The 3 Great Fiction Sins

First, apologies for taking so long to get another post out; things are a bit rough at the moment and the article I finished last week and was intending to post just wasn’t up to snuff (and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with a post that didn’t offer readers anything). I was going to settle for more generic life update this week, but this idea came first, so let’s get to it instead.

So, The Day of the Doctor happened. And I absolutely missed it; I enjoy Doctor Who a bunch, but I haven’t watched in a long time. I’ll be completely honest about my bias: the 10th was my Doctor, and before you say anything, yes, I have watched a bunch of Matt Smith and I like him, but he’s not David Tennant. Bias aside, I think I actually fell behind because of some of the story elements of Smith’s run.

I won’t get into them because that would be a whole other article, but I will say that one of those elements that nagged me… led to this article, my 3 Great Fiction Sins. What are they? The elements that I believe any fiction writing can easily fall victim to. There are, of course, way more than these three, but I feel that these are the three I’ve seen prevail in professionally produced works of fiction (so more obvious things like creating plot elements that don’t make sense didn’t make it onto this list). These prevailing sins are, however, still extremely obvious and jarring… and sometimes incredibly awkward… So let’s jump right in!

1) Clear and Obnoxious Character Bias

This is not the worst of these sins (worst for last, baby), but it is absolutely the most common. As writers and creators (or finders—whatever) of characters, you’re bound to like some of your characters more than others. The plot may result in some characters being stronger and (very naturally) more awesome than others—perhaps more cunning than others. One character may be particularly funny and, if that’s the kind of character we like, we’ll be drawn to them immediately, wanting to put them at the front of every scene and have them present for every situation. And, for the most part, that’s fine.

What isn’t fine, however, is stopping the flow of a story to include a completely unnecessary scene that is completely focused on:

Omfg Isn’t he/she/it BADASS!?

If, say, the main characters are trying to achieve something in a limited amount of time, but, unrealistically, everything stops so that we can watch, say, a cyber ninja (the first archetype that came to mind—honestly not drawing comparisons here) cut through a full brigade of soldiers… it’s almost like the writer has slapped the book out of our hand / TV to the floor / controller into the garbage only to jump in front of us, hands held forward, eyes manic as they say, “Okay… PICTURE THIS…” For me, these moments are always that degree of awkwardly invasive—particularly because the intent is always (pretty honestly) to fap over a single character.

Which, of course, cheapens everything else about a story; suddenly, the characters are actors again, the scenes are a plot. To put it simply, your adventure stops being an adventure and turns into a piece of writing a writer wrote. Maybe this is just how I think as a writer, but chances are, scenes like this will still annoy anyone if they very naturally don’t like the writer’s favorite character as much as that writer does; if the audience doesn’t really care about the cyber ninja, they’re immediately going to roll their eyes when he jumps out with his sword in his mouth and starts chopping up dudes effortlessly… without arms (I seriously just remembered that part of Metal Gear Solid 4, so hey, I guess I was drawing comparisons—subliminally. Somebody writing this article suuure hated that scene).

Most times, a writer can handle this kind of character well, showing them off in ways that are natural and—most importantly—non-invasive.

Every other time, though… Well, let’s just say that if there’s any chance you’ve done this, seriously reconsider slapping your audience right out of the moment to hold a loose leaf sketch of the one character in front of them. “He can grab his sword… with his foot clamp!”

2) The Tea Party

For me, this second sin is really bringing it back.

I did not make this one up—a friend back in high school brought this to my attention when we were talking about Xenogears (aaand I just dated myself). Very likely, we were playing it together and got to a scene where a town was burning down during an attack from a mech (if I remember correctly). The main characters were in the process of escaping… when one of them stopped in the center of the town to talk about things I can’t remember—I’ll be honest. The thing was, it didn’t matter what they were talking about while the town burned around them and people ran, screaming, children and possessions theoretically clutched to their chests.

No, what mattered was that they were talking.

And talking.

And fucking talking.

At the time, I was too naïve about writing to realize something was wrong, but my friend said something along the lines of, “I hate these fucking tea parties.”

When I asked what she meant, she explained: tea parties were incredibly suspenseful moments in which characters who are actively running from a very real danger suddenly stop and kick up a conversation, against all logic. Depending on the eminent danger, tea parties can either be as short as a single line or as inordinately long as the full 3 minute long conversation I witnessed in Xenogears (as I remember it anyway). However, no matter the length, characters always stop running / escaping for the duration of the tea party, brazenly defying all common sense.

I immediately took her explanation to heart. And ever since, it has destroyed a surprising amount of reading, watching and playing experiences immediately for me.

In the case of a fantasy read, this sin was at its most annoying when the main characters were in a house that was actively being crushed by giants. An escape vehicle of some kind (I forgot—read this ages ago) arrived a distance from the house and the characters decided to run for it. Most of them ran.

Two immediately stopped running so that one of them could shout about how excited he was to be escaping—particularly to their next destination.

There’s absolutely a chance that I’m being too critical on this one—the intent was to be cute and funny; the excited character was a zany old man if I remember correctly and the character with him was trying to get him out of the house.

But at that point, the giants had already pummeled the house for so long that there was no sense of danger; and perhaps that’s the best definition of a Tea Party: a moment in which all sense of danger is defeated by a clear contrivance of the writer. The player stopped caring about the town burning down around them because none of the other characters seemed to. And the reader just rolled their eyes at the author’s attempt at a laugh because the house—very clearly now—was never going to actually collapse under the tree-hammering the giants were giving it.

3) Incredibly Awkward and Creepily Open Displays of Sexual Fantasies

Best for last, baby.

I watch South Park, so I’ve seen the recent jabs at George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones focusing so much on sex. Before I go on, I haven’t watched the Game of Thrones show because I didn’t like it for reasons I also won’t get into here (my favorite character is completely different—for starters) but one of my big problems with it was the sudden persistence of sex and sexuality in the show. In the books, sex happened when it felt like it should’ve; in exactly the same way that characters used the bathroom on occasion and it wasn’t glossed over, Martin also didn’t gloss over occasional sex because it’s a thing humans do, like urinating. I have heard that he has a lot to do with the show, so I throw my hands up with all of this and say, ‘I dunno—whatever.’

But what I absolutely know is that Martin never wrote 100+ pages of Jon Snow being tortured by a dominatrix with a magic dildo.

Yes, I read that book. And yes, it was an Epic Fantasy novel; not (openly) a hybrid of Fantasy and Erotica. Should it be deemed Erotica? No idea. But 100+ pages of anyone being tortured by a dominatrix with a magic dildo, is a very clear, very awkward, and very open display of sexual fantasy being mass produced and sold to the public.

And it just skeeves me out.

Nothing is wrong with a sex scene. Although I wouldn’t write one, nothing is even wrong with a detailed sex scene.

But something is extremely wrong with dragging out sexual scenes for inordinately long. And yes, any sexual scenes, not just scenes that are fetishistic.

I don’t want to go on because I’m sure I’d just repeat myself, each time getting more and more insulting, but I’ll end on the most tactful comparison I can think of:

Focusing on a character’s sexual adventures in a story that’s going to be mass produced for the general public in a genre that’s not known for sexual exploits is like introducing yourself to someone, shaking their hand with a smile, and then leaning in and whispering, “I like anal.”

Everyone’s reaction: “… : ( I need an adult.”

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Well, I know it’s short and not especially helpful, but I hope you enjoyed. As always, thanks for the read and from this weird void where I never get around to thematically celebrating holidays, I hope yours are awesome. Happy that day you celebrate!

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 5: A Conclusion & Using the Stats

Man, did this one take longer than it was supposed to. What you’ve found is the final part of a look at my Fantasy Story Stats. Because, after four solid weeks of looking at each in-depth, I think a serious refocus on how these should be used is in order. And the best way to do that? Just use them on different properties and see what we learn.

Now, all of these stories are my favorites, first of all; seriously, I love each of the following properties. That said, I’m going to try and be really honest about them—because if you’re not honest with them, these stats do nothing. Sound interesting? I hope so; I’m pretty intrigued to see how this goes.

Disclaimer: Of course, as always, I have to remind you that I’m not an authority on any of the stories I’m about to discuss; these Stats are not a way of dissecting them and I’m sure that when I reread any of these stories, I’ll find reason to contest what I’m about to put down. However, I can confidently say that I am someone who’s been trying to complete a story of his own for years and, that said, someone who found looking at stories through the lens of these Stats helpful for my own compositions. As I’ve said before, these Stats are just tools and using them is more of an experiment and an opportunity for creative reflection than anything else.  

Let’s do it!

