Posted in Chronicles in Creation, Uncategorized

Spooky Scary Self-Imposed Targets…

Happy Halloween Everyone!

20191030_173138 (3)
Getting into the Halloween spirit is so much nicer with friends! Yes, Ivan has a fellow dragon-buddy, but that’s a whole other story!

I know it’s been quiet around here lately, but in truth it’s because I have actually been doing a lot of writing! I know, sometimes I even amaze myself!

Ch.23 - Plotting for Non-Super Villains
Part 1…

Anyway, I’m emerging from my writing hole to use the power of internet-based peer-pressure for good. I know one of the things the internet has become known for since it went mainstream is peer-pressure, but don’t worry! I’m too old and too grumpy to worry too much if people tell me that I suck!

Anyway, I am announcing properly that this year I’m having another run at Nanowrimo.

I’ve tried it before several times and usually RL gets in the way, or I come down ill or I just get stuck and lose my momentum and then I drop out. And I’m always very disappointed with myself, but once I’ve fallen behind it’s just too easy to give up entirely and let the month pass along without me…


But not this year!

No, as those of you who have been following this blog for a while know, I have finished drafting out my plan, I’ve tinkered with it until I’m as happy as I can be with it, and now, it is time!

There are no more excuses.

Ch.23 - Plotting for Non-Super Villains
Part 2!

I’ve done all my writing practise drills, I’ve given myself a stern talking to about worrying that I’m a rubbish writer, because after all, everyone’s first draft is terrible, isn’t it? I’ve got my plan, got my favourite mug for tea, I’ve a fully stocked biscuit time waiting for me, and not least, I have all you lovely people too, haven’t I?

So this is me, properly telling you all that I’m doing this. I’ll be updating regularly with little notes about my progress, any stickers they send me, that sort of thing. More importantly, even though I know that I am but one person of many who do this every November, I will feel that you will all be very disappointed in me if I don’t finish this year.

I know my own weaknesses and motivations…

So here goes! Wish me luck!

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

Ghosts and Gowns Icon 4 - Small

Oddities in Oxford Logo- BotGar

Posted in Uncategorized

The Return of the Dragons

Greetings, everyone!

No, you’re not imagining things, I really am back! I missed you all terribly – hopefully one or two of you missed me. Ivan says hi!

Funny thing about Nanowrimo; every year around April-time I sit there thinking ’I don’t need to do Nanowrimo this year, I can tell myself to write at any time.’ And then whenever October starts flying by, and the nights draw in, and I just want to sit down with books and blankets, and I lose all motivation, up comes Nanowrimo to sit me down, give me a talking to and pull me back to my keyboard. Once again, Nanowrimo, you have been the encouragement I needed!

Funny thing about hiatuses that I have found, for anyone thinking of trying it: it’s like having a falling out with a friend or something, in that it’s a lot easier to start one than to stop one again. September started and I honestly had no idea how to take up my keyboard and start writing for the blog anymore!

Just something for fellow-first-timers…

Anyway, I’ve had various adventures over the summer, I attended the University of Oxford’s Fantasy Writing Summer School, so I’m all fired up with renewed vigour and enthusiasm! There’s something about having to discuss other people’s fantasy writing, their methods, themes and contexts that really helped me get some of my more nebulous thinking into better focus, so in the next few weeks there will be a whole load of posts on various topics which I hope will prove to be interesting and helpful to some of you.

I’ve also taken the time to read through some of my old writing – always a dangerous occupation, that – and had a complete crisis about the world and stories I’ve been building (more on that later!) So it’s been eventful in the same way that the Chinese proverb speaks of ‘Interesting Times’, I’m afraid! I’ve been picking myself up from that huge knock to my confidence and trying to find some way to get whatever writing mojo I possess back ever since.

Of course, Ivan has not been idle either (well, by dragon standards anyway…) and some of the more dragon-ish adventures he’s been having will be published as Postcards from a Tiny Dragon. (Coming Soon)

So, watch this space for the quandaries of writing, thoughts on themes, and the usual general silliness!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

How to Build your Fairy City

Or: What Your Building Can Say About You…

Updated with images – 29/01/18

So I’d like to start this post with a special dedication to all my friends who live with me and my writing. Friends are the un-celebrated support network behind any artist or writer and we just don’t give them enough thanks!

This post was born out of the following, I swear I’m not making this up, real-life conversation:

Me: Hey, I’ve just had a thought

Friend: What?

Me: What are fairy cities like? What do they look like?

Friend: …

Me: I mean, do they have large cities? Do fairies have a social structure that would support that? Because they seem like they’d be ‘Bigger Is Better’ people-

Friend: … Cameron…

Me: – but they also seem to have a pretty feudal society and that only really allows for kind of small ones. And would they be too territorial for close-quarters living?

Me: And what do the buildings even look like? Do you think they’d be all tall and ethereal? Or one story high and made out of sturdy rocks? Like super-defensive?

Friend: …It’s gone midnight, Cameron. Talk to me later, yeah?

