My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Short Cuts And Long Delays

     When I embark on a new novel-project, I’m usually tempted to look for a short cut, a quick way to “get into” the effort. Sometimes I find one. Sometimes it’s suitable. More often, it proves to be a detriment, though that might not be obvious for some time.

     The kind of temptation that’s proved least destructive to the ultimate creation is the substantial fund of short stories I’ve written over the decades, some of which prove extensible, with enough thought and effort. Love in the Time of Cinema emerged from such a story, and I’d say it worked out well. But needless to say, not all short tales lend themselves to being used in that fashion. I’m working on and with one such today, and it’s been giving me fits.

     The most destructive temptation – and I’m pleased to be able to say that it’s one I’ve successfully resisted – is the one that whispers “Just borrow this idea, add a couple of characters and a few grace notes, and call it your own!” It’s not necessarily plagiarism to do so; the narrative archetypes are few, and their skeletons can be detected in every decent story ever written. But unless he can come up with an original motif or two and frame the story around them, the writer cannot honestly call the tale his own creation.

     Yet innumerable writers copy well-trodden paths, add nothing significantly original or fresh, and publish the results. That’s the prevalent practice in fantasy today, especially “urban” fantasy. I have little respect for such “creators.” I disdain to read their “creations,” once I can discern their lineaments. But many of them are far more successful in dollars-and-cents terms than I.

     In all fairness, it’s extremely difficult to remain within the confines of a long-established, strongly patterned genre yet produce something genuinely new. The difficulty romance writers have with it gave birth to the Harlequin line, which recycles a publication back to pulp after it’s been on the shelves for a single month. The grooves are too deep. They admit of too little innovation. Such books appeal directly to the reader who wants to keep reading “my favorite story” over and over and OVER.

     The “short cut” available from such a strong, innovation-averse pattern can result in a long delay in a writer’s maturation – and no, I don’t mean “finding his voice.”


     The late Isaac Asimov, when asked the most common of all fan questions – “Where do you get your ideas?” – replied that story ideas are all around us; just reach out and grab one. They practically attack the attentive writer, for a simple reason: they’re about people struggling with problems. Usually they’re problems of the sort people have always had.

     If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you’ve seen these before:

John Brunner’s Laws Of Fiction:
1. The raw material of fiction is people.
2. The essence of story is change.

     People’s problems are about the challenges they face and must surmount: from their surroundings, from their personal limitations and inhibitions, and (of course) from other people. Some problems are too trivial to produce drama – to the best of my knowledge, “He needed a clean pair of briefs and didn’t have one!” has never inspired any writer to greatness in storytelling – but there are innumerable ones that writers have used to evoke drama, heroism, and the reader’s sense of the breadth and depth of human existence. Even a barely educated person will be familiar with many such problems and their fictional exploitation.

     In a way, the reason for the speculative genres – fantasy, science fiction, and horror – is that they allow the imaginative writer to shed new light on a classic problem. Consider the problem of survival. While there’s still ample room for stories of survival against great odds in the here and now, the unique moral-ethical cast it can acquire from a science fiction setting can enable it to stimulate readers who might never have considered its complexities. Perhaps the problem is how to defend an innocent against a predator, or a predatory force. A technological motif can make such a contest vivid in a way tales of Mafia dons or serial killers cannot. Possibilities abound; reach out and grab one!

     Some short cuts can be useful as a “leg up” to prominence. For example, now and then, a precast setting, created by a successful writer, is offered to other, less well known writers as an environment in which to tell a tale and gain an expanded readership. This has become fairly common in the speculative genres. Larry Niven’s “Man-Kzin Wars” anthologies are a good example, as are George R. R. Martin’s “Wild Cards” collections. On August 6, military SF writer Tom Kratman will release an anthology of that sort, centered on his imagined colony world of Terra Nova. Our beloved Co-Conspirator Dystopic/Thales (he uses both monikers) will have a story therein, so don’t miss it. But such supports should not be regarded as reliable in perpetuity; to mature and earn personal distinction, a writer must strike out on a path he can justly call his personal creation.


