Posted in Chronicles in Creation, Nanowrimo

Nano-Wrangle: Week 1

Week 1! Yes, I know it’s only been two days, but it is the end of the week, so I figured this was as good a place to start checking in with you all as any.

First, some unexpected good news that came just before Nanowrimo started! So I was out for the day with some friends and I was talking to them about how I wanted to take part in Nano again this year, and how I was really going to try my hardest to make it to the end for once. Now one of my friends asked what Nano was, and then suggested that she would like to take part in it too. Now, my friends are lovely people, very polite and kind ladies, so I just thought that she was being nice and encouraging me, and didn’t really mean it.

But of course I said how I thought that was a great idea and all that, because she’s such a creative thinker and I think she’d be a great writer…

And then, a couple of days later… I got a notice!

Nano - Buddy

So that was a huge boost for me! Thanks for taking the leap with me, Icklespan, and I hope that everything goes well for you!

Anyway… you can’t go all of Nano by just making friends (although if you are giving Nano a try, do please take every opportunity to make friends! It makes the whole thing a lot easier and more fun, I promise!) Sooner or later… you need to do some writing!

So it wasn’t the smoothest of starts: I made the classic mistake of starting writing first thing on the first morning, I haven’t had my first cup of tea, I’m still waking up… And I wrote 740 words before I had to dash out for the bus!

Which is great! Such a good feeling as I got on the bus and went to work…

And then I made it to work, had my tea, got on with other things. And then in my break I pulled out what I’d written already, just flicking through it … and the number one thought in my head was, ‘What on earthhave I written here? What is this rubblish?’

Now… I’ll be honest, this is my normal response to rereading my own writing. This isn’t new. But there’s a flavour to hating your own work, you know? Sometimes you can feel it’s just the sense that you could, obviously, do better somehow. But sometimes it’s the creeping suspicion that you’ve made a wrong turning somewhere and you’re taking the wrong path…

And I thought about it all through the afternoon while I did a frankly ungodly amount of photocopying…

(Side Note: Does anyone else find that they have some of their best ideas while babysitting the photocopier for fear the wretched thing will jam up again? Just me? OK.)

So I thought about it, because 740 words right at the start had felt like a great beginning, but if it’s just going to niggle away at me while I write, I’m going to get discouraged and lose momentum.Ch.23 - Plotting for Non-Super Villains

Do I keep going, leave all my misgivings for the editing stage, just ignore them and push forwards? Or… Do I scrap the thing and start over, while it’s still the first day, while I have the most energy I’ll have all month for writing? Fix it while I still care?

I rewrote.

I know, I know… but I really just couldn’t leave it and sometimes you just have to go with your instinct.

So I sat there with the old draft on one side of me, the detailed plan you’ve all seen before on the other and I started again from scratch, with a day’s worth of waking up and caffeine fuelling me! And I have to say that this was the right decision in the end. I’m not saying that the 2,993 words I wrote that night are the best ones ever. I’m not saying that they won’t need some heavy going-over later when November’s done. But I will say that they sparked a lot more interest and creativity in me than the first version did!

And as a bonus, I got my first Nano badge! Look, I went camping a lot as a kid, and my adult camp blanket is a monster of a thing. Basically, badges are very exciting for me!

Nano Badge - 1667 words

Day 2 dawned in a shower of rain and gales, which is always a bad sign for me when I want to write, because for some reason it’s impossible to concentrate when the wind’s having more fun running around than I am.

Also? You know on the Nanowrimo website when they talk to you about prepping for the month and they don’t just mean plotting things out or making sure you have enough post-its? When they talk about getting in food and cleaning everything down nicely so you won’t be distracted? Yeah…

In my defence, that’s a lot easier to do when you’re not working full-time and also buried under various other extra-ciricular activities. So a big chunk of the day was spent doing three loads of washing, buying food, tackling the fearsome Mount Washing Up that has been judging me from the other side of the room…

Serious adulting was accomplished that day, friends!

Still fortunately I have Icklespan only a message away to remind me that we are both mostly evening writers and that the day being spent doing productive things that will help me avoid getting distracted later on is a good thing. Thanks Icklespan!

In the end I stayed up late and kept plugging away at the thing. It was slow going and I imagine that editing the thing will be a complete and vicious nightmare, but that’s a December problem right there! What matters here and now in November is that 2655 words were in fact written, and I have shouldered my way through most of the first chapter. Phew!

So today’s goals are to finish filling in the couple of small gaps left in Chapter 1 – little chunks of conversations which on rereading I realise should probably exist, that sort of thing – and either jumping into Chapter 2, which is an entirely different POV, or skipping it in favour of Chapter 3, which continues the POVs of Chapter 1.

Also breakfast…

So yes, this week has seen plenty of ups and downs already, but on the whole I think it’s gone pretty ok. Hopefully we can keep this up for the rest of the month!

Wish me (and Icklespan) luck!

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Oxford Odditites

Judging a Book By its Cover…

Friends, today’s post is short, but I need to share something with you all. Partly because I need sympathy, and partly because I have so many questions!

OK, so this is the Oxfam Bookshop in the middle of Oxford.

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It sits just across the road from my workplace. It is also one of two in Oxford, and the other one was five minutes walk from my old workplace. I have never been more than ten minutes walk from one or the other of these in my whole time in Oxford, and I’ll be honest, there’s the vaguest possibility that this may be ever so slightly connected to my massive hoard of books and my lack of money. Maybe.

