Deven Kane

Author, Speculative Fiction (Thriller/SF)

bananamanCreating characters who are genuinely interesting = putting in the time and energy it takes to write their ‘back story’.

Characters are like real people: they have likes, dislikes, hopes, anxieties, dreams and phobias. They have families, friends, and life experiences which shaped their thinking, beliefs, instincts, reactions, and motivations. Real people are a wonderful, messy, walking mass of contradictions, and believable characters are the same.

You may already have a good idea what your characters will be like, but it’s amazing how much fuller they become with a solid backstory that unpacks why they’re the way they are.

For example, activists are typically galvanized by some injustice in their own lives, and cynics are often disillusioned optimists. Without knowing the ‘why’, the characters aren’t fully formed. Even if the specific events which galvanized the activist or frustrated the optimist don’t make it into the finished manuscript, the writer must understand what makes these characters tick.

There are many ways to tackle this. My approach to creating back stories evolved over time, and is still evolving. But as a starting point, here’s what I’ve discovered:

Many creative writing experts suggest using a grid-like checklist which includes things like: positive/negative personality traits, motivation/goals, hidden past/trauma, relationships, what does success/failure look like, and so on.

I’ve done these charts. They are great for getting the ball rolling, but they never felt like enough. There was always a sense of something missing. Useful, yes, but more as a starting point.

I’ve found it more helpful to write out a literal ‘story’ about the character(s). Tell their family history, the events which shaped them, their hopes and dreams, triumphs and disasters. What injustice lit a fire under the activist? What disaster/betrayal caused the optimist to lose hope?

Short biographies of your major (and secondary) characters brings them into well-rounded life. Suddenly, the question “would (insert character here) really say/do this?” moves from quasi-guess to confident decision.

Everyone has their own approach, but my character sketches and back-stories are written long-hand. That’s right—paper and pen. I just sit down and write. It’s proven to be the most reliable way to unleash creativity.

In my case, it could be a throw-back to my junior high days when my mother’s manual Underwood typewriter was my weapon of choice. Nobody at age thirteen wants to type and retype, so I’d sit there—hands poised over the keys like a calcified bird of prey—until I was sure what I wanted to say.

This creativity-throttling habit may have leaked into my laptop from time to time. So, going completely old-skewl with pen and paper is creatively liberating.

Psst… It’s a secret…

Here’s the hard part: you’ve just written some breathlessly thorough sketches for your major characters. Suddenly, it’s ridiculously tempting to include every single detail into your manuscript so your readers will know the characters as intimately as you do.

Resist that temptation.

On the positive side, feel free to sprinkle hints and pieces of their back-story throughout your manuscript. Just don’t front-load your first chapter with an info-dump on each character. Pace yourself (and your readers), and let the mystery of each character unfold throughout the novel.

Another temptation to avoid is the dreaded Prologue.

I invested a lot of time in world-creation for the novel I’m currently writing. I created—yes, using paper and pen—a lengthy treatise on the local history, geography, and civic development, spanning several generations. It resembled something you’d get in a high school Social Studies class.

It was fun to write, and I was so pleased with what I’d created that I foolishly entertained the notion of including the whole thing as a Prologue.

For about ten seconds, and then common sense prevailed.

‘World Creation’ is simply the back-story of the society where your novel takes place. It’s important, as a writer, to understand the ins and outs of your fictional world, but unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien, few readers really need or want the entire history.

Again, feel free to sprinkle tidbits and a short paragraph or two here and there—where it truly helps move the story forward—but resist the temptation to explain every cultural nuance in its historical context. The Social Studies world-creation is invaluable in keeping your fictional society consistent, but don’t do a massive info-dump and call it a Prologue.

(It’s also widely whispered that editors and publishers skip prologues as a matter of principle, so you’re not doing yourself any favors by submitting a manuscript that depends on one.)

So, in a nutshell:

  • Do your homework.
  • Keep some secrets.
  • Avoid the info-dump masquerading as a ‘prologue’.

P.S. Give the ‘paper and pen’ method a try sometime. You never know.

genre_queOne of the earliest and least-expected questions I faced as a self-published author was choosing which genre best describes my first novel in the Tracker series. I assumed answering the question would be simplicity itself.

Well, duh. Science fiction, Sherlock. It’s not like rocket science or something.

Except when some people hear “science fiction”, what pops to mind is the image at left. Uh, well—ahem . . . No, that’s not exactly what I meant.

Science fiction is a sub-category of what is known as “speculative fiction”. And within the larger genre of science fiction itself, there are a surprising number of sub-genres.


First off, there’s “hard” science fiction, which means the story is rigorously based on current scientific theory and technology. Even if the story is projected ten or twenty years into the future, it must be based in real science of today.

