Thursday, 19 October 2017

Inner and Outer Evil

A post on Facebook made me think about the concepts of inner and outer evil and I decided to write down my take on the subject for everyone who wants to get into it. So, what is inner and outer evil, how do they work, and what can you use them for?

Inner and outer evil are two concepts about why things happen to the hero. They are especially useful for horror stories (and the post was about advice for writing gothic horror), because a lot of bad things tend to happen to the hero in horror stories.
Outer evil is the older concept and can also be found in fairy tales and in old myths and legends. In a story with outer evil, the hero has no hand in what happens to them. Think of Snow White or Briar Rose, for example. The only thing Snow White did to incur her stepmother’s wrath was to grow up and become a young woman. It’s neither her fault she grew up to be pretty, nor is it her fault that her stepmother grew older. To be chased away, almost killed several times, and later on poisoned is not anything she deserved through past deeds. Briar Rose is still an infant when she is cursed for the very minor sin of her parents not inviting a fairy godmother to her christening. To die for it once she reaches sixteen - as is the original curse - or to lie in sleep for a hundred years certainly is not a suitable punishment for this. Especially not when put on the baby who never had anything to do with it. A similar concept is also the basis of “Dracula,” where none of the main characters deserves what the Transylvanian count puts them through.
Inner evil is a newer concept which states that the hero had a hand in what happens to them. Examples for this are “Frankenstein” or “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In both cases the actions of the hero - making a creature from dead flesh or creating an alternate identity for enjoying the darker pleasures of life - lead to the problems the hero is facing. The same also goes for Evie Carnahan in “The Mummy” (the 1999 version): her reading a few lines from the ‘borrowed’ Book of the Dead leads to the awakening of the cursed Imhotep. The hero becomes a hero the moment they decide to face the problems they’ve created and to solve them - or die trying. And at least Evie and Victor Frankenstein show they are ready to do just that.

Outer evil works well in a fantasy or horror setting these days - both make the existence of fate or a curse more likely. In a horror or fantasy story, there’s no reason why the hero should not have to act to counter something they had no hand in creating. It’s the more old-fashioned concept and you have to be more careful with it, because in most cases, audiences will expect there to be a reason why the hero is drawn into a story beyond ‘it was once foretold’ or ‘they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ It can still work, though - and in other genres as well. Imagine the hero being drawn into an intrigue they had nothing to do with at the beginning. In horror stories, you can, of course, always have a car break down somewhere.
Inner evil is the more modern concept and works with every setting. The hero can always have done something wrong, which will then result in a problem which needs solving. Scientists might do something which they shouldn’t have done (the whole ‘things mankind was never supposed to know’ trope - or, more modern, the ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ trope). A socialite could have dropped a bomb (of gossip) in the wrong company and gotten herself into hot water. You can see where I’m going, I’m sure.

How do you work with the outer evil concept? The first and foremost thing to do is to remember that you need a very convincing reason for your outer evil to exist. We are past the time of fairy tales and legends. People won’t just believe it, if you say ‘the gods put a curse on him.’ Well, they will believe you in the right setting, that’s why I mentioned fantasy stories. In a world with magic and, perhaps, even with tangible gods, a curse or blessing (which may turn into a curse) are believable to the audience. Outer evil might also come from something which the character can’t control, such as jealousy (of their relationship, their status, or their looks), as in Snow White’s or in Briar Rose’s case. If you manage to create a believable reason for them to be pulled into a situations, then the concept of outer evil can work very well.
And how do you work with the inner evil concept? First of all, the sin should be worth the suffering the hero goes through and it should be the hero’s sin in the first place. Their ego (as in case of Victor Frankenstein or Evie Carnahan) or their dark desires (as in the case of Dr. Jekyll) are good ways to start things up. And you should tailor the severity of the problem to the severity of the sin. Having some people help Evie a little, even though she does most things by herself (pitting her mind against Imhotep’s powers), is acceptable, her sin of reading from the Book of the Dead isn’t as severe as, for instance, Frankenstein’s sin of creating a creature out of dead flesh. She couldn’t have known it would raise a specific dead person, whereas Frankenstein wanted to raise one. Evie is guilty of hubris as much as Frankenstein, but to a lesser degree. Being proud of the knowledge of a dead language isn’t on the same level as being sure you can create life out of dead matter.

Inner and outer evil are interesting concepts, but you have to be a little careful about how you use them.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Creating Change

Every hero of every story has some growing to do. They need to change, to become better, to become someone else than they were at the beginning. Because that is the core of a story. The world at the beginning and the world at the end differ. Perhaps only for the main character, perhaps for everyone - that is down to the author’s decision. But there always will be a change and the main character will have had a hand in it.

