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Character Corner -- Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer

It has been some while since I did a character review, but then, it has been some while since I read something quite this engaging. I have to say, I picked up Bloody Jack rather on a whim. I enjoy pirate stories, and have one in the works to write myself, so I’m always interested in seeing how other authors portray that era and life on the high seas. (I also have to say that I would never have picked it up at all except for the awesome swashbuckling cover art shown here which, sad to say, seems to have been chucked in the version currently available on Amazon for a cover which is practically cliched in its bland triteness.)

But, it being a Young Adult title, I have to say I went in with fairly low expectations. I don’t mean that as any kind of dig against YA—I love YA, and most of what I write has been YA. I only mean that I wasn’t expecting much more than a hum-drum tale of pirates and Spanish gold. Boy was I wrong, in the best possible way. It is, as the Publisher’s Weekly starred review says, “a rattling good read” that kept me up late several nights in a row, largely on the strength of its amazing protagonist.

The protagonist is Mary Faber, a young orphaned waif making a hard living on the streets of London. How she becomes “Jack” Faber and ends up on a ship in His Majesty’s service is a tale in itself, which I won’t spoil here except to say that it is touching and poignant and heartbreaking in all the right ways. And while striving not to spoil anything else in the book, I do want to talk about the some of the many things Meyer does very much right with his protagonist.

Voice

Meyer has an incredible ear for the language of the period. He portrays 18th century English vernacular with incredible facility. Further, he made the perfect choice in writing the book in first-person POV. Thus, not only does the language of the book convey the setting, but it’s also integral to Mary’s characterization. Everything we see is Mary’s take on events. If you go to writers conferences or attend talks by agents and publishers, you’ll always hear them say they’re looking for books with a strong voice. Bloody Jack is a great example.

Personality

Meyer gave his protagonist quite a personality, and one that is perfectly fitted to her backstory. It is never difficult to believe that she would feel and act in the ways she does. Her ship-board life demands acts of bravery, which she supplies, not because she’s brave (and at several points Mary herself remarks on how she was never very brave) but because she’s a survivor and because she’ll do just about anything to protect the people she cares about. Meyer has done an amazing job of portraying someone who really does wish she could just have a quiet, peaceful, safe life, but can’t, and yet rises to the occasion in order to get by.

Those are Mary’s major themes. But Meyer didn’t stop there. He gave her some additional colorful personality traits—a love of music, a playfully evil mischievious streak, and a right saucy sailor mouth—all of which he works into the fabric of the storyline. None of those traits are there just for fun. Every one of them has a meaningful impact on the ship-board events, and affects Mary’s standing significantly.

He also portrays her as an intelligent, thoughtful girl. This largely comes through in the way she thinks about life, and the occasional deeply insightful observations she makes about it. And if I may go off on a tangent for a moment, I think novels give writers a unique opportunity to make readers think about things they might not otherwise think about. But, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that. The wrong way is to be heavy-handed, preachy, and moralistic in your narrative, to make sure the reader cannot possibly miss how you feel about an issue. The right way is simply to shine a little light on an issue, show your readers how your characters feel about it, and let readers make up their own minds. If you do read Bloody Jack (which I highly recommend), pay attention to Mary’s observations about the differences between men’s and women’s clothing for a great example of how to do that right.

Goals

There’s a saying that in every scene, you have to know what the goals of each character are. Further, characters are supposed to have an over-riding goal for the story, one that is captured in the story’s central conflict. Mary definitely has goals in every scene, but she doesn’t so much have a goal for the whole story as she has a series of escalating goals. One of the parts of Bloody Jack I enjoyed most was watching the evolution of Mary’s goals as the book progresses. In the beginning, her threats are starvation, freezing to death in the winter, and the gruesomely portrayed antagonist Mr. Muck. Her goal is simple survival. But as the book progresses, her goals shift, little by little, until by the end she has gained meaningful long-term goals for her whole life.

Her character arc is wrapped up in her ever-expanding event horizon. In the beginning of the book, she doesn’t expect to live long at all. Street urchins usually don’t. But by the end, everything has changed. Watching her go from hopelessness to hopeful about the future, and watching her have dreams and make plans about the future, was really beautiful to read. Like watching someone come back to life. Masterfully done, Mr. Meyer. Masterfully done indeed.

