Characters of Chaos: Crafting Responses to a Crumbling World

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Late last month, right before I took my trip to Las Vegas, I hit a milestone in my life.  I turned 30 years old.

I’ve never been someone who’s been that obsessed with my age.  People generally think I’m older than I am – the copious amounts of gray hair might have something to do with it – and I’ve always been perfectly happy to let them.

Being young is no fun.  Your opinions are dismissed and your experiences trivialized.  You don’t get any discounts on stuff between the time you forfeit your student ID and the time you join AARP.  Strangers think they can tell you what you should or should not be doing at your age, and give you unsolicited advice about a future that looks absolutely terrifying at the best of times (thanks, Baby Boomers).

I’ve always wanted to be a grown-up. I’ve always wanted to do grown-up things like buy small home appliances and have a reason to hand out business cards.  My teenage years were tough, and my 20s were even tougher – I’m not that sorry to leave them behind.

One of the (many) reasons why I struggled with my youth was my absolute faith in institutions.  I was raised to respect authority, which is a good thing, but I also read way, way too many Victorian-era novels that also made me afraid of it.

Pro tip: don’t let your seven-year-olds read abridged versions of Dickens unless you want them to grow up with an unshakable fear of getting caned for speaking out of turn.

Teachers and professors, doctors, bosses, older colleagues or peers, rules and regulations – they were all infallible.  They all said and did things for a reason.  A good reason.  A reason that must have been thought about and examined and tested and passed down as the wisdom of the ages.  And I, young and naïve and painfully sheltered, must be the one who was getting it wrong.

The world had a lot to teach me, but not in the way that I first thought.  The more I learned about institutions and authorities and experts, the more I realized that the people in charge were winging it almost as much as I was.

Not all rules exist for a reason.  Saying something with confidence doesn’t make it correct.  Even if you read it on the internet, it may not actually be true.

That can be a pretty big shock to someone who used to plan out her birthday party schedules down to the minute and is still deeply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would call a college professor by her first name.

I like order, and I like feeling as if things make sense.  I like institutions, and evidence-based decision making, and I like data.  I don’t like that the world is, fundamentally, an unstoppable whirlwind of pain, loneliness, confusion, and chaos.  I’d rather believe that someone out there knows what they’re doing, and that there’s a possibility that I might be able to do the same thing.

The notion that things happen for a reason – or happen according to reason – is a comforting one.  It gives us a sense of belonging and purpose, and cushions our shortcomings when something goes awry.  A black and white existence is a simple one.  Simple can be good.

And that’s where you start a fantasy novel.  In a world that makes sense.

Whether it’s on the family homestead with your adolescent hero or in the halls of a king presiding over a golden age of peace, most stories start at the breaking point, when the good king dies and leaves his country without an heir, the princess realizes that her intended is a traitor, or the Sherriff’s men destroy the village and leave shattered innocence in their wake.

The beginning of a good story rips away those false foundations of false surety and throws the main character into an unfamiliar and dangerous world.

A good character is built on how he or she responds to that.  And that is, fundamentally, what all stories boil down to.  What do people do when faced with bad things?

I think we’ve all seen the charts that divide characters by the influence that they exert on the world.  Chaotic neutral, lawful good, true neutral, lawful evil: this is a great way to codify how they impact the plot.

But it doesn’t specifically show why they act that way.  What makes them believe that there is good in the world?  That people are fundamentally bad?  That there is a god(s), or that there isn’t?  To do that, we have to move beyond the basics and take a deeper look at their response to the realization (or lack thereof) that the universe is a big, scary, chaotic, anarchic place.

So here are a few character archetypes I’ve come up with based on their response to chaos.

The justifiers

The ingénues

“Ignorance is bliss” would be the motto of these characters, if they even knew they were being ignorant.  Children too young to form rational thoughts and spoiled pets are the only ones who can really fit into this category.  Someone who has never experienced any sort of unpleasantness, conflict, or misfortune is rare, and usually unbelievable.  Most characters who seem this innocent are either hiding something or willfully ignoring something, which tends to put them in one or both of the next two categories.

The faith-driven

Faith is a powerful force for a whole lot of people.  Entire societies are built on it.  Entire eras have revolved around it, and it’s one of those basic tenets of pre-modern societies that play a major role in the fantasy world.

Faith-driven people believe that there is a greater force watching over them, guiding them, and laying out the rules.  They may believe that there is chaos in the world, but it is often the work of a single great adversary (the devil or other dark spirit).  Everything happens for a reason, but that reason is usually unknowable.

