Your Character’s “Thing”

Originally published 09/10/2016

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who still has not seen up to series 8 of the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who (the series 8 from 1971 one, not 2014), is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I are Whovians. Recently we’ve been watching all of Doctor Who from the very beginning (the very, very beginning with William Hartnell) and we’re now on series 8. The Doctor (by now on his third incarnation, portrayed by Jon Pertwee) has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. He still has his TARDIS – the space/time capsule by which he can travel anywhere, anywhen – but it has been sabotaged by the Time Lords, who have also put a block on the Doctor’s memory so he is unable to fix it. As such, he’s spent the majority of this series as a scientific adviser to the human organisation, UNIT. The TARDIS is barely seen or mentioned at all in the first couple of episodes.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a show and think Pertwee is arguably one of my favourite Doctors, he seems odd without his TARDIS. The TARDIS is, after all, the Doctor’s ‘Thing’. It’s what makes him stand out as a truly unique character. Many characters in fiction have travelled through time and space; many are aliens; many speak in BBC English but no one else has a space/time capsule disguised as a British police box. If anyone did, we would all cry ‘Plagiarism! A space/time travelling police box is the Doctor’s Thing!’

Almost all of the most memorable characters in fiction have a Thing. It might be a physical object they carry, something they wear or perhaps even something they simply say. When one thinks of James Bond, we imagine a man who carries a Beretta 418 (though in reality, he did occasionally use other weapons) and drinks vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Batman dresses like bat, drives a Batmobile and operates from a Batcave; no prizes for guessing what his thing is. Even characters from history are often assigned Things that make them recognisable when they are portrayed on stage or on film today. For example, one of the first plays I recall ever seeing included a portrayal of Henry VIII, who spent most of the play munching a turkey leg. Whether or not the real Henry VIII ever had an affinity for turkey is neither here nor there; today, it’s become that character’s Thing. A Thing might even be another character; a constant companion (or nemesis?) whom he is lost without. Sherlock Holmes for example is almost always portrayed with John Watson. On the rare occasions where Watson is not present, he is still almost always referred to by Holmes who is clearly suffering for a lack of ‘his Watson’; even if he is loathe to admit it.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy.

– Doyal, A.C. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

In a short, a Thing can be anything but it must be unique.

So, does your character need a Thing? Not necessarily. A well-written character can function just fine within an excellent story without a Thing. What a Thing will do for your character is make them seem more distinctive and memorable. Therefore, it is probably only necessary to give them to your protagonist and maybe your main antagonist; characters you want to make stand out. However, as we have said before, it is important that every element of your story – characters, objects, dialogue, the lot – serves a function in progressing the story. Pointless gimmicks are… well… pointless. I would, therefore, think very, very, very carefully before giving your character a Thing which does not also serve some practical function to move the story along, especially in written fiction where the narrative will be disrupted by your description of the Thing. (You can get away with a little bit more on stage or film. For example, Henry VIII’s turkey leg might serve no practical function, but the story is not interrupted since he simply has to be seen holding it; in written fiction, however, the reader’s attention must be drawn to it with superfluous narrative).

So, before you even think about Things, think about this: what does my character actually need?

In other words, what is required to make the story work? In the case of Doctor Who, a space/time capsule was obviously required, because the whole premise of Doctor Who revolves around an alien who has a variety of adventures travelling to different planets and different points in history. Clearly, he would need some means of transportation, especially if he is bringing human companions with him, as he always does. However, it doesn’t need to be disguised as a British police box. It could be disguised as anything – or not be disguised at all. At this stage, it’s not really distinctive enough to be a Thing, since plenty of sci-fi includes time machines. We’re only interested at this stage in giving our character what he needs to make the story work.

Only once the essentials are in place can we start adding the dressing needed to create a Thing for our character. Remember, that if your story was a five course meal and you were a chef, your characters’ Things would be garnish; not appropriate for every course, and even then, only to be used in tiny quantities as a kind of ‘finishing touch’.

