A lot of writers have different takes on your question than I do. My world building tends to happen kind of under the radar. So people don’t even notice it, and it’s something that I’m rarely complimented on, so you may want to go to another source for this question.
But my answer is that the story is what matters. You should introduce world-building as it becomes pertinent to the story. Obviously you want to seed some of the world building earlier so it can pay off later, and you want to fill in enough of the details about the world so it doesn’t seem like your characters are wandering through a fog, disembodied, talking and fighting with each other, but the world should be introduced as its important. So, for example, I have a character walking down a street. If it’s just a street and it doesn’t matter, I don’t describe it much. But, if the street is an alley and my character isn’t used to walking through dark, stinky, steamy alleys littered with garbage where they have to watch their feet so they don’t step in crap or kick rats, and it makes them feel really, really nervous just to be there, then that’s worldbuilding I’ll do right there. Because you’re accomplishing two objectives at the same time: you’re establishing what this city, or at least this part of this city, feels like, looks like, and acts like and you’re also establishing the character and setting them up for what’s going to happen next. If you can do a lot of your world building like this, people won’t even notice that you’ve done worldbuilding. They’ll just notice that the story seems really vibrant. If, instead, you say “over to the left, he saw the Dragon Mountain, which was built on….” and then continue for two pages about the Dragon Mountain, that’s boring, but it does build your world. And in some few cases it can be worth it to get a lot of info out there quickly. Just realize that if you drop an info dump before you’ve given your readers a reason to care about all of this extra information, then you’ve just dumped a ton of information on readers before you’ve given them a reason to care. Bad writer!
There are more and less elegant solutions to the problem of how you set up an entire world and lay the ground rules quickly. Many of these solutions you can figure out by reading the first couple chapters of any great fantasy novel and paying attention: How does this author let me know where I am? What are the rules of this world? It’s one of the biggest challenges in fantasy, but one that every fantasy writer has to struggle with. So get out your highlighter and start studying.
I’m not going to be able to do justice to your question about world-building in one short post here. As with most things in writing, there are a lot of ways to do this well, and a lot more ways to do it poorly. First, let me be upfront: fairly or unfairly, I am not renowned for my world-building. And I think that’s because, in The Night Angel Trilogy, I introduced the world at a different rate than I introduced the characters, motivations, and actions. In The Night Angel Trilogy, I started in book one with one city. Book two became national in scope, and book three became international. So I like to think that, over the course of the entire work, there was a lot of world-building that went on. However, I’m just the guy who wrote it, and some of the critics had different opinions, so take my advice with all that under consideration.
The world-building has to occur along sort of two tracks: first, you need to set up a lot of things that you absolutely know about the world. That is, is this world analogous to some time period in our world’s history? Is the technology the same as 1100 AD France? Or 450 BC Greece? If you’re setting your world into a specific time period that is close to what the analogous Earth time period was, you answer a lot of questions for yourself. The more different you make your world than any culture in earth’s history, the more challenging it is both for you as a writer and for your readers to imagine (this is why I talk about The Black Prism as being set in a 1600-esque Mediterranean world. People might not know all that much about the Mediterranean in 1600, but they at least have some referents.) The farther afield you go, the more work you’re going to have to do explaining things to your readers.
Secondly, you’re going to have to think about just how the world works. And this is where your education and imagination can run wild. This is where you ask the big questions: is there slavery in your world? What is the status of women in your world? How much magic is there in your world? What are the economic systems in this world (i.e., feudal, mercantilist, capitalistic, communistic)? The beauty of secondary world fantasy is that you can make up anything – as long as it makes sense. Human societies have done all sorts of crazy things over the ages. And as long as your society feels psychologically and sociologically true, you can do it. If your world feels too weird, your readers won’t buy into it. So in some ways, the weirder you make things, the more you have to make sure that readers see that your characters experience these weird things as normal (every woman has six husbands? Explain the mundane day-to-day things of how a woman with five husbands finds her sixth; or how disputes get settled among husbands’ number one and number five and so on). Think of the most normal objections readers would have to the weird things in your world, and confront them head on (Da Vinci Code: surely, no one could have hidden the fact that Jesus had a daughter! Oh, but the Merovingian kings had unimaginable powers in the early church… or whatever.) The fact is, your readers are willingly suspending disbelief. So you’re not making an airtight legal case here, you’re just trying to make your imaginative leap not seem completely stupid.
So along that first track of thinking, you, outside of the fiction, need to make all of these decisions about how the world actually works. This just takes time and thought. It may take study, as you look into how societies that had slave economies worked (most societies in human history). Or it may just take time thinking. Whatever it is, you want to have the broad outlines of how people interact in your world settled in your own mind. Is your character lower class? How do lower class characters have to react legally when a noble tells them to lick the mud from his boots? What happens if your main character peasant punches that sneering noble in the face instead? Define in your own mind what the normal course of events is. Second, onto this, you can layer as many other cultures as you’re willing to juggle in your own mind. Does the kingdom next door have no nobility? Or not believe in magic, or believe in reincarnation, or… whatever. This can get as mind-boggling as you’re willing for it to get. How are foreigners from Egypt treated in your alternate medieval England? What is their legal status? Basically, there’s a lot of hard work here, and none of it will show up on the page. At least, none of it will show up as extra words that you write.
