August 27, 2020

On the Third Day…

I got a request from Rhyen, which is great because I still haven’t really hammered those ideas on endings or comedy quite into shape. So that’s still some stuff for the future. Or, y’know, somebody else could ask something.


Rhyen wanted to know about worldbuilding. Not just “our world, but with secret werewolves” but full-on, hardcore fantasy worlds, sci-fi worlds, and so on. How (and when) do you come up with histories, cultures, and all that other stuff?

Y’know what? Let’s make this post super-active rather than me blathering away. Right here, right now, let’s look at werewolf world. The other version of it where everybody knows werewolves are real.

Now, I know, we said we were going to do more hardcore settings but just go with me for a minute.

I’ve mentioned Charlie Jane Anders once or thrice before, and her little note that there’s no such thing as “a world just like ours, except…” because any noteworthy “except” is going to change everything. If there really were werewolves and everybody knew about them, so much would be different in the world. Tonsof things.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go over a few things real quick. Just off the top of my head…

Here’s an easy change. There probably wouldn’t be any silver coins. In WereWorld anything with even a scrap of silver would’ve been gathered up and turned into anti-werewolf weapons or defenses. The government would be treating silver like uranium. 

Which, hey… how would warfare be different? Forget atom bombs… imagine if the Manhattan Project involved deliberately infecting a hundred or so troops with lycanthropy and then dropping them all on Nagasakiand Hiroshima on the night of the full moon. A hundred unstoppable killing machines running wild in each city. That’s a terror weapon, right there. And of course, if the Japanese capture two or three alive, now they’ve got their own werewolves.

But now without the USpouring all that money into nuclear warfare and missile programs… where does it all go? Infrastructure? Social programs? Schools? Would there be a Cold War? A Bay of Pigs? And if the Soviet Union leaned into werewolf warfare… what kind of arms races would there be? Would the USSRhave financially collapsed?

And we haven’t even talked about dating or sex in WereWorld. Hunting laws? Home security? Profiling? Legal issues—if I kill someone as a werewolf, am I legally responsible? Is it murder, which requires a degree of forethought, since the werewolf’s essentially an animal (or is it?)?

And all of these assume we just “discovered” werewolves somehow back in the early 1940s. What if it was even earlier? How would global exploration and trade have gone differently five hundred years ago if every twenty-nine days  one of your crew members might kill everyone on the ship? How different would the world map look right now?

Again, this is all off the top of my head. Seriously, I’ve spent maybe ten minutes on this. But I’ve completely rewritten the world, just by being aware that things would inevitably change in this situation.

So, with that in mind…

Creating a setting, any setting, is a lot like creating a character. I want to know them backwards and forwards. It’s fantastic if I have lots and lots of factoids about them easily on hand (you may remember that back before we all took the pandemic plunge, I talked about characters and their underwear choices).

I’ve mentioned character sketches once or thricebefore, and I think worldbuilding can be approached the same way. We come up with the bare basics and then we start fleshing it out by asking questions and maybe following a few paths to their logical outcome. Like I did up above with WereWorld.

Or let’s do something even more divorced from our world. Let’s say it’s going to be a fantasy world, maybe one with some gearpunk elements. So, easy one—is there actual magic in this fantasy world? Is it kind of rare or very common? Does it need components? Are they rare or common? Do people have spell-component gardens the way we might have an herb garden?

How about the gear-tech? How precise is it? Do you need mathematically perfect brass gears or do lots of people carve wooden ones after dinner? What do they use for power? Springs? Counterweights? Two or three big guys turning a crank?

Does magic dominate the gear-tech, or vice versa? Is one notably newer than the other? Does either have detractors, vocal or secretive? Are magic and/or gear-tech novelties or parts of everyday life? Do they ever cross-pollinate, so to speak? Are they expensive or so common everyone has access to some aspect of them?

Considering all of this, now… is this mostly an agrarian world? Are more people farmers? Hunters? Are there gearpunk tractors or crossbows? Magic millstones or knives that can skin anything? And if none of this ever filters down to the common folk… how do they feel about that?

Has the magic or gear-tech made travel easier? Are people still isolated in villages or are there much bigger cities, made possible because of these advances? Do people know more about the world?

Heck, how fantasy is this world? Are there supernatural or mythological creatures? Are they common? Domesticated? Are there things we know or all-new creatures? Does the farmer have a six-legged hexox dragging his plow? Are there gods? Demons? How do they feel about humans playing with magic and gear-tech?

Or heck… is it even humans? Is this about magical halflings or gearpunk elves? I just pictured a gearpunk lizardman and that seemed pretty cool.

If you’ve answered a lot of those questions, I bet you’ve got the beginnings of a pretty solid world in your head. And probably spun off a question or three of your own. Enough so that you can start setting up your plot.

