5 Awkward Situations to Make Your MC Shine

Ah, the joys of writing life! In the middle of editing Girl of Glass and Fury (an ongoing endeavor) and reading great books like The Theft of Sunlight, I realized one common thread that makes characters instantly endearing: awkwardness. A special feature was born!

 

5 Awkward Situations to Make Your Main Character Shine

Since not every character can have the same traits, I started noticing how authors get around this. Awkward situations put a chink in the armor of an otherwise confident and strong character, leaving room for them to rise above, fail miserably (or endearingly) and allow the reader to feel closer to the character.

  1. They lack experience almost everybody has

A late first kiss. An inability to ride in a world of horses. A lack of taste at a highly refined court.

These are just a few of the circumstances that make characters instantly endearing (as long as they know what they don’t know, of course). Characters in these situations allow the reader to travel along with them on their journey. As long as the circumstances aren’t pitiable (think of Daine in Wild Magic, unable to read because of her isolated upbringing), they can bring the reader closer to your main character. Heck, your readers probably root for your MC all the more.

Awkward Main Characters are vulnerable, human and relatable. With the right balance, they can walk the line between cringe-worthy and loveable, especially in a would-be romantic situation. (Think Mr. Darcy.)

  1. A new setting is a lot more complex than they ever thought

When your MC is a fish out of water, it’s the details that really count.

In Intisar Khanani’s The Theft of Sunlight, narrator Rae arrives at court to stay with her cousin. But she has another mission: after a tragedy at home, she arrives with a question about what the government is doing to track the snatchers and help recover stolen children. All of this involves more opportunities, danger and perilous politics than she ever imagines. Yet it’s the moments in which she’s drowning in lace, and the one in which she realizes just what kind of person is helping her (he’s not as savory as country girl Rae had hoped), that we feel the most sympathy for her.

Rae’s life as the hard-working daughter of a horse rancher leaves her out of her depth in the alternately fancy and gritty capital. It’s these little scenes that endear her to readers, even more than her instances of bravery and her drive to do what’s right. We all know what it’s like to make it through any number of complex hard times, only to be overwhelmed by one detail too many. Rae’s character is deeply identifiable in those moments.

  1. Everything they know is wrong

There are a lot of ways to play this one. Here are just a few examples:

  • The privileged MC learns how hard the lives of others are; is she brave/foolhardy enough to try to change it? (Thorn, by Intisar Khanani)
  • The privileged MC who plays an active role in it and must repent (The Black Witch, by Laurie Forest) 
  • The struggling MC who must realize she isn’t the only victim (The Dark Angel, by Meredith Ann Pierce
  • The history the MC has been taught leaves out inconvenient truths and puts everyone in danger (yes, it’s a plug, because it’s one of my favorite devices. I used this one myself in Girl of Shadow and Glass)
  • The seriously misjudged social situation that leads to disaster (Jane Austen’s eternal classic, Pride and Prejudice)
  • The villain isn’t who the MC—and everyone at home—thinks (An Enchantment of Thorns, by Helena Rookwood and Elm Vince)
  • The unknown villain who makes things way more serious than the (in this case innocent) narrator ever imagined (The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden)
  • The MC who lands in a secret world (City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty)
  • The MC who realizes she’s not in the “real” world (Between Jobs, by W.R. Gingell doing double-duty in this post)

I’m sure you can think of even more examples of this!

  1. Their job isn’t what they thought

Your character’s job doesn’t have to say anything about them (after all, not everybody can control what they do. There’s a lot of MCs who end up as thieves). Your character’s approach to their job says a lot about them. Watching them change their views on it gives the reader a front-row seat to your MC’s inner character.

(Slight, vague spoiler ahead.)

Take Cleric Chih in The Empress of Salt and Fortune. They begin the story eager to be to the first to document Thriving Fortune, the former residence of the now-deceased Empress In-yo. Instead, Chih gets a tale of a revolution behind closed doors and all the secrets that entails.

Every character needs a flaw, a rude awakening and/or an unexpected outcome. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Chih thinks she has it all together until she hears more of Rabbit’s story.

