A Good Bad Guy

Donald Westlake, in his crime novels, makes a clear distinction between the good bad guys and the bad bad guys. This is true in his Dortmunder stories, and also in a couple of other novels, such as Cops & Robbers. Dortmunder and his friends are thieves. They’re career criminals. But they never hurt anybody, they’re ethical, and they seldom come home with all the loot they’d like. They’re good bad guys. Generally they find themselves pitted against unscrupulous, amoral, sleazy bad bad guys.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

The title of this little essay refers, rather, to the necessity of creating a villain who is believable and effective. All too often, authors create bad guys whose entire motivation seems to be to cause problems for the good guys. The villain may freely behave in ways that are inconsistent or contrary to his/her own best interest, because the author has thought no more deeply about the character of the villain than that he (we’ll say it’s a he) is to be a constant source of trouble.

This is not just a weakness found in the work of amateurs. Professionals fall into the same trap.

Writing a believable villain is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, many authors (being fundamentally nice people, as I’m sure we all are) have trouble imagining how a truly evil person thinks and acts. Second, a villain who is truly following his own evil agenda may not do the things that the author needs in order to move the story forward.

One extreme form of this failure is, of course, the moment when the villain seems to have won the contest. The hero is at the villain’s mercy. Whereupon, rather than simply dispatching the hero with a quick bullet to the head, the villain pauses to explain, for several pages, his reasons for all the villainy, in the process clearing up any questions the reader may have about the plot. While the villain is expostulating endlessly, the hero manages to wriggle out of the handcuffs or whatever, turn the tables on the villain, and emerge victorious.

This cliche, which is very common indeed, may be why the scene where Indiana Jones shoots the guy who is attacking him in the marketplace is so funny. We understand at once that Jones is refusing to participate in a cliche.

But leaving aside the extremes of villainous ineptitude, we need to look clearly at exactly who our villains are. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Are they attempting to achieve their villainous triumph in sensible ways? Or, if they’re not being sensible, are they failing to be sensible in ways that we can understand as arising out of their basic character?

I was smacked in the face this week with this realization. It hit me that my chief villain was pretty much a cardboard cutout. He wasn’t doing much to advance his own evil agenda. Although very rich, he didn’t even bother to hire half a dozen mercenaries to stomp around and beat people up.

Also, he’s from an entirely different culture than the good guys. Technically, he’s not even human. And yet he acts and talks exactly like a typical evil human nobleman. He has no colorful or even detectable nonhuman characteristics.

Who is this guy? I don’t even know, and my manuscript is already as long as Lord of the Rings. (And getting longer, bit by bit.) Turning him into a believable, three-dimensional bad guy is likely to have all sorts of repercussions in the plot. I don’t know yet what those repercussions may be, though I’m starting to glimpse a few of them. This is one of those weeks when the writing process consists not of drafting scenes but of throwing down thousands of words of detailed notes — asking myself all the tough questions I can think of, proposing reasonable or far-fetched answers to those questions, and then looking at what ramifications those answers would have elsewhere in the story.

I arrived at this point while rewriting Book 3 of the four-volume saga. About a third of the way through the rewrite, I found myself getting bored. So I took a few days off. Sometimes you have to trust your subconscious. I started re-reading Jared Diamond’s wonderful (nonfiction) book Guns, Germs, and Steel. And then the light bulb went on. Why was my supposedly masterful villain bopping around all by himself? Why hadn’t he hired a few mercenaries?

That question led quickly to a dozen more. Fortunately, I’m not on a deadline. My self-imposed goal was to have the rewrite done by September. It’s now looking more like next January, if not the January after that. But the good news is, I’m not bored anymore. The even better news is, every decision I make about my villain will lead to a stronger, more believable story. So it’s bad, but it’s good.

In the Dark

In the 18th century, physicists were trying to understand what happened when things burned. It was theorized that combustible substances such as wood and coal contained something called phlogiston, which was released during burning. This theory seemed to explain some of the results of experiments, but of course it was completely wrong.

In what may turn out to be a similar flight of fancy, physicists today are enamored of the theory of dark matter. Like phlogiston, dark matter itself has never been observed; it’s proposed as a way to explain certain things that have been observed.

The problem that the dark matter theory attempts to address is quite real. The problem is that the outer parts of galaxies are spinning too rapidly. It’s possible to measure the spin of some galaxies — those that are tilted so that we observe them somewhat edge-on. This is possible because the light on one edge of the galaxy (the edge that’s spinning toward us) will be blue-shifted, while the opposite edge is red-shifted because it’s receding from us. This is basic physics. I couldn’t do the math, but I understand the concept.

