San Sibilia

I recently purchased the Bundle for Ukraine on Itch.io, which included a number of video games, but also contained an unexpected number of tabletop RPGs and other things. One of those things is called A Visit to San Sibilia.

A Visit to San Sibilia describes itself as

a solo journaling game in which you roleplay a character chronicling their visit to the city of San Sibilia. It is a city not found on any maps—San Sibilia is both part of and distinct from our world. The city manifests itself differently to every visitor.

I wouldn’t exactly call it a solo TTRPG. It’s more like a semi-randomized writing prompt. The game starts with a description of the city. Which continent is it on? What is the time period? It is tantalizingly vague. The city is a mystery, and you are left to answer those questions for yourself.

The Play

The randomness is primarily provided by a shuffled deck of cards. You start by drawing two cards and consulting a simple chart to determine an adjective and a noun. Together, these describe your character. You might be a lonely missionary, an intrepid journalist, or a blasphemous scholar. (If you’ve played Fallen London, this naming scheme will feel very familiar.)

With your character in hand, you begin your journal. The game provides some questions to get you started. How did you get here? Where are you staying? And so on.

For each new entry in your character’s journal, you roll a six-sided die to determine how much time has passed. Then you draw two more cards. The suit of the first card provides an adjective, and the second card provides a location or event. You might have a serendipitous incident at the bookstore, read some sinister news in the broadsheets, or make a mysterious find in the antique store.

Finally, if your two cards had the same suit or the same value, the city changes. As the game describes, “It might be an expected change in season or politics, but it might also be a shift in reality.” Once you have experienced four of these changes, your time in San Sibilia comes to an end. You get one final entry to describe the circumstances of your departure.

My Experience

I’ve played San Sibilia once so far, over a long weekend. Depending on how loquacious you are, how strictly you follow the rules, and your luck, it could range from one hour to perhaps three or four. I spent about two hours across two days.

The initial description of the city, my character, and the starting questions were a great jumping-off point that immediately sucked me in. As I wrote my journal entries, I did choose to skip a single event and draw new cards at one point, but the random elements did pull my story in unexpected directions. I felt that the “same suit or value” mechanic for changing the city could result in some odd pacing, and I decided to force a change at one point when it was a very long time coming.

The game is simple enough that it’s easy to adjust it to your own tastes. The prompts worked well, and I never really had a hard time figuring out what to write next. The writing process was fun, and now that I’ve gone back and re-read it, I like the story that came out of it.

San Sibilia avoids a lot of the challenges that other TTRPGs have in telling a good, structured story by only having one player, having almost no mechanics, and limiting randomness. The one aspect where the game can fall down a little bit is the random number of journal entries between changes to the city. Even that can be easily dealt with by setting a hard minimum and maximum number of entries in each of these “acts.”

Where to Get It

A Visit to San Sibilia is available on Itch.io and Drive Thru RPG for $5.00. It’s also licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0), which means you can share it and remix it, as long as you provide proper attribution.

Martian Magazine — Year 2

As an occasional writer and frequent reader of drabbles (exactly 100-word stories), I don’t think there can be any doubt that Martian magazine hosts the best of the form. They’re a web-zine that has published a science fiction drabble every week for the past year, and they pay authors professional rates. If you prefer your drabbles in themed anthologies, they’re doing that too!

Now, they’re running a Kickstarter to fund their second year, with hopes of expanding. They have all manner of physical and e-book rewards available. I don’t have any skin in the game—I just like what they’re doing, and I’d love to see them get to do more of it.

Check out their post here, and the Kickstarter here.

Storytelling Class — Writing Goals

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was a mini-class where we talked about writing goals.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

This week, I’ve been reading Dune to my eldest (who wasn’t terribly interested in the Wildwood trilogy that my wife is reading to Freya). I recently read The Lord of the Rings to the kids, and Tolkien’s verbose style is fresh in my mind. It stands in stark contrast to Herbert’s often terse style in Dune. Herbert loves to create compound sentences, but has an allergy to conjunctions. He tends to leave the “and” or “but” implied and just combine sentences with a simple comma or semicolon.

Continuing on my recent graphic novel kick, I also read volume 3 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I read the first couple volumes years ago, and I have to say, I was a little lost in this one. Volume 3 is titled “Century,” because it follows the nearly immortal characters over the course of a hundred years.

The premise is fun, but the story didn’t really grip me. The villain seemed almost accidental, and the end of the story was alltogether anticlimactic. The apocalypse was averted by a classic deus ex machina.

