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Deconstructing the Novel, Part 3 – The Shattered Visage Lies

BRIAN SAYS:

Chris and I always tout The Shattered Visage Lies as an ensemble piece. Yes, the last time we discussed this book, we agreed that it had a protagonist and antagonist in the forms of Michael and Marvin. But we could also argue that they aren’t the only ones. There are more characters than just Michael going through life trying to accomplish individual goals, and Marvin isn’t the only one trying to stop them.

In The Shattered Visage Lies, people are waking up with super powers. We really wanted to examine what different people would do when bequeathed with these new abilities. We also knew that we were tackling some concepts that have been done many times before in comic books over many decades. We wanted to put our own unique spin on it, so we decided to give super powers to a woman in her mid-sixties and a girl who was still in elementary school.

In Emma, we have an active widow with strong Christian values. Her husband died as a firefighter and she never felt the need to remarry, always content with helping her community. Then one day she woke up with the skills to become a perfect killing machine.

We found Emma to be an interesting character because she wanted to view these new abilities (enhanced speed and reflexes with precision accuracy) as a gift from God, but she was unsure how to use them. She quickly learned that there were other people out there who would be more than willing to take advantage of her and her abilities. Her faith was being challenged. Sometimes in speculative fiction, especially stories with horror elements, a religious character is, or is quick to become, a zealot. Emma was not a zealot, but a person who was steeped deeply in her religion, and found it challenging when her faith wasn’t providing quite the answers she was looking for. Sure, Michael viewed her as a zealot, but that was mostly his viewpoint, one where organized religion was not a priority in his life. And, obviously, Chris and I had a fun time writing any scene where Michael and Emma had to interact. It’s always fun to annoy Michael!

Haley was definitely the most tragic character of the book. Sure there were other characters who had to deal with physique altering mutations, but Haley was too young to truly understand what was happening, let alone have any concept of how to control it. Especially since she could turn people to dust with a mere thought, making her one of the most powerful characters in the book. She was different things to different people. A cautionary tale to most. An advantage to others. A humanizing factor for Michael.

As we discussed last entry for The Shattered Visage Lies, Michael was the reluctant hero. For most of the book, the emphasis was on “reluctant,” but when he learned about Haley, he shifted to “hero.” As a family man, he loves his daughter more than anyone or anything, and Haley was about the same age. He knew very well how Haley must have felt, because he knew how his daughter would have felt had she gone through the same thing. It was because of that Michael went toe-to-toe with Marvin, and why he had to deal with the outcome of the situation despite doing all he could trying to avoid it all together.

 

CHRIS SAYS:

All of the characters in the book go through a period of growing pains, as they learn about their abilities and decide how these newly found powers change or don’t change who they are as people, but one stands out to me: Derrick.

None of the other characters go through a learning curve quite like Derrick does. His power is less definable than the rest and he’s not really sure what he is actually doing through most of the book. It’s true that he does learn how to harness it, but in the back of his mind he always has some doubt that things will work out the way that he expects them to resolve. This is a character that Brian and I agree is both fun and necessary, especially if there were going to be future books. We wanted to set a “power precedent” that makes possible the introduction of some less classical, more fluid abilities to intrigue the readers and for characterization aspects, as they certainly keep the characters themselves a little uncertain.

Derrick also struggles with others. Not just because he’s a slightly awkward young man, but he seems very sure of the role that he needs to fulfill. He wants to achieve the greatest good possible and he’s both dismayed and perplexed by characters like Michael who are very reluctant to take an active role in improving society. Derrick is a very outward thinker who simply refuses to allow Michael to shrink back into the crowd, making him a useful motivational tool.

Brian and I were also intrigued by the thought of a low-level thug using new talents to topple the hierarchy, which led us to create Stone. A big guy who was destined to run into a bigger guy sooner or later, Stone got as far as his brawn could take him. But what if the brawn gets amplified? Unbreakable skin shields his nerve endings, rendering him nearly impervious to pain.

Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t make him any smarter, but now he can walk out of a sticky wicket with the best of them… and unscarred to boot. The heightened fear factor alone makes him an attractive underground boss. It also makes him a force to be reckoned with as a character. Our heroes certainly have their hands full with this juggernaut. And how does his special power affect his personality, you might ask? It amplifies his thirst for a fight, naturally. And it leaves even me wondering if anyone can quench it.

