Taking Artistic License

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I recently saw this video correcting fantasy misconceptions about medieval weapons, such as bows being suitable for weaker characters and archers being able to hold a fully drawn longbow for ages.

There’s a lot of useful information, and it does add realism to fantasy or historical fiction if an archer strains to hold a shot.

But how accurate does fiction have to be, and when is it okay to take artistic license?

Medical dramas often show defibrillators used to restart hearts, but in reality they’re used to resynchronise an irregular heartbeat, not start it from flat-line. The myth is so established, however, that it might be counterproductive for the reader’s experience to try to push back on it.

A quick defibrillator scene we all already understand, that gets right to the character drama, may be better than a more factual scene which takes attention away from the ‘will they make it!’ tension to make the reader/viewer process new medical knowledge. Showing CPR breaking ribs might also be inappropriate for tone.

And back to the medieval context, Jo Walton’s Tiffany Problem describes a tension between historical fact and public perception – Tiffany was a real medieval name, but writers can’t use it.

It’s a variant of Theophania. It appears in 12th century documents from Britain and France, and you cannot give it as a name to a character in a historical or fantasy setting because it looks too horribly modern.

Realism doesn’t work so well if the reader doesn’t see it as realistic. If you want or need to buck a common misconception in your writing, you need to be aware of how the reader could react. It might be necessary to find some way to help the new information go down.

If the protagonist is a medical student, it’s natural for them to learn what defibrillators are and aren’t really used for. This could be through exposition or a lecture scene, or through something more dramatic and less clunky. That could be a scene where a doctor tries to resuscitate someone, the student is shocked by how intense it actually is, and sees someone die for the first time.

In another Shadiversity video he explains why torches weren’t used for indoor lighting in the way we usually imagine. The reality could be shown without special fuss, since nobody would instinctively find rushlights or the real use of sconces ‘unrealistic’. Showing the soot under a torch as it is used could be a great bit of detail. There isn’t a big tension there between perception and reality. However, if a character must be named Tiffany for some reason, that will need a bit of explanation to be accepted.

Myths can be useful narrative devices, but I think there’s a risk of relying on ones that have become recognised tropes. The 10% myth has been used so much in sci-fi involving characters ‘getting access to 100% of their brains’ that it isn’t unique any more. When using a myth for a narrative device, it has to do more than allow the story to happen. What possibilities does it raise? How effective is it at suspending disbelief? How easy is it to understand?

Where there’s tension between reality and common beliefs, knowing when and how to draw from research or to take artistic license can be tricky. Realism and reality don’t always match, and what fits the textbook doesn’t always fit the needs of a scene.

An Eye For Fictional Accuracy

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Oran’s critical review of Jim Murphy’s Christadora got me thinking about the type of accuracy that works in details in fiction.

In trying to place things in a specific sense of place and time, for example, he tells you things you don’t need: “Mateo parked his car 100 metres away” as opposed to “Mateo parked his car nearby”. If you wanted an example of accuracy and not specificity “Mateo parked his car a few streets away”. It’s a kind of detail I would naturally track which is why the specificity of 100 metres is weird. This might seem innocuous but when the book has these details I don’t need, I am pulled out of the story. And it happens quite a bit. Here is another example: POV character is coming home from work with pizza and she finds out her kid is in hospital because they were bitten by a dog. This is verbatim what she does:

“… put her pizzas down on a handsome, high-backed wooden bench in the lobby, pulled out her cell phone …”

This is exactly the kind of information I don’t want. Like I want to know what happened to the kid. She can put the pizzas down, sure, but with the detail she seems unpanicked, unhurried, wanting to gently place her delicious steaming pizzas on this handsome, high-backed wooden bench before at last pulling her mobile out and dialling her partner.

Murphy has a journalist’s background. He has a well-honed eye for accurate details, but what works in journalism isn’t what works in fiction.

The aim for details in fiction isn’t to be factual. It’s to be true to life.