While this can be frustrating to those who think differently, it can be a great source of comfort to the faith-driven, who may look beyond the suffering of the mortal worlds towards the promises of a glorious afterlife.

Faith-driven people can often have a lot of experience with pain, poverty, grief, stunted freedom, and/or helplessness.  Their choice to believe that there is a greater purpose – that happiness is achievable and the chaos can be conquered by their deity – is how they cope with that.

The law-driven

Law-driven characters also turn to an external concept to find comfort and make sense of their world.  They may also have strong faith in a deity, but their primary god is duty and honor.  They may be strongly attached to a monarch or other figure of authority, or they may make the abstract concept of “the law” or “the right thing to do” into their primary motivator.

They may believe in adhering to this code of ethics no matter what the consequences, and might think that they will be rewarded for loyalty and honor in the long run, even if it’s in the afterlife.  On the flip side, they could be cowardly and blindly obedient, unable to reason for themselves.

They can be stubbornly rigid in their view of how things should be, which can make them unpopular, or they can be genuinely eager to make the world a better place.  They believe in solutions of one kind or another, and they want to fix things according to their own notions of right and wrong.

A subset of the justifier archetype is the love-driven character.  They may include elements of both the law-driven and faith-driven person, but their object of orientation is a romantic relationship.

The observers

The jaded

This is where a lot of modern heroes and heroines live, I think, since moral ambiguity is all the rage these days.

The jaded are those who might see the chaos, recognize it exists, but just try to do their best to get on with their lives.  They are neither strongly faith-driven nor overly concerned with adhering to the precepts of another person.  They are not actively evil, but they are generally not spotlessly good, either. They might believe in right and wrong, but they can fall on either side of the line – or ignore the line all together.

They might rely strongly on luck, happenstance, or good fortune to explain why they haven’t been totally annihilated just yet.

Whether they’re soldiers of fortune, fallen angels, wandering samurai, or disgraced civil servants, these are people who have probably tried to follow the herd, but have failed to find fulfilment or success in a normal life.

They can be interesting characters, and they may claim that they hold no allegiance to anyone other than themselves, but at the end of the day, they have to make a choice or a sacrifice that sticks them on one side of the good/evil divide, and could determine the outcome of the story.

The opt-out

Those who don’t make the choice – or made the wrong one and want to lament about it for a few pages so your main character will learn from the mistake – might fall into this category.  These are your hermits, your mad monks, your wandering wise women, and your myopic scientists.  They might care about the chaos, but only because it’s statically significant.

Honestly, these characters aren’t really that interesting on their own.  They may serve to give help, information, exposition, or insight to the main character, and they make great plot points but people who don’t make choices don’t have much of a reason to be a sustained player in the story.  If you rely too heavily on these people to drive your plot or provide a running commentary, it’s going to end up pretty weak.

The manipulators

The puppeteers

Now we get to the fun part.  The bad guys.  These are the people who know the world is going to hell in a handbasket and love every minute of it.

The puppeteers are primarily concerned with manipulating the chaos for their own selfish advantage.  The scheming courtier; the traitorous servant; the lieutenant who will stop at nothing to drive the hero to madness.  The one with the evil plan that may or may not get away from him.  The second-in-command to the really big boss who hopes his nefarious activities will net him some coveted reward.

These are great supporting characters, but when it comes down to it, the puppeteers usually find that their own strings are being held by someone even worse than they are…

The masters of darkness

…like the pure evil of the master of darkness.  Now you’ve got your dark wizards, your warlords, your Queens of the Underworld, and your dastardly masterminds.  These are people to beat.  They don’t just accept that there is misery and evil in the world – they want to set it free to consume all that is good and holy just because they like to watch things burn.

Adding nuance to these characters can sometimes seem difficult, especially since they often only exist just to give your hero something to do with his life.  But if you think about them in terms of input in addition to output, you can create a backstory that is a little more elegant than just saying, “Well, someone has to be the bad guy.”

The agents of entropy

On the far end of the scale is the agent of entropy.  These are not evil characters, exactly.  They just exist to mess things up.  The meddling mother-in-law, the trickster god, the unlucky peasant pushed out of the way of the prince’s runaway horse by the hapless heroine.

