introducing a group, part ii

After my last post, about how to introduce several characters, and the distinctions between character and setting, I thought that I’d go visit Gav Thorp’s blog ‘Mechanical Hamster‘ and ask him if he would be willing to say a few words on the subject. I really love Gav’s advice– he writes some really excellent articles on writing tips and craft. Anyone interested in advanced creative writing should stop by and browse through the archives.

Much to my delight, Gav obliged me and wrote a long, detailed post on how to handle secondary characters that really addressed some of the problems I was having. You can find it here, and I think it’s well worth a read.

Thanks, Gav!

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writing names and groups

It’s been a heck of a week! Trying to get the hang of teaching has drained me pretty dry for the last two weeks. I’m glad to report that we’re now working with code (which to me is easier to teach than history), my students look to be a fun group, with the exception of one or two of the guys who seem to be far too ‘cool’ to be taught by a hyper nerd-ette.

Which means that after two weeks of delays, it’s back to my novel, and back to thoughts on writing craft.

I remember watching old bugs bunny cartoons, and knowing what’s going to happen next, because one plank of a fence board will be a slightly different color than the others. It always annoyed me, letting one prop stand out from the others. Lately, I’ve been having the same problem in writing.

If you have a group of characters show up, how do you handle them? Do you go through the entire process of developing them? Do you name one or two, and leave the rest as blank faces? Leave them all blank, and hope that they’re still important?

Option 1– develop them all. It’s realistic. It brings a lot of focus on the parts of the new force, maybe even too much, detracting from the main characters and whatever else would be going on. Name them, and the reader will feel obligated to remember their names. Another advantage is that if one is utterly unimportant and another will make a huge difference later on, the device isn’t just inobvious– it doesn’t exist at all. I think this can be a good choice if introduced early into the book, or if they’re a constant presence.

Option 2– name the important ones. … I feel awkward about this method. It always seems painfully obvious who the returning characters are. Like the joke from Order of the Stick, “They won’t survive! They don’t even have names!” (link). It’s less weird if the main character has a reason to note one out of the group, say they’re looking at a girl he likes, or if something they do stands out. But that’s interaction as an individual, not as a part of the group.

Option 3– name no one. Make them all faceless. Last summer, I attended a fantasy-sci-fi conference in Spokane. One of the panels I attended included Timothy Zahn, of Star Wars fame, discussing villains in stories, and we made a comment that a lack of familiarity with the villain, not understanding who he is or his motivation makes said character less of a villain and more of a force of nature. Of course, this might be easier when you’re working with stormtroopers.

These are the techniques that come immediately to mind… but here’s what I want.

I want an immediate impression of a group as a whole. I want to be aware of the characters in a vague light, as tertiary characters ought to be seen, but ready to pop out, without being obvious which one will be used for plot, yet supported and foreshadowed.

Any thoughts on this?

background to plot

I’ve re-entered into a plotting stage with my novel. I do this between every draft– write, plot, write, plot. It’s a good way to correct problems with form in your story.

For an example, two of the things I’m dissatisfied in the second draft were the intrigue (far too few characters, relatively little court conflicts), and the state of the rebellious commoners, which is mentioned but never plays a tangible role until the end.

Now, either of these two things could be described. I can paint in the features– a few rumors, some sub-plots, some sparkly court background. I can mention grumbling, unhappy common people and the high price of food. I can even hint at narrowly escaped danger.

Yet neither of these elements will truly become part of the story unless they have not just an effect on the plot, but a plot in and of themselves. More specifically, both must hurt my hero and heroine in a real and tangible way. Their interference must change my main characters’ mind about how they handle things, and cost them something important. Elements mean change in a story. It is vital to its structure.

writing the second draft

I had a request to share how I went about writing the second draft of my novel. As a disclaimer, this is just how I did it; I’m certain that others try different methods that work well for them.

My first draft was written during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month— I highly recommend participating) last November, 50,000 words in one month. It took another week after November to finally finish it, which brought it up to approximately 52,000 words. As expected of a NaNo novel, it had several major problems.

First, there was the pacing. I was writing furiously for four weeks to produce volume, not good craftsmanship. My first test reader said that the book felt like it needed to be about twice as long, which I agreed with. The city was an undefined blur, the castle equally nondescript. My prose rambled, got distracted, changed ideas halfway through sentences.

