JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

REBLOG: Man vs. Self – A Guide to Writing Internal Conflict — R. Morgan Stories

Dec
28

Here’s a great rundown of psychological struggles for you characters that I couldn’t help but share. R. Morgan does a great job distilling concepts like gestalt down into digestible bits. Some of you might recognize the must vs. need conflict, which I think is very similar or the same as the “truth and lie” concept in character arcs. All in all, a good post that might be a”good starting point for a character who seems to have no or very little development.”

~J.M.

A psychological point of view to writing internal struggles

via Man vs. Self – A Guide to Writing Internal Conflict — R. Morgan Stories

REBLOG: How To Be A Fantasy Character 101

May
08

Here is a very humorous approach to the now common list of fantasy cliches that has become almost cliche itself. I’m surprised by how many of these I’ve actually ignored from the start. Maybe that’s due to my coming into my current habit with a decent amount of experience in hand. As with all warnings about cliches, and any writing advice in general, the point is not to reject such cliches outright but to be aware of them and not fall into the trap of using them without care because it’s easy.

Inns and taverns is the one in this list that I feel is less a cliche than an honest reality. Inns were important for town life for a long time, before being replaced by coffee shops and cafes. Lots of important historical stuff happened in inns and taverns. The Culper Ring was centered on a tavern and its keeper. I honestly think any medieval story would feel odd without mention of the local inn or tavern, as it was a critical locus of town life. But that’s just me.

Share: The Bus Test

Apr
25

Here is a great tool for writers: the bus test. It is a quirky way to measure the value and emotional depth of your characters.  I do not agree that a reader has to “become” a character. In fact I find that idea preposterous in most cases, since fictional characters are by their very nature unreachable. How can someone know what it is to be an alien, or a wizard, or even a killer? Even the author doesn’t really know. The best you can hope for is empathy, for your reader to understand the character’s struggles and feel for them, not to put themselves in the character’s shoes.

Besides that point, I like what this little article has to say and I think it is a good tool to add to your box.


The Bus Test: A Simple and Merciless Method for Improving Characters

By Mike Cluff

Do me a favor and read this first paragraph from a story:

Alley sat on a park bench. She sat there eating a taco. She hated tacos. Just like she hated Jim. But she couldn’t resist either one. They were both so beefy and greasy. Alley had to call Becky and tell her how much she was looking forward to going shopping. She needed a new pair of skinny jeans. Alley started texting instead. She stood up, and as she crossed the street a bus rounded the corner and flattened her. End.

I imagine you’re wondering a few things… READ MORE

Character Arcs

Jan
17

Below is an article that discusses ways to use  arcs and growth to deepen your characters.

I agree with the points that Jason Black offers, but I would add that character arcs do not have to lead to an ending where the character “becomes a better person.” Tragedy can be just as compelling. Some of the best character arcs/story arcs are what I would term “hero’s fall” arcs.

It is quite commonplace to start with a mundane protagonist and, through your story, build them into a hero. This would be a “hero’s rise” sort of arc, and they are probably the most common in fantasy. However, starting with a powerful hero and having them lose in the end can be very powerful. Just look at the appeal of Anakin Skywalker. Or Shakespeare’s most famous works. People can related to failure, perhaps more than they can relate to heroics.

But if you’re writing a rising character arc, it would be helpful to read over Black’s tips.


Seven Ways to Show Character Growth

(by Jason Black)

The best novels offer a strong storyline coupled with a strong character arc. A character arc is nothing more than the inner process by which a character becomes a better person. When the events in a storyline, coupled with how a character reacts to them, cause the character to become in some way a more mature person, that’s a character arc… READ MORE

Perspective and Words – Writeworks

Jan
08

Here’s another interesting article on the WriteWorks blog about perspective and how it affects the meanings of words. The word used as an example here is “home.” What does that word mean to you? For me, living abroad, it has a dual-meaning. It is where I live, with my wife and cats, but it is also that place I came from, that I have not been back to in several years.

