Monday, December 28, 2015

Unlikable Characters: My Take on Craig Mazin's Take

I recently subscribed to yet another podcast, Scriptnotes, which describes itself as a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

If you've followed me on social media or here on my blog for any amount of time, you know that I'm not a screenwriter. (The screenplay I wrote with my high school friend Sam doesn't count, but it sure was fun and a great learning experience.) I'm a fiction writer. I primarily write novels and novellas. Yet I love this podcast and recommend it to writers of all kinds.

Scriptnotes is hosted by Hollywood screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin. After listening to a few episodes, you can't help but like these guys, even if Craig is full of umbrage (and disdain for religion).

Episode 223, from November 10, had a section about the least helpful notes screenwriters get. Turns out that Craig's least favorite (read: most despised) note is to be told that his characters aren't likable.

Craig argues that movies are filled with characters we don't like, and that characters are supposed to change anyway, so it's okay if we don't like them at first. Plus, we like curmudgeons! Unlikable quirks can make a character more interesting anyway. So stop telling us to make our characters more likable! (Totally paraphrasing here. Listen to his rant; your mileage may vary.)

And he has a point . . . to a point.

He's right that flawed and/or curmudgeonly characters are interesting. We enjoy watching characters like that, while characters who seem too perfect feel flat or fake. Even if we don't like a character, we'll hang on to watch more because we're entertained. We often start liking them as the movie progresses.

Besides, a movie is only a couple of hours long, and chances are, you paid to see this show, so you'll probably stick it out to the closing credits to see how it all turns out anyway.

In other words, Craig's advice clearly works for screenwriting.

Alas, that wisdom doesn't carry over into formats like the novel. I've learned this the hard way. Over and over and over again.

Consider this: A novel takes much longer to read than a movie takes to watch. While some people can devour a novel in a day, most readers read a chapter or two here or there, often before bed. They end up spending days if not weeks or more with the same book.

As the author, you don't have the luxury of assuming the reader will hang on until the character is sympathetic, or that the reader will trust you at all to go beyond the first page or two, that eventually, they'll see that they were in good hands all along. (An exception exists for really big names, who can pretty much break every rule and still sell millions because their name is a trusted brand before word one.)

With novels, readers may well toss a book aside if they hate the characters after a few minutes of reading. Not so with a few minutes of a movie. Readers simply won't devote hours and hours (or days) of their lives to your story. No way. They'd rather re-watch their most hated movie and get it over with in two hours or so.

That said, readers don't want perfect characters either. They want flaws and they want growth, just like moviegoers do. (Two groups with a ton of crossover, of course.)

The result is that fiction writers face a double challenge: Create characters who are human and flawed but still likable enough for the reader to hang on and care enough to keep reading, and make all of that happen on page one.

Oh, and be sure to open at precisely the right moment. Starting a even a few minutes (or, heck, seconds) earlier or later in story time could kill the opening.

No pressure or anything.

If you've hooked your readers with the opening, they'll likely turn the page. If you've managed to carry them to the 25% mark, they've invested enough time that you've got a good shot at carrying them to the end even if the characters start making really unlikable choices. Which they often do, of course.

To get to the point where you've earned a reader's trust, you must somehow get them pretty far into the story. And you get a page or two to hook them initially. That's it.

For me, one of the biggest challenges I've faced is beta readers and critique group members telling me that they hate the main character because she's acting so mean or hateful or whatever. And then I sit back and wonder where they got that from, because in most cases, that's not how I meant to write the character at all. I unravel what made it to the page compared to what was in my head in an effort to figure out what's missing and how to get it to the page.

But in some cases, I did mean to show the main character in a harsher light, although I still hoped the reader would sympathize. In one case in particular, the main character has been through a lot of raw, bitter stuff. The book opens with her being angry and upset. She has open emotional wounds. To make a long story short, I needed to open the book at a certain point in her life, show X, Y, and Z, and then get out of that situation, all by the end of chapter one.

Turns out that "wounded" is really hard to write without coming across as witchy (keeping the blog family friendly . . ). I must have rewritten that chapter fifteen times. In each version, she felt weaker and weaker to me because I had to keep softening her edges. But readers were slowly starting to connect with her.

Even though I wanted to show her realistically angry and pissed off in chapter one, I couldn't. Readers had no way of knowing enough about her at that point to have any kind of sympathy for her. You read vitriol and assume the character is a pretty awful person. So anger and even depression in that context only made her look bad.