Like all good garnishes, a Thing should discreetly compliment and enhance the character you have already created. The Doctor’s TARDIS, for example, is perpetually disguised as a British police box, regardless of what planet or time it travels to. The fact it travels through time and space is your meat and potatoes, because it is essential to make the story work. The fact it is humorously disguised as a police box is the garnish; passively turning the Doctor’s time machine into something unique, without hindering the pace of the story in any way. It’s unusual enough to make the Doctor (and indeed, the entire Doctor Who franchise) stand out as unique without taking any of the glory away from the story itself. It is everything a character’s Thing should be.

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8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Originally published 25/09/2016

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a ‘list of things I like’ kind of post (in fact, I don’t think I’ve done it since the very first post I ever wrote for Penstricken; sigh) I decided that it was about time I did another one. And what better thing to list than some of the best story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across (not necessarily ones that were written recently) which proved invaluable to me.

So, without further ado…

C.S. Wilde – Free Basic Scene Planner (especially handy for ‘pantsers’ like me who are working hard to become ‘planners’).

Rachel Poli – Why Fan Fiction is Important to Me (I had to include this, because to be frank, fan fiction was pretty much where I also started writing and I have a sneaking suspicion that a great number of writers today can probably relate to this refreshingly unashamed, reflective little post).

Larry Kahaner – How To Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat (because I want to poke novelists who do this in the eye with a chopstick, too).

Tobias Mastgrave – World Building Part 5: How To Build a People Group – Custom and Tradition (this post deals with one of the most important aspects of world building and is full of really insightful points that most people over look. Yes, I know it’s a couple of years old now but I don’t care; it’s got some important stuff in it. Essential reading for the speculative fiction author).

Kristen Twardowski – The Curse of Rewrites: How Many is Too Many? (useful insights for those of us who suffer from perfectionism).

Jean M. Cogdell – Are your adjectives in the right order? (by all accounts, this is more of a language related post, rather than a fiction specific one, but I think it is especially useful for us writers).

Bridget McNulty – Novel plot mistakes: 7 don’ts for how to plot a novel (actually, there are about a hundred posts on NowNovel’s blog that I could have linked to. The blog at that site is just one of the really useful services they offer to novelists, no matter what their level of experience. I just keep coming back and reading this site again and again… but this was the one I read the most recently about how not to plot your novel).

K.M. Weiland – The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory (remember that post I did recently about writing a backstory for your protagonist? Well… forget it. This one by K.M. Weiland is better).

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6 More Six-Word Stories

Originally published 14/08/2016

If you’ve been following Penstricken since it started in 2015, you may recall that on one occasion I set myself the challenge of writing 6 six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. Since I am in an unoriginal sort of mood today, I’ve decided to do it again. The only difference is that this time, in addition to taking my cue from the story dice, I also intend to make each story a different genre, i.e. sci-fi, historical fiction, etc.

As before, I am using one die per story.

Alea iacta est (again!).

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. As ever, the following are all my own work and have not been published anywhere else before:

  1. KING FELIX DEAD: Nine assassins executed (fantasy).
  2. ‘I shall avenge thee!’ Bambi vowed. (fan fiction)
  3. Rose wrote to Henry: ‘Dear John…’ (romance).
  4. ‘Butler dunnit’, written in Butler’s blood. (murder/mystery)
  5. MARTIANS: No spacesuits on the beach! (sci/fi)
  6. Sword drawn, Julius crossed the Rubicon (historical)

That was even harder than last time! Without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult one was the cat (though I will admit, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit including a Bambi fan fiction as well). I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with it and I’m not even all that sure that I pulled it off terribly well but never mind. It was always meant to be a challenge.

Why not grab some story dice (or use the images I’ve posted here; I am certain you can come up with much better stories than I have) and give it a bash yourself? And remember to share your efforts with the rest of us by posting them in the comments section below!

