Types of Evil (or at Least Antagonists)

This post could just about as easily be a theological one, but since I’ve come to these ideas in working on Avar Narn, I figured they’re better suited to being addressed to the writers out there–anyone who wants to extrapolate into the realms of spirituality and morality is welcome of course.

As an opening, let me first say that it is difficult to write an “evil” character, whether major antagonist or supporting character. It’s difficult because few things in the world are black and white, so a character that isn’t nuanced in his/her morality isn’t believable in stories that intend to maintain verisimilitude. On an obviously allegorical, mythological or moralistic tale, there’s a lot more leeway for capital “E” evil characters. But that has its own bag of tropes and expectations tht I’m not going to address here.

Instead, I’m going to try to put together a few general categories of character types we might describe as “evil.” I think we (myself included) are quick to use terms like “bad guys” when we mean “antagonist” in the more literary criticism sense of the term. That’s probably something we should all be careful of. That said, on to some gross oversimplification that I hope will nevertheless prove useful:

(1) Capital “E” Evil
This is the character who just wants to watch the world burn, who enjoys inflicting suffering for suffering’s sake, who exists to malign and misuse everything around him for the sake of just that.

As such, this should also be the rarest kind of evil in fiction, becuase it’s the hardest kind to get right. I think that there are two subtypes to be thought of here.

The first is cosmic evil–that kind of supernatural evil that is unknowable in its reasoning or motivation. Think Lovecraftian horror. We sidestep the major problem here by positing that we just can’t understand this evil. It just is. Particularly in fantasy, we can often get away with this, but it requires special suspension of disbelief or extra worldbuilding to swing. Even then, we’ve created a de facto villain that is really only interesting in an existential sense.

The second type is the corrupted individual. What we need, I think, to make this work is a believable backstory. Nobody begins that way, so we need an explanation as to what suffering the person has gone through to mold him into this type character.

This runs two ancillary risks, however. The first is that in describing said backstory, we humanize the character to the point that he no longer really fits into the Capital “E” Evil category. The second is that we turn our story into an analysis of the nature of evil. That can be an enthralling type of tale, particularly if the “evil” character is the protaganist of the story.

(2) Mistaken Beliefs
This subgroup belongs to those characters who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing while they commit atrocities the rest of us would find blatantly evil.

There are plenty of real-life examples to draw upon here to make the argument concisely. Take the Islamic State for example. Adherents to this would-be theocracy believe that they are practicing true Islam while murdering the innocent. This is an extreme case that can be attributed to any radical/fundamentalist religious group–Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions, for example. If you truly believe that God (or gods) demanded it and that makes it right, it’s easy to justify your actions.

Next, think of the person gripped by psychosis such that they are driven by an irrational belief that they cannot bring themselves to disavow. This is a particularly moving type of antagonist because they are driven by an affliction and not by their own agency–we can’t actually morally blame those who aren’t in control of themselves. This gives us a good opportunity to explore our “hero’s” approach to evil–is she only interested in ending threats or is she interested in redemption? What does she do when that redemption isn’t something she can achieve.

There are plenty of “lower magnitude” mistaken beliefs that make interesting villains. Les Miserables’ Javier is an excellent example–a man so overcommitted to his idea of “justice” that he cannot allow himself any mercy. This type of extremism in belief is all around us–just listen to how some people think we should fight the “War on Terror” or what we should do to criminals.

We can also extend this to what in the law we would consider a “mistake of fact.” When the antagonist believes that the protaganist is a villain who must be stopped, for instance. Yes, the antagonist’s belief is untrue, but if it were true would we think of the antagonist as a “good guy?”

A brief aside here: what if the protaganist is acting immorally? Watching a character spiral out of control is heck of a dramatic ride, and testing a character’s willingness to act as he says he believes is a classic conflict to explore.

Mistaken identity (along with the particular of being falsely accused) is one of the great archetypal plots, one which fits directly into the mistake of fact.

(3) The End Justifies the Means
This is a commonly-used type of antagonist, perhaps because it’s so relatable. The constant moral choice that faces all of us in life is whether we’ll sacrifice our values to get what we’re after. The only difference here is one of scale. For the sake of drama, the means to achieve the end must be dire–the determination of life and death, or the fates of many. For what profiteth it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?

One of my favorite examples of this type of evil is the Operative from Serenity. The Operative is a man who accepts that he does evil things, but he is sincere in the belief that it will bring about a better galaxy (which perhaps makes him fall under (2) as well). In fact, he views his sins as a form of sacrifice–he does the unspeakable so that others don’t have to. There is a sort of nobility to his principles, even if they are ultimately wrong. And, for those of you who prefer your characters to wear capes rather than swords, Batman isn’t far off here, either. In fact, I’d say that Batman and the Operative have far more in common than we should be comfortable with if we’re going to call one “hero” and the other “villain.”

Speaking of Batman, most vigilantes fit into this category. Because we love it when the bad guys get theirs, even when they get it in a way that requires a sacrifice of our values, this can be a popular protagonist as well–think of the Punisher.

I would wager that most of our favorite anti-heroes fall into this category as well–it’s their beliefs and the willingness to risk for those beliefs that make them heroes, but the way they go about pursuing the fulfillment of those beliefs that adds the “anti-.”

(4) Honor and Identity
This is perhaps a subcategory of “Mistaken Beliefs,” but it’s a significant-enough subtype that it deserves its own treatment.

People do evil things in the name of maintaining honor all the time. As a student of history–and particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, the first examples that pop into my mind are the duel and the vendetta. I’ve recently read a book called Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli in the Renaissance, which reinforces the connection for me. But Renaissance Italy is not the only honor culture known for the tit-for-tat systemic murder that defines vendetta–the Hatfields and McCoys come to mind in slightly more recent history.

And, of course, we could discuss “honor killings” in certain Middle Eastern or South Asian cultures (though, to be fair, the Napoleonic Code also permitted a husband to kill an unfaithful wife and her lover, and even in American law a murder is often considered manslaughter when a husband kills his spouse after finding her “in flagrante delicto.”)

Honor cultures and actions taken under the justification of defending one’s honor are typically about maintaining a sense of identity–either one of purity or of strength (or perhaps both). The ideology of the honor culture says that if one does not maintain honor, one will be viewed as weak and will be taken advantage of by the rest of the culture.

And defending one’s sense of identity is a strong motivator, one that can create fascinating internal conflict, because it can be the conflict between internal belief and external pressures of society. For instance, “I believe that I should show mercy, but my culture tells me that I am not a man if I do not take vengeance.” Powerful stuff.

Honor, of course, is not the only identity-related factor that can lead a character to become “evil” or antagonistic. The need to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human motivation, on that can lead to similar conflict between the will of the individual and the will of the group. Is there a story about gangs that doesn’t include this plotline? What about cults and religions (which takes us back to (2))?

(5) Cross-Purposes and Limited Resources
I don’t have to explain that characters don’t have to possess malicious intent to be antagonists. The world has a habit of pitting humans against each other by its very nature–or at least tempting us to work against instead of with one another.

The core of successful narrative is conflict, and all it takes is characters who want things that are opposed (or even better, mutually-exclusive) to create such.

This suits certain types of stories especially well–the noir and anything else that might be considered “gritty” immediately come to mind. The story doesn’t need to be one of moralistic pedantry, though one must be careful not to let ambivelence about morality become relativism (at least I’m going to moralize on that point).

