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.

 

RPGs for Writers, Part III

Having offered up some game systems to use if you’re going to take the dive into roleplaying, let’s talk now about the bigger question: should you use your own beloved setting for your game? I answer the question with a categorical “maybe.” Here’re some of my experiences to illustrate the ups and downs.

Can you let go of your baby?

This is the hardest part of using Avar Narn for roleplaying games. I’ve spent years thinking about this world, developing nuance and atmosphere and thinking about the kind of stories that take place here.

No GM’s plan survives contact with the PCs. My players do not always get Avar Narn. Sure, they understand that it’s a gritty fantasy setting where magic is as dangerous as useful, sinister forces wait in the shadows but “regular” people are just as likely to be monsters as some demon-spawn, but that’s not always enough. When you play a roleplaying game, there need to be some rules–not just the mechanics of the game, but an agreement (implicit or explicit) between GM and players about what sorts of things happen in the setting. Avar Narn is very different (perhaps by design) than the high fantasy you’d find in a typical Dungeons and Dragons game. Characters in Avar Narn may have supernatural abilities and great skill, but the setting is not one of over-the-top action or near-invincible heroes.

When your players don’t meet your expectations for how stories go in your setting, when they unintentionally misunderstand or intentionally reject some of the narrative constraints of your setting, you will naturally be disappointed.

There are two ways to handle this, I think. First, you let go of some control of the setting. What happens in your games doesn’t have to become canon in your world and may still reveal to you important things about your setting–or give you new aspects about your world to explore. This is easier said than done; I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished this approach and I’m not sure that–at least at this point in my creative life–I’m able to.

The alternative, and it’s a harsh one, is to train your players to respect the narrative “rules” of the setting. Were I to do this with Avar Narn, my players would lose characters on a regular basis, because recklessness or foolishness (or perhaps even a really bad run of luck) would get them killed. They’d eventually come to understand what I (or if I’m to shirk responsibility, the setting’s rules) expect, but at what cost? If I cast my net far and wide, I could probably find enough players comfortable with this to run a game, but I think that some of my regular players would (understandably) drop out because that kind of game doesn’t meet their expectations of what roleplaying games should be and do.

This issue is tough to navigate and can easily lead to either you or your players (or both) being disappointed. Beware.

Work or play?

Serious fiction does not always have as its goal being fun in an obvious way (bear in mind that this is different from being enjoyable–think of catharsis, the emotional experience of terrible events that can be left behind at their conclusion and the intellectual satisfaction of a story well told even if not felicitous). If your roleplaying game is not fun, you have a problem–few players want only the sort of parenthetical enjoyment previously described.

On your side of things, will using your setting to run a game feel like work? C.S. Lewis was once asked by a young lover of theology whether he (the young man) should go to seminary. Lewis advised that the young man ought to consider whether making his profession in something he loved my deprive him of the joy he found in it. So much for “do a job you love….” But there’s a point here–a roleplaying game may sometimes require creativity on demand, which is not always the best kind of creativity in worldbuilding and writing. If you find yourself forced to enter your setting rather than doing so for the joy of it, you may find yourself hampered in progressing in your writing and the creation of your world.

Doubling Down

I started with the negatives I’ve experienced in running Avar Narn games. Let’s now turn to some positives:

If you’re running an RPG set in the same setting in which you want to write, the work you do goes twice as far. Planning your game will tell you new things about your setting, working on your setting and stories will give you ideas you can use in your game.

Further, the improvisational nature of roleplaying games may help you stumble onto unexpected ideas for the furtherance of setting and stories–your players may stimulate you to unlock untapped creativity for your world.

Constructive Criticism

While by no means a market-study or a scientifically-valid survey, your players’ feedback will help you to revise your setting by identifying what’s working and what’s not. In particular, RPG players tend to be quick to point out internal inconsistency–the death of a fictional setting.

Indulgence

I have to admit that there is a deep joy that comes from diving into your fantasy world rather than viewing it from a remove. I readily defy the idea that fantasy is mostly (or even much) about escapism, but there a happiness endemic to humanity closely attached to creation and experience, to the exploration of something other than what is. (If that sounds like escapism to you, I’d argue that there’s a difference between retreating to a fantasy world to avoid reality and diving into a fantasy world for the joy of experiencing that world regardless of its comparison to reality).