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire)

By George R. R. Martin

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Family

Focus: 1-Character, 2-Plot

Tone: Heavy/Semi-Realistic

Spirit: Low

Novelty: Medium

Concept: Medium-High

The striking thing about A Game of Thrones was how realistic it was for the genre. Oddly enough, this is absolutely in spite of the very first scene literally involving evil snow zombies. How does that even work? Because everything that comes after the White Walkers is absolutely realistic and heavy in Tone. Incest? Little kids getting paralyzed? A “dwarf” who isn’t at all the fantasy standard dwarf? All of these things (High Concept, Low Spirit elements for the genre) counteract the first scene, even undermining strong hints at dormant magic as omens or strange coincidences.

But oddly… even though the Tone undermines all of those fantasy elements… it also serves those same elements. Where other authors use incredibly unique world concepts, races, creatures, and monsters to draw readers, Martin’s work features humans almost exclusively. Humans with extremely Earth-centric towns, weapons, equipment and cultures. Humans who consider slightly large (based on the show) wolves as horrible beasts, and where genre-typical dragons and honestly super-familiar undead warriors stand as the most outlandish monsters you can find. But, really, these elements are served by the Tone. Having everything be so normal and real makes the White Walkers terrifying. It makes slightly bigger wolves really awesome. It makes a sword forged of slightly darker metal that always holds its edge the most incredible weapon ever (in direct contrast to extremely flashy lightsabers, for example). It makes you afraid of magic and uncertain what will happen when someone pisses off a witch. Overall, it is an absolutely masterful control of the reader’s experience and I bow before it.

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle)

By Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Stories, Myth, and Their Influence on Reality

Focus: 1-Character, 2-Plot, 2.5-Location

Tone: Medium/Semi

Spirit: Medium

Novelty: Medium-High

Concept: High

Here, I feel the Focus is especially interesting; there’s no question that The Name of the Wind is a story driven by its characters (the story is, literally, being provided by our protagonist after another character persuades him to tell it). Beyond that, however, I feel it’s arguable whether Plot or Location is the more interesting drive for readers. I can’t see how that could be an insult, but I’ll immediately specify that I found the story’s locations that intriguing; for me, part of the joy of reading was getting back to the Eolain and seeing what would happen there. Or getting to Elodin’s or Kilvin’s next class. One of my favorite moments in the story was when Kvothe explored the Underthing with Auri, and, in retrospect, I divide the story into four parts without trying: Kvothe with his family and traveling in their caravan, Kvothe in Tarbean, Kvothe at the University, and Kvothe outside of the University with Denna (all of these obviously focusing on locations).

Also, as always, I could go on about how High Concept this story is—the fact that it’s being related by the protagonist after he’s gone into hiding; the incredibly believable treatment of magic in the frame of the story; the specific allure of Naming; the countless, personal events that drive the plot and mirror our own lives. I would go on, but if you’ve read The Name of the Wind, you already know all of this and I have to immediately stop this from turning into a review.

Another note: Despite what I’ve said before (told you this would happen), I do think the Novelty of The Name of the Wind would be Medium-High; there’s just a lot more than simply “orphan boy goes to magic school,” a vague overview that absolutely undermines my love for the book.

Mistborn (The Mistborn Trilogy)

By Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Rebellion Against Oppression on Personal and Social Levels; Faith, both Personal and Religious

Focus: 1-Plot, 2-Character

Tone: Light-Medium/Fantastic

Spirit: Medium-High

Novelty: High

Concept: Medium-High

Despite being set in a world where an evil god rules over a land constantly marred by black ashfalls, Mistborn winds up being Light-Medium in Tone and Medium-High in Spirit. How? Also, perhaps, what?

Well, the simple answer is Theme, Tone and Spirit.

The story carries a heavy Tone of Rebellion that’s supported by its characters—friends who have very jovial interactions with each other (in direct contrast to the gloom outside). The oppressive world is also undermined by the powers of the mistborn, who consider the mists (which come out at night—the most mythically dangerous time of day, as the story establishes early on) home. Vin in particular feels “free” in the mists (which is obviously relevant to the Theme). Finally, add to that the actual power that a mistborn can freely use out in the mists and how exciting those powers are for the characters and readers, and it’s actually easy to forget about the gloomy setting. On the contrary, as mistborn are generally only mistborn when they’re out in the night in secret, Pushing off of coins, the story actually becomes more exciting when it would otherwise be at its gloomiest. There’s seriously no end to how amazing I think this massive, thematic Soothing and Rioting is.

And now, for the sake of acknowledging differences in the same writer’s projects…

Warbreaker

By Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: High

Theme: Choice

Focus: 1-Plot, 2-Character

Tone: Light/Fantastic

Spirit: Medium

Novelty: High

Concept: High

In contrast, Warbreaker does not have to fight to maintain light Tone; the magic system of the novel, Breath, is based on color, resulting in a fictional society that employs color vibrantly (an obvious difference from the blacked out landscape of Mistborn).

More important here, however, is Spirit, which, in my Stats, is Medium (possibly weird at first glance). However, Warbreaker actively challenges your concepts of right and wrong, evil and good (something that the Mistborn series doesn’t start doing until the second and third books). Without spoiling anything, the Theme (as I see it) of choice creates a grey area that the novel settles into—not all villains are completely evil and not all people are completely good. As is the case between Siri and her sister, people can absolutely be different and make different choices or act in different ways, but that does not mean either way is inherently wrong or right. The world is too complicated for that because it’s a place where people can choose and those choices are really all that matters. All of this, along with a magic system that’s slightly more out-of-the-ordinary than mistborn powers (the overall effects of which are more familiar [as Jedi powers or superpowers] than the ability to breathe life into inanimate objects and have them do your bidding) means that there are more challenging elements in Warbreaker. It is, on the whole, a less comforting and familiar read than Mistborn despite the lighter Tone and premise.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: YA (?)

Theme: Responsibility

Focus: 1-Plot, 2-Character, 3-Location

Tone: Light /Fantastic

Spirit: Medium-High

Novelty: Low-Medium

Concept: Medium-High

If you have not seen Avatar: The Last Airbender (the show, not the movie) then all I’ll say is that you should absolutely give it a chance because it’s legitimately amazing. On the list of kids’ shows that are not just for kids, Avatar is easily among the best.

But before I continuing gushing about how great it is, what’s interesting about its Stats? For me, the Focus; this is a case where almost all three elements of Focus are equally balanced in a story. You read to find out what happens next in the Plot (as with any syndicated show), but every episode also has pertinent character  growth, supported by the ever present questions of what Aang will find in whatever drastically changed place from his past the group stops in. And there, of course, is also Location coming into play as the third Focus, although the world itself with the dynamic of the Four Nations, their cultures and the myth of the world of Avatar is enough of a Location draw on its own. Generally, however, each season takes place in another of the Four Nations, making Location that much more important.

Of course, the balance of Spirit is also interesting. Avatar is another case where the audience is presented with grey areas that challenge what they expect from character archetypes. This is an extremely important part of the show from the beginning. Bending is also unique enough of an approach to elemental magic that it feels silly to call it magic. Counteracting all of that, however, is the playfulness of the show; despite the setting, characters speak in what I consider Standard American, a term that extends to include extremely Earth-general mannerisms (people don’t fist bump or do peace signs, but they might bow or shake hands, never using any unfamiliar, Avatar-esque hand gestures or sayings [outside of ones that are meant to be funny because they’re so awkward and non Earth-Standard]). Avatar also creates and revisits its best jokes. And, finally (really), the premise is very nearly the old standard of “boy has great, exclusive power that he must use to defeat evil.” All of this creates an extremely comfortable atmosphere that balances the more challenging elements of the story extremely well (and hopefully proves that, used right, a degree of familiarity in a story can do incredible things).

Okay. Going to stop now. However, for the sake of looking at the difference in sequels (and the reason why I brought up a show from crazy long ago)…

The Legend of Korra

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Genre: Fantasy

Subgenre: YA

Theme: Sibling Rivalry

Focus: 1-Character, 2-Plot

Tone: Medium/Fantastic

Spirit: Low-Medium

Novelty: Medium-High

Concept: High

In contrast, The Legend of Korra has a much lower Spirit; it’s far more challenging to its audience. Even though it’s a direct sequel to The Last Airbender, it’s a much different show with a much more unique premise, a more complicated plot, and a far deeper look at the grey areas already mentioned here. On The Legend of Korra, people are often not who they seem and characters’ actions are often more personal and individual than they are cohesive and single-minded; on The Last Airbender, everyone was ultimately trying to help Aang defeat the Fire Nation, but in The Legend of Korra, everyone’s doing what comes naturally to them. Even characters who were set on helping the protagonists in the first season have now very naturally fallen back into roles that hinder the progress of our protagonists (Beifong being a great example). On top of that, the world from Airbender has evolved, becoming something much more unique. Even in the case of the protagonist, Korra is a very strong female lead who is actually vulnerable and human (directly challenging stereotypes of the flat, over-compensating super-badass female lead, or the comic-typical super-feminist). She’s so progressive that her sexual orientation and hairstyle choices are not the focus of any parts of the show—at all; in fact, her love life even takes a serious backseat to other issues that matter way, way more (like stopping wars).

