The Malice Restored My Faith In Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read The Malice or The Vagrant by Peter Newman is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I was rather reluctant to write a post reviewing Peter Newman’s The Malice (the second book in Newman’s The Vagrant trilogy) for the simple reason that I seem to be constantly bigging up Peter Newman on this site, as well as on Twitter. Frankly, if I keep this up, there’s a very real danger of Penstricken turning into The Peter Newman Appreciation Society (I may have raved about The Vagrant once, twice, or thrice before).

However, a few days ago someone very kindly (but not entirely accurately) referred to Penstricken as a ‘writing tips blog’ when really I intended this site to be for both story writers and their audiences. So, I decided it was time to write a post for those of you who have put up with me rambling about writing week in and week out when all you really want is a book recommendation. And since I have recently finished The Malice, it seemed a logical choice to review it on this week’s post.

Naturally I will try to give a fair, balanced and critical review but you know…

The Vagrant trilogy is arguably the best sci-fi/fantasy series I’ve come across in a long time!* It has made me believe in sci-fi/fantasy trilogies again! I wish the third book would just hurry up and COME OUT already!

… and relax.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s get down to business.

The Malice is the second book in the Vagrant trilogy, based several years after the events of The Vagrant. When I read the first book a year or so ago, I did so believing that it was a stand-alone novel. You see, over the years, I have grown cautious about reading novel series (especially sci-fi/fantasy) from authors I don’t know because I have often found myself getting bored with them by the second or third book. As we know, some series just go on and on and on and on and on forever. Therefore, since there’s nothing worse than abandoning a story halfway through, I tend to think long and hard before picking up a new series. As much as I loved the originality, the poetic language and the vivid world-building I found in The Vagrant, when I learned that it was part of a trilogy I was a little anxious that it might go the way of so many other series I’ve started but never finished.

I was wrong. I devoured The Malice with as much proverbial** relish as I did The Vagrant. I think the reason it works so well as a sequel is because Newman has managed to strike that difficult balance between continuity with the first book and not rehashing the same story all over again. For example, there is a definite continuity in the style of story-telling. Newman’s distinctive voice has carried on into the sequel and draws us easily back into the same vivid and original world he has created. However, the characters are, as always, where Newman really works his magic.

As with the previous book, we have the protagonist who leads the adventure; the protagonist’s companion who supports and defends her and a capra aegagrus hircus (in this case, a kid), who serves in a comedy relief kind of capacity. However, Newman hasn’t relied on reusing the same (or virtually identical) group of heroes as before. The protagonist, Vesper, for example, is a young girl; chatty, a little unsure of herself, optimistic to the point of naivety and with an iron core of purity and unhindered free-thinking that suits her age and background. This is quite the opposite of her father and protagonist from the previous book: the strong and silent Vagrant who pushed his way relentlessly through whatever adversity he encountered.

Her companion, Duet, brings a similarly refreshing spin on the familiar role she plays. She is a Harmonised; an single entity made up of two joined individuals (as far as I could tell). Having been forced to kill her other self in the early chapters of the book, Duet grows increasingly bitter and cynical throughout the story as her health begins to fail her. Again, this contrasts sharply with the companion from the previous book, who served mainly as a very positive influence to encourage the Vagrant on his journey.

It was also good to get something more of the origins and inner-politics (if you can call it that) of the infernals who feature heavily in both books.

This book (both of them, in fact) also beautifully accomplishes something which very few other sci-fi novels do. It draws the reader into a dark and dangerous dystopian world while yet retaining a sense of optimism and even fun; exploring important themes of friendship, compassion (especially in the character of Vesper, who often resolves to help and heal others even at great risk to herself and her mission) and duty. For me, this sets it apart from many other sci-fi stories which are often either unremittingly depressing from the get-go or else are a little too fun to have any realism or tension about them (not that I’m knocking that. I like fun). This gives it a sense of believably, even though it is set in a world that is so completely different from our own.

