Category Archives: Believability

Setting as Character

This is my second post this month in the “special sauce” category. Last time I talked about research. This post is about writing, and how to add interest to the story.

Writing, as an avocation, is as prone to fads, convention and conformity as pretty much any other human endeavor. If you pay any attention to the reams of “advice” that are thrown at aspiring writers from all corners of the literary world, you will soon see not only the current orthodoxy, you’ll see the currents and tides of changes to convention as one fashion fades and another rises…

For example, the current conventional “wisdom” includes the following “rules:”

  1. Never, ever, ever have a prologue.
  2. Adverbs are the sign of weak writing.
  3. You have to grab the reader by the throat in the first sentence, or you’ll never get to the second.
  4. Passive voice must be avoided like a literary leper.

I could go on.

One of those current conventions is that long, detailed descriptions of places and things are BadWrongWriting of the first order. After all, it violates several of the most important rules. It’s passive. It’s full of adjectives and adverbs. It interrupts the action.

It has been said by many successful editors and writers that it is unlikely that J. R. R. Tolkien could have gotten The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings published in today’s market. Too flowery. Too slow. Too…. boring.

If that is so, it’s a shame. As a writer, part of my joy in writing is in building worlds and bringing them to life for my readers. But reality is what it is, and as much as I personally love that style of writing, I have had to accept that if I want to write stories that are accepted by both editors and readers, I have to respect that convention, even as I hope it fades.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on bringing my worlds to life. Instead I’ve taken another approach, and that approach is what I call “Setting as Character,” meaning I treat the world as a dynamic, interactive part of the story, instead of as a passive stage to move my characters around and through.

Here is an example of what I mean. Suppose you have a setting of a lush jungle and your protagonist has to find a ruined temple to advance the plot. You’ve gone to great trouble to create that jungle in some detail, including deciding the major flora and fauna, the weather cycles, the climate, and some level of history. Having done that you could bring the reader into that jungle like this:

“Dammit!” Joe cursed.

Blood welled up from shallow cuts on his forearm. With a gloved hand, he yanked the tangled, thorny tendrils of devil’s rose free, sending a shower of drops flying, making him blink. The cool water eased the oppressive heat, and he closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation.

Image result for stock jungle photos

A fibrous root caught his toe, making him stumble as it ripped loose, exposing a length of lichen-studded granite. The ancient rock caught his eye, it seemed out of place compared to the ubiquitous red sandstone of the area. Placing one hand on the thick trunk of a towering fern, he leaned down to study the strange stone…

In other words, make the setting part of the story. Have your characters interact with it, struggle against it, savor it…

Give your world a personality. Show the reader its spirit.

 

As Much Weirdness as Will Hang Together

Me again! A bit earlier in the month, I spoke about one of my favorite authors, Daniel Abraham, and what I believe constitutes the “special sauce” that separates his writing from that of others.

Now, I’ll be subjecting you, dear readers, to my analysis of my own writing. It tends to grow from seeds. I say “seeds” in the plural rather than the singular because I rarely begin a story with a single idea. A single interesting idea is generally not enough (for me at least) to build a story upon. I’ll file the idea away (writing it down if I’m smart) and wait until another, totally different idea, strikes me. If I find that this second idea is challenging–but not impossible–to merge with the earlier notion, a strange kind of resonance begins and my inspiration module kicks into gear. One thing builds upon another builds upon another and on and on they snowball.

That’s how two disconnected ideas:

  1. A race of beings imprisoned in a miniature replica of an entire world
  2. Cities built into the bones of mountain-sized monsters

merged to create the world of Unwilling Souls. These two ideas had, initially, nothing to do with one another. They wouldn’t hang together as-is, so they required tweaking.