And one thing to keep in mind—just like with characters, this might change as I go along. As the story grows and progresses, I might change a lot. I might add even more. It’s an ongoing process. Halfway through my outline or my first draft, I might realize I need to address currency. And, hey,  maybe this world has a really crappy exchange rate, so it matters if you’re getting paid with glowing quartz or brass gear-coins.

Again, the world is here to serve the story. You’re going to change and tweak it as you go. Maybe all the way up to your last draft. And just like with characters, you’ll keep coming up with cool little details and anecdotes.

Now… there’s three key things to remember…

First, I know I talk about editing things down a lot, but we can all breathe a small sigh of relief here. If I’ve got a story set in another world—a drastically different world—most editors are going to give me a little bit of leeway, word-count wise. They understand I’ll need a few extra pages to explain why Yakko is riding a gearpunk tractor powered by magical crystals.

This doesn’t mean I can go crazy listing details. Or that I can be really blunt with them. No pausing for two pages to randomly describe the wooden sun-and-planet gears in Yakko’s trailer. Or the long history of the mining guild that provides those magic crystals. One more time—say it with me—the world is here to serve the story. It’s okay to have a little extra flavor here and there, but I shouldn’t lose track of what my book is actually about.

Which brings me to my second point. Whenever I create a character, there’s a lot of things about them that are never going to come up in the book. Or maybe they come up, but they’re never explained. I might have tons of rich backstory and weird little details, but a lot of it just never becomes relevant.

For example, in the Threshold books, I know a ton of things about Veek. I know why she’s abrasive with most people. Why she likes wearing men’s suits and ties over women’s power suits. Heck, I made a note of when/how she lost her virginity. But the truth is, none of this has been relevant to any of the books she’s been in. It’s stuff I know, and it helps me make her feel more three dimensional on the page, but ultimately… it’s all kind of irrelevant if it doesn’t have anything to do with this book—with the plot I’m telling and the character’s arc through that plot.

Worldbuilding is the same way. No matter how fantastic or amazing the details of this world might be, they only matter if they’re going to have some kind of impact. While it may be very interesting how this society ended up with a hexadecimal/base sixteen number system, do we need to know any of that history for this story? Yes, WereWorld does have eleven continents and there’s a fascinating story behind it… which has nothing to do with this book.

And even then, I’d argue that if there’s no real reason for something to be different… maybe it shouldn’t be. I think one thing that confuses some people is they see this rich, historied world that the story’s set in and forget the world only exists to serve the story, not the other way around. If you look back at my A2Q discussion about the world Phoebe and Luna live in, I made choices based on what would be interesting for the plot and story, not what would make for an interesting world.

So I shouldn’t be coming up with (and using) new things just to come up with new, different things. I mean George RR Martin just uses leagues for distance in worldbuiding heavyweight A Song of Fire and Ice(perhaps better known by it’s Hollywood stage name, Game of Thrones). It sounds good, a little archaic, and he doesn’t have to waste half a page explaining what hekkrets are.

Or heck, here’s another example… any of you remember that old 70’s indie movie, Star Wars? There’s a great scene where Ben and his would-be-protégé are trying to hire a ship from some lowlife smuggler. And Ben tells him “We can pay you two thousand now plus fifteen… when we reach Alderaan.” Remember that?

So… two thousand what?

No, no, no. Don’t run to novelisations or books or articles that retconned this. Right there in the movie you watched… two thousand what?

Truth is, it doesn’t say and it doesn’t matter. For this story, the type of currency’s irrelevant. I don’t care if it’s Imperial credits or Old Republic scrip or gold-press latinum or Jawa skulls. Okay, I might care if it’s Jawa skulls because WTF Kenobi why do you have two thousand of these laying around?! What the hell have you been up to out in your little desert hut?

Anyway… no, all we need to know is that two thousand is a good amount (judging off everyone’s reactions) and fifteen more makes it a very good amount. Past that, we just don’t need to know why Solo wants all these Jawa skulls Kenobi’s collected. It’s not important. The dialogue’s solid and sounds believable, which is far more important that a brief segue to explain the various types of Galactic currency and their exchange rates.

This brings me to my third and final point.

Worldbuilding is, in my opinion, a really easy trap to fall into. Because worldbuilding is fun. Seriously. That question game we played up above? We can do that for weeks with worldbuilding. Months. Maybe even years. My world is going to be so huge and so complex with so many races and creeds and economies and social structures and seriously we can spend so much time doing this instead of…

Y’know, actually writing the story.

And that’s how I generally approach worldbuilding. You may need to change this approach a bit, depending on your own story and the kid of setting you want for it, but hopefully this’ll get you a little further down that path. Or help you find your own path.

