Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Misused Advice: Must Have a Likeable Protagonist

B. C. Marine, CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Welcome back to Misused Advice, where we pick apart common adages of the writing community to figure out what they originally meant and where they went off the rails. As our returning readers know, every piece of advice that we talk about in this series has good intentions at its origin but has evolved into something either misused or inviolable. Today’s advice is that every story must have a likeable protagonist.

Entertain Us

The heart of the likeable protagonist is that a story should engage the reader and keep them reading to the end. There are two ways to do that: a situation or plot-driven story, or a character-driven story. I’m not going to dive deeply into the reasons a likeable character is helpful, because it’s pretty self explanatory. If readers fall in love with a protagonist, of course they’re going to want to read about them; they love them! Following that concept is a sensible decision.

But what about a protagonist who’s a bit prickly or downright foul? It’s still possible to tell their story.

And Then Something Even Crazier Happened!

If your story is driven by the plot or situation, you don’t necessarily need likeable characters. They wouldn’t hurt to have, but with a sufficiently interesting plot or zany events, it’s possible to forgo them. This is most likely to happen in comedy or mystery.

Comedy of Errors

Look at popular comedies like Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Community, How I Met Your Mother, or Friends. They are filled with awful people. Most of the hijinks are caused by extremely vain and selfish decisions that no reasonable or likable person would make. This isn’t a criticism of those shows but an objective observation. It could be argued that the unlikeability itself allows these shows to be so funny; if the characters were better people, the consequences they deal with would invoke pity instead of humor.

What Comes Next?

Mystery—especially of the whodunit variety—is the obvious genre here, but it isn’t the only one. When your audience is completely enraptured with what’s going to happen, they can overlook dislike of a character—to a point. The more repulsive the protagonist and supporting characters are, the harder your plot has to compensate.

Be aware that this is a tricky dynamic to navigate. When you rely completely on the intrigue of your plot, remember how much weight it’s carrying. If you leave huge plot holes or give lackluster reveals to your twists, readers will walk away disappointed and wishing they could get back the time they spent reading. That isn’t to say that those aspects of your writing don’t need to be good if you have likeable characters, but they are absolutely glaring without them.

Relying on intriguing plots also has an expiration date. Your readers will only stick with your story for as long as you can continue ratcheting up events. At a certain point, you’re going to reach the peak of interesting things that can happen, and when you do, you won’t have anything to keep your audience going.

Get a Load of This Guy

Believe it or not, it’s possible to have a character-driven story without a likeable protagonist. This might seem counterintuitive, but let’s look at some ways this could work.

Our “Hero,” Ladies and Gentlemen

This is where antiheroes are born. If you put your protagonist against heinous odds or great evil, their very defiance can make the story worthwhile. The reader interest lies in the failure of the antagonist, rather than the success of the protagonist. It’s the classic, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The trick is to balance a formidable enough antagonist to outweigh the worst flaws of your protagonist.

Dexter is a good example. He’s a psychopathic serial killer, but he’s accepted as a protagonist because his victims are other predators who wouldn’t be caught by the legal system for one reason or another. He’s a monster, but people follow his story because his antagonists are arguably worse.

Of couse, you might look at that example and scoff because you see all murderers as equally bad. This is a common and valid response to antiheroes, which is why using one is risky. The point at which a protagonist is beyond any redemption is highly subjective, and the closer you get to it, the more readers you will alienate. What you as a writer have to determine is how many you’re willing to lose.

The Human Dumpster Fire

What if your unlikeable protagonist doesn’t have a worse antagonist? You aren’t out of luck yet. A sufficiently interesting character can hold your audience’s attention. Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair is a terrible person: greedy, vapid, manipulative, selfish. The book is mostly a series of all the awful things she’s done to the people in her life—most of whom also suck in their own ways. But because she’s clever and inventive in her terribleness, readers are captivated by her story, wondering when she’ll go too far and finally dig herself into a hole she can’t claw her way out of.