One of the big draws of the League stories is the wrangling together of other works of literature into something new, and there were some entertaining examples of that in this volume, including a rather famous wizard school and a magical nanny. Still, they didn’t have the same excitement as the original volume, with its Dracula; Invisible Man; 20,000 Leagues; and Dr. Jekyll references.

Freya has moved on to the sixth Harry Potter book, and continued to read The One and Only Bob at school, and Wildwood with mom at bedtime.

What Did We Write?

I finished off Chapter 8 of Razor Mountain. I’ve also been looking through some solo TTRPGs from the Itch.io Ukraine bundle.

Freya continued to work on her story, Amber and Floria.

Writing Goals

Rather than tackling a high-level writing topic this week, Freya and I sat down and talked a little bit about writing goals.

I used to think my own goals were pretty straightforward: writing stories and novels and trying to get them traditionally published. However, in recent years I’ve been doing more writing just for fun. And, of course, I’ve been writing Razor Mountain serially and posting it as I go, while documenting the whole process. Which lands me somewhere in-between “just for fun” and “actual publishing.”

Two quotes stand out to me when it comes to writing goals. The first is by Neil Gaiman, recorded in print in his little book, Art Matters.

“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be…was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”

This simple heuristic is perfect for writers. There are a lot of ways to improve at your craft, and no strict curriculum. You just have to set some long-term goals and keep asking yourself whether you’re still walking toward the mountain.

The other quote reminds me that you don’t have to have goals at all. It’s from a conversation about writing on Mike Birbiglia’s podcast, “Working It Out.” Carin Besser talks about writing poems for nobody but herself, taking them out once in a while and working on them without worrying about finishing, and with no real interest in publishing. This is “writing like knitting.” It’s a pass-time, a hobby, or a meditative act.

Sometimes goals can be incredibly stressful, and distract from the fact that we’re doing something we love. Even if you do have long-term goals, it’s worth stepping back periodically and just enjoying writing for its own sake.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 8

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Landscape Writing

As Christopher and God-Speaker spend time traveling, I’m working on building my repertoire of geographical descriptions. This sounds simple, but it can actually be challenging. First, it requires that I get the lay of the land clear in my own head, then I have to describe it succinctly, but still make it clear to the reader. Spend too much time describing the geography, and the story slows to a crawl. Spend too little, and it’s hard to clearly picture the characters’ surroundings.

I recently re-read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in years. Tolkien has a reputation for being meandering and long-winded by modern standards, and it is a reputation that is occasionally deserved. But I was really struck by his mastery of this kind of “landscape painting” through words. I was able to see the sights of Middle Earth as the fellowship traveled.

Modulating Discomfort

Over the past few chapters, I’ve been thinking a lot about my characters’ discomfort levels. One of the key ingredients to build suspense is to put characters into uncomfortable, dangerous or difficult situations. On the other hand, it’s important that the tension actually build over time, and not just max out at extreme levels too quickly. I’m trying to measure the larger story arcs and modulate the tension accordingly, so it ramps up into key story beats.

The other challenge is that my main characters are timid. They need to be carefully led into more challenging situations if they’re going to build up a tolerance and overcome them. My characters are frogs that I’m slowly boiling. By the time they fully realize the danger, it’ll be too late.

I debated whether Christopher’s camping trip should be more catastrophic, but this is the first chapter where he’s really purposely going out of his comfort zone. And it’s uncomfortable, but not so bad as to send him running scared. Yet.

Act I Planning

As I mentioned last time, my outline called for sixteen chapters in Act I. Having reached the theoretical halfway point, I wanted to reevaluate the next eight chapter outlines in light of what I’ve written so far. I haven’t deviated wildly from my outline, but there are tons of tiny decisions that happen in the act of writing, and those can add up to unexpected changes in the direction of the plot, or a crystallization of themes and ideas. Pacing is also something I have to get into writing to feel.

My general feeling is that Chapter 8 should be more than halfway through Act I. The next eight chapters look to be shorter, so that checks out. However, because they’re shorter, I could also consider combining a couple of them together. I’ll keep that option in my back pocket and make the decision as I’m writing those chapters.  That would also affect the spacing between Christopher POV chapters and God-Speaker POV chapters. That’s not a major concern, but it does affect the pacing a little.

Next Time

That’s all for this chapter. See you in Chapter 9, where we’ll look at continuing to ramp up the tension on Christopher.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 8.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Dusk fell early in the forest, with the sun lost behind the pines before it set over the mountains. In keeping with his pledge to take his time and be cautious, Christopher made sure to stop and set up his tent before the light faded. He found a little clearing with only a dusting of snow. It was still protected from the wind, but was large enough to allow several feet between his tent and a fire pit.

