S.G. Browne

Flawed Heroes and the Quest for Purpose

CJZma5oUEAIDqQWIn my Author’s Note for Less Than Hero, I mention how the story, at its heart, is about figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing with your life.

That’s a common theme in my novels. Finding your role. Your purpose. Your reason for existence. While my stories deal with issues such as discrimination, the consumer culture, celebrity worship, and the over-medication of our society, they’re really quests by the main protagonists to find meaning in their lives.

With Breathers, Andy Warner is trying to find his purpose in a society in which he has no purpose. In Fated, Fabio is looking for meaning in his monotonous and unfulfilling immortality. In Big Egos, my identity-challenged hero is searching for the role he’s supposed to play. And in Less Than Hero, my main protagonist, Lloyd Prescott, is searching for something more than the life he’s fallen into. Call it happiness. Call it ambition. Call it passion. Whatever it is, Lloyd can’t seem to find it. He’s not exactly broken, but he’s most definitely lost.

I’m a fan of flawed heroes: protagonists who don’t have it all together or who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. As Lloyd says:

“Not everyone has their shit figured out. Sure some people do. They’re the ones who actually stick to a plan and make all the right choices and end up with the life they imagined. For others, we discover that trying to win the lottery isn’t a viable plan for living happily ever after.”

When it comes to writing fiction, I think it’s important to create characters who  struggle with their choices and their failures because we can relate to them. They’re like us: victims of inertia, lacking direction, filled with self-doubt.

Main protagonists who are perfect and who always say and do the right things are unrealistic and boring. If you want a knight in shining armor, go read a romance novel. Prince Charming isn’t wanted here.

I think part of the reason my characters are constantly looking for meaning and answers is because that’s what humans do: we search for meaning and answers in our lives. But more than that, the existential angst and motivations for my characters come from the realization that, as blossoming humans, we were sold a false bill of goods about what it would be like when we were adults.

When you’re in your teens, you look at adults and think you know more than they do about life and how to succeed at it because hey, it doesn’t look that difficult. In your early twenties you discover that you didn’t know as much as you thought you did but now that you’re an adult you’ll figure it out soon enough.

In your thirties you discover that the expectations you had of what your life would be like haven’t lived up to all of the beer commercials and romantic comedies you’ve been fed over the years.

When you get to your forties, it finally dawns on you that no one knows what the hell they’re doing. Not even your parents. Everyone’s just doing their best impersonation of Indiana Jones and making it up as they go.

So I guess in a way, my characters are trying to figure out what the hell they’re supposed to be doing because so am I. Maybe one day I’ll come up with an answer. Until then, I’ll just have to let my characters keep doing the work for me.


Filed under: Less Than Hero,The Writing Life — Tags: , , , — S.G. Browne @ 8:21 pm

New York City is Superhero Central

Certain cities are synonymous with famous fictional characters.

London has Sherlock Holmes.
Philadelphia has Rocky Balboa.
Tokyo has Godzilla.

But when it comes to caped crusaders, New York City is superhero central.

NYC2The Fantastic Four live in New York City. So does Iron Man. Spider-Man grew up in Queens, Daredevil was raised in Hell’s Kitchen, and Captain America was born on the Lower East Side. Even Superman and Batman exist in fictional versions of The Big Apple.

So when I started writing Less Than Hero, my social satire about a group of clinical trial volunteers who test experimental pharmaceutical drugs and become C-level superheroes, there wasn’t any question about where the story would take place. In addition to its superhero pedigree, New York City has a definite energy to it that made it appealing as a setting for my novel.

While I live in San Francisco and have never called New York City home, I’ve had the pleasure of taking more than half a dozen trips there since 2008 and I would always take the time to sit down on a bench and take out my journal and try to capture specific New York moments.

Like the time I saw a living statue dressed up like a fairy in Central Park and wondered what it would be like to be her boyfriend. Or when I rode the Staten Island Ferry and listened to all of the foreign languages that sounded like a symphony of voices. Or when I sat on the steps of Union Square and watched people play chess at makeshift tables while a group of Hare Krishnas chanted nearby.

All of the above journal entries wound up as scenes in Less Than Hero.

While writing the novel, sometimes I would find myself wanting to set a scene in a certain park or location or restaurant that I may not have had a chance to visit when I was in New York. So I would search the Internet for photos and descriptions to help flesh out my scene and make sure the setting worked for what I had in mind.

deluxe food market2For instance, in Less Than Hero I have a scene that takes place in the Deluxe Food Market in Chinatown, just on the edge of Little Italy. I wanted a small, neighborhood grocery store somewhere in the Lower East Side / Chinatown area and did a search on Yelp! until I found the Deluxe Food Market.

I’d never set food inside the place, but the photographs and customer descriptions helped me to get a general sense of the smells and sounds and chaos of the place, which seemed perfect for what I wanted. So I used those details, along with my own imagination, to come up with the scene.