The Game of Thrones novels come to mind, as does Abercrombie’s First Law books. The political intrigue inherent to both puts POV characters at odds with one another, certainly giving us occasional “villains,” but not as a central theme of the stories.

But this type of conflict does not just suit the morally-ambiguous; it plays well to analysis of morality. I’m going to turn here to my favorite atheist philosopher (and one of my favorite storytellers), Joss Whedon. He’s been quoted as saying, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.” As an existentialist theologian, this freedom to create meaning when meaning is not thrust upon us is a core concept to me (but not one we’ll discuss here). Likewise, when the there’s no clear “good and evil,” we must judge the morality of the characters by the choices that they make. This can, of course, be easily combined with all but (1) above.

The conflict within a character of wanting to do the right thing, but perhaps being unwilling to pay the cost to do so, is a conflict we can all relate to. I’m inclined to argue that there is nothing in the craft of fiction so real as this. If you want your writing to have that air of verisimilitude, readers will suspend disbelief for a lot of things when the characters seem lifelike and complex to them. That’s not an excuse to write fiction that is sloppy except for the characters.

That, I think, is why I’m personally drawn to “gritty” stories. They’re rich with meaning.

(6) Inanimate Evil

I include this mostly as a footnote becuase it needs little explanation. This is the classic “(wo)man versus nature” story, where an uncaring and unresponsive natural force (i.e. the elements) forces a struggle for the protagonist to survive.

Conclusion

This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Each category has subcategories and nuances to be explored (and isn’t that one of the great joys of writing?). More general categories could be appended to this. When I think of them, I’ll post an update. I’m also inclined to write more about creating the types of characters that fit into (5), or at least stories of ambivalent morality–that is, dispassion on the part of the narration about moral judgment, leaving such a task to the reader. For now, this seems sufficient.

Stealing History (for your stories)

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of history. Do you know what I’m an even bigger fan of? Good stories.

Yes, at its best, history is a collection of “good” (narratively speaking, not factually or morally speaking, necessarily) stories. There are heroes and villians, drama and plot twists, the exciting and unexpected. The academic historical approach concerns itself not with the strength of the narrative, necessarily, but with the determination of questions like: “What was life like back then?” “Why did X event happen the way it did, or at all?” “What might patterns in history tell us about the future of humanity?” and, perhaps the biggest bugbear of all, “What actually happened?”

These are great questions, and an understanding of historiography is a significant boon to the worldbuilder in her craft. At times, the truth is even stranger than fiction–what delight when we stumble upon such usurpations of our expectations!

But let us set both historian and worldbuilder aside for this post, shall we? What I’m interested in, here, are stories. Stories that come from history, yes, but which are not beholden to the determination of historical fact. Let us talk of the writer’s craft, of the art of good storytelling, and that ephemeral search for inspiration.

Some of the most enduring fiction takes the seeds of history–even if only for context–and waters them to blossom into something apart from, and often more existentially significant, than the history that spawned it.

Some examples:

One: The legends of King Arthur, placed as it is within an array of historical contexts (often not far removed from the storyteller’s own anachronistic understanding of history), but always concerned with issues of Englishness (perhaps it’s more fair to say “Britoness”), chivalry and good rulership. From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Sir Thomas Mallory (or T.H. White and Disney, for that matter), the story has morphed and grown as a contemplation of these ideas quite apart from any historical basis.

Having studied at the British Library and the National Archives as part of my senior honors thesis on “Henry VIII’s Use of Arthurian Legend as Tudor Propaganda,” I can say with some confidence that there never was a King Arthur (though there was a Prince Arthur–Henry VIII’s older brother who died young), but I can also say definitively that that doesn’t really matter to the value the King Arthur story has even in the modern age.

Two: The early tales of Robin Hood lack the moral fortitude or noble birth of the hero, having more in common with medieval tales of Reynard the Fox than the Disney fox. At least as of current scholarship, the likeliest origin of the Robin Hood tales is with a supporter of the Lancastrian uprising around Nottingham in the 1320’s (see the excellent “Our Fake History” Podcast for details in two forty-five-minute sessions). But origins mired in 14th-Century factional strife and medieval vendetta rather than a “rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor” morality seem not to have stopped stories about “Robin of Locksley” (previously Robert, Earl of Huntington) from carrying the imagination from the late middle ages to the very modern (cue Bryan Adams, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Mel Brooks). The history of Robin Hood tales also demonstrates that the stories took on a life of their own completely independent from any historical basis–and perhaps rightly so, because these stories tell us something about popular ideas of morality versus the law, bad rulership and justice undone. They’re stories about a certain view of the world.

Three: Romeo & Juliet. While I’m particularly a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film, this story originates with a very real set of historical events–a much surer foundation than either Arthur or Robin Hood–but stands wholly apart from those events.

You see, the original author of the story, Luigi da Porto, was the nephew of Antonio Savorgnan, the leader of the Zambarlani faction in Venetian-controlled Friuli in the early 16th-Century. Da Porto was also a student of the famous humanist Pietro Bembo. On Fat Thursday in 1511 began the “Cruel Carnivale” in the city of Udine, the culmination of long vendetta between the Zambarlani, formed of Savorgnan, his peasant militias and the artisans and poor folk (mostly loyal to Venice) on the one side and the Strumieri, composed of the rural nobility and their retainers (mostly loyal to the Austrians and the Holy Roman Emperor) on the other. A large number of Strumieri nobles were murdered during Carnivale, some of the rural castles sacked and burnt, many others driven to flee for their lives.

But on that Fat Thursday, just as the violence and chaos was ramping up, da Porto had the good fortune to see the beauty Lucina Savorgnan (Antonio Savorgnan’s second cousin) sing at a party that evening. As the story goes, he fell in love with her (though she married another and I’m not sure whether the love was ever requited). This experience, set against the backdrop of dueling factions (quite literally) in northern Italy, caused him to write the original Romeo & Juliet  that provided the basis for Shakespeare’s enduring tale.

Yes, da Porto’s story takes some liberties, transferring the scene to Verona and putting the lovers in opposing factions rather than on the same side. But the context of the story–exile as a common form of punishment, lasting feuds that contiunously claimed the lives of family members and retainers, violence and unrest in the streets that the government could not contain–all of this comes from a discrete historical time and place, and the direct experience of the author.

So where am I going with these examples?

For the writer, who isn’t particularly bound by what “actually happened,” history provides a veritable treasure trove of ideas to develop into plots, settings and stories.

In writing the Game of Thrones series, G.R.R. Martin drew heavily upon–but did not allow himself to be bound by–the history of the Wars of the Roses.

The writers of the TV series Black Sails pulled not just from Treasure Island (itself borrowing heavily from the fictitious Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates) but from the most recent scholarship on early modern piracy to tell its tales convincingly, using many historical persons but taking plenty of liberties with them.

Tolkien borrowed more heavily on the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancient Nordic-Germanic peoples of Europe than their histories in creating Middle Earth (taking even the very name from Viking mythology), but none of that literature is divorced from its own historical context.

The History Channel has been recently making its money off of historical fiction (and reality TV) rather than “serious” history, and on the far-more-humorous end is Comedy Central’s Drunk History and its inebriated retellings of historical events renacted by well-known actors.

The writer can rip from history the juiciest bits without being encumbered by historicity or the concerns of historiography. Reading, listening to or otherwise devouring history will provide a steady diet of interesting plots and “what if” prompts that need not be detectably related to the events that created them. In that sense, the histories devoured don’t even have to be very good (academically speaking) histories–we’re not concerned with the truth of the situation here.

