Tag Archives: characters

What writers can learn from reality shows

Dessert EmiratesReality TV shows seem to be endlessly popular with the TV viewing audience. They pop up constantly, perhaps with a different name, different skills, but always they’re contests. Big Brother, Survivor, Master Chef, the Block, the Biggest Loser – and my all-time favourite, My Kitchen Rules.

Let me make it perfectly clear that I no longer watch these shows. I watched a couple of seasons of Master Chef because I love cooking shows and Master Chef actually had a few episodes a week where they went into the details of cooking. The rest of it, however, is a cooking contest. Which brings me to My Kitchen Rules. I imagine a similar show exists all over the world. In Australia, one pair of contestants, both amateur cooks, is chosen from each state in Australia. The couples can be married, gay, sisters or brothers, friends or whatever turns you on. The season starts with each couple hosting all the other contestants and the judges, for a dinner party in their own home. The contestants and the judges all score the meal. After all the ‘at home’ meals have been done, there’s an elimination process where some people drop out. Sorry if I’m hazy. You see, I loathe this show. Sure, I was sadly disillusioned to discover it wasn’t a cooking show. I hankered for Nigella, or the Cook and the Chef, Two Fat Ladies, the Naked Chef. What I got was a contrived game show.

In one of my biennial visits to the doctor I came across an article in a women’s magazine (I hate them, too – a doctors’ visit is the only time I ever look at them), a My Kitchen Rules tell-all. Well, gosh, Mouseketeers. Oh you thought the people cooked in their own homes? No.An awful lot of houses in Australia don’t have a separate dining room. We tend to prefer open living. But the home used for the set had to have a separate dining room so the couple cooking could be sequestered in the kitchen while the others talked about them. That, of course, but more pressure on the cooking couple. Unfamiliar kitchen, unfamiliar stove. And you know all that bitchiness and trash talk? The contestants are told what to say! Yes, it’s true. And, I have no doubt the fuck-ups are orchestrated, too.

So what does all this have to do with writing?

Everything, my friends.

I’ve already alluded to the importance of setting. Make sure your setting supports what will happen. Think about how the setting can aid some characters or put others on the back foot.

Choose your characters carefully. In MKR the contestants are selected with group dynamics in mind. Have a look. There’ll be the nice couple everyone hopes will win. The pompous know-it-alls who are critical of everyone else. The bitches (usually women) who often provide the tag lines for tomorrow’s show and who everybody hopes will get eliminated. (Quite often they last a loooong time to keep the tension going.) Then there’s the devious couple who’ll do anything to win, like voting down a spectacular meal so the rival couple’s rating falls. There’s the super confident couple who break under pressure (when the custard boils over or the kitchen paper catches fire in the oven or the lamb’s undercooked). And there’s the couple who come across as irritating or vaguely obnoxious but who blossom and grow during the show.

Tension is a vital component. In every episode there will be a minor crisis (contrived). For example, people having to wait two hours between the entree* and the main course. Or a couple who make cheese on their farm at home, so they cook a meal with cheese in every course. (Needless to say, one of the diners will hate cheese, or be allergic.) Or a contestant more interested in having his trousers pressed than letting his wife get on with preparations for dinner.Later, couples who have been eliminated will return to give their opinions. They’ll be the pompous lot and or the bitches.

Conflict is king. There will be trash talk at the table, conniving about what votes to give… and so it goes. So MKR (like all these shows) is about conflict – which is what good stories are all about. The characters are carefully chosen to show (!) this conflict and given lines to say. Then as the show progresses the tension between the contestants is heightened by throwing in ever-increasing problems, such as the mishaps in the kitchen. Later, the couples are thrown into situations they haven’t encountered before, like cooking for a crowd at a bush fete, or something.

Take note, writers. These shows are enormously popular for a reason. A year or two ago my husband and I were on a small bus delivering people to their cars at the long term carpark. On board was a group who had flown up to Brisbane to watch Big Brother, and they talked about their experience. I could not believe the commitment these people had to the contestants in a TV show. They hated some, loved others, wanted some out. THAT is the sort of emotion you want to get from your readers.

Although, of course, there will still be some people who HATE what you’ve done.

 

* an entree in Australia and most other places is an appetiser. I have never understood how Americans can refer to what we call a main course as an entree.

The picture at top left is of dessert in Emirates first class. It was delicious.

Making your characters REAL

Ink - A Ravindra short story

Ink – A Ravindra short story

Admiral Ashkar Ravindra, one of the main characters in my Morgan Selwood stories, has been variously described by reviewers as brutal, a jerk and an absolutely drool-worthy hunk. And I’m quite happy with all of those descriptions because it means he’s a real, three dimensional individual, not a cardboard cutout. Like all people, he is a product of the society in which he was born and raised. Some will see his characteristics as strengths, others will say they’re weaknesses and some will see downright flaws. Which is how we view politicians, actors and sports stars. Some adore Tom Cruise. Some of us… don’t.