This is actually where ‘slice of life’ stories often fail, if the author doesn’t plot them well enough. A ‘slice of life’ story usually tells something about an ordinary person. It’s not an epic adventure, just a look into the life of someone. But even this look has to show us something, something more than ‘business as usual.’
A ‘slice of life’ story which just tells us something about a guy who goes to work in the morning, has lunch, goes home, and spends time in front of the TV isn’t interesting. But it’s not because of the ordinary life he’s leading. You can make this story interesting by a minor tweak and without adding a villain or a huge alien invasion. How? Let me give you an example. The guy goes to work like every day. You drop hints he’s very set in his ways, he likes routine. He leaves his desk at noon, like every day, to go to the same place for his lunch. But the place is closed. Suddenly, the guy has to figure out where to get his lunch that day. His routine is interrupted. He doesn’t live where he works, he hardly knows the streets around his workplace. He chose his little diner for lunch, because it was closest to work. Now he has to venture out into the unknown. He needs to find another place with food he likes, which isn’t too expensive, which isn’t too far away, since he only has limited time. That makes an interesting ‘slice of life’ story. The closed diner is the change which forces him to do things differently. He has to venture outside of his comfortable, little life. That is an interesting story.

Fairy tales also always include changes. The main characters have to do something new, something different. They have to go to new places (being forced out of their regular life is a trope you will find often), they have to meet with new people. They have to face failure and have to change to overcome it. Sometimes, the failure is experienced by someone else. The prince in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (the fairy tale, not the Disney movie) is not the first, he is the last who comes for the beauty behind the hedge. Because he has learned from past mistakes, he knows what not to do. Often, the prince who succeeds is the youngest of three brothers (three is a magical number in fairy tales) and his older brothers have failed already. Snow White has to leave her home behind, the princess becomes a housekeeper, she dies and is reborn. Those are a lot of changes. You can find those tropes, to a higher or lesser degree, in every fairy tale.

Any kind of story which is interesting to read deals with a change. And every protagonist, no matter how normal or how heroic, has to change with it. Has to grow and develop new abilities. Like the hero in a role-playing game who learns new abilities and gets stronger and more powerful, the hero in a story has to develop into someone new. It might be a minor change, as in that ‘slice of life’ story, just a man who has to explore and find a new place to eat. It might be a major change, like a simple peasant boy becoming a knight. It might only be visible to the hero him- or herself. It might be obvious for everyone who meets the hero. But there always will be a change.

Growth is what makes a story interesting. Action does as well, but even the action must be connected to some kind of change. You fight a battle, because you need to defeat the enemy. You don’t fight a battle and everyone goes back home without any changes in power, lands, or other things. You chase a car through the streets of a city, because something important is in it, something which will change a situation. You don’t just drive around the city on high speed just following another car for fun. The story of the hero changing, becoming stronger and better, is the core. Whatever else happens around it makes the story unique and gives it a theme.
And the change has to be felt. If that guy from the ‘slice of life’ story were eating his lunch at various places throughout the week, even if he’s always eating at place A on Monday and place B on Tuesday and so on, then the diner being closed wouldn’t be much of a change. He would have to swap hamburgers on Wednesday with tacos on Tuesday - the horrors! But the only place he ever eats at being closed forces him to leave his comfort zone and go on an adventure. That’s why I mentioned that you should show the guy loves his daily routine. He probably dislikes weekends and holidays, because they break it. And then - bam! - the diner is closed and he needs to find another place to eat.

A good way to decide what kind of change, what kind of challenge, a hero needs, is to look at their life. If they love routine, force them to break it. If they are close to a person, remove that person, so they have to follow. If they have power, take it away. If they don’t have power, give it to them. Find out what is most important to them and change it. Find out what will make them change, because they value it enough.

To tell an interesting story, you need to have a change in it, something which forces the main character to grow and change their ways. It can be a little growth or a big growth, but it always has to be a growth.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Thoughts on Character Generation

How to make a convincing male character? How to make a convincing female character? The answer in both cases is the same: make a convincing character. Don’t try to make a male or female character. First make a character, then decide on the gender.