And that opens up to us a second realm for our burglary–mythologies and superstitions. Having recently binged the entire series of the Lore podcast (well worth the time), I cannot number the story ideas that came to me during my listening, many of which are so easily adapted to my own Avar Narn as to surprise even the skeptic within me.

It doesn’t matter whether the Thunderbird is real or what people who claim to have seen the Mothman of Point Pleasant actually saw–the story is what matters! A few tweaks and twists, your own personal touch a different setting and off you go.

If you haven’t bought into the idea that all great artists steal ideas wherever they can, think about this: only God creates ex nihilo; we humans create new things by combining old things in new ways. Lean into it.

And here is one place where I can rejoice in, rather than lament, the almost complete lack of historical literacy of the average modern person–most people are not going to have any idea who Shackleton was or what happened to the Mary Celeste (even in the general sense since, as far as I can tell nobody knows what happened to the Mary Celeste). So when you take such a cosmic egg and hatch your own original story from it, who will be the wiser? Even better, those who do see the influence will feel so smart about recognizing it that they’ll like the story more not less. I speak from arrogant experience. Ask K.

In other words, for the fiction writer especially, there is much to gain and little to lose by raiding history for its secret stories and unpolished gems of ideas. Grab your whip and your fedora (but forget to say, “It belongs in a museum!”) and get searching!

To get you started, a few of my favorite historical podcasts, all of which have been mentioned above or elsewhere on the blog:

(1) Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. To me, this is the end-all-be-all of historical podcasts, Well researched, inimitably told and stretching through multiple three-plus hour sessions per topic, my only complaint about Mr. Carlin’s work is that there isn’t more of it (which, given the investment of time and effort into what he does put out is entirely understandable). The best aspect of Hardcore History? Mr. Carlin’s ability to imaginatively communicate the idea of being there.

(2) Lore by Aaron Mahnke. Mr. Mahnke tells stories of myth and superstition in a captivating way, leaving any judgment of the reality of the events retold open to the listener. When the truth just doesn’t matter and the topics range from the spooky to the outright bizarre, you have a veritable gold mine for fiction writers.

(3) Our Fake History by Sebastian Major. In a voice that sometimes  reminds me of Mr. Carlin above, Mr. Major dispels common (and not-so-common) (mis-)conceptions in history “to figure out what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what is such a good story it simply must be told.” That last part is the undeniable bread-and-butter of the writer, so need I say more?

Punctuation

This is going to seem like a relatively random posting, but as I’ve been writing on my novel, reviewing a friend’s novel and having some discussions about Biblical interpretation, I’ve been thinking a lot about punctuation lately. Here are some of my musings:

Punctuation is critical in all forms of writing; understanding and properly using punctuation lends authority to anything you write. In my experience, most people do not use proper punctuation. I don’t mean that they make occasional mistakes in their punctuation–everyone does that. I mean that they flagrantly ignore the rules of punctuation and how to use (and intentionally misuse) those rules to greatest effect.

The most egregious culprit is the semi-colon. When I was a graduate student and teaching assistant in English, I would (usually frustratedly and spontaneously after grading the first round of tests) spend a class period reviewing grammar and punctuation with my classes, with a particular focus on the semi-colon. Much to my dismay, what I typically found is that after this session, many students would liberally disperse semi-colons throughout their writing in an effort to seem more capable writers. “What’s the problem with that?” you ask? Nothing, if done correctly. But my students seemed to sprinkle semi-colons over their papers like literary glitter without regard for whether their sentences required glitter. Have I mentioned that I hate glitter? It’s craft herpes–once you’ve contracted it, you’ll be finding it on you forever.

So my students committed a cardinal sin of writing–using something (whether punctuation, a word, a stylistic device, etc.) you don’t understand in an attempt to come across as more talented than you are. Like most good writing techniques, punctuation is most effective when subtle, when it influences the reader without their perceiving that it is doing so. Like much social subtlety, this is crass when recognized and only acceptable in polite society when carefully concealed. The improper use of punctuation breaks the illusion, making this manipulation painfully and embarrassingly clear. A misused piece of punctuation–whether a comma splice or an unneeded semi-colon for instance–thrusts itself into the mind of the reader like an unwanted and socially awkward guest who cannot read the room. It breeds mistrust of the writer and should thus be avoided at all costs.

I think many of us, myself included, are embarrassed to look up rules of punctuation when we don’t know a proper usage. These are things we’re taught in elementary school, so we assume that they are so basic that a person of reasonable intelligence would not forget them. Nothing is farther from the truth. We start learning punctuation and grammar early because these things are difficult and require much practice. Writing is like a muscle, not like riding a bicycle–it atrophies if unused. Because of that, there is nothing wrong with having to refresh your memory about “basic” grammatical concepts. If it’s that big a deal, clear your browser history afterward. But, for the love of God, look up the rule in the first place if there’s any question.

The opposite of the above is, thankfully, also true. The proper use of punctuation is an extremely effective aspect of writing style. To be clear, the word “proper” as used here relies heavily on context. In (most) professional writing, rules of grammar and punctuation should be kept religiously. In fiction writing or circumstances where the perspective and mind of the author are part of the writing itself, the rules should be liberally–but carefully and thoughtfully broken.

I came across an excellent example of this (and probably the impetus for this post) while starting to read a friend’s young adult novel. The novel (at least as far as I’ve gotten) is told in the first person point-of-view of a sixteen year-old young woman. The style of the writing is clipped, using short sentences, sentence fragments and well-placed punctuation to convey the fleeting, sometimes confused and quite excited thoughts of this character as she attends a sort-of debutante party that she knows represents a crucial fork in the road of her life. The character comes to life not just in her words, but in the way that the punctuation groups her thoughts into clusters, abruptly changes subjects and gives us a feel not just for what she thinks but how she thinks. That is great writing; the kind we should all strive for. I’d love to include some examples here, but it’s not my writing to share.

And in that effort, we should bear in mind that there are a number of approaches to punctuation in any writing, but fiction in particular. I would–admittedly making this up as I go–call the above example an heuristic approach to punctuation. But maybe I ought to be less pretentious and call this a “character-based” approach. Alternatives, if you like, might be to call this a “stream-of consciousness” approach or even a “Joycian” approach. The punctuation defines the character, not the author or the style of the writing itself necessarily.

We might alternatively use a dramatic or theatrical approach. In dramatic works, actors are trained to use the punctuation as keys to the pacing, pauses and breaths in speech. Here, the punctuation serves as a code to help the written word mimic normal speech patterns. I find that most people naturally follow this approach when reading aloud, whether or not the piece is dramatic. So, using this method, good punctuation should be used to assist the flow of the text for the reader and to enhance both comprehension and enjoyment of the text. Does this sometimes overlap with the first-described approach? Probably, but not necessarily. Some people don’t think or speak in ways that are easy for others to understand, and not all points of view in narrative are going to be able to characterize and define those involved in the action described.

A more formal adherence to the “rules-as-written” of punctuation would likely serve the same function as the theatrical approach, though perhaps with a different feel. The ease of communication of content is paramount here, but should not be sacrificed for other cognitive effects that might be created in the mind of the reader through creative and effective punctuation.

I don’t think that it’s necessary, nor probably even helpful, to spend a lot of time trying to categorize your punctuational approach by the groups given above (or any others for that matter). What is important is to be intentional about your punctuation. This takes us back to Professor Brooks Landon’s comment that writing is “brain hacking.” Punctuation is an integral part to how your text creates, divides and sequences images and thoughts in the mind of the reader. Your punctuation should always be calculated to bolster the substance of the text to your desired effect. Is that easy? Hell no. But it’s certainly worth the effort.

