Saturday, November 30, 2013

When Main Characters Don't Do Anything

Do you know what annoys me? Main characters that don't DO anything.

Let me elaborate. It really bothers me when the choices of the main character are either a) few and far between or b) don't make a difference. How can his happen? How can there be a story if the MC's actions aren't determining the plot?

I like to call it the minor character stealing the spotlight. Don't let your main character be a tag-along to the minor characters.

Here's an example:
MC (it usually happens to be a girl MC) has to escape from some evil government prison, and runs to the underground resistance. We spend at least 100 pages learning about the resistance, listening to the inner monologues of the MC. Usually the MC has some moral dilemma/guilt/remorse that doesn't come to a conclusion during these inner monologues. And we also get to hear (second hand of course) through the MC, as other characters do stuff (e.g. go on raids, sabotage the government, go on patrol etc.). The MC decides which meal she's going to have and who she's going to talk to in the lunchroom. Eventually the MC ends up helping somewhat (by following orders) in the final fight.

In this scenario the MC should be making decisions about how they're going to help the resistance. The leader tells me to stay at home and stay safe? "No way," MC should say, "I'm going to learn how to shoot and fight or I'm going to run a spy ring from the base or hack into their computers." It doesn't really matter what the MC does, as long as they're making a decisions that advance the plot. The MC shouldn't be letting the leader or other resistance members decide their future.

That doesn't mean that the MC should never follow orders or do what other characters tell them to. However, the MC should actively be making choices as they follow orders. For example, the leader tells the MC to go on patrol. MC follows orders and as they're patrolling they hear a noise in the bushes. The MC should be the one to check it out, not the other patrol member or another minor character.

















Your main character is the main character for a reason; why wouldn't you give them the best lines, the best back-story and the best parts in the story? All of your characters should make interesting choices, but your MC should be the most interesting and make the biggest impact. Don't let your main character become just a witness of awesomeness of the minor characters.

What would The Hunger Games be if Katniss decided to follow Peeta around the entire area, letting him protect her?
What would Harry Potter be if Harry let Dumbledore defeat Voldemort?
What would Anne of Green Gables by like if Anne watched Diana walk to roof peek to put someone in their place?
What would Nancy Drew be like if Bess and George had all the "hunches"?

What would you story be like it your main character took back the spotlight?

Reading: Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris
Listening: Switchfoot
Watching: Haven

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Post Harry Potter Part 2: The Cuckoo's Calling

JK Rowling and "Robert Galbraith"
This is the second post in a two part series on JK Rowling, post Harry Potter. Feel free to catch up on the first post on The Casual Vacancy here. This is a spoiler free post. 

If you haven't already heard, J.K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling (a murder mystery surrounding the faked suicide of a millionaire model) in April 2013, under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Why did she do it with a pseudonym? Here's what she had to say:

"It's been wonderful to publish without any hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name." 

That makes a lot of sense to me. Since J.K. Rowling was so wildly successful and brilliant with Harry Potter, it's easy for people to assume that anything she writes will be gold. I think Rowling needed affirmation in her talent as a writer, and not just as the writer of HP. This little test was successful, I'd say, since she got glowing reviews. A few of them even mentioning that they found it hard to believe The Cuckoo's Calling was Robert Galbraith's first novel. I had to laugh at those observations.

What did I think of The Cuckoo's Calling (April 2013)?

Let's start with the main character, Cormoran Strike. I loved every bit of him. He felt real and fleshed out. There was no doubt in my mind that Strike had a life before the book began, which is the true test of a round character. 

Strike is ex-military, has a prosthetic leg, and a bit of an abrasive personality. Reading that description, it doesn't sound like a character I'd like fall in love with. However, Rowling -or should I say Galbraith- softens him by giving him an interesting romantic background and by making the reader sympathetic to his situation. Just like in Casual Vacancy, Rowling/Galbraith shows off her master skills in characterization. 

The other characters, like his secretary Robin and even the minor witnesses Strike interviews, are equally characterized and thought out, even if they don't get as much attention. 