We can also estimate the mass of a galaxy. This is done by estimating the number of stars in it (based on its brightness) and multiplying that estimate by the average mass of a star. Mass causes gravitational attraction, and gravity causes stuff to orbit the center of mass, in exactly the way that the Earth orbits the sun. The speed of the orbiting body depends on both the diameter of the orbit and the amount of mass around which the object is orbiting. Again, I couldn’t do the math, but this is basic stuff.

When the rate of spin of the outer parts of nearby spiral galaxies is calculated, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s not nearly enough mass to explain the speed of rotation. This means one of two things: Either there’s a bunch of mass that we don’t see, or we don’t understand how gravity works at galactic distances. The idea that the law of gravity needs to be revised is not popular, though some theorists are working on it. The general consensus is that these galaxies are embedded in a halo of dark matter — stuff we can’t see, but that adds significantly to the mass of the galaxy.

One idea, which seems not to be panning out, is that galaxies are studded with “brown dwarfs.” A brown dwarf is a a lot bigger than Jupiter, but a lot smaller than the sun. It’s small enough that nuclear fusion has failed to ignite; thus it doesn’t put out much in the way of visible light. It’s brown, and it’s a dwarf star. But while there are certainly brown dwarfs floating around, a survey of our own galactic neighborhood suggests that there aren’t nearly enough of them to account for the rapid spin of spiral galaxies like our own.

A more popular notion is that the dark matter is a cloud of non-baryonic particles. Protons, neutrons, and electronics are baryonic; they’re the stuff we’re made of. We can’t see this non-baryonic matter, so the theory goes, because it neither absorbs nor emits light. However, it has mass, so it generates a gravitational field. (Don’t ask me whether “generates a gravitational field” is how physicists would talk about it. I don’t know.)

I have no problem with the idea that the universe is filled with particles that we know nothing about. But I have yet to read an explanation of how this massive dark matter is supposed to be behaving.

I also have a problem with how confident some authorities are that such a mysterious thing exists. In poking around on the Web, I quickly found a site (detailing the findings of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) that asserts, baldly, this: “The WMAP science team has … completed a census of the universe and finds that dark matter (matter not made up of atoms) is 24.0%.” Well, imagine that. They can’t see it; they don’t know what its properties might be; but they’ve done a census. Shee-it.

The idea that they’re treating as gospel is this: The clouds of dark matter are supposed to produce gravitational fields within which the baryonic matter (clouds of hydrogen, to start with) congregates, condenses into stars, and so forth. But if this cloud is imagined as consisting of zillions of tiny particles (perhaps not much larger than a proton), it doesn’t seem, to my muddled way of thinking, to be behaving in a sensible way. Some of these particles will be moving rather rapidly; some will be moving more slowly. That seems indisputable. Those that are moving too rapidly will have enough velocity to escape from the cloud. They’ll be gone. So there’s a maximum velocity that the dark matter particles (they’re called WIMPS — weakly interacting massive particles) can have, and some will be dawdling along more slowly than that.

Baryonic matter forms clumps under the influence of gravity. We call these clumps stars. So why hasn’t the dark matter formed clumps? Any variation in density of a dark matter cloud, no matter how slight, will gradually attract more and more of the slower-moving WIMPS. After a few billion years you won’t have a diffuse cloud anymore; you’ll have clots of the stuff. These clots will be drifting around within our galaxy. They will be invisible, but they will cause gravitational perturbations, because some of them will be rather massive.

No such perturbations are observed.

Not only that, but a massive object like a star will naturally acquire its own halo of dark matter. Slower-moving WIMPS that drift in close to our own sun won’t have enough velocity to escape. And we know for certain that this hasn’t happened. If there was any such halo around the sun, Newton’s law of gravitation would never have been discovered, because the planets in our own solar system would be orbiting more quickly than they are.

Thus the theory requires that dark matter (a) remain in a stable galaxy-sized cloud rather than drifting off into the cosmos but also (b) not form clumps. We haven’t the least idea what the characteristics of WIMPS might be, so we can’t actually rule that out, but it does seem rather implausible, doesn’t it?

When rain falls on a large flat paved area, you’ll soon see shallow pools of water. The pavement is never perfectly flat. I find myself wondering why physicists think the universe itself (spacetime) is perfectly flat except where there’s mass. One way of looking at gravitation (this is Einstein stuff) is that a massive object distorts spacetime. The sun, for instance, creates the three-dimensional equivalent of a large and very deep dimple in the fabric of spacetime. That’s what gravity is.

