Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Games Edition

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not played Batman: Arkham OriginsFable IIITenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth AssassinsGolden AxeMetal Gear SolidTime Commando or The Secret of Monkey Island is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

More than two years ago, when I first started Penstricken, I had this big idea that I was going to blog about all forms of story telling: books, films, plays and even computer games. If I’m being honest, however, there has been an accidental but undeniable bias in favour of posts about TV, films and books. When it comes to Super Snappy Speed Reviews, we’ve already done books (twice, in fact), TV shows, films and even Star Trek.

And so, for this edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews, I’m going to give you seven mini-reviews focusing on the stories found in computer games (mostly retro games, because I’m an old dinosaur like that). As usual, the games I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my own collection of dusty relics and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all games (although you’ll be lucky if any of them are less than ten years old!). They are not necessarily games that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. I should also add I am focusing my reviews solely on the quality of the story, not graphics, audio or general game play.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionsblitzed, pureed and truncated into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Batman: Arkham Origins (2013)

Superhero games are often naff. This one is not.

The plot is simple but bold: there’s a price on Batman’s head and everyone from Gotham’s criminal element right through to the City’s corrupt police force intend to collect it while Alfred drives Batman to distraction by acting like a mother hen. The story telling is excellent and well-paced. The characters (and there are plenty of them) are well developed. The dialogue is excellent.

I love this game.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Fable III (2010)

At first, the story of this game seems pretty straight-forward. You’re the brother/sister of a king who has recently begun abusing his power and so you set out to find allies to help you lead a revolution. Suddenly, just when you think it all makes sense and you’ve nearly won the game it turns out that there’s a weird semi-corporeal army of darkness coming to destroy everything and the whole reason the King was being so cruel was to help raise funds to fight in the coming war.

It’s not a bad story. A little simplistic, perhaps and the antagonists who appear at the end of the story feel a bit under-developed but it basically works. My main complaint is that the protagonist never seems to really develop, despite (perhaps even because of) the fact that game largely centres around making moral decisions that will influence your future.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins (2000)

This story is set in feudal Japan and focuses on a small clan of ninja fighting against another ninja clan who have decided they’ve had enough of being stealthy and want to establish a world ruled by ninja.

I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but I suspect the answer is ‘not very’. The story is quite simple to the point of even being a little bit silly but it is reasonably paced and the dialogue is… meh… okay. Character development is limited but it’s there. One of its big selling points is the fact that the three playable characters allow you to see the story from three unique perspectives (including the perspective of the bad guys).

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Golden Axe (1989)

Death Adder has taken over the kingdom and has kidnapped the King and Princess. He has no redeeming qualities. The good guys are noble and heroic. Also some guy called Alex is murdered by Death Adder before the game begins and is never mentioned again.

That’s pretty much it. No characterisation, plot twists or anything at all really… just a good old fashioned find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, save the kingdom.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Metal Gear Solid (1998)

Most computer games have half-baked or altogether non-existent stories. Metal Gear Solid is not like that. It’s got drama, it’s got conspiracy, it’s got plenty of characterisation and even alternative endings. It’s well paced with a strong balance of action scenes and softer, emotional scenes. Frankly, it often feels more like a movie than a game thanks to the sheer complexity of the plot and characters.

My only gripe with it is that it is a little overwritten and as a result, features quite a bit of info-dumping during some of the video sequences.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Time Commando (1996)

Does anyone else remember this game apart from me? Well… basically it’s a classic ‘slay the dragon/save the princess’ sort of story– but much more ridiculous. Instead of a dragon, we have a computer virus (who resembles a giant fish) which creates a giant time vortex which threatens to consume the entire world. Stanley, the protagonist, very foolishly enters the vortex and battles his way through eight different time zones before finally fighting the virus itself in the strange world of ‘beyond time’.

Not only is this story ridiculous, but the game features ZERO dialogue of any kind (except for ‘oh yeah!’ whenever you find a secret) making it almost impossible to understand the plot without reading the game’s manual.

A fun game to play but the story frankly feels a little unfinished.