     “Short cuts make long delays,” saith John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He would surely know. If you aspire to write fiction, be aware of the dangers inherent in mimicry. It can trap you as surely as quicksand, and to the same ultimate effect. A leg up here and there is one thing; walking slavishly and undeviatingly in the footsteps others have left is another. The only way to become a writer others will respect – and I don’t necessarily mean other writers, but I don’t necessarily not mean them, either – is to create your own brand from the fertile if tangled resources of your imagination, experience, and heart.

     Get busy.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Story Recipes

     I’ve made such an obsession out of originality that at times I can blind myself to the possibilities that could arise from a different perspective.

     No, I’m not talking about exploiting the enormous commercial possibilities from hopping onto one of the current “hot” bandwagons and showing the world what a real storyteller can do with it. What I have in mind is more what a creative cook does when he seeks a new approach to the preparation of some basic item.

     Even the most creative cooks don’t invent entirely new ingredients. They work with what God has given us: the minerals, plants, and animals that already inhabit the Earth. They look for new combinations of those things that might prove pleasing to the palate. I have no doubt that an adventurous cook would need to discard the results of many unsatisfactory experiments...always assuming he didn’t face the severe choice of eating them himself or starving to death. But when he finally hits on something both new and genuinely pleasant, he presents it to the world with pride as his creation. It is legitimately his even though, as with “the figure in the marble” a sculptor seeks to reveal with his chisel, it was always there to be found by anyone sufficiently determined to seek it out.

     Recently there have been some impressive breakthroughs of this sort. E. William Brown’s “Daniel Black” and “Alice Long” novels come to mind, as do Margaret Ball’s “Center for Applied Topology” series and her recent novel Salt Magic. The “atomic” elements that underpin those creations have been around for a while, but the way Brown and Ball assembled them, in each case previously untried, made them into something new and fresh – i.e., original.

     By contrast, I rack my brain for completely original “atomic” ideas around which to craft my stories. As that organ already has sixty-seven years of wear and tear on it, it doesn’t produce such things simply for the asking. It involves a process that takes time and the convergence of a variety of stimuli (usually including copious amounts of port or sherry). All the same, now and then I find one, and – wonder of wonders! — it manages to sustain a tale. To those who’ve wondered why my books are so widely spaced in time, that’s half the answer; the other half is the agonizing difficulty, as Ernest Hemingway once put it, of “getting the words right.”

     Since the release of The Wise and the Mad, which concludes the “Futanari Saga,” I’ve been casting about for another genuinely new idea, something that would take me in a completely new direction. I haven’t found one, and it’s been giving me fits. At intervals I’ve wondered whether I might have shot my wad. So as of yesterday evening, the pain from that frustration, liberally sauced from a freshly opened bottle of Villa Bellangelo’s exquisite “Elizabeth” port, has me thinking about the “recipe” approach instead.


     J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, considered to be the bedrock for fantasy of its kind, was actually derived from the Arthurian legend, albeit with a twist. King Arthur had his magical artifact – Excalibur, “the sword of power” – and a villain to defeat: Mordred, the son of Arthur’s half-sister Morgawse, who desired the throne of Britain for his own. Tolkien adapted the Arthurian pattern by exchanging Excalibur, a weapon loyal to Arthur’s hand, for the One Ring, a wholly malevolent creation of Sauron.

     Because Tolkien worked with a richly imagined world with an intricate backstory, populated by a variety of creatures with special characteristics, the relative simplicity of his “plot drivers” was no impediment to the telling of a long, persistently gripping story. The combination of those drivers with that elaborate backdrop, largely derived from Catholic theocosmogony, and with Tolkien’s gifts for storytelling made his tale a new creation that’s enthralled readers for decades. It continues to be the iconic work in its genre, against which all other works of “high” or medieval fantasy are judged.

     C. S. Lewis wanted to spin a tale from the Arthurian loom but wanted to emphasize the Christian elements and set it in modern Britain. His Space Trilogy has some explicitly Arthurian elements, notably his use of Merlin as a character in That Hideous Strength and his elevation of his protagonist Dr. Elwin Ransom to “Pendragon of Logres,” Logres is an ancient name for Britain in the Arthurian tales. Lewis transformed it into a mystical society whose function is to keep political Britain on the moral straight and narrow. Note, however, that the revived Merlin takes the place of Excalibur as the critical magical “artifact.”

