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).

~~~

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.

On Reaching the Creative Writing Milestones

Earlier this week, I popped open an email from a friend. She’s an aspiring author like me, and like me, she has her strengths and her weaknesses as a writer. In particular, she does really amazing research; I definitely search for a quick answer or example for an element I want to use, get it and stop reading if I can work with what I found, but she learns all that she can about a topic, records relevant details, makes an educated decision about what she’s going with and why (and then records those reasons as well, I believe).

Anyway, I’m reading her email and spot something that comes up off-hand; she’s actually written a bit–her words (well, tone [whatever]), not mine. She only spared a sentence for this bit of information, but I smiled. Not in a douchy way, but because, in my mind, she hit the third Creative Writing Milestone (or Waypoint? [Tier? Tier! That works… No it doesn’t (not Event [not Phenomenon (not Happening [Got it! Yes!… Milestone!])])]). And just knowing that–seeing where she was in my concept of the writing process–made me want to tell anyone about that concept. So here we are!

Before I go on, I should caution you that they aren’t a defined thing supported by research; they’re the product of my observations and opinions as an aspiring writer and, as with nearly everything on this site, they’re flavored with an implied “fantasy” before every instance of “writing” and “fiction” (whatever application you can take from them as a general fiction writer, for example, is completely up to you).

That said, in my mind, there are Milestones that every aspiring writer experiences. Each of them is an event (phenomenon, or happening) that–while not all difficult–are still steps we have to surmount and experiences we need to have for better or worse. They are events that I believe we all experience, although their prominence in our lives is different for each of us. I should add that if you get nothing from this, you’ll at least have a pretty clear idea of my growth as a writer.

Anyway, enough foreplay.

The First Milestone – The Realization

You realize that you want to tell stories. Specifically fiction. You aren’t sure what or how, but you want to entertain people. Perhaps you’ve read something and enjoyed it so much that you wanted to try doing the same. Or you experienced a story in a different medium that you enjoyed but that you knew could’ve been better, and now you want to figure out how by writing the story you expected. No matter how you came to realize that you want to write, the point is, you know now and it starts to color how you see everything.

However, for a while, there’s only guess work. You fumble with a few ideas as you try to decide what stories you want to tell, but these ideas may never fully take. Eventually, you may either forget these ideas or remember them fondly regardless of your choice (I hope you remember them fondly). At the very least though, you find characters and story elements that you really like during this time, and often carry them with you afterwards, growing with them and eventually finding their stories if you can.

For me, the Realization only came in full after I did two separate things: played Lunar: The Silver Star for the first time and watched Jurassic Park for the first time. I do fondly remember the characters that I found in those days, but I’m not the person to tell many of their stories (although I brought many of them with me, I could not bring them all; oddly enough, one of my current characters is actually named after one of my First Milestone characters who I had to leave behind [because he was literally just the stereotypical noble knight]).

I haven’t met many people who come to this point and don’t continue–this time for a writer is usually exciting, I think, so there’s an uncontrolled, unplanned, and potentially accidental progression to the next Milestone.

The Second Milestone – The Concept

After trying a few ideas, you experience your very first, oddly cartoonish epiphany; there’s a really good chance that somewhere in your timeline, a young you actually stopped what he/she was doing, jumped up with eyes wide and said, “That’s it!”

After the epiphany, everything happens very, very quickly. You start to create a world based on that single, brilliant idea–an idea which can be anything from a particular setting to a social element in your world. It could be the origin for a character or even just the reason why they wear an iconic piece of clothing.

For me, it was a single social detail about a world that I didn’t know otherwise. I thought the element was amazing, and, in my memory, it was immediately followed by countless details about that world and the realization that two of the characters who I’d been drawing for the past year were key players in its story.

Now, the important thing to realize here is that the Concept can be absolutely addictive. It can go on for ages and can ultimately swallow a writer whole. It’s beautiful, pure creativity, but it requires a lot of work that most of us give willingly, which is part of the problem. For my part, I spent at least ten years of my youth creating new ideas for the one fantasy series. In retrospect, it would’ve been a terrible idea for me to start writing that series in high school, but regardless, the point is that I just kept building that world. And when it got too big, I didn’t stop–I remember having countless files on my computer that conflicted with each other (we’re talking about conflicting world timelines). When I realized this, I tried to prune it all down, but in my excitement, I just created more details and piled them on. Ultimately, I never started that first series in part because it’s still an incredible tangle of concepts that I know I can’t use and won’t do justice to until I’ve had experience actually writing and being published. The point is, however, it’s incredibly easy to burn out from all of this; in my experience, in fact, this is the point where many of us ultimately give up. We carefully and meticulously build worlds and then life happens and for whatever reason we forget or we let go. Either way, very few of us actually move on to the next Milestone.

