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Category Archives: How To

Magic’s Pawn

One of my favorite styles of magic, though not often see is not a clever way for the protagonist to control the forces of magic, but a system where the forces of magic control the protagonist.  I suppose an ancient prophecy ca work kind of like this or a higher being giving direction, but I’m talking a more concrete and local form of control, yet exercised by a more abstract force.

The forces of magic involved don’t necessarily have to be sentient or intelligent in the way a human is or, even an animal although they could be.  Honestly, I think not being so makes the situation all the more interesting.

Think of the way a bee is involved in an ecosystem: generally as a pollinator.  Now imagine that a human (probably a mage or this world’s equivalent, but not necessarily) has been incorporated into the magical ecosystem of the world in the same way.  Some force of magic has evolved to encourage certain behaviors in human mages that are beneficial to the magic of the world that force of magic is part of.

Perhaps there is a cycle sort of like the water cycle that benefits from humanity in chaos, and so the magic has evolved ways to create that chaos through empowering some mage or person.  The specific actions of the person are irrelevant to the magic, as long as they cause a great upheaval.  The system may not even care if humans would describe this pawn of magic as “evil” or “good”.

Humanoid characters are almost always portrayed as exerting control over the magic of their world, but they are rarely shown to have been integrated into the system–as we are integrated into nature, even despite our control of it–despite what is portrayed in the world’s history as thousands or even millions of years of coexistence.

Where are the magical world equivalents of modern climate change?  There are apocalypses sort of like nuclear bomb analogs.  Mercedes Lackey’s Winds series, for example, with it’s effects on the world of the end of the war depicted in her Gryphon’s series.  But rarely if ever are there subtle build-ups of all the interference caused by humans harnessing magical forces.  Not even on the local level like the magical equivalent of the flooding and ecological damage caused by damning rivers, or the water shortages caused by different political entities failing to cooperate on usage rights of the local river.

I would love to read (or write!) some fantasy exploring a closer relationship between man and magic than simply human master and magical servant/slave.

 

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Reading Outside Your Genre: Blogs

One of the most common pieces of advice that I hear from writers is to read outside of your genre.  In fact, some writers go so far as not reading anything inside their genre while they are writing.  Which I think is taking things a bit far, but…  The point is, it’s very good advice.

Why?  Here’s another piece of advice I hear all the time:  “Even if your story is has almost exactly the same topic/characters/theme/plot as someone else’s, it will still be different.  Put your own spin on it.”  Again, a fantastic piece of advice.  But how do you do it?  One way to get ideas is by following our first piece of advice.  Every genre has its own tropes and conventions, things that are common amongst the majority of stories in that genre.  But some of the best work in any genre involves tropes and conventions that aren’t normally a part of it.  And you won’t know what those are if you only read inside your own genre.

Blogging is a lot like writing.  There are tons of blogs out there, about almost every topic you can think of.  So how do you make your own blog stand out?  Here’s My 5 Step Plan to Writing a Rocking Blog:

1.  Identify the goals of your blog.  Who is your target audience?  What are you trying to tell them?  What methods will you use?  What style will you write in?  What is your blog’s genre?

2.  Look at other blogs in the same genre.  How do they approach their readers?  What tips and tricks do they use?  What formatting do they employ?  What are the most common templates for blog posts?  How-tos?  In-depth analysis?  Anecdotes?  What style do they adopt?

3.  Decide how to satsify your target readers.  How can you use what you’ve learned reading other blogs to create a blog that people will want to read?  What have those other blogs done right?  What have they done wrong?  Which of their techniques can you make work for you?

4.  Now read blogs that aren’t in your genre.  What kinds of things don’t your genre’s blogs talk about?  What else do you find interesting besides the standard fare of your genre?  What blogs grabbed your attention?  What techniques did those other bloggers use that made you want to keep reading?  How could these bloggers maintain your interest in topics you had never been interested in before?

5.  Apply what you’ve learned.  What do you see on blogs in other genres that could be adapted to your own blog?  What things in those other blogs could apply to blogs in general?  What topics did you come across that were relevant to your own genre, but rarely addressed?  What did you find that could make your blog stand out?  What will be your twist?

