Thoughts on “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK OUTLANDER AHEAD.

Strap in, folks, this is gonna be a long review. Then again this was a long book, so what do you expect?

What I liked: 

The great characters. I didn’t always like Claire, but she always felt like a person and not just a vassal through which the author could carry out the story. Everyone had an interesting backstory and their own distinct personality, which really helped me get into the spirit of the novel. The dialogue was very personalized as well and I was impressed at how each character was able to give lengthy exposition without it sounding too unnatural. I also found that, despite the Game of Thrones level number of characters, it was easy enough to remember who each one of them were because of how unique Gabaldon made them.

The immersive environment. It’s very easy for a reader to lose themselves in this book. The way Gabaldon is able to describe the lay of the land is impressive and I never had any difficulty wondering where exactly these people were or what the environment looked like. What I can appreciate is the environment isn’t just a backdrop, it’s engrained into the story itself.

Sexy times for all. While the romance between Jamie and Claire may have been a bit rushed, what with Claire still having a husband back home, I believe the chemistry between these two is strong. The fact that they’re both well-developed characters helps me care more about their relationship and I think Gabaldon writes sex pretty well. She doesn’t explain so little that you can’t tell what’s happening, but she also doesn’t explain so much that it comes across as mechanical and weird.

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The historical accuracy. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this novel and as someone who has tried to write historical fiction with mixed results, I can really appreciate her efforts. The details she put into this really help the story come alive, especially when she writes about the environment and costumes people wear. She also doesn’t shy away from describing the abominable odors that persist in these types of places back in the 18th century. I was doubly impressed when she went into details about which herbs to use for healing and how to describe how someone would properly attend a wounded man back in those days.

What I didn’t like: 

The focus was all over the place. I don’t think I would be out of line for saying that this book is by and large plotless. While there are many obstacles that the lead characters run into, there is no centralized conflict. For the most part, the structure of the story is “this happened, and then that happened, and then this happened.” It didn’t ever seem to be leading up to anything. On the one hand it left me guessing as to what would be the final outcome of the story, but on the other hand it made me wonder just what the point of all of this was. This is a shame because there were so many points of interest such as Claire missing the modern world, Jamie’s outlaw status and, I think most importantly, the inevitable doom that is to befall the Highlanders.

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Claire’s unrealistic reactions to killing. The book makes it clear on several occasions that Claire is accustomed to seeing people dying because of her position as a nurse during the War. However, I’d like to point out that there is a huge difference between watching someone dying and actively participating in their murder. In my humble opinion, Claire’s reaction to having murdered someone is disturbingly understated. Granted the person she murdered was trying to sexually assault her, taking a life is an unnatural act and a psychologically stable person would be horrified at having to do so. Especially one who swore an oath to always preserve life in any way she can. I thought they would explore this more after she was forced to murder a 16 year-old in order to save Jamie, but even then she doesn’t seem to feel that guilty about it. What makes this even more difficult for me to swallow is that this boy really didn’t do anything wrong. He was just a young lad who was trying to do his job to the best of his ability. He just happened to be on the wrong side.

It went on for too long. I think much of this can be attributed to the fact that this book lacked a plot so the author just went along with the story until she felt like stopping. While I enjoyed this book, most of this story didn’t actually need to happen in the grand scheme of things and I’m actually shocked at what they left out. For instance, the final battle to collect Jamie from the infamous Scottish prison….happens off screen…….

We spent pages and pages talking about Claire fighting a wolf (a conflict that I don’t believe even needed to exist since it doesn’t contribute anything to the plot), but when it comes to the climax, the great escape, the novel’s main villain dying….it happens off screen…….

There was no reason to cut that part out. There were so many other pointless scenes that could have been scrapped. They did not need to cut the one part that needed to be in there.

I admit, I’ve gone into this fandom totally blind so perhaps Black Jack comes back with a cyborg eye and there will be a real show-down. I don’t know. I’m just judging this book by its own merits.

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What the hell is up with Chapter 39? So the scene where Claire tries to save Jamie’s life after his torture at the hands of Randall while they’re at the monastery….Can anyone tell me what happened in that scene? I think she was trying to rekindle his will to live but…that should not have worked. Mind you, I only have a passing knowledge of psychology when it comes to PTSD related events, but I’m pretty sure forcing a patient to relive a traumatic event literally days after it happened in an uncontrolled environment would not result in a sudden miraculous turn-around in their mental behavior. Particularly when they are at death’s door to begin with. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that should have made him keel over.