There are few other ways to participate in your world in such an intimate way. Indeed, I’d say that if your inclinations are towards worldbuilding itself rather than storytelling, you’ll get much more enjoyment from running roleplaying games set in your world than you would from writing stories about your world. If you’re like me, do both when you can manage and reap all the benefits you can.

Storytelling Plus

Why do we create fantasy settings? As I mentioned above, there is a deep human need to create, and you may well feel that you have no choice in the matter–you are pregnant with ideas that must be born (to use a Renaissance analogy). Then there’s the natural desire to share things we love with others, to get them to experience the same joy we have from something.

Here’s perhaps where roleplaying can do something no other storytelling medium can–you can immerse your players in your world with second-person fiction, letting them experience your ideas in a way far more intimate than traditional writing.

If you subscribe to Joss Whedon’s statement (about Firefly, if I remember correctly) that “I’d rather create a show that five people have to see than one that fifty-thousand people want to see.” (I’m paraphrasing and the numbers used may be off, but you get the idea). That is to say, if it’s really about the art itself (that we could all bring ourselves to such true virtue!), you may well find more satisfaction in running a game for a few people than writing for the masses.

Conclusion

While I recommend that speculative fiction writers at least try roleplaying games to see how the genre helps them with their craft, I see justifications both for and against using your own narrative setting for those games. If, like me, you have trouble relinquishing artistic control, you may be better of using a different setting for your games. In so doing, whether you use a published setting or a new creation of your own, you’ll learn things that you can readily apply to your spec-fic setting.

If you can let go a little, or especially if you enjoy collaborative creativity, you may well find a deep joy in running games set in your world that enhances the other joys your setting provides.

 

Writing “Race” in Fantasy

Every aspiring fantasy author or worldbuilder must eventually answer the question of what kind of sentient beings will populate his or her world. At that juncture (again) myself, I thought I’d write my way through the problem(s). I’ve agonized over and over again in designing Avar Narn about what “races” (they should really be called “species,” I think) would occupy that world. I’ve made changes and undone them, remade them and tweaked them over and over and (I hope) I’m ready to finally make the decision once and for all. We’ll see at the end of this post.

So what are the problems about “race” in fantasy works?

(1) Ideas of race have meaning and are problematic. Since you’re on the internet to read this, I’m going to assume that you’re aware of how big a deal race currently is in our world (and in the U.S. in particular). How we discuss and think about race is important, and it’s quite easy to make a misstep.

From one perspective, having various races (I’m just gonna say species from now on) in your fantasy world can do a lot for you.

First, the genre is called “fantasy”—readers want to see the fantastic. It’s part of the fun. Second, you have an instant source of potential conflict (and therefore plot) when you have groups of people (in this case fantastic species) who are unlike one another.

If we want to be highbrow, the encounters between different species allow us to look at “otherness” (to borrow the academic term) in a lot of interesting ways—we can analyze and critique how we (by our culture, our ideologies or our very humanity) define and react to the Other. We can, if we want to be heavy-handed, even talk about specific races race-relation issues in the real world through the metaphor of created fantastic species. To be honest, I’m not sure how you could portray enslavement in a written work and not have an American reader not think about the historical slavery of blacks, and the line between what is said about slavery in general and what is a specific commentary on the experience of a particular people is blurry at best.

At the same time, when we create a fantasy species, we have to bring them to life and individuate them. It’s no use saying “these people are like humans, but they’re blue and have an extra eye.” If our differences are only cosmetic, readers will be understandably disappointed in the lost opportunity. But defining peoples and cultures is difficult, and it’s tempting to resort to shorthand: “These guys are like Tolkien’s orcs, but they’re more intelligence and have a culture like ancient Egypt.” Time constraints and a desire to give the reader quick access to understanding of a story push us in this direction. But there’s a trap here—this sort of cribbing can easily drive us to base our fantastic species off of racial stereotypes.

Even Tolkien was guilty of this. He later acknowledged without reservation that the dwarves in his stories had a lot in common with European Jews. Re-read the stories (or re-watch the movies) and think about that—Tolkien’s dwarves have big noses, are geographically displaced, are often greedy and selfish. If the dwarves weren’t such beloved characters, we’d really see some elements of anti-Semitism here. I’m not saying that Tolkien was anti-Semitic; I have no idea about the answer there. But if it’s possible to say that his portrayal of the dwarves perpetuated negative Jewish stereotypes (mostly medieval ones that somehow persist in this case), something negative has been accomplished through writing, and that’s to be avoided.