But why should we assume that mass is the only thing that can warp spacetime in this way? The supposed galactic halo might not be a cloud of massive particles at all; it might simply be a slightly lower place in spacetime, a sort of shallow 3D puddle of slightly enhanced gravity. The cloud of primordial hydrogen would naturally coagulate in such places, and that would create galaxies. It’s known that there are slight anisotropies (uneven places) in the hot, dense plasma that erupted in the Big Bang. Why shouldn’t some gravitational anisotropies still be hanging around?

Of course there’s no physics theory that would explain such a gravitational puddle — but there’s no theory that explains what dark matter is, either. We can be fairly sure it’s not phlogiston, but beyond that, who knows?

Long Ago & Far Away

Tonight I’m reading From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll. It’s another of those books on physics and cosmology for the layperson — no math, just occasional diagrams. The book’s mandate or organizing principle is to attempt to unravel what time actually is. This is a fairly profound mystery, and Carroll seems well qualified to tackle it.

And yet, in his discussion we find odd lacunae. (Sorry; my erudition is showing. That’s Latin for “gaps.”) In Chapter 3 he discusses the Big Bang and the subsequent history of the universe. The current theory is not only that the universe started in a hot, dense form and has been expanding ever since, but that the expansion is speeding up. This is the opposite of what one would expect: Gravitational attraction, however tenuous it may be at vast distances, should be slowing the expansion.

Nobody really knows why the expansion is speeding up. The explanation, such as it is, rests on the concept of “dark energy,” a mysterious force that pushes galaxies gently away from one another.

On page 58, Carroll says this: “We don’t know much about dark energy, but we do know two very crucial things: It’s nearly constant throughout space (the same amount of energy from place to place), and also nearly constant in density through time (the same amount of energy per cubic centimeter at different times).”

Implicit in that rather remarkable sentence is the notion that we (meaning scientists) can know what is going on at places that are very distant (millions of light-years away) and very remote in time (billions of years ago). And how, you might well ask, can we be certain of such things?

The short answer is because distant galaxies are speeding away from us at higher than expected velocities. Ah, but how do we measure the speed of galaxies? The operative theory is this: When an object is traveling away from you, the light it emits is red-shifted. That is, the wavelengths get longer. This is the Doppler Effect, and it’s too well known to be worth explaining here. The red shift will tell us how fast a galaxy is receding from us, but it won’t tell us how far away the galaxy is. The distance is calibrated by observing Type I supernovae in the distant galaxies. The theory is that a supernova of this type always produces about the same amount of light. And that’s a great deal of light — an individual supernova can be seen across untold millions of light-years. By measuring the amount of light we’re seeing from a supernova, we can figure out how far away it must be. We then correlate that distance with the observed red shift of the galaxy where it’s located, and presto, we know that distant galaxies are speeding up.

But you’ll notice that this idea rests on two pillars of theory: first, that nothing other than the velocity relative to an Earth observer of that distant galaxy could cause a red-shift of its light; and second, that Type I supernovae were just as bright two billion years ago as they are today.

Both of these pillars rest, in turn, on the idea that the universe in distant places and at distant times was fundamentally the same, with respect to its physical laws, as it is in our neighborhood today. By that measure, what Carroll has said is a tautology. He’s saying, in essence, “We know that physical laws in distant places and at distant times have always been the same as they are here and now — and therefore, we can deduce that dark energy in distant places and at distant times has always been the same.”

What if the speed of light were increasing gradually over the course of billions of years? That would cause a red shift: Light that has been traveling for a long, long time would have started its journey at a slower speed. As the speed of light increases, the wavelengths will get longer. Just to be clear, this is only my pet theory, and there’s probably something horribly wrong with it that any grad student in the physics department could explain. I’m not that smart! The point I’m making is that the theory rests on an assumption, namely, that the speed of light has always been the same as it is today. And we can’t demonstrate that, because we’re only here today. We weren’t there two billion years ago.

I’m not a physicist. I don’t even try to tackle the books with the math. It’s entirely possible that Carroll is skipping some very solid experimental evidence in this book because he judges (correctly) that his readers won’t be equipped to understand it. But here again, as in other similar books I’ve read, I sometimes have the feeling that too much is being taken for granted. Is that a characteristic of the books, or is it a characteristic of contemporary physics itself? I don’t know.

Much of modern physics is based on mathematical models of phenomena. The observations that are made tend to be really quite tenuous. A quick trip down the aisle in your local library will present you with a handful of books that will tell you all about black holes, including the fact that there is a massive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. What is less often emphasized in these books is the fact that no human being has ever seen a black hole! Everything we know about them, or think we know, is based on mathematical models.