Jamie’s torture. I’m gonna be honest, I thought it was overkill. The extent of his injuries and psychological torture should have left him a completely unresponsive husk of a man or dead. At least if this had stayed as true to life as it had been before. One of the most interesting aspects of his torture was left, for the most part, unexplored. While recounting the horror he faced while against Randall, he lets slip that the sight of Claire makes him ill because Randall basically conditioned him so every time he thought about Claire he would either be beaten or worse. In one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the whole book, he tearfully explains that he doesn’t want to see her again because just her being there reawakens all of these awful memories.

Me:

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Wow. That is dark. More than dark, that’s completely and utterly heart-wrenching.

Aaaaaaand after Claire’s Most Awful Idea Ever, he’s totally fixed and ready for some bairn-making.

Ummm……

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There’s no reason why this should have worked. You can’t just undo classical conditioning.

Mrs. Gabaldon, you seem like a smart lady and all, but I don’t think you understand how psychology works. Sadly, once a mind is screwed up that badly, the damage is usually permanent. If not, it takes a looooong time for an individual to overcome it.

I think that Jamie’s aversion to Claire would have made an excellent jumping off point for the next novel and would justify a book of equal length, especially if she found out during this debacle that she was pregnant with his child. Not only would Claire have to deal with the impending slaughter of the Highlanders and the Dragoons looking for Jamie, she would also have to confront the possibility of raising a child in a foreign country in the past alone. That’s more than enough conflict for a book, in my opinion. But instead we get a miraculous recovery from Jamie and they all live happily ever after. At least for now.

Overall opinion: 

I enjoyed reading this novel and I’m more than a little interested in reading the next installment. However, I also believe this book could have been so much better if some things were cut and if the story had been given more focus. It was interesting just watching them go about their daily lives, but I think actually giving it a plot would have raised the stakes a considerable amount.

How to Mary Sue Proof Your Characters

Last week I wrote a post about Mary Sues and why people write them. Today, I want to give you some unsolicited pointers on how to avoid writing a Mary Sue, or even a Gary Stu (the male equivalent).

Enjoy!

Start with a real person. While it may not be a good idea to base a character’s entire identity around one person, it can be a helpful place to begin. If you’re like me you have had at least some exposure to interesting people. Think about what makes them so compelling. Is it their sense of humor? Do they have a hair-trigger temper? Think of a person you know who might fit well within the universe you have created. Then take interesting elements from other people’s lives and add them to the mix. Voila! You have a person.

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Consider the small things. This is the part where you need to start studying people. Just about everyone has body language that is unique to them. What do your friends do when they’re frustrated? Do they puff out their cheeks like a chipmunk and blow out air? Do they drum their fingers on the table? Do they pace? Do they play with their hair? Including these tiny details can really bring your character to life.

Nix the Chosen One premise. I would be incorrect if I said this trope is never well-done or can’t work. However, it’s problematic to use with reckless abandon because you come dangerously close to spreading the dreaded The-Main-Character-Is-Special-Cuz-Reasons virus. Once it enters the atmosphere, it will cause every other character to speak in cryptic phrases regarding the protagonist’s destiny. Perhaps you should just make the main character stand-apart by having them actually do something.

Have them fail at least once. Which is more interesting? The tail of the Underdog that overcame insurmountable odds and repeated failures to eventually reach victory, or the story about the person that wins every single time? One Punch man doesn’t count.

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Give them interests and hobbies. This seems like an obvious one, but it’s something that’s often overlooked. You can tell quite a bit about a person by what activities they engage in during their free time. Perhaps your person likes medieval reenactments, or beekeeping. The sky is the limit. Just find a way to make them stand out.

FLAWWWWWWS! Every character needs flaws because that is what makes us human. It’s how you can tell a real person from a fictional person and the reader needs to believe they are reading about a real-fictional person. If you aren’t sure where to start with this, I highly recommend The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s a very detailed book that not only defines negative traits but also gives you possible causes for them, shows you how they could manifest in the character’s everyday life, and even how a character can overcome these flaws.

I hope this was helpful. Good luck with your writing projects!

Why Do People Write Mary Sues?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with what a Mary Sue is, it’s essentially a female character that is too perfect. A character that is always morally correct no matter what, has all the male protagonists drooling themselves over her even though she would describe herself as plain, and is special without having to try.

In other words, she’s boring.

So why do so many writers write Mary Sues? Even ones that claim they hate them?