The only balance is the way Korra is absolutely a legacy story; many subtle references are made to moments from Avatar. The story also actively uses the mythose of Avatar’s world as plot elements in Korra. Overall, these elements make the experience more comforting (and again demonstrate how well the High Spirit of a story can supplement a more challenging, Low Spirit sequel).

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Well, I think that about wraps it up for my Fantasy Story Stats. Thank you, as always, for reading, and if you gained anything from these stats, please subscribe, drop a comment, give me a like, or do all of those things—I’d appreciate it.

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 4: Novelty and Concept

Disclaimer: If you’ve been following these posts from the start, then you’ll need a quick clarification; I’ve been figuring these Stats out every week as I’ve written these posts and, as a result, I absolutely wound up changing the name (only) of one of this week’s stats. It went from “Originality” to “Novelty,” a really small change that I immediately felt was so important and essential that here we are.
If you haven’t been following this whole time, then no, nothing’s changed; I perfectly one-shotted all of this—you kidding?

Well, here we are—the last(ish) Week of my Fantasy Story Stats. Our final two stats are Novelty and Concept which are both totally focused on the originality of your work. If you combine them with the idea of last week’s Spirit as a rating of playfulness via predictability, that’s three facets of originality in my Stats… Maybe I’m obsessed?

Anyway, let’s get to it.

Novelty: The Overall Originality of Your Premise

You’re in a book store and you pick up a mass market to read the back cover copy. It goes something like, “As darkness rises in the land, one boy will find that only he can wield the mystical power that can save the world.” By my standard, that book would have Low Novelty. As per my points about Spirit last week, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Because Novelty is a vague overview of your story. Its rating comes from taking a distant look at what you’re writing and summarizing it honestly for the purpose of understanding how someone else might see it and what they might assume about it.

Although, as with most of my Stats, this doesn’t say anything definitive about what you’re writing. This could hint that your story isn’t original and that people might not like it for that reason. However, at the same time, by my definition, The Name of the Wind would actually be Medium Novelty. Before I go on, I love The Name of the Wind and think it’s amazing—I don’t want to even vaguely suggest that I don’t love that book, its sequel, or that I don’t respect the hell out of Patrick Rothfuss, because I absolutely do—but if you step back and take a long look at it, “orphaned young boy goes to wizarding school” would be part of The Name of the Winds’ premise. Again, I absolutely love that book, but I have to use it here as a fantastic example of how Novelty is not an all inclusive definition; the Novelty of your piece doesn’t make or break it. As with all of my Stats, it’s just a facet of your work for you to consider, for better or worse—not to be defeated by.

Particularly because Novelty is directly balanced by Concept.

Concept: The Originality of the Elements Within Your Story

Immediately going back to The Name of the Wind, it’s safe to say that if you’re a fan, you were probably outraged. You were probably like, “That’s not all the book is about! It’s absolutely and incredibly original!” and you’re completely right, because there are tons of unique elements in that book. From characters to moments, concepts to scenes, The Name of the Wind is incredibly fresh. In particular (to me), Sympathy is handled in a very original way, making it so believable that I almost wanted to try it myself.

And that originality—of smaller, more personal, and nearly infinite facets of a story (from its tone to the noise a particular fantasy creature makes) is its Concept. Concept can be as concrete as a strange hairdo on one of your characters (instead of Middle Earth-centric long) or as vague as the way a particular element (region, force, what have you) makes the characters (and you) feel. It can be a fresh approach to magic that either makes it feel incredibly real (like Sympathy) or allows characters to achieve extremely awesome and cinematic feats of combat (like Allomancy) instead of only allowing for the blatant use of Magic Missile and Flaming Hands. To force myself to stop ranting, Concept can present in any facet of a story. It is, among my Stats, the purest representation of a story’s originality and, in my experience, the one that stands out most to readers. Concept is more personal and inclusive however, as generally, only those who have read your work will see the majority of your original concepts (this being the major difference between Concept and Novelty [which casual onlookers will see]).

There’s not much more that I can say about Concept outside of the fact that despite there being many, many small, personal ways for a story to be truly original and High Concept, it’s still easier for a story to be wildly unoriginal. I usually put a short, concluding disclaimer on all of my stats, and I suppose that for Concept, it’s this: of all of these Stats, take Concept most seriously. If it’s important to be honest about any of these Stats, it’s Concept. It is the best marker for how derivative your story is, because just as there are innumerable ways for your story to be High Concept, there’s exactly the same amount of ways for a story to go wrong and be Low Concept. Because every good, original choice can instead be an absolutely obvious, horribly derivative choice. For example, your protagonist can have a sword that does something an audience hasn’t seen before or it can glow when certain creatures are near—or it can eat souls (you get it). Your protagonist can wake up from the nightmare they always have and, say, write it down in a journal that’s filled with the same recounting of the same nightmare or they could jump awake and hold a knife to the neck of the person who innocently tried to wake them. The point is, these decisions are always decisions and, in my mind, they—and your Concept rating—should be taken very seriously.

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Well, that concludes our look at all of my Fantasy Story Stats. Despite the original schedule of four weeks, I’ll do a conclusion next week listing my Stats for different, popular series. But for now, if you’ve missed any of my previous weeks, here are links to Week 0, Week 1, Week 2, and Week 3.

And, finally, here are the complete Stats for my novel:

2013-WarofExilesStats

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 2: Theme and Focus

Apologies for getting this one out so late; crazy week. Crazy enough that I’m writing this in a laundromat. Seriously. There’s a Marc Anthony video playing on the big TV they have here… Let’s do this!

So, I’m excited about this week. This is the first time where a stat that I made up actually gets a mention—Focus. So let’s not waste any time. First..

Theme: It’s the Uniting Concept of Your Story

I feel I don’t need to spend too much time on Theme because I’m sure you already know at least 10 of its 30 million definitions.

But Theme is the uniting idea behind what you’re writing. It can be direct and it can be abstract, but it acts as a foundation for what you’re writing. It can be the moral of your story, but it can also be vaguer than that. It can be something as simple as “Doubles,” or something as complex as “Who we are as opposed to who we want to be.”

The thing about your Theme is that it should permeate every aspect of your story. It doesn’t have to, but a good writer reflects their theme in their descriptions and their dialogue. It’s mirrored in the plot and the characters, making a singular, united experience. For a theme like “Doubles,” characters should be mirrors of each other. Descriptions should be used at least twice, or perhaps certain settings should be visited at least twice with a large time gap in between (or something). So, really, of all the Stats, Theme is probably most important because it’s a foundation for your story.

And as a foundation, Theme should be your first step towards perfectly composing all of the elements of your story and a focal point for all of your Stats (particularly because it should come naturally early on in the story-building process [somewhere between making up characters and starting your plot]). Is your Tone too light for your story? Are you unsure it has enough Spirit? Does your Focus make sense for your story? Well, how do all of those elements work with your Theme?

Anyway, enough of that. On to Focus.

Focus: It’s the Story Facet You Unintentionally Focus On

Wish me luck—they put on kids shows now and I can barely do this with Mickey Mouse soft-shouting about Mouseketools.

So, Focus (ha—ironic) is the part of your story for which you take preference. This doesn’t mean a story only focuses on one facet (because no stories do that), but the one facet will naturally be more important and garner more attention from the writer. It’s not something that they realize and not necessarily something that needs to change; ultimately, I’m not even sure that a writer can change what they generally Focus on, but hey, why not try?

So, what are these facets of Focus?

  • Characters
  • Settings
  • Plot

I’m sure there could be more, but seriously, Mouseketools, so let’s just focus on these three.

A Character-Driven story relies very heavily on its characters. A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantastic example of a character-driven story; there are a ton of characters and we’re expertly made to care about (even/especially the villains). The major incentive for reading the series is seeing what happens to the characters. Seriously, the chapter titles are the names of characters.

A Setting-Driven story focuses heavily on the area where the story takes place that place. In most cases, the setting is ultimately the most important element and winds up being a character itself, engaging the reader by making them wonder what they’ll see next. Alice in Wonderland is a fantastic example of a Setting-Driven story. For something a little more contemporary, any of the Silent Hill games or movies are Setting-Driven.

