Friday, May 29, 2015

Wordsmiths and Storytellers

Do you like to categorize? I know I do. In fact, I’m obsessive about it. My room is clean (and everything has its own place, where it usually is), my school books are organized by subject and when I’ll use them and put neatly on a shelf, and even my computer is organized (a non-native to my computer would get lost in the nested folders). I like to label things1. So, naturally, I divide stories into different categories. And not just by genre.
One way I like to categorize stories is by how they are driven. It’s a common thing to do, actually. There are (generally speaking) two kinds of stories: plot-driven, and character-driven. An example of plot-driven would be Lord of the Rings, and an example of character-driven would be To Kill a Mockingbird (to prove that this isn’t just a genre thing, Sailing to Sarantium is a fantasy driven by characters). If you’ve read both of these (or even heard about them), then you know what I mean by plot- and character-driven stories.
Now that we’ve split stories into two groups, what about the authors? What do we call the authors of plot-driven stories, and those of character-driven stories? Many call them Wordsmiths and Storytellers.

When I picture the word ‘Wordsmith’, I immediately thing of Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson. Once I move past the literal interpretation of the word, then I begin to think of flowing script (such as my mother’s handwriting), medieval books with the cool embellishments, and of old paper. But what it really means when applied in the way I want to today, it means someone who writes stories that are driven by characters.

And when I picture the word “Storyteller”, I think of a roaring fire, surrounded by small children and a wizened old man. The old man begins to speak, waving his hands and emphasizing just the right moments while he spins a tale for his riveted audience. What it means in this context is someone who writes stories that are driven by plot.

But… what does that mean? How do we distinguish between the two? And, perhaps most importantly, which one is better?

First, I need a volunteer from the audience. On second thought, I need all of you to volunteer. Thank you for your willingness to volunteer of your own will. Second, think of a novel. It can be any novel, for this demonstration, by any person. Now, what comes to mind when you think of the book? Not just the title or cover, but the story. What comes alive in your head?
Do you immediately think of a colorful cast, their images created perfectly in your mind by the words on the page? Or do you think of plot twists and complications and tension and thrill?
Hopefully, you’ll think of both, but which stands out?
There you have it, a way to distinguish between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Thank you for your time, and your volunteering-ness.

Now. As a writer, think on what you write. Close your eyes and think of something you wrote. What is most important to you? The story, with its complicated flow and surprising cliffhangers? Or is it the myriad of wonderful faces and adorable small children and terrifying villains? Viola! You know what you are, now. Storyteller or Wordsmith?

Myself, I’m a Storyteller. I love to create plots and twists and cliffhangers and deep conflict that won’t ever be resolved without lots of words. (As proof, there will be a post sometime soon with a picture of the outline for one of my Epic Fantasy novels… it will also show my OCD, with all the color-coding and alignment and such.) 

I realize some of you will now be saying “you can’t put a label on me! I like both characters and plot! And I do them both equally.”
Yeah, sure. But bear with me, please? Which one do you do most? There is no true 50/50 here. Pick one, for my sake, and for yours. I’m also a Wordsmith, and I love creating little nuances for my characters and watching them flourish. But I picked one, and so can you.

There’s one last question I didn’t answer. Which one is better, Storyteller or Wordsmith?

Short answer: neither, and both.
Yeah, it’s just that simple. This is a prime example of no right and no wrong. This isn’t some Boolean variable and it’s not evil vs. good. Storytelling and Wordsmithing are both valid and perfectly good ways to present a story.

Oftentimes, the amount of your natural inclination toward one or another will affect how well your story is written. For instance, I’m currently preparing to write a novel that’s character-driven (extremely so). In fact, it’s a slice-of-life, which means that plot is barely there at all. And it’s stretching me. I’m forced to set down my outline and dig deep into the part of story crafting I’ve never placed a lot of weight on. It’s one of the best things I have ever done.

So go, live your-
Oops, wrong inspirational speech2.
Find which side you lean toward, and develop it. It’s okay to admit you’re not too good at the other side (even you who claim to be balanced). But once you’ve done that, once you know what your weakness is, it’s time to buckle up for the long haul, settle down for the crazy drive, and do the hard stuff.

What about you? Are you a Wordsmith or Storyteller? What kinds of stories do you like to read most, plot- or character- driven? Leave a comment and share!

