Let’s Talk About: The Emperor’s Pistol

I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past Wednesday.

It was the beginning of a new trend I’ve started of just getting out of the house. Maybe it’s in celebration of finishing the edit of Memory.

More likely, it’s just an intense desire to be out having fun when I have the freedom to do so. In particular, I’m trying to go out with friends more often — trying to work my life into a legitimate TV show with a full cast of characters.

Because of course I have to think of them as a cast of characters.

Whatever, the point is, I wanted to head to the Met . . . because, back in February, when I started posting on here every day, I mentioned wanting to go there and write about it.

Not just because it’s an awesome museum that I genuinely get lost in every time I visit.

But because it’s where I, as a kid, had an epiphany that made me the writer I am today.

And that epiphany centers on this:

TheEmperorsPistol

Yes, it’s a gun. Nothing could seem more crass, I know, but bear with me.

This is a pistol made for Emperor Charles V by Peter Peck, a maker of watches and guns, back in the 1500’s.

It is, as you can clearly see . . . absolutely insane with detail. The etchings. The detailing on its curved grip. I have no idea how functional this thing could’ve been.

But, when I was young, I didn’t care about that.

Because, when I first saw this gun, all it did was confuse me.

Much in the same way that it’s confusing the first time you find out that Batman didn’t start with Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, or even Adam West.

“Wait . . . There were guns before the guns I’ve seen my whole life?

“But . . . we have them now.”

For whatever reason, it felt like some kind of cosmic betrayal. Like the world was messing with me. Not only had we had them, but they were actually beautiful hundreds of years ago, “when they were way harder to make . . . How does that even work?”

The answer was something that stuck with me. Something that’s prevalent in all of my work, whether I want it to be or not.

It’s the knowledge that I don’t know everything. That I, as a human being, am inherently stupid and limited in my ability to perceive the world around me. The past — the eternal majority of human existence — is a thing I can only know snippets about if someone else I don’t know compiled information about it for everyone — before I was born.

My knowledge, I discovered that day, is the sum of the scattered things I can try to learn about the past . . . and my own stupid, human assumptions.

Like that there weren’t guns hundreds of years ago.

This is the reason why I think about what’s happening 10 feet below me sometimes. With no provocation, I sometimes try to imagine what’s happening 10 feet below me — at home, on the street, or wherever there’s solid ground — and I realize that I have no idea. There is, in fact, no way I can ever know exactly what’s happening 10 feet below me. Unless a) I’m falling, or b) I’m in one of those boats with a glass bottom, to which I argue, a) Oh shit! I’m falling!?, and b) Oooh. Are there sharks?

This 10 feet down talk also applies to you — right now. Apologies if you’re paranoid, but the caveat is that you don’t have to worry what’s going on down there. If you’re in an apartment, it’s someone else’s apartment 10 feet down — none of your business. If you’re in a private house, the cat’s down there, maybe, and that’s none of your business either — even if they’re clawing up the furniture. That’s their night and you’re not a part of it, because you’re up here, reading this post.

The point is . . . our thoughts aren’t unique. Our ideas aren’t original.

When I looked at that gun, I had the first spark of the realization that humanity had not started with me. And I wasn’t the pinnacle of it.

And, despite how all of this sounds . . . I thought that was amazing.

The idea that fantasy could be more complicated — that humanity hundreds of years ago had already been more complex than I thought — blew my mind.

And that freedom — to make things complicated — is at the center of everything I write.

And, of course, I use it to promote the notion that we, as humans, aren’t perfect and all-knowing. Because that idea is beautiful and fascinating to me. It’s humbling.

And it’s reassuring to know that I don’t know everything.