 

Mindmaps for Writing

As I’m plotting the first of my currently-planned novels, I thought I’d share some of my experiences that might be helpful to other writers.

Before long, I’ll post about my own experiences specific to apps and tools I’ve found supremely helpful so far. That said, I found all of these apps and programs by searching the web, so in the interim you can, too. As a shortcut to the things I’m getting the most mileage out of: Scrivener (PC), Index Cards 4 (IOS/Ipad), Mindly (IOS 4/Ipad).

In this post, I’m going to focus on the process used by the latter app–mindmaps. If you’re not familiar, mindmaps are a way of visually organizing thoughts into webs of association. I imagine that, on one occasion or another, many of us have done something like this intuitively without thinking about it. I’m sure that there’s not just one way to do this, but the common fashion seems to be the construction of planetary orbits–a central idea around which sub-ideas float, each potentially with their own sub-ideas ad infinitum.

For me, a tool is only as good as the time it saves me, and this is why (I think) the popularity of mindmaps has soared in recent years. On paper, a mindmap will likely take more time to configure than it eliminates, as you draw, erase and redraw ideas and associations. To gain some advantage, one could use index cards to create easily-reconfigurable mind maps on a table or corkboard, but even this adds unnecessary time and effort to the process that is obviated by the use of software that handles those background tasks efficiently and intuitively.

For me, mindmaps are a consummate brainstorming tool. As such, I use them with a specific approach to brainstorming that I have found greatly helpful in avoiding mental blocks and “analysis paralysis.” I learned this process from the Great Course by Gerard Puccio, “The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit.”

As Dr. Puccio teaches, there are several stages to brainstorming (and I hope I remember them correctly). The first is to identify the problem–for a mindmap, this becomes the center of the mindmap’s universe, the first thing entered around which all else will orbit. Stages two and three are to be repeated as much as necessary. In stage two, without judgment, criticism or analysis, you simply write down all the ideas you can think of related to the problem. It is only when you reach stage three that you turn the critical eye toward your ideas, thinking about which might work and which might not.

For a mindmap, I think it’s a good idea to be fluid about how you go about applying stages two and three. One strategy is to deal with one tier of the mindmap at a time. Alternatively, you may progress to using stages two and three on subtiers before returning to higher-level orbits.

An example will be better than explanation. Right now, my favorite use of mindmaps is for resolving plot problems–not meta-problems in the structure of the plot, mind you, but the sorts of problems that are: “oh, that’s an interesting obstacle, how do my characters resolve it?”

The obstacle goes in the center of the map. Now we go to our first round of brainstorming. Here, I list all of the large-scale ideas about possible resolutions. For instance, this morning, I’ve run into an issue in my plot where the characters have run out of money and need a way to get more. I filled the first orbit with all the possible things I could think of that might make the characters money. Here, I’m not asking questions of each methodology and I’m not trying to eliminate anything–the goal is to create as expansive a list of options as is possible.

Once this is done, I have choices about how to proceed. I could go to stage three and start to eliminate the more-outlandish or less-useful ideas I came up with in the brainstorming. Typically, though, I prefer to go to an additional set of brainstorming first, taking each idea created in orbit around the problem in turn and brainstorming ideas, plot consequences, and connections that will orbit around each of the ideas I created in the first round of brainstorming. Once this is done, then I go to the first round of analysis, eliminating those first-tier ideas for which I either couldn’t come up with much further or for which the additional ideas I did generate simply don’t work for reasons of plot, logic, characters, etc.

Protip: teachers of writing and authors themselves often use the following mantra when constructing plot: “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character? That’s what I’ll make happen.” You can get a lot of mileage out of that, too, I’m sure.

I’ve found this system immensely useful for eliminating or preventing writer’s block. As a bonus, more often than not, this process adds twists, subplots, additional set-up scenes and more that enhances both the plot itself and its flow.

Many of the mindmapping apps are available for a free trial–it took me exploring a few different ones before I stuck with Mindly, which seems to be the most intuitive and least obstrusive of the ones I experimented with. It has free trial for use on Ipad and is worth checking out. Regardless of the platform, though, I highly suggest you experiment with mindmaps as brainstorming tools for writing–not just for plot, but for creating characters and setting, generating writing prompts, mapping the flow of scenes and more.

Review: Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland

I wrote my first attempt at a novel more than 10 years ago, back in college. It will never see the light of day; the print manuscript lies in a sealed envelope even I dread to open. It’s really quite terrible, but at least it’s out of my system. Maybe one day I’ll go back and completely rewrite it into something good, but it will look nothing like the monstrosity confined to a bottom desk drawer that currently exists.

Why do I think it’s so bad? Partially because my writing skills have vastly improved in the decade since then. But more to the point, I “pantsed” the whole thing. That is, I wrote it without any attempt at outlining or creating more than the loosest possible structure in my head. This lead to a story full of non-sequiturs, lost story arcs and missing character motivations—a long pile of words on pages that don’t come together into something whole in the end.

Never again.

I’m also reminded of an anecdotal story about Jim Butcher, acclaimed author of the Dresden Files novels and more. As the story goes, like most of us young and idealistic writers, Mr. Butcher railed against the idea that a novel must follow a particular structure. To prove the professors of his creative writing program wrong about this, he set out to write a novel according to the classic structure, assuming that it would, as expected, turn out to be drivel. In doing this, he wrote the first of the Dresden Files novels, the one that would eventually be called Storm Front (though at the time it was titled Semi-automagic—how I love that title!). Following the “formula” not only created a work that proved gripping, entertaining and—most important—creative, it launched his career as a professional author.

With all of this in mind, I highly recommend that the amateur writer (myself included) read K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel. Or, as I did, listen to them on Audible, where they’re both narrated by the same person, Sonja Field, who effectively brings the conversational tone of the books to life.

I’m not willing to suggest that anything Ms. Weiland does in these books is truly revolutionary. You will find a presentation of the “classic” approach to story structure, with definitions of standardized terms (“catastrophe” and “sequel,” for instance). But the information is delivered in a clear manner by someone who has used these techniques to publish several novels. She effectively uses well-known literary classics in different genres as illustrations for these structures and ideas. If I have one complaint about these books, it might be that there are too many examples. Impatient as I am, I’d be satisfied with shorter books with fewer examples.

Along with those examples, Ms. Weiland includes snippets of interviews with a breadth of authors (particularly in the outlining book). These interviews can be easily summarized: every author approaches the act of structuring and outlining their novels in different ways, but these are typically variations on a theme and very few successful authors do not outline their novels before beginning writing—though almost all of them leave themselves free to improvise on that outline when a spark of creativity hits.

This last sentence, I think, summarizes the major effect of both of these books, and why I highly recommend them to aspiring authors. First, the books give you tools and constructs to allow you to approach story structure and outlining in a productive manner—whatever your personal process turns out to be. Second, the books prove both the value of using “traditional” story structure and the fact that using “formulaic” story structures does not prohibit creativity in writing. Like all “rules” in writing, a person who understands the purpose of the rules can occasionally break them to great effect—knowing the intuitive expectations a reader has in how a story should go allows you to more effectively twist those expectations into something cathartic, or at least entertaining.