 

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Adversity: A Leaf Out Of Peter Newman’s Book

Originally published 03/07/2016

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers, those of you who have not yet read Peter Newman’s novel, The Vagrant, are hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to read a truly engaging and imaginative piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy, you could do a lot worse than reading The Vagrant by Peter Newman. This gripping tale of our hero’s journey to the Shining City is set in a world where all hell has quite literally broken loose and has almost completely taken over the world. The winged swords (current holder of the My Most Favouritest Fantasy Weapon Ever Award) are alive and singing, the dead have been reanimated by demons and – most mercifully of all – Newman’s fantasy world has been mapped out with beautiful clear writing instead of forcing me to refer to an actual map on the front page every five minutes. It was such a joy to read that even the constant flash-backs (a pet peeve of mine) couldn’t put me off reading it.

You may be thinking I’m about to give you a review of The Vagrant. In fact, that was my original plan but instead I’ve decided to write about something important that I think we authors can learn from The Vagrant, whatever style and genre we write. While there are plenty of things in this book that make it stand out among its peers, one thing in particular that got my attention was that the protagonist (the otherwise nameless ‘Vagrant’) is, in fact, mute. He cannot speak. In all my years of reading, I have never yet come across a protagonist who could not speak and the further into the book I went, the more tempting it was to believe that Newman would sooner or later have to give up and make his protagonist say something. After all, surely it’s unrealistic to have him constantly communicating with looks and gestures or having to rely on his friends speak for him, right? Surely you cannot create a fully fledged character without him having some dialogue… right?

Wrong on both counts.

In writing The Vagrant, Newman has demonstrated (whether deliberately or not, I cannot say; I do not know the man) a keen appreciation for an important fact that we can easily forget: in real life, there are some obstacles which cannot simply be removed; they just have to be coped with. Think about it. In the real world, today as you read this humble blog, there are men, women and children out there who cannot speak, just as there are those who cannot hear or see or walk. These people have no choice but to live with their disability. They speak in sign language, they get a guide dog or they move around in a wheelchair – for necessity truly is the mother of invention. Therefore, why not have a mute protagonist, or a blind protagonist or a deaf protagonist? Real life is not always convenient; neither should your fictional world be. Even if you decide not to give your character a physical disability, it is worthwhile adding a little something to them to make their quest all the more difficult: an addiction, a phobia, O.C.D., anything. Very rarely in life are people naturally gifted with everything they need to accomplish all their goals easily and showing the reader how your character deals with (or avoids dealing with?) their own limitations will tell us a lot more about the kind of person your character is than anything they  can say. After all, we know the good guy’s probably going to win; what matters is how they get there.

Another closely related thing to consider are the complications other characters can present to your character. By that I mean all other people, not just your antagonist (it goes without saying that your bad guy should be making your protagonist’s life as difficult as possible). For example, have you ever read a spy thriller in which the protagonist’s mother or father is suffering from severe dementia?

Neither have I. After all, it’s not convenient for secret agents to have to visit their parents numerous times in the day to make sure they’re eating properly while still holding down their job as an international man or woman of mystery. Or what about children? I’m yet to watch the Bond flick in which 007 has to be home early enough to pick his son up from school because his son’s mother (probably a Russian double-agent) is dead and Bond is now the boy’s sole guardian. But in real life, people do have responsibilities to other people and that’s why thrillers seldom amount to more than mindless escapism, no matter how much we might enjoy them.

Peter Newman’s The Vagrant is a different story altogether. In this, our hero must juggle his mission to reach the Shining City by way of a demon infested land (a perfectly good story in itself) along with his responsibility to protect and sustain the orphaned baby he adopted before the story began. The very fact that the Vagrant is willing to take on this extra inconvenience adds substance to the character, because it shows us exactly what kind of man the Vagrant is without him having to utter a single word. I can’t help but wonder how Bond would handle life as a single parent. Would he take his son on his missions with him? Would he quit MI6 and get a quiet office job so he could support his son? Would he give the boy up for adoption? Whatever decision he makes will automatically define him as a character in the mind of the reader. There’s nothing really wrong with giving your protagonists no other people who depend on them or care about them, but unless it’s mindless escapism you’re writing (there is plenty of room in this life for mindless escapism), you might want to think twice about that (unless, of course, the protagonist’s isolated lifestyle is the very obstacle he or she needs to overcome, but that’s just a suggestion).