It is known that the mathematical models sometimes fail. On page 60, Carroll mentions one of the more spectacular failures. The theory being that perhaps the energy of virtual particles (quite possibly a real phenomenon, though not directly observable) is the source of dark energy, physicists have calculated the amount of “vacuum energy” that would arise from the froth of virtual particles. Unfortunately, the calculations show that this vacuum energy should be about 10 to the 105th power joules per cubic centimeter, when what is actually observed is a vacuum energy of about 10 to the minus 15 joules per cubic centimeter. (Don’t ask me what joules are; I don’t know. I know what a cubic centimeter is.) This is a discrepancy of 10 to the 120th power.

Clearly, there’s something wrong with the math, or more likely with the theory that the math attempts to explain. But the math that tells us how black holes must behave? Oh, yeah, we’ve got that one nailed down — right, Mr. Hawking?

Phun with Physics

As I suggested yesterday, human intuition gives us a lousy set of tools with which to understand the underlying nature of physical reality. The English language supplies a few pitfalls too. Last night I started reading Black Holes & Time Warps by Kip S. Thorne. Thorne is described on the back cover as the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology, so we can fairly conclude that he knows whereof he speaks. And yet, toward the end of Chapter 1, we find this odd passage (italics in the original):

“…most physicists are driven to believe that these sequences [of laws] are converging toward a set of ultimate laws that truly governs the Universe, laws that force the Universe to behave the way it does, that force … the Sun to burn nuclear fuel, force black holes to produce gravitational waves when they collide, and so on.”

I may be only a poor dumb shitkicker from Illinois, but I know that’s just plain wrong. The way that’s phrased, it seems to say (quite clearly) that the laws of physics that physicists strive to understand are an outside force, a force that compels, for example, an electron or a photon to behave the way it does. But that’s not the case at all. There is no outside force that compels a thing we call an electron to behave like an electron rather than like a quark, a muon, or a neutrino.

An electron is not even a thing in that sense, and the laws of physics are not laws in that sense. They don’t compel any fundamental particle to behave the way it does. Rather, the laws of physics are simply descriptions of what happens. There is no thing called an electron that behaves in any manner at all. What we call an electron is, on the contrary, a tiny portion of a vast interaction (ultimately, of the whole Universe) that we have isolated for purposes of analysis and description. But it isn’t a separate thing. An electron never exists in isolation, because there isn’t any isolation in which it could exist. We can only describe it in terms of what it does with respect to the nucleus of an atom, or in terms of what it does when it releases or absorbs a photon, or whatever. Absent these interactions, the term “electron” would be meaningless.

This may sound rather mystical, and in a sense it is. The Universe is all a single thing. We can describe how it behaves. It vibrates. It resonates. It pushes and pulls at itself in unbelievably complex ways. But there is no force compelling it to behave in that manner. It just does. Even that sentence (“It just does”) is wrong, because there isn’t any “it” that “does” anything. The Universe is those vibrations and resonances. That’s all it is. It’s like the ringing of a bell — but there’s no bell.

Okay, I didn’t intend that to be a pun, but I’m not going to back away from it.

Gradually, over the course of eons or over a stretch of billions of light-years, the vibrations and resonances may change. The Universe may come to behave in some other manner — because there are no “laws” that would prevent it.

Will physicists ever be able to derive a tidy set of equations that perfectly describe every interaction that can conceivably occur in the Universe, past, present, and future? I doubt it. Not just because of the limitations of our instruments or the limitations of our mental abilities but because the Universe is continuous rather than discrete. (There is a notion floating around that at the deepest level space-time is digital — composed of discrete cells. I’ll point out the deep flaws in that idea some other time.)

Every time physicists think they have a law of nature nailed down, a few years later they have to add a fudge factor, because the real Universe doesn’t know anything about these supposed laws. The fudge factors have come to resemble the epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy, and that analogy may suggest that physicists don’t yet know as much as they think they do.

Thorne’s book begins with an as-if science fiction tale in which a spaceship crewed by humans investigates a few black holes. The weirdness that they encounter is fascinating, but Thorne barely mentions the caveat: No human has ever observed a black hole. We don’t actually know how matter, energy, and spacetime behave in such a bizarre region. All we have are the equations. We know that the equations are very good at predicting a bunch of stuff, such as how the light from a distant star is bent by the sun’s gravitational field. But everything to do with black holes and the Big Bang is pure extrapolation. In such extreme circumstances, what other fudge factors, at present unknown, might become huge? We don’t know.

Sure, if there were physical laws that compelled the entire Universe, everywhere and forevermore, to behave in thus-and-such a fashion, then we could extrapolate with confidence. But no compulsion is involved, because there’s no bell, only the ringing. All we have, and all we will ever have, is description.