     The patterns these two master talespinners created from Arthurian elements are so compelling that the great majority of their successors in the realm of “high” fantasy have proved unable to depart from them. There have been a few exceptions, notably Orson Scott Card’s “Alvin Maker” series. However, the Arthurian / Tolkienian pattern continues to exhibit a tractor-beam-like effect on writers who approach “high” fantasy today. It suggested to me that the vein might be “played out”...or it did until this very morning.


     I resisted suggestions that I try fantasy until I had the inspirations that produced a handful of short stories: “The Object of His Affection” and “The Warm Lands,” my two magic-based fantasies, and “Foundling” and “Class Action,” my two vampire stories. Paradoxically, these relatively minor expositions are more popular with my readers –i f I go by email feedback, at least – than all the rest of my fiction taken together. I’ve received many, many requests for continuations and “sequels” in each of those “worlds”...and have been unable to produce them. The original ideas in them fought being extended into longer tales, and I could not find new ideas that would supplement them compatibly.

     But as of this morning, owing to the cooking analogy from the first segment, one of those tales has gripped me afresh. I’ve found ways to combine well-worn elements used by other writers to create a wholly new “recipe.” At least, I can’t think of any existing work that follows the pattern I have in mind. So with dedication, perseverance, and a spot of luck, some, at least, of those aforementioned vainly importuning readers will have something to gratify their yearnings, later this year or early in 2020. Beyond that, deponent sayeth no more...for the present!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Unfinished Stories, Unfinished Lives

     Unless all the Marquee characters die in the final scene – Hamlet, anyone? – the story is inherently unfinished. Life goes on; people continue to age, hopefully grow, and probably have other interesting things happen to them before they die. But a story is supposed to feel finished – i.e., that it ends conclusively, such that at least some major aspect of the characters’ lives has been settled for good. How is that to be done, especially if the author knows that that’s not the case?

     As simple as it looks, this is actually one of the unsolved classical problems of the fictioneer. It’s one of the reasons I find writing this stuff so hard.


     Not long ago I posted a plaint about my inability to find fresh reading material that isn’t an element in a never-ending series. It was heartfelt, but it definitely went against the current trend. These days everyone writes never-ending series. The creator’s desire to tie the thing off can be thwarted by his publisher – or by his readers. It happened to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, it can happen to anyone.

     In part, the unbounded series is motivated by its creator’s desire to economize on one of the most arduous of the fictioneer’s tasks: the creation of an attractive, plausible hero. Once you’ve concocted such a character, it can seem a shame to “waste” him. Moreover, such a character becomes your readers’ focus. Those who thrilled to your first opus about him will want him to return for further adventures. But there are other forces involved as well.

     What does the hero do after the story is over? Maybe he’s the sort that simply must have further adventures. In such a case, his creator’s hands are tied; his tale must go on. But maybe he settles down to “Standard Life:” marriage, suburban home, 2.4 kids, et cetera. While novels have been cast in such settings, it takes the talents of a Judith Guest to make them worth reading. So how does the writer convey to his readers the sense that “what follows would be too boring to read about, much less to write about” -- ?

     It really is an unsolved problem, Gentle Reader. And it keeps coming back to haunt me.


     A character with enough appeal to power a novel can be awfully hard to “put down,” fictionally at least. One contributing factor is the well-known phenomenon of Main Character Immunity. It afflicts more writers than not. Sometimes it compels an author to say, in effect: “Aha! You thought he was dead, but I was only joshing!” That’s what happened with Sherlock Holmes after Conan Doyle’s first attempt to put an end to him.

     I can’t seem to kill one of my heroes dead enough. The little bastard has just too much appeal. He keeps coming back, largely through my exploitation of open areas in his timeline into which I can insert more involvements. But at least that timeline is bounded by his quite definite demise, written unambiguously into the novel in which I first employed him. At some point – hopefully I’ve reached it already – he’ll stop popping into my narratives.

     And then, there are some heroes that are just too...too something. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is like that. You could hit him with a nuclear-armed cruise missile and he’d just fling it back at you. John Conroe is developing a similar problem with his characters Christian Gordon and Tatiana Demidova, the central actors of his “Demon Accords” series.


     There is something to be said in favor of the seemingly immortal hero, though. If he’s really that much more appealing than the norm, the writer can please both his readers and his broker with an endless parade of stories about him, at the price of a single spate of character construction, at that. I sometimes wonder if Tom Clancy’s series of novels about Jack Ryan, who single-handedly saved the world over and over, came to an end because Clancy willed it, or because Clancy himself passed away. (Note, however, that others have made use of Ryan since Clancy’s passing, assuredly with the permission of his estate. People want additional stories about the poor guy, so he can’t be allowed to rest.)

