Tag Archives: characters

Literary Horrors

I had the hardest time coming up with a Halloween costume this year. I wanted something at least a little offbeat, but of course you want to be semi-recognizable, too, otherwise, what’s the point? (True story: I went as a “Freudian slip” one year—a slip worn as a dress, decorated with Freud’s face and a bunch of psychology sayings—and it was a total disaster because no one could tell what it was. I’d put a lot of work into it, too!)

But I’m also behind and it was so close to Halloween that I didn’t have the time or the energy to sew something from scratch. And the pre-packaged ones are decidedly not appropriate for most locations.

But then a friend mentioned her idea, and it was so utterly brilliant I stole it (with permission. We live in different parts of the country, so it’s ok). I’m going as “the girl with the Green Ribbon.” It’s from a children’s book, “In a Dark, Dark Room and other Scary Stories.”

Here, have a listen if you don’t remember it:

I remember the book, vaguely, but I also think I heard it as a campfire tale. It’s perfect: it’s creepy, not too hard to do, work-appropriate, and—bonus!—literary. I’ll be wearing a Victorian-ish dress with a green ribbon around my neck, and a bit of makeup to make me pale, pale, pale, perhaps with a bit of bonus blood ichor seeping around the ribbon. (I’ll try to post a picture after I’ve got it all compiled.)

So what are you going as? Also, bonus points, let’s come up with some good literary horror/costume ideas for next year.

Perhaps:

  • The Cat in the Hat (cat costume + striped hat and bowtie)
  • Carrie, from Carrie, of course (white dress covered in blood dye + blood makeup?)
  • Harry Dresden, The Dresden Files (black trench coat + wizard staff)
  • The Velveteen Rabbit (rough-around-the-edges rabbit costume & tissues because you’ll make everyone cry)
  • Snow Queen from Narnia (though this year you’ll probably get confused with the Frozen crowd)
  • Pride And Prejudice and Zombies (what’s better than undead literature?)

(You know, it figures that I would come up with all these ideas only after I’ve got a costume figured out…)

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Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard #1)The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not sure I’ve ever had such trouble rating a book with such excellent writing. The truth, though, is that, while it is exceedingly well-written, it’s convoluted and faces so many different plot options it is hard to stick with the story.

Let’s start with the good stuff: Lynch has wrought a fantasy-tinged world in greater detail and clarity than the real world. His Camorr has layer upon layer of complexity, beauty, grime, seediness, character, and mystery. Despite the ample attention to detail, I wanted more. I wanted to know about the incredible Elderglass towers and how they were created, and how humans came to occupy them. I wanted a calendar of all the holidays in the city and descriptions of each festivity. I wanted to peek inside the temples of each of the 13 gods. It is rich and detailed and effortless; characters curse and revel in this very real world without a hint that this is fiction.

I’m also quite pleased with the confidence schemes that Lynch has concocted. They are as much of a joy to the reader as the characters committing them upon unwitting folk. Locke Lamora sells his false-face activities well, and I hungered for more of the like. In fact, I wished the whole book were nothing but a testament to the way Locke got himself in and out of one scrape after another.

That’s also the problem: from the first 1/3-1/2 of the book, that was what I thought I was reading: a lighthearted and amusing tale of a con men pulling a con. And I liked that. It was great fun trying to guess how Locke was going to manage the next touch against his enemy, wondering how close he could get to being caught.

But then the book took a sudden and dark turn, literally out of nowhere. It felt like this was not really one book, but three, smooshed together. To the point that, as much as I liked the characters and the overall world, I’m not sure I want to read any more adventures. I felt like the book I started and the book I finished were not at all related; the plot got twisty, and not always in a good way.

Possible spoilers to follow. Read at your own risk.