My rating: 🌟

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

I knew I was going to love this game from the very first moment I turned it on and saw this scrawny, blonde haired wimp politely inform a blind watchman, ‘Hi. My name’s Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate’.

When it comes to story telling, this game has it all: an unlikely hero driven by a strong motivation to become a pirate; a dastardly ghost-pirate antagonist; a strong, independent love-interest who turns out to be anything but a damsel in distress and buckets of humour. Even the supporting characters are vibrant, distinctive and hard not to love.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what bashes your buttons.

Until next time!

50 Quotes About Fiction

  1. “I like telling stories.” — Hunter Parrish
  2. “All fiction has to have a certain amount of truth in it to be powerful.” — George R.R. Martin
  3. “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” — GK Chesterton
  4. “The best fiction is geared towards conflict. We learn most about our characters through tension, when they are put up against insurmountable obstacles. This is true in real life.” — Sufjan Stevens
  5. “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.” — Francis Bacon
  6. “The power of historical fiction for bad and for good can be immense in shaping consciousness of the past.” — Antony Beevor
  7. “The nature of good fiction is that it dwells in ambiguity.” — E.L. Doctorow
  8. “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” — Mark Twain
  9. “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.” — Virginia Wolf
  10. “Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.” — Simon Weil
  11. “Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.” — Ray Bradbury
  12. “Human kind has been telling stories forever and will be telling stories forever.” — Jim Crace
  13. “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” — Albert Camus
  14. “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
  15. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” — Oscar Wilde
  16. “There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” — Doris Lessing
  17. “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  18. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” — Albert Einstein
  19. “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
  20. “While we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices… Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.” — Ursula K. Le Guin
  21.  “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” — Ken Kesey
  22. “Fiction wouldn’t be much fun without its fair share of scoundrels, and they have to live somewhere.” —  Jasper Fforde
  23. “General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else” — Marvin Minsky
  24. “Fiction just makes it all more interesting. Truth is so boring.” — Charlaine Harris
  25. “The story you are about to read is a work of fiction. Nothing – and everything – about it is real.” — Todd Strasser
  26. “Fantasy is storytelling with the beguiling power to transform the impossible into the imaginable, and to reveal our own “real” world in a fresh and truth-bearing light.” — Leonard S. Marcus
  27. “[Characters] are the beating heart of any story that’s worth reading. All my favourite stories, whether they be books, films, TV shows, comics, computer games, or any other kind of story you care to mention, feature compelling characters. Characters who are not just believable people (though that is vitally important), but who are intriguing, unusual, captivating and – most importantly – unique. Their distinctive qualities makes them memorable, interesting and appealing (even if they are the most sinister villains) and they don’t slot too neatly into cliched archetypes – damsels in distress, moustache twirling villains, reluctant heroes or any other such thing.” — A. Ferguson
  28. “Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.” — Terry Pratchett
  29. “Fiction is the only way to redeem the formlessness of life” — Martin Amis
  30. “History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthermore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man.” — Victor Hugo
  31. “Even in the world of make-believe there have to be rules. The parts have to be consistent and belong together.” — Daniel Keyes
  32. “A well-thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.” — Isaac Babel
  33. “There is no society that does not highly value fictional storytelling. Ever.” — Orson Scott Card
  34. “The best fiction is true.” — Kinky Friedman
  35. “To write something out of one’s own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far in between. Personally, I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica.” — Stephen Leacock
  36. “Just as pilots gain practice with flight simulators, people might acquire social experience by reading fiction.” — Raymond A. Mar
  37. “It’s never too late – in fiction or in life – to revise.” — Nancy Thayer
  38. “All fiction is about people, unless it’s about rabbits pretending to be people. It’s all essentially characters in action, which means characters moving through time and changes taking place, and that’s what we call ‘the plot.'” — Margaret Atwood
  39. “I love fiction because in fiction you go into the thoughts of people, the little people, the people who were defeated, the poor, the women, the children that are never in history books.” — Isabel Allende
  40. “I mostly associated video game storytelling with unforgivable clumsiness, irredeemable incompetence – and suddenly, I was finding the aesthetic and formal concerns I’d always associated with fiction: storytelling, form, the medium, character. That kind of shocked me.” — Tom Bissell
  41. “When a writer is already stretching the bounds of reality by writing within a science fiction or fantasy setting, that writer must realise that excessive coincidence makes the fictional reality the writer is creating less ‘real.'” — Jane Lindskold
  42. “In the best works of fiction, there’s no moustache-twirling villain. I try to write shows where even the bad guy’s got his reasons.” — Lin-Manuel Miranda
  43. “I just had a crazy, wild imagination all my life, and science fiction is the greatest outlet for me.” — Steven Spielberg
  44. “The most watched programme on the BBC, after the news, is probably ‘Doctor Who.’ What has happened is that science fiction has been subsumed into modern literature. There are grandparents out there who speak Klingon, who are quite capable of holding down a job. No one would think twice now about a parallel universe.” — Terry Pratchett
  45. “I write essays to clear my mind. I write fiction to open my heart.” — Taiye Selasi
  46. “A play is fiction– and fiction is fact distilled into truth.” — Edward Albee
  47. “All my fiction starts from a feeling of unique perception, the pressure of a secret, a story that needs to be told.” — Barry Unsworth
  48. “Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.” — Arthur C. Clarke
  49. “Fiction is too beautiful to be about just one thing. It should be about everything.” — Arundhati Roy
  50.  “I can make up stories with the best of them. I’ve been telling stories since I was a little kid” — Rabih Alameddine

