Category Archive: Writing

On Character Traits

[NOTE: I originally posted this on the AR blog on Oct 10 2013, but I decided to move it here. Fair warning, it gets kinda rant-ey.]

I believe that every character in any kind of story should have an appearance that sticks with you throughout the whole story. Whenever a character shows up, you should at the very least know what they look like. This isn’t a novel idea; it’s a given in good writing. And yet… it isn’t.

I often see novels deal with a character’s description in a single paragraph–or less. The reader is required to memorize each character’s appearance soon after their debut, and that’s it; no more reminders for you. Either you relate this name with this description right now, or you’re screwed in the future. The next time that character shows up, you may end up with a talking (and faceless) head, no idea what it’s supposed to look like. This issue exacerbates when a big cast of characters (say 20+) is at play.

Well, I personally don’t have a great memory, so while reading a novel I’ve often found myself wondering, “what does this character look like again?”, or worse, “who the hell is this one again?!” cause I’ll be darned if I recall what a single short paragraph said about this fella 200 pages ago.

My point is that it’s a common practice to dispose of a character’s description like it was some sort of chore, when a character’s appearance should actually be a constant aspect of characterization. Not only should a character’s aspect be memorable, it should be reinforced because it’s often important to the character as a whole, its actions and attitude. It shouldn’t be a chore to either describe or recall a character’s appearance. I feel that if you haven’t had the need to return to your character’s appearance in dozens and dozens of pages, you are simply doing characterization wrong. Your characters may as well be faceless talking heads for all that it matters.

A novel isn’t a visual medium like film or comics where you can take visuals for granted. “Show, don’t tell” applies to everything: not only places or actions, but also your damn characters. To me, each character should have at least one trait, one aspect that you cannot help but describe every other scene whenever you turn your camera to that character, as superficial and trivial as it may seem at first glance. Simply because that element is a part of what that character is. The more descriptive you are with a character the more memorable it is, of course. But not if you only do it in a single paragraph on the first chapter. There should be a minimum of characterization throughout the entire story. That is what is required to keep a character alive in the reader’s mind, and standing out from the rest.

And that is what I call Character Traits. [Here I’m talking about the name of the section in ARM 0.1. -C.]

I’ve ended up with an extensive cast of characters, most of which are crucial to the story I want to tell. I would say it’s a natural effect of the “global” scope of the story. However, I believe that each of them has to have something that lets them stand out from the crowd of characters. While there are several characters that I “see” very clearly in my mind, there are several characters without a clear enough appearance yet. I want to give them the traits that I feel are best suited to them, and thus make them as clear and memorable in my mind as possible–so their characterization becomes a joy instead of a chore.

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Telepathic Syntax

Originally posted on June 24 2015

(Darn that post title sounds cool)

So I had a little trouble exporting my writing from Writemonkey, since the markup I used interpreted my <noovoice syntax> as HTML tags—more specifically as html comments, which made anything in between them disappear in the final document. This prompted me to look for a replacement, but I soon realized that I didn’t need it. What I needed was to use what I intended to use in the first place: 〈angled brackets, also known as chevrons〉, instead of <less-than and more-than signs>.

I decided to use the chevrons as the basis for my noovoice syntax for several reasons.

  • One was the similarity they had with guillemets, which were traditionally used in Spanish (and other languages) to indicate speech.
  • Another was the use of chevrons in comic books to convey messages in other languages (more on that in a second).
  • Yet another was this little quote I found once in the previously linked WP article:

Chevrons are infrequently used to denote words that are thought instead of spoken, such as:

What an unusual flower!

Though I couldn’t find any definitive sources to back up this last claim (though I asked around and at least this article mentioning it was found), it still sounds like a good idea to me. But that’s just me.

I did find a very interesting rationale for chevron use in comics in the Spanish Wikipedia of all places:

When the occasion warrants, angle brackets or “wedges” appear encompassing the text of a speech balloon, in which a character speaks another language, indicating a form of “Brechtian fourth wall”, with which it engages the reader in an effect of intimacy and comprehension directed solely to him, because despite the language difference denoted by the “wedge”, its meaning is understood, wheareas characters around them don’t. [Translated from Spanish by moi]

Though the whole “Brechtian fourth wall” bit sounds like a bit of a stretch to me, it makes a valid point of how chevrons in comics are used not only to facilitate foreign language comprehension, but to actually convey the meaning of the speaker’s message directly to the reader’s “mind”. That’s close enough to telepathy to me, so I approve!

 General Telepathic Punctuation

Anywho. As it turns out, rather than there being a standard for writers to indicate telepathic messages in their prose, it is purely a stylistic (and typographical) choice. That being said, there are a few common practices.

