Writing Exercise: Worldbuilding as Motivation


Some Background

People spend a lot of time talking about building character. People create character sheets, elaborate motive charts, all sorts of ridiculous writerly bric-a-brac detailing the motive and inner turmoil of imaginary people.

This is all great, of course. Everything other people do is great. I have to say this, because being polite is, for some reason, important.

One thing that often gets ignored in our attempts to chart out our characters is, unfortunately, motivation. Not just what motivates a character–that gets talked about plenty–but why it motivates them, and how it happened. People don’t just start wanting things out of the blue–they want them because the necessity of societal obligations has, in some way, pressured them to want them.

So. Out of the places a character occupies in a society, which ones are important to that character? Which ones have caused them to want the things they want?

This is a more important question than it sounds. It is, in its own way, the basic building block on which individual personalities are built. It combines simple physical things (your character is a woman, your character is single, etc.) observable from a distance, with the deepest core of your character’s inner makeup.

And there needs to be more of that. Because who you are–who other people observe you as being–does have a deep inner impact on what kind of person you are. Sorry, nineties feel-gooders. It does.

Take a woman who has been fifty pounds overweight for most of her life. On the outside, this fact doesn’t seem like it would make much of a difference–doesn’t change whether or not she was born with money, whether or not she’s an aristocrat, etc. But people do judge you based on your weight, and if she’s been overweight for most of her life, you can bet she’s felt it.

Unless–unless the society she lives in considers obesity beautiful.

In which case, maybe she’s spent her whole life cramming one more helping than she can really stand down her throat at dinner, just hoping she can gain that extra five pounds to impress Prince Chargrill. Maybe she’s irritated at the dressmakers in her town, because it’s so difficult to find something small enough to fit her. You could write a whole story where the most important thing to this character isn’t her sex, or skin color, or social standing–it’s her weight. Maybe the story could end with her defiantly allowing her weight to drop at last, finally understanding it doesn’t matter.
And obesity is just one of the things which you notice about someone without any explanation, which might have to do with their inner workings too.

The Exercise

Take your character. Take a list of ten broad characteristics that might determine the place in society this character inhabits. This list of traits should include things you might know about this character just from observation, and not from conversation–for instance, you know if someone’s married by seeing them with a spouse, if someone’s a mother by seeing them with their children, where they’re from by an accent, etc. We’ll use Jin from Aurian and Jin for mine, since, you know, Jin. Jin is, in her fantasy world:

A soldier
A woman
From the Empire
A wife
A mother (by book two)
Of common birth
Fairly famous

Now, place those attributes in order. Which of these things matters most to your character? Which matters least? Why?

Now, this list might change, depending on what part of the story you’re talking about. For instance, Jin wasn’t a mother until the end of book one, and soldiery falls farther down her list of important things based on the peacefulness of the current time.

Jin’s list, from most to least important, at the beginning of Little Bird:

A mother
A citizen of the Empire
A wife
A soldier
Of common birth
A woman
Fairly famous

Like most people who have a spouse and kids, her spouse and kids are pretty high on her list of priorities. But Jin puts her people, and the welfare of said people, before her husband (or says she does, at least. In practice, the two would probably be better put side by side). Little Birdy, however, comes before the Empire: this relationship trivium actually creates most of the plot arcs in Little Bird.

The Empire, being a combination of tiny countries composed mostly of pale people, borders the North Darklands and the kingdom of Karakul, where people have darker skin. Therefore, being white (or black, or green, or pick your Crayola color here) hasn’t had much impact on Jin’s life, as the Empire regularly sees visitors and immigrants of different skin tones, and doesn’t make much of a fuss about it (believe me, you don’t make a fuss about the Darklands. It’s…unwise). Being a woman, while a notable disability in the Empire, hasn’t influenced Jin much–largely because, well, you have to get pretty close to tell she’s a woman at all. These facts haven’t caused her any problems, so they aren’t parts of her identity she thinks about much.

On the other hand, her birth (low) and her profession (soldiery) have shaped and changed who Jin is. They are not, however, something she fights for–they are simply influences, not something she protects or cherishes or talks about. (The fact that she doesn’t go to temple has, on rare occasion, bothered her. But it’s more for the social value of the thing than any deep religious belief, and she has other stuff to think about).

You get where I’m going with this?