The bottom line is this: in real life, things are rarely handed out to us just as we need them to be and life is seldom easy. In the same way, make sure your fictional world does not revolve around your protagonist. Take a leaf out of Newman’s book and force your character to adapt. That’s what will turn your character made of words into a person with substance – dare I say, a soul. Albert Einstein said “adversity introduces a man to himself”; but in fiction, adversity is what introduces the reader to the man.

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The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Originally published 19/06/2016

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.

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A Fanciful Tale of Heroes and Call Centres

Originally published 01/05/2016

It’s been a while since I posted one of my own humble stories, so I’ve quickly knocked together this little bit of nonsense for your enjoyment. Unlike a lot of the stories I’ve published on the site before, this is not a rejected competition entry. I wrote it for no purpose other than to amuse myself and hopefully, dear reader, to amuse you as well. I suppose it’s best described as a fantasy (since it features heroes guilds and all that kind of stuff) but it also draws heavily on some of my own less fantastic experiences. It also happens to be a little experiment in writing a story using minimal narration; it’s almost entirely dialogue. As ever, this story is entirely my own work and has never been published anywhere else, whether online or in print. I hope you enjoy it.

—-

I Need A Hero

by Andrew Ferguson

 

Brrp, brrp.

Brrp, brrp.

‘Good afternoon, you are through to the Free National Heroes Service. My name is Colin, how may I help you?’

‘Yes, good morning, I’d like to book a knight please, for three o’clock tomorrow.’

‘Oook, if you just give me a minute I’ll take some details off you…’

‘OK.’

‘Now you do understand I can’t guarantee it’ll be a knight because—’

‘Why not?’

‘Well you see—’

‘It really needs to be a knight, I always get one. If you check your records you’ll see, I always get a knight.’

‘Oook… well, let me just take your details then and I’ll have a look for you, OK? What’s your name please?’

‘Shona Forrester.’

‘And your date of birth?’

‘Age of Esfin, 03, 36.’

‘Aaaand your address?’

‘0/1 1236 Esclimber Way’

‘That’s great, thanks. Oook, you don’t seeeeem to be registered on our system just now but that’s OK, I’ll just add you on—’

‘Sorry, what do you mean I’m not registered? I’ve had heroes out here loads of times and I’ve always got a knight. It’s never been a problem before. Has it all changed now?’

‘No, madam, as I tried to explain before, we’ve only ever had three categories of hero available. You can have a warrior, a mage or a ranger. And you’re definitely not on our system either, but that’s no problem, I’ve just added you on now.’

‘Oh! So I can’t have a knight then?’

‘I’m afraid it’s out of my hands madam, the best I can do is put you down for a warrior and I’ll put it in your notes that you wanted a knight. That way Control will see that on their screens when they come to allocate heroes and will do what they can to accommodate you.’

‘So I should still get a knight then?’

‘I really wouldn’t like to make any promises, madam, but the Controllers will do their very best if there’s one available. You will definitely be able to get a warrior but that’s all I can say for certain until you’re assigned a hero in the morning.’

‘It’s never been a problem getting a knight before but right, whatever… well, OK. Can I go now?’

‘Nooo, not quite yet, I still need to take a few details off you first if you don’t mind. Now was it AM or PM tomorrow you wanted this for?’

‘PM, three o’clock please.’

‘OK, now because we’ve only got so many warriors on at one time, I obviously can’t give you a cast iron guarantee that it’ll be exactly three o’clock. It just depends what’s available. Normally what we’d do is book you in for an AM or PM slot just now and you’ll be assigned a time by the Controllers depending on when there’s a warrior available. So I’ll put you down for PM and put it in your notes that you’d prefer it for three, is that OK?’

‘Well what time is he likely to arrive then?’

‘I honestly couldn’t say for sure, madam, that’s entirely down to Control, I’m afraid. An afternoon booking could be any time between twelve o’clock and half eight.’

‘OK, make it AM then.’

‘Are you sure that’s OK? That would be any time then between nine o’clock and twelve.’