     But all things must pass. If we except characters such as Christian Gordon and Tatiana Demidova – John Conroe’s two self-Fallen angels of the “Demon Accords” series – heroes all die, just as we normal folks do. The problem is that no one wants to read about that. The writer has to shuffle the hero offstage in a fashion that mollifies those who’ve loved him – and the more they’ve loved him, the harder that will be.

     Just now I’m grappling with how to deal with several such figures:

  • Christine D’Alessandro,
  • Kevin Conway,
  • Larry and Trish Sokoloff,
  • Rachel MacLachlan,
  • Althea Morelon,
  • and several figures from the Futanari stories.

     And to add a pinch of salt to the wound, every now and then I’ll toss off a short story that prompts my readers to add a character to the list: Evan Conklin and Gail Kristof from “Sweet Things” are the latest such.

     Granted, characters too appealing to dispose of aren’t the worst problem a writer could have. But they can pose a trial to a writer who itches to set off in some totally new direction. Especially when he sees his bank balance running low.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A Dollop Of Reinforcement

     Every now and then, someone who’s read one of my books actually, demonstrably “gets it.” Note the “demonstrably” part. I’m sure there are other readers who “get it” but don’t bother to let me know. I cherish them equally. However, it’s the ones that express their revelations who provide me with the reinforcement a writer needs. One reported in just yesterday evening:

     [Porretto] attempts to ask questions along the lines of "what should a good person do in this particular situation?"

     Exactly. That is my reason for this enterprise, my answer to the question “At an age when you could justifiably declare yourself forever finished with productive work and dedicate your remaining years to relaxation, the enjoyment of the lighter pleasures, and chasing pretty women in short skirts and high heels downhill, why have you chosen instead to do this agonizing, time-consuming, monstrously difficult thing?”

     It’s to get the reader thinking.


     Most people make the overwhelming majority of their decisions without thinking. I can’t fault anyone for that. Thinking is strenuous. It takes time and effort away from other things that might seem more urgent. Worst of all, it can lead you in the wrong direction. As Robert A. Heinlein wrote in Glory Road:

     Logic is a feeble reed, friend. "Logic" proved that airplanes can't fly and that H-bombs won’t work and that stones don't fall out of the sky. Logic is a way of saying that anything which didn't happen yesterday won't happen tomorrow.

     The wrong premises will lead to the wrong conclusions every time – and it’s remarkable how seductive certain wrong premises can be. As Arthur Herzog wrote in The B.S. Factor, a paranoid is just a logician with a fractured premise.

     Part of our inheritance is a vast trove of “pre-made decisions” that apply nicely to a great many known situations. The child’s learning process is largely about absorbing those lessons. Because those decisions have been tested against the situations they fit many times, we can rely upon them – something we often learn by attempting to “go our own way” in such a situation and getting our fingers burned in the process.

     But that inheritance covers only a portion of the human experience. There are infinitely more possibilities than any amount of received wisdom can cover. When such a possibility arises, it’s necessary to think.

     The Futanari Saga is the most challenging of all my fiction to date. It tackles situations many persons would recoil from considering, some of which are active elements in our current sociopolitical milieu. It embeds several speculative elements – the existence of genetically (rather than surgically) produced futanari; human cloning; Rachel MacLachlan’s desire-control technology; Fountain’s apparent miracle-working – but I wrote it principally in the hope that those speculations might help to illuminate some current, real-world controversies.

     Any light arises from the reader’s decision to think: to apply his premises and his logical powers to the unprecedented situations into which I throw my Marquee characters. Without that, the stories are merely transient entertainment, and perhaps not particularly satisfying entertainment at that. But the possibility, however slender, that I could get people thinking about current controversies from an entirely new perspective is why I decided the effort would be worthwhile.


     At the completion of each novel I kick back for a few weeks, mostly to recover from the effort, but also to consider certain questions afresh:

  1. Am I entertaining my readers or just pontificating at them?
  2. What would make my stories more entertaining?
  3. Am I “finished?”