To all of my friends who bear with my madness; your patience is noted and appreciated. I thank you all.

Ch.7 - Fairy Cities - small

Anyway, this post is going to look at world-building from one very specific direction; choosing a specific end result – in this case the final ‘look’ of Tir Na Nog’s cities – and working backwards to figure out what would need to exist to allow this to happen.

I’m a big believer in looking at a lot of different approaches to world-building, and trying out all of them. Even if you find this helpful, please don’t feel like you need to use this for everything you go on to build or indeed feel like it should work in all scenarios, because it probably won’t. Different approaches force you to ask different questions and that’s what’s fantastic about world-building. Go crazy and try everything you can get your hands on! The end result will be much better!

Why Think About Cities This Much?

So, Cameron, why are you giving any though to what the cities of the fairies look like?

I hear you ask.

Well, fantasy fiction has historically had a bit of a leery relationship with the idea of cities. They tend to feature cities as far off in the distance, mentioned and referenced maybe but only entered, if ever, during a fraught quest or at the climax. (Also, is it just me that keeps finding cities as being almost exclusively where The Bad Guy™ lives, rather than normal places of normal people with lives and businesses?) So the focus is never on the city itself as a functioning population hub but as the place where the action happens. And for good reason.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Fantasy tends to really like to base itself in medieval feudal societies and they don’t have the sort of social structure to maintain big cities like the modern world does. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t cities, but by our standards they’d be pretty small, and they are rare and they usually are the result of very specific factors coming together, like the joining of two or more main roads, or a crossing place on a river…

Mostly the population lived in smaller towns and villages; the larger your settlement is, then the more people living in it, and the more food it needs to keep going. Since the middle of a settlement is not where the good agricultural activity is, that means that the ‘hinterland’ (the land which is essentially there specifically to feed the town) gets larger too, but now the distance food has to travel from the outskirts of that hinterland inwards is larger, and after a while it’s not worth it. Pre-industrialisation, goods just take a lot longer to move than we can easily conceive of now – a horse and cart laden down with food can travel around 12 miles in a day, according to my research, assuming that there aren’t highwaymen or robbers or flooding…

Sarlat Périgord Foie Gras, Sarlat-la-Canéda, France. Photo by Tom Parkes on Unsplash

Plus, once you get a lot of people into a single area, you need to keep the peace between them, dispense justice, collect revenue to keep the public buildings and infrastructure maintained and pay the people who are keeping that peace I just mentioned. It’s a lot more complicated than just shoving people together and calling it a city. There’s hierarchies to sort out and maintain and differentiate. The priorities of the society will shape the city’s major centres – hospitals, libraries and universities, banks and markets, churches and temples, public parks, etc. Trade routes to be established so goods can come in and out, and industrial areas to develop and spread. And then of course cultures change and develop…

No, wait! Don’t panic! I know it sounds complicated but that’s not really a bad thing! You’re a writer after all! You get to be the boss of this world, and you get to make those decisions now! Just be aware that you might need to think about these things if you want to go into detail.

It’s worth stressing at this point that some writers do not go into detail, and that’s not necessarily going to impede your narrative at all.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has the Fellowship rest at the city of Caras Galadhon, the largest city of Lothlórien. What do we know about it? Well, it’s built up in the massive mallorn trees, on platforms connected by stairways and ladders, and it’s lit by “many lamps”. That’s not a whole lot of description of a major city. We get some highlights of important places; the fountain, the mirror of Galadriel and there’s a palace that Galadriel and Celeborn live in, but none of them are described in that much detail. And did that affect the plot at all? Nope!

So please don’t read this post and panic because you haven’t really described your city (if you have one). Especially if the plot is just glancing through it, the city doesn’t have to matter all that much. Books are there to tell stories with words, they aren’t a visual medium like comics or film where designing a set is vital for the whole narrative to work.

I personally made the decision to tackle the idea of fairy cities. I haven’t read about a lot of them and I really wanted to take the opportunity to really think one out. I like a challenge and it’s something that is potentially distinctive in my writing. I don’t even know if they are going to be a major feature, but I know I want to give them a try. I want to see how the cities built by fairies – who are not and never have been human and who have had very limited and mostly rural experiences with humans – would be different from our own. I wanted to experiment to see how their political structures would affect their physical surroundings. What would be the same and what would be alien to us?

You will have your own ideas which are different and unique and you’ll want to play to those strengths.

What Buildings have to do with People?

OK, so architecture says a lot about the people who built it. It says a lot to those people as well, actually. Before the rise of literacy among the general population in Europe, architecture was the main way that ideas and concepts could be spread to the masses.

Church of Saint-Pierre, Caen, France. Photo by Thomas Millot on Unsplash

There’s a reason that the Catholic Church built those huge cathedrals with their stained glass windows depicting Biblical scenes and lessons, and (pre-Reformation times) were decorated inside and out with painted statues and huge murals also depicting important stories and ideas: Heaven, Hell, Saints and Angels protecting the innocent and punishing the wicked, Devils are bad and do bad things, what the major sins are and what happens to those who succumb to temptation.

