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.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Building Rules and Breaking Them

Common consensus about anything is a rare thing, especially since the dawn of the internet, but if there is one thing that writers all seem to love about writing it is this: They love the endless possibilities and the way they can do whatever they want with the places and people they create.

Need to commit a few murders but it is irritatingly illegal in the real world? Make up some characters you don’t like much, murder them in horrible, horrible ways and you’ve got yourself some great free therapy right there!

Wish you could have a fabulous and glamorous job? Write a character who does!

Want superpowers, or to be around super-villains? Boom! Create your very own and make them go off and have wacky adventures!

I myself have only made it through some days at work by imagining in great and graphic detail how I would go about turning some of my co-workers into frogs.

I may or may not be weird. It’s a possibility.

Anyway! So the point we’re looking at today is that writing is a place where anything is possible…

…or is it?

Ch.4 Building Rules and Breaking Them - small

So the focus this week is two-fold: Plausibility and Narrative Tension.

First let’s look at Plausibility. In the world we live in, there are literally (and I know what the word means) millions of rules; rules made in law, rules made by religion, rules made by a common consensus of what it means to be a ‘decent human being’, rules made by your family, by your workplace, by your school, by the group of friends you have. Humans like to talk about freedom but we like our rules. I’m sure people with backgrounds in psychology will be able to explain why we like them so much, but empirically if you put two humans or more together they will create a set of rules. I mean, they’ll probably start breaking them instantly but that’s not an exception from these rules at all; it’s part of it. You can’t break rules that don’t exist after all.

In a book that really shows evidence of a well-thought out world with lots of effort going into giving the narrative something solid and tangible to play out its plot in, the setting is there to support the narrative by (ironically) giving it believable constraints and limitations. Not everything should be possible, or we’d have nothing to invest in, to latch onto as relatable from our rule-filled experiences, which is especially true as we get older.

Listen to a child tell you a story and it will probably be filled with an attitude that random things can magically happen for no justified reason. And this will make sense to other children, because in their experience of the world they haven’t found out where the possibilities end and the limitations start. We all know that children like to ask us ‘Why?’ a lot, but it’s always worth remembering that we ask kids to take a lot on faith in their early years. Milk will make you grow tall – really? Is milk magical? Fresh air is good for you to play in, but dirt can make you sick – but they are found together, so how does this work? I volunteer with children, and the intricate explanations that they once gave me me for why people get taller as they get older is still one of the most fascinating and magical ideas I’ve ever heard, and I’m genuinely sad that none of them were true. Especially the one about how we’re all plants who rebelled against the soil years ago and don’t want to admit it, or the one where we get stretched out by goblins in the night…

However the biggest and best part about limitations, at least for a writer, is Narrative Tension.

Here’s a riddle for you: when is a big moment a Big Moment? And how do you know?

The world we live in affects our lives every minute of every day of everyone’s lives and the main effect of this is in our choices. You don’t even notice half of it because we’ve all assimilated the rules of our society so early we forget that there are other options which we naturally don’t choose because it’s Not The Done Thing, and when we do choose to make an alternative choice this is a Big Deal.

Setting up a world with rules and expectations gives your characters’ choices weight and meaning, gives context for why some decisions are hard, but others are not. If the plot takes place in a post-apocalyptic war-zone then killing someone would be an (arguably) easy choice while sparing someone’s life would be harder. They could be an enemy after all, or someone who will take up resources that you cannot spare, thus endangering the lives of others. But if the plot is in a land of peace then those choices are totally reversed. Why on earth would you kill someone, you monster?

But a world with clear rules also implicitly indicates what actions are a struggle and what actions are easy, not only mentally – through choice – but physically. An extreme example would be gravity. Gravity is hard to counter, making flying difficult. Sure, you can get around that by mechanical engineering (if your plot takes place in a time where this is possible) but even then there are limitations such as weight, fuel, weather which can all complicate this solution. The audience knows that flying is difficult, and so while they will accept that it can be done, they will also accept that there are plenty of times when a problem cannot be solved by flight.

But, how does this help you as a writer? Imagine that you need to write a scene and the solution to the problem is that a rescue can only be managed by flight. You bring it up and the audience says ‘oh yeah, that works. Great, everything’s going to be fine here.’ But you need to add extra tension to the scene. It cannot be this simple! So you can say that the weather is too poor for flight and the planes might be dashed against the cliff-side (which being a good writer you have already told the audience is there, yes?) You therefore don’t have to explain any further; the audience will accept this as a valid obstacle and instead of using their energy trying to reconcile a random explanation (think ‘The stars are not yet in alignment and so we dare not fly this day!’) and can instead focus all their thoughts where they should be in this scene; worrying about our protagonists and their rescue-which-cannot-yet-happen.

