If you Love Them…

Ruby Sparks

This weekend, my wife and I watched a delightful movie called Ruby Sparks. It has a fun premise: a writer struggling to complete (well, start) the follow-up to his wildly successful first novel creates a character straight out of his dreams–and somehow makes her real. Ruby is everything he’s written down, and he’s able to change her simply by starting a new page. It reminded me a lot of Stranger Than Fiction,though from the opposite angle (and, frankly, more well done). As people who watch movies, we enjoyed it; it poses some interesting ethical questions, and it’s well written and produced.

But as a writer, it really got me thinking.

What writer wouldn’t want to be able to converse with their characters in the flesh? What would it mean to the story you’re crafting? How much more developed would your characters be if you could take them out for a coffee interview? Sounds like a pretty interesting opportunity.

But this movie isn’t really about a writer whose character becomes real. It’s about a writer who gets so attached to his character that he can’t distinguish her as such–she becomes a girlfriend and lover, instead, and he even stops “writer her” for a time because of it. The result, of course, is that he sets aside his work, only developing her character/story when it suits him to do so (watch it for specifics–no spoilers here). The movie treats this in a very literal way, but there’s an unspoken metaphor underlying the film: what happens when you get too attached to an ideal?

In the movie, Ruby starts to grow on her own, according to the backstory and personality Calvin has “written into” her. A natural way for a character to develop; I think we’ve all had characters run amok in our stories once they have enough steam of their own, as it were. But she grows in unexpected ways, so the prime conflict of the movie becomes Calvin trying to mold her into his perfect woman. Again, lots of ethical questions and considerations here, but the point is that Ruby isn’t what he expects, and those expectations cause a lot of trouble.

It all got me to thinking: what happens when we, as writers, make up a character that doesn’t perform to expectations? Or, worse, what happens when they do, and we grow so attached to them that we refuse to let them take risks?

Superman is an excellent example. A character written by so many different writers that he’s less a character than an icon; the ideal of who Superman is has become so entrenched that any deviation is a bombshell. Anyone remember when Superman died? Personally I don’t like Superman, but I hung onto that story with every page. It was an important moment in the character’s arc, and his sacrifice epitomized everything he stood for. Then, he came back, and everything was ruined.
Superman dying was a watershed moment for the character–but his return negated that. Suddenly death can’t even raise the stakes. But why bring him back at all? Because it would be ridiculous to actually kill of Superman and leave him dead and gone–he’s too well loved.

Getting attached to a character can be dangerous. When they don’t live up to your expectations, you can end up disappointing, sure, but often they’ll surprise you in other ways that make up for it. At the least, when a character takes you in an unexpected directions, it’s often a sign that the story needed to go there anyway (in my opinion). But if you’re so attached to your character that you can’t see them take risks, you’re in trouble. Suddenly they become invincible like Superman, and you can’t (or won’t) raise the stakes enough to put them into real danger. Which means they won’t grow, and they won’t learn.

I felt that Harry Potter fell into this trap, to an extent. Yes, he learned a lot about life and friendship along the seven book journey, but there was never really any doubt that he’d end up winning. The stakes seemed high because everyone else was at risk–but Harry never truly was, and because of that I felt he was one of the least interesting characters in the books. But that’s my own opinion.
Star Trek–as much as I love my Star Trek–is bad for this too. You know that the bridge crew is going to survive every away mission, and that no matter how many Romulans or Jem-Hadar they’re facing against, they’re going to pull a rabbit out of their hat and get away on top. It’s even become a running joke–only the “Redshirts” are ever in real danger. Although I love watching these stories, I know there’s no danger to Kirk or Picard, and so they’re less interesting to me too.

But you can’t write every main character with the intent to die, can you? Well, on the other end of the spectrum is George R. R. Martin–if you haven’t read the Song of Ice and Fire series, I’ll just recommend you don’t fall too fond of anyone in particular. He’s a master of high stakes, but he gets away with it because there are so many well developed characters in his books. They’re almost cannon fodder. What’s better is that he revisits even the characters who die–if not literally, their memories haunt the rest of the series.
And there are other ways to invoke serious risk on your characters. Another Star Trek example: one of the best episodes of any of the series is In the Pale Moonlight form Deep Space Nine’s sixth season. Captain Ben Sisko has to make a deal with the devil in order to win a protracted war. The episode is told in flashback, so you know he’s at no physical risk–but the stakes are incredibly high. He’s breaking regulations, breaching ethics, and going against everything he believes in, all for the greater good–and he’s not even sure it was all worth it. The conflict here isn’t any tangible risk; it’s that he’s done something that will live with him the rest of his life, something he may not be able to forgive himself for–and what’s worse, it’s all off the record, and he can’t tell anyone about it. This one episode developed his character substantially.