As for the plot, I found it enjoyable, but I don't think Rowling/Galbraith made it quite as intricate as Casual Vacancy. That being said, I'm completely jaded when it comes to murder mysteries because I've read/watched so many of them and this is J.K. Rowling we're talking about, I had high expectations on intricacies. It was still well thought out and surprising, but the climax didn't seem as shocking as Casual Vacancy or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I'm probably not the best person to comment since I can be kind of thick when it comes to predicting stories, but I think she did a good job with misdirection (an essential part of mysteries). I totally thought that I had figured out the murder, but surprise surprise, I was wrong. 

Overall, I really fell in love with Cormoran Strike and his secretary Robin. With those characters supported by a clever and well thought out plot, The Cuckoo's Calling was a success in my books (no pun intended, haha). I'd definitely say I enjoyed this book more than Rowling's first post-Potter book, The Casual Vacancy, because CC seemed more hopeful than CV, and it didn't carry the weight of all those social issues that Rowling tackled in her previous book. 

Content Advisory: 
Again, this was an adult book and the content mature. There was plenty of language (Rowling/Galbraith is a British author). However, I found The Cuckoo's Calling a lot tamer and less explicit then The Casual Vacancy

I really do believe that J.K. Rowling is still searching for her identity as a writer, post-Harry Potter. Nevertheless, she's turned out two excellently written books, and I will be keeping tabs on the rest of her writing career. What do you think of Rowling post-Potter? Want to read these books or stick to HP? Thoughts, comments, and ideas on this subject matter are welcome!

Reading: Why Mermaids Sing by C.S. Harris
Listening: Rusty Clanton
Watching: Republic of Doyle

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Post Harry Potter Part 1: The Casual Vacancy

J.K. Rowling and my rendition of Robert Galbraith

While I was reading The Cuckoo's Calling and The Casual Vacancy, more people than I can count asked me if it was as good as Harry Potter. I thought it was high time that I addressed my thoughts on J.K. Rowling's post Harry Potter books (one is written under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith) here on SOI. This will be the first in a two part post.


The Casual Vacancy (2012) 

The book begins with the death of a member of the parish council in a small English town. The story follows a variety of characters (impoverished families, addicts, unhappy spouses, delinquent high schoolers, abusive parents, power hungry politicians, etc.) that -in one way or another- tie back to a candidate running for the parish council or a current council member. The overall plot question is "Who will be elected and at what cost?"

If you've read Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards, The Casual Vacancy has a very similar feel and style.

What I secretly wanted:

What I got (AKA spoiler free review):
The Casual Vacancy was definitely an adult book and the content was mature. The magic (both literally and figuratively) and innocence of Harry Potter was no where to be found. It felt an awful lot like Rowling was trying too hard to break free from the children's genre that she is known for. The themes were gritty and dark. This book is not for the faint of heart. 

It reminds me of the way the Disney Channel child-stars act out when they become adults *cough* Miley Cyrus *cough* to show the world they're "mature" and no longer a child. Now, I would never put J.K. Rowling and Miley Cyrus (no matter how you feel about her singing) on the same level, but you can see the parallels in their situations.

 Is the new maturity in Rowling's books a bad thing? Not necessarily, it's just different and to enjoy the book you need to come to terms with that. 

Since the cast of characters is so large and the book is constantly jumping around perspectives, it took me awhile to get everything straight. About a hundred and fifty pages in, I felt like I knew the characters fairly well. Considering the amount of characters sharing the spot light, I think J.K. Rowling did a great job with creating believable and round characters. 

Another aspect that Rowling excelled with was the richly layered plot. If you've read HP you know how good she is with twisting subplots and characters all together to create a dramatic story. That particular talent shone through in this book; it was quite a feat to have all the characters connect for the climax. 

My only issues with this book was that it was very depressing and felt hopeless at times, and the strong content in it. I don't have an issue with characters making morally wrong choices or dealing with harsh subject matter in a book, because characters must make mistakes or else we have no story and no message. However, I do have personal standards of what I will read when it comes to how explicitly those actions and harsh subject matter are described. This book really pushed my limits, and I probably would have stopped reading had it been any other book, but I felt obligated to finish this one. 