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what hammers your nail.

Until next time!

6 Mental Cobweb Shakers for Writers

Ever sat down to write and found your imagination covered in so many cobwebs that you can’t even remember how to pick up your pen? Ever sat staring at a blank screen for hours without even the faintest idea where to begin? Ever wasted your set writing time reading patronising articles on the internet telling you writers’ block doesn’t exist (when you know better) because you just can’t quite seem to get settled into your day’s work?

No?

Well I have, and whenever that happens to me I need something to quickly shake away the cobwebs to help me get off the starting block. Therefore, I am going to commend a few of my favourite cobweb shakers to you today. I don’t know if these will work for you or not but they work for me so… you might as well give them a go, eh?

Write Urgently

I’ve blogged about this before, but it has so revolutionised my whole writing life that it bears saying again. If you find yourself staring at a blank page for hours and have little or nothing to show for it when you’re done, try resolving to write for no more than thirty minutes, twenty minutes or even less all day. Better yet, start your writing session at a time when you know you’ll have no choice but to stop very soon; i.e., while your dinner is in the oven or in that spare twenty minutes before you have to catch a bus to get to work on time. It sounds crazy, but I find that writing in short bursts creates a sense of urgency which forces me not to procrastinate or edit as I write.

Background Noise

Silence may be golden, but it can also be as distracting as having someone talking in your ear. The solution? Get yourself some background noise. You could always do this by seeking out a noisier location, but assuming you don’t particularly want to move anywhere, I can highly recommend Noisli to you as a free tool which allows you to customise your own blend of ambient background noises including (but not limited to) thunder, a crackling fire, a train moving and a coffee shop. These sounds loop indefinitely, so you can turn it on and let it lull you into a false sense of sitting in a coffee shop on a rainy day or listening to birds singing beside a crackling fire.

I know lots of writers enjoy listening to music while they write, although personally, I still find that a bit too distracting, especially if it involves complicated melodies or (worst of all) vocal parts with lyrics. If you must listen to music while writing, I recommend keeping it gentle and instrumental. Video game music is particularly useful as it is designed to be incidental and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Play a Game

Speaking of games, I also find playing a computer game a good cobweb shaker. Nothing too mind-numbing, of course. Avoid anything that involves decimating sweets or throwing helpless animals (actually, just stay away from mobile gaming altogether). I find it far more effective to play a game I need to use my brain for and preferably something with a story of its own. I’m a big fan of retro gaming, so classic adventure games such as Grim Fandango and Monkey Island often fit the bill for me but anything you need to use your brain for should do.