In the end, we as writers need to realize that our characters are not just our creations–they belong to the reader as much as to us. It’s easy to write a character that you grow attached to, and it sounds almost callous to say that you have to put them in harm’s way for your story to be interesting. But the reader will see it differently: the characters who play it safe and take no great risks fall to the background; they become extras without conflict. A writer who really loves their characters will make them march through Hell–and the reader will love you for it.

Review Rewind: What we Saw by Ryan Casey

If you’ve been following Speaking to the Eyes, you know that I’ve got a new schedule: the first three Mondays of the month are a review of an Indie Author’s work. But what of the fourth week?
Originally I thought I’d make that an interview, but with time constraints that’s not always going to be an option. So instead I thought I’d keep to the theme–I’ll use the last post of every month to reblog a previous Indie Review. I think it’s a nice way to revisit some of the best works I’ve read, and to put them front and centre for newcomers to the blog, or those who may have missed it the first time.
So, without further ado, here’s the first: one of my favourite books in recent memory (Indie or otherwise), Ryan Casey’s What We Saw:

What we Saw, by Ryan Casey

I have a bad habit when it comes to reading books: I read ahead.

I’m not one of those people who read the last page first, but I do tend to skip paragraphs sometimes, or look to the bottom of the page when I get to the end of a chapter so I can see the cliffhanger. I always go back and read what I glossed over, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. And it’s not a common thing: it only happens when I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next. I take it as an indication that I’m so into the book that I want to read it faster than I’m capable of doing.

This was the case with Ryan Casey’s new release–and first novel–What We Saw.

I’ve mentioned Casey on the blog before, with a review of his short story collection, Something in the Cellar. What We Saw is in the same vein–a nice suspense story with a few twists. Casey is really damn good at writing tension, and this book is chock full of it. When I got to the end of Chapter 7–even though I’d suspected what would happen–I had to put the book down for a minute to catch my breath. After that, it never lets up–I read more than half the book in one sitting. This is the kind of novel that readers search for: it grabs hold and doesn’t let go until that final page–and even then, it keeps you thinking.

What We Saw concerns two young boys, Liam and Adam, cousins on summer break who are (for differing reasons) living with their grandparents. Liam’s parents make a small appearance and there’s much talk (which I won’t spoil) about Adam’s family. The grandparents are colourful characters as well, and there’s another child, Emily, who serves as a call to action and a love interest–but really, it’s the boys’ story. They want to be detectives, spending their time solving mysteries around the campground–and their aspirations get them thrown head first into a mystery that’s much much bigger than them.

To go into too much detail would spoil the plot. Suffice it to say there’s a missing girl (not Emily), hints at violence around the campground, and some untimely deaths. There’s no lack of suspects, either–the campground seems filled with people who are up to some sort of mischief, and they boys have a lot to keep them on their toes. There’s a lot that would make this a great mystery book, but it’s much more than that.

The great thing about this book is that it’s written from a ten year old’s point of view. This creates a special kind of tension, where the narrator knows more is going on than meets the eye, but can’t quite put his finger on it because he’s just too young to understand. He’s neck deep in “grown up stuff,” and though he wants to help and understand, he’s kept at arm’s length by virtue of his age. This isn’t for a lack of trying–it’s just because he’s never had to deal with these kinds of things before. In that, What We Saw is a terrific example of a coming of age novel, though that’s not the focus.

What all of this does is help keep the mystery fresh. Casey is able to add details that, if the protagonist were an adult, would make the mystery easy to solve–and if you go back through the book reading it through the eyes of an older person, those clues were there all along. But because you’re reading the book through the eyes of someone so young, you feel like you’re reaching after something that’s on the tip of your tongue. You know what it probably means, but you’re just not sure…and it’s not until the end of the book that Liam is able to string it all together.

I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it seems to be a very effective way of stringing the tension along. The tension is real not only because the characters don’t know what going to happen next, but because they don’t understand why people would do such things; they’ve still got a foot in their childhood, and their naivety is colouring their approach to the situation. Better still, all the adult characters have adult motivations. The children can only guess at them, and this adds a lot of uncertainly to their deductions. They quickly realize that they’re over their heads, but not before it’s too late to walk away. This raises the stakes considerably: it’s like you’re blindfolded at the top of the first hill on a roller coaster and have no option but to fall to the bottom, hoping you don’t fall off the rails.

But besides the characters and the mystery, the thing I get most from this book is how genuine it is. The characters act like children; the adults act like adults; there was nothing in the book that asked me to suspend my disbelief. The characters are emotionally involved, and the stakes are very real. This sounds like a list of things that should be in every novel, but browning through the stacks at any bookstore will show you how many books lack this kind of attention. Casey has tied everything into a nice package, and the result is a well rounded story that feels very real.

Which, of course, makes all the tension all that more powerful.