I also have a lunch scene in Chapter 11 that takes place in the East Village at an unnamed vegetarian restaurant.

Originally I’d written the scene as taking place at B&H Dairy, until I discovered that the interior layout of B&H was too small  for the scene as I’d imagined it. I went on Yelp! and found the Lan Cafe (now apparently closed), which had the right interior layout and location but the menu didn’t work with the dialogue I’d already written and wanted to keep. So I blended the two restaurants, using the interior and location of the Lan Cafe and the menu of B&H Dairy.

CEfnAERUEAAwVU_In addition to the Deluxe Food Market and the B&H Dairy/Lan Cafe, I have scenes that take place at Cafe Reggio, Curry in a Hurry, Dunkin’ Donuts, the Carnegie Deli, Stromboli’s Pizza, Starbucks, Westerly Natural Market, the Mahayana Buddhist Temple, the Staten Island Ferry, the Waldorf-Astoria, Union Square, Sara D. Roosevelt Park, Tompkins Square Park, Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, Battery Park, various locations in Central Park, several different subway lines, and the steps of the New York Public Library.

While I’ve been to the majority of these places at one time or another during my visits to New York, I still conducted additional research using different websites, Yelp!, and Google Maps to help construct my scenes. Sometimes I took liberties with the details in order to make the scenes work the way I wanted, but novelists are allowed to to that. We are, after all, in the business of writing fiction. So every now and then, we have to tailor reality to fit our imagination.


Filed under: Less Than Hero,The Writing Life — Tags: , , — S.G. Browne @ 6:57 am

Beyond the Keyboard: Less Than Hero

B82pUXECAAAKNl3This is the next installment of my Beyond the Keyboard series, where I pull back the curtain, so to speak, on the ideas that inspired my novels and provide a peek into the creative process behind them. (You can find my previous posts for Breathers, Fated, Lucky Bastard, and Big Egos by clicking on the titles.

Up next, my new dark comedy and social satire about superheroes and our country’s love affair with prescription drugs: Less Than Hero.

The Pharmaceutical Seed is Planted

Back on October 4, 2003, I was sitting in a hotel room in Ventura watching TV at 10pm when a commercial came on for some kind of prescription drug that promised to help cure abdominal cramping with one of the side effects being that it might cause abdominal cramping. I found this both asinine and amusing and wrote it down in my journal, although I wouldn’t come back to it for nearly five years.

It’s relevant to mention here that in 1997, the FDA approved Direct-to-Consumer marketing of pharmaceutical products in the United States. Prior to that, there were no TV commercials for prescription drugs. And the proliferation of ads for prescription drugs continued on cable and network television so that by 2008, you couldn’t watch the boob tube for twenty minutes without being told that you might be really sick and need the latest miracle drug.

Guinea Pig, Guinea Pig, Let Me In!

Sometime in 2008, I came across several articles about professional guinea pigs: people who make a living on the margins of society by volunteering for paid clinical trials where they beta test pharmaceutical drugs being developed for consumers. These Phase I clinical trials test the efficacy and side effects of a drug on more or less healthy subjects, paying anywhere from $200 to $10,000 depending on the length and requirements of the clinical trial.

The idea for doing something centered around prescription drugs had been percolating and when I read about this fringe culture of professional pharmaceutical drug volunteers, I knew I had to do something with it. The question was: What?

The Superhero Connection

For a number of years I’d toyed with the idea of writing some kind of superhero story, but none of the ideas resonated or seemed original. While I was (and am) a fan of the superhero genre (specifically films and TV shows rather than comic books) and enjoyed the standard superhero films (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man), none of them resonated with me on a creative level.

Instead, I was more inspired by films like Mystery Men, with its humor and heroes who were ordinary people with odd talents who just wanted to make a difference; X-Men, which appealed to me with the concept of mutants and its social commentary on prejudice and discrimination; and Unbreakable, because it was about an ordinary man discovering his extraordinary abilities and, eventually, a purpose that gave his life meaning.

So at some point in the creative process, I realized that these guinea pigs, at least the fictional ones gestating in my head, would be my superheroes. They would develop mutated abilities from all of the prescription drugs they’d tested. And I would use them to make social commentary on the pharmaceutical industry and the over-medication of our society. So in a way, the three films that inspired me helped to shape Less Than Hero, which, to an extent, encompasses aspects of all three films.

Fun Facts

  • The genesis/inspiration for both Fated and for Less Than Hero occurred at 10pm exactly 30 days apart, which is relevant because…
  • Less Than Hero, which takes place in New York and deals with issues of fate and destiny, shares the same time and universe as Fated
  • So for those who have read Fated, you might notice cameos by Fabio, Destiny, Karma, and others, as well as several shared scenes
  • All of the superhero names given to the characters in the novel share the same first letter as their regular names
  • While the novel is narrated in first-person POV by Lloyd, there are six interludes in the novel narrated in third-person POV
  • All of the possible side effects of drugs mentioned in the novel were taken from pharmaceutical company websites and from Drugs.com
  • The only two countries that allow Direct-to-Consumer marketing of pharmaceutical drugs are New Zealand and the United States

The Writing Life: You Are Not Alone

“The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing: isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”

The above quote was taken from Robert De Niro’s presentation for the Best Screenwriting category at the 2014 Academy Awards. I don’t know who was responsible for writing the words spoken by De Niro, but whoever wrote them perfectly captured the mindset of a writer.

Writers are a unique animal. We sit for hours alone in front of a computer, making up imaginary worlds populated with imaginary people, often spending more time with our fictional creations than with real human beings. You can make the argument that when it comes to certain people, this isn’t always a bad thing.

The problem is that we spend so much time alone in our own heads that we often feel isolated—not just physically but emotionally. Most of our closest friends and family, even our spouses or partners, no matter how much they love us and care about us, they can’t always relate to how we feel when something isn’t working. They don’t know what it’s like to be lost or stuck creatively. They don’t understand how the 500 words we managed to squeeze out of our heads and fingers one bloody letter at a time during four frustrating hours feels like utter failure compared to all of the writers on Facebook and Twitter pumping out 5,000 words. Before lunch.

And so, many of us sit there in front of our computers, alone and struggling, thinking that all of these other writers who are more prolific or successful than we are have it all figured out and know what they’re doing and we believe that no one else is going through what we’re going through.

The truth is, we are not alone.

Every writer experiences self-doubt. Sometimes it just couch surfs for a couple of nights, while other times it buys a timeshare and stays in your guest room for a month, but it’s there. Trust me. It’s there.

Self-loathing is another house guest who shows up in the mind of a writer, causing us to compare our writing to that of other writers and making us feel like we’re garbage and leaving us wondering why anyone would ever want to read a single pathetic word we’ve ever written.

Procrastination only adds to the self-loathing, as we feel like losers for wasting our time playing video games or binge-watching Netflix or spending hours on Facebook and Twitter instead of doing what we’re supposed to be doing: writing.

We get moody when we’re not channeling our inner Fitzgerald or Vonnegut or Austen. We get depressed. We get anxious. We get frustrated. We allow a single negative one-star review from some moron on Amazon to completely ruin the thirty-two five-star reviews that sing our praises. And we experience envy and jealousy when other writers earn the success that we think we deserve.

It’s okay to feel these things. While you don’t want the envy and jealousy to control you, or allow the self-doubt to take up permanent residence, all of this is normal. It’s part of being a writer. Understand this and embrace this and know that this path you’ve chosen matters. You’re creating. You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. And that’s more important than word counts or five-star reviews.

You are a writer. And you are not alone.

*This post appeared originally April 15, 2014, on SFSignal.com.

Filed under: The Writing Life — S.G. Browne @ 12:54 pm

How To Care For and Feed Your Author

Congratulations! You’ve just brought home a new favorite author. Or maybe you already had a favorite author, or several favorite authors, and you’ve decided to add to your growing family/library.

While this is a happy time in your life, we understand it can be somewhat overwhelming trying to figure out how to manage your time and where to make room for them on your shelves. Not to mention all of the sleepless nights spent staying up late reading.

We’re here to help.

Fortunately, not all authors require the same amount of feeding and care. Some are New York Times bestsellers who have developed a great deal of independence and manage to do fine on their own, while others are nurtured by large cult followings or Hollywood film adaptations. Then there are all of the rest who struggle to get the attention they need.

More than ever, the majority of today’s authors depend on word-of-mouth to help sell their books. The marketing and publicity departments at most publishing houses don’t have the time or financial resources to promote the average author, and most authors don’t have the financial resources to hire an outside publicist. Chances are, they’re working a day job, maybe two, just to pay their bills so they can spend their free time writing.

That’s where you, the reader, come in.

While you’ve already taken that first step and brought a new author into your loving home, here are some simple things you can do to help play a role in their success:

  • Re-tweet posts by your favorite authors on Twitter, especially those tweets that mention their books
  • Like and Share posts by your favorite authors on Facebook. The more you Like and Share, the more the posts will be seen by other people who might not have otherwise heard of the authors.
  • Spread the word. Tell your family and friends. Share your love for your favorite authors on social networks.
  • Write reviews for your favorite authors on Amazon
  • Buy a copy of your favorite author’s book for a friend or a family member

If you can find the time to do one or more of the items on the above list, you will help your favorite authors to stay fed and warm. And with any luck, when they grow up, they can repay your kindness by publishing more books.


Filed under: The Writing Life — S.G. Browne @ 10:47 pm