My characters all have different experiences with home, some good and some bad. Some find themselves longing for the home of their youth, some are fleeing it, trying to build a new one. In the end, I agree that it is important for writers to understand how words can have different meanings and connotations based on a character’s perspective (or reader’s perspective–but that’s a whole other can of worms).


Home is Where the Heart Is

Perspective is essential in art and life.

As I sit here this morning, pondering the various offerings that my friends have left for me on social media, I came across a cute photoshop of a country house surrounded by trees. In the background, an idyllic sunset (or sunrise – how you decide will determine your score on this part of the test) fills the sky with a burst of color and light. Below it reads the caption, “Home is Where the Heart Is.”…Read More Here

Learning, to Let Go – A (very) Short Story

Nov
27

Sparrow looked down at the massive shark lying on the table. It reeked something terrible and she worried how that stench would intensify once she cut it open. She was at the  Liminal stages of becoming a true fisherman, but she didn’t know if she could see it through.

Of course the older veterans had left her, the new girl, to do the dirty work. She was expected to chop the fish into manageable bits and place them in sealed containers to be left in the sea to keep cool. Cutting and chopping she knew well, but never with such cold flesh as this.

She grabbed a large cleaver from is notch in the large cutting block. It felt heavy in her hand. She watched the light bounce off the polished metal, thinking of the other blades she had held in her life before. They had not been tools, nor designed to aid the people. They had been weapons of death and nothing more. Was it really such a bad thing to get a little dirty so that the children of the village could eat?

But the smell was overpowering. She had grown up far from the sea, near mountains and forests. She had rarely eaten fish, let alone bathed in its particular aroma.

She found a moderately clean rag on a far shelf and tied it around her face. That solved one problem. But nothing was going to save her clothes.

She finally gave in and took to her work, making a big mess of it. From behind she could hear the laughter of the ship’s old captain.

“The point of the apron is to let the blood hit that and not the rest of the room,” the old man chuckled. “I dare say it’s the cleanest thing in here.”

Sparrow noticed that he walked around easily, without holding his nose. Maybe you got used to the smell, she wondered. She didn’t know if she wanted to get used to it.

The old man came to her and took the cleaver from her wet hands. He showed her where to slice, what to keep and what little bits to discard. She was astonished by his patience. Feeling out of place was not easy. Seeming to sense her thoughts, the old captain smiled warmly and spoke:

“Don’t worry. We’ll make a fisherman out of you yet.”

*A previous and related story featuring the character Sparrow can be found HERE.

Pratchett’s Thud!- Part 3, the Aftermath

Nov
24

So I am nearing the end of Thud! and the suspense is killing me, as usual. Pratchett does do a good mystery. I got past the part where Angua and the girls finally call an end to the night. It was too funny not to share:

“I’ve never been on a Girls’ Night Out before,” said Cheery, as they walked, a little uncertainly, through the night-time city. “Was that last bit supposed to happen?”

“What bit was that?” said Sally.

“The bit where the bar was set on fire.”

“Not usually,” said Angua.

“I’ve never seen men fight over a woman before,” Cheery went on.

“Yeah, that was something, wasn’t it?” said Sally. They’d dropped Tawneee off at her home. She’d been in quite a thoughtful frame of mind.

“And all she did was smile at a man,” said Cheery.

“Yes,” said Angua. She was trying to concentrate on walking.

“It’d be a bit of a shame for Nobby if she lets that go to her head, though,” said Cheery.

Save me from talkative druks … drinks … drunks, Angua thought. She said, “Yes, but what about Miss Pushpram? She’s thrown some quite expensive fish at Nobby over the years.”

“We’ve struck a blow for ugly womanhood,” Sally declared loudly. “Shoes, men, coffins … never accept the first one you see.”

“Oh, shoes,” said Cheery, “I can talk about shoes. Has anyone seen the new Yan Rockhammer solid copper slingbacks?”