Though Chih blithely tells Rabbit, the part-time narrator of The Empress of Salt and Fortune, that the abbey she comes from holds countless secrets, Chih doesn’t understand just what that means until they’re entrusted with them. By the story’s end, the pride that drove Chih to become the first to learn those secrets ends up making them shudder. As their companion, Almost Brilliant, puts it, Chih is experiencing duty for the first time.

Though the series moves away from Thriving Fortune, that telling change made me want to stick with Chih, who is a mostly passive MC in The Empress of Salt and Fortune, throughout their future travels.

  1. The unreal meets the everyday in their life

In Between Jobs, by W.R. Gingell, we see this happen in both senses: the MC’s everyday is interrupted by the unreal, and then the unreal is interrupted by the everyday.

When Pet ends up as an actual pet of two fae and one vampire who understands won’t speak English (not until he perfects it, anyway), she gets towed through the worlds Between and Behind, spots a sword pretending to be an umbrella, learns a little Korean on the fly and witnesses violent and bizzare battles she can’t understand. Being adaptable, she mostly manages to keep up, even if she can’t grasp everything she sees, and it’s interesting and hilarious to see her developing her new skills, often to the astonishment of her “three psychos.”

As fantastical (and often awkward) as that is, it’s when a policeman starts poking around that things get really interesting. Pet has to explain or redirect him from what was, until recently, unexplainable. She’s seen it with her own eyes, after all. Seeing those two (technically three) worlds constantly clashing, and watching Pet navigate it, makes for one endearing narrator and a very interesting start to The City Between series.

(Of course, you could also go the other way and have the MC blunder through the unreal. Dent Arthur Dent comes to mind.)

Have you ever put your MC into an awkward situation? Let me know in the comments below!

The Science of Phoenixes

The Science of Phoenixes

Recently, author Sarah K.L. Wilson (Sting Magic) posed a fun question in her newsletter. With her new series, Phoenix Heart, on the horizon, she made her own list of phoenix pros and cons (quoted with permission):

PHOENIX PROS

– they light things up!

– always good for toasting marshmallows!

– can’t keep them dead permanently

– vibrant personalities

PHOENIX CONS

– they tend to light things on fire by accident. Oops!

– these night owls are dead during the day – which is tough when you need their help!

– fiercely loyal to their riders, it’s hard to make them care about any other loyalties

– when you’re so beautiful, it’s hard not to look at your reflection in a passing lake.

Ms. Wilson then invited her readers to respond with their own pros and cons.

And that’s when I put my nerd thinking cap on.

I’ll be the first to tell you that, unlike my siblings, I’m not in STEM in any way, shape or form. I did pretty badly at science in school, as a matter of fact. But for whatever reason, science news really clicks for me. If only they could write text books like science articles, the whole subject would’ve made a whole lot more sense to me!

Some time ago, I heard an interview with a prominent figure in the field of neuroscience (I very much wish I could tell you her name), who discussed her theory on nutrition and human intelligence. I realize I’d never thought about the monsters and mythological creatures I read and write about that way: how do they eat, and what does that mean for how they function? Assuming this theory is correct, how creatures eat affects their behavior and abilities a lot.

After reading a recent Time article on why we dream, combined with some prior knowledge about neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change), I also started to think about instinct in monsters and mythological creatures. So, without further ado…

A Scientific Look at the Pros and Cons of Phoenixes

by C.K. Beggan

PRO

– Phoenixes always cook their food, and can be persuaded to share.

– No raw meat breath!

The Science: According to a neuroscience theory, cooked food is the key to human intelligence. Cooking makes nutrients more accessible to animals with inefficient digestion (in the case of a phoenix, one can’t fly when it takes hours to digest a simple meal, so digestion must be quick. That means not everything eaten can be broken down and absorbed, which equals fewer nutrients). Cooked food is easier to process and absorb nutrients from, which allows humans to have way more brain function than other animals. It takes a lot of nutrients to keep all our brain activity going, so cooking is key (plus it allows us to eat otherwise poisonous/tough things and increase nutrient sources). Phoenixes are also highly intelligent (of course!) and therefore benefit from cooking food like we do. Their brains would require it!

PRO

– Phoenixes are highly adaptable (you’d have to be, to get reborn!).

