Archive for September, 2008

Sep 30 2008

Please Don’t Base Your Characters on Friends Or Family

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Generally, characters that are based on the friends and family members of the author turn out poorly.

1. These characters tend to be boring because they lack flaws. If your character is based on a friend or family member, you might feel afraid to give that person flaws because the friend might find out. PS: If you’re using someone as a model, they’re probably close enough to you that they’ll read the book eventually. (Alternately, if the character is based on someone the author hates, the character will probably have no likability or style whatsoever — that sort of character is usually a liability even as an antagonist).

 

2. It may limit the character’s development if you feel that you have to be “true” to the real-life model. Generally, it’s easiest to write when you completely own the material.

 

3. Your friend or family member might not fit into the story or a satisfying development arc. Well-constructed characters will have traits, flaws, skills, conflicts and usually growth arcs carefully tailored to the story. If the character’s details don’t work for the plot, it may detract from the reading experience. For example, Soon I Will Be Invincible inexplicably tried to fit several adult superheroes into a conflict between geeks and jocks.  If it seems strange that adults would really care about who was popular back in high school, it seems absolutely mind-blowing that a mutant tiger would.

 

4. Your friends and family are probably not quite as interesting or endearing to readers as they are to you.  No offense, but most people aren’t interesting enough to have biographies written about them. Why will we care about your friends?

 

5. If I were evaluating a novel manuscript, I’d be really concerned about whether the author had enough distance from what he was writing. 

 

6. While modeling characters on acquaintances is probably problematic, you can still use your real-life observations to make your characters or story feel more realistic. For example, you might draw on certain traits or habits from people you know rather than transplanting characters wholesale. That will help you maintain full ownership over the work and modify characters as necessary to fit the plot. If you find yourself making writing decisions based on what your friends/family would do in a particular situation, you would probably benefit from more creative control over your material.

39 responses so far

Sep 30 2008

You have to be in it to win it

Published by under Baseball,Sports

And we are in it, baby!  The White Sox earned their spot in the playoffs today in a 1-0 tiebreaker win over the Twins.

CADET DAVIS ADDS: You have to be in it to win it.  But, as the Sox are about to discover, you also have to be in it to get swept in the first series.

2 responses so far

Sep 28 2008

Make Your Life Easier with Microsoft Word’s Autocorrect

Microsoft Word automatically corrects common spelling mistakes. It also allows users to tell it which words should be autocorrected. Here are a few ways you can use autocorrect to make your life easier.

  1. If you use the same long phrases repeatedly, you can use autocorrect to create a macro. For example, our book repeats phrases like Agent Orange and the Office of Special Investigations, so we told autocorrect to turn the “word” [OJ] into Agent Orange and the “word” [OSI] into Office of Special investigations. When you set up macros, I recommend either using a combination of letters that will never come up naturally (like OJ) or a bracketed phrase. That way, you will reduce the odds of accidentally setting off your macro.
  2. If you change a character’s or location’s name, you can use autocorrect to help remind you not to use the original. If you change your hero’s name from Hiro to John, suddenly referring to him as Hiro will confuse readers. Autocorrect will help you from adding more mistaken references to Hiro. (However, it won’t fix instances of “Hiro” that are already in the work– use “Find and Replace” to hunt those down).
  3. This can help you maintain stylistic consistency. For example, sometimes authors forget how they spelled the names of minor characters. Mr. Merriman might become Mr. Merryman. Mrs. Busch might be married to Mr. Bush. If you notice that this is a problem, you can use autocorrect to prevent future occurrences by telling it to turn Merryman into Merriman.

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Sep 27 2008

Heroes’ season-premiere was worse than season 2

Published by under Heroes,TV Review

Apparently I’m not the only one that thinks it’s past its sell-by date.

Hoping that the show would overcome its second-season slump, I watched the third-season premiere.  It was ridiculously bad… even worse than last season.  Here are some spoiler-heavy observations…

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7 responses so far

Sep 27 2008

RIP, Paul Newman

Published by under Comedy

In cinema, he was best known for his performances in films like Butch Cassidy, but he also played the villain in the phenomenally funny Hudsucker Proxy.  Along with Team America and Canadian Bacon, it’s the only movie with heavy political undertones that I find remotely watchable.  This clip is most funny from 3:10 to the end.