Next time… endings.


Until then, go write.

Like a lot of you, I’m still feeling a little overwhelmed by everything going on right now. Awe-inspiring stuff. Long overdue stuff. But still overwhelming.
I thought about updating my list of top ten B-movie mistakes, but I really haven’t been up for bad movie geekery for a few weeks. So I shelved that idea for a while. Then it occurred to me there’s a related topic I haven’t discussed in… well, years. Not directly, anyway.
It probably goes without saying that I really like genre fiction. I grew up with Doctor Who and Star Wars and comics about Spaceknights who came to Earth to protect us from alien shapeshifting sorcerers. Sci-fi, horror, fantasy—I like reading ‘em, I like writing ‘em.

But you probably knew all of that already.

Point is, I’ve consumed so much of this stuff. In so many formats. A lot of it’s been fantastic. Some of it’s been… not so fantastic.

As I started taking storytelling and writing more seriously, as I started really breaking things down and studying them, I noticed a few similarities. Common problems that showed up again and again, especially in genre stories. Three of them.

To be clear, they’re not confined specifically to these stories—you might see these issues crop up in mysteries or romances or even literary fiction. They’re also not the only problems these stories can ever have (not by a longshot). But it’s kind of amazing how often a problematic sci-fi or fantasy and even horror will have one or more of these three issues.

The first issue is when we bury our stories in too much of our chosen genre. If I have an idea, it gets included in the story. No matter what it is—neat visual, cool character beat, clever way a door opens—I’ll fit it in there. If it was scary in that story, it’ll be scary in my story. Most of us have probably read a genre novel that went to great lengths to explain how the weapons, shoes, uniforms, food, transportation, education, and economics are all very different on that other world or in that not-too-distant future. If it’s a magical world, everything is ancient and magical and built by the fae. If it’s a sci-fi world, everything has nanites and AI and came from interdimensional aliens. People don’t wear glasses in these stories, they have optykwear, and a good set of optykwear can cost you seven or eight neshseks.
The problem with writing like this is my audience has nothing to connect with as they’re overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar elements. The people are different. The setting’s different. Motivations are different. Yeah, it’s a really cool alternate world where the Dark Ages never happened, all coinage is brass,  and wars are now fought with steampunk robot dragons run by difference engines, but the important thing is that my readers need to be able to understand this world and relate to it, while it’s on the page in front of them.
All the worldbuilding is good, but my story needs to have something my audience can immediately identify with in some way, and it’s best if it’s the main character. Someone who hates their job, who wants something they can’t have, or maybe who just feels like an outsider. A person with a universal need or desire.
When a reader believes in my characters, they’ll believe in what’s happening to my characters. It has to do with willing suspension of disbelief—I can’t believe in the big elements of a story if I don’t believe in the basics of it. Once I’m invested in Wakko’s life, then I’ll be more willing to go with it when he goes to work shoveling coal in the belly of a a giant steampunk dragon (but one day he’s going to be the commodore of the whole mechdragon fleet—you just wait and see)
There’s one very closely related issue to this, so close I’m not even going to branch off and make it a separate thing. Sometimes, all the laying-on of more genre gets a little monotone. Dramatic stories that are non-stop drama. The horror movie that’s nothing but horror. The magical fantasy series where everything is magical and fantastic. No matter how much I love this thing, it gets boring pretty quick when it’s all I’m getting.
We want our fiction to mirror our lives as much as possible, and the truth is very few of us lead monotone lives. They get broken up with moments of laughter (not always at appropriate times), random pettiness, unexpected excitement, casual flirting, and more. Our stories should be the same way.
The second issue happens when I try to explain everything. It’s confusing enough that I dropped readers right into a steampunk mechdragon battle, but now I’m going to pause that battle for ten pages while I explain how mechdragons came to be and where the best coal for their boilers is mined and how the creation of functioning wings (and the required steam- piston musculature) changed the nature of battle and hey I should probably talk about dragon tactics for a bit, right?
I think most people reading this have seen a story or two that suddenly deviated into that sort of excessive, often unnecessary exposition. I’ve read many stories that suddenly go to great lengths to explain how and why the serial killer turned out the way she did. Or how she ended up with superpowers and exactly how they work. Or both. At length.
What this leads to is stories that feel very detailed, but very little ever actually, y’know, happens. Page after page of explanation can add up really fast, and suddenly a third of my book is just… details.  And while I’m going over those details, my characters are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen again. It can also annoy my readers as all this information gets doled out, especially if it’s something that feels unnecessary and unmotivated.
I think there’s two ways to deal with this issue. One is something I’ve talked about here in the past—the ignorant stranger.  If I’m going to explain things, I should have an actual, in-story reason for them to be explained. Wakko may know the day-to-day workings of a mechdragon, but Phoebe’s a stowaway and he needs to help her pass as a crew member or she’ll be “dropped off”… and they’re three thousand feet up. So he has a solid, understandable reason to explain everything and she can ask a lot of the questions my readers probably have.
The other way to deal with this issue is the quick and easy one. Cut it. I can delete anything that isn’t actually necessary to the story. This can be tough, because, I mean… steampunk mechdragon wars! There’s so much cool stuff in those three words. But how much of it do I really need? Is it relevant or is it just me piling more “genre” onto the plot and story? Yeah, ceramic teeth are cool, especially on that scale, and I’ve come up with a crazy way how they’re made, but does my story fall apart if the reader just knows the mechdragon has… teeth? Does it change anything if in their mind they picture the teeth are brass or steel or diamond? Pages are precious—do I really want to spend part of one on this?
The third issue is actually the reverse of the last one. It’s when I don’t explain anything. There’s so much new stuff that there’s no context. I can’t tell if neshseks are coins or bills or maybe they’re not even money. Maybe this world works on the barter system and they’re some kind of gourd. Could be a massage or a sex act or maybe it’s some kind of pet? Maybe it’s a pet that gives great massages?
But it’s not just terminology. The genres also tend to collect mysterious characters who drop vague hints or implied threatsfor… reasons. Creepy messages appear on walls, sidewalks, computer screens and we never learn how they got there. Disturbing objects are discovered in the attic and never, ever discussed again.
I think there are two general reasons this issue happens. First is that, as the writer, I’ve sunk deep into my fictional world for the past five months and I forgot the reader… hasn’t. They have no idea what a neshsek looks like. Or what it’s used for. Or how many you can seriously expect to get from a relative stranger for two tinted sets of optykwear
The other reason is that people are trying to duplicate the sense of mystery and anticipation they got from another story, but they don’t really understand how and why it worked there. A lot of these weird mysteries are just a general lack. There is no explanation or reason or motivation behind what’s happening in the story. It’s just happening right now because… I wanted to tell a weird creepy story.
A friend of mine gave me a great rule of thumb once, and I think it’s the best way to deal with this issue. I kinda mentioned it up above—my main characters should mirror my audience. If my goal’s to make my audience puzzled and eager to learn more, then really Phoebe should be puzzled and want to learn more. If the reader’s angry about something, Wakko should probably be angry about it, too. Likewise, if Phoebe and Wakko are both really annoyed because they still don’t know what’s going on… well, I can probably guess how my audience feels right now, one way or the other…
Are these the only three problems that might crop up in my genre writing? No, not at all. I have faith in you that you will find awesome, all-new problems. But these are the ones I see appear again and again. So maybe they’re worth looking for in my manuscript. Just in case.
Next time… I’ve got kind of a follow up idea to this. It didn’t really fit here, but it’s a genre problem. Sort of.
Stay safe out there. Wash your hands. Wear your mask.
Until next time, go write.
May 21, 2020 / 1 Comment

