Ten Characters I Want to Write

PeopleCharacters are a critical part of a story for me. We have all seen or read plot-driven stories where tensions are high and character development is nonexistent. While these tales may be fun, my aim is to create stories with engaging and relatable characters. 

We want characters who are new and unique, but we have to balance this desire with the knowledge that “there is nothing new under the sun.” It is interesting to see what stock characters and archetypes are used, recycled, and favored by society at different points in time. A certain character type may be reused because it is easy to write or because something about this character rings true for the audience.

Below is my current list of ten stock characters and archetypes that I want to write. None of these characters have names or stories yet, none of them have been crafted beyond basic character design, but I hope to soon flesh each of them out and find stories to make their homes in.

  1. The weary wanderer
  2. Femme fatale with depth of character
  3. The trickster
  4. The pirate
  5. The hero who fails
  6. The humble leader
  7. The anti-hero
  8. Loyal sidekick
  9. The happy old couple
  10. The lone wolf
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Why I Write Fantasy More Than I Write Sci-fi (Part 2)

IMG_8902In my first post (here), I describe one of the key attributes, for me, about fantasy fiction is the emphasis on wonder and amazement. I want to further explore the nature of fantasy fiction by comparison with the genre’s sister, science fiction. Of course, everything I am describing is generalization and there are plenty of exceptions to the “rules”.

Fantasy stories often depict either a lost history or a secret world around us. A fantasy setting can conjure a sense of a mythic past golden eras or instill mystery about the reality of our world. Either way, we feel connected to the fantastical setting as though it is part of our world, our past, us. Science fiction on the other hand, describes alien worlds or a future to come. We may marvel at the oddity of another planet, but we do not relate to it the same way we may feel toward a fantasy setting.

Both fantasy and science fiction can sidestep modern scientific principles with magic or advanced technology, but these two solutions around our understanding of the universe affect the characters differently. Technology is a tool; it is impersonal and communicable. I can hand you my phone or someone can steal my spaceship. Magic is often depicted as an innate ability like perfect pitch or a photographic memory. Even when technology is user specific, perhaps with biometrics, it still is external to the individual when magic is internal.

Within a fantasy setting, strange and wonderful things can exist without needing a technological or monetary reason. In a science fiction setting, most technology will require some justification for its existence. While the economics of technology in science fiction makes sense and serves the context, it often speaks to human ingenuity rather than wonderment of life and our world.

Again, these are just a few thoughts on the differences between fantasy and science fiction. What do you see as differences between the genres? What are the strengths and weaknesses to either?

 

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Why I Write Fantasy More Than I Write Sci-fi (Part 1)

As a fiction writer, my genre of choice is high fantasy. I have a deep love for both  fantasy and science fiction, but when it comes to crafting my own stories, I prefer fantasy.

The overlaps between these genres within speculative fiction go well beyond fan base, imagination, and other-worldliness. Hard and soft science fiction, science fantasy, high fantasy; the line between the subgenres within the spectrum of science fiction and fantasy is blurry.

As I describe in my post “magicis fiction,” I like to define science fiction as stories pertaining to human interactions with technology. At first, this definition seems to offer a distinction between fantasy and science fiction, but as Arthur C. Clarke, one of the great fathers of science fiction, explains “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The reason I focus on writing fantasy stories has to do with the genre’s core value of wonder. What does it mean for something to be “fantastic?” It means something is extraordinary, imaginative, and awe-inspiring. While these traits should be found amidst any work of fiction, they find themselves center stage in fantasy fiction. A goal of fantasy stories is to spark amazement.

We can think the wonder of fantasy comes from the setting or the world the author creates, and while this is superficially true, the greatest power of fantasy is that these secondary worlds of stories reflects the awesome nature of the world we live in. A journey to Hogwarts or Middle Earth cultivates in me a deeper appreciation for my real world surroundings. Again, by no means does fantasy fiction have a monopoly on this concept of refreshing how we see our world, but it is the genre which has it as a key expectation.