“Er, we don’t go to a metalworker for our footwear, dear,” said Sally. “Oh … I think I’m going to be sick…”

“Serves you right for drinking … vine,” said Angua maliciously.

“Oh, ha ha,” said the vampire from the shadows. “I’m perfectly fine with sarcastic pause ‘vine’; thank you! What I shouldn’t have drunk was sticky drinks with names made up by people with less sense of humor than, uh, excuse me … oh, noooo…

“Are you all right?” said Cheery.

“I’ve just thrown up a small, hilarious, paper umbrella…Oh dear.”

“And a sparkler…”

It’s a good wrap up to the previous scenes (there’s a second bar scene, but it doesn’t add much to the first). The scene above clearly demonstrates the rapport developing between Angua and Sally, in that she felt secure enough to make fun of the stereotypical vampire accent.

In the Discworld, vampires speak with a very caricatured German accent, with Vs substituting for Ws. But this is the first time I recall characters being annoyed by it. Vimes does the same in an earlier scene in the book:

“Mr Vimes,” said Mrs Winkings, “ve cannot help but notice that you still haf not employed any of our members in the Vatch…”

Say ‘Watch’, why don’t you? Vimes thought. I know you can. Let the twenty-third letter of the alphabet enter your life.

In all, it’s turning out to be a great book. Pratchett is pushing gender a bit more than usual in this work, especially with the girls at the bar. He clearly making a statement about the fluidity of identity and the weakness of generalizations and stereotypes, here and throughout the book. I think people these days might benefit by giving the decade old book a go.

Pratchett’s Thud!, Part 1
Pratchett’s Thud!, Part 2

For decent discussions on Pratchett and gender, you can visit the webpage of Tansy Rayner Roberts

She offers a good gender-focused review of Thud! HERE. Though I have only read half of the article, since the second part reviews a book I haven’t gotten to yet.

Pratchett’s Thud! – Part 2, the Ladies Night Out Scene

Nov
23

Terry Pratchett is a master of fiction, and his Discworld novel Thud! is a masterpiece. While I am not fully though the book, I felt compelled to share this commentary while it is fresh in my mind.

One scene that stood out to me as representative of Pratchett’s humor and brilliant characters was the scene in Thud! where the main female cast goes bar hopping. Strangely, I often find myself drawn to Pratchett’s female characters. Being a male writer, I am often concerned with the portrayal of my female characters, where they ring true and honest. Writing from perspectives you have no experience with seems to be a gamble. It is one that Pratchett often wins.

(My discussion on the topic and more Pratchett analysis can be found here. )

Below I will share the text of the scene interspersed between my analysis and comments. Since I enjoy my Discworld in the form of audio books, this passage is derived from ear and from quotes found online. As such it may have different formatting from the original text.

The Ladies Night Out Scene:

The drinking had started in The Bucket, in Gleam Street. This was the coppers pub. Mr. Cheese, the owner, understood about coppers. They liked to drink somewhere where they wouldn’t see anything that reminded them they were a copper. Fun was not encouraged.

It was Tawneee who suggested that they move to Thank Gods It’s Open.

Angua wasn’t really in the mood, but she hadn’t the heart to say no. The plain fact was that while Tawneee had a body that every other woman should hate her for, she compounded the insult by actually being very likable. This was because she had the self-esteem of a caterpillar and, as you found out in any kind of conversation with her, about the same amount of brain. Perhaps it all balanced out, perhaps some kindly god had said to her: Sorry, kid, you are going to be thicker than a yard of lard, but the good news is, that’s not going to matter.

And she had a stomach made of iron, too. Angua found herself wondering how many hopeful men had died trying to drink her under the table. Alcohol didn’t seem to go to her head at all. Maybe it couldn’t find it. But she was pleasant, easygoing company, if you avoided allusion, irony, sarcasm, repartee, satire and words longer than chicken.

