Spaceships are sexy!

Just lately I’ve been asked questions along the lines of ‘what first attracted you to science fiction?’ I could always come out with sober answers about science and the future, Asimov, Arthur C Clarke yadayadayada. But the moment I fell in love with science fiction? That moment at the movies when the Imperial Star Destroyer (ISD) is chasing the Rebel blockade runner – Princess Leia’s ship. Remember? In Star Wars: A New Hope? This ship scuds across the screen, the planet below. You’re above it, as it hurtles past from top right. It’s past. You see the  ship’s drives and the blasts as it fires at – something. And then – Holy Shit! What in hell is that? I ducked. And that ISD just kept on coming and coming and coming.

It’s true. Spaceships are sexy.

As far as I can recall this was the first time a spaceship wasn’t depicted as streamlined (as in Buck Rogers etc). OK, that’s not true. The ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t streamlined, or ‘Enterprise’. But these ships were angular, with bits and turrets sticking out, which was fine in vacuum, of course. The ISD was depicted as an assault ship – an aircraft carrier and a troop ship combined, a huge, movable assault platform. With guys in sexy uniforms. Mmm. I loved it.

If that wasn’t enough, think of the scene in ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘ when Darth Vader stands at the picture window on the bridge of his ship. The opening part of that sequence shows an ISD moving beneath the shadow of a monstrous ship. Ahhhhh. My fate was sealed.

Executor.

I purloined the picture (top left) from https://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Executor where you can find a few more facts about this seriously sexy ship.

Rest assured, these big capital ships aren’t the only ones that make my heart throb, but they’re a start. Come on, share. What’s your favourite space ship?

Five steps to help you build a better website

Before I left the rat-race to become a full-time author I used to work in IT, designing, building and testing web sites for large corporations. The basic techniques I used for them will work just as well for smaller sites. So, if you’re ready, let’s begin.

1. What is the purpose of your site?

Sorry, but ‘I read somewhere I need a web site’ isn’t good enough. Are you selling something? Are you providing people with information so that they don’t have to ring your office? Are you promoting a cause, trying to get people to donate or just raising awareness? If you’re a writer, you’re probably trying to attract more readers, sell more books (if you’re published). You might have more than one purpose. That’s fine. Go and make a list and then order your items by importance to you.

2. Who is your audience?

Think carefully about this, and get as specific as you possibly can. If you’re a writer, you may be able to say your audience is the same as the audience for your books. But be careful. If you write children’s books, the target audience for your web site is the people who buy books for children. If you write ‘women’s fiction’ your target is not just ‘women’ – it may be a specific age group or tailored to women interested in fashion etc. Specific is good.

3. What should my content be?

This is where ‘audience’ is all-important. What will your audience want to see? What will engage them, have them coming back? For a writer, free content such as short stories may be useful, or excerpts from your books. If you write romance or chick lit, fashion photos or pictures of hunky men might be appropriate. Interviews with other authors, reviews of books, factual articles about your topic (eg. Science-based articles for science fiction writers). But don’t forget the PURPOSE of your site. Always aim your content at your purpose, remembering your AUDIENCE.

My advice would be to keep your content simple – especially early on in your web experience. I refer you back to my earlier post on 5 things I hate about websites. Do read the comments, too. These people may well be part of your audience.

Studies have shown that dark text on a light background works best. Sure, you might think blood red text on a black ground suits your horror novels but it’s bloody hard to read. Also, short posts are more likely to be read than long ones.

Choose your graphics to suit your purpose and your audience.

By all means use videos like book trailers or the like. But bear in mind that if you ONLY offer people a video on how to do something you might be limiting your message to those with fast internet connections.

4. How should you structure the site?

Do what the professionals do – create a site map. Sit down with the drawing tools of your choice and map out how the user will get through the pages on your site. For instance, on my site I have a menu item called ‘Books’. From that page the user can select either ‘historical fiction’ or ‘science fiction’. For each of those pages I have other pages for reviews and for historical fiction I have pages for those interested in the history. (Since I wrote this I split the historical content into a different blog.) The top level of your site map is the menu which appears on your header. People should be able to look at that and have a very good idea of what they’ll find under each item. For very complex sites, that does become difficult. It’s usually circumvented by grouping content in a way that’s understandable to the target audience, bearing in mind the purpose of the site. Remember, too, that users may land anywhere in your site. Make sure they can navigate, regardless.

