Last month I gave a workshop, really a talk, on writing historical fiction at a conference at Keystone College, which I mentioned here. The conference was expensive-ish, and I suspect that few of you live near Scranton, PA, so, in a departure from the ordinary, I’m putting my workshop into a blog post–or two or three. There will still be prompts!

My forthcoming historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells is my second historical novel. Dave at Night, which came out in the late 1990s, is the first. And lately I’ve done a little historical research for some of my fantasies. Most are vaguely medieval, though Ever is vaguely Mesopotamian.

Ceiling is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and it was the most exciting writing experience I’ve ever had, because I learned so much. The world of the late Middle Ages is in many ways vastly different from our own–and in some ways just like it. Different, for one thing, because so little science was known, and people came up with bizarre explanations for occurrences like disease. Similar because, among other things, money was at the root of most evil.

We can use history in our fantasies, too, as much history or as little as we like. Even in fantasies, historical research is great for surprising details. If we’re writing fantasy that’s only tangentially historical, we don’t need much in the way of resources. A book on daily life during the period (not hard to find), a book or websites on fashions of the time, an online encyclopedia, and general online searches for whatever comes up, will probably be enough–and we’ll still find surprises that will light up our writing.

But if we’re writing historical fantasy or speculative fiction that takes place at a particular time on actual planet Earth, or if we’re writing realistic historical fiction, we need more. And we need to understand that the project will call for a substantial time commitment. Unless we’re already steeped in our period, it will take us a while even to discover what we don’t know. The process will be enormously rewarding, but we should take a deep breath before jumping in.

The good news is that there’s lots of help and we don’t have to be historians to do this.

We’ll start with a survey book. The book that most directed my research for Ceiling was The Jews of Spain, a History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane S. Gerber, which covers the history of Jews on the Iberian peninsula from Roman times to the expulsion, and their history after they were kicked out, into the 20th century. If we don’t know what our plot will be, we’re looking for times of conflict and for interesting people.

Daily life books will be useful at the beginning and as we continue. Dummy or Idiot Guides can make the difficult simple-ish. Since I’m not religious and had little religious education, I relied on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Judaism. I also attended a service at our local synagogue and asked the rabbi some questions.

When we have an idea for our story and a sense of the times, we can move from the general to the particular. A danger at the beginning and all the way through is that we may get so immersed in our research–it’s so fascinating and writing is so hard!–that we can’t stop. We have to remember to write.

Here’s something I wish I did from the start of my research: write a timeline of events, citing sources and page numbers. I spent unnecessary hours hunting for facts I knew but couldn’t remember precisely. If I’d been more organized at the beginning, I would have saved time.

Our survey book’s bibliography and footnotes will help us continue our research, likewise the bibliographies and footnotes of any encyclopedia articles or book we consult. A nice discovery I made is that some of the citations on Wikipedia can be clicked on, and we can read scholarly research for free. I think this is how I found an undergraduate thesis about caravels, 15th century sailing ships, that the author had posted online.

Since I was writing about Spain, I found it helpful to use the Spanish version of Wikipedia and the online translator, even though the translations were sometimes obviously off the mark–and funny. But mostly, they were good enough. If my story moved to a particular town in Spain, for example, the Spanish Wikipedia had a lot more information and more pictures than the English version.

We can also use an online translator to email people in other countries for information. Museums and tourist destinations, for example, are likely to have email addresses, and we can reach out, politely in their language, to staff for more information. Then we can translate the answers. Knowing that my manufactured communication might not be perfect, I always included my English original.

I didn’t travel to Spain, so I relied on online images to bring my story to life. In fact, the hardest part of writing the book was my timidity. I didn’t want to get the details wrong. For example, what was it like to stand on a medieval wharf? How do I find out?

Turns out Reddit has a handy Ask-a-Historian group. We can type in our question, and it will be screened by people who monitor what comes in. If approved, our question will be opened up to the Reddit universe of volunteer historians, and if someone is interested, it will be answered. My first question (I don’t remember what it was) was never answered, but my second was. This very kind historian not only wrote back, but he also sent me links to reproductions of paintings and murals from the period–of wharfs. The pictures made it possible for me to write two scenes. If you try Ask-a-Historian, don’t mention that you’re working on a novel. Questions from novelists are regarded as frivolous!

Old crafts, as you may know, live on on YouTube. In one of my fantasies I needed to know how to card wool, and I found a demonstration on YouTube. In this regard, we historical fantasy and fiction writers are lucky to live in the age of the internet.

