Finding Your Target Audience

TrilogyFront200Recently I went to see how many reviews my combined Goblin Trilogy has on, because I have a Countdown promotion coming up October 25-31 and some advertising outlets will only accept submissions if the book has a certain number of reviews on the U.S. Amazon. To my surprise, I found two new reviews I hadn’t seen before, and they sparkled!

Any author who says they don’t read their reviews is either lying or fooling themselves. Normal human curiosity will drive us to have a peek sooner or later, just to see the objective opinions of readers, though the wise author will not respond to them, even the good ones. The ‘agenda’ reviews from people using the review space to wage their personal wars are irrelevant and easily dismissed, but the genuine reviews from people who have actually read the book can tell an author if they are reaching their target audience.

For The Goblin Trilogy, the target audience is a certain kind of Fantasy fan. The sort who enjoys substantial world building, probably dresses up as strange creatures for conventions and enjoys series like The Lord of the Rings, The Songs of Ice and Fire and The Dragonriders of Pern. I’ve said before that it was never meant for the mainstream and isn’t likely to appeal to those who think the Fantasy genre is for pre-adolescent girl Romance, fantasy elements or not. It’s a very different demographic audience.

So, how does one go about reaching a specific target audience? For Fantasy writers of the traditional kind, it has become a challenge with the Romance genre horning in on our genre and spreading everything from schoolgirl crushes to outright smut all over where my dragons want to lay their eggs. Goblins don’t do relationships in the ways of human expectation and are far easier to understand if the reader has travelled with Orcs and assimilated various alternative creatures with varying habits into their world view.

The goal for ay writer is to find out where readers of their genre are looking for books. What key words do they use on Amazon to try to find the stories they want to read? Do they have genre specific forums or groups on book sites where people with similar interests share recommendations?

Anyone who studies the marketing of digital books will have come up against these questions. New authors in particular will have come up against the difficulty of the public slush pile. Several studies have shown that word of mouth is the best advertising, but how does one get people talking about your book?

Obviously the first step is to write a book that people would want to talk about. The story has to appeal to at least a segment of the reading population in a way that is above and beyond the other hundreds of at least decent quality stories that will certainly be available in the same genre. For a genre like Fantasy, this could take patience and a lot of sifting through review sites that target readers of Romantic fantasy, which is undeniably popular with a wide demographic, but generally not the same demographic as Traditional Fantasy readers.

If a writer wants to make money in today’s publishing market, the popular genres are Romance and Mystery/Thrillers, both of which I neither read in any great quantity or write. My future projects are Fantasy, Steampunk or Mind, Body, Spirit. Like most writers, I write what I like to read. Ten years after Dance of the Goblins was first published, it is only just finding its target audience. Traditional Fantasy readers are beginning to discover it and to write reviews. Years of having a small, underground following have been eclipsed by simply designing a bookcover that would draw the eye of the target audience and making the books available through popular sales channels, plus learning the most effective keywords.

The Goblin Trilogy had a surprising surge in UK sales last time it went on sale. It will be interesting to see what happens this time. During my birthday week, 25-31 October, the combined trilogy will be on sale on Kindle for $1.99 and equivalent in other countries on Amazon. Tell your Traditional Fantasy reading friends. It’s time word got around.

Blog site soon giving up hosting

A few blogs ago, I mentioned that I had set up a mirror site at

I’ve since had notification that the group hosting THIS blog is going to be giving up hosting blogs, so if you’ve got this one bookmarked, please change it to the WordPress site. There is a new post about pen names that I just wrote this morning, and an easy follow widget.

I’ve forgotten the date that this blog will expire, but I have a feeling that it might be the end of June. Yay for my instincts! The new blog site is up and running smoothly and as it’s WordPress, likely to be around a long time.

Meanwhile, if you follow me because of my esoteric books, there is a new blog page on my site at

Blogs about my fiction will continue on the Goblins & Steampunk blog at WordPress. I have also dedicted to fiction now, separating it from the esoterica. Please join the mailing list to hear about new releases!

Audio books!

WotDaudio250It’s very likely that before this month is finished, my first audio book will be on Amazon.

This is something I thought about for a long time and then finally made a move, after looking into the ways and means for going about it. I went with Amazon’s ACX program, which is easy to use and gets the audio book right onto Amazon, although there is an exclusivity clause. With audio books, I don’t think this causes the dilemma that goes with publishing print books. Audio book outlets are more limited, so why not go with the most popular?