Sometimes these are quick encounters that serve only to move the plot forward.  But other times they are a force to be reckoned with.  A best friend with a penchant for getting in trouble after a night out isn’t just a one-and-done plot device.  The whole story could be about the main character wrestling with the boundaries of friendship, or getting deeper into some kind of mess when trying to fix whatever their friend broke.

Entropy is required to drive the story forward to its crisis point, and these characters often cut across other archetypes as they move the plot along.  I think these can actually be really interesting, especially as someone who doesn’t really understand people who love chaos for chaos’ sake.

As far as my own character type goes, I’d call myself a jaded but law-driven observer.  I want things to make sense and to obey the rules; I want to try to make the world better, and I want everyone to be wonderful all the time, but I don’t necessarily think there is any surefire strategy people can use to ensure that they will get their happily ever after.

In any case, I hope that looking through this particular lens can help you view your characters in a different way.  If you think I’ve left anyone out, or you just want to share what type of person you think you are, leave a comment!

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Doctor Who and the Sin of Sloppy Storytelling

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Warning to Whovians: This post contains spoilers for the most recent season, including this week’s episode.

Warning to everyone else: You’re probably not going to care much about the particulars of this post, so feel free to wander on by.

Storytelling.  No matter what medium you choose – movies, TV, novels, flash fiction, or comic books – there’s nothing more important.  Storytelling is the overarching competency with which you build your world, develop your characters, and follow the actual series of events that constitute your plot.  There’s nothing more important because there’s nothing else you’re trying to achieve, really.

Storytelling is everything – and Doctor Who is really bad at it.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I’ll start off by saying that I’m not a die-hard fan, by the most stringent definition.  I’ve only picked through a couple of the classic episodes just to get my bearings, and I started watching the new series a mere three years ago, so I’m late to the game.

But I really enjoy it, and I think it’s done some excellent things over its (gasp) nearly ten-year-long run.  I think Peter Capaldi is a fantastic actor, and I love the passion and wryness that he’s bringing to the role.

Which is why it’s so disappointing to see him fall victim to really terrible plotting and some cringe-worthy, elementary storytelling mistakes.  This season has been especially dismal, as the showrunners try to jazz things up and make everything cool and dark and edgy.  It’s been nothing but failure after failure, and there are lessons for storytellers of all kinds in those rudimentary errors.

Here are four of the biggest pitfalls that the Doctor has failed to avoid in recent weeks.

Detail doesn’t always equal world building

Little things can make a big difference when it comes to fashioning a realistic society.  A mention of a past cataclysmic event, the unique wording of a minced oath or a prayer, and the way a woman dresses or a man greets his friends can add life and color to an otherwise flat environment.

But knowing where to put in details – and where to leave them out – is what distinguishes a rich world from a cobbled-together mess of cultural clichés.  Let’s take the Indo-Japanese set-up in Sleep No More, for example.  You may remember that each of the soldiers talking over their communication device would say something like, “Come in, Ando.  May the gods look favorably upon you.  Are you dead yet?”

Now, I’m sure the writers intended that phrase to bring a bit of Neo Asian spice to the rather haphazard and poorly-presented 38th century cultural landscape, but here’s the rub.

Number one, I guarantee half of you misremembered the phrase as the one from The Hunger Games, so that was poorly planned.  Number two, there was nothing about gods in the rest of the plot, so who cares if they’re looking favorably at anyone?  Everyone dies anyway, so clearly it doesn’t work as a benediction.

Number three, extraneous words like that have no place in military communications, where they could be garbled and confused, and they certainly waste time and effort when speaking on a two-way radio.

So what did that detail bring to the party, other than confusion?  Did it make you feel more connected to a world you never even really got to see?

Suspension of disbelief?  Rubbish.

In the same episode, the Doctor commits the cardinal sin of storytelling: he gets roped into telling, not showing.

“Well, of course the vicious sand men are the sleep from the corner of your eye,” he says based on no evidence whatsoever.  “You’re just going to accept that dead skin and mucous can become sentient and kill people, aren’t you?  I’ve never encountered this before, and I’m not even going to bother making up some silly technical jargon to explain how they came to life, but let’s just take this as a given because we have to get to the pointless ‘twist’ at the end pretty soon.”

He did the same thing with the quantum shade in Face the Raven this week.  What is it?  Why does Me have it?  Why can she only control it to the exact degree required to manipulate the rest of the plot into shape?  Why should we just accept that Clara is destined to die, when the Doctor is so good at getting out of all these other “inevitable” situations?

