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Monday, May 27, 2013

The Making of a Hero

Picture Credit: http://mainecatholic.blogspot.com/2003_07_01_mainecatholic_archive.html

For anyone out there who did not grow up watching Underdog, I am very sad for you because you missed out on the best childhood superhero of all time. :) But to keep you from getting too depressed that you have forever missed out, I'll go ahead and say that Batman is the best superhero now.

Picture Credit: http://www.khamis.ae/2013/05/%D8%B5%
I see all the superhero movies that come out, but they captured such an unforgettable character with Batman that I think he's hard to beat. And how can you not love Alfred? He makes me really want a butler. :)

Think about your favorite hero, whether it's a superhero or simply the main character from any story. What draws you to that hero? In order to make the hero or heroine in your story as good as possible, try to incorporate some of the things you see well done in other characters.

I have a list of 8 things that I believe are true of any good hero. See what you think, and please tell me if you feel there should be more added to this list.

Hero Characteristics

  1. Readers must connect
    • A good hero will make readers (or viewers if we're talking about a movie) long to see him victorious. Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and you find that you don't care if the bad guy wins? (Yes, I know you root for the bad guys sometimes, Tayla.) Chances are that you are having a hard time connecting with the hero.
    • Help your readers to connect by giving your hero desirable qualities, realistic weaknesses, and putting him in a situation where he is in over his head.
  2. Set the hero apart
    • What makes your hero or heroine different than any other person your reader will pass on the street? She does not need superpowers, by the way. Actually, if she is so powerful that nothing around is a threat then the story runs a serious risk of being boring. But there should be a reason that she is specifically meant for the part she plays in the story.
    • Take some time to think about why you chose her and her personality.
  3. The hero must be willing
    • There are some amazing stories out there where the hero does not feel capable of doing what he is destined to do, and he does not want his quiet world interrupted. That's great. But at some point the hero must decide to act. Even if he never does enjoy the role he plays in the story, he should at least decide there is a higher duty than doing what he wants. 
    • No matter how you get your hero to act, he must be a willing participant in the story. If he is being dragged every step of the way then he's not going to be much of a hero. He should find himself in a position that he can't refuse his role even if the option is presented to him.
  4. A hero will sacrifice
    • A hero or heroine will work for something she believes in. She will be willing to sacrifice something important to herself for the overall good she hopes to accomplish. In the best stories, she is not only willing to sacrifice, but she is also required to make that sacrifice. Readers have a much easier time connecting with a heroine who life hasn't been good to. They will feel her pain when her sacrifices come.
  5. Heroes have trials
    • I have implied this one in talking about other things in this list, but hardships in some form are essential. If the hero has an easy life, no one will get involved in your character. If all the bad guys attempts are simple to overcome, readers aren't going to feel threatened by the bad guy. It's universal to like to watch/read characters overcoming hardships. If there's nothing to overcome, you are simply writing an essay about how perfect your hero's world is.
  6. The hero must need help
    • Every hero or heroine needs help from someone. Independence is a good trait, but if she can handle everything on her own, then she isn't thrown into a hot-enough fire. She might feel alone, but she should receive help at some point. The help can come at the beginning in the form of a mentor who teacher her how to cope with the challenges that are involved in the story. Or the help can come later. But a perfect character who can handle all situations by herself isn't as compelling as one that hits brick walls.
  7. A Hero is powerful
    • I do not mean here that your hero considers himself powerful. But in the story, no matter how much outside help he's getting, he must find that he is strong enough to complete the task he's given. This doesn't have to be a defined quest. It could be a compelling story about a teenager struggling to overcome abuse. Or any other of the unlimited options out there for a trial. But he must be able to fulfill the role you have assigned him in the story.
    • If you are writing a sad ending, this is still true. Even if your hero dies at the end, he should still be strong enough to fulfill his role before his death. 
  8. Heroes change
    • During the course of the story, some change should take place in the hero or heroine. She should be different for what she's gone through. This is generally called character growth, but the term can be misleading. Your heroine doesn't have to be a stronger person at the end, though usually she will be, but she should recognize that she will never get her old life back--not in the way she remembers it. 
    • The Lord of the Rings accomplished this one well. Think of the end of The Return of the King. (Spoiler alert for anyone who is REALLY behind at watching movies) None of the main characters are the same as at the beginning. The scene that shows the four hobbits back home in the tavern together is almost sad. Without any words, the movie portrays the fact that life is forever different. Frodo finds he can't live among the other hobbits anymore.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Plot Structure

Picture Credit: http://gilshalev.com/2012/07/06/
This posting on plot structure will provide a rough outline of a book--it is not as detailed as the outlining process I use (see my outlining posting series here).

But sometimes it's helpful to take a step back and look at your book from a new way. Also, some people don't like to use an intense outlining method. The plot structure as seen here will give much flexibility while still providing a general direction for the story.

Consider your book to be a Three-Act Play. Each act should build off of the acts that come before and tension should steadily increase.

Act 1

Act 1 is for the setup. Characters are introduced along with the world they live in and the rules they must follow. But there is a hint of the fact that things are not what they appear to be. Something different is lurking on the horizon.

Act 2

Act 2 should introduce the new world. This does not necessarily mean the characters have to leave one place and travel to another. It does mean that the main character should be taken out of his or her comfort zone. Doing this will introduce a "world." The world can be problems, threats, new geography, or any other thing the character is up against. In this second act, the reader should become familiar with the nature of what the character is up against.