1Yes, I label people as well. Don’t judge me for it, or you’re labelling me, which makes you a hypocrite for labelling me as a labeler. Think about it.
2I don’t often prepare inspirational speeches, but when I do, I mix them up and use the wrong one. Even if the wrong one is actually a subtle quote from a Disney film.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Why A Mental Illness is Killing Your Novel

Have you ever read a story that involves a character whose mind might not be… completely right?
If you haven’t, you’re probably not keeping up with the popular and fashionable (and I applaud you for it). If you have, then you know that this sort of character is very, very popular. Today, I want to explore with you why this sort of character often does nothing to help the story, and may even harm it.


Characters with mental problems can be very useful. Villains with schizophrenia or Heroes with amnesia can provide the most delicious plot twists. Maniacs and madmen tend to produce a thrill in the reader.


Because the mind is hard to understand, and when someone’s mind turns against them, it creates excellent emotions and conflict. (In addition, schizophrenic villains can have whacky motivations without anyone being able to complain it’s whacky.)

However, I’ve read a lot of stories (published and unpublished) where the villain or hero or ally have a mental illness or disability and it doesn’t do anything. The story would be no different (plot-wise, emotion-wise, and even character-wise) if that character didn’t have schizophrenia. Actually, it would be a weak story without it.
Most every story that involves a mental illness should not depend on that illness to make it a good story. There are those few exceptions that are about the mental disability, and I respect those.

There are all kinds of mental disabilities. Have a link if you want to see a few. 

How many of those have you seen in novels? Lots of stories will include a psychopath or sociopath (yes, they’re different), but very few include someone with Trichotillomania or Selective Mutism. You’ll find characters with depression, insomnia, amnesia, and dyslexia, but little to no characters with Stockholm syndrome or dyspraxia.
I’m not here to tell you that all mental illnesses must be represented in literature. They don’t. But then, no mental illness need be represented in literature. Books and movies would survive without them just fine. However, the real world has mental illnesses, and we want to portray real life in our writing, yes?

So. When should you have a mental illness in your novel?

Truth is, I’m not sure I can answer that question for everyone. An example of a good mental illness would be from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I’m not a huge fan of this series, for several reasons, but I do admire the good use of a mental disability. In this series, most (or was it all? I don’t remember) of the demi-gods have dyslexia. Their half-god status gives them this disorder. It’s not to ‘include’ the demographic of people who have dyslexia, and it’s not because it will make them ‘cool’. It springs as a natural cause of their existence. That’s the right way to use a mental disorder or illness.

Instead of telling you when you should, I’ll give you a reason or two why you shouldn’t, and then a tip or two on using mental disorders:

1. Don’t use a mental disorder just to make the villain ‘cool’. I see this all the time. Villains who weren’t ‘scary’ enough before suddenly get the gift of having something happen to their mind. They suddenly are schizophrenic or pyromaniacs or hyperactive or OCD. Unfortunately, this move does nothing to help the novel. Sure, the more ignorant readers will assume this disorder makes the villain somehow… better… than the average villain.

2. Don’t use a mental disorder just to make the Hero’s quest harder.
I see this one a lot, too. If the hero has amnesia or insomnia they’re supposedly more relatable, and if they have depression, suddenly they’re the best character ever. The hero can have these things, but unless there’s a legitimate reason why, it won’t convince anyone but those aforementioned ignorant readers.

I’m not against mental disorders and illnesses. In fact, I have a character with Multiple Personality Disorder, several characters with PTSD, a character with amnesia, and a slightly psychotic character. However, I am against character with mental disorders and illnesses that have no place, rhyme, or reason. Furthermore, when the author has no apparent knowledge about the disorder beyond common hearsay, it’s ever worse. So, a few tips:

-Research: this is my favorite word. When you want to write a story about a claustrophobic character suffering from childhood amnesia, make sure you know more about these things than a certified psychologist. Well, maybe not, but when you want to write about this person, you should be equipped to do a good job.

-Find a reason: no mental disorder shows up ‘out of the blue’. Even disorders from birth are caused by gene mutation or physical harm/shock. If your character has PTSD, you need to know where they got it, what triggers it, what they experience from it, why they still have it, if they’re trying to stop it, and so forth. For instance, I have a character with PTSD who has a breakdown whenever he hears a particular song. This song was playing while he and his fellow soldiers were gunned down by an enemy sniper. He and another were the only survivors. Since then, he can’t listen to this song without panicking and having an emotional breakdown.