Fantasy and science-fiction is not exempt from this either, in fact these writers must work even harder to find consistent and believable problems. Because Plausibility and Narrative Tension are separate factors, but they are very much interlinked. If a writer loses control of either of these factors then they lose control of the other.

The main rule for this would be; once you introduce the audience to the idea that something exists, you don’t get to ignore it later for plot-reasons. That’s a common cause for plot holes, when you’ve told an audience that an option to solve the problem the characters are facing is available and then they don’t use it!

You can of course avert this by giving a simple easy to understand reason why this option won’t work. All the problems Harry Potter and his friends are facing in the Deathly Hallows, wouldn’t life have been easier with a Time-Turner or two? Yes, it would, but they all got destroyed in the attack on the Ministry for Magic in The Order of the Phoenix. Boom! That’s why Harry doesn’t immediately just go, grab a time-turner and then set off looking for horcruxes. Right, everything makes sense. Done.

But if you over-use this way to get narrative tension and not make everything too easy, you start to lose plausibility.

Let us at this point take a moment to think of the suffering (self-inflicted, I admit, but still) of the writers for Stargate SG1, back in their first season. Like fools did they establish that their ‘zat guns’ could have the power to make things and people invisible! Sounds like a great idea, and cool for the special effects, really showing off that this is a world of The Future, right? Now we watch and realise their plight, however; every single time they have a situation where it just seems so obvious to use this invisibility-technology, they have to find a good reason not to use it because their plot needed something different! And there were times when you could really see the strain this caused those poor souls!

And as ever, consistency is key! Do not, ever, under any circumstances, hold tightly to a rule you’ve set up in one scene and then abandon it without a word in another, even if you come back to it later. Just like with a friend or parent who treats one person  or child differently to another, your audience will lose all trust in you and the rules you have given them.

However, all is not lost! For there is another way…

Let us now consider the realm of the Not Meant To Be Serious. It is a fine realm and I spend as much time there as I can. Because your setting only has to follow logical rules if your plot is following logical rules!

Let us consider, as another obvious example, The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy.

This plot has absolutely no logic whatsoever, and is not meant to be taken even a little bit seriously. That is its purpose; to be ridiculous and to show that nothing really matters in the end. The characters themselves can be serious, very much so in some cases, but the plot and the setting are not in the slightest and that is where the humour of the whole thing hangs. The result is that the author can absolutely and joyfully get away with saving his heroes from two torpedo missiles by turning them into a whale and a bowl of petunias (this is the earliest joke I ever remember being told and it still makes me laugh).  Did that make sense? I’d say no, but then once you’ve explained how the Infinite Improbability Drive has been invented, I would say that all bets are off… In any other tale this would be madness but in THGTTG it so completely matches the tone that the audience just takes it right in their stride.

So I suppose that’s the crux of the matter; if you want a serious tension-filled plot then you need a serious setting with serious rules that you stick to. If you want a ridiculous plot that knows it’s ridiculous and is entirely unashamed of such, then gleefully fling all logic right out of the window.

There is, I hear tell, a legend of a Middle Ground, but it is very hard to reach; there are no maps to its location; few have ventured to that land and the road is littered with the works of those who sought it and failed. If you, like me, are just starting out, perhaps it is best to play it safe for now…

First experience of Chronicles in Creation? Catch up with the rest of the series here.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Why Setting and Scenery Are Not Synonymous

So last time we talked about why world-building (or setting) is important and we touched on why it’s important to stick to the rules once the narrative has set them up.

This is the second part of setting and its purpose in life, and I’m making it a separate post all on its own because it’s not a problem that normally gets as far as published books or theatrically released films, mostly I think because someone usually spots the obvious issue and cans the proposal. However, the internet in all its unfiltered glory shows that this is something of a problem when people start writing, and from my own experience I know how easy it is to fall into this heffalump-trap, so we’re going to tackle it now.

Ready? OK.

It doesn’t matter how intricate and shiny and wonderful your world/planet/alternative-reality is; if there’s no story to happen in it, no one is interested.

There, I said it.

And I felt like I ought to discuss this now, because most of this series is (probably) going to be about how important it was/is to me to build my world as thoroughly as I can before really getting stuck into writing. And if, like me, you love fantasy worlds, and books about totally alien planets and the possibilities and the creativity and you collect pictures and make collages to capture the aesthetic of certain places and whatnot, then you’ll absolutely understand how tempting it is to try and cram every single tiny detail of this into your novel/film script because you’ve worked so hard on it, and it’s so intricate and awesome and you just want to share it with the world!