 

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Deconstructing the Second Novel, Part 1 – The Devil’s Grasp

BRIAN SAYS:

Tom looked at me, nodded his head toward Chris, and said, “You know he writes, right?”
I replied with, “Ummmmm… no.”
Turning to Chris, Tom pointed to me, and asked, “You know he writes, right?”
Coincidently enough, the reply Chris gave sounded oddly familiar. “Ummmmm… no.”
Tom then summed up the future partnership that Chris and I would form with one word: “Idiots.”

That little tale about the endeavoring spirit of human nature took place almost fifteen years ago, about ten years after we first met. Yes, I just said that it took ten years for each of us to figure out that the other wished to be a professional writer, which only happened by the assistance of a third party. Not only is it a testament to how well men actually communicate with each other, but even if the conversation somehow came close to the subject, then inevitably something would distract us from it. One time Chris and I accidentally forgot to go to the local bar to pick up women [The Ferrell/Kattan skits you’re envisioning now really aren’t too far from the truth], because we got past a difficult level in the latest Star Wars video game and wanted to keep playing. Why is any of this relevant? Because the first thing Chris and I worked on together was The Devil’s Grasp.

Of course, before we put the proverbial pen to paper, we sat down and compared notes: How long we’d been writing, where we’d gotten published, what we liked to write, how many more levels there were in that damn Star Wars game, why the beer pitcher was always empty. We discovered that we were in the same stage of our writing careers – a few things published in small magazines. So, the next obvious step was to write a novel together.

By this point in time, I had already written two novels; one solo, one with another writer. Neither amounted to anything more than experience, beer drinking, and good times. Luckily, I was able to bring all of that to the table when Chris and I FINALLY stopped playing Star Wars and started talking about the novel.

CHRIS SAYS:

Testing! Testing! Is this thing on? It is? Well, hi, folks! Let’s see here… video game… beer pitcher empty… be right back! I’m not so sure this thing truly holds 64 ounces!

While we were walking around the used car of our writing aspirations, randomly kicking tires and jumping through open windows, we discussed genre and found that we both have a keen interest in fantasy, though we had largely gotten there via different paths. As a kid I had read the “classics” and many of my days had been wholly consumed by them. Tolkien, Le Guin, Leiber, Howard… they made me want to swing a sword, to hurl spells of magical creation, to be the size of a mouse running from dark wizards, or to be seeking the advice of an alien seer. Brian was familiar with more modern, but not less important, works found on the cinema screen or comic book pages.

As we were discussing tropes and quests and magic, we also confessed to each other that we both had an interest in horror and here seemed to be a way to differentiate our piece from other more mainstream fantasy. As all of this involved far more discussion and learning about another dude that either of us had done in quite likely our entire collective lives, we took a break and went to our respective homes to do more thinking. We both typed up a short page or two – essentially of list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. This is really how we began the process of collaborative writing. Passing chapters back and forth, each trying to outdo the other by putting characters into perilous situations and challenging the other to save them.

Over the next few weeks, we established goals and outlined chapters. Afterwards, we each picked a chapter that we wanted to work on and set monthly word count goals. On the designated day, we would meet up and go over what we had done and where we envisioned the characters going next. We always outlined a good 5-6 chapters in advance and worked on different chapters, writing towards the day of the inevitable passing off of a chapter to the other person, back and forth until revision time… I still get chills thinking about revisions… slimy, putrid… out of what miasma they crawl, I know not, but they are certainly welcome to go back whence they came! I think I got some miasma on me….

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Deconstructing the Novel, Part 2 – The Shattered Visage Lies

BRIAN SAYS:

Okay, now that we’ve gotten into some form of rhythm with this blog thing, let’s revisit a concept we introduced a few posts ago – Deconstructing the Novel, where go behind the scenes of our first published novel, The Shattered Visage Lies, to answer questions, give novel writing advice, and discuss some of the concepts within the book. Last installment, we discussed what the title means, or at least what it means to us. For this installment, we’ll shed some light on what we’ve been hearing about the protagonist and antagonist – Michael and Marvin. Don’t know who they are because you haven’t read the book yet? Don’t worry, feel free to take a moment to grab yourself a copy, in print or eVersion to peruse. It’s okay. We’ll wait. Have it? Read it? Good. Let’s move on.