There are several layers for making a character. First, give them a purpose. A reason for being in your story, a reason for carrying it. What is the story about? What will they have to face? What qualities, what abilities, what characteristics do they need for that? Then, give them a back story which will fit with their character. What sort of life would they have led? Then look at the society they live in. What kind of limitations does society put on them? Finally, decide which gender would suit them most. Gender is not biological or genetic sex, keep that in mind, too. Gender is a social construct, the way a society splits abilities and characteristics between ‘male,’ ‘female,’ and ‘neither or both.’
Let me give you an example. Jane/Jack Carter was created for a series of novellas (even though I still have to publish the second one, but it is written). Her back story is that she is one daughter of seven in a middle-class household of a Victorian age. She is sterile and couldn’t find a husband because of that (the most important job for a wife is to give her husband an heir, something she couldn’t do). Her parents expected her to take up work, as a governess or a lady’s companion. Jane/Jack refused to do that kind of work. She cut her hair, dressed as a man, and came to London to work as a clerk. But she would have needed some kind of recommendation for that, so instead she became a penny-a-liner, a freelancing journalist. At the beginning of the first story, “Vengeful Spirit,” all of this has happened already. Jane lives as Jack Carter in London, writes articles under both names, and just makes enough not to starve or completely drop into poverty. She knows she needs a better job. So when she finds a personal ad of a man looking for a secretary who is adventurous and ready to travel, she decides to apply. And despite the fact that her future employer sees through her disguise, he hires her. I do not show her transformation from Jane to Jack, because it’s not necessary for the story. She has learned to behave like a man, to be a man in every social aspect of her life, except for one (she is not a lesbian and takes up a sexual relationship with her employer). Jane/Jack, who defied expectations and rather led her own life instead of conforming to society, has the necessary balls (not literally, of course) to become Lucas Swenson’s secretary and assistant. She has the courage, she has the scepticism, and she has the patience sometimes needed. Society has forced her to adopt a male alias and she has grown used to it. The changes in her life come from the identity of her new employer, who is not human, but Loki, the Norse god, again exiled from Asgard for a while. Jane/Jack, who thinks very practical and doesn’t believe in the supernatural, has to face the fact that, in her world, the supernatural exists, in the form of the god Loki, in the form of a Sidhe called ‘Miss Underhill,’ in the form of the vampire Elisabeth Bathory, and in many other forms.
Jane is a woman, because this is essential for her back story. I could have created a young man who has come to London and has ended up as a penny-a-liner, too, but the back story is stronger with a woman here: Jane has to fight much harder than a man would have to, because she has to fight her upbringing as a woman as well.

On the other hand, I have written a host of stories (both published and unpublished) with Loki as the main character, showing him in a variety of roles from really close to the Marvel universe (The Loki Files) over stories in between Marvel and Myth to stories clearly inspired by the Norse god. And while Loki might actually be the ‘wife’ in a political marriage, he is always male by definition (although Loki is a Frost Giant and those are both male and female at the same time). I have written Yaoi for a while, working almost exclusively with male characters. The point is always to start with the story and purpose and then to decide how to write the character.

Jane Browne/Jane Doe started out as a female character, because I wanted a parody of the espionage genre with a female agent who was as badass as the men. But she developed into a different person. She has many ‘male’ abilities and characteristics, but that doesn’t make her a man. It makes her a highly-trained agent with specialities which are often considered ‘male.’ It makes her a very reliable and loyal right hand to a criminal mastermind who raised her for that position. In both cases Steven (as her mentor and as her boss) saw her potential and worked with it - not because she was a woman or despite of it, but because she had what it needed to become the agent or the right hand. Her abilities, her likes, her dislikes, her back story, all make her a real character. A person who is as real as they get within the pages of a novel.

Stay away from stereotypes. No matter whether it’s the buxom blonde who doesn’t have much of a brain or whether it’s the ruggedly good-looking man who is secretly caring, but openly daring, they have no place in the world of a story. Your characters can be blond and a little on the stupid side, but that shouldn’t be all which defines them. Your characters can be ruggedly good-looking and daring with a soft and caring side, but they should have more to offer than that.
Make sure that they do. Make sure you feel the characters, you understand them. Make sure they whisper ‘that’s not my way’ into your ear when you decide on a scene which shouldn’t play out like you planned it, because the characters would never act like this. Because then you have full-fledged characters, characters which can carry their story.

Full-fledged, breathing characters with a real soul - don’t accept substitutes.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Diving into Pulp

Recently, I have been reading my way through a lot of pulp stories, partially old ones, partially new ones. I got caught by “Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective” (currently 9 volumes, the 10th has been announced on the publisher’s website), since I’ve been a Holmes fan since childhood, but also branched out into other stories, going so far as to pick up the first couple of Fantomas novels in an e-book omnibus. I read the first novel once, a long time ago, and am looking forward to going through the others as well.

Beside just reading them, however, I’ve also found myself studying them. Studying the techniques used to keep the readers following the story, studying the way action scenes are written, characters are introduced and used. Studying the basics of the pulp genre. I hope to be able to incorporate it into some series I’m writing or planning to write (mostly the John Stanton series, for which I have written two novellas already and the Benjamin Farrens series, for which I plotted the basic story a long time ago, also going for the novella format). Others might follow in time.