Despite hiking all day, Christopher felt good. Setting up the tent was straightforward, and he had time to collect some wood and start the fire before it really got dark. He used some of the prepared kindling from his pack. He collected a good pile of dry wood from the surrounding forest before sitting down to his dinner. Alongside another of the jerky and fruit bars, he boiled some water in a small pot and cooked some beans and rice with bouillon for flavor. He finished it with a reward: a small packet of freeze-dried fruit. It was hardly a feast, but it tasted incredible after a day of hiking.

As the cold settled around him, and the warm food settled in his stomach, he found himself overwhelmingly tired. For a moment, he debated whether he ought to keep the fire going, but it seemed like an unnecessary risk in the forest, where stray embers might ignite a bed of needles and give him a forest fire to wake up to.

He gathered clean snow, washing the little pot and then melting enough to refill his water bottles. There wasn’t much else to do. He used a stick to spread out the embers and threw a handful of snow over them. They sizzled and sputtered, leaving him in darkness. He looked up at the patch of sky that was visible among the trees. There were no stars to be seen in the gray-black clouds.

Christopher got into the tent, careful to knock the snow off his boots. It was cold at first, even with his thick sleeping bag pulled up around him and a mat separating him from the cold ground. However, all of the equipment did its job, and his body heat soon filled the little tent. Within ten or fifteen minutes, he was comfortably warm.

His fingers traced the shape of the wooden figurine in the darkness, vague images of its maker swirling in his head. Faces pulled from his imagination, and then from his past, and then a swirling mixture of faces. Finally, a dark place somewhere deep underground, where the faces could not be seen at all. There was nothing but the whispering voices in the blackness. The whispers surrounded him as he slept.

He woke in darkness, as a drip of cold water struck his cheek and slid down into his ear. He instinctively shifted, bringing a hand up out of the warmth of the sleeping bag to wipe it away. Several more drops landed on his face, dislodged by his motion. As he came back to consciousness, his first thought was that his breath had condensed on the inside of the waterproof tent. Maybe the temperature had dropped in the night.

It was still dark. Wind was blowing through the trees outside. He sat up, and his head rubbed across the wet fabric. Cold water trickled in his hair. The tent was small, but not that small. He should have been able to sit up comfortably. Instead, the roof and one side were pressing in on him. He could feel the pressure of snow weighing down the tent fabric.

He unzipped the zipper just enough to stick a finger through. Sure enough, there was heavy, wet snow where there had been little more than a dusting when he had gone to sleep. He considered opening it up completely, going out and trying to clear an area around the tent, but decided against it. He didn’t know how much snow had fallen. It might have been dumped from the overloaded branches above, or it might just be a blizzard outside. Either way, it would come pouring in when he opened up the tent. Better to wait until the morning.

The tent poles were bent to one side. He pushed and pulled them, trying to force the tent back into its proper shape. The floor was damp with the condensation that was running down the cold walls. His sleeping bag was damp where it overhung the sleep mat. The mat would no doubt be soaked. His pack was near his feet, but it was waterproof. He opened it and took out a spare blanket. He used it to sop up the moisture that had collected at the bottom of the tent, then wiped the walls carefully, trying to collect as much as he could without it dripping all over him.

The tent still leaned dangerously to one side. He moved his pack to shore up the half-collapsed side, and adjusted the sleep pads to mostly avoid his sleeping bag touching the walls.

The wind grew louder outside. The trees groaned and creaked. Everything was eerie in the darkness, muffled by the tent and the surrounding snow. Christopher shivered and leaned against his pack as the tent pushed back. He doubted he would get any more sleep that night.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 8.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Morning came. Once again, Christopher remembered snatches of dreams. Snow and mountains and a dark, maze-like cave. He ate without tasting his oatmeal. He stretched, feeling only the slightest twinge in his knee. Two packs and the makeshift sled were re-packed and ready by the hatch.

He sat at the table and stared at the map, then at the copied section in his notebook. He jumped as the monotone female voice came onto the radio, spoke a dozen numbers, then disappeared to another channel. There was nothing left to do, but something kept him from stepping outside.

He folded up the map and notebook and stowed them in one of the packs. Then he stood facing the hatch.

It was the feeling that he was leaving for good. This strange place had started to feel comfortable. It was hardly an ideal home, but it was an anchor in this foreign place; this insane, illogical situation that he found himself in.