Who was this race of imprisoned beings, and why had they been locked away? I decided that these were the gods, locked away in a human-built prison after a failed attempt to exterminate humankind. And the prison itself, rather than simply being a replica of the outside world stored in some fantasy version of the Indiana Jones warehouse, was in fact carved into the very core of the outer world. Prisons require jailers, who require a place to live. The center of a planet is not terribly comfortable and is rather full, so I envisioned a hollowed-out space surrounding the prison-core itself, the magma of the mantle held in check by magic of immense power. In this hollow space, the jailers would live and work, protecting the surface world above from the gods that had sought to destroy them. These jailers would be blacksmiths of a sort, for since the core of an Earthlike planet is made of metal, metalworkers would be needed to maintain this prison of the gods.

So where do the giant beast-bones come in, and why do people live in them rather than building normal cities? Well there were normal cities, it turns out, before the gods began their war against humankind. But in the last gasps of that war, as they realized they were going to lose, the gods summoned up great beasts of truly mind-boggling size (for a real-world comparison, these would laugh at kaiju, chowing down easily on any iteration of Godzilla you can think of). These beasts went on to all remaining cities as well as most of the world before humankind rallied and killed them in turn. Then, having little else to base rebuilding their civilization, they turned to the bones of these beasts and used them as foundations for their new homes. Being magical in nature, the bodies lingered on well past when they otherwise would have. They also retained some other … interesting properties.

So there we have it. A setting chock-full of weirdness that nonetheless hangs together coherently. Or at least, my definition of coherently. What? And incidentally, I’ll be hosting the blog in July for an entire MONTH of good stuff about setting, so stay tuned!

But setting is only part of a story, and worldbuilding alone is not enough. It’s characters that drive a story, after all. And in a world this strange, I wanted characters who were grounded in believable (if larger-than-life) behaviors and personalities. The first story I conceived of for this world was a short story (serving as a prequel to the novels) based a little on one of the oldest there is: Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers. Larimaine and Cassia mine were called. Because Larimaine’s ancestors had opposed the gods in the war and Cassia’s had joined with them, their relationship struggled to bridge an almost endless societal divide. (Also, Larimaine wasn’t nearly good enough for Cassia). They don’t work out, of course, being star-crossed and therefore tragic (but not, like, DEAD tragic) by nature.

I write this way, with pieces finding odd connections to other pieces, because I find great joy in it. An individual idea will rarely spark my interest enough grow into something lager. But as multiple ideas start crashing around together, they bring out nuances in one another they could never have achieved alone. Finding these connections, finding ways to make them all fit together like puzzle pieces from different sets merging to form a picture both impossible and utterly believable is what keeps pulling me back to the keyboard. I’ve always been fascinated with how the world works, with how pieces of science and society and behavior fit together.

Writing fantasy is, at its core, simply a way of determining how a world works. It’s a secret sauce tasty to both myself and, so far at least, my readers!

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Research Until Your Fingers Bleed

This month the Fictorians are focusing on posts about what we, as authors, believe sets our work apart, or at least, what we believe makes our writing more authentic and compelling. In other words, what is our “special sauce?”

I’d like to think there is more than one thing that I do which gives my writing authenticity and makes it worth reading, but there is one thing I have done that seems to surprise most people.

My first epic fantasy series is set in a stone age culture, and the protagonist is in training to become a “flint-knapper” which is a person who creates stone tools. In fact, one of those stone tools, a knife, is one of the most important artifacts in the story. His skill with a bow is also critical to the story line.

When I started writing the story, I rapidly came to realize that I was having trouble writing scenes that revolved around stone age technology. I wanted to bring the reader into those scenes. I wanted those scenes to reveal the protagonist’s persistence, his struggle to master his craft, and eventually his talent and pride in creating the tools that his village needed to survive.

So I did “research.” I searched for every article or paper I could find on the ancient art of flint-knapping. I watched videos. I purchased stone arrowheads and spearheads at flea markets. Like these:

But even after that, I never really felt like my scenes reached that level of authenticity I wanted.