Details should be chosen for particular interest, such as narrative relevance or significance to character. If a detail is noted in fiction it’s marked out as something with implications – which is why it’s distracting to specify the exact distance of the car, and why describing the bench in detail right there suggests the character isn’t that worried about her kid. The reader’s mind is being pointed in an irrelevant direction.

It might be factual for the car to be 100m away or the bench to be high-backed. But in the story, this use of detail isn’t true to life. Good description is active, it bounces off everything else. It’s not just there, it does something: implying importance, imbuing subtext, portraying character, reinforcing points of the setting or themes. An unnecessary or ham-fisted detail cuts against the grain of the scene, distracting readers.

As far as a realistic character is concerned, the car is ‘nearby’ and the pizzas are ‘thrown on a bench as she pulls out her phone, hands shaking’. Now, if Mateo were parking his car for a heist or assassination, having a specific distance planned might work. And if the character with the pizzas was supposed to be cold or even abusive, implying a sedate response to their kid being in hospital could be powerful, striking a disturbing note.

Does this specific detail matter? Would it change something if this were different? What does it imply? Does it fit the tone, the character, the scene? What will the reader want to know right now?

Slice and Dice

editing stuff

In my latest round of editing I focused on chopping out anything calling for cutting.

Here are some of the things I’ve noted deserving of the axe. If you’re looking to make your work in progress a lean mean reading machine, it might to helpful to have an eye-out for:

Scenes that can be told, not shown

In On Writing, Stephen King wrote about his wife’s critique of the main character’s back story in the early Bag of Bones:

There was also a two or three page section about Mike’s community-service work in the year after his wife dies[.] Tabby didn’t like the community-service stuff.

“Who cares?’ she asked me. […]

“He has to do something in all that time, doesn’t he?”

“I guess so,’ Tabby said, “but you don’t have to bore me with it, do you?” […]

I cut down Mike’s charitable contributions and community functions from two pages to two paragraphs.

‘Show don’t tell’ is a useful pointer, but don’t go overboard. Just because an event or bit of backstory needs to happen doesn’t mean it needs to happen as a blow-by-blow account. Is it particularly interesting in its own right, or is it only a thing that needs to be mentioned somehow?

Exposition – worldbuilding, magic systems

It’s easy to bog things down with lore about the world you’re excited to have made, and the details of the magic system you worry readers won’t understand.

It’s a novel, not a textbook. I know what my continents are called and the migration patterns of the world’s humanoid species through them, but who cares? It’s completely irrelevant to a story taking place in one city thousands/millions of years later. It’s okay to know more than you include – not every detail is interesting, relevant, or necessary.

In the case of magic systems, lectures about how it works can be a sign of lack of trust in the reader. It should be fairly clear what the rules are from seeing it used. And metaphysical rambling about the underlying mechanism is only needed to the extent it ties into plot, theme, the culture, and character.

If characters are discussing something not because they would, but because ‘the reader must know’, that’s a red flag. Imagine writing a story where two characters, born in London in 1990, talk about what a phone is and how it works.

Choreographing

I.e., belaboring exactly how characters are positioned and moving.

It’s good to use gestures to show emotions rather than telling them, and dialogue is better when it’s not bodiless voices in a void. But over-egging the pudding on that score adds pointless clauses here and there which slow things down, and add up over the course of the work.

For example, I had a line where a character ‘opened the door, stepping back to let him in.’ In context, that’s too much choreography for such an intuitive action. It’s not as though she was a paranoid character whose door had special bolts, or a criminal trying to push an illicit item under the bed with her foot at the same time. So I cut the phrase down, to having her simply: ‘let him in.’

This isn’t a script for an animation or a brief for an artist – unless the fine detail of position and movement matters for something, let readers fill in the gaps intuitively.

Overstating

Repeating information at various points in the text, past the point needed to make it memorable, or past the point where anyone cares.

Excess small talk

When writing dialogue for the first time I try to let the characters speak for themselves, with a loose idea of where it’s heading. Once in the zone, their voices take charge, coming up with in-character comments I hadn’t planned that can significantly change what was going to happen.