A Plot-Driven story is something more along the lines of a thriller. The Focus isn’t on what the characters will do next or what they’ll see next, but instead what will happen to them next. These are essentially Character-Driven stories where the characters don’t have control over what happens to them (for the most part) and don’t decide what they’re doing. Generally, horror stories are Plot-Driven; you watch a horror movie waiting to see how the next person dies (or, in simpler terms, how the next plot event happens).

Now, again, all of these distinctions are not exclusive; characters will always influence your stories, just as setting and plot will. However, the prominence of these elements in your writing is important to your stories and your style as a writer, and being aware of them is another solid step towards looking clearly at any piece you’re putting together and considering its composition honestly.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll add here that when I list a story’s stats, I list Focus on a ranking system (literally as “1-,2-,3-” to denote an order of Focus [which feels more accurate]).

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Thanks for reading, and again, here’s where I stand on my list of Stats:

War of Exiles

Genre… Fantasy

Subgenre… Dark Fantasy

Theme… Living with loss.

Focus… 1-Character, 2-Plot, 3-Setting

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 1: Genre and Subgenre

There’s not much I can tell you that you don’t already know about genre and subgenre. The former is a broader classification and the latter is more specific. Both are categories into which your book fits.

But is that really all that they are? Are they the serious afterthought they generally seem to be? Or a small facet of that initial spark when you realized, “I want to write Fantasy [Sci-Fi/Mystery/etc.]!”

Well, according to me, of course genre and subgenre are more than that. They’re your story’s character class.

Genre: It’s Like Choosing a Character Class

I promise I won’t spend the next few weeks relating each of my Fantasy Story Stats to D&D; I understand that not everyone has played it and that’s cool. But what I’m getting at here will make sense to anyone who’s played a video game—or any game—with character classes.

For the sake of this article being remotely interesting, I’m going to assume you understand what character classes are—that you’ve played something where you sat considering a collection of archetypes and abilities. You may consider all the different kinds of classes in the game you’re playing, weighing the Warrior’s abilities against the Rogue’s. Or, if you’re like me, you either read all of the Rogue’s abilities and select them without even looking at the other classes, or you skip the whole reading part. Either way, you look at what’s out there and you decide what suits you—what abilities you can work with. To a very simple degree, deciding what genre to write works the same way. The comparison isn’t perfect but that’s in part because, as writers, we usually make this decision very early on without much consideration—I’ve known I wanted to write fantasy instead of anything else since grade school.

Where this comparison gets more complicated and more interesting is not in how your chosen class relates to you but how it relates to everyone else. If you choose a warrior, everyone’s going to expect basic actions from you at the very least; you’re supposed to have high strength, for example. It’s not absolutely essential, but it’s a general facet of your chosen class and the people you’re playing with will expect it and make decisions based on your choice.

The same can be said of your audience. If you choose Fantasy as your genre, they’re going to expect Fantasy and at least a few of the genre’s standard elements. And the use of those elements will dictate how you interact with your audience—what your story does as part of the genre (what subgenre it fits into, to be oblique). Do you want to use fantasy races? The generic set or ones of your own making? Do you want to use a magic system? Do you want to use a very simple and vague one that will compliment the tone of your story, or do you want an incredibly original or complex one grounded in reality that readers can relate to? Of course, there are no demands that you use any of these elements, but very likely you are, because if you don’t use magic/special powers, dragons, fantastic monsters, fantasy races, or any other element of the genre at all, you’re may not be writing fantasy anymore. And to say it directly and in a useful way, if you expect to write Fantasy effectively (or any other genre) and use its elements to properly convey your story t expectant readers, it’s important to read up on the genre.

Because just as you won’t understand what you’re capable of in combat if you don’t read a character class’s description, you absolutely won’t know what you’re capable of in your own writing if you don’t spend a good amount of your time reading; it’s incredibly easy to just shrug and say, “I’ve got this,” without doing research, but there’s no way you can possibly know how good your story is if you’ve never read any other stories.

Particularly, you can’t fathom the impact of that one series you really love if you don’t read a different series by a different author. It’s like being a kid and having your introduction to Street Fighter being this match:

(Apologies if you hate eSports or Street Fighter).

The point is though, suppose you see that and you immediately try Street Fighter. Who are you going to pick? Well, Daigo used Ken and you admire the hell out of Daigo now, so chances are… you’re picking Ken. Even if you wind up using someone else all the time, you’re probably starting with Ken.

Consider then that picking up a single Fantasy series when you’re young (as we all have) and sticking with only that one is just like picking Ken in this hypothetical situation, only about a billion times worse. Because Street Fighter gets boring if you only choose the one guy. However, epic fantasy novels are generally a thousand pages long with multiple installments, equaling a ton of reading time. It’s incredibly easy to choose the one series and stick with it (out of love and a usually fierce loyalty). That’s fine for the common reader, but it’s terrible for writers.

Because, at worst, you’re doing everything the one writer does without realizing that it’s making you derivative; you’re using every fantasy element that author used to achieve the same goals because you literally don’t know anything else. At best, you’re trying to go with characters, themes and dialogue that are a direct opposite of those in your favorite series, thus still letting it dictate your writing.

Maybe this is common sense—maybe you already know all of this. But maybe you haven’t read enough of your genre to know every facet of it—to know everything you’re capable of, to know the ideas that already exist and might work well with your writing, or to see enough of it to know which ideas you want your story to subvert.

Subgenre: It’s Like Expressing Yourself

Everything I just said above winds up being more important when you decide on a subgenre. I don’t want to spend too much time on those points because I’d be repeating myself, but I will summarize; the elements that I mentioned above (dragons, races, magic, etc.) all play major roles in helping you decide your genre (Epic or High Fantasy, for example, is very likely going to have strong magic while Superhero fiction isn’t going to have any). As with genre, considering these elements is important and finding the subgenre that they fit with is essential to being the strongest Fantasy writer you can be.

So, instead of repeating myself, I’d rather make a distinction between the two. As this short list represents (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Fantasy_genres), Fantasy subgenre is a big place that’s open to expression. And that, right there, is the distinction. Categorically speaking, at least. If Fantasy is a huge wall displaying all of the possible elements you can use and stories you can tell, your fantasy subgenre should be a clear indication of those choices. Not just as an indication for browsing fantasy readers, but as a personal emblem (because, among Fantasy genres, it’s a given that we write Fantasy, so subgenre becomes the actual distinction that matters). You should be able to look back at your story, find the subgenre of your choice, and assign it with pride.

But in that order; if picking your genre came so naturally and involuntarily that it happened before you even knew you wanted to write, then deciding what subgenre you fit into should come after the entire process is over; after you’ve come up with a story, characters, and perhaps written something—then you should decide on your subgenre. Because, if you choose one first, it might put its own blinders on you, making you write for the subgenre, not for you or your story. And just as you don’t want to accidentally be derivative of that one author you admire, you don’t want to set boundaries for your plots before you’ve even begun. Remember, genre and subgenre, as classifications (particular on this list), are tools for you to use. The elements and concepts that come with them are fuel for your creative fire.

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Well, I think that’s a start. As a standard for these Story Stat articles, I’ll leave you with the stats for my novel so far.

War of Exiles

Genre…               Fantasy

Subgenre…         Dark Fantasy

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 0: An Introduction

Disclaimer: The following ideas are based on the observations of an amateur fantasy writer. These ideas are absolutely not fact and should not be taken as more than suggestions for how to look at your own work—a tool that you use to supplement your writing at best. If you like the ideas you find here and find them useful, awesome. If you find them useful and you immediately want to share them, I only ask that you do so via link to this post.

No matter what though, I don’t want to suggest that fantasy writing should be a rote, meticulous thing with categories and bureaucracy. If you find that these ideas make your writing process feel too mechanical, scale back your reliance on them. Remember, these Stats are just a tool.

An Introduction

I blame absolutely all of this on D&D.

I was fine before I played that game. I was 100% heart when it came to writing and ideas just popped into my head whenever they pleased and assembled themselves into fantastic, towering messes that I barely controlled.

But then D&D came around, and playing it was the unintentional end of that era of my writing career. Oh, I’m sure D&D wasn’t totally to blame—this is also when I finally started to read good fantasy as well—but I can’t help feeling that without D&D, I never would’ve considered a lot of things; a lot of fantasy-relevant things, to be sure, but also the idea that a fantasy world could be broken down into numbers—into categories and lists that made world building incredibly more efficient than it had been. Honestly, it’s probably because I immediately wanted to (and tried to) make my own paper games (I got as far as a character sheet and vague character creation guidelines, but the overall rules eventually escaped me). In the end, I think it’s D&D (and also, prooobably college) that finally made me find a balance between mind and heart when it came to my writing.

Because there’s always that balance, right? Writing is a give and take between ideas you love and your ability to decide when, how, and if you can use them; having a great idea for a story but no idea how to deliver it is as bad as knowing how to deliver stories but having no stories to tell.

