By Jeanne C. Stein
The topics we’re going to cover today involve some basics of storytelling. In fact to some of you, this may be nothing but review. Especially if you were lucky enough to attend last weekend’s conference. It’s the first one in the seventeen years I’ve been a member of RMFW that I had to miss. I’m going through withdrawals. Anyway, if so, skip it and come back next month when we’re going to tackle some “rules” of genre writing.
The first consideration of any work is determining whose story we’re going to tell. Point of view. Whether you plan to use multiple POV’s or one, establishing our protagonist and antagonist are crucial to good story telling.
First, then, what is POV and what are the different kinds? Let’s review the most popular briefly:
1. First person – the one telling the story. Told in one perspective, the narrator’s, as he or she experiences it.
I saw the boy the same time he saw me.
2. Third person – the one telling the story is a witness; may or may not be not involved directly in the story.
She saw the boy at the same time he saw her.
3. Limited omniscient – the “God” point of view. Everything is revealed through a non-participant in the story. Allows you to relay events happening to more than one character in the story, but feels more detached.
She was looking at the boy and at the same time he was looking at her.
There are others, Second person for example, but it is a difficult one to pull off and not used as frequently.
You looked at the boy at the same time he looked at you.
There are many resources available if you need more examples or clarification. If you decide to write in more than one POV, for instance, first and third, there are some factors you must consider to keep the narrative from being jumpy. You can change perspective via chapter changes or drop downs. You can keep POV shifts uniform, that is first person, third person, first person, third person. The thing to keep away from is head-jumping or shifting from one POV to another in the same paragraph or page. That is extremely difficult to pull off and often is very distracting to the reader. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Can you think of an author who pulls this off smoothly? Nora Roberts springs to mind but she’s had years (decades) of practice.
Once we’ve decided how we’re going to tell the story, we cast our characters.
What defines a compelling, interesting protagonist? She should be multi-dimensional, meaning she has inner conflicts as well as outer problems. She should be believable and consistent throughout the story. That is not to say that she cannot grow from the beginning of the book to the end. She must grow in order to make her sympathetic—we want the reader to be cheering her on, after all. To that end, she must have clear motives and goals. As for physical description, some writers are very specific in describing physical characteristics, others, not so.
Whether you want to describe your character down to the mole on her rear or paint her in broader brush stokes is a matter of personal style. Devoting four pages of your first chapter, though, to a minute blow by blow of your heroine staring at herself in the mirror is a good way to lose your readers before you’ve had a chance to hook them. We’ll discuss this more in Lesson 5.
What about the antagonist? The same rules apply when introducing the villain(s) in your story. No matter how horrific his (or her) actions, it’s important to remember that the villain has a reason for doing the things he does. He has clear motives and goals that while they may be in direct conflict to our heroine’s, are as real and compelling to him as her own. Cartoon villains aren’t interesting to a reader, just as a one-dimensional heroine isn’t interesting. The most successful, suspenseful stories are those that keep the reader guessing until the very end. And the highest complement is a reader who says, “I never saw that coming.”
One caveat, however: springing a villain on the reader that we haven’t met anywhere in the story before the end is cheating. As is the “evil twin” ploy. You can hide clues, conceal the villain, create mistaken assumptions to confuse our readers. But don’t cheat. The answer must be buried in the story somewhere.
Some writers devote a great deal of time to defining their characters, writing detailed biographies that cover everything from IQ to their childhood pets. If that appeals to you, by all means do it. Horoscope signs, Tarot Cards, Myers-Briggs personality tests, Enneagram Types—use whatever you want to flesh out your characters. What you mustn’t do is include every detail of the results in your narrative. Better to show personality traits in the reactions of your protag to story events than tell us why she’s reacting a certain way.
Of course, some writers start with a story and construct the setting and characters around it. Nothing wrong with that approach. Whether we decide to use a real city (or rural setting) or to make one up, anchoring our readers in things they recognize is the first step to getting them to accept the things they don’t, especially in a genre like Urban Fantasy.