Nuts & Bolts

Books for the interested layperson on the theory of relativity are not in short supply. The local library has a shelf full of them, and I don’t think that’s entirely because I live in Livermore, with an important national laboratory just a couple of miles down the street.

A physics book with equations in it would be completely over my head. But I’d sure appreciate a book that didn’t cut corners. I’m not looking for Relativity for Dummies.

Case in point: The classic thought experiment in which I fly past you in a spaceship at a significant fraction of the speed of light. From your point of view, a clock on my spaceship is running slower than your clock. However, from my point of view your clock is running slower than mine.

I get that. And every book on the subject will tell me that that’s what will happen. (I won’t say they explain it, because there isn’t really an explanation, is there? That’s just the way the universe operates.) What none of the books I’ve read bother to explain is what happens when I turn my spaceship around, come back to where you’re standing, stop the ship, and hop out carrying my clock. We then compare the two clocks.

Which clock will be faster or slower? Neither answer makes sense. The only answer that makes sense is, the two clocks will show exactly the same time. But that doesn’t make sense either. At what point did each clock speed up relative to the other clock? I’d sure like to know.

Here’s another slippery bit. Any number of books will tell you that the speed of light is an absolute. No matter how fast you’re going relative to anybody else, you’ll always measure the speed of light to be the same. If the book is trying to be meticulous, it will say, “the speed of light in a vacuum.” It’s known that light slows down when traveling through a medium such as air, water, or glass; if it didn’t, your glasses wouldn’t work, and telescopes wouldn’t work either.

But wait: There’s no such thing as a vacuum! Our current understanding of quantum mechanics suggests that even a “vacuum” is full of virtual particles, which pop into existence and vanish too quickly for us sluggardly humans to observe them. But a photon is pretty fast, isn’t it? What effect might those virtual particles have on a photon? Even if the answer is, “no effect,” a supposed vacuum is also full of other photons (to say nothing of gravitational waves and neutrinos) zipping around and through one another. Even in a black box from which all the air has been pumped out, the walls of the box will be shedding infrared photons to beat the band, and billions of neutrinos will be zipping through the box as if the walls weren’t even there.. Is that a vacuum?

Here’s the kicker, though. Einstein arrived at the theory of relativity (according to the book I’m reading) with the aid of his intuition, which assured him that the laws of the physical universe must be simple and beautiful. Unfortunately, one of the things we definitely know about physics is that our intuitions are very seldom of any value when it comes to understanding the universe. Light is a wave, and also a particle. Intuition will tell you that’s flatly impossible, that it has to be one thing or the other, and indeed physicists rejected the notion for a couple of centuries — but your intuition is wrong. Your intuition will tell you that a particle such as an electron must be at some specific location in space at all times, but that’s wrong too. An electron is sort of smeared or spread out, except when it isn’t.

Why should the laws that govern the physical universe be either simple or beautiful in the way that “simple” and “beautiful” are understood by the bags of protoplasm squidging around on this particular unimportant little planet? In all likelihood, they aren’t. Physicists are now aware of about 30 mathematical constants — pure numbers — that govern the way the universe works, and there appears to be no sensible reason why any of those numbers has the value that it does. Physicists have no theory that would even remotely begin to explain those numbers.

There’s also the fact that while both general relativity and quantum mechanics make excellent predictions, predictions that can be confirmed experimentally, those two theories are not compatible with one another. But why should we expect that they would be compatible? Just because we humans want them to be compatible?

Maybe the universe is just plain messy. But Relativity for Dummies is not going to tell us that.

Mulling, Stewing, and the Back Burner

Last week I realized that I had a really awful, intractable plot problem. I should have noticed a year ago, but for some reason (lack of innate talent, in all likelihood) I allowed myself to be satisfied with an utterly inadequate explanation for certain key events. In order for the plot of my series to work, a certain thing has to have happened in the prequel — and I finally tumbled to the fact that I had not the least idea how it could have happened.

It’s down to character motivation, basically. None of the characters who were on the scene at the time would have done the right things. Well, there was one character who might have the motivation, but he was an eight-year-old boy, and he didn’t have the means.

I wrote pages of notes. (I’m good at writing notes.) The solution was not appearing. I used my patented brainstorming method, without notable results.

In desperation, I thought to enlist the services of a story doctor. I contacted a couple of freelance editors that I found online and pitched them on the idea of doing a three- or four-hour brainstorming session. For pay. (And not cheap — we’re talking $100 an hour.) I was desperate! If I couldn’t solve the problem, my whole series of novels was going to collapse into a pile of matchsticks.

