Family Dynamics in Fiction

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With my in-laws in town this week, I’ve been thinking of fictional families and how to go about writing them. I’m lucky to have grown up in a family where we all got along well the majority of the time, and I have awesome in-laws. With this background, I tend to write very “functional” families. It sometimes bothered me that lots of families in fiction are stuffed full of conflict.

But in recent years, my immediate family has been afflicted with a few falling-outs. I’ve come to see that while I, as a rather easy-going person, never had much conflict with family members, there was sometimes tension between members of my family that I was unaware of until it erupted later.

So even my “ideal” family had tensions and conflicts.

Here are my thoughts:

First of all, give your characters families. It’s easy to make an orphan or estranged character with no ties to family. It simplifies the story. But in reality, there are very few of these loners. Even Harry had the Dursleys, and Pip had Joe and Mrs. Joe.

While family doesn’t need to play a large role in every story, you should know about your characters’ families and how interactions with them have shaped your characters.

Ask questions:

Where is there tension? Where is there not tension?

How severe is the tension, and is the main character aware of it?

Does it affect the plot? How?

My main advice for writing realistic families (and I need to be better at following this myself) is to avoid extremes. Don’t just write a perfectly loving and always understanding and tolerant family, or a completely dysfunctional and always bickering family. Both of these are parodies. Find the balance in between that is suitable for your character’s family, and let them influence him/her.

Just some thoughts.

Happy Yarning!

Theme Songs

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Sometimes I find songs that fit certain characters and scenes in my stories, as if for a soundtrack.

I listen to music while I write, though it has to be instrumental music or songs with lyrics that I’ve heard a billion times before. While writing Featherfolk, I went looking for songs to match my characters and found some really great ones. They were rock and pop, which added some nice variation to my mainly instrumental playlist.

But now, switching back to work on Gwen’s story, I find I can’t listen to those Featherfolk songs without getting derailed into thoughts about griffins.

Clearly I need some new music.

Anyone else like to find theme songs for your characters? Do you just listen to the radio and wait for things to pop out at you, or do you go on a dedicated search?

Happy Yarning!

Strong Male Characters

Some thoughts on what I’ve been trying to do in my writing.

When I think of a strong female character, I don’t think of a weapon-wielding, no-crap-taking, never-crying type of girl. I think of a “strong” character as a well-fleshed-out one. One who sticks in your mind because she is living and breathing on the page in front of you. It is vital to have strong female characters in fiction.

However, a fictional woman’s strength and reality is cheapened when she is surrounded by cardboard men. It’s relatively easy for me (a woman) to write women well. It is much more difficult for me to write strong male characters. Particularly when it comes to love interests.

I think the most important thing is character consistency. His stated strengths and weaknesses need to play real roles. If he’s a bad boy with a heart of gold, does he always know when to be a good boy and when to be a bad boy? No. He needs to slip up. If he’s never actually bad “on screen,” then he’s not a bad boy.

If, on the other hand, he’s a perfect, selfless angel, then he’d better be upright and selfless when it might be more convenient to be otherwise.

Inconsistent, weak males who are just there to be walked on by “strong” females have the added anti-bonuses of setting up unreal expectations and glorifying unhealthy relationships.

Then again, maybe I simply don’t understand the “romance” genre.

Just some thoughts.

You may now return to your regularly scheduled yarning.

Hallo aus Deutschland: Little Things

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I think traveling is the best thing I can do to improve at inventing and writing fictional cultures.

As much as I learned about Germany from my family and language courses in school, being here has been a brand new experience.

In some ways, Deutschland is not so different from home. I’ve seen many tree-covered, rolling hills in the United States. The gas station we stopped at operated much like the ones along US freeways. Many city streets here would not be out of place in a US city.

But no one–no book, no web article–can tell you about all the little things that are totally foreign.

Like that everywhere there’s road construction they make the driving lanes super scary skinny.

Like that orange flavored Fanta is yellow.

Like that toilets flush by pressing a button, not a handle.

Little things.

A fictional character encountering a new culture will not only notice large differences, but little ones. Things about the everyday objects they interact with. In fact, they may not notice large things like government system differences, unless it has a large impact on tourist life.

Anyway, just a few thoughts from Deutschland.

Happy Yarning!

 

 

Considering Economics in a Fantasy Setting

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I don’t have to worry too much about getting food. I get it from the store. I cook it. I eat it. Maybe I’m super awesome and grow my own strawberries or tomatoes, or maybe I don’t.

How do your fantasy characters get food? What does the economy and infrastructure have to be like so your party can mosey on into a tavern at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere and get a meal along with all the other patrons there that night? And is your economic system consistent over a whole shire, state, country, or planet? Whatever your setting, it’s important to consider economics. Magic, especially teleportation abilities, will have a big impact.

My husband and I put together a story idea about a society made up of humans and griffins, at about a 1:1 ratio. For a while, we assumed our griffins were carnivores–you know, because they’re half lion and half eagle.

Then we considered the economics of the situation. What, and how much, did the griffins eat? We asked the internet how much meat a lion eats in a day and realized that with the scale we were considering, all the prey in the area would get eaten up pretty fast. And we didn’t want to make our griffins be nomadic while the humans were agrarian. Ok, so maybe the humans raise goats and the griffins eat those. Bam. Solved.

Until we calculated how many goats it would take to keep a family of griffins fed for a year. Something like 200 goats per family. That wasn’t going to work either.

So, obviously, the griffins were omnivores. If a creature can be both a bird and a mammal and have six limbs, it can darn well be an omnivore if we need it to be. Now we have griffins helping out with plowing and harvesting in the fields, hunting game in the woods, and eating the same meals as the humans.

Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions of your setting, or let others ask. In the end, your story will be healthier.

Happy Yarning!

Book Report: A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

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I finally got around to reading Megan Whalen Turner’s fourth book set in the world of The Thief. As usual, I loved the characters. They’re intelligent, but sometimes their emotions get the better of them. They have quirks and backgrounds and plans, and it’s fun to see them grow and juggle the calls of leadership and personal goals.

The setting was as magical as ever.

I wish I’d read this right after The King of Attolia, since I’ve forgotten lots of little things that happened in the first three books. This one looks back on The Thief a lot, because those events were a defining time for Sophos.

My only gripe for this book would be the shifting voice and point of view. Large chunks of the text were in first person (Sophos telling his story, bam, no problems there). But there were also periods of third person limited, in which the POV switched between different characters. I found myself reading so fast that I missed these shifts, and it became a blur of third person semi-omniscient.

I definitely recommend this series to teen and adult fantasy readers.

And for anyone who left off the series after The King of Attolia (because Sophos didn’t look as interesting as Gen), read on! There’s plenty of Gen in A Conspiracy of Kings.  (Also, Sophos is awesome too.)

Book Report: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

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First, a caveat: you may have guessed from previous posts mentioning Inheritance that epic fantasy isn’t my thing. My preferred method of escape is what I term “fluffy fantasy.” This tends to be middle-grade, shorter, more episodic books (as opposed to lengthy, involved books aimed at adults and sometimes teens, with plot points carrying over long distances between books in the series.)

However, I’m glad I finished out the series. Paolini has always been a hero to me, because I’ve had authorly aspirations since I was ten, and he provided hope that kids can get published.

What I liked about Inheritance:

This was a fitting epic finish to an epic series. Paolini didn’t balk at dealing with all the ramifications of a continent-wide, multi-racial conflict. He depicted the effects of a drawn-out campaign in detail and allowed painful things to happen to his main characters.

As always, Paolini is a good descriptive writer. The settings were well-fleshed out with sensory details. In addition, the dialogue felt natural, with each character using his or her own distinctive voice. I especially enjoyed the camaraderie and banter between Eragon and Saphira. The bond between them felt strong and real.

Inheritance satisfied many of my expectations as to how the series would end, and surprised me a few times as well.

What I disliked about Inheritance:

I felt that the narrative should have begun later, leaving out one or two of the battles that make up the first half. The second half had much more character development intermingled with the battles, and the characters are what I cared about.

(Pet peeve alert) I counted no less than four times Paolini had a character come up with a Crazy Plan That Just Might Work and explain it to other characters without letting the reader know what the plan was. I got tired of sitting there while characters said, “There’s no way that’ll work!” or, “You’re nuts, but I’ll stand by you,” without even knowing what they were discussing.

<SPOILER>While the climax was fitting and the denouement tied up numerous loose ends quite nicely, I felt the very ending was a cop-out. I really didn’t buy that there was nowhere on the whole continent he could raise the dragons. What does he think he’s going to find across the sea? More people who won’t want dragons in their backyard, that’s what.</SPOILER>

I recommend this series for teens and lovers of epic fantasy. Those who fall under both categories will love it.

P.S. Anyone else catch Paolini’s allusions to Princess Bride and Doctor Who? They totally threw me out of the story, but they were entertaining. (pg. 665, 814)

Happy Yarning!

How Much Worldbuilding is Too Much Worldbuilding?

Can you build your fictional world too much? Not really, no.

The more you know about the culture, customs, geography, dialects, religion, mythology, technology, creatures, magic, and what-have-you of your world, the more you’ll be able to make that world three dimensional for your readers.

You can think of your world in three “dimensions”: Geography, Culture, and Conflict. Pretty much any facet of your world can be stuck under one of those.

Here’s a lovely graphic:

worldbuilding in three dimensions copy

It’s important to develop in all three of these dimensions as you build your world. Also, the dimensions need to be balanced. Drawing a really neat map isn’t much good if it makes no sense in the context of the culture you built; coming up with a language for your main character’s society doesn’t help much if it’s incongruous with conflicts and changes in the society’s history.

Consider how the three dimensions affect each other. For example:

  • How do waterways affect your main character’s society? (Geography -> Culture)
  • How do barrier-type landforms, resource-rich regions, or climate affect current and past conflicts? (Geography -> Conflict)
  • How do religious or cultural differences between groups affect borders? (Culture -> Geography)
  • Do different versions of history create conflict between groups? (Culture -> Conflict)
  • What battle-scars or ruins have been left on the face of your land? (Conflict -> Geography)
  • What group does your main character’s society ridicule or fear because of past interactions? (Conflict -> Culture)

While we all like a well-developed world, character is almost always what keeps readers reading. Whether you build a character within an existing world or you build a world around an existing character, consider how the geography, culture, and conflict affects him or her.

You can’t do “too much” worldbuilding, but you definitely can do too little writing. Nobody’s going to care about your world unless you tell a story (even J. R. R. Tolkien had to tell stories to get people to care about Middle Earth). If you find yourself worldbuilding as a way to procrastinate writing actual words, stop. You’ve got enough to go on. Finish your first draft, and then go back to building the world. Revise accordingly.

In addition, while it never hurts for you to know more about your world, don’t bombard your readers with facts and histories that aren’t critical to the plot of your story. Again, nobody cares how such-and-such overthrew such-and-such unless there’s a story with engaging characters. Maybe you can write more books in the same world to tell those stories, maybe your readers will never know, or maybe someone will publish your notes Silmarillion-style after you’re dead. Either way, resist the urge to explain.

Happy Worldbuilding!