Exploring the Anti-Hero

I’m about to begin a new novel featuring an anti-hero for a protagonist. In my previous science fiction series, the heroes were truly heroic. They were flawed, made occasional questionable decisions and real mistakes, but at the end of the day, the fundamental qualities that made up their personalities were loyalty, bravery, compassion, and commitment. In other words, heroic qualities.

But this new anti-hero I’m playing with – she’s a different animal entirely. As her personality unfolds, I’ve been thinking about what makes an anti-hero an interesting and effective character.

Even anti-heroes evolve.

Characters shouldn’t remain stagnant throughout any story. They are necessarily changed by the trials and tribulations they face, and an anti-hero is no different. She should face challenges that rub against her nature and force her to evolve. Dexter, one of my all-time favorite anti-heroes, falls in love (in his own sociopathic kind of way), something his damaged character shouldn’t have been able to do.

We can relate to them somehow.

An anti-hero is by definition a flawed character. She’ll have shortcomings, vices, and bad habits for sure, but those qualities shouldn’t turn readers off from her entirely. Rather, those qualities should make her seem human – complicated, but human. Wolverine’s brooding nature fits with his life history and experience, and we understand why he is the way is. We may see ourselves reflected in Ron Weasley’s bumbling nature.

They have redeeming qualities too.

An anti-hero is still a multi-dimensional human being and should have positive personality traits mixed in. Maybe she’s snarky and drinks too much, but she’s also fiercely loyal. Han Solo may be a sarcastic, intergalactic smuggler, but he’s also street-smart, funny, and eventually a loyal friend.

They have a moral code, even if it’s outside the legal one.

The fundamental difference between an anti-hero and a villain is intent. An anti-hero doesn’t intend to purposefully do harm to innocents. Carried too far in an irredeemable direction, we will, in fact, have a villain. Dexter only kills bad people. Severus Snape was protecting Harry all along. Han stuck around to help Luke blow up the Death Star.

Some of my favorite characters are anti-heroes. They tend to be complex, but in the end, when they slay the dragon, or fall in love, or solve the mystery, we’ve been rooting for them all along.

Writing Military Scenes in Your Science Fiction? Here Are Some Tips…

My first novel series was space opera. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a sub-category of science fiction that can be described as a blend of space warfare, epic good vs. evil tropes, and adventure tossed with a little romance. Think Star Wars.

The books feature a telepathic healer and an interplanetary intelligence agent. There’s a good bit of survival fiction in my stories, which I’m comfortable writing about from my own experiences camping, climbing and such. There are some complicated medical scenes, which I’m comfortable writing about based on my own training as a medic. But there’s also a good bit of military action, which I’m much less comfortable writing about since I’ve never served.

Every fiction writer ventures into unfamiliar territory. It’s the nature of the beast. But if we use constructs that will feel familiar to the reader in some way, we owe it to them to be authentic wherever we can. Getting your military scenes right, even if you’re writing about an imaginary, intergalactic military, requires a few things. Here are my top three tips:

Research

In my books, the dogfights may be with spaceships, but people on Earth are still quite familiar with the concept of a dogfight, so it’s important to make the reading experience feel authentic. I played flight simulator videos, researched World War II aviation, and got sucked down the internet rabbit hole learning about current US naval fighter jet technology.

All Earth based military organizations have hierarchical structures. Representing that in some way felt important to me, so I did some research there too.

Of course, things will be different in your futuristic military. I felt free to take some liberties with mine. That’s some of the fun of it. But our goal is not to pull readers out of the story with something that feels too far-fetched within the context of the world we’ve created. Researching those things that feel familiar to readers, and presenting them authentically in our storytelling helps.

Follow Your Own Rules

If you write fantasy, you get to use magic. If you write futuristic science fiction, you get to invent technology. Yes, I’ve rewritten a few rules of physics. My characters can communicate across the galaxy instantaneously. But the key is to follow your own rules. Whether they relate to how the ships fly, or to environments of the planets you’ve created, be consistent. Readers will notice if you aren’t.