Action Figures

And now I’d like to take a minute and talk to you about this really cool Machine Man figure I got off eBay this week.

No, not really. Although he is pretty cool. He’s got replacement hands with pieces so it can look like his arms are extending like they do in the comics.

(someone at Marvel should let me write Machine Man)

Anyway, I thought it might be good to revisit action. Yes, anything my characters do is an action, but I specifically want to talk about action. The dinosaur cyborg swordfight/ gunfighter strafing the room/ six burly guys in a bar trying to take out one MMA fighter and getting their asses kicked kind of action. The type of action your college writing professor said was pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I love a good action scene. On the page. In a movie. Hell, some television shows these days have fantastic action scenes. And I’ve been part of a few action scenes here and there in my own life.

Action, by its very nature, is fast. It’s a blur. If you’ve ever been part of an accident, a fight, a collision, or any kind of really dynamic moment, you know what I’m talking about. In the moment, things are just happening. It’s not until later, when things settle down, that we take stock and piece together all the details of what just happened. And then I’m not quite sure how my arm got cut or how my pant leg got ripped or oh crap is that my blood?

Here are a couple tips I try to keep in mind when I’m writing action scenes.

Keep it fastAction can’t drag. If it takes a full page for someone to throw a punch and connect, that means things are happening in slow motion. Even a paragraph can seem like a long time if I stretch stuff out.

My personal belief is action shouldn’t take much longer to read then it would to experience. Throwing that punch and the moment of contact are a sentence, tops. I pare fight scenes and action moments down to the bare minimum so they read fast. Two ways I do this are to clump some actions together, and also to trust the reader to figure out what happened on their own. 