After giving the idea a lot of thought, I decided to start with my Steampunk Adventure novel, The Wake of the Dragon. The book is very Victorian in tone and I thought a pleasant, male voice would suit it best. This immediately ruled out the possibility of doing the reading myself. So, my choices were either to tap my supply of acting and voiceover contacts or to solicit a reader.

Part of the ACX platform is an option to connect voice readers with books for either an hourly rate or a royalty share. The hourly rate would have cost more than I have to invest at present, so I put my book up for a royalty share basis and waited. I could always change my mind later if there was no interest.

Amazingly soon, I received a notification of an audition. Excitement! A voice reader was interested in my book! I listened to the audition and the reader had a good voice, but not the right voice for the story. The story is very English and required an English accent, preferably with gentle tone. The first audition was from an American who came from a radio announcer background. He had great voice control and clarity, but I had to accept that he just wasn’t the right voice for this project. It isn’t easy to turn down first nibble on a new platform, but it was the right decision.

More waiting ensued. The benefit of always having too many projects going at once is that such waiting can pass unnoticed while I’m busy with other things.

A fair bit of time passed. Weeks, months… I don’t really know how long. I just left the project on offer and put my attention on things I was actively doing. Suddenly, out of the blue, I got a notification for a new audition. This time I approached it with a little less enthusiasm and the determination that if it wasn’t the right voice, I would not ‘settle’. If the right person didn’t materialise out of the ACX program, eventually I would find an actor myself.

However, when I listened to the sample, it was really good. The sort of vice wanted is listed with the project and this one fit the description. A pleasant, gentle, male English voice that would suit a Victorian novel well. Eventually I would learn that the reader is an actor and voice actor who has done non-fiction books, but chose only my airship adventure from the fiction category. We communicated, got on well, and he was very easy to work with. I accepted his first fifteen minute sample, required by ACX, sent him the printed version and left him to get on with it.

Over the last holidays, I didn’t give the project a thought. I was insanely busy and actually forgot all about it for a while. Then in February, I received a message that it was all done! I listened through the files and was very pleased with the result. There were a couple of minor things to correct and we discussed sound effects, eventually agreeing to try just a few subtle ones for scene changes. We had discussed accents and he did an amazing job of them, keeping the dialogue intelligible while giving the impression of a diversity of characters.

As of this writing, the minor corrections and sound effects are being done and this project will be ready to launch very soon. I’m hoping this month! I will need to listen through the files again, over eight hours worth! Then approve the final version and Amazon does the rest!

So, watch this space. If The Wake of the Dragon does well in audio book format, there may be others. It’s very exciting and feels almost like releasing a new book.

Amazon, KDP, KU and All the Trimmings

As anyone who uses Amazon to buy or sell will know, they have a new programme for borrowing books called KU. I don’t usually take much notice of their borrowing facility as I don’t like deadlines on my reading when I do so many other things and their old borrowing facility never seemed to generate revenue for me. Speaking as a reader, library books can be renewed and some review books have deadlines for finishing, but generally I don’t like to be pressured to read a specific book because it’s going to disappear on me. On the other hand, it’s nice that Amazon keeps looking for ways to make the KDP Select option of use to authors.

In this case, it didn’t take long for some inexperienced authors to find a way to abuse it. It seems that a group of them have formed who are breaking down their books into several parts and borrowing each others’ books on the KU programme, because those borrows will pay more than the normal royalty.

So, how many ways can this go wrong?

For starters, Amazon will certainly notice the activity and do something to thwart it. Secondly, the authors will build bad reputations for themselves in return for what is going to be a fairly small return from exchange borrows. Thirdly, since books priced at under $2.99 can only get a 35% royalty, they reduce their sales profits on normal sales.

I can only surmise that these are people who don’t get many normal sales and are desperate to generate any activity on the projects at all. All things considered, it’s a non-starter.

I’ve done just the opposite. The only book I have in KDP is a trilogy, so a borrow would only be of benefit to a fast reader because the price of the book is marginally less than the price of a month in the programme. Personally, I’m not in the programme as a reader because I don’t normally spend $10 a month on books. I do buy some new books, but between review reads I’m mainly reading books I already own with a view towards having less to move next time I move house. There’s no moving plan on the horizon, but after the last time I decided that boxes and boxes full of books sitting around waiting to be read was just silly, so if I don’t need them for reference or film props, or special re-reads, they are getting read and then either sold or given away. Over time this should lighten the load substantially.