I have a few theories:

The writer is trying to live vicariously through their character. Most of us want to be special. Unfortunately, a lot of us lack the bravery or skill required to become a compelling protagonist. In order for us to be unique, something supernatural in nature would have to occur like a radioactive spider biting us. Many of us have problems with ourselves so we’re tempted to fix them when we create an ink-and-paper twin. However, flaws are essentially what makes a person a person so by removing them writers create a character that is as flat as cardboard.

They want readers to like their character. If the reader despises the main protagonist, it is likely they will stop reading the story. Sadly, many writers think that the best way of avoiding this is by creating a character that has zero flaws other than superficial ones like clumsiness or being “too nice.” Truth is, a person’s foibles can make them more endearing and relatable.

It’s easier than coming up with a real person. Creating a person from scratch is hard. Especially if that person doesn’t share the same background, race, or religion that you do. It’s easy to become intimidated at the prospect of being inside the head of such a person and dictating all that they do and say. It’s even more daunting granted how delicate some peoples’ sensibilities are these days and how eager they are to take offense by any perceived misrepresentation. The writer doesn’t want to step on people’s toes and so they stick to what they know, with a few choice alterations, of course.

Or, in some cases, it’s just laziness. They don’t want to have to go through the pains of creating someone more three-dimensional because it’s time consuming and requires a lot of planning.

So how does a writer avoid writing Mary Sues?

Fear not, fledgling writers.

I have a few suggestions.

Find out in the next blog post.

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Your Characters are NOT Your Friends: A Public Service Announcement for Writers

I’ve seen several Instagram posts that say things like “is it sad that my characters are my best friends?” or “I have more conversations with my characters than I do with real people. Is that bad?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

Not because you’re a wallflower with friends that exist only in your mind. That’s perfectly normal*.

It’s sad because this means one of two possibilities: One, you are a horrible friend, or two, you are way, way, way too nice to your characters.

It’s natural to form an attachment to people that you’ve created. People have been doing this for centuries. The problem is when you care too much about someone, you want to nurture them, perhaps even protect them from impending doom.

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You cannot do this with your characters.

If you want a good story, you must put your characters through hell. Kill their families, have their lovers break-up with them, have owls eat their dogs. Nothing is allowed to go their way, or at least not for very long.

Loving your character too much might encourage you to go easy on them, to pull punches. Don’t do this. The best characters are forged in fire.

Another problem you can run into is making your characters too perfect. You want the audience to love your characters as much as you do, so you will have them always put their best foot forward. Problem is no one actually wants to read about perfect characters. Real people aren’t perfect so reading about someone who is takes the reader out of the story, constantly reminding them that what they are seeing is an illusion. And not even an entertaining one at that.

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Lastly– and I hate to break this to you– if your characters were magically able to obtain a physical form and interact with you they would probably hate you.

I’m not saying you’re a bad person it’s just that….

Let’s face it, you are responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened to them. Every illness, every death, every catastrophe that has every entered their lives is on you. You could literally make all their problems go away with the scratch of a pen. And yet, you sit there, drinking your coffee like a psycho.

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I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about your characters at all, if you don’t care then the audience probably won’t be persuaded to either. Just keep in mind that in order for them to reach their full potential, you must keep an emotional barrier between yourself and your creations.

A mother hawk may love her babies, but she’ll still push them out of the nest so they can fly.

Some of them may die, but it’s a risk you’re going to have to take.

*I have been informed that this actually isn’t normal and that most people have friends that exist in the real world. I was so shocked I couldn’t even find a gif that appropriately conveys my emotions. 

How to Write Women: a Guide for Men

Hello, men.

I am a woman.

Today I am going to give you some tips on how to write female characters. Keep in mind that women are human beings and no woman is exactly the same as another. However, I’m hoping to give you at least a general idea of how to pull off a convincing female.

Don’t go for the Pretty Princess or Mighty Warrior archetypes. 

I appreciate male writers who are attempting to rebel against the Disney princess paradigm of women from yester year, but giving a chick an AK and no personality is not helping the feminist cause. That isn’t us either.

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Very few of us can be compartmentalized as either girly girl or tom boy. Most of us are an amalgamation of both. For instance, some of us like to go out hunting one day and then shoe shopping the next. Others might be really into sports like rowing and have a bedroom chock full of stuffed animals. Some of us may be into tattoos and video games and also enjoy coloring books. Shut up. They’re therapeutic.  The point is, we don’t often completely give ourselves over to one stereotype or another.

Give them a weakness. 

This goes back to the fallacious concept of the man-in-skirt that is many action hero women. Your character is a person, therefore, they have a weakness. Maybe they suffered some horrible trauma at a young age. Maybe they have a disability or perhaps they are unsure if their cause is just.