These books collectively touch upon several other grounds important to planning novels—the value of creating characters before outlining, the fact that novel-writing is a process and that you’ll likely need to make revisions to story, characters and outline as things developed, methods for brainstorming and then sorting through generated ideas (though I highly recommend the Great Course by Professor Gerard Puccio, The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit for that particular issue) and details of some of the ways stories and characters surprise their creators and develop lives and wills of their own.

These are both (relatively) short reads and, though I’d prefer them to be shorter, are easy to turn out in just a few sittings. If you intend to write novels and have not recently (or ever) reviewed story structure techniques and ideas, I’d definitely recommend picking up these books and reading them as a set.

After that, there are some alternative analyses of story structure that might be useful as well. Robin Law’s Hamlet’s Hit Points (designed for structuring roleplaying games but also generally applicable to fiction-writing, I think) comes quickly to mind. Maybe I’ll review that in the near future.

Novel Planning: Sketching Characters

In a recent post, I mentioned that I’m working on outlining two novels, currently. I thought I’d share a bit about my process so that it can be borrowed by others for those who find something useful in my ramblings.

As a minor aside, I’m using Scrivener for the majority of my serious planning and Outliner Pro (on IPad) for my rougher outlining. I regularly carry at least one moleskine journal with me for ideas, and I’ve been toying with the idea of supplementing with mindmap software. More on resources and tools at another time.

Right now, I want to focus on my process for character design. Once I get the inspiration for the core idea of a character, I want to let it germinate for a while, half-formed, sponging up an additional agglutinate of ideas until I’m ready to start carving off the unnecessary or nonsensical–I’m become a big believer that you can spare a lot of heartache and writer’s block by first being creative without judgment to generate ideas and then critically and mercilessly organizing, revising and cutting. At this stage, though, I’m still looking for big ideas and not too concerned about the details.

The next step I take–mostly out of impatience–is to write something with the character in it. Doesn’t necessarily have to be great writing or something that’s directly usable later, but putting a character into a scene and seeing what they do, at least for an intuitive thinker like me, seems to go a long way to developing the character. I often find quirks, habits, and personality aspects while doing this if nothing else, but you’re also likely to create more ideas that contribute to the character’s background, appearance and motivations as well. For me, this project often turns into a work of it’s own–“The Siege of Uthcaire” started as way to sketch out the character of Tirasi–she and some of her companions while be a part of the ensemble cast I’m working with in one of my in-development novels.

I’m a very visual person, so after I’ve let my imagination run wild and unchecked for a while, I like to find one or more pictures that represent as much of the character as possible–or at least significant aspects. Writing coaches and what not will often tell you to cast your characters with movie stars or people you know to make it easier to describe them. I guess I’m doing this in reverse–I envision what the character looks like, find someone that captures that look and then use that to discover additional details about the character’s appearance. Let’s use Tirasi as an example again: her folder in my Scrivener file has a small collection of collected pictures in it. Foremost is a photo of Charlize Theron from Fury Road, not because I’ve “cast” her as Charlize Theron, but because the image I’ve used conveys a lot to me about the feel of the character–the martial cropped haircut, the anger and violence of which she’s capable, the dust and scrapes of adventure. Next to this photo are several pictures of female fantasy warriors (all in proper armor without “boob plates” mind you–I’m proud of that!).

(As an aside, collecting inspirational photographs for writing projects is a great way to procrastinate, or to at least do something remotely helpful to your writing while watching Netflix. As a further aside, Google searches and Pinterest are fine for collecting your personal “concept art,” but you can’t beat DeviantArt.com for the sheer talent and variety of artwork in any genre or medium.)

Of course, if you have the skill, you can always draw, paint, sketch, digitally produce or whatever your own inspirational works for your stories. Bonus points if you can, and damn am I jealous.

With some pictures to look to to fight back against writer’s block, now it’s time to do the heavy lifting. Now I go to write about the character, as much description as possible. I tend to write in paragraph form, but there’s no reason you can’t use bullet points, phrases, sentence fragments, questions and single words–this exercise is for your eyes only (or maybe to sell in a “making of” book once you’re famous).

While collecting my ideas about the character, I start with five general categories: History; Personality; Quirks and Mannerisms; Relationships and Goals, Desires and Motivations. In Scrivener, each subject has its own file, but this is just my personal preference. Additional categories may crop up as necessary–particularly if you need to include more in-depth write-ups for specific events in the character’s life, ideas for events in the current story you’re building with them or other notes you want to stand out or be quickly available to you.

I’m finding a helpful dialectic between outlining the story (I’m still working in broad strokes, mind you) and building character backgrounds–sometimes the plot determines that I have a need for a specific type of character; others I have a character idea that pushes the plot in a different direction. The downside to be aware of working from both angles is that you’ll occasionally have to go back and make adjustments to both plot and characters to accommodate new developments. I find this an easier way to go about building the novel–when I get stuck on one aspect, I jump to the other. As important, working from both angles bakes in plausibility and complexity from an early stage.

Some authors assert that you should be intimately familiar with all of your characters before you start to outline. I’m still very much the amateur, but I prefer to take some advice from the Apocalypse World roleplaying game–“Look at every character through crosshairs.” I think I’ll be fine to have my characters more or less set in their identities before I start the actual writing, but I prefer to maintain a little more flexibility until I’m more sure exactly where I’m coming from and where I’m going in the arc of the story. I’m enough of a time-waster as it is; the last thing I want is to become intimately familiar with a character I later decide would never walk into this story in the first place. Not the end of the world if that happens, I suppose: there’ll always be more stories, and recycling is good for the planet.

Anyway, that’s my current process from a high level: (1) Create a character concept; (2) write a sketch or story with the character; (3) find some visual influences; (4) develop character notes; (5) put the character in a plot and write.

 

Modern Mythopoeia

Tolkien’s legendarium is arguably the sine que non of the practice of modern worldbuilding (founded, of course on the ancient mythopoeias of Greece, Rome and especially the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe). The mythological histories that lurk behind the stories of Patrick Rothfuss, Susanna Clarke and G.R.R. Martin likewise inspire a wonder that deepens the metaphoric and thematic meanings of their respective works, reinforcing the actual narratives through foreshadowing, repetition of events and themes and the creation of seemingly-living systems of belief and culture that bring characters to life.

Mythopoeia is powerful because its focus is unabashedly meaning without the need for historicity and “hard” logic—it is the intuitive quality of dreams brought to bear upon the waking world. It is important on one hand because it makes for better fantastic worlds and tales; on the other it bears a power of its own that cannot be found in any other mode of storytelling.

Here’s the rub—the natural drive to develop mythologies and legends for our created worlds is to emulate the feeling of known mythopoeia, to capture the nostalgia of indulging in such modes of thought without sufficient critique of the cultures and ideologies that informed old ways of thinking—whether from the early 20th Century A.D. or the late 20th Century B.C.

Some of my first steps into Avar Narn involved journeys into the mythological and legendary foundations of the setting. I looked to the great writers before me in too imitative and awestruck a manner.

There were two mistakes here. First—this is my opinion based upon my own experience, so take it for what it is—one should not start at the beginning when crafted a world meant for storytelling. Quite the contrary, one should begin in forming the milieu in which the stories will take place—the worlds “modern day,” if you will—because this will more heavily influence the types of stories you tell with that setting. Start with the immediate, and work backwards—what kind of things might have historically occurred to result in the current state of political affairs, what legends and mythologies would have shaped the “modern” ideologies, perspectives and values that exist in that world?