And here’s why you have to curb that instinct. No one else is going to care.

Ch.3 Why Setting and Scenery are not Synonymous

OK, so that’s not totally true; people care very deeply about what Hogwarts looks like, and what the uniforms look like (and why the hats disappeared after book 1?) People really care about Middle Earth and the Federation and the Empire, and what does the Enterprise floorplan look like? How do you ask for second-helping of dinner in Romulan and such (or in Kirk’s case, I imagine he’s had to learn how to say ‘Do you happen to have a spare shirt?’ in every language known to the Federation…)

So yes, people could care as deeply about every detail as you do, but the reason people even remember what Middle Earth even is, the reason it ever mattered to them at all, is because it comes attached to this brilliant story about bravery and friendship and Good Vs Evil and all that fun stuff that we’ve always loved to tell stories about.

But no one was ever going to learn Quenya if Tolkien just wrote books about this world he’d made up to fit this language he wrote and how it has awesome buildings and dwarves and elves, and then never had them do anything. Imagine for a second reading the Lord of the Rings, but without the Fellowship actually going off to destroy the One Ring. This is not a good image, is it?

As we discussed last time, Setting supports Plot. It can also in and of itself actually serve the plot and drive it forward just as much as the characters do. The Plot is the bit that everyone remembers (hopefully) but your setting is not just the backdrop against which the plot happens; it is a fully-integrated part of the story. It is not allowed to just sit there and look pretty. It has to do something.

There’s a few ways setting can end up in a narrative, but they generally fall into three main groups:

Scenario 1 – Pointless Detail. More kindly called ‘Giving Flavour’. Imagine that you read an account of a fourteen year-old’s bedroom; what posters are on the walls, what clothes are in the wardrobe, what the ragged old teddy bear looks like, what pattern the curtains are, what colour the carpet and walls are… You get the idea.

Are you interested yet? No. You do not care about this girl’s bedroom even a little, do you? If you as a writer have told me in great detail about this bedroom, but it would have no effect whatsoever if the curtains were different, or the furniture was changed or even gone entirely – why did you tell me about them? If the fact that this girl has held on to this ratty old teddy bear serves no purpose at all, what is that detail doing in your novel?

Now yes, it’s fun to leave little details in your setting which does not get explained or commented on. No one likes being spoon-fed the deep inner meaning of everything. Leave the reader something to work out all on their own, by all means. But that only works if there was a reason that you – yes, you! The writer! – knew why you included it. You needed to be saying something, even if you didn’t highlight it in neon lights. Which brings us nicely on to:

Scenario 2 – Character Study. Otherwise known as; when Setting Supports Character. Imagine, again, that you read an account about a fourteen year-old girl’s bedroom, and you are told, either outright or by implication, that you are never going to meet this girl in-person and must come up with a picture of this girl from what her bedroom looks like. What does she like, what’s stuffed and screwed into a ball at the back of her wardrobe signifying that she doesn’t like it, what has she tucked away carefully out of sight suggesting that it’s secret and important to her, what does she take for granted and not minded that it has been damanged, what has she hung on to for years?

OK, you’re a bit interested now, aren’t you? There’s now a point to this detailed description of what this girl’s bedroom looks like. The setting is serving a purpose, in this case to introduce a character the audience has not seen, and will not meet.

Still, at the end of the day, you’re still stuck looking at this room for someone you have not met and never will, so not too interested, are you? It’s more of a character-study than a plot going on here, and there’s definitely artistic merit with character-studies, but they just don’t get remembered and discussed the way that stories with plots and struggles and stakes get remembered.

Scenario 3 – Setting Supports Plot. The audience is told that a fourteen year-old girl has gone missing and that the clues to this can be found in her bedroom. You get to see what it is like, can make some deductions of your own and get a bit of a picture of her. Then you might see the rest of the house. Is it totally different from her room? Are they very similar on first glance, but then you remember all those things tucked away or treated with disdain? Perhaps the girl doesn’t fit in as well as you might have assumed. Then you meet her family members and her friends and realise that the girl they are describing is utterly different to the girl you have in your mind’s eye. Are they wrong about her? Are you? Are there differing accounts to such an extent that it seems that no one knows this girl very well? Does everyone see a different side of her? Have you seen the ‘real her’, or do you also have a false impression? What is true and false and do you have anything reliable to shed light on this girl’s disappearance?