No responses yet

Sep 27 2008

A widget I’d really like to have: a word-counter

Published by under Uncategorized

The widget would count the words of all articles tagged with the category in question and then display that for readers.  “B. Mac has written 12,500 words on ‘Characterization.’”  “B. Mac has written 30,000 words on ‘The Superhero Nation Novel.’”  If you want to get really fancy (or sadistic, depending on how much you procrastinate), you could add a feature where the word-counter breaks down results by month.  “B. Mac has written 0 words on ‘The Superhero Nation Novel’ in September 2008.”

One response so far

Sep 25 2008

We’ve added Dr. von Puppykicker to our blogroll

Published by under Comedy,Supervillains

He had an amusing take on comic book synopses.

No responses yet

Sep 25 2008

Share This!

Published by under Navel-Gazing

We’ve started using Share This on about 20 of our most popular articles.  Hopefully it should be easier to share our sage insights with the unenlightened masses now.

No responses yet

Sep 25 2008

Oregon Beats USC!

Published by under Football,Sports

This means that Georgia and Florida might be #1 and #2.  If that happens, I promise we’ll put out a commemorative webcomic… thesis be damned.
UPDATE: Erm, due to unexpected losses by both Georgia and Florida, it appears we will be able to keep our theses on schedule.

No responses yet

Sep 25 2008

We’re (probably) getting a grant!

Published by under Navel-Gazing

A few weeks ago, we applied for a university grant to underwrite a non-fiction book about how to write superhero stories.  (Ahem, we’ve written more than 50,000 words about the subject here).  Today I learned that our application was very well-received…

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Sep 24 2008

Grading book covers

Published by under Art,Book Covers

Thinking about what to put on your novel’s cover?  Jacob grades six covers.

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No responses yet

Sep 24 2008

Five adjectives that are on my mind today

If you’d like a writing exercise, try to apply one of these to a character.

  1. Surly
  2. Robust
  3. Feeble
  4. Majestic
  5. Anemic

No responses yet

Sep 24 2008

Which Origin Stories are Plausible?

One of our Google queries today was “can radiation give you superpowers?”

 

No. However, if you’re writing a superhero story, that doesn’t matter! Your readers will accept that tropes like radiation can give someone superpowers, so radiation makes for a completely plausible origin story. Except for intense training, it’s not like there’s any better alternative.  (In real life, one drug addict put his brain under so much neurological stress that his sense of smell sharpened to canine-like levels, but he died a few weeks thereafter.  Also, for obvious reasons, narcotics do not typically work well for superhero origin stories).

 

Here are some other origin stories that readers have generally come to accept.

  1. Cybernetics (Bionic Woman, Cyborg).
  2. Genetic engineering (Spiderman).
  3. Chemical enhancement (Green Goblin).
  4. Powersuits and/or exoskeletons (Iron Man, Steel).  I think that the Iron Man suit will be mostly scientifically viable within 30 years (but too expensive to be practical).
  5. Other technological hardware–for example, three-dimensional invisibility and technopathy (a mind-machine interface) will be viable within 30 years.
  6. Neurosurgery.  At the very least, we’ll probably be able to surgically enhance reflexes within 30 years.   Suppressing pain is a distinct possibility, although pain serves an important biological role (alerting the brain to danger–for example, if you’ve been in a car accident, pain is the clearest indicator of whether you’ve injured a limb and will help you know how far you can push your body without causing lasting damage).
  7. Ridiculously tough training (Batman, GI Joe).
  8. The hero belongs to a tougher-than-human species (Superman, possibly X-Men).
  9. Mutations, probably (X-Men, Heroes).
  10. Miracle operations (Kick-Ass).
  11. Stimulating the visual cortex so that skills can be learned extremely quickly (The Matrix).  There’s been some exciting work on this front recently.

 

Typically, plausible origin stories tend to be scientific.  Fortunately, you don’t have to have a strong grasp of scientific research to write a compelling origin story. Generally speaking, modern scientific research in fields like genetics is conducted by large teams of scientists that spend years on each project and have access to large budgets.  If you’re writing a superhero story, your readers will almost always accept that a single supergenius can perform unimaginable feats of science.  Reed Richards is apparently a world-class researcher in every branch of science, and he’s able to instantaneously solve problems that would probably take a real team of scientists decades.