Treatment

Finally, the way Meyer treats Mary in the book is perfect. She has a hard life, and Meyer doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t do the worst thing possible to her, which would be to baby her. If you want to read a great example of the adage “when in doubt, make it worse,” read Bloody Jack. Because Meyer relentlessly makes her situation worse, while at the same time making it much, much better. It’s a great piece of writerly jujitsu, watching how he alleviates one problem in her life only to reveal more subtle, darker, sinister problems lurking in wait.

All in all, I loved Bloody Jack. Even better, it’s the first book in series chronicling the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy. I’m excited to read the rest! Give Bloody Jack a try. You won’t be sorry.

August 20, 2010 18:11 UTC

Tags: character corner, book review, L.A. Meyer, Bloody Jack, voice, personality, goals, treatment

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How to use historical figures in your novels

One of my followers on Twitter, Samantha Johnson, asked me “Do you have a post about basing characters loosely on historical figures? And how not to get trapped in the facts?” Well, I didn’t, but now I do! Thanks Samantha! (And by the way, you all should check out the highly amusing bio on her Twitter profile. How can you not like someone like that?)

Samantha goes on to clarify her question: “When I start researching historical figures to get a better sense of their personality, I get so caught up in the facts that I find it very difficult to add my own flair to my characters. It could be a fear of adding/subtracting a trait that ends up making another seem inconsistent or false. It could be a result of my love of history not wanting me to tamper with anything. The more sources and interpretations of historical figures I read, the harder it is for me to figure out how to fictionalize the traits in a way that fits.”

Those are good concerns to have. However, Samantha, I’m heartened to see that you are already doing the first thing right: Research.

Know what you’re talking about

Samantha already knows this, but seriously, make sure you know what you’re talking about. Do some research. How can you expect to use, say, Leonardo Loredan in your epic tale of love and politics in 16th century Venice, if you don’t actually know anything about the guy? I’ve heard writers say that research on their historical figures doesn’t matter all that much because the people they’re borrowing for their novels are too obscure, and nobody’s going to know the difference. Wrong.

Somebody will know the difference. This is a double problem for you. One, if that person does know something about Leonardo Loredan, and you didn’t do any research, chances are that person knows more than you and they will catch you screwing something up. This usually drops the reader’s view of the author by several notches, and messes up their enjoyment of the book. Two, someone who actually knows who Leonardo Loredan was is your ideal target reader. This is the person you want reading your book, loving it, and getting totally stoked because not only did you use a historical figure they knew about, but you got the details right. That’s a person who is going to go give you a five-star rating on Amazon, who is going to generate word-of-mouth sales for you, and so forth. Be smart. Be like Samantha and respect your readers (and your story, honestly) enough to do some research.

Let the research guide you

I’ve written two historicals. In both cases, I learned some utterly wild, crazy stuff I could never have dreamed up on my own. Sometimes, I honestly don’t know why everyone doesn’t just write historical novels, because actual history is so much weirder than anything I can invent, it saves you from coming up with all the fun, quirky little twists and details that make a historical novel come to life. In a certain sense—except for all the research—historicals are easier to write. Case in point: One of my novels is set on the Pony Express trail. In the research, I learned that the famous British explorer Sir Richard Burton travelled the length of the Pony Express trail, and inferred from excerpts of the journals he kept along the way that he was kind of a pompous ass. Not only that, he was on the trail during the specific few months in which my novel takes place. Perfect! He became the inspiration for a much-needed lighthearted chapter in what is otherwise a fairly gritty book. Would I ever have thought to toss a famous British explorer into my Wild West novel? Not a chance. But I found him in the research. Let the research guide you, because history really is stranger than fiction.

In doing the research, you will inevitably stumble upon quirky, fun people who existed on the sidelines of whatever your true research subject is. I wholeheartedly encourage writers to take advantage of those people when you find them. Steal them outright. They can often make wonderful minor character additions to a novel.

