Tag Archives: characters

Stranger in a Strange Book

24 Feb

Who is John Smith? The protagonist in most books has a simple name, understandable motivations… in other words, forgettable. They are taking the place of you while you walk through the universe. Because there’s a price to be paid if your protagonist is too exotic.

After reading The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I realized that he rotates between three or four main characters, of which one is American, two are Thai, and one is Chinese. It’s set in Bangkok, so that makes perfect sense, and you’d think that a guy with a complicated Portuguese name is going to be comfortable with characters with strange names to American ears. But Paolo struggles with this same problem. When you have to crank out a last name like Chulalongkorn (actually the name of King Rama V), you start using nicknames or first names fast. When I lived in Thailand, it seems Thais understand that, and are comfortable being referred to by their nickname because their real name is so long.

However, it doesn’t have to be just names. For example, when I sat down to write Drag’n Drop, I thought I would make my main character the dragon, because… that sounded really cool. However, it quickly became clear to me that if I wanted a two-ton flying machine running around an alternate New York, and not have him be a shape changer… he wasn’t going to be in all the scenes. So I invented a guy and a girl to hang out with him to go to all the places where a big green dragon just wouldn’t fit in.

The more I thought about it, though, my main characters were generally white guys, but do NOT have easy names, because… well I’m a white guy with a slightly uncommon name. You would surprised how often Marcus Johnston becomes Mark, Marc, or Markus Johnson. I generally refer to my characters by nicknames. In Defending Our Sacred Honor, I thought it would be fun to call my main character Javier Jackson, but he became Jax instantly. Fatebane is the name of the main character, but it’s not the name he was born with, for reasons that are clear in the book.

Predatory Practices is the only book I was involved with that where there was a non-human main character. However, his name was Heth… because the complicated three name alien nomenclature wasn’t practical most of the time. Mind you, I wasn’t the main writer on that, but I thought Ed did a great job creating a believable alien culture that was still relatable to the reader.

In the end, though, I am an American, and although I reach out to readers all through the world, I’m sure when I slip, my references are uniquely American. Since I prefer to write sci-fi, I hope it’s more universal. However, I’ve read books that use references that are distinctly English or Irish or Japanese and my mind hits a speed bump when I read them. I remember reading an article by a Czech, and since I was working through Google translate, I didn’t catch an idiom when I was writing it down. It was only talking with my Czech friends that they explained the reference.

What do you think? Have you been taken out of a book by all the strange names? Or do you not mind a main character named Massaponax? Maybe it’s better if he goes by Mass. Let me know in the comments below!

Sometimes Madame LaFarge Has to Die

23 Feb

As an author, I get it–it helps to kill off a main character now and then to keep the stakes real, and not feel like a comic book. However, it needs to be important to the plot, and not just… happen.

I don’t wanna give away the spoiler for what I was reading, but man, it really irked me when one of the main characters (not the POV character) suddenly dies. I had to actually go back and read the scene again because it happened so fast! The character just dies and the author just moved on to the next scene! Apparently the author addressed this in a later interview, “We were telling a war story, people die in war, and I realized that our characters hadn’t really felt that loss yet.”

Seriously? When the author killed another character earlier in the book, at least it was the chapter end, and it was very obvious. “Oh, you blew his head off.” It was important, it was clear, and even if it seemed random, it advanced the plot. This read like an afterthought. At this point, I should remember what my father-in-law said, “If you don’t like my story, write your own!”

But I also remember what my friend Nathan said when he had to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. He said, “I love Madame Lafarge. It’s obvious the author loves Madame Lafarge. But the entire plot was leading up to her and the guillotine. Sometimes Madame Lafarge has to die.”

I liked this phrase so much that–although it’s not one of my maxims–it is one of the guiding stars when I write my stories. It IS important to have the stakes be high in a story. In a comic book, the main characters will never die. Or they’ll die, but come back in a couple episodes. Or they’ll die and become the villain. But they always come back. When you have to kill a character, the other characters should have to deal with the consequences. It SHOULD make the struggle real. In real life, people die suddenly and without warning. But this is a story–you don’t invest several hundred pages just to kill someone off as an afterthought. That’s not making the struggle real–that’s a late edit.

Oh well, not my universe. Thinking back to Dickens, my grandpa used to misquote the famous lines at the climax, probably he never read the book either. “It is a far better thing I do… then to say hello to you!” I thought it was hilarious. But what do you think? Have you run into senseless deaths in stories? Killing off the POV character at the end of a book is material for another post. But have you ever thrown a book across the room because you were so mad? Let me know in the comments below!

“Who Would You Rather Be?”

6 Feb

As mentioned previously, I gave up being a DM, and now I’m merely a player. Which means creating a new character in D&D… which like blog posts, are a great way to exercise your creativity. It’s not always your idealized self–just a different shade of you.

When I went back to roleplaying, I really did it because I wanted my son to have the experience of playing with other people. So naturally, when my son wants to continue DM’ing, and needs another player, I’m along for the ride. So I created a lizardfolk monk–because let’s face it, non-human characters are far more interesting. So to make it seem more alien, the source book suggests not using “I” or pronouns in your speech, which I thought was pretty cool. So instead of “Let’s go to the store” you say, “Supplies are needed, store imperative.” However, lizardfolk are pretty rare, so I gave him a background of anthropologist, which I interpreted as “he was trained to kill humans, but instead, got fascinated by them and decided to join them.”

For those not conversant in 5th Edition, apart from your initial rolls for attribute scores, you get certain advantages for picking your character’s background, and once you hit third level, you get the choice to pick your class path… which is a way of customizing your character. So a monk can a traditional “I kick ass to promote peace” path, but can also be a monk who studied sword fighting, or a monk who does astral projection and other spell casting abilities. It allows the player to do what they want inside the class, instead of multi-classing, which means taking a level in another class (ranger, wizard, et al) to get to the goal you want.

So for my regular campaign, I thought about using the same character, but since the new DM wants the character on D&D Beyond, I didn’t have access to the “Anthropologist” background (because it’s in Tomb of Annihilation), and it loses a lot if I went with another. So I decided to go with an alternate monk character. [I really don’t like casting spells, so that cuts out a lot of character classes.] This time, I decided to go with the Drunken Master path, because a) I love the Drunken Master kung fu film series with Jackie Chan (1978, 1994) and b) because I thought having a drunken character might add to the fun of the character.

However, as I went through the background list, I found the Haunted One idea fascinating. Originally appearing in Curse of Strahd (which is the D&D vampire campaign–I didn’t like it much), I thought, “Maybe my character drinks to take away the pain.” Which then allowed me to write a great backstory that I love. Because we’re using a point buy system (instead of rolling for attributes), I decided to gain a couple points by lowering my intelligence to 6 (10 being average) but raising my wisdom. So this makes him street smart, but can’t learn complex concepts. He can do simple jobs, or complex ideas like martial art katas with a lot of repetition, and would probably talk in short sentences. I figured that he’d be a lot of like simpler Amos Burton in The Expanse, who is a streetwise tough guy, but doesn’t worry about… much at all.

What do you think? Have you had a really good character concept you’ve played with? Do you use RPG characters to generate story ideas? Let me know in the comments below.

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