Well, that (and a lingering desire to obsessively design more character sheets for absolutely no reason) is what led to this–my list of Fantasy Story Stats. It’s years and years later and I find myself channeling that bureaucratic desire for order into the following list that I hope has some practical use for you.

The Idea

This is a list of story elements that exist for and apply to all fantasy stories. The goal here is to bring important elements to light that may, hopefully, help you take a more composed look at your stories, see where they may be lacking in overall composition, and adjust one or more of their elements so they all fit together optimally. Really, that’s it; this is simply a model for categorizing all fantasy stories (that I’ll spend the next few weeks explaining in pairs). You may figure out a better approach to a subtle facet of your work or you’ll realize that your project is similar to someone else’s and compare them to find out why, how you can change that similarity, or what you can learn from that similar project (all according to your own prerogative and objective).

However, while these Stats are meant to help you hone your story and choose elements that compliment it well, the intent here is absolutely not to suggest that any one type story is superior to all others. If you find yourself using this checklist and thinking that you should completely change your story to make it more like A Game of Thrones, for example, you’re doing a disservice to your own story and misusing these Traits. I would sooner say that this story would serve you better if all you took from it was a confidence that your story’s Stats are cohesive and all complimented each other well (as I believe almost any combination of Stats can).

The Stats (So Far)

1) Genre – Self-explanatory. On this site, it’s always “Fantasy.” I’ll be covering this next week (Week1).

2) Subgenre – A more specific classification for fantasy stories. I’ll also cover this next week (Week 1).

3) Theme – The concept that pulls your entire story together (Week 2).

4) Focus – The very possibly unintentional focus of a story (Week 2).

5) Tone – The weight of a story (Week 3).

6) Spirit – This one seriously sounds like an RPG stat, doesn’t it? This is the degree to which a story involves its audience, however subtly (Week 3).

7) Novelty – The overall originality of a story, more generally applied to its premise (Week 4).

8) Concept – The specific originality of a story, applied to its elements (Week 4).

I should clarify that I obviously didn’t create a lot of these concepts; I absolutely understand that but still present them here as part of my list because they’re important to it. That said, there’s a pretty good chance there’s a similar, widely accepted list out there; if you find that this is true, all I can say is, I didn’t know and I hope that you’ll at least get something out of my Stats (I believe my concept of Spirit will still be useful).

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Well, that’s enough of an introduction, I think. Come back next week for a look at Genre and Subgenre (mostly Subgenre). Again, and as always, thanks for reading.

On Choosing the Right Soundtrack

Last time was pretty serious. Well, maybe not serious–maybe more like incredibly straight forward and academic. And <em>boring.</em>

So I thought I’d get a little loose this time—talk about something I like, with the stipulation that I tell you at least twice that it’s something I like.

And that would be assigning a soundtrack for my stories.

Now, before you navigate away, I should specify a few things. Firstly, I use the term “soundtrack” loosely—more on that in a bit. Secondly, I do believe that if you don’t already do this, it can actually help your writing. Thirdly, that is as long as you do it… in moderation.

Firstly, Not Really a Soundtrack

I’m a weird guy when it comes to music (at least). I’m admittedly terrible with actual, normal music; I honestly would not be able to name a single Led Zeppelin song for you. And at the same time, no, I also would not be able to name a Katy Perry song for you—I defy genres and generations with my musical ignorance.

However, I can hear five seconds of original soundtrack from two rooms away, come over, and, without even looking at the television it’s coming from, tell you, “Jurassic Park. The scene when Grant and the kids are climbing over the wire fence. That track is called ‘High Wire Stunts’.”

I’ll go right on to immediately add that I know this is a problem.

However, what I want to specify immediately is that my goal here is not to make that your problem; I’m absolutely not suggesting that you compile a detailed and complete soundtrack. Aside from the fact that it would be incredibly hard to find music that matches all of your scenes and all matches the same tone, it would just be a huge waste of time.

Because, let’s be real—if you compiled a soundtrack worthy of worldwide distribution… who are you showing that to? How are you planning to use it? I don’t want to assume you don’t get it, but this leads right into how you should think of your “soundtrack”—basically, as a writing tool.

I’ll lead with an example: here’s a part of my soundtrack (and yes, it’s more Castlevania). But immediately, let me point out a few things:

1) This song is the theme for an abandoned gallery my characters find at one point. But not all of the song is the gallery’s theme—more like everything but 1:32-2:02 or any other part where it gets insanely Castlevania…y). Those organ solos don’t fit the tone of my story at all.

2) Regardless, there is no point where the piano portion of this song could actually play anywhere in my story; in an animated or live-action version of my story, there just honestly would not be enough suitable time in that gallery.

3) I would also absolutely never write to this song or even reread my work while listening to it; it’s just too distracting.

So how exactly do I use this song at all? Before I write any scenes in the gallery. When I’m thinking about the gallery—how it looks and sounds. When I need to figure out an aspect of it. When I want to remember how it feels to stand in it.

And that means that, like the rest of my “soundtrack,” that song is a kind of personal tool that’s detached from my writing in every way an actual soundtrack shouldn’t be. And that’s what I’m suggesting; that you find whole songs, parts of songs—maybe even clips that are only seconds long—that you compile as writing tools, not expressly as a playlist. And not even expressly music; this is what I played for the weeks it took me to get through chapters 10 and 11, and having this, looped, helped to a degree that’s embarrassing to admit.

Secondly, How This Can Actually Help

Consider what I said last week about assigning a theme song for your characters. I explained that, in my mind, a theme song is a perfect way to hone what you know about your characters. If you can find the right one, they can serve as beautiful, simple summaries of your characters and, when necessary, remind you who the character is and what they’re going through. And if you manage to keep the theme from changing your character, they serve as a great way to hone your understanding of a character.

Well, add to that the idea that your scenes and settings (for the sake of simplicity) are characters. At the very least, they share similar traits; setting can (and should) have a tone. A scene can have a certain mood. A location can and should convey a story, if only briefly and subtly. A cave can be small and close, warm from the fresh fire at its center, where a friend looks up from their book as you enter. Or the fire could be dead, the air acrid with the stench of the charred cook pot hanging over it, your friend’s chair overturned, the man himself missing. In any of those cases, a song used as reference always helps you to find the words that match that tone.

In the case of the example I gave above, the song for the gallery, it’s full of the exact kind of muted, drowned beauty that embodies that setting to me. It easily helps me remember everything about it, from the wet gray color of the gallery’s walls to the sad, sunlit half-silence of it.

I suppose the simplest way to say this is, if you’ve never tried using a song as inspiration, you should absolutely give it a shot. I believe that you can create awesome characters without assigning a theme, but I think having reference music for your scenes is borderline essential.

Thirdly, Be Casual About It

I’m a firm believer that any extra work that’s meant to supplement your writing can eventually hurt it instead. I want to say, “excepts for like, making up a custom language for your world.” But even in that case… if you’ve spent ten years perfecting that custom language … that’s probably not helping your stories in the long run. Particularly because, if you’re like me, you’re an amateur; we don’t have the luxury of spending years honing any one detail because, honestly, the point at which we should’ve been writing—and letting that experience dictate how we refine our worlds—is always. If we spent the majority of our time working on a language or compiling a detailed soundtrack, it would be like someone calling out of work to spend the day sorting their pennies. Probably a horrible comparison, but my overall point is that actually taking time out of a writing session to hunt down relevant tracks? Not a good idea. Using any time that you could spend writing to instead find the perfect pairing for your campfire scene? Not better than just taking a shot at writing that scene.

What I’m saying is, the best way to handle this soundtrack business is to put the entire idea in the back of your mind—not out of mind, but somewhere easily recalled—while you watch movies, play video games, or pretty much do anything. You should take from this the idea to listen to what you hear with the background knowledge that you can apply anything to your writing. Maybe that sounds a little bizarre, being ready to relate everything you hear to your stories.

But, honestly, that’s writing 101. If you haven’t started insanely thinking of everything in relation to some plot you’ve been working on, well, there’s no time like the present to go the writing-appropriate amount of crazy.

All kidding aside, you are a writer. Either you’re sitting here thinking, “I already do this,” or you should be.

Your Fantasy Characters and How to Understand Them

It’s time for some honesty. When I think of the original version of my book (which I really try to never do), among all of the things that were horribly wrong, there’s one factor that’s oddly hit or miss. Characters. When I set out to rework the novel, a major part of the endeavor was dedicated to finally, truly sorting out all of the characters.

To specify, no, there weren’t many–that isn’t where the confusion was. And no, they weren’t all bad; to the contrary, in many of the cases where I initially thought I had to change a character, I ultimately reversed the changes I made when I looked over my edits.