I wrote a 3,000-word description of the problem and sent it off to an editor. (A novelist in her own right, actually.) I asked her to have a look at it and then send me an invoice if she thought she wanted to tackle it.

While I was waiting for her invoice, a second editor responded. In readying the description of the problem to send to her, I thought of a solution to part of it. It was a four-part problem, actually, and I seemed to have an idea about how two of the parts might work.

A whole day went by. No invoice arrived from either editor. So tonight I sat down, started taking more notes — and I figured out how to do it. Problem solved! And I didn’t have to pay anybody a nickel.

One lesson here, I think, is that sometimes it takes the unconscious a few days to mull things over. Ideas, especially complex ideas, have their own timetable. If I had gotten hopelessly frustrated and started beating myself up, I wouldn’t necessarily have found any viable answers. Yes, I was frustrated — but I asked for help.

I also spent a couple of days thinking, okay, if this doesn’t work, I’ll just spend the rest of my life playing music. That will be fun. Either way, with or without a solution to the plot problem, I’ll go right on enjoying life. So I worked on a couple of pieces of music and didn’t slide into worry.

I don’t yet know whether my new story line will be a couple of new chapters in Book 1, or whether one of the characters who was on the scene during the events in the prequel will just tell my heroine how it all happened. Probably new chapters. It’s a good thing I’m not on a deadline, nor writing to a fixed word count.

Sympathy for the Devil

George Bernard Shaw was a very successful playwright. (He was also a failure as a novelist, but that’s another story.) One criticism that was leveled at Shaw, and with considerable justification, was that all his characters spoke like Shaw. They were all articulate.

The fact that Shaw’s voice and views were engaging made him a success. But I’m pretty sure most authors of fiction, be it prose or script, are in danger of suffering from this malady. Certainly I suffer from it. Not that my characters all sound alike — they don’t. (My dialog is pretty diverse, actually.) The deeper problem is that I find it hard to imagine the thoughts and feelings of people whose experiences and views are different from my own.

My characters, that is, tend to reflect my own view of the world.

The best fiction writers, I’m sure, have an ability to understand and feel sympathy for a wide variety of people, even their villains. The worst fiction writers (one thinks, for example, of Ayn Rand) have no sympathy for anyone but themselves and people who agree with them. As a result, their work is filled with cardboard stereotypes.

If you care nothing for money and can’t imagine why anybody would, then a rich man in your story is likely to be a stereotype. If you’re a free spirit, you may have trouble sympathizing with a character who is a by-the-book police officer. If you’ve never had children, you may have trouble imagining the tender feelings of a mother and how they will inevitably affect her actions. And so it goes.

I got to thinking about this because I’m a 68-year-old man trying to write an effective story about a 17-year-old girl. Also, I’m an atheist and have very little sympathy for people who are religious, yet my heroine has some direct contact with a god, who seems to want her to be his high priest. I haven’t written any scenes in which she is praying, because I personally have no use for prayer. She often worries that her mad quest will get her killed — because old men think about death. Teenagers think they’ll live forever! And when my editor says, “Why is she attracted to this boy?”, I have not the faintest clue. I don’t know what it is about boys that teen girls are attracted to. I can’t even imagine being attracted to a boy. Yuck! So I’ve got the character all wrong.

And this after a couple of years of hard work on the story. You’d think I would have figured it out long ago, but I didn’t. I’m a perfectly decent writer, but I’m not a natural storyteller, and this is a vivid example for you of why (or how) I’m not.

Learn from my mistakes, children.


Thinking out loud here — feel free to pull up a chair, grab the popcorn, and watch the juggler and the sword swallower. I’ve screwed up my courage and read through my editor’s comments and suggestions for Book 3 of my four-volume epic, and it has quickly become clear that some major rewriting is in my future. But if my heroine is a round peg and plotted fiction is a square hole, what am I to do about that?

You can buy any number of books on how to develop your plot. They’ll all tell you more or less the same thing: Your hero must be confronted by a difficult, emotionally charged problem, and must take action — usually, several actions — to solve the problem. The first thing the hero tries should not work. His or her first attempt should, if possible, make the problem worse.

It’s not difficult to see why plots work this way. If the problem is not difficult or emotionally meaningful, the story will be boring. If the hero sits around and waits passively for someone else to solve the problem, readers will get irritated with the hero. And if the hero’s first attempt to solve the problem works just fine, the problem was too easy or the hero too ridiculously superhuman.

This is not a formula, exactly, it’s just the logic of human psychology. If you’re writing character-oriented literary fiction, both the problem and the actions may be a lot more subtle, but literary fiction in which there’s no emotionally charged problem — in which everything is fine and dandy — is going to be just as boring, if not worse.