Third, do things differently. If you’ve seen lots of other writers do X, do Y. This will make your world more interesting. In my writing, I’ve seen lots of other writers portray only societies in which there is no slavery. However, my studies of history tell me that however uncomfortable we are with slavery, it was a fact of life for most of human history. So instead of doing what I’ve seen a lot of other people do, and what’s easy to do, I’ve instead put slavery into the world of The Black Prism – and have at least a few of the main characters not even think about it. Because if slavery is the norm in this world, then at least a few people aren’t going to think that slavery is weird. Even people that are otherwise admirable. Doing things differently from what you’ve always seen is a habit of mind that you should cultivate as a writer. I will talk about this tendency of doing things differently a lot. And Donald Maass talks about it a lot in his books. But I’ll return to that in future posts.
Fourth, now you have to put all of this into practice. You’ve decided how your world works, you’ve decided your characters’ status within this world, and now you have to write the novel. This is where I may diverge from a lot of my contemporaries. I choose, as I write, to give very broad outlines of How The World Works; then as the character moves through the world, I will reveal those things in specifics as they become influential to the plot. So if my character is running around the streets, violating laws, then I am not going to focus on the legal connotations and the system of justice until my character gets arrested. Instead, I focus on how he’s breaking the law and what the moral consequences are for him as he robs person X and only focus on the legal system once he gets arrested. At that point, when it becomes important to my character, I will reveal that police are allowed to beat suspected criminals as long as they don’t disable them (or whatever). The effect in my worlds is that the plot moves forward at high speed, and you don’t really notice the world building. This is a trade off. It may look like I am just creating things as the headlights show them, rather than having created them all in advance, and only illuminating them as the headlights get there. Your choice. I find my way to be less boring.
Note that as you write, you may come up with things that are much more interesting than the way you’d originally crafted your world. As long as you haven’t published the previous books, it’s totally fine to go back and change the worse for the better that you’ve just made up. This is how the creative mind works. You give yourself a structure to work against, and that’s incredibly helpful, but as you advance, you think, “Man, if the structure were a little bit different, I could do this cool thing.” If you come up with something cool and amazing, take a step back, and look at that in the context of your whole world and all the systems that you’ve said work. If it doesn’t break the systems, go ahead and put it in. Sometimes you may even find that you’ve made your systems much stronger by having this apparent aberration work. Maybe your world is matriarchal, but in the history of your world, there have been four male rulers. And these men are referred to as the tetrarchs, and your male main characters are the reincarnation of…. whatever, you get the drift.
Fifth, the biggest thing about world building is that you can talk at length about anything you find fascinating. Whether that’s Marxist principles versus Hayek’s economics, or criminal psychopathology – whatever you find fascinating, can make your book stand out from every other book that has ever been written – as long as you make it fascinating got the reader. In some ways, this is an easy sell. If you find something fascinating, it’s probably pretty easy for you to communicate your passion to others. Think about this in terms of Dexter explaining blood spatter analysis to people. Most people would find this gross; but because of Jeff Lindsay’s passion about this, we find it fascinating too. Tom Clancy routinely wrote 50 or 100 pages about obscure military technology – and still sold millions of books. If you find ancient depictions of the divine feminine to be deeply moving – oh wait, that’s already been taken – point is, obscure, weird stuff can be made obscure cool stuff if you love it. But you need to take care to communicate that with readers. And if you can do that within the flow of the plot, they’ll barely even realize that they’re being lectured, and instead will love you for it.
Go forth and build worlds!
b. Character Building: (Murayama Tsuru asked, “How do you develop you characters’ personalities, so they seem different from each other? When I write, all my characters tend to blend to having the same personality and behaviors.”)
As a human being first, and as a writer second, you will bring certain strengths and weaknesses to the page. The process of writing a novel, if you are passionately invested in it, will reveal both of these. So I hope I can say, without pride but also without false modesty, that writing characters is one of the things that comes naturally to me as a writer – because it comes naturally as a human being for me to put myself in other people’s shoes. Like every skill in writing (and perhaps in life), your skills in portraying characters can be strengthened.
I’m not going to snow you here. Writing great characters is one of the hardest things to do in writing. Most very successful writers either write great plots or write great characters. Period. Very, very few do both well. In some ways, you can take this to be a huge comfort. You, too, can be successful by writing a great plot and mediocre characters. Or, great characters and a mediocre plot. Not that any of us here are aiming for mediocrity!
So, how do you write great characters? Here are some of the things that I keep mindful of as I create characters for my novels:
First, variety. One of the biggest challenges in writing characters is that every character is you. The best writers are simply those who are the best at hiding that fact. Take a guy who’s fantastic at writing dialogue, like Orson Scott Card. If you read five books by Orson Scott Card, after a while you realize that the sense of humor that every character has is pretty much the same. (And it’s a great sense of humor, don’t get me wrong. And also, Orson Scott Card freely admits as much, so I’m not poking him in the eye here.) Or if you read a brilliant dialectician like Tom Wolfe, you’ll eventually realize that every character is concerned with power. Now, both of these guys blind me with their brilliance. They’re so good, it makes me throw books across the room and weep bitter tears. However, both men have limitations. You will too. Welcome to the human race.