These are the things that shape who Jin is, and they’re all external things, visible from a week’s close observation. What motivates Jin isn’t some aspect of her temper or personal being, it’s external stuff–what her husband and child need, what her people need, what her fighting skills enable her to do, whether or not folk in the poor quarters have enough to eat. In a different society–one where having pale skin, or being a woman, came with serious drawbacks–those things might be more important to Jin. But she’s fortunate enough to exist in a world where her profession is more important in her personal makeup than these two arbitrary attributes, so.

Jin is clever, quick-tempered, physical, and crude, yes. She’s all of these things. But they aren’t why she is like she is–she’s become that way, in fact, because of the way she’s had to act to get things she wants in her society. Women aren’t considered as valuable under Imperial law as men, so Jin’s not very traditionally feminine, and her hair-trigger temper has kept people from questioning whether a woman should do the things she does. Her low birth is a stigma, and she doesn’t think it should be, so she’s become (sometimes unnecessarily) crude in her expression, especially when talking to people of ‘better’ pedigree. A life’s worth of soldiery has left her apt to solve conflicts by throwing somebody through a wall. And her intelligence–well. That’s the thing that’s allowed her to survive in the first place.

When you look for character motivation, and believable character traits, don’t start plotting out adjectives. Knowing your character is afraid of snakes isn’t going to do you a lick of good, unless you know why. And the whys of your character are, often, buried deep in the rules of your character’s society–because people, regardless of time and place, grow where you let them, and falter where they have no support. Even the most self-sufficient person is dependent on the rules of the culture they live in, and the opinions of the people around them.

So don’t world build and then character build, or vice-versa. The two things are one in the same. And an exercise like this one can help you lay bare, not only your character’s motivation, but also the laws of the society he or she lives in.

I’ve shown you mine. If you want to show me yours, by golly, I’d say it’s only fair.

Writing: Mentalism, Emotional Resonance, and You


Writing: Mentalism, the I Ching, and You

Anybody here ever thrown the I Ching?

I know, I know. You’re looking at me now like I’m crazy. I am. But that’s purely coincidental.

When I was younger, I read Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi classic The Man in the High Castle, and I was pretty well captivated by the idea of the I Ching. So I bought myself a copy, fished a few quarters out from between the couch cushions, and gave it a go.

The Oracle gives pretty good advice, open to interpretation, open to the winds. And it’s almost eerie how well any little piece of advice (hexagrams, they’re called) will fit the situation you need help with.

It seems almost like magic. It seems almost like prescience.

Of course, it isn’t.

The way the I Ching works–and what makes it such a powerful source of good advice–is something falling into the realm a magician would call mentalism. Basically, it’s the ability to make a general statement that will resonate with a very high percentage of readers or viewers–will resonate enough, in fact, to seem like telepathy.

Which means, to put it briefly, that the I Ching gives good tidbits of general advice, dressed in a healthy soupcon of mysticism. It then leaves the interpretation of this advice–even with commentary–up to you. It’s advice that can apply to any good yes or no question–things such as ‘will my relationship succeed?’ or ‘should I publish my first novel now, or in a few months?’–and, lemme tell you, it’s probably better general advice than the sort you’ll get from your friends, whose opinions are influenced by the fact that they like you, and want you to succeed.

I can do it too. See? See? Lemme tell you something about yourself.

You’re not as brave as you would like to be, but when the cards are down, you do what you need to do to make things work.

The magic is, this is true of almost every single person on Earth. No one’s as brave as they want to be, but in the end, we all like to think we step up to the plate when we have to. So I can say it. I can say it, specifically to you. And you feel like it’s true. I can even mold it to make a semi-specific prediction:

A source of new money will come your way soon. What it comes down to, in the end, is if you’re brave enough to take the opportunity. Don’t falter, and don’t hold back–your commitments won’t be hurt by a little time spent elsewhere. Take the chance, and you’ll be prosperous.

This is nothing-advice, built on dreams and air, yet it contains a few grains of truth. A source of new money probably will come your way ‘soon’. We have opportunities to earn money all the time and, with this advice in mind, you’ll probably be more on the lookout than you were before. Whether or not you’re brave enough to go for it–isn’t this what everything comes down to, in the end? And as to your commitments–well, that’s a bit of a guess, but it’s a sound one. You probably have a few. And, as any way of earning money usually takes some time and attention, it’s a fair guess it’ll take your attention away from the nebulous Elsewhere for a while.

So I gave you good general advice. And when it happens–and there’s a very high probability it will–you’ll think I’m a fucking genius.

Why am I talking about all this, you wonder? You’re probably not consulting this blog for my mind-reading powers. Or, um. If you are, you’ve got another thought coming to you, because I don’t have any.