More to come! Here are three prompts:

∙ In a world that’s loosely based on ancient Egypt, the king’s beloved cat Tuttie has died, and the king decides that it should be mummified and buried in style, along with a human, your MC, who will be ceremonially sacrificed so she can care for it in the afterlife. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ On November 9, 1965 most of New York City experienced a power outage, a blackout. At the time I was in college, but I was home with a newly broken ankle–with an enormous cast and crutches. Read about the blackout online. Your MC, who, like me, is on crutches, gets a phone call (mostly, phone service wasn’t disrupted) from a friend in distress, who lives half the city away. Your MC has to go to her friend. Using as much period detail as you can, write her trek across the city in the dark. Decide if she makes it or not. Remember: no cell phones back then, but there were phone booths–and a fifty-fifty chance that the phone would work.

∙ Research a historic battle. Can be during our Civil War, World War I, the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492–or any one you pick. At a critical moment, a dragon lands on the battlefield. You decide what kind of dragon. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what your write!

Sh! Intrigue…

On May 20, 2019, Katie W. wrote, Any tips on writing a political conspiracy? In (one of) my WIPs, the queen is a commoner from the poorest part of the country, and the nobles want to get rid of her so the king will remarry. They try enlisting a dragon to steal the crown princess (creating a Rumpelstiltskin retelling), and eventually they poison the king and drive out the king and princess, but I have no idea what goes in the middle. 

Christie V Powell had questions and suggestions: Hmm… what’s the POV? Is it the queen? Your explanation here focuses more on the nobles, so is the main character(s) a noble? If so, you can list out the steps that they will have to take to reach the queen (step 1: find dragon. Step 2: convince dragon to help… etc.). If it’s the queen, you can use the same list, but then brainstorm how she finds out about it, how much she finds out about it, and how this impacts her character. What does she want? Is she happy being queen, or does she find herself missing a simpler life? That will impact how she reacts to the conspiracy.

Here’s an example of how you might plot it out using a list: Step 1: find dragon. What queen knows: some people don’t like her, but not what they plan to do about it. How that affects queen: frustrated because she’s doing her best to be a good ruler. Step 2: convince dragon to help. What queen knows: glimpses a dragon in the distance but assumes it is wild. How that affects queen: annoyed that yet another (apparently separate) problem has emerged…

Katie W. answered, Actually, it’s from Rumpelstiltskin’s perspective. I wrote a short story of the kidnapping attempt alternating between his perspective and the dragon’s. So I have a pretty good idea how that part is going to play out. What I’m stuck on is what happens after the attempt fails. The nobles don’t give up, but what do they try next? Something happens during the fifteen years between the kidnapping attempt and the king’s death, but I have no idea what it should be.

I agree with Christie V Powell that POV is important here and whenever we’re dealing with a conspiracy, because conspiracy means secrets, and how does the POV character find out what’s going on? (Of course, POV is important in every story.)

Conspiracy is wonderful, because it brings in an obstacle for our MC and the characters the reader is rooting for. So we don’t want to make the secrets easy for Rumpelstiltskin or the royals to penetrate, and we don’t want to make them impossible. We need to start thinking about Rumpelstiltskin’s powers and also the kinds of access to information that the royals have, like their spy network, and who’s loyal and who isn’t. We’ll have to work out a lot about the royals, too. How vulnerable is the king? The queen? The princess? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

In my opinion, it’s nice to give our villains, in this case the conspiring nobles, complexity. What’s their side of the story? Is there one particular noble who leads the pack, someone we can focus on? Is there anything in the king’s rule that’s genuinely problematic? Does the queen have a role in the kingdom’s woes? And what’s good about their rule? What positive contributions have they made? How is the queen a good monarch? How can we reveal all this? Is there a council? A parliament? Does the king have advisers? Does he hear from his subjects? Is Rumpelstiltskin himself at court, so it’s easy for him to observe?

Obviously, I’ve learned a lot about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain lately. My sympathies, of course, are with the Jews, but I’ve made discoveries about the monarchs, too, and the reasons they believed the expulsion was right. For example, the Jews, by their presence and because of popular opinion against them (made worse by some clerics), caused unrest among the majority Christian population. Another example: the monarchs thought that almost all the Jews would convert (roughly half actually did), and they believed their souls would be saved.

Political upheavals don’t come out of nowhere. Maybe the nobles believe that commoners are inferior by nature and unfit to rule. If the queen wears a gown that to them seems unsuitable, for instance, they regard her fashion choice as emblematic of the wrongness of a commoner in such an elevated position. If the king issues a decree they disagree with, they regard it as an example of her bad influence. We want to show all this.