You get the idea.

Also buildings reflect the changing power dynamics and attitudes of societies too.

This bit is grossly over-simplified, I’m sorry, and I should stress that I am not a qualified architectural historian or anything of the kind!

The Renaissance saw a revival of what became known as the Neo-Classical style of architecture, which reflected the period’s renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture, ideas and society. The ‘Middle Ages’ (as they were now called, since people had clearly lived beyond that age and into a new one) were despised as the ‘Dark Ages’, a time without all this clearly superior Classical literature and scholarship of science. The backlash to that dismissal was then seen in the rise of the Neo-Gothic architecture of the Later Victorian Era (timings approximate) where the revival of medieval ‘gothic’ architecture was used to celebrate the poetically reimagined vision of the Middle Ages as a more exciting and untamed era of adventure and great deeds – just as the Europeans imagined their own actions and innovations to be; exploring new lands and conquering mountains, seas and desserts instead of dragons and griffins.

What I’m building up to here is the idea that architecture is a reflection of the people who design it, and therefore these two things need to match. If you give me a peace-loving society with no recent conflicts, but everyone lives in well-built and defensive castles and fortified towns, I’m going to have some serious questions. Which could be answered with something interesting like ‘There was a war recently and no one wants to talk about it, but that’s why they love peace so much’ or ‘The masses are told that they are a peaceful nation, but the Powers That Be are war-lords and are preparing for a terrible war.’

See? Inconsistencies can add up to fascinating world-building on their own. A war-faring culture that lives in undefended settlements might simply be terrifyingly good warriors, like the Spartans who had no walls to defend their towns because their army was amazingly effective.

So about these Fairies?

OK, so I always say this: When you sit down to do some world-building, start with what you already know, then work out from that. This approach has never let me down, because I stop focussing on the things I haven’t worked out and start focussing on all the things I’ve already figured out, which is both more positive for me as a person, and means I’m not figuratively looking at a blank page, but at a puzzle piece which just has some gaps in it. (Sometimes big gaps, but they’re still just gaps, right?)

What did my image of my fairies tell me?

My version of fairies are based on the Early Medieval folktales’ version; not demigods like the pagan Celtic peoples knew them (Tuatha Dé Danann), but more powerful and interesting than the little house spirits the Church would make them into by the time of Shakespeare (he describes them as being small enough to hide inside acorns when frightened). The best concise description I have ever found for fairies as I pictured them comes from (who else?) Terry Pratchett, in Lords and Ladies:

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.

That’s it, that’s it right there! Those are my fairies! Beautiful but cruel, interested in beautiful things but not with lives, covetous and jealous and magical. That old phrase about a person who could “kill you or kiss you”? Those are my fairies.

I knew that they would have an elf king and a fairy queen, that each ruler had their own distinct court; so they’d need palaces. I knew that they liked music and dance for the sounds and the colour and the movement, that they liked theatre and the inherent falseness of the magic of the stage; so they’d have large public venues to enjoy them in. I knew that they would have big parties to celebrate and show off in, so some big open spaces to “dance upon the green” would need to be incorporated.

But there’s another side I needed to conceive of. I knew that all the glitter of my fairies would be – not hiding exactly, but definitely distracting from – another, darker set of priorities. I knew that they would collect lives like some people today collect action figures – to be kept on a shelf and displayed for pleasure but never ever used. That they would consume more than mere food, and that they would barter in dark secrets and blood-stained memories. I knew that they would craft beautiful artworks and terrible weapons in the same shops, and sell lucky potions and deadly poisons in the same markets, and not always tell you which it was you were buying, because they’d get a kick out of watching you take a gamble with your own life and lose.

So now I needed to think about what aesthetic best fitted that sort of culture.

So About Those Cities?

These days with the wonders of the internet, whenever I need to find a specific ‘look’ to fit an amorphous concept, I use Pinterest, but any other way you have for finding lots of images will work just as well! Go forth, scramble around and collect every single imagine that strikes you as fitting. They don’t have to match, they don’t have to be exactly fitting. You’ll go through them later and throw out the ones that don’t work anymore, or find patterns you didn’t even realise you were tracing out in these little snippets.

I have a whole set of photos cut out of old magazines at home which are literally just windows and doors and I am reliably informed that they have no visible common aesthetic at all. They do. They are the doors I think belong in a character’s house, which is large and has a lot of different types of rooms, like any large old house, and it was only later that I realised that they were also the doors into different realities…

Anyway, I went away and looked at lots of pictures of buildings. Lots of them. And finally I found something that really worked for these fairies: Gothic Architecture! … Sort of…

Looks absolutely beautiful, doesn’t it? Like they made it out of sugar paste instead of stonework… Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

So, if you’ve ever been inside a Gothic cathedral the first thing you’ll probably have been struck by is all those massive windows. They’re huge and (or at least they were) filled with coloured glass, and they have these amazing spiders’ web of stone and lead running between all these pieces?  I’m fascinated by Gothic stained glass windows, they’re just so pretty…

But the thing is, Gothic architecture can be beautiful and romantic and intricate and absolutely full of tiny details and little carvings that just add so much… but they are also really sinister too. At least to me. Like, there’s a reason why Gothic architecture is associated with vampires and evil spirits and malevolent magics too. Those walls are really tall, and they just loom over you, and all the angles come to sharp points of stone that catch the light and throw claw-like shadows everywhere, and the halls are full of these statues that may or may not be watching you, right? I love visiting old cathedrals, but sacred ground or not, you will never pay me enough to stay inside one overnight. Nope, not happening! Nuh-uh.