Of course, digging through hundreds and thousands of off-topic blogs is tough.  There has to be a way to narrow down your search.

And you can find it right here on the Chimney.  As a special service just for my readers, I’m going to point you to some of the out-genre blogs that I use to keep my perspective wide.

Tune in every Saturday, when I will write a post featuring a blog outside of my own genre, and why I read it.  I will explore what makes it such a fantastic blog in its own right, and why it is relevant to those of you who may be reading my blog, even if you don’t share a genre with me.

Keep in mind that I am first a spec fic writer and reader, then a fiction reader.  I will be looking at blogs that mostly apply first and foremost to writers, because that’s what I am, and its also my target audience.

So the chances that I will be high-lighting sports blogs; or that if you run a site on how to buy and use a gas grill the blogs I feature will give added value to your site are slim.

But they could!  The whole point of me writing this post was that you never know what could attract readers.

Hopefully, this feature series will kick off Saturday, July 23.  I’ll be plugging it wherever I reasonably can.  Please feel free to mention it to your friends, fellow bloggers, and also your readers.  If you have a blog you think should be featured, or if you like to submit your own blog, don’t hesitate to e-mail me.  You’ll find my contact details on my Contact Me page, in the menu at the top of the page.

I’m also going to put this out on my Twitter, so feel free to Re-Tweet (and follow me if you aren’t already) if the mood strikes you.  There are tons of awesome blogs out there that you should be reading, and I’m going to do my best to introduce as many of them to you as I can.

Because I’m curious about how well people police their identities on the internet, I’m going to wait until six hours before the each post go online to notify the bloggers in question.

(Pro Tip:  Setting up Google Alerts and other services to keep track of how your name is mentioned on the internet is not egotistical.  It is good social net-working practice and it can not only improve your relationship with others by making you aware of their interest in you, it can help nip problems in the bud.)

Now, she doesn’t know it yet, but I’ve already selected Romantic Comedy author Tawna Fenske at Don’t pet me, I’m writing to be the first featured blog.  It was in fact one of her posts that inspired this series, because she is just that awesome.  Don’t wait for the post, go follow her immediately!  And feel free to tell her who sent you. 😉

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2011 in Authors, Blogging, How To

 

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The Good, the Bad, and the Timeskip

One of the most versatile tools in ther writerly arsenal is the time-skip.  In fact, it might be the most versatile tool in the story-teller’s arsenal in general.

Let’s look at some examples from television:

There’s an intense moment, perhaps a friend has just been killed, or fallen off a tall tower, or maybe the heroes have just killed the monster, and… BAM! Timeskip.

Because, really, what is left to show after the hero screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” for two minutes.  How are you going to show the come-down from that?  For the most part you can’t.  Which is why I hate shows with a lot of long, anguished screams.  You see this in anime all the time, as well.  You see, the timeskip can be a great tool, but it can also blind the writer to other possibilities.

After the 40th time I’ve seen a scream/timeskip, I’ve gotten really tired of them.  Seriously, writers, find a better way to show this emotion.  The fact that you have to resort to timeskips so often after a major character dies tells me your skills at emotional depiction are rather one-trick pony.  It’s clear you just don’t know any other way to move on from such a scene.  But they exist!  And you should learn to use them.  And the same goes for any other dramatic moment.  Fade-outs aren’t everything.

 

But timeskips can still be good.  Once you’ve finished the scene and sequel, we don’t need to see everything that happens between then and the next major event.  A little “***” can work wonders.

“Quick, shut the door!” she yelled.  I slid the bolt into place just as the first oozing, moaning thing crashed up against the glass.  The sun peaking over the roofs across the street just made the pale, peeling skin more sickening.  I could hear the scritch-scratch of broken nails as they dug into the solid oak grain.  I could see the hunger in life-less bllodshot eyes.  I closed the curtain.  He wasn’t getting fries with this.