Now, the episode will be continued next week, so I guess we can’t discount the possibility of an explanation.  But with the way things are going, I wouldn’t bet my hat on it.

This is especially frustrating because you can look back at an episode like Mummy on the Orient Express, where the Doctor spends a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell the monster is.  Because we already know the Doctor hasn’t come across every single type of lifeform in the universe.  And when you see something new, you have to figure out what it is before you can kill it.

He actually solved a mystery, instead of stating that a) there is no mystery because the Doctor knows things he really has no way of knowing, or b) the mystery is simply unsolvable or irrelevant, so you’ve just got to accept it because they said so.

You can’t just say things that are outrageous or unfamiliar to an audience and expect them to go with it.  You have to at least throw them a little bit of a bone.  Even if you’re just going to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, you must have some sort of justification for why things happen the way they do.  “Trust me, I’m the Doctor” only works in some situations, not all of them.

The Doctor has (nearly) infinite time, but we don’t

Cut to the chase.  Really.  I mean, can we talk about Odin in The Girl Who Died?  What was the point of that?  Unless it was some kind of subtle homage to Monty Python, I haven’t seen anything so ridiculous since the low-budget days of the 1970s.

Tell me I'm not the only one who saw this.

Tell me I’m not the only one who saw this.

Also, think about it.  If a big alien guy is going to come to a Viking village, eat all its warriors, and then immediately leave, why does it have to cloak itself in a form familiar to the culture?  Any big scary monster is going to make the warriors come out to fight.  It doesn’t have to insinuate itself into the mindset of its enemies.  It wasn’t planning to stay until Aschildr antagonized him.  Why waste our valuable time pretending that it matters?

The whole episode was a bit of a stretch, with the montage of preparing for the battle with the Mire and whatnot.  It definitely felt like they had enough material for one-and-a-half episodes with Maisie Williams, but they had to stretch it out into two.

The thing is, they really didn’t.  Doesn’t the Doctor have enough to say about immortality (or something like it)?  Couldn’t they have done some better foreshadowing if they knew Me was going to come back and kill Clara a few episodes later?  After all, they’ve made such a big deal about Clara’s drawn-out leaving saga that they could have spent more than five minutes on the fact that she was actually, finally going to die.

TV episodes have 42 minutes to make us care.  Doctor Who tries to make a brand new big, complex world fit into that tiny block of time each and every week.  There isn’t room for meandering and filler.  There isn’t room for loose writing and pointless detail.  Tighten up on the reins and give us the punch in the gut we know you can.

Tugging on the wrong heartstrings

Speaking of which.  Am I the only one who had absolutely no recollection of Rigsy?  I was not given any indication that I had to remember him when his primary episode ended, so I spent the whole time trying to recall where he was from.

And that meant that I didn’t particularly care that he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  Yes, the wife and baby at home gave it a gloss of tragedy, but let’s imagine something else for a minute.

Imagine if the episode started with Clara in her bathroom.  Wait – first imagine that you’re not totally sick and tired of Clara.  Then imagine her in the bathroom looking at the back of her neck.  She picks up the phone, her hand shaking slightly.  “Doctor, I seem to have a tattoo…and it’s counting down.”

You’re immediately invested, because you know Clara and you care about her.  You’re intrigued if she blanks out for a whole day, because you know she’s smart enough and experienced enough to be aware of alien things that might happen to her.  So why can’t she remember?  Bam, instant tension and mystery.

Bam, the Doctor has an immediate and pressing motive to figure out what happened.  He has to fret about losing Clara for the whole episode, not just the last two minutes.  They both have to face the inevitability of mortality, and they get to do it together.  Clara can do more than throw away a single line about courting death this whole time.  She can explore who the Doctor has turned her into, and she can either forgive him or blame him for it as she stares down her final moments.

The Doctor has to face the fact that he can’t save everyone – not because Clara made a stupid and clumsy mistake just to further a plot point, but because sometimes there are evil forces in the world greater than he is.  The Doctor doesn’t always win – and we could have had 42 minutes to explore his pain at that notion.

But we didn’t.  We had five minutes, and it felt like a total waste of time.  Because the writers missed this golden opportunity for some serious drama.  They misjudged the audience, and they misjudged their own capabilities to craft an absorbing farewell for a long-running character.

The problem is that they’re trying too hard and they don’t have enough of a critical eye to make it work.  Everyone needs to be a little brutal with the red pen before anything gets finalized, and I don’t think they have an editor that can ask the tough questions and make the right calls.