Looks much more sinister in black-and-white with a bit of fog though, huh? Photo by Linnea Sandbakk on Unsplash

So I started to imagine an entire city based off of the sort of design that went into a Gothic Cathedral. All that grand sense of height and looming presence, filled all over with stained glass caught up in these intricate webs of silver-lead and impossibly fine stone, throwing glittering points of coloured light everywhere. All those sharp-edged columns and pointed arches upon arches to build a ceiling like a ribcage over top of huge, echoing, cavernous halls. Lots of wide spaces, yes, but lots of twisted shadows too, that you aren’t sure are occupied or not…

And like the real cities of old, lots of hungry people living tightly together with not much food… and there you are, all alone…

Thanks for reading this post, I know fantasy architecture is a weird topic! 

If you liked this and found it helpful, check out the rest of the series here.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Why Even The Villains Should Have Rules…

Greetings, Everyone! Sorry for the disappearance last week, but we’re back and running to the usual schedule now…

Nanowrimo continues in its quest to challenge writers’ block, sanity and how well you can type with one hand while you eat/drink/brush your teeth with the other. (That’s not just me right? Please tell me that’s not just me!) How are you all doing? I have been sadly running behind, but never mind! There’s a whole half of a month left to go!

Ch.6 - Why the Villains should have Rules - small


So I’m afraid that I start this week with a confession; this wasn’t what I was going to write about at all. I was going to talk about how I went about figuring out what fairy cities looked like, which I suppose is going to be posted next week. It was a masterpiece of literature-related insight and theory, I promise!

I’ve been doing a lot of outlining for the book at the moment and I realised that an idea had solidified and started to become incorporated into everything I was writing without me really noticing or looking at it, and so that’s what I’m talking about this week; What Rules do the Villains Live By? And, just as importantly; Why should Villains have Rules in the first place?

So there’s been a huge movement in the last few decades towards having sympathetic, relatable villains. Villains are given backstories and relatable motivations and I’m really enjoying where various creators have taken us.

Of course it’s not completely new as an idea – writers have been exploring how monsters are created for time out of mind; some famous examples would be Frankenstein and his monster, or even Paradise Lost. But there have been some really interesting moments recently which I seem to have subconsciously nabbed for mine own and, having realised that I had unconsciously developed and started implementing an idea, I went back to try and work out where that idea might have come from and why I found it so appealing.

By the way, let me know in the comments if you’ve got a similar experience to this? Where you suddenly realise you’ve made a decision while you were working on something else and now its woven right into your work seemingly without your own permission? That can’t just be me that has happened to…

So there are two problems with creating a modern villain; you need to make them relatable, and also make them intimidating. These two things don’t always sit very easily together, which can be an interesting conflict for either the character, the audience or both. That’s the genius of some of the best villains and monsters ever written.

Now I should say that you do not need to have both in one villain, and some very memorable characters are not:

The Step-Mother in Disney’s animated Cinderella is terrifying to me, but I don’t relate to her at all: why does she hate her step-daughter so much? No idea. Why is she so cruel? Never explained. But I find her terrifying precisely because I don’t have answers to these questions. She’s an unknown quantity all the way through the film.

By contrast, I really do sort of relate to the character of Erik Lehnsherr, or Magneto, from some versions of X-Men. I’m not saying I agree with his goals, or his actions, but I know a lot about his life to empathise with. I know that he lost his Jewish parents to the Holocaust, his daughter was burned alive in their house by a French mob who didn’t like her being half-Romani, and so I understand why he might, on facing yet another majority decision that his minority people need to be taken down as a threat, decide that this is the end of all his patience. He’s not going to allow this to happen, no matter what. I can relate to that, on some level. The downside is that I don’t find Magneto to be a very frightening villain, and in the films he is indeed usually over-shadowed by a more present threat for what is likely the same reason. I know he’s dangerous, but he’s mostly just a frightened, emotionally- and physically-scarred man who just wants himself and his loved ones to be safe from present and future threats, and that’s too easy to understand to be intimidating to me.

But as previously mentioned, I believe that the very best villains and monsters are the ones with a bit of both in them. They are both relatable and unknowable, and therefore they constantly throw you off-balance as an audience. You don’t know which side of them you’ll be encountering next and therefore you can’t prepare for either. Let’s take two not-so-recent popular examples: Loki from The Avengers and the Joker from The Dark Knight.