***

Eventually the creature wandered off, looking for easier pickings.  I shivered despite the warm sun poking through the thin fabric of the curtain, knowing that if this had been a summer blockbuster instead of the real thing, there’d have been an arm through the door, ready to rip off whatever was at hand.  But without a fully functioning brain, the nerves couldn’t get enough of a charge to do anything to solid wood except claw and moan.

That’s a passage from halfway through a zombie apocalypse book I wrote for god-knows-what reason.  It’s certainly not well-written enough to stand out from the crowd.  But between those two paragraphs was hours of whispers, weeping and shaking.  It would have taken thousands of words and the reader didn’t need to see it.  And that little line of asterisks let me skip all of it, and you never even realized you were missing anything.  You had the build-up and the resolution and none of the junk in between.

 

The same goes for long journeys.  If nothing happens between Parsell and Merrit, your characters can go to sleep in Parsel and be awake and in Merrit by the next paragraph.  There’s no need to drag the reader through the eleventy-hundred bowls of stew and loaves of journey-bread the characters eat on the way.  Which is not to say that you can’t put scenes in between, especially if it’s a long journey.  They just has to be relevant to the story.

 

Which brings up the third use of time skips.  Lots of time actually passing.  If four years happen between one important scene and the next, you’ll never be able to include the in-between, and you shouldn’t need to.

The real secret to doing good timeskips is knowing how to show the time passed.  In our little zombie snippet, it was just a few hours between evening and morning.  Not much happened but the zombie leaving.  But if you’re skipping months or years, things are going to be different.  Characters will have moved around, things will have been accomplished that may not be important for the reader to see, but they will have an effect on the characters and their circumstances.

 

Those are three common uses of time skips: skipping short periods of time between scene and sequels, skipping over time and distance such as ona  journey, and skipping long periods of time, such as in an epic fantasy saga.  There are more, but I can’t address them all in one post.  I wish I had been able to include more specific exmaples showing the difference between a good timeskip and a lack of one, but that would also take up too much space.  If you’ve read any decent amount of books or watched tv shows or movies, you’ll have your own examples to look at.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2011 in How To, Writing

 

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Why I Subscribe to Blogs

I have recently subscribed to a new blog, Invincible Summer from lovely YA writer Hannah Moskowitz.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually the first new blog I’ve subscribed to in a year.

So why did I subscribe to it?  Did I stumble upon it on Google?  Find a link on a bookmarking site like reddit or delicio.us?  No.  I kept running into links on other sites and blogs.  Took part in some conversations on Absolute Write.  After about the fiftieth link on blogs to which I am already subscribed, I stopped by and read the first ten posts on the blog.  Several of them were exactly the sort of thing Ilook for on a writing blog, and so I copied the url into my googlereader.  Now, I’ve done similar things with other blogs, but I ended up not subscribing.  Here are the five most common reasons I subscribe to a blog, and the five most common reasons why I do not:

Why? (In no particular order:)

1.  Links from blogs I already follow.  The more the better.  They tell me that there is a consistent pattern of valued and valuable content.  These can be posts about the link only, or they can be round-ups.  If I start to recognize your name on a round-up post, I am very likely to give your blog itself a look.

2.  Meeting the blogger in a community setting, such as a forum for writers.  My top forum for finding good blogs?  Absolute Write.

3.  I buy one of the bloggers books and like it.  if I like your book, then I have a reason as a reader to look you up.  If I like your blog, it’s because I enjoy it as a writer, as well.

4.  I see one of your books on Amazon or Wikipedia.  These are the places I go when someone recs a book to me.

5.  Guest posts on blogs I read.  These are fantastic advertisements for your own blog.  They mean someone I trust likes what you have to say, and they are a good sample of what I expect to find on your blog.

Why not?

1.  I go to your blog and I see advertisements.  If I get to the point where I’m reading through your recent posts to see if there’s a pattern of value, I don’t want to see adverts for your books.  I don’t want to see contests, or giveaways.  All of these things are fine.  But they are not what attracts people to a good blog.  A good blog gives something to the reader, it does not only solicit money for the writer.