There’s a lot to like about What We Saw, and it’s an impressive first novel for Casey. This is a writer to keep an eye on–you can expect great things down the line.

You can find Ryan Casey at his blog and on Twitter. Pick up What We Saw on Amazon for Kindle and in Paperback, and at Barnes & Noble in paperback. Don’t miss out on this book if you don’t have a Kindle–Amazon has Kindle Apps that run on your PC, Android and Windows tablets, iPhones/iPads, and even from the cloud on their website! And don’t forget to check out his other releases Silhouette and Something in the Cellar here.

Indie Review: Emperor’s Edge

I’m going to cheat a bit today–this Indie Review features not one, but five books. And, as this is going to be something of an overview, I’ll probably revisit each of them in time. But seeing as Lindsay Buroker is a large part of why I got into the Indie Writer’s community in the first place, I thought it was high time to review some of her work in depth (though I’ve touched on one of her short stories before).

Last summer, I received a free book from Kobo: a collection of short stories and excerpts from Indie writers designed to entice people into their new Kobo Writing Life publishing program. Buroker’s Ice Cracker II was the second story, and was easily the most memorable of the bunch. I found that the first book in the Emperor’s Edge series was free, so I picked it up and gave it a read. Making this book free is a stroke of brilliance on her part–it does a great job of drawing you into the story, and clearly sets up the next book–which explains the fervor of her fans, who wait with baited breath for each new entry.

The series concerns Amaranthe Lockdon, an Enforcer for the empire of Turgonia who finds herself on the wrong side of the law–not by choice, but by circumstance. She spends the series trying not only to redeem herself, but the names of her rag-tag teammates–not an easy feat considering one of them is the legendary and universally feared assassin, Sicarius. This quest for redemption is the overall arc of the series, but each book of course has its own unique plot.
There’s a common enemy too, though I won’t go into too much detail for the sake of spoilers. They’re known as Forge, and Buroker is great at giving just enough information about them book to book to keep the reader guessing–and wondering when it will all be revealed. What’s more, there’s no let down when much of it is revealed in book five, Blood and Betrayal. In the hands of a lesser writer, the revelation would have fallen flat with such a drawn out buildup; here, it’s satisfying and actually left me wanting to know even more. Which won’t be a problem for the work-in-progress book six, as book five lays down some tantalizing clues for what comes next.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t want to give a book-by-book blow-by-blow; suffice it to say that it’s a great series, and well worth reading. Buroker is one of those Indie Writers who serves as an example to others–she’s made a comfortable name for herself already, and her stock is only going up. She’s one that new Indie Writers should be looking up to.

Back to the series. There’s a lot to like about these books, though I find them difficult to define. Most people would tell you they’re Steampunk/fantasy, but there are a lot of elements of detective/crime, romance, sci-fi and pulp adventure (in a good way) as well. And yet despite the mixing of genres, they don’t seem piecemeal at all; in fact, this diversity is a strength for the books. It shows that Amaranthe and company are adept as many different situations, and that Buroker is good at not writing her characters into pigeon holes. They’re versatile and always fresh–as is her writing style–and this versatility is a hallmark of the series as a whole. If I hesitate to categorize these books into a genre, I can safely say that whether you’re a fan of sword and sorcery, rom-coms, or 1950’s pulp scifi/adventure, you’ll find something to like here.

The setting is decidedly Steampunk, and this is probably the easiest way to define the books if you want to do that. Turgonia is a militaristic empire with a long Imperial history of war and conquest, which has taken precedence over the arts, business, or scientific advancement. But that’s changing. A new Emperor–Sespian–has been crowned, and though he’s too young to officially take the throne, he’s established a new paradigm that many of the more conservative people of the Empire find hard to swallow. While this conflict isn’t really at the heart of the series, it plays a large part, and serves nicely as a sort of “dynamic backdrop.” It causes ripples that affect the characters indirectly, and as the series progresses, those ripples get larger–or, rather, we start to see the turbulence beneath the waves.
The science of Turgonia is based, of course, on steam; you have trolleys that require a furnace, mechanical beasts guarding enemy hideouts, and stream trains galore. There’s also a healthy helping of the other trimmings one would associate with steampunk; swashbuckling fops, a system of magic that borders on science, great costumes, urchins and aristocrats. And did I mention a kraken? In addition to this, there’s an undercurrent of a mysterious alien technology. All of it makes for a vibrant and simply fun setting.