For example, the idea of faster-than-light travel (warp speed, hyperdrive, etc.) is currently held to be scientifically impossible, and therefore any story which mentions it fails the Scientific Sniff Test. Michael Crichton is a good example of hard science fiction, as is Ben Bova and Canada’s Robert Sawyer.

Some hard science fiction writers, like Bova, insist they alone represent “real” science fiction, and everything else is only fantasy (and therefore worthy of disdain).

Ironically, British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke postulated three “laws” for writing about the future, the third of which states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Then there’s “soft” science fiction, which is free to explore a wider speculative range, and often includes elements which are sociological, psychological, political and anthropological in nature. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984 are two examples.

And this is where the plethora of sub-genres kicks in. For example (definitions may be slightly more tongue-in-cheek than Amazon/Kindle would prefer):

Cyberpunk

Basically, technology has drop-kicked society hard in the nether regions and now we have to deal with the implications of a computer-generated cyber-regime. Think: The Matrix. (Yes, it’s a movie, not a book, but it’s easily recognizable, so for the purposes of this list . . .)

Time Travel

Just like it sounds. Machines or wormholes or whatever moved you from point A to point B in history—future or past. Don’t date that cute girl; you don’t want to risk becoming your own grandparent or creating a predestination paradox. (Surgeon General’s Warning: time travel also tends to spark a life-and-death battle spirited debate about whether it qualifies as science fiction or fantasy.)

Military SF

War in space. Things go boom-splat (usually aliens). If not based on actual X-Box games, it sure reminds you of one or three.

Space Opera

Heroic, large-scale stories of infinite epic-ness set in space. All of space, not just a few measly planets. Think: Star Wars or the Chronicles of Riddick.

Apocalyptic

Living in paranoid terror of the imminent Big Boom—whether the threat is nuclear war, a global pandemic, environmental melt-down, alien invasion or zombies. Unlikely allies agree to cooperate in order to prevent it. Oops, too late. Nice knowing you.

Post-Apocalyptic

The Big Boom is yesterday’s news. Welcome to society’s “new normal” (watch us put the ‘fun’ back into dysfunctional).


And just when you think you’ve got a handle on where your book might fit, there’s always the dichotomy of utopian versus dystopian.

Utopian

Huzzah, perfection—the Garden of Eden! Fig leaves are available at the salad bar. Don’t talk to the snake.

Dystopian

A world where even the cockroaches are aghast (cf. POTUS Donald Trump).


For the record, I eventually decided (as per Amazon/Kindle’s insistence) to file Tracker under “Science Fiction/Post-Apocalyptic,” and let the chips fall where they may.

inkfestA few weeks ago, I attended my first Creative Ink Festival for Writers and Readers in Burnaby BC.

It was a packed weekend—sardine-worthy in terms of overflowing workshops and sessions. As for the content of said workshops and sessions, it was a smorgasbord of inspiration, consternation, and passionate presenters who didn’t always agree with each other.

The wide range of opinions was both fun to observe and challenging to think upon.

At times—especially when it came to speculative fiction—it reminded me of the Rorschach (ink blot) test.

Translation—be a discerning sponge. Soak it all in, and expect to sift and winnow your gleanings.

One of the surprises awaiting me was when someone told me my newest novel-in-progress, The Shroud, wasn’t a supernatural thriller after all. “It’s clearly YA (Young Adult).”

I have nothing against YA. A lot of great speculative fiction can be found there. But I wasn’t aiming for that audience. But hey—I decided I should take in the YA session later that day, and find out more. Just in case.

The YA lecture covered myths and misconceptions about the genre, as well as—super helpful in my case—a list of what YA is and isn’t. And I walked out of that class with a definite answer to my question. (I’m not YA.)

The Red & Blue Pencil Inquisition consultations were not the bloodletting I was bracing myself for. The insightful (fellow) writers who critiqued my work provided a remarkable combination of pull-no-punches bluntness, no-nonsense diagnosis, and encouraging suggestions. Ditto for my first-ever “pitch” at a conference.

The consistent highlight throughout the Festival was the camaraderie. Attending workshops and keynotes, the slush-pile sessions, Q&A with seasoned authors, hanging out for brews later in the evening—the whole weekend felt like a tribal home-coming. These are my people.

The Creative Ink Festival was like pouring gasoline on fire. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Festival. But in the meantime, the writing of more speculative fiction beckons . . .

thinkingwriterWhere do writers come up with their ideas? What fuels their creative inspiration?

We’ve all nodded with sympathetic understanding when someone reminds us: “10% Inspiration, 90% Perspiration”, but that doesn’t really address the question about the 10%, does it?

The answer could be as simple as: Think Weird.

Or, to be more accurate, get used to looking at normal, every-day situations, and then asking yourself: “What if?”