 

Here are some other (incorrect) assessments of modern science that readers will usually accept.

  1. Superhero scientists rarely keep good notes.  When the doctor that created Captain America got killed, the formula for the serum was lost forever.  Whoops.  In real life, researchers keep exhaustive notes so that their experiments can be replicated.
  2. Superhero scientists rarely fail.  In real life, scientists would test hundreds of variations of a drug, which tends to make the process inordinately laborious and expensive.  But readers will accept that a superscientist tends to get it right almost immediately.
  3. A super-scientist can accomplish anything if he’s desperate enough.  Tony Stark built a powersuit in an Afghan cave and Norman Osbourne became the Green Goblin because he was willing to subject himself to premature tests.
  4. Every scientifically gifted high school student will be the best in the world if the plot calls for it.

323 responses so far

Sep 21 2008

Maybe SIWBI’s heroes weren’t that bad

Many readers felt that the heroes of Soon I Will Be Invincible were whiny, insufferable failures.  For example, one review said that “the most [the main character] ever manages is some uninspired teenage-esque angst that her character seems much too old for.”

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No responses yet

Sep 21 2008

Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part Eight)

Published by under Titles,Writing Articles

Cadet Davis reviews and revises the titles of 30 manuscripts submitted to a writing workshop. This will help you evaluate and improve your titles.

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40 responses so far

Sep 20 2008

Heroes jumps the shark… again

The creator of Heroes said

In the second season I think we had some interesting things happen. You can’t really plan for the audience’s reaction to things and one of the things we found out was that the audience did not want to start slowly and build.

First, the show has been going on for two seasons.  Why does an action show need so much time to develop a plot that is far less complicated than Battlestar Galactica or Eureka?  Second, after introducing 10+ recurring characters in the first season, did Heroes really need to introduce another 5-10 characters?  No.

Finally, it seems that what we’re building up to is what they already did last season: a loosely linked assortment of heroes has to save the world from Something Really Bad.  That’s a premise that doesn’t lend itself well to repeats and tweaks.  The coincidences and contrivances were strained enough the first time, but it only gets worse as more and more characters have to be drawn into a badly uncohesive plot.

What I liked about the first season was the development of Hiro from a scarcely comprehensible desk-jockey into someone that could almost be confused for a badass geek.  Now Hiro has disappeared 500+ years into the past and we’re left with Peter (who makes Keanu Reeves look like a thespian) and a bunch of characters that have added virtually nothing to what the show has already done.   Add the crazy contrivances that Davis listed here and you get a show that’s at least half a season past watchable.  Unfortunately, it looks like the creator doesn’t have a clue what’s wrong.

No responses yet

Sep 20 2008

How specific should a novel’s title be?

Published by under Titles,Writing Articles

An e-mailer asks:

When you guys review titles, you frequently suggest that the title go farther to distinguish itself from other books with a similar setting.  For example, you said that the manuscript Questor failed to distinguish itself from other Roman stories, but how many Roman stories are there?  Why would you need to distinguish yourself within such a small subset of books?

Thanks for your e-mail, Giuseppe.  Questor’s title failed to distinguish its premise.  The setting is uncommon, but what happens in the book?  What is the hero trying to accomplish in ancient Rome?  Generally, the best titles identify the book’s premise.

  • His Majesty’s Dragon (“what if the war against Napoleon was fought with dragons?”)
  • Soon I Will Be Invincible: (“what if we told a superhero story mostly from the supervillain’s perspective?”)

Some other titles neglect the premise and focus on the subgenre and setting.  That may be sufficient, but it’s generally not as impressive.

  • Superhero Nation.  The title suggests it’s a superhero story set in the real world, but you’d have to look at the book cover to know that the book is mainly about an unlikely police officer and his non-human partner.
  • Questor.  It’s a story set in ancient Rome, but that’s just the setting.  What is the premise?  What happens?  What is the hero attempting to accomplish? My guess is that the setting isn’t interesting enough to sell the book on its own.

No responses yet

Sep 19 2008

Creating Weaknesses for Your Superheroes

Writers sometimes add unique weaknesses to challenge their heroes or rein in heroes that have gotten overpowered. For example, Superman has kryptonite and for a while Green Lantern’s powers couldn’t affect anything yellow.  Those two feel gimmicky.  The powers don’t work on yellow? How does that work?   Why would anyone be vulnerable to his own planet?  Etc.