But the real strength of these books are the characters. Amaranthe is the perfect example of the type of female hero so desperately needed in fiction. She’s not helpless eye candy always in need of rescue, and she doesn’t depend on the male figures for her strength; in fact, the men in the books look to her for guidance, without her asking for such reverence. It’s simply earned, because she’s a strong, intelligent presence, and she knows what she’s doing. She has her faults, too, but even these turn into strengths in terms of the way she’s written. She’s impulsive, takes unneeded risks, and has been known to let her emotions get in the way of the mission. But none of these faults are because she’s a woman, like so many other women in fiction–they’re because she’s human. I have a lot of respect for Buroker for writing such a strong female character, and I hope to see a lot of writers follow in her footsteps.
Amaranthe’s counterpoint is the brooding and dangerous Sicarius, long ago the Emperor’s personal assassin, but now exiled with the coming of the new regime. He, too, is looking for redemption, though he doesn’t know it until Amaranthe comes along–or at least doesn’t believe it’s possible. Their relationship–and yes, there’s a certain romantic spark–is convoluted, mostly because Sicarius is so reluctant to express himself. He comes across as a cold, unfeeling killing machine, but the scenes he shares in private with Amaranthe are touching and sweet. The great thing about Sicarius is that he’s a well textured character–but only Amaranthe and the reader know it. He’s easily my favourite character in the series because of this, and I delight in every snippet of information we’re tossed as readers. The mystery is what drives his character, and that’s something I always enjoy–but there’s another layer here because despite the mystery, we get a clearer view of him than the other characters.

On a side note, I can’t help but imagine Sicarius as Wesley/The Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Which, I suppose, would make Basilard the giant Fezzik, with Maldynaldo cast as Inigo Montoya.

Which brings me to Amaranthe’s band of misfit teammates. As supporting characters, they’re remarkably well rounded, and they serve as a further counterpoint to Amaranthe and Sicarius. Akstyr is a young street kid with a criminal past who’s teaching himself the “mental sciences” (magic); Books is the…uh, bookish librarian who excels at research, but not so much in fighting; Maldynaldo is an unapologetic womanizing fop with a heart of gold (and knows it); and Bassilard is the mute muscle, erstwhile bouncer, and surprisingly good chef. There are other companions introduced in later books, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. All of them make a great team; they’re diverse enough that they stand well enough alone, but together their skills combine in surprising ways to get the job done.
The best part is how they relate to one another–Bassilard is a friend to all, though he distrusts Sicarius more than some; Maldynaldo makes a show of teasing everyone, including Amaranthe, though he’s not as shallow as he puts on; Akstyr refuses to show how much he cares, or how much he appreciates that others care, but hides it so poorly that everyone can see through him; and Books always seems uncomfortable, though you can tell there’s no place he’d rather be than at Amaranthe’s side. It’s a wonderful cast, and reading about them bickering or teasing or performing mundane tasks is half the fun of the series.
One of the things I like most about this series is that each book centers on one of these secondary characters, sharing the Point of View with Amaranthe. In their featured book, we get to see into that character’s thoughts and background in a much more intimate way, elevating them from secondary character to front runner. This has the result of making all of them seem like fully realized main characters, which is no small feat. It’s rare (George R. R. Martin and Stephen King being the only examples that come to mind) that a writer can have so many compelling characters sharing the spotlight without any of them seeming washed out. Characterization is certainly one of Buroker’s great strengths as a writer.

There’s an added bonus to these books–Buroker has started a second series based in the same “world,” 20 years earlier. I’ve only read the first book, Encrypted, which is about Tikaya Komitopis, a cryptographer (and another strong female character) who is sent on a mission to decrypt an alien artifact. This one focuses a bit more on romance, but there’s a fair amount of action and fun in the same vein as the Emperor’s Edge novels. And, a certain young assassin makes an appearance as well. Recently another novella–Enigma–was published in this series, and a sequel to Encrypted is coming soon.
I love it when writers visit their world through different characters and viewpoints because it gives the reader a much more rounded view of the setting. Any story has to concentrate on something “world changing,” otherwise it’s not worth telling–but this can throw a pair of blinders on the reader as they concentrate on the only story being told. When a writer examines the other side of the story, the world suddenly becomes much more real. David Alastair Hayden and J. M. Ney-Grimm are other examples of writers who do this well.

So there you have it. It’s only touching the surface of these wonderful books, but as I said, I hope to revisit them individually here for a more thoughtful review. In the meantime, I hope this serves as a decent overview, enough at least to convince you to check them out if you haven’t already.

You can find Lindsay Buroker at her blog, or on Twitter. Her books are on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords,  and Kobo–and the first book, The Emperor’s Edge, is free!

A Different Kind of Indie Writer

Once again, I unfortunately find myself without much time to write a second blog post this week–I really should start ‘banking’ them so they’re ready when I need them–so we’re going to go with something quick and simple today.

I am, unapologetically, a dyed in the wool Trekkie. So naturally when I found out that the MMORPG Star Trek Online had gone Free to Play, I was excited. So I downloaded it, and I have to say it’s just awesome. If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll like this game. There are tons of references to the show, the continuity is solid, and the gameplay is fun. And hey, it’s Star Trek–what’s not to love?