And once you start writing, keep asking the ‘what if’ question. It can open up all kinds of creative ideas, mid-draft.

For example—full disclosure but without spoilers—when I began writing Dissident (the second book in the Tracker trilogy), I wanted to provide readers with a thumbnail sketch of what the Enclave looked like. At the same time, I had committed myself to the “third person limited” approach.

And so, the character of Mateo was created, a shopkeeper who worked in the literal shadow of the Enclave’s heavily-guarded wall. Mateo’s role was to give Amos (the point-of-view protagonist) a guided tour of:

  1. the physical parameters/description of the Enclave,
  2. the ferocity of the guards protecting it, and
  3. the societal milieu that had evolved around its borders.

Here’s the ‘full disclosure’: I had already mapped out the majority of the book’s structure. Mateo was a character of convenience, allowing me to describe the Enclave and set the scene through the eyes of my point-of-view protagonist (Amos). Mateo was never intended to go much beyond that.

I had some vague notion of him possibly re-appearing in a minor scene later in the book, but that was it. Mateo was a one-chapter character. An important minor character for the purpose I had in mind, but nothing more.

Until I was about 400 words from concluding the first draft of the first chapter, sitting in a crowded coffeeshop, and I was suddenly ambushed by a ‘what-if?’

I promised there would be no spoilers, but suffice it to say that particular ‘what-if’ resulted in Mateo becoming a pivotal character in the second and third books of the Trilogy. (He really messed up my story outline in the process, but I’ve forgiven him.)
 


The past two summers in British Columbia have been dominated by record-breaking wildfires. A side-effect has been the dense smoke that has blanketed our city for weeks on end. The sun, when it breaks through, looks eerie, unnatural, almost . . .

What if?

What if there was another explanation for the climate crisis—one that was scientifically observable, but ultimately originating from a sinister intelligence from outside? What if the environmental disaster was a symptom of something far worse?

I went home and began typing: “The unnatural color of the sky caught Jaco’s eye the moment he stepped outside. The saffron-tinged sunlight threw everything–clouds, buildings, foliage–into sharp, brassy relief . . .”

That’s exactly how I got the idea. Nothing more profound than noticing the smoky sky, and asking a simple “what if”.

The caste-based society on another world, the forgotten prophecies of a religion based in Nature, the investigation by a local television reporter and her cameraman into a government coverup, and the sudden appearance of a terrified teenager fleeing from unspeakable Darkness—well, that all came later.

But it always begins with a simple ‘what if?’, combined with a willingness to get outside the mental box and “think weird”.

basepitchIn music, having ‘perfect pitch’ means your ear is so finely attuned to music that you can hear a single note, and name it without fail. It’s a great help when tuning a guitar, but when pop singers make a “style” of deliberately singing flat, it can be like fingernails on a blackboard.

When it comes to writing, there isn’t one—a perfect pitch, that is. Everything is trial and error. You, the writer, are on trial, and you’re going to make errors. So, relax and enjoy the adrenaline.

That being said, I noticed some interesting things at a local bookstore while doing my own research on what makes a compelling ‘back cover blurb’. For the record, the only difference between a blurb and a pitch is context and location.

A blurb is on the back cover of a book and is written down. Or it may be on a website, but again, it’s written down.

You, the writer, are at a safe distance.

A pitch begins with giving the same blurb verbally to a complete stranger at a writer’s conference.

You, the writer, are completely exposed and had better be ready.

I learned some interesting things during my archeological dig at the bookstore.

  1. There are some books which sell simply because the author’s name is synonymous with “don’t be a fool—buy this book!” Not being one of these authors, I looked mostly at books by people I wasn’t as familiar with.
  2. If the book is part of a series, it’s surprising how many sequel blurbs don’t have the same “dangle of mystery” allure as the first book in the series. They usually depend on the reputation of the first book (understandably) but aren’t as interesting to read by themselves.
  3. A lot of books rely on outside endorsements to the exclusion (or minimization) of anything that would spark interest. True, if a famous author gives your book a thumbs-up, you’d be foolish not to gleefully accept. (I’d still like to read something catchy about the book itself.)
  4. A blurb is not the same as a synopsis. Back-covers shouldn’t give away major plot developments before the reader has a chance to crack the book open. But some (inexplicably) do.

I kept asking myself: (1) which blurbs caught my attention, and (2) why. Here’s what I discovered:

The most intriguing blurbs begin with a short (15-25 words) ‘hook’ that piques the interest. Your first thought is, “Tell me more.”

The rest of the blurb contains clues, hints, and tantalizing “what if’s”, which again prompts a reaction of “tell me more”.

This, in turn, leads to you opening the book and skimming a few pages. And greatly increases the odds of  you visiting the nice clerks with the debit machines.

