I'm back in London! Hooray. I love Oxford, especially during the winter, but by the last week of term I'm always ready to go home. My Emily Dickinson coursework, fortunately, went well. The quote I had to respond to was 'Candor – my Preceptor – is the only wile', from one of Dickinson's letters. Turns out the word candor can mean 'whiteness' or 'brilliance', so it fit perfectly with my research on nineteenth century photography. I believe I can now call myself a Dickinsonian scholar. So, er, nerd points for me.
Not much book news this week. I'm thrilled to be going to New York in February to meet the Bloomsbury USA team. I've been to NYC before for a day, which wasn't nearly enough time to explore the city, so I look forward to going back. In other news, I'm still waiting for Bloomsbury to confirm an exact date for the cover release. They're finalising their schedule, so I should know soon. Fingers crossed for this month!
Do you think genre gets in the way of good storytelling, or when embraced, actually enhance it? (virtuefiction)
This question is in response to my last entry on genre. Generally,
yes, I think genre gets in the way of storytelling. It requires people
to think inside a box, and I'm not keen on that. However, genre can enhance a story if the author plays with its limits and deliberately subverts the reader's expectations. So long as you think of ways to make your novel stand out from others of the same genre, it can and does work. This is why I like 'hybrid' books: you're destabilising one genre by introducing another.
What pen name will you write under? (Mohsin)
If you've read more than one article about
The Bone Season, you might be scratching your head over my name. My birth name is just Samantha Shannon. My legal name, however, is Samantha Shannon-Jones. I had 'Jones' added after my mum got remarried. However, I felt Samantha Shannon-Jones was too much of a long name to write under, and I liked the alliteration of my birth name, so when I write I'm just Samantha Shannon again.
Will the title of the series just be The Bone Season? (Mohsin)
Yes. It may differ between territories, but the series title is THE BONE SEASON. This means the title of the first book may be different in some languages to ensure the series title and the book title aren't the same. I've been discussing a possible new title for the first book with my German editor. In Germany there is usually an English series title followed by a German book title, so it will be The Bone Season: [German book title].
This topic is prompted by Neil on Twitter, who asked how to make fictional characters believable. There are many ways in which to make a character a complex 'person'; it's a fine art, one that can go wrong very easily, but one that all authors want to get right – with good reason. I've tried my utmost to make every character in The Bone Season believable while holding back a great deal about them, with the view to developing them over an entire series.
Here's some food for thought. The way I approach character building is to not think too much about appearance, and to focus on the internal. I've read far too many books, YA romance especially, in which the appearance of the love interest – or the protagonist, or both – is described far too regularly. Keep appearances short and sweet. If we're told that the love interest has beautiful eyes, tousled hair or pale skin, we don't need to hear it again on every other page. If we're told at the beginning that the narrator has brown hair, don't keep describing how she "combed her brown hair". We know it's brown. A few introductory sentences will suffice; after that, leave it to the reader's memory. The same applies to what your character wears. Unless their attire is important to the scene, or has meaning (e.g. a uniform, ceremonial dress, disguise), we don't really need to hear about it. Always think, when you describe something, why you are describing it. Only describe things in detail if they are relevant. Relevance is your friend.
Try not to make your characters abnormally beautiful or ugly. The title of this blog is keep it gritty, and that's what I like to see in fiction. Think about what people look like in real life. They sweat, they bleed, they look like crap in the morning. In the cold light of day, few people literally make heads turn; fewer look like supermodels. Even supermodels don't look like supermodels without the right lighting and makeup. If your character is so beautiful that all the other characters fall in love with him or her, you'll find yourself sliding down the slippery slope towards a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. Don't give your character purple eyes or silver hair if that's not normal within the world of your book. While you want to avoid writing a Mary Sue, be just as careful with the Anti-Sue. Don't conspicuously shout at the reader that your character is so ugly and bad (s)he makes the entire world cringe. That's just as unbelievable. And don't introduce an absolute dichotomy of pretty-for-good and ugly-for-bad.
The interior is the realm of fiction. Past appearances, real people are complex and deeply flawed. They get angry and resentful. Most are inherently selfish, or at least desire self-preservation. Sometimes they're tempted by power or money or glory, even if it's at someone else's expense, and even if they are generally selfless. Ask yourself why your character is the person they are. What made them that way? 'Evil' characters should have just as much motivation for their actions as 'good' characters. No-one should just be 'evil' or 'good'. Yes, they can be sadistic and cruel, but don't make them one-dimensional. Give them some damn good reasons for their actions. This shouldn't change for non-human characters. There will probably be differences – hell, there should be differences, if this character is truly non-human – but they should still have an agenda behind what they do. When writing non-humans, question what makes a character 'human' and try to subvert it without making them one-dimensional. Be ruthless. Interrogate your characters and your story. Force it to account for itself.
On a similar note, try to avoid self-inserts. This is when you put a character into the story, usually the main character, that closely resembles you. The presence of a self-insert means you'll be investing in the character to an unusual degree and shying away from treating them as a fictional entity. You might, for example, be less willing to kill or injure them, or to admit their flaws.
If you're looking at this blog post and trembling with nerves, terrified by the prospect of writing such a character, don't panic. There is a massive article about how to avoid Mary Sues, but it makes my head spin just looking at it. It's unlikely that you've written one of these characters – it's far more common in fanfiction. The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test is helpful in determining those traits that some consider unbelievable, but don't get yourself too stressed over it. Picture yourself meeting your character in real life. How would you react to them? Do they fit into the real world, or are they too perfect for it?
The beauty of the realistic character is that you shouldn't have to think too much about how to make them believable. Trying too hard will make the character seem forced and self-conscious. Just write what feels natural and check it over later. And remember, if you're planning to write a series, leave room for further development.
How do you approach character building? Are there any characters in fiction you particularly love or hate?