So, one of the easiest ways to set about disguising this essential sameness of character is to set up your characters at the beginning as very, very different people. Faulkner used “grotesques” and George R.R. Martin uses the same technique to help differentiate an absolutely giant cast from each other. George R. R. Martin doesn’t have the guy who’s 6’1” and the guy who’s 6’2”, he has the guy with no lips and the 7-foot-tall giant who can only say the word “Hodor.” By starting with characters who are vastly different from each other, young and old, rich and poor, high class and low class, thieves and noblemen, etc., you not only start your people from very different places, but you help readers remember who is who – especially important if you have a large cast.
Second, as I write is to keep in mind that the obvious thing is the most boring thing. I assume that my readers have seen the same movies I have. They’ve seen the obvious solutions to the obvious problems. So when I come to those obvious decisions, I will try to make my characters make the non-obvious choice. The fact is, real people are surprising, they’re inconsistent, and they have foibles which we didn’t expect even if we‘ve known them for a long time. So you put your character into an impossible situation (nice writing!), she has to either marry the loathsome nobleman or destroy her family’s fortunes (my, that is a nail biter!). Your job as a writer is to look at this stereotypical dilemma and come up with solutions three, four, five, and six. Anytime you come to a place where you think, “Well, my character could do this, but I’ve seen that a hundred times.” that thought is a flag for you, telling you the road to suckery lies straight down that path. Or… you can sit there and wrestle.
My characters are mine. They must do what I have decided they will do. If you get to a point in the story where you realize your characters will not do that thing and remain true to themselves, you have a couple of options: you can just make them do it for the sake of the story, and your story will suck. Or you can sit there and wrestle with it. “I need my character to marry Bob the loathsome nobleman, but she is a spunky 19-year-old who has no regard for tradition. (And a surprising 21st-century sensibility for an 17th-century girl.)”
Here is where you ask yourself as an author, “Why ever would she do such a ridiculous thing?” Because that is what your reader is going to ask. And you shouldn’t shy away from that. In fact, you should probably play it up. Make it more ridiculous. “There is no way she would do this. She can’t expect to yield to Bob’s executive power simply because some watery tart threw a sword at him!” So my advice is to sit there with the problem and worry at it like a dog worries a bone, looking for marrow. Think of your readers and all of the reasons they would come up with for why Sheena, lithesome beauty, shouldn’t marry Bob. Then ask yourself, what reasons close to Sheena’s hearts would impel her to overcome all of those objections? Maybe Bob has some hidden Mr. Darcy-esque personal nobility in addition to his really, really nice house that makes him extremely attractive. Maybe Bob has fomented socialist rebellions, a cause near to Sheena’s heart, in repressive monarchies throughout Europe. Maybe Bob is 5’2” and Sheena secretly has a thing for vertically-challenged men. Whatever it is, and especially if you can make your examples slightly less ridiculous than the aforementioned, backfill those concerns into Sheena’s life. So you hadn’t decided until now that Sheena was a social democrat (In the 17th century, Sheena is really ahead of her time). That’s fine. Nobody gets to read the novel yet; they only get to read the finished product. So go back and look into every scene where Sheena expresses passion about anything or where social democratic ideals can come up (without making her seem totally obnoxious). Now it looks like Sheena has always been passionate about these things for as long as you’ve known her, and the sudden reveal that Bob is also a candidate for social change will make him seem like the sweetest guy in the world. Plus, he has a really big castle. And he’s hawt.
Third, take left turns. I’ve alluded to this a couple of times already, and I don’t know if it’s simply a habit of mind that comes naturally to me, or if it’s the product of some good advice, and a high sensitivity to my own boredom, but don’t do the thing that you’ve seen a hundred times. Your character is totally shocked by the revelation that Tad is a serial killer? And she’s carrying a teacup? Please, please, don’t let her drop the teacup. Why? Because it’s boring. Sometime long ago in a dark, smoky room, some Hollywood producers decided, over too many bottles of bourbon that a breaking tea (or coffee) cup would signal that a character is shocked. I’ve seen that movie, that TV show and that stage play. Twice. So have you. So your character is shocked, and you’re looking, rightly, for some outward physical expression to show that she’s shocked. Good job, you’re looking in the right direction. Just don’t pick up the first blunt object in your path and use it, because it’s been done. That’s not to say that everything that’s been done in fiction is bad. The cliché behaviors are often the true behaviors, things that resonate with the human psyche. That is, in real life, when someone’s been murdered, the cops often ask you to sit down before they tell you. Why? Because people actually do faint. So there’s one cliché that’s rooted in the human psyche. It might be worth maintaining. But play it differently from there. Instead of dropping the teacup, Ms. Fitznibble continues putting sugar cubes in. Ten, twelve, twenty sugar cubes, until the tea spills over. You’ve accomplished the same thing and maybe a little bit more, showing she’s the kind of person who values routine but has been thrown off her usual habits by the shocking news. You can get to the same human truths that are expressed through clichés through non-clichés. That is, three lefts to make a right.
