Characterisation – Fears & Superstitions

Fleshing out characters can be a lot of fun. One popular choice, particularly with horror/suspense writers, is to give the character a particular fear that plays into the story. For example they might have a fear of flying and the big confrontation with the glowing aliens from Mars has to happen on the outside of a racing spacecraft over Manhattan. Or they are afraid of the dark, but to confront the villain they have to go down THOSE stairs into the pitch black basement. This often works well, but can also seem a little contrived if the latter scenes are not woven together convincingly.

But there are plenty of other options. One that is a bit of fun is to incorporate a superstition. This got me thinking about superstitions in general and I thought it might be fun for people to post their own superstitions or those of friends and relatives. Having something from real life like that adds a real element to fiction.

In terms of my family, the one I remember most distinctly is one of my grandmother’s. She used to cover all the mirrors in the house during a thunderstorm. She also used to live in fear of birds flying into windows – it would mean that someone in the family was going to die.

The one I experienced at first-hand was the Irish Catholic practice of dosing children liberally with Holy Water as they lay in bed ready for sleep. You cannot put a price on chasing away the nasty Devil. I kind of liked it actually. Dad used to get his holy water from the St Benedict’s font, and kept it in a little glass bottle. He would pour a bit of Holy Water into his hand and cast away. He had a good technique by the time I came along at number eleven.

There is the old salt over the left shoulder ritual to hit the Devil in the eye if you spill the salt, but that’s never been too convincing for me. What’s the Devil care about sodium chloride anyway?

For myself – I have one that I have never been able to shake that was passed onto me by my mother. If your ears are ringing, it means someone is talking about you. If it’s your left ear it’s something bad – if it’s your right ear it’s something good. You might say I live in fear of left-sided ear infections. This is totally crazy, and yet I can’t shake it. It has a spooky king of logic. If my tinnitus worsens I could be in for permanent paranoia.

What superstitions do you have? Or interesting rituals – the more bizarre the better!

Space X Grasshopper Reusable Rocket

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably heard me talking about Elon Musk’s Space X and the plans to develop a reusable rocket system. The theory is that it’s the cost of space craft that overwhelmingly contributes to the high cost of getting into orbit. The fuel itself represents perhaps 1% of the total cost. So if you can develop a truly reusable rocket system you can potentially revolutionise space travel. There are a few parts wishful thinking in this, and a few parts hyperbole, but it’s an intriguing concept nonetheless. Meanwhile, Space X is forging ahead.

Space X have been developing a reusable system based on their Falcon 9 launch vehicle platform. This launch vehicle is a pretty familiar sort of beast – a two stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene. It has established a solid performance record to date and was used by Space X for a visit to the International Space Station, the first by a commercial company.

The Space X Grasshopper is designed to take the place of the Falcon 9’s first stage. It has been in active testing since September last year. So far it has had six test flights, each gradually extending the height at which the rocket stops, hovers then touches back down. Both take off and landing are vertical (VTVL). The latest (check here for video) took the venerable Grasshopper to 325m (1066 feet), with an overall duration of 68 seconds. It’s likely the tests will extend substantially, perhaps reaching altitudes of up to 91 kilometres (57 mi) with the second generation of the test craft.

If you want a bit of entertainment, check out this video of one of the early tests that plays to Jonny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’. LOL.

The second generation of Grasshopper will have lighter-weight landing legs that actually fold up into the rocket. I can’t help but be reminded of those sleek 1950s art-deco SF rockets than come down to land on their legs in such a similar manner, except they (of course) had three legs whereas Grasshopper has four. The Grasshopper’s legs use a telescoping piston on an A-frame, actuated by high-pressure helium.

Plans are to start testing the decent of Falcon 9 first stages to confirm the technology. Each first stage of the Falcon 9 will be equipped and instrumented as a controlled descent test vehicle. They will initially do the propulsive return tests over water until they can complete a return to the launch site with a powered landing, perhaps as early as 2014.

Ultimately the first stage separation will occur at around Mach 6, rather than the current Mach 10 for the expendable version of the Falcon 9. This is to ensure there is sufficient fuel for deceleration, controlled descent and landing.

I have a feeling that once this system is up and running, expendable launch systems will seem like the crazy idea, not reusable ones!

But the Grasshopper, as impressive as it is, is only half the launch system. The first stage will separate and be back on the launch pad minutes after the launch. The reusable second stage will take up to 24 hours to return to the launch pad, to allow for orbital realignment and atmospheric re-entry. Both stages are envisaged to be available for reuse within hours of return.

Eventually the reusable launch system technology will be applied to both the Space X Falcon 9 and Space X Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

I think we are watching history in the making.

Drawing the Reader into Character


Is building sympathy for your character the key to hooking a reader?

Beginnings – and hooking the reader – have always been my bugbear. Big complex plots, interweaving stories, multiple characters, action scenes – no problem. Getting someone to read the story in the first place – Big Problem.

The difficulty is that what one reader responds to in a character is often vastly different to another – in fact often diametrically opposed. One reader’s cool detached hero is another’s arrogant, insufferable narcissist.

I used to come home from critique groups puzzled by contradictory comments that made little sense until the penny finally dropped. If people don’t like your characters, they will just  not gel with your story. Once you reach that stage the critter will start (often unconsciously) working overtime to find all the things ‘wrong’ with your piece, when the real problem is that it simply has no resonance for them. They will talk vehemently about the punctuation on p3, or how they got mixed up in the dialogue, the logic error in par 5, or yada yada, yada… The same thing happens with editors. The reasons they give for rejecting your manuscript may have little to do with the real reason, which may be that they struggled to emotionally connect with the character.

Even very successful writers don’t seem to have real control over reader’s reactions.

One of David Gemmell readers all time favorite characters is Waylander. David Gemmell himself set out to make this guy a real piece of work – a nasty customer that no one should like; a ruthless assassin that kills without a thought. The surprise was that people loved Waylander, and he went on to be one of Gemmell’s most successful characters, extending over three books and carrying the story well in each one. So why did people respond to Waylander? Was there something unconsciously carried through from Gemmell about that character’s destiny that altered his portrayal? Or do people just love the bad guy – the old Sympathy for the Devil chestnut?

What really draws you into a character? Their sense of connection – the  way they love someone else or show they care? Being the underdog? Strength? Courage? Determination? Their vulnerability? Their sheer undead coolness? Or is it something less tangible than that. Is it being able to relate to the ordinary troubles and mundane problems that you share with the character i.e. they may be an immortal space traveller, but they still get parking tickets at the spaceport?

Got any clues to share on building emotional resonance and sympathy for character?