Lauren Hodge's Blog: That Just Sort of...Happened

October 11, 2014

A Secret Phrase Warning us Frivolous Characters are Involved

Reading in the first person is great. Writing in it is infinitely more fun. Each style has its strength and weaknesses. There is one weakness in first person I dislike with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.

I decide.

I see it over and over again. Sentences like, "I decide to wear some jeans" or "I decide to catch a cab." Putting aside the excessive reference to one's self, you can just as easily say, "I put on some jeans" or "I flag down a cab" and it gets the job done.

As authors, we're only supposed to put important sentences and words in books. As Stephen King said, and I'm paraphrasing because I couldn't find the actual quote, is that every book needs to tell a story. Any word that doesn't help it do that needs to be cut.

If it sneaks in a couple of times, I become wary. If I see it more than three times, I know for a fact the protagonist is going to be frivolous. If you're only telling us important things, and you think what a character decides is important enough to mention...that character thinks they are way more important than they really are. People who see themselves as more important than they really are tell us things that no one gives a crap about, hence the frivolity.

No one cares what you decide, only what you do.

I probably shouldn't dislike it so much as thank it for being informative. I decide is code for "Warning, petty narcissistic character approaching. Abort reading mission."
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Published on October 11, 2014 10:16 Tags: fail, fiction, novels, reading, stupidity, writing

September 30, 2014

Paranormal: Why Do We Like the One-legged Man in a Butt Kicking Contest?

Paranormal and supernatural stories get a bad rap. Yes, Twilight totally deserved it and then some. I've seen other series focus on the super part too much and forget about the natural. It makes for some embarrassing reading that looks like a one legged man in a butt kicking contest, desperately in need of a crutch. As a genre, I haven't actually found a lot in it that I like. I know why I wrote in it but haven't found much else with the same flavor as my books. I'm more of a "Build me an army, worthy of taking on Mordor" kind of fan as opposed to the "build me an insecurity, large as the Black Gate" flavor. But, it's popular for a reason and that is worth looking at.

When you have a conflict, you inherently have someone in a superior tactical or social position. This is typically the antagonist because if your protagonist starts out in the lead and then falls behind, it makes it hard for us to want and take that journey with them. If I want to experience squandered potential, it takes a lot less time to look in the mirror than read a book.

Why can't the protagonist be the entrenched power? Fair and just systems of power are not described as entrenched. We would all love something equitable and moral to govern us. The term "entrenched" infers many people already tried to get rid of it, but it dug in its heels and won that fight. If you're entrenched you have the tactical high ground while the resistance has the moral. Also, remember that power doesn't corrupt, but rather attracts the corruptible. What makes people good is their resistance to corruption, and as such, your hero cannot be entrenched.

Why many call paranormal a crutch is because it easily gives the underdog resources and abilities to rival the entrenched power structure without having to fabricate an army of their own. But, this is not exclusive to paranormal. Hunger Games gave Katniss a supernatural power...a deified reputation. Paranormal is a shortcut to equally matched opposing powers. I mean, it took Tolkien over five hundred thousand words to get that bloody ring into Mount Doom because his protagonist didn't have any magical powers.

But he did get it there...we just don't have the attention span or patience for it anymore.

The base reason paranormal and fantasy appeals to such a large audience is because we all know there is evil out there in the real world and it's going to continue being evil. We know it is entrenched because we'd love to get rid of it yet there it stays. Paranormal gives the underdog the ability to the defeat the corruptible. The moral high ground gives the protagonist the character to destroy the evil, not supplant it.

Basically we love stories about change...not exchange.
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Published on September 30, 2014 23:00 Tags: books, change, fail, fantasy, frodo, hope, paranormal, reading, supernatural, tolkien, win, writing

September 18, 2014

Like A Pizza, Character Development Needs A Vehicle To Get Here

Character development has to be my favorite part of writing. The journey of a character through the plot and developing personality traits that constitute said character... It is my crack fix. The first thing is we need a starting place. In that we infer there is an ending point which means there is going to be space between the two. That zone is where character is developed.

However, getting to know and grow your protagonist, antagonist, and supporting characters is like a pizza. It can't just come to your house on its own, it needs a vehicle. Character doesn't develop on its own. It is the result of not just events, but the time frame wherein the character responds to the force exerted upon them by those events.

As a writer we know what we want and sometimes need our characters to do. There may be some logistical requirement that needs to occur like the discovery of a piece of information or the death of a character. This is creation, our playground...but to make it believable we have to look at the causes of events and in turn, what character traits exist because of those events.

Natural consequences are often overlooked as a source of events, probably because we have a society built on avoiding them. Here's an example. Say you want to write a romance involving people in their early thirties. Now unless you want to write a romantic version of Austin Powers, a guy who was suspended in time for 30 or so years, these characters are going to have a past. The past shapes the present.

