30,000 Words I Won’t Use: Why I Write Deep Background

Over there is where we’ll put the Tragic Childhood.

In keeping with my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been working faithfully on this novel manuscript since January.* During the last week, though, I’ve been writing a different part of the story.

It’s the part that happened before the book started.

Some context: a few things are hinted at through the story.  What happened to So-and-So’s parents. Why that guy had to drop out of school. Stuff like that. Everyone concerned knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t need to go into much detail. And, except as character development, it doesn’t really have much to do with the current story. They’re just generally shitty thing that happened to all the main characters when they were kids.

But, while I had a pretty good idea of what happened, I didn’t know the details. Which is a bit shit when you’re trying to refer to something.

So, I’m writing it.

Most of this will not appear in the final manuscript. It’s what I’d call deep background: the stuff that shapes characters into the people they have to be to make the story happen. It will be alluded to, and occasionally someone might outright mention That Time With The Thing, How Fucked Up Was That, Did She Really Do That? But, since it has at most a tangental relationship with the story I’m telling, it’s not necessary for it to appear in its entirety.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have to know what it is, though. This is the stuff that made these characters the people they are. This is where the cracks first appeared and were papered over. This is what damaged them to the point where they will make the wrong choices. I need to know what happened so I can make sure they make the right wrong choices.

When I’m finished this, and I know what happened and what other people think happened, I can allude to it with ease. These incidents are important, all of them. And now that it’s almost done, I can see how these things serve as a prelude to the main story. They serve as the place where deeply-held ideas, the kind that shape your life, are planted. It’s the reason that main characters believe their friend could do terrible things: because it wouldn’t be the first time.

But they’ll never talk about it, because some things you don’t talk about. Some things you don’t have to.

This is the deep background. Lay it down right and it’ll tell you everything about the characters. Just try not to get lost in it.

* And keeping track with my stickers, of course.

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3 Ways Role Playing Makes You A Better Writer

Roll for damage to your free time.

1. Players, like characters, do whatever the hell they want. If you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG, you might be familiar with these people:

-The one who wants to fight everything, from healers to legendary dragons to inanimate objects.

-The one who wants to fuck everything, from healers to legendary dragons to inanimate objects.

-The one who tries to murder other party members.

-The one who refuses to explore any area beyond a cursory look and complains anytime another character wants to check something out.

-The one who soliloquizes every movement, describing everything they do in excrutiating detail.

-The one who hesitates and takes forever to decide what to do every time.

-The one who jumps in without understanding the situation and almost gets everyone killed.

-The one who’s only here for the loot. If it comes from your corpse, they’re not complaining.

And a thousand other iterations of these and other player qualities. I’m not slagging players; I’ve done a lot of these myself. And I’ve run games with all of them, at once. Sometimes one person is all eight.

Understand the motivations, and you can get them to do what you want. Most of the time. This will be good practice for working out character motivations. Just like the players, characters in your story shouldn’t do something ‘just because’. They should want to fight something, fuck something, steal something, be rich, be powerful, be famous. You should know what you have to do in order to get them to walk down the suspicious path in the oddly-quiet forest.

2. Character Knowledge versus Player Knowledge will fuck you up. Picture this: you’ve stormed into the Temple of The Dread Spider God. The High Priest is in the middle of his chant that will summon the Endless Eight-Legged Horrors of Crawling On Your Face While You Sleep. If he finishes the ritual, shit will go down. What do you do?

If you’re 99.9% of role-players, you smite that bastard, and you smite him good and hard. Job well done.

Except…

Except when you kill him, his blood falls on the altar, thus completing the ritual and summoning the Eight-Legged Horrors anyway.

The player made the best choice they could, with the information they had available, and it still turned out badly. Keep this in mind for your writing, because characters should do this, too. They don’t know everything. And if they don’t know everything, there’s a reasonable chance that the choice they make to fix something will actually fuck it up.

Making it worse: every character’s superpower.

Differentiate between character knowledge and author knowledge. You know that pushing that button won’t turn off the alarm, it will summon the guards. But the character doesn’t, so they’d probably push it. Or a character doesn’t know that talking about their family will activate that other character’s anxiety because they don’t want anyone to find out about what their father did. Mess things up.

3. Roll with it. There is one guarantee in role-playing games: no matter how long you’ve been playing, no matter how many campaigns you’ve seen to the end, no matter how many mounts your fighter has had eaten out from under them by the goddamn Tarrasque, something you never thought could happen—something you never even conceived of—will happen.