CON

– They’re vivid, active dreamers. Who wants to be kicked by a flaming bird dreaming about walking somewhere?

– Phoenixes are fairly helpless when reborn.

– Phoenixes may be prone to trauma after difficult or prolonged negative experiences.

The Science (!): Our ability to dream is a direct consequence of how adaptable our brains are (neuroplasticity). Without dreams, the human brain is so adaptable that it would lose space dedicated to sight when we sleep at night/during the long nights of winter when vision is limited. Dreams activate the vision portion of our brain and keep it intact. Animals born with a high degree of instinct, who can function well within hours of birth (e.g. species subject to predators that must be able to run away from day one) don’t have neuroplasticity/adaptability like we do. Therefore, they don’t require dreams like we do, because they won’t lose much by getting some shut eye. Their brains are more fixed. So if phoenixes are adaptable, they must dream like we do.

The consequence of this is that more neuroplasticity also means a period of prolonged danger or a traumatic event changes the brain. This is why humans experience PTSD (and/or effects on sleep, digestion, the immune system, you name it). A brain that adapts to danger helps a being in danger stay alive. Adapting back to safe conditions doesn’t happen quickly or easily, though. This could happen to anyone with an adaptable brain, even to the majestic phoenix!

Another example of this (if you even want one!) is that I was surprised by a spider in my bathroom recently. I am an arachniphobe. My brain considers spiders dangerous, so my fight or flight response was immediately triggered (I chose flight). Now I cannot go into that room without checking for a spider because my brain reminds me that spiders appear in my bathroom (and therefore the bathroom may be dangerous and must be approached with caution). Our brains are so flexible it doesn’t take much to create a new pattern of behavior! (On the other hand, if I saw an alligator in the lake, my brain would remind me to be careful around the lake and I’d be safer for it).

So a phoenix may have some hang ups like this, too. (My sister once worked with an arachniphobic sea lion, so even if your phoenix doesn’t have equal-to-human intelligence, it may refuse to go anywhere near webs and shriek). Therefore…

CON

– Despite being mighty, fire-clad animals, phoenixes can be fearful of tiny creatures and refuse to approach them no matter how much you try! A phoenix frightened of pigeons would be VERY inconvenient.

– Travel delays shall ensue.

Thanks for joining me on this mythological geek-out! If you’re a writer yourself (or just a mythology buff), I hope it encourages you to think of these creatures in a whole new light.

Cheers,

– CKB

PS: Do you think this should be a series of articles? What mythological creature do you think should be next? Let me know in the comments below!

Contrast, Part III: Lessons from Bestselling Books

Welcome back to the last of this three-part blog series on how contrast makes for a great read. In this post, I’ll also touch on how classic techniques from another genre made a story more exciting.

Use Contrast Part III

III. The contrast of a known commodity and a total mystery

Want to keep the pages turning? Take a look at what Bethany C. Morrow did with her two teen narrators in A Song Below Water(You can also find my review here.)

Being a siren is dangerous—hated, too. Tavia is a black teenage girl dealing with how the world perceives and treats her. She’s also a closeted siren in fear of being ripped from the too-safe world her father created. To her father, the worst thing that could happen is if everyone found out who Tavia really is.

And then there is A Song Below Water‘s other narrator, Effie. Effie swims like a dolphin, suffers from itchy, dry skin that no lotion in the world can correct, and, for a few days every year, dons a mermaid tail. But that last part’s make-believe for a Renaissance fair. The rest of the year she’s (cheesy pun warning) a fish out of water.

Shy and in pain from the loss of her mother, Effie has never known her father. It’s clear that something is going on with her, but she has no idea what. The survivor of a frightening event, the strange and scary just keeps following her. Tavia knows exactly what can go wrong. Effie can’t even guess.

That undercurrent of fear and mystery helps keep A Song Below Water moving at a brisk pace. It borrows a few tricks from the mystery and horror genres to do so.

With Tavia, we immediately know she is under threat. Tav knows what could happen, and she has to stay one step ahead to stay safe. Will she ever stop running and confront what stalks her? With Effie, on the other hand, we see the wary detective on a case too close to home, full of the drive to know and the fear of what she’ll find. The few clues she has make no sense, and those who could help her aren’t talking.