Interestingly, there have been a few borrows on the trilogy. It will interesting to see if it leads to any genuine reviews. It would be nice to think that the Fantasy fans that the series is targeted at might be better able to find the series as a result of some of Amazon’s tools.

By this my blog readers should twig that yes, the series is finished. The individual books are released at all outlets and the combined trilogy is available in paperback at Lulu, and soon at Amazon as well. The ebook version is exclusive to Amazon with intent to keep it that way unless I decide it no longer serves a purpose. There will be a Countdown Deal in November, and more to follow. I can’t do one in the first 90 day period because I made the book free for one day so that I could download a copy myself. I didn’t advertise it anywhere, but there were a surprising number of downloads that could only have been from people who noticed it if they were perusing free Fantasy books. Let’s hope some or even most of those were the target Fantasy fans! Fantasy fans tend to love the Goblin books while non-Fantasy readers typically give it 3 stars. Experiments with review groups have been consistent.

So, what’s next on my slate? I’m on a real push to make progress on film editing at present, but I’m going to try to get the Ganesha book to the publisher who wants it by the end of the year. Other projects are getting a little attention, but with August slipping past too quickly and my self-imposed film deadline looming too close, I’m diverting energy in that direction for a couple of months.

Not to worry though, these things balance out. My writing projects won’t let me rest until I finish all of them! The project of re-editing existing projects has been completed so I can move forward much more quickly and expect to have a lot of output once I get past this film edit.


The Goblin Trilogy now available at Lulu and Amazon!

A Bizarre Dilemma

Last weekend I was away at PaganCon, which is a small, regional Pagan conference held in Preston every year. Though it’s a small event, it’s a particularly good one with a variety of topics covered in the talks and workshops rather than the same old tired rehash of the same old stuff that you get at some conferences, even big ones.

webbirdieThat’s only part of the reason I go there. I have friends in the area, including the organisers of the event, and it’s a chance to visit and catch up, which also tears me away from my computer for a break for a couple of days once a year. This year I was purely a guest and didn’t do any talks or workshops. It made a nice change. Among other interesting things going on, a rescue bird organisation was set up and I got to have an Eagle owl named Elsie sit on my arm, which was great fun.

One of the friends I ran across among the guests is the owner of a well-respected publishing house which is to occult publishing what Tor is to Fantasy books, THEE publisher to aspire to. My publisher for my early books is perfectly respectable, but they tend to do a lot of beginner stuff and lean more towards Wicca while this other publisher produces more intellectual stuff aimed at magicians, which is where I self-define. Ironically, I’ve put a couple of people their way while still publishing with the more witchy publishers.

I’ve blogged before about putting out some new stuff and my plan to simply self-publish it to maintain control. I’ve long since made my reputation in this genre and my past publisher is still dragging their feet about joining the digital market, while I keep getting requests from my readers for digital versions of my books. I can’t exercise much control over books already contracted to a publisher, but I can write new ones and publish them independently.

Enter a spanner in the works: The respected magical publisher has asked me for some of my new stuff. I told him about what I’m working on and he’s very interested. So, this brings up the question: which path is better for the books in progress? A well-known publisher with an established distribution network who will place the books in appropriate shops worldwide, or maintaining control and selling solely online?

By the end of the day I had decided that he will get the Ganesha book. Ganesha deserves that level of respectability, and it will give me an opportunity to see how things go with books placed with this publisher. The next books which will cover subjects I’m known for and already have in print, chaos magic and nature spirits, I will go ahead and self-publish so that I can compare results.

Luckily I have more than one book on chaos magic planned, as that’s a subject that will be of particular interest to this publisher. It’s an area that I’m particularly known for and am continually amazed to see my name put in the same lists with the early luminaries of the subject. I may even change my mind about self-publishing those at all. Some other projects on the back burner can be assessed when I get to them, after I see how things are going along.