So what else will fill in Katie W.’s middle? Here are two strategies, and both can be used in the same story.

The first is along the lines suggested by Christie V Powell: What’s the desired outcome, and what are the steps to achieving it and the obstacles along the way?

The second concerns the characters. Who is Rumpelstiltskin? Why does he care about the kingdom, the monarchs, the nobility? Does he have another story that dovetails with this one? His story will fill in the middle and carry the story to the end.

Fifteen years are a lot. Maybe Rumpelstiltskin is a young gnome at the beginning and he has to grow up a bit before he can take on this challenge. Some of the middle can go to his growth: the challenges he faces, the conclusions he draws, and how both make him the right–or wrong–gnome for this job.

Let’s assume that he’s an outcast, as the fairy tale suggests, but he craves acceptance and understanding. In his eagerness to help, he makes mistakes, which reinforce the reasons that he’s ostracized. Also, his attempts to help, even when he does nothing wrong, are misinterpreted. If the reader cares about him, his progress toward acceptance will be the most important thread, and his success or failure will determine whether the ending is happy or sad.

Say he makes the safety of the king and queen his top priority. Then he’s spending a lot of the fifteen years infiltrating the nobles, finding out what they’re up to, foiling their attempts. Might he find himself at one point sympathizing with them? And then shifting back. Does he want the dragon to succeed, or does he want to save the family himself, unaided? How does he feel about dragons?

Say he meets the princess and she’s kind to him. What are the consequences of that? Or she might be cruel, and he’s still trying to save her miserable life.

Or the king is cruel.

Or just by watching these humans, he forms opinions of all of them, from the royal family to the nobles to the people in the queen’s hometown to the dragon. How does all that influence his actions?

The same goes for the other characters. What do they want? How do their goals intersect with Rumpelstiltskin’s?

Going back to what I said before, that fifteen years is a big chunk of time to cover–it’s hard to make so much time tight. If we can’t shorten the time span, we can use telling to get the reader through. In a paragraph or a page or two, we can summarize the years, stopping now and then to show the most important moments. When we’re up to date, we return to showing and start the play-by-play action again.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Rumpelstiltskin, held in contempt by everyone, knows he’s a good gnome. His goal is to be one of the king’s councilors in the Kingdom of the Peaceful Valley, where there are more disputes than there are water droplets in the River of Harmony, which runs through the kingdom. Write his first attempt to interest the king in his qualifications and his virtues. If you like, keep going to write the whole story.

∙ The dragon, who happens to be a genius at playing parties against one another, attends a castle ball and mingles (he’s quite a dancer!), sowing resentment and mistrust among the nobility. Write the scene.

∙ The princess, who cares most about her mom and who recently heard about the circumstances of mom’s marriage to daddy, the king ( the whole turn-straw-into-gold-or-be-executed thing). The princess loves her father, too, but thinks he needs a lesson in empathy. Write how she delivers the lesson and how it goes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Magic Central

On April 24, 2019, SluggishWriter wrote, I write primarily middle grade and young adult fantasy (as well as some science fiction). As much as I love magic systems, I struggle to make them fit within my stories, both plot-wise and scene-by-scene-wise. I don’t want my stories to have a useless magic system attached, but I can’t figure out how to make them important, even if I love writing them in. Part of this is that I tend to feel like special magical objects and such are kind of cliché in fantasy, even though I love reading stories about that sort of thing. My magic can get a little too abstract because of this. If anyone has any tips, I’d really appreciate that!

Two of you responded.

Christie V Powell: Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy author, teaches a university class and has posted all of his lectures online. Here’s his lecture on magic systems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXAcA_y3l6M.

Melissa Mead: Maybe figure out what’s unique about your world first, and then build your magic system around that? And choose your MC and their dilemma based on something that’s different about them relative to this thing.

Ex: Maybe your world has “Phoenix trees” that burn on the top while replenishing themselves from the bottom.
And magic in this world relates to the trees–eating the fruit, carving the wood, climbing the trees without getting burnt…
And your MC either can or can’t do something that everyone else can’t/can, which causes a problem, bothers them, or otherwise makes them want to change this thing.

I love the phoenix trees ideas! I’d love to see one.

And I’ve watched many of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, which I’ve found very interesting. I marvel at how methodical and rational he is about writing–where as I count on intuition and muddling to get me, eventually, where I need to go.