I’ve been working my way through quite some of Airship 27’s catalogue already, starting with the aforementioned new Sherlock Holmes stories (including, beside the novella-length and shorter stories of the anthology also the very interesting novel “Season of Madness”), but also crossing into Secret Agent X and Jim Anthony. I’m looking forward to two more series I will at least have a closer look at. In addition, as already mentioned, I have included the very first real pulp villain, Fantomas, and some old stories I found in the Mega-Pack series (including the Pulp Hero pack with four Scarlet Ace, one Lone Ranger, one Black Hood, and one old Secret Agent X story). Currently, I’m finishing up the Jim Anthony novels and novellas (since volume 4 encompasses 4 novellas) and I rather like them.

I know a lot of people look down on stories like those, on novels and shorter works only written to entertain. I’ve spent a lot of my teens reading the German Groschenromane (mostly John Sinclair and some anthology series) and I’m finding a lot of their techniques in the pulp as well (or, perhaps, the other way around). I’m realizing more and more just how familiar this way of writing is to me already. On the other hand, it goes well with my own chosen genres. Adventure, heist, espionage - they all work extremely well with the pulp formula I’m slowly discovering. I like writing for other people’s entertainment - and my own. I know how fleeting any kind of success in the world of literature is. I studied literature, I know how quickly even the best books can be forgotten. And I know it’s sometimes the less high-quality literature which endures, like “Dracula” (which is no outright pulp, but goes in the same direction).
Not every pulp villain can be known for a long time. Fantomas has his followers (partially due to the very loose adaptations of the 1960s, which I enjoy as well), Mabuse is next to forgotten (except by Kim Newman, who incorporated him in his Moriarty story collection). As a matter of fact, Fantomas turns up as the villain in one modern Secret Agent X story (which is fitting for the two men of a thousand faces) and is mentioned as a former enemy in one Jim Anthony novel at least. Unfortunately, I couldn’t trace volume 1 of the new series from Airship 27 (“The Hunter” is volume 2).

I have already used some of the techniques when I penned “The Case of the Modern Bluebird” and “The Case of the Dead Socialite.” A third John Stanton story is already started, “The Case of the Extinct Fish.” I’m sure more will follow. The same goes for Benjamin Farrens, who was created a long time ago in my mind. I couldn’t finish the story in German then, now I’ve broken it into three story arches and will work on “The Blind Medium,” “The Blood Ruby,” and “The Cornwall Vampire” in time.

What else? I might drop the fourth novel release this year, since I have few sales, so it’s not as if a lot of people are waiting for the next one. “One For Sorrow,” formerly known as “The Dresden Collier,” still isn’t finished, but it will be in time (and might profit from my pulp studies). I’m also going for my original plan of the Dirty Thirty again, have changed the title for what is to be a series of Erotica from “Deadly Daddies” to “Lethal Lovers,” so I have more space to work in. I might push it, have two novellas done which can be edited in a relatively short time, due to not being larger than roundabout 20,000 words. No comparison to “Death Dealer,” which has over 100,000. They will, however, not be published under Cay Reet. I have another name in store for them.

I’m enjoying my trip into the large and interesting landscape of pulp and I’m sure something will come of it.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

An Update on the Knight Agency and the Magpie

Four months have passed since the last update, so here’s a new one. I’m currently proofreading “Changing Times,” the fifth Knight Agency novel. It will be out by the end of the month, as the publishing schedule says.

There have been some changes. The Black Cat has become the Magpie and the first novel of that series has changed its title from “The Dresden Collier” to “One For Sorrow.” The main characters and the story as a such haven’t changed, though.
I had a few amusing weeks writing two novellas of around 20,000 words each with a new main character, John Stanton, who lives in a Steampunk alternate reality. As soon as the third story is done, the first three will come together in “John Stanton - Agent of the Crown Vol. 1.” It will, as it currently stands, be made up of the stories “The Case of the Modern Bluebeard,” “The Case of the Dead Socialite,” and “The Case of the Extinct Fish.” For me, this has been a nice trip into outright pulp territory which I highly enjoyed.

So here’s my updated publishing schedule:

  • August 2017: Changing Times (Knight Agency 5)
  • November 2017: Death Dealer (Knight Agency 6)
  • February 2018: Going Legal (Black Knight Agency 2)
  • May 2018: One For Sorrow (The Magpie 1)
  • August 2018: John Stanton - Agent of the Crown Vol. 1

John Stanton’s adventures, not being regular fare, might actually get published somewhat in between. I’m currently also considering bundling my two finished Swenson & Carter stories and publishing them on Amazon.