It’s very disappointing that this season has struck such a sour tone.  It isn’t all bad – I liked the underwater ghost episodes, and I enjoyed Peter Capaldi yelling at the Zygons about peace in our time.  But there are so many amateur mistakes in the construction of these episodes that there’s so little incentive for me to keep watching as faithfully as I have.

So please, showrunners.  Get it together.  Trim the nonsense, find a way to get under our skin, and skip the silly meandering around what really matters.  You’ve done it before.  I’m sure you can do it again.  And if you want me to fly over there and set you all straight, I’ll start booking my tickets.

World Building 101: Four Steps for Designing the Fantasy Landscape

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Whether you’re self-published, traditionally published, or just writing for yourself, all fantasy authors have one big thing in common: we all love being the omnipotent rulers of our own little worlds.  There is something immensely satisfying about imagining our brave adventurers hiking through treacherous mountains or galloping towards the enemy on the field of battle, stirring passions in our readers as we fling fictional men and women into deadly conflict, hopelessly tangled in a complex web of fears, loves, hatred, and desires as they risk their lives for some noble (or ignoble) cause.

The bulk of any fantasy should be driven by these characters and the decisions that they make.  But the bones of every good story will be rooted in the earth.  I’m talking world building in its most literal sense: the way the landscape shapes cultures, inhibits movements, presents perils, and contours the personality of its inhabitants.

If you tend to think of geography as nothing more than that easy class you took sophomore year of college, you might want to reconsider its place in your writing repertoire.   Here are four important steps to take when integrating the landscape into your basic story development.

Draw a world map

In my opinion this is the most critical (and most fun) part of the world building process.  It doesn’t matter if you have artistic talent or not: you have to have a visual overview of what you’re trying to achieve.  Whether you’re working in a pre-industrial landscape where the majority of people are still tied to the villages where they were born or a steampunk metropolis with rapid transit opportunities, you’ll never know where your characters are going until you can see it for yourself.

Where are the farmlands?  Where are your cities?  Where are the trade routes, and who has control of them?  How long will it take for people to travel from the capital city to the Haunted Cave of the Magic Thing?  What’s going to get in their way?  How will your giant armies maintain their supply lines through rough terrain perfect for hiding rebellious partisans?  How will a colder or warmer climate change a battle plan?

Sketching out the mountain ranges, lakes, oceans, islands, and rivers, as well as the boarders between countries and the major routes of travel, can be a quick and simple way to get a better idea of how your world is going to shake out.  It doesn’t have to be publication quality, but it should at least be a solid guide for your own edification.

Look at some real maps to get an idea of how land masses are formed.  Mountains don’t just stick up in the middle of nowhere, and rivers don’t just spring up for the heck of it and flow any which way they want.  Get a handle on the basic relation of geographical features if you want to add a rich, realistic dimension to your landscape.

And don’t forget to draw things to scale!  Journeys are big deal in fantasy writing, and if you have multiple plot threads with people moving across the landscape, you want to make sure they aren’t crossing entire continents at an improbably rate of speed.

Adapt and tailor your cultures

It’s easy for fantasy authors to take the pick-and-mix approach to cultural development, and say, “Well, I want an Arab-based culture here, and a Mongolian-type tribe over there, and a Spanish Conquistador-esque arrangement on the next continent over.”  We all do it to some extent, because it’s really hard not to draw from what we know when we try to think about how people behave.

I’m totally fine with that – as long as you put your cultures somewhere that makes sense.  What made the Mongols so effective at being a ravening horde?  Their wide open grassland habitat and subsequent mastery of horses.  So don’t put them on a tropical island chain and expect anyone to believe they can be successful nomadic herders.

Do make sure that the people on those islands do island-related things like eat a lot of fish and build good boats.  They might intermarry at a higher-than-average rate if they’re isolated from other cultures.  That might make their family alliances stronger – or it might fuel an ancient feud inflamed by outside exploration.

This might seem like basic stuff, but it’s important to really think about how being near a major river will affect a culture’s development differently than being next to the sea, or how a character raised on rich farmland will have a different perspective on the gods and fates of your universe than one who has lived with drought and famine because a city upstream is diverting water or hogging all the grain.

Environmental stressors make great conflict-builders, but you need to understand the mechanics behind them if you want your world to feel realistic.