So, what was the problem with them? What needed to change? Well, to say it in a seriously undefined way, a lot of them were just off. Lethe, my protagonist, and several side characters were solid from the start, but a lot of the others were just…

… weird.

I should specify–they were unnatural. Some of them believed and said strange, nonsensical things. Some of them had confused emotions; one moment they’re on the verge of tears, the next they’re angry or maybe playing a magical flute (that I clearly hated because this is like, the bajillionth time I’ve brought it up in the past weeks). To put it simply, they were all a mess.

I bring this up because, in my mind, unrealistic, unbelievable characters have always been the fantasy genre’s bane. Now, I don’t mean that I think it’s silly for a fantasy character to have giant fangs or blue skin–obviously–but because of the blue skin and the fangs, the realism of a character’s personality is incredibly important. Because if a character with fangs and blue skin walks up and says something silly or confusing, you’re suddenly reading an episode of Power Rangers (not to knock Power Rangers or anything, but that segue to Goldar was completely accidental). Although it may sound weird, personality is often the only thing standing between a reader watching a giant, blue cat man in golden armor and knowing that they’re watching a giant, blue cat man in golden armor.

This applies to normal fiction as well, of course, because believable characters are just part of what interests us as humans–we want to read other people’s stories and be entertained by their lives; when a character suddenly comes off as fake, we lose interest because the odd, backwards illusion of fiction is broken; in it’s simplest terms, we realize we’re reading something another person wrote.

So, the point of all of this: I thought I’d share my thoughts about sorting those characters out with the idea that maybe it’ll help you sort your own characters.

Allow me to start with another clarification…

Understanding, Not Fixing

I’ve said “sort” up until this point, but it’s really not the best term in relation to character design. According to my experience, at least, nothing good comes from trying to fix characters; the unnatural dialogue that didn’t fit with a character’s usual thoughts, the strange dialect they use or unusual choices that they make–all of those came from trying to make my characters into people who were cool enough. Not that your characters shouldn’t be cool–of course they should, particularly by your standards. But not at their expense; a lot of messy, nonsense traits can arise when you try to force a personality on someone who already has one.

Yep. You heard me.

Before you navigate away, consider this: writers often unintentionally create characters who mirror themselves. I can tell you personally that all of my characters have an aspect of my personality. There are many more who I understand because I’ve known them in real life. Likely, the first kind, who you understand from your own experiences, are your protagonists and the second kind, who you only understand from second-hand experience, would be your side characters. While I absolutely believe and support the idea that skilled writers create characters completely unlike themselves as protagonists, that doesn’t change the point here: despite how cheesy it is to say, “Your characters are actually people”–despite how much that makes it sound like I believe they’re living, breathing entities that exist in some other dimension–the point is that they’re real people because they’re you. Or me. Or someone you know. The point is that even writers who try really hard are likely going to put some facet of themselves into their characters because they’re writing the book. Their characters come from them–from their experiences, to say it in a non-cheesy way–and the more accurately they’re portrayed, the more real and intriguing they are.

So, to put it simply, treating your characters as actual people is the first step. Looking at them as someone from your subconscious that you have to understand and not someone who exists in a vacuum who you have to make is the key.

Actually understanding who they are and what they feel, however, is another, complicated matter. In my case, I adopted ill-fitting personalities for some of my characters because I just didn’t know better and didn’t know how. Now, however, as a man who’s far more confident in my character creation, I’ll leave you with my short list of the ways I came to understand my characters:

  1. Thinking About Them in Relation to Your World: Despite what I said earlier about characters coming from you or someone you know, I want to stress that you shouldn’t dwell on making them exactly like their source; treat them as real people–your people–in a situation that may be similar to yours (your friends’, etc.) and who have similar personality traits to you (your friends, etc.), but who are ultimately not you (or anyone you know).
    To hopefully be less confusing, consider that your life, and your experiences, shape you. Then consider that different experiences and decisions in your life would have changed who you are now. Your protagonists (for example), no matter how similar they are to you, would have to be an alternate version of you by default. Lethe, for example, is not me if only because I love pizza and he has absolutely no idea what pizza is.
    Now, in my experience, the best way to handle this is to start with a basic concept for your character (the initial idea of them–really honest and likable man, for example) and drop them into the world you designed. You’ll need to very seriously and thoroughly consider their place in that world. What’s this honest and likable man’s profession? Are there many honest people where he lives? Does his honesty have something to do with the fantasy culture you created? Does it have something to do with his past?
    Each answer will bring you closer to understanding who your character is, but it’s important to note that all of this relies on your familiarity with your world; naturally, it’s not essential that you decide on every detail of your world first, but when you decide on a new aspect of it, you should run through your cast to be sure that aspect influences everyone it should (despite how it sounds, relating a new element of my worlds to a character has been an awesome, irrationally exciting experience 100% of the time).
  2. Create Profiles for Each Character: The worst thing you can do for yourself is find these answers and not record them. At least if you’re anything like me, that is; I know that no matter how fantastic and nuanced my characterization decisions are, I will forget them with enough time.
    But beyond that basic functionality, making profiles for your characters, in which you hammer down the full range of personality traits (from Religion to Favorite Food), will only help you understand them more clearly. It sounds tedious–largely because it is–but the end result will be an answer to every possible question about your characters and, more importantly, more writing fuel.
    What do I mean by “writing fuel”? Simple:
    “Lethe walked to the bar and ordered an ale. He wouldn’t drink it–he never did (also a big difference between Lethe and I) , but he needed to look natural as he scanned the common room for a Silvertongue.”
    … as opposed to…
    “Lethe walked to the bar and ordered a–” uhhhhhh… <phew>… … Oh man. I dunno. What does he like? Hmm… <five hours later> Errrr… Hmmm… I’ll pick this up tomorrow! :D
  3. Avoid the Easy Answers: When you find the definitive answers to all of those questions, you’ll know because they’ll just work. You’ll know that you’ve found your character because they’ll absolutely make sense to you.
    However, there’s always the temptation to quickly settle with cliches. Is your protagonist an ultra badass who never breaks a sweat? Is your evil bad guy bald? Is your protagonist’s mentor a mysterious old Ben–er, man who lives outside of town?
    Then you’ve probably drawn your answers from another character. Although one could argue that there’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from other, incredibly popular characters, I think it’s important to stop yourself from doing so; in most cases, these are simply easy answers to complicated questions that you’d rather not answer. And just one of these easy answers in the wrong place, executed in the wrong way (naming your father figure Ben Parker for example–even in homage) will just come off as cheap.
    In summary, it’s far better to give your characters the extra time and make sure they’re real and not caricatures of other fictional characters. If it helps, just think of Xerox’s; the more copies you make of a document that’s already been copied, the lower it’ll be in quality.
  4. Choose a Theme Song for Them: Have you ever watched Batman: The Animated Series? I know–tangent of the year–but not really. Even when I was a kid, one of the most striking things about that show was how every single villain had a theme song. If you’d like an extra assignment here, just go back and watch any episode (with a super villain [I’m not sure if Rupert Thorne and the other mobsters had themes]). Listen for their themes and how well they communicate everything about that villain (or just watch this for a few examples).
    What’s the point? A theme song can do wonders for how an audience understands a character. For the sake of understanding your characterss better, make yourself that audience; find a theme song that fits, whether it’s an actual song with lyrics or something composed (I’m partial to video game music for themes myself [here’s one of Lethe’s]). Even just the act of finding that theme will help refine how you feel about your character, and listening to it afterward will help remind you who your character is.
    It’s important to note though that this is another case where the potential to copy comes along. The simplest way to put it: Lethe’s other theme is also from Castlevania (I’d be the first to admit that I was absolutely inspired by that series), so I had to take extra care to not unwittingly give Lethe a whip and full head of long, luxurious vampire-slaying hair. No matter what theme you choose, make sure that the theme’s original source doesn’t influence your character more than your character influences it.
  5. Draw Them and/or Get Someone Else to Draw Them: Although I know it’s not always necessary in the fantasy genre, designing your characters is also a great way to get to know them. I’m absolutely not an artist, but I do love character design, so many of my sketch books are full of drawings of characters from different stories. Even just a sketch is likely to make you think of your character in a way you might not have–there may be a quirk that you realize they need or a physical attribute that you suddenly feel doesn’t work for them.
    If you really can’t draw, however (and even if you can) seeing someone else’s rendering of one of your characters will absolutely and instantly help define them in your eyes; if the depiction is perfect, you’ll know it, love the picture, and possibly print it and keep that copy in your wallet like it’s a photo of your kids.
    And if it’s terrible, you’ll immediately see everything your character isn’t, defining them in a backwards way (and perhaps you’ll also have an opportunity to change whatever bit of your writing gave your artist the wrong impression in the first place).