Loki is very familiar to the audience; we’ve seen him before in Thor, we know that he’s the spurned younger son trying to get his father to notice and approve of him, trying and failing until finally he despaired and both figuratively and literally fell to the Dark Side (yes, I know I’m mixing fandoms, I do that.)

Now, I know that none of us have fallen from the Bifröst, but Loki’s story is still pretty relatable. I think most of us have experienced something similar (on a smaller scale, of course) either with our own parents if we have siblings or in friendship groups or at work, just some setting where we always feel that we are being constantly overlooked in favour of people who are more… eye-catching in some way. More popular than us, even if they aren’t actually ‘better’. Tone down the scale of the drama, and this exchange from the Avengers may sound pretty familiar to plenty of people:

Thor: We were raised together, we played together, we fought together. Do you remember none of that?
Loki: I remember a shadow, living in the shade of your greatness. I remember you tossing me into an abyss, I who was and should be king!

For this reason, lots of people really related to Loki as a character, even if he was technically the villain. We understood where he was coming from.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, on the other hand, is a complete unknown. We don’t know where he came from, or what he went through to give him this outlook on life. Did he have friends that he lost, did he lose his family? Did he kill his own family? In The Dark Knight, the Joker has even been written to play up this aspect, by having him give two completely different but equally unsettling ‘explanations’ about the origins of his most distinctive features: those scars. Which one is true? Who knows! Is either of them true? No idea! It’s actually a clever trick that I’ll be coming back to later, because you think for a moment that you’ve been given some answers about him, some information about the Joker’s life that you can relate to:

Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was a drinker and a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So – me watching – he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it! Turns to me, and he says, “Why so serious, son?” Comes at me with the knife… “Why so serious?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face!” And… why so serious?

But later, when the Joker is speaking to another character, he starts the story the same way and you think to yourself for an instant, ‘Really, Nolan? You’re just going to repeat yourself?’ and then:

Oh, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got ’em? Come here, look at me. So, I had a wife, who was beautiful, like you, who tells me I worry too much, who tells me I oughta smile more, who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day they carve her face, and we got no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. Hmm? I just wanted to let her know that I don’t care about the scars. So, I stick a razor in my mouth and do this… to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me! She leaves! Now I see the funny side. Now, I’m always smiling!

So you now know that neither of these stories is reliable. Blast everything! You’ve been given one tiny bit of information, and now you realise it might be a complete lie. There’s absolutely no steady ground, nothing to relate to, because you can’t trust anything you’re told. So you can’t necessarily relate to the Joker because you don’t know anything about him from before he starts hurting and killing people, but you can find him utterly terrifying for that exact reason.

But now here’s the fun bit; both of these characters also have mixtures of the opposite element mixed into them, this is why they are really good villain characters. Loki has been tortured and has tortured himself to the brink of insanity, so you can’t guarantee what he’s going to do next. Yes, he might be relatable, but he’s not predictable. He’s just far enough off-balance that he’s still a hell of a threatening presence.

The Joker is unknowable as a person, but he’s pretty clear about his goals; he wants to watch the world burn, he is a force of chaos. A friend of mine had a home-made poster for years on his wall which read:

‘All my life I wondered to myself what would happen if I set that building on fire. As I grow up I find that the answer is always: It will be on fire.’

Going from this, I’m going to take a punt and suggest that some people have at least some understanding of the Joker’s perspective? Except most of us don’t actually act on it, right? Right?

So this was a long and involved way to build up to my main point for this post: if possible, villains should be both relatable and unknown the later making them intimidating because millions of years of evolution has taught humans that the unknown is scary and dangerous. Got that? Right, let us now move on to talking about how and why having some clear rules help us…

The whole point of my books is that there are human characters and folkloric characters mixed together and that they have got to relate to each other and either conflict or work with each other. The problem I faced with my cast of non-human characters was that they needed to be both relatable enough to draw the reader in and alien enough that you’d never for one minute forget that these beings are not and never have been human. They do not see the world like humans do, they don’t value the same things we do. Where we generally see babies and children as vulnerable and therefore something to be protected, most Fey characters would see a human child as vulnerable and therefore worthless except as food or sport. Where we may think of certain things as valuable and worth trading for safety (things like friendship for example), the Fey may see those things as worthless. Things they value we may see as pointless, and therefore could risk insulting them.

So the idea which I have just realised has sneaked into my plot outline and fixed itself right into the foundation of my world was this: The Rule of Fair Warning.

I have a sister, and when we were younger we would play together. And inevitably these games weren’t always happy. And I remember that we had a weird and dubious unspoken arrangement that so long as you warned the other sibling that if they didn’t stop doing something annoying you’d push them over or throw something at them, it didn’t count when they kept doing the thing and you did indeed throw something at them. It was a concept with a lot of connections to the ‘They were asking for it!’ line of defence also commonly used in playgrounds.

Strangely, our parents did not agree with this sentiment.

I wonder why.