Fourth, spend time with your characters, especially the ones who are hard for you. And ask questions. Part of this, I think, is that there’s a fundamental humility that needs to go along with creating art. You are naturally going to do some things well. And simply by your natural genius and natural gifts and innate intelligence… well, those things are going to fail you at some point. No matter how great you are. Maybe you came from a deeply dysfunctional home, and you’re trying to portray healthy family relationships, and it’s got you completely stumped. Alternately, maybe you came from a fairly healthy family background, and you’re trying to portray how divorce tears up a young kid inside. At some point as an artist, you’re going to come to a place where you Just Don’t Know. At this point, you can fake it. We’ve all watched enough TV shows to make some guesses at how people are going to react to things. But that character is going to be much weaker than your others. This is not the end of the world. This is a chance for you to learn and grow. Not just as a writer, but as a human being. If you can’t understand the kid who grew up in the broken home, well, newsflash, you run into a lot of that kid in real life. So this writing exercise is going to make you a little better at interacting with that kid, either when he’s a kid or when he’s grown up.
This is a point where some pointed research can pay real dividends. When I was writing Karris in The Black Prism, I knew that my portrayals of her weren’t as good as I wanted. So I started asking questions of the right people. You’ll find that people are amazingly tolerant of your boorish questions when you say, “I’m doing some research for my novel, and I want to know the answer to five questions,” and then you ask them five limited questions that they can answer, and you make them feel like an expert who’s contributed to the cause of Art. So I went to a women’s cross country coach who was both an elite athlete herself and worked with many elite athletes. And I asked her about body image issues, emotions, psychology, and physique. She happily answered me and I think my resulting portrayal of Karris was truer to real life. That may sound really hard, but really it only took me a couple of hours. In other cases, simply finding a textbook or a psychology journal article about your topic might be a huge help. The Internet can be a huge waste of time, but if your character is dealing with something that you’ve never dealt with, even reading the Wikipedia entry on nightmares and PTSD might give you a huge leg up. Again, this isn’t cutting and pasting Wikipedia articles into your fiction: take left turns. People deal with trauma and love and death and betrayal in their own unique ways. And your character should too.
Fifth, Mozart once said, “Love, love, love — that is the soul of genius.” Love your characters. Know them and care about them, and understand why they do what they do. Even when it’s not a good excuse, even when what they choose is abhorrent and wrong. Understand it, understand them, and then depict both.
i. How do you write a bad guy? Marcus asks, “I just started reading the night angel series and I must say, Durzo Blint is bad ass. I love the guy. I mean just great. I’m working on a novel right now, and its really hard to come up with a really good antagonist/bad guy. Can you give me some tips or processes you use to develop a solid bad guy…” So…How do you write a bad guy?
I think of my older brother.
(Kevin, if you’re reading this. I’m sorry. I love you. I didn’t mean it. Please don’t hurt me.)
Can I call you Joe? Yes, I think I can, ‘cause I just made you up. Magic is probably the key element that separates fantasy from other genres. Although to be fair, if you write the kind of artsy, literary book that eggheads (who would never admit to reading something as lowbrow as fantasy) like to read, you may get away with the label “magical realism.”
The truth is the boundaries of fantasy have expanded enormously in the last few decades. And with that expansion has come a huge expansion in definitions of magic and approaches to writing it. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings was about one super powerful ring whose power was to… make one person invisible. And with this power, Sauron was going to take over all of Middle Earth! Wait, what? But opposing him, there were elves and wizards who also had rings that gave them the ability to… light up their staves in dark places. Wait, what? We were told constantly that these characters were really, really powerful. And almost never saw it. However, Gandalf did have the power of falling really far.*
Those who followed Tolkien tended to follow his lead, and the advantage of this was that magic was mystical. And it was wondrous. And – for the author – it could get your characters out of practically any scrape. Because the reader didn’t know what magic could do, you could have magic do something really, really cool right at the end. And this was awesome. The first five times readers saw it. But after that, magic started to just feel like a cheat. And in response, fantasy began a counter movement. Arthur C. Clark said that “any sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic.” So fantasy authors reacted against the “cheating” of their immediate predecessors and decided to make magic look more like science. That is, there would have to be rules. There would be limitations. There would be things you could never do. (Not that earlier fantasy was completely lacking these things. Any capable dramatist is going to introduce limits to what characters can do, even if they are wizards. David Eddings wouldn’t allow characters to be brought back from the dead, even though a wizard tries at one point. I am talking about big movements here in fantasy, so there will be outliers. And I don’t pretend to have read even half of the fantasy books ever written.)
Robert Jordan probably typifies this movement. There are five schools of magic, men and women do things differently, etc. (Saidar is like X, but saidin is like Y.) The real problem for those of us who follow Robert Jordan’s generation is if you make magic too much like science, if you tie it up with too many rules, you eventually strangle it. And now suddenly you’re writing science fiction. And people will start correcting you because photons don’t act that way in a warp core. And the newest superstring theory shows that your plot twist in Chapter 26 is scientifically impossible.