‘It’ll have to be, it’s no use him coming at all if he’s any later than three, half three at the latest, so I’ll go with AM. Can you let me know roughly what time that’s likely to be? I’ll be at work in the morning so I’ll need to ask my neighbour to let him in.’

‘Like I already said madam, I’ve no way of knowing until you’ve been allocated a hero what time it’ll be, except that it’ll be in the morning between nine and twelve. I can get Control to give you a call once you’ve been allocated if you like?’

‘Fine, thank you.’

‘Nooo problem, now I just need to check your eligibility to use this service—’

‘Why do you need to do that? I’ve had heroes out before, loads of times.’

‘I’m sorry madam, but there was definitely nothing at all on our system for you. Are you sure you didn’t use a private guild last time?’

‘No, I’ve always dialled this number. There must be something wrong with your system.’

‘Mmm, maybe but I need to check your eligibility anyway or my system won’t let me make the booking. Is that OK?’

‘How long do you think he’ll be anyway? I mean, I need to know when he’ll be back from his quest so I can make sure there’s someone in. I’ll be at work till two.’

‘Well, that really depends. I was actually just about to ask you exactly why you need a hero. I mean, is there any one else who can go for you?’

‘What difference does that make?’

‘Well, you see even though this as a free service, we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so it’s really only those who are completely unable to go on the quests themselves that we can provide this service for.’

‘Bu—!’

‘And there’s no way I could guess at how long your hero will take to complete his quest unless I know what it is. Also Control need to know in advance if he needs any special equipment; things like enchanted armour or really bulky things like rune stones or armoured horses might take a bit longer to arrange.’

‘Well, he won’t need any of that so there’s no problem.’

‘I’m sure there isn’t, but I need to ask you what his quest will be anyway or I can’t take your booking.’

‘I just need him to go to the supermarket for me. I need him to pick up some things for my son’s birthday and I can’t go ’cause I’ve got work!’

‘The supermarket?’

‘Yes. It’s never been a problem before today!’

‘I’m really sorry, you’ll need to go with a private guild for something like that.’

‘But—!’

‘I am really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. This is a free service and we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so we really can only provide this service for extremely dangerous or difficult quests and to those with a household income of less than twelve-thousand quil per year. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

‘…’

Click.

‘Bye then.’ Click. ‘Geeeeeez… Unbelievable!’

‘Let me guess,’ said Colin’s supervisor. ‘It’s young master Forrester’s birthday again?’

‘Yeah!’

‘Hmph! That’ll be his fifth birthday this year then!’

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A Beginners’ Guide to Making Up Fantasy Names

Originally published 03/04/2016

How do you go about naming characters in your story? If you’re writing a sci-fi or fantasy story, you are certain to come up against this question, not only for your characters but also fantasy organisations, races, religions, philosophies, nations, planets, galaxies and just about anything else you invent!

After all, it’s no small job creating a world!

Well, for what it’s worth I’ve decided to share with you a little bit about how I like to go about naming fantasy things in this handy-dandy beginners’ guide to naming fantasy things. Obviously I can’t cover every possible fantasy thing you might invent, so I have narrowed it down to cover the three things I personally have struggled with the most: naming characters, naming places and naming concepts.

Let’s start with characters. If your characters are human beings from the actual planet Earth then there’s really no reason you couldn’t use a normal every day name like John or Mary, as long as they are suitable for that character. Indeed, if I’m writing a fantasy set in another world which humans nevertheless are a part of (for example, there are Men inhabiting Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings), I often like to stick to recognisable human names anyway, because they’re far easier to remember. You need to weigh up carefully whether or not that’s appropriate for your story. A good way to worm your way out of this is to simply change one or two letters of a real name to create something new which is still recognisable. For example, the name Jonathan could be Jolothan; Sarah could because Saral and so forth.

More often than not, however, you’ll probably find that completely made-up names are far more appropriate for characters in sci-fi/fantasy. You can get away with almost anything in this but there are a few things to bear in mind.