For a less fictional example, the millions of people who watched Tiger King this year didn’t do so because the people it follows are likeable. They watched because of the cross-fascination of horrible people and bizarre events.

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

This last method works best when it supplements one of the others but can be highly effective at that. Your protagonist and main character don’t have to be the same person! If you want to know more about the difference between them, you can read my post on it here, but essentially, it boils down to this: the protagonist is the one driving the plot, while the main character is the one whose perspective the story is told from.

Sherlock Holmes mysteries are a standard example of the two being separated for the sake of an unlikeable protagonist. Though Holmes is brilliant, he’s off-putting and unfriendly—so much so that they’re some of his defining traits. Since he can’t be changed, the audience is given the affable Dr. Watson as a main character, a sort of buffer to make Holmes more palatable and get the read to stick around long enough to be pulled into the interesting plot.

Make Them Likeable

Of course, when in doubt, the original advice to make the protagonist likeable is still the ideal option for most stories. If you’re looking for some strategies on how to do that, Rebecca Mikkelson wrote a helpful post about how to make characters bond, both with each other and your audience.

Were you taught this rule or some other strange-sounding writing advice? Let us know! Next time, we’ll discuss the advice that you should never filter the point of view.

Join us next week, when Rebecca Mikkelson will tell us about writing for your audience.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Knowing When to Ignore Advice

Sometimes you should just cover your ears

Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing

It’s a given that, as writers, we need to have critique partners, alpha readers, and beta readers to see the issues with our work that we don’t see ourselves. (It’s our baby, damn it; nothing’s wrong with it! Except there is, but I digress.) A lot this post is going to feel like it’s glaringly obvious, but oftentimes, we fall into the pit of wanting to fix everything that a trusted person points out in our work, but that’s not always the best thing for the world we’re building. So how do you know when you should take the advice and when not to?

When it affects later books

Plans change frequently, but carefully laid plots that span several books shouldn’t. This is a mistake that’s easy to make for your critique partners—and even publishers. I’ve been guilty of asking one of our authors to change something in their books that I didn’t think needed to be there, only to find out that it set up a plotline that became fruitful in the next book. The trick is not to let the critiquer to convince you that you’re going down the wrong path because they can’t see where your plans are going yet. 

This is probably the easiest one to move on from without feeling like you’re not exploring all the possibilities where it could go. 

It goes against your principles

This one will also be pretty easy for you to do...maybe. There are certain things that sell, as we all know. But do you really need to put it in your book to please others?


Plain as that: No. If something is uncomfortable for you to write, such as a sex scene or torturing someone in detail, don’t put it in there. You can find other ways to imply the same material and still keep it within your moral comfort zone. Or not have it at all—there are ways to make something compelling enough to sell without having something salacious. 

It’s not your voice

We develop specific voices as authors, and different ones for each character. There are authors you can recognize even with small excerpts of their work, and that’s a very good thing. Readers like the familiar, even nostalgic, when they’re reading or rereading your work. So what do you do when your critiquers, alphas, or betas suggest a change that would change the general tone of your work?

First, you need to assess whether or not their suggestion would help the book in the long run. Second, you’d want to see if you can implement the change in the same tone that you’ve held throughout the book. 

If you can’t put it in your voice, consider whether the feedback is actually worth taking. Just like with characters acting out of character, you don’t want to sound like someone else while you’re writing. 

It is so out of character for your characters

As authors, we take the time to carefully craft our characters’ appearance and personality. So, when there isn’t a reason for your characters to act out of character—like there’s a situation that they’ve put themselves in which they really need to act out of character—they shouldn’t be going against the very nature you created for them. 

For example, if you have a mild-mannered pastor in your novel as a side character, and your critique partner suggests that they should call someone and obscene name because they’re frustrated with another character not getting their point, it won’t fit. 

It’s not their book

Finally, it’s not their book. A lot of critiquers will want an author to change a plotline more to a way that they would write it instead of the way the author would write it. Some of these might have some meritorious ideas, and if they can be implemented, great, but in general, author’s plans win. A lot of critique partners, especially ones who are just starting out, can’t tell the difference between suggesting a good idea and insisting that the author write the book the way they would write it because it would be, “so much better.”