My theory is that closing a book after two pages and tossing it to the side is far easier than standing up and walking out of a movie theater two minutes into a film, when you haven't even seen the opening credits. No one walks out that early, and few people walk out ever.

Lots and lots of people give up on books, though.

I could have left the chapter as it was, I suppose, but I can guarantee that by doing so, I would have lost a lot of readers in short order. They wouldn't have held on until they sympathized or even empathized with her.

I've been writing for a very long time (writing seriously for over two decades now), so when I first heard Craig saying that this particular note was pure crap, I wanted to cheer. Oh, how I wanted to. But I couldn't, because for a fiction writer, his opinion doesn't apply. (I wish!)

Sometimes I think I've learned how to write a flawed yet likable character who works from word one, yet far more often than I want to admit, I get the rug pulled out from under me yet again. Betas (had-picked readers I trust) point out why the character isn't working. After initially pulling on my hair and muttering things under my breath, I return to the keyboard and revise yet again. Because when everyone is saying the same thing, they're probably right.

I suppose in some ways, reading about a character in a new book is a lot like meeting someone in real life. You don't tell a new acquaintance about every skeleton in your closet, every bump in your road, every emotional injury. Rather, we get to know people a little at a time, and their personalities and characters are revealed gradually through actions and words. The same goes for characters, even those we've got a tight POV on.

Watching a movie is more like people watching; it's easy in real life to watch completely awful people interact and be nasty. We don't walk away from boredom. (Heck, we'll probably pull out our phones and start taking a video so we can entertain our friends.)

I'll continue working on making my characters just likable enough in the beginning for readers to agree to go on the ride.

But I confess that I'll forever envy Craig Mazin and his fellow screenwriters for their ability to ignore that note, even if the note drives them nuts.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Arm Yourself Against Data Loss

They say there are two types of writers: 

1) Those who have lost work


2) those who will. 

That's the truth. And that's why I'm writing this post, as a plea to protect your work. I'm writing this now because in the last six months, I've had three friends who are professional writers and/or publishing professional s lose or almost lose huge amounts of data because they didn't have the proper safeguards in place. 

In one case, everything the writer had worked on for decades was on his laptop. He needed some kind of service on it requiring the hard drive to be wiped, so he backed up the entire thing on an external hard drive. So far, so good. But the backup failed. The data wasn't retrievable after all. He was absolutely sick over losing his life's work until a tech support person was able to dig deep enough to realize that this writer had installed a backup service, and that it was backing up his entire computer remotely all along without the writer being aware of it. He ended up losing only a week or so of work instead of decades's worth. 

In another case, the writer did make occasional backups, but it's easy to forget and put off doing a backup, from a day to a week, to months. And that's the situation she found herself in when her laptop was stolen at an airport. She lost a year's worth of work (hundreds of thousands of words) as well as priceless and irreplaceable family photos. 

The third case also involved a robbery, this time when thieves broke into her home, taking her laptop along with many other items. The other things can be replaced. Her personal creative work cannot. 

Each time I heard the news of a friend losing data, I ached inside. Having your creative work taken from you forever is soul-crushing. 

It's even worse when you know that you could have done something to prevent it. 

I know of what I speak of. I'm not talking about losing a page of two if the power goes out or the time when my son was a baby and he crawled over to the computer tower, turned it off, and I lost a chapter or so.

I've experienced worse, and I refuse to ever again. Think you're immune? You're not. 

As a preteen, I wrote a fantasy novel. Rather, I wrote most of a fantasy novel, and I typed it as in, on an actual typewriter. Because I'm that old. Writing that book was my happy place. 

The fall I entered 8th grade, Dad ended up helping a tech company with a side job using his linguistics background, and as part of that, a computer entered our house for the first time. 

Recognizing the future when I saw it, I promptly started transferring my (still unfinished, but sizable) fantasy novel into the computer. In the process, I revised and expanded what was on the page. Day after day after, I came home from the misery of junior high and slipped into the zone of my happy place. 

As I finished typing up each page of my original typewriter draft, I happily threw it away, an act that felt like an accomplishment in some way. 

Shortly after I finished getting it all written and saved in digital format, and before I finished the story, someone suggested that I get a backup copy of the file because you never knew. It was always a good idea to have a backup, just in case. 