And you’ll have to roll with it.*

The random nature of the dice roll is such that occasionally the unthinkable or the unimaginable happens, and it rockets the plot down a new road. It’s not quite that random in writing, but sometimes the tumblers click in your brain and you realize that the only way forward is to do something new. Maybe something that you don’t like. Maybe that character you really like has to die, or betray the protagonist. You can go back and change everything to get a new outcome, or you can roll with it and see what happens.

Role-playing makes you flexible. And, speaking as someone who loves critical fails almost as much as critical hits, it can make you realize that what you thought was the worst outcome is actually the best.

Do any of you role-play? Has it taught you anything about writing? Make a knowledge (gaming) check and tell me your best role-playing story.

*Roll with it? Like rolling dice? Get it? Get it?

Do You Have This In Another Size? : Rules, and When To Break Them

Do you have this in a Slightly Irregular Plot With Digressions?

I think that the second thing a writer ever does—after finding that great idea, the one that shakes you right down to your little cotton socks—is look for advice. How to write. How to write well. What to write, and what sells. Markets, platforms, outlines, rules. And let’s not forget strategies, story arcs, structures, and genres.

But sometimes, when you’re working on something, you find that it just doesn’t fit. The structure is weird. The characters don’t do what they’re supposed to. There’s a prologue, or an epilogue. Or, gods forbid, a fucking flashback. The story you’re working on breaks the rules, as you have been taught them. So, what do you do: change the story so it fits the rules, or say ‘fuck it’ and go your own way?

Thing To Consider #1: The rules exist for a reason. And that reason is not to hamstring your creativity. These rules of fiction exist because people have, at various times, found that they work. Overall, characters talk, and do things. Plots move like this. Dialogue sounds like this. These things are all useful guidelines, especially when you’re learning the craft. Because there is a craft to this, like making furniture or laying bricks. A lot of those techniques and things just plain work, and result in you not making a table that collapses under the weight of a single beer bottle.

Thing To Consider #2: You know your story better than anyone. Or you should. So you should know how it goes. And why you’re writing it. Is it for publication? Is it for your own enjoyment? How much does the intention dictate what rules are necessary? Personally, I feel like punctuation is tremendously useful if I’m ever planning on getting anyone else to read my crap. You might feel differently. You might also be the newest incarnation of James Fucking Joyce, in which case I wish you luck, but I’m not reading your book. Once was enough.

Thing To Consider #3: Are you breaking the rules because the story demands it…or because you demand it? Are you writing the best story you can, as you understand the criteria, or are you just proving what a special snowflake you are? Is this story or ego? Choose honestly and wisely. Because if you’re warping things just to prove how special you are, or because you think all those guidelines are for other people, you’re not telling a story. You’re making noise.

If you have considered the above to your best ability, then make your choice. Sometimes we’re just flouncing because doing things the right way is hard, and we hate hard. Rules and techniques seem like shackles even when they’re what the story needs.

But sometimes you need to chuck every single rule out the window and just go. And if that’s the sort of story you have on your hands, then don’t be afraid to break the rules so hard an entire legion of King’s men and all their goddamn horses won’t be able to put them back together.

So, which way do you need right now?

Monday Challenge: That’s What She Said

Yup.

I’m putting words in someone’s mouth. Again.

Just another part of the job, along with making floor plans for places that don’t exist and getting on a government watch list with every Google search. Writing fiction is telling someone else’s story in our words. Ever wonder how much of it we get right? Or, more interestingly, how much of it we get wrong?

Readers of Stephen King’s novella collection Different Seasons will remember this motto: “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” But the teller has their part to play as well. After all, what is Nabokov’s Lolita without its fundamentally untrustworthy narrator? And I bet Vader had a different take on the lava fight than Obi-Wan.* There’s more than one side to every story, certainly, but there’s also the difference between the events as they happened and the story that is told.

Hell, we don’t even have to go that far afield. You mom probably tells the stories of your youth differently than you do. How often have you interrupted a friend who was attempting to tell a story of which you are a part? That’s not how it happened, you say. Let me tell it.Here’s how it really went…

And who’s right?

Hard to say, without a memory machine. And even then, things are open to interpretation. Which is part of the fun.

Monday Challenge, should you choose to accept it: write a character telling someone else’s story. How well do they do it? Do they get it right? Do they even try? Are they trying to make themselves look good at someone else’s expense? Or are they just doing the best they can?

*Did anyone else find that part super fucking weird? “Oh hey, you’re terribly injured and in a lot of pain. Think I’ll leave you here to die slowly. And I’m the good guy!”

Muffin Basket From The Evil Queen: Creating Characters With Depth

Go ahead. Try one.

In most stories, there are good guys and bad guys, and you can tell who is who. The difference might be fine–you might be choosing between two kinds of asshole*–but you can usually tell who you should be going for. Good versus evil.

But good and evil aren’t that far apart, especially when it comes to people.

I prefer to think of good and evil as a progression. A sort of line with nauseatingly good angels on one side and mindlessly boring devils on the other. Where your characters sit on this line is largely due to their actions, but, and this is important, their position is not static.

Fact: good characters do evil things. For all kinds of reasons. Maybe they think they’re doing the right thing. Maybe they think the ends justify the means. Maybe the good thing is just so hard, so they slip and take the easy way out. Real people do this all the time, so why wouldn’t characters?

Likewise, evil characters do good things. Sometimes it’s to maintain an image. Sometimes it’s to fool someone. But sometimes they do a good thing because they want to.

Characters with depth slide back and forth along the line of good and evil. They might be mostly one or the other, but they’re not all one or the other. The good prince strikes out in a moment of jealousy. The evil queen aids a quest because the adventurers remind her of her friends from childhood.

If you want your characters to have depth–to be believable, because there’s no one out there who makes the right choice every single fucking time–then slide them back and forth along that line. Make their choices count. Give them consequences. They can come back to their core alignment, but it should be a choice, not a given.

Because static characters are boring characters, and, in fiction, nothing is worse than boring characters.

*Which I’ve never felt is a great story. I love a good anti-hero, especially when they’re contrasted with other characters, but having everyone be a dyed-in-the-wool bastard out only for themselves is boring. And interestingly, I’ve never read the reverse: a story where all the sides have good points and you don’t want anyone to lose.

 

Monday Challenge: No One Rides For Free

You can get a lift, but it’ll cost you.

Let’s talk about compromises.

Your characters, if they do anything interesting at all*, will sooner or later have to make deals with other characters. And those other characters will want things in return. Things that your character might not want to give. But, if an agreement is to be reached, they will. Or they won’t, and there’s no deal.

This is about cost. As the old saying goes, ass, gas, or grass: no one rides for free.

It’s especially true in fiction. If conflict is the essence of story, then why make things easy for your protagonist? Don’t give them a free ride. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, anyone who gets things too easily is either boring or hated. Either way, not protagonist material.

What is your character willing to pay in order to get something? What kind of deal will they make? And with whom? Are they sure they can trust that person? And, if they’re not, then why are they making the deal?

Monday Challenge, kiddies: Write someone making a deal at great personal cost. What kind of deal, what kind of cost? Hey, that’s your call. You expect me to do everything around here?

Now, go write.

*And if they don’t, then, seriously, why are you writing about them?

Monday Challenge: Eye/Nose/Sensing Tentacle of the Beholder

The object of the game was to make the Beholder realize it was beautiful just the way it was.

Ever get weirdly thoughtful about how your cat sees you?

No, I’m not high.

I’ll back up a little.

I was doing some reading the other day on sensory perception. How it differs across species. And across time; we don’t see things the way our ancestors do, and I’m talking about more than having to put up with Bieber’s smug, punchable face sprayed across every magazine I pass. The Ancient Greeks saw colours differently than we do because of a difference in the eye’s ability to perceive; hence Homer’s description of the “wine-dark sea”.

Some scientists believe that it also differs across gender–women see more shades of colours than men, probably due to genetic selection for finding food–and, possibly, across individuals. There’s no guarantee that what I perceive is the same as what you do, even though we might put the same name on it.

It’s about this point that things start to devolve into the kind of thoughts one normally gets from the cataclysmically stoned.

However, for the sober writer*, the questions bear some interesting fruit. Especially for the speculative fiction writer, which usually has some kind of non-human being to deal with. How does that race of aliens see us? Do unicorns see into the magical spectrum? What does the sentient magical sword perceive? What does it think of this scabbard? Is it so last season?

Monday Challenge: write about beauty from the point of view of a non-human being. How would their perception differ from ours? What would they find attractive? A sentient crow, for example, would think more about air currents and thermal lift than we do, and less about traffic. To it, beauty might be movement. A plant-based being would perceive light more completely, so their idea of beauty would take into account spectrums for which we have no words. Metallic creatures might adjust to resonating frequencies, and read their environment in vibrations, leading to the development of the phrase, “Will you listen to the ass on that one?”

Try not to be lazy. If you use another humanoid character, try to make something very different. Infrared vision, extra senses, alien physiology. Stretch yourself. Expand your mind.

And remember that beauty is often in the tentacle of the beholder.

*Contradiction in terms, right? Right? (silence) …I’ll show myself out.