—Hector kicked one of the man’s feet away and flung his head down at the formica tabletop.

—One minute Officer Barroll had the young woman under control and then she kicked off the ground, went up over the officer’s shoulder, and now somehow she was behind him pushing his arm up along his spine.

Notice how in that second example you probably (hopefully) got a cool mental image of what happened, but you’ll notice I didn’t give a ton of details. I just provided some quick images and a bit of tone. Your brain filled in all the connective tissue, fleshing out the moment and creating a lot of the action.

Keep it simple—I know a lot of terminology for weapons and martial arts, but I actually try not to use a lot of it when I write. Again, just my opinion, but I think a lot of that “gun porn” type stuff clutters up action scenes. I want this to move fast, and the more technical I get, the less likely most people will know what I’m talking about. Yes ushiro geri is the correct term for what Wakko just did, but if my reader has to stop to sound out words or parse meanings from context… that’s probably breaking the flow.

There’s nothing wrong with terminology, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  That time is rarely when someone’s swinging a baseball bat at your head or when you’re shooting at a charging T-Rex. Action is much more about instinct, and instinct rarely involves copyrights, brand names, or model numbers.

Keep it sensory—I just mentioned action is instinctive. There isn’t a lot of thought involved, definitely not a lot of analysis or pretty imagery. With that fast, simple nature in mind, I try to keep a lot of action to sounds, sights, and physical sensations. Like I mentioned up above, specific details can come later. I could write about a knife going deep into someone’s arm, severing arteries and veins as it goes, but in the heat of the moment it might just be the hot, wet smell of blood and the scrape of metal on bone.

Granted, writing this way can make it hard to describe some things, but again… a lot of that gets figured out after the fact anyway.  My characters will have a chance to sort things out once everything cools down. And some things get bandaged up.

Keep it real—Finally, like so many things in writing, it all comes down to characters.  Action needs to be based in characters with real emotion, characters we have some investment in. A stranger in a high speed car crash is kind of sad in an abstract way, but Yakko in a car crash is a tragedy and we want constant updates.

We also need to have some sense of stakes here. Is someone’s life at risk? Is it someone we should care about? Someone who’s going to have an effect on the plot? If I don’t have any of this, odds are my action is just some empty filler.

Now, as I mentioned at the top, these are all just tips, not rules. There’s lots of times you might want to ignore one or two of them. But there’s one particular exception I want to talk about.

A pretty common character to come across in stories is what we could probably call the fighting savant. You know the type. Batman, Melinda May, Jack Reacher, Stealth, John Wick—they’re the tough, unstoppable characters who’ve taken physical action to an art form through years of study and experience. For these people to not use precise terminology for weapons or moves could seem a little odd.  It makes sense they’d be able to dissect action as it’s happening around them, picking out beats and planning out responses the way you or I pick our lunch at Panda Express.

But remember… these characters by their very nature should be rare. If I’ve got a dozen utterly badass characters who all have badass moves with badass weapons… it means I’ve got a dozen guys who are all kinda average. It’s monotone, and it’s going to get boring real fast.

Two smaller tips to keep in mind when dealing with these savant-folks. One… think about fairy tales. You’ve probably seen some version of that old Grimm’s tale about the guy with a collection of friends. One is the strongest person in the world, one’s the fastest person in the world, one’s got the best hearing in the world… you know the story I’m talking about, yes? It’s a group of people who have superlative abilities, but in a very narrow, focused range. They don’t have a lot of overlap, which is why each one of them is individually important to my team. I mean, if I’ve got a team where every person can hit a bullseye from a hundred yards with a rifle, pistol, or knife… well, what the hell do I need a sharpshooter for? If they’re all strong enough to punch through concrete, what do I need a strong guy for? And if everyone on the team can do everything… I can probably get by with a much smaller team.

The other thing to remember is point of view. This character might be a master of  unarmed combat, but this one is a borderline giant who favors brute strength and savagery. They’re both going to give us some unstoppable action, but it’s going to be a very different kind of action depending on whose narrative it is. And that should reflect in my writing.

And that’s that.  A handful of ideas for writing fast, hard-hitting action.

Although I did actually have one other thing to say about action. But maybe it should wait until next time.

Until then, go write.

February 20, 2020 / 2 Comments

A2Q Part Three—Characters

Hey! Welcome back to the A2Q method. Thanks for your patience while I tossed down a bunch of other stuff.

Anyway… let’s get back to it.

Actually, before we get back to it, I want to mention something I should’ve brought up before. When this takes off and I combine it all together in a book, I’ll make sure this ends up back at the start of the plot post. Or, really, on the tail end of ideas.