Second, if we adhere too closely to historical mythologies and their fantastic descendants, we are not carefully crafting the values our world has.

By way of example—a world with a mythology of creation that draws heavily upon the Adam and Eve story is more likely to result in a misogynistic worldview—blame Eve for Adam’s sin as historic theologians tended to do. If that influence is there, it either has to be somehow present in the current time of the setting (even if its influence has waned such that people do not openly espouse such a view—but still think it to themselves) or something has to have occurred to change the initial perspective created by that mythology. This could be as simple as a change of the interpretive hermeneutic applied to a mythology or story of spiritual import. But it could represent a major change in theology or the mythology itself—perhaps one explanatory story was replaced by another. This could be a result of historical events: new propagandistic motives of rulers; the influence of foreign ideas upon domestic, whether by trade or conquering; events (natural or otherwise) that undercut or destroyed the explanatory power of the earlier story.

In other words, if we uncritically draw upon Tolkien’s legendarium to shape our own, we’ll get a mythology informed (subtly or not) but the dominant ideas of the early 20th century (and, perhaps, ancient Germanic mythologies as interpreted through the lens of that same time). Draw heavily upon Greek mythology for your world and—without an outside influence—the inhabitants of that world will have Greek values.

I’m tempted to say that sometimes this doesn’t matter, but any work on worldbuilding or crafting narrative that doesn’t influence some other aspect of the process is time wasted and meaning lost.

For me, the productive turn (which has occurred only recently as I return to the Avarian mythologies and legends to revise them as the setting moves toward its final state) happened when I realized that I needed to think about the social values I want to have (and, as important, have conflict over) in the setting.

The most important (and thus controversial) social matters—race, sexuality, religion, politics, immigration, environmental issues, bioethics, etc.—are treated with outdated and untenable views by much mythopoeic work, old and more recent. If you want to deal with these issues in ways that modern readers could relate to, ways that stimulate thought about the subject (particularly as an examination of all sides of an issue rather than solely a diatribe or invective current in your work), your world’s mythopoeia itself needs to challenge or wrestle with these ideas. What does it mean in your world if your mythology has divine beings engaged in homosexual relationships? It is not enough simply to have such stories—if questions of human sexuality are something you want to explore in your world, the context of those stories also matters heavily.

Maybe my point is simple—like Penn & Teller’s statement that “words mean shit!”, stories mean shit! No part of the crafting process of a setting or story should go without scrutiny or intentional design.

From this, the real crux of my argument is simple: do not imitate sample mythologies uncritically! Strive to capture the power and the feel of the mythopoeic, borrow from the tropes of the mythopoeic when helpful, but craft something that is uniquely yours and that tells readers something about the setting and your story! Take hold of the explanatory purpose of the mythopoeic and use it to your own ends! Your fantasy world’s mythologies should inform both you and your readers about the kinds of values and ideas that are taken for granted, as well as those that rebel against traditional beliefs and those that have come into question. Your mythologies are not so much about the conflict within those stories as the conflicts they set up for your “main” narratives.

Rant over.

Word Count Worries

I’ve posted in the past about short short stories (1500 words or less) and you have some examples on this site with regards to my more “standard”-length short stories. My current plan is to write more short stories set in Avar Narn and submit those for potential publication in spec-fic magazines before turning to attempt publishing a fantasy novel.

To that end, I’ve been working for the past short months on what began as a short story. This story–I’m calling it Shadowgraphy–is a noir story set in the city of Ilessa on the island of Altaena in Avar Narn. The story combines a fantasy setting with a noirish subject into something reminiscent of cyberpunk (a favorite genre of mine); it’s an orphan bastard from a genre perspective, but that’s something I love about it.

The problem is that noir stories are, by nature, complex. I must admit that I don’t read much in the way of conventional mysteries and I can’t recall reading a “proper” mystery short story ever. When you add in the characterization necessary to the noir aesthetic–not just characterization of the people within the story but the setting and sociopolitical milieu (arguably characters themselves in such a thematically-oppressive genre)–perhaps any aspiration at writing a noir short story is a pipe dream to all but the most genius and unburdened of writers. I am neither. I think of Churchill’s “I would have written you a shorter letter if I’d had more time.”

When I started Shadowgraphy, I did what I often do with shorter works–I mulled over a plot in my head for a while and then sat down to commit it to paper without rigid structure, figuring I’d go back and edit it into a more structured and satisfying story once I’ve gotten something on paper (or computer screen, as the case may be). After about 4,000 words of this, I realized two things:(1) a noir (or perhaps any good mystery) story requires very careful planning and plotting and (2) there would be no way I’d fit the tale into the more or less 7,500 words usually allowed for a short story.

At the time of this post, I’m at about 17,000 words. This after scrapping those first 4,000 and spending nearly a month on writing and rewriting an outline of the plot–much time of which was spent on addressing little details and questions that had to be answered to make everything “fit.” When I’m done, I expect it’ll be between 20,000 and 24,000 words.

From one perspective, I’m quite proud of that. It will be, I think, a well-plotted longer story that’s given me a chance to really work on some of the skills I’ll need for writing novels. From another, it’s going to leave me with a commercially-useless result. The novella is a length for self-indulgence or well-established authors with a dedicated fan-base, I’m afraid.

There’s something to be said for putting in such effort for the story’s own sake. It’s a labor of love unfettered by the demands of the marketplace. Money does ruin things–especially art–and there’s a freedom for the artist that often comes from a certain hopelessness at commercial success. It’s also proof that I’m writing because I love it, not because I think it will prove lucrative–this is a good lesson in humility, and one I personally can stand to be reminded of.

Nevertheless, it’s only natural for the writer to want others to enjoy his work enough that they seek it out. You can’t generate that kind of audience without getting something “out there.”

So, here I am, scratching my head about what to do. There’s no question but that I’ll finish the story–it’s come far too far not to. But then what? Do I self-publish it on Amazon for nintey-nine cents and see if anyone reads it? Do I post it on the blog and ride the waves of insecurity and emotion upon seeing the analytics of how many actually read it? Do I put it in an (electronic and metaphoric) drawer to be saved for some later time?

I don’t know. When I post on the blog about writing, I usually want to share some humble advice born of my own experience. Today, though, all I have is a venting of frustration.

Thoughts? Similar experiences? Advice from a dear reader?

An Exercise in Confidence

I apologize for my silence over the past two weeks; that strange combination of business and laziness that tends to hit at the end of the year overtook me for some time. But now I’m back, looking forward to the blog in the new year.

I’d prefer not to name names, but a few days ago a friend asked me to read a short selection from a book by a fantasy writer whose name I have heard but whose books I’ve never read. If you’re confused, it’s the author and not the friend who I’d like to avoid naming.

After reading the selection, I advised my friend never to read something by that author again—to his chagrin. When I told him that the author’s style left much to be desired and that life’s too short to waste time on bad books, the look he gave me said, “Yeah, but he’s been published. Many times. How ‘bout you?”

He’s got me there, but that only matters if you think that only good authors get published. Before they disappear entirely, go walk through the fantasy fiction aisle at your local Barnes & Noble—or, better yet, your local library. Pick a few things at random and read paragraphs from them. You might be surprised at how many make you (honestly) say, “I could do better than that.”

To be fair, no writer is “on” all the time, and even great writers can write bad books (they just do so less frequently than the rest of us). Nevertheless, I think that one can often discern between “could be good but isn’t here” and “please stop writing things.”