Dad agreed, and he promised to get a floppy disk (again, yes, I'm that old), and we'd make a copy. He came home from work one day with the promised floppy disk. But my file had somehow become corrupted. Out of probably 60,000 words, I had 14 measly lines left. 


I stared at the screen. That couldn't be right. Murphy isn't that cruel with his stupid law, is he?

The techie guy working on my dad's project thought he might be able to find the rest of the file or figure out what had happened. He tried. He failed. 

And then the reality sank in. What amounted to my life's work (at the age of almost 14) was gone. Erased. Wiped out of existence. I hadn't even saved the typed rough draft pages. How could I not have at least saved the pages until I got the file onto a floppy disk? 

Ever since, I've been almost maniacal about having backup copies. I used to print out hard copies of all of my manuscripts too, just in case. 

Marrying a computer scientist turned out to be particularly helpful in my quest to never lose large amounts of work ever again. This is the man who got me an e-mail address before I really grasped what the Internet was, when I asked, "Why will I ever want this?" to which he replied, "Trust me." (He was right, of course.) 

He kept me well stocked with floppy disks, followed by zip drives and other backups as technology developed. 

Today I have a external hard drive that's a copy of an old computer, but what I rely on most is an off-site backup service. 

External hard drives can be helpful, but they can also fail. If your house burns down, or there's flooding, an external drive will do you absolutely no good. 

Thumb drives are notorious for failing. They're great for transferring files from place to place. I use them a lot when speaking at conferences in case my laptop won't connect to a projector. I can always plug the thumb drive into another laptop. But I won't rely on one of those things as my primary backup. No way. 

Here Are Four Ways to Cover Your Bases:

Have your computer automatically back up every few minutes. 
You can tell Word and Scrivener how often to do that; in Scrivener, you can make it a matter of every few seconds. 

Use E-mail as a Backup.
I know many writers who e-mail themselves their own files; some do so after each work day, some less often. Either way, your files are in a safe place in your computer fails. 

Use a Cloud Service.
You've probably heard of Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive. They (and others) offer free accounts with a limited amount of space (but plenty of room for text documents, if you're a writer). In many cases, you can work offline, and the file syncs next time you're online. They're a great FREE resource with an easy user interface, and even if you fill up your space, you can pay a small amount for more. 

Have an Automated Backup System. 
As long as your computer is connected to the Internet, these systems will make a copy of any change in your computer, and do so daily without your ever having to remember to do it. They keep a month's worth of copies, so you can drill down to any version of a file you need form the last 30 days to find the exact one you're looking for. If your laptop is stolen, dies with a gasp, gets taken over by a virus, or whatever, you can download everything to a brand new laptop, including your programs and directories. At most, you'll only ever lose changes since the last backup, which is always within the last 24 hours. (Another reason why using e-mail or something like Dropbox is a good idea on top of this.)

Because these services are so thorough, the first backup can take days, but it works in the background, and you can still use your computer like you would any other day. After that, a backup is quick and again, always in the background. 

We used Mozy for years and recently switched to Backblaze, which we found to be more intuitive and more affordable. They have backup systems of their own, so your data is pretty darn safe.

I never worry anymore that I've lost data because I haven't. It's always retrievable. And I know that because I've had to retrieve files from the backups, several times. 

My Plea

Whatever you do, don't rely entirely on your own computer's internal backup or on an external drive. 

With so many cloud services, including free ones, and with free e-mail services, you have no excuse to not have backups of your work. 

I guarantee that the ones and zeroes that make up your writing are incredibly fragile. Something will happen to them at some point, whether that's a virus or something else. You will lose some work. We can hope it'll be a only a few hundred words, but what if it's an entire novel? 

When you lose data (because you will), be sure you can restore it. 

And in the meantime, you can rest (and write) easy, knowing that even if hardware fails, even if thieves ruin your day, even if you get a Trojan horse, you'll always be able to get your work back. 


An Unexpected Proposal, my first novella to ever come out with the Timeless Romance Anthology series, is now available as a single for 99 cents. 

And my second novella, Chasing Tess, from the TRA Spring Collection, is up for pre-order as a single, also for only 99 cents. Order it now, and it'll download to your device on Christmas day! 

I have other novellas that will be going live soon, plus a really fun project coming in January that you'll want to keep your eyes open for! 


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