2.  I go to your blog and all I see is pictures of your cats, covered in bacon or otherwise.  I am not looking for cat blogs.  I am looking for writer and/or writing blogs.  If you want to occasionally post pictures of your cats or of sunsets, or of your cute little kid, that’s fine.  But it’s a grace note, something you can foist off on me as content once I am engaged and interested.  John Scalzi likes to post amateur photos of sunsets, and they are very pretty.  I like them.  But they are not why I read his blog.

3.  If there have not been any posts for over two months.  I don’t think I need to explain.

4.  If the posting schedule is inconsistent.  This is not a big loser.  It’s why people invented blog readers, so I don’t have to check every day to see if a bloggers has dug up and displayed some nugget of wisdom for me.  It’s a small issue, but consistent posting does tell me that this blog is likely to survive long enough to be worth my inital investment.  (I am also a hypocrite for saying this, since I have updated irregularly of late.)

5.  Boring stuff/stuff I have seen before.  This is tougher.  These sort of posts will attract blogging newbies, because they have not seen all the other examples out there.  But the best blogs provide something new, something you can’t get elsewhere easily.  After the thirtieth generic query advice post, they all start to seem the same.  If they are well-written, I will forgive you.

So, here is the conclusion.  I want good content on a consistent basis.  I understand that promotional posts will pick up when a book release is imminent.  I understand tha real life gets in the way.  But if your entire blog morphs into promotion when a book is coming out, or you suddenly veer into all extras about your cats and kids, then I am likely to not subscribe, or else to drop my subscription if I already have one.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2011 in atsiko, Authors, Blogging, How To, Ideas, Rants

 

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The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic.  And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool.  I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so.  One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.

Everything has a cost.  You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going.  The cost of most things is pretty clear.  But the cost of magic is different.  Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system.  I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice…  Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.

All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic.  And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world.  Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs.  For this  post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:

The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy.  Shoot a bow?  It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release.  By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at.  Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together. 

So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic?  Well, it often is.  But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:

1.  It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect.  Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release.  This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip.  Makes perfect sense, right?  This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.

But what about with magic?  How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball?  In reality, we can’t.  But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow.  That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie.  Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.

But what about for bigger spells?  Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word.  No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer.  And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region).  So now we’re in a bit of trouble.  Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.

Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself  is not as easy as it would seem).  Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow.  Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands.  A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible.  Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow.  Jack of all trades and whatnot.  So why should magic be so priviliged?  Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future…  The list goes on forever.

At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit.  Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire.  But right now we’re talking about cost.  There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable.  Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own.  At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.

2.  Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic.  One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again.  All it takes to level a city is an apple?  I find it hard to countenence.  What was the creator of this system thinking?

If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine.  Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it.  But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should.  Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story.  The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it.  Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again.  If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward.  Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause.  So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.

None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires.  If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers. 

But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later.  Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other.  Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything.  You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time.  But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.

Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot.  Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature.  Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?

 

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How the Four Aspects of Character Define the Story: Part 1… and a Half

Last time I brought up the four main aspects of character in fiction.  Hopefully everyone who read that post now has a good understanding of what these aspects are and how they relate to each other.  In the next set of posts, I want to go into more detail on how these various aspects of character interact with the story.  I’m going to be illustrating these interactions with examples from published fiction, and maybe that will give you a better idea of what I’m saying.  I know I can be a bit opaque at times. 😉

The easiest aspect to address is “skills, abilities and attributes(SAAT)”.  We’ll stick to that for this post, since the discussion is going to be much more involved.  In fact, if the title suggested to you that this will take more than one post, I may be getting better with titles.

First, I’m going to tack on a fourth part of this category, the “T” in the above acronym.  It may seem like hair-splitting now, but when we eventually discuss Mary Sue/Marty Stu characters and cast balance, it’s going to come in handy.  Trust me.

T stands for… “talent”. ***pauses for the groans to pass***  Whatever you may think about talent in real life—whether you follow the 10,000-hour-genius school of thought, or the natural gifts philosophy—the fact is that it plays a large role in fiction, whether that’s your heroine’s staggering gift for pissing off her friends, or her incredibly advanced flute-playing.  Or whatever.

