Sunday, January 26, 2014

First Impressions, Right Impressions: 5 Tips for Introducing a New Character

Perhaps he or she was a God-send. Or perhaps you spent hours and hours lovingly crafting him or her. Regardless of how your character came into being, you are proud to call them yours. You’ve given them a smashing backstory, an original personality, and a unique gimmick or two. Now all that remains is to drop them into the middle of your story in the best way possible.

Placing your character into your story can sometimes be more daunting than it sounds. After all, you want your perfect character to be inserted into your tale at just the perfect time and in just the perfect way.

While the methods and advice for introducing new characters can be as varied as the characters themselves, there are a few specific tips that may help get your newcomers off on the right foot… and on the right page.

1. First Impressions are Important
It’s true what they say about first impressions—they last longest in the brain. In fact, a recent psychological study by Wilson J. & Wilson S. revealed that students who experienced a negative first day of class had lower expectations of that class (even though the class improved shortly afterward for the duration of the semester). As a result, their motivational levels and final exam scores were consistently lower than those of students who experienced a positive first day of class.

So what does this have to do with introducing a new character in your story? Well, keep in mind that the first impression that you give your reader will likely be the one that lingers longest in his or her mind—the one that they will use to “label” the character, so to speak (for example—“this character is bitter,” “this character is a kind-hearted mentor,” “this character is rebellious and creative,” etc.). Of course, you don’t want your character to be a stereotype or overly simplistic, but giving readers some “labels” for your character can help them simplify the character’s identity in the story. From these more simplistic labels, readers can follow the character’s network of feelings, beliefs, relationships, and other complexities.

Science tells us that it only takes a few seconds to form a first impression of a person. Convert these “few seconds” to a “few sentences” when applying this to your writing. Make the first three sentences about your new character really count. Pack as much quality into them as you can—details about the character’s personality, appearance, or “labels.” Apply this rule to the first three individual lines your character says as well. Let your character speak and your reader will form an impression from what they say.

To get an idea of the importance of the first three lines, choose a character from any media (books, movies, video games, etc.) and examine their first triad of dialogue. What impression does this give you of the character? Here are a few characters, along with their first three lines:
Matthias from Brian Jacques’ Redwall:

  1. “Er, sorry, Father Abbot. I tripped, y’see. Trod on my Abbot, Father Habit. Oh dear, I mean…”
  2. "Oh, Father Abbot… If only I could be like Martin the Warrior. He was the bravest, most courageous mouse that ever lived!”
  3. "Yes, thank you, Father… Say the word and I’m your mouse, sir.”

Balthier from Final Fantasy XII:

  1. “Quite a performance!”
  2. “I play the leading man, who else?”
  3. [In retort to another thief’s claim that the treasure belongs to him] “And when I take it from you… it’ll be mine.”

Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast:

  1. “Morning, Monsieur. I just finished the most wonderful story, about a beanstalk and an ogre and—“
  2. “Good morning.  I've come to return the book I borrowed.”
  3. “Oh, I couldn't put it down!  Have you got anything new?”

A character’s first few lines are important, but be sure to complement them with appropriate body language, descriptors, and context, in order to achieve the full effect.

2. Accurate Impression VS Skewed Impression
You can use the impact of the first impression to high advantage. Rather than looking at your character’s “first impression” as a means to accurately depict the character, see it as a means to depict the character as you want your readers to perceive him or her. This can be advantageous if, for example, you have a plot twist forthcoming, in which the reader discovers the character isn’t who they claim to be. To make a recent media reference, the movie Frozen uses “false first impression” to great effect. The viewers are led to believe that a certain character is something that he/she isn’t due to their first impressions of this character.

Also, keep in mind that if your story is being told through the viewpoint of a specific character, a lot of first impression encounters will be channeled directly through your POV character’s perspective. Because of this, your character may be led to conclude a very inaccurate first impression of a new character, and you will need to rely on actions and details to reveal this new character for who he or she really is. For example, your POV character may meet another character—let’s say, a lawyer—for the first time and get an immediate first impression that this character is selfish, rich, deceptive, and untrustworthy; these conclusions are the result of your POV character’s personal experiences with lawyers in the past. This POV character’s first impressions will channel to the reader, even if the first impression itself is inaccurate, due to your POV character’s bias.

These situations can be tricky, especially if you wish to show a different impression of a new character than the POV character is getting. In these situations, it is best to introduce the new character via a more unbiased POV, or show very clearly through actions that what your POV character is thinking contrasts with what your new character is really like.

3. Pick an In-Character Scene
If your character is a goof-ball, put them in a scene that allows them to be goofy. If your character is caring or heroic, introduce them in the middle of a burning building, helping other people escape the disaster. Sometimes subtly is needed if, for example, your character is really a dubious villain but you wish to portray them as a benefactor of society. Regardless, the same rule still applies. Put that character in a scene that shows them as you want them to be perceived; reveal their true nature later on.

We’ve already discussed the importance of first impressions. Don’t accidentally give your readers the wrong impression of your character by introducing them in an environment that will cause them to act out-of-character. Don’t introduce a happy-go-lucky character when they’re in a once-in-a-blue-moon gloomy mood because their dog died. Even if you spend the remainder of your novel showing what an optimist this character is, that initial gloomy impression will cast doubt on your readers, and likely just confuse them.

