Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Importance of Family in Novels, Part 2

How was your Friday? Er… Christmas, that is. I hope yours was blessed as mine.
I spent my day with family, enjoying one another’s company and the gifts we exchanged.
Oh, look at how well that transitions into our topic today!
I know I’m so clever, right?

As I said Thursday, family is so important to your hero. They should be his foundation. Science has found that our personalities are affected more by biology than by environment, but it has also found that our beliefs, our bedrock values, are often bent toward that which was shown to us at a young age.
Yes, there are drifters and rebels. But deep down most people share common beliefs with their parents (information from Myers’, Psychology 9th edition).

What happens to your hero when he’s orphaned? The state of being without one or more parental guardians is a common life for heroes and heroines alike. They live on the streets or in an orphanage and feel an alien jealousy for all the little cherubs walking down the same street with their parents.
For some reason this state of being… appeals… to readers. People love to pity an orphan. Want proof? Look at Disney. And have a link to a short sketch that makes fun of the orphan trope, while making a very interesting point about writing and clichés.  

It’s not a bad thing to have an orphaned character. I have several myself. However, can we show what family is like when all our characters are urchins living on the street?
Sure, we can find a home for them by the end of the book, but that’s the expectation we all have. Orphan will not be orphaned by the end of the book. If that doesn’t happen, we’re not satisfied. We expect and want that to happen, as readers. See the half dozen remakes of Annie as evidence.

If our character isn’t orphaned, how do we show family as a light in this world? How to we use them to use strong themes: themes of joy and empathy and acceptance?
Through family that is whole.
I don’t mean that the family must have a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a baby, and an adopted child who fits in perfectly with everyone else.
That’s a perfect family.
I said whole, not perfect. If we wanted to read about a perfect family we would read Little House on the Prairie and reminisce about reading those books as children, or having them read aloud to us.
A whole family may look different in every novel. It may appear as a single mother and her teenage son, or a couple who can never have children or a couple with four daughters. These same families may argue and fight and even hate one another at times.
The thing that makes them whole isn’t the numbers or some “checklist” of a perfect family. Wholeness comes from something more than that. A deeper, much more profound, description.
A whole family is a family that loves its individual members despite their failures. Despite hiccups in relationships, despite darkness and anger and strife, they support each other.

“Love and Magic have a great deal in common. They enrich the soul, delight the heart. And they both take practice.” – Nora Roberts.

But… how do you show this?
How do writers present the power of family in novels in such a way that is real?
Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t say because there are so many right answers. Just as there are so many kinds of “whole” families, there are just as many ways to show those deeper themes.
I do, however, have a few ideas you might consider:

-Start with relationships. Every family is made up of at least one relationship. Be this a single mother-son relationship or a husband-wife relationship, there has to be at least one. If there isn’t some form of relationship, there is no family.
The base of a family is those relationships. It’s your job, writer, to explore those relationships and strive to create them and present them as realistic as possible. Yes, some relationships can be strained. But don’t flood your novel with breaking families. That’s a depressing read.

-Never force the relationship. Sometimes it feels like characters take on a will of their own. They act in ways we realize we barely told them to. That is the sign of a character coming to life. No, they aren’t real. No, they’re not a voice in your head. You have just learned to create a mindset that matches their personality. That’s fantastic.
But what if your character doesn’t get along with her father and you wanted her to?
Quite simply, you have two choices. Force the change, or let their relationship be strained.
Personally, I vote for the latter. If you force the change in their personalities and situation it can come out with that same forced and strained sort of “my author made me do it”. Your non-writer readers may not notice distinctly “oh, the author is forcing this relationship”, but they will notice the strain through things like stilted dialogue and contradictory moments of angst in the supposedly happy relationship.

-Consider your options. Don’t just assign your family characters roles and relationships without thinking. If you let the lazy side of your brain (we all have one) take over, it’s not going to come out pretty. Or believable.
Make each choice with careful consideration.
Because each family member has to make sense.
Each family member has to be real.