5. Test

I am amazed at how many large sites have so obviously never been user tested. In my past life, we would write scripts to test our website and pay members of the public to test them by going through the tasks on the script. We also asked people to choose between colour schemes and graphics. You may not want to pay people, but get your friends to take a critical look. Also, try to get hold of somebody who has a slow connection to find out how fast your site loads.

And finally…

There’s no right answer to any of this and if you use a package like Blogger or WordPress.com you will be restrained by the limitations imposed by the package. Some things you just have to work around. My blog is my ‘home’ page because that’s how the package works – and also because the content is constantly being refreshed, which is an important factor for the search engines. As far as I’m concerned, it supports my purpose, and attracts my audience.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope this has helped and good luck with your web presence.

Five Things I hate about Websites

There’s a lot of websites in the world these days and we’ve all had our share of experiences in navigating our way around them. I’m no different to any other user – I go to websites looking for stuff and if I don’t find it – I don’t stay. What are the things most likely to turn me off?

1. Have a landing page

You know what I mean? You click on the link and it invites you to ‘click here to enter’. You’re kidding me, aren’t you? Didn’t I just do that? Good luck with your projects…

2. Take more than a few seconds to load

Please understand that I and many other people in this world do not have access to lightning fast broadband. I couldn’t have even if I paid for the mega plan which allows movie downloads. In places like India ‘broadband’ is 256kbps. So although your wonderful, sophisticated site with the video clip and the revolving banner may look good in downtown New York, it’ll take so long to load I’ll go away. Heck, I even give up on trying to edit my own site when it all slows down to turtle speed.

3. Make me use ‘best guess’ to get around

This is (unfortunately) most often true of large, complex sites, like Government departments. Here I am on the home page. I want to know about x. I gaze at the menus, maybe even use the search facility. No x. OK, let’s try this entry on the menu. Surely there’ll be a bit about x there. Nope. Let’s see now… Let me tell you – unless my life depends upon it, I’m not going to stay messing about on your home page looking for the ‘contact’ page or some item on your list of products. If you want to know what I mean, go to a few sites like Brother that manufactures printers and see if you can find how to update your printer driver.

4. Bombard me with ads

I know people take advantage of paid ads on their sites. I understand. But there’s a limit. I particularly hate the ‘you are our 5 millionth customer – click here to see what you’ve won’. Yes, I can prevent some of these and I don’t get most pop-ups but I doubt you could filter them all. And having to go through an ad (like a landing page) to get to your site? Sorry, you’ll have to do without my patronage.

5. Don’t bother about spelling and grammar

A word to the wise; read your copy aloud. I’m likely to stay on your home page for long enough to find what I want or not at all. I’m unlikely to want to read a few pages of sanctimonious statements about your desire to offer the very best service and a list of your KPI’s. Get your message out briefly (like in less than 500 words) and make sure it is grammatically correct and that there are no spelling mistakes. I’m an Australian – you can use American or English spelling – as long as it’s correct.

Okay, rant over. What things about websites get up your nose? And yes, I will write a post about things you could do to make your visitors’ web experience the best you can manage.

What is it with prologues?

Should you write a prologue? I don’t know – it’s your story. I can tell you what I think and if that helps, hey – I’m chuffed. But I’ll tell you two things up front – one, I don’t usually like prologues and two, I’ve written one myself.

I don’t usually like prologues because so very often they are used as an opportunity to dump a whole heap of background information on the reader. Or sometimes a prologue is written because the story in chapter one isn’t interesting enough to grab the reader, so the author writes the gory bit first, hoping you’ll read the rest to see how we get there.  I think that’s why agents tend to rail against them and I tend to agree. I often don’t read prologues. I just move on to chapter one.