The most jarring one to me is just using italics, indistinguishable from other internal dialogue. This sprouts the problem of how to distinguish one from the other… because you must. Thus, florid verbs to indicate telepathic dialogue appear: he pulsed, she sent, they transmitted; or the perhaps the worst offender, “Hi,” he thought to her. (Sure, let’s make it a transitive verb and throw out the rest of Syntax out the window while we’re at it.)

(On that note, conveying traditional internal dialogue (thoughts) with italics is not standard… but it should be. NOT using italics for thoughts IS a common practice, which brings its own problems, and it’s frankly annoying. But hey that’s other writers’ problem to deal with, not mine.)

Like I said, these are issues that pop up because of choices writers make. They could instead pick a punctuation mark, any punctuation mark, and make their life easier. Which is what most do, fortunately. (That’s not to say that wacky “telepathy verbs” also pop up with telepathic dialogue that does use distinguishing marks, mind you.)

So you simply tag your telepathic dialogue with any marks you want:

  • *Maybe asterisks*, [brackets of which there are many], #or whatever else you want#.
  • // You don’t even need to wrap your text with two tags, one is enough! This specific kind was apparently popular way back when.
  • Why not use bold text? (Hopefully it won’t stand out as horribly as in here.)
  • Or how about a different font? I’ve seen it being used very creatively in recent stories with telepathy.

The key is making dialogue types distinguishable, without being intrusive or flow-breaking. If you do that, you can go home happy.

There is, however, an interesting alternative midway between: “Using italics inside quotation marks.“ Interesting how? Well let’s see an example from a writer dealing with telepathy:

In Shattered Souls, she hears voices of dead guys who share her body, so are inside her head, and also those not possessing her who talk to her from the outside. If the disembodied voice came from within, it was italicized. If it came from outside her body, it was italicized with quotation marks. It worked.

This is a perhaps more complex case of telepathy, but it brings up a very good point: the distinction between “inside voice” and “outside voice”. Because that’s the key difference between internal dialogue and regular dialogue. Thoughts come from within, and everything else comes from outside.

Telepathy is a middle ground, but it needs to be distinguished from both sides properly. As a minimum measure. That’s why I use chevrons myself.
The moral of the story is simply this: use whatever makes most sense to you. And, be consistent with it.
And, don’t worry about it too much because your editor may end up scrapping the whole thing, thus making this whole discussion moot.

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Of Beginnings (false and otherwise)

Originally posted on September 18, 2014

Okay, listen.

The very first sentence of any book has to be meaningful. It doesn’t have to be a hook per se, or even a quotable for the ages, but it has to be something, not just anything. As a writer I worry about this, and I should worry.

It should be obvious that the beginning harbors an essence that must resonate throughout the rest of the story; it may seem diffuse at first, even obtuse to the point of cliché, but it is there, and it must bloom into its own as the voyage progresses.

Not only that, but it should also worry writers like me that their first sentence could be the tiny perturbation that unleashes an irrevocable—and uncontrollable—sequence of events; wildly diverging trajectories pushing the line between deterministic chaos and pure randomness, in the tapestry of the nonlinear system that is your story. How can you tell that your story wasn’t doomed since that very first sentence? Or your first paragraph? Going back and correcting a typo is one thing, but un-flapping the little wings that started that hurricane is not gonna help.

The whole exercise is abstruse by nature. And perhaps we creators are more blind to the complex dynamics than anyone else, due to our extreme closeness to the very system we must wrangle. But wrangle we must. And it’s quite a beast.
So yeah, extreme sensitivity to initial conditions should be a concern. Thusly, beginnings should be a foremost concern as well, whether in a novel, or a blog, or a new life.

So here’s hoping this beginning is of the “not-false” variety.

Starting the way I am is a challenge that I set upon myself. Simply because I know there’s a way to subvert the “wrong” and succeed. Oh I’m sorry, did I push down your little wall of expectations and conventions? Too bad.
Facing the challenge and fighting your way through it is very much the point. THAT is how you make something new and worthwhile nowadays.

But hey, perhaps I’ll cut the first paragraph when I submit it to whomever. I could even cut the entire first chapter from my submission if I feel like it. But that’s beside the point. The point being that I dare to start like this, and I’m ready to fight you and your beloved “conventions” when I know I’m in a position where I know I’ll utterly crush them.

“Starting with a dream is one of the most cliché ways to begin your story.” Oh, oh if you could hear yourselves! If you could just listen to the words you’re saying, and the deep, deep deceit they are soaking in!

How else, how else are you supposed to begin YOUR story if not with a dream!

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