Story Engineering, Day 2. Characterization and a summary of what I’ve learned

Today, I’ve chopped through 43% of Larry Brooks book Story Engineering, and I finished characterization.  That was an interesting way to consider how that works. In a nutshell, he says there’s the surface dimension (1st level), which is the façade (oooh, a Basque letter) you present to everyone, i.e. charming ex-CEO who smokes cigars and loves the ladies. The second level is the back story on why you are how you are: upbringing, experiences, abusive uncles, car accident where you were struck by 57 Chevy on the corner near school and it changed your life at 17 so that you were permanently broken and now you’re an addict at 63 and trying to change and you’ve always wanted to own a copy of the car that almost killed you, etc. So yeah, it’s the psychology behind the character, and that backstory needs to come out in the first act so we get a clue to the character’s deeper ideals and why they tick. Then you have the third dimension, which is the times when their true character appears, not the first level facade. We see behind the curtain to the real person.  And the third dimension moments define the character, whether they choose right or wrong, and why they choose that. (He doesn’t say this, but third dimension moments are also not usually on display, they seem to be triggered by some sort of conflict or event. Or maybe he said that in different words. I’d have to go back and reread it. That’s where the kindle isn’t nearly as fast as a dead-tree book.)

There’s a great deal more. He talks about character as structure (how the character develops throughout the story, which is, I think, the character arc). Essentially, certain things have to happen at certain times in the story, or it’ll be all fouled up. Your character needs to struggle all the way into the end of act 2, and if she overcomes that struggle before the climax, it messes up the pacing of the story because that becomes the new climax, and everything else after is anti-climactic.

I was considering this when I was reading Kate Colby‘s The Courtesan’s Avenger (Desertera #2), which, incidentally, was a great read. In it, her protagonist Dellwyn Rutt, a courtesan, has some serious flaws. And her backstory informs these flaws and the bad decisions she keeps making. She makes terrible decisions, but they make sense from the point where Dellwyn feels real and has very good reasons to make her flawed decisions. I kept yelling at the book, “Arc! Arc already!”  Of course, if she’d arced, it’d stop being interesting because then nothing would happen.  Nevertheless, it made for a good read and the character (and supporting cast) are well-characterized. They all have flaws, and this gets in the way of meaningful discourse, just like real life.

Today, I will read and attempt to embrace what Mr. Brooks has to say about Theme. I have a feeling that while I may see the words, I’ve never been one to grasp the underlying meaning very well. That’d be my character flaw. “Huh? There was a theme?” It might be my undoing as an author. Plus, there’s the aspect where I say, “why don’t we just have some nice shoot-em-up scenes.” Well-written, lovely, boring, non-thematic scenes that come out dry and meaningless, when instead I could be writing a thinly veiled polemic about the dangers of senior citizens running for president. As if that’s what the world needs, right now.

You may enrich the content of this blog with your treasured comments below. Especially if you understand theme.

The Cogsmith’s Daughter

I’m reading Kate Colby’s Cogsmith’s Daughter, and it’s well-done, but there’s a bit of worldbuilding that is niggling at me. See, it’s steampunk mixed with a sort of post-apocalyptic scene, where a bunch of survivors of a great flood are living in the desert around a huge ship.

So far, so good.

In fact, you should buy it and read it if it’s remotely down your aisle of stuff you like. Kate writes well and I have yet to encounter an out-of-place comma or tyop. So my compliments to her, or her editor, or both, on turning out a splendid product.

The protagonist, a likeable character named Aya, is part of a plot to gain revenge on the king. I can tell you that, because that’s in the book blurb, so I’m not posting spoilers here.

Part of that is she gets a lot of new clothes made for her.

That’s where the thing is breaking for me. See, silk normally comes from silk worms, right? You just don’t usually have bolts of it lying about.  Maybe they have some storerooms full of cloth. However, eventually the silk and cotton and velvet is going to wear out or you run out of it.  Cloth degenerates, just sitting about. For instance, see this article about temperature, light, humidity influencing the deterioration of fabric, especially heat. Metal in heat (such a ships in the middle of deserts) would be quite hot inside, and the higher the temp, the faster the deterioration of cloth.

So, yeah. Unless you have fields of cotton (and there’s no reason to believe they have this, though there are farms, but it’s not a commodity mentioned) and an industry around spinning and dyeing and weaving, after a few hundred years, no more cotton.  Same deal with linen (made from flax which grows in super wet conditions). Same deal with silk. That leaves you with wool.  I do believe there are sheep in the story, which means there’s mutton and wool. Maybe there’s goats, too.  Now, wool is a fantastic type of cloth for making stuff, but it doesn’t evoke the luxury of silk or velvet. I do see that they make wool velvet– see here for a nice-looking 40s coat of wool velvet— and I suppose that may be the velvet we’re hearing about in the book.

Anyway, there it is. That’s the part that’s bugging me. You’re saying, “Seriously, logistics, Matt? That’s the part you’re taking away from the book? Who cares??!” I know, it’s stupid.  OTOH, it’s also a steampunk genre, which is fantasy/sci fi that can’t make up its mind which one it is anyways, and the rest of it is a fancy bit of worldbuilding that I like. I can see Kate carefully setting up the conflicts and I’m pretty sure that the thing isn’t going to go the way the protagonist thinks it’s going to go.  I’m still cheering for her.  41% of the way through, and it’s a good read, except for my logistics nitpicking.

There’s probably a 12 step group for such a problem, though I’m not sure I’m going to join it. Good news: I just googled it and there is definitely no 12 step program for nitpicking. There probably should be…