Some of the characters were very fleshed out. Others were flat and uninteresting. My two protagonists, Rylan and Wyrren, were not very consistent. My villains showed up when inconvenient for my heroes, the characters were sidetracked at several points. Some characters I had decided would be important, but seemed to decline their part in my plot.

And speaking of plot… the entire middle of my story sagged terribly. I had the ending I wanted, the beginning I wanted, and I got to keep my tiger-fight… and yes, I could see what I was going for in that first draft. It was also an unholy mess.

Now, I’m a terrible critic. I’ve been spoiled by literature, and I’ve read too many good books to be impressed by mediocre work. This might even be the reason that I’m so hesitant to start reading something new… I have a fear of being let down by a book, as if they were a new friend that I was entrusting myself to. When I read a book or watch a movie, I ask myself things like, “If I had written this passage, would I be satisfied with it?”

I also have an excellent memory for words on paper. I can still quote poems that I memorized twelve years ago, regardless of length. So I don’t forget the things I write in a hurry.

In January, I read over a few pieces of my printed first draft, put it away, and began writing the second draft. From scratch. No references, no list of absolutely required scenes. After the second chapter, I felt that I needed to be reminded of where I was going. Instead of going back to the first draft, I wrote a detailed outline of the book and kept going.

To those of you who practice art, I compare the first draft to a thumbnail sketch. It’s enough to let you know what you’re going for. But if you draw from the sketch, you’re just going to get a bigger sketch. Best to have worked out your thoughts ahead of time and begin fresh, looking forward to other references other than old, and quick, work. I can say that my second draft is far superior to the first in every way, but still not perfect.

That’s what the third draft is for.

world building: weapons

Weapons, like clothes and architecture, fall into and out of fashion. The weapons described here are what is usually used in Vastii at the time of my novel.

Knives, Daggers, Dirks
These weapons are not only common, but expected. A man walking around without a blade of some kind is just asking for trouble.

Knives are most common; commoners make their knives from rock, bone, or iron, if they can get it. Steel is prized, and knives made out of it are prized, as are very well wrought bone dirks, and they’re a common form of currency (the most common being steel coins, not for their mint, but for the material– more on that later). Handles for humans are usually made of braided rope or wood, as the cold of frozen metal still penetrates gloves.

Noblemen tend toward larger blades, and while they carry knives, they probably also carry something larger. Dirks are currently very popular weapons, while throwing knives are not common.

Swords
Swords come in a variety of styles. Because the city is underground and open space can’t be taken for granted, short swords are prevalent, and they don’t make anything approaching the size of a claymore. Stabbing is often more effective than slashing.

The common sword is shorter than a man’s arm, with a small or nonexistent hilt. The sketch of the Roman Gladius (from wikipedia) is a fairly good depiction of this style. Patrols that move along the Spiral Highway and the larger caverns often carry longer swords, taking advantage of the common short blade.

There are also much thinner swords that resemble needles or icicles than ordinarily blades. These are easy to shatter with larger weapons, however, and have fallen out of style.

Hammers, Axes, Splitting Mauls
The biggest problem with these weapons is that they require room to swing. Small axes, pick-axes, and hammers are less restricted than larger equivalents, but also do less damage to an opponent. Holding a very large hammer or axe is also considered a sign of power at the time my novel takes place in.

A splitting maul is an axe with a large blunt weight on the opposite side of the blade, which can also be used like a war-hammer. These are great for splitting large amounts of wood. They’re better as weapons of war, if there’s enough space to swing them.

Polearms
Polearms have largely fallen out of style. The exception to this rule is hunting on the surface.

Tigers have adapted to the cold, and know that a warm cave entrance will likely have prey inside if it doesn’t smell of gas. Human communities (the troglodytes) fight them off frequently with long spears, cross-guarded so that a stabbed tiger is held at bay much like a boar-spear. The Mordache have taken their idea, and navigators that travel between the cities on the surface carry these weapons on their runs (traveling on a sled pulled by teams of dogs– the spear snaps to the side, and most sleds are made to hold at least two).

Polearms are also used in the arena. A troglodyte forced to fight a tiger will be given a spear and a long, curved knife made of bone.