In vague terms, here are the major plot intersections I can identify:

  • Locke, as a child, is taken up by the Thiefmaker.
  • Locke, as a child, finds a new home with Chains.
  • Locke and his gang, now grown, are pulling a big con on some wealthy folks.
  • It seems the secret police are onto the con… oh no! Oh wait, no, that’s just more of Locke’s cleverness at work.
  • While doing a typical errand, Locke is encumbered by a marriage engagement he can’t easily escape. What will ever become of him?
  • A bad guy, heretofore unknown to the story, kidnaps Locke and requires he perform an impossible task.
  • OUT OF FREAKING NOWHERE, the bad guy kills the girl Locke was supposed to be engaged to, less than two chapters after it was introduced, forcing his boss to require Locke to help him fight the bad guy.
  • Double-cross by the bad guy. Things are not going at all according to plan.
  • Everyone you love is murdered. Locke swears revenge.
  • More murder, almost excessive. Bad guy takes over.
  • Other villain only previously hinted at turns out to be real and hatches a plan to get Locke.
  • Locke overcomes multiple obstacles and difficult situations to win the day, much the worse for wear.

 

I gotta say, I felt like I couldn’t really enjoy the book after the marriage-proposal feint. I’m not even sure what point it served; it feels like that could be cut entirely from the book without a mark of incident. It just seems too convoluted, and it made it hard to know what I was supposed to be cheering for at any given moment. Plus, dark-revenge-tale is deeply different from the lighthearted caper we were enjoying at first.

My other beef is the situation with female characters. Though there are ample women used as setpieces and secondary characters, some even with some mild action, this book is a sausage-fest. There’s even plenty of opportunity for a female character: one is mentioned repeatedly but never shows up. You could change one (or more) of the characters in Locke’s gang into women without at all changing the story. A few women toward the very end of the book see some action, but it seems half-hearted. Though characters–even a whole chapter!–claimed that women were not to be trifled with, it seemed more sentiment than truth, and made me wonder if Lynch was somehow afraid to write women characters (which is foolish, because his background ladies were really interesting! Just…not a lot to them.)

I’m not sure I would recommend this book. It feels like those who would like a fantasy caper might not like the end (like me) and those who might like a gore-heavy revenge story might not get through the lighter beginning material to see the stuff they liked. But it is incredibly well-written and I’m impressed with Lynch as a whole. Perhaps I’d like one of his books that ran shorter than 720 pages.

View all my reviews

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Stephen King at His Worst

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew. (Pro tip: It may not be a great idea to read horror when you’re going through a stressful time! The more you know!)

It’s taking me awhile. I picked it a) because it’s Stephen King and I feel like there’s a lot I can learn by studying him, b) my fiance brought me the book when I didn’t have one to read, and c) I figured hey, short stories! Perfect for when I’m busy!

I sort of forgot that I don’t read Stephen King generally because he writes horror. …The subsequent nightmares reminded me, don’t worry.

Anyway, so I’ve been reading this book. And you can tell he’s talented, even though many of his successful books, including On Writing, hadn’t been written yet. But the really interesting thing, to me, is the prologue. He writes about how he likes to write short stories, how he got started with them, selling a thing or two to a magazine (back in the day when mainstream magazines bought fiction to publish) to keep his family afloat. He writes about how it’s been harder, since he started in on novels, to find time for the shorts.

And–critically–he talks about how the contained stories aren’t really “winners.” (He specifically calls them “losers” and then details why, and why you should read on anyway.) I don’t know if that’s an author’s critic chewing away at him or what, and I haven’t read enough of his works overall to know for sure but… I believe him.

Some of the stories don’t really work. Some are dalliances with other genres and then remember they’re supposed to be horror so make a sharp and weird turn at the end, like The Jaunt (science fiction), The Wedding Gig (1920s crime intrigue) and The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands (maybe Poe-sian or Doyle? I dunno, it just didn’t work). Some are clearly horror but are so undefined that it’s hard to be frightened, like The Raft, which read like an episode of Supernatural, except those guys would have killed the monster somehow.  Then there are those where you can see the ending coming from a mile away, like the charming wish-fulfillment fantasy Word Processor of the Gods.

Nevertheless, I feel like I’m learning a lot from these “losers.” (I mean, they were still published, some of them twice, so they aren’t so bad, really). King is great at giving his characters baggage; everybody has issues of some kind. This makes his people relatable. I think I can work on that in my writing. I also feel like I know the general landscape of Maine, even though I’ve never been anywhere near it; he does a great job mining his geography for detail, and maybe I need to work on embracing Texas in my writing more. His word-choice manages to have depth without ever feeling too out of reach for a general audience, and it feels like you’re getting to know him.