When it comes to adding your own flair to a historical figure, I think it’s always a balancing act. Samantha, I admire your dedication to historical accuracy, but as you point out, the interpretations we have of historical figures are often contradictory. What then? Well:

Consider how much we really know about the figure

Here’s a simple rule of thumb. The less we know about a historical figure—and the further back in time your novel is set—the more leeway you have. If I wanted to write a novel set in the 1970s hipster art scene and wanted Andy Warhol to play a part, I’d have to learn a heck of a lot about Warhol in order to make sure I got it right. I’d have to make sure he could have been in a certain art gallery on a certain date in 1973, that I capture his voice with some degree of fidelity, et cetera. Conversely, I once wrote a middle-grade adventure novel set in ancient Egypt, where one of the pharaohs plays a role. Now, that was a long time ago, and in terms of the question “what kind of a guy was Pharaoh Khafre?” the answer is “who the heck knows.” I needed him to be a sympathetic figure to the reader, so I made him be a nice guy. A thoughtful ruler who cared about his people. Accurate? Beats me. But since nobody knows one way or the other, you the writer are free to do whatever works for the story.

That last bit, Samantha, is where I think you should focus your concerns. What’s going to work for your story? I mean, if you read two biographies of Henry Ford and one says he loved horses, while the other one says he hated horses and that’s why he went big into automobiles (note: I’m totally making that up), you kind of have to pick one. When historians can’t agree on what somebody was like, why not pick the one that’s going to give you better opportunities for working with that person in your story?

Be smart about who you pick

In line with that, when you have a choice as to which historical figure you place into your book, all else being equal, pick the one we know less about. Maybe your novel is about a working-class woman in the late 1800s who has to make hard choices in order to join the suffragist movement, and your initial idea was that your protagonist would come under Susan B. Anthony’s wing. Fine, but does it have to be her? Why not Abby Kelly Foster, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, or any of the other early women’s rights advocates? Structrually, there’s no reason the story wouldn’t work with those women instead. You may want to think about balancing commercial appeal of having a big-name historical character in your book with the additional leeway you get from using lesser-known figures, but don’t box yourself into using the big-name person just because that’s what you thought of first.

Is what you’re doing with the figure plausible?

Plausibility, in every aspect of every novel, is where so many unpublished manuscripts go wrong. For the portrayal of historical figures in our novels, plausibility about what you have them doing is probably the one thing you can control that has the greatest power to make or break your book. In your Revolutionary War novel, if you’ve got George Washington walking among the half-frozen soldiers at Valley Forge and giving his own boots to a particularly pitiable soldier with freezing feet, yeah, ok. Readers will probably go with you on that. On the other hand, if that same soldier later gets shot—perhaps as a consequence of throwing himself in front of his general to take a bullet for the great leader—and then you have Washington whip out his pocket knife and perform emergency field surgery to remove the bullet and re-inflate the soldier’s collapsed lung, chances are you’ve gone out of bounds.

As a reader, I like to use a two-question litmus test for historical figure plausibility. Question one: Has the writer established that this figure could reasonably be present in the story at this time? Question two: Is the historical figure doing things that are in keeping with my understanding of that person?

If the reader can answer “yes” to both, you’re fine. Usually, this means sticking to normal, unremarkable actions, to things the person really did, and to stuff that’s similar to things the figure really did. That is, don’t turn George Washington into a field surgeon. Unless he was. I don’t know; I haven’t researched him. If you do need to have a historical figure do something really amazing or unexpected, the burden is on you to set it up well ahead of time in order to make it plausible to the reader. Example: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Getting back to Samantha’s concern about “what fits,” I think you have to trust yourself. When you have multiple options that are supported by your research, which work for your story, and which aren’t implausible, just trust yourself. In doing all that research, you’ll have formed your own idea about the historical figure. Who’s to say your interpretation of the person is any less valid than someone else’s? What do you think fits better? Your answer will be guided by who you are as a person, and all the rich history of your own life you bring into your writing. This is why, if you trust yourself to make the right call and honor that decision as you write, it’ll come out well on the page. It will fit because it came from the heart.

Other people will make different choices, but that’s ok. Their choices will fit for them too, because they will be writing a different story than you.