Build tension through history

My love of history has always informed my love of fantasy, because they are largely the same thing.  Sure, there are fewer (provable) elves in Dark Ages Europe than there are in Middle Earth, but that’s just semantics.  The way people have interacted with each other throughout our real history – the way they trade goods and exchange ideas and explore strange religions – has always driven how the fantasy genre unfolds, and that history is a breeding ground for plot points that can engross your readers in your story.

It’s all about resources.  It always has been.  It’s why people conquer their neighbors and why cities fall to sieges.  Grain, meat, water, minerals, metals, and wood are what empires are built on, and the back-and-forth of armies and politicians crossing physical and social boundaries to grasp at them is why history and fantasy are both so fascinating.

Old wars and old wounds are sometimes even more interesting than new ones, and they can add a richness and depth to your characters’ allegiances.  Did someone kill someone else’s ancestor in the battle over a strategic bridge?  Did a legion starve to death in the mountains because a storm took out the ships promised by the king?  Did someone seize a village or a mine that they ought to have left alone and made your hero an orphan?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to create conflict through the things that are important to people who don’t have grocery stores and mega marts to shop in.  For agrarian societies, the land is life, and the land is death, and the land is where you can spark some of the most interesting struggles your world is going to see.

Stay consistent as the action unfolds

Above all, be sure that when you make a decision, you stick with it.  You might want to write a world where rivers really do flow upside down, cargo dragons make mountains irrelevant, and everything is grown hydroponically underground.  That’s great!  Be creative, but be consistent.

No matter how your world operates, figure out what can go wrong with the system and crack that sucker open as widely as you can.  It doesn’t take much to make a delicately balanced universe come tumbling to its knees, but it has to be believable.

Ensuring continuity and consistency with world building takes a little bit of background work, to be sure, but I can’t imagine any situation where it wouldn’t pay off.  This doesn’t mean that you need to devote 12,000 pages to talking about alluvial deposits and glacial erratics and drainage ditches, but a spoonful of detail can make a world of difference (pardon the pun) to readers looking for an immersive and engaging escape.

Worldbuilding 101: A Dastardly Plot

After running around like a chicken with my head cut off for the past couple of weeks, I finally had a little bit of time this past weekend to relax, calm down, and focus on what’s really important: binge re-watching both seasons of Pushing Daisies.  And, uh…writing.  Right?  Yeah. Totally important.

I’m getting to the meaty part of the second book in my new series, where things start to get really complicated.  Since I hadn’t been able to settle down with my manuscript for a while, I ended up sort of listlessly poking at the keyboard, jotting down a few passages that were pretty but not too relevant, trying to recapture the mood and remember where exactly I was headed.  It isn’t always so easy to dive back into a universe you’ve neglected even for a short period of time, and I was getting frustrated with my lack of direction.  So I turned to my old stand-by when I’m feeling stuck: narrative plotting.

I know a lot of people are pretty rigid when it comes to the way they plan out their books.  I’ve previously recommended programs like SuperNotecard, and plenty of people are sweet on Scrivener or EverNote to keep their thoughts in order.  But I would recommend something a lot simpler if you need to snuggle back into the warm, fluffy blanket of your own imagination – or if you’re just not sure how everything is going to come together or what to write next.

I do this…

plotting

…and I find that it really helps.  I leave the names in, though, so I know what I’m talking about.  It’s informal, easily changed, and it captures my stream of consciousness without nagging about order and perfection.  As much as I love a good old fashioned outline with bullet points and index cards and super organized color-coding, I get most of my best ideas when I’m just going with the flow.

I think I probably will end up transferring the bulk of the series’ plotting to something a little more structured as the story builds and the lies pile up, but when it comes time to figure out what the heck my characters are going to get up to next, I always turn to the simplicity of a non-judgmental blank Word document and the pleasure of free writing my way to an epiphany or two.

The Desolation of Smaug: A Cautionary Hobbit’s Tale

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I trust that watching the newly released extended trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has already been part of your NaNoWriMo procrastination routine, right?  Go on, watch it.  I’ll wait.

Now.  Let me just say that I’m not planning to review the movie before it comes out (you can read my review of the first one here).  That would be silly.  I have no more information about the full shape of the film than you do (and probably less if you’re gone all fanboy about this on the forums), and I shall, as always, maintain hope that Jackson has done justice to the task entrusted to his Kiwi hands.  However, I have issues.  I have lots of issues that need airing, and that’s what I plan to do right now.

Radagast is back

This, it goes without saying, is a horrible thing.  If you don’t think it’s a horrible thing, then I can’t help you.  I simply can’t.  You can leave now.