Anyway, I realised that all of my Fey characters, regardless of what country and customs they came from all had the same idea: you could attack and eat someone provided that you warned them fairly. So long as you warned another character that if they didn’t stop some action you would wipe them off the face of the earth, it didn’t count.

Essentially it boiled down to: what if those childhood rules really did exist and genuinely powerful people actually lived by them? What if the law upheld them?

It’s pretty closely related to another idea which is more widely seen especially in fantasy fiction, especially from villainous henchmen: The Sporting Chance. You let the hunted character (usually the hero) have just a hint of a chance of getting away and this improves the feeling for the henchman when he catches and kills them … in theory. As previously noted, the hunted is usually the hero, so for narrative reasons he actually does use the chance to get away.

The reason I decided to keep this idea, and the reason I think it works so well is related to a different set of established villains you already know: the Pirates of the Caribbean in The Curse of the Black Pearl. In this film, the pirates are introduced as being so evil they are hanged on capture, and you see a ship which has obviously just been attacked by pirates, it’s burning and there’s only one survivor – a small boy called Will Turner. OK, so pirates are scary and bad, sounds simple enough. Then later on the pirates from the Black Pearl attack the port-town, and they terrify everyone, kill people, steal things, set building on fire, attack women. Yep, pirates are scary and they don’t seem to be easy to stop because they come quickly and leave just as fast.

Then Elizabeth’s character, on being cornered by some pirates, demands ‘parley’, citing the Code of the Order of the Brethern, and the pirates follow it. Suddenly even if we still know that the pirates are a threat, they have become a rational force which has rules – you just have to follow the rules and you’ll be fine.

However, then Elizabeth pushes her luck a bit and tries to use the Pirates’ Code as leverage again, and this time it doesn’t work: the pirates refuse to take Elizabeth back to her home, and kidnap her instead. When Elizabeth objects Captain Barbossa says this:

First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.

Suddenly and for the rest of the film you are always at least a little wary of the pirates, even before you find out that they are really undead zombie pirates. Is there a rule for this? Will the devil be in the details of an agreement? ARE the pirates even going to follow the rules if the answer to the above questions is ‘yes’? We see pirate characters adopting the code;

Jack Sparrow: Keep to the Code. [Any man who falls behind is left behind]
Joshamee Gibbs: (Doubtfully) Aye, the Code.

But we also see them abandon it. Multiple times. It comes up constantly as a reference to a universal set of laws for these lawless characters, but at no point are you certain that it will save the day.

That’s what I wanted for my books; a set of rules which everyone in Fey knows, regardless of their individual country, so they can interact together in a common understanding. I wanted a sense that they all took this set of rules for granted as something they expected everyone, even the humans, to know and understand. The safety of knowing even in this strange world of magic, where the human rules don’t apply, there are rules already set up.

But I also wanted the fear of uncertainty. What counts as ‘Fair Warning’ after all? A few seconds’ head-start? A few weeks? Would it actually warn you enough to avoid some terrible fate, or basically just tell you enough to know that it’s coming? And of course, what if the character you fear refuses to follow this rule at all? What if the rules fail you?

This last is a relatable fear in its own right of course. Humans have thousands of laws designed to help us lead peaceful and non-violent lives. We have local by-laws which only apply to the specific place we live in, national laws which won’t apply when we move to live on another continent (not that we always remember this), and international laws which can either apply across a few countries or (hopefully) over ALL countries everywhere. But what happens when someone isn’t following the same laws that we are? And that’s a very adult and relatable fear. Just like the Joker is a threat to Batman because he is simply not following the same rules, what if WE are facing up against someone who is not playing the same game as us?

Imagine a creature which comes in the night and says ‘Let’s play a little game… except I’m not going to be playing the same game you are… So good luck winning…’

Scared yet? Let’s hope you will be!

Found this interesting or helpful? Or both? Try out the rest of the series here. 

You can find my thoughts on how on earth you pick out names for your characters, why you should have limitations built-in to your worlds and why world-building even matters at all.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

The Power of Names

So October is behind us and November looms into view. For those following Nanowrimo this month, I wish you the best of luck – make sure that you have fun with it! Hopefully this post and its brethren will be of some assistance, even in a small way.

Currently the plan is to publish more Chronicles in Creation this month, but if a spectacular spectral story comes to me, I’ll go for it!

Ch.5 The Power of Names -small

Names are important. They are our first foundations towards building our own identities and form an impression of us in the minds of those who meet us. ‘Oh, you don’t look like I imagined,’ is a common phrase because we associate both appearances, mannerisms and characteristics with certain names and not with others.

Think back to when JK Rowling introduced Seamus Finnegan? You didn’t need her to tell you that Seamus was Irish, did you? You can’t really get a more Irish name. So just by introducing him, JK Rowling told us two things; his name and his heritage.

Of course, like all aspects of life, writers can choose to play with these assumptions. In fact my favourite quotes about naming people from (who else?) Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in Good Omens does this especially well:

[Mr Young] stared down at the golden curls of the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness.

“You know,” he concluded, after a while, “I think he actually looks like an Adam.”