However, as with all the Rules of Writing, this one has been successfully broken. Jack McDevitt, award winning, best selling science fiction author, ALWAYS has a prologue. The structure of his books tends to be to introduce a mysterious event in the past, which the MC works to understand many years later. So his prologues are usually what happened in the past, which constitutes at least a whole chapter, followed by the real story, where the Mcs try to unravel the mystery. This works well in “Slow Lightning” (“Infinity Beach” in the US) but (for me, anyway) the prologue was just plain irritating in “A Talent for War”. I went back to read the prologue again after I’d finished “A Talent for War”, where it made a bit of sense but it certainly didn’t lead me into reading the book. To be honest, I would not have read past the first page of the prologue if the book hadn’t been recommended by a writing tutor. By the way, after I’d forced myself to read the prologue, I LOVED “Slow Lightning“. It’s a great read.

Given all that, I wrote a prologue myself. It’s in “To Die a Dry Death” and it’s about one page, so at least I kept it short. But why did I feel I needed one at all?

In my case, as a book-end. You will find the answer to the prologue at the end of the novel. I wanted some way of adding a ray of light to what was overall a dark and depressing tale. Feedback indicates it was a good move. Yes, all right, I admit that since I had a prologue I included a few facts that might help the reader understand the background to the story a little better. The test, though, is do you HAVE to read the prologue? Not to read the book, no. But when you get to the final pages you might well flip back to the start to see what you missed.

That said, I avoid writing prologues. Start at chapter one and write your story is my take on it.

What about you? Do you hate prologues or love them? Have you written one yourself? Why?

Terry Pratchett – one of my favourites

Bookshelf full of booksI first met Terry Pratchett’s books in a news agents at Perth airport. I was looking for a book to read on the 5 hour flight to Sydney and idly picked up a paperback with a colourful cover showing all sorts of grotesque creatures. I read the first page (as you do) and discovered this novel was about a disc world carried on the backs of four elephants which stood on the carapace of a Star Turtle. So far so good. Then I read about the star turtle’s journey through the heavens. Some scientists believed in the ‘steady gait’ theory, in which the turtles journeyed unendingly through the multi-verse, never changing pace. Others contended that the turtles were travelling to a meeting place, where they would mate and create more star turtles. This was known as the ‘big bang’ theory.

After I’d wiped tears of laughter from my eyes, I made my way to the counter and bought the book. Since then, I’ve bought hard copies of every book Sir T has written and enjoyed them all, some more than others. Why? Because I like them.

That, dear reader, is the only reason I read books. However, I shall go a little further. Sir T breaks every rule in the Little Red Book of Writing. He uses ‘there was’ all the time. He indulges in great swathes of apparently superfluous narrative, such as regaling us with the amount of food etc consumed in the city of Ankh-Morpork. He writes in accents. Sometimes he has prologues which serve no other purpose than to bring the reader up to speed. And so on.

What I love about his work is the way he can brew an eclectic mix of myth, folklore, history, archetypes and pure, hard science, all laced with a shrewd understanding of human nature and politics, and make it funny. Mind you, much of what he writes has a darker, more serious side. He examines racism frequently, using the on-going tensions between dwarves and trolls, people and paranormal people like vampires, werewolves and zombies to mirror our own behaviour in our round world. Sir Terry has sent up just about every icon we hold dear – he seated the four horsemen of the apocalypse around a table and had them learning how to play bridge; he examined what happened to heroes like Conan the Barbarian when they get old; he has mocked sexism (in ‘Men at Arms’ and ‘Monstrous Regiment’ to mention two).  The church, academia, Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli’s Prince – you’ll recognise them all in the Discworld.

In the midst of all this he creates believable characters such as the reformed alcoholic, reluctant member of the peerage Sir Samuel Vimes; Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax the tyrannical witches; the wizards at Unseen University and their Simian librarian. (The librarian was turned into an Orang Utan by a random discharge of magic in an early book and has since steadfastly avoided any attempt to persuade him to return to human shape.)

Sir Terry examines truths and mores as if they were rocks in a field. He picks them up, turns them over, looks underneath. Take Christmas, that iconic Christian festival. Sir Terry’s version is Hogswatch, when the Hogfather comes down from the north in a sleigh drawn by wild hogs. Except Death has to take the gig because the Hogfather is missing and we wouldn’t want to disappoint the kiddies, would we? So the archetypal Death wraps himself in a red coat and does the department store ‘meet the kiddies’ thing, which is absolutely hilarious. However, Terry digs deeper. Underneath that rock labelled ‘Christmas’ we find the meaning of that red coat, blood sacrifice to bring in the turning of the year.