You aren’t sexist because your female character has some sort of fault. Unless their fault is hopelessly whining and being kidnapped all the time. Then it’s a bit sexist. Moving on.

Remember relationships are important to women. 

And no, I don’t mean just the romantic kind. I mean relationships in general. Women tend to value friendships, family, and romantic entanglements above most things. That’s not to say women can’t be career-driven, or that they are dreamy-eyed dopes that doodle their crushes names into their notebooks.

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However, if you are writing a female character odds are they have at least one confidant, whether it’s their mother, their sister, or their best friend. Most women (keyword: most) aren’t complete loners. Even if they feel like an outsider, they will usually try to attach themselves to a person or a group in order to feel balanced. Think of it like a wolf belonging to a pack. It just feels natural and safe to do this.

Some female characters need more motivation to take risks. 

Admittedly, this depends on what your MC’s personality is like. But in most cases women are less likely than men to throw themselves into the fray unless something serious is at stake. We tend to be less prone to “Dude, hold my beer” moments, but not necessarily immune. Especially if there is actual beer involved. The voice in the back of our heads that tells us that we’re about to do is stupid tends to be louder and has more sway over our actions.

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Don’t give your character bitchiness in leu of actual competence and confidence. 

Just because a character shouts at people and orders them around, that doesn’t mean they are a “strong female character.” I’ve seen this done by male writers (and even some female writers) many times. More often than not these characters look tough on the outside to prove they “aren’t that type of girl”, but when it comes to actually doing something, they usually wind up getting themselves into more trouble rather than helping anyone get out of it. If they were bitchy and competent, I would have less to complain about.

The easy way to overcome this is to simply show us how awesome this girl is rather than having her tell us how badass she is. Unless the very point is to make her look like a jerk.

Women tend to be more sensitive. 

This doesn’t mean all of us are weepy or completely at the mercy of our feelings. It just means we tend to have stronger spidey-senses than men when it comes to certain things. Comedians often joke about how women can tell a million things about a person simply by how they drank their tea, but there is an element of truth to this. Our gut feelings are often what drive us to follow leads others might overlook. While we are often a cautious bunch in general, most of us trust our intuition when it says something is not right, and we’re willing to put ourselves at risk if it’s in the name of helping someone else.

Remember this: not all women are the same.

However, my hope is that I have assisted you in getting into the proper mindset.

Good luck with your projects!

Why You Should Love Unloveable Characters

I hear readers complain time and time again that they cannot get into a story because the character is a “bad person.”Now I can understand not wanting to read something because the character is unbelievable or underdeveloped, but a bad person?

I say “bad people” make some of the best characters. Why? Three reasons:

1. They’re more like us than we want to admit. 

As much as many of us would like to think that our thoughts are squeaky clean and we would never wish death on the person that cut us off in traffic, that’s very rarely the case. What makes unlikeable characters great is that they give a voice to the inner demons that exist inside all of us.

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I get a lot of wish-fulfillment out of watching these characters go about their lives. It’s liberating to see someone who isn’t afraid to let their hair down and screw around with society’s expectations.

2.They’re more complex (and therefore more interesting). 

The writer can’t rely on their MC spewing political correctness in order for the audience to feel sympathy for them. To pen a good character who is also unlikeable, an author has to bestow upon his progeny traits that make up for their lack of niceness. If anything, a writer has to work even harder to write a compelling nasty character than they do a nice vanilla one.

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That’s why behind every unlikeable protagonist is a damn good backstory. I have a great deal of respect for people that chose these types of people to push their story along. You may think it’s difficult to write a good “good” character, but it’s even more difficult to write a good “bad” character.

3.They’re unpredictable. 

If a character is a good one, it’s unavoidable they will screw up and do something morally ambiguous at some point. However, it’s pretty obvious they won’t fall too far, otherwise they won’t be a good guy anymore. This is one of the reasons why whenever a benevolent character is faced with a moral dilemma, I find myself looking at my watch. I already know they’re going to not kill that person, or pick the “easy” choice that might result in harming others.

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But when it comes to an unlikeable character, all bets are off. You have no idea what these people are capable of. You think you know them, then, all of the sudden, WHAM!!

They keep you on the edge of your seat every step of the way.

Which is great if you’re a seasoned reader who has become jaded towards formulaic writing.

A.k.a me.

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Don’t worry. Liking bad characters does not make you a bad person.

It just means you’re more in touch with your devious side.

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