Among them is a basic guidebook to occult traditions that I started years ago and have procrastinated on for far too long, partly because my old publisher would not accept it with left hand path information included and I was not prepared to water it down. The whole purpose of the book is to guide those interested in the subject on what paths are out there and what they do. It’s the sort of book I would like to have had available when I was young and new to the subject and would probably be best placed with a good publisher who will get it into shops as well as online sources where those who need it most can access it, even if they have a need to do so privately.

It’s pretty cool when a top publisher in your genre comes to you. Unlike the fiction, I’m an established author in the field catalogued as Mind, Body, Spirit and there is a definite market for my books. It will be interesting to compare small publishing to self-publishing in a niche market. Either way, the books will still be for sale on Amazon.

I’m not abandoning fiction by any means. I had an unintended compliment from one of the trolls in that arena who mistakenly accused me of also being another author (who is actually a much better author than me in my opinion) recently and has even got a couple of her friends to write bad reviews of his book based on samples. Luckily the author in question only laughs it off, as well he might when these sad people make themselves so obvious. Pen names do confuse some people and I do have another one, but the trolls have never sussed that one and there are no publishing connections to connect it with me, as I use it solely for commercial writing.

I’m nearly finished with the final edit on the last goblin book and should have it available in the next week or so, then I will be releasing a combined edition on Amazon to make use of their KDP Select tools. I’ve had an upsurge in sales these past couple of months and making time to finish the science fiction novel keeps nagging at me, despite too many projects demanding my attention at once. I’m on a self-imposed deadline on the film editing which will get a lot of my time once this book edit is complete, but I will make some time to finish off the Ganesha book this year for sure. I’ve been a published author in the occult genre for nearly twenty years, getting invited to submit something to one of the genre’s most respected publishers makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.


I had a little excitement this morning. A few weeks ago, I put one of my books up on ACX, which is Amazon’s audiobook arm. There are two ways it can work. The author can record the book themselves or they can put it up for a voice artist to collaborate with, usually for a share of the royalties.

I quickly decided that the latter was a better idea. I’ve never developed an actor’s voice and the book in question would be better with a male voice.

So, this morning I had an email telling me that someone had sent an audition, yay! As it is the first one, it was that bit extra exciting. Books that haven’t reached a best seller list are chosen less often by the voice artists, who are after all hoping to make a lot of money from the most popular books.

The voice was male and it was clean and clear. Unfortunately, it was also very American. The particular book is in a very British setting and a contrast of class related accents is crucial to getting the right feel for it. The voice artist did make an effort towards the British accents, but although he got one of them pretty close, the more posh accent was entirely missing.

I thought for several minutes before turning it down. Would the American narration appeal to an American audience, where the majority of sales are made? In the end I decided that though I could compromise to an extent, this sounded like someone trained as an American radio announcer and it was all wrong for the project. I sent him a polite message to thank him for the audition and explain that the accent was just wrong for the project. As a film producer, I’ve had to turn down actors for being not right for a part many times. There’s an art to reassuring them that they are good, but just not the right person for that particular role.

So, at least I’ve had some interest and that in itself is rather uplifting. I checked on Amazon and this voice artist has done several books, so it wasn’t by someone who was new and applying for any old thing.

Meanwhile, I am writing regularly but having to juggle time. I just got new voice recordings for the film I’m working on so I’m back to alternating writing days with film editing days, plus I have two books to edit. Mine, not something for any of the companies I’ve edited for. I’m officially editing the third goblin book now. I also have my book on Ganesha to edit and it has been long enough since writing that I can look at it objectively.

This, of course, means that the two books are competing for my writing days against any new writing. I’ve still got a couple more MBS books I would like to get out this year and I want to finish my scifi before someone else thinks of the idea. There are never enough hours!

So what am I doing sitting here blogging? Back to work…

Spring Cleaning the Blog

I wrote a guest post today for another blog about the reasons for blogging. This set me to examining the pages I have on this one and I realised that it needs a spruce up. Several pages that I had intended to update long ago have been neglected.

So, today I added cover pics and tidied up the book page. I tried to adjust the menu slightly but it wouldn’t change after saving, so that’s something I’ll have to tackle another day. I’ve written reviews that should be added and developing my links page is in order, as well as probably getting some newer guest posts. I’ve been networking like mad, but it isn’t really reflected here.

That will be rectified. I’ve been busier than a honey badger with a hornet’s nest with trying to get some film work done and finish off the edits of the old books so that I can move on to the newer ones, but it all takes time. The newly edited edition of Demoniac Dance is nearly done.