But to the point. STO has a feature called the Foundry, where users can create their own “episodes” for other people to play in game. Now, game modding is nothing new; there’s a veritable cottage industry of game modders who create new content for existing games, which in some cases are more popular than the original.

Now, the thing about this game is that a lot of the missions get a bit repetitive. You orbit a planet, shoot down some starships, beam down and go head to head with more bad guys until you rescue someone or download some data or whatever. Rinse, wash, repeat. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun, but a lot of it is the same.
Enter the Foundry. Users–and most of the players in game seem to be die hard Trekkies who know their lore–can make up whatever stories they want. The best part is the robust tools the game developers have given their users–I haven’t made a mission myself yet, but it looks pretty straight forward for someone with a bit of experience. Players can open up the Foundry through the same menu they use to access in-game missions. After you play through it, there’s a chance to give a ‘tip’ to the person who created it using the in-game currency, so you can reward them for their hard work.

What does this all have to do with Indie Writers? Beyond making a mod for a game you enjoy, this gives a particular opportunity to create original work in the Star Trek Universe. For example, one of the things that always irked me a bit in Star Trek: The Next Generation was a hanging plot thread in the first season, where a race of parasitic beings try to infiltrate Starfleet. At the end of the episode, they send a signal, presumably to reinforcements–it’s a perfect chance to pick up the story again later on. But the writers of the show never did.

In the Foundry, one could write the “sequel” to that episode, and let players run through it in game. Or maybe you want to explore what happened to Thomas Riker after the DS9 episode “Defiant.” Or allow the player to travel back in time to deal with an Original Series era starship that mysteriously disappeared. One user has even created an episode called “A Klingon Honor Carol,” based on some familiar source material. These episodes can be text heavy (like the ones I’ve played so far, because I like the story element), or all about blowing up enemy ships. It’s your choice, and from what I’ve seen there’s demand for all sorts of missions.

The people who create these missions aren’t necessarily part of the Indie Writer Community–but they’re still creating original work on their own time, and I think that qualifies. The developers of the game run a “spotlight” where they highlight really good Foundry missions each month, and some of the user created content has even found its way into the official game. It’s a great opportunity for anyone who loves Star Trek to write the episodes they always wanted to see–then live them out as the captain of your own starship.

The downside is that you have to be a subscriber to the game in order to make missions. It makes sense–the developers still need to be profitable, and this is one of the areas in a free to play game that they can exploit for profit–but it’s unfortunate. As much as I enjoy this game, I don’t want to pay a monthly fee to play it, and there’s plenty of content accessible to people who don’t subscribe. For now, I’m content to play other people’s episodes and delve even deeper in to a fan-based Star Trek Universe.

Tune in on Monday for another Indie Review, where we’ll be talking about Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series!

Indie Review: Who Walks in Flame

Flame-Project-Transparent1-813826_600x480As an avid reader, I tend to keep to certain types of books–and, honestly, certain authors. Reading Indie Fiction is changing that;there’s so much wonderful work out there that it would be almost irresponsible not to test new waters. And my favourite part about reading Indie work is finding that occasional diamond in the rough, an example of writing that’s so good you wonder why you didn’t find it sooner. Who Walks in Flame by David Alastair Hayden is such a book.

It’s a short story set in Hayden’s lush fantasy world of Pawan Kor. Bregissa the Skald is charged with leading an army to victory against an ancient nemesis–if she can hold her allies together long enough. There’s a Witch King, a host of reptilian infantry, and an enormous flame breathing dragon. What’s not to love?

When I read the blurb for this book, I knew it was right up my alley; I’ve had a couple of Hayden’s books on my reading list, unopened, for quite a while now, and Who Walks in Flame was a great excuse to finally get going. I approached this book eagerly, and wasn’t disappointed. It perfectly sets up his writing style and the feel of Pawan Kor–though I’ve found his newest novel, Chains of a Dark Goddess, to have a unique flair that keeps this world fresh.

The opening words of a book are crucially important; they not only set the tone of the book, they act as a litmus test for the reader. If you can’t grab their attention in the first pages, you’ll fight for their attention throughout. But it’s a special kind of writer who can do it in the first sentence. This book had me from the beginning, and never let go.
And this is what I loved about the story as a whole. Hayden does a tremendous job of creating a compelling story. The bones of the plot are pretty straight forward–Bregissa leads her army against the witch king Khuar-na and his Scorch Walker, accompanied by a faithful companion who has more to lose than he’s letting on–but Hayden is able to weave it into something that seems almost mythic. Better yet, as fantastical as some of the events and characters are, they’re completely believable and I never found myself having to suspend my disbelief. This is good fantasy.