He might find something better or something worse. He might get lost and die in the wilderness. He was used to a simple, uncomplicated life, as devoid of risk as he could make it. Stepping outside felt like it might be the riskiest thing he had ever done.

The hatch handle rotated smoothly under his hand. It fell into place with a thunk, and the hatch swung open. Cold air and a swirl of fine snow blew inside. The sky was a uniform gray, but it was bright outside. The sled slid out onto the snow, the second pack secured to it. The weight of his main pack settled on his slightly stiff shoulders. Without any sense of having made the choice to, Christopher found himself standing outside the closed hatch, ready to depart.

He took a deep breath and began to walk.

The footprints and sled tracks from his test run were still visible, if a little muddled by the blowing snow. It was cooler and less sunny, although he still had to shield his eyes from the snow glare after the shade of the bunker.

He had found a red burlap sack in the storage room of the bunker, and cut it into strips. One of his pockets was stuffed with them. Once he was far enough away that he could no longer see the bunker entrance, he stopped at a nearby tree and tied one of these ribbons to a low branch. This would be his trail of breadcrumbs in case he needed to find his way back.

The blank overcast turned the sun into a vaguely brighter splotch of sky, so it was difficult to tell how much time was passing, or if he was making good progress. He tried to take it easy, but his stomach felt heavy with the knowledge that it’d be a good two-day hike to the next dot on the map. Every time he stopped to tie another ribbon, he also sat for a minute and drank some water. Every other stop, he ate a bite or two from one of the strange jerky bars and consulted the map. It became a hypnotizing rhythm, and the time passed.

His test excursion had veered further south than the route he had plotted to the dot on the map. This meant that he had to eventually veer away from the familiar and head in a new direction. He wouldn’t walk through his previous campsite, although he could guess when he had reached a new record distance from the bunker and the safety it represented. That was the point where it would soon become infeasible to turn around and make it back before sunset.

He planned his route to take him past a shoulder of rock that jutted out from a much larger hill to the north-east. It was hard to tell from the map, but he hoped that it would give him a good view of his surroundings if he could climb it without too much trouble. As it turned out, the side he approached it from was one long slope, and not too steep. It seemed worth a slight detour from the ideal path for the potential view.

Christopher hiked for half an hour to reach the ridge at the top. Despite what his father had jokingly said about his own childhood, Christopher found that hiking uphill in the snow did not, in fact, seem to build character. It just made his calves burn with exertion. He wondered what his dad might be doing right now, but quickly pushed that thought out of his mind.

The other side of the ridge was not a nice slope. It was a collapsed mess of narrow shelves, sheer drops, and steep rocky inclines. The view was also less than he had hoped for. The main bulk of the hill blocked his line of sight to the north-east, which was to be expected. But the land also rose slowly upward in the direction he was headed, toward the mountain with the split peak. He could see that the area immediately ahead was a rich carpet of dark green: dense pine forest with handfuls of straight white aspen jutting up in their midst. The forest ran uphill before flattening for a while, nearly at Christopher’s eye level up on the hill. It was hard to see beyond that, until his eyes reached the distant mountainsides.

He paused, ate a little and drank, and looked at the map. Despite being more methodical and keeping his pace carefully measured, he was making good progress. Maybe even better progress than his test run. His regimen of regular food, water and rest seemed to be paying off.

He was forced to backtrack the way he had come, down the gentler slope, and then around the shoulder, to the place where the trees began to grow closer together. The air under the trees was still, and he had to open his coat collar to stay cool as he hiked in the dappled shade. The snow clung to the branches above, and that meant the needle-strewn paths beneath were easier to traverse.

He didn’t walk far before he realized that the forest posed a serious danger to him. He had very little visibility within the trees. It was hard to even see the closest mountain peaks for basic navigation, let alone see the nearby contours of the land that he could compare to the map. He could maintain his direction fairly well with the compass as long as he didn’t run into terrain that forced a detour, but he would need to get out of the trees and into open spaces again as quickly as possible to make sure he didn’t slowly veer off-course. He didn’t particularly trust his own survival skills.

The massive alien face came leering at him around a tree trunk before his brain could register it. Huge, liquid eyes above an elongated snout, framed by a shaggy beard and broad antlers. Christopher stumbled back, tripping on the crusty snow and falling backwards over the sled and his pack. The pack on his back naturally rolled him onto his side as he tried to frantically disentangle himself.

The creature was a moose. It peered at him, showing its irritation with a groan and a snuffle. It nuzzled into the decaying needles at the roots of the tree, sniffing for something, then raised its head and gave him another sideways glance before meandering away into the woods.