But there’s a good lesson for your writing here. You know that old adage, write what you know? I’ve talked about it a little before, here in this post OMG linky linky.

Writing what you know is the art of empathy and connection, especially in fantasy. You might not have ever been cursed by Azoktarian the Mighty, but you’ve had an enemy, and you know the powerless anger and finger-curling tooth-gritting subservience of being helpless against somebody. Because you know those things, you can tell the story of being cursed. Because you’ve missed dinner, you can tell the story of famine-stricken farmers in Glarglian Province, and the hunger that maddens them and presses them to rise up, sharpen their pitchforks, and kill the grain-hoarding Duke.

Apply these mentalist principles, in tandem with the idea of writing what you know, to your story, and you’ll have yourself some old school emotional resonance.

In short: don’t make your main conflict whether or not Frodo gets the ring to Mount Doom. Make it whether a hobbit, a homey little creature who likes his couch and his comforts almost as much as the person reading the book, can triumph against insurmountable odds based on faith, trust, and friendship.

Because people don’t know shit about hobbits. They don’t know shit about magical rings, Uruk-Hai, or the difference between the sons of Feanor and Fingolfin (sorry, I am a blue-bleeding genuine geek). But they know what it’s like to be a regular person facing insurmountable odds. They know what determination is, and they know what it’s like to stick to a task. They might not know what it’s like to be a King in hiding, cast into the wild north, but they know what it’s like to run from responsibility, and the pride that comes with taking up a rightful burden.

Your fantasy story, at its heart, is a very real story, about very real people, with very real problems. Everything else–the fantasy elements, the cool settings, the magic systems–is just set dressing, and is therefore secondary.

You think I’m insane right now, saying the fantasy part of a fantasy is set dressing.

I am. But again: purely coincidental.

What matters first isn’t your genre. It isn’t your world. It’s your story. It’s having a good story, with a conflict that can resonate with a large group of people.

Look at Star Wars. Yes, we all love TIE fighters and jawas and the cantina scene, we all love Jabba the Hutt and Leia in a metal bikini and, um, some of us love Ewoks (don’t judge me). But most of us first saw Star Wars as kids or adolescents, and we resonated with Luke’s whiny ass. Because here was a kid finding himself. Here was a kid finding his place. Here was a kid fighting evil–going against his father–for something he believed was right.

His place in the world just happened to be a lot cooler than ours, and his ‘right’ happened to involve lightsabers. Again: why we read spec fic. And why those set dressings DO matter.

So, when you’re thinking about the conflict and plot of your story, ask yourself these questions:
1) Can I take the main plot of this story out of a fantasy setting, and make it work?
2) Can I sum it up in a few sentences, in a way that would apply to a large group of people here?


3) How am I working to make this character’s arc resonate with my audience?

Because emotional resonance is that simple. Mind you, I’m not saying you shouldn’t give your character specific traits, or your world specific traits. Of course you should. But the conflict that moves the story along should, deep down, be something everyone can understand. And, while I’m not a big believer in symbolism and/or allegory, this one-or-two-line conflict should be very carefully defined by you, for yourself, as you write.

Because it’s the spine of your story. It’s the thing keeping it upright and mobile. And it’s the one thing–the one damn thing–you need to keep in mind every time a character farts or walks a few paces. And you should always–always–make decisions for that character based on how you know someone in that situation would feel.

If you do this, you’ll have all sorts of feely feels in your story.

Mm. Feely feels.

I’m going to go feel doing some work now.

Story Excerpt: Erasure

Image by Paul Robichaud, via Unsplash. This is what you bastards'll see now for every story excerpt.

So I’ve been working on this sci-fi dystopian kind of thing lately. I know: travelling oft-travelled ground. But it’s fun. And fun is what I need, because all this editing is most DEFINITELY something other than fun, probably something four-lettered. It’s a revamp of an old story I’ve had kicking around in various forms forever: a little worried I’m veering into the territory of cliche, but hell. You gotta have fun sometimes, and to hell with the cliche-ery.

It’s the story of Moll Coulter, a former criminal of uncertain background who’s had her memory partially erased by Sunrise City Gov. It’s got all that chewy Blade Runneresque dystopian stuff in it. Moll does recover her memory, about halfway through–when she discovers that, not only is the world around her not what she thinks, but the people she trusts are perhaps not the people she SHOULD be trusting. Fun tipple includes Soyful Noise, a Christian soy-product conglomerate, home products made from a combination of soy product and cockroach, a brief but informative lesson in how to kill a law officer with a grappling gun, and a man, the mysterious Thelonius Crowe, with a Coat of Many Colors. Yes, they say things like ‘oh my Dog’ and ‘cheese us rice’. Taking the Lord’s name in vain went out with the ascent of Soyful Noise, and they’re nothing if not creative.