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My Favorite French Classroom: La Boulangerie

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When my wife and I moved to France, my ability to speak French was essentially nonexistent. I knew how to say “my name is…” (je m’appelle), “I am sorry” (je suis désolé), and the names of random zoo animals (tigre, singe, et tatou). I had studied a bit about conjugating verbs, but was still learning present tense. Turns out present tense is not be terribly helpful in day to day conversation. You can read my post about that here. Our first day in France some friends taught us the invaluable phrase “je voudrais…” (I would like).

So armed, the next day I braved going to one of our local boulangeries (bakery). When it came time to order, I said “bonjour, je voudrais” and pointed to the millefeuille I wanted. Thus began my journey of learning French in my favorite context, the boulangerie.

The boulangerie is a great place to learn French for a few reasons. First, it is a known context; people come to the boulangerie to buy bread and pastries. I have an idea of what words to listen for and can guess missed words based on this setting. Over time I learned the phrase “say too” was really “c’est tout?” (anything else?). There is also a logical flow to the conversation: greeting, ordering, being asked if I want anything else (c’est tout?), the price, and the goodbye.

This brings me to my next reason: greetings and goodbyes. Every exchange begins and ends with a greeting and a goodbye, and this is good practice for using terms like “bonjour” (hello), “bonne journée” (have a good day), “vous aussi” (polite way of saying ‘you too’) and “au revoir” (goodbye).

The boulangerie also provides practice with the ever difficult gendered words of French. Whenever ordering something, I was forced to wrestle with the question “is it ‘un baguette’ or ‘une baguette’?” (it’s une baguette in case you’re wondering) My solution, at least at first, was to order “deux (two) baguettes s’il vous plait.” As I became braver, I started guessing (I am also always wrong). I once ordered “un etoile de Grenoble” and heard the boulangère (baker) reply “une etoile” and learned etoile is feminine.

If you know anything about French numbers, you know they are quite difficult. There is no word for 70, 80, or 90 in France. Belgium and Switzerland have both remedied this deficit, but France refuses to. Instead of saying seventy, it’s “soixante dix” (sixty-ten), and seventy two is “soixant douze” (sixty-twelve). Eighty is “quatre-vingt” (four-twenty), and ninety-nine is “quatre-vingt dix-neuf” (four-twenty-nineteen). It is a confusing system, but the boulangerie gives opportunity to listen for numbers while using the price on the register to verify your answer (‘I think she said ‘trois soixant-dix’/3.70’).

One of the greatest moments occurred when I understood a joke in French (fast enough to laugh with the boulangères and not on the walk home). My order totaled 4.20 so the boulangère said “quatre vingt” to which her coworker replied “quatre-vingt?!” (80?!).

The boulangerie also offers insight into various holidays and cultural items. Starting in January they sell “galette des rois” (king cake) for Epiphany, “bugnes” (glorious French donuts) for Mardi gras, chocolate fish for Easter, and “buche de Noël” which is a special Christmas boulangerie cake in December. It is a fun window in French culture to see what special pastries are sold during the year, and you know what holidays are coming up based upon what is for sale at the boulangerie.

For these reasons, as well as my many fun, though sometimes embarrassing, memories of going to the boulangerie, I think the boulangerie is the best French classroom. The best part of course is the bread and pastries.

Day 2

The millefeuille from our second day in France

 

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Magicis Fiction

Isaac Asimov, one of the great fathers of science fiction, defined the genre as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings” (Modern Science Fiction, 1953). I like to describe science fiction as stories about humanity’s interactions with technology. No matter how bizarre, alien, or futuristic the story, science fiction is about exploring through technology what it means to be human.

With ideas like robots, authors can examine concepts of our humanity. Asimov’s I, Robot and  Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? use the idea of human-like robots to ask how are we distinguishable from robots? What makes us human? If we make a machine human-like enough, is it human? How can we know and how can we tell?