A better example of a unique weakness is the Martian Manhunter’s vulnerability to fire.  It doesn’t feel arbitrary that fire might damage something.  Unlike yellow or kryptonite, fire is dangerous to most living things.  Compared to kryptonite, something generic like fire has the added advantages that it’s easier to acquire and use.

Other authors sometimes use completely innocuous weaknesses, but that’s tricky and usually contrived.  Let’s say your hero is vulnerable to marshmallows.  You’d probably have to come up with a (goofy) explanation for his weakness, then show that he somehow discovers that he’s weak against them, and then show that the supervillain somehow discovers it as well.  Generally, it’s easier to work with weaknesses that are plausible and logical.  That helps you avoid relying on ridiculous contrivances to explain how the villain discovers the weakness.  (You could work something like fire into a fight scene even if the villain doesn’t know it’s his weakness.  I don’t think you could do the same for marshmallows).

I think the best weaknesses are side-effects of the hero’s strengths.  For example, a hero with supersight might be vulnerable to intense light.  Someone with superhearing might be vulnerable to loud sound.  One advantage of these weaknesses are that you can work them into secret-identity stories.  Clark Kent isn’t likely to run into kryptonite when he’s having dinner with Lois, but he might get a migraine when a jet flies overhead.  Here are some other possibilities.

  • Superstrong heroes are probably too dense to have much buoyancy.  That would make it very difficult for them to fight in water– even treading would be a tremendous struggle for someone like the Hulk, let alone Ben Grimm or Slate.  If your villain needed to escape, he could take advantage of this by flooding the room with water, knowing that he will float upwards but that the hero will sink.
  • Super-fast characters would create a lot of friction when they run.  A supervillain might try to take advantage of that by dousing the room with a flammable oil (so that the friction will set him on fire) or anything slippery.  However, the slippery angle has already been used fairly extensively.
  • A psychic’s powers would probably require more concentration than physical powers.  A supervillain might try to take advantage of that by flooding the room with a weak tranquilizer gas to make it harder to concentrate.  Loud noises might also work.  Finally, if the villain sets distractions before his final plot is set to go off, the hero might be completely exhausted and badly in need of sleep when the final battle commences.
  • Someone that wears a powersuit is probably not very dexterous or precise when he has his armor on.  A villain may be able to trick him into taking off his suit (or at least parts of it) by planting a bomb.  I doubt anyone could manually defuse a bomb with metal gloves on.  Alternately, your villain might also try using a powerful magnet to reduce his mobility or an electromagnetic pulse to fry his circuits.
  • Unlike humans, most terrestrial animals cannot metabolize alcohol.  If your character is not human (like Superman), he might not be able to either.  That could easily lead to interesting social situations.  Additionally, you could probably work it in as an ingestible poison.  It would be much less incriminating to have an assassin armed with Bud-Lite than cyanide…
  • Capture the hero’s girlfriend.  Add an explosive booby trap.  Voila!  Instant trap.  Ideally that will kill the hero, but the worst-case scenario is that it kills the girlfriend, leaving the hero in an emo funk for years to come.

Alternately, you can try a quirky vulnerability to Kryptonite or something else that isn’t usually dangerous.  If you’re leaning that way, please see this cautionary article.

Did this article help? Submit us to Stumble!

318 responses so far

Sep 19 2008

Book Request

Published by under Book Review

What are some well-known books that have major flaws?  We’re looking for books to use to help our readers improve their writing, so I’d especially appreciate books that are superhero-related, fantasy or sci-fi.

4 responses so far

Sep 18 2008

When I take over the world, daschunds will be outlawed

Published by under Art,Comedy

My dictatorship will allow the purchase of daschunds for only one purpose.

No responses yet

Sep 17 2008

Wired Ranks the 7 Worst Superhero Names

Published by under Superhero Stories

I’m pleased that they didn’t miss She-Hulk.  You can see the follow-up article here.

2 responses so far

Sep 15 2008

The difference between a convoluted plot and a brilliant one…

Many beginning authors think that they can create a brilliant plot by adding layers of deception, betrayal, double-agents and triple-agents, lies wrapped within feints, etc.  It can be done well, but more often it’s a recipe for a horribly convoluted plot. Rather than seeming brilliant, your plot will probably come off more like this assessment of Metal Gear Solid.