We’re all creative in slightly different ways. We’re always going to start with ideas, yeah, but where we go from there is going to be different for all of us. And probably for every project. For some folks, ideas initially spark plots, for other people, ideas lead straight to characters. These are all correct, because storytelling is an art, and in art “correct” is what works for you.

So plot, characters, story, setting… these are all things you might come up with in a different order than I’m laying them out here. To be honest, because this is all early stages stuff, I’m just kinda tossing it out in the order it feels natural to me. A different order might feel a little more natural to you. We’re still early in the process and it’s all going to be a little different for everybody.

Here’s a way to think of it. When we’re following a recipe, it’s going to have a bunch of things in it. Two eggs, a cup of sifted flour, half a cup of sugar, and so on. There’s no reason I can’t start by measuring out the sugar. Or sifting the flour. Or maybe I’ll crack the eggs and put them in one of those little steel prep bowls. They’re just the ingredients, and the order we prepare them isn’t important, just that we have them ready and on hand when we start to cook.

Make sense?

Okay, so… characters.

Characters are the people who populate my world. They’re the ones who live in it every day. One way or another, they’re going to be our entry point and our guides into that world. Maybe we’ll be looking over their shoulders. Maybe we’ll be in their heads, hearing their thoughts and experiencing everything with them. However we do it, everything is really going to come down to them. I can have the coolest mystery ever, but if the people trying to solve it are annoying idiots my readers won’t even make it halfway through.

So, let me toss some character stuff at you.

First off, we’re going to have a protagonist. You may have heard them called the main character or the hero. I’m probably going to go with this because it’s a lot quicker to say (and type) than “protagonist.” We may have more than one hero in our book. I’ve seen some with a half a dozen or more, but those tend to be larger manuscripts. I think it’s harder (but not impossible) to have a lot of really good, well-rounded heroes in a smaller book, just because we’ve got less space to develop them. Not saying it’s impossible, but it’s going to be a lot harder to have ten main characters in a three hundred page book than in a nine hundred page one.

Even with fewer heroes—even just one—it’s important to remember right up front that I might have a lot of ideas about this character that never make it into the book. I can have a five page character sketch about their childhood, school years, music preferences, religious beliefs, sexual history, fashion sense, life goals, and retirement plans. That’s fantastic, and it’s never bad to know all these things about my characters. But it’s important to remember they might not all be directly relevant to the plot of my book, the events happening right now that stand out from every day events for my hero.

Consider it this way—you know all that stuff about yourself, right? All those things I just mentioned above? But how often do they come up? Pick one and think about the last time it was an important point in a given day. When was the last time it was important before that? Some might be important to bring up in a job interview, others will be more relevant on a date. But it’s really rare that they’re all going to be important.

Also it’s important to note two things when we say “hero.” One—which is hopefully obvious, but just in case—is that I’m using hero in the gender-neutral sense, not the masculine one. My protagonists can be whoever I want them to be. Second is that we’re using it in the classic literary sense, not in the “saved a busload of Chechen orphans” way. My hero doesn’t need to be someone who rappels down buildings or fires two guns whilst jumping through the air. “Hero” in this case just means they’re the focus of our attention.

Now, besides our hero, we’re probably going to have some supporting characters. These are the folks who, well, help support the character’s journey through the tale I’m telling. They’re the best friends and co-workers and werewolf hunting lodge-mates of our hero. In some cases they might actually help support the main character’s journey. In others, they’re helping support the journey itself, giving more flavor and detail to the world.

It’s key to note that, by their very nature, my supporting characters aren’t going to be as well-developed as my main characters. They can still have fun quirks and odd habits and backstories, but I’m just not going to be spending as much time with them. So I need to be aware of (sorry to bring math into this) what percentage of the book they’re actually going to be in, and what percentage of that is going to be devoted to furthering the overall plot or my hero’s journey.

Wow. Did I just say “hero’s journey” in a non-mocking way? I’m so sorry. We’ll deal with that later.

We’re also going to have some background characters. These are the folks who, like in a movie, sort of drift in and out around my protagonist, but rarely interact with them in any meaningful ways. Bartenders. Taxi drivers. The 108 other people who work in the department store. The twenty-three artisans at the lodge who make werewolf-hunting equipment. We may get quick descriptions of these folks, they may have a line of dialogue here or there, but they’re rarely key to anything past filling out a room… or maybe a few lines on a casualty report. Most of them won’t even get a name.

In my humble opinion, it’s really important to remember the hierarchy with these people. If my supporting characters are a tier below my heroes in terms of development, these background folks are going to be a tier below that. They’re not going to have a lot of description or backstory because… well, they’re just not that important. Nothing hinges on them. Think of those percentages I mentioned for supporting characters and apply it here. We all love rich, well-rounded characters, but do I have the time or space (heck, do my readers have the patience) to spend half a page on someone who’s not going to be at all relevant to this book? Once for the really cute cashier with the magenta hair. Maybe one more time for that archivist with the interesting accent and the hat. But these really, really need to be exceptions.