Bregissa is at the heart of this story, taking even second place to her conflict with Khuar-na. Don’t get me wrong; the urgency of this conflict is well described and will obviously have repercussions for the world. For the people of Pawan Kor, it’s do or die. But Bregissa’s story is much deeper.
On the surface, we have a woman who’s not only willing, but more than capable of leading an army–yet has to earn the respect of the kings she’s gathered together before she can accomplish anything. There’s also the relationship with her lover Kerenthos, who would do anything for her, even at the risk of his own destiny. But the real story here is that Bregissa is a remarkably powerful person, more so than the others in her life know–and this power has come at a grave cost. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s say it involves a betrayal and an evil act that is (perhaps) justifiable. This act gives her character a satisfying depth, and she ceases to be the resolute and unfailing hero she”s presented as in the opening pages. She’s not an anti-hero–I found myself sympathizing with her easily–but neither is she  a spotless soul.
If there’s one thing I didn’t like about this story, it’s that Bregissa isn’t explored enough. I got invested in this character more than the others, and that makes me want to know more–but the story is under 50 pages, and we only get hints of her origins, potential, and the arc in between (save for what happens in the plot, of course). I thought that this story served as a backstory for some of Hayden’s other books in the Tales of Pawan Kor series, but none of the plots of those books seem to reference the events in this one. Of course, I haven’t read them yet, so I may be presently surprised; still, I was disappointed to not get to know Bregissa more in this story.

There’s more to tell of Khur-na and his giant dragon as well, and I hope that Hayden revisits this character. There are hints of a great empire in which he enslaved much of the world, and tremendous rebellion in which he was overthrown and imprisoned. I’d be interested to see a sort of prequel for this book that explores what’s sure to be an epic tale. But, unlike Bregissa’s story, hints and teases are enough for Khuar-na. The mystery adds some depth to his character that wouldn’t be diminished if left as is. Although he’s such a great villain that I wouldn’t hesitate to read more about him.

One more thing to note about this story is Khuar-na’s dragon, the Scorch Walker. This beast is massive, and nigh undefeatable. Talk about raising stakes–when Khuar-na rides the Scorch Walker into battle, they reach the stratosphere. The climactic battle with Bregissa and her army is just plain awesome–this is the reason I read this kind of book in the first place.

As I’ve gotten more involved in the Indie Community–and make no mistake, I’ve still just scratched the surface–I’ve definitely found a cadre of authors I’ve dedicated myself to following. Ryan Casey, J. M. Ney-Grimm and Lindsay Buroker were at the top of the list–but now David Alastair Hayden joins their ranks. Who Walks in Flame is a terrific quick read–and it’s free. If you haven’t read this gem yet, do yourself a favour and check it out.

David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame is available for free at Kobo, Amazon and Smashwords. He keeps a nice looking blog, and you can also find him on Twitter.

What’s in a Name?

by Alan O’Rourke, c/o Flikr

Holden Caulfield. Romeo, Desdemona and Falstaff. James Tiberius Kirk. There are certain names in fiction that just stand out. They become more than just a name; they share an identity with the character, add an air of personality of mystery, or even imply a metaphor that evokes a deeper meaning to the character. They’re crucial in good fiction–a good character name might computer a reader’s attention, but a great name will capture their imagination.

I was thinking this week about fellow Indie Writers, and the names they use for their characters. There are tons of great examples.
Ryan Casey’s main character in What We Saw is named Liam, a common enough name for its English setting. To a Canadian like myself, it was just different enough from what I’m used to that it stood out, even above the other very English characters. Liam is familiar, but sufficiently unique to be set apart from the others in the book–just as it should be for a main character.
Lindsay Buroker has a litany of great character names; Sicarius, Maldynado, Amaranthe and Basilard are really colourful names that each evoke their separate personalities. When you read the Emperor’s Edge books and first come across these characters, you get the impression that they couldn’t be named anything else.
In Brian Rathbone’s Call of the Herald, we come across Catrin Volker. It’s a name that seems common and ordinary–but there’s an almost thrumming power beneath it, and it’s just different enough from ‘Catherine’ that it sounds exotic; fitting for a fantasy novel set in a world like ours, but only just.
David Alastair Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess has some wonderfully exotic names that have a very Latin feel. There’s no doubt that the world of Pawan Kor is a fantastical one, but giving the names a Roman theme gives the book a firm military feel. In a way, the names are as much a part of the World Building than his description of how magic works.
Some of my favourite character names come from J.M. Ney-Grimm. Her books have a mythic Norse feel to them, and the names are evocative of that. Just like Hayden, her names are a part of the World Building. When you come across names like Sarvet, Elspeth, and Gefnen, you know what you’re getting into.