     The answers are never perfectly certain. They can seem more nebulous after the release of a novel than before it. But I must face them squarely, for the reasons I outlined in the first segment.

     If, by contriving novel situations with a degree of relevance to real life and putting believable characters into them, I can get a few readers to think more actively and broadly than before, I’ll answer Question #3 above with a resounding “No!” I’ll keep going. Of course that compels me to face the question “If I’m not ‘finished,’ then what comes next?” But that can wait until I’ve emptied a few more bottles of Harvey’s.

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Correction, For Whoever Cares

     In the past, when one of my novels has been mentioned in the Ace of Spades Sunday Book Thread, it’s been a modest stimulus to sales. Not this time, I’m afraid – and the reason grieves me deeply. Here’s what Oregon Muse, the Book Thread’s proprietor, had to say in announcing the availability of The Wise and the Mad:

     Available on Kindle for $3.99.Or you can get the entire collection for $6.99. This also includes The Athene Academy Collection, which consists of 3 novelettes.

     I have to warn you that these novels are rated NC-17 for sexual content. And if you're unfamiliar with the word 'futanari', you'd best not google it. Especially not images. I'm dead serious about this. Because what you see cannot be unseen. Francis has written other books that aren't quite so hardcore, for example the 'Realm of Essences' series, the first of which is Chosen One, which I've mentioned on an earlier book two three years ago.

     I can’t imagine what Oregon Muse was thinking. There’s virtually no explicit sex in any of my futanari series novels. I can only hope he hasn’t read them, because if he did, there’s no excuse for what he wrote above. Those three novels took me three years and a lot of painstaking effort to write.

     I have no idea what to do about this, but I’m definitely not happy about it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Project That Lurks

     This one is for all the writers, both actual and aspiring, who’ve ever contributed to “the trunk,” that charming Nineteenth Century metaphor for cherished mementos of one’s failures. As a frame for my main thesis, allow me to include two pithy statements by persons of almost exactly opposed convictions:

Nothing ever goes away. – Barry Commoner
Never throw anything away. – Robert M. Pirsig

     What’s this? Nothing ever goes away? Preposterous. Of course things go away. Sometimes they don’t go as far away as we’d like, but go they most certainly do. I could tell quite a tale about the many things that have gone away from me – in some cases, without my prior consent.

     And what’s this? Never throw anything away? Even more preposterous. Why, it verges on balderdash! If we never throw anything away, eventually we’ll have no room left and no way to move around. Our homes would resemble those that were featured on Hoarders. And let’s not forget what the neighbors would say about the stink.

     Writers know this. It’s a regular feature of our lives that things go away, and that sometimes we throw them. But they don’t always go away forever.

     Way back in the chaotic year of 1997, I started a novel. It was founded on two science-fiction motifs that, to my great surprise, had never been employed by another writer. However, the year was a poor one for me, fraught with difficulty and strife, In consequence, I carried that project forward by about 30,000 words and then…just left it lying there. But I didn’t throw it away.

     In 2009, I stumbled over that novel-fragment in the process of moving from one computer to another. After I’d read it over, I found that I could not remember what it was that kept me from pursuing it to completion. My old passion for the ideas in it flamed afresh, and I drove it to a conclusion that the earlier me would not have contemplated.

     You may have read that novel. It’s Which Art In Hope, the first volume of my Spooner Federation Saga. Many of my readers consider it my best. Sometimes I do, too.

     Something like that may have just happened again. I was reminded, a couple of nights ago, of an idea I popped some years back, just after finishing On Broken Wings. I pursued that idea for about fifty pages and…stopped. I can’t remember why. If memory serves, it’s been in “the trunk” since about 1997. Twenty-two years…but yesterday morning I unearthed it and reviewed it, and it will surely be the next novel-project I address.

     I could have thrown both those fragments away. I didn’t, and I’m glad. But now and then it’s necessary to let an aborted project “go gently into that good night.” I’ve started a project or two of that sort, as well.

     In 2007 I was struck by sudden, unaccountable inspiration. I turned out a novelette that was highly original by the standards of its genre, I was immensely proud of its backstory, plotting, and characterization. It was a hit with my readers as well. Within days after I released it, they began to hector me to fashion a novel from it. And being eager to please, I tried.