There are so many examples. I could analyse every book and find serious messages hidden amongst the hilarity. It saddens me more than I can say to know Sir Terry has Alzheimer’s Disease. Long may he hold back its ravages.

Planet-hopping might not be so silly

Stars in Orion's beltMy science fiction book The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy includes a certain amount of planet-hopping. In fact, all my SF does. Now, I know that there will be some sneering and lip-curling over this. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to point a derisive finger.

Come with me on a cosmic journey. We’ll start here, on dear old Mother Earth, the only planet we know a huge amount about. Journey back in time, four hundred years… The world was beginning to open up. Intrepid explorers travelled to the other side of the Earth in search of trade and riches. Dutch merchant ships sailed from Amsterdam to what is now Jakarta in Indonesia to trade in spices. At the turn of the 17th century, they sailed down the west coast of Africa, re-provisioned at Table Bay and then set off past Madagascar and across the Indian Ocean up to Java. Makes sense, really, if you look at the journey on a map; down to the tip of Africa, then up at an angle to Indonesia. The journey took a year, sometimes as much as eighteen months if the winds were poor or the storms struck hard.

Then in 1610 Henrik Brouwer did something completely counter-intuitive and sailed south from Table Bay. Makes no sense, does it? Well, yes it does. The Earth is not a 2D Mercator’s projection on a tabletop, it’s a spheroid. The distance around the equator is greater than the distance around the lines we call ‘latitude’ to the north and south. Brouwer took advantage of that fact to shorten the distance he had to travel east and had the bonus of the reliable winds of the ‘roaring forties’ to push his ships along. All he had to do was remember to turn left when he reached the longitude for the Sunda Strait, sail up the coast of Western Australia and he was home. Taking this route shortened the journey by two thousand miles and more than halved the duration. The route was not without its dangers – as you’ll find in my book ‘To Die a Dry Death’ – but that’s another story.

Over the years, sea travel became faster and more reliable. Steam and then diesel replaced sail. When my family migrated to Australia from Amsterdam the sea journey took about a month. Apart from the improved mode of transport, the ship also avoided the long journey around the Cape of Good Hope by going through a short cut – the Suez Canal.

Eventually, the obstacles forced upon us by oceans and continents were removed, too, with the advent of air travel. These days you can get on a jet at Schiphol in Amsterdam and get off twenty four hours later at Perth International Airport. With airliners like the beautiful and now-departed Concord, you could do the journey in half the time. So in four hundred years we have shortened a journey that took about a year – let’s say 350 days – to one that routinely takes 1 day or (with the right aircraft) an awful lot less. Wow.

Still with me? Trust me, it’s all relevant to space travel. Imagine what reaction a person would have received if, in 1600, she’d said that in four hundred years, we’d be able to travel from Amsterdam to that southern continent we didn’t know anything about, in less than a day.

Yes, but that’s just the Earth, I hear you say. We’re talking inter-stellar distances. For Pete’s sake, the nearest star system from ours is over 4 light years away. Very true. We have no way of spanning these vast distances in anybody’s lifetime. Regardless, the notion of ‘hyperspace’ in science fiction to allow for the possibility of space travel has been around for a long time. I don’t think I ever saw an explanation of hyperspace – just that the ship entered another dimension, if you will, travelling externally to our normal, 3D + time. But hey ho; never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The Grand Master, Isaac Asimov, did rather a lot of planet-hopping. Have a look at his ‘Foundation’ series. Many of the more modern writers like Mc Devitt and Moon have FTL (faster than light) travel but show it as still a very time-consuming business with journeys taking weeks or months..

I don’t believe that restriction is cast in concrete. Even Mc Devitt in his book ‘A Talent for War’ postulated a quantum drive, where a ship moves from one place to another instantaneously. We don’t hear so much about worm holes these days, but they would also allow for an instantaneous transfer.