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Well, I do believe that’s all I have for you on understanding your characters. If this helped in any way or you feel it may help someone you know, feel free to share. And as always, thanks for reading.

Earth-Modern Race in Fantasy: The Balance No One Talks About and the Quest for “Nobody Cares”

After my last article, it’s become essential to talk about something I’ve considered for a long time. My last article, of course, was all about the uncanny in fantasy—the strange balance there has to be between elements that are familiar and unfamiliar (on a scale skewed by theme and tone).

However, there’s a particular topic that’s always stuck out as… the most unwieldy of all of the possible things you could weigh on the uncanny scale. Race. And no, not inhuman races in fantasy; we’re not talking half-orcs and dwarves here. We’re talking about modern-Earth races—Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, African American, etc.

Aaaaand immediately…

Disclaimer 1: I fully understand that this is immediately a sensitive topic. Not just because race is always a touchy topic, but because I’m also going to discuss very general writing trends. So whether it’s because I accidentally say something that bothers a particular group (I really can’t see how I would) or because I implied that major writing trends should change, all I can say is, didn’t mean to offend anyone—promise.

Disclaimer 2: As always, all of this is written by someone who is not published and does not claim any official expertise on the topic of writing fantasy. These are just the thoughts of an amateur who writes fantasy on a daily basis. What follows is intended to inspire thought, not to stand as indisputable fact.

Disclaimer 3: Finally, more so than any other article, this one focuses pretty exclusively on a particular kind of fantasy story—ones set in completely fictional worlds (so, once again, not modern-Earth settings or modern-Earth analogues). So, if you don’t write fantasy, this article probably won’t be useful for you.

Still here?  Good. Let’s get to it.

Race in Modern Media

A weird thing happened to me the other day. I was playing Saints Row III with a friend. We got to a point where we had to fight an important boss character named Kia, who I liked. I thought it kind of sucked that we had to kill her instead of her commanding officer, but I have to admit that I was kind of biased in that regard; I decided that I liked her at the exact moment when I realized Kia was a lot like one of my own characters—she was tough, she was a soldier, and she was African American.

And as we fought her, something clicked in my head. She was African American. It wasn’t shocking or weird; no, the facet of it that was interesting—what made me smile—was realizing that she was African American and I’d completely missed that. It didn’t stand out that she was, and that was kind of beautiful. Not because I wouldn’t want her to stand out because of her heritage or something—this has nothing to do with her characterization. What this has everything to do with is the world I live in.

Because I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. And back then, the only reason why Kia wouldn’t have stood out in a game or movie is that she wouldn’t have been in it at all.

If she was in it, she would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb. Because she would’ve been the very first character to die.

I don’t want to get into 80’s and 90’s movie trends, but the old adage? That the black guy always dies first? Pretty true. There were obviously cases where it wasn’t, but I remember going to see movies when I was young, seeing a black guy walk onto the screen and thinking, “Well… He’s not going to make it,” and being correct about 80% of the time. It was typical enough of a phenomenon that Deep Blue Sea ultimately made more waves not because it was a monster movie that had intelligent sharks, but because it was the first movie where, despite all expectations, the black guy didn’t die. I still remember watching the ending. The pretty love interest jumped into the water with science murder shark and it was like realizing where the final piece of a puzzle fit. “Oh. Male protagonist jumps into the water, gets her to safety, then LL Cool J jumps in or falls into the water and—oh my fuckin’ God that shark just ate her!” By horror movie standards, it was a perfect way to catch us off guard (cat in the closet’s got nothing on the last moments of Deep Blue Sea), and it made the final, cathartic scene—with LL Cool J and… the… other guy rejoicing that they survived—all the more awesome.

Disclaimer 4: I’m not a crazy Deep Blue Sea fan.

So, in contrast, having Kia play such an important role in Saints Row III made me smile. It made me think of Sir Hammerlock, Coach and Rochelle, and all of the other African American characters that have featured in video games without it being “a thing” in any way.

And it made me wonder where race, in general, fit in the fantasy genre.

Race in Fantasy

To be honest, that was not the first time I wondered about the topic. This will also not be the first time I’ve discussed it.

I forgot who I talked to about it—it was a long time ago—but I remember giving someone a brief description of one of my main characters. As I recall, I summed her up by saying, “She’s basically and blatantly Hispanic.” The person I said that to scoffed. Or… gave a frustrated grunt is more like it. “I kind of hate when race pops up in fantasy.” That devolved pretty quickly into a debate over why it was a problem. I don’t remember the details, but I remember what I came away from that conversation with:

A) Some people won’t like it if you inject race into a fantasy story.

B) In some cases, ethnicity and race totally don’t make much sense in fantasy.

C) In other cases, they absolutely do.

A)

In general, there’s an enduring silence about ethnicity in the fantasy genre. In part, it’s because “race” applies to something completely different when we use it in the same sentence as “fantasy.” But, as can happen with all intellectual properties, there’s also a severe reluctance to let an agenda dictate any facet of the experience; people don’t want race (or rather, race as it is in our society) to play an important role in their stories for the same reason they wouldn’t want the plot to focus on a political struggle that screams Republican VS Democrat; people read fantasy to get away from reality for a while and, logically, they don’t want to be force fed reality’s most complicated topics when they’re supposed to be riding rainbow unicorns into the crystal sunset… or whatever. You get it.

So, ultimately, this also winds up being a question of the uncanny scale; race winds up being too Earth-modern and pulls the reader out of their escapist fantasy experience.

The result is a staunch belief that race doesn’t belong. That person I spoke to actually told me that my Hispanic character would just scream “Hispanic” and that it wouldn’t fit. But, as a Puerto Rican, I’ve looked out at the expanse of the fantasy genre—at full movies without so much as a single tan face—and I couldn’t help thinking, “So… I don’t fit?” Does the need to stay away from agendas and hold a neutral position on the uncanny scale mean that a Hispanic character just wouldn’t fit at all?

The answer, if we consider all of these questions with our themes and settings, becomes a clear and totally helpful “yes and no.”

B)

At first, I wasn’t having those opinions about my Hispanic character at all; there were already wildly ethnic fantasy stories out there (Camorr of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora stands out as a pretty clear, highly ethnic analogue of Italy—at least it seemed to [I’m so sorry if I’m wrong]—and Krasia from Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man has a clear eastern influence).

But, as with every other aspect of a story, the idea of human race has to be weighed on the uncanny scale in relation to theme and setting.

The end result for me: no, it doesn’t make sense that my Hispanic character uses Earth-modern Spanish. Because, really, she isn’t Hispanic—she’s supposed to be a race that I made up and using Spanish words in relation to her is just… cheap, it’s a disservice to her, my world, and my story. In short, I was thinking of her as “my Hispanic character,” and that wasn’t good. I was absolutely wedging an agenda into my world where it didn’t belong.

And I was missing the point that some fantasy settings truly don’t support a variety of human races. If we dial the uncanny scale back to a distance where whiskey doesn’t make sense, then we also dial back everything else, including the progress of migration and expansion. We get fantasy story maps that are clearly focused on a single nation, water expanding all around them with the occasional grayed-out, indistinct land mass at its edge. We get the rare, ethnic character from a nation the protagonists have never heard of, and all of that absolutely makes sense.

C)

But at the same time, it also absolutely makes sense that Etalen (formerly “my Hispanic character”) is ethnic. She still has tanned skin and is still part of a culture that’s drastically different from my other characters’ and it’s absolutely fine and makes sense the same way that a lack of racial variety might be acceptable in another fantasy series—because the theme and setting support it.

Just as a fantasy setting can exist with no tanned skinned characters at all, the Aiel can absolutely be waiting outside the frame of the story. If one were so inclined, they could write a story completely focused on the Aiel and not include a single wetlander (if you haven’t read any Wheel of Time, I apologize for all of these references that aren’t helping you at all). And ultimately, I could also have Etalen, because my fantasy world, Ashaiden, is an island where races from other lands have met and settled. Her not being there at all would be the mistake.

So, in my case, the person I spoke to was both right and wrong. Right because modern Earth-modern agendas are, by definition, Earth-modern, and, unless they’re handled very well, they’ll always stand out and pull readers out of their stories.

But he was also wrong because human race, free of agendas, absolutely fits in fantasy. Really, if you think about it, other races have always been there on the borders of every front matter fantasy map you’ve ever seen–because they would have to be or a basic element of humanity would be missing and a story’s basic human logic would be broken (like a fantasy story where, say, humans are all exactly like us, only they inexplicably don’t breathe).

