Month: March 2017

A Skelk in the Cake

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The skelk is the Martian equivalent of a rat, and it is particularly agile and nimble because of its six legs.  These pesky rodents are often found in unlikely and unwanted places and the phrase ‘a skelk in the cake’ is likely derived from one or more situations where a skelk was actually found in the cake. This expression, however, has developed to signify any number of unwelcome or inopportune events, much in the same way that an inhabitant of Earth might say that someone has ‘thrown a wrench in the works’.

 

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Gangs of Denbrook: The Pirates

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This gang of sports fanatics have adopted the name and logo of Denbrook’s perpetually losing baseball team and claim the fringing borderlands of the Barrens. Their preferred weapon is the baseball bat and often they will come armored to battle wearing the helmets and pads of a baseball catcher.

They finance their gang by producing shoddy knock-offs of licensed t-shirts, jackets, and other memorabilia, which does not endear them to the owners of the Pirates baseball team. They also do a thriving trade in scalped tickets.

 

Gangs of Denbrook: The Mimes

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The rather committed and very much deranged members of the Mimes bleach their faces pale, and consider all verbal communication as profane. They cut out their tongues and communicate solely through means of a bastardized sign language. These stalk the southern blocks of the Barrens and leave behind the bodies of their victims–those who they consider unclean–with throats slit ear to ear.

 

Geltar/Geltar Whip

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The geltar is a cold-blooded, scaled creature which is sometimes domesticated for use as a beast of burden. They are thick-skinned, slow-witted, but incredibly strong and sometimes incredibly stubborn. The geltar whip is braided with diamond chips that can lacerate even the thick hide of the geltar, and is a most effective tool in making the geltar more submissive.  They are slow to anger, but there are more a few tales of a “geltar pushed too far” which has turned on its master and made a meal of her.

The geltar are used among the steltic ice mines of the Rathuri Tribe and also as beasts of burden among the agricultural tribe of the Fejuvisi.  Geltars are not commonly used among the Muvari Tribe.

 

Writing Unrepentant Characters

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From the Iliad to the western dime novels, there is a long history of anti-heroes or protagonists that behave with only their self interest in mind and lack virtue, morality, or other heroic values. To the writer, telling a story about such characters provides particular challenges. If a character has no redeeming qualities the reader may not care at all what happens to the protagonist and quit reading. I’ve discarded many books and short stories, because I didn’t care about the protagonist enough to continue.

So what works? What can bring a reader to the table when your main character is a thoroughly unrepentant character of the lowest morals?

1. Cheat Around the Edges: Though your character lacks many moral principles, he does have at least one good quality or admirable goal. An example of this sort of character is James Bond, who has little in the way of morals or principles (or is willing to compromise them to accomplish his goals), yet he doesn’t hesitate to lay his life on the line to protect England from villainous organizations of all stripes and hues. This helps us buy into Bond and care what happens to him, even as he uses and discards strings of women with little regard to what happens to them after he gets the information he wants. Also, Fleming does a good job of showing Bond’s inner turmoil, which the movies rarely reflect, and also of showing the physical and mental toll that his job takes.

2. Evil vs. Less Evil: The protagonist, though not motivated by the welfare of others, is acting against a greater evil than he, so in effect he becomes the ‘good guy’ of the piece by contrast. An example of this is Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone.

3. Selective Story Telling: Your character is a ruthless mercenary who has slaughtered many innocents, but you choose only to tell the stories where he has been wronged by someone else and is seeking redress, or where for some reason he decides that it is in his interest to help another. Conan is a good example of this sort of character. On close examination of his character he has no moral qualms about killing and plundering, but those incidents are glossed over somewhat and the Robert E Howard stories tend to incorporate the first two elements of Cheating Around the Edges and Evil vs. Less Evil. This way, we can relate to Conan, even though the reality is that he might knife us in a dark alley if he thought we might have a few coins in our pocket.