I refer to my version of hyperspace as ‘shift space’. I’ve done that deliberately because in my universe the ships use the geometry of extra dimensions to get around. Ships ‘shift’ to another dimension for the duration of a journey. It’s pretty much accepted that our 3D notion of the universe is just a perception, that there are many other dimensions we are not equipped to see. Such an understanding certainly helps to explain the apparent complexities of quantum physics and the anomalous behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Way back in the 1980’s Carl Sagan in his wonderful TV series ‘Cosmos’ showed us a tesseract  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesseract), a four-dimensional object portrayed as best we could in a 3D world. To understand what you’re looking at, think about a standard, 2D drawing of a cube. According to mathematics, there are many, many more than four dimensions out there, not to mention parallel universes. The biggest limitation imposed upon us in reaching a real understanding of things like this is that we are constrained by our own world view and our ability to perceive. As far back as 1884 E.A. Abbott in his book ‘Flatland’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland) described the problems of seeing three dimensions in a 2D world. We are faced with the same thing, on a 3D scale, if we attempt to visualise four, five or six dimensions. Or many, many more.

However, I can give you some sort of idea of where I’m coming from. Take a piece of A4 paper. Let’s label two diagonally opposite corners as A and B. Starting from B, we can reach A by going straight up one side then along the top to A. Hang on, you say, wouldn’t you just go across the diagonal, thereby reducing the distance and time taken? Sure you would. Now curl the paper over into a cylinder. All you have to do to get from B to A is move along a straight line. The length of the line will depend on how you make the roll (short edges together or long edges together).

Now take point A in one hand and point B in the other and bring them together so they meet. Getting from B to A in this instance is like walking from one room into another.

That’s my notion of ‘shift drive’. I have included some duration in the journey in the book because I found it useful. Don’t ask me how the shift drive (the engine that makes it possible to take advantage of the geometry) works. I’m speculating a fusion drive to do something or other. When I work it out, I’ll let you know.

********

Since I wrote this article, I’ve come across the Sabre engine, which can operate in both atmosphere and vacuum, and can travel at 5 times the speed of sound. Such an aircraft could make the trip from Sydney to London in 4 hours. That’s four (4) hours. http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/sabre.html So a trip from Amsterdam to Perth would probably be a little bit less. Say 3.5 hours? So we’ve come down from 350 days, to 1 month, to 1 day, to 3.5 hours. Rams the point home, doesn’t it?

27 Jan 2013 And now there’s this. http://www.space.com/19416-hypersonic-spaceliner-fly-passengers.html. A spaceliner which will do the trip in 90 minutes!!! Wow. Just wow.

The Rules of Writing. The crucial first chapter.

I’ve been doing a *lot* of editing lately and, I confess, a bit of writing and some reading. As a result, I’ve become a tad introspective about the Rules of Writing. You know the ones, my authorial friends; thou shalt not use adverbs, thou shalt minimize adjectives, thou shalt not reveal Back Story in the first chapter, thou shalt mesmerize your audience from the first word.

Actually, I do agree with the last one. In fact, within reason, I tend to agree with many of these so-called rules. But what has really caused this post is the subject of first chapters and “back story”. Like many of us, I have struggled with these two things. As you may know, I recently decided that the story I told in two books and then tried to tell in one, shorter book was really two books. But where to start?

The Rules of Writing state that thou shalt start where everything changes. Hmmm. Sounds simple, does it not? Take ‘Morgan’s Choice’ for instance. I know you’ve never heard of it – it’s my soon-to-be-published book. I had two, maybe three points where ‘everything changed’. Which to use? When I started with ‘first encounter with aliens’, some readers wanted to know how Morgan got there, out in the back-blocks of space. And I could (and did) write an exciting chapter to show that part of the story.

At this point, I shall discuss one of the best known books in the fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. For me, this was a ‘can’t put down’ and I really, really mean that. My first time through this novel consumed every bit of free time I had. I read obsessively. And after I’d read it the first time, I read it again. And again, many times.

Okay, let’s assume, like me, you don’t read the long, involved introductory chapter which explains what Hobbits are and their history. Not the first time through, anyway. I read the prologue many times after I’d read the book. And then I went and bought the Hobbit.