(2) Clichés. Look at some of the most popular works of current fantasy fiction (A Song of Ice and Fire and The Name of the Wind both come to mind) and you’ll see settings in which you will not find elves and dwarves and Hobbits. There are several reasons for this.

If you want to have fantastic species in a setting or story, ask yourself, “why?” really. Can you tell the same type of story (or even the exact same story) with humans instead of different species? In most cases, the answer is “yes.” If there’s an Occam’s Razor of writing, maybe this is where it best fits—don’t put things in the story you don’t need. That advice sounds really good, but that doesn’t mean I can bring myself to follow it, necessarily. Sometimes there are things I want a story to have.

The more important reason, I think, that there’s a current move away from fantastic species in modern fantasy, or at least the “standard” species (elves, dwarves, halflings, etc.) is that the portrayals of these species has become hackneyed. We’ve had the same pointy-eared elves and pseudo-Norse dwarves for seventy years and, after a while, that starts to lose its fantastic luster.

This is partially a result of Tolkien’s looming presence over the genre—if you’re not doing it like him you’re not doing it right—but it’s also a result of the influence of Dungeons and Dragons. Multiple generations of fans of fantasy have grown up with the roleplaying game’s definition of elves and dwarves (influenced, of course, by Tolkien) setting the standard. We writers now must worry that, if we change the stereotype, readers will say, “that’s not what orcs are like!” while established writers (and many readers) also say, “if you’re using the same old stereotypes, you’re not writing something worthwhile.” I don’t think that the latter statement is necessarily true, but the risk of writing overly-derivative works certainly increases with the use of the “stock” fantasy species. As an aside on that note, perhaps we could argue that the “stock” species should be thought of in the same line as Commedia dell’Arte: as stereotypes that allow us to quickly pull in the reader and get on with the story. After all, avoiding an infodump is usually a good thing.

To be clear, there are modern writers doing wonderful things with (at least mostly) traditional stereotypes. The books of The Witcher world contain elves and dwarves but manage to depict them in a believable and relatable conflict with humanity (that disturbingly resembles a race-war, because it is one). Of course this works especially well for Sapkowski in the larger context of taking traditional fairy tales and twisting them for his own purposes.

(3) It’s impossible to get inside the head of ultimately alien creatures. As humans, we simply cannot fathom what it would be to be a thousand-year-old elf with confidence in her immortality. How differently we would view the world.

To be fair, that’s a surmountable obstacle. We also cannot create a character who is actually every bit as complex and idiosyncratic as a real person. But we can create the illusion of the same. The same principle applies to writing about fantasy species (or alternatively, alien cultures in sci-fi settings)—we can create the illusion of unfathomable otherness.

Though crafting the illusion is possible, it’s nevertheless very difficult. It requires great care and thought to do well, otherwise you end up with phenotypically-variant humans and nothing more.

It’s not enough to give them a culture based on human cultures, I think. If you’re going to create species that really deserve to be something other than humans, they should really feel different, probably even uncomfortable (but not necessarily frightening).

(4) Complicated Relationships. I grew up a big fan of the Shadowrun setting. One of the things that bugged me about it though, is how they treated race. By this, I don’t mean the fact that there were Orks and Trolls and Elves and Dwarves, but about the ethnic differences we tend to mean when we use the word “race” in modern context. The Shadowrun rationale was just too simplistic.

The explanation went something like this: “Twentieth-century racism is a thing of the past. People don’t care about someone’s skin color anymore when the troll over there can crush you with his bare hands.” In other words, the existence of the alternative species of the Shadowrun world had completely subsumed “traditional” racism.

There’s no reason to believe that that would be the case even if people in our world were to suddenly turn into elves and such. There’d still be plenty of “good ol’ fashioned racism” to go round.

This is just an example of a problem that’s really inherent to all fantasy writing–the need to balance complexity with both the writer’s time and energy and the importance to the story.