Just remember when you go through the suggestions of your readers and critiques, take them with a grain of salt and evaluate their merit before implementing everything that they say. Sometimes it’s just hooey. 

Join us next week for the latest installment of our Misused Advice series when we talk about having likable main characters.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Author Interview: Lisa Borne Graves

Lisa, thanks for joining us today! Let's jump right in: What inspired you to continue Toury and Alex’s story with Draca?

Well, things just weren’t left happily ever after with them. The necromancer plot was almost wrapped up, but their relationship was left in tatters. It would be impossible for them to go back to the way things had been, since the experiences they went through to save Fyr were traumatic. There were so many unanswered questions to finish up too: Who gave Alex the curse in the first place? What really happened to Toury’s parents? What effects will removing the curse have on Alex? On their relationship? How can they rule together in such a patriarchal world?

We finally get to meet draca! What was it like to write them?

Fun! I knew I was going to always include them at some point and envisioned what they’d look like, but I wasn’t going to have them “talk”—or more like telepathically communicate—but then it just happened. As I was writing a poignant scene with the first draca readers meet, it just made sense to hear her side of the story and to feel her anguish. It worked out well because it makes readers empathize more with the draca, while also portraying humans as the real beasts.

Besides the draca, are there any themes, symbols, or motifs in this book? 

Most of the same symbolism from Fyr is echoed, and the theme of gender equality as well; however, Alex and Toury will delve deeper into the socioeconomic issues of their world. The theme of familial impact on our characters will be explored, particularly how far the sins of a parent can fall on the child. Friendship is also a theme, seen through how some grow while others fracture. Also, character growth is huge. How my characters mature highlights the very nature of growing up.

Toury and Alex went through a lot in Fyr. What was it like to write such changed characters?

It was quite difficult to write about characters who have already grown so much, but I knew they weren’t done. Neither Alex nor Toury are ready to rule or marry at the end of Fyr. The hard part was trying not to get them to the point of marriage too quickly or easily. They change even more throughout the many challenges I throw their way. The series is a YA crossover, so I truly feel that by the time Draca concludes, they have matured into adulthood. This is what I love to write. I adore that age, and due to teaching college freshmen, I see it daily. Just watching them mature that first year—they come in as teens and leave that year as adults. It makes me reminisce on my own days of self-discovery and gives me a lot of understanding into young adult minds, making it easy to write such characters.

How has the Fyr sphere changed since the first book? 

Well, the necromancers have been defeated—for the most part—but Alex inherits more of his father’s enemies who he never knew existed. Trying to rule his kingdom without much knowledge of who they are and what they want is a huge disadvantage. The sphere itself hasn’t changed so much as Alex and Toury’s awareness of things outside of the castle is enlightened. Reform will come slowly to such a world, but Alex does make some changes from the very start of his reign. Can’t tell you any more without spoilers, so readers will have to wait.

What can we expect next from you?

Next up is a return to The Immortal Transcripts series for Book 2, titled Fever, which picks up where Quiver left off. It’s out February 2021. Currently, I’m writing Book 3 of that series, Shudder.

What’s next for Toury and Alex? Book 3, Bladesung, ties up their love story and will be out the summer of 2021, but those in love with them and their world shouldn’t despair. I have plans for two spinoff novels sometime in the future. I love the world I created, and I’m not quite ready to let go of the characters yet—we will see Toury and Alex again, but not as main characters, more like cameos.

Join us this Saturday, July 18, for Draca's launch party!

Haven't read book one yet? Fyr is currently on sale for $0.99!

by Lisa Borne Graves

After everything they’ve been through, Alex and Toury deserve a happily ever after, but being king proxy is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Alex inherited a world divided by his father, including incensed rebels—and a rogue dragon on the loose!—but the most pressing issue is Toury. Though he chose his kingdom over her and hurt her, by the god and goddess, he loves her too much to let her go. But can he ever do enough to deserve her?

Toury is a shell of her former self and grappling to figure out who—in this still-alien world—she will become. Her relationship is a hot mess, nightmares plague her, and rooting out necromancers is more than overwhelming—not to mention family baggage. Becoming queen means overcoming her past and seeing Alex for the man he is and not the cursed monster who destroyed their love. 

Rebels, dragons, and betrayals galore are just another day of court life. Toury and Alex managed to save the world, but can they repair a torn kingdom while their personal lives are in shambles?

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Misused Advice: Don't Use "Be"

Sometimes you need to let “be” be.

B. C. Marine, CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Welcome back to Misused Advice, where we examine some of the “rules” of writing that have been twisted over time. If I’m being honest, I have a bit of a grudge against this particularly slippery rule. Depending on the source, this one goes by different names, so we first need to pin those down.

Double Trouble Origins

It’s the bastard spawn of two separate writing concepts: strong verbs and active voice. When misapplied, they can both be taught as “Don’t use the word be.” This includes all the conjugations of it: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been.

Why would you want to write this way? Let’s look at the more beneficial advice this started from.

Using Strong Verbs

We covered this a bit in my post on the much-maligned adverbs. Unless you’re writing deliberate repetition for effect, reading the same verb over and over gets monotonous. And reading nothing but various states of being isn’t exactly exciting either.

The dog is brown. His toy is squeaky. He likes to squeak. He is happy. He eats kibble.

Yawn! When you’ve moved beyond the basics of how to hold a pen and spell words, this is more of a rough outline than a descriptive passage. You can see how easy it would be to blame this on the verb choice here. When you’re a writer or teacher who is short on time, looking for excessive use of be can seem like a handy shortcut. Plus, having to use any other verb out there to replace all of them can be a great exercise to boost your creativity and add variety to your writing.

Avoiding Passive Voice

The passive voice is when the subject of a sentence is acted upon, as opposed to the active voice, when the subject acts. It’s created by reversing the sentence order and using the past participle of the verb, usually connected by be—which is why be is often used as a flag for the passive voice.

Active: He ate the cookies.

Passive: The cookies were eaten.

There are some problems with passive voice. It’s less clear and concise, for one. And in fiction, the active voice usually pulls readers deeper into the experience since the emphasis of the sentence is on the acting subject.

Shortcut to Failure

With be being an indicator of both weak verbs and passive voice, eliminating it seems like an obvious shortcut, right?

Well, no. There are no perfect shortcuts in good writing.

Though be isn’t an exciting verb, it is not the only “weak” one. In my example of weak verbs, likes and eats are just as bland. And, in the right context, be can pack a punch. The biggest tension can be derived from a state of being—whether someone is alive or dead.

This Test Gets an F

Looking for be is a terrible way to look for use of the passive voice. If you’re paying attention, I just used is in the last sentence and are in this one, and both are in the active voice. When used in a dependent clause—such as this very sentence!—the passive voice can drop be and use the past participle alone.

So using be as a test will give you false negatives and false positives. Yeah…not a great test. The zombie test is much more effective for passive voice: if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb and still make sense without changing the meaning—or already have “by ___” in there—the sentence is using the passive voice.

The cookies were eaten [by zombies]. → Makes sense. We have cookie-loving zombies. → Passive

He ate the cookies [by zombies]. →Zombies don’t really factor in the cookie eating here. → Active

The house was built [by zombies]. →It’s probably not a pretty house, but it works. → Passive

The werewolf can be killed [by zombies]. →This is a huge change in meaning. Instead of the mortality of the werewolf, the method of dispatching one is the topic. → Active

Overly Aggressive to Passive Voice

Every tool in English grammar has a place, and that includes the passive voice. One use is to shift emphasis to what would otherwise be the object of the sentence. Depending on the point of view you’re telling the story from, you may want to shift blame toward or away from a character. Is John kicking Bob, or is Bob being kicked by John? It’s a subtle distinction, but when used purposefully, it can direct the way readers react.

Secondly, sometimes the actor of an action is unknown. The whole genre of mystery would be nigh-impossible to write without the passive voice. The stories start with a crime being committed, and if the actor were revealed, there wouldn’t be a story. So you can’t write, “The villain murdered the victim.” I mean, you can, but it would be an odd sentence outside of a satire. The normal way to write it would be, “The victim was murdered.”

Lastly—and one I’d suggest using sparingly—is that passive voice can be used to create a sense of despair. Try writing an entire paragraph of internal dialogue in the active voice. Then rewrite the whole thing in the passive voice. Because of the shift in emphasis on the character being acted upon, a sense of victimhood and helplessness will tint the passive version. This can be a good tool to pull out for your main character’s absolute bleakest moment, but because it’s such a strong tool, it can be overwhelming for the reader if you let it linger too long.

No Contortionists Here

While it’s helpful to make sure you aren’t leaning too heavily on be for the sake of variety, don’t twist your sentences in knots to avoid it. Even if you succeed in deleting them all, it’s not likely to get rid of all the passive voice and weak verbs, and they aren’t all bad anyway.

Were you taught a form of this rule or some other strange-sounding writing advice? Let us know! Next time, we’ll discuss the advice that you must have a likeable main character.

Join us next week for an interview with author Lisa Borne Graves to discuss Draca, the second book in Celestial Spheres and sequel to Fyr.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

How to Make Your Characters Bond

Not everyone can be enemies

Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Not only is it important for the reader to bond with your characters, but it’s also important for your characters to actually bond with each other, not just be thrown together and say, “We’re best friends, you better believe it!” So how do you accomplish both at the same time?

This World is On Fire

I hope you sang that, because I did. Oh, look—we bonded, but we’ll get to that kind of bonding in the next section.

It’s perhaps not the best thing to admit, but my favorite thing to do to my characters is to make their world fall apart. Or, as others will say, set their world on fire. Putting your characters through hardships will help them bond with each other because they have no one to rely on but each other. It’s an easy way to force bonding that can last an entire series. 

So what kind of situations can you put your characters in to make them bond? The easiest would be a cataclysmic downfall of the world or a tyrannical government take over and a descent into fascism. But if these are not in the genre you’re currently writing, your characters can have their family fall apart either through dissent or death. There are plenty of options for shitting on being an asshole to making your characters suffer. 

There’s chemical psychology and sociology to it as well. People are social beings (even introverts), and oxytocin, the same hormone that creates love and attachment, also counteracts cortisol, the stress hormone. So, on instinct, when faced with adversity, people will naturally attach to those nearest to them to reduce that stress. Though it's hard to determine the cause and effect for certain, a prominent theory is that it's an evolutionary trait that passed on because humans are safer in groups, and those who weren't naturally soothed by bonding would've failed to pass on genes because they'd charge into danger alone instead of retreating to the nearest group.

So how does this make the reader and the characters bond with each other? In the case of the earlier examples, all of your characters are now in an awful situation together and have to overcome the adversity that faces them. For us as the reader, however, we’re now invested in their wellbeing and wanting to see them succeed through their trials, creating the same reaction as if we’re going through it with them as well. 

Me too!

Just like in the previous section where we both sang the section title, shared experiences can form near-instantaneous bonds.  

Anything can be shared to make your characters and your readers bond. It can be anything from the same creepy guy hitting on them (much like my best friend and myself having the same older man stalk us at the mall in our hometown), growing up in the military, or being bullied in school. But shared interests can also work if they're uncommon—and even work better in my opinion. "You like French mimes too? I thought I was a freak!" Sure, you're still a little odd, but now you're a little odd with company, and you have something that separates you from everyone else. This is a super important distinction. As lovely as the idea of unity is, that is not how people form social groups. Who is not in a group is just as important as who is because an all-encompassing definition of anything is useless.