Worth continuing? Lemme know.


The Girl Who Almost Burned Us

It was Friday–a Bright Day–and Moll Coulter was dreaming of apples.

She had put the blackout skins in the windows yesterday morning, when she was still relatively sober, and had therefore done it relatively well. In one corner of the window, the skin had begun to peel, and a single batonlike ray shot through, ending in a hot white coin of light on the floor. Moll shifted and turned in her sleep, as though the brightness bothered her.

In her dream, the apple twirled, backwards and forwards, on its stem. It was perfect, unblemished, round. There was a smell that rose up from it–a smell that Moll, who had never seen a real apple in her life, associated with body wash and perfume and high class hookers.

It was a peaceful smell. Delicate. Moll felt intoxicated–which was nothing new. This intoxication just felt better.

“Ohmidog, Moll,” said a voice from outside the room. “Oh. My. DOG. MOLL!”

The apple disappeared, gone in a flash of white light. Moll was left, bleary-eyed, staring at the cracks in her bedroom wall. She yawned, stretched. Knocked three empty bottles of Admiral Soyton’s 150 Proof to the floor.

One bottle, rolling into the beam of light, cracked, exploded, and began to melt.


The bedroom door rattled on its hinges, and, after what sounded like a summary kick, snapped at the lock. Bobbitt, her enormous mass shrouded in a protective suit, rushed inward, dashed through the beam, and slammed the corner of the curtain back into place. 

“Heyyy,” Moll said. “Bobbitt.”

“Are you INSANE?” Bobbitt screeched, her voice tinny through the suitspeaker. “Bright Day breaches are no joke, Moll. You could’ve burned us all in our beds. Lucky I saw the corner, coming home from work. Cheese us. One tiny hole–one pinhole–that’s all they say it takes. And you left a whole corner undone. That’s how the Alegharis died, you know. Rip in the Bright Day skins, too cheap to replace it. Tenement B burned to the ground.”

“I didn’t–”

“Apologize, Moll.”


“Apologize. Now.”

Moll blinked a few times, waited for her vision to come into focus. Bobbitt, her face sweaty and pink with exertion beyond the suit mask, was scowling mightily. All four of her chins wobbled dangerously downward.
Moll sighed. “Elaine was home, wasn’t she.”

“Yes!” Bobbit threw her suited arms up as far as the suit would let her reach. “If killing yourself and destroying all our possessions means nothing to you, yes, beyond those little factoids, Elaine was home sick today. You would have burned my only child alive in her bed. You would have–”

Bobbitt choked, sputtered. Wheezed. Looking at her, bent over and hacking, Moll did feel sorry.

“I’m sorry,” she said. Still hacking, Bobbitt gave her the finger.

“Look,” Moll said, sitting up. “I didn’t mean to. I just–”

“You were drunk,” Bobbitt growled dangerously. “I know. When are you not?” She fiddled with the suit collar, pressing buttons and twirling dials. There was a faint pop as the pneumatic seals loosened, and Bobbitt drew the suit helmet over her head and tossed it into a broken-backed chair.

“Find a new place to live,” she said at last. Moll would give her this: she sounded regretful.

“But,” Moll said, though at this point it was more just to say something than because she had any argument.

“Nope,” said Bobbitt. “Find a new place. Bright Day breaches, broken bottles on my floor, shouting obscenities where Elaine can hear them–you’ve become a liability. If we’d lived a hundred years ago, I might’ve given you a second chance–but this isn’t the United States of America anymore, Moll. This is Utopia. And there are no second chances in Utopia. Not for any of us.”

Moll would also give her this: she was shaking her head. She didn’t smile. She didn’t look happy about it.

“I’ll give you until the end of May,” Bobbitt said. “That’s almost two weeks to find a new place.  After that, if you aren’t out of here, I will personally throw you on the street, Bright Day or Dark Day or anything in between. And I doubt–I highly doubt–that your suit is in any better shape than your blackout skins.”

Moll nodded. It was all she had left to do.

“This breaks my heart,” Bobbitt added, after a moment of silence. “Just thought you should know. You aren’t a bad person, Molly. Elaine loves you. But what can I do? What the hell else can I do?”

Moll certainly didn’t know.