Regardless of caveats and fairness (because, hey, the whole writing industry isn’t fair in who gets picked up and published and who does not), the encounter above with my friend gave me an idea. In trying to convince my friend of the author’s poor style, I picked one of his sentences, read it, and then gave my “improved” version (which could have been further improved, but I stand by my assertion that it was better than the published sentence).

That’s where my idea comes in. When I was in law school, K wanted to watch some legal sitcoms. I had trouble with how inaccurate they were until I decided to make a game and study tool out of them. I would watch alongside her and point out the inaccuracies, explaining how things should have been done accurately. While this might have put a strain on our relationship (at least with regards to watching TV), it did prove helpful in honing my legal skills.

All writers need to practice editing, and why not boost your confidence while you’re at it? Here’s the exercise: take a book you think is written poorly, select a passage from it, and rewrite the passage. For bonus points, put the original and your version side by side and see which one your friends think is better. If you’re successful there, try moving to better authors and continuing to use your friends as guinea pigs.

If you become confident with that, try moving beyond the technicalities of syntax and structure to playing with the art of style. Take a passage from a good book and rewrite it as if it were in a different genre or a different point of view.

I do firmly believe that life is too short to waste our time reading bad books. But if we can learn something from a bad book? Well, that’s something entirely different.

RPGs for Writers, Part I

This topic comes to mind because I’m currently spending a good deal of time writing short stories for the world of Avar Narn and have also just started GMing a roleplaying game in the same setting.

I’ve always had a love for both roleplaying games and for writing, and I’m convicted that my experience in one medium has influenced (if not shaped) the other. If, like me, you’d like to be a professional writer–particularly, but not exclusively, in the fantasy or sci-fi genres, I highly recommend that running roleplaying games becomes part of your curriculum of self-education. The reasons are myriad, videlicet:

Roleplaying Games Have Heavily Influenced the Modern Fantasy Genre

When watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, I amusedly observed a certain dialectic that had formed between Tolkien’s works and Dungeons and Dragons (and also the Warhammer Fantasy setting). D&D most certainly drew heavy inspiration from Tolkien (though a look at Gygax’s Appendix N shows that that’s far from the only source). The idea of pointy-eared elves, stubborn dwarves (or dwarfs, if you prefer) and long overland quests all originated in Middle-Earth but found a new home in D&D and its derivatives. Likewise, Games Workshop’s much-beloved Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy began as an close spin-off of Tolkien, and closely associated with Dungeons and Dragons as well (Citadel miniatures where sculpted and cast for D&D use before they ever had their own setting and style).

In the past few decades, D&D (and again, Warhammer) has become as much a part of mainstream culture as Tolkien has (look to Stranger Things or the fact that D&D got its own movies–however awful they might have been). The tropes of D&D now often stand alone, indebted to but moved beyond the original source material J.R.R. provided.

And so, in a strange reversal, I find several points in Jackson’s films that seem to be inspired far more by the over-the-top “epic” fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons than by the rather low-magic setting of The Lord of the Rings books. A few examples: stone giants attacking one another as the Dwarves and Bilbo  traverse the mountains, Legolas skating down the trunk of an oliphaunt, the boar-riding in the Battle of Five Armies and some of the action-oriented scenes involving Tauriel (who is far more a product of modern gaming than of Tolkien).

What this tells me is that fantasy roleplaying and wargaming have become so ingrained in (at least gamer-) culture that we know look back to the original inspirations (Tolkien, Vance, Lord Dunsany, George McDonald) through the lens of the tropes and ideas of these more-modern creations.

It’s not just the fantasy genre where roleplaying games have had a hand in shaping pop culture. The horror game Vampire: The Masquerade had its own TV series in the 90’s (called Kindred: The Embraced and produced through Aaron Spelling’s production company–find a copy if you can!) and certainly has had a hand in the 21st century vomitorium of vampire novels, TV shows and movies (True Blood, Twilight, etc.).

My point is this: to borrow a quotation from The Music Man, “You have to know the territory!” I’d wager that there are more people who have played D&D than who have read The Name of the Wind or Mistborn: The Final Empire, though both are of a vastly-higher literary quality than any RPG I’ve run or played. There is a certain fantasy mindset that D&D and other games engenders that leaves people with certain expectations (R.A. Salvatore’s sold a lot of books, after all). I’m not encouraging you to emulate the tropes of D&D in your own fantasy works (for the love of God, please don’t!), but you need to know what readers’ expectations and assumptions might be so that you can prey on them (in a completely benign literary sense, of course).

Practice Makes Perfect

In my experience, there are few harsher critics than nerds, and that’s a good thing. Every one of us has our own ideas about what tropes, genres and ideas are cool (or kewl) and which are lame. I love it when nerds find ways to call one another out: “You like Star Trek? How lame! There’s only Firefly.”

Practicing storytelling in front of a tough audience will help you to hone your skills, and RPGs provide a prime opportunity for this. Serious roleplayers (and a discussion of serious versus casual roleplayers merits its own post–but let’s say for now that both are categories are full of respected and valued people) will call you out (or complain behind your back, which is always easy to check on) if your characters are flat or your plot is full of holes. Even those players who prefer to avoid confrontation (in real life–they often play some of the bloody-mindedest characters!) will be happy to help you improve your skills if you ask.

And, as we’ll further discuss below, running a roleplaying game is a very different animal from writing a story on a page. Notice that I called it “storytelling” above–GMing a game is storytelling without the same rigor of grammar, syntax and style of the written text (although it is full of its own set of nuance and stylistic conventions).

I’m a firm believer that style and substance are inseparable in writing (particularly in fiction, when words must evoke a feeling or atmosphere as much as describe events, people and places), but that doesn’t mean that improving the substance by itself–which is possible in some ways at least in the RPG medium–won’t make your writing better as a whole.

Working on the Building Blocks

Outlining a plot for written fiction is a tough task. Making sure you don’t leave any gaps or loose ends, that the narrative flows up and down in drama and tension and that both the logic of events and the characters move in believable ways prove daunting, to say the least.

What can help with that? Having developed characters whose own motivations and personalities suggest the plot and push the story to its conclusion through seemingly-inevitable (but often surprising) actions. Well developed settings that intrude upon the narrative, providing both obstacles and the means to overcome them. Situations that arise organically from the nuance of the setting, creating plot hooks. And, of course, sometimes it comes to a whole lot of creative pondering, brainstorming and working back and forth through the plot as currently written.

Skillfully creating characters, setting and ideas for the beginnings of a story before attempting to sketch out a plot is more efficient (and artistically successful) than starting with a plot and pigeonholing characters and events into it.

As a (good) GM, what are you responsible for: creating memorable characters in an evocative setting and letting the plot develop organically (and often chaotically) out of the intervening actions of the player characters. In other words, creating all of the building blocks for a strong plot and then letting it go, responsively building events and scenes from the characters’ preceding actions.

This is difficult to do at all, much less to do well. But so is writing, and you didn’t decide you wanted to take up writing because you thought it would be easy and relaxing. You decided to take it up because it’s demanding and rewarding and, dammit, you’ll explode if you don’t get some of your ideas out of you and onto paper.

Creative Juices

Because the plot of an RPG develops through the back-and-forth between players and GM, you can only go in with strong building blocks (characters and setting) and a vague idea of plot direction, because no plan will survive contact with the enemy–er, players. The spontaneity demanded of a good GM means that you will have to develop your ability to improvise, synthesize and dramatize quickly and meaningfully. If you become able to do those things well on the fly, just think about your abilities when you’ve got time to sit down and slowly develop and rework a story.