You’re interested now, aren’t you? We’re still mostly stuck looking at a fourteen year-old girl’s bedroom, but now it has meaning and is integral to the plot. This is why you were shown the room! It’s a setting, but it’s also a plot-point! It is driving the plot forward, and giving you vital information without which the plot will not make sense. This isn’t detail for detail’s sake, you needed to know this.

So yes, build your world as big and intricate as you like (I certainly will!) but remember that what makes the final cut – what jumps over the cutting scissors and is presented to your audience should always, always be the details the audience needs to engage fully and completely with the story you are actually telling them. If the legendary sword never makes an appearance, don’t tell me the legend that goes with it. If the old man int he tavern contributes nothing at all to the scene or the story as a whole, why have I been presented with two pages about him?

Telling an audience a narrative is an act of trust between the writer and the reader; you’re asking them to willingly follow you and promising that there will be a good payoff. Giving them needless information dilutes everything you really needed them to hang on to, and betrays that trust; there was no payoff. There was no point to being told a Thing.

And remember, always remember, what happened to the writer who wrote 200 pages about a forest kingdom and its inner-workings, and its peoples without a character-arch or struggle and resolution or anything else to capture the readers’ interest or emotions?

The publisher and readers got bored and no one read past the second chapter.

Missed the rest of this series? Catch up by following the link here.

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World-Building and Why It Really Does Matter

For anyone joining me here having skipped the Introduction to the Chronicles in Creation; I start this, the most theory-driven part of the series, with the following disclaimer – Please do not mistake me for a Qualified Person who Knows Things.

This and its following two sections are based on my own writing ethos built up over years of reading books, watching film and tv, and writing… well, just generally writing everything I wanted to try out. Like anyone who is self-taught in an area, I have done lots of research, then thought long and hard about why some things work for me and others don’t.

You may feel that what I am about to outline as the theory under-pinning my world-building is flawed or just out-right wrong. You may find that it doesn’t work for you at all. That’s totally fine!

Now I swore when I started this series that I wasn’t going to go on and on into long discussions about what my philosophy on writing was. On the other hand, if you are interested enough to read this series, then I’m sorry but it probably won’t make sense without going through a few basics, the gravel at the bottom of my foundation trenches, one might say, first.

Ch.2 World-Building and Why It Matters - small

So, when I told my friends (who have very patiently been living with me and my stories for far longer than the internet has, poor souls) that I was writing this blog series, the first response that came up several times was, ‘No, don’t give away your plot! You can’t spoiler your novel before you write it!’

Or words to that effect.

Also, can we get a ruling on whether ‘to spoiler’ has become a verb yet?

Now of course world-building (or setting as we’re calling it from now on for ease) and plot have plenty to do with each other but they are also not interchangeable. I know that the plot is the part that people remember and talk about first, but I can see from listening and reading about audiences’ responses to films and books that sometimes it’s easy to mistake setting-based issues for plot-based ones. You know that plot you’ve seen which just doesn’t seem to fit together properly as you’re experiencing it? You just couldn’t buy into it, and all you could see where the parts that didn’t fit together correctly, not the things that legitimately worked?

The good news is that the problem might not have been the plot at all. At least half the time, it’s got a lot to do with having the wrong setting.

The Holy Trinity of Narrative

So before I dive right into deep concerns about what kind of plants can become dryads and such, I wanted to talk a little about why I think setting is the neglected child in the narrative family and why we need to love it more and understand its purpose in the world (and why if you get it wrong it can ruin your plot by stealth as revenge.)

Next time, we’ll look at the flip-side; why setting and plot are not the same, and why you should not try to use your super-awesome setting as a plot.

Again, I promise you faithfully we are not going to do theory stuff too often in this series, and I fully acknowledge my lack of formal teaching and that these theories are entirely based on my own ideas and empirical evidence. Do not take them too seriously, ok?

Narrative Trinity

So here we introduce The Holy Trinity of Narrative; Plot, Characters and Setting. Cutting things right down to their very basics:

The Plot

The Plot is the reason we are here, why we are reading the story or watching the film. Everything else in the work needs to support it and push it forwards. If the other two start to conflict outright with the plot or fight to take the attention away from the plot, the whole thing falls apart (you know that book where all the characters are way more interesting than the plot they were following? Or that movie that everyone agrees looked fantastic but absolutely everything else about it was terrible?).