Real life took a chunk out of my time in April. First I took Easter weekend off because my daughter was visiting. It’s the first full weekend I’ve had off in years! Then a tooth infection blossomed into an allergic reaction to some antibiotics that I won’t be taking again and I couldn’t sit at a computer screen for several days. Forced time off!

No worries, when I’m not at my computer the stories are still working out in my head and I send myself notes from my phone. Some promised reviews have also distracted my time a little but I’ve caught up with those now.

Apart from juggling between my fiction projects and the non-fiction, the biggest competition for my time has been the film editing. That’s been making some real progress, but then my writing days end up being used on editing and sidetracks like sprucing up my blog site. It will all get done eventually. In the meantime, I have very little time for things like email and forums, so I’ve sort of dropped off the planet with occasional appearances.

My scifi project keeps calling me. I will get it written, hopefully this year. Time will tell.

Another New Book

Just an update as writing has taken the majority of my time this past week. I’ve said before that I try to keep a pretty even balance between film editing and writing, but sometimes a project (from either media) needs continuous focus for a little while. Getting the last few chapters done with continuity works better if I’m on it every day.

So, the Ganesha book gets put aside now for a couple of months while I work on the next one on the list. First I’ll need to dedicate most of next week to catching up film editing, which seems never-ending as it is. That works because a short break between projects sort of clears the mind and allows a mental shift to what’s next.

I’ve promised several people to try to get the MBS books out this year. The others I have planned will reference my older books a lot, so I may need to intersperse these with my fiction writing because the creative urge gets antsy if I don’t let loose with a few good sessions of all-out writing without the need to stop and reference things as I do for non-fiction… and sometimes for certain kinds of fiction. I’m getting prodded for the next Steampunk, which requires a certain amount of historical reference.

The scifi keeps nagging at me and events in current Astronomy seem to be correlating to things I’ve planned for the book, so what I might do is free my self-discipline for a couple of weeks to make some progress on this one and then clamp down to do the Elements book, or perhaps the chaos book which doesn’t need to be as long.

I do appreciate the messages I get about these and assure my readers that I’m working constantly to get it all done. I still don’t know how I ever had time to keep a day job.

Short blog today so that I can get back to work. I’ve got a little admin to tidy up and one short story to finish for a deadline, then my mind will be on the next book. Ganesha won’t go into edit until I’ve had a rest from it and can look at it with fresh eyes. It’s a method I’ve started using for all new books now to make sure they get a proper edit. Ideally I’ll get a paperback and re-read again before releasing the ebooks. It’s worth the extra time to keep up the quality.

Who Do You Want To Be?

I generally save posts on this subject for my dedicated blog at but things have turned serious with the suicide of a new Zealand author and anti-cyberbullying advocate called Charlotte Dawson. She was also a model and television presenter, apparently popular in Australia.

While I had never heard of this poor woman, the headline might easily have been for someone I regard as a friend, who I know through a couple of author support groups. This isn’t speculation or generalisation, someone I know personally was talking about suicide when she was distraught over attacks online, spearheaded by a couple of toxic women called Angela and Miranda. Both of these women have had accounts deleted from book related social networking sites for their activities, but their sock puppets thrive despite repeated reports and positive identification. They also have an active hate group that operates openly on the Booklikes site, which has prevented the site from developing into the sort of community it had probably intended. I know quite a few people who have given the site a miss due to the hate group always appearing at the top of the discussion groups.

The group was once much larger before the toxic pair started throwing people out who disagreed with them. Since then a lot of people who were misled into harassing authors, with whom they had no personal argument, have seen for themselves that what started as a backlash against a few immature authors who couldn’t take criticism of their books had developed into a hate campaign. Most of the people on the list now have never said a word to a reviewer or done anything to merit inclusion. Angela even started adding people for having ‘the wrong person’ on a social network friends list, although the authors were only networking with other authors and had no idea that anyone on their list might be a target. Angela also effectively blackmailed new authors to prevent them from doing interviews for blogs. The blog in question belongs to an author who never did anything other than to encourage people who had come under attack to keep a positive attitude.