Lots of random Elves are back

On the surface, this is not a horrible thing.  The history of the dwarves has always been intimately tied in with the Elves, and exploring it can in the film can help non-Tolkienites understand the reasons behind what goes down in Mirkwood, etc.  Do I have a problem with Legolas being there?  Not really.  If my memory serves, he wasn’t mentioned by name in The Hobbit, but it’s not stretching artistic license too far to give him a role – although how big of a role he gets remains to be seen.  But then there’s the girl.

Oh, yes.  The girl.  The girl is symptomatic of the disease that we all knew would plague this unnecessary trilogy from day one: story bloat.  It appears that Jackson has confused widening a story with deepening it, which is an amateur mistake he should be ashamed of.

There is more than enough backstory he could have drawn on to bring color and richness and drama to his tale without inserting a random elf chick, and that offends me both as a book-to-movie purist and a story teller.  It also offends me as a female, because it means that Jackson has once again fallen into trap number two…

The token woman is back

Jackson really likes his Elvish women.  From Arwen’s weird and drawn out quasi-death scene to Galadriel’s party crashing in An Unexpected Journey to Tauriel’s strange nearly-word-for-word repetition of what Merry said to Treebeard at Entmoot, the token female Elf is alive and well in Middle Earth.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, the Lays of Beleriand, and more of Tolkien’s works, women play a very strong and vital role in shaping events.  In The Hobbit?  Not so much.  Why?  It’s very simple.  The Hobbit is not a story about women.  It’s a story written by a father for a little boy about adventure and dwarves and dragon slaying, and women simply don’t enter into it.  It’s not misogynistic.  It’s not maliciously exclusive.  It’s just not a story where females fit into the narrative of events.

So why add them?  For me, and many others, I find it much more offensive that a filmmaker would add a token to pat on the head and wave around then it is to acknowledge that some things just don’t need our presence.  It irks me deeply on many levels to see that Jackson is continuing this disappointing pattern, even with ten years of comment and criticism under his belt.

Also back? Armitage, Freeman, McKellen, and their little dragon pal, too

There is nothing wrong with any of this.  I will happily watch Richard Armitage glower his way through anything, even if he is three feet tall.  I am not disappointed about seeing Aidan Turner again.  Sir Ian McKellan has always been flawless, and I remain pleased with Martin Freeman’s continuing cross-universe inability to control the behavior of Benedict Cumberbatch.  Carry on.

What do you think?  Are you in agreement?  Are there other things that bother you?  Is Jackson a cinematic god that can do no wrong?

World Building 101: Stress Fractures

NeuschwansteinWhen I was in my freshman year of college, I was sitting at my desk doing some homework.  I reached out towards the mouse, and twang.  Something weird happened in my wrist.  A little strange snapping noise, a bit of pain, but I ignored it and it mostly went away.  The next few days, I felt like I had sprained it.  The next few weeks, I started to get worried.

The next two and a half years, after lots of doctors, x-rays, a couple of MRIs, and a lot of cab fare to see a specialist in New York City, my entire life became consumed with the fact that I couldn’t use my wrist at all without a great deal of pain, and no one in the world seemed to know why.

Eventually, that specialist found the answer.  I had a quick surgery to repair a tear in a loose tendon sheath that was disrupting the whole motion of my joint, and now I’m as good as new.  But that tiny movement brought everything to a screeching halt for longer than I had ever anticipated.

That tiny, little, insignificant part of my body, that shred of cartilage, changed everything else about my life because it decided to misbehave.  It sent me on a painful, expensive, tedious journey that taught me lessons I didn’t particularly want to learn, but altered the way I view my physical self.

Whether you’re a vegetable smoothie world builder or a proponent of a more direct approach, developing your setting is the key to drawing in your readers and retaining them throughout the arc of your story.  And in fantasy, that story arc often involves some kind of seismic shift in the political landscape that sends your characters tumbling along on their adventures, at the mercy of capricious gods or evil men.  It’s not always a huge, cosmic event, and it’s often a lot more believable for the world to turn on the fate of one man (or an ornery tendon) than it is for a planet to come crashing into the sun.

It’s that imperceptible shift in landscape, that tiny rupture in the norm, which drives history forward.  So the primary question you need to ask is this:  What is keeping my world working, and what is the absolute smallest thing that can make it stop?