Get Beta Feedback from Experts

Because I’ve never served in the military, I felt it was important to get feedback from a reader who did. He understood this was science fiction, and knew his job wasn’t to critique my use of advanced stealth technology. Rather, I needed him to tell me that in the heat of battle my soldiers’ behavior felt authentic. I asked him specifically to evaluate the culture and characters I’d created. I asked if anything pulled him out of the story. His feedback was constructive, relevant, and helped me deliver a much better final draft.

Where there are battles, even in space, there’s often a military involved. With research, effective feedback, and consistency in your world building, you can give readers an exciting, authentic experience.

What Today’s YA Is Still Missing: Ace Spectrum and Non-binary Characters

When I came out as demisexual (someone who can’t feel sexual attraction without a deep emotional connection) four years ago, it did not go well. I was told that I wasn’t what I thought I was and given evidence why, as if another person could know anyone better than they know themselves. This person was a dear friend of mine; I had known them for over 13 years. I thought they were right. It made me feel like I was wrong, as if there were something inherently incorrect in how I viewed myself. It also made me keep quiet about the fact that I didn’t feel like a man or a woman, but something in between. 

At the time, I didn’t know the terms non-binary or demisexual existed, let alone what they really meant. I didn’t have anything or anyone to tell me about them. There were no books back then that featured someone like me. I took care to avoid writing about characters who were me. I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t trans. I had never had body dysphoria. Clearly, I didn’t belong at the queer club. In the end, I did come out. I found myself, it just took another two years. And in the process I terminated a friendship. It’s a wound that still hurts. It doesn’t really stop hurting; you just meet other people and remind yourself that you matter. That your story matters. 

Queer characters are in everything I’ve written. My espionage series features a gay Russian spy and a bisexual American spy, working together to take down a secret organization that has managed to penetrate the KGB, set in 1965. It’s not a romance, because I wanted to give queer men the ability to see themselves in action adventure. I want them to kick butt just like the straight boys do, better than even. I have two projects out on sub, one a YA horror lead by a pansexual boy, and a NA low fantasy/post apoc lead by an asexual and aromantic girl. Today, I’m finally plucking up the courage to do the one thing I never thought I would: write an Own Voices novel. 

This new project is a YA low fantasy set in the Ozarks. It’s a blend of folk magic and horror in the working poor setting. It’s a story about first loves and family and the lengths we go to save them. Last summer, in watching Sagas of Sundry Dread, I realized it was something more: its the story of two genderqueer punks who fall in love. It’s Riley, who is non-binary (someone who identifies as neither male or female) but doesn’t know it yet, and Chase, who is demisexual and thinks gender concepts are bullshit altogether. As I began to outline it, I grew excited in a way I had not in a very long time. I’m drafting it now, and I think this might be the book. The landing an agent book. And its because I took the leap to make it queer that I think makes it so, makes it more than just a folk magic horror story. 

It has not been an easy story to write. Riley is not an exact copy of me; far from it. But there are lines which she is told about how she presents herself that are word for word what I was told growing up. The difference is, Riley will have Chase, who for all of his flaws and mental health issues, loves Riley wholly and completely. It’s Chase who pushes her to be herself, however that means she/they presents. Doing it under the guise of punk subculture gave me a lot of room to play with presentation. Chase wears makeup and nail polish. He dyes his hair a lot; helps Riley cut and dye hers. Chase has 99 problems but toxic masculinity ain’t one. 

Ace spectrum, of all areas of the LGBTQIA, needs rep that isn’t just characters who are asexual to the point of being cold, aloof, and uncaring. There needs to be diversity across the board. Like gender, asexuality is a spectrum. All gender and sexuality is a spectrum and we should stop pretending like this is some modern concept invented by millennials. It’s not. Gender binary is a modern principal; gender as a spectrum is the concept of old that we’ve tried to bury with the nuclear family–the need to simply make children which cropped up from world wars one and two. 

We especially need these stories to be told in YA, where so much of the literary landscape is whirlwind romances. Ace spectrum still happens, even in your teen years. But how can teens know what they’re feeling is real and not a mental health condition (it was part of the DSM as a mental illness as late as 2013) if they don’t see themselves represented? We need more stories about these gentle, slower romances, especially where one character is ace spec and another is not. This way, teens can learn how to navigate these waters from both sides. 