One great thing about Pratchett’s work is the incredible world he built. The city of Ankh Morpork–the core location of the Discworld where the Watch series and many other stories take place–is clearly based on London, though in a very warped and cynical way, the negative aspects of urbanism overpowering the positives. There is a river passing through the city, which is a key to its geography and identity. The headquarters of the Watch–the police force in the city–is located at Pseudopolis Yard. These are clearly drawn from real-world London.

Over thirty-odd years Pratchett was able to create a world of incredible depth–much like the development of Ankh Morpork itself–by building right on top of what was laid down previously. In the passage above we see him create a new space in his city, the Thank Gods It’s Open pub. This is added to already established locations such as The Bucket and Gleam Street. I would not be surprised to see it mentioned again in the future.

The scene continues:

Angua was tetchy because she was dying for a beer, but the young man behind the bar thought that a pint of Winkles was the name of a cocktail. Given the drinks on offer, perhaps this was not surprising.

“What,” said Angua, reading the menu, “is a Screaming Orgasm?”

“Ah,” said Sally. “Looks like we got to you just in time, girl!”

“No,” sighed Angua, as the others laughed; that was such a vampire response.

This was the exchange that stood out to me, which made me want to share this scene. The timing and rhythm of the joke is simply perfect, masterfully delivered by the audiobook narrator Stephen Briggs.

The whole purpose of this whole scene is to develop a character bond between Angua and Sally. Angua is tired, emotionally and physically, and Sally suggest going out for drinks and time off. Up until this point, their relationship always focused on the fact that one is a werewolf and the other a vampire, mortal enemies that could never possibly be friends. Here the animosity begins to break down.

The scene continues:

 “I mean, what’s it made of?”

“Almonte, Wahlulu, Bearhuggers Whiskey Cream and vodka,” said Tawneee, who knew the recipe for every cocktail ever made.

“And how does it work?” said Cheery, craning to see over the top of the bar.

Sally ordered four, and turned back to Tawneee. “So … you and Nobby Nobbs, eh?” she said. “How about that?” Three sets of ears flared.

The other thing you got used to in the presence of Tawneee was silence. Everywhere she went, went quiet. Oh, and the stares. The silent stares. And sometimes, in the shadows, a sigh. There were goddesses who’d kill to look like Tawneee.

“He’s nice,” said Tawneee. “He makes me laugh and he keeps his hands to himself.”

Three faces locked in expressions of concentrated thought. This was Nobby they were talking about. There were so many questions they were not going to ask.

“Has he shown you the tricks he can do with his spots?” Angua said.

“Yes. I thought I’d widdle myself! He’s so funny!”

Angua stared into her drink. Cheery coughed. Sally studied the menu.

This whole scene is about characters, and here we start to see how varied they can be. We get a impression of the main girls–Angua and Cheery–the reputation of Nobby (the ladies of the Watch assume him to be a lecherous hound, but we are given a different perspective here), and we start to unravel the new character Tawnee. All delivered with humor and great care.

The scene continues:

“And he’s very dependable,” said Tawneee. And, as if dimly aware that this was still not sufficient, she added sadly, “If you must know, he’s the first boy who’s ever asked me out.”

Sally and Angua breathed out together. Light dawned. Ah, that was the problem. And this one’s a baaaad case.

“I mean, my hair’s all over the place, my legs are too long and I know my bosom is far too…” Tawneee went on, but Sally had raised a quieting hand.

“First point, Tawneee…”

“My real name’s Betty,” said Tawneee, blowing a nose so exquisite that the greatest sculptor in the world would have wept to carve it. It went blort.

“First point, then … Betty” Sally managed, struggling to use the name, “is that no woman under forty-five…”

“Fifty,” Angua corrected.

“Right, fifty… no woman under fifty uses the word bosom to name anything connected to her. You just don’t do it.”

“I didn’t know that,” Tawneee sniffed.

“It’s a fact,” said Angua. And, oh dear, how to begin to explain the jerk syndrome? To someone like Tawneee, on whom the name Betty stuck like rocks to a ceiling? This wasn’t just a case of the jerk syndrome, this was it, the quintessential, classic, pure platonic example, which should be stuffed and mounted and preserved as a teaching aid for students in the centuries to come. And she was happy with Nobby!