-Don’t go with the usual: be a little hipster, you little hipster. Don’t go with your villain being a sociopath just because there are a lot of sociopathic characters out there.

If you want a metal disorder, that’s perfectly fine. Many stories can benefit from them. But do it right. Don’t settle for mediocre, and don’t settle for bad. Write that mental illness in a way that won’t kill your story, and won’t kill the reader along the way.

What about you? Do you like stories with mentally ill characters? What stories have you read/watched that are good examples of well-written mental illnesses?

NOTE: Starting next week, I will be posting Friday evenings or Saturday mornings instead of Friday mornings. Yay for abrupt changes in schedule, yes?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Creating Motivation in Characters

The past few weeks I’ve been talking about world building, and worlds and the part of novels revolving around the setting. I probably sound like a record so broken I can’t even repeat the words right.
Well, I’ve finally decided to replace the broken record with a new one (for now).

Every good story has a good setting. But it’s not the only thing a good story has. All good stories split their goodness between setting, plot, and characters. No combination of the three is the perfect combination, nor is any combination the only way to write a story. A novel without a good setting is rubbish, you can’t have a story without characters, and a novel without a plot is boring (even slice-of-life stories have some form of plot, even if it’s not identifiable).
As I’ve proven, you can spend weeks talking about each one of these aspects. I’d like to take this week as a chance to highlight one small part of one of these three. That is, I’d like to show you something I’ve learned is very important to readers, even if they can’t always tell when it’s there.

Motivation, and Why You Need it.
Last week, I said the two most powerful questions in building a world were how and why. The most commonly asked question is ‘how’, even when it comes to characters. “How will the character respond?” “How do they fight the evil villain who is obviously aiming way beyond their abilities?” Even the question “What do they look like?” is more related to “How?” than to “Why?”
I think “Why?” is just as important in characters as it is in the setting.
If you read reviews of books, the most common theme in negative reviews is that the characters are “flat” or “boring”. You’ll rarely see a comment complaining about how boring and unoriginal the story world is. People tend notice the characters more than any other part of the story, because the story is being told to them by the characters. If the author doesn’t do a good job in this, then the people will notice. And the critics are rarely kind (even if they start their review with “no offence intended” or “not to be inflammatory”).
So what keeps your characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, from getting these scalding reviews?
Many things contribute to a good character, but I want to focus on one thing: motivation.
Motivation, in short, is the “Why?” behind your character’s actions. It’s the part of the character the reader doesn’t always see, but can clearly tell when it’s missing.

This motivation doesn’t have to be logical. People are emotional beings, so often times why they do what they do makes no sense. They get so wrapped up in what they’re feeling they act before they think. Logical motivations will suffice, but it’s usually the emotional motivation that your reader will empathize with the most. They’ve been there.

Not only does motivation make your characters stronger, but it can be a powerful tool. If the motivation of your character is anger, then they’re more likely to do something idiotic and pay the price for it. Motivation through anger is commonly used to show how weak the hero is compared to the villain.
Some forms of motivation are more used than others, and more easily spotted. Revenge is, I think, the most common motivation for heroes and villains in the history of stories. People are fascinated by the idea of revenge, and so willingly submit to version after version of the same basic idea. Other forms of motivation can include greed, pride, desire of respect, acknowledgement, and anger. There is no motivation that has not already been done. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as the saying goes.
When crafting characters, don’t just ask how, as why. And don’t always content yourself with the first answer. Keep prying, experimenting, and tweaking until you find one you like. Fewer critics will find reasons to shout “LAME” and throw tomatoes if you give them characters who react for a reason.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Two Questions of World Building

Everything, most especially art, revolves around questions. For instance, a composer of music for an orchestra must ask himself many questions: “What instruments should play when?” “Which notes should follow which?” “How will changing this section change the tone of the piece?” “What tone do I want in this piece?” “Why doesn’t this part sound right?
I could go on.

Questions are everywhere, even in writing. To be more specific, there are many questions when you build a world. We’ve already discussed the questions “Why a world?” “Where do I start?” and “What shouldn’t I do?” That’s a pretty good start, isn’t it?