It’s easy to sit back and say that it’s all childish antics. It’s very ‘high school’ and most of the time, gets nothing from me but contempt for the sort of people who would harass someone they don’t know just because someone else they don’t know put their name on a list. However, when people start talking about suicide, it becomes an issue.

One of the group members who developed a reputation for reading books from her “shitlist” for the sole purpose of picking apart things she could put in a scathing one-star review recently walked away after being ousted from Angela’s hate group. I actually felt some sympathy for her as both Angela and the infamous STGRB site simultaneously dumped on her. I’ve always maintained a neutral stance where STGRB is concerned, as they have provided a first point of support for many attacked authors, but I do not agree with everything they post. What I would say to SB is the same that I say to people in the support groups; if you don’t read the blogs, they can’t hurt you. There has been name calling and personal remarks from both Angela and some posters on the other site. While I can appreciate the anger from attacked authors, having been targeted by SB myself, I do not condone public commentary on things like what a person looks like. Their behaviour is the only thing that is up for judgement.

I figure a person who chooses to stop indulging in toxic behaviour deserves a break. Two people from the carpetbombing crowd have subsequently removed their one-stars from books they’ll never read. Intelligence and sanity may well be contagious. The ‘cool kids’ don’t lash out at strangers because Angela behind the curtain says to. One of SB’s supporters who expressed sympathy on her post about Angela’s attacks also mentioned that she had a history of suicidal behaviour. Her one-star ratings are still in place.

What I would say to S****y is hey, guess what. I put a load of one-stars on Angela’s books one day when my friend was talking about suicide. I understand about projecting anger or pain. But you know what? The other day I went and removed her books from my shelves, except for the one I did force myself to read as far as I could stand. I posted an honest review on Amazon UK, but I didn’t copy it to Amazon US or anywhere else. I’m not the sort of person who would sling mud far and wide over something that bad, but the one star on GR represents my honest opinion. I won’t be reading any of her other books, so they don’t belong on my shelves.

Why did I remove them? Not to be magnanimous or even to take the higher ground. I removed them because doing so releases me from the negativity that is generated by expressing hate or disgust in that way.

Who do you want to be?

I ask this question of everyone, from every side of this soap opera. Do you want to be a person who wallows in hate, or someone who can walk away and just enjoy reading books? Do you want to be the person who drives a harried author to suicide? Or do you want to be the person who lends emotional support when someone you know is feeling pain?

For the record, the majority of posts in the author support group, including mine, are supportive messages. Angela likes to plant moles and take selective screenshots, take them out of context and try to portray anyone who crosses her as the sort of person who does what she does herself. Apparently she didn’t like my review and has made me a favourite target ever since. Hypocrisy anyone?

The point of this post is that suicide is not an answer. It must not be allowed to happen again through cyber harassment. I will be part of the campaign to make site owners take responsibility for their content, but I’ll say to anyone from any of the camps who has a history of suicidal thoughts what I say to my close friends who suffer from Depression: Suicide robs you of finding out what happens in the next chapter. There is no problem that cannot be solved, no matter how heavy it seems at the time.

I do not suffer from Depression myself, but I’ve dealt with real life problems that are beyond your worst nightmares. I’ve taken guns out of the hands of attackers and I’ve won a child custody case after a parental kidnapping when I couldn’t afford a lawyer. Compare that to Angela’s spewings and you can see why her false rhetoric rolls off so easily.

I choose to be the person who gives support to those who are feeling weighed down by all the negativity, as I’m effectively immune to it. Who do you choose to be?

Do you want to be like Angela or Miranda?

In the 1960’s there was a saying: “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”

It’s not that hard to walk away. Get on with the things that bring you joy in life. Release yourself from the need to lash out, or to retaliate. Just think what it would be like to be the man in this story.

You can be free. You can be the person who released themselves from the negativity and lived happily ever after. You can write the next chapter of your life and make it what you want it to be.

Even Angela could have that power. It’s only a choice of who you want to be.

Dealing With Unacceptable Behaviour in Fictional Characters

I’ve mentioned before that I write reviews once a month for a Horror review site. I’m not sure why I do it, except that the site’s criteria matches my own taste for this genre pretty closely and it pushes me to seek out new books in an area that I might enjoy. I won’t read slasher books or anything to do with serial killers. I prefer supernatural themes; ghost stories, stories that deal with magic, traditional vampire or werewolf stories (as opposed to the YA watered down Romance stuff that is popular in the self-publishing market).