But why do these names work? I think the prime point is choosing a name that describes your character, to a point. Buroker’s Sicarius is a case in the point: Sicarius is Latin for Assassin, his role in the story. Yet that’s something that most readers wouldn’t know, or wouldn’t think to look up; it stands as a great name because even when a reader does figure it out, it only adds to the character. Caitrin is another good example–you can almost parse out her name and use it as a rough character sketch. She’s a common girl who’s rather suddenly (and unexpectedly) granted enormous power; Catrin is an unassuming name, but Volker sounds important, almost virile.

When I try to think of character names, I often start with a character sketch, and pick one or two words that sum up their personality, or their role in the story. One of my first major characters was Sojo (the “j” pronounced as a soft “y”). He was a nomad, never settling in one place–a sojourner. I think it’s a bit obvious now and have put him aside in favour of a new protagonist, Tobias Osir. Tobias is a character taken from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, where we walks with the Archangel Raphael in a spiritual journey–much like Osir will in Tapestry. Alkut (my main protagonist) and Ahbinzur (another protagonist) are taken from the Kabbalah; Malkuth is the Kingdom of Earth, the beginning of the spiritual journey where one is concerned more with worldly things than enlightenment. Binah is Understanding, or a special kind of insight. As represented by the Queen of Swords in the Tarot, Ahbinzur fits that bill pretty well.

But having a name that means something isn’t enough. It has to be catchy, memorable, and most of all, easy to pronounce. J. M. Ney-Grimm makes a good point:

It’s a good thing to keep in mind: if your reader can’t pronounce the name after seeing it a few times, chances are they’ll give up and gloss over it from then on–and this can cause them to distance from the character. Or, at the least, not to get as invested as they could have been. Even worse, a dedicated reader might stop and figure out how to pronounce it whenever they come across it; until they get it, they’re taking themselves out of the world of the book, and that’s a bane for a writer.

Most of the examples here are fantasy books, and there’s more leeway as mentioned above. But you don’t want to make them too exotic. Once again, if a reader can’t relate to the characters’ name, they’re not going to relate with the character–that goes for place names as well. A name should always be something at least vaguely recognizable, so there’s an inherent connection to the reader. George R. R. Martin is a master at this; almost all of his character names are subtle variations of names we’re familiar with–recognizable, but just different enough that we know he’s not writing in our world.

So where do you find names?

Scrivener has a name app built into the program; you give it a certain number of parameters, and it’ll cough out a bunch of names. As much as I love the program, I’ve personally never found this feature useful–but then, I like names that mean something, so Scrivener isn’t going to give me anything I’ll like anyway. J. M. Ney-Grimm suggests looking up lists of foreign names, and this can work well too. You’ll likely come up with something your reader isn’t familiar with, and that’s a name that will stick out. Just keep in mind that those names may be foreign to you, but they won’t be foreign to all readers.
I also like to use Google Translate and the Anagram Server at Wordsmith.org. If you want a certain cultural feel, Translate is great; pick a few choice words, punch them through to a different language, and play with the results. The Anagram Server is a bit less useful, as it will only give you real words–still, it can spur your creative juices. That’s where I came up with Ahbinzur (the “zur” is a suffix given to mages of a certain caste in my World).
Another great source, of course, are baby name books. There are scores of websites that give baby name lists, so I won’t even begin to list them here. For the same reasons noted above, this isn’t my favourite source, but it’s useful.

But in the end, there’s one overwhelming reason to choose one name over another, especially for your main characters: they have to be simple. They have to roll off the tongue, stick in your reader’s memory. You want a name, like those at the beginning of this article–not only memorable, but evocative of your story as a whole. If your character’s name can’t be separated from the story, your readers won’t forget either.

Next week, look for another Indie Writer Review–this time of David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame!

Indie Review: Red Island

Red Island by Lorne Oliver

I used to read a series of books by Evan Hunter/Ed McBain called tales from the 87th Precinct. The were the first real police procedurals–the books that spawned popular shows like Law and Order, CSI, and NCIS. They are, in a word, awesome. If you’re into that kind of thing.

I am, but it’s been a while since I’ve read one of his books. Or anything in the genre, for that matter–which is why I was so pleased to hear about Lorne Oliver’s indie novel Red Island. It has everything I loved about McBain’s books–grit, infamy, crime and bad weather–but (taking place as it does on Prince Edward Island) with a distinctly Canadian flair. I’ve been waiting with baited breath to get to this book, and kicking myself every time I push it further back on my reading list. It fought hard to live up to my expectations, but…well, let’s get to the review.

Red Island is about Sgt. Reid, a disillusioned officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who specializes in Major Crimes. When a vicious rape/murder occurs on the quiet island–the first murder in twenty years–he’s thrown head first into a race against time to find the killer before he takes too many victims. Great premise, and certainly gripping–the way it’s set up in the opening chapter is fantastic, and promises some tense moments to come.
The second chapter is even better–written from the point of view of…the other main character. Intriguingly, this chapter is written in third person, past tense–a stark contrast from Reid’s scenes, which are first person present tense. We’ll get to that contrast in a moment, but suffice it to say that it sets the tone for the whole novel, and is quite effective in building tension.