(5) Monocultures. This relates closely to (4). Humans have a diversity of very different cultures, ideologies and values, but fantasy species tend to be portrayed as monolithic. This practice is most prevalent, at least in my experience, in roleplaying games. A setting may have many different human cultures for players to choose from for their characters, but only one for any character of a non-human species. Sometimes there are two or three options, but these are not terribly fleshed out and are based more on in-game bonuses than real cultural differences. The ad absurdum example, of course, is early D&D, where you could have either a class (magic user, thief, fighting man) or a “race” (like elf). That’s right, all elves are so similar that they need only the name of their species to define their abilities.

The point is, believable species must have individuation between groups and between individuals. If you’re using elves in your fantasy world, they shouldn’t all be flower-loving hippies (or, even more offensive, all be evil if they happen to have black skin). It takes extra time, yes, but if you’re going to be using fantastic species in your writing, they ought to be diverse like humans are diverse (or there had better be a good reason why they have a monolithic culture).

(Potential) Solutions

(1) Avoid the subject altogether. Just don’t use fantastic sentient creatures. Throw in all the griffons and gargoyles and what not that you want, but leave the thinking, feeling characters human.

(2) Cheat. Here’s what I mean: in Avar Narn, several of the fantastic species used to be human—they were reformed, accidentally or on purpose, willingly or not, by magic. That’s happened long ago enough that they’ve developed somewhat alien perspectives on existence and certainly cultures that vary from those of most human cultures, but it leaves within them a core of humanity that somewhat eases the problem of creating an entirely alien culture—humans will definitely be able to relate to these beings on some level, but not completely. One of the reasons that I’ve chosen this path for some (but not all) of the fantastic species in Avar Narn is that it reinforces one of the setting’s themes—the horrible things that humans would do to themselves if given the power to reshape the world through magic.

(3) Be defiant. Just say, “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” and use the traditional fantasy “races” in your stories or setting. If you write those peoples in a believable and interesting way, and especially if the other aspects of your stories are well done, you won’t have to worry about most people complaining. Ignore the ones who complain anyway.

(4) Use alternate mythologies. Tolkien was a philologist, a student of (ancient) languages. He had spent a long time studying Old English and Old Norse, and he drew from Germanic mythology to create his elves and dwarves. But there are many other cultural mythologies from which could be drawn a plethora of new and interesting species to populate your fantasy world. There are plenty of authors, published and not, taking this tack, though, so move quick (this is what Miéville did in Perdido Street Station and the books that follow, for instance).

(5) Use Archetypes. Here I mean Jungian or Campbellian archetypes. I’m not sure that I buy into the whole “monomyth” thing, and I’m a little skeptical about there being a collective unconscious from which we separately derive the same concepts (fascinating as that idea is—especially for fantasy writers). But there are some very common “places” occupied in various mythologies around the world—there are “hidden folk” in both Scandinavia and Southeast Asian countries, smith creatures in all manner of cultures, creatures to be sought for wisdom in many mythologies. So, find those common themes and, instead of drawing upon an existing mythology to find your fantastic species, create your own that fits the motif. Both dwarves and giants are associated with smithing in various European cultures, so what other type of creature might fit there?

(6) Do the twist. Take a traditional fantasy race and tweak it until it’s either an interesting and innovative take on the species or no longer resembles the original concept.

(7) Use biology. Look to how organisms develop and change based on environment and use that to create your fantastic creatures. There’s a caveat here, though—you’re creating a world that readers will be willing to suspend disbelief for, not an alternative science textbook (unless, of course, that’s your postmodern, avant garde sort of writing style), so use what you need and maintain plausibility to the extent you can, but don’t worry too much about having things perfect. And avoid the math. For the love of God, avoid the math.

(8) Create from scratch. This is not “create ex nihilo,” which humans are incapable of doing. But, if you take your building blocks from less-visited wells, you can create something that feels different and unique.

(9) Relax. At the end of the day, the important question is not whether you include or exclude elves in your fantasy—it’s whether you craft a world that seems to make sense (that is at least internally consistent and plausible-seeming based on human experience), craft species and characters that are entertaining and interesting to read about, and tell stories that draw the reader in and make him not want to finish. Can you do that with stories that include elves? Yes. Can you do it with stories that have unique fantasy species? Of course. Could you do either badly, absolutely. So suck it up, figure out what you want to have in your world, do your homework to create diverse and interesting inhabitants for your setting, and get writing.

Have I made my own decisions now? Not exactly, but at least I’ve given myself the kick in the pants I needed to make my final decisions and let it ride.