The danger with this, of course, is that you can waste all day gaming. If you’re going to game away the cobwebs, be sure to set yourself a strict time-limit.

Indulge A Different Creative Interest

Like gaming, this approach will also require a strict time-limit but if you’re feeling too lackadaisical to get started with your writing project, you might find pursuing another creative endeavour will give you the spark of enthusiasm you need. Of course, you’ll know better than I do what turns you on apart from writing. It could be singing, dancing, painting, conducting bizarre scientific experiments* or something else entirely. Whatever it is, set aside a little(!) time to immerse yourself in something that makes you feel alive and gets your mental juices flowing. You’ll come back to writing feeling able and rejuvenated.

Go For a Walk/Exercise

Though I’m loath to admit it a bit of fresh air and exercise is a great way to shake away the mental cobwebs. Even just a five minute walk and a change of scenery can work wonders. Just don’t wander so far that you don’t have time to write!

Free-write
freewrite

Here’s what my free-writing session looked like. Pretty dismal, right?

Free-writing is ideal for when you just don’t have the time to waste gaming, exercising or cloning your budgie. Simply set a timer for a minute, five minutes, ten minutes or whatever you feel is necessary and write WITHOUT CEASING for that whole time. You don’t need to think about structure, plot or anything. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you have typos. It doesn’t matter if you write piles of meaningless rubbish with all the orderliness of a pig’s regurgitated dinner. It doesn’t even matter if all you manage to write is ‘I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write…’

What matters is that you pick up your pen and write!

Sometimes it can even help you to come up with ideas, but even if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. The most important thing is that you stop doing nothing and start writing something. Anything. As long as it’s something.

I hope you found some of these tips useful. Do let us know if you did by commenting below, and also if you’ve got any mental cobweb clearing tips of your own, why not comment below so we can all benefit from your wisdom and experience? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!


*This website does not in any way endorse dangerous, unethical, illegal or otherwise ill-advised scientific experiments. Any suggestions to the contrary in this post were meant only as a joke and should not be taken seriously.

Writing Non-Human Characters #4: Mythical Creatures

Well you’ll be relieved to hear that this will be the last week of my impromptu series on writing non-human characters. We’ve already covered animals, aliens and robots so this week we’re going to finish up with what I’ve very broadly defined as mythical creatures.

When I Googled ‘mythical creatures’ to help me prepare for this post, I was presented with a very helpful list of about thirty different kinds of mythical creature. Gods-and-Monsters.com managed a much longer list of about 72 distinct creatures from mythology. And so writing a single 1,000  word post on how to write any mythical creature is going to be quite a challenge so I hope you’ll bear with me while I go over a few very general principles.

You all know how this works by now. The secret to creating a good non-human character of any kind is to remember that your audience is made up entirely of humans. Therefore, if you want to make your character relatable to humans, you need to endow your character with the right amount and kind of human qualities. You won’t be surprised to learn that the same is true of mythical creatures. I don’t want to harp on too much about that in this post, since most of what I covered in the first and second posts especially applies here too. Protagonists and other relatable characters need more human qualities (while not compromising on the mythical qualities that make them recognisable; don’t have your vampire going outside in the daylight, for example) while there may be some benefit to deliberately dehumanising characters who you want to serve as terrifying monsters rather than relatable characters.

This is where it is vital to know a thing or two about the kind of creature you’re using. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of mythical creatures you might use: “real” mythical creatures (that is, creatures from actual myths and legends, such as dragons, minotaurs and or fairies) and ones you made up for the sake of your story. In both cases, research is vital. You need to familiarise yourself with all the variations that exist on your creature in different myths, legends and even modern fantasies around the world (because believe me, there are often significant variations) and pick out all the differences and similarities you can find. In the case of creatures you’ve made up from scratch, or if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy, this involves researching their place in the history/mythology of your fictional world (click here for more on world-building and research).

