Saturday, October 30, 2010


So, the days until NaNo are ticking away and in almost every spare moment I'm considering the plot I will soon be feverishly writing. This, of course, leads me to thoughts about the best ways to plot out a novel. I have a step by step process that I follow to try to get the most out of my plots and I thought I'd share it, and encourage y'all to do the same with your own plotting secrets. :D

1) I start with the main story. I outline all the events that absolutely have to take place for the story to go forward. These may be general, like “So and so finds out about such and such.” They’re just there to form the bones of the plot and give me something to flesh out.

2) I go through each character’s point of view, even when they’re not POV characters, looking at the story through their eyes. I figure out what they want out of this, how they’re most likely to go about getting it, and what lengths they’re willing to go through. This lets me add all of their stories to the bone structure, filling out the general features. These items are more specific, listing the place the characters are in as well as what they’re trying to accomplish.

3) Then I look for areas where these plot lines cross, when two of the characters are in the same place or want the same thing. I figure out how that conflict will affect the story and what it will lead to. How will they react if they see one another? Will the two characters fight it out? Will they pretend they’re there for something else? And which of them is going to get what they want?

4) Finally, I go through the plot chronologically and try to spot any gaps. Does this character not have anything to do for four chapters? Did I tie up all the sub-plots? Is there anything I started and winded up dropping? What are the “bad guys” doing while the MCs are running around doing X, Y and Z?

After all that, I’ve got a pretty filled out plot. I tweak it and move things around, trying out different configurations until I like what I’ve got. What about you?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fantasy Isn't Historical Fiction

There is a trend in some areas of fantasy toward research and realism, so I want to comment on it. I’m all for it. I love fantasy and I love trying to make my world feel real and present, as if the reader has just stepped into a different place entirely. Investigating the details of Earth’s history can go a long way to help me fill in the details that really make a world pop.

However, I think that sometimes we get so caught up in the history of earth and the way things unfolded here that we forget to consider what could happen. We forget the imaginative spark of creation that is part of what's so fun about fantasy. Understanding the past--and the cultures, nations and peoples that have inhabited it--is a great way to understand how societies have worked here, but I don't think that's enough. If you introduce magic, powerful psychic ability, or even a single dragon, everything has to change. The culture has to change according to the elements that don't exist on earth as well as the elements that do.

We recognize this, to some degree, with fantasy species. If elves live a thousand years, how does that change them? What is it like to live so long? Do they mature more slowly? Do they create fewer offspring? If not, why haven’t they out-populated the other species? If you dig in deep, you can find new answers. You can create species that are as entrenched in their world as humans are in this one, species that never existed here, or species that never could exist here.

Research and invention are far from conflicting concepts. Research makes creating new things possible, too. Knowing more about this world is just a starting point in building a new one, a platform on which to build and invent. With research you can put people anywhere, have species do practically anything. It's only unrealistic if they don't have a reason to be there or the coping mechanisms to deal with the situation they’re in. Those coping mechanisms and adaptations, the way humans or elves or dwarves or flegalbrosts, whatever, adapt to and cope with the situation they're in are, to me, some of the most interesting details of the fantasy genre. (Of course, I love just about everything about fantasy, so take that for what it’s worth. :D)

But it’s not always necessary to be so thorough. Sometimes a single inventive element in an otherwise earth-based culture can light up a whole story. And in some fantasies there simply isn’t room to go into in depth explanation, which can be needed with cultures that are truly unique. The unfamiliar takes more explanation, both to the reader and for the writer to truly understand it. But, regardless, fantasy offers us the opportunity to explore these details.

Fantasy shouldn’t be mistaken for historical fiction. The two do occasionally cross paths, but they’re not the same in and of themselves. Fantasy is fantasy. It doesn’t need to conform to the cultures or ideas or paths of the past unless that’s what you want it to do.