Christopher, finally managing to get his pack off and his feet disentangled, stared at the creature until it was out of sight, waiting for his heartbeat to slow. He had always thought of moose as cute, often soggy, totally harmless creatures. It had turned out to be harmless, but it certainly seemed huge and dangerous when it was suddenly looming over him.

From his awkward position on the forest floor, Christopher noticed something odd hanging from the lowest branches of a nearby tree. It was a shape suspended on a piece of string. He stood and looked around, just to make sure there were no more giant animals lurking nearby. Satisfied that he was alone, he walked over and stood under the thing.

The object was a little bundle with bits sticking out of it. It was definitely tied to one end of a piece of rough twine, the other end tied to the tree branch. It did not look like something that could have come to be there naturally.

Christopher jumped, then jumped again, just managing to grab hold of the thing. The twine was tied to the thin end of a healthy pine bough, and it bent under the pull, but neither the twine nor the branch broke. Christopher held the thing tight above his head while he fumbled with his left hand to find the jacket pocket where he had his pocket knife. Then he fumbled further, eventually using his teeth, to flip the blade out. He reached up and sawed at the twine until it sprung away, leaving the object and an inch or two of string in his hand.

The object was wrapped in twigs and fibers whose source Christopher didn’t recognize. The twine wrapped round it all, holding it together in a sort of pod. Within the pod was a piece of wood, clearly carved into a crude but smooth human figure. It was, without a doubt, something made by a person. Hanging from a tree. In the wilderness.

Christopher looked around again. The trees seemed darker, closer together. He half expected people to suddenly jump from the shadows. Nobody did.

He wasn’t sure how to judge how old the carving might be. Surely the sticks and twine would wear out and fall apart after some amount of time out in the elements. Surely the figurine would dry and crack. It seemed relatively new, but did that mean it was a week old? A year? Five years? He wasn’t sure.

While it felt like some monumental finding to Christopher, it did nothing to change his plans. He still only had one place to go, and standing in the woods staring at the thing wasn’t going to get him there. He checked both of the packs to make sure that nothing had been damaged when he fell. Then he secured the sled, hoisted the other pack onto his back, and set out again, looking for a good place to set up camp before it got dark.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 8.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher woke up aching and parched, with vague memories of dreams where he was trudging eternally through an empty field of snow. He got up, shirtless, hobbled into the main room of the bunker and drank a glass of water in a continuous series of gulps. He refilled it and sat in one of the uncomfortable chairs. His gear from the test excursion lay damp and disheveled by the hatch. He only vaguely remembered disrobing and throwing himself into the bed.

He looked down at the paunch of his stomach and his slightly flabby arms. He hadn’t been in great shape to begin with. He worked at a computer. He sat in meetings. He watched movies. But being out here—chopping and hauling wood, pulling the sled, hiking with a heavy pack—it was building muscle and trimming fat. He was used to eating out more often than cooking for himself, and the dismal array of apocalypse-ready food available in the bunker had really curbed his caloric intake, despite his significantly increased activity.

His body was sore, and he was obviously dehydrated. He had pushed himself harder than he had realized over the previous day. His knee was bothering him, a sign that he needed to go easy on it, lest he end up undoing whatever healing had been done. Overall, he didn’t feel too bad. It gave him some confidence that he was capable of making the journey to the next dot on the map.

If there was one thing that he had learned, it was that he had to be well-prepared. He had the gear he needed. He just had to take his time, expect to make progress more slowly than he would prefer, and give himself extra time for things like setting up camp. He would need to make sure to drink more frequently, and perhaps snack more to keep his energy up.

The other concern was weather. It had been perfect, clear and sunny, on his test excursion. That could easily change. He had no forecasts, no weather app that he could consult. More broadly, he knew that it was mid-November, and it was only going to get colder. The longer he put things off, the more difficult and dangerous any travel would be. He felt like an animal trying to get its last-minute scavenging done before being trapped in some underground burrow for the winter.

“You could wait,” he said to himself, an admission of what he’d been thinking all along.

He could wait out the winter. He could wait indefinitely, until someone showed up to ask him what the hell he was doing here. Assuming that anyone actually would show up. Assuming the food would last. It was tempting. It was so much easier. Like being a child, hurt and lost, just sitting down in some corner and waiting for a parent, any competent adult really, to figure out what had happened and set everything right.

He imagined his parents, who by now had probably been told it was very unlikely that their only remaining child would ever be found alive. Imagined their long, cold winter, thinking he was dead.