And I never, ever can.

~~~

It’s 2AM and I . . . really need to get to sleep, so I’m going to keep this short. Thank you again for reading. I know this one got here at the end of the week too, but I’m going to keep trying to balance work, writing, and my personal life in the non-stop Spider-Man dance that is my life. I’m actually considering taking a break from the blog again just to get my handful of projects into submissions, but we’ll see what happens.

Anyway, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was published last year in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process — still trying to figure it out — which means posting here every week, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting updates by email — a new post from me delivered right to your inbox — then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Thank you just for passing by, and, as always, write well.

 

Let’s Talk About: Endgames

Ages ago, I spoke to a friend about “endgames.”

He blinked. “What do you mean? Like, when you can play the credit roll during a video game?”

“No. It’s just a term of mine, used for an ending that’s really . . . like, well done.”

I don’t remember how he replied or how the rest of my explanation went, but I remember his eyes narrowing.

Because it was ages ago and I wasn’t making sense, horrible as I was (and still am) at talking to people in person.

What I should’ve said was, “Endgames are endings for anything — movies, games, novels especially — that are given a ton of gravity and romance.

“In my mind, these endings lock you in; a good endgame starts well before whatever story you’re playing or reading has ended — and, by sheer will of its awesomeness, it keeps you watching/reading/playing, everything else be damned.”

At the time, I’d offered the end of Super Metroid as an example; the moment you reach Tourian and start destroying metroids (particularly the moment you reach the hatchling), there’s no going back.

And, now, I suppose that’s the best definition of “endgame”: a well-executed conclusion, beginning well before the credit roll or final page, from which there is no return, as the endgame is perfectly crafted to keep you playing/watching/reading.

As opposed to a normal ending: a final boss and a credit roll for a video game, a simple conclusion for a movie, a traditional climax and epilogue for a novel.

For a movie example, I can’t help being a predictable, millennial, comic book jackass and pointing to The Avengers. I haven’t seen that movie in years, but the 40-minute invasion of New York is a clear example of a movie endgame. The invasion is (arguably?) the best part of the movie, providing a ton of awesome moments that keep you watching straight through.

For a video game example, Breath of the Wild has a super epic endgame that starts when you venture into Hyrule Castle, finally ready to fight the Calamity. This one goes the full mile though; there’s unique music, journals around the castle — even a gameplay element that isn’t used anywhere else in the game. It’s a weird one because you can walk away from it, but it’s extremely hard to do so once you’re in it, and that’s what endgames are all about.

For a fiction example though, I won’t provide one great example . . .

. . . because I’d rather point out that, seriously, awesome endgames are . . . everywhere in fantasy.

Remember reading Harry Potter? Remember getting to the last 100 pages of any of those books and just . . . not being able to stop?

Or maybe you’ve read Abhorsen by Garth Nix? Ya know, the last installment of a really awesome YA fantasy series, the endgame of which has 100 pages that span 10 minutes of in-story time? And it’s amazing?

Seriously, I don’t know if it’s just easier to make awesome endgames for novels (if hooking readers for hundreds of pages at the end is second nature for writers), but I feel like endgames are a key feature of a great fantasy novel.

Because — to be clear — I’ve read general fiction novels that didn’t lose anything by not having endgames. I’m not, by any means, saying that Pride and Prejudice actually needed a final showdown with goddamn zombies.

But, when I write fantasy, with the aim of making it entertaining and actiony (my short stories are always dramatic, it turns out, so not those), I always feel like endgames are essential.

Because I’m a man who just wants to write something awesome. And, I don’t know a better way to do that than by taking all of the beats of a story and tying them to tons of non-stop catharsis at the very end. That at least seems like an awesome way to end a fun fantasy novel — every time.

Unless, of course, you do an endgame poorly.

And, I mean, let’s be real here: I’ve absolutely written a terrible endgame.

How? Well, I don’t remember how long it was, but I can say for sure that the endgame in War of Exiles was way, way too long.

In the same way that Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater had a terrible endgame because it was way, way too long. Trying to make an endgame feel epic is all fine, but it’s super easy to over-stuff your endgame, making it a bloated mess (cause, seriously, why was there an escort quest at the end of Snake Eater? Why!?).

So, I guess I’m saying . . . here’s to this phenomenon that I love — so much that I made up a term for it. I’ve loved and studied endgames in all media for a long time, and I think that they’re worth examining as a writing technique on their own.

At the very least, consider this: the next time you watch, play, or read something that has a really awesome conclusion that was given a ton of love and majesty, maybe just stop and think about how much you loved it. And why.

~~~

And so it was that Louis Santiago’s blog became “LetsTalkAbout.com.”