But why do we still rarely talk about or explore these places? Because there are standards in place that keep us from doing so. The biggest one: the tendency to make a fantasy story set in an (ever-vague) analogue of medieval England. If you’ve ever wondered why everyone has English accents in fantasy movies, this is why; unspoken Anglo-Saxon origin has been a staple in fantasy for ages, to the extent that many of us read our fantasy characters with those accents, even if we don’t intend to. In fact, in most fantasy movies, characters just come standard with those accents even if it doesn’t make sense–particularly as the analogous settings of their stories get progressively less and less similar to medieval England.

Ultimately, the result of following trends like the England-analogue and English accents is what I call the Rue Phenomenon; the event in which a disheartening amount of people raise their voices in alarm when they find that a character in their fantasy novel is black, even though it absolutely makes sense for her to be. It creates an unspoken, accidental grounds for racism. The result is that there’s a black character in a fantasy series, and suddenly, horribly a ton of people protest instead of not caring at all.

The Final Word: A Clear Answer

Ultimately, the answer to whether race fits in fantasy is obviously yes. But elements can always be too modern and unwieldy if you don’t handle them correctly.

Unfortunately, the trend of creating enclosed analogues of medieval England has made the issue of race even more difficult to handle, but the answer, clearly, isn’t to ignore it. I suppose if I can say anything with this article, I want it to be this: if you’re working on a fantasy novel, consider a setting that isn’t a vague analogue of medieval England. Consider a more complex world where a variety of human races is absolutely normal and none of your characters pay that diversity any mind. Create a world where you might not just find a single dark-skinned warrior, but instead another warrior with dark skin.

Seriously, just put in a black, gay gentleman huntsman (I love Sir Hammerlock), as long as it makes sense with your theme and setting.

And help push the standards of our society, if you can, so that in another twenty years, maybe we can just have a black fantasy protagonist and no one will care.

The Uncanny in Fantasy

Man. So, last week’s piece? That was a monster, huh? Seriously, I don’t know how many pages that was. And you know what? I don’t want to know. It’s been a week and I’m still pretty drained from all of that Milestone business. So when I tried to decide on a topic for this week, I was all, “Let’s do something light. Let’s just have a good time… Oh, I know! Let’s talk about the concept of the uncanny in Fantasy!”

Yeah. Cause, ya know, my brain’s an asshole. I tried to think of another topic that I’d rather write about, but my brain refused to even consider anything else. So here we are!

Again, and as always, I have to stress that I’m not yet published and these are just observations I’m making about a genre I love and write on a daily basis. So take from this what you wish with the knowledge that I don’t claim any expertise here. This blog is therapeutic for me and at best, let’s hope it’s thought-provoking for you. In particular, this post is just a collection of thoughts that aren’t meant to provide anyone with anything more than food for thought.

The Uncanny Problem: Not Too Close …

So, let’s say you’re reading a fantasy novel. And you get to a scene where a wizard and a warrior…

… Wait. Dial that back.

A wizard and a warrior walk into a bar. The wizard goes and does magic somewhere–he’s not important (and yet, I put him in?)–and the warrior goes to the bar and orders a whiskey.

How does that feel? Did that immediately stop you–the fact that the warrior ordered whiskey? Does something seem a little… off about that?

Let’s dial that back again.

A wizard and a warrior walk into a bar. The wizard starts dry heaving immediately (because that’s just what came to mind) and the warrior shrugs (?), goes to the bar, and orders a Mike’s Hard.

Okay. That seriously must’ve stopped you. Why?

Because Mike’s Hard shouldn’t exist in this world. Why the hell would there be Mike’s Hard Lemonade?

Well, that’s what I’m talking about here today; that is, according to me, the Uncanny Problem in fantasy. In short, some kinds of fantasy (i.e. not urban, superhero, or anything else that takes place on Earth or a modern-Earth analogue) absolutely cannot introduce elements that are too close to things we have, in reality, right now or even things that are popular right now. That warrior cannot order a hard lemonade because it’s something we have right now that’s popular enough to stick out in our minds as “recent”; t’s just too current (even if it’s not). Really, the whiskey’s also too current, and seeing it immediately ties what we’re reading way, way too closely to reality. Maybe someone could argue around that–maybe someone could make a point that this is the best pub in all of… PublishSaveDraft Town (thanks, WordPress–they’ll never know the difference)–but that person would then be taking time out of their story to explain why the characters have hard lemonade.

I’m a firm believer that you could make a lot of things work if presented in the right way (just trying “sourmash” for example, instead of “hard lemonade”–or even presenting Mike’s Hard in a weird fantasy story that includes lots of modern trappings as part of its theme), but it’s incredibly easy to accidentally include elements that are too “Earth-modern” (we’ll say) in your own fantasy writing. In short, it’s incredibly easy to use the uncanny by mistake and incredibly difficult to use it on purpose.

For example, someone might put a confession booth in a fantasy world church without thinking about it, because, hey, confession booths are things that are in churches, right? But what if the society that built the church is a race of deep elves, let’s say? What if for the majority of your story, you illustrate that these elves aren’t keen on apologizing and often take opportunities that will further their goals out of principle, with no remorse? Would this society actually have confessionals in their churches? Or would churches be something practical that they use for other purposes? Would worship even be the same for this race? Do you, as a writer, feel like you have to justify these elves having confessionals for it to make sense? Is there a chance you’re just trying to justify these confessionals because they’re what you expect to be there–possibly because they’re familiar? And, maybe, easier? The answer to all of these questions probably isn’t clear immediately, but your best possible response whenever you encounter them in your own writing is always, “I should really think about that.”

It’s a slippery slope. Especially because fantasy also can’t go too far away from what inherently makes sense to us… as humans.

The… Other Uncanny Problem: Not Too Far

Okay. Just… Just try this on for size.

A blorfenlaz magic soul and a sentient… (fuck)… metal (fuck it) phase through the flesh wall of a jenmursian. The sentient metal slides through… the… the membrane–

Look, whatever. You get it. What does any of that mean? How does any of that make sense? It doesn’t. Because none of what I was thinking relates to you, as a human, at all. You’re already lost and I didn’t even get to the part where that sentient metal orders a Mike’s Hard.

Because as much as it is fantasy’s job to challenge reality, the genre also can’t stretch too far away from it. Why? Because we’re human, writing and reading human stories. I do believe the genre can push past this inhuman point, but eventually, you pass into sci-fi… or into something else that we as humans just inherently wouldn’t want to read. I’d love to see that envelope pushed as far as it could go, but that’s mostly because I’m really unsuew how far someone could take it.

I think the best anti-uncanny pushing I’ve ever read comes courtesy of Brandon Sanderson. In a lot of his writing, he pushes the boundaries of what we consider normal. But even then, those otherworldly details are tied to concepts we understand. The best example that I can think of are kandra in the Mistborn series. If you haven’t read it, I’ll just say that kandra are not like human beings; they’re an incredibly original, bizarre race that’s really fascinating. But, as a reader, they’re easier to accept because they prefer to present themselves as humanoids–and even beyond physical presentation, kandra think like humans. Even if this was not an intentional decision on Sanderson’s part (I’m not comfortable with making one assumption or another about any writer’s intentions here), the point is that the need to have inhuman things presented as humanoid is as much a facet of fantasy as the need to not have elements be too modern. It’s why orcs and atronachs and countless other races, no matter how weird, are still almost always “humanoids.” It’s why a fairy realm, no matter how bizarre, still has castles (or, if not, still has homes or dens or any kind of dwelling the faeries call their own). It’s why even if there’s not Mike’s Hard (and really, there better not be), there’s still–always–ale.

In short, there’s a weird balance between what’s absolutely not okay to put in a fantasy world and what’s not okay to omit.

Disciple or… Student?

It’s a weird divide. And one I have struggled with because it’s the kind of issue that can pop up for nearly any detail during your world-building. There will inevitably be the point where you think, “Well… should these forest people have bread?” and “Wait… how likely is it this other race would have large wings?”

The answer here is a resounding, “Do research.” But even after research–and on humbler issues, like the naming of a drink in a tavern–the question becomes, “What do I call this thing?”

And that’s when you have to work the uncanny scales and decide. Is your initial concept unrealistic in relation to your fantasy world? Then dial it forward or backward on the Uncanny scale until either you get something that’s both human enough and otherworldly enough to work (keeping in mind that unless you’re making a story about, say, half-orc vampire squid, it’ll probably be [inherently] easy to keep things human enough). In my experience, even just working that dial on one concept–like “student”–will eventually result in a word that might change your concept of a character or world element (in my case, I recently worked the scales on the word “demigod” and wound up with a different concept that changed the way religion works in one of my worlds).

~

Well, I think I’ll call it quits there. Thanks for reading and, as always, I hope you enjoyed the rant.