Next, for the rest of these posts, I’m going to use the word “trait” to refer generally to any part of any aspect of character.  “Personality trait”, “physical trait”, “motivational trait”—and I can’t really think of a reasonably graceful term for SAAT traits.  Feel free to suggest one in comments.  I’d appreciate it.  Also keep in mind here that there’s a very similar continuum as far as intellectual traits go, with intelligence standing in for natural talent, knowledge for skill,  and so on.

Now, back on-track:  Not only will this aspect affect how readers perceive and sympathize with your character, it has a lot to do with your plot, or it should.  Unless you’ve tacked on a bunch of extra awesomesauce traits to make your character cooler, the way they meet the obstacles in their path is going to rely almost entirely on what they can do.  (That is, for the external conflicts.  Internal conflicts are a whole other story.  In fact, you might say that every book has two stories, one following the plot, and the other following the characters.  But that’s a topic for another post.)  If your character is a demolitions expert, they’ll be seeing safe-cracking from an entirely different perspective than if they were a computer programmer/hacker/console cowboy.  We’ll be starting with a no-skill situation, and picking the next thread up later. 

No matter how many latent talents your character may have, they’re not going to get much done without a repertoire of skills.  They might be the strongest mage in the world, but if they know jack about casting spells, some poor conjurer panhandling in the park could out-magic them.  This situation is most often found with younger characters (but not always), and it comes equipped with a whole host of tropes and conventions to help writers get around it.

Trope 1: The Call et al: If you’ve ever read any epic fantasy, you’ll know what most of these tropes are.  They’re laid out in excruciating detail on TV Tropes, or in Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Face.  These all relate to how even though the MC is a completely worthless good-for-nothing, (s)he will still somehow manage to save the world.  We migh generalize and call this “Fate”.

Trope 2: School!  I know everybody’s familiar with this one.  Harry Potter, Name of the Wind, Earthsea, Velgarth,  a bajillion anime and manga.  This is where the talented, the not-so-talented, and the absolutely abysmal gather to learn their craft.  Older students tend to go to a high-class university or get more practical training.  I’m just happy Eragon opted to skip this trope.  Stories that follow this trope generally contain a great deal more slice-of-life action that Fate and Mentor stories.  While learning the skills needed to resolve the conflict is still important, it’s not usually the driving force behind the characters’ actions.  For Harry, going to Hogwarts has little to do with defeating Voldermort in the beginning, for example.

Trope 3: Master/apprentice:  Unfortunately, Eragon opted not to skip this trope.  Any fantasy writer is going to be only too familiar with this one, though it applies in many other genres as well.  Martial arts, competitive board games, you name it.  It may not be as common in genres that require the character to start off with a comprehensive skill set—such as mystery, thriller, or romance.  Same for school, actually.  A good recent example is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, which features and adult version of this trope—something that’s sadly uncommon.  Although younger protagonists are generally less self-directed than good ole John.  We can call this the Mentor story.  You can often find him hanging out with Fate, but almost never school.

Trope 4:  Natural Talent: except it’s usually not “natural” talent, because that requires nurturing and focus.  What we’re talking about here is “my character can do this because(s)he’s a) awesome, b) made of cardboard, c) the child of a lazy writer, d) the prophesied messiah/hero/destroyer, e) the MC, duh!, f) in need of these powers too fast to do things right but plot is king, g) all of the above.  This is not always lazy writing, and the other two tropes can be just as bad.  But I always see a sign in my head when reading about these characters: “Here there be Mary Sues!”  Again with the Eragon, shouting a word in a language he’s never learned to solve a plot problem, even though it’s established he has to learn almost every other word in this language by himself later in the story.  In The Wheel of Time, Mat is especially prone to this syndrome, thanks to his transparently named Old Blood, which lets him do things that would normally require him to be significantly older than he is.  This trope is friend with everybody, though I can’t say much for their taste in this case.  It’s very convenient for passing time and getting around tedious things like practice and hard work that many writers and readers like to avoid.  Movies can often trade NT in for a montage.

