Tuesday 31 December 2013

Killing Main Characters, feat. The Deathly Hallows and Star Wars

Happy New Year everyone! What better way to see in 2014 than to talk about MURDERING YOUR CHARACTERS.

The way an author handles character death is often one of the most contentiously discussed issues amongst readers (and writers), and with good reason. Most people aren't particularly bothered when a nameless soldier or a snarling orc drops as part of a story's natural cannon-fodder quota, but when it comes to characters we've come to know and love over the course of a story, saying goodbye to some of our favourite fictional creations can prove to be very difficult indeed.

Some people are dead-set against killing main characters. They see it as unpleasant and emotionally trying; the sort of thing they'd rather avoid in their leisure time as much as possible. I'm the same way myself when it comes to certain sensitive topics, but I realise that that's a personal preference rather than one that should govern storytelling in general. Killing off main characters can be done in both the Right and the Wrong way, and I'd love to spend just a few minutes discussing the difference between the two.

So first off, why do we kill characters in stories? Like anything, it's to evoke an emotional response and/or move the story forward (ideally both). However, unlike most other plot devices, the killing of an established character draws a line under something you've spent pages, chapters, or even entire books building up. It's a risky move. You're building the most intricate house of cards you possibly can just so that watching it fall down will be all the more impressive when it finally happens. You need to time that final moment perfectly, and if it happens either too early or too late you're going to leave people feeling cheated and unsatisfied.

For me, one of the most horribly misused instances of character death in fiction happens at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This has often proven to be a controversial opinion amongst the people I've discussed it with, but I firmly stand by my viewpoint on it to this day.

Without spoiling anything too much, at the end of the final Harry Potter book we're treated to an epic final confrontation in which a large number of supporting characters (many of whom have been present since very early on in the series) are killed off. On paper, this seems fine. It's the climactic instalment in a long-running series; the stakes must be raised, the drama must be heightened, and the tension must be stretched to breaking point, where the previously unthinkable happens and our heartstrings are wrenched in a way we've never experienced before.

The problem lies entirely in the execution. These character deaths are not relayed as a tense and dramatic series of events during the final confrontation; they are listed off after the plot has been resolved, like an obituary report. There is no room for the audience to take in the dramatic impact of what has happened, no room for the characters to grieve and be affected by their loss, no story to be progressed, and no tension to be heightened, since the plot has already been resolved by this point.

The strongest argument I've seen for the inclusion of these character deaths is one of tone. Deathly Hallows is the darkest instalment of a series that has grown progressively darker over time. Death, loss, and the brutal reality of Voldemort's new world order are all prominent themes by now. However, all of this happens in the final few pages of the book. By this point the tone has already been set, several main characters have died already (in far more appropriate manners), and it is far too late in the day to start turning the final book in the series into some grim statement on the realities of war. These deaths are further cheapened by the "happily ever after" epilogue that immediately follows, completely sweeping away any kind of tonal or thematic significance they might have had and leaving the loss of these well-loved characters feeling hollow and pointless.

In contrast, let's look at an example of character death being used appropriately in a story. I'm sure everyone is familiar with the original Star Wars, and the death of Ben Kenobi at the climax of the movie's second act. This is a death that serves many significant purposes not just in the narrative of the first movie, but its subsequent sequels as well.

First and foremost: Making the villain threatening. Darth Vader is often heralded as one of the greatest fictional Bad Guys of all time, a character that we love to hate, and this is in no small part due to his immensely threatening presence. When Vader kills Ben, we are shown in a very direct and visceral way that he is a force to be reckoned with. He defeats the wisest, most competent, and perhaps most morally upstanding character in the story, setting himself up as a foe who has not only ripped away the most grounding part of the central cast, but also as someone who is beyond even the most competent and effective member of our group of heroes.

Ben's death is also hugely significant in Luke's character development as the story's protagonist. As the movie enters its final act Luke is forced to stand on his own two feet for the first time in the story, without the guidance of an older, wiser voice of reason. He ceases to be a boy and becomes a man, proving that he is capable of succeeding beyond Ben's instruction. This also sets the stage for Luke's more rebellious and emotionally driven confrontation with Vader in the sequel, giving their duel far more emotional context and depth than a simple flashy lightsaber fight, and going on to enhance the impact of the "I am your father" moment, and the relationship the two characters then develop in the final movie.

The story of Star Wars as a whole is enhanced and enriched by Ben's death, whereas the same cannot be said for the myriad of deaths that occur at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

If you're gonna kill off your main characters you'd better be darn sure it's happening in service to the story at hand, because by default your audience is going to react negatively to it. Make that emotional investment worth it. Make it pay off, make it affect the story to come, make it influence our perception of characters and their motivations, and for goodness sake give us the breathing room to take in what has happened and have our own little emotional moment of grief and catharsis afterwards.

I could go on to talk about things like the effectiveness (and lack thereof) of shock value in fiction, but I think this post is already running on, so I'm going to leave it at that for now!
Happy New Years once again everyone, and I hope you all have a fantastic end to 2013!

Saturday 21 December 2013

Broken Moon Part 2 Published, and Merry Xmas!