So here’s a weird question: Does fantasy need magic at all? Please weigh in.

I don’t know if it does, necessarily. Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinners, which I recommend heartily, is a fresh take on the framing story of The Arabian Nights. It feels like fantasy and comes entirely out of fairy tale land, but there’s no magic.

As a child–and to this day–I love to read fairy tales, which I did not get from Disney but from the old versions that I found in my child’s encyclopedia and in the Lang fairy tale books (which are all available online for free, since they’re in the public domain). If you don’t know the original tales, I’d suggest going to Lang. (The books are named after colors: The Blue Fairy Tale Book, The Lilac Fairy Tale Book, etc.–there are lots of them.) I still love the magical apparatus in fairy tales: the flying carpets, the dead horse who can talk, genies. So I’d suggest an afternoon spent reading fairy tales and, if you like, taking notes. Think about how the magic functions in these stories.

Not that I have anything against Disney. But Disney and fairy tale novels like mine and others’ are too filled in. The old fairy tales that you’ve read or are about to read are short. Nothing is dwelt on, so the magical elements aren’t, either. The flying carpet in these stories is just transportation, but what does it feel like to ride one? The dead talking horse merely delivers its messages, and the tale rattles on, but how does it sound? Does it sing? Does spittle fly? It’s in the details that we get away from the ordinary.

Regarding clichés. Sure these old fairy-tale devices have been done before, but readers–and writers–go to them because they love them. There’s comfort in their familiarity. I use them.

I don’t think we should worry about cliché anyway, as I’ve said more than once on the blog. The worry tends just to fuel our self-criticism. If we tell our story as we alone can, the clichés will shrivel up.

What technology does for us today, magic does for the characters in fairy tales, and we can use it that way. Your character needs to get somewhere in a hurry? Bring in the seven-league boots. Your character needs to see what’s going on a hundred miles away? Give her a crystal ball. And so on. We just have to pay attention to the opportunities.

We can complicate things. Our MC has a crystal ball, but it works only when she’s calm–and she needs it only when she’s not calm! Notice also that we’ve introduced two magical elements here. The crystal ball can see into the distance, and it’s psychic, too. And we’re moving into plot as well, because our MC has trouble controlling her emotions, a liability in a hero.

Of course we can’t let the magic solve the story’s problems. We have to limit its power and/or make it a source of trouble.

Magic is part of our world-building, as Melissa Mead’s phoenix trees demonstrate. Hers is a world that accommodates that sort of flora.

An easy-peasy way to introduce magic is to include a magical creature or a species of magical creatures in our world. These can be ogres, dragons, elves, and so on. Or we can bring in a kind of creature never before seen in the pages of a book, as I did with brunkas in my mystery Stolen Magic. As soon as the creatures are in, the world becomes magical. They don’t even have to do much that’s magical. They can live among humans. Broad-minded humans and elves can seek out diversity by living side-by-side. Some ENT doctors can specialize in diseases that afflict pointy ears. We can let our plot make room for a creature or two. If our MC is on a quest, she can bring a dragon along, and we can decide in what ways he’ll make things easier for her and in what ways harder. She can encounter evil gnomes, who stand in the way of her fulfilling her quest.

The problem at the center of our story can be magical, as I made it in Ella Enchanted and Ogre Enchanted, both of which revolve around a fairy’s gift, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which is about a magical illness, the Gray Death. If magic is at the core, it won’t be an appendage to our story, it will be central.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has found a crystal ball in a cave. Inside the ball is a tiny person who is wringing her hands and muttering incomprehensibly. Your MC needs to know if it’s safe for her to leave the cave, and she can’t just go to the opening and peek, because the villain who’s after her may be there. She needs the crystal ball, and she has to figure out how it works. Write the scene.

∙ We’re in the world of phoenix trees. Suppose the tree produces a single fruit every 300 years, and whoever eats it will live until the next fruit ripens. The 325-year-old who ate the last fruit wants to keep it from ever ripening. Your MC wants it for her beloved cousin who’s dying of an arrow wound, and other people want it, too. Write a scene. Write the whole story.

∙ List ten other plot possibilities that center on the phoenix trees. Pick one and write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Toe the Line, You Pesky Characters!

A reminder of the conference I mentioned in my last post: The Gathering at Keystone College: http://thegatheringatkeystone.org/2019-theme-schedule/.

On April 17, 2019, Grace L wrote, I was just wondering if anyone has any tips on keeping characters consistent? My main character tends to be kind of contradictory in her actions.

A few of you chimed in.