This would probably also be the moment to give a shout-out to what I would like to put forward as the oldest running-joke in English Literature; Robin Hood’s right-hand man, a giant bear of a man by the name of John Little and lovingly referred to by everyone as Little John. This joke has been going now for around 800 years, and it still makes the children I tell stories to laugh.

Now I, personally, am incredibly bad at naming things by nature. No, I mean seriously bad. When I was a child I had two knitted toys, one a girl and one a boy. What were their names? No. They were called Girl and Boy. The stuffed duck was called Duck, and the rabbit? Yes, it was indeed called Rabbit.

This is why no one asks me for name suggestions when they are expecting children…

And delightfully meta as naming all my characters things like Hero, Side-kick, Evil Minion might be, that’s not really a long-term option for a writer, is it? So clearly once I had started writing I needed to be able to crack a system for naming my characters, and fast.

Because we live in an age where aspiring writers know a whole lot more than we used to about how the successful people chose their iconic character names, it is clear that there are a whole cornucopia of ways and as always you need to find what works for you. JK Rowling chose the names for Snape and the Dursleys by finding the actual places of those names on a map and finding them to sound exactly as unpleasant as she wanted the characters to be. James Bond was so-named by Ian Fleming to be a name that was so utterly bland and boring that it would be a great contrast to the amazing things the character then went on to do, so much so that the name James Bond is synonymous with cool but there we go…

What I found worked for me was, if I were to be really honest with you, essentially the same method that I used back when I was a child. No don’t panic! I didn’t really call the pixie ‘Pixie’ or anything awful like that!

Whenever I needed to name a character I would write down what I felt where their defining characteristics. If they were a very small character they could usually be defined by physical traits, and if the plot was going to spend more time with them then I would focus on personality. Were they tall? Did they have blond hair? Did they laugh a lot, or were they kind of miserable?

Then I would go looking for names with meaning which matched some or all of these traits. So, if one of my main characters who had a very active role in the plot had red hair, then I might call them Clancy, which is Irish for ‘red headed warrior’. If they were a really cheerful character, I might call them Abigail meaning ‘gives joy’. Sometimes the link was less literal; one minor character who was notably tall was called Edward after Edward I, buried in my neck-of-the-woods, and known in his day as ‘Edward Longshanks’ because by the standards of the time he was ridiculously tall.

I do at this point have to say that this idea has a long and proud heritage in how people have received names throughout history. For the longest time families either didn’t name their children at all until they’d lived long enough (say seven years old) for it to be likely they’d make it to adulthood. It was seen as a waste of a name to use it on someone who’d only wear it for one or two years and then die. Infant mortality shaped family relations in a way it’s hard to fathom today, because we currently live in an age where mothers have something of a right to expect that on giving birth to three children, she will have three adult children eighteen years later. Back in the not-so-distant past, mothers weren’t seen as having a right to expect that even one of those three children would make it, and would have to give birth to maybe seven children to enjoy that same security.

What I’m building up to is that we currently name children based on things like, family names and what characteristics we hope our children will grow up to be. But when you are naming your children at seven years old, you can name them for the person they are already showing signs of being. Are they brave? Quiet? Do they seem to be naturally cowardly? Are they good with words, and you know this because they always seem to talk their way out of trouble?

This then ties into an older naming technique; Deed-names. This gets used a lot these days in fantasy writing, and I can see why, but it’s based back in times when names had real power and weight behind them, and weren’t that thing you gave so you could get your Starbucks order. Just really quickly we’re going to look at how names having power manifests, because if you want your names to be important to the plot in some way, then these ones have stood the test of time and been focus-grouped:

Middle Names – So way-back-when, it was thought that if someone knew your whole name, or True Name, then they could command you through magic and you had to do whatever they said. This is why parents would give their children a middle name, yet you would only give out to others your first name and your family name; Cameron Graham for example. Therefore you can now function properly in society, because people have a name to call you by and sign you up for things with and whatnot, but they can never have the ultimate control over you from having your full name.

Names as After-life – This is another ancient belief that has a longer-lasting influence than you might think. We don’t know a lot about Germanic Paganism, because theirs was not a literate society and the only things that have survived were written by Christians (otherwise known as the people on the other side of the struggle.) As such there are some massive, massive gaps in our knowledge, but we do know that the pagan celtic peoples tended towards a belief that a man was never truly dead so long as his name was still spoken. The biggest fear was that you would just be totally and utterly forgotten in a generation after your death. This engenders BIG personalities that make it into myths and legends and that’s one of the reasons why everyone is such a larger-than-life presence, whether as villains or heroes. You go big or you go home. Say what you like about Grendel from Beowulf; he’s the villain but we remember him!

Deed-Names – We’re back to this now. These are related to the point above; how are you remembered? Deed-names are connected to actual actions the owner has performed. They can’t usually be handed down like family names,* they are individually earned and lost. They are also usually given to you by others, so it’s tied in to how other people see you; Bert the Smelly is not the name of a well-regarded person, but it is seen as highly suspicious to give yourself a deed-name; the equivalent of someone telling you out of nowhere that they are really a great guy. You don’t get to make up a deed-name any more than you get to make up a whole set of amazing victories for yourself.