Bobbitt closed the door on her way out. The door, its latch broken, swung right back into an open position.

Moll sighed, leaned back, and closed her eyes.

Writing: The Chosen One Chooses


Sorry if I’ve been a good deal in absentia here lately. I’ve been writing and reading (oh, and working). First off, I just had to finish reading everything Patrick Rothfuss has written ever (more on that later, and why it’s a good thing and a bad thing). Then I had to get through the newest B.E. Priest novella, Fire From the Ashes, which is just as worthy a read as the rest of his series. Now, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I’m stuck with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series–which, so far, is totally worth it, if a little frustrating for the sheer amount of Female Distress involved (ladies do things other than get raped and abused).

So, we’re reading a bit gluttonous this week. But I have time for a short blog. I always have time for a short blog.

I want to talk about the Chosen One.

Of course I do; I’ve been reading Mistborn. The whole premise of Sanderson’s somewhat dystopian world is that the Mistbornian Chosen One, that big bolshy hero in shining armor, DID NOT save the world a thousand years ago.

Note: he is not a main character in the story. At least, not in that form. The action in the story takes place a thousand years from then. Of course it does: how can you make a compelling story when the Chosen One was Chosen wrong? It becomes background, nifty set dressing (or it is so far, I’m only about halfway through the first book).

But this brings up an interesting point. Is the concept of the Chosen One (think Harry Potter, or Paul Atreides, or Aragorn in LotR, or…well, you get it) still a useful fantasy archetype?

A little background information, if you’re living under a rock, never took an English class, and don’t have the faintest fucking clue what I’m talking about:

The Chosen One (see: big bolshy hero) is a character who, by divine interference or some happiness of birth, has been gifted with singular powers, and has been destined to save/rule/otherwise generally change the world. It isn’t uncommon for the Chosen One to have a Mighty Weapon (again, think Aragorn, or redheaded Aerin from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown). The Chosen One is usually a part of a Hero’s Journey type of story arc, often combined with Coming of Age (because, naturally, the Chosen One is unaware/not fond of being Chosen, and must learn to accept his or her place as a hero, and that goes really well with growing up and getting the fuck over ourselves).

For me, this is a writing archetype, particularly in fantasy, that is inescapable. Your character has to be central to the action of the story–it is, after all, THEIR story–so there’s got to be something special about them, right? BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL. We can do this shit. Let’s stick some mythical abilities and divine providence in there.

But here’s the thing. The Chosen One’s power, and continued currency, as an archetype doesn’t come from BEING chosen. It comes, instead, from CHOOSING.

The important thing about Effluenza the Ordinary Peasant Girl isn’t the extraordinary powers she is currently discovering, quite by accident, on her father’s farm. It isn’t the Magical Machete in the Barn of Ages, which has been waiting for a thousand years for the arm strong enough to thresh wheat with it, and which Effluenza snags one night because she really, really needs a long blade to slice up some pears she stole from Goodman Gottson’s neighboring farm. It isn’t even the Wise Old Man, known to all the village as Billy the Drunkard, who heralds her coming and teaches her to use her Mystical Powers to cheat at Blackjack without counting cards.

The important thing about little Effluenza–about any Chosen One type hero–isn’t that she is Chosen. It’s the moment she STOPS being the Chosen One, and becomes the One Who Chooses.

There’s a moment in the Hero’s Journey–a transformative moment–where the Chosen One has to own up to destiny. It stops becoming a game, where you learn cheeky things and men in the tavern commons teach you how to spit, and becomes an earnest desire to take the Machete of Might and stop the local baron raising the rent. It’s the moment, in short, where Paul ceases being the hunted Atreides Duke, and becomes the Kwizatz Haderach. Where Harry Potter sees the real death and torment Voldemort causes, and begins taking steps to stop him. Where Aragorn, previously Strider the Ranger, becomes Aragorn the King (hard to pinpoint this moment, but I think it’s when he calls the Dead down from Dwimorberg, especially in the movies). This, and not before, is where this archetype starts to have pull and strength, where the character starts making his or her own decisions towards the positive. An old identity, which didn’t quite fit, is shed or transforms into a new one.

If you’re writing a Chosen One type character, this is the character arc you HAVE to follow. I’m sorry, but there is no other. There are variations– Failed Chosen One Tries Again, or the eternal falling action of Chosen One After the Great Battle–but it’s the same story. The Chosen One MUST become the One Who Chooses for this archetype to hold meaning. You can do it any way you like, but it has to happen for the whole premise to work.

Using an example from my own work (and if you haven’t read Aurian and Jin yet, and you plan to, you might want to stop reading here):

Evinanjin is the classic Chosen One, minus the boring prophecy. She has remarkable abilities, a good mind, the love of the people.

But (and here’s one of those monkeywrenches you can throw in things) she loses the abilities that made her who she is. Or, she thinks she does. It takes a lot of drinking and bad-tempered brawling for her to figure out that, in the end, it isn’t what was given to her that makes her who she is–it’s something she was born with. Aurian Sees his wife, towards the end of the story, and what he Sees isn’t her training or the Holy Bones or the Emperor’s favor–it’s an empty field and a people dying of hunger. It’s her essential peasant nature. Her determination. Her willpower.

My timing’s a little different–the pivot-point, where Evinanjin makes her decision, actually occurs in the past–but its placing in the story is spot on for the third act, where such things usually happen, in tandem with Aurian’s decision to actively help his wife destroy the Bonemaker by stealing the Sundering Sword (see how cleverly I doubled it up? See? SEE?). I like putting pivotal moments in flashbacks. It makes me happy. Character motivation reveal and whatnot. Don’t judge.

Point is, stop thinking about The Chosen One completely. Think instead about his second self, The One Who Chooses. If you write a Hero’s Journey type story, this is the person who completes your MC’s character arc, and moves the story forward.

For More Information on Common Fantasy Tropes:

The Hero’s Journey–Very good layout of the classic steps of The Hero’s Journey. Pay special attention to step 8–this is where your chosen one begins actively choosing. If you get confused at any point, just think of Star Wars. Not the new, crappy Star Wars. No. Luke and shit.
Hero’s Journey, Now With Charts!–Though for screenwriting, this is also very useful. They place the turning point I’m talking about near the end of Act II, which, okay, I’m open to suggestions.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces–You’re an epic fantasy writer, and you haven’t read this yet? What the fuck?
TV Tropes Wiki–Like all wikis, this information might not be 100% factually approved, but my God, this is fun for any media. People who’re afraid of ‘tropes’–do not read. You’ll learn just how unoriginal all your ideas are and cry like a little baby.

Related Posts:

Tropes and Archetypes Won’t Kill You–Why all this hand-flapping and trope-fearing is stupid, especially among unseasoned writers. After all, would it be called a MONOmyth if it wasn’t pretty pervasive?

WW: Culture Shock


WW: Culture Shock

So I’ve been reading The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss. I’m about two thirds of the way through–it’s a long damn book, and it’s taking me like a week to read it, but it’s totally worth it. I like this one way better, actually, than I liked his first novel in the series, The Name of the Wind. Kvothe’s tendency to vacillate means something here. When parts of his life are ignored, there are consequences.

I mention this, however, because of a brief section I just went through where Kvothe has to learn to interact with a man from a very foreign culture. It takes a realization–which I won’t share, so as not to spoil the book–for him to learn how to do it. Their cultures are so different, Kvothe assumed some things about his companion that simply weren’t true. It took Kvothe letting go of his assumptions for them to become closer, and at last begin to understand each other.

It’s well done, and it’s something I don’t see as much as I maybe ought in fantasy type fiction. When two cultures are very different, there’s going to be some culture shock, and some misunderstandings. A dwarf, for instance, might not be so eager to take up residence in a tree house–maybe his elfin host, who hasn’t ever lived anywhere else, thinks his friend’s hesitation is over the quality of his house, and takes offense. Or just starts cleaning maniacally. Maybe the trouble is deepened because these elves think it’s extremely rude to show you’ve been offended–maybe an elf culturally expresses his offense by farting at the dinner table after a meal, something dwarves can’t even do. The gas passes, and the dwarf doesn’t even notice. He thinks it’s a fucking woodpecker outside (I imagine elf farts are very dainty. Leaves are probably involved somehow.) Tension grows, becomes deeper and deeper. Eventually, there’s a brawl: all because of acrophobia and a couple of farts (which, well, I guess brawls have been started for worse reasons).

But you see, just from that example, how cultural dissonance can help create tension in a novel. Not just out and out racism–these people hate these people, because of blah-dee-blah–but actual cultural incompatibility. Exploring this is healthy, not just for your plot, but also for your world and characters–there’s rules in point-of-view narration, just like there’re rules in fantasy worldbuilding, and how a certain character sees an action can help solidify these rules.

For example (I know you’ve missed my examples), here’s my morning routine as observed by the alien Schtok People, viewing me from somewhere in the next galactic neighborhood:

Subject enters the Green Temple, where inoffensive music plays softly for the Glory of God, at seven thirty every morning for five days in a row. Subject exchanges Card for small cup of the Sacrificial Brown Wine. Subject leaves small offering of paper currency in the collection box. Subject then finds a quiet place to worship, in full view of the Morning Sun, and waits the proscribed five minutes, smoking the customary incense of these people, which she carries in her worship bag. Only then, when there is no longer steam rising from the Sacrificial Brown Wine, does the subject drink her offering, placing the remains in the Hooded Altars placed neatly around the street. Sacrificial Brown Wine may be consumed sooner in the summer, when it is served over ice, as the crops have already begun to grow.
Only after consumption of Sacrificial Brown Wine is complete does the subject board the green device used for the relocation of the poor to start her day. Subject performs this rite unfailingly every morning, and is perhaps a priest or similar holy figure among her people.

Yes, I said it: Sacrificial Brown Wine.

Obviously, I’m just getting a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. But this foreign observer doesn’t know what coffee is–doesn’t know you drink it to get up in the morning. Starbucks is warm and dark and there’s music playing, I leave what he sees as an offering. The time before I drink the coffee seems ritualistic–he doesn’t know I’m just doing it so I don’t burn the roof of my mouth, and the cigarette is just a nasty habit and not incense at all.

He’s from a religious society, obviously. An agrarian religious society–he thinks the way I drink my cup of coffee, and the pause before it, has to do with prayer and making the crops grow. His society is fairly democratic, as well–he recognizes it’s mostly poor folks taking the bus, but he thinks, though he recognizes me as poor, I might be a priest of some sort.

There are more inferences you could get from this stupid example, but those are the basics. Note, if you will, that while it says something about our culture–that we spend too much fucking time at Starbucks, if aliens think it’s a religion–it tells us more about his.

Use occasions like this–moments of culture shock–to define your cultures. A large part of world building, of necessity, has to be done through your characters–after all, their eyes are the eyes you see your story through, and their eyes have been ‘tainted’ by the culture they’ve lived in their whole lives.

(A side note–this is why most fantasy narrators tend to be outsiders. Farm boys, alien explorers, etc. You need a narrator who, like your reader, is seeing this culture through relatively new eyes. Kvothe, for instance, couldn’t have grown up around the University, or he wouldn’t find anything about it worth mentioning. Frodo couldn’t have spent his life kicking around Gondor, watching the fires of Mordor get all firey again.)

Homework Assignment:
Describe YOUR morning routine through the eyes of an alien observer. Remember: while you need to be honest about what you do, you need to look at this through the eyes of someone who’s never seen it done before. What is this alien’s culture like, that he makes these assumptions about what you’re doing? DON’T write it out–let the story of your morning routine, seen through his eyes, speak about his culture FOR you.

WW: Five Things To Ask Your Characters


Well, here we are. It’s Wednesday. Ish.

I thought I’d do something different this time around and talk character development. Not mine, no. Yours. (Yes, that was sarcasm. Your character development is what we DO here.)

Here are five questions which, when properly explored, might help you get to know your character better. When answering them, I suggest you think about your own behavior, and your friends’, and, well, all those other people you know who aren’t quite your friends, but you know them, so whatever. What kinds of people do what kinds of things? What does one thing say about a general trend in behavior in this person?

I tried to keep them as world-general as possible, so they’d apply to a broad variety of situations. But I want you to notice–no talk of worldbuilding here, no talk of magic, futuretech, personal appearance, etc. These answers shouldn’t become worldbuilding answers. At least, not mostly, though they might help you with that stuff too. They’re about personality.

If you want to share your answers, I’d be tickled. Maybe I’ll do mine too. We can share things. Because sharing is caring. Which, I guess, also means drinking is thinking, and hoarding is waterboarding.

1) Your character walks into a bar and orders a drink. Describe what happens.
Is the bar busy or quiet? Does your character know the bartender? Does s/he push past people to get to the bar, or patiently wait his/her turn? Does s/he order beer–if so, what sort? A Cosmo, LIT? A peaty twelve-year whiskey? Water? Does it get sipped, or gulped in one frantic movement? Does your character pass moral judgement on other people in the bar, if there are any? Does anybody get hurt? Do they deserve it?

2) How does your character affect his/her environment?
Does he or she litter? Does he or she treat small animals well, or torment them? Was his or her house built with local materials, or imported? Does your character know the names or flowers and trees, or barely know what a goddamn tree is? Does she hunt? If she hunts, does she just take what she can use, or does she hoard far more than she can eat for herself? If your character is drinking a glass of water and doesn’t have time to finish it for some reason, does he dump it at the base of a tree, or right in the middle of the street?

3) Your character gets caught in a small but bald-faced lie by a parent/guardian. How do they try to resolve the situation?
No ‘but my character is all aloooone’ nonsense, please. At some point, your character had parents, or at least a legal guardian. How would this situation have happened? Would your character try to white lie his or her way out of it, or tell the noble truth? Get mouthy and defiant? Did they succeed in escaping the situation? Feel guilty, if the blame got shifted to somebody else? If they didn’t–was the punishment in proportion to the crime? Did they suck it up, or weep like a crabby baby?

4) Your character has a WHOLE DAY off. No bills to pay, no world to save, nothing but twenty four hours of leisure time. What does he or she do?
No just answering ‘sleep’. C’mooon.

5) Your character has to be at the bank by noon. Trouble is, he’s not totally sure where ‘the bank’ IS in this town. He’s in a foreign city, it’s early, and he doesn’t speak the language. If he has a communications device, it’s out of battery/sparkly battery magic. How does he cope?
Does he spend valuable time trying to find this city’s version of an embassy? Go to the local market, try to charade out his request? Beat someone until they start speaking his language, intentionally or not? Search for somewhere that’s open, so he can buy a map? Collapse into manic tears? Start searching the city, in a circular pattern, for bank signs? Or would this never happen to him in the first place, because he’s just that goddamn organized?

Yes, all our characters have Mysterious Pasts (more on this subject later). However, like us, they spend 24/7 in the world of your choosing. They have to poop, go to the bank, go to work. They have embarrassing childhood stories, pet names they don’t want anybody else to hear, professional lives and private lives. They have that time when they were sixteen where they drank a whole bottle of Bailey’s on a dare, and had THE WORST hangover, the WORST, and told their mother they were ‘sick’ so they didn’t have to go to school, and etc., onward and outwards, more horrible childhood stories as you see fit.

These things–ordinary people things, anecdotes and nicknames and friends and embarrassing moments–make character. Yes, we’ve all had traumatic moments and yes, they do affect how we live and what we do. But if your character’s first boyfriend called him Binkypants in lovey-dovey moments, and he later on meets someone whose name/nickname is Binky, that’s going to have an affect on him too. How that relationship went–what it meant to him, how it ended, whether or not his boyfriend wound up being Douche Captain of the World of Tomorrow, all these things will affect his treatment of this person named Binky.

So don’t just draw from deep trauma and mystery for your characterization. Draw on the everyday, open-ended situations where your character has to make telling decisions. You might just find there’s more there–more for you to work with–than in your character’s Great Destiny as the Chosen One of his Mighty People. Because, yes, his parents were killed in a terrible fire, and yes, your villain was the arsonist. And that’ll affect you. But it was one moment in a life that stretches X number of years–there are a lot of other, less-traumatic moments in there too. And a person who was shaped entirely by one event, whose life has been lived as an endless series of reflections on one moment–this person is monomaniacal in the extreme. Probably pretty fucked up.

And, while we all wanted a little of that nebulous fucked-upedness in our characterization, too much of it leaves you with an unsympathetic character, incapable of learning or growing.

Not your hero, in other words. Maybe your villain.

Some more ‘everyday stuff’ to think about for your character:

1) How did this person’s parents/guardian put him or her to bed as a child?
2) What happened the first time your character got drunk? Has it happened yet? If not, what does your character THINK would happen?
3) Write a vignette about an occasion where your character was injured (semi-seriously: broken limb, stitches, etc.) as a child.
4) What kind of music does this person listen to, and how?
5) What happened the first time your character knew, without a doubt, that his or her parents/guardians were wrong about something?
6) Describe your character’s first relationship. If they haven’t had one yet, what do they THINK it’ll be like? How’d it end, and what did they learn from it?
7) Describe your character’s favorite outfit. How does s/he feel in it? Beautiful? Powerful? Comfortable?
8) What makes this person fall OUT of love?
9) Does your character arrive places on time? Early? A day late? How has this affected their chances in life?

And, for bonus points:

10) Your character TOTALLY clogs up a friend’s toilet. Like, totally. Like, there’s no coming BACK from how clogged this toilet is. Does she tell her friend? Try to find the plunger and fix it for herself? Just leave it: hell, it’s the guest bathroom anybody, nobody’ll probably know for days?