Oh look, this leads to another question:
“What’s next?”
At some point, my advice to you will become null and void because you’ve reached a point where what you do next is based on what you’ve already done. If I try to give you advice on something that you don’t need advice on, it won’t do you (or me) any good.
So, before I try to give some pointers on some general world-building subjects, I want to introduce the two questions every world builder should ask themselves:

1. How?
This is a question that takes many forms. It’s important because the ‘how’ is what the reader will see. They’ll see how people react to their environment, how the environment is different from ours, how things must be fixed, how things work, and some on. If you look at the list I mentioned two weeks ago - the list I use as a starting point for building my worlds - most of the items on this list involve a lot of “How?”
A simple way to flesh out an area of world building is to pick it apart by asking this simple word.
For example, take the rather broad subject of Clothing from my list. You could ask: “How do people dress?”
Prepare for a bit of a headache. Unless your world is the size of a Pacific Island, then there will be a lot of diversity in this area. So instead of trying to tackle the broad subject with one question, try breaking it down into manageable chunks. I like to tackle this subject by country, since people in most countries have similar tastes in clothing. Then it’s a simple process of coming up with answers to questions such as:

How do men dress?
How do women dress?
How do children dress?
How does the climate in certain areas change their dress?
How do the seasons change what these people wear?
How much color do people like? Or lack thereof?
How does one’s social status change one’s sense of fashion?

I could go on, but that’s a good starting point.
You can extrapolate this sort of reasoning to other areas of world building: Government, religion, climate and weather, history, and more.

2. Why?
This question, I think, is the most powerful question, and the least visible. It’s also the most difficult to answer. It requires more than just a visible, logical answer. Asking “why” involves delving into people, and picking them apart. Wanting to know the answer means questioning motives, desires, and will.
It’s hard, but it’s rewarding.
The most difficult part of asking this question is that, often enough, the answer is “because”. And sometimes there’s no other reason than that. The action in question is an answer to itself.
But then, maybe it’s not. Maybe the reason the answer is ‘because’ comes from our subconscious desire to be lazy. “Because” is easier than any other answer.
Admit this to yourself. Give your subconscious a kick in the pants (as the saying goes… do subconscious wear pants?) and settle down to answer the question.

Take government, for example. There are a lot of questions you can ask that start with how:

How does the government rule?
How much of a say do the people get?
How much power does the king get, if there is one?
How are laws made?
How are they enforced?
How are judges, officials, and nobles chosen?
How often are there elections, if there are any?

And so on.

Now for why:

Why did the people choose the government they did?
If they didn’t choose it, why do they let this government rule them?
Why is [insert law] enforced? (Bonus: Who benefits from this law?)
Why is a certain lineage considered ‘noble’ or ‘royal’?
Why a [monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, democracy, etc.]?
Why this law, or that law, or that one?
Why are the leaders [oppressive, fair, right, wrong, evil, and good]?

These questions are a lot harder than the ‘how’ questions. Some of the first set can be answered in one word; others may take a sentence or two. But these last questions might take a paragraph or two, and some deep, long-considered thoughts.

In the end, both questions are important. You can’t have one without the other, and you can’t have a world without either. All it takes is a little time, a little determination, and a little kick in the metaphorical pants to get it done. And who knows, the answers might be genius.

What about you? What questions do you ask yourself when you build a world? Leave a comment and share!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Five ways to NOT build your world.

Before we begin, I want to apologize for being late. Yesterday ended up being the busiest week of my life since sometime in oblivion, and this blog (*hides face in shame*) didn’t even cross my mind.

Now, last week, we had a nice, one-sided discussion about where to start world-building. That’s all very well and good, since I was nice and vague and tried to be nice about it. I even told you there “is no right way” to build a world. Such a nice guy, aren’t I?

Shall we put that aside for a moment?
I have a secret to share:
There are bad ways to build a world.

Phew. Everyone can relax, now, put down your pitchforks, tar, feathers, etc. I’m done. Sort of.