Consider that above all the rest.
Even if the relationship is strained, keep it real.
Reality is what we may try to escape by reading, but reading reality is what brings us back with a renewed hope for our own.

What do you think? What sort of family interaction takes place in your novel?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Importance of Family in Novels

It’s that time of year, is it not? The time we gather together we family and enjoy each other (or in some cases… not) and spend time with people we’re related to (and also in some cases… not).

I’m going to do something special, this year. Obviously, since today isn’t Friday. Instead of one post on Friday, I’m doing two posts: today and Saturday. And in the spirit (I never did understand the idea of this “spirit”, because it’s only a thing in A Christmas Carol) of Christmas, I’m going to talk about family.
But not just any family, the family in your novel and in mine.

What sort of family does your main character have?
If your hero/ine is like many others, they may have very little for family. An evil uncle or older brother, perhaps. A younger sister or baby brother.
And… that’s about it.


That’s the question I’m going to focus on this week, along with this question: what does a main character’s family do?

Let’s focus on the second question, today. What does a main character’s family do?

See, most families we see around us aren’t the kind of family we experience in novels. In novels we find families that are often torn apart or missing various members. So when we do have those members in our novels, what do they do?
I have found three things, in my pondering of this question, that seem to answer our predicament:

-They support the hero/ine
-They give the hero/ine something to lose
-They represent the hero/ine’s Old Life

Each of these things is rather simple, is it not? Let’s try to make this a bit more fun and expand on them, shall we?

Family supports the Main Character

Does your family hate you? Do they avoid you at all costs and look down on you with disdain?
Most families… don’t. Yes, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But most families – the kind of family that is genuine and real – stand by you. When others disagree, they’re willing to stick in a good word for you.
Your main character is probably going to do something stupid at some point in your novel. If they don’t, they are quite the perfect human being. Er… angel, because human beings aren’t perfect. How does the family react when the main character does that stupid thing?
Of all the emotions they experience, I find that empathy and support are the strongest. You, as the author, have the ability to use powerful emotions to show your reader what a family can do. Even if you have a broken family, or if your reader has a broken family, it can be a powerful and sincere message to show them (and yourself) a family that cares for its members.
Yes, it’s okay to have a character whose family is broken. But if all you do through your whole novel is show family after family being torn apart and hateful of each other, what sort of message is that?
I, for one, like happy messages to go with dark themes. But that’s a topic for another time.

Family provides Conflict

By this I don’t mean they create cliché conflict through being the villain. Nor do I mean they create harsh and dark conflict through being abusive.
Yes, both of those are legitimate ways family can provide conflict.

My real meaning, however, is that they can provide loss. As Daniel Schwabauer [link] would put it, family provides the hero/ine “Something to Lose”.
Does your main character care about their family? They should. Well, except for the ones that hate him/her. If we assume your character has a loving and support family (see above), then your hero/ine will care for them. Significantly. To the point where any loss of a family member will be devastating.
Please note I am not supporting the killing off of innocent main character family members everywhere. That’s as much a cliché as the uncle being the villain.
Instead, I am advocating for the use of tension. If your hero thinks his family is endangered, will he not struggle to protect them? If they will be punished for his attempts to stop the villain, will that not make it all the harder a choice for him?

Hard choices are the best kind, in novels. They provide the strongest emotions and the most powerful conflict.
Family, especially endangered family, can provide hard choices.

Friday, December 18, 2015

When Your World is Too Big

Recently, I read a blog post on “Too Much Worldbuilding” (in addition to suggesting you read that post, I suggest you read that blog in general). Not only was the post very true, but made me do some additional thinking about what I wanted this post to be about.

I knew I wanted to write a post like this: a “warnings against Worldbuilding too much” post, but reading the above-linked post made me think through some of my thoughts a bit more.
Thus I sit and write this rather later than is my custom, in the hopes that it will be of use to some of you. If not, well, it has been of use to me, at least.