Which brings me to the gentle art of characterisation, or how to make your characters real. It’s absolutely essential to immerse your characters in a real world, even if it is imaginary. They have to behave in ways that make sense within their context. I learned that lesson particularly well when I wrote my historical fiction novel To Die a Dry Death. It is set in 1629, when the Dutch merchantman Batavia was wrecked on arid islands off the coast of Western Australia. One of THE most difficult things for an author to deal with is to put the reader into the shoes of the people living in this distant time. Some reviewers noted how difficult it was to get their twenty-first century brains around the way people behaved. The Netherlands in the seventeenth century was a regimented, structured society where class was everything. The devil, hell, sea monsters and demons were all as real as outlaw motorcycle gangs today. Women were second-class citizens even if they were upper class; objects of desire, mothers of children, doers of housework. Life was cheap. The death of an infant was par for the course. Even much, much later, parents thought nothing of giving a subsequent child the same name as one who had died. Torture and executions were popular spectator sports. All of those social facts had a bearing on the story and how it was written. Much as I would have liked to write that the women (in particular) fought back against their abusers, it just didn’t happen, and, more to the point in a work of fiction, it couldn‘t happen because of their social conditioning.

In a similar way, if we write about a future society, our characters must reflect the social mores we have established. Ashkar Ravindra comes from a highly structured society where genetic engineering has made it impossible for people from the four classes to create offspring with a member of another class. It has been suggested that this structure is unlikely and clumsy, but to that I say look at history. Ravindra’s Manesai culture is heavily based on the Indian caste system. But even if it wasn’t, point a finger at any part of the world and you’ll find classes, castes, restrictions on marriage and the like. In Australian aboriginal society, young women had to marry someone from another clan, as described in the reference to ‘moieties’. 1629 Europe was much the same. The daughters of merchants would marry the sons of other merchants. Princes married princesses. Common serving men didn’t bother lusting after the daughter of the house. Although, in male dominated societies, men in authority thought nothing of having a bit on the side with the wench. And folks, this is still, by and large, true. I have simply taken one small step further in my science fiction and had idealistic genetic scientists make matches between classes childless. A place for everyone and everyone in their place. That’s sure to make for a peaceful society.

Ravindra comes from the Mirka, the military class, which provides Manesai society with its military people and its senior politicians. Since humans are essentially tribal and we love to belong to groups, the Mirka caste has evolved sub-castes and Ravindra is a member of the Darya, an elite group which produces most Manesai admirals. He’s wealthy, owning an estate on his home world, and he’s used to having his own way and being obeyed.

However.

Ravindra is a little bit different. This comes out in Morgan’s Choice, because he’s the admiral sent out to the back blocks of Manesai space to investigate a few strange events. And later in the book we learn he has a tattoo. Mirka, most especially Darya, do not have tattoos. It’s considered common, something a mere trooper would do, not an officer and a gentleman. So I wrote a story, Ink, about how Ravindra acquired that tatt. On the way through, you might learn a little more about Manesai society, and how Ravindra’s behaviour is grounded very much in who he is.

Apart from that, you can just admire the cover. I know I do.

 

Linnea Sinclair’s “Hope’s Folly’ – SFR the way it ought to be

picture of Hopes Folly coverI’ve recently read Linnea Sinclair’s novel Hope’s Folly. Twice. I tend to do that when I really love a book, getting details I missed the first time around. If you’d like to read the book’s blurb, you’ll find it here.

Yes, I suppose this is a review. But for me, it’s also a statement of what works in science fiction – for me, personally, which, let’s face it, is what a review is – a subjective point of view. This is a writer I admire – right up there with my all-time faves. So let’s do the review thing. But if you’re a writer, take note of how well this story has been built.

Hope’s Folly is a love story, set in a time of political conflict and approaching war. The human Empire is being run by Tage, who has usurped the power of a weak and failing Emperor. Tage has decimated the ranks of the Admiralty, replacing senior fleet officers with people more likely to dance to his tune. But not everybody is going quietly. A rebel Alliance has risen to oppose Tage. Amidst the turmoil, the two alien species in the Galaxy see their opportunity to expand their own borders.

When the story opens we meet Admiral Philip Guthrie, who escaped the purge of the Admiralty by the skin of his teeth. He’s 45 years old, with a shattered right leg healing slowly and the weight of the deaths of many colleagues on his conscience. Tage used Guthrie to plan his purge. Now, Guthrie is determined to join with other Alliance leaders to build a new fleet and defeat Tage’s Imperial forces. But the Empire wants him dead and the Farosians want to capture him to swap him for their own leader, who Tage has imprisoned. On top of all that, Guthrie’s new flagship is a very old ex-fleet cruiser which was disarmed, decommissioned and used as a freighter, and he has to enlist a crew from wherever he can, knowing some of them will be plants.