First, you need to remember that names are usually deeply rooted in the culture and language they come from. For instance, you will often find that Scottish names begin with the prefix, ‘Mac’, which means ‘son of…’. Even if you aren’t interested in inventing a language for your story (that’s a herculean task in itself!), it is certainly worth trying to come up with a few common prefixes or suffixes to sprinkle in there and add meaning to your names. For example, you might decide to use the suffix ‘pam’, to mean ‘son of’. Therefore, the name Erpam could mean something like ‘Son of Er.’

Another thing to consider is the prevailing philosophical and religious beliefs of the character you are naming. In certain Christian traditions, for example, children are often named after various saints such as Paul, Matthew or Helen and many Hebrew names often include the letters ‘jah’ or ‘yah’, which is a reference to the Hebrew name for God. For example, the name Elijah means ‘Yahweh is [my] God’. It should be fairly straightforward for you to adapt this idea to suit whatever religion (or irreligion!) your fantasy characters practice. For instance, let’s pretend your characters all practice a form of polytheism, and believe in a god of thunder called Tom, a god of sunshine called Dick and a god of snow called Harry. If your character was born on a particularly snowy day, he might be named something like Harpam: ‘Son of Snow’.

If, however, your character is an artificial being such as a robot, he may not have a culturally derived name at all. Code-names indicating his creator’s intentions might be more appropriate (for example, in Star Trek: Voyager, the chief medical officer is a holographic doctor; his creator gave him no name except for Emergency Medical Hologram. His ship mates refer to him only as ‘Doctor’) or even a simple number such as R2-D2 (Star Wars) or Third of Five (Star Trek: TNG).

Now, let’s move on to naming places.

In some respects, naming of places works along a very similar principle to naming people. A great many places are named after important people from history or religion: for example, San Francisco is named after Saint Francis. It is also common for places to be named after people who built it or important people who visited it at one time. This is especially true of (but not restricted to) public buildings.

On the other hand, some place names are purely descriptive. For example, prefixes and suffixes such as ‘castle’, ‘kirk’, ‘church’ or ‘abbey’ will often be making reference to important landmarks in the area. Ask yourself what kind of landmarks might be important to your fictional culture. For example, your fictional town might include an army barracks and a church. If the people in this fictional world are not very religious but are fiercely proud of their armed forces, they might prefer to name their town something like Delbarrack rather than Delkirk.

Finally, you may wish to invent a new concept for your fantasy world. For the most part, you can usually get away with using every day words for this and I would strongly recommend you stick to that as far as possible, since it makes your story much easier to follow. For example, I was working on a story once in which I invented a system of government which had three ‘crowns’, each with different functions but who all exercised the supreme authority of kingship equally. Because of this, I decided not to call any of them kings, since I wanted their differences to be clear. After a great deal of changing things about, I finally designated them Imperator, Justicair and Archbishop. These are not made up words, as I’m sure you are aware. They are real words with real meanings in real life; I simply borrowed the terminology and changed their meanings ever so slightly to suit my needs.

There are, of course, some things that you just have to make up new words for. In the Harry Potter series, for example, JK Rowling coined the term ‘muggle’ for anyone who is not a wizard. Personally, I would be inclined to be very, very, very sparing in creating brand new terminology like this unless you absolutely need it. I do understand why Rowling needed a word for ‘muggle’ in the Harry Potter series, since no such word exists in real life. What I don’t understand why she felt the need to invent a special currency for wizards to use. It does not add anything to the story (which is, ultimately, still set on modern day earth; therefore, normal money would surely suffice) apart from a couple of unnecessary concepts for the reader to remember.

So, there you have it! A beginner’s guide to naming fantasy things. I will admit, that it barely scratches the surface of this topic but hopefully it’s given you a few ideas at least. Ultimately, the challenge of creating any fantasy world is to balance imagination with understandability. You can invent almost any kind of person, place or concept you wish but the reader must be able to understand it. Try to avoid overburdening your reader with a hefty lexicon of new terminology that they have to memorise; it only makes your story that much harder to follow. If you take care to make your terminology as simple, meaningful and memorable as possible, it will make it that much easier for your reader to step into the imaginary world you have created.