So I think the challenge in writing fantasy for any author today is in finding your own sweet spot between the two extremes. J.K. Rowling opts almost completely for wonder. And so her magic system isn’t really a system at all. It’s a collection of amazing, cool, wondrous things. If you think about parts of it too hard, it falls apart–but if you think about it too hard, you’re missing the point.
So I won’t call what I do in my magic systems the Right Way. Choose your own way. But since you’ve come to me, and apparently think I know what I’m talking about, here’s my way:
I’m fascinated by systems, and I’m fascinated by learning. And I’m fascinated by the cool stuff that sits all around the edges of science and knowledge. Things like: because of how time is warped around a black hole, if you fell in, it would subjectively take you forever. Or the dual nature of the light-wave. Or in less scientific realms how mythology and history intertwine. (Was Arthur really a king? Were the Thugee really death-goddess worshiping super-assassins?) Or many cultures have myths of a golden race that existed before us. Or of a cataclysmic flood. So in my writing I love to pick up those things and shake them around and say, “What if?”
In The Lightbringer Trilogy, I took something that any long-time fantasy fan has probably seen before: color magic. Color magic is cool because we all understand colors. And having differences between different colors just makes sense to us. It makes sense to us that colors also bring along with them some emotional content. You simply feel different in a sterile white hospital room than you do in a red and yellow McDonald’s or in a totally pitch-black alley. Those things – instantly appealing to senses and categories that readers understand – drew me to the color magic.
And that brings me to Benjamin’s question (June 28, he’s actually a real reader): “I am in fear of making something that might directly resemble another’s writing.” Well, here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t go out and find all of the fantasy books that I could find that used color magic.
There’s an apocryphal story that Leo Tolstoy believed as a child that any wish he could make would be granted if he could wish it while standing in a corner not thinking about a pink elephant. So what doesn’t help is to see all of the cool things that everybody else has done and then try to do something different. We’re not reverse engineering a video game here; instead, I give you this commandment: go forth and play!
Do you want to know what’s cool about colors? For real, like in real life and science? There aren’t just the eight colors that were in your childhood Crayola box. In fact, people speaking different languages have different color words, and different definitions for those words. So indigo is one of the primary colors for certain speakers. Further, in ethnographic studies, if a language has only two color words, the colors will be white and black. If they have three, the third color is red. (I think I learned this from Stephen Pinker.) Do you know what the cool thing about colors is? Colors are just the visible electromagnetic spectrum. So of course it makes sense that different cultures are going to dice up that spectrum differently. It’s a continuum, so where you place your markers on it is influenced by a host of factors. Do you want to know what else is cool about colors? Women tend to be better than men at perceiving differences in the pink range. This is why there are jokes about men not being able to match their tie with their shirt: those men literally cannot see the difference. And there are colorblind people – almost always men – and because color is light, and because color is simply the visible ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, you can imagine people who can see beyond the normal visible range. In fact, the more study you actually do about colors and light and photography and perception and cultures, the more ideas will be absolutely exploding in your brain.
Me? I took those ideas and added them to a very simple idea that magic must have mass. And if the different colors are going to be different from each other, they might as well be different physical properties, different emotional properties, different smells, and different uses. This is also very cool, and very simple and intuitive when explained one step at a time to those of us who live in a scientific era, but in some ways it gave me a hideously complex system. One flaw of The Black Prism is probably that I got so excited about sharing this cool thing that it sometimes got pretty complicated to explain all of it without hindering a narrative that I wanted to move forward quickly.
But your idea doesn’t have to be grandiose by any means. In fact, simpler ideas are better. What if, by taking different kinds of drugs, a magician could have different kinds of powers? Oh wait, drug use sounds bad, let’s make those drugs metals. (I haven’t read the books yet, but I hear Brandon does a fantastic job with them!) 😉
In my tiny corner of handling magic, I think that simple systems that have analogs to other human systems make the most sense. And I find it most satisfying if the magic always has costs and limitations. As Kirk (May 29th, also real) asks, “I would love to add more depth to my own system and would love to know how you go about it,” the costs are the obstacles that help keep moving your plot forward:
To get my fleet across the ocean, I have to sacrifice somebody of royal blood (Homer, of Iphgenia; also stolen by George R. R. Martin). And then it also has limitations: i.e., prophecies are really useful, but they don’t always mean what you think they mean (real Greek history, a Delphic oracle prophesying that “only a wooden wall” would stop the Persians. Gee, thanks, did that mean a wood wall around the Acropolis, or did it mean a wall of ships? (Ships won, and so did the Greeks at Salamis)). Or, sometimes prophecies are just flat out wrong (see, real history and George R. R. Martin).