Riley’s story will take time to make it out into the world. This year I’ll have to get the draft done; if I’m very lucky it will be agent-ready by next summer. But I will keep at it and I won’t give up until I’ve sold it and given it every opportunity to get in the hands of as many readers as I can. Because asexuality is part of the queer community, as is being non-binary, and I want teenagers to know it. I want them to read this story about love and sacrifice and see that you are not broken, and you are loved. That being who you are does not make you somehow undateable. Riley and Chase’s story is epic, and yours is too.

Women Edit, Men Write: The great gender divide of the publishing industry today

It is a commonly known fact that women are the curators of the man’s work, ingrained deeply into the United States from stereotypes crafted in the early 1900’s and onward. Though the nuclear home ideal is as dead as dead can be with the Millennial generation, in numerous publishing and literary careers women dominate the field.

Women as librarians.

Women as the editors.

Women as literary agents.

I’ve worked as both a librarian and an editor, and I can tell you, finding a man in either one is a rarity. In my three years as a tech services assistant in my college library, I knew two men who worked there, in a staff of thirty people. I was at an Editorial Freelancers Association meeting recently for the Diversity Initiative group; no men.

Even among indie authors, I see far more women and NB folk who wear both hats to pay the bills. They offer competitive but doable rates, and are generally approachable folks. The men I know in writing? Rates so high that you’ll never be able to afford them, and that’s why they are that way. So they don’t have to be bothered.

So why is that? Why is that the men folk rarely work in publishing beyond writing the book, or being a literary agent, or running the whole publishing house?

I honestly don’t know for certain. I’m no expert. But if I had to take a stab at it, I would say that it probably has something to do with the fact that women have always been in the caretaker position. Editing, librarianship, even being a literary agent–all jobs which fall under that category. You are not the one creating the art, rather you are the one looking after it. You’re the one who’s making sure the contract is sound, the manuscript is error-free, and that the books are cataloged correctly to insure access.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the job you want. Except when I get paid a lot less than a man does, just like every other woman and non-binary person working in every industry. Then we have problems.

Despite the rise in numbers of female and non-binary authors working today, these statistics are still largely skewed by genre. Men still dominate some of the biggest genres around, including horror, SFF, and action adventure. Women who write within these genres are often either pushed to write romance, or shoved into that category entirely due to marketing. During my short time managing an indie bookstore, I became frustrated with the female authors having their works shelved in Paranormal Romance, while the male authors got to go to SFF. In the end, I created an urban fantasy section. Sure enough, sales picked up, because the books were finally where they should be.

I’ve worked throughout the many stages of publishing and the life-span of the written word, from library, to book store, to now freelance editing and indie author. I would love to say things are getting better, but only to a point. I’m a born-female, androgynous identifying person, writing and publishing LGBT Action Adventure. I don’t know anyone like me, not in my genre. Sarah Gailey probably comes closest, but she’s more SFF than my espionage leanings.

That’s it. A single author.

I knew well and good that I would be playing a man’s game the moment I decided that I wanted to get into writing espionage. Yet in the last three years, I’ve not seen any traction in the action adventure genre at all. It worries me, and it frustrates me. It forces me to title my books under initial, rather than my full name, because there is still major push-back for a non-male author to write a book with male leading characters.

But it also drives me. I write in this genre because I love it, always have. I was reared on Ian Fleming and campy action movies. My feel good films are the Shadow, the Phantom, and From Russia With Love. I am not going to stop playing in action adventure just because I’m one of a handful of LGBT and non-male folk here.

Women get to be caretakers, but they also get to be whatever the hell they want. Same goes for trans and non-binary folks. You have a choice. Break up the boys’ clubs. Kick the door down if you have to. You deserve it. You are worthy. Anyone who tells you otherwise, clearly doesn’t know what you’re capable of.