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Throwback Thursday: I Need a Hero

Originally published: 01/05/2016 under the title ‘A Fanciful Tale of Heroes and Call Centres’

It’s been a while since I posted one of my own humble stories, so I’ve quickly knocked together this little bit of nonsense for your enjoyment. Unlike a lot of the stories I’ve published on the site before, this is not a rejected competition entry. I wrote it for no purpose other than to amuse myself and hopefully, dear reader, to amuse you as well. I suppose it’s best described as a fantasy (since it features heroes guilds and all that kind of stuff) but it also draws heavily on some of my own less fantastic experiences. It also happens to be a little experiment in writing a story using minimal narration; it’s almost entirely dialogue. As ever, this story is entirely my own work and has never been published anywhere else, whether online or in print. I hope you enjoy it.

—-

I Need A Hero

by Andrew Ferguson

 

Brrp, brrp.

Brrp, brrp.

‘Good afternoon, you are through to the Free National Heroes Service. My name is Colin, how may I help you?’

‘Yes, good morning, I’d like to book a knight please, for three o’clock tomorrow.’

‘Oook, if you just give me a minute I’ll take some details off you…’

‘OK.’

‘Now you do understand I can’t guarantee it’ll be a knight because—’

‘Why not?’

‘Well you see—’

‘It really needs to be a knight, I always get one. If you check your records you’ll see, I always get a knight.’

‘Oook… well, let me just take your details then and I’ll have a look for you, OK? What’s your name please?’

‘Shona Forrester.’

‘And your date of birth?’

‘Age of Esfin, 03, 36.’

‘Aaaand your address?’

‘0/1 1236 Esclimber Way’

‘That’s great, thanks. Oook, you don’t seeeeem to be registered on our system just now but that’s OK, I’ll just add you on—’

‘Sorry, what do you mean I’m not registered? I’ve had heroes out here loads of times and I’ve always got a knight. It’s never been a problem before. Has it all changed now?’

‘No, madam, as I tried to explain before, we’ve only ever had three categories of hero available. You can have a warrior, a mage or a ranger. And you’re definitely not on our system either, but that’s no problem, I’ve just added you on now.’

‘Oh! So I can’t have a knight then?’

‘I’m afraid it’s out of my hands madam, the best I can do is put you down for a warrior and I’ll put it in your notes that you wanted a knight. That way Control will see that on their screens when they come to allocate heroes and will do what they can to accommodate you.’

‘So I should still get a knight then?’

‘I really wouldn’t like to make any promises, madam, but the Controllers will do their very best if there’s one available. You will definitely be able to get a warrior but that’s all I can say for certain until you’re assigned a hero in the morning.’

‘It’s never been a problem getting a knight before but right, whatever… well, OK. Can I go now?’

‘Nooo, not quite yet, I still need to take a few details off you first if you don’t mind. Now was it AM or PM tomorrow you wanted this for?’

‘PM, three o’clock please.’

‘OK, now because we’ve only got so many warriors on at one time, I obviously can’t give you a cast iron guarantee that it’ll be exactly three o’clock. It just depends what’s available. Normally what we’d do is book you in for an AM or PM slot just now and you’ll be assigned a time by the Controllers depending on when there’s a warrior available. So I’ll put you down for PM and put it in your notes that you’d prefer it for three, is that OK?’

‘Well what time is he likely to arrive then?’

‘I honestly couldn’t say for sure, madam, that’s entirely down to Control, I’m afraid. An afternoon booking could be any time between twelve o’clock and half eight.’

‘OK, make it AM then.’

‘Are you sure that’s OK? That would be any time then between nine o’clock and twelve.’

‘It’ll have to be, it’s no use him coming at all if he’s any later than three, half three at the latest, so I’ll go with AM. Can you let me know roughly what time that’s likely to be? I’ll be at work in the morning so I’ll need to ask my neighbour to let him in.’

‘Like I already said madam, I’ve no way of knowing until you’ve been allocated a hero what time it’ll be, except that it’ll be in the morning between nine and twelve. I can get Control to give you a call once you’ve been allocated if you like?’