The choices you make about how you’re going to handle magic, however, are really fundamental to your novel. Handling a low-magic world (that is a world in which magic is rare or weak) is much simpler from a technical perspective than handling a high-magic world (where magic is very powerful and/or very common). And how you explain your magic early in your narrative is how you set up your contract with the readers. If you make it very clear that magic is a genteel art by which people can be charmed with glamours (a la Mary Robinette Kowal), and then in the last chapter your heroine is suddenly hurling fireballs, you’re going to lose a significant chunk of your audience (Mary doesn’t do that, by the way. Thank goodness!). In fiction, as in real life, contracts can be broken – just make sure you break them in a way that makes the new contract better for the reader than the original contract. (Spoiler follows: in the original Matrix, nothing prepares us for that moment at the end when Neo actually comes back from the dead. However, we’re so pleased that he does that we let him, and the writers, get away with it. That’s the kind of contract breaking that works.) This is one technique that I use that some people love and some people hate in The Night Angel trilogy: one of the characters lies about the magic he’s capable of, repeatedly. So we, along with Kylar, believe things about magic that aren’t true. Even though I establish, carefully, that Durzo lies about the extent of his abilities in the first book of the Night Angel trilogy, some people were mad at me when it turns out he lied again about the extent of his abilities in the third book. Oh well. And yes, Durzo lies, again, in Perfect Shadow. Anyone sensing a trend here? Beuhler? Beuhler? Never mind. 😉
Magic is a huge topic, so I could ramble on for ages. And already have. But my most concise advice would be: if you want to write a fantasy story in which magic is very important, think of something that you’ve just always thought would be really cool. (On a par with wouldn’t it be cool if I could fly? Wouldn’t it be cool if I could be invisible? Wouldn’t it be cool if I was super strong? Wouldn’t it be cool if I could read people’s minds? Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make my older brother do anything I wanted? Wait, is that last one just me?) If you’ve dreamed these things, probably other people have too. That doesn’t make your idea bad; it makes it good!
So you think it’d be cool if you could make anyone think anything you wanted them to? How do you do it? Do you learn a spell? Do you have to talk to a Saan mystic? Do you have to get into a secret government program? Or is that power granted through Uncle Don’s surfboard? Then, what does it cost? How many other people can do it? How does everybody else feel about the people who have this power? Do they know about it? How is it kept secret, if it is? Personally, if I knew you could make me think anything you wanted to, I would be deathly terrified of you. Do people with this power abuse it? What’s to stop them from abusing it? Does anybody else have any powers that interact with this power in a cool way? Maybe you can only use it for one minute every day. Maybe you can use it as much as you want, except when you’re asleep. Or maybe, after you’ve used it, everybody knows that you’ve used it, and maybe resents you
Just have fun with this. Because all of this is just furniture. This is the big bouncy bed in your parents’ bedroom that you get to go jump on. This is the magic. The story is something else completely. But of course, that’s a topic for another post.
*I’m teasing about the LoTR. They are my favorite works of fantasy, and do many, many things well. That much of modern fantasy treats magic differently does not mean that LoTR does it poorly. I treat languages skimpily, LoTR treats language to huge depth. I treat magic to huge depth, LoTR treats magic skimpily. These are choices that may appeal to different people, or to the same person at different times, not necessarily flaws.
d. Character Names: (Andrius asks: What importance do you give your characters names? How do you find/figure them out? This might sound ridiculous, but even thought I nearly have everything figured out for my own story, as soon as I try jumping in, the names get me; my characters have importance and value in my eyes and I can’t bring myself to say, “You are Mr. Secretive/Caring who has a dark and haunting past and does his best to care for others but occasionally mixes work with home and makes his loved ones pay for it. You are morally ambiguous but all you really want is the best for your adopted son who happens to be your best friend’s child. You have an enormous responsibility resting on your shoulders that was put there against your will but you do your best with what you have… I think I’ll call you Jim.”)
First, Andrius, if your entire novel is as amusing as your question – I think you are well on your way! Secondly, if the broader question is, as Brandon asks, “Right now I’m curious how authors come up with a lot of different names and they still feel natural to the story and world…” — Congratulations! You have just parted the skin, and you are now looking at the sinews and the viscera of fantasy novels. The truth is: We Just Make Stuff Up.
Part of the magic of storytelling is that your audience co-creates the world with you. That is, if the name “Jim” has a slightly dissonant note for your artsy-fartsy man with a history who has a dysfunctional relationship with his stepson, your readers are going to help you out. They’ll think, “Jim. That’s such a prosaic, pedestrian name. I bet he’s undercutting his own thesis by having such a unique character having such a boring name. How postmodern! Clearly Andrius is a genius!!” On the other hand, if Jim is named Wyatt, they’ll say, “Clearly, Wyatt is named Wyatt because he has a sort of old-West, roguish character, who is however, constrained by rules and reality of the Law, like an Old West Marshall. Indeed, like Wyatt Earp!” Or if your character’s name is Stoner, your readers will see how this man is reacting against his hippy parents lax standards of raising a child and is trying to forge his own way, trying to find his own touchstone of truth, even as his stepson falls under the sway of chemical dependency (irony! Double bonus points!).
Ok, Brent, you might be saying. That was really amusing, but I really can’t come up with names.