For instance, suppose you wanted to create a dragon. You might already have an idea in your head as to what that means. But it only takes a quick peruse of internet to find that dragons come in many shapes and sizes both in terms of their physical appearance and their personalities. Dragons are often portrayed both as ferocious beasts, more animal than person but perhaps more often they are portrayed as being intelligent, rational and even quite wise or calculating creatures. Sometimes they can speak, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they have a lizard-like appearance, sometimes they have feathers. In most cases, there will be myths about their origins you can explore and what function they serve.

Of course, in your own story you can have a little bit of flexibility. I personally have no qualms about making a small number of minor changes to the appearance or behaviour of mythical creatures for my stories, but on the whole you want to be aware of the common defining characteristics of your chosen creature. What makes a centaur a centaur? Is it simply having four legs? Or is there something more that a centaur is simply not a centaur without? Remember, if you’re using a creature that already exists in folklore then you’re not only borrowing someone else’s work; you’re actually building upon centuries of tradition, so don’t go mad when you come to put your own stamp on it.

If you feel more creative (especially if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy), you might want to try and invent your own creature. This certainly gives you more freedom to do whatever you please, but you need to be aware that your audience will have no prior knowledge of your creature and will need to have it spoon-fed to them in a way they wouldn’t with a dragon or mermaid. Try to keep it simple. Combining body parts from unrelated animals is often a good approach and is easy to describe (the body of a lion with the wings of a bee for instance). Also you might find it helpful to weave them in with mythology surrounding big questions such as the origins of the world, birth, death, and so forth.

Once you have established these things, you will find it much easier to anthropomorphise your creature in a way which is appropriate. Remember, the goal in anthropomorphising your non-human characters is not to turn them into humans (noun) but to make them human (adjective) enough so that the audience will be able to relate to them and care about what happens to them. Exactly which human qualities you choose to add will depend entirely on which kind of creature you’re creating, so I’m afraid I can’t give you any specific advice on that. You’ll need to do your research. The important thing is that you correctly balance making your creature human enough to be related to by your human audience but still have enough of those key defining characteristics that make your mythical creature recognisable as what it is supposed to be.

And that’s it for the non-human characters series! Phew! Next week I’ll be getting back into writing my usual sort of weekly individual posts (unless of course I’m inundated with complaints that I forgot a particular type of non-human creature, but I don’t think I did and frankly, I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me banging on about them).

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

Last week, I had planned to write a single post talking about how to write non-human characters, such as animals, aliens, mythical creatures and so forth. Unfortunately, it turned into such a long post that I decided to chop it up into a series of posts instead. This week’s post is the second instalment on writing non-human characters and today I’m going to focus on how to write aliens from other other worlds. If it’s animal characters you’re interested in, that was covered in last week’s post, which you can see by clicking here. If, on the other hand, it’s robots or mythical creatures you’re after… well, you’ll just have to wait.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the golden rule for writing non-human characters:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, if you want your audience to sympathise with your character, you need to give them certain human qualities. In doing this, you anthropomorphise your character; that is, you humanise them in the minds of your audience. The more human they are, the more easily they can be related to. So, with that in mind, let’s have a think about aliens.

Unlike animals which are very common and familiar things in real life that science has taught us a great deal about, we know nothing about real sentient alien life. We can’t even be certain that it exists at all. However, if it ever turned out that sentient alien life actually did exist, it would almost certainly have very little in common with us Earthlings. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that they would share human values and culture (or even understand concepts such as ‘values’ and ‘culture’), walk on two legs, communicate with spoken language, listen to music or do any of the other things humans do. Culturally, socially, philosophically, anatomically and in every other way, they would almost certainly seem bizarre to us in the extreme. After all, we humans often find it hard enough to relate to other human cultures, never mind alien ones!