An example of this is Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. We watch Rosemary decorate her New York apartment, make curtains, set up a nursery. It’s so real, we fully accept that in the apartment down the hall, a powerful coven of witches has enlisted her own egocentric husband in a conspiracy against her.
Some writers use real places, others find it easier to create a fictional locale, still others use a combination of the two. It makes no difference. How you describe your setting, how authentic you make it feel, is the important thing. If you are going to use a real place, familiarize yourself with it. You can take certain liberties (I turned the streets in Mission Beach around a little so Anna’s cottage would face the ocean) but if you say a highway runs north/south and it really runs east/west, someone will notice. And they’ll call you on it. Readers pay attention to detail. This is where Google Earth and Google Maps come in handy. Except when done intentionally, there really isn’t an excuse for getting a point of geography wrong. Literally, the whole world is at your fingertips via the web.
Obviously, you have to be careful about the way you use real businesses or people. Calling the real-life mayor of your town by name and then branding him an ax-murderer or pedophile will likely get you in trouble.
So once you’ve decided where you want to set your story, the next decision is to define the paranormal aspects of the place. This is the crux of world building in genres like UF and it’s great fun. How do you want to populate your universe? Is magic universal? Or are humans unaware of the otherworldly creatures in your story? Do you want to use vampires or werewolves or shapeshifters or any of the more exotic paranormal creatures—fairies or angels or demons?
Don’t be afraid to tweak the mythology either. You can change any “rule” you want as long as you explain it to the reader. If it’s logical to your story, the reader will accept it. Just remember: once you set your rules, stick to them. If your protagonist has to hide his real nature from the world at large, it adds another layer of conflict to the story—particularly if exposure would mean becoming the target of bigotry and fear.
Think about the story you want to tell—define your protagonist and antagonist, set the world, populate it.
We’ll end this lesson with another interviewee: Anton Strout is the popular author of the Simon Candrous series and the new Spellmason Chronicles. His novels are perfect examples of UF. See if you recognize why.
1. You are often included in lists of Urban Fantasy Authors. How do you feel about the tag and do you like it? Why or why not?
I like the tag, personally. I know some writers hate to be pigeonholed, but writing is a business and there’s simply no escaping categorization. And hey! There’s some good company in my category- Butcher, Hamilton, you- and Urban Fantasy sounds like so much better a category name than Buffy/Ghostbusters Fan Fiction!
2. What makes your books fit in the UF genre?
My series takes place mostly in and around Manhattan, which is about as urban as you get. And my main character works for the Department of Extraordinary Affairs’ Other Division, which is an underfunded agency dealing with paranormal activities. These are folks trying to get through their workday, somewhat normal people dealing with fantastical things happening all around them that the average New Yorker tends to block out or not pay attention to. So my writing is a mix of city life and the paranormal that lands me smack dab in the middle of UF.
3. Did you set out to write UF?
No. I set out to write a story about this average guy named Simon, but over time, I realized I wanted to tell a ghost story/mystery set in New York City. I wanted to write the type of things I like to read… or watch. I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan. I love his mix of the fantastical and the humorous and when I write, I strive towards that type of balance in my own work. I was also a huge fan of Douglas Adams and his humor and I didn’t really know many humorous urban fantasy authors were out there, but I knew I wanted to be one once I looked at the first draft of Dead To Me and said “Oh, that’s what I was trying to do.”
4. Why do you think UF is so popular with readers?
I think there are several reasons. I think readers like stories about familiar fairy tale monsters set in places they can identify with, such as the modern world. There’s built in accessibility. Also, I moved to New York because there was a romantic notion to it all, and mixing the spooky in with that really appealed to me. When I set a scene, I try to think what the average reader knows about New York. I can skip describing a location for three pages, simply by mentioning a scene outside the Empire State Building. Even if the reader’s never been, they still have seen it in movies or on TV or in other books. That gives me more time to spend giving them the payoff from character development and dialogue. Perhaps it’s a bit of a shortcut, but I think it just makes sense for the writer using the modern world.
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Set in New York, the protagonist a bureaucrat employed by an agency that deals with the paranormal—Urban Fantasy—genre.
Next time we’ll look at how you write for a genre audience.