Science fiction can speculate how humans would cope with long periods of isolation during interstellar travel, how teleportation would affect our daily lives, or how we would react to encounters with aliens. Through these examples we can consider how we need social interaction, how current technology expands our world, and how we respond to meeting new or different groups of people. 

While science fiction enables us to imagine how near or distant technologies will affect and describe us, it is not the only means for exploring these anthropological questions. As science fiction utilizes technology grounded in science to investigate our humanity, fantasy fiction can explore these same ideas with magical or magic-based technology. As Arthur C. Clarke describes “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Instead of using a positronic brain, how can the idea of a love potion probe the nature of synthetic versus genuine human thoughts and emotions? Instead of a person becoming invisible by sophisticated optical technology bending light around himself, what if he used a magic ring or an invisibility cloak? The story is not really about the magic or the science, but what humans would do with the technology and what that says about being human. The human question at the heart of the story is not affected by the means it is fictionally achieved.

I use the term “magicis fiction” to describe stories with magic-based technologies. These stories are able to question human behavior like science fiction, but within a fantasy setting. Through magicis fiction stories, I can use magical technologies to speculate about what it means to be human, while expanding my fantasy world.

What are your thoughts on science fiction, technology, or my idea of magicis fiction?

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The Heart of Fantasy: tLotR vs. aGoT

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Why do I write? What is my vision for storytelling? These are essential questions for every storyteller to ask. Our worldview and beliefs, the lenses we see life through, affect how we tell stories. Our perspectives influence what themes we explore, the plotlines we develop, how our characters behave, and a myriad of other details.

What ideas and philosophies do I want my writing to affirm? Storytelling will always reflect some viewpoint. We as storytellers cannot void our writing of all philosophical perspectives, nor should we. Just as no human lives outside of some human culture or another, all stories display views about life. As storytellers, we must ask ourselves how will we encourage readers? What do we want our stories to inspire in others?

This brings me to the topic of philosophy in high fantasy stories, specifically the Lord of the Rings (tLotR) by J.R.R. Tolkien and A Game of Thrones (aGoT) by G.R.R. Martin. Both tLotR and aGoT are beautifully written stories and are known for having huge casts of characters and being set in worlds with long histories. While these stories are staples of fantasy writing, they affirm opposing perspectives on life.

Tolkien’s story has an optimistic worldview: tLotR is written to inspire wonder and vision for who we can become. Martin’s story has a cynical view of the world and humanity, and aGoT highlights humanity’s malicious capabilities.

Tolkien’s writing reflects the beauty of our world through the majesty of his “secondary” world of Middle Earth (see his essay “On Fairy Stories”). The characters of tLotR are stout-hearted people who, when faced with hard decisions, choose good over self. The characters’ resolutions to reject power and temptation endears them to us. They choose wisely and we love them for it. They inspire us to do the same in our own lives: to stand for good and do what is right.

In contrast, the characters of aGoT are largely selfish and the story showcases their abilities to perpetrate evil. The story, rather than highlighting good people’s willingness to stand for what they believe in even against impossible and unjust circumstances, glorifies the manipulative characters power to hurt others with impunity. There is no justice nor hope for the noble character in aGoT.

Though I enjoyed both stories, aGoT left me feeling frustrated and discouraged. Martin’s story paints an unfortunately accurate depiction of human depravity, but I do not need him to tell me about how evil people can be; I am well informed on this subject by the media. aGoT reflects humanity, history, and the terrible things we have shown ourselves capable of inflicting on each other. tLotR presents who we can be and what we can aspire to be like rather than to cynically collapse back into the worst of ourselves.

My own beliefs and goals for my writing are similar to those of Tolkien. I want to encourage people to consider how wonderful our world is. Through my writing, I want to ask questions which stimulate reflection. I want to inspire hope, love, and creativity. I believe these are fundamental to who we are as humans, and I love seeing the humanity of others expressed through these values.