But the biggest lesson, perhaps, I’ve gotten so far? Failure doesn’t always mean the end.

Skeleton Crew was published in 1984. In 2007, the first story in the book became a movie: The Mist.  I haven’t seen it, but it seems like it stays pretty true to the text…with a critical and gut-wrenching change to the ending.

23 years later, his “loser” became a success–or at least a pretty good movie, with a slight change. It has a rating of 7.2 stars on IMDB right now. That’s not so bad for a “meh” story, is it, Stephen?

Twenty-three years seems like a long time to wait, but it does give me hope. (Though I’d prefer things come along a tad faster.)

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States of Change

I’m planning a wedding, and it’s got me thinking about how we live our lives. For the most part, we make small, inconsequential choices (ignoring the possibility of butterfly effect situations: stopping to buy a candy bar, which makes us late for the train, which means we are distracted when the taxi comes out of nowhere to hit us). Sure, these actions always have consequences of some kind (sunburn today = skin cancer in 20 years), but for the most part are unimportant.

But there are a few times in our lives when we make a choice that forces a change of state: we will no longer be the same thing we were before.

Putting aside all the situations that would be like this but that we could not control (tsunami, random mugging, diagnosis of a genetic illness, getting older), we are left with a few opportunities where we can make a choice and change who we are.

Getting married is one of them: once I am wed, I will never again be able to be “unwed.” Sure, I could be divorced, separated, or widowed, but I can never again go back to the “never married” state. It’s a one-time deal.

Outwardly, this doesn’t necessarily mean much: I check a different box on government forms, woo. And I don’t know if it will change my actual relationship with my significant other–some people say yes, but then there are a lot of people who are married in all but name, and they don’t seem that different–but this idea that I am consciously changing myself in a way that I can’t take back is pernicious.

There don’t seem to be many of these kinds of choices in life. Having kids, certainly: you can never really undo that, even if they are given up for adoption. Death, of course, is a major one, at least until we get some cryogenics going on.

Writing a novel is one, I think: even if you aren’t yet published, you have created something that will never actually go away, even if it is mostly just a folder on your desktop.

Some stories require this kind of grand-scale state-changing choice, but it’s sort of surprising that not all are required to. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo at first does not make a state-changing choice: he is just going on a walk because Gandalf told him to. It could be argued that taking on the ring in Rivendell “transforms” him into the Ringbearer, and he could never again not be the ringbearer, but I don’t think that’s true. Yes, he decides to stick with it, but there are multiple times when he nearly (or actually does!) lose the ring. And (while it wouldn’t have been a good story) there remains a choice that he could have made: to just turn around and go home.

But a state change does happen in American Gods, but not until very late in the story, when Shadow has already experienced much of the hero’s journey. It is similarly the pivotal moment in Good Omens, when our young antiChrist chooses to stop the apocalypse.  (What do you mean, you hadn’t read that one yet? Go read that book, right this instant!)

And the excellent Life of Pi does not offer much in the way of choice at all for our hero: he must make a series of small decisions. True, the stakes are high, but there is no one crucial decision.

For the broad swath of our lives, we make choices, but rarely do we make these kinds of life-altering decisions. Have you made one that I’ve overlooked? Are these choices similarly critical to our characters as they are to us? Tell me what you think.

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Worldbuilding 101: For Authors

This talk has nice animation, but doesn’t get to the good stuff until about 3 minutes in.

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January 25, 2014 · 2:35 pm

Is Your Character Stuck with a Fad Name?