Back to LOTR. Let’sdive right into the story. Remember, accepted wisdom is that one starts the story ‘where everything changes’. Fine. We start at the eleventy-first birthday party. And yes, everything does change. Bilbo disappears and passes into… back story. Frodo takes over and we read quite a bit about this and that until Gandalf turns up and describes the history of the One Ring. Sure, you could argue that this piece of ‘back story’ is part of Frodo’s tale. Whatever. Then Frodo leaves the Shire. Do you see the problem? We have, in effect, three instances where everything changes; the birthday party, Gandalf’s return and Frodo leaving the shire. I could make a pretty solid case for number three.

You want a more recent example? Let’s look at the first Harry Potter book. It starts, I’m sure you know, when Voldemort has been defeated and Harry is delivered to his aunt’s front door. The point where Everything Changed. But then we watch Harry’s excruciating childhood until we finally learn he is a wizard. Now I could probably, if I were so inclined, come up with an argument that the story REALLY starts when Harry gets that letter, that the rest is back story which could be revealed through the rest of the book. But the kids who read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ didn’t know that. So they read it anyway.

What do I think is the mark of chapter one? Pretty simple, really; suck the reader in, get them interested in your world, in your characters, so they’ll keep reading. And if you happen to tell them some back story along the way, there’s a good chance the reader won’t even have noticed.

Which brings me to another Rule of Writing; thou shalt edit out everything which does not ‘belong’ to the story. Sounds sensible, doesn’t it?

Back to Professor Tolkien.

Hearts thumping, we have accompanied Frodo and his companions as they evaded the Nine and escaped across the Brandywine. And then we enter a billabong, a back water, a swamp.

Neither Peter Jackson in his much-acclaimed movie version of LOTR, nor his predecessor who created a truly horrible animation of the first half of the book, included any of Frodo’s escape into the Old Forest, the encounter with Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil or the drama in the Barrow Downs. One might ask why Tolkien’s editor did not excise whole chapters which (let’s face it) were irrelevant in the unfolding of events. Yet I loved those chapters and was disappointed when they were left out. And what about Aragorn’s references to events in the distant (irrelevant) past? Let’s remember, too, that Jackson makes a point of starting the movie with two slabs of back story; first, the history of the ring which in the book is simply a narrative told by Gandalf, then he proceeds with the prologue, for pity’s sake, that loooong chapter where Tolkien describes Hobbits and their history. Why? Because then the people watching the movie know what he’s on about.

I wonder, too, what writers of thrillers make of this rule. Elements are deliberately introduced to wrong foot readers, to keep them guessing. Of necessity they are not part of the story.

There will always be parts of any book that some readers could do without. If I could end this rant with a quote from Tolkien:

The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved.

So… I’m not going to let myself get too hung up on the Rules of Writing. Readers don’t.

Are Voldemort and Sauron good villains?

I’ve just read a blog post about villains and how important they are to a story. If your hero is up against a villain, better make sure that villain’s powerful. And while I agreed with the overall premise, it’s left me thinking; hence this post. Sure, you need conflict to make a story. Or should I say, an interesting story. But the writer of the post in question used Voldemort and Sauron as her two examples of good villains.

Now at this point I should rush in and say that I love the Harry Potter books and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is one of those books on that shelf up there, battered and much loved. The point, however, is that both are fantasy. Sauron, in particular, is an archetype. We never meet him; he is just a flame-ringed eye on the top of a fantastically powerful tower. To be sure he evokes the ultimate evil – for that is what he is; the Devil, if you will. His only purpose is to subjugate and destroy. Voldemort isn’t much different. His only purpose seems to be to destroy Muggles and live forever. Neither has any redeeming features. Not one.

If you want a believable villain in ‘Lord of the Rings’ you could look at Saruman who started off as the wisest of the wise and was inveigled, seduced by the power of Sauron and the lure of the One Ring. As is often mentioned – by Gandalf and Galadriel, for example, the power of the ring is such that people would use it for good; at first, before it consumed their will. I could probably make a convincing case that the REAL villain in LOTR is the Ring.