If I must criticise something about this book (and I really would rather not), it would be that the pacing of the last few chapters could possibly have benefited from a little tightening up. I don’t want to give away what happens, but it did feel a little bit like having dramatically saved the day, Vesper then goes back home via the long and not-terribly-thrilling route which left me thinking ‘I hope something good happens to justify all this excess narrative that’s been stuck on the end’. Well, I don’t want to give away what it is but trust me: something good does happen. It is definitely worth reading on, especially if you’ve got any plans (as I do) to read the third instalment, The Seven, when it comes out in April.

All in all, The Malice was every bit as excellent a story as its predecessor; perhaps even better. While it remains firmly rooted in its predecessor, it carries the story forward in great strides, opening up the possibilities for the next instalment and leaving the reader feeling both fully satisfied and eager for the next one. Go get it!


*Having said that, I have just started The Mistborn series. It’s off to a promising start too.

**Don’t put literal relish on your book. It leaves a stain. LFMF.

Your Character’s “Thing”

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.

8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

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).

Keeping Focused With Scrivener

Don’t you just love Scrivener? I certainly do. I was a little wary of spending money on another glorified word processor but years later, I still think Scrivener is the best thirty quid I’ve ever spent.

However, simply having the right tools for the job does not an author, make. While Scrivener did provide the resources to easily research, plan and write my novel in an organised way, I was not getting the most out of it at first because I wasn’t bothering to do any proper planning. I was just writing mountains of narrative; something I could have done for free on OpenOffice. However, not to be deterred from my dream of finishing that novel, I (a natural ‘pantser’) decided that I had to become a ‘planner’ to take my writing to the next level.

It was the right decision but it was still an unnatural transition for someone used to the freedom of ‘pantsing’. I decided in advance, therefore, to stick to a simple three-staged approach:

1- Research everything I needed to know in order to write my story; history, science or even good old fashioned people watching. For fantasy stories, this stage would also include ‘researching’ everything I needed to know about my fantasy world (i.e., world building). No actual writing happens at this stage.

2- Plan the specifics of my story. This is when I plan out my plot and flesh out my characters.

3- Write a draft. Assuming the first two stages are complete, this should involve no plotting or research. I should already have the fully fledged story in my mind; it is now a simple(!) matter of bringing that story to life in pleasing language.

This is where Scrivener came into its own. Useful though the pre-loaded templates on Scrivener were, I needed a template that would make it easy for me to remain focused on what I was supposed to be doing at each stage. Fortunately, it’s a doddle to make your own templates on Scrivener, so that’s exactly what I did; one based on the above structure.

scr1I began by creating a blank Scrivener project. By default, a blank project on Scrivener still includes three folders: ‘Draft’, ‘Research’ and  ‘Trash’. I added two more, which I labelled ‘The Old Drawing Board’ and ‘Stage 2 – Plan’. I also renamed the ‘Research’ folder as ‘Stage 1 – Research’ and the ‘Draft’ folder ‘Stage 3 – Draft’ and shuffled them into numerical order. These would form the basis for my ‘born again planner’ approach to writing.

The Old Drawing Board

‘The Old Drawing Board’ isn’t, strictly speaking, a stage in the process. This folder contains three documents which I have dipped in and out of throughout the whole process:

Initial Idea(s) – a small document in which I keep all the little flights of fancy I have which will eventually give rise to an actual story. I began by writing down my first idea in here, but quickly realised that I would need to keep coming back to it whenever a new idea occurred that might tempt me to skip research or planning.

Timetable – This document consists of a table recording what I intend to do each day and what I actually accomplished. This helped me to stay focused on whatever task I had set myself for that day because it provided me with realistic goals that could be achieved each day. It was also rewarding to see evidence that my work was heading in some direction. The only difficulty I had with this approach, as a natural ‘pantser’, was deciding in advance what I would need to do each day.

timetable

Jotter – I used this document to scribble down any notes I wanted to write to myself (all headed and dated, so I could keep track of them); plot ideas, character auditions and whatever other odds and ends came to mind at inappropriate times. I also found it useful to begin work every day by setting aside twenty-five minutes to write anything that came to mind. It got the urge to ‘pants’ out of my system and allowed me to focus on what I was supposed to be doing that day.