Trope 5: The Pre-Promote: I’m adapting this term from rpg/strategy games, where it’s common to have one or two very strong characters at the beginning of a game or in certain storyline situations so new players can be coddled for a while.  In fiction, these are often people who could probably do this job better than the protag but are constrained by the writer’s love for their phosphorescing authorial insert.  Our examples here come again courtesy of Robert Jordan.  Moiraine uses the One Power to do most of the heavy lifting at the beginning, except on a few occasions where Rand exhibits a bout of Natural TalentTM, usually used to make him seem less of a wet dishrag than he really is at that point.  Physical combat is handled by Lan or occasionally Thom Merrilin, while Lan trains Rand in the easy and unskilled art of spitting men on three feet of steel. 😉  The Pre-Promote is friends with everybody.  They may take the role of Mentors in Fate stories, or teachers in School Stories.  They may or may not have Natural TalentTM, but they are quickly surpassed by the MC, and often die in very gruesome manners.

There are many other tropes associated with no-skill stories, but those are the major ones.  We may or may not address others at some point in the future.

A no skill situation means we won’t be seeing the true obstacle until late in the story.  For inexplicable reasons, the antagonists will not do the smart and expedient thing by going straight for the throat.  They’ll stall and be distracted until the protagonist is up to the challenge of facing them.  That’s because characters in these circumstances need time to learn how to get things done.  Whether early obstacles are overcome with help from soon-to-be-killed Pre-Promotes, or through sheer luck, it’s usually not due to direct action on the part of the protagonist(s). 

A character with no skills can function well in a very limited number of story structures, and no overdose of tropes is going to make that number any larger.  So if you decide to use such a character, make sure you’re coloring within the lines.  Now, there’s never just one way to write.  This is only what my own experience has been.  So feel free to chime in with dissenting thoughts and opinions, and to call me things you couldn’t say in front of an eighty-year-old sailor, if you like.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2010 in How To, Ideas, Writing

 

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Atsiko’s Character Recipe for Stories

Last time I talked about how to move from a plot idea to a full story idea.  We learned about ideas, plots, and story questions.  But as I said in that post, there are many ways to begin a story.  One of the other most common ways writers begin stories is with a character.  So today, I’m going to give the basic steps of taking a character and creating a story around them.

Again, there are a few aspects to this–four, to be precise–and you can start from any one of them.

First, we have an image.  That is, a picture in the writer’s head of what the character looks like.  Images can be a lot of fun, but to turn a character image into a story probably requires the most work.  Common inspirations for character images include dreams, chance sightings in public, and sometimes a certain aesthetic, such as Steampunk, Victorian, or Vampiric.

Character images are very similar to character designs in games and anime/manga—that is, the visual aspect of the character.  While this is less important or visible in writing than character designs in visual media, it still needs to be known by the author, in order to allow for description and scene-setting. 

Now, why might this aspect be the hardest to start with?  Because stories are about characters—and more specifically, their personalities and goals.  While a character image might reflect that, it’s not the root of the issue.  But character images are only part of what you would find in a character profile such as many writers use to describe the character.

The second part of that profile is usually the character personality.  Their dominant traits, such as neurotic or fiery; their likes and dislikes, such as favorite food or favorite color; and of course the way they interact with other people: Are they bright and boisterous, dirty-minded and sly, or perhaps aloof and brooding?  This aspect is easier to build from, but still not the easiest.  While it is important as far as cast interaction and sympathy go, it doesn’t have the most influence on the plot.

Our third aspect of a character is made up of goals, dreams, and motivations.  This is where good stories arrive at their themes and basic plots.  Most plots either involve pursuing the characters dreams, or frustrating them.  Myself, I prefer a certain amount of frustration, since that’s where most tension and conflict in the story is derived.  It’s hard to write a good story with interesting characters when this aspect is lacking.  It’s also one of the primary issues that pansters seem to encounter in their first drafts. 

In fact, this aspect is where most stories are lacking in terms of character.  If you’ve ever heard the term “card-board character”, this is what it’s talking about.  You might have the character image down-pat, but if there’s nothing behind it for a reader to relate to, the reader can’t root for the character, because there’s nothing to about them that’s interesting. 