Here we really start unpacking the character of Tawneee. She’s described as divinely beautiful, something that she doesn’t realize. She is clearly quite slow, but is kindhearted and humble in a way that defies revulsion.

We also see Pratchett’s take on gender in the concept of “jerk syndrome.” This is further defined later in the book, but essentially means the situation where a woman (or hypothetically a man) is so attractive that the opposite sex is too intimidated to ask her our, feeling he is far our of her league. In such cases, only a jerk who is too stupid to realize he is lesser than her will ask her out.

(A decent explanation of Jerk Syndrome can be found here )

Angua assumes Nobby is bad for Tawneee because he is remarkably ugly (the running joke being he must carry papers certifying he is indeed human) and she beautiful. This is how the main girls judge the situation, in very standard way, but Tawneee offers a quite different point-of-view. She appreciates Nobby for his kind personality (which seems to be, in fact, well established in Pratchett’s books). This clash of perspectives only helps to deepen the characters involved.

The scene concludes:

“What I’ve got to tell you now is…”she began, and faded in the face of the task, “is … Look, shall we have another drink? What’s the next cocktail on the menu?”

Cheery peered at it. “Pink, Big and Wobbly,” she announced.

“Classy! We’ll have four!”

Of course Pratchett felt the need to end the scene with a joke, which had me giggling. Its a good wrap-around to the original drink-name joke, and it also anchors the scene on its key discussion, sex and relationships. That is part of how Angua and Sally ended up at the bar, the former jealous of her significant other’s approval of the latter, the latter wanting to diffuse tensions with the former. What we get is an examination of the complexity of relationships and how simple concepts cannot fully explain human bonds and relationships. And we get some good humor at the same time.

This scene represents those aspects that draw me to Pratchett as a reader, as a devotee of strong and complex characters. The writing is not lofty, convoluted or self-important. It is direct, meaningful and humorous. That is the appeal of Pratchett. There is a reason why he has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.

The literati might not like Terry Pratchett, but I love the man. I wonder how I will get by after finishing all the Dsicworld books. Only seven left. I get teary just thinking about it.

The scene analysis above is not thorough or deep, I just needed an excuse to share this great piece of writing with you!

Pratchett’s Thud!, Part 1

Pratchett’s Thud! – Part 1, A Medley of Characters

Nov
23

I am currently working my way through the final pages–or rather minutes–of Terry Pratchett’s incredible Discworld novel Thud!. It is an amazing piece of work, one of Pratchett’s finest, and I feel compelled to share my response. My main purpose in writing is to share a specific scene from the book, the “ladies’ night out” scene, but first I want to detail why Pratchett and this book are so deserving of your attention.

I’m sure that I mentioned many times before how much of a Terry Pratchett fan I am. The man was a master of world-building, in particular, deep and resonate characters. Though he includes humor in is work, much more in earlier works, he does not rely solely on humor and eccentricity to keep readers hooked like Douglas Adams (not that there is anything wrong with that, I love Adams, too).

The characters are what keep readers like myself coming back for more, and Pratchett’s best characters are those in the City Watch series of books. His watchmen (and women) feel real, with honest reactions to the strangeness of the world. Though Sam Vimes takes most of the limelight, I find myself more attached to the supporting characters such as Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs, Angua, Detritus–characters that have much more varied backgrounds and personalities than  the stock soldier/copper types in the lead.

Here is an interesting exchange between Colon and Nobbs (their exchanges are always interesting) as Sergeant Colon tries to Elicit a response from his protege.

“War, Nobby. Huh! What is it good for?” [Colon] said.
“Dunno, Sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?”
“Absol—well, okay.”
“Defending yourself against a totalitarian aggressor?”
“All right, I’ll grant you that, but—”
“Saving civilization from a horde of—”
“It doesn’t do any good in the long run is what I’m saying, Nobby, if you’d listen for five seconds together,” said Fred Colon sharply.
“Yeah, but in the long run, what does, Sarge?”