I read an absolutely fascinating article on baby names, and how they change over time and how some names sort of move in packs and what is currently going on with the state of baby-naming (hello, yoonik names!). It’s really delicious.
The only things I’ve named recently are my cats (after literary characters) and my car (Sassafras, because she’s so Sassy — also, the word sounds really cool). With no kids to inflict odd names upon, I’m left with the people I make up for stories.
A quick review of recent name choices for my characters offers a smattering of my friends’ names, a cluster of intentionally old Biblical names, one “scifi” variation on a historical name, a few names tied to jobs and fibers for a cult of characters, and a bunch of fairly generic common American names.
I feel like I need to now take those names (or at least those of significant characters) and run them through the name research gauntlet as Wait But Why did.
Picking a character name is tricky. Maybe — dare I say it? — harder than picking a baby’s name. Bear with me here: a kid grows into a person. Over time, they aren’t defined by their name, necessarily, but it becomes just an appellation attached to that person. Sure, we may say that “John” is a “good strong name,” for example, but if John the kid turns out to be kinda puny in the strength department, we don’t think he is a failure as a “John.”
But a character? Well, they should grow, certainly, but they exist, fully formed, before the reader even enters the story. And a name is one way for the author to tell the reader something about the character. (I’m looking at you, Hunger Games).
Plus books take the “weird name” thing to a whole new level, with stories in different universes, fantasy scenarios, the far future. Heck, I’m reading “The Shipping News” now, and the main character’s name is “Quoyle,” as in a coil of rope. (There’s a rope/ship repeating pattern throughout.)
So names can really matter. Sometimes it seems like authors just take a “real” name and screw with the letters to make a character name, like “The Left Hand of Darkness.” Fantasy has a lot of names that are actually other nouns, often nature-related. Or names drawn from ancient Greece or Rome. (Related: Does anyone know where JRR Tolkien got the names for Lord of the Rings? Like, is there a guy out there who was named Frodo who got a lot of unwanted attention when it first came out?).
Naming a character can be loaded and fraught. How do you choose? Careful analysis and selection? Name origins? Concocted names? Or do you just go down a baby name generator and spin until something feels good?

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A Stegosaurus Blasted My Gender Stereotypes

stegasaurus, stomping gender normsI consider myself to be pretty thoughtful regarding gender issues. I was the kid in kindergarten who, when asked to draw a doctor, scribbled a woman in a lab coat, not a man (earth-shattering at the time, let me tell you (I’m sure this had nothing to do with the fact that my doctor was a woman and we watched  Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman as a family. Nothing.)) I care about feminist issues and try to be considerate of the issues faced by LBGTQ individuals. I made a female lead character for my science fiction dystopia and wrote a genderless novel for my gamebook.
I think about this stuff a lot.
And yet, I still have so much to learn sometimes. Unconscious biases can be a bitch.
Neil Gaiman was my teacher, as he has been so many times previously. And he did it with a children’s book.
You’ve read Fortunately, The Milk by now, right? I mean, I gave it a breathlessly positive review, so you definitely went out and bought it already, right?
Well, if not, you may not want to read the rest of this post, because of spoilers.
Anyway, I read Fortunately, The Milk. (And it’s marvelous. Practically perfect in the most Mary Poppins way.) One of the main characters is a time-traveling stegasaurus named Dr. Steg. (I mean, of course).
I’m as enchanted by the story and the misadventures as the children in the story, and then… everything came to a screeching halt.
90% of the way through the book, you are informed that Dr. Steg is a “madam.”
LADY DINOSAUR ALERT
To be fair, this comes as a surprise to the narrator/father as well, but this really hit me like a ton of bricks. Why did it throw me off so much? Why did I automatically assume Dr. Steg was a Mr. Dr. Steg?
I’ve given this some thought, and I think there are several reasons:
  • The drawings include no eyelashes or gaudy bows, cultural codes for “lady cartoon.”
  • The drawing depicts a rather heavyset dinosaur. Often, absent other markers, heavyset cartoons are male.
  • Dinosaurs are “boy things.”
  • Despite my kindergarten drawings, doctors, particularly “sciencey” doctors, are male.
  • Time-travelers are male.
— And they all still amount to “you still probably shouldn’t have made that assumption.”
And that’s what triggered me to write this post. Question your assumptions. It doesn’t have to be “that way,” even — especially! — if that is how it has always been done. (I mean, I’d like to see someone write some elves that are not musical, arrow-wielding, thin blond people. (Yes, I’ve just seen The Hobbit…)).
What assumptions did you have squashed by a fiction book?

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