1 – Research

Anything that I needed to know to help me write my story went in here. Anticipating the likelihood that I would have to research a variety of subjects, I divided my research folder into several sub-folders that I was likely to need: ‘Religions/Philosophies’, ‘Historical Events’, ‘Locations’, etc. In most cases, these folders would contain documents, images and webpages of relevant factual information.

However, the novel I was working on at the time was a fantasy novel. This meant that factsresearch and world-building went hand in hand. I decided, therefore, that for fantasy stories, I would have a ‘Factual’ sub-folder, in which I would keep all the factual information that inspired my fantasy world but the other sub-folders would be used to hold all the ‘research’ about how my fantasy world worked. This allowed me to keep all my factual research and world building separate yet together.

2 – Planning

There were two related goals that I wanted to realise in the planning stage: plotting and creating characters. It was natural, therefore, to divide this folder into two sub-folders for characters and plot respectively.

The plotting folder contains a variety of self-explanatory documents such as ‘synopsis’, ‘timeline’ (doubly-essential in my story, since I’m using a fantasy calendar) and a chapter-by-chapter outline of events that occur in my story.

charactersThe character sub-folder is more complicated. It contains a further two sub-folders for the ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’, as well as an individual document which deals with how each of the characters relates to one another.

The ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’ folders work the same way. Each one contains a profile of every character in the story (names, ages, etc.). Thanks to the magic of Scrivener, these profiles also double-up as ‘folders’, which contain a variety of other folders and documents such as ‘auditions‘ (short bursts of narrative which I write to flesh my characters out) and ‘gallery’ (a fairly self-explanatory folder of images). This allows me to produce a large amount of information about each character while keeping them all separate and orderly.

The aforementioned ‘Relationships’ document is not attached to any one character. Instead, it is a single document which I use to map out in a few sentences how each character relates to all the other characters in the story.

relationships

3 – Draft

Last but not least, we have the drafting stage. I don’t have very much to say about this section which won’t be painfully obvious to you, especially if you use Scrivener yourself. I have left the drafting folder exactly the way Scrivener gave it to us: each folder is a chapter, each document within that folder is a single scene. Scrivener even formats each document for us into a suitable manuscript format, so there was very little in the way of customisation required here. All I needed was the discipline not to touch this folder until I had finished my research and planning.

And there you have it! A simple three-staged approach to planning for ‘pansters’ made easy by Scrivener, Literature and Latte‘s glorious contribution to the world of writing.

 

6 More Six-Word Stories

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!

 

A Personal Tale of Directing The Reader’s Support

While I do love near enough all forms and genres of fiction (and fully accept that the ones I’m not so wild about still have a legitimate and important place in the wider world of fiction), I would be lying if I said that sci-fi and fantasy were not among my top five favourite genres. Recently, I’ve been especially fond of stories which blend the elements of sci-fi and fantasy by creating futuristic fantasy worlds such as Star Wars or Peter Newman’s The Vagrant which I mentioned last week. Naturally, therefore, it only follows that the novel I’m painstakingly working on just now is set in a futuristic fantasy world.

The trouble I’ve had developing the story, however, had nothing to do with world building or any of the other challenges we might expect to face when writing sci-fi/fantasy. It was more basic than that. Try as I might, I found myself constantly sympathising with the bad guys. Like many sci-fi stories, much of the conflict in my novel revolves a legitimate governing authority and a group of revolutionaries. Unlike many other sci-fi/fantasy stories, the revolutionaries in my story are the bad guys. I thought it would be a piece of cake to write.

I was wrong. Try as I might, I found it almost impossible to create a plausible plot in which the people might rebel against a truly virtuous government (besides, when is a government ever a pure paradigm of virtue?).

No problem, I thought. I’ll simply make them a flawed but basically well-intentioned government.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. Violent revolution needs something to spark it off and that something is seldom a government who are maintaining a status quo of relative peace, freedom and prosperity, even if they do make a few mistakes. To make my story work, my rebels needed something to substantial to rebel against and that meant there had to be an unforgivable and cataclysmic failure (if not an act of wanton evil) on the part of the legitimate government.