Now. I like to worldbuild. It’s almost as much of a hobby in and of itself as writing is. I’ve created whole worlds just for the fun of imagining what would happen if a few things were different.
What if we had an extra moon?
What if the world was in a constant state of winter because it was further from the sun than normal?
What happens when you combine elemental magic, a one-eyed race, and 1920s technology and fashion?

I enjoy building worlds for the “what ifs” and the “why-fors” and “to-becauses”. Well, maybe not the last one, but I digress. However, the main reason to build a world is to plant your story in it. Am I right, or am I left?
However, it is possible to go too far. To spend so much time, as the aforementioned blog post says, building your world that you forget about the actual story.

The Story is more important than the Setting

I’ll be the first to admit it and the first to apply it. I have written three novels without so much as a sentence of world building under my belt. It is possible and it is necessary for some stories.
In two of those three cases, the story didn’t require world building. One story was set in our world, in modern times. Easy enough excuse there to not worldbuild. The second story was set in a low fantasy setting, where really nothing was different beyond a bit of geography and country names.

The third case involves a story which fell apart because I didn’t world build. That is the case where it becomes necessary to stop and think about what the setting is. When the setting become important to the story that is when you need to develop it.
Much like a character, the setting needs to be developed. But if you spend all your time hanging with your online friends and developing characters in different scenarios, you’ll never get your story written. And that is the point of writing.

Never put the setting above the story. Allowing the true elements of story – plot and characters – to dictate your needs in developing setting is the best way to go about the whole process.
Last week I talked about festivals and calendars. I said every story needs a calendar, but perhaps I went a bit far. Not every story needs to have a calendar with all the holidays planned out. For instance, an alternate history about a girl growing up as a slave and then being freed by a series of mysterious happenings might not require you to know when people celebrate their Independence Day.
I still stick by that post, however, in that calendars and festivities can thoroughly improve your world. Just keep in mind that they need to improve your story, too.

Setting is for you more than the Reader

Yes, the reader needs to know about your setting. Yes, they need to know enough to be able to picture the scenes clearly.
No, they don’t need to have memorized the names of every religion you’ve built for your world.
You, however, you might need to. If they are important for your ability to recognize your world and getting immersed into the setting, then yes. Memorize the names of the religions you’ve built.

The setting should be brought out as necessitated by the plot and seen through the eyes of the characters. It should not be dumped into a prologue [link] at the beginning, nor a glossary at the end (although I will say glossaries can be useful when writing very large fantasy series). Instead, items from your world should only appear in your story as the plot dictates.
Don’t pull out your strange animals just to show them off. Yes, your dragon-butterfly-mammoths are very pretty, but they’re blocking the view. I want to watch the story and not your world’s strange tastes in hybrid animals. If the Draco-mammoth-fly is central to your plot, then it’s perfectly fine for it to make an appearance or appearances.

Here, let me whip up a professional-looking diagram in Paint:

Much Professional. Such Diagram. Many Color. Wow.

Let this be the sort of “connection” between the three key areas of story. Plot and Character are on equal footing. Without the two, there can be no story. Even slice-of-life stories need at least a semblance of a plot. If they’re literally a bunch of character running around doing nothing besides eating chips and throwing knitting needles at each other, then it’s not a real story.
As you’ll notice, the strongest connection (actually… the way I’ve drawn it reminds me of Lewis structures in chemistry… oops) is between Plot and Character. You cannot have one without the other, so it makes sense for them to be on a level plain with a strong bond.

There, below them, lies the topic of our little one-sided discussion (which I’d mostly gladly make into a two-sided one…). Setting.
It’s connected to both Plot and Characters, but not as strongly as the two. While it is important (very important), it is not completely necessary. You can pull off a good story without much of a setting. Take, for instance, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. This tale (told in a series of letters) has very little setting. Yes, there are mentions of places and wars and goings-on, but very little is described. It is merely the interaction between characters as their devilish plot unfolds.