First of all, as you have now learned from reading the book in one sitting, the novel is an ensemble piece. In it, nine different people discover they have super powers. For the most part, we go over the discovery, exploration, and development of these abilities in detail for most of these characters, so it’s not entirely accurate to say that we have a definitive protagonist or antagonist. However, Michael and Marvin stand out as those concepts, respectively. Interestingly enough, these two are also usually the least favorite character and most favorite character, respectively. And we did that on purpose.

“What? You purposely made your protagonist the reader’s least favorite character?” Yes, we did. I want to remind you, though, that he’s not a detestable character. He’s just someone who can be likeable one moment, and then a jerk the next. Just like all of us. We are all the protagonists in our own individual stories. None of us are liked by every secondary character in our own individual stories. That is what we want to reflect with Michael. He’s a regular person, just like all of us, doing his own thing, just like all of us. He can be nice, he can be a jerk; he can be likeable, he can be not likeable. Just like all of us. When we follow up the “Who is the least likeable character?” question with “Who is the most relatable character?” the answer to that is usually Michael.

Michael is the reluctant hero of the story. Most reluctant heroes of popular stories are so because they lack confidence, usually because of doubt that is bred by the inexperience of youth. I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker. That is certainly relatable to anyone. However, we wanted to explore a different, yet relatable, reason for Michael’s reluctance – comfort. We all get frothing-at-the-mouth fussy when the cable company changes the channels on us. We’re red-raging and ready to turn to Yelp, Facebook, Reddit, the Better Business Bureau, and/or a voodoo witch doctor because The Food Network is now channel 48 when it was channel 47 just yesterday. None of us want to change our routine because of forces beyond our control, and we certainly don’t want to take on added responsibility if we don’t think it’s at least congruous with what we’re sacrificing. Neither does Michael. He’s a man in his mid-thirties who has everything he wants in life. Sure, he’s a bit spoiled in regards to certain things, and he sometimes doesn’t filter the words between his brain and his mouth, but he loves his family; his wife and his daughter are his world. Gaining a new, very powerful new ability means he now has to learn how to use it, and be involved with a whole new community of people he’d rather not associate with. This new ability means change. It means a disruption in his routine. A sacrifice he doesn’t want to make. These burdens make him fussy.  Just like the rest of us.

CHRIS SAYS:

When we talked about the direction that we wanted this book to take it was clear very early on that Brian and I were both interested in creating a likeable antagonist…it’s just fun. We had a few ideas about how we could accomplish that, but as we hashed through them, tossing them aside like dandelions from a spring bouquet, a very obvious solution surfaced. If we simply make the character relatable to the reader, then even when the necessary philosophical issues arise, the character can remain true to himself, which also keeps him believable.

Quite simply, then, Marvin was born. Overworked, underappreciated Marvin who is surpassed by those half his age for one inconsequential reason or another. A dreary routine has taken the pep from his step and a stagnant lifestyle has taken a stranglehold on his view of the future. Marvin in a nutshell. Possibly he has the power to improve himself, but not to affect all of the forces around him that would need to be bent to his will in order to create real change. Until one day…

As Marvin develops his powers, he uses them to improve his lot in life, enhance his interest in things, most notably his marriage, and wreak a little bit of revenge on a few people who, quite frankly, don’t necessarily do much to warrant sympathy at their plight. All the while still walking that tightrope of relatability to the empathetic reader. While Michael is whining and bemoaning and remaining passive, Marvin becomes an all action kind of guy…sort of a fantasy fulfiller…or that is our hope anyway.

Gradually, of course, he becomes more and more despicable and the dichotomy between good and evil replaces some of his relatability with the reader, but the roots are still there because the character can remain true to himself even as he becomes less “human.”

It was an interesting experiment in characterization and Brian and I are often intrigued by reader’s comments about Marvin and what the future holds for him. Do you need a Marvin fix or are you hoping to explore new villainy? For now, it’s still shrouded in mystery, but later this year all will be revealed.

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