Lieutenant Rya Bennton is the daughter of Guthrie’s captain and mentor, back in the day. A 29 year-old Imperial Security assassin, she turned rebel when her father was killed in that purge. She’s no dolly bird, tall and built with curves and a lovely ass – and a spare thirty pounds she could afford to lose. She remembers meeting Guthrie when she was a pudgy 9 year old and he was a 25 year old lieutenant who showed her how to fire a laser pistol. She, like Guthrie, has a love bordering on obsession with hand weapons. The description when Rya first sees Guthrie’s Norlack laser rifle is a wonderful piece of innuendo. In this scene, too, we see the connection between the two, the way they think alike.

“Is this,” she asked hesitantly, “what I think it is?”

“What do you think it is?”

“Norlack 473 sniper, modified to handle wide-load slash ammo.” There was a noticeable reverence in her voice.

He pulled the rifle out, hefting it. She had a good eye. Norlacks weren’t common. But recognizing it was modified for illegal and highly destructive charges … Then again, she’d seen it in action. “It is,” he confirmed, amused now by the expression on her face. It had gone from reverence to almost rapture.

“That is so totally apex.” Her voice was hushed. “May I,” and she glanced shyly at him, her eyes bright, spots of color on her cheeks, “fondle it?”

He stared at her, not sure he heard her correctly. Then he snorted, laughing. Fondle it, indeed. He handed it to her. She took it, cradling it at first, then running her fingers lovingly down its short barrel. Sweet holy God. He didn’t have enough painkillers in him to stop his body’s reaction to the smokiness in her eyes, or the way her lips parted slightly, the edge of her tongue slipping out to moisten them, as her hands slid over the weapon.

Ahem. Back to the review.

The love story between these two is gorgeous. Rya keeps insisting she has a huge crush on her commanding officer – that’s all. What would he see in her, anyway? And that thirty pounds… Guthrie keeps realising that not only is he too old for her, but he has a duty to her father’s memory to protect her, not lust after her. He also has to get his almost defenceless ship past Farosian raiders and Imperial warships, regardless of Rya and a broken leg. But circumstances fling them (often quite literally) together in what used to be Rya’s father’s ship as Guthrie tries to build a cohesive team from a bunch of disparate people who don’t know each other. And one of them is a mole.

So why did this story grab me and not let go?

Because it’s so real. In Linnea Sinclair’s universe the ships are not run by all-powerful artificial intelligences. To me, they’re not much different from what we have now, with engine rooms, weapons systems and the all-important environment systems all run using computers but with people running the show. Guys get to cut code, hack, mess about in the systems. The ships have blast doors. The pipes gurgle and knock, metal pings as it cools, or creaks and groans. Everything smells – hot engine oil, leather, soap, food, hair. The ex-freighter has a ghostly smell of oranges that comes and goes. And then there’s the cat. Captain Folly, who comes with the ship, leaves white fur all over the place and prefers women to men.

The people are real. Guthrie is tall, smart, the son of a rich family (which has its own drawbacks). But he’s not a superman. He makes mistakes, has his own foibles, calls himself a Galactic-class ass on more than one occasion. I’ve mentioned Rya’s issues with her weight. She’s also impulsive and not much good at saying ‘sir’. The secondary characters are just as convincing, ordinary people forced to cope with extraordinary circumstances.

The politics is real. I have a history degree and these things matter to me. I can see the Empire disintegrating in this way. If I were to be asked for a similar situation in our recent past, I’d go for Stalin taking over in the USSR.

As always with Linnea Sinclair, things move apace – except for the opening chapter, which I enjoyed more the second time around. This is the third book of a series and the first chapter orientates the reader, I guess. From there on, the author works on the basis of ‘if things can go wrong, they will go wrong’. Guthrie’s relationship with Rya plays as an underlying complication to all the other issues the two face. Take out the romance, and yes, you’d still have a great story. But man, you’d miss out on soooo much.

Oh, and before I finish, I must mention the sex scenes. They’re not many and they’re intense, steamy and sensual, but not a how-to manual.

I loved this book, I loved Philip Guthrie. He is very definitely my kind of man. Sigh. I’m too old to be a fangirl. Five stars. But you knew that already.

So that’s the review done. What can I learn as a writer?

  • Make the cause worthwhile – things people will lay down their lives for.
  • Engage all the senses.
  • Introduce a bit of quirkiness (the cat and the oranges).
  • Use humour.
  • Make sure ALL your characters are real people, with a mix of strengths and flaws.
  • Keep the pace up.
  • When your heroes are in trouble, pile it on.
  • Introduce the unexpected to add twists – but don’t suddenly introduce cavalry without the reader knowing it’s out there.
  • And probably other things like great use of words and getting into a character’s head.

Anything else you’d like to contribute?