The story is great, if violent. The violence actually gets to be a bit much at times, but it’s never out of place; in fact, the excessive brutality (shown only occasionally) is shocking enough that it makes an already tense novel all the more frightening. I often talk about the need for high stakes in a story, and Red Island doesn’t hold back. You’re left wondering how it’s going to be topped in the next chapter, all the while knowing that Oliver can (and will) deliver. No apologies are made for it, and none are needed. This is what makes police procedurals like this work so well; it’s not the glorification of violence and crime as much as the stark realism it portrays. I was always left feeling (sickeningly so) that the crimes committed in this book were all too believable, which makes the stakes not just high, but real. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that gave me a legitimately physical sense of panic–but this one sure as hell did.

But, Red Island is not without its flaws. And in this case, I mean that quite literally–this book is riddled with spelling and formatting errors. It’s an unfortunate truth of the self-publishing industry that errors like these are common, but the correction of those errors are what sets a good book apart from something stellar. It’s hard to take a book seriously when mistakes as simple as writing “creek” instead of “creak” are so prolific. There are many hanging quotation marks and missing periods. One reader, in a review, counted no less than 103 spelling and formatting errors. I don’t mean to pick on the author or the state of the book, but it really is that noticeable; and unfortunately, it lessens the impact of what is otherwise a great book.
Edit: I’m told that this book is currently in revision, with many of the editing and formatting errors corrected before it is published as a paperback. With those changes, this book goes from good to great!
There were also some issues with continuity. In one example Sgt. Reid is described as having “pushed the sweat from [his] forhead into [his] hair”–despite being described rather often as completely bald. The timeline of the book also jumps around a lot. In the beginning of the book, this is well explained and–although it’s rare that actual dates are given–it’s easy to follow. There are really two stories here, Reid’s (which take place in the present) and Ben’s (which start in the past and work their way forward). At first this is effective in setting a contrast between the two characters and their motivations, but as the timelines converge–and overlap–it gets a bit confusing. There is one chapter of Ben’s in particular that constantly jumps from the past to the present and back again; the switches are jarring, and there’s no explanation except through indicitive description buried in the paragraphs. It took me a while to realize when each snippet was happening, and the switches are so quick that it was disorienting. Granted, this could be a neat writer’s trick, mirroring the character’s state of mind–but it was so jarring that it was just confusing.

The thing that stands out most about this book is the contrast in writing style between Reid’s scenes and Ben’s. Reid is written in first person present tense, which gives a great sense of immediacy and suspense. Ben’s are written in third person past tense, which fits with the way his story is being revealed. When the two timelines are separate, this works very well, setting up a stark contrast that draws clear lines between the characters and their motivations. As the timelines converge, this effect weakens; when we start to see the different tenses changing within the same chapter, it becomes disorienting. Again, this could well be intentional, but I found that it took away from the story as I had to “reset” my approach to each POV. It felt clunky.

The lead-up to the climax was very satisfying. The third to last chapter ends on such a note that you literally can’t not turn the page. Unfortunately, the following chapter didn’t quite live up to the promise of that cliffhanger–I had thought something much more serious would happen than what did. Still, the penultimate chapter is well written and takes the story to a great place–the stakes, again, are high, and it was thrilling to read. Perhaps I was spoiled by the excellent buildup of tension through the rest of the book, but the resolution seemed a bit weak in comparison.

On a more positive note, the description in the book is wonderful. It’s delivered (in Reid’s scenes, anyway) in a rapid fire, short sentence barrage of information–exactly as you’d imagine a police officer would appraise a crime scene. This is a wonderful way to write a procedural like this: it put me right in Sgt. Reid’s boots, and made me feel like I was solving the crime along with him. It involved me on a deep level, and while the present tense style still held me back a bit (that technique tends to be less involving because it’s so transient), I had no trouble getting into the World of the book. As for that, I particularly appreciated all the quaint “Canadianisms” in this book–how often does a writer mention Tim Horton’s in fiction? The book feels very Canadian, and while I’ve never been to P.E.I., I certainly felt at home in this book.

All in all, I’m pretty divided about Red Island. I really like it, but I doubt I’ll go back to it–though that’s more a sign of the genre than anything. It takes a special case for me to want to get back into a crime story once I know how it pans out, but that’s not the writer’s fault. On the other hand, I’ll definitely look forward to other books in the series.
This is certainly a book I’d recommend. The characters, structure and narrative were all gripping, and I enjoyed this book very much–but the mistakes, poor editing, and little confusions noted above are what keep this book from becoming something truly great. As mentioned above, these are being changed.