LGBT Representation: What it Is, What it Isn’t, and Why it Matters.

photo by Christian Sterk

By definition, LGBT representation involves having characters of the LGBTQIA spectrum play a leading role in a story—or all of the roles. LGBT folk tend to travel in packs (I can say this from experience) so it’s pretty easy to write them in. Proper LGBT representation means making your queer character overtly queer, even if your book doesn’t hinge on it. You can center the plot around their LGBT identity or not; that’s entirely up to you and the type of story you want to tell.

Currently, we’re seeing a much greater push for characters whose LGBTQIA identity is evident, without being the basis for the plot. For example, you have a main character who’s a bisexual man, but the story centers around him solving crimes as a PI in a corrupt town where the cops can’t be relied on because they’re crooked as hell. The main character in this case is queer, but the book is not a coming-out story or an issues book (a story that revolves around confronting the numerous problems present in and around the LGBT community). An example of an issues book would be a story where the main overarching conflict centers around the lead character’s struggle with being LGBT.

If you can’t tell a character is gay without the author saying so during an interview, that’s not representation, and they’re not writing a diverse book. Their queerness has to be present within the text, not just a footnote the author keeps in mind.

An obvious example of a series with no LGBT representation is Harry Potter. Dumbledore doesn’t count as queer representation if none of us knew that he was gay until JK revealed in an interview that he was in love with Grindelwald. That would have been a huge addition to the series, but it’s never brought up within the context of the story, so it doesn’t count as queer representation. Leaving it ambiguous—e.g., the character does not have a history of queerness nor is the sexual identity explicitly stated—also does not count. This follows the same vein of leaving someone’s skin color entirely unsaid. The idea that the reader will assume the character looks like them is false: readers will almost always assume a character is straight, cis-gender, and white until proven otherwise, because this is the type of person they are used to reading about. The lack of diversity in publishing throughout history has created this trap, and to ignore it is to play into it.

One of the biggest gaps we are trying to fill presently is the absence of LGBTQIA male characters in genre fiction. This is due to an age-old stereotype which persists today: queer women are more masculine, and therefore can take on roles in SFF and action-adventure, while queer men are more feminine and thus relegated to roles in rom-coms. This is a problem that exists across the market. As an LGBT writer, I often catch flack because my series—which is LGBT paranormal action-adventure—does not feature romance. My gay men are a little busy saving the world to fall in love. And yet I get asked how, without that romance, can my gay men really be gay? If Alan doesn’t show evidence of having relationships with men and women, is he really bisexual? If Yulian doesn’t make out with a guy, is he really gay? At what point can we say that gay men do not have to be falling in love with someone to be considered gay within the context of the story? At what point can we finally say, without question, that queer men don’t exist just to tell rom-com stories?

This is why LGBT representation matters. In putting out book after book after book with cliché queer male characters, publishing makes it harder for those who are queer to be able to divorce sexuality from gender stereotypes. The two are not the same, nor do they necessarily influence one another. Gay men are not necessarily feminine. Gay women are not necessarily butch. Not to mention the fact that there are numerous gender identities between the two, because gender is not binary.  And yet, publishing outside of young adult literature has yet to wrap its head around this fact. As I’m writing this, there is a professional publishing conference going on with a workshop centered around writing novels specifically for a cis-het audience, with exact beats, simply to sell more books. (Picture a skeleton for a book—you already have the structure and you’re just picking out the flooring and fixtures.)

I wish I was making that up, but here we are. It’s 2019, and we still have to explain to industry professionals that a large number of readers will not be straight. That a book can feature LGBT characters without it being an issue, or becoming a book about issues.

LGBT representation matters because queer characters have other stories to tell, and queer men in particular have lives and identities that exist outside of romance. They don’t need to look a certain way or talk a certain way or have a favorite member of the Fab Five. Having an LGBT lead will not subtract from your work of kick-butt genre fiction. It adds. Diversity shows us human beings, and that makes the story real. It lets it resonate and hit home. It makes the impossible, probable. If you want to write a great story, then fill it with whole, fully realized characters, across the spectrum of gender and sexuality.

Writing Healthy – It’s all about routine

Routine. The most hated and feared word of people everywhere.