Granted, fantasy is often used as a way to explore past cultures and that can be a great way to build a story, but seeing it as only that limits its scope and power. So, while I’m all for the research and realism, I think it’s just as important to remember the whimsy and magic of fantasy. Even if I sometimes have to stop myself in the middle of my research and tell myself that all over again. :D

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Describing Skin Tone

Updated May 23rd, 2012

I’m going for NaNoWriMo (Nation Novel Writing Month) this year and I’ve been spending far too much time in the forums over there when I should be working. (It’s the weekend; I’m cutting my tired brain some slack!) The point being, a discussion about how to describe skin tones in writing came up.

I love these discussions because I don’t think there’s enough variation in skin tone in fantasy and science fiction. Often, characters either aren't described at all, or are some variation of 'white.' Characters of color are often invisible in secondary world fiction. In fiction based in our world, writers often feel more comfortable identifying a character as "African-American," or "Latin@," or "Native American," or "Asian," but in secondary worlds--in which those words are out of place--a writer has to rely on description. Otherwise, characters of color don't seem to appear at all. You, as the author, may know they're there, but if you don't describe them the reader can't know it. However, I also get that some writers are worried about accidentally coming off as racist or offending people with their choice of description and because of this they avoid the topic all together, but that just perpetuates the problem. In addition, if you only describe characters of color, you risk creating the notion that 'white' is the default for people and skin tone only needs to be mentioned when the character is "non-white," which is utterly ridiculous. So, describing all your characters is important.

What helps, or at least, what I think helps, is realizing that people are just people. You’re going to offend someone with something, and someone else is going to love it, and it all depends on who they are as people and how you handled the situation. If you made a mistake, if you failed, having it pointed out to you means that you can do better in the future. Just as with any other aspect of your story. While it's not great, it isn't the end of the world. Use it to do better. Learn and grow and move forward. As long as you are self-aware in your writing and you’re working within the confines of your novel, there’s no reason to be worried.

What also helps is discussion and ideas about how description can be done and different ways to work these things into your story. I like to use comparisons. I think comparisons let me say more than just skin tone, they let me allude to the environment of the characters (“She had skin the color of wet sand”), to special circumstances that are present (“The flashing police lights and the blue of the portal-glow made his skin seem even darker”), or highlight a character’s mental or social state (“The red in her brown hair and the warm amber of her skin set her apart from the rest of her family”). But you can also use general terms of color (red-brown, golden, warm brown, red-orange, brown with yellow undertones, grey) or descriptive terms of color (alabaster, ebony, rosy, ashen, saffron, sienna). The important thing is to choose a method which fits with your setting, your overall style of description, and your novel. The point of view character can also play a huge role in how other characters are described. For instance, an artist may use the specific names of their paints when describing people and the world.

Also, remember that skin tone is not a defining characteristic of a given character (even if other characters may see it that way). While it's important to note it, dwelling on it can become fetishizing or can make it seem as if it's the only thing that matters about them. Take the whole character into consideration when you describe them, and if you find that you can't see past their skin tone, you need to think more about the character. Who are they as a person? Their size may be more relevant and reflective of their personality, so you could mention their skin tone in passing, but highlight details of their height. Or their eye color could be an important clue later, and so while you'd mention their skin tone to give a complete picture, you’d make the description of their eyes especially memorable.

And this doesn’t just matter for characters of color. Just because Earth cultures too often have default assumptions, doesn’t me that we as writers should, or that the cultures in our novel do (or that their default assumptions are the same). This is all the more important when we’re dealing with characters that aren’t human. Not only can the addition of another species make humans rethink their definitions of “race” and “ethnicity,” but new species require more in depth description. Trying to describe a people of which the reader has only a minimal understanding means that you often have to describe their skin tones no matter if they’re dark or light or blue or green.

We all have some sort of color, even our world isn't as simplistic as 'white' and 'not-white,' and a complete picture of a character may include a mention of how pale they are, or how they look artificially tanned, or how they fit into the racial structure around them, or how they have undertones of a given color mixed with their general skin tone. It’s important that you make your characters memorable and give a picture of them, whether that picture is more focused on their features or their hair or their skin. Spend your time on the details that are important to the story, to the characters, to the setting and to the themes and sketch in the rest.

For more thoughts and discussion on this topic, here are my favorite links. Have fun!

Describing Characters of Color in Writing
Describing Characters of Color, pt 2
Whatever You're Doing, You're Probably Wrong