If you want the chick to be pessimistic about romantic relationships, you can't have her widowed. There needs to be an event (like a bad breakup) of which the natural consequence is pessimism. If you want the dude to fall head over heels in love with the chick, you can't have him have a previous string of casual girlfriends. The kind of guy in his thirties with a string of convenience based romances is the low desire partner in every relationship. The low desire partner typically doesn't experience the all consuming love many authors want to put into their stories.

Do not, for the love of all that is holy, make the romance in your story based on "they didn't find the right one before and that's why they were casual lover whores".

Everyone's past shapes their present and it's up to you, as the author, to make the character's starting points the natural consequence of the events before the story. From there you can create realistic plots. How the characters deal with those events should be a logical leap from their naturally shaped dispositions.

Now, do not take this to mean one's character cannot change. It can, but it can only change a step at a time. You don't have a pessimistic person suddenly trust a lover because an event proved they could trust. It's a gradual process and characters messing up is the meat of character construction. We all know how to deal with perfection. It is put in a box and admired. There is so much more mileage you can get out of how people deal with imperfection.

Don't short change your characters by taking shortcuts with character development. Make it logical, make it neat. If you order a pizza and it shows up at your door five minutes later, I guarantee you they didn't have time to cook it properly...and it's going to make us all sick.
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Published on September 18, 2014 19:30 Tags: cliche, fail, humor, pizza, romance, writing

August 31, 2014

Failure To Neutralize Is Not A Virtue

This Labor Day, we're talking about the value of action (work).

When in a story, there are certain attributes characters possess that make them either good or bad. Fairness, kindness, basically some sense of morality is what defines protagonists. Even Sherlock, everyone's favorite high functioning sociopath has a sense of morality. Conversely, what makes the bad guy, well, the bad guy, is the absence of morality based actions and ideals.

There is a growing trend I see in both novels and movies. Of course every story has to have a protagonist and antagonist. Without these dichotomous forces the story becomes as boring as a documentary about a trip to the grocery store. I've already written about the value of a good ending, and we, as readers, typically prefer them.

But, what is a happy enough ending to make us feel good about the outcome? If the antagonist is a worthy enough opponent they're an actual threat to our protagonist, we want that threat to be neutralized...permanently.

Let me make that clear. We want the bad guy to die, so they are never a threat again. That means someone, by way of an action, has to cause the bad guy's death.

Here's my problem. I see battles between good and evil, yet when the good guy finally gets the upper hand, they try to display their idea of moral superiority by not killing the bad guy. In target shooting when you fire a shot and don't hit a kill zone, we call this FTN...failure to neutralize.

Then by some accident, the bad guy dies anyway, but not at the hand of the protagonist. It can be some force of nature or the antagonist charging the hero and subsequently falling off the roof or something, but it's not by the willful action of the protagonist the threat is permanently neutralized.

This is cheating and in the wimpiest way. Good guys who commit FTNs are not heroes. They are supporting characters at best and wimpy sidekicks at worst. With accidental bad-guy death, the protagonist is getting the emotional credit for an action they were not willing to do.

In the shocking last episode of Sherlock season three, our protagonist pulls the trigger and neutralizes the threat. The protagonist outright killing the evil is what made it so shocking. But we all loved him for it.

What authors and film makers won't come right out and say, yet want you to believe, is it's morally superior to not kill an evil. But, if FTN is so much better, why kill the bad guy at all? Why don't they proclaim the virtue of life sentences in containment facilities or something? Because at the end of the day, the audience's emotional satisfaction makes story tellers more money.

So much for moral superiority.
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Published on August 31, 2014 21:23 Tags: action, antagonists, death-penalty, epic, fail, hea, humor, protagonists, writing

July 31, 2014

The Enemy Will Teach Where You Are Weak And They Are Strong

Fiction is a playground of which I will never tire. There are so many things you can experience that you'd never have the opportunity to in real life. A good book is like a TARDIS, the Doctor Who time travel machine that's bigger on the inside and can transport you to any point in time and space. Even more than that, in novels I get to meet and understand different characters. What I really like is when these characters can pass for real people. When their character and personality traits define and dictate their actions, I get to see the gears of the machine that turns belief in to action. But, when articulating that transition there is a danger...pontification.

When the author makes long winded myopic speeches, that's pontification.

I've seen it in the political arena in real life. I'd bet vital parts of my anatomy I could walk into any political convention and within five minutes find someone standing on their soapbox. But when I see it in a novel I've invested more than five minutes and that leaves a bitter taste I'd rather avoid. After reading so many unfiltered books (meaning only self edited and posted anonymously) There's a singular characteristic which assures there's going to be pontification down the road.

The good characters are all good, and the bad characters are all bad.

The easiest red flag to see is the antagonists. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. When antagonists are all bad, like you can't find one redeeming quality, you know the protagonists will always be correct. Are you right all the time? Do you like people who think they're right all the time? It's hard to be the protagonists when you're that guy at the party. Overly correct protagonists pontificate because they believe they are so right, so correct, that everyone needs to hear, understand, and adopt their belief.