If you are worried that your character’s introduction might happen in a manner that puts their “first impression” at risk, think of ways to negate any incorrect assumptions.

For example, in one of my novels, I introduce a main character—Jakk—by having him battle with one of my novel’s antagonists. I wanted both characters to be portrayed as skilled swordsmen without having one back down to the other. This was difficult to do, especially since this was Jakk’s first appearance and the readers had no past reference to compare his skill to. To remediate this, I put a brief scene before the dual, in which Jakk battles with a pack of vicious creatures and overcomes them skillfully. This gave him some credibility as a skilled swordsman in the reader’s eyes. In order to end the fight between Jakk and the antagonist without having one combatant “win,” I used a dangerous, atmospheric circumstance to cause both opponents to abandon the fight. In addition to this, Jakk’s mount is injured in the battle, and he chooses to leave in order to protect it from further harm. In this manner, Jakk’s credibility as a swordsman is preserved, the power of the antagonist is not lessened by having him “lose” in the battle, and Jakk’s character is ultimately revealed in showing that he cares more for the safety of his mount than a petty victory over a foe.

4. Don’t Let Descriptions Carry You Away
If you’ve spent a lot of time working out exactly what your character looks like, it can be tempting to try and dump all of that detail on your readers. Resist this temptation and reveal only what you must—the most important, physical aspects of your character. Your readers don’t need to know that your character has “mostly brown hair that’s parted on the left side and has white and black streaks
running three fourths of the way down the bangs, which arch back towards the scalp like blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…”

Nobody wants to read all of that. In fact, if you over-describe, your readers may lose interest, and that might cause a bad first impression on your new character in-and-of-itself.

Pick one or two significant characteristics of your new character and describe them in the first few sentences. Author Bryan Davis does an excellent job with this, in that he leaves character description to a minimum and allows the reader to fill in the gaps. When introducing the character, Walter, for example, Davis describes him as wearing a food-stained ball-cap and having a crooked nose. He allows his readers to detail the rest of the character—Walter—as their imaginations like best. He relies on the character’s personality and actions to paint the rest of the imagery.

5. Sit, Observe, Write
Put the “first impression” principle into practice. Find a bench in a public park, in a mall, at a local McDonalds, or anywhere you like, really. Observe the people around you. Bring a notepad and pen and jot down some things as you observe:
  • What initial “first impressions” do you get about each individual you see?
  • What is this individual wearing? How does this affect your impression of him/her?
  • How would you describe this person in one sentence?
  • What does this individual’s body language tell you about him or her? Do they seem nervous, irritated, content, indifferent, etc.?
  • How does this person speak? What is the first thing you hear them say? How does this affect your impression of them?
  • How does the atmosphere or setting affect your impression of this individual?
You can use this same exercise when viewing or reading fiction as well. Next time you see a new movie, read a new book, or play a video game for the first time, observe the characters and your first impressions of each of them. Pay specific attention to the main characters, as they have the most significance.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

5 Tips for Writing Action-Packed Fight Scenes

Conflict is vital to every story. 

And often, that conflict escalates from disagreement and dislike to physical combat. In the world of fiction—especially genres such as fantasy and sci-fi—writing satisfying, dynamic fighting sequences is often a necessity.

Let’s take a deeper look at the adrenalin-laced topic of fighting, as well as a few tips that will help you write more dynamic, intense battle scenes in your stories.

1. Actions VS Reactions
At its core, the most basic rule of combat follows Newton’s law of motion; namely: “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.”

To keep things simple, think of physical combat as a game of chess. One player makes a move, which causes the other to react to the move in some way. Of course, physical fighting is much more complex, but the principle is the same. When one combatant throws an attack, the other must either return the gesture offensively (by attacking back) or defensively (by protecting themselves). This aggressive “give-and-take” is what makes fighting flow.

When you write action scenes, remembering this basic principle can help simplify the task. When more than one combatant is involved in the fight, the possibilities are greater, but the law of actions VS reactions remains the same. Here is a basic example of one-on-one combat from Redwall by Brian Jacques. Notice the specific actions that the combatants take and how their foe reacts to them:

The thick tail of the Warlord [Cluny] flicked out venomously at Matthias’s face. He covered swiftly with his shield as the poisoned metal barb clanged harmlessly off it. Cluny tried again, this time whipping the tail speedily at the young mouse’s unprotected legs. Matthias leaped nimbly to one side and swung the sword in a flashing arc. Cluny roared with pain as it severed the tip of his tail.

2. Universe, Setting, and Atmosphere
What is the setting of your story? Depending on that answer, the combat options available to you will change. It goes without saying that a story set in medieval times will not see much gun-fighting. Likewise, characters in the prohibition era won’t likely be garbing up in armor and swinging their sabers into battle.

Those are both silly examples, but knowing exactly what is available to you in the setting of your story is important. If your story takes place in a fantastical world where characters use both swords and firearms (think: Starwars), then it’s important for you to understand the laws of these weapons. What advantages do certain weapons have over others? How do they operate in battle? Do they have any special abilities or uses? And so on.