Personality plays a role as well, but if this aspect is not addressed, all the snark and wit in the world isn’t going to drive the story forward.  “Passive character” is most often the term for a hero who’s got both image and personality, but is an empty vessel as far as trying to achieve their own goals.  While you might be able to get away with a passive character in some types of stories, it’s still a risk that you shouldn’t take lightly.

And now we just have one more aspect of character to discuss: skills, abilities, and attributes.  Anyone who’s familiar with RPGs knows how important this is, although since there’re only NPCs in fiction, it doesn’t have quite the prominence they’re used to.  This category deals with skills such as self-defense, manipulation of the environment and others, and normal physical attributes such as speed or strength.

Now, you’ll notice I’ve divided this into three categories.  I’ve used ones derived from common RPG mechanics, since they fit so well.  Naturally, these categories are going to be a bit vaguer in fiction.  A “skill” is facility in a certain area, such as computer programming, writing*wink*, or swordsmanship (to keep fantasy from feeling left out).  It’s generally something learned through studying, training, or practice.  “Ability” refers more to a specific power, and is often inherent, such as being genetic.  An attribute is the most passive category.  It refers to a general facility, such as intelligence, physical stamina, or charisma.

I think we could benefit from some examples, here.  Since I love talking about magic so much, we’ll focus on that—but this can be applied to any area, whether it’s sports, music, or fighting. 

Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea has magic most accurately classified as a skill.  It is learned, in a school, and honed through practice and concentration.  Elemental magic systems usually map as abilities: elementalists are born being able to control their specific set of elements, and often do so with no training or instruction whatsoever.  If you’ve ever seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, or played a game such as Golden Sun, you’ll know what I mean. 

For “attributes”, I think it’s easiest to use examples from gaming systems.  In many RPGs, such as Elder Scrolls or Dragon Warrior, characters are assessed in several attributes, such as strength, speed, luck, and intelligence.  These are general characteristics used to calculate health, attack damage or mana points.  They are generally not learned, but increase automatically as a game progresses.  Now, in a book, this progression will not be made in terms of points or levels, but more vaguely, in terms of “becoming stronger”.  The character will be able to swing a sword harder, run faster and farther, or figure out more difficult puzzles.

A strong character, and one that a good story can be built around, requires that each of these aspects be known and balanced against story obstacles.  Some aspects are more amenable to fudging or simplicity, but ideally, they would all be fleshed out and used to determine the course of the story.

Some of these aspects answer questions that came up in the plot recipe.

The skill and personality aspects deal with how the students from the previous post would act up.  If they were good at manipulation and had outgoing personalities they might incite crime or riots among other students.  If they knew a lot about computers, they might cheat on tests by hacking the system.  If they were physically fit and prone to violence, they might abuse other students, terrorize teachers, or destroy school property.  They drive the plot.

The motivation aspect answers the story question.  If they wanted to get good jobs and rise in public society, they would have to work hard to outshine all the other students, and meet the demands placed on students by the government, such as high test scores and acquiring skills in profitable sectors of the economy.  If they didn’t have the drive, they might burn out or drop out, and resort to rebellious behavior.  And if they were intelligent, driven, and angry, they might…  Well, you’ll just have to wait until the book finds a publisher to get the answer for that one. 😉

Finally, how is the story idea affected by the character aspects?  Well, image doesn’t map very well onto any of the plot aspects.  The story idea, being the main thing that makes the story stand out, is going to affect all of the aspects of character, rather than being affected by any of them.  The setting is going to influence the fashions, and thus the character images; the level of tech and the environment, and thus skills and motivations; and also the socio-cultural climate, and thus the characters personalities, and their way of expressing themselves.  Keep in mind that we’re only talking about how to start a story.  As a writer, you’ll have to deal with all of these things eventually.

This post has gotten rather longer than I expected.  In the next post, we’ll discuss more about how these various aspects affect the story; and after that, common terms for different character types, and how these types impact the story the character is in.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2010 in atsiko, How To, Writing

 

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