But what happens when you refuse to develop setting altogether? Even in The Screwtape Letters Lewis shows us precisely what is going on in the time period, where the senders of the letters are, what they are, who they are, what they do, what those in their plot do, and so forth. 

Plot and Characters, with no setting whatsoever, would look like this:

Such Professional. Many Floating. Much Circles. Wow.

They’d be in the same general area with one another, but there would be no clear-cut connection. The plot is happening and the characters are there. But – for all we know – they aren’t happening in the same place.

Build what needs to be built and be Content

That is what I want to leave you with. If your story requires a government, build a government. If your story never mentions even the idea of nobility or democracy, don’t. There are few circumstances where you need to develop something that never plays a role in your story (calendars come to mind).

Develop your setting. Even if it’s the bare minimum for your story, you need that setting. It is a vital part of a well-crafted story. Just remember: world isn’t everything. It is, in a way, the glue that holds the rest of your story together.

What do you think? Is setting on an equal plane with the other elements of story, or more of a background worker, sitting in a swivel chair making sure the story doesn’t collapse and drinking excessive amounts of chai tea? Leave a comment and share! Discuss! I’d love to make this a two-sided discussion. Or twenty-sided.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Festivities: Why Your World Needs a Calendar

Yup, I’m talking about worlds again.
I do that on occasion, if you hadn’t noticed.
This time I’m going to do something just a bit different.
Instead of being vague like half a year ago, or being more overarching like a month and a half ago, I want to be rather specific.

Today, I’m going to declare firmly my opinion and then back up that opinion:
Your world needs a calendar.

Let’s all stop and appreciate the way I bolded that for you and so definitively stated you need a calendar.

There, now we can stop appreciating it and wonder why in the world (be it your created world, someone else’s world, or the actual world we live in) we need calendars for our book-worlds.

Let me explain.
How many days are in a year?
Well, 365 of course. That is our kind of year.
What about your world? Does your world have the exact same months and days with the exact same names?
Chances are your world can’t have the same months as our world. That would be rather boring and unrealistic. Why would your world name the seventh month after Julius Caesar anyway? And what are the chances that your world would just so happen to name all their weekdays exactly as we do? The probability there should be very small.
Therefore, there seems to be two choices for the author: make your own calendar, or never reference what day of the week or day of the month it is.

Chances are you’ll want to reference these sorts of things, though. If nothing else, you need a calendar for you. Even if you never mention the day of the week in your novel, knowing that your world only has five days per week will give you, as an author, insight into your world.
Take me, for instance (yes, it’s anecdote time, have a seat by the forge). My current project (Agram Awakens) is set in a fantasy world that I’ve been developing for two and a half years now. Some parts of the world are hugely developed, others sparsely. 

One thing I’ve done is create a calendar. I’ve formed fifteen months of twenty-five days each. No, that doesn’t add up to 365 days, but if you do the math, it’s fairly close. In [soft] science fiction and fantasy, fairly close is close enough. As the earth’s orbit is one of very few orbits which could support life, it’s best to remain close to it, but you can deviate some without stirring up trouble.
Besides, what are the chances that your reader is actually going to do the math and sue you for having a slightly different number of days in your year? So long as you’re consistent, you’re fine.
In my calendar, it makes the most sense for each week to have five days in it. The numbers in my calendar are all divisible by five, so that’s what I did. Each month, then, has five weeks.
The nice thing about the month and week having a common multiple is that each month starts out on the first day of the week. Nice and symmetrical; symmetry often comes across as authentic, even if it’s different from what we expect.
I’ve named each day and month (but I won’t list those names here, as they’re probably just temporary names until I find better ones), but it’s not necessary to do as such unless you intend to reference the names of the day and months in the book.