(*Profession-based names like ‘Smith’ or ‘Potter’ do get handed down, yes, but they seem to do so initially because the family business gets passed down with them.)

If your character is called Magnus Dragon-Slayer, he has absolutely got to have killed a dragon. Stephan King-Slayer? Yes, it is indeed absolutely compulsory that he has killed a ruling king at some point, and all we have to work out is if this was seen as a good or bad thing. This idea is pretty strange in modern-day society, partly because we achieve our goals more often as a collaborative effort, and because reputations don’t have the kind of intrinsic worth that they once had, and this is why when deed-names come up in something not set in a legendary past of dragons and monsters, such as science-fiction, it’s played for laughs.

The Tenth Doctor in The Sontaran Strategem meets a character called Staal the Undefeated, and he mocks him for the name.

Ah, that’s not a very good nickname. What if you do get defeated? “Staal the Not-Quite-So-Undefeated Anymore But Nevermind.”

The reason, when I first saw this joke, I found it uncomfortable is that this isn’t how it works! If Staal the Undefeated gets defeated he is simply called Staal. He has lost his deed-name and thus his identity. To have a name like ‘the Undefeated’ is certainly a huge act of confidence, but it’s also easily lost and with it Staal would lose absolutely everything. ‘Staal the Potter’ would always be a potter; that can’t be taken away. But ‘Staal the Undefeated’ only really exists until the day when he is defeated, at which point he no longer really exists at all. If used traditionally, the name also implies that the only way he would lose his title of ‘the Undefeated’ when someone killed him. It’s a big deal!

If you’re not sure of this weight of that loss, think back to Jaime Lannister after he loses his hand. What was his response to losing, proportionally, one small body part? “I was that hand.” When he loses the hand, Jamie has to create a totally new identity for himself – it was his only option other than death. Names and identities are very closely intertwined, and identities matter a lot, especially for characters which the audience is expected to remember and relate to.

Now I was lucky enough to be saved from needing to name a whole swathe of my characters because my stories were based in British folklore, and therefore major characters already had names! Mwahahaha!

The queen of the fairies already had a name – actually the queen of the fairies has several names depending on the area you are collecting these stories from; Maeve, Titania, etc. Whenever that happened I picked the one I felt matched the tone I was going for – in this case Maeve – because the whole point of the stories was to present these icons of British Folklore as if they were real people, with real lives. I just can’t picture a real person called Titania. It sounds like the name given to a character to show that they are mysterious and exotic. Maeve is a real-person name; lots of women in Ireland and other Gaelic communities are called Maeve, and she just sounds more tangible. Maeve is the name of someone with her own personal concerns and worries who has to eat and get dressed and think about laundry.

In the event that you are reading this blog and thinking to yourself ‘This sounds like a great idea’, then first, thank you, that’s very kind, and secondly, here’s a couple of things to consider:

  1. I know that the internet is a great source of this kind of information with the ability to search for names really quickly, but I really do recommend that you go to a charity/thrift shop and invest in a few physical books. The older the better. You’ll get much more information on the origins of names than is generally kept on websites and this will save you from needing to cross-reference so much;
  2. Related to the last point; think about what area, geographically, your characters are from, and where the story takes place (especially if these are different). Try and match the general place of origin for the name to the origin of the character. For example; I could have named my red-headed character Alani which is Hawaiian for ‘orange tree’, and that’s a really pretty name, but my story takes place in the British Isles, and a Hawaiian name would might stand out as odd. Which brings us to the next point;
  3. Think about using your names to tell us about your character straight out of the gate. My red-headed character, for instance, would be fine with a Hawaiian name in a sea of Saxon names during the 18th century if I wanted that character to stand out as a well-travelled character from far-off lands; it automatically marks them as different, it isolates them clearly even without a physical description of colouring or dress-style. This brings us to one last factor;
  4. Time Period. In the modern era, with people and ideas moving around the globe all the time; names have travelled too. Parents no longer pass family names down to their children as a matter of course, and many try to find names which are distinct and original. If your story takes place in a metropolitan city in the twenty-first century, use whatever names you like. Sure if you have a character named something really unusual this might be remarked upon, but that’s no reason not to go for it. By contrast, I know your Roman soldier came from Greece originally, but maybe don’t call him Stephen, ok? It may stand out, is what I’m sayin’.

Writers are like parents – you need to think about your characters’ names. There’s lots to think about, and I’m not saying you need to give the same in-depth thought to all of your character names, by any means. But I do recommend that you put some thought into all of them.

Back in the day, people were given names by strangers because they were loath to tell just anyone their actual names, because it was said that you could be commanded through magic if a wizard knew your real name, your true name. Names have power. Writers are the wizards of today; you have great power over your characters. Use it well.

Interested in this post? Look up the rest of the Chronicles in Creation series here.