Alongside this, the worldbuilding aspect of roleplaying is, potentially, far more extensive than it is for typical fiction. Tolkien’s example aside, the fiction writer really only has to do enough worldbuilding as will appear “on-screen.” You only need as much culture as will influence the plot and characters, as much geography as suits the story, as much depth as bolsters the fourth wall.

This is not true of a roleplaying game. If your characters wander to the edge of the map (or, more likely, the edge of the scene) and find blank space, they’ve lost all sense of immersion, and the most important aspect of a profound roleplaying experience has been lost–probably never to be recovered. Because of player agency, you need to know what is (or at least, what could and what could not be) on the other side of that hill, what the heretofore unnamed NPC’s life is like if the characters somehow decide he’s more important than you originally intended, what the foreign cultures that the players’ characters may hail from are like. Your worldbuilding has to be far more complete, because the players are not sitting captive in a movie theater exposed only to what appears on the screen–they are holding the camera and may turn it unexpectedly at a whim.

Is deeper worldbuilding always better? No, not necessarily. If you’re writing a standalone story based more on an idea than a setting, it’s probably a waste of time to go into the kind of detail a roleplaying setting demands. But, on the other hand, if the setting itself is part of the fiction you want to weave, why not become adept at doing the thing right?

Go to Amazon and search for books on worldbuilding. If you search well, you’ll find far more books written for roleplaying games with deep discussions of worldbuilding than those for writers. More to the point, you’ll often find the works with “games” in mind deeper and more developed than those with “literature” in mind. This is admittedly changing as Tolkien-esque worldbuilding (along with fantasy map-making and conlanging) becomes more mainstream, though I’d argue that this is another facet of my first point, that roleplaying games have pushed certain aspects of fantasy to the forefront.

A Feel for Narrative

There are plenty of books on “proper” narrative structure. You can find formulae for stories in any kind of genre you can imagine. Plenty of theorists or writers will tell you that there’s only a limited number of dramatic situations (sometimes so few you can count them on fingers and toes) that get recycled from story to story.

Theory is well and good, and I don’t intend to argue with any particular formula or convention here. However, there’s more to plot than the mechanics of dramatic beats and intervening beats, of a rising action and a denouement. The best narrative is like a rollercoaster–it goes up and down, sometimes twists suddenly to the side, gathers momentum or slows, and sometimes, just sometimes, curls back on itself or hangs upside down.

There are even successful stories that in many ways should be described as lacking a plot–Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, for instance.

Of course, roleplaying games without plots really don’t work except for players fastidiously (perhaps narcissistically) concerned with their own characters. The point is really that plot must be felt as much as coldly planned.

Running a roleplaying game (well) requires the development of a keen sense of narrative structure, when to rise, when to fall, when to zig and zag. This relies on a sense of mood and audience as much as “rules” of plot.

Sometimes Rules Help to Control the Fun

By this, I do not mean that a novelist should create roleplaying statistics for all his characters and then have them roll against each other to determine how the plot moves. But, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, a lack of consistency can destroy the suspension of disbelief.

Rules in (good) roleplaying games are designed specifically for consistency–to constrain the possible results and ensure that two similar situations have similar odds of resolving in various possible ways. For a game, this is in part a matter of “fairness,” though the best roleplaying games (I find, and so does John Wick–the game designer and roleplayer, not the Keanu Reeves hitman) are patently unfair in ways that mimic real life (and may or may not be codified within the rules). Regardless of origin, though, the consistency of the rules contributes to the consistency of the world, which contributes to willing suspension of disbelief. Nobody likes a hypocrit; even fewer people like a hypocritical fiction.

The “mundane” rules necessary to roleplaying games are unnecessary in fiction writing–logic can help a writer determine when a character dies of thirst without the need to roll dice or consult charts. On the other hand, certain aspects of speculative fiction–particularly systems of magic and superscience–can benefit from a codified rulesystem that ensures consistency. This does not mean that the fiction writer needs to create a mathematical resolution system for these aspects of a fantasy story, but the principles of creating a well-realized and consistent magic system for written fiction and a workable magic system for a roleplaying game overlap so significantly that experience handling one will certainly help with the other. Speaking from experience, the complex systems of magic in the Avar Narn setting are deeply nuanced and influenced by my own inspirations from and criticisms of magic as portrayed both in fiction and in RPGs (I’m looking at you, D&D; your magic is stupid and lacks the fantastic).

Jim Butcher, author of the wildly successful Dresden Files, helped translate his fictional magic system into RPG rules through the FATE-powered Dresden Files RPG. Given his frequent references to roleplaying games in the novel, it’s clear he’s a fan, so I can’t help but wonder if his roleplaying experiences shaped the way he thought about magic for his setting.

To rag on D&D (and its derivatives) again in this section, sometimes a roleplaying game can tell you how not to structure your world. From a standpoint of game design, I have a lot of bones to pick with Dungeons & Dragons (level- and class-based systems, character growth based on violence, etc.), but the worst of it is that (probably more through players’ fault than the games’ writers) the rules of D&D are usually scene as the physics of the work, rather than the rules attempting to model the physics of a fictional world. What I mean by this is that, if the rules say that something is possible, or even vaguely imply that things should work in a certain way, or the history of those rules carries with it such an implication, then some players assume that the rule trumps all logic and narrative coherence. Hence jokes of leveling up by pouring boiling water on an ant mound (millions of 1XP kills, right?) and far less funny arguments between player and GM about the results of some seemingly ludicrous action supported by the black-letter reading of the rules. This experience may be an artifact of my own biases and agenda when running a roleplaying game, but D&D does seem to be susceptible to this occurrence more than any other game I’ve ever run.

Still, there’re several lessons here. First, you’ve got to be aware that the rules can cut both ways, whether codified in RPG mechanics or simply narrative restrictions–if something works once, you can’t complain when it working again hampers the story you want to tell. Second, as mentioned before, audience expectations must be managed carefully. If you’ve indicated to them in one scene that your story or game is going to be zany and over-the-top in its fantasy tropes, readers or players will be confused and upset when later you try to make things too gritty.

The Future of Entertainment?

While I’d prefer to avoid making decisions based on the commercial aspects of writing, it is worth considering that there is good work for writers to do in emerging media. Video games are becoming more and more concerned with strong storytelling and literary elements–see The Witcher 3 (in my opinion, the best video game made to date, particularly on the storytelling front).

With the impending boom of virtual reality, I think that we can expect a corresponding boom in second-person storytelling in ways previously unavailable to writers and storytellers–except through roleplaying games. Responsive narrative crafted through alternatives of player agency marks an opportunity to tell multiple stories through the same outlet, to examine issues from multiple perspectives and approaches in literary style, and to leave a more powerful impression on the audience than words alone (possibly–I’m willing to accept the possibility that technology will never surpass the power of raw imagination).

Without all the visual and haptic special effects, roleplaying games already do this. I know gamers who have had experiences in roleplaying games that have changed them as people, so powerful was the narrative created at the table. In that sense, a good roleplaying game has the same potential to effect change as a good novel–albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale.

Conclusion

So, have I convinced you, dear fellow writer, that you ought to consider picking up an RPG rulebook, getting some friends together and playing a game? I hope so.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore some different RPG rulesets, systems and settings to think about when selecting which game to play. In the post after that, we’ll talk about the benefits and drawbacks of using the same setting you intend to write in to run roleplaying games.