From time to time I take a break from writing and try to evaluate where I’m at in terms of my skill set. I like to reflect upon some of the key elements that go into the creation of a novel, because one thing I’ve disillusioned myself about over the years is that inspiration has very little to do with it. Nevertheless, when inspiration strikes, it can bind all the crafty mechanical elements into a compelling story.
Here are my current thoughts.
Some writers like to plan out their stories in great detail and then make the characters perform the actions required by the plot. When I first started writing novels, this is what I did, and the result was two-dimensional talking-heads characters whose sole purpose was to get the story from A to B.
These days, I know how the story starts, how (sometimes roughly) it needs to end, and a few key things that need to happen along the way. I then take my characters and insert them into the story, make sure there are obstacles (internal and external) that make it difficult for them to get from A to B, and then allow them to solve the problems during the first draft. Once the characters start to live and breathe, and once they enter into relationships with other characters, things happen which affect the course of the narrative, often in unexpected ways.
During this stage, I tend to revise my plot notes and sometimes change things drastically. Occasionally, I don’t even know who is going to live or die until the first draft is well underway.
Once I’ve completed the first draft, I read through the story and make comments in the margins. I look for themes and work at developing them. I look at issues of pace, action, down time, the balance of dialogue, exposition, humor, combat etc, and revise the draft where needed. If I’m uncertain about the balance of action and downtime, I plot out a graph and look at the relation of peaks to troughs.
Most of the time I end up faithful to my initial plot outline, albeit traveling from A to B in a surprising or circuitous way.
Plot needs to follow a basic structure, which for my genre typically involves a plateau, a succession of troughs and an eventual peak. There’s a set up (character’s normal life is changed by an unusual event, or the start of a quest), a series of obstacles to be overcome, and different degrees of defeat before an eventual triumph (I tend to write Heroic Fantasy rather than Grimdark!). Due to the importance of relationships in my books, the triumph is more often than not dependent upon cooperation between characters, particularly those who have experienced conflict throughout the story.
Character is by far the most important element of my storytelling these days, so much so that I have sometimes started stories with no more than a situation into which I insert characters and see what happens next. Things can always be tightened up during later drafts.
With my latest books, Carnifex and Geas of the Black Axe, I thought the process was going to be different. These stories are prequels to my earlier book The Nameless Dwarf: The Complete Chronicles, and so I assumed I wouldn’t have much room to maneuver. That was one of the reasons I put off writing them for so long.
But when I started, I was surprised at just how much my grasp of the craft of writing had improved, mostly through producing a lot of novels, but in part due to the sheer number of content edits I’d undertaken over the past five years.
It became quickly apparent that the writing wasn’t going to be about simply getting the plot points down and creating a bridge to the Complete Chronicles, and from there to the other new book, Return of the Dwarf Lords. Instead, this was an opportunity to fully explore the character relationships that had only really been told as backstory before. In doing so, I found myself getting more and more immersed in the head of my protagonist, which affected how he interacted with events, others, and his environment. This deep level of immersion began to suggest even more plot elements, until the story started to surprise me in a very good way.
I think what ultimately happened here was that I had been writing continuously for months on Return of the Dwarf Lords, and then I’d been signed by an agent who wanted the entire story arc so should could begin pitching to publishers. So, when I started work on Carnifex, I was in the middle of a sort of purple-patch of writing, where everything came easily.
It’s rare that this happens for me. The odd scene, maybe, but never before for an entire book.
Without writing all the previous novels, though, and without reflecting on content during editing commissions, writing reviews, and studying critical analysis in my undergraduate days, I doubt everything would have been in place for inspiration to take hold so effectively.
So, with plot, I would say it’s 95% craft—learning structure and dramatic technique. Whatever some writers might tell you, there are definite skills and conventions to be learnt, even if you later end up abandoning them out of conscious choice. Once you have a good degree of familiarity with the mechanics of plot, be alert and pray that inspiration strikes, and be thankful when it does.
To be fully fleshed-out, characters must have room to grow. As well as the essential external conflicts they must encounter during the story, it helps if they have their own inner conflicts. It may be that they are striving to make amends for past deeds; perhaps a coward seeks to do something heroic but keeps failing; an alcoholic might be making progress giving up the drink ... but then falls off the wagon.
The other important thing to remember is that people are mostly defined by their relationships. Even a “lone wolf” character needs interaction with other characters to be engaging and believable. Elric needs his Moonglum, Conan needs Valeria or any of his other sidekicks; Batman needs Robin (although that could be stretching it). I won’t go so far as to say Captain America needs Bucky.
It is essential that the reader has something to identify with, which may be why epic fantasy is so popular (farm boy meets wise old man, goes on a quest, gains new powers and triumphs over evil). G.K. Chesterton believed the reader best identified with an ordinary protagonist entering an extraordinary world (C.S. Lewis clearly agreed with him).