Turning to my epic, the premise of the story is that a 17-year-old girl is the hereditary ruler of a distant land, but doesn’t know it. The distant land is currently being ruled by some really nasty people who are causing great suffering. So the god who is worshiped there (or what passes for a god in the fantasy world of the story) has bestirred himself to make the girl aware of her heritage and/or destiny. The god sends her charging off to get rid of the bad guys and restore order in the land of her birth.

So far, so good. Emotionally charged problem, major obstacles. But how is a 17-year-old girl whose only job training is sweeping the floors and washing the sheets in her uncle’s inn supposed to lead a revolution?

The heroes of plotted fiction all tend to be stamped out by the same cookie-cutter. They have personal quirks, to be sure — one plays chess, another quotes poetry, a third is riddled by phobias — but when push comes to shove, they’re tough. They take charge. They’re good with their fists. (Well, except for Donald Lam, who tended to get beat up a lot. That was his quirk.)

My heroine is not Joan of Arc, and I don’t want her to be! I more or less decided that there were going to be no sword fights in this story, and no pitched battles where men in armor flail away at one another. That sort of story is too crude to interest me. So I have this innkeeper’s niece, and she has no military training and no experience being a leader. She doesn’t know how to write stirring pamphlets or make public speeches. She doesn’t know how to conduct a covert operation without getting caught. Plus, she’s a 17-year-old girl in a fairly standard male-dominated society. Give orders? Who is going to salute, click their heels, and obey a teenage girl’s orders?

My editor’s complaint, and it’s entirely correct, is that in Book 3 my heroine is too passive. Things happen to her. Other people suggest actions, and other people carry them out. This is not good plotting. But she damn well isn’t Joan of Arc. She’s kind of a pushover for rescuing people who need help — that’s the quirk of personality that leads her off on this mad quest. But leading a revolution is well beyond her skill set. The god who gave her the problem (that would be me) has chosen badly.

Can I give her the kind of personality that will enable her to win through? Sure — it’s all just words on the screen. I can do whatever I like. But then she’ll be a different person, and I’ll have to go back to Book 1 and start over, because everything else will change.

Thank you for listening. We return you now to your regularly scheduled broadcast.

Things That Matter

Yes — things. The Venetian blinds, the car, the refrigerator. I’ve been dipping into The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers. (It’s a college textbook. I bought the third edition used, because it was half the price of the new edition. College textbook editions are a sham and a disgrace, but that’s a topic for another time.) Sellers includes a short section on the use of objects in stories and poems.

Objects can reveal a great deal about what’s going on in a story, and in an unobtrusive way. Your character opens the refrigerator and finds only a wilted head of lettuce and some cheese covered with mold. Right away your reader understands that in this story — in the lives of your characters — something has gone bad. Someone is being inattentive, or is not being nourished. Something is festering. That information leaps out of the refrigerator.

If the Venetian blinds are broken, so that they can’t be closed properly, we know that the character is concerned about how he or she is being seen, or is trying to keep secrets and failing. If your character drives a rusted-out Volkswagen Beetle, his or her character is being portrayed in a concrete (and economical) way; if the car were a Maserati or a Chevy truck with mag wheels, we would be getting quite a different sense of the character.

Sadly, this technique is available only to writers who write realistically about the present day. If your novel is set in the future, or on another planet, or in Medieval Europe or ancient Egypt, you won’t have access to this way of conveying meaning. If the wearing of a red sash (or the failure to wear it) says something meaningful about the character, you’re just going to have to spell it out. If you don’t, your readers won’t get it.

Yes, we can use marks of affluence. The fellow in Medieval Europe whose horse has a bridle with silver buckles is obviously a nobleman (unless he stole the horse, in which case the incongruity between his clothing and the bridle would be worthy of note — or is he a nobleman disguised as a peasant? that could be interesting too). But what kind of nobleman is he? Generous? Arrogant? Insecure? There are no objects in his world that can give the reader hints about this. Or rather, there probably are such objects, but the reader will have no way to guess their meaning, because the reader isn’t familiar with the culture.

This may be why so much genre literature is shallow — and why the best mystery novels are less shallow than novels in other genres. What is the writer of a Medieval epic or a Regency romance to do? Facial expressions and tone of voice will work for a while, but after a few pages they become dull.

William Carlos Williams famously said, “No ideas but in things.” This insistence on the concrete applies more to poetry than to fiction, I suppose, but it’s worth bearing in mind. I’m not suggesting that the parallel “No emotions but in things” is a valid idea — merely that some of the emotional resonances of a story can profitably be lodged in things.