So I set out to learn flint-knapping myself. Luckily there was a little shop on my way home from work that sold rocks. So one day I stopped in and looked around. I got to talking with the owner, and eventually told him that I was an aspiring author who wanted to learn flint-knapping. His eyes lit up, and an hour later I left the store with a cloth sack filled with about twenty pounds of rocks. It turns out that making stone tools requires different kinds of rocks, plus some other tools, like antler tines or something similar. It looked sorta like this:

Then I set to work. I spent an hour or so after work and on weekends for weeks, bashing rocks together on my patio. It was a slow, painful and painstaking process, just to learn how to strike a blank with a hammerstone in the proper way to break off a suitable chunk of obsidian to START to make an arrowhead or spearpoint. And learning that took a toll on my fingers and thighs. Eventally I got some thick pieces of leather to protect my thighs and clothes, but there was really nothing you could do to protect your hands and fingers. If you wanted to make stone tools, especially arrowheads, spearpoints or knives, you were going to cut your fingers and hands.

And the cuts were not simple scrapes or splinters. Obsidian has been used to create scalpels for eye surgery because the result of a well-aimed blow will create an edge that is, literally, sharper than a razor. So those cuts bled copiously. My leather thigh protectors were soon stained with blood. This is a pretty good example of what that looked like:

I won’t pretend that I ever mastered the art of flint-knapping, but I did get decent enough to be able to make functional tools. But more importantly, I learned enough that when I returned to those scenes, the writing came from a natural understanding of the mechanics of the craft, as well as the risks.

“Write what you know” they say. Well, in this case, that’s what I decided to do. And I think it paid off in spades.

So, my fellow authors, when you need to learn something to make your story believable, research it, baby! Research until your fingers bleed!

Mine did.

(No, I didn’t make this. But this is what the knife in the book is modeled on. This was made by a professional flint-knapper, and is an example of what a skilled artisan can do with stone. My wife and daughter had the sheath custom-made for the knife. It’s a pretty cool combo.)

Liar, Liar! Pants on Fire!

A Guest Post by Tonya L. De Marco

It’s probably no secret if you’ve read any of my material or heard me speak on panels at conventions that I enjoy creating dark and twisted characters. I’m fascinated with what makes them tick and how they morally justify doing the things they do.

Lines between heroes, villains, and anti-heroes can become quite blurred to nearly invisible at times in the story. I recently participated on a panel at StarFest Convention in Denver on the subject. The intended discussion was meant to be about creating strong antagonists, however I kept steering the conversation back in the direction of this haunting question: What is the difference between the good guy and the bad guy when they each break the rules?

Fellow authors and panelists Kal Spriggs and David Boop, along with moderator Peter J. Wacks and I bantered back and forth without actually solving this dilemma. But the general consensus seemed to be, if the character is breaking the rules for the greater good or for revenge, he is seen as the good guy. An example is a police officer who brings in the criminal by whatever means necessary.

These characters are justifying their wrongdoing. They are lying to themselves and often those around them. Villains do it. Heroes do it. Masterminds do it. I do it. You do it. We all lie to ourselves. A psychopath that only kills criminals is rationalizing murder by telling himself that he is making the community safer without these criminals. But what really drives him is a need, a hunger to kill. The thrill of the hunt, the power of holding a life in his hands, the satisfaction of seeing the light slowly drain from his victim’s eyes – these are the true reasons, not the lies he tells himself.

In my short story, Offspring, the main character breaks the law for monetary compensation. Indeed, she does need the money to help her family and accomplish a specific goal but she hides behind the lie. She justifies her depraved acts as necessary, not admitting she enjoys the power and the adrenaline rush from the danger, often even enjoys the acts themselves. Will she stop when she reaches her goal? Or will she find another lie to tell herself so she can continue?

Creating characters that lie adds another level of relatability. Lying to themselves and others helps to show them as human. Whether you create human monsters or super cops, the justifications and rationalizing they do throughout the story is something they have in common with each other and with most of the population.

The lines between good and evil when writing dark characters still remain blurred to me. Perhaps it’s because most people are a blend of both. Whether writing protagonist or antagonist, hero or anti-hero, allow your characters to tell their own stories – even if they’re liars.


Visit Tonya L. De Marco at http://www.TonyaLDeMarco.com or stop by her modeling and cosplay page on Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/VintageSteamtrunk.