Atmosphere is key to producing a tight-paced, innovative action sequence. Exactly where the battle takes place can alter the style of the fight, so choose interesting locations with lots of potential for creativity. More importantly, use the atmosphere of the fight to add tension and immersion to the fight. For example, if your battle takes place inside a cathedral, have your characters utilize the pews for barriers and platforms, use a candelabrum as a weapon or to set something on fire, or even jump on-board a massive, rocking chandelier for some high-flying, reckless combat. Mention the way that the sounds of combat echo through the rafters, or how the stained-glass windows cast crimson light down on the combatants. The possibilities for adding to the atmosphere of a battle are as boundless as your own creativity.

Each universe has its own set of rules, and depending on those rules, the style of your combat will vary. In some universes, gravity has little effect, making battles much more open with many more possibilities. Battles involving magic or other such super powers have their own set of rules, as well. Choose atmospheres that allow your combatants to utilize their special powers in unique ways. The TV series, Avatar, demonstrates this principle quite well, in that it uses atmosphere in order to create unique battle fields with every fight. For example, a character who can manipulate—or “bend”—water must have some source of water in order to fight. In the show, a “water-bender” may find themselves in a variety of unique fights in which they must use their powers in innovative ways, such as by bending a tidal wave from the ocean, freezing water into ice pellets, absorbing water from snow, or even using their own sweat as a weapon.

3. Even the Odds
Much like the story’s plot, a fight is not enjoyable to read if it is predictable or one-sided. There will be times when your combatants will not be evenly-matched, and these battles will end quickly and unceremoniously. However, for a lengthier, more engaging fight, both opponents will need to have evened odds. This does not mean that both characters must be equally matched. It simply means that the “weaker” character must have some form or chance of winning against the stronger opponent. The “weaker” character may be able to use the atmosphere to get an advantage, have an animal companion that assists them in combat, or perhaps have a temporary benefit because their enemy is weakened or wounded, etc.

Unless your character is designed to intentionally have god-like powers, it’s a good idea to have both characters take injury at least once in order to show that they both have a chance at winning. This also helps to make your heroes and villains realistic and generally assists with avoiding the “over-powered god-character” stereotype. Remember that, with battles, you don’t want to be too predictable, but you do want to be believable. If you want the underdog character to win the fight, then come up with a believable, creative way for them to win. Chances are that they will not be able to conquer their foe through brute force or whatever fighting technique their opponent has mastered. In Redwall, the hero conquers the villain by cutting away the rope of the abbey bell and having it crash down on the villain. Even through the hero is unable to defeat the villain through outright strength, he uses his cunning, and the atmosphere of the battle, to his advantage and triumphs in the end.

4. Visualize
It is impossible to write anything without some form of visualization; however, when you pen, or type, a battle sequence, this visualization is incredibly important.

What does your battle look like? Try to see it in HD detail. Visualize everything. Notice the smallest details—the shadows, the fabric of your characters clothes, the exact patterns and colors of the magical attacks involved, the light flashing along the swords… It’s a lot to keep up with, but with fighting scenes it’s important to visualize what’s going on. Otherwise, you might end up writing a combat sequence that doesn’t flow.

Is your combat realistic? Wearing a billowing cape into a one-on-one duel may not be the brightest idea, even if it does make for some rather dramatic descriptions. Does your character really need to backflip over a bench in order to avoid that attack? Better yet, is it possible to backflip while wearing all that armor? Granted, your characters may be incredibly agile. They may be ninjas or mages who are capable of maneuvers that regular fighters couldn’t hope to pull off. If this is the case, then know what physics and rules apply to their style of fighting and ensure that their combat remains within believability.

5. Seek Inspiration
One of the absolute best things you can do to enhance your battle-writing skills is to read, and view, battles. Pick up novels with detailed, stimulating action sequences, such as the works of Brian Jacques or R.A. Salvatore. If you enjoy movies, watch The Lord of the Rings, Avengers, The Legend of Korra, or some other action film that matches the genre of your story. If video games are your thing, take a look at the Final Fantasy series for some intense, CGI combat. Regardless of the genre you write, there are many wonderful media options available for your viewing pleasure. Here are some things to look for as you view an action sequence:

  • How do the characters use the atmosphere to their advantage?
  • How does the atmosphere add to the drama or uniqueness of the battle?
  • Do both characters take injuries of some kind?
  • Does one character appear to have the advantage? How does the “weaker” character compensate for this?
  • How are the physics and/or systems of the world implemented into the battle (magic, physics, super-powers, shields, etc.)?
  • Is victory achieved? Is it achieved through outright force, or through some other compensation?
Music is another stimulating way to unlock your inspiration. Seek out thrilling, engaging soundtracks and visualize the combat happening in time to the music. You might be surprised with how many ideas you are able to generate with this method. For some epic, inspiring music, I recommend checking out Immediate Music, Two Steps from Hell, and Audiomachine, to name a few. Trailer music and movie scores are both excellent sources of inspiration for wide-sweeping battle scenes, and I highly recommend listening to some as you brainstorm your combat sequence.