Knowing which blurbs caught your attention is invaluable when it comes to writing your own. And if creating a good back-cover blurb is the beginning of a good pitch, you’re already off and running.

no_planWriting speculative fiction is not an exercise in chaos, nor is it the literary equivalent of “throwing spaghetti against the wall and keeping what sticks”.

At the same time, the picture at left does feel strangely familiar. Especially when writing the first draft of a new novel.

The “rules” for writing fiction are very much in the eye of the beholder. While there is a consistent body of wisdom setting parameters for the genre, even among some of the most successful authors, there can be a wide range of strongly-held opinions.

A famous example on the topic of adverbs:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King

“Adverbs and adjectives are rich and good and nourishing. They add colour, life, immediacy.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

So, which expert’s advice do you take?

The same can also be true for the age-old conundrum when approaching a new writing project: to plan, or not to plan?

Many writers and writing instructors insist that you map out the structure, storyline, and characters before starting to create the actual content.

Other writers advocate for sitting down with a blank piece of paper (or a blank laptop screen), and simply begin writing and “see what comes out”. It’s known among writers as “pantsing”—a reference to the old adage, “flying by the seat of your pants.”

A famous quote for this approach has been variously attributed to Stephen King and Terry Pratchett (and probably others).

“The first draft is just you telling the story to yourself.”

Elizabeth Lyon, author of ‘A Writer’s Guide to Fiction’, has a markedly different view. “Perhaps some writers believe that preparation or structure will stifle creativity… I can understand their choice—and predict their failure.”

So, again, which expert’s advice do you take?

Honestly, when I write, I do a bit of both. The first draft of a new novel is more or less free-fall (pantsing). I wrestle everything into submission in subsequent rewrites.

guidelinesWhen I decided to try my hand at a science-fiction novel (and having just finished reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’), I thought it would be a fun challenge to ‘tell myself the story’ first.

It was fun. And creative. And a huge, heaping pile of hard work in subsequent drafts, as I wrestled with “telling other people the story”.

The first book in the Tracker Trilogy was a free-flow, ‘tell yourself the story first’ adventure. The second and third books were mapped out beforehand—and yet, as the content was written, the map began to resemble (at times) Captain Barbossa’s interpretation of the Pirates’ Code:

“It’s more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Creative writing is often like that. That’s why it’s ‘creative’—it seems to have a mind of its own. What’s important to remember is this:

“First drafts don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be written.”

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” ~ Terry Pratchett

“The first draft of anything is [dreck].” ~ Ernest Hemingway

“Edit. Or regret it. Depend on this, your story does.” ~ Master Yoda
(Okay, I made that one up, but it’s something Yoda wouldve said, if writing was a Jedi art.)

I don’t remember how old I was when I chanced upon The Runaway Robot in my school library (twelve, perhaps?), but I believe it was the first science fiction book I’d ever read.

I suspect my earliest interest in what is known as ‘speculative fiction’ was sparked by the original Lost In Space television series, and later reinforced by Star Trek (TOS).

I was already an avid reader as a child, but once I discovered sci-fi, I knew it was time to leave The Hardy Boys behind.

Junior and Senior high school saw my reading list expand greatly, as science fiction/fantasy became one of my favorite genres.

Authors such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Douglas Adams, George Orwell, Jules Verne and (naturally) J.R.R. Tolkien became household names for me.


One of the early gems I discovered was Aaron Wolfe’s Invasion. Wolfe  turned out to be Dean Koontz, writing under a pseudonym. The Laser Books imprint was curated by Roger Elwood, to whom I—as a naive 13-year-old—sent a manuscript of a sci-fi dreck-let. He declined my submission (graciously).

Andre Norton was also one of my go-to favorites, as the bookshelf in my writing office demonstrates to this day. Her ability to write on both sides of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and to create complex and interesting worlds was remarkable and inspirational.


Ms. Norton spent a lot of time researching ancient cultures, as ‘background’ for her world-building (for which she was famous). Never underestimate the value of anthropological and historical research when it comes to creating fictionalized societies.

Michael Crichton’s many books have joined Ms. Norton on my shelf. Crichton is an excellent example of ‘hard’ science fiction (as is Asimov): speculative stories set in the future but based on real science of today. Crichton is another author who invests a great deal of time researching new technological breakthroughs before crafting a story around them.

Fantasy continues to be represented by J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and associated tales, and the recent discovery of ‘The King-Killer Chronicles’ by Patrick Rothfuss.


Sporadic diversions to authors with names like King, Grisham, Clancy, Koontz, Ludlum and Connelly have also been known to occur. From time to time.

As Stephen King states in his worthy tome, On Writing:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

I’m always doing the former, and am currently in the creative throes of an obsessive focus on the latter. (That’s called foreshadowing—it’s a literary device, meaning: “writing my next novel.”)