The Third Milestone – Actually Starting

I don’t want to say that anyone who hasn’t made it to this point isn’t a writer–I believe that anyone who meticulously and lovingly builds a world is someone who wants to write.

However, there is ultimately a huge difference between building that world and actually writing a story in it. Put simply, no matter how much you love your world and your characters, no one will ever find out about them until you start putting pen to paper. Actually doing it–actually starting to tell your story–is one of the most important things you can do. Because, to vastly understate a fact, it’s the hard part. This is the point where you challenge yourself to do this thing you’ve wanted to do for years but were afraid of. This is where you actually try to give these characters you love their voices.

And if you’re anything like me, this is where you suddenly realize that among all of the elements you created, all of the tense dialogue you outlined between characters and all of the plot events you lovingly polished until they were all shiny with epicness, the one thing you didn’t actually do was write out a full, detailed, logical plot that your stories follow. There is a first scene or a first chapter that you work through, but you eventually get tired and stop because you find that there’s no chapter 2 outlined anywhere in all of those notes.

It’s important to say here that this Milestone isn’t all failure though–it’s a victory. You’ve actually started to write and that’s awesome. However, it’s another, strong opportunity for an aspiring writer to stop. Suddenly things don’t work and, at best, you struggle to make them work. You start to let go of some projects while focusing instead on the best you have because you start to realize that what you considered a collection of awesome stories is actually just a group of ideas that require execution to be completed (and enough logic to be executed).

But at the same time, the experiences that come with this Milestone are synonymous with actual, successful writing, and for some of us, the entire process can stop here. Over the years, you can figure out everything about a story, finish a novel, get published, continue writing, and be happy. But again, that’s for some of us.

For the rest of us… there’s the Fourth Milestone.

The Fourth Milestone – Realizing that Everything You’ve Been Writing Is Complete Shit: The Reckoning

<sigh> So… every Milestone is important. But for a lot of us, this is the final, terrible hurdle. Like I said, not everyone experiences this one.

But for the majority of us, there comes a reckoning. It will have been coming for years, and when it finally hits, you’ll melodramatically realize, “I always knew.” It may come out of nowhere or it may come from finally and honestly trying to accept harsh criticism you’ve received for a sample you sent out. Regardless, it is, officially, the point at which criticism stops being inherently harsh in your mind. Not because you’re suddenly zen, but maybe because your third eye opened, and through it you realized that when someone said they didn’t like x and y about the excerpt you sent them, it wasn’t because they were assholes (unless they were actually assholes about it)–it’s because your excerpt actually sucked. And why? Because when the Third Milestone came, you realized that “things don’t work,” you spent the last few years struggling to “make them work.” And in the process of trying to force things to make sense, you took shortcuts and made tenuous, odd ties between conflicting elements. You held onto original concepts you liked (i.e. the magic flute that lets the one character talk to animals) even though they no longer worked with newer, more logical angles you created (i.e. it’s silly how unnaturally useful this flute is). Put simply, your brain and your heart have been fighting on paper and you stepped in to force a settlement between them. And that torn up battle ground? That story that doesn’t make the sense you thought it did? That’s what you’ve spent the last few years writing.

You were too close–that old creative writing adage you’ve heard and used so many times without actually knowing what it meant. In short, the answer was never “make the magic flute less useful.” The answer was, “You honestly think this fucking magic flute is stupid, just like everyone else. Why aren’t you seeing that? Why are you so afraid to delete that stupid flute?”

But, it doesn’t matter. As harsh as all of this is, the point is that you realized you were too close. You finally saw what you were doing and you stepped back and honestly reevaluated your writing. You actually took the criticism and looked at it instead of just glossing it over and telling your friends, “Thanks. I’ll definitely keep this in mind.”