Instant suspense. That tension is key to keeping the reader engaged.

The Lesson: The relationship between these two found-family sisters is beautiful. But the contrast between them—their opposing but equally anxious what-ifs as they question themselves and their world—keeps the reader moving in dogged pursuit of the outcome. A Song Below Water showed me a new rule for writing:

For every character certain of their abilities and who they are, there should be another who hasn’t got a clue.


That’s all! Thanks so much for joining me. I hope these posts will help you to take another look at your own favorite books. Write on!

Self-publishing A Shadow in Sundown

My new novella is almost here!  In ebook form anyway.  A Shadow in Sundown (Book One of the Open World Quartet) will be released on Amazon first.

So what’s next?  Paperback, promotion stuff, adding the book to other retailers…it’s overwhelming at times but I’m looking forward to it, too.  I’ve been trying to get this together since the summer, was sure it would happen in November and…well, here we are.  Almost at the end of the year!

A Shadow in Sundown has an even longer history than that, though.  Looking back at old files, I think this story started 8 years ago.

What I remember is that I wrote it quickly, and that I had no idea to do with it next.  It wasn’t long enough to submit to a literary agent–not by a long shot.  I brainstormed ways to make it into a longer book, tried to expand on it, tried to add perspectives of new characters and continue the story.  Nothing quite worked.

Years later, I realized, Oh.  I write novellas.

After that, some of the writing problems I’d struggled with for ages started to make sense.  But there was one new problem: unknown authors rarely get novellas or short story collections published.  So when it was time to do something with this story that started so long ago, I had to learn how to become an indie author and self-publish.

I do wish novellas were more common today.  It’s true that some of my favorite books are uncommonly brief (like The Buddha in the Attic, or The Whale Rider), but in today’s market a standard word count range, for a first-time novelist, is generally very important.  (Journals are also an option.  You can read a little bit about literary journals in yesterday’s post, Goodbye to Glimmer Train.)  So for this, for me, self-publishing was king.

And here we are.  (And here we go!)

I’ll be sharing more about A Shadow in Sundown in the coming days.  I hope you’ll take a look.

Oh, and Princess Disasterface will be coming back soon, too!  I’d say in the next week or so.  As always, stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Cheers!

-CKB

Goodbye to Glimmer Train

Not another one!

I recently found out that the short story publication I always wanted to get into is no more.  It’s sad but true: some of the best literary journals are gone.  The end of Glimmer Train is a loss especially close to my heart, which says a lot, since they rejected my work a whole bunch of times.

I started out writing literary short fiction (under another name).  Like a lot of foolish and optimistic young writers I shopped around for a journal I “felt comfortable with.”  That was Glimmer Train, and over the years I just kept trying, both by working on my craft and periodically submitting a story.  There was something about them I just craved to be a part of, like a really good book whose world you just wanted to dive into.

Submitting your work is scary and frustrating, and it’s also true that you don’t get a professional reply every time (if you get any at all!).  It’s a competitive world, and it’s not the writers’ fault.  But read a lot of the advice out there and you’d think every burden is on them.  (Either that or you’re just moments away from publication, if only you take this advice.)  It’s a business, and the truth is that sometimes you just don’t get the job.

It hurt less with Glimmer Train, though.  In fact, it was almost nice.  They made a kinder, gentler world for everyone who submitted.  Replies were always courteous and encouraging.  Submission deadlines were never hard.  Their newsletters contained free advice from writers who’d made it.  And they always, always replied.

What also made Glimmer Train so special is that they paid authors they published (I mean really paid).  It was a set payment for publication ($700, when I was submitting), not pennies per word or in copies.  Plenty of first-time authors made it onto their pages, too.  They weren’t just a respected journal; they respected all writers.  Heck, they even encouraged them.

Glimmer Train’s last issues are out after 29 years of publishing.  I know it will be a lot worse for aspiring writers without them.

Cheers to you, Glimmer Train!  I’d say you’ll be missed, but you are already.

PS: Their web content and all its wisdom (including Writers Ask and their Resources for Writers) will still be available for at least the next year.