So I decided that my nation had lost a war and was forced to make hefty reparations to their enemies (among other things), resulting in the new government (instituted by the winners in the war) enforcing outrageous tax hikes on the working classes while the wealthy aristocracy continued to live in comfort. The people now had a reason to be angry and rebellion had begun. Unfortunately, I suddenly found myself sympathising with my own bad guys. Vive la revolution was all I could think; and if I was rooting for the bad guys, I was quite sure any future readers I might have would be too. It didn’t help that the main antagonist, who served as the leader of the rebels, was one of the most complex and compelling characters I had ever written (even if I do say so myself).

Somehow, I had to sway the reader’s support to the favour of the protagonist. My initial plan was to make him an undercover operative, who had been sent by his government to spy out the rebels and, if possible, undermine their efforts. In theory it was an decent enough story (if a little boring), but with reader sympathies firmly in the camp of the bad guys, I found it an almost impossible task to write that story without thoroughly ruining the ending for the reader.

I decided to consult The Story-Writer’s Oracle (also known as ‘history’) for help. I researched the villains and despots of modern and ancient history and asked what common threads ran through them to make them so despicable. I began with Hitler, since he and my antagonist had the most in common to begin with: both were soldiers in a war which their country lost, both were appalled by the mess their country was left in post-war and both saw themselves as would-be saviours of their nation. Because of these similarities, it was quite an easy thing to impose a few of Hitler’s more unstable character traits on to my own antagonist. But I needed to go further still. My antagonist was not interested in ethnic cleansing or any of the other atrocities we associate with Hitler, so simply giving him a Hitleresque temperament was not enough. I continued my research and eventually discovered that a more recent historical figure – one Saddam Hussein – apparently saw himself as the reincarnation of King Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon circa 605 BC – 562 BC.

Brilliant! I thought, for it had just so happened that one of the ancient myths of my fantasy world involved an king who travelled to the castle of the gods in the sky and negotiated a thousand years of prosperity for his nation. I will let my bad guy see himself as the reincarnation of this man.

I went further still. I considered people like Pol Pot, who apparently forbade outsiders from approaching him unless they were summoned. I also considered the god complexes and the paranoia common to figures like Nero and the Pharaohs of Egypt. Before long, I had enough dark and disturbing character traits to create a whole legion of antagonists that the reader could not fail to dislike because they were reminiscent of some of the most unstable and ruthless characters in history.

Of course, this was only the first step. I had managed to remove sympathy from the bad guys but that does not necessarily mean that the reader would support the legitimate government.

But wait just a minute! I thought. They don’t need to support the legitimate government. They only need to support the protagonist of the story.

So instead of being a government operative, I decided to make my protagonist a neutral observer who became involved in the revolution… only to be disturbed by what he saw until he himself was forced to rebel against his fellow rebels. It was no longer about a good government vs. bad rebels; it was about one man’s simple wish to survive coming into conflict with his nation’s need to be rid of a dangerous and totalitarian regime which threatened to enslave everybody. From there, I was able to develop a protagonist who was able to rival the complexity and substance of the antagonist; a protagonist with needs and wants which would pull him in different directions; a protagonist whom the reader would support and sympathise with, regardless of how flawed the government was or how justified the antagonist’s initial grievances may have been.

Now I must apologise for taking you through this long winded saga of how I got my novel to where it is at now, but it seemed the easiest way to share what I have learned as a result of all this. When it comes to writing a story, your hero can be just about anybody: rebel, loyal citizen, rich, poor, slave or free; what matters is that your reader sympathises with their cause. If you’re writing a story where the lines between the good guys and the bad guys less than clear (and I daresay, you probably are if it’s vaguely realistic story) then the key to directing your readers support to the right character rests heavily in this: that you enable them to sympathise with and relate to the protagonist more than antagonist.

Adversity: A Leaf Out Of Peter Newman’s Book

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.

The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

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.

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!’

A Beginners’ Guide to Making Up Fantasy Names

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.