It is, of course, certainly possible to create “realistic” aliens like this for your story. Unlike with animal characters (who you probably will want your audience to relate to), it can sometimes be beneficial to have aliens who are bizarre and impossible to relate to, depending on the kind of story you’re writing. Many have done it already to great effect. However, it is worth remembering that there is a reason these “realistic” aliens are very seldom portrayed as good guys. They’re not even usually portrayed in the same way as traditional bad guys, who will usually still have goals and motives that we can relate to and sympathise with (even if we don’t approve). Instead, such aliens are usually portrayed as destructive (or at the very least, strange and frightening) forces of nature. The aliens in War of the Worlds or Alien are good examples. These characters, while believably alien, are more of a danger to be overcome or escaped than a character to be related to. Because your audience cannot sympathise with them as people, it makes it an almost(!) impossible task to create aliens of this type who fit into any traditional role for a character to play. Remember, the weirder your alien is, the less your audience will sympathise with or even understand them. This can be a great boon to authors who want to create terrifying monsters, but not to authors who are trying to create relatable people.

Contrast this with the types of aliens you are perhaps more used to seeing in popular science fiction such as Star Trek or Doctor Who. They sit somewhere in the middle of the alien-human spectrum. They might have one or two physical features that make them look alien, such as blue skin, pointy ears or strangely shaped foreheads, but they still basically look human-ish with mostly recognisable human body parts in roughly the correct place. They will usually have one or two cultural or social quirks to keep them from seeming too human (for instance, the Vulcans in Star Trek are famous for their logical and stoic minds) but nothing so bizarre that it defies understanding. After all, humans often do appreciate logic; the only difference is that Vulcans have founded their entire culture upon it whereas we have not. This makes them seem exotic, but relatable. Such aliens are not terribly realistic when you analyse them closely, but they’re sufficiently different from humans that the average audience will accept them as aliens while still being able to sympathise with them as people, rather than monsters.

Beware, however, that you do not go too far in trying to make your aliens relatable. Aliens are, by their very nature, foreign in the extreme. Your audience, then, will expect your alien characters to be at least a little bit unusual. If they seem too human, you will have utterly failed in your goal to create an alien character. For example, one of the biggest things that irks me about Supergirl (the TV series) is the character of Mon-El who, having only just arrived on Earth from the planet Daxam, is utterly indistinguishable from the average American millennial in the way he talks, behaves and relates to other characters. This level of anthropomorphising goes too far and robs the audience of their ability to believe that the character they’re witnessing is really from another world at all. Sure, he’s a relatable character but remember, it’s important when writing sci-fi to suspend your audiences’ disbelief. Your audience will not be able to believe in an alien who seems more human than their own family do.

Creating alien characters, then, is all about balance and purpose. Before you begin, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this alien to be in my story? Are they a protagonist, antagonist, love-interest, etc.? Why exactly are there aliens in this story? This will determine to what extent your audience (and indeed, your other characters) will need to be able to understand and relate to them, and consequently, will help you to determine how alien or human they should appear. However, let’s be clear on one thing: this is not the same as creating a balance between how good and how evil your character is. Rather, it’s a balance between the familiar and the strange. Very human characters can still be bad guys. Very alien characters might even be good guys, although it’s unlikely that the audience will relate to them and so I would be very careful about how you go about doing this.

That’s all I’ve got time for this week I’m afraid, but be sure to come back next week when I’ll be continuing the series on creating non-human characters, this time focusing on robots and cyborgs. 

Until next time!

A Few Words About Magic in Fiction

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.

 

3 Types of Distinctive Characters

Just about every story has characters. They are the beating heart of any story that’s worth reading. All my favourite stories, whether they be books, films, TV shows, comics, computer games, or any other kind of story you care to mention, feature compelling characters. Characters who are not just believable people (though that is vitally important), but who are intriguing, unusual, captivating and – most importantly – unique. Their distinctive qualities makes them memorable, interesting and appealing (even if they are the most sinister villains) and they don’t slot too neatly into cliched archetypes – damsels in distress, moustache twirling villains, reluctant heroes or any other such thing.