4. Machinations and Train Wrecks: In part five of Through the Groaning Earth,  The Jewels of Sagra Yoth, I tell the story of Willen, who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever except for unrestrained ambition. He’s a two-bit loser thief and murderer out to make a name for himself. To my surprise, I’ve had comments from readers that this is one of their favorite sections from the book. Why does this section work, when there is utterly no reason to like Willen or care what happens to him? Here’s my theory:

a) The character has a clearly defined goal

b) The character struggles mightily to gain that goal

c)The character uses every bit of his limited brain power to orchestrate his theft, and so we are interested in the machinations and his underhanded efforts.

d)The story isn’t long. The readers don’t have to spend an entire novel following an utterly despicable character before they see his miserable fate. 

e)The reader wants to watch the train wreck.

I think this last bit cannot be underestimated. Not only do readers deserve to see the character reap the whirlwind of his poor choices, but the writer has a duty to show that bad decisions have bad consequences. Willen struggles mightily to steal the Jewels of Sagra Yoth and then, in the end, all his evil actions come back to haunt him, and he realizes that maybe he’s not quite as smart as he thought.

For another example of thoroughly unrepentant and irredeemable characters look to Derrick Ferguson’s Diamondback stories (shortly to again be available for contributors to his Patreon account). These stories don’t so much use the devices of Cheating around the Edges or Evil vs. Less Evil, or even Selective Story Telling, but rely on the Machinations and Train Wreck principles. The reader is enthralled by all the machinations, double dealings, and back-stabbings, and wants to see the ensuing train wreck. Honestly, I didn’t care so much if the deadly killer Diamondback lived or died, but I did want to see how everything played out, and that kept me reading until the very last word.

5. Pair the irredeemable character with someone the reader can care about. This is a technique I use in Dead Blonde Walking, where the protagonist is a mostly heartless assassin with only a couple of identifiably good qualities (and there is some uncertainty there). By herself, Monica Killingsworth (who appears in quite a number of my books and various short story collections) is something of an emotional cipher and it often takes interaction with another character, usually one the reader can emotionally invest his or herself, to compare and contrast, and give further interest to the story.

 

Reading Round Up & Crossover Universes

This week’s reading includes the following:

  1. John Dickson Carr’s Doorway to Doom

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This one I found a few years back at the local library on the shelf of books they were shuffling off into oblivion by selling for a buck or two. The one I picked up had no cover sleeve and looks precisely like the book on the right of this photograph–except mine has the added character of being a bit more battered.

This is another one of those books that looked intriguing and I gambled a couple of dollars on it. It’s a collection of detective tales–usually of the locked door variety where no one can possibly have gotten in our out (or so it appears)–and also includes a number of radio scripts.

John Dickson Carr has a wonderful grasp of evocative language and though one or two of the stories fell flat for me, I found myself imminently entertained by the rest. All of these stories have weird elements. Often times these weird elements are explained away by the end of the story, but in some cases they are not!

I found I enjoyed the radio scripts just much as the short stories.

2. The Solomon Curse by Clive Cussler

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Treasure hunters Sam and Remi Fargo discover underwater temples that have been swallowed up by the ocean on the coasts of the Solomon Islands and at the same time they got tangled in a coup attempt to overthrow the local government.

Bonus Weird Plot Element: Cannibalistic Giants!

3.  Dillon and the Prophecy of Fire (Chapters 1-3) by Derrick Ferguson

This story is currently only available via Patreon , where patrons of the arts can choose to give financial support to creators of their choice. For $1 a month you get a chapter of Dillon and the Prophecy of Fire.

Here we find Dillon hosting tech-whiz Wyatt Hyatt, professional thief Reynard Hansen, and the lovely Professor Ursula at his secret home, even while sinister forces marshall against him.

As usual, Ferguson assembles a colorful cast of characters in a highly entertaining story.

Bonus Crossover Content in Chapter Three: Wyatt Hyatt uses the Clip Pad computer device that he developed, which is first mentioned in Dire Planet, and Dillon wears a Gantlet Brothers: Black Intelligence tour t-shirt. Both of these crossovers were a complete surprise to me.