When the author creates a world where the protagonist is always right you know they believe they have nothing to learn from others, and the ideals of the story are nothing more than an advertisement for the value of the author's beliefs.

Every enemy will teach you where you are weak and they are strong. That alone is a redeeming quality.
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Published on July 31, 2014 09:44 Tags: doctor-who, humor, novels, reading, tardis, writing

July 16, 2014

Should Authors Guarantee a Happily Ever After?

For many years I did not read fiction. I thought it a waste of time when I could be reading news, history, philosophy, research, or learning something of value. My start in fiction was quite by accident, more of a social research project. After learning what a frenzy millions of people were working themselves up into over Twilight, I was curious as to what appealed to such a large audience. I read the Twilight Saga and was confused. This new mythology couldn't possibly be what all the fuss was about. Then I found FanFiction which had not only Twilight spinoffs, but Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings too. What was this strange new world?

Doesn't matter. I quickly became hooked like those squirrels in England that accidentally dug up cocaine hidden in people's gardens and kept coming back for more.

I've already talked about why people write fan fiction, but in reading it, I came across lots of different code words that function as a sort of classification system. Phrases like "Cannon paring", "OCC", or "HEA" meaning happily ever after. This last one is the one I am thinking about.

The question is, does the author giving us assurances of a happily ever after diminish the use of angst in the story?

I am of two minds on this.

One, I don't like to read romance with a crappy ending. Most people like fiction because it enables that which is not possible. Think of it like being bed ridden but reading a book about an adventure in Egypt. The reader can experience something they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. I don't want to get invested in characters, only to have life dump all over them. If I want to read a story with a crappy ending, I'll look in the mirror. We treasure the time when we get to love someone and be assured it's not going to get flushed down the toilet.

But, can we really value something if there is no risk of loss?

When I first started reading fanfiction and didn't understand the coding system, I read dozens of stories where one or both of the love interests either die or don't get their happily ever after. I hated those stories with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. If I even smelled a hint of a crappy ending, I would abandon a story faster than I order a Hot & Ready Little Casers pizza. But, as I gained more experience reading fiction, I noticed stories that advertised a HEA weren't afraid to take chances. They made difficult situations for their protagonists to think their way out of where stories with no such claim became more and more watered down.

I think the trick is to make the challenges realistic so readers who want that HEA don't have to hope for an deus ex machina to come and fix the mess in order to get that happily ever after. Realistic challenges negate the need for a happily ever after disclaimer to get us to stick with the story, and you still get to write good challenges.

Now go write, or read...whichever one floats your boat. We who are about to dine on $5 pizzas, salute you.
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Published on July 16, 2014 20:41 Tags: fanfiction, hea, humor, new-adult, writing

July 8, 2014

What I Learned From Fan Fiction

In the literary world, there are conferences, experts, and amateurs. My first editor went to such a conference a few years ago wherein they had a discussion panel about "fan fiction". The questions were centered around plagiarism and how the publishing world is being affected by the new onslaught of Twilight fan fiction novels. Million dollar book deals are being born from adapted fan fiction and thus, it really matters. The consensus is that it's not plagiarism and that authors should be flattered that so many other writers want to play in their sandbox.

So who writes fan fiction?

Everyone.

The overwhelming majority are women but they stretch across all known demographics (with the exception of toddlers). What interests me about fan fiction authors is why and what they write. Most aren't writing to reach a New York Times Bestseller audience, nor are they shaping their prose to fit marketability patterns. Most stories (even the bad ones) are glimpses or plot the authors want to experience, but can't in the real world. In other words, they write what they want to be under the protection of a pen name.

Because of this we get to see what women want, but won't admit out loud.

In the five years I have been reading fan fiction, I have read easily thousands of stories and tens of millions of words. Past, present, future, fantasy, contemporary, sci-fi, flash fiction...everything. I'm a speed reader with a disgusting amount of retention. My nick name among friends is "Bing" because I'm a human search engine. After reading so much, patterns start to emerge. But what is the pattern in romantic fan fiction?

Men that consider it an honor to provide for a woman.

The male protagonist can be rich, poor, homeless, middle class, or royalty. I even read a time travel story where a futuristic woman got sent back to caveman days and there was a language barrier. Even then, the man offered her a comb and a fur like coat. Over and over again, without fail, stories have the romantic male interest want to contribute/provide for the woman and not consider it a burden. The woman can be any socioeconomic station as well, but the underlying ideology is that even a homeless man wants to provide.

In a western world where women are berated if they don't bring home a paycheck and the majority of women maintain employment after they have children, what do they want in dark corners no one admits to? Men who take pride in being good men.
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Published on July 08, 2014 15:25 Tags: fan-fiction, humor

That Just Sort of...Happened

Lauren Hodge
What you always suspected but never said out loud because you probably wouldn't have any friends left if you did. Don't worry, I have your back. I don't have any friends to lose so we're all good.
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