It is, therefore, naturally quite difficult to capture the formula for creating such a character. After all, any examples I can highlight (and I’ve highlighted a couple of my favourites) would only serve to be examples of unique characters who have already been written. You, dear writer, need to think of something new! But I have tried, as best I can, to sort them into three more general categories of the kind of thing you can use to add that distinctive sparkle to your character. Here they are, in no particular order:

1- Man or Woman of Mystery

For me, there’s nothing like a character who doesn’t show you his whole hand. You know there’s more to him than meets the eye because the things he does and says are peculiar. There seems to be method to his madness but you just don’t know what it is. In the opening chapters of The Vagrant by Peter Newman (arguably my favourite fantasy novel of 2015), we are introduced to a nameless and speechless protagonist, journeying to through a hellish fantasy world with a baby, a living sword and a goat.

Who is he? Where does he come from? What does he want? Why does he want it? Who does the baby belong to? Why can’t he speak (or does he simply  choose not to?)? What’s the deal with the funky sword? And where did he get that goat? So many questions!

Of course, the only danger with this approach is that you might make your story boring if the audience feels like they don’t understand anything that’s going on for too long. Fortunately, in The Vagrant Newman manages to keep that compelling spark of mystery alive by tossing us only tiny scraps of disjointed information, little by little. Just enough to keep us interested, but it is only as the story nears its end that we begin to really learn who this Vagrant is, where he comes from and why he’s doing what he’s doing. That’s the trick to making this kind of character work: a steady diet of gleanings of revelation. Each chapter should tell us something, but not everything.

2- Not Your Average Pirate/Priest/Cowboy/Wizard/Secret Agent/Space Cadet/etc…

This type of character is especially useful if you’re trying to create a lighthearted story, though it can be used in all kinds of fiction. Basically, you think of all the typical attributes you might expect your character to have and you reverse them. For instance, the Monkey Island saga is a series of games which follow the adventures of ‘mighty pirate’, Guybrush Threepwood: a slim, blond, mild-mannered, goofy young man who is, nevertheless, a bona fide (even legendary) pirate who sails the Caribbean vanquishing sword-masters, searching for treasure and battling hellspawned demon pirates. Of all the pirates to appear in fiction throughout the years – Jack Sparrow, Captain Hook, Long John Silver and anyone else you care to name – Guybrush Threepwood stands out as unique because he is so not your average pirate. His utter unsuitability to be a pirate is what makes him and his story so unique.

In Monkey Island, this is used to comic effect, but a skilled writer can use it to create non-humorous characters too. In Pale Rider, the otherwise unnamed protagonist is a preacher who rides into town wearing a clerical collar – but this being a western movie with Clint Eastwood playing the role of the preacher, you can be sure he’s more prone towards solving that town’s problems with violence than your stereotypical man of the cloth. Of all the gun-toting ‘shoot-first-and-ask-them-if-they’re-feeling-lucky-later’ characters that Clint Eastwood has ever played, the Preacher stands out as unique because he defies the usual character profile of your average travelling preacher.

3- Me and My “Thing”

I don’t want to rabbit on about Things too much, since I’ve already blogged about it before, but some characters stand out as unique because of a particular Thing they have with them which serves as a kind of trademark. As I mentioned in the previous post, there are many books, films and TV shows out there which include time travellers who use time machines to travel back and forth through eternity, but only the Doctor from Doctor Who travels through time in a British police box. And so, the Doctor is instantly recognisable by the TARDIS (as it is called), which is his Thing. In fact, the Doctor is a prime example of the power of a Thing, because that character often changes both his physical appearance and personality (we’re currently on our thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor, assuming we count the War Doctor) and yet he is always recognisable as the Doctor so long as he is travelling through time and space in a police box shaped TARDIS. If he ever permanently ditches the TARDIS for a time machine shaped like anything else, he won’t be the Doctor anymore.

The one thing you do need to be careful of is that your character’s Thing doesn’t turn out to be nothing more than a cheap gimmick which adds nothing to the story. Remember, everything must help the story to progress. The TARDIS works just fine as a Thing, because it also serves a more primary function – as the Doctor’s only means to travelling from time to time. It doesn’t just add a distinctive trademark to the Doctor’s character; it also plays a vital role in making the story work.

The Games It Plays

If there is one medium for story-telling which has been overlooked by society at large, it is computer games. While we might not consider it the primary function of a computer game to tell a story, it is nevertheless a fact that gaming has become an increasingly important medium of story-telling.