And there’s a reason for this. Readers automatically assume that if I mention someone in detail, they’re going to be important to the narrative. They take note of these characters, file them away for later reference. Time I spend with someone (or someones) who isn’t important is time I’m not spending with the characters who are important and, probably, time spent confusing my reader. I don’t want them taking mental notes on two pages of Andrea’s backstory only to find out she’s just here to say “You can go in now.” I might get away with it once, maybe twice, but this is something that’ll burn patience really fast.

Now, one last type of character we’re probably going to have is the antagonist. This is the person (or persons) who are between my hero and whatever they’re trying to do—you remember, that plot we were talking about last time. Often they’ve got a vested interest in my hero not doing that thing, in failing to achieve their goals.

It’s important that my antagonist be an actual character, not just a cliché obstacle going “Muah-ha-hah” while they kick sand in my hero’s face. They’ve got a history, a life, that led them to end up in this position now. In their own way, they need to be as well-rounded as my hero or they’re just going to look like a cliché. And clichés are boring

A few quick things to keep clear. First my antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain. They can be, but they may just be somebody doing a job. They me be a good person trying to do the right thing, but that still puts them against my protagonist.

Second, my antagonist may not be a person. It might be a system or a society (or a secret society). It could be a disease. It could be a species, like invasive ants or super-werewolves. Even if it is, though, I’ve found there still tends to be an individual we can focus on. An embodiment of the issue. The foreclosing banker who represents how society screwed us. The infected member of our family we’re trying to treat. That one super-werewolf hunting the woods out on the edge of town.

Finally, I think it’s worth being aware that there are different levels of antagonists. There can be supporting characters on this side of the equation, too, so we need to think about those percentages again. Store managers, henchmen, random prison guards, and so on. I’ve heard them called “the officious chaff” (and if you know who called them that please remind me because my mind’s gone blank). These folks can be propelling parts of my narrative, but I still don’t want to spend too much time with them.

I may have ideas for a bunch of different characters, and I need to figure out which of these categories they’re going to fit in. As writers, this is a big part of our job. Figuring out who my hero is (or maybe who they are) and making them an active participant in my plot.  Really, the plot should be happening because of my hero’s actions.  If not, they’re just a bystander watching someone else’s narrative unfold.

Got all that? It’s a lot, I know. And I’ve been trimming a lot of this as I’m writing it. There’s a few more things I want to touch on.

I’m a big believer that good heroes always share three traits. They’re likable, they’re relatable, and they’re believable within their world. A key thing about all these—I’m referring to the reader’s perception of them, not other characters. This is something I think gets overlooked a lot when people talk about writing. They’re two very different viewpoints, and it needs to be clear which one we’re referring to.

That said… let’s talk about these three traits real quick.

When we say a hero needs to be likable, I don’t mean they need to be pleasant or cheerful or re-home shelter dogs or bake cookies for new neighbors. But they do need to be someone I, as a person holding the book, like reading about. I have to find something about them attractive or enjoyable or admirable. If there’s nothing to like, there’s no reason to keep reading. If you follow me on Twitter when I watch my Saturday geekery movies, an all-too common complaint is “who am I supposed to be rooting for?” Every character is boring or a jerk or annoying or misogynist or racist or a combo of several of these things. Why would I like reading about someone like that?

When we say a hero needs to be relatable, it means we need to identify with them somehow. We should see ourselves in them and some of their struggles and hopes and dreams. We don’t know what it’s like to live in a poverty-stricken future dystopia, but a lot of us can relate to Katniss Everdeen’s impulsive need to protect her family and her basic desire to survive. Likewise none of us know what it’s like to be a professional werewolf hunter, but most of us can probably relate to having to stick with a job that doesn’t pay that great. Some of us may even understand Phoebe’s ongoing frustration with her younger sister, who she’s had to raise since their parents died. As I mentioned up above, our hero’s going to lead us through our story, and they’re going to have a hard time doing that if we don’t understand them and empathize with them to some degree.

Finally, our hero needs to be believable within their world. Sure, if Harry Potter tells some bloke on the street he’s a wizard, it makes sense that they wouldn’t believe him. Even if he shows them some magic, it’s understandable said bloke would just think it’s a trick. But we believe Harry’s a wizard because we’ve seen the wizarding world behind the curtain, so to speak.