People in a world with many cultures or races or even a rigid social strata tend not to like each other very much.  Why not?  How can you create a spark that makes those tensions erupt into conflict?  It doesn’t have to be more than someone of the wrong caste walking into the wrong shop.  An argument is started, someone gets shoved, and all of a sudden, you’ve got people bashing each other with rocks in the street, a panicked ruler afraid of an uprising, and a smarmy foreign king looking to swoop in and exploit the chaos that tips the region into all-out war.

Societies crumble easily.  Revolutions start from the bottom up, and find openings where one might not expect.  Tiny, stupid things align to bring down dynasties, and those unexpected stress fractures have felled more empires than I can easily count.  So try it.  Raise a tax.  Imprison an activist.  Reveal an illicit affair.  Derail a peace talk because someone throws up on a rival after drinking too much.  They’re not big things, but they can bring action, tension, bloodshed, and impetus to your landscape, providing a rich and realistic backdrop for your characters to wade through as they strive to heal the wounds.

Information overload: World building on a need-to-know basis

worldIt’s hard being a supremely omniscient creator god.  Builder of worlds, master of destinies, arbiter of the fates…whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of work.  It’s even harder to distill the majesty of your intricate, expansive domain into a couple of paragraphs scattered throughout a novel, because nothing ever seems to really get to the heart of your magnificent world and all the little clockwork gears that make it so endlessly fascinating.

World building is the biggest challenge that any author of speculative fiction can face.  How do you craft a universe that’s utterly unique and yet completely plausible and realistic?  How do you weave your history and your technology, your magic and your science into the daily lives of your characters without being super obvious about it?  There are two ways to go, and in my opinion, both have their merits.

There’s spinach in this and you can’t even tell

The vegetables-in-the-smoothie approach is a favorite with moms of picky eaters, and for good reason.  Slipping in clues here and there with an occasional flashback or a legend told by the fireside is an excellent way to get those details into your story without slapping down ten pages out of a history textbook.  Many readers prefer a gentle introduction to the quirks and rules of a new society, explored over a couple hundred pages in a meandering, by-product sort of way, tucked here and there into the sweeter bits of action, romance, and heartache.

Your focus in a vegetable smoothie story is probably going to be much more on the plot and the characters, not necessarily the world they inhabit.  This works wonderfully for stories where your society is based on standard, established fantasy tropes: a pre-industrial, European-inspired quasi-medieval word – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It works…if you’ve got a plot worth sticking around for, and you add enough spice and context to your society that it’s intriguing enough to follow.  It takes the burden off of the author to be stunningly original (which is really, really hard) and it puts readers in a familiar comfort zone so they can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Eat your broccoli, damn it, or you’ll get no dessert

Then there’s me.  And a lot of books that were written before 1900, before the in medias res came into fashion.  We will flash-bang you with names and dates and places and geography in the first fifty pages, and demand you keep it all straight for the next six hundred pages, referencing ancient, historical bits and pieces that your glazed-over eyes failed to take in seventeen chapters ago.  The benefits of this approach are a) it’s all in one place, and you know you can turn back to page 15 to re-read the bulk of everything you need to know without flipping through the whole novel, and b) it frees up the rest of the book for battles and betrayals and all that good stuff.  Once you get your world’s rules out of the way, your plot can operate in a society that might be too complex to explain otherwise.

But you do run the risk of turning off your readers.  Not everyone reads those history textbooks for fun on a Saturday night, and there’s a significant possibility that they will put the book down and walk away.  Clean-your-plate authors are stubborn, and usually they don’t care.  This is the story they want to tell, and they only want readers who will put in the effort.  And they tend not to attract huge audiences, although they do get some very dedicated fans.

The key, of course, is a blend of the two.  Put the necessary amount of set-up in chapter one, but then move to the slow drip.  Readers like to be given adequate context without being overloaded with the lineage of the main character’s great-great-great grandfather before even getting to the opening scene.  It takes practice, especially for clean-your-plate authors.

I tend to write it all out in my first expository screed and then cut and paste bits and pieces into other areas later, based on how my story evolves and what my reader needs to know at any given point.  You should have seen how heavy-handed the first draft of The Last Death was.  Literally seven pages of solid history before you even met Tev.

Some would argue that there’s still too much unnecessary background crammed in to the first chapter, but I don’t sugar-coat my Brussels sprouts.  A little caramelization might not go amiss, maybe, but you know you’re getting your greens when you pick up one of my books, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which approach do you favor?  How have your readers reacted to your methods?