Ad Astra Day 2: It builds character

Panellists: Karen Dales; Patricia Briggs

Note: Steven Erikson was not able to attend this panel.

Humourous note: It builds the character or it gets the hose.

KD: Characters are the heart of your story.

PB: It’s all subjective, though. Everyone sees something different. The most important thing is that your characters be internally consistent.

KD: Who plays RPGs here? (Pause for show of hands) What the first thing you do in any game? (Create your character!) We have character sheets, even if they’re only in our heads. We have to become method actors for our characters.

PB: We have to step into their shoes. You have to look at the character’s purpose in the novel. If two characters serve the same purpose, one of them has to go. In Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, for example, the title characters serve the same purpose in Shakespeare’s play. They are expendable. Every character has to have a problem to solve. In a series, when one problem is resolved, another has to crop up to take its place. My Mercy, she’s a coyote shape shifter and therefore Native. Her job had to fit. She has her own business. She’s a mechanic for Volkswagons. She likes to fix things.

KD: For my series, I actually used a character I’d built for an RPG in the past. A to Z. What gets them there? Characters have to be complex. Origins need to be pre-defined so we know how they will react to the situations they’re put in.

PB: Characters have to make decisions. With actors, every action has a purpose. What does this gesture mean? What does their body language convey? C.J. Cherryh says every scene must accomplish three things. Mercy was abandoned and taken in by a werewolf pack. She has issues with women and abandonment. She needs to make broken things work. Ben is an obnoxious, misogynist jerk, but once Mercy, and readers, learned why, he became sympathetic. What is the secret the character would kill for or die to protect?

Q: How to you reflect growth in your characters?

KD: Body language changes given circumstances. Everyone has a mask for different occasions. Underlying that is the same core character, though.

PB: You’re limited by word count, though. To fully develop one character takes a hundred pages. Give yourself time.

Q: How do you balance complexity and consistency?

PB: Mercy surprises me all the time, but that’s part of her nature as a shifter. Experienced writers can predict what will happen and how a character will react. Think about your friends and family. How well do you know them? Can you predict what they’ll do? Think about TV shows and the characters you see there.

KD: Circumstances dictate character behaviour, but consistency is where everything originates.

Q: What is your advice regarding negative endings and death?

PB: The reader feels betrayed. Lois McMaster Bujold does this extremely well, though. You have to set up your ending. It must feel like it’s the right thing, the only thing that can happen. The ending must fulfill the character in some way.

KD: I hate Disney’s happy endings. I love tragedy, but it has to have a purpose.

PB: George R.R. Martin does this well, too. It’s what the story demands. Barbara Hambly did it, though, and ended up losing audience as a result.

Q: What do you do about info-dump?

PB: Write it down as part of the character sketch and bring it out as the story demands.

Q: Do some characters deserve to die?

PB: I’ve killed characters who didn’t deserve it and I’ve let some characters who deserved death, live.

KD: Ask yourself what the story needs? One bad guy might need killing, another might not.

PB: Justice must be served. In Pitch Black, for example, the pilot would have sacrificed everyone else for her own survival. When she later dies to save everyone, there’s a sense of justice being served.

Q: My stories are plot driven. The advice I’ve been given so far hasn’t been helpful. For example, I was told that all characters have to have limitations and they have to suffer as a result.

PB: You have to avoid the “super” character.

KD: One must suffer to learn. It’s a common experience, but not necessarily universal. Characters can learn by overcoming adversity.

Sundog snippet: Pupdate

I promised a pupdate and here it is:

The bad news

When we went to see the vet last week on Tuesday, it was supposed to be for an ear flush.

This did not happen.

It turns out that Nuala’s ears are too far gone. Due to her allergies, the tissue in her ear has developed inflammatory polyps. This is not restricted to the external ear tissue, but extends right down the ear canal. What’s worse, her polyps were calcifying.

As a result, the vet could not flush her ears and when we saw him in the evening, he indicated that we should stop the topical antibiotic. The ear was so closed, there was no point. None of the medication could get to the source of the infection.

Though Nuala received her annual vaccinations, there really wasn’t much they could do that day.

The blood work we’d had done from our last visit was returned and showed that Nuala’s kidney and liver enzymes were still within normal ranges. Her liver enzymes had actually improved.

The recommended treatment, as the article linked above indicates, is ablation. This is a surgical procedure in which all the polyps are resected, and, because of the number of growths in the ear canal, removal of the canal altogether.

Unfortunately, there is no one in town that does these procedures on a regular basis. Once again, we’d have to travel a minimum of four hours away to get the surgery.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, this is not an option for Phil and me. We can’t just take vacation when we want and taking unpaid leave would be a hardship. Nu does not travel well, and would have to be sedated there and back. Plus, she’s officially a senior now, and the complications of surgery are increased.

Two other options were presented, cyclosporine and prednisone. The first was shown to be effective in a very small sample of canine patients. The second is effective, but would have an effect on her liver and kidneys. It would also cause an increase in her appetite and thirst, but Phil and I figured we’d be okay with this since Nu had lost so much weight recently.

Fortunately, prednisone would likely be a short term, or at worst, periodic treatment. That’s what we opted for and went home with a new, more powerful, oral antibiotic and enough prednisone for two weeks, at which time we have another follow up booked.

Oh, the vet said on the way out, you know she’s deaf now, right?

The good news

By the time we were on the second day of treatment, we noticed a marked improvement in Nuala. She was once again, behaving like her normal, healthy self and eating again.

Even my mom noticed a night and day difference in her behaviour.

Pus started running out of her right ear again, the one that was, by far, the worst. We’re just using the EDTA ear wash to keep her ears clean. We also noticed that she was not deaf, or at least not completely.

We reported this to the vet and he is sceptical, but when a sleeping dog in another room is summoned by the sound of the opened fridge door, she can hear.

Since then, her ears have continued to improve. The pus has stopped running, but we now figure that it’s the new antibiotic that’s provided relief. She’s no longer shaking her head or losing her balance. Her ears are perky again, with only the tips of them, where her aural haematomas are, folded over and malformed.

We have hope that by the time the two-week check up is due, her situation will improve enough for a flush (if that’s still indicated).

So, we’re happy with our decision and hopeful for the future health of our furbaby.

Nuala is notoriously camera-shy. When she sees me coming with the phone or camera, she turns in the other direction, which is why I generally only get pictures of her when she’s sleeping or has her back turned. I was able to manage this picture with the help of a biscuit.


What’s that you got there, Mom?

Happy Nuala

Good biscuit! Can I have another?

Sundog snippet