The half-spear
The half-spear competes with the short sword as the weapon of choice. Fast, agile, and ideal for stabbing forward, the spear is an aggressive weapon and is associated with speed and cleverness.

The Crossbow
The rise of the crossbow was the downfall of the throwing knife. Currently, crossbows are made in several styles. Large crossbows hold bolds an inch in diameter and come with gears to wind the string back in the mechanism. Small crossbows hold much thinner bolts, and can be held in one hand and loaded more quickly.

Ordinary crossbows are made for short range. Since the limit of its use is dictated by the available light, most are not accurate at long ranges.

There is a specialty crossbow that is designed to hit far targets. It requires a second machine to draw its string back, since it puts several hundred pounds of force on the draw. The bolts are very long, carved special. These are hard to find, expensive, and illegal; they’re primarily used for assassinations, aiming at a lit target from over a long distance.

word building: troglodytes

Troglodyte: someone who dwells in a cave [syn: caveman, cave man, {cave dweller}]
(Pulled from http://definr.com/ — very cool site for quick definitions)

The Mordache have decided that anyone who does not live under their rule is a troglodyte. The common (erroneous) belief is that all troglodytes are roughly similar.

It is a tradition in the Mordache cities, Vastii included, that every first day of the new year celebration a large Mordache city will hold an event where a wild troglodyte is pitted against a fresh tiger, where they will fight to the death. If the tiger wins, which it usually does, the celebrations continue unfettered. If the troglodyte wins, it is an omen of change and a testimony to the strength of men. The troglodyte is freed afterward (the Mordache require their slaves to have sold themselves into slavery through debts, oaths, or as a criminal punishment, so stolen cave-boys must be released by law). Then the Mordache conduct a religious ceremony to strengthen themselves for the days to come. Some Mordache believe that this is just a form of entertainment. Others take the event as a way to test the waters for the next year.

At the start of the novel, Rylan (my protagonist) admits that he did not live in Renideo when Princess Arielii died, twelve years prior. He arrived in the city several months after the princess’ death for the new year’s ceremony. He does not elaborate, though he could have; he had been the troglodyte thrown to the tiger that year. He had been fifteen, married younger than was generally accepted, his beard thin and half-grown, and his training in local medicines had been incomplete when he’d been stolen from his tribe. He’d never been able to find his home again.

Rylan is one of two (known) troglodytes in the novel. The other is a woman from another tribe, and though she is Rylan’s companion and ally Rylan tries to avoid her whenever possible.

Saffira paints her face with purple cream and wears colorful, loose robes, dozens of beaded necklaces that clank when she walks. Her command of Danache (the Mordache tongue) is so minimal that only Rylan’s companions can understand her. Rylan and Saffira are similar the same way that all the different Native American tribes resembled each other (not at all). Saffira’s people practice cannibalism and are notoriously more war-like than Rylan’s more agricultural community. Her sort of tribe was a subject of scary bedtime stories when Rylan was a boy.

Each tribe speaks its own language, and most troglodytes are recognized by their inability to speak Danache clearly. By the time the book starts, Rylan has completely shed the last vestiges of his accent and has largely forgotten most of his original language.

world building showcase, part ii

Here’s round two of the world-building showcase. We’ll have two more after this, on Monday if all goes according to schedule.


Eliza Wyatt found some pictures that resembled Vastii, and wrote a long post on her novel’s magic system (before getting ill last Thursday).


Merrilee Faber posted some maps she’d created.


RG Sanders has been posting on his project, Arbiture.


Nils has been posting on his world, Arnâron. Thus far he’s passed by most of the terrain-building and moved to people, animals, cultures, ect.


Nymeria posted pictures and maps for her project.


Cirellio has written more on divination, and the creatures in his world.


AC Gaughen has been posting about Shalia.


Natania Barron has been working on her story’s setting, the Aldersgate Cycle.


Agarithia has neatly collected each of her current posts (of which she has eight) into one page (here). We have three new topics this week.


Writer has added a post detailing the Beat Hotel.


SMD wrote about magic and geography.


Goldirocks wrote about government and religion.


JanVanHove is working on a sci fi setting.


M.C. Williams has written on Mythania, as well as an essay on magic in world building.


Jenniedee started with mythology.


Storytellingofravens has made two posts.


And that’s it for this week! I’ll post again next Monday with the third part of this series, and the final showcase will be displayed early September.