     I tried, and tried, and tried. God knows I tried. I’ve been trying for twelve years. Every attempt leaves me more frustrated than the previous one. I’ve come ever so reluctantly to the conclusion that I can’t do it.

     No, I haven’t thrown that novelette away. It’s still available. But I’ve discarded my unsuccessful attempts at extending it to novel-length, and all the ambitions that went with them. It was necessary, that I might get the idea off my mind to make room for things I can do.

     Such judgments are tough calls. Mine cost me a fair amount of anxiety. It’s impossible to be certain that they’re correct, whether at the moment or long afterward. But they’re part of a writer’s life. If you aspire to such an existence, you must be ready for them.

     You see, there’s a project lurking in your subconscious. It might have been there for a very long time, fermenting, gathering force, waiting for the best moment to spring itself upon you. You might or might not know its name. Those things don’t much matter. What’s important is the project’s existence in that murky realm below your conscious perceptions and deliberations.

     If that project has left a few bread crumbs in your trunk, stored there by an earlier, less hopeful you, you could well stumble upon them at any time, find them nourishing, and complete a proper meal from them. That’s why you must exercise restraint about throwing things away. But when that project elects to surface, there must be room for it. That’s why you must make the tough call, now and then, to discard some goal that’s proved unreachable de facto, not worth the grip it has on your efforts and thoughts.

     These considerations arise in every writer’s life. You’ll face them in your turn. You will suffer over them; that’s in the nature of the decisions involved. But it’s part of the price inflicted by the desire to create, and you will be forced to pay it.

     If you’re a writer, that is.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Desires, Fears, Beliefs: Characterization At Its Base

     The political news is still all about the Mueller Report and the reactions of various talking heads, so let’s allow that to rest for today. I have a fiction topic in mind, one that a lot of fledgling writers have a great deal of trouble with.


     In my little tome The Storyteller’s Art, there’s an essay on “The Sin of Over-Management.” Its core thesis runs thus:

     Once you have defined your characters -- i.e., once you've given them their powers, their desires, and their constraints -- you must allow them to act in accordance with those things. Beyond that, you must permit the reader to learn about your characters from the characters themselves.

     Some of that is too obvious to require further development. For example, a character defined as a reasonably ordinary human being must not suddenly develop super powers. Alternately, a character defined ab initio as subject to an inability to face danger must not suddenly become profoundly courageous. These rules are understood by all but the idiots. (Yet one of the best known of science fiction’s progenitors, H. G. Wells, actually broke one of them in his novel The First Men in the Moon. It’s an amusing illustration of human fallibility.) But the part about characters’ desires seems not to be well appreciated.

     The most important thing about your characters is what motivates them: their desires, fears, and beliefs. A character may change in the course of a story – indeed, if none of your characters change at all you don’t have a story – but the changes must be traceable to the events he experiences and the contexts in which they occur. Moreover, he cannot jump an excessively wide gulf: to have a character morph from totally evil to totally angelic simply doesn’t work. The prudent fictioneer leaves that sort of “story” to God.

     Once you’ve defined a character, you must then allow him to act in accordance with his desires, fears, and beliefs as you’ve postulated them.


     Of the four indispensable elements of story, characterization is regarded by most writers as the most challenging. A writer wants his Marquee characters to be both relatable and interesting. There’s tension there. To be relatable, a character must seem familiar enough to the reader for some degree of identification. But to be interesting, that character must differ enough from the common run of Mankind to stand out, to make his decisions at least somewhat off-axis. The launching pad for all of that is motivation.

     “What people want,” from the 30,000 foot perspective, can seem fairly uniform. We want to prosper. We want to be safe. We want acceptance, admiration, and affection. And we want the sense that we’re progressing: getting better, or at least wiser, as time passes.

     But of course at the individual level the details will vary. Not everyone defines prosperity the same way. Not everyone has the same threshold value for “safe.” And so on. It’s within the details that distinguish us as individuals that characterization takes place.

     You can’t make a relatable character completely and utterly fearless. (In Joe Haldeman’s formulation, “the kind of person who would face certain death with a slightly raised eyebrow.”) Automata incapable of conceiving of their own elimination could be made fearless, but not flesh and blood humans. Neither can you make a character completely and utterly selfless. Your decisions about what he fears and to what extent, or what will cause him to sacrifice his own interests for others, are critical – and once made, they must be honored. If they’re to change, the changes must be justified by his experiences in the story.