This project needs a calendar for several reasons:
-Holidays (which we’ll discuss in detail here soon).
-Character and plot arcs (which we’ll also discuss in detail here soon).
-Timelines and history.
-Ease of mind for myself.

Now. Two of those reasons are widely applicable.
First, the latter. If your story is like mine, you’ve got quite the plot. My story has six main characters. Each character has their own plot arc, but they come together over time and their plots mesh together.
In order to do this, I need to be able to follow their separate arcs to make sure they line up just right. If they don’t, I’ll have two characters meeting when the one character couldn’t possibly get to the meeting location in time.
Timelines can be hard to work out. I use Aeon Timeline, myself (well, I just recently started and highly recommend) because it gives me a visual picture of where characters are headed and where they’re coming from.
I need to be able to line up timelines to the very hour of certain events. Else the story won’t make sense. Characters will be skipping days or weeks just so I can get them all on the same timeline.
Instead, by making a calendar, I can mark which day this character is doing this. Then, by viewing each character’s chronological arc, I can see which arc needs a tweak in order to get that character where they need to be.
For instance, I need two characters to end up in one place by the end of the book. Until then, they’re far apart from one another, travelling to the spot they will meet up. One character spends days on a ship, another days waiting in one particular spot. All these days need to even out by the time they arrive, else I’ll be stuck.
By viewing their timelines on a calendar I can see the first character’s boat ride can’t last as long as I first had it. And that’s a simple fix. Just make the ocean a little smaller (because I can do that), and make the ship just a bit faster and take out this storm.

There. It will all work out.

Character and plot arcs are important. Keeping them in time with each other is important. Very much so.
But there’s another reason you need a calendar.
It’s a rather simple reason, when it all boils down, but important.
First a question: how many novels have you read (fantasy especially) that include holidays? How many High Fantasies do you know of which indicate that a certain day is a holiday?
I can think of some that don’t.
And that’s not realistic. Here, have a list of the holidays in our world. That’s... quite the list. Our world has so many holidays, yet so many fantasy worlds don’t any at all.


People like to celebrate. We have holidays that commemorate people, places, events, deaths, births, tacos, countries, the sinking of ships, the discovery of medicines, continents, and holidays for nerds (May 4th, for instance).

It only makes sense that your world has holidays.
One of my favorite examples is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. He does a fabulous job weaving holidays and festivals into his world and countries. Some countries celebrate holidays others don’t and characters find these holidays foreign, strange, and enlightening.
It’s fabulous, in short (that and the series itself is pretty good, if a bit slow in places).

Does your world have holidays?
It should. And the best way to plan holidays is to have a calendar.
Back to my anecdote, my world has nineteen developed holidays. Some are select to certain religions or countries, others span continents in their celebration.
It’s not hard to create a holiday. I’d like to walk you through a personal favorite of mine that I created:

The Feast of the Fallen Goat
-Observed in Teilin during the first month of the harvest season
-Last day of the second full moon of the month
-Festivities begin at sunrise of this day; continue to sunrise of the next, most of the time.
-No one works this day, everyone just celebrates
-Everyone is supposed to gather with family for the noon meal and spend time with family during the morning
-The afternoon is supposedly spent with strangers, but most people end up with friends.
-By evening, everyone is already drunk, but everyone is supposed to toast the end of the full moon by drinking more.
-All night is spent partying and drinking and such.
-At sunrise the next day, everyone sacrifices a goat by pushing it off the cliffs into the sea.

As a character of mine explains it to a foreigner: “It’s some fool’s excuse to get drunk and talk to people… the same fool lost his goat when it fell off a cliff. He went and got drunk and told his friends about it. People been getting drunk over that goat ever since.”

Seems easy, right? That holiday doesn’t mean much, but in actuality it defines holidays. Many of our holidays don’t mean a great deal to us. Like Columbus Day. How many people actually care about Columbus? But we still celebrate it.
Your festivities don’t have to be religious all the time (although some are good; religions like holidays). Some of them can just be times where people use a silly excuse (like a clumsy goat) to get together and have a good time.
Holidays make your world real.

And you can’t have a holiday without a calendar to put it on.

What about you? Do you have a calendar for your world? What about holidays? What kinds of festivals do the people in your world observe? Leave a comment and share!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Plots - Part 5 Bringing it All Together”

Two weeks ago, I left you with a bit of a cliffhanger regarding Addy’s story. Then, last week, I danced around the issue of that climax just to give you a bit more time to wrestle with her decision.
She stands now in the position to save her family and friends or bring down her enemy.

The months leading up to this position are filled with ample chances for her to leave. The twisting of her character arc, however, seems to make it clear that she wishes to stay and fulfill her duty.
But now?
What does Addy do now?
I’ll tell you.
Addy makes the choice that will make the reader cry the most.

Ouch, that sounds harsh. It’s true, however. If the plot of Addy’s story is to finish in such a way that satisfies the reader, it’s going to have to be the way of crying.
This is not to say everything must end in horrid tragedy (although this tends to help), but it is to say that the reader must feel the most emotion. Therefore, Addy’s choice depends on two things:
-The story
-Her character
Is it in Addy’s character to abandon her family? No. From what we’ve seen she would choose to cling to them. After all, she lost her father. I doubt she can stand to lose her mother and Tom as well.

Is it in her story to abandon her family? Well, that depends. It seems that the plot is leading her to abandon them and chase after the villain. We don’t want her to, we beg her not to. Save you family, let the bad guy get away. You can chase him down later, Addy.

Do you see it?
Addy’s choice may be a difficult one in her eyes and in the eyes of the reader, but the eyes of the author see it most keenly.
Addy must choose to chase the villain.
It’s the path that will make the reader feel the most emotions and it’s the path that makes the most sense with the plot. In order to make it fit with her character, her emotional pain at choosing against saving her family will be enough.

Now what happens?
Well, Addy chases down the villain. She wins in the climax. All is right with the world.

Next comes another choice. It isn’t Addy’s, however. It’s yours. The writer’s. What is going to happen to those Addy loves? Will they be dead?
That’s a bit of a cliché.
But you can’t let your readers down. They want to feel those raw emotions, despite their vehement denials. If your book ends with Addy and Tom and her mother happily ever after, then the reader will feel cheated.
Since this is my plot, I have to choose.
Thus, I make the hard choice: Tom dies.
Her mother lives, along with anyone else who happened to be captured that Addy cares about. Addy arrives just a moment too late. In time to hold him in her arms as he breathes his last. If we’re lucky, he’ll steal a kiss on his way out.

It is finished.

Well, not quite. There are loose ends to wrap up. In addition, the reader deserves a glimpse at Addy’s life after this rather traumatic adventure.
What will she do now? She’s had training as an assassin; will she continue down that path? Or will she choose to restore order to her father’s kingdom, with her mother’s help?
All decisions that need to be made.
So this is my final lesson in plots:
You are the writer of the story. No one else can write it for you, even thought it’d be nice if they could. You have to write it. It’s your choice. Every hard choice has to be made.

It’s up to you.

That’s it.
I’m done. No more posts about plot, for now. Based on my schedule, there will be one in mid-January that might reference the idea of plots a little, but nothing before or after that until the end of my written down ideas for posts.
Speaking of future posts, a little teaser for the month of December:
-We’ll discuss calendars and holidays,
-I’ll talk about too much worldbuilding,
-And there will be a special two-part post the days before and after Christmas, since it’s on a Friday.

Finally, November ended on Monday. And with the end of November comes the end of NaNoWriMo.
If you participated, how did you do? Even if you didn’t complete it, how far did you get? Leave a comment and share; I’d love to celebrate it with you, no matter how many words you managed!

So ends a rather lengthy series on plots! What do you think about plots? Do you enjoy twisting them together and making them fresh and exciting? Leave a comment and share!