Now, I’m probably biased because I just got to this Milestone a few years ago, but I cannot help thinking that it’s something every writer should look out for. If you’ve been writing for a while now and you love what you write to the extent that you’re sure everyone’s opinions about your work are wrong, you need to stop and very openly and honestly reevaluate yourself as a writer. If you have friends who have told you that your work is great but you have a hard time tying scenes, character motivations and plot events together in a simple, logical, and compelling way, then–as harsh as it sounds–you need to consider that your friends are being nice and that your story / characters / writing in general is missing something.

Something, by the way, that you can absolutely provide. At this point, you will have already worked on your craft for years, and despite how bad this sounds, this is not a reckoning that you won’t understand. When you get here, you’ll realize you’ve been ignoring issues with your writing for ages. Whether it’s because you’ve heard it from others or because you’ve made excuses for clear plot holes, you’ll know what’s wrong.

But when you get to this point, you’ll have found a solution. And maybe it won’t be clear (maybe you’ll have to figure out exactly what you need to change about your writing to produce quality stories), but finding this solution–admitting that you can always improve as a writer and that you always need to try harder–is synonymous with producing quality writing. If you reach this Milestone, you haven’t been defeated. For lack of a more melodramatic phrase, you’ve been set free.

~

Well, that was an incredibly long post. If you read through, I hope you enjoyed and got something out of this. Either way, thanks for reading.

A Year Later

So I was on the bus with Chaos Mechanica last week after seeing The HughJackverine. It had been about two years since I’d last seen him (Mechanica, not HughJackverine), and talk eventually turned to work. Our days after Infinite Ammo have seen him get a position with Dual Shockers, a gaming website. And they’ve seen me…

… Well, definitely fail to finish writing my book in the time constraints I originally gave myself with Brand New Day–let’s just throw that right out there. It’s been a very long year after IA and it hasn’t been kind; there’s been all manners of fighting with friends, fighting with family, various fun injuries, and a lot of other issues I don’t want to get into. Really, the fastest way to say it is, life happened. Oh, did it ever happen.

Anyway, back to Chaos Mechanica; we got around to talking about our blogs eventually. He asked me how long it’s been since I’ve written on mine. I was all, “I seriously have no idea.” We talked about how blogging was a therapeutic thing anyway, and how, really, we just didn’t have the time for it.

But, despite having a job now, I realized… I do absolutely have the time for this blog.

If I’m completely honest about it, time was never really an issue in writing this blog the same way that time is never really an issue… with writing. It wasn’t that I couldn’t–I just didn’t, which is always the brutal truth of writing anything; yes, we may come home from work and we’re exhausted. And yes, we may get to our day off and we just really can’t be bothered to start because we just want to relax. But, really, those are always comfort choices; it’s never that we absolutely need to spend the whole day gaming, watching TV, going out or doing whatever–we just choose to.

And that’s absolutely what happened with me. While it would be nice and dramatic to pretend that I took a break because I was sad that I lost Infinite Ammo, the truth is, Mechanica and I gave it up; for my sake, I can admit that journalism was not for me at all and the constant pressure, along with the certainty that I didn’t really know what I was talking about a lot of the time, absolutely burned me out. Pulling back from that–taking a breather from talking about the gaming industry and comics industry like I was an expert when I absolutely wasn’t–was so cathartic that I kind of just gave up everything. It was a choice that I made the same way an aspiring writer comes home after work, sits down, and decides without a thought that, nope, they aren’t writing tonight. And, really, it was the worst choice.

But, there’s something important to specify here. While I say I gave up everything, I mean everything except for writing my book. My book which I’m super embarrassed to admit I’m still working on (even though I’m somehow also absolutely proud to still be working on). More to come on that, but for now, the point is, I haven’t given up on that, which, I believe, is why I’m writing this blog post at all. Because despite everything falling apart–despite deciding to give up for a while–there was something that I never questioned sacrificing–my writing. As hokey as it sounds, I just kept doing it in part because it was always there, always waiting, and always relying on me to do it. Because there are characters with voices that only I know and places only I have seen and I would be nothing without those people, those places, and the chance to bring them to others.

Man did I say “hokey”? Not a strong enough word.

This is all to say, I realized that I have the opportunity to write about all of this here on this blog because I haven’t given up. And I have the opportunity to share my findings with other people (specifically my findings about writing fantasy–the one thing I’m certain I know about). So why shouldn’t I do that? Because I’m tired? Because I got burned out? If I say yes to those things, then I’m not a writer.

So, instead, I’ll just say, hi. I’m back.