Finally, one last suggestion:

Read the masters

There are countless novels which make use of real historical figures, all in various levels of faithfulness to history. Find some that seem to hit about the same level of authenticity you’re going for, and read them. Your local librarians can be a great help to you there. But don’t just read them for the story. Read them like a forensic novelologist. Pick them apart to see what makes them work, and pay particular attention to the way the writer has portrayed the historical figures. In Stephen King’s epic On Writing, he says something along the lines of “good writers steal from everything they’ve ever read.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. None of us works in a vacuum, and it’s totally fair game to borrow tips and techniques from those who have noveled before you. Here are some of my favorites, just to get you started:

Lamb, by Christopher Moore. Moore has written several books with religious themes, but in Lamb he is at his finest. Lamb is a hilarious, irreverent, and yet at the same time deeply thoughtful and reverent imagined biography of Jesus, aptly subtitled “the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” If you’ve ever wondered what the Son of God did for fun when he was just a kid, this is the book for you. And if you haven’t, well, Moore did and that’s probably why he’s making more money with his writing than you or I are ever likely to. Either way, Lamb is an excellent example of an in-depth portrayal of a famous historical figure about whom everybody knows the same few things, but nobody really knows much about in terms of his day-to-day life.

The Eight, by Katherine Neville. Aside from being a cracking good adventure novel of astonishing breadth, The Eight is an example of touching lightly on a great many famous historical figures, spread across several continents and cultures. Neville certainly did not become stuck in the facts, yet she hews to the images we have of the famous figures of France (and most of Europe, really) to create believability. The Eight is a truly singular book, the magic of which Neville sadly failed to recapture in her sequel The Fire.

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. This book will likely never go out of print, no matter how long in the tooth it might now seem. But, if you’re looking for an example of middle-grade historicals with famous characters, look no further. The portrayal of the famous figures (Paul Revere and some other founding fathers) is exactly in keeping with our stereotypical, larger-than-life images of these people. It’s not nuanced, but I don’t mean that as a criticism; for middle-grade readers who are likely more interested in action and adventure than in subtle questions of the interplay between loyalty to the British Crown versus loyalty to higher moral principles, it’s not a bad way to go at all.

For many more examples—although by no means a complete list, check out the Index of Real People in Works of Fiction. Have your own favorite examples of historical figures in fiction? Share ‘em down in the comments. Just remember to keep the knife out of George’s hand.

August 15, 2010 05:35 UTC

Tags: character, historical figures, fact checking, plausibility

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Using the bystander effect in your novels

Take a look at that picture. What do you see in it? A street scene. Tumbled flats of vegetables, corn, green beans, and what look like cucumbers spilled on the pavement. People walking past. What don’t you see? Anybody lifting a finger to help clean it up. The original picture this one was cropped from has over a dozen people in it, and every one of them is probably thinking something along the lines of “Ooh, glad that’s not my problem.”

That’s the bystander effect. It is the tendency for people to offer less help to strangers the more other people are around. The ironic thing is that if there had been only one other person on the street when this little accident took place, that person would have been much more likely to step in and offer assistance.

Why does it happen?

The reasons behind it are pretty straightforward, and psychologists seem to be of the impression that a number of factors contribute to the bystander effect. One is “diffusion of responsibility” (don’t you just love the fancy names psychologists come up with for everything?): not doing anything because you figure surely someone else will. Another is social proof: when confronted with an emergency situation, people’s initial reaction is to look around to see how other people are responding in order to decide how to respond. So everyone looks around, and sees everyone else also just looking around—that is, not doing anything because they’re also busy making the same internal assessment—and decides that the situation must not be all that serious. A third is uncertainty and fear, not being confident of one’s ability to actually help, or to help in a way that the help-ee will actually appreciate. These are all pretty normal feelings, but they all add up to folks not helping other folks as much as we might hope.

So what can you do with it in your novels? Three things, which revolve around the different roles present in these kinds of situations:

Victim

As I’ve counseled many times before, it’s good to do bad things to your main characters, so your poor protagonists may well be the ones in a scene who would like some help.