Writing Ballerina: I have this problem, too!

I plan out my characters beforehand, so that helps a little bit, and then I write my story. As I’m writing, if I find my characters are contradicting themselves, I make a note of it at the bottom of the document in a section titled “Things to fix in next draft.” That section is filled with inconsistencies that I’ll fix after the general story is down. In my current WIP, I originally made her afraid of heights, but I’m thinking now that it won’t work with the story so I might take it out.

I also find it helpful to have people who will give you CONSTRUCTIVE criticism read your story as you’re writing it to see if there are any inconsistencies, which you can make note of when they point them out.

I would also appreciate any other tips anyone else might have! I don’t want my stories to be inconsistent, either!

Christie V Powell: I second having beta readers. They’re especially helpful for pointing out things like this.

Melissa Mead: In what ways? People can act in ways that seem inconsistent sometimes, for interesting reasons. Or is it more that you haven’t figured out who they are yet?

I agree about CONSTRUCTIVE readers!

About seven years ago, my husband lost a lot of weight, mostly by exercising portion control. I loved the new slimness for health reasons and for how great he looked–and still looks, since he’s kept the weight off. But, once in a while, I wondered (out loud) if he’d been replaced by a Martian. If he were a character, he’d be acting inconsistently.

Here’s a difference between fiction and real life: David couldn’t tell me exactly what triggered the change and made him able to do something that had eluded him for many years, so he doesn’t know, and I don’t, either.

That’s unacceptable in fiction. We’ve talked about character change a few times on the blog, mostly about whether an MC has to change in the course of a story, and opinion has been divided, but not divided about making the change, if it happens, understandable.

This goes for secondary characters, too. As soon as we define them through their actions, if they deviate, we have to explain why, through dialogue or narration or future action. So long as we’ve explained and the explanation leads to better understanding–and possibly more complexity–of the character, it’s great.

The most charming example of this that I can think of comes from the Wizard of Oz movie. The viewer who’s paying attention notices that, as the story plays out, the lion, who believes he’s cowardly, is always the bravest, the tin man, who thinks he has no heart, keeps rusting himself with his tears, and the straw man, who wants a brain, comes up with the best ideas. I don’t think the audience understands why their actions contradict their beliefs about themselves until the wizard gives the lion a medal, the tin man a ticking alarm clock, and, my all-time favorite, the straw man a diploma, with a line that goes something like, “Plenty of people are no smarter than you, but what they have and you lack, is a diploma.” Then he gives the straw man a rolled-up document tied with a ribbon. The viewer realizes that these characters weren’t inconsistent; they’d been showing their true natures all along.

The surest sign for me of inconsistency is when I make a character do things for plot reasons alone. We can train ourselves to be aware of this, as in, Stuart, the character who always thinks of himself first, runs into a burning building to save a child he doesn’t even know. He’s done it because our plot needs that child to be alive, and Stuart is the only one handy.

Not good enough. We have to go back in and change things. Maybe the child can not be in the burning building in the first place. Or we can alter Stuart from the beginning. Or maybe we can have him trip over the child while he’s saving himself, and the reader will agree that he has just enough compassion to pick her up, as long as she doesn’t slow him down, and he’ll be happy to appear to be a hero later.

If we’re going to make our readers understand inconsistencies, we have to understand them ourselves. Why would Stuart face a fire and possible death, if we don’t want to change him or put him in the building when the fire starts?

Well, he isn’t just one thing. Suppose he wants people to admire him, which would fit, and suppose there are journalists present or someone whose good opinion he wants. Then he might run in, intending to stay just inside the door, count to thirty, and run right out, but the door collapses behind him. He saves the child because someone shoves her into his arms and he doesn’t even notice in the course of saving himself.

Yes, people are inconsistent. We change our minds about lots of things. We behave differently with different people. We have moods. Sometimes we’re our best selves and sometimes our worst. For our main characters, we can explain the inconsistencies through thought, dialogue, and action. For our secondary characters, through dialogue and action–and the MC’s thoughts about this character.

However, there are fundamentals that don’t change much. I figure Mother Theresa on her worst day wouldn’t steal from a poor person and probably not from anyone else. Genghis Khan wouldn’t be a pacifist for even a minute.