This passage reveals the dichotomy between the characters, Colon’s suspicion against Nobby’s optimism. It also reveals Pratchett’s humor, and the way he connects the present to the past, our world to the Discworld, in a very fluid way. Everyone knows the reference here (except Colon, of course), but it does not seem out of place in a book where the plot revolves around conflict and potential war. It fits, and it’s funny.

But Pratchett’s books are more than just humor and adventure, there is a subtle philosophy to it as well. This is best embodied in the lead character of the Watch novels, Sam Vimes. The character represents authority in a world shifting from authoritarianism to a sort of republicanism; Vimes often finds himself on the side of the latter. This is well demonstrated by another Thud! quote, this one a passage from Vimes’ perspective:

He hated games that made the world look too simple. Chess, in particular, had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the king lounged about doing nothing. If only the pawns would’ve united… the whole board could’ve been a republic in about a dozen moves.

Pratchett’s characters are deep, thinking people who are affected by their world and affect it in turn. That is the hallmark of good fiction, in my opinion.

In my next post, I will examine a specific scene from the book that stood out to me as memorable and warranting mention.

Pratchett’s Thud!, Part 2

Writing Tip: Earthiness

Nov
11

42003807 - colorful butterfly sitting on the palm

Recently my friend–who also happens to be my current editor–gave me a good bit of advice.

It started when he said something along the lines of “I’m not a wizard, so how am I going to understand what this character is going through?”

Anyone who had been writing fiction for a while knows that you have to hook you’re reader, you have to connect them to the story and the characters. It’s a common sense idea. For me though, I always thought part of the connection was the exoticism of the characters.

Part of the fun is learning what it’s like to be a wizard, getting into the shoes of someone completely different than me. But no one is completely different from anyone else. You might even argue we have more in common than not. I have more in common with Ellen Ripley than those little shifts of gender and technological advancement.

That, then, is another angle, that of common human experience (a bit harder when you’re writing about elves or Klingons, but not as much as you would think). They way things feel–or smell, or sound–is relatively similar for all people. The feel of cold, soft snow in the hand; the sound of rustling leaves; the putrid smell of vomit, these are all things that everyone can understand. That is what he called “earthy” writing.

I will admit, this is not something that comes easy for me. My writing is visual and centered on action. People tell me I am a very descriptive writer. I see a scene in my head and I try to describe the movements and flow of it as well as possible. For me, movement even trumps setting and character description.

Movement can be so revealing and descriptive on its own. When describing a character’s features, I am reluctant to just jump in with the description. I usually connect it to movement; a hand passing through the hair sets me up to describe the hair and the face of the character. Had I been born a richer man, maybe I would have gotten into film.

Most of my stories start with a visual scene, rather than a plot or character idea. The latter gets built on as I go. Movement and action is what paces my stories. But this style, of course, has its costs.

I’ve certainly gotten better about developing deep character and complex plots, but I still find myself drawn to the action. I find my characters getting deeper as the writing process progresses, particularly in revision and in the writing of side stories. I have written several stories set in the world of my upcoming book, each one has advanced my understanding of that setting and deepened characters.

The newest tool in my box now is “earthiness.” It is now front and center in my mind–what are the experiences here that are common between character and reader? The simple sights and sounds.

My friend even suggested to start my stories with more earthiness, for a greater hook. Along those lines, I started my most recent story by describing my main character’s trouble with snow, it blows in his face; it gets under his boots; it’s cold, wet and annoying. It’s something that anyone who has been in a snow storm can intimately understand.

The next task, as I start revising my manuscript for In the Valley of Magic, is to consider the earthiness of every scene. I feel like I already have a cast of strong, likable characters–of course I think so, they are mine.

The next step is finding those shared experiences that can help bridge the gap between different worlds.

(For editing services, check out WriteWorks.)