Act 3

Act 3 begins with a situation that leaves the character (and hopefully the reader) certain that all hope is lost. The ending can't possibly be happy. This situation will turn to the amazing way the character overcomes the problem. This will be the climax of the story. Then a little space is given at the end for the beginning of a return back to a lower excitement level. The little dip at the end is the promise of a "happily ever after."

Notice that in the diagram, even though the pacing and tension will increase throughout the story, it does not always increase at a constant rate. If your story plot structure can be mapped out in a straight line, your tension will begin to feel monotonous. Instead do little peaks and valleys as you work your way to a higher tension level.

If, after that general breakdown of 3 acts, you want to take your outlining to a slightly tighter level, try drawing a plot line for each chapter. Every chapter in the book should move the story in some way and should give the reader necessary information. If any chapter fails to do that, then either cut or re-think it.

Happy outlining!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Medieval Blacksmith Tools

Picture Credit: http://www.stainedglass-
I mentioned in an earlier post that my main character is not a blacksmith, nor does she ever watch a blacksmith work. But her master is a blacksmith. I found a few times that I was at a loss when it came to blacksmith tools and terms that she would hear as his slave.

To help me make my character's life more believable, I did research on common tools and the type of work the average medieval blacksmith did, but I didn't go much into the flow of work. This posting will not prepare anyone to actually do work at the forge--it simply will go over some of the basics about small blacksmith shops in the middle ages.

I found much of my information from a medieval blacksmithing blog. Click here to learn more.

First, let's take a look at what blacksmith means. A smith is a crafts-person who works with metal. A blacksmith works with the dark metals, mainly iron, as opposed to precious metals, tin, or even specializing in weaponry.

Items Made by a City Blacksmith Shop

  • Chains
  • Decorations
  • Hinges
  • Household objects such as knives, light fittings, pokers, etc.
  • Jewlrey
  • Locks and Keys
  • Nails
  • Ornaments
  • Tools

Tools, Equipment, and Shop

  • Avil- a heavy block of iron or steel used to place hot metals against while hammering
  • Axe
  • Bellows- a device that blows air onto a fire to make it burn more fiercely
  • Bit- a tool for boring various forms and sizes
    • Auger Bit- a bit with a cutting edge or blade
  • Chisels
  • Drifts- steel tools that are tapered to enlarge or shape holes in metal by being driven through it, also called a broach
  • Forge- the blacksmith workplace, also called a smithy
  • Fullers- a half-round set hammer that is used to form grooves and spread iron, also called a creaser
  • Hammers- these will be various sizes and are used for shaping and finishing
  • Molds- used for everyday items
  • Nails
  • Punchers- tools used to make circular holes
  • Sledge Hammers
  • Swages- tools that are shaped or grooved in various ways (either on the end or the face of the tool), they are used to shape by holding them onto the metal while striking them with the hammer
  • Swage Block- a block of iron with perforations on its sides, it is used for heading bolts and swaging large objects
  • Table, stools, shelves, etc.
  • Tongs

Monday, May 6, 2013

Pacing Action

Picture Credit: http://dazcarter.com/2011/
Good pacing is a work of art. The best advice is to not rush things or drag them. Do that, and your pacing will always be perfect.

Unfortunately that great advice is a little vague, so I'll see what I can do to give a couple tips. The bottom line is that tips are not step-by-step instructions and there is still a lot of room to develop this art until your pacing becomes perfect for you and your readers.

1. Do not try to describe the whole picture.

If a bomb just went off and your characters are caught in a stampede to get away, they are probably not going to notice that the tulips are in bloom. If they are involved in hand-to-hand combat, they are most likely not going to be aware of the gentle breeze. In short, action scenes are not the time or place for using minor details to paint a picture. Put yourself in your own character's heads and pay attention to what they are thinking and noticing. Those are the only things that should make it onto the page. Do not feel the need to make a bland statement that they feel fear. There have to be thoughts or actions going on that make their fear come to life--once you have made their fear real you won't have to state that they are afraid. It's the same concept if they are feeling excited or any other emotion in an action scene.

2. Use short sentences.

Keep your sentences short. Even a one-word sentence thrown in from time to time is fine. As the tension builds, your shorter sentences will make your readers pick up the pace and will make your character's thoughts seem less measured.

During an intense scene, your character isn't going to be pondering the meaning of life--his or her thoughts will be cut back. Characters who have training in handling the situation will be more likely to shut down conscious thought and let instinct born of heavy training take over. Characters with nothing to prepare them will be more likely to experience raw emotion--potentially leading them to act in ways that make the situation worse. But whatever is going through their heads, it will not be well-thought-out discourses. It will be clipped sentences.

3. Use powerful verbs.

Use the thesaurus to help yourself come up with powerful verbs, but only use verbs that sound and feel natural. If there is ever a time to use big vocabulary, this is not it. Remember, you do want to come up with ways to portray the full graphic and intense scene, but using words that don't come naturally will slow down your action.

4. Avoid using passive sentences.

This is good advice in almost all writing, but it's especially true in action scenes. Always focus the attention on the person or thing that is initiating the action. Generally speaking, passive sentences do have a proper time and place in writing--but that proper time and place is not in the middle of action.

5. Watch for your personal writing ticks and remove them.

Every author has writing ticks. You may have a pet word or phrase that you find yourself repeating too often in the book (or using in every book you write). Or you may have a habit of using hyphens more than usual. Figure out what your tick is and try to fix it throughout your book. But this is especially critical during action scenes. Action needs to be as smooth and problem-free as you can make it. If your readers have noticed a tick in your writing, it will distract them. The last place you want them distracted is in the middle of a fight or even the death of one of your characters.