Seriously, I’m itching to get back to other series, particularly Writer’s Workshop and Let’s Make, so look for those in the weeks to come.

For now though, thank you for reading. I’ve been meaning to write about endgames on here for a really long time, and I hope this post adds a little complexity to how you think of conclusions in general.

For anyone new to the site, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was published last year in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out–which means posting here every week, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting updates by email – a new post from me delivered right to your inbox – then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

But, either way, thank you again just for stopping by. And, as always, write well.

Let’s Talk About: The Everything’s Great Threshold

I started watching Parks and Recreation recently. As a man who’s genuinely terrible at keeping up with television, I’ve had this show on my Netflix list for as long as I’ve had Netflix.

Parks and Rec follows a familiar curve. Season 1 wasn’t great, very obviously lifting its joke climate from The Office. In season 2, the show finds its own identity and becomes way, way better.

But, by season 6 . . . it’s exhausting to watch.

Why? Well, that’s what I decided to make this post about. Because it’s exhausting for a reason that I’d never experienced before.

Everything . . . is just perfect.

In its earlier seasons, Parks and Rec had a lot of entertaining conflict. Budding romances that viewers wanted to see happen, goals that the department was trying to complete, setbacks for a cast of fun characters to figure out together.

By season 6, however, it’s a nonstop thrill ride of pretty much everything going well. There is one major set back for the protagonist, but, within two episodes, it’s like it never happened.

And, maybe I’m a pessimist . . . but that kind of optimism is just . . . so boring.

And it’s cloying; I’ve seen things go well for people in real life — long streaks of good times — and that’s fine, but I’ve never had to watch friends on TV, high-fiving and constantly talk about how much they love making out with each other.

I mean, sure, you can blame this on the fact that Parks and Rec wasn’t designed to be binge-watched on a streaming service. It was written to provide spaced-out doses of good vibes on NBC.

But it’s still tedious watching episode after episode of everything going great and being perfect for everyone. The cast is split up into neat, perfect pairings that fall in love very easily — sometimes unbelievably. The main characters are just rolling in job promotions — that they often turn down because they’re already so happy.

I mean . . . fuck’s sake. So far, there have been no normal weddings on this show; every wedding on Parks and Rec has been a cute, surprise wedding. Not “most of them” — literally all three of them have been surprise weddings. Every single one. Because every single couple that’s gotten married on this show loved each other so much that they just had to get married “tonight!”

Couples don’t fight; they disagree with each other, but the disagreements are always easily resolved. Which is weird because, in early seasons, relationship problems endured — as they do in real lie — instead of neatly fizzling out.

Near the end, babies start happening, and I actually sighed when one husband decided he really wanted babies . . . on the same day that his wife — in another part of Indiana and unable to reach him by phone — found out she was pregnant.

Wow. The magic of everything being unrealistically perfect.

It almost feels . . . contrived somehow.

I write this, and I think, “Well, they just wanted to write a really uplifting show by making it absurdly optimistic.”

But the question becomes . . . isn’t that just boring for everyone?

Because good stories revolve around good conflict.

And, I understand that there is still conflict and motivation in later seasons of Parks and Rec — because you can’t have a story without conflict — but, I guess what I’m trying to say here is . . . there is a ceiling to positivity in fiction. A point at which it becomes impossible to care about a group of characters, because they’re routinely handed victories.

I’m calling it the Everything’s Great Threshold, and it’s going in my personal, writing rulebook.

  • Too much positivity — to the extent of magically-timed solutions to your characters’ problems — kills any tension a story could possibly have.

Or, in other words, when everything is perfect, small problems become challenges — and challenges aren’t real problems.

When said by a character whose life is perfect, “We have to put together this benefit dinner on short notice!” is not a problem. It’s a challenge.

When said by a character who’s struggling to do their job well — someone who has already gotten a warning that they’re up for review, for example — “We have to put together this benefit dinner on short notice!” is pure hell. It’s intimidating, nerve-wracking, and, when it’s resolved, for better or worse, it yields a much better emotional pay-off.

At least that’s how I feel. Granted, I’m just an amateur who’s only had one short story published.

But, hey, life doesn’t just throw victories at you.

~~~

Keeping it short and sweet for today. It feels good to get back to writing theory though; this site has been more of a journal recently.

But, hey, for anyone who was enjoying the journaling, just know that I got through the first chapter of Memory this week, finally fixing the problems I’d had with it before. I’m going to continue editing the rest of the novel, making sure everything works with the new intro, but the point is, I’ll actually be submitting again really soon, and that feels awesome.

Anyway, thank you for reading. For anyone new to the site, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was published last year in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out–which means posting here every week, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting updates by email – a new post from me delivered right to your inbox – then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Either way, thank you again just for stopping by. And, as always, write well.

 

Let’s Talk About: The Term “Mary Sue”

So, the trailer for The Last Jedi is out, and it doesn’t look like it follows Empire’s plot, which is super exciting for me. I’m eager see more of Finn and Rey . . . and I’m also just ready for a Star Wars movie I like. My reasons for disliking Rogue One could easily be a post on their own, so I’ll just tuck that rant somewhere safe–save it for another time.

Instead, I want to talk about the phenomenon that’s chased Rey around for the past year and a half.

The internet’s weird idea that she’s a Mary Sue.

Now . . . Let me start this by saying that I genuinely hate how the term “Mary Sue” is used.

Mostly from the angle of a wordsmith.

“Mary Sue” suffers from Literally Syndrome;  it has lost all of its meaning in the swirling toilet bowl of comments sections everywhere.

Currently, it’s been dumbed down to mean “an overly capable female protagonist.”

And that is absolute, utter bullshit. Because there shouldn’t be a skill-ceiling for female protagonists to make men feel safer and more relevant. And, without a doubt, men are trying to feel safer when they argue that a strong female character is a Mary Sue.

Regardless, “Mary Sue” has a definition that’s useful. It’s not flattering, but it makes sense and should persist as a term we can use–not as the go-to invective of the internet’s manlings.

My definition: “A Mary Sue is a female character in fanfiction who acts as very obvious wish fulfillment for a female, amateur author, in a variety of ways (acting as a paramour for a beloved character, being unrealistically perfect at all things, single-handedly saving the day, etc.).”

The thing I hate about that definition is that it’s not gender neutral, which doesn’t make sense; there are absolutely male Mary Sue’s, but, aside from “Gary Sue” and “Marty Sue” just sounding weird and terrible, I’ve most often seen Marty’s used as counterpoint to the “overly capable female protagonist” definition for Mary’s.

Which means that I’ve seen the comments section where people are screaming “Rey is a Mary Sue!” and other people are screaming, “Then Batman is a Marty Sue!”

And, oh man, for fuck’s sake, neither of them are Sue’s. Both of them are protagonists of long-running, mainstream franchises. Neither of them are characters created for the wish fulfillment of an amateur author.

You know who is a Mary? Deboora Solo, Han Solo’s long lost sister, who’s a better Jedi than Luke, a better pilot than her brother, and able to tear off robot’s arms faster than Chewie ever could. Good ol’ Deboora, created by Debbie Reynolds from down the street!

You know who’s a Marty? Jacen Wayne, Bruce’s illegitimate son, born and raised in secret by (fuck, I don’t know) . . . vampires! So he’s like Batman, but younger, stronger, and cooler, with a popped collar! And he was created by Jason Bertenberger! . . . Suprise, surprise.

The point is, Mary Sue’s surrogates are embarrassing, and they suck–they’re a bad habit of amateur writers–but they’re also a real phenomenon, and they deserve a good term.

But, alas–hark–I can already hear manlings chiming in, “No, I’m not done! Your definition is lacking! Mary Sue’s are obvious wish fulfillment–that’s all! And Rey? She’s obvious wish fulfillment for women!”

To which I say, “Holy shit, dude. Welcome to what a fucking protagonist is.”

“Oh my God. I just checked the encyclopedia, and, yo, it turns out escapism was the whole goddamn point of fiction–the entire time. Whodathunkit!?”

Phew . . . Okay. Breathing now.

Apologies. I try to keep a cool head and not get insulting about things here–I really do. However, the new generation–the part of it that I’m seeing (which is the “Let’s defend a YouTuber’s right to be a deluded racist!” part) enrages me. The world is full of people who say whatever offensive shit they want and then shout others down when they react. It makes me sad. For a while there, it seemed like humanity was actually figuring itself out–becoming better. But we weren’t. We were just silently getting worse the entire time.

Regardless, what I’m trying to say is, “an overly capable protagonist” is basically synonymous with “a protagonist” in most stories. In fact, unless it’s a drama, the protagonist of a story is always more capable, cunning, and/or charming than every other character. From Rey and Batman all the way back to Hercules being impossibly strong and handsome as he completed his Twelve Labors.

Denying that–and weakening our lexicon–for the sake of protesting a strong character, is ridiculous and embarrassing.

~~~

Man . . . I was working some stuff out with this one, huh? Whatever. I said something I needed to say. And, hopefully, some day, I’ll be popular enough that this’ll actually catch on. Sure, I’ll probably also get death threats, but eh.

Thank you for reading. Hopefully, I’ve given you ammunition for the perpetually burning flame wars of nerdom. I know I got pretty intense with this one, but it’ll be worth it if I gave anyone food for thought.

My name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was published last year in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out, which means posting here every week, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting updates by email – a new post from me delivered right to your inbox – then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Regardless, thank you just for stopping by. And, as always, write well.

Let’s Talk About: The Ethnic Rival

I’ve watched three things recently. Doctor Strange, John Wick: Chapter 2, and Iron Fist.

And all three of those things . . . featured an Ethnic Rival.

Now, I don’t want to spend too much time talking about this. Maybe because I’m tired of talking about race after 2016, the year when I discovered that some of my friends really were Hydra the whole time. Just when America started to become a bastion of hope for acceptance, it one-eightied, becoming a place where people defend their right to say disgusting things while shaming you for reacting to them.

Still, with the hope that someone, somewhere, will take this to heart, I’d like to say . . .

. . . stop writing the Ethnic Rival, please.

To be clear, an Ethnic Rival is exactly what it sounds like–a non-white villain in any movie that gives our white protagonist a run for their money, but who is always, ultimately defeated. The Ethnic Rival can be unnamed, appearing for only one scene (Tim Burton’s Batman had the black Joker goon who only appeared in the movie’s conclusion). They can start off as Ethnic Sidekicks (a whole other thing), as they did in Doctor Strange and Iron Fist. And they can have names and tons of screen time, serving as opposition for our protagonists for a long portion of the plot.

But, no matter how long they’re in a story, Ethnic Rivals are always awkward. And obvious.

In the three pieces I mentioned earlier, you have white, male protagonists who are the best in the world at ______. The runner up? A black/any-other-race-but-white man of a similar build, height, and skill set. A guy who’s not as good as the protagonist, of course, but who’s–oh man–so good though.

At best, it feels like the pandering that it is. “See? We had to make out protagonist white, of course, but hey–this other guy isn’t white, but he’s really good too! Like, wow, he’s on the same skill level as our white protagonist! Oh man, aren’t other races great? We think so too!”

At worst, it comes off as petting a sense of white dominance. “See? This other sorcerer/assassin/fighter is almost as good as our protagonist. But he’s not as good. And he never will be. Because our white protagonist is just . . . better.”

Now, look, if you are white, I’m not trying to attack you. I think that, usually, the Ethnic Rival is a reflex–a standard that writers fall back on because we’ve seen it so many times before.

And, further on the bright side, the Ethnic Rival is a super easy problem to fix. I offer two solutions for it:

  1. Make the protagonist’s rival a white guy who’s almost as good but isn’t.
  2. Make your protagonist . . . a minority.

From the bottom of my Puerto Rican heart, please just pick option 2.

~~~

Keeping things short today, because I don’t want to rant. But, also, one of my eyes is killing me. I don’t know why, but I don’t have to; eye pain is eye pain, and it’s always terrifying.

I hope you enjoyed and weren’t offended. More than anything, I hope this one gave you something to think about. Because progress is a slow, rapidly changing thing.

My name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was recently published in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out. Part of that means posting on here every weekday, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting an email every weekday–a new post from me delivered right to your inbox–then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Regardless though, thank you just for dropping by. And, as always, write well.

Let’s Talk About: A Fantasy Loophole–Earth-Modern Words That’d Make Great Names, If Only We Could Use Them

I think a lot about fantasy meta.

Maybe too much. I’m not sure.

Although I do know that, when sitting in a car with another writer recently, I dipped into my obnoxious fantasy meta-speak and almost completely killed the conversation. “Well, it’s the same way that we as humans write human-centric stories without realizing. And there’s no way to get around that. You could–” and this is the point when I realized my friend had tuned me out.

I mean, he probably didn’t, but I definitely felt self-conscious enough to stop in my tracks. Because I know that, if I don’t stop myself, I’ll just go on and on about the weird, completely throwaway observations I make about the genre. Thoughts that dangle precariously from the line between “interesting” and “almost meaningless.”

Still, I think about these things. So, I figured, why not share? Or at least vent, so that I’m not tempted to assault another friend with meta-speak.

Earth-Modern Words That We Can’t Use As Names

 The fantasy meta loophole that always comes to mind first is the Earth-modern word that makes a great name . . . but can’t be used as such because of its Earth-modern denotations.

And, the example I always think of when this comes to mind . . . is “circus.”

“Circus” . . . would make a great name for a knight. Possibly a nobleman. Really, any character in a fantasy world analogous to medieval England.

At least . . . it would make a great name if it didn’t mean “a large public entertainment, typically presented in one or more very large tents or in an outdoor or indoor arena, featuring exhibitions of pageantry, feats of skill and daring, performing animals, etc., interspersed throughout with the slapstick antics of clowns.”

Clowns. “Circus” would make even the most open-minded reader think of clowns.

The real pain is that, even if there aren’t circuses in your fantasy world, it doesn’t matter. We, as humans of Earth, will still think of over-sized shoes and face paint. We probably always will, assuming that clowns persist in modern culture forever (worst-case scenario).

This means that, at best, a fantasy writer can only use a word like “circus” as a name for a fantasy character if they do so to send a clear message about that character. “Circus” (maybe altered to “Sercos”) would have to be an buffoon. His name would have to be a cheeky wink at the reader–a thing I would never do.

And that kind of sucks. Because “Sercos” would be a pretty sweet name.

So would “La’Treen.”

So would “Wan Millian.”

Just food for thought.

~~~

I’ll keep it short for tonight, so this doesn’t turn into a rant.

If you’re a regular, thank you for your continued support. Tomorrow, I’ll finish up with this week’s pair of Let’s Makes. I’m excited for it actually, because I get to talk about my least favorite fantasy creature of all time on this blog–again. Curious what it is? Well, you’ll have to tune in fo–spoilers: it’s lizardmen. I hate lizardmen. Sorry. Couldn’t contain it. You can tune in tomorrow to find out what these mindless vessels of disappointment have to do with the Let’s Make though. Hope to see you there!

If you’re new, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was recently published in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out. Part of that means posting on here every weekday, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting an email every weekday–a new post from me delivered right to your inbox–then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Either way, thank you for reading. And, as always, write well.

Let’s Talk About: Fantasy Side Character Names

So, last Friday, a friend wrote to commend me for my recent spree of posts.

In particular, he mentioned last week’s Let’s Talk About, saying it actually helped him, because he was considering writing some fantasy but was afraid he’d unwittingly use a few genre tropes.

So, with that in mind–and because I love writing about fantasy’s pitfalls–I decided to talk about the names of fantasy side characters and why it’s really easy for them to be super terrible.

The thing is, fantasy is a genre that requires its writers to create everything. Characters, settings, languages, trends . . .

And, naturally, names.

Now, all of us go in hard when it comes to making up the names of protagonists. If you’re a fantasy writer who’s anything like me, you usually put your favorite sounds into main character names.

In fact, I often find myself reserving those sounds for main character names, even if I don’t realize it.

And sometimes, if I stumble onto a good name, I save it . . . for main characters.

And I know I’m not the only fantasy writer who does all of this . . .

. . . because of names like “Len.”

And “Kel.”

And “Tam.”

Names that make up the pantheon of monosyllabic, fantasy side character names.

Now, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, I’m not trying to name names here; I never want to pick on particular writers, so if these names are used in one of your favorite series, apologies in advance–I didn’t know.

I’m also not talking about nicknames here (I know “Kel” is short for Sanderson’s “Kelsier,” and I love that character and super respect the man who created him).

More than anything, I’m not saying that I’m the Name Master–I basically just explained how I horde names for main characters, and I meant that.

What I am saying though is that the fantasy genre has a crappy-single-syllable-names-for-unimportant-side-characters problem. Particularly such names that are only three letters long–sometimes four, but with one letter repeated.

And, because I don’t want to keep making statements that sound like horrible, sweeping generalizations, I’ll relate all of this to myself from now on.

I struggle with this problem.

In the best novel I’ve completed so far, Memory, there exists the protagonist’s friend, Penn. Before that, in War of Exiles, I had a bunch of side characters with incredibly lazy names, my favorite of which was, and still is, “Cel.”
Now, this isn’t to say that I can never give side characters short names, but, in my experience, a short name like Penn or Cel . . . almost guarantees that the character attached to it doesn’t matter. In fact, there’s about a 95% chance they’ll be dead in two chapters.

I mean, being real about it, Penn is absolutely dead before Memory even starts.

Cel didn’t die over the course of War of Exiles, but I believe she had only one line of dialogue, at best.

It’s so bad of a trend in my fiction that the exact opposite is also true: having a rad-as-fuck name almost guarantees a side character will survive. In fact, I once texted someone about it, joking about how I just couldn’t throw away a cool name like that (and I believe I was talking about WoE’s Yodesmar, who lives on to this day).

And, maybe it’s just my hatred for spoilers, but I find that seeing all of this in fantasy fiction–finding a short side character name in a novel–while not always disruptive, absolutely destroys my immersion. Not in a “Why is that knight named Marty?” way, but in an “I just got a glimpse into the writer’s mind and hold on while I say goodbye to ‘Jek'” way.

Now, not all fantasy writers indulge in throwaway names, but I will say that some writers do. Even published ones, although they’re more likely to create side characters with lazy-sounding names that are still powerful and meaningful to the plot.

But, regardless, what I want to say here is that it’s incredibly easy for any fantasy writer to broadcast their intentions with monosyllabic side character names.

Significantly less easy: making sacrifices for realism.

Fixing It

The easiest solution for me was to start taking down names that I hear in my day-to-day. If I like it, I write it down.

And then I use it.

For any character it suits.

The Hand and the Tempest is currently riddled with such names, and the effect is awesome; everyone sounds like a living person, no matter how far in the background they are.

Even Becco, Modis’ best friend, who we may never see in the novel, is believable as a real kid who probably loves food.

There may be a simpler solution (mixing long, elaborate  names with short, lazy names to keep readers guessing), but if you have to kill your darlings to write better fiction . . .

. . . then do it.

Later, Becco. I liked you so much that I was considering using you as Modis’ new name.

~~~

Well, that was a fun one. I hope it helped someone. I also hope I didn’t just sound like a judgmental asshole.

Tune in tomorrow for I-have-absolutely-no-idea-what!

Until then, thanks for reading! And, as always, write well!

Let’s Talk About: Cursing in a Fantasy World

I think about cursing a lot. Actually, you can cut that down to, “I curse a lot.” I’m not exactly proud of it, but I’ve come to accept cursing (and let’s say “swearing” from here on out, or else things’ll get confusing; we are talking about fantasy, with its actual curses after all).

Whether you like them or not, swears are a prevalent feature in modern language, and even a person who doesn’t like swearing will do it anyway in the right moment–much like how an atheist will still shout, “Oh, God!” on occasion. There are words for every moment–mental niches that we fill with automatic phrases–and that’s where swears fit.

The thing is, in my experience, swears . . . don’t translate super well to fantasy. At best, writers use our own set of swears–particularly the gold standards: shit and fuck.

At worst–and this is just my opinion by the way–fantasy writers fall back on a set of token fantasy swear phrases that everyone uses.

“By _______’s _______!” as in, “By Odin’s/Escribyr’s/Whoever’s beard/hammer/whatever!”

“May the _______ take you!” as in, “May the Rot/Demonspawn/Whatever take you!”

“You _______-damned fool!” as in, “You Rot/Escribyr/Whatever or Whoever-damned fool!”

Now, these trends aren’t necessarily bad, but they often take me out of a reading experience regardless, just by how familiar they are. Just by how many times I’ve seen them recycled in the fantasy genre.

It all winds up just feeling . . . easy. And I hate easy.

So, what are the alternatives?

Well, I’m no expert; I’m just a guy who’s been published once (go check out “Aixa the Hexcaster” at Mirror Dance Fantasy if you haven’t–#shameless), but I can at least tell you the ways I’ve tried to make curses feel more believable and unique in my fantasy worlds.

1. Settle into the Lore

A lot of times, fantasy writers have super dense lore that they’ve created for their worlds. Gods in particular will have interesting and very specific characterization, even down to something as simple as, “This god floats through the earth, shifting the ore in the mountains, bringing it to those miners who she deems worthy.”

And let’s keep rolling with that example. We’ll call that god . . . Russell Stover . . . Look, the box of chocolates from yesterday is still here–gimme a break.

Now, the easy positive swear upon finding a rich ore vein would be, “By Russell Stover’s blessing!” It works, but it sounds a little typical.

Settling in though, really putting myself in the shoes of one of these miners, however, I can come up with a more interesting and natural sounding, “She favors me!” The frantic, concise cry of a miner (probably a prospector) who’s found a sizable chunk of gold, or experienced any good fortune really.

I know, it doesn’t sound like a swear, but it falls back on the whole “taking a god’s name in vane” thing.

Anyway, what I’m saying is, take more time–with your world’s lore–when coming up with your story’s curses.

2. Brevity Sounds More Natural

A big part of the reason why we fall back on swears–particularly negative ones–is that they’re super concise. Because we want them to be. “That son of a bitch!” is often whittled down to a frustrated, “Sonuvabitch!” “God damn it!” can shrink to, “Goddammit!” and then, “Dammit!”

What I’m trying to say here is, although there are absolutely times for long fantasy swears, people aren’t going to say, “You Rot-damned fool!” every single time. Humans, by their nature, would cut it down to “Rotted fool!” or maybe even just a forcefully spat, “Rot!”

For the sake of variety, find more concise versions of your curses and work them in where they fit.

3. Earth-Modern Swears Are Fine if They’re Universal

Fuck. Shit. Cock. Bitch. These are words that, for the most part, apply to all fantasy worlds.

But, not all earth-modern swears work in every fantasy world. Even “bitch” is risky, meaning that if your fantasy world doesn’t have canines, would the word “bitch” even exist?

The most common pitfall with this is “hell.” “Hell” appears in a ton of fantasy novels, even if those novels don’t have a hell myth. It’s an easy mistake to make, because “hell” is such a staple of earth-modern swears.

But, if hell doesn’t exist in your fantasy world, the word “hell” shouldn’t exist either. And neither should the notion that you can tell someone to go to any other mythical or religious prison if there isn’t one for them to go to.

The alternative? Drop into the lore again. Is there a terrible place in your world where people can be sent? Keep in mind, by the way, that place doesn’t have to be otherworldly.

And, returning to the Russell Stover example from earlier–for a religion-based insult that has nothing to do with telling someone to go somewhere–“she finds you unworthy” would work as a base insult for our culture of miners. Although, naturally, it would be shortened to a knowing, “Unworthy.”

Well, that’s all I’ve got when it comes to fantasy swears. There are other standards of them, but I think they’re well known, or obvious. Don’t use earth-modern gods unless your world is set in earth. Try giving each culture in your world some unique curses of their own.

But, what I want to stress overall here is, don’t just fall into the habits of other writers. I think fantasy is at its worst when our writers copy each other. Of course, the same can be said of any genre, but I feel creative shortcuts are particularly damning in fantasy, where we’re meant to be creative about absolutely everything.

Take your time. Don’t rush. Give all of the small details love. No matter how fucking vile they are.

~~~

I’ll keep working on fantasy swears myself, because mine definitely don’t feel perfect. But I hope this post helped out a fellow writer, or at least gave them a few things to consider.

Regardless, thanks for passing by. And, as always, write well.