Routine? Routine is the essence of boredom, the same thing being done repeatedly day-after-day, a life restricted to steps in a process. Who the heck wants a routine?

One might argue that part of the reason writers write is because of a distaste for routine, they want to rise above the normal human condition, to share the depths of their imagination and revel in the unknown. Routine? Pshaw. That’s for mere mortals, not us author types.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but routine isn’t a four letter word. It’s seven. I checked.

As a writer, you’re likely a victim of routine without even realizing it. Pounding your fingers into the keyboard, generated word after word and page after page, handing things off to betas, passing them along to your editor, cover designer, revisions, it’s all baked into you so much that you don’t even realize that you, too, are part of a routine.

Why should your health be any different?

Yummm CAKE

I would argue that getting (and staying) healthy are just as important as putting down those 1,000 words first thing in the morning. I mean, after all, the longer you live, the more words you can put down going forward, right?

There was a point in my life when I tipped the scales at 325 pounds. I was a big guy and pretty much always had been a big guy. Breakfast was Egg McMuffins at McDonalds, lunch was a Whopper at Burger King (or a cheeseburger at Wendy’s if I really wanted to mix things up), all washed down with copious amounts of soda and french fries. My body was a temple – one of those old Aztec temples that’s crumbling into dust.

So I decided to make a change. In 2002, I told myself that I was going to designate an hour in the morning to exercise and I was going to pretty much blow up my entire diet and start over.

And I did. And have been. For sixteen years. I’ve lost nearly 150 pounds, but more importantly, in my mind, I’ve built a (scary word coming) routine. A routine where I carve out an hour a day in the morning to exercise.

I know, I know – exercise in the morning? That’s unpossible!

You can DO IT

I’m a forty-four year old guy, married, two kids, a full time senior management job, and I’ve written 1.1 million words so far this year (publishing 15 books so far in 2018). Trust me when I say it can be done. It’s all about the routine.

I wake up at five, get ready for work, get the kids lunches ready, type for a few minutes if I can. By seven I’m dropping the older kid off at school, then I come straight home and from 7 – 8 I do whatever exercise I can. Most of the time, I run, getting in around 5 miles if I time it just right. When I can’t (or don’t want to) run, I lift weights, ride a stationary bike, or other forms of cardio and high impact. It’s nothing special, but it’s a routine. And hey, for what it’s worth, nothing sparks my creative mind like running… I can almost always work through a challenging scene or sequence when I’m out on the trail, the wind in my face.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand, not everyone can do this. Some people have trickier morning schedules. But the key is, you need to form a routine and set aside a time every single day to follow it. Some days you’ll miss it, and that’s okay, but focus on the next day, and promise yourself you won’t miss it two days in a row.

Exercise? Nobody gots time fer that!

Some days you can use that one hour to exercise. Some days you can use that one hour to meal prep. Some days you can use that one hour just to get an extra 1,500 words in. The important thing is to carve out that one hour and tell yourself that’s your hour to maintain your health. Then stick with it.

Of course, as the old saying goes, you can’t outrun a bad diet, and I’m going to say it here, too. Health starts in the kitchen. You’ll notice I mentioned meal prep up there, and I did that for a reason. Focusing on real food is going to save you money and save your body, and I’d argue the single most important thing I did for my health was to actually start thinking about what I’m putting in my body. Even if I don’t always stick with it, I am ALWAYS thinking about it, fully aware when I’m making bad choices and ticking off in my head how I’m going to make up for it in the future.

Two for one at McD's!

Oh, by the way… losing 150 pounds, changing my eating habits, basically reinventing my lifestyle is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done. But the key to it is routine.

Get in the habit of avoiding fast food, you’ll be surprised how quickly the cravings go away. Get in the habit of not drinking so much soda, you’ll be surprised at how soon the bubbles hurt your throat on the way down. Get in the habit of burning a few calories at designated times during the day, you’ll be surprised at how damn good you feel afterwards.

Habit. Routine. The words aren’t fun, but they might save your life. And if you miss a few hundred words a day because of it, well, you’ll make those up with the extra years at the end.