Those of us who don’t write fantasy, who can’t rely on a faceless, motiveless ‘evil’ need believable villains. Villains don’t see themselves as villains. They have their own motives and they are often couched in the language of ‘the greater good’. If you want your villain to be believable you have to be able to convey to the reader what his/her motives are. And he/she cannot be wholly evil. Hitler loved his dogs and presumably Eva Braun; Napoleon had Josephine.

In my historical fiction novel ‘To Die a Dry Death’ the villain is a psychopath named Jeronimus Cornelisz. The novel is based on a true story, a shipwreck off the coast of Australia in 1629. Nobody knows what Cornelisz looked like. Pelsaert’s journals, the only source of what happened out there, don’t give descriptions of physical characteristics. Research has revealed something of Cornelisz’s background but the history books need to be read carefully, since more than once an albeit plausible story is built on a few facts and a lot of conjecture. But Pelsaert’s journals provide us with enough information to deduce a great deal about Cornelisz’s character.

I’ve written elsewhere about describing a psychopath. But even psychopaths must have motives and they cannot be totally evil. I guess we’ll never know at what point Lucretia consented to a physical relationship with Jeronimus. It has been said that some of the stories about her ‘holding out’ for quite some time after Jeronimus took over were written subsequently, to salve her reputation. I hardly think it matters. Easy enough to sit in retrospective judgement. Although for him, winning the alpha female was part of status, I’m quite prepared to believe he actually did care for her. And that’s how I’ve written him. Even the worst human monster was once an innocent child.

A tenth anniversary

They grow cotton in western Queensland, on the flat, arid plains they call the Western downs. Huge, irrigated paddocks are filled with rows of bushes that will be covered in fluffy little white buds at the right time. It’s a lucrative business; our farmers are efficient. One thing they have to work at, though, is keeping down the pests and to do that they spray the crops from the air. Stocky little aeroplanes fly slowly, at very low altitude, up and down the rows, the insecticide drifting out behind them from nozzles in the wings. The pilots have to be good. There isn’t much room for error at that height. It’s dangerous work but it pays well.

My brother Fred and I were very close as we grew up in Perth. One abiding consideration was that our older siblings were much older than us so we were thrust together. We were roughly three years apart in age, but that translated to two years at school. He was born in January, and I in November so he was one of the older kids in his class and I was one of the younger ones in mine.

I adored him. As a little kid I followed him around like a burr on a dog. I can imagine there were times when he just wanted to get rid of me. Once, he and his friends paid their sixpence to go inside and watch an entertainment in a local hall. I wanted to go, too. But I didn’t have sixpence. He left me standing at the door and went in with his mates. Six-year-old me burst into tears and the nice man at the door let me in, anyway.

And so it went. Where he led, I would follow. Into a swamp risking the wrath of a male swan guarding his nest; off to Subiaco risking my father’s wrath; climbing trees, building billy carts, snorkelling, adventuring in the forest while our dad collected wood for fuel.

At school Fred was popular with the kids and the teachers. Learning came easily and he could turn his hand to anything. He’d bend over the engine of the family car with my dad, learning how to fix things and check things. He helped dad put in our home-made reticulation system, set up his own dark room in the bathroom so he could develop his own black and white pictures. But while he was smart and good with his hands, he didn’t like the academic discipline much. He would only do what he had to do to get through exams and with his natural ability, that wasn’t hard.

One thing we shared with our father was a love of the sea. Every Sunday in the summer we’d be pestering the poor man to take us to the coast to snorkel. A favourite spot was the groins at Fremantle harbour where rock lobsters set up house amongst the nooks and crannies. But you had to get to the ocean before the sea breeze came in, while the water was calm and visibility was good. We snorkelled in lots of other places, too, up and down the coast. That affinity to the ocean was something neither of us ever lost.

Fred was always going to be a pilot. He fell in love with flying at a very early age and our parents indulged the fancy. I, of course, played, too. We built plastic models of Spitfires and Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfes, Lancasters, Mustangs, B-52’s. We played dog fights. I always got to be the Germans. Not sure why… Later, he built balsa models with little spirit engines turning the propellers so they’d fly. He joined the Air Cadets as soon as he could and we tested each other on aircraft recognition. He breezed through the Air Force selection procedures and went off to RAAF Point Cook near Melbourne for basic flying training in 1966. He was just eighteen.