So am I glad I read it? Yes. Is it well written? Yes. Did I like it? A more hesitant and unsure "yes". Is it like Harry Potter? No. 

Goodreads rating: 3/5

Content Advisory:
Lots of heavy swearing (she is British!), quite sexual, some violence, drug usage, deals with rape and abuse, as well as self harm, and suicide. Basically all those big ticket items are thrown in there somewhere. 


Join me next time as I discuss how to The Cuckoo's Calling by Rowling's pseudonym Robert Galbraith fits into J.K. Rowling's Post Harry Potter period. As always, comment with your thoughts on today's post. Let me know if you've read either of these books or if you're planning on it. I'd love to hear other ideas about this.

Reading: Why Mermaids Sing by C.S. Harris
Listening: Lorde
Watching: Haven  

Friday, November 8, 2013

How I Plot a Story

Normally, I don't start of a blog post with an apology and an explanation, but today I wanted to. I haven't been posting (or writing) for the past week. Since, I deferred my University acceptance a year to work, I've been looking for a second job. Last week, I found one, so you can imagine that this week has been a whirlwind. My days have been filled with work, Downton Abbey (we've gotten my mom hooked, so we're marathoning through it), reading The Cuckoo's Calling (I've only got it for two weeks, since it's so popular at the library and I got a late start on reading it) and finally, more work.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a few days now, so I wanted to finish it and get it up for you all to read. In Oct., I talked about how I work through my story plots in this post, but I think it might have got lost in the length of the post, so I wanted to rehash it and make it a little more accessible.


I can't stress how important it is to find what works for you when it comes to plotting. Sometimes the best way to find what works for you, is to see what works for others. Thus, I give you my How-To on plotting.



I like to start extremely general and brain dump my thoughts on some blank paper. It usually results in something like this:
Click to view bigger, just don't click the Pinterest icon, unless you want to pin it.
Then, I assemble a general plot. I get rid of ideas that I wrote down and didn't like, and put some order to the ideas that I wrote down and did like. I start off with the three act structure:

Act 1-intro to the world/environment, intro to the MC, dramatic event (inciting incident) that gets the MC to discover the ultimate goal which will drive their struggle/journey/quest. 

Act 2- the MC encounters challenges that prevent him/her from reaching his/her goal. The MC will "gather forces" that lead to the showdown.

Act 3- showdown time! MC returns to the place where it all started, conflicts are resolved, loose ends are tied up

Once I've got that figured out, I feel like I've got some direction. Now it's time for the real work to begin. I use the plot graph. I learned it in school, way back when, and now it's a staple for my plots.






Introduction and Inciting Incident: This has the same qualities as an act one. We get introduced to everything and then the incident happens that gives the MC a goal.

Rising Action: This has the same qualities as an act 2. These are all the events obstacles that the MC has to deal with to reach their goal. They're called "rising" events because the tension is constantly getting higher and the pressure is building up so it can explode at the...

Climax: The MC has to face the antagonist (e.g. a person, a feeling, a natural disaster etc.) overcome the last struggle to reach their goal. The tensions should explode here, forcing a turning point in the story. Even if the character doesn't get the result they were wishing for, there shouldn't be anything else they can do or overcome after the climax.
For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet takes the sleeping drug and then Romeo kills himself because he thinks that his wife is dead. Their goal of being together forever is resolved in a terrible way, but it can not go any further from this point.

Denouement (Falling Action): Loose ends get tied and the characters see how they are affected by the outcome of the climax. 

Conclusion: The characters' lives are back to normal (or their new normalcy). 

I usually end up doing three or four plot graphs for the different subplots in my story. The first one is for the main plot. Then I do one for the love interest/romance subplot and others for any other subplots that I want to use. The final step is to figure out how all the subplots and the main plot fit together. Sometimes I rewrite all of the separate graphs into one giant plot graph, so it's easier to look at. 

There you have it! How I work through plots. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, how you plot, and of course any thoughts you may have on this post. 

Reading: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
Listening: Beethoven 
Watching: Downton Abbey reruns!
Previously on A Splash of Photography: A video of the most romantic photos ever taken.
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