Christopher took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He finished his second glass of water and set about making another dull breakfast. He would be prepared. He would take precautions and be safe. It wasn’t a trek across Alaska; just a few miles. The worst outcome would be following the map and finding nothing. Then he would have to more seriously consider staying put for a while.

He didn’t go out to chop wood that morning, and he didn’t light the signal fire. He would rest and recuperate. He examined the map again, sketching an expanded version of his little corner as accurately as he could in the notebook. On his expanded map, he marked the route that seemed to make the most sense, based on the contours of the terrain. He also marked places that might be good landmarks to check his progress against and make sure he was going in the right direction.

With his route planned, he emptied his pack and unfurled the tent to dry out. Then he set about restocking his supplies. If the weather was still good, and his leg felt strong, he could leave tomorrow.

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Storytelling Class — Round and Flat Characters

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was making characters.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

The family had a day this week where just about everyone wrote some poetry, so Freya read everyone’s poems. At school, they’re reading “The One and Only Bob.” My wife is reading her “Wildwood” at bedtimes, and she’s still working through Harry Potter in her free time at school.

I read the remaining pile of Vertigo comics that my wife snagged for me at a garage sale. Last week, I read the first two volumes of Y: The Last Man, a critically acclaimed series that I found pretty uninteresting. This week I delved into two other popular comics series and enjoyed them both quite a bit. They were:

  • Fables: Legends in Exile (Vol. 1)
  • Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake (a side series, I guess?)
  • Unwritten (Vols. 1-4)

Fables is all about fairy tales come to life and magically transported to modern day New York, forced to shlub it up with us mundane people while keeping their magical identities hidden. The first volume is a murder mystery, with the Big Bad Wolf as detective. It doesn’t end with the most shocking twist, but it serves as a great framework to introduce some of the main characters and the world they inhabit. Moreover, I appreciate a short, self-contained little arc, since comics are so often sprawling arcs and cross-series tie-ins (something Marvel has now inflicted upon films).

Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake is another self-contained arc, but completely separate from the New York fables. This one tells the story of a few fables who come together by chance and end up in the sights of an evil fairy queen.

While I enjoyed the Fables books, I really fell in love with Unwritten. Of the random selection of series in this pile ‘o garage sale books, these were my favorites by far.

Unwritten is about a sad man named Tom Taylor, who just happens to have the same name as the main character in a series of wildly successful Harry-Potter-esque novels written by his father. The story starts with Tom making a pittance attending conventions and signing his father’s books, but he quickly gets pulled into a strange conspiracy that threatens his life. Odd occurrences start to stack up, and it looks like he might actually be the boy wizard from the books, and that the worlds of stories might be just as real as our own.

I liked these enough that I’m going to buy the other 7 volumes, and at some point I’ll probably write a separate post about them.

What Did We Write?

This week I wrote my usual blog posts and finished the rough draft of Razor Mountain Chapter 8.

Freya wrote another chapter of her story, Amber and Floria. She also wrote a poem for the ad-hoc family poem-fest.

Characters

The topic for this week was characters, specifically flat and round characters. These, like so many writing terms, end up being talked about as a sort of binary, but they’re really two ends of a spectrum.

  • Round, deep or complex characters are those with extensive back-story, with many and subtle personality traits.
  • Flat, shallow or simple characters are those with minimal back-story and little personality.

It should be obvious just from these definitions that there is a spectrum here, where characters can be more or less complex.

It might feel desirable to make every character as complex as possible, and this is generally a good instinct. However, it’s important to note that there are only so many pages in a book. Some characters will necessarily take up more of the story, and others will be inherently less important. So even if every single character is equally complex, they cannot be shown with equal depth in the text itself.

Round Characters

To make characters more round, figure out more details about their

  • Background
  • Personality
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Conflict (what’s their problem, and how do they intend to solve it?)
  • Growth (how do they change over the course of the story?)

Again, it’s fine to know more things about a character than you actually end up using on the page. Sometimes having a deep back-story allows you to hint at bits of their personality that don’t show through clearly, but still give the character a sense of being a complicated, living person.

Flat Characters

The flattest characters are usually purpose-built. They do something specific for the story. The danger with these kind of characters is that they look too much like a plot device and not enough like a real person.

For these characters, having a personality, goals and conflict are less important. In fact, they only matter in that they’re useful to make the character feel real for the short time they’re on the page. Sometimes, flat characters can be defined with a shorthand or handle: specific, interesting traits. These might be something physical, or a mannerism, an unusual mode of speech, or other memorable attributes.