A Kiss Is Just a Kiss

How much detail do readers need in order to feel the emotion in a scene? And who do you trust to decide that? I tend to be rather intellectual about my writing. I’m not sure that’s a weakness, but it’s something I need to be aware of. In a scene where the characters are feeling emotions, I tend to trust that readers don’t need too much hand-holding.

The editor I hired to go through my fantasy series likes to see emotions spilled out onto the page. (She never seems to suggest this for any but the female lead characters, but that’s a separate issue. Page after page where a man is the viewpoint character, and she interpolates no notes whatever. Is it because I write more sensitively about men? I think that’s doubtful.)

To examine this issue in detail, I’m going to quote a scene from Book 2 of my series. Arik and Kyura have been separated by events, but now they’ve met up again. They’re sitting by a campfire, next to one another on a log, and the obvious thing is happening. Here’s the scene the way I wrote it:

She kissed him again. This kiss went on longer than the first one, and got more complicated, with some nibbling and rubbing. She pressed her hand against the back of his head, so he couldn’t stop kissing her even if he wanted to.

Eventually they did pull apart again. They were both breathing hard. Arik said, “I think we ought to stop. This isn’t very private. And, you know, I don’t want to stop.”

Kyura didn’t want to stop either. But that wasn’t something a girl should say to a boy. “You’re right. We have to stop.” They edged apart a little on the log, still touching the edges of their legs together, his arm still brushing her back. “I know I’m a mess,” she said. “I don’t even have a comb, and my clothes are all dusty.”

“Not to mention the blood spots.” When her face contorted in anguish, he went on: “I don’t mind about your killing the wizard. I kind of admire you for it. Not that you go around killing people, and I don’t think that’s what you do. That you can take care of yourself when you have to. I like that.”

“But I can’t! I keep doing things all wrong! We almost got killed by a dragon this morning, and it was because I grabbed Meery and dragged her off the train. If we’d stayed on the train—”

“If you’d stayed on the train, you wouldn’t be here right now. I think you’re doing just fine.”

She didn’t think she could possibly explain to him how hopeless she felt right now — not about him, about everything else — so she didn’t say anything.

Now let’s look at it again as the editor suggested I might rewrite it in order to bring “emotion and physicality … into the scene to make it richer and more resonant.” Well, who wouldn’t want to do that? Okay, then. I’ll underline the editor’s suggested additions so you can see them more easily. How does this feel?

Kyura didn’t want to stop either. She wanted to sit with him in the gathering dark forever, like he was just a boy and she was just a girl and all they had to worry about was someone seeing something they shouldn’t. But they weren’t, and they didn’t. She pulled away. “You’re right. We have to stop,” she said.

They edged apart a little on the log, still touching the edges of their legs together, his arm still brushing her back. “I know I’m a mess,” she said, instead of all the other things she wanted to say. “I don’t even have a comb, and my clothes are all dusty.”

“Not to mention the blood spots,” Arik said. His kiss-red mouth quirked up at the corner, and somehow that made it even worse. Her face contorted in anguish, and he added hurriedly: “I don’t mind about your killing the wizard. I kind of admire you for it. Not that you go around killing people, and I don’t think that’s what you do. That you can take care of yourself when you have to.”

“But I can’t! I keep doing things all wrong!” She hadn’t meant to say anything, but it just spilled out of her; she twisted her fingers together in anguish, as if she could physically hold herself together. “We almost got killed by a dragon this morning, and it was because I grabbed Meery and dragged her off the train. If we’d stayed on the train—”

Arik cut her off gently. “If you’d stayed on the train, you wouldn’t be here right now.” He placed one large, callused palm over her hands, and her movements quieted under his touch. “I think you’re doing just fine.”

He meant it kindly, but the warmth his kisses had kindled in her chest had turned abruptly to ash. She didn’t think she could possibly explain to him how hopeless she felt right now — not about him, about everything else — so she didn’t say anything.

I’m afraid my reaction to those suggestions is, “Oh, yuck!” Her movements quieted under his touch? He placed one large, callused palm over her hands? The warmth his kisses had kindled in her chest? His kiss-red mouth? She twisted her fingers in anguish? It just spilled out?

It should be noted that this editor has never written, or at least never published, a novel. And in her defense, many of her other observations are very good, and I’m using them as I rewrite. She acknowledges that these particular added bits are “[not] the pinnacle of the writing craft, by any means.” But that’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s all very well for an editor to suggest that the emotions in a scene could be made more physical or more immediate for the reader — but when her suggestions on how this might be accomplished read like a cheap romance novel, can I trust her?

Or should I trust the reader to sense the chemistry?