The following year, while Fred was at RAAF Pearce near Perth for advanced flying training, our father suffered a massive cardiac arrest and died. Fred, recalled from Pearce, was given the job of fetching me from high school to tell me the news. I can see him now, in his blue RAAF uniform, waiting for me at the school’s admin. He looked so handsome. I had no idea why he was there.

Both of us were shattered by dad’s death but the blow to Fred was made so much worse when he was suspended from flying training. Young and impetuous, he resigned from the RAAF, his dream of flying crashed and burning at his feet. It took him a while to get his act together, shifting from one job to another, trying this, having a go at that. We were close over that period. But life goes on, he got married and settled down, earning qualifications with Telstra. The dream of flying was always there, though. And eventually, with the support of his long-suffering wife, he applied himself in a way he wouldn’t in his teens and obtained a pilot’s licence. Thus began a gypsy existence, going to where the work was, crop-spraying mainly. He fathered a son, survived more than one crash. We’d grown apart, as families do, but I saw him in Brisbane shortly after his son was born, and then in Albury and once more in Devonport.

Years went by. About twelve, I think, when one day my phone rang. It was Fred. I’d left Perth, and Pete and I were living in Greendale, West of Melbourne and not far from Ballarat. Fred had to pick up an aircraft from Ballarat, and was flying in to Melbourne from Queensland on a commercial jet. Could I pick him up from the airport and take him to Ballarat? Of course I could. Lots of things go through your mind. I wondered if I’d recognise him, or he, me. I saw him before he saw me. He’d lost most of his hair, taking after our dad, but he was still Fred, with the same nose, chin, expression. He told somebody later he thought I’d aged. Ummm yes.

Fred stayed the night, I drove him to Ballarat and then went back to work in Melbourne. I’d thought he’d ring me again for the return trip going back home but he didn’t. Life was busy for Peter and me at that time. I changed jobs, we went to Sydney for the Olympic Games, my fiftieth birthday came and went, and a week and a day later, Peter and I got married.

Then a little more than two weeks later, at 2am on the 12th December, the telephone rang. It’s not a good time, the witching hour, when the darkness of the night is at its deepest and you’re catapulted out of sleep. It was my sister, ringing me from Perth to tell me Fred had had his final accident above the cotton fields at St George.

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of his death. His wife, his son and I and a couple of his closest friends took his ashes out to a favourite spot off the coast and sent them to the bottom. Vale.

The art of developing believable characters

 

Characterisation is at the heart of any really good story as far as I’m concerned. Real people dealing with real situations. Or sometimes (as in speculative fiction) not-real situations. That’s when creating believable characters becomes absolutely crucial. If your characters aren’t believable, your reader won’t relate to them.

I recently read a SF romance book (Linnea Sinclair, “Games of Command”) that has stayed in my mind ever since. Because of the brilliant characterisation. I’ve re-read parts of the book several times. Yes, you’re right; one was the Big Sex Scene. But not for any cheap, auto-erotic thrill. Rather, it was because of the wonderful way she has portrayed her male protagonist, a cyber-enhanced admiral. Finally, after all those years, he’s going to actually live his fantasy with the woman of his dreams. Please understand this man is a leader, on top of his game (pardon the pun) in the military. But when he’s faced with the reality of getting his gear off and making love to her, every anxiety, every imagined inadequacy he ever had, comes to the surface. And it really is so totally believable. I felt for this guy, I really did.

How do you do it? I don’t know. I don’t use people I know as characters in my books. Sure, I think about how people I know might react in a given circumstance to give me a clue about what somebody might do. But I can honestly say, hand on heart, that if anyone I know recognises him/herself as a character in my work, he/she is deluding him/herself.

What I do use is Allan and Barbara Pease’s excellent book “The Definitive Book of Body Language” to try to sort out how people might react in a given situation. Another useful tool is the Myers-Briggs personality types. There are many, many websites. This is just one. Now you might be like me and think the whole Myers-Briggs thing is eyewash, but it actually can give you some great ideas on combining personality traits into one coherent person.

I’d love to know what other people do in their quest for a believable character.

Greta van der Rol's author site