The Characters

The Characters are why we care about the plot. Their motivations drive it, their struggles are what it needs to overcome for us to feel satisfied by it, and the lessons they learn are what we relate to. Movies especially tend to suffer from weak characters pulled around by the plot, instead of having strong(er) characters pushing the plot forwards with their developed and relevant motivations. ‘Because the plot says so’ is a quick way to get through your first draft, not the final product meant to produce a memorable and worthwhile story. I absolutely cannot stress enough that the audience only cares if the characters care. That is the only way you can have any remote sense of tension in your narrative at all. We don’t have to agree with them, we just have to know that the characters really want (or don’t want) the things that the plot needs them to achieve (or avoid).

NB: If any of you are interested, we’ll come back to this when discussing Plot Contrivances, ok? Let me know in the comments.

The Setting

Setting is often thought of as the backdrop against which all of this happens and therefore can be seen as the least important of the three. I personally would argue that setting is unimportant like seasoning your food is unimportant – you could eat food with no seasoning and it would be totally edible and whatnot, but something would be notably missing.

In the same way, you can absolutely have a story with a good plot and relatable characters and no real, concrete mention of any setting whatsoever and it could potentially work, but it’s still not going to have the depth, interest and/or believability as a tale where there is some kind of setting established.

It doesn’t even take very much; here’s a couple of quick examples:

  1. ‘Once upon a time, far, far away, there lived a boy.’
  2. ‘Once upon a time, so long ago that water ran up hill instead of down, and so far away that the clouds touch the sea, and the trees prop the sky up, there lived a boy.’
  3. ‘In 1973, in New York City, there lived a boy.’

So the first one is a traditional way to give your story a setting; it’s taking place in a fairy-tale land of make-believe and need not be taken even a little seriously. Sadly it’s also not very interesting and makes clear that the setting (or world) of this story is in no way interesting to the narrator or the audience. It’s taking place in the land of Who Knows, Who Cares? This is a hold-over from the days when stories were told as a way of teaching a lesson. The story and the characters are not the important parts, the lesson is the only important thing for people to remember. Which is all well and good, but story-telling has moved on. This method is also a last-survivor from the times of an almost-exclusively oral story-telling tradition in which the rules are as totally different as those between, say, an opera and a film, and correspondingly some things simply do not translate.

The second one actually added a sense of there being a world that this story is taking place in; there’s a quantification for how long ago (apparently so long ago, we hadn’t invented gravity yet) and so far away that we’ve hit the edge of the metaphorical map and the sky is joining up with the horizon. It’s also setting up the world for the reader to show that the narrator isn’t going to take themselves too seriously here, that there is some form of humour inherent in the narrative and that the normal rules of nature don’t apply with its upwards-flowing rivers and sky-propping trees. So if we also meet a talking horse or a band of singing and dancing chrysanthemums, well, we’re not going to question it. The narrator has told us that anything is possible and logic can be firmly checked in at the door and don’t question this.

And the final one is the most specific; this story apparently is taking place in this world, in the recent past, and is presumably supposed to have actually happened. The upside is that such specific details mean that the audience is more likely to place actual credence in the story, treat it like it’s real and whatnot. The downside is that the narrator now cannot make up the rules on a whim; they have established that this is a real point in time, in a real place and if they now wish to throw in a stampede of wingéd unicorns, they are going to have to justify that nonsense and fast. Everyone knows unicorns don’t have wings!

Place a narrative in the wrong setting and the entire plot can fall apart in seconds. Don’t believe me?

The film Titanic (yes, I know, obvious example but work with me) is set in 1912, the year of the ship’s maiden voyage. Therefore the technological restriction need no explanation, we’re not expecting anyone on-board to whip out a mobile phone and call for help, for example; this does not need to be justified. Nor are we all that surprised to hear that a well-dressed white woman is being married off against her wishes by her father to a rich guy. This is 1912, women do not have the vote, or independent income and their fathers rule their lives until marriage when this role is taken over by their husbands (there were exceptions, yes I know but this is movie-world where we deal in trends not outliers). James Cameron did not need to justify this beyond, ‘We need the money, daughter’ and the audience goes with it.

Now contrast that to trying to sink a ship with hundreds of people on-board in 2016. Communications technology is much better, as are the navigation devices which can detect (among other things) icebergs, and if the romantic subplot opens with a man marrying his daughter to some rich douchebag for money just because it’s his right to do so? Yeah, nothing about that set-up is believable at all. The audience is going to have some really big questions and no small amount of scepticism which will pull them right out of the story, make them question everything else about it, and ruin the whole thing.

So the moral of the story is this; love your setting and give it the thought it deserves, or its revenge will come in the night and devour all that was good and precious in your work!

Missed Chapter 1 in this series? Go here to catch up.