‘Fine, thank you.’

‘Nooo problem, now I just need to check your eligibility to use this service—’

‘Why do you need to do that? I’ve had heroes out before, loads of times.’

‘I’m sorry madam, but there was definitely nothing at all on our system for you. Are you sure you didn’t use a private guild last time?’

‘No, I’ve always dialled this number. There must be something wrong with your system.’

‘Mmm, maybe but I need to check your eligibility anyway or my system won’t let me make the booking. Is that OK?’

‘How long do you think he’ll be anyway? I mean, I need to know when he’ll be back from his quest so I can make sure there’s someone in. I’ll be at work till two.’

‘Well, that really depends. I was actually just about to ask you exactly why you need a hero. I mean, is there any one else who can go for you?’

‘What difference does that make?’

‘Well, you see even though this as a free service, we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so it’s really only those who are completely unable to go on the quests themselves that we can provide this service for.’

‘Bu—!’

‘And there’s no way I could guess at how long your hero will take to complete his quest unless I know what it is. Also Control need to know in advance if he needs any special equipment; things like enchanted armour or really bulky things like rune stones or armoured horses might take a bit longer to arrange.’

‘Well, he won’t need any of that so there’s no problem.’

‘I’m sure there isn’t, but I need to ask you what his quest will be anyway or I can’t take your booking.’

‘I just need him to go to the supermarket for me. I need him to pick up some things for my son’s birthday and I can’t go ’cause I’ve got work!’

‘The supermarket?’

‘Yes. It’s never been a problem before today!’

‘I’m really sorry, you’ll need to go with a private guild for something like that.’

‘But—!’

‘I am really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. This is a free service and we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so we really can only provide this service for extremely dangerous or difficult quests and to those with a household income of less than twelve-thousand quil per year. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

‘…’

Click.

‘Bye then.’ Click. ‘Geeeeeez… Unbelievable!’

‘Let me guess,’ said Colin’s supervisor. ‘It’s young master Forrester’s birthday again?’

‘Yeah!’

‘Hmph! That’ll be his fifth birthday this year then!’

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Originally published 19/06/2016

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Spotlight: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

SoldierSummoner. Saint. Orphaned and expendable, Alina Starkov is a soldier who knows she may not survive her first trek across the Shadow Fold – a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters. But when her regiment is attacked, Alina unleashes dormant magic not even she knew she possessed.

Now Alina will enter a lavish world of royalty and intrigue as she trains with the Grisha, her country’s magical military elite – and falls under the spell of their notorious leader, the Darkling. He believes Alina can summon a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold and reuniting their war-ravaged country, but only if she can master her untamed gift.

As the threat to the kingdom mounts and Alina unlocks the secrets of her past, she will make a dangerous discovery that could threaten all she loves and the very future of a nation.

Welcome to Ravka… a world of science and superstition where nothing is what it seems.

Praise for Shadow and Bone

The Grishaverse has the most stunning world building I have come across in  the YA fantasy genre in quite some time…. it has restored some of my faith in the fantasy genre…

J, ‘Book Review: Shadow and Bone’, Midnight Book Blog, 30/07/2020


Leigh Bardugo weaves a tale of magic, power, and definitely intrigue and wonder in the first brilliant instalment of her Grisha trilogy.

Brooklyn Saliba, ‘Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo’, The Nerd Daily, 17/02/2019

No matter how many times I read this book I never tire of it, it’s a beautiful book that I want to make everyone I know read.

Nicole Sweeney, ‘Book Review: Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo’, The Bibliophile Chronicles, 13/09/2018


I finished it in one feverish sitting and immediately bought the next book.

Kitty Marie, ‘Book Review : Shadow and Bone (#1 in the Grisha trilogy) by Leigh Bardugo’, Kitty Marie’s Reading Corner, 07/09/2019

Have you read Shadow and Bone? Why not leave a wee comment below and let us know what you thought of it.

Click here to buy Shadow and Bone on Amazon.

Click here to check out Leigh Bardugo’s website.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here: