposed to just go out and get a mortal one? Like that’s going to work. It’ll keel over and die in a couple of decades. No, his daughter deserves something better, a pony truly worthy of her divine heritage, which means he’s going to have to get a little bit creative.

And then there’s Bureaucracy. The Supreme Mother and Supreme Father might have given rise to Creation, but Bureaucracy is the one who has to keep everything running smoothly. But that’s easier said than done when there are hundreds of gods and countless mortals to consider – none of whom understand the importance of filing paperwork in triplicate. Luckily, not even gods can escape the awesome power of divine paperwork.

And let’s not forget gods like Mayhem, Mischief, and Rabble. Their names speak for themselves. When the three of them take a holiday in the mortal world at the same time, trouble is right around the corner.

Divine Assistance is a collection of fourteen short stories about the gods and their attempts to manage Creation. There are souls to claim, mortals to woo, and even the occasional city to smite. After all, what’s life without a little divine assistance?

Writing From Multiple Perspectives

One technique that is often used in fiction is writing a story from multiple perspectives (i.e., writing from multiple points of view). This can be accomplished by having different characters narrate different chapters or by having multiple characters narrate a chapter. However, there are several things to keep in mind while doing this:

  • Character differences in vocabulary
  • Character differences in knowledge
  • Character differences in circumstances

The vocabulary that a character uses to describe the world and people around them are determined by a range of different factors (e.g., education, culture, age, etc.). If you’re going to tell a story from multiple perspective, then the narration from different characters should reflect the differences between those characters.

For example, if one chapter is narrated by a five-year-old boy and another chapter is narrated by a forty-year-old physician, then the language used in those two chapters should be quite different. A little boy is not only going to have a much smaller vocabulary than a physician but his thoughts are likely to be less formally structured. This can either take the form of shorter, simpler sentences or longer, rambling sentences that are closer to a stream of consciousness. In either case, the words the boy uses are going to be different from those used by the physician.

Characters can also differ in terms of the knowledge they have of the plot. In other words, different characters will have different levels of knowledge about what is going on in a story. Consider a situation in which a secret government organisation is attempting to cover up an outbreak of a genetically engineered virus in a small town. The officials of that government organisation are going to know a lot more about what is going on than the citizens of the town. As a result, chapters written from their point of view might focus more on responding to what is going on and managing the situation. In contrast, chapters written from the perspective of the townsfolk might focus more on trying to uncover what is happening, as well as making sense of the government organisation’s presence and intervention.

The different circumstances that characters find themselves in can also lead to differences in how they narrate events. Think about a situation in which one character is hunting another character through the woods. The hunter is going to have a very different point of view. The atmosphere from their perspective might be gleeful and filled with anticipation of the kill. In contrast, the character being hunted might narrate events in a way that emphasises their fear and tension, as well as their caution and stress. Likewise, if one character is very wealthy and powerful, the atmosphere of their chapters is going to be very different from those belonging to a character who is very impoverished and lacking in political clout.

In any case, writing from multiple perspectives can be a very handy technique to use. It can add depth and texture to a story, providing the reader with a richer experience. However, it is important to consider the differences between the characters whose perspectives are being used to tell the story.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

 

Progress Report and Update

I’ve received some questions about what I’m doing at the moment, and I thought it would be a good idea to let everyone know exactly what’s going on. For various reasons (almost all of them unrelated to writing), I’ve fallen quite far behind schedule. I had hoped to have a collection of short stories released in February. However, it’s already April and that collection of short stories still isn’t done. On the upside, the collection is almost done.

Divine Assistance is the name of the collection, and it includes fourteen short stories that together add up to around 71,000 words. The first twelve short stories are all finished and have passed the final proofing stage (I just need to read through them one more time to make sure there aren’t any formatting mistakes when I convert them into eBook format). The final two need one more draft, and then they’ll be done too.

Here are the titles for the short stories:

  1. Oops
  2. Epic Battle
  3. Young Death
  4. Paperwork
  5. Kindness
  6. Sun Strike
  7. The Pony
  8. Artistry
  9. Love is a Battlefield
  10. Rabble-rousers
  11. Lost Pet
  12. Creation
  13. Babysitter
  14. Attempted Heroism

The theme of the collection is something that becomes apparent here. Essentially, you’re going to meet the gods. Some of them, like Death, are beings of incalculable power and august majesty, splendid in their isolation from mere mortal concerns… or not. After all, what is Death supposed to do when his daughter asks for a pony? Get a mortal one? Like that’s going to work. It’ll just keel over and die in a couple of decades, which is nothing more than a blink of an eye to the gods. He’s going to have to get creative, and that could mean trouble.

And then there are gods like Mayhem, Mischief, and Rabble. I don’t think I need to tell you too much about them. Their names sort of speak for themselves. Suffice it to say, they’re the stars of short story #10 (Rabble-rousers).

And let’s not forget Bureaucracy. Someone needs to keep Creation running smoothly, and that someone happens to be her. No one, not even a god, can withstand the horror that is divine paperwork. You think your tax forms are complicated. Try being Death when tax time comes around.

So, yeah, that’s what I’ve been working on, and I’m very much hoping to have the collection finished as soon as possible. My next project will be another collection of short stories set in The Unconventional Heroes Series. You’ll find out what your favourite characters are up to when they’re not killing dragons, fighting inter-dimensional nightmare creatures, or taking over islands (it’s actually not all that different). You’ll also find out more about some of the other characters (e.g., just what do Timmy’s servants do and how is Mr Sparkles, the giant man-eating rose).

At the moment, I have a tentative working title for that collection: The Hungry Dragon Cookie Company and Other Tales.