So fancy, I know. This is the part where I ramble a little about what I’m about to list. Where I tell you everything you need to know, and hope I don’t do it in a way that makes no sense whatsoever. And then I provide a dramatic cross into our first item in the bulleted list:

1. Make a language
- Disclaimer, I am not saying you should never have another language in your world. In fact, I almost encourage it. But unless you have extensive knowledge of phonetics, grammatical and alphabetical organization, and several years of tinkering, your language isn’t going to work.
Because if an excerpt from your language looks something like:
“Aubgei Die aeogi kg’jekl, bor pue?”
No one is going to fall for that. If you make your language by smashing keys together and assigning that jumble a definition, every fantasy and sci-fi reader will spot it from miles away. They’ve read Tolkien. Let me show you:
(Translation: “not all who wander are lost”)
Does that look like a language made by smashing a keyboard with a large panda’s face?
Of course not.
So to sum up this bulleted point and bring us to the next one: don’t make a language for your world unless you know what you’re doing.

2. Name towns similarly
- Go grab a map of your state/province/country/district of Panem. Open it up to the side with all the names of the roads and towns and hamlets with two people in them. Skim the names of these places. How many of them are identical? Maybe two or three, unless you’re in England. How many end in the same syllable? Very few, unless once again you live in England.
Case in point, yes?
Be a little creative with naming your towns, cities, capitals, districts, states, countries, world, regions, forests, and deserts. But don’t smash your panda’s face against the keyboard, and don’t make them all rhyme.
Please and thank you.

3. Sprinkle in races willy-nilly
I’ve read a few sci-fi books in my time, and the good ones always had at least one form of alien or non-human race. At the very least, they had humans who had ‘evolved’ to some higher form and be able to do things like telepathy or spontaneously combust for no particular reason.
But when you read the bad ones, they have just as many races. Maybe more.
The difference, I’ve found, is that these other races have reasons for existing. Good authors never add something just to add it. There is motivation behind them, sound reasoning, and a history of their own.
Creating diversity in your novel (sci-fi or fantasy) is excellent, and a good way to do it is through races. However, if the only reason you have twenty-seven forms of “Actyl-pads” is to impress the reader… they won’t be impressed.

4. Build History around prophecy
-Prophecies tend to get a bad rap in fiction these days. I don’t want to discuss the storytelling implications of prophecies today, but instead the world-building implications.
No good fantasy is without a vivid past. Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, evil sorcerers, massive monsters of ancient times, and dark prophecies fulfilled at every turn.
Let me stop you right there.
If prophecies as a plot device are a cliché, then prophecies that are in the past are twice the bucket of cow brain*. These prophecies tend to have little impact on the actual story, except for those times when they pop up in information dumps to show us how all the kings and armies and wars of old were all guided by some blind old man sitting on a mountain sipping an endless supply of nettle tea. He speaks a few rhyming sentences, and BAM. The world is going to fall apart unless everything kills everything else.
Oh yeah, that makes sense!

Or, we could look at the history of our world, and see what governed people’s choices. Certainly not a blind old man on a mountain.

5. Simple geography
-I know geography is hard. Learning geography from our world is hard, much less creating an entire secondary planet with diverse topography. But how often do you see this sort of world:

~large grassy plains where the main character lives
~nearby (despite the size of the plains) is a dark forest filled with some form of evil
~also nearby is a single mountain, with a blind old man on top of it, who sips nettle tea
~maybe there’s an ocean or desert on the other side of the perfectly circular plains from the mountain.

Before you plot out geography, make yourself (and your reader, and me, if you want) one simple promise (say it with me): “I will not make this geography simple or redundant.”
There, that’s not so hard, is it? Go grab an atlas, and open it up. Yes, I know they’re scary. But get the biggest, most detailed one you can find. Flip to one of those maps that label the tectonic plates, if there is one. Otherwise, find one with the mountains on it.
I’m not asking that you plan the tectonics of your world. Don’t, unless you know how. But look at how mountains are formed. The ones that sit all alone are volcanoes, and the rest are all in big ranges along – you guessed it – tectonic plate edges. ‘Faults’, as the technical term goes.
Now open to a page that shows where deserts and forests and things are. Look at how they’re distributed. Look at how jungles are closer to the equator, and frozen tundra is always further away from the equator than deserts are.
When you piece your world together, take the time to step back and consider it as a whole.

What about you? What world building techniques stand out to you as poor, weak, and amateur? Leave a comment and share!

*pardon me as I try out an idiom used by a tribal group in my latest world.