These convoluted characters usually try to show that their characters are brilliant because they make freakishly accurate predictions about what other characters will do. At its worst, that devolves into a game of “I know you know I know” that will leave your readers writhing in agony. A genuinely brilliant character should use plans that leave the audience wondering why they didn’t think of that. Typically those plans are simple and rely on predictions that seem obvious in hindsight. Let me demonstrate.

In Justice League, Batman tries to find the Joker by convincing his assistant, Harlequin, that the Joker has ignominously replaced her with another woman. (Transcript below).  One aspect that really impressed me about the scene is that Harlequin doesn’t immediately turn against the Joker.  Instead, Batman merely increases her doubt of him, so that she goes off to confront him… And Batman secretly follows her!  It’s more believable because it requires a less significant shift from Harlequin.

BATMAN: Where’s Joker?

HARLEQUIN: After all these years, you still think I’d give up Mr. J.

BATMAN: Why not?  He gave you up.

HARLEQUIN: That was a long time ago.   He’s changed.  We’ve been to couple’s counseling.

BATMAN: I’m talking about right now.  Haven’t you been watching?  [He points at a screen showing Joker with his new female sidekick.]  The way he touches her hair.  The way he rubs her shoulders.

HARLEQUIN: You mean Ace?  She’s just a kid.

BATMAN: Really?  Then why is she with him when you’re in the cold?

[Harlequin slaps Batman, but goes to confront the Joker.]

2 responses so far

Sep 14 2008

Webcomic in hibernation

Published by under Navel-Gazing,Webcomic

Yeah, I’m really sorry about this, but I don’t think we have the time to pursue the webcomic with any degree of regularity over the academic year.  We will continue regular updates in May.

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Sep 11 2008

Spore was a savage disappointment

Published by under Uncategorized

Currently, at Amazon, Spore has been ranked at one star by over 90% of its 2000+ reviewers.

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4 responses so far

Sep 11 2008

Fringe Review

The consensus seems to be that Fringe is a less-inspired version of X-Files. What bothered me was the torture sequence.  Allowing torture as a plot device robs interrogation sequences of any semblance of wit and intelligence.  I’d much rather see a foxy cop trick a criminal into confessing than beat it out of him.  (Also, torture is typically a disappointing way to make the hero morally conflicted). But enough about torture.  I’d like to quote one review of Fringe

“Hi, Vague Agent I don’t know from Adam. I’m Nina Sharp, Executive High Muckity-Muck. I’m just going to assume you’re in on the conspiracy.  Oh, by the way, have you seen my absurdly high-tech prosthetic arm? Sorry if this is going too fast, but we only have an hour and a half to out-WTF Lost and The X-Files at the same time. Do try to keep up.”

Some of the mad science was pretty cool, but other aspects were patently ridiculous and goofy (talking to the dead, LSD-communing, etc.)

One response so far

Sep 11 2008

Two articles on futuristic weapons and armor that might help inspire a plot or visual

Defense Tech has an article on military exoskeletons.  We haven’t reached the level of killer androids (yet), but strength-enhancement is interesting, too.  (Also, if killer androids are in the works, exoskeletons will help programmers teach the androids how to move naturally, says one commenter).

Popular Mechanics did an article on 5 rifles in development.

They include a submachine gun that can fold into a large pocket…

Continue Reading »

4 responses so far

Sep 08 2008

Writing Exercise of the Day: Home-Building

Today in Charlestown, construction workers found a live 10-pound artillery round from the Civil War inside a home’s walls.  What distinguishes your character’s house from the other ones on the block?  If that’s too broad for you, try this: who, if anyone, has lived in the house before and what have they left behind?

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Sep 07 2008

Superhero Visual References: Gloves

B. Mac provides another set of gear to help you design superheroes that don’t look goofy.  (See his collection of boots here).

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47 responses so far

Sep 07 2008

I loved this take on WWII time travel stories

Published by under Webcomic

It’s these constant attempts on Hitler’s life by time-travellers.  You kind of have to wonder!

3 responses so far

Sep 06 2008

What do Metallica and the theme to Barney the Dinosaur have in common?

Hint: the Iraqi connection.

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3 responses so far

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