As technology has developed and computer games have grown more intricate and complex, it is only natural that the capacity of computer games to tell stories has likewise increased but this idea of using games to tell stories is nothing new. While it is true that no one would ever try to suggest that Pong, Pacman or even more recent offerings such as Candy Crush make any kind of serious contribution to the world of fiction, writers have been using the medium of gaming to tell their stories in an interactive way ever since the text based adventures of the ’70s. The real question is, can a game have a good story and still be worth playing?

Perhaps.

As you might expect, it depends on the game. We should bear in mind, before we judge the stories in games too harshly, that most games are primarily intended to be a challenge to play. That doesn’t diminish their value as games, but it does mean that you will need to do your homework if it’s a captivating story you’re looking for.

The Mortal Kombat series, for example, pretty much sets the standard for all other fighting games (if that’s your bag) but it doesn’t take more than a passing read through the story to see that it is full of holes and makes very little sense, not least of all since characters will frequently die in one game, only to be back for more by the next game. This would be unthinkable if you were writing a film or a novel but it’s essential in a game like Mortal Kombat because the characters of Mortal Kombat are what make it such a unique and recognisable game. Mortal Kombat just wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat if it didn’t have at least a few of the characters from the original game. Besides pretty much everybody dies sooner or later, since it is a fighting game.

There are, of course, plenty of games out there which are heavily plot-driven. The danger of this in gaming, however, is that we can quickly lose interest in the story if there isn’t enough focus on the actual game-play. The Metal Gear Solid series, for instance, is notorious for its long, dialogue-heavy cut-scenes which would perhaps feel more at home in a movie than in a computer game. The story is certainly well written but the sheer length and number of cut-scenes gets a bit tiresome after a while when all you really want to do is run about shooting folk from underneath your cardboard box.

As a rule of thumb, what makes a good story in print or on film will generally make a good story in game as well, provided that there is enough stuff for the player to actually do. That’s the hard part. Writing a quality story which is also challenging to play. This is where the point-and-click style adventure game comes into its own. One of my favourite games for story-telling is the Monkey Island series by LucasArts. It follows the adventures of wannabe pirate, Guybrush Threepwood and has all the necessary ingredients for a good story, such as a logical (if occasionally surreal) plot, humour by the bucket-load and a strong cast of memorable characters. Because the player is generally in control of what Guybrush says, there are very few lengthy cut-scenes to interrupt the game-play, thus creating a story which is truly interactive, rather than one which is simply interspersed through-out the game. There are plenty more games out there that follow this pattern (especially LucasArts games!) but the problem is, unless you happen to enjoy a retro game (like me!), you’re going to have a hard time finding any new ones to play. They pretty much had their day in the ’90s, I’m sorry to say.

Other types of gaming, such as role-playing games, often have very good stories, but like all stories, they also have the potential to be overwritten. The Final Fantasy series, for example, has been known to produce stories which can be a little confusing and melodramatic. The Fable series is a little bit better in that regard but because it has such a heavy focus on the player’s choice in almost everything that happens, it does make for a rather loose-fitting story which tends to take the form of a generic hero fighting something that will probably destroy the world, before the hero is finally faced with a big old moral dilemma.

Ultimately, I think the jury is still out on whether or not computer games can seriously stand shoulder to shoulder with film, theatre and literature as a means of story-telling without sacrificing the element of fun and challenge that makes a game worth playing. As technology continues to develop, I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to say that the potential of games to tell stories will develop also, however we must remember that the power of stories does not ultimately rest in technology. It may be argued, therefore, that a simple text-based adventure or a point-and-click adventure such as Monkey Island might actually have greater potential to tell us a story in a way which is fun and interactive than a game such as Metal Gear Solid, which has to interrupt the game-play every time it needs to move the story along. As with most other forms of story-telling, it really depends what you’re looking for. I’ve always been a believer that all mediums of story-telling have their pros and cons and what we like is ultimately a matter of personal preference. I suspect the same is true for gaming.