Flat Can Be Okay

There’s a school of thought that says no characters should be flat, and especially not ones that are important to the story, but that’s not necessarily true. While we usually want the characters in the spotlight to be complex and interesting, there are certain types of stories and certain genres where relatively flat characters can be effective, even in a starring role.

In some comedy, especially cartoons and sitcoms, it’s common to see characters that are mostly static from episode to episode. These shows typically feature a problem at the start of the episode that is resolved by the end, which means that over time, the status quo is maintained. This allows an audience to “pop-in” to the show at any time, as long as they’re familiar with the characters. They don’t have to catch up on the two or three episodes they missed. When this works, it’s because the characters are largely treated as vehicles for a steady stream of jokes.

Similarly, in certain mystery stories, the detective protagonist may undergo surprisingly little character development. These stories are focused on the mystery: the clues, the false leads, the clever inferences, and the eventual satisfying conclusion. Again, the detective character becomes a vehicle, this time, for the mystery.

Some superhero comics are superlative examples of characters that can remain static and flat. I have a pet theory that superhero origin stories are almost always the most compelling, because the character has an arc in the origin story, but oftentimes becomes much more static after that, enslaved by a serial format that wants to keep selling issues indefinitely. (Of course, this is a gross generalization, but there are certainly examples you can point to.)

Point of View

For POV characters and narrators, who are the reader’s window into the story, having a deep understanding of the character is vital for understanding their voice. When the character is the POV or the narrator, their voice is the voice of the book (or at least the parts they are involved in). It affects what the reader sees and how the reader interprets almost everything.

Examples

As an example of the flat <==> round spectrum in action, Freya and I talked about one of my half-finished stories.

It takes place in a steampunk world where everyone can wield a tiny amount of magic via totemic items, but a rare few (called “hexes”) can wield greater magical power. The protagonist, Edward, is a hex and a former soldier and spy who once worked for the crown. After committing terrible atrocities in a world war, he quit and vowed to never take another life. He’s an emotional wreck thanks to the horrible things he’s done and seen, and he is constantly balancing his natural inquisitiveness and propensity for getting into big, violent trouble with his vow of pacifism.

Early in the story, he gets involved in a mystery and meets a man who calls himself Vociferous. Vociferous is huge. He claims to be a Hex, wears slightly absurd robes and works in a factory, supposedly casting spells as a part of the highly secretive manufacturing process. We quickly find out that Vociferous is a fraud, and not a hex at all. We find this out because Edward is a real hex who knows all about it.

Vociferous is a relatively flat character. We don’t find out much about his personality or past, we just know he’s faking it for money. He has a handful of characteristics to make him more interesting: his distinct look and strange name. His ultimate purpose is to give Edward good reason within the story to explain the way magic works (to another character, and to the reader).

Edward is a much more rounded character. The story follows his point of view. He has a backstory and history with other characters. He has friends and enemies. He has flaws and goals and challenges to overcome.

Next Time: Setting Goals

Next week is going to be a light class. We’re going to talk about goal-setting and growing as a writer.

Dialogue For Lonely Characters

I’m currently working my way through my serial novel, Razor Mountain. One of the challenges in the first part of the book is that the main character, Christopher, is trapped in the wilderness and completely alone. This idea of a character completely cut off from everyone else is not a new one. Disconnected characters can show up in different genres and styles of work, from the classic shipwrecked sailor to the lost astronaut to the post-apocalyptic horror survivor.

Humans are social creatures. Characters interact with one another, and this is a vital part of most stories. So when a character winds up completely alone, certain storytelling tools are removed from our authorial arsenals. Dialogue is a great way to externalize the internal feelings and thought processes of the character, and when they have no one to talk to, those feelings and thoughts are harder to get across.

Something I’ve been considering lately, dealing with my own disconnected character, are the ways to achieve some of the same effects of dialogue, even when the character doesn’t have anyone else to talk to. Here are a few forms of dialogue for lonely characters.

Inner Thoughts

The simplest answer is to get directly into the character’s head and view their thoughts directly. The character’s thoughts may be rendered in italics and written out in much the same way you’d write dialogue.  That style can come off as pretty heavy-handed, and it isn’t as popular as it once was. Depending on your audience, your readers may or may not have much appetite for it.

A less in-your-face version of this is free indirect speech, where the character’s thoughts are described as a part of the narration. This can work in both a first-person and close third-person point of view, and gets the character’s thoughts across while giving the reader less of the feeling that they’re being internally verbalized within the character’s head.

Journals and Logs

I recently read The Martian, which is a master class in the use of many different viewpoints and narrative strategies. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is stranded alone on Mars and spends a large portion of the book with nobody to talk to.