Oops, I'm a little late with this one, but part two of Broken Moon is all done and available to purchase on Amazon and Smashwords, with other retailers to follow! Things are heating up in this chapter as the scene-setting starts to give way to relationships, emotions, and conflicts!

Still reeling from her life-shattering loss, alone on the mountain slopes and at the mercy of vicious feral werewolves, April is forced to confront the most terrible night of her life cut off from the support of her pack. Her only companion and protector is Cyan; the outsider, and perhaps the only person to whom she can reveal her conflicted feelings about her life back home. Cyan's involvement with the Highland Pack is about to become something more than a passing stay, and his night spent with April will mean dangerous consequences for both of them.

And on that note, it's time for me to disappear for Xmas! Things have been a little hectic this month, and I've been focusing more on writing than blog posts, but hopefully I can get things up and running again in the new year. I probably won't be getting much work done over the holidays, but I'm going to bring some editing on Wild Instincts: The Novel with me in case I have some quiet moments in between family gatherings and seasonal dinners!

Merry Xmas everyone, and have a lovely time! I hope Santa brings you everything you want this year!

Wednesday 11 December 2013

I'm on All Romance eBooks!

It's taken a year, but after finally getting my last bits of tax information sorted out I've started publishing titles on ARe! Yay!

You can find my titles on my author page here, available in epub, mobi, and pdf formats. At present I'm two thirds of the way through uploading His Darkest Desire, with a new chapter being released every day, so the complete series should be up by the weekend. The compiled novel version will follow shortly after, along with some of my erotic shorts/bundles. Wild Instincts may take a little while to find its way on to ARe, since the formatting and uploading process is much more time consuming than it is with Amazon or Smashwords, and I'd prefer to wait until I've completed another editing pass and released the compiled version before posting it.

In other news, still working on Broken Moon and edits for Wild Instincts: The Novel (it's not gonna be called that, but whatever, working titles) in the background. I've been held up with the whole ARe process (you wouldn't believe how many hours I had to sink into reformatting all my titles before uploading them), but the second chapter of Broken Moon is nearing completion and should be released within a week. Fingers crossed for a weekend release on that one as well, but no promises.

That's all for now! I've got blog articles I want to write, I really do, but recently things have been hectic with all the other tasks I've been dealing with alongside Xmas preparations and so on.

Happy holidays!

Monday 2 December 2013

A Year in Self Publishing (Part 2)

Carrying on from where I left off a couple of weeks ago, today I'd like to talk a little about how my business model for self publishing has worked out over the past year.

When I initially hopped into the indie community I was planning to build up a portfolio of simple erotic shorts, cheaply priced and numerous in number, in order to work my way up to a reasonable income over time. Based on what I've heard from my contemporaries this is certainly still a legitimate way of making money, but there are a few tips and refinements to the model that have influenced my business model over the past twelve months.

First and foremost: a series sells better than half a dozen standalones. I hear this consistently from my contemporaries (not just when it comes to short stories, but full novels across multiple genres as well), and my own experience has confirmed it. The lion's share of my sales have come from my serial novels, and even my most popular short stories rarely break even with the sales of my least popular serial instalments. You want to give readers more of what they want, and there's no better way to do that than writing an ongoing story. It's very easy to read a standalone title or two by an author and then move on to other writers, but less so when there's a niggling need at the back of your mind to find out what happens next in an ongoing narrative.

This leads on to the pricing model. As most indie authors will confirm, you don't generally want to be selling anything that isn't a loss leader at less than the $2.99 mark. This is primarily due to Amazon's royalty rates, where anything below $2.99 can only net you 35% of the sale at maximum. While $0.99 titles can seem appealing, you have to be selling roughly six times as many of them to break even with a 2.99 price point.

At present I sell all of my individual shorts (~5k words), and serial chapters (usually closer to ~10k words) for $2.99, with bundles of three shorts at $4.99, and completed nine-part serials at $9.99.
I'm not gonna lie, it's pretty pricey compared many ebooks. However, you can often get away with this in niche markets like erotica where such pricing points are generally pretty acceptable for short stories. It's also been something of a necessity for making anything like a reasonable income for me. If I wasn't using this business model I wouldn't be able to justify writing full time, and I'm still making less than minimum wage overall.

If you're a prospective indie author, expect to get some unhappy reviews if you go for this pricing model. Thankfully the vast majority of my titles are sitting in a healthy 3-5 star rating range on Amazon and Goodreads, but 90% of the negative comments I get are based on the price of my titles (heck, one recent 2-star review mentioned it while admitting they hadn't even read the book >:|). I fully intend to lower my prices via condensing serials into longer segments, which I've already been working on for individual chapters (His Darkest Desire was around 6.5k words per chapter on average, Wild Instincts was closer to 10k, and Broken Moon should end up at even more), but at present it's just not a realistic option of I want to keep making a liveable income off my writing.

So in summary; this business model absolutely works. It's tried and tested by many authors, but if you're writing for glowing five-star reviews, it might not be your best option. Even if people love your work, some of them are still going to be peeved by the pricing point.

...And I think that just about covers all the main businessy things I've picked up in a year of self publishing! I've learned a huge amount about writing in general, of course, but that's something to cover in other articles.
Hopefully over the course of 2014 I'll learn a whole lot more!