     How is that done? Ah, it’s time for more coffee!


     The old maxim “Show, don’t tell” relates specifically to how your characters must be revealed to the reader. There are three channels for this:

  • What your character says;
  • What your character does;
  • What other characters say about him.

     Those are the only valid methods. This often chafes the fledgling writer: “Why can’t I just tell the reader what Smith is all about?” Simply put, because it’s intrusive. It’s un-organic. It’s like finding an op-ed essay in the middle of a novel: What’s that doing here? It’s the writer inserting himself into the story, instead of standing back respectfully and narrating the action to us. In other words, it isn’t storytelling.

     The temptation can be strong. It’s your duty to resist. Your readers-to-be are counting on you.


     If you’ve done your characterization well, your character’s decisions and actions will be convincing. The reader will be able to see him as a believable person. To achieve that standard, the best of all aids is backstory.

     Backstory is “the story before the story.” Your character didn’t spring from the brow of Zeus just as the story began, did he? So he has a past you can create, just as you created him. Thereafter you can exploit it as a basis for his decisions and actions.

     Little bits of backstory will make their way into the story proper. It’s not wise to incorporate all of it, of course. But elements from “story past” can, should, and will make their way into “story present.” Here’s an example:

     “What I’m about to tell you,” Holly’s lover said, “I’ve never told anyone else. Shortly before I left for Cambridge I made some inquiries about surgery. You know the sort.”
     Holly said nothing. Rowenna sipped from her glass.
     “It wasn’t that I wanted it for myself, love. I knew I could never be a fully normal woman. But I hoped that if I could just contrive to look normal, it might mend the rift with...”
     “With your father,” Holly whispered.
     “With Sir Thomas,” Rowenna said.
     “But you didn’t go through with it. Why not, Ro?”
     “Because it would have killed me,” Rowenna said. “The surgeon said my body wouldn’t withstand the shock.”
     “Did he know you were...naturally the way you are?”
     “He did,” Rowenna said. She finished her wine and set down the glass. “He was familiar with the condition. He said I wasn’t the first futa to explore the possibility with him. He’s of the opinion that futanari are stuck as we are, that as strange as our condition is, our nervous and endocrine systems are too tightly integrated to endure serious alterations. He said he’d made inquiries among his colleagues, and that they’d left very little room for doubt.”
     I have more options than she does.
     I never would have guessed.
     Holly reached for her lover’s hand. Rowenna looked up and said “Don’t!” Holly pulled back at once.
     “You must hear the end of it,” Rowenna said. “I went to my...to Sir Thomas and begged him to listen to me. I told him what the surgeon had said. He listened, and when I’d finished he pulled out his checkbook, wrote a check for a hundred thousand pounds, and handed it to me. He said it was all the same to him. He said he wanted nothing further to do with me, that I could do whatever I pleased as long as it was far away from him.” She met Holly’s gaze once more, and Holly could see that her face was wet. “And as I had attained my majority, he ordered me to leave Norfolk and not return.”

     [From Experiences]

     Rowenna’s explanation of the rift between her and her father (Sir Thomas) is part of the justification for her extraordinarily strong bond with her lover Holly, a transwoman of the usual sort. While it has moderate importance in Experiences, it blossoms most completely in The Wise and the Mad, which I expect to release this summer.

     (There’s an interesting sidelight here: I’ve been continuously developing Rowenna through two novelettes and two novels. Much that was hidden about her in the early stories comes to light in the later ones. In that sense, backstory can become “story proper,” but great caution is required, that you not slip into “telling” rather than showing character. I may expand on this in a subsequent essay.)

     Rowenna fears to lose Holly. Her fear is founded on the most important difference between them: Holly is the way she is by choice, whereas Rowenna, a futanari, is not. Holly has the option of renouncing the changes she has imposed upon herself and going back to masculinity. Rowenna has no such option…and she fears that Holly, whom she’s known for only a short time, might exercise her option and leave her behind.

     That’s how it’s done.


     Desires, fears, and beliefs. Make it your mantra. They’re what move all of us out here in the “real” world. Let them move your characters as well. Don’t imagine that you can get away with instant, unjustified transitions from evil to sainthood, or cowardice to heroism. Tell the story – or rather, let your characters tell it to you.

     The rest is just typing.