This does not mean Tolkien’s or my views are somehow “right” or better than Martin’s. It would be ridiculous for me to say his or anyone’s perspective on writing is wrong, but this contrast demonstrates a fundamental difference in our goals and philosophies of storytelling.

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Sixteen Goals for 2016

Sixteen goals for 2016; this sounds ambitious but the first six are goals I did not complete in 2015. Some of the major 2015 goals I did accomplish were having three short stories professionally edited, traveling more, and blogging more than in 2014. With this new year, I want to complete what I have not yet finished from 2015 and challenge myself in taking concrete steps toward my goals as a writer. Here is my list of sixteen goals:

  1. Read eight books in French
    • Originally I wanted to read twelve books in French in 2015 but I only managed a meager four. So I have eight more books to read this year.
  2. Read twelve plus books
    • I wanted to increase my books/year and read 11+ books. I only managed ten, so I am beginning this challenge again.
  3. Send 91 postcards
    • Perhaps my biggest failure for my 2015 goals was only sending nine of the one hundred postcards I intended to. Now I just have ninety-one left to go.
  4. Compose a piece of music
    • I have not composed a piece of music in years which makes me very sad. Since graduating from university my primary creative outlets have been painting and writing, but I want to stir some music composition back into the mix. Composing takes time, the process is much more arduous than writing, but I do not want to keep neglecting my love for creating music. My current idea is to work on a short song cycle, but we will see what I come up with.
  5. Practice ukulele more
    • Because of our apartment situation, I have not had much opportunity to practice my ukulele these last two years. This is something I hope to remedy in 2016.
  6. Develop a new skill
    • The final goal I have leftover from 2015 is to develop a new skill. It is important to continue learning and trying new things, and I hope to do some of that this year. I have no idea what to learn, any suggestions?
  7. Have my novel edited
    • I have completed drafts of my first two novels, and as intimidating as it to think of having the first novel edited, this is an important step to push myself toward. It also means I have a lot of editing/revising to do myself before being ready to submit my novel for edits.
  8. Continue my photo-a-day streak
    • For the last 807+ days I have taken at least one photo each day and posted it on my photo blog. It has been an incredible way to chronicle our time in France and record cultural observations and lessons we have learned. I do not know what I will do after we move back to the US this summer, perhaps take a photo hiatus or start another photo blog.
  9. Write monthly posts for both this blog and my theology blog
    • My writing time is split between fantasy stories (primary), this blog, and my theology blog. I met my blogging goal in 2015, but now I want to challenge myself to post on each blog at least monthly. Any ideas for topics?
  10. Publish (self?) something
    • It is time I polish a story enough to have it presented to the world. To date, all that I have shared with the world writing is blogging. Now I need to take the plunge.
  11. Write three short stories
    • Each year I like to write three short stories. My short stories from 2014 are the stories I hope to self-publish this year.
  12. Create a facebook page for my writing
    • I have read and read about methods for writers and authors to set up social media platforms, and now it is time I take steps to do so myself. While simple enough, a Facebook page will allow me to share posts and links with friends, family, and others without bombarding everyone.
  13. Set up a writing mailing list
    • Another platform-building step universally agreed upon is creating a newsletter mailing list as a means for sharing news and updates with interested people. I hope to set one up and will post links to join on this blog. First I feel I need to develop my writing to a place where I have news/updates to share via a mailing list.
  14. Make the most of our time in France (friends and food)
    • This is a wonderful and entirely subjective goal for the next six+ months we have in France. There are so many wonderful people and pastries in this country, and I want to be sure to profiter (enjoy/take advantage of) from these opportunities.
  15. Visit a new country
    • We may not have much time to travel while still living in France, but I hope we can manage to visit at least one more new country before moving back to California. Any suggestions where we should go? Currently, Budapest Hungary is the top of our list.
  16. Stay in contact with our friends here in France
    • As we face the reality of another international move and all the changes (and reverse culture-shock) which await us, I am reminded that relationships are the most important thing we take with us. We have some truly amazing friends here and I know we will find ways to stay friends across oceans and timezones.
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