Oh! So you want me to be all practical. Fair enough, I can do that too. If you have a culture in your world that echoes an Earth culture of a particular time, you can help yourself out a lot by simply Googling 15th century Andalusian names. For the Night Angel Trilogy, I mostly made up names out of whole cloth. Although some, I definitely tried to give a certain flavor. In some cases, this flavor might run away with you. So again, Google is your friend. In my case, I wanted to give a slightly Japanese flavor to some of the terms in my novel, including the Sa’Kage, which I conceived of as meaning the “Lords of Shadow”. Later, someone refers to Kylar as simply “Kage” – shadow. So, perfect, right? Sounds shadowy, sounds – oh wait! “Kage” in Japanese actually means shadow. I don’t speak Japanese, so I have no idea how this happened, but if I had known that it was a literally one-to-one reproduction, I probably would have changed the name at least a little bit so that it echoed a meaning in many reader’s heads without directly being that thing. So again, take into account carefully how similar your fantasy culture is to the Earth culture you’re trying to evoke.
For the Lightbringer Trilogy, I have made up far fewer names and am instead using far more real-world, 16th-century Mediterranean names. Because those Mediterranean, Renaissance cultures are less familiar to readers, I feel like I can more directly invoke some of those names. So I use a lot of Spanish names, and Berber names, and Arabic names. But within those lists of names that I’m able to find in my research, I generally steer clear of those that have religious connotations in our world – huge sources of inspiration for Spanish names in the period were Catholic saints and huge numbers of the Arabic names were based on Islamic teachings, and neither of those have a place in this world. So I screened out the Marias and the Abdullahs, while still choosing names that have real meanings that will be fun discoveries for those readers who already know those languages, or who bother to look them up.
I also bring a certain set of aesthetic and practical principals to how I choose names. I let my intuition, as much as my brain, guide me when I’m looking over vast lists. What sounds good to me when I say it in my mind? What looks good on the page? As an aesthetic, social – and therefore, commercial – consideration, think twice about having a character named “Aesculapius”. Even though it may be really clever to invoke the Greek god of physicians, and that funny Socratic dialogue – you know, the one where Socrates dies? – if readers get together and they want to talk about your book and they all feel embarrassed about how uneducated they are when they mispronounce Aesculapius, do you know what will happen instead of them sitting around and talking about your cool character Aesculapius? Yes, as a matter of fact: they will talk about whether they’re on Team Edward or on Team Jacob, both of which are much, much, easier to pronounce. And they won’t feel stupid even if they are being stupid.
I also apply my brain to the names as well. Do four major characters already have names that start with “A”? Well, no matter how beautiful those names are, probably that’s too many. Readers often read quickly or transpose characters. So even though Artaxerxes and Ataraxes are TOTALLY different characters and duh, how could anyone POSSIBLY mistake the two… hey, throw your readers a frickin’ bone. They’re reading this for FUN. After they worked 14 hours today. Is this name really long, and does it have weird letter combinations that most English monoglots are going to struggle with? Is this name so brilliant and so perfect that it must stay the way it is? If so, absolutely, 100%, leave it. But building a story is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. Do not make the blueprint confusing if it doesn’t absolutely need to be confusing. If it must be confusing, if you need the reader to grapple with this ambiguity, leave it. If it’s just ambiguous because you have a fondness for names that begin with the letter “A”, dig deeper. You’re the pro around here. Work harder.
Also, even though I am guilty of this, and may have to be guilty of this again in the future when I return to Midcyru, I really, really try to avoid names with apostrophes. In fact, I’ve considered issuing a manifesto, a treaty among authors, a ceasefire in the war of apostrophes, titled: “How Do We Pronounce ‘Apostrophe’?” The apostrophe has done hard work in the service of fantasy. Maybe it’s time to let that poor, overstressed punctuation mark resign.
Tyler Hodson asked, “I love your descriptions of Kylar’s fights … how you go about writing your action scenes?”
There is one great thing above all about writing fiction that people consistently forget: you get to lie. The writer is the ultimate dilettante. We need be masters of nothing except writing. (Though there is a long tradition of us pretending to be masters of all sorts of other things too, going back at least to the Platonic dialogue – I think it’s the Ion – in which a poet swears he is the master of many things, and Socrates makes him look like an idiot, as usual.) If people want to read a master of fighting, they can read Bruce Lee or Miyamoto Musashi, or more helpfully, I think, Sgt. Rory Miller. As desk jockeys, let’s be honest: most of us are never going to know as much about horse riding as real jockeys do, and most of us are never going to be tough as prison guards or Navy SEALS. That doesn’t mean, however, that anything goes.
What we’re looking for in writing is verisimilitude. That is, enough reality to evoke reality, while still serving the purpose of the narrative. And I should note that we do this in almost every part of a novel. If the writer has any skill or discernment, the characters in a novel do not speak the way real people speak: they’re far more eloquent, witty, and concise than people are in real life. If you ever see a transcript of real speech, you’ll be shocked at how many “ums” there are, how much time is spent on pointless introductions, and how many wandering tangents are taken and then abandoned – and never picked up at the end of the scene! Fight scenes are the same. You want to write something that’s cool, and exciting, and fun that’s anchored in reality enough that the reader doesn’t get jolted out of the narrative world. That is, even if it’s surprising, you don’t want your surprises to be such that the reader scoffs or becomes aware that they’re reading a book again. At that moment, you’ve broken your own narrative.