I was writing a review this month for a story that dealt with ancient Indian magic (the American kind, rather than from India) and the behaviour of some of the characters reminded me that in certain genres, you have to expect characters to do something that will make you uncomfortable. In Horror, this is definitely a given. Nobody expects Hannibal Lector to be the sort of person you would want to invite home to dinner.

Similarly, in the story I was reading, one of the ‘bad’ characters was particularly well-written because he went into areas of taboo that would make any reader uncomfortable. Issues of bullying, child abuse and violent behaviour make for a good character that the reader can only despise. It’s a Horror novel – expect to be horrified.

Thinking about this aspect of writing put me in mind of a deliberately obtuse troll who has some sort of obsession with telling people that my first goblin novel has rape scenes. It doesn’t. It has goblins. Goblins don’t behave according to human perceptions of acceptable behaviour and any Fantasy reader wouldn’t expect them to. Their customs for mating are explained within the context of the story quite clearly and although there are hints of borderline bdsm practices as well as bisexuality suggested in the realms of the goblins (they have a female shortage after all),  what might be considered dubious consent by human standards is perfectly normal to the goblin in the scene that the troll likes to cite.

This is why I don’t read a lot of YA stories. Many of them write characters who are supposed to be other than human as if they were human and have all the same morals and standards of behaviour. A good story will breach those boundaries and depict non-human characters with differences in any number of ways.

Watching old episodes of the original Star Trek series also brings speculation on species differences. As a science fiction series involving space travel will inevitably have aliens, it is interesting to observe how differences in alien societies in fiction have evolved over several decades. Star Trek can seem fairly ‘beginner level’ after all this time, as several other series and films have gone further to differentiate alien characters from standard human (usually American) culture and attitudes.

The first film I ever saw that crossed that line was Enemy Mine. Dennis Quaid crash lands on a planet where an alien has also crashed and they are thrown together for survival, having been on the opposite sides of a war until then. Cultural differences are discovered along the way as the plot progresses and this forms much of the central theme of the film.

Many good science fiction and fantasy books have also depicted ‘other’ species in various ways. The Chieri from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series come to mind. An unimaginative person might write them off as a variation of elves, but having read all the books and learned bits and pieces of their nature over time, Darkover readers would recognise the originality that went into these creatures and how they really don’t resemble elves very much at all. Yes, that includes mating practices. Apart from anything else, they are a species that can change gender. There is precedent for it in nature, just as there is precedent for creatures that use venom to paralyse their mates and some that eat them afterwards. Try hanging human perceptions of acceptable behaviour on that one!

Most stories of any genre will have an antagonist. Chances are that the antagonist will behave in some manner that the reader will find disturbing in some way. This is what makes for a good story. Writing a really good bad guy requires stepping over lines and risking upsetting someone. The degree depends on the type of story. Even in children’s stories we get an antagonist, like the farmer in Peter Rabbit who was actually justifiably upset that rabbits were eating his vegetables. When we’re sympathising with Peter, the idea that the man would kill him is very upsetting, but it is a realistic depiction of a farmer protecting his crops.

In a good werewolf story, people get hurt. Even in traditional vampire stories like Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, human-like polite behaviour is balanced against the innate instinct of the vampire to feed on blood and vampires are not always nice. Lestat, who has become a very popular character over several books, behaves abominably on many occasions. The unacceptable becomes acceptable because it is what we expect from such a creature. While this wouldn’t extend to serial killers and other sociopath humans, we still have to expect unconventional behaviour from these characters because they are sociopaths. We may not want to encounter such people in real life, but if we make a choice to read about this sort of character, expecting them to behave according to our own codes of conduct would be unrealistic.

For the writer, the ability to step out of normal behaviour and write a character according to deviations in expectation is a fine art. Whether it is a human with an abnormal mind or a creature of another species, the writer has to project a very different version of normality into that character from their own normal way of thinking. Otherwise characters would all be the same, and how boring would that be?

Different customs and characteristics are what make characters or species of characters unique and interesting in context of a story. Sometimes these characteristics can be very alien or even disturbing. Interaction between characters that we like and those we don’t like holds interest and gives a story substance. At least if a character like Hannibal Lector reviles the reader, the writer got a reaction, and in that case, a best selling book and movie.