At the same time, that doesn’t make Harry a believable character if we suddenly drop him into the world of The Expanse. Now it’s ridiculous that we’re trying to say magic exists in that hard-science narrative. If I tell you that my story’s set in the real world and Phoebe’s a professional werewolf hunter, well, either she’s a bit unbalanced or this is some kind of marketing gag for a movie or game. But if I tell you it’s a world where werewolves are real—even if most people don’t know about them—well, then it makes sense there’d be people who hunt them, on a professional level and maybe amateurs, too.

So, all that said, let’s consider a few character ideas for our novel and maybe give them a few quirks and traits. Heck, maybe the quirks or traits were the initial ideas and now we’re kinda working backwards. It all works.

Let’s just admit Phoebe’s our hero. We know she’s a werewolf hunter with money problems, because it doesn’t pay great. She’s part of a werewolf hunting lodge, so maybe this is an inherited position or a “legacy” thing. Her parents are dead and she’s been raising her younger sister, which has probably had at least as much of an impact on her life as her job has. That’s about 95% of her day right there.

We’ll call her little sister Luna. Right off the bat, we know she’s young enough that she’s not out on her own, which also gives us an age range for Phoebe since there’s probably a believable age difference between two sisters. Let’s call it eight years difference for now. We’ll put Luna at seventeen—right on the brink of legal adulthood, so they’ve got lots to talk about—and that makes Phoebe twenty-five (pencil that in up above).

Let’s combine two supporting characters up above and say Andrea has the magenta hair and she’s the public face of the werewolf-hunters lodge. You don’t get in without getting past her. I picture her with  big round glasses, just because. She’s probably a bit dismissive because she has to deal with everybody at one point or another, so the less time she has to deal with someone, the better.

Now, by nature of the story we’ll probably need a few more supporting characters. There can be Luc, another werewolf hunter from the lodge. He’s a rival for Phoebe and maybe a romantic interest for Luna. Yeah, keep her age in mind, that’s going to be important issue. Or maybe this is a romantic triangle? Or maybe they just both hate him. We’ll all figure it out together. One way or another, she needs to talk to somebody at the lodge.

We can also have Quinn, who makes most of Phoebe’s weaponry and armor. Not sure if Quinn’s a man or a woman yet, but it’s someone else for her to talk with at the lodge and I just love the idea of someone who makes weapons and yes, my name begins with Q, I get it. No I’ve never heard that before. Can we move on now?

Phoebe and Luna’s parents are going to come up, one way or another, so I should probably know something about them. How did they die? Did they die together or separately? Random accident? Tragic backstory? Does it have something to do with being werewolf hunters? I’m going to say it was a werewolf attack, but the lodge has kept some of the details from Phoebe and Luna. That’s a good start for now.

I should probably come up with one or three people in town, too. Other folks Phoebe will have to deal with who aren’t part of the lodge. We know she has money problems, so there’ll be two or three discussions with the landlord. Maybe a friendly bartender she confides in, because this is a friggin’s stressful situation she’s in and she’ll need some downtime away from Luna (plus, a friendly bartender will give her a drink or two on the house). Who else would she end up talking to in town? Another person making gear or training her on the side? Is there someone else she owes money to? If Luc isn’t a love interest, does she have a friend with benefits?

Plus, let’s not forget our antagonist—that werewolf out in the forest on the edge of town. They’re hungry and dangerous and Phoebe shot them with a silver crossbow bolt and it did nothing. That’s something we really need to deal with. Plus… I’m using a neutral pronoun but is this werewolf neutral? Is it male or female? Maybe more importantly… who is this werewolf during the day? Someone we know? Do they know they’re the super-werewolf? Do we know they’re the werewolf?

For our purposes, I’m going to say right now that Luna is the super-werewolf, but she doesn’t know it herself until a little more than halfway through the story. Knowing this up front is going to help me shape a lot of scenes and structure my narrative. The readers aren’t going to find out until Phoebe does, because Phoebe’s my protagonist and we’re more or less learning things as she does. If we learned Luna’s secret too much before Phoebe, it could potentially make her look dumb and it means my reader’s going to be waiting for her to catch up. Also, this is going to set up some great conflicts between Phoebe and Luna, but also with Luc and the rest of the lodge. After all, their job is to kill werewolves, so where does that put Phoebe?

That’s a nice cast for now. We may add two or three more as we develop the plot and the narrative a little more, but this gives us something to start thinking about. It even helps us shape our plot a little more because it’s given us some new elements to throw into the mix.

And I think I’m going to stop here because this has gotten huge. There’s so much more to say about characters in general, but I think this is a lot of the key stuff we need to think about as we’re playing around in these early stages. You may notice I dropped a lot of links to previous posts about characters, so feel free to explore.

Next time, we’re going to expand out characters a bit more and talk about story.

Until then, go write.