So you don’t need to be the world’s foremost expert, but you do need to be educated. How do you do that? There are two tracks here. I suggest you take both, but your own temperament will probably lead you to take one or the other more. First, read books about fighting men and by fighting men. (Heck, if you can find great books by fighting women, too, go for it!) The psychology of warriors probably hasn’t changed all that much in the last few thousand years, but our modes of fighting have, and those affect people differently. A sniper doesn’t feel as connected to his kill as someone who chokes the life out of a person with their fingers; the detachment of killing from a bomber at 50,000 feet is different than cutting someone open with your scimitar. If you can find books about the warriors in the time frame that you’re setting your novel, or in a culture similar to your novel’s culture, that’s probably best. Expect some of this to be dry and not help you very much. (Sadly, I found Julius Caesar’s volumes on Gaul to be horribly boring–I hope just a bad translation. Winston Churchill on the other hand could write!) Other volumes will be utterly fascinating, like the book Infantryman, which was written by a guy who’d been an American soldier in the last 180 or so days of World War II. And he talks bluntly about his experience in a compelling, honest voice, talking about how no one would ever even try to take snipers alive, and that sort of thing. [I thought this was the name of the book, but I gave it back to the friend who loaned it to me, and now can’t find a book by that title that seems to be the right one anywhere!]
I also like to read some of the U.S. Army psychology reports that they compiled after World War II. You find these frank pamphlets talking to guys about how it isn’t that big of a deal if you lose control of your bowels, and that doesn’t make you a coward, get back in there and you’ll be fine tomorrow. And I’ve also found my own conversations with veterans to be incredibly helpful. Like talking to a Vietnam vet who said that one day you’d be a hero, and you’d pull your buddy out of the line of fire, and you’d risk your life, and the next day you just couldn’t make yourself move. My father’s a doctor, and he works at VA hospitals, and he always asks guys for their stories, and if you ask politely, you may hear some incredible, surprising, and true things from people who’ve really been there. Use the people you know who might have some expertise. Are you a college student? Do you have a professor who has a specialty in military history? Go talk to him. Ask questions. Pretend he’s the most interesting man in the world. Believe me, the adoring fans are why college professors became college professors in the first place. I had a martial arts instructor who was a prison guard–and the guys who have to patrol an exercise yard with only one other guard and hundreds of felons? Tough.
The second track is the straight-up physical track: experience. You’re reading some long writing advice post on some author’s webpage, so I’m going to guess that most of you are going to lean more toward the book side.But in my writing, I take my admittedly small real-world experience, and combine it with my book learning. I had a couple of years of martial arts training–but I’m no real world bad ass. In fact, the martial arts training that was probably most valuable to me was my brother’s: he used that stuff on me. See, I have an older brother. We fought a lot growing up. I know what it feels like to get punched in the face, and be so shocked you don’t do anything for a few seconds because he broke the rules of what I expected. (If he’d been a bad guy, that hesitation would have cost me!) I know what it’s like to get hurt pretty bad, and while your adrenaline’s raging, try to figure out if you’ve just been hurt or if you’re actually wounded. I played football, and I’ve blindsided guys, and I’ve been blindsided in turn, and I’ve absorbed some of the counterintuitive truths of the playing field. Like, the harder you hit the other guy, the less you feel it (where most people will instinctively think that when two bodies in motion collide, the vectors will be additive, and so also will the pain. In truth, if you hit him harder, he absorbs the force, and you don’t. Plus, it looks better on film when that guy falls backwards). Even in a football game, you can get tunnel vision. You can feel time dilation. And after doing it for a while, you can see how guys, their first time out, do everything wrong. And you can extrapolate from all these little things to what fighting might be like in real life, using your experience, the words of those who’ve actually been there, and what you can learn from medical textbooks and history textbooks. You can get somewhere in the neighborhood. Will a former soldier or an MMA fighter or a martial arts instructor know better than you? Yes. Will they spot little errors–quite likely. Heck, don’t YOU notice errors in movies and books All The Time? (My favorite, watch any pirate movie–when the ships are really far apart and they see the other ship fire on them: the sound and the sight are always synchronized by Hollywood, where in truth, you see the guns fire first, then hear them a bit later. Like with fireworks. But Hollywood is convinced that people think they’re simultaneous, so they’re always dubbed to be simultaneous.)
The good thing is, you’re not competing against MMA fighters. You’re not in a real fight. You’re writing a fight for a book! So do it as well as you can, and then have people read it, and if they tell you it’s ridiculous, well, maybe it is. Take advantage of the opportunities you have to learn, and make it better. And note that the action in your book isn’t divorced from all the other parts of your book. If in your world people can jump 50 feet in the air and survive gunshots and have buildings fall on them without breaking a bone, your fighting will be similarly amped up and unrealistic. Believe me, plenty of real fighters still like comic books. Similarly, if your main POV character is autistic, he’s going to notice different things about a battle than your neighbor Joe, who’s just going to be holding his head and looking at dirt for the next two hours, hoping somebody saves him. Make the action or the fighting in your novels awesome, make it fun, make it fit, and you’ll be fine.