The Martian makes liberal use of logs as a way for Watney to narrate these parts of the story (as well as a useful dramatic pacing device). Journals or formal logs are an opportunity for a character to describe what they’ve done, what they’re planning, and how they feel about it.

The obvious downside of journals and logs is that they have to make sense for the character and the story. For Watney, an astronaut, the use of logs make sense. However, he’s not going to stop and write a log entry in the middle of a frantic action sequence. If he’s going to describe that in a log, it will probably need to be after-the-fact.

Furry Friends and Mannequins

Humans are self-centered. We see ourselves in everything. We love to anthropomorphize animals, and will even anthropomorphize inanimate objects. A lonely character will often be all too happy to socialize with a dog, cat, or monkey if no human companions are available. Even if there isn’t a pet ready at hand, a character who is desperate enough may find an object to be their friend.

In the movie version of “I am Legend,” the protagonist, Robert Neville, has a dog that serves as his friend and companion. However, I thought the most interesting scenes in the movie are the ones involving the mannequins. Neville has posed them. He talks to them, and has even assigned them simple personalities. When he eventually finds them out of place, moved by some unknown person or force, he reacts as though they have betrayed him.

Similarly, the character Chuck Noland in Castaway is stranded on a desert island, where he eventually “befriends” a volleyball with a crude face painted on it. He names it Wilson, and is distraught when it is lost in an accident.

These strategies are interesting, but harder to pull off effectively. Most people are fairly understanding of a person who talks to their pets, but will start to wonder about the character when those conversations get serious, or the human seems to expect any meaningful communication back from the animal. A person who has too many serious conversations with inanimate objects will be seen as spiraling into delusion.

Sometimes, instead of looking outward for a conversational partner, we turn inward. Most of us have probably talked to ourselves here or there. Most of us don’t make a habit of it, however.

A character who talks to themselves now and then can seem relatively reasonable. A character who talks to themselves continuously tends to be seen similarly to the character who talks to the mannequins.

The Humor of the Situation

Injecting some levity into these conversations can help, as a way for the character to wink at the reader and say “Hey, I know this looks a little crazy…”

The fact of the matter is that humans are social. We need contact with other humans. A character who is completely alone for a significant amount of time, especially in a stressful situation, is reasonably likely to see their mental health deteriorate. That can be a dark place for the character to be, and a weight on the reader as well.

If the character can crack a joke here or there, do something silly or absurd, or even just blow off some steam as a way of acknowledging their frustrating situation, it can help to reset the mood, in a way that allows both character and reader to endure yet more suffering.

In The Martian, Mark Watney faces death on an almost daily basis, but he also complains about the bad TV shows and music left behind by his crew-mates. Those little jokes humanize him as much as his suffering and his ingenuity and determination.

Dialogue is Still King

It turns out your character doesn’t need friends to make compelling dialogue, but it sure does help. The options outlined here can help to fill the holes in the story when dialogue just isn’t possible for your disconnected character, but ultimately there’s no perfect substitute for the real thing.

Having to write a character who spends an extended amount of time alone has helped me to appreciate the powers of dialogue. Hopefully my protagonist, Christopher, will find his way back to civilization soon, if only so he’ll have someone to talk to.

Reblog: Green Herring: How to Camouflage a Villain in a Mystery Novel — Dimitri Vorontzov

When you’re writing a mystery, especially a classic murder mystery with a proper sneaky villain, one of the hardest things to do is keep the reader guessing. You don’t want your villain to be obviously evil, so the natural inclination is to make them appear as squeaky clean as possible. Of course, a savvy reader will instantly suspect the character who’s always helpful and nice. It’s a tough line to ride.

Dimitri Vorontzov coins the slightly silly term of “green herring” to suggest some solutions to this conundrum. It mostly comes down to treating your villain as a real character with flaws, good qualities, goals and conflicts. Even if some of those things turn out to be clever deceptions when the villain is revealed.

So, what’s more plausible than “a very good person?” That’s right: Essentially good, but flawed, imperfect person.

We can let such a character make dumb mistakes (which we may later reveal to be deliberate acts of sabotage); we can make him or her slightly selfish, or slightly dishonest (a tiny instance of dishonesty may prove their overall integrity); we can give that character some of the “seven deadly sins,” for example sloth or greed.

Anger works particularly well to prove the green herring character’s essential goodness, because when a good character is a little nasty, has a bit of an attitude problem—this sub-communicates that such a character is not hiding anything, not trying to come off as “nice.”

Check out the rest over at Writer’s Digest…