It’s OK to despair of me, my family is right there with you…

Anyway!

So I was walking past the window on the way to work one morning and this piece of majestic-ness is sat in the front window!

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I mean… Just look at it!

I have so many questions! How do these creatures go together in places that aren’t this blog?

Only in Oxford, am I right?

Long-time readers of this blog will know that we of course have a tiny dragon in the office, getting into my stationary and judging me when I’m not writing and generally causing trouble. 

And if you live in Oxford then you also know that ducks get everywhere. They keep nesting in college quads and then causing chaos once the ducklings have hatched, because no mama duck ever has apparently thought to herself prior to building a nest, ‘Hmm… I managed to reach this nice quiet nesting site in this fox-free space by flying. But my ducklings, they will not be able to fly straight out of the egg. Is this site, therefore, a good idea?’Ch.9 - Duck and Cover

So Trinity (Summer) Term is one long saga of students with cardboard boxes chasing down ducks and ducklings to help them all reach a nice body of water. It’s probably character-building? At the very least, it’s a distraction from looming exams, I suppose.

Also, if you have twitter, and you don’t already follow Twitter of then please go and check them out, they are an absolute delight and treasure and I can think of nothing which so wonderfully summarises so much of what is good in Oxford. It’s ducks, it’s literary puns, it’s madcap adventures sometimes; frankly I don’t know what else you could possibly ask for, but even that is probably to be found right there on that feed.

The annual duck-related shenanigans naturally has made it into the Ghosts and Gowns series, if you fancy checking it out?

Anyway, so obviously I had to read this book and find out a few answers. Was it separated out into poems about dragons and poems about ducks? Were there poets about dragons and ducks together? Did these two groups of agents of chaos finally join forces and inspire great sagas commemorating their epic deeds? Were they eternal enemies locked forever in combat from whence there is no end or escape? What?Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 2

And now, I know, I know that we shouldn’t judge a book by it’s – frankly amazing – cover, but I regret to say that we can only speculate about the hidden potential behind it. For now, alas, we come to the saddest part of this post…

You see, the bookshop does not open until 10am, which is notably after the time I need to be in work. So I waited, eagerly, patiently I waited until my lunch break. Who needed to go to eat lunch? Who needs sandwiches when there is a book to hunt down? That book must be mine!

And then… disaster!

By the time I reached the bookshop, the book had been sold already! I missed it!

In hindsight, I suppose it was inevitable; with a book so inherently amazing, someone probably pounced as soon as they could get in…

Never will I read the epic adventures of ducks and dragons… *Sniff…*

On the other hand, I now can’t stop thinking of other amazing book titles! I have several ideas already:

Knights and Kittens – in which either the knights are often rescuing kittens from high perches in castles, or possibly doing battle with terrifying and fearsome kittens? (If this sounds unlikely, please check out the British Library’s post about knights battling snails! If it sounded totally legit on first thought, check out the pictures of knights battling snails anyway – I promise you that down that path lies only magnificent and wonderful things!)

Knight V Snail1
Knight v Snail III: Extreme Jousting (from Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor, France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 65r)

Mice and Magicians – In which a band of brave mice help and advise an apprentice magician as they journey through a series of challenges to reach the great magic tournament. Think the Knights of the Round Table (Round Cheese? Keep work-shopping that…) assisting Merlin, with side quests including the Green Squirrel, the Lapwing of the Lake, narrated throughout (naturally) by Gerbil of Monmouth…

Seagulls and Sphinxes – Neither side of this title will make much sense, but only one will eat you while you’re alive? But no seriously, this is really the perfect pair-up, since I don’t think that sphinxes can fly, but obviously seagulls have that down, and if you’ve ever been mobbed for your food by seagulls then you will know that seagulls would absolutely ask you impossible riddles if it got them more food somehow! I don’t know what their adventure would actually look like yet, but I’m working on it…

Anyone else have any suggestions? It has to be a team-up between a fantasy character/creature and a non-obvious tiny mundane animal… And if possible, do chip in with what the adventure story would look like!

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) – Part 2

Ch.23 - Plotting for Non-Super VillainsWelcome back! This is Part 2 of a 2-part post. Part 1 looked at some of the various reasons why I personally find planning my stories out fully in advance to be enormously helpful, but in keeping myself on message, and in just keeping myself going at all!

Here in Part 2, we’ll be taking a look at the various methods – or steps, I suppose I should call them? – that make up my planning process.

Obviously, you may feel that I’m planning in a ridiculous amount of detail, but I swear that (for me) each step allows me to learn a different thing about the story I’m creating, and I couldn’t write without them.

If you are currently planning, or maybe you struggle with planning in a helpful and productive way, and you find any of these methods helpful: that’s great! Always very happy to possibly help!

You might have a totally different way of planning out a story, in which case please do let me know down in the comments!

Right, now that’s out of the way with, let’s go!

Step 1 – Argh! All The Wild Ideas!

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Technically this is probably Step 1.3, but I was too busy plotting to grab my camera before this…

Step 1 of planning out a story is to grab all of my relevant ideas, and at least three colours of post-its and start scribbling. Jot down each and every single thing that you currently know happens in your story. Every. Thing.

“Stan meets Cleo” – that gets a post-it. “They sneak into the castle” and “They get caught” should probably be two post-its. Heck, “Sinister cat appears” should absolutely be a post-it! In fact, make several of that one, you’re going to want to repeat a moment that inherently awesome!

Once you’ve got all the immediate ideas jotted down, get yourself a big flat surface, and start laying them all out, and shuffling them around. You’ll know going in that some things will happen before others, so stick those ones earlier, but some ideas will be a bit more nebulous, and you can play around with the order until you find something that you really like.

Also can you see, I have some smaller beige post-its? Those just have chapter numbers written on them, and as I start sticking ideas down, I tend to get a bit of a sense that this event, or that development will be a whole chapter in itself and doesn’t need anything added. Again, a lot of this will change a bit as you work on shaping your story, but that’s the beauty of post-its! They can just get pulled up and stuck down somewhere else!

Why do you need multiple colours of post-its, though? Well, if you have a Main Plot and a Sub-plot, you’re going to need to differentiate them nice and easily. Got a romantic sub-plot too? Definitely need to keep an eye on that. That way, you can see if a plot-thread has started to disappear out of your narrative, or if your sub-plot has basically become the main plot by taking up too much space!

20170824_22414620170829_233430As you get a better handle on your story, you’ll be able to fill in your blanks.

(Also, as you can see, I ran out of space on my table pretty quickly and the wardrobe was immediately sacrificed! Please don’t judge me for the stuff on the floor?)

Step 2 – Typing Up (Round 1)

As anyone who lives around post-its for long enough knows, post-its are only ever a temporary solution. They come unstuck and get everywhere really easily. Then they get hoovered up, played with by the kids or the cat and you will never see them again. And there went your plot.

Plotting stage 2So once you’ve managed to haul the plot points you’ve got into the general shape of a full story with a distinct beginning, middle and end, it’s time to start typing them up.

(For the sake of my own sanity, I tried to find colours in Excel that matched the post-its pretty closely, but you may be mentally-robust enough not to need to care about such things?)

Whether you just literally type up what’s on the post-its, or whether like me you use this opportunity to start fleshing out each point, it’s totally up to you. Basically, you’re preserving the post-it plot and giving yourself a usable, printable document to start playing around with a bit further.

Plotting stage 2.1

Susan Pevensie Part 1As you can see, there will likely still be some gaps in that plot! I never worry about them too much yet, but I do make sure to mark in what idea I do have in that space, and make myself little notes to remind myself that there’s  still something I need to work on. That way, when I get to later stages (or even, heaven forbid! writing up!) I won’t be suddenly and unexpectedly blind-sided by this massive gap that I don’t know what to do with.

I don’t have a photo of one, but I tend to keep a ‘To Do’ list of all of these little gaps separately, so that I can work through them and get them sorted out when I’m not at my desk staring at the document too.

Step 3 – Narrative Arcs and Plotting Tension

I fully confess that Stage 3 is the one I understand the theory behind the least. However, I do find it useful, and I recommend at least giving it a bit of a go. I promise that it will tell you something!

Plotting stage 3

Basically, I sit down with my plot-points and try to measure the average tension of each chapter of the story. I tend to use a scale of 1-10, but that’s mostly because that’s the extent of my estimating-expertise. You may find that you are more comfortable in talking about ‘the tension’ of a chapter, and may have more nuance in your estimates.

Ch.19 - The Tragedy of Backstory - Part 1The point here is largely to check that you have a steady over-all rise and fall of tension, but also to check that the tension does actually rise and fall in a sensible manner, and that the various plot threads do in fact intersect at some point! There’s nothing worse than a book with three plots, not one of which relates to any of the others, right?

When I planned this plot initially, I found that I’d built up nice and evenly to the climax, lots of good narrative tension going on, and then the story basically stopped! Clearly that’s not ideal, so I shifted some of the explanatory dialogue and some of the personal resolutions further towards the end so that there was more of a winding down of tension and the reader will (hopefully) not feel that the book just stopped and dropped them.

Everything will hopefully feel nicely resolved and wrapped up.

Step 4 – The Check List!

Finally we get to what I tend to call ‘The Final Stage’ of planning; the stage where everything I’ve learned and considered and decided comes together into a check-list of sorts that I can have next to me while I’m writing and just check off as I go.

Plotting stage 4

This stage is really just about getting a clean copy of the planned out plot so I can start writing. It’s got as much detail in it as I possibly can think of, it’s got draft chapter titles, it’s got everything!

I very rarely get chance to just sit down for a full day and write uninterrupted. Between a full-time job, and friends, and family and keeping up with laundry and cleaning and all that other fun stuff, writing just has to be done in the snatches of time I have spare some weeks!

As a result, having the most detailed plan I possibly can means that I’m much more likely to end up with a first draft that is tonally consistent and doesn’t wander off into wild tangents because I had a blank space and a flight of fancy at the same time! As I said last time, having a plot all planned out also means I’m less likely to get discouraged because I can’t remember what was going to happen next and now I have no inspiration to think of something different. The less I leave to my poor over-worked brain while I type away into the dark of night, the better!

And there you have it! I’m sure that there are loads of other great ways to plan out a plot, and if you have a method that works, please do come and tell me about it in the comments! There’s never not something to be learned from a fellow-writer!

New to this blog? Check out some of the rest of this series – or indeed try out some of my original fiction! – down here:

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: Why We’re Sailing Without Our Moral Compass

I don’t know if this happens to other bloggers, but sometimes it happens that I decide to write a bunch of posts on a theme, and I list out all the topics that I want to talk about, I collect up some good case-studies, and I start writing… and then I realise that I’ve started in the wrong place.

This is one of those times.

Because this series was intended to focus almost entirely on the structural aspects of a good redemption arc, to look at creating a sense of narrative balance, and the most effective ways to use the more common mechanics redemption arcs include, such as a Tragic Backstory, or a Turning Point. And as I re-read my notes I realised that there was a curious lack of any discussion about the moral issues that redemption arcs raise and struggle with and (hopefully) answer.

This wasn’t exactly a missing piece; I didn’t simply forget about morality or anything, but I realised that I did need to start the series off properly with some sort of discussion about why I’ve decided to leave morality out for the most part.

Sailing without our moral compass

Everyone Knows It’s Wrong…

One of the reasons why I feel like a writing series like mine has no business talking about morality is that, quite simply, everyone’s ideas about what’s morally right or wrong are different. I know we all think that we agree on the broader aspects of what’s acceptable and not, but everyone draws the line in a different place.

Like most people, I have a variety of friends with whom I like to discuss films, books and TV shows, and we’ll happily natter along about characters, scenes, and most importantly themes in various pieces of work. It’s all good fun, and it helps me to figure out what I really like about things and how I can incorporate elements into my own work and it also helps me, if for example I’ve seen a film that rubbed me up the wrong way in some form, work out what it was that I found objectionable.

The thing is, though, that the biggest and most long-running arguments I’ve ever had with my friends have been on those very same topics. It’s even reached a point where with every single friend there is at least one film, or book or franchise that we have mutually agreed to Never Speak Of Again. (The capital letters mean that it’s serious this time!)

Why do we get to this stage? You may be wondering.

Well, it’s essentially all down to one thing – we have different moral compasses and there are simply very different things we’ll all bend on or not. Things we’ll allow to slide for the sake of an interesting character or a really juicy plot, and other things which we feel simply cannot be walked back on later.

For example, sometimes you find yourself arguing that a character accidentally killing someone else through their bad decisions earlier in the story is simply a mistake and they should be allowed to amend their ways, learn from the experience and get on with their story. And another person may equally correctly argue that if this same character had used an ounce of common sense from the start, that entire episode would never have happened.

So no, there’s no point in assuming that all my readers will have the same moral code I have at all, and therefore judging a story on its morals is a little tricky.

After all, fiction isn’t real life, and the rules are what writers tells us they are.

And speaking of writers…

Why You Can Never Trust Writers

Apart from being highly personal, morality is also a completely relative concept.

It’s utterly dependent on the context of an idea or action, and that’s what’s always been its biggest strength and weakness combined. Is killing wrong? Yes. Except when you did it for a good reason. Is theft wrong? Yes. Except if it was for a good reason. And we make our minds up as outside observers based entirely on what information is presented to us in order to contextualise a character’s actions.

This will not be news to you as writers, even small children instinctively know this after all, and no one needed to tell them!

Ask any pair of six year olds about the fistfight you just broke up and you’ll promptly be given two totally different stories, in which the child speaking is clearly the innocent party and the other was utterly at fault. You know as you listen to them that they’ve edited out their poor behaviour and emphasised the other’s in an effort to justify themselves. They may not have all the fancy terms to describe this rhetorical device, but they certainly know how to do it!

What I’m building up to here is this: Never Trust a Writer.

No seriously, never ever trust writers! Even if you are also a writer!

Why?

Because writers can make anything seem like a reasonable action to take. Anything. You thought you would be against some action no matter what? Too bad! Writers can make you sympathise with it, at least for a little while. You thought some things were only done by monsters? Writers will give you some lovely, related protagonists and have you cheering them on as they perform exactly those acts!

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has you desperately hoping that a bunch of unrepentant murderers get away scot free. The Italian Job has you cheering on a crew of career-criminals stealing $4 million, not to mention utterly ruining a whole city of people’s day by causing a city-wide traffic jam for hours. How anyone manages to do that considering how much everyone despises getting stuck in traffic, is amazing to me!

Why are writers especially good at this? Well, as writers we are completely in control of the worlds our stories take place in. This isn’t history, wherein a narrative that’s been built up out of selectively picked bits of information can be overturned when someone looks up all the information that’s been carefully left out. Writers, especially in fantasy and sci-fi, must create all of the information that could ever exist.

You want the murderers in Murder on the Orient Express to get away with it because the man they killed murdered a child and caused the deaths of four more people, before escaping justice. Those people just want to get closure and justice and the law failed them so they did it themselves. You hate that man, and by the end you’re really glad that he’s dead.

But the only things we’re told about the murdered man is that he’s a kidnapper, a brutal child-killer, and an extortionist who’s now a bit sad that after a life of crime people want to kill him.

What we don’t see him do is feel remorse for what he’s done. We never see him trying to make amends by, I don’t know, funding several orphanages and schools to ease his conscience as to the origins of his wealth. Therefore we assume he doesn’t feel any, and he probably didn’t. But his death would immediately feel different if you knew that he was trying to make amends and that more unseen people are going to suffer now that he’s dead.

Nothing Is Real

You know how I mentioned in the first section that fiction is different from real life? (Yes, I know, I totally blew your mind with that insight!) Well, this is where that really comes into play.

Because we might all have different beliefs about morality, but we are all united in one thing with fiction: Nothing that happens in it is real and these characters do not matter.

I know, I’ve just broken the cardinal rule of writing, but it’s worth thinking about.

Because while fiction can reflect real life and shape real life, maybe even help us deal with real life, you know what it’s not? Real life.

So the actions that characters take in your work of fiction do not, on the most basic of levels, matter.

It’s one of the reasons why, where possible, storytellers like to tell you that their story is ‘Based on Real Events’. Because you care more about what happens when you think that you’re being given something real.

The Titanic movie wouldn’t be nearly so compelling if you didn’t know that all those people you watched die – by drowning, by freezing, by the engines blowing out – all those people really died. If they were just a bunch of made-up people who died in a totally made-up disaster, would you actually care all that much? Probably not.

Horror films like using this technique for the same reasons, although obviously that takes more of a suspension of disbelief, because I absolutely will buy that there’s a lot in this world we’re not aware of, but I feel like if vampires were readily available, I wouldn’t be hearing it first from a 2009 movie…

This is why fantasy writers are at a disadvantage. Yes, we have the freedom to get all creative with our worldbuilding and make up anything we want to, but all the events and actions and conflicts that we create to happen inside that world are effectively as tangible as Scotch Mist.

This isn’t the engine room of the Titanic burning men to death in 1912; it’s a dragon burning people for raiding its treasure hoard. That’s never going to fly if you tell people it really happened, and if it didn’t really happen then why should your audience care?

Of course, this challenge is by no means insurmountable. In fact you’ve probably scaled it in your writing already! Because while the events of a work of fiction are made-up, the emotions shouldn’t be. People’s thoughts, their feelings and logic should all feel real, it’s why people do things that matters in fiction, not what they do.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand this links us back up to the second point I made earlier. Don’t Trust Writers With Morality!

Because you’ll only care if the writer makes you care, or allows you to care. If you ever need a good example of someone being really aware of how much power a writer has over a reader’s empathy and moral investment in the events of a story, I can think of no better case than the dedication in one of Terry Pratchett’s books.

In 1989, Terry Pratchett wrote Guards! Guards!, the first book in a series about characters who would, in any other fantasy setting, be at best supporting characters, but usually only existed in the background of bigger stories; The Night Watch of Ankh Morpork.

They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, around about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film), to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to.

This book is dedicated to those fine men.

What interests me here isn’t the subversion of the fantasy trope, in which the side characters are the heroes and the young man with a sword called in by the city to save the day is so utterly meaningless that I’m not sure he ever got a name. (If he did, I didn’t catch it on my first thirty times of reading the book…)

What fascinates me is the way Terry Pratchett blatantly points out that we as an audience customarily watch or read about these, say, twelve men getting killed for just doing their jobs … and we don’t care. We don’t know their names. We don’t know if they had families to whom they are never going to return. The story will barely remark upon their whole existence, except to revel in the hero’s skill at killing people.

Terry Pratchett made some of his best characters in this series. And he made them by giving faces and names and lives to the people we normally are never told to care about.

I keep saying in this series that writers wield a huge amount of power over their characters and readers. Well this is another of those times.

Because writers literally have the power to make a rational, good person desperately want someone to get away with murder. To want people to successfully rob banks. To not bat a single eyelid in the face of a senseless loss of life.

 As writers, we are all totally free to use whatever moral hoops we need to make a story interesting, compelling and tangible. Have a good think about what you really want to paint as being ‘acceptable’ and not, because you literally do make the rules in your own world!

As an audience, it is always worth asking yourself, ‘Why am I okay with this action? Would I think it was okay if I knew more about these people?’ Hopefully it won’t spoil a story for you; that would be awful! I just think its good practice for looking at real life, where we often have to go looking for more information than is readily given to us.

Also, considering the vast army of reboots and remakes in the film industry at the moment that spring from the idea that the villain from the original was actually the Good Guy the whole time, maybe take it as a chance to remember why they were the villain all along?

If you enjoy talking about the nitty-gritty of putting stories together, be sure to check out the rest of the Chronicles in Creation series.

Also let me know in the comments if you end up having weirdly intense arguments with your friends about the actions of people who don’t exist and why they wouldn’t be invited to your equally non-existent dinner parties. I need to know it’s not just us…

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Making Men of Myths – Part 1

Author’s Note: this post contains extracts from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians series and some big spoilers, especially for the first book; Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, so read with caution if you are planning on trying these books out and don’t want to be spoiled.

If I had to sum up my original idea for starting to write this book, I would have gone for this: ‘What if British Folklore was based on real events?’ Folklore’s been a long-time fascination and is sadly under-explored in modern fiction.

Anyway, if I wanted this to work at all, there was something that I had to get right instantly: Gods. I suppose since this is fantasy, I should say The Old Gods?

If these characters didn’t feel both real and other-worldly at one and the same time, the whole idea would fall apart. Fortunately, there’s a really good example of the many ways you can go about achieving this out there: The Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 1

If you haven’t read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series … just … treat yourself and go do that! Like, right now. It’s January, people, what else do you have to look forward to until The Thaw comes?

I myself found the series through what I have dubbed ‘reverse marketing’ in which the film is such a  bad adaptation that people’s complaints over how much better the books are actively caused me to seek the books out. I had a couple of friends get so upset and vocal about how good the books were and how badly the films had mishandled what was great about them that I just had to find out what the fuss was about.

And, oh boy! I was so glad I did. They are funny, they are exciting, they are full of little quirky nods to the original Greek mythology that’ll make you smile if you’re all nerdy and into that. (Who me?) But they don’t assume you know everything about everything and set everything up properly, so you won’t get lost if Greeks and their beliefs was, say, twenty years ago for you.

More importantly for this post, Rick Riordan does an excellent job of making the Greek gods feel both completely alien, and also strangely human. They are clearly powerful, immortal beings, but they also embody everything good and bad about humanity too.

Author’s Note: I did think about looking at Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but there the old gods are weakened and diminished from their old forms and strength and facing off against new ones, and that’s a very different topic!

OK, so you need to establish characters who are god; they need to feel real enough that the readers buy into their existence, but they also need to be consistent with their legends that you are drawing from. For anyone playing the home-game with this series, this ties into a previous post I wrote about Why Villains need Rules to be terrifying.

It’s all about combining the human and the alien, relatable and unknowable. And there are many ways to communicate this balance in your character;

How do they look? Like us or like something you could picture being painted on the Sistine Chapel surrounded by thunder bolts?

How do they behave? Like an animal? Like a human? Like a force of nature? (Whatever that may conjure in your imagination)

What is their history? Many gods are described as being immortal, or at least as being far, far older than any human could ever be. They’ve watched over humanity for hundreds or thousands of years, so what kind of history have they built up and how does that affect them?

Now, the Percy Jackson series has loads of gods and goddesses in it, far too many for me to talk about in this post, so we’re looking at what Riordan calls The Big Three, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, who helpfully illustrate three main approaches.

Appearance

In the series, Rick Riordan did something very interesting; he updated the appearance of the gods to modern fashions, but often had their clothes reflect their roles and thus personalities. For example Ares is dressed like a Hell’s Angels biker, reflecting his status as the God of War.

Hades is the first of The Big Three to appear in person however and he is immediately set apart from the other gods we’ve encountered already:

He was the third god I’d met, but the first who really struck me as godlike.

He was at least three metres tall, for one thing, and dressed in black silk robes and a crown of braided gold. His skin was albino white, his hair shoulder-length and jet black. He wasn’t bulked up like Ares, but he radiated power. He lounged on his throne of fused human bones, looking lithe, graceful and dangerous as a panther.

… When he sat forward in his throne, shadowy faces appeared in the folds of his black robes, faces of torment, as if the garment were stitched of trapped souls from the Fields of Punishment, trying to get out. The ADHD part of me wondered, off-task, whether the rest of his clothes were made the same way. What horrible things would you have to do in your life to get woven into Hades’s underwear?

So Hades is immediately more imposing than anything we’ve seen before, and we’ve seen beings who have empty eye-sockets that fill with fire so far in this book, so that’s really saying something! He’s not changed his appearance like everyone else, suggesting that either he’s had no need to change, probably because Death is consistent in the human existence? Certainly he stands out and there is absolutely no way to mistake him as anything other than the god he is.

He’s also shown as being a very menacing presence; there are souls of the damned woven into his clothing, his throne is made of human bone. Many people find death and the afterlife a frightening concept and Hades really reflects this too. Hades at this point has always been spoken of as a pretty evil figure, semi-Satan-like if you will, and his appearance really reinforces this.

We meet Poseidon and Zeus right at the end of the first book, The Lightning Thief, and they have followed the trend of changing with the times, appearance-wise. However, they both have very different takes on this. Zeus, as the Lord of the Gods, has really taken to power dressing:

Zeus, the Lord of the Gods, wore a dark blue, pinstriped suit. He sat on a simple throne of solid platinum. He had a well-trimmed beard, marbled grey and black like a storm cloud. His face was proud and handsome and grim, his eyes rainy grey.

As I got nearer to him, the air crackled and smelled of ozone.

So Zeus dresses like most world-leaders, successful business-men and crime-bosses; sharp suit and well-groomed. Everything about him reinforces his status as the God of Thunder, and as the God In Charge. It’s hard to show in short quotes, but Zeus as a character is incredibly touchy, even for a god in this series, and he flaunts and reinforces his power at every possible moment. Zeus is in charge and he doesn’t want anyone to forget it for even a moment. He is always listening out for people being disrespectful:

“But I’ve never even been to Olympus! Zeus is crazy!”

Chiron and Glover glanced nervously at the sky. The clouds didn’t seem to be partly around us, as Grover had promised. They were rolling straight over our valley, sealing us in like a coffin lid.

“Er, Percy…?” Grover said. “We don’t use the c-word to describe the Lord of the Sky.”

“Perhaps paranoid,” Chiron suggested.

 The interesting thing about Poseidon is how he sits at the opposite end to Hades on the ‘How Much Do I Look Like A God?’ range:

The god sitting next to him was his brother, without a doubt, but he was dressed very differently. He reminded me of a beachcomber from Key West. He wore leather sandals, khaki Bermuda shorts, and a Tommy Bahama shirt with coconuts and parrots all over it. His skin was deeply tanned, his hands scarred like an old-time fisherman’s. His hair was black, like mine. His face had that same brooding look that had always got me branded a rebel. But his eyes, sea-green like mine, were surrounded by sun-crinkles that told me he smiled a lot, too.

His throne was a deep-sea fisherman’s chair. It was the simple swivelling kind, with a black leather seat and a built-in holster for a fishing pole. Instead of a pole, the holster held a bronze trident, flickering with green light around the tips.

Poseidon couldn’t possibly look less like a god if he tried for a century, which he very possibly has. His throne’s a folding chair, he’s wearing Bermuda shorts, I mean in a later book he even comes with this:

He wore a battered cap decorated with fishing lures. It said, Neptune’s Lucky Fishing Hat.

I am not making this up. And the strange thing is that, at least to me, the effect is that Poseidon is actually the most intimidating of The Big Three. Zeus and Hades have had this huge rivalry for hundreds of years and flaunt their power as much as they can, albeit in very different ways. But Poseidon gives the impression of a god who is so powerful that he doesn’t need to remind everyone.

It makes sense in a way: Hades is the Lord of the Dead and Zeus rules the gods and thunder, but Poseidon is the god of storms, earth-quakes, the sea and horses. That’s all the seas in the world, and a portion of the land and air under his control. Poseidon effectively knows that he has ‘It’ in spades and can afford not to flaunt it, which considering the company he keeps is kind of terrifying.

And speaking of terrifying…

Interactions with Percy

(Percy is our point-of-view character throughout the books. How much he relates to the characters he encounters therefore shapes how much we, the readers, can relate to them too.)

So a lot of the gods Percy encounters for the first time need to identify themselves to him as gods. Usually this is because they are cloaking their powers to blend in and it works. Percy could easily mistake them for other magical beings or totally normal humans.

The Big Three, however, have no such first-impression reveal; they are immediately identifiable as gods, giving off a god-like aura of power and menace:

I immediately felt like [Hades] should be giving the orders. He knew more than I did. He should be my master. Then I told myself to snap out of it. … The Lord of the Dead resembled pictures I’d seen of Adolph Hitler, or Napoleon, or the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers. Hades had the same intense eyes, the same kind of mesmerizing, evil charisma.

And then the other two:

The gods were in giant human form, as Hades had been, but I could barely look at them without feeling a tingle, as if my body were starting to burn.

So the Big Three are united in the aura of power they emit, which links them together when they are distinguished by their appearances. Makes sense as they are very much presented as three brothers, and for all their differences they need something in common.

So that’s first impressions done, but then they start talking and once more the differences between them are stark.

Percy is talking to Hades in an effort to convince him not to start a war with his brothers. We’ve already had the price of failure presented to us at the start of the quest:

“And do you know what a full-fledged war would look like, Percy?”

“Bad?” I guessed.

“Imagine the world in chaos. Nature at war with itself. Olympians forced to choose sides between Zeus and Poseidon. Destruction. Carnage. Millions dead. Western civilisation turned into a battleground so big it will make the Trojan War look like a water-balloon fight.”

“Bad,” I repeated.

So there’s a lot on the line and everything in the book has been pointing to Hades starting this mess while framing his brother Poseidon for it, to anger his other brother Zeus. And we all need to appreciate that this feels exactly like to original Greek myths, right here. It’s all egos and pulling ridiculous stunts over absolute nonsense because Greek gods apparently cannot be trusted to talk to each other…

Anyway, Hades so far has been totally alien in appearance and presence and then Percy suggests that the war would benefit Hades because people will die and he’ll have more subjects to rule over and this happens:

“Have you any idea how much my kingdom has swollen in this past century alone, how many subdivisions I’ve had to open?”

I opened my mouth to respond, but Hades was on a roll now.

“More security ghouls,” he moaned. “Traffic problems at the judgement pavilion. Double overtime for all the staff. I used to be a rich god, Percy Jackson. I control all the precious metals under the earth. But my expenses!”

“Charon wants a pay raise,” I blurted, just remembering the fact. As soon as I said it, I wished I could sew up my mouth.

“Don’t get me started on Charon!” Hades yelled. “He’s been impossible ever since he discovered Italian suits! Problems everywhere, and I’ve got to handle all of them personally. The commute time alone from the palace to the gates is enough to drive me insane! And the dead just keep arriving. No, godling. I need no help getting subjects! I did not ask for this war.”

I have never related to a character so fast in my life! I mean, yes, Hades is talking about ruling the world of the dead, which I cannot say I have any experience in at all, but c’mon… We have all had commuting issues and trouble at work, right? Hades suddenly became so relatable, I totally forgot for a minute that he’s dressed in woven souls and sitting on bones!

Now contrast this with Zeus, who continues his desperate efforts to be the most commanding and intimidating thing ever and therefore can barely say ‘thank you’ properly:

[Zeus] rose and looked at me. His expression softened just a fraction of a degree. “You have done me a service, boy. Few heroes could have accomplished as much.”

“I had help, sir,” I said. “Grover Underwood and Annabeth Chase –“

“To show you my thanks, I shall spare your life. I do not trust you, Perseus Jackson. I do not like what your arrival means for the future of Olympus. But for the sake of peace in the family, I shall let you live.”

“Um … thank you, sir.”

“Do not presume to fly again. Do not let me find you here when I return. Otherwise you shall taste this bolt. And it shall be your last sensation.”

Thunder shook the palace. With a blinding flash of lightening, Zeus was gone.

Oh Zeus…

To be fair, I don’t think we’re ever meant to relate to Zeus especially, except insofar as we all know at least one person who’s just trying so hard. I always loved Poseidon’s take on the same moment:

“Your uncle,” Poseidon sighed, “has always had a flair for dramatic exits. I think he would’ve done well as the god of theatre.”

See, Poseidon totally knows what’s up…

Anyway, then again there’s Poseidon, who on first impression is the most relatable and normal-looking of the three, and as a character therefore compensates by being the most removed from human understanding of the three. And this is Percy’s own father here, so that’s really saying something:

“Perseus,” Poseidon said. “Look at me.”

I did, and I wasn’t sure what I saw in his face. There was no clear sign of love or approval. Nothing to encourage me. It was like looking at the ocean: some days, you could tell what mood it was in. Most days, though, it was unreadable, mysterious.

I got the feeling Poseidon really didn’t know what to think of me. He didn’t know whether he was happy to have me as a son or not. In a strange way, I was glad that Poseidon was so distant. If he’d tried to apologize, or told me he love me, or even smiled. It would’ve felt fake. Like human dad, making some lame excuse for not being around. I could live with that. After all, I wasn’t sure about him yet, either.

And there’s the way that Poseidon actually relates to his own child:

“Your mother is a queen among women,” Poseidon said wistfully. “I had not met such a woman in a thousand years. Still … I am sorry you were born, child. I have brought you a hero’s fate, and a hero’s fate is never happy. It is never anything but tragic.”

I tried not to feel hurt. Here was my own dad, telling me he was sorry I’d been born. “I don’t mind, Father.”

“Not yet, perhaps,” he said. “Not yet. But it was an unforgivable mistake on my part.”

“I’ll leave you then.” I bowed awkwardly. “I – I won’t bother you again.”

Although I do have to say that, in this series, Poseidon is actually one of the best parent-gods in the whole cast, which says terrible things about everyone else… And Poseidon actually does tend to make an effort with Percy, by which I mean that he does clearly care and he tries to show his son affection as best he can. The fact that he’s so weird and stilted about it, however, continues to highlight how very not-human he is too.

Like, this is Poseidon telling Percy he’s proud of him:

I was five steps away when he called, “Perseus.”
I turned.
There was a different light in his eyes, a fiery kind of pride. “You did well, Perseus. Do not misunderstand me. Whatever else you do, know that you are mine. You are a true son of the Sea God.”

And this is Poseidon relating to Percy having a birthday several books later:

“I couldn’t miss Percy’s fifteenth birthday,” Poseidon said. “Why, if this were Sparta, Percy would be a man today!”
“That’s true,” Paul said. “I used to teach ancient history.”
Poseidon’s eyes twinkled. “That’s me. Ancient history.”

And speaking of ancient history…

History with Fellow Gods

So, I would argue that the main difference character-structure-wise between gods and, say, super-heroes is their age. Superheroes grow old and die (Maybe. Technically. Theoretically. If the comic books will let them.) Gods go on and on and have been around essentially for forever. And the challenge for writers is in how to showcase that longevity without constantly having to outright say These characters are immortal and really old, guys!

Rick Riordan is very good at making use of the original Greek myths to give a sense of the gods having lived and interacted, both with each other and with heroes, for hundreds of years. They speak of ancient myths as if they happened recently, and that helps us as readers get a real sense of how long they’ve spent developing rivalries and grievances and grudges.

“Husband, we talked about this,” Persephone chided. “You can’t go around incinerating every hero. Besides, he’s brave. I like that.”
Hades rolled his eyes. “You liked that Orpheus fellow too. Look how well that turned out.”

And those long-past interactions also directly affect the plot as it is happening in the present too. Remember that war in the first book that we were worrying about? Well, it’s not just Zeus being all paranoid:

“Then again, Poseidon has tried to unseat Zeus before. I believe that was question thirty-eight on your final exam…” He looked at me as if he actually expected me to remember question thirty-eight…

“Something about a golden net?” I guessed. “Poseidon and Hera and a few other gods … they, like, trapped Zeus and wouldn’t let him out until he promised to be a better ruler, right?”

“Correct,” Chiron said. “And Zeus has never trusted Poseidon since. Of course, Poseidon denies stealing the master bolt. He took great offence at the accusation. The two have been arguing back and forth for months, threatening war.”

In fact throughout the whole series, the whole pantheon of gods are mostly at each other’s throats far more than they ever can manage to work together. They’ve all stood on each other’s toes and made life difficult for each other, and clearly relished doing so. Even in the face of a bigger threat they can’t work together for a long time. They’ve spent centuries falling out and hurting each other and it’s nearly impossible for them to put all that aside. As we saw in A Very Potter Case Study 2, in a well-written plot, the consequence of an argument is that the next argument is worse and the characters less likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

So by establishing a long history between ancient beings, we can relate as an audience to the many layers of challenge throughout the series, with enemies attacking from without and rivalries weakening the group from within. And because we can relate so well, we also feel more tension; in the same position, could we put our differences aside for someone else?

In Part 2, we’ll be looking at how I converted some figures of folklore into living, breathing characters; where I drew inspiration from for their appearances, their personalities and their powers.

If this was helpful, let me know and as always, if you’re new then check out the rest of the series here. See you next week!