If you’re writing in an intimate point of view, either first person or third-person limited, then the POV character is the stand-in for the reader. This creates a wonderful opportunity to create reader empathy: Let the POV character need help, but not get any. Let any bystanders in the scene, well, stand by. If you portray the POV character’s need for help as well as his or her growing sense of desperation as nobody steps up to offer that help, you can really put readers on the edge of their seats. Basically, by giving readers enough information to understand that the emergency situation really is an emergency—that help is genuinely needed—they’ll be just as frustrated at the useless bystanders as your POV character.

This can work really well in an opening scene, as a means for quickly bonding the reader to your POV characters in order that the reader cares what happens to them. You need to be careful not to let your POV characters be so utterly helpless and pathetic that readers can’t root for them—which probably means letting your characters solve their own problems after failing to get help from anybody else—but it can be a great way to create a character-based hook for a novel.

Useless bystander

On the flip-side, you might put a POV character into the useless bystander role. Why might you do this? Because it works well in the early chapters of novels that are driven by inner character arcs as a way to drive home the character’s starting point. When you have a character who is going to experience some kind of inner growth as the story progresses, you need a way to show that they are presently in an emotionally blocked or stunted state. Showing that POV character being unable to render aid and assistance can achieve this.

Be careful, though; there is an obvious danger. It’s easy for readers to decide they don’t like a character who sees someone in need but decides not to help. The way around this pitfall is to make sure the reader understands two things: why the POV character cannot help, and that the POV character feels bad about it. You have to let the reader into the character’s head enough to see the character’s internal debate over whether to help, enough to help the reader understand the choice not to, and enough to see that despite that choice the character would have liked to help. Show us the character’s impulses towards helping, and the counter-impulses against helping. If you show us the struggle, we’re more likely to feel positively towards the character even though the character’s better nature loses.

Which is kind of the point. It’s that very self-defeat by one’s own inner demons that sets the stage for the book’s inner character arc.

Hero

Lastly, of course, there’s the hero. The bystander who doesn’t merely stand by, but in fact goes to the aid of the person in need. If you’re writing some kind of action/adventure book, you’re in very good company by using this technique to build up your character as a heroic figure. How many books have we seen that involve some variant on POV characters rescuing kittens from trees, chasing down muggers in order to return an old lady’s purse, et cetera? It’s common, because it works, but I caution you to be careful here, too.

The common-ness of this technique pushes it dangerously close to cliche territory. Further, it’s very easy to overdo it and end up with an implausibly melodramatic result. That’s fine, if you’re writing a tongue-in-cheek superhero novel or something, but most of the time it damages the reader’s belief in the character. I mean, sure, real life does have its selfless heroes who, without hesitation, run into burning buildings or dive into flood-swollen rivers to save other people.

But most novels need something a little more tame in order for readers to believe in the character as a real person, and that something is exactly what those real-life heroes don’t have: hesitation. Again, it’s all about letting the reader into the character’s head. For my money, you get a much more believable and sympathetic hero if you show the character’s internal debate about helping. The only difference between the hero, then, and the useless bystander is which side of the character’s personality wins the debate. So let us see the character asking himself, “Does that person really need help? Should I jump in? The character is a proxy for the reader here, too, so it’s very helpful to show the character asking himself the same kinds of questions readers would be asking themselves in that situation.

Then, all you need is something to break that internal logjam in favor of acting. It could be anything. Empathy for the victim because the hero suffered a similar problem in the past isn’t bad, if a little cliched still. For male POV character’s, there’s always the allure of playing the hero in order to impress a girl. That always works. But my favorite reason to jump in is frustration at not seeing anybody else jump in. You take the POV character from seeing the situation and thinking “gosh, somebody should really help that person,” to wondering “why is nobody helping?” and finally to “Dammit! I guess I’ll help, then!”

Conclusion

So, there you go. The bystander effect, and three ways to make it work for you in your novels. I’m curious to know, is this something you’ve used in your novels before? Is it something that could help your current work-in-progress? Tell us about it down in the comments!

August 03, 2010 21:34 UTC

Tags: character, bystander effect, victim, hero, sympathy, inner character arc

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