If, however, we opt for extraordinary characters, the task is to give them recognizable human traits, foibles, flaws, limitations that the reader can recognize and latch on to. Just imagine how tedious Superman would be without his Clark Kent persona, or the Hulk without Bruce Banner.
If your character is a mighty warrior who tends to go around smiting foes with a big axe, think carefully about his/her vulnerabilities (and they don’t necessarily have to be physical).
Characters also need to interact with the environment (see below). If they are crossing an icy wasteland, how does it affect them? What are the consequences of traveling through the desert with insufficient water? How do they deal with crowds? Isolation?
Another way to open up a character is to pay attention to how they speak. Listen to how real people speak, take note of the contractions, the incomplete sentences, the inflections. Are there particular words or phrases your character uses? Sometimes just a single phrase or word can give you a clue as to that character’s idiom, and once you have it the dialogue tends to write itself. In my Revenge of the Lich, the wannabe thief Nils Fargin is a master of the double negative, Nameless calls everyone “laddie”, Targ prefers “son”, and Silas Thrall loves to impress with big words and tight constructions.
And remember, dialogue isn’t there just to explain things to the reader. It can create depth in the relationships, provide humor, snippets of information, and can even drive the plot forward. Don’t be afraid to allow the characters room to talk. Let them run with the dialogue and see what happens. You can always trim it back in subsequent drafts.
Creating worlds for your characters to inhabit, and in which your plot will unfold, can seem daunting. With my Shader books, I began with the world of Urddynoor in the distant future after an apocalyptic event known as the Reckoning. Urddynoor is linked to the world of Aethir, which was dreamed by a mad “god”, who himself was the child of two powerful beings from another universe beyond the Void. The essential dynamic of the Shader world is the interplay between ancient science, magic, and religion.
The post-apocalyptic elements provide lots of hidden layers—origin stories for certain races, archaeological finds that profoundly affect the story, old scores that need to be settled. The mythos of the Demiurgos and the Abyss provides the sinister backdrop against which current events are played out.
When developing individual towns and cities, I don’t try to do it all at once. I draw out the world map and define territories. I make rough notes about the inhabitants and the international conflicts. I then focus on one or two geographic areas, those that feature in the story I am writing at the time.
Each location needs its own conflicts, its own unique characteristics. In the course of writing the first draft, characters may refer to other locations (perhaps their home town) which gives me reason to flesh those areas out a bit more, with a view to using them at a later date.
It helps if the locations are new to at least one of the point of view characters, who can then become the reader’s eyes. If not, and you show a location that is well known to the POV character, you run the risk of diluting point of view for the sake of showing things to the reader that the character would probably be too familiar with to notice. It can be done, but to do it well requires a good deal of skill, sensitivity, and subtlety.
The worlds I developed for Shader are the same worlds in which Legends of the Nameless Dwarf are set. They have been slowly developing for over ten years. Maps have been drawn and then embellished numerous times. There are whole notebooks filled with information, an entire mythology, a history of the worlds spanning thousands of years. Each time I write a story, more detail is added to a location, and the worlds become fuller, more believable. It doesn’t have to happen all at once. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
My advice to a new writer would be to keep it simple at first. Have a rough sketch of the land you are writing about. Get your basic political powers in place, sketch a map with basic topography, and then focus on a specific place. This is ancient advice that can be found in Aristotle’s Poetics. It’s fine if you want to spend years developing your world in Tolkienesque detail, but the danger is you may end up too afraid to write due to the complexity of the monster you’ve created.
I like to think of Ridley Scott’s approach when filming Alien. Having commissioned a phenomenally detailed set, he chose not to draw undue attention to it, and left it very much in the background so that the story, the tension, and the characters could be the focus (rather than “look at my stunning new set”).
Something that really helps to give a sense of reality to the world building is to have your characters travel. It’s far better than telling the reader about the treacherous seas off of whatever land to have your characters take an ocean voyage as part of the story. Don’t talk about the danger of a shipwreck, have their ship wrecked, or at least have a near escape.
If they cross the desert, show how it affects them in terms of thirst, fatigue, hopelessness, sunburn, getting lost.
And don’t forget the weather. Not only does it add to the realism, but it can also work thematically, mirroring or contrasting with a character’s mood or foreshadowing what is to come.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t get bogged down with irrelevant detail. Keep it simple, keep it real. When you enter a new town, you don’t count every leaf on every tree, every blade of grass in a garden. You don’t read every sign, comment on the appearance of every person. Attention is wavering—we focus in and out, and miss a lot. Just show what your point of view character sees. Later, you can use a different point of view character to show things from another perspective, perhaps picking up on things the previous character failed to notice. The reader doesn’t need to know everything in your extensive worldbuilding notebook, only what’s necessary for the story.
And everybody knows that story trumps everything, and that entertainment is far more important than impressive details, verbosity, and general cleverness.