But that leaves behind lines of dross that, while perhaps realistic to actual conversation, are boring to read, confusing, not that valuable for showing personality, and don’t lead anywhere. Cut.

A few other tips:

  • Listen to the inner critic. When writing a first draft, try to ignore it and Embrace the Trash. When editing, it’s time to let it in. When the first-draft-mode voice whispers justifications for keeping something, listen to the other whisper still saying, ‘nah it’s crap’.
  • Keep the original separate, so you feel less worried about losing something and later realising you need it.
  • Cut-paste in another document to sort through large edits, so you can fiddle around without getting lost in the whole manuscript. This makes it easier to do things like stripping a chapter down to 50 words and inserting them six chapters ahead.
  • Use chapter summaries. Short chapter summaries can help you recognise where something is complete fluff.

 

Good Writing and Woke Realism

drinking in bar
incredibly unrealistic

V.E. Schwab recently posted about it being bad to use a female character solely to show a male character being sad when she dies – with uncharitable, over-sensitive responses from some male writers.

I’ve seen a bit of this sort of thing lately – people, usually guys, complaining about (in their view) unreasonable hoops of wokeness for stories to jump through. They’ll say things like, ‘Just write what’s good for the story! Whether or not it passes the Bechdel Test!’

This is a theme I touched on a bit in my diversity post, but let’s go deeper.

Personally, I think that if a long enough story doesn’t, for example, pass the Bechdel test (two named women talking about something other than a man) this is bad writing, whether you’re aiming for wokeness or not. Why? Because reality passes the test. Go outside sometime. It’s not a difficult hoop to pass through.

What makes good writing? There’s a lot of possible answers there, but one widely accepted one is good characters. And widely accepted components of good characters include complexity: psychological realism.

So, is it realistic for two women, with enough prominence in the story to have names, to never talk to each other about something other than a man? No. Going back to Schwab’s point, is it realistic for someone to be upset about the loss of <generic female figure>? No, people are upset at losing real people. If you want the reader to feel something when a character dies, they can’t just be a prop.

There’s also the issue that violence against women has a context. As Schwab says, it’s not forbidden to ever include this in a plot – but if it’s a cheap go-to where the woman could be swapped for a lamp this (a) isn’t woke, and also (b) is lazy and unimaginative, so be a better writer and consider a wider range of inciting incidents even if you don’t care about wokeness.

On the one hand, it’s woke for your female characters to be meaningfully developed. On the other hand, your characters should be meaningfully developed, you wally!

These sorts of topics are often straightforward extensions of basic writing tips. So why should they feel like awkward hoops sjw’s are trying to make you jump through? Perhaps they feel like that because they counter an unacknowledged bias.

If someone is used to not developing female characters particularly well, it might feel an odd, arbitrary demand to have someone say something like, ‘maybe two of them can have a conversation? About something other than him?’ But a writer who balks at this will have male characters doing the equivalent all the time, without having to think about it. When we’re invited to think about something it can feel unnatural – when really it only means we aren’t used to considering it.

Wouldn’t it be weird if none of the male characters ever spoke about anything other than a woman? Wouldn’t it be weird if there was a pattern of stories using the death of a man with no distinct characteristics as a prop for the female lead’s response? Writers should be imaginative enough to take a step back from the immediate dismay of feeling criticised, ask themselves these sorts of questions, and learn from how people and life actually are to improve their craft.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as unreasonable demands. There are a few people out there who got mad because Freddy Mercury died in Bohemian Rhapsody (‘another gay character killed off!’) even though it’s a biopic and he, um, died in real life. But if you feel a suggestion is unreasonable, and gets in the way of just telling the damn story, maybe it’s worth taking a step back and wondering if you’re missing something.

Character Archetypes – A Sword Isn’t a Personality

sword

A skim through TV Tropes (warning – enormous time sink) will show that, whatever you do, you’ll follow some patterns that’ve come before. Conforming to the odd trope is fine, because it’s inevitable and things are often popular for a reason.

But if a character is made of pretty much only tropes and gaffer tape, that’s an issue. A character like this doesn’t stand out, isn’t realistic, and isn’t nearly as fresh as the first few times they were written. They aren’t a person, they’re an archetype.

Examples:

  • The strong female character whose only trait is being a badass. They’re not like the other girls – they have a sword!
  • Brooding YA hero.
  • The wise old mentor who dies just before the Chosen One can complete their training.
  • The Chosen One.
  • A cynical hardboiled detective, lighting up a cigarette as they walk out of the morgue into the rain, going into a dark corner of a bar to drink straight bourbon, then musing on the incident (probably a woman’s death) that killed the bright-eyed optimism they’d had when they left the academy.
  • The comedy sidekick.
  • The ‘end the world for some reason, I guess’ villain.
  • Adorkable clumsy cinnamon roll.
  • Mary Sue/Gary Stu.

Characters are liable to become shallow archetypes for two reasons – unrealistic features, and a lack of depth.

Make sure the character has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Real people usually aren’t completely useless, nor can they do everything better than people who’ve been at it for far longer than them. Let them slip up, struggle, succeed occasionally – the plot will be more exciting, and the character will be more real.

Here’s Connie J. Jasperson advising how to do a character sketch. This can help flesh out a person’s motives and backstory. Especially with a villain, it’s important to know what they’re actually trying to achieve.

A meaningful motivation comes from a developed personality. Think a bit about their backstory – how have their experiences led them to be the people they are and do the things they do? Not all of this has to be spelled out in the text. But the more you build an understanding of the character which gives each scene they’re in a distinct motivation, the less they’ll slip into the mould of an archetype.

Give characters features that don’t come in the stock package of an archetype. It’s fine to have a female character be a badass, or a detective be cynical, if they also have other sides that make them distinctive.

Brienne of Tarth is a dank fighter, but memorable for her strong code of loyalty. But more than that – she reacts like a human and says ‘fuck loyalty!’ when there are much bigger issues at play, and has some good bits of backstory adding to her character.

Then there are all the little things that add a lot. Coffee, tea, neither? How do they speak: talkative/quiet, assertive/hedging, slang/formal, direct/indirect, what style of humour? Fashion, gestures, habits, hobbies, music/book/TV taste, etc. It’s a small thing whether someone takes off their shoes at the door and lines them up exactly straight, kicks them off in the hall, or tracks mud over the carpet (unless you have to clean up): but that adds to the overall picture of who this person this.

The point is that a realistic character – a distinct individual with comprehensible motives, and a range of traits that make sense given their life – will tend to be more memorable, and make for a better plot, than a simple archetype.

Getting Characters Between Places

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Since seeing Michael James tweet about finding them difficult, I’ve been thinking about movement/physical transition scenes – showing characters going somewhere, whether from one room to another, or on a journey further afield. This isn’t something I see mentioned a lot. There’s a great deal of discussion about pacing, worldbuilding, planning, all the large-scale stuff. But actually, this smaller issue presents real headaches.

I can definitely look over my writing, especially first drafts, and see points where the characters are going from room to room and it feels like a succession of ‘they went to the kitchen, passed through to the living room, sallied forth into the spare bedroom…’ Wooden, switching up the verbs to try to hide how mechanical it is. Meh.

I have a few ideas for trying to make physical transitions work better, but if anyone has more insight, do chip in.

Skip to the arrival

A chapter ends with a character realising they need to go somewhere distant. Do we need to see their time on the train, plane, or boat? Unless something interesting happens on the journey, it may be stronger for the next chapter to begin with them arriving. You could show the change in climate as they shiver in a thick coat, or the duration through the bushy beard they grew on the ship.

This can work for smaller, room-to-room transitions too. Two characters can meet at the front door, then be talking at the kitchen table. It’s pretty obvious that they walked there, you don’t always have to say it.

Something interesting happens on the journey

Instead of ‘they <verb> to <place>’, make the journey a worthwhile scene in its own right. Long journeys have a lot of potential for important conversations and dramatic events. They can be a moment of calm where something more about the character is revealed, or throw up unexpected obstacles and conflicts.

On a shorter trip, such as between buildings, focus less on describing the route – second left, straight past the dentist’s, blah blah blah – and more on any conversation, thoughts, and observations on the way.

For room-to-room transitions, there can still be a great bit of detail in the description. A nugget of worldbuilding, a small note steeped in subtext. On the way between rooms, a character might overhear half a line of dialogue that ends up overturning the whole story later on.

Tell, don’t show

‘She rummaged through all the wardrobes, then went to the kitchen and tried all the drawers…’

Why not just: ‘She searched the bedroom, kitchen, and the back of the sofa. The locket was gone.’

Instead of showing the character moving about, tell us in a brisk swoop that they either achieved or did not achieve The Thing. Sometimes a quick bit of telling can pack more of a punch than showing every step along the way.

Switch perspective or subplot

While one character is going somewhere, this might be a good time to see what someone else is up to. What is the person they’re going to visit doing to prepare for the arrival? Is there a subplot you haven’t gone back to for a while?

A character travelling can be a natural point to leave them and address something else, coming back to them as their side of the story kicks back into gear.

Is it actually bad?

Maybe there isn’t really a problem. It just seems like there’s one to us, because we’ve read our little transition scenelet a whole bunch of times, actively looking for flaws, doubting ourselves. A normal reader might take it as given and breeze on through without a second thought. Take a break, try to be more objective, perhaps consult other people.

Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions

There’s a lot of very rigid writing advice out there: never do this, always do that. And there’s a lot of receivers of advice who take points too literally, like those who listen to criticism of purple prose and think they’re being told that description is bad, full-stop. And there’s a lot of people who ask questions starting, ‘Am I allowed to?’ or ‘Is it okay if?’ as though they’re glancing around a dark alley for cops ready to pounce on writers who do the wrong thing.

Unnecessary adverb! Ten years in writing gulag, bucko!

Whenever you read advice, mentally insert a ‘this is what works for them/that context/that genre/often but not universally’ disclaimer.

The first times I tried to write a novel, I got stuck around 9000 words. A big part of why was that I’d tried to plan in detail, as many sources tell you to do. It held me back from letting the characters follow their own internal logic – they were too bland, too deterministic. Eventually I didn’t know how to drag them from one chapter to another, and the whole thing derailed.

It wasn’t until later, when I read Stephen King’s On Writing, that I really realised plotters vs. pantsers or Gardeners vs. Architects was a thing. I adjusted my approach, and it worked.

But this doesn’t mean that plotters are wrong! And I don’t agree with everything said in On Writing either, not because I know better than Stephen King, but simply because I am not him. He may find that ‘2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%’, and you may too, but I don’t, and that’s fine.

There are no ironclad rules – only general principles, guidelines, and suggestions. You’re allowed to try anything. Understanding why things are generally done a certain way will make the times you choose to ignore or subvert them more likely to be successful, but what you do with your own laptop, pen, charcoal stick, or quill dipped in centaur blood is entirely up to you.

You’re allowed to tell things rather than show them, use exposition, use dialogue attributions other than ‘said’, take days off, use adverbs and prologues, include dream sequences, describe narrators when they look in the mirror, and anything else you can think of. Just use your judgment.

But wait, I thought that show-don’t-tell-

The reason these rules exist isn’t because they’re universal constants. It’s because they’re often helpful, and because they counteract some common bad habits.

Show-don’t-tell is a very useful guideline, as are the ones about not being too expository, not making every dialogue attribution a different crazy verb to inject fake drama where well-written dialogue with an unobtrusive ‘said’ works better, and the one about adverbs not being used where a more specific verb or subtext could be used instead.

But there is also a place for anything anyone will tell you to avoid. That place is where the venn diagrams ‘I wanna do this’ and ‘that worked’ overlap. If a trope or technique is cringy 99% of the time, that means it sometimes isn’t.

If you try it and it doesn’t work, you will not be arrested.