Often you’ll see people making fun of YA characters always having a quirky interest. However, those quirky interests are an excellent way to quickly establish a friendship, especially with kids and teenagers. With adults, it's easier to use the other bonding experiences or time. It's more believable that an adult has known someone for ages or gone through some tough situations with them. With teens, they usually haven't yet gone through the kind of bonding trauma or lived long enough to have decades of friendship with someone, so you're left with common interests. The quirkier the interest, the more believable it is that a bond will form. Trying to avoid the trope is how you end up with odd friendships that make you wonder what two characters are doing together.

Unless you have circumstances forcing people together (like all the other types mentioned in this blog post), opposites do not attract; birds of a feather flock together. There is such a thing as complementary traits, but it almost always requires an outside force for two people to discover that.

Shared experience bonding is going to be most valuable for bonding the readers to the characters. These are the characters that help us work through our past traumas, teach us things moving forward, and stick with us for years and years to come. 

What the *&^$ was that?

Ah, the joys of putting your characters in imminent danger. Much like putting your characters through prolonged hardships, this is going to bond characters together by having them overcome and obstacle together. Unlike hardships, though, the stakes need to be much higher. 

Yes, the examples I gave were high in the hardships section, but they need to be even higher. Such as someone trying to murder or assault your character, or your character might be in a fight for his or her life. We need to feel our adrenaline surge and fear for the characters’ lives. That surge of adrenaline is going to attach us to the character, and ideally, your surrounding characters are going to feel the same way that the reader does and bond them for the journey of your book. 

As mentioned above in the section on hardships, there’s a chemical reaction in our brains that make us bond with those around us. This is why a lot of popular dating and courtship rituals involve stress or fear (dinner and a horror movie, anyone?).

This is also the original point of "Blood is thicker than water." Blood was supposed to be about battlefields, and water was supposed to represent family (as in her water broke). The point was that the bonds forged by warriors experiencing stress and fear side by side were so strong that they could supersede those formed by birth. So your characters who are thrown in imminent danger together are going to be bonded very easily. 

Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!

Everyone loves an underdog. There’s a reason that certain contestants on reality television shows (looking at you America’s Got Talent) or movies and books tend to be so popular with audiences. Without too much trouble, we can think of examples of storylines that make our hearts melt when they succeed. For example, we root for Cinderella to snag the prince when she goes to the ball because she’s been thrown down into the ashes (see what I did there?), her stepmother and stepsisters treat her awfully, and her entire life that she’s known before the aforementioned relations came into the picture. How can we not root for someone whose lost everything and now has the chance to get much, much more than she ever had before? 

Another example for our more fantasy inclined readers would be Frodo in Lord of the Rings. He’s one of the least likely creatures in Middle Earth to travel to Mordor, overcome the enticing power of the one ring to rule them all (unlike many before him), and throws it into the fiery depths to destroy it. We root for this unlikely character to succeed because he’s the unlikely character. If it was an expected character to save the day, like Jon Snow always managing to get things done, we might be left saying, “Well, of course, he did,” and be disappointed. 

Everyone wants to see someone pick themselves up from the ground and succeed further than anyone ever imagined. Not only that, but the underdogs of the story are a subset of the classic hero character, and we can’t help ourselves when it comes to rooting for the hero. Interestingly, though, underdogs don’t have to be more moral than the villain of the book. The more adversity a character faces, the less perfect we need them to be. That's why Robin Hood can get away with being a thief. Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham are so despicable and powerful that, by virtue of going against them, we can overlook the hero's vices. This is what makes the whole anti-hero concept viable at all. Making the protagonist the underdog allows them to be more flawed without losing the support of the reader, even if they have enough similarities to normally relate to them.

This might feel like it’s more for your reader bonding with the character than the characters, but characters and readers bond for the same reasons. Your characters are fictional, but they’re people if you do it right. That’s what makes stories throughout the ages relatable.  

Join us next week for our latest installment in our Misused Advice series when we talk about to be verbs!

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