Before I got published, I took a writing class from the late children’s book editor Deborah Brodie, who asked if the writer had to know everything about a character before he started writing. I thought yes, but she didn’t, and I no longer do, either. I get to know my characters as I write them. They act in the first situation I set up, and their personalities begin to form and narrow their choices. In the next scene, they act again, and the narrowing continues. If they and my plot diverge, I have to change one or the other–

–which is why, based on as much of my plot as I know when I start, I imagine characters who will go naturally in the desired direction. If that’s working, we don’t have to do a lot of course correction. In my forthcoming historical novel, for instance, I needed to give Loma, my MC, agency in a time when girls and women had next to none, but I didn’t want her to be a modern feisty heroine plunked down in the fifteenth century. I wanted her to be, as much as I could imagine, typical of her age: focused on family and domestic arts. So I turned to a secondary character, her grandfather. I decided he would become attached to her and take her with him on his travels across Spain, making her a witness to the great events and also putting her in situations where she would have to act. But first I had to define him as someone who would take a granddaughter–without making him modern, either. I think I managed, though I won’t say how, and neither of them had to do anything uncharacteristic to advance the plot.

So we can create secondary characters as well as MCs who will keep our characters consistent and our plots on track.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Up until now, your MC has been unfailingly kind to her best friend, who is shy and not well liked by others. But after the friend has failed some sort of test and is feeling awful, your MC belittles him and calls him hopeless. A moment later, she tears a rose bush out of the ground by its roots. Without making her really be the villain or be under a spell, write a scene, or more than one, that presents the before and after and explains the change.

∙ Before the prince comes along, Cinderella finally snaps and tells off her stepsisters and her stepmother. Write an earlier scene that firmly establishes her subjugation to the family tyranny, and then write the blow-up scene, making her transformation understandable.

∙ Before the prince comes along, Cinderella not only does what she’s told, she does it perfectly. When she scrubs the floor, she’s willing to spend an hour on the tiniest stain. When she does the laundry, she folds even her step-mom’s unmentionables in such a way that they open up without a wrinkle. But now, in the scene you’re going to write, she loses her work ethic. She gives the marble floor, which shows every speck of dirt, a quick once-over and just dumps the unmentionables in the chest where they go. In a scene, explain the change.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Writer As Houdini

If anyone is looking for a short, intellectually stimulating break, I’d recommend The Gathering, a Friday-to-Sunday conference at Keystone College near Scranton, PA, which starts on July 12th, when I’ll be speaking about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I’ll also be giving a workshop on writing historical fiction. For participants only, I’ll be sharing pages that I cut from my forthcoming book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which few others will ever see. (My editor said they were too depressing for kids, and, as I revised, I came to agree with her, so I turned many pages into a single paragraph.) The food is great. The accommodations are college dorms. There is a cost, but there’s a student discount and a few scholarships are available. Here’s the link: http://thegatheringatkeystone.org/2019-theme-schedule/.

On March 27, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I have written myself into a roadblock.

So in my WIP, the bad king’s plan is to release a deadly epidemic on his kingdom then go away before he gets infected and bring back an enormous army to conquer the remaining weak subjects. The good guys have a plan to cure the disease, thwarting that part, but it is totally unrealistic for them to throw together an army in less than a month when they haven’t had one for a good number of years (BTW anything that seems like a loose end in this summary all checks out in the actual story it’s just too complicated to explain it all here). I considered having a good guy send a letter to the approaching army with all sorts of bluffs in hopes of scaring them off, but that’s also unrealistic.

I need some help, please!! I have no clue how I’m going to get out of this.

A few of you responded.

Kyryiann: You could have a group that wasn’t happy underneath the King’s rule and was already planning on raising an army anyway. Or have veterans of war be able to call on their old contacts, who are close by.

Melissa Mead: Maybe one of the disgruntled subjects is the one who crafted the disease, and they expose the evil king to it. When the army sees their king showing signs of the Dreaded Plague, while the opposition looks perfectly healthy, they flee.

Christie V Powell: Sounds like list time! Feel free to list any of these you like and keep going.

An army is made up of people. That means they can be changed. Perhaps if you feed them propaganda, they’ll doubt their orders or even switch sides. Perhaps you could send a special task force in to defeat just the leaders, so that they’re now the ones issuing orders to the army. You could pretend to surrender to the king on the condition that he makes you second in command, and then poison him–especially if the poison mimics the effects of the disease, so people think it’s natural. You could use a natural barrier of some kind to block the army, such as an avalanche clogging a mountain pass or redirecting a river to make a flood. You could speak to the king’s underlings, sub-captains and whatnot, and offer them the cure in exchange for the king’s life.

Me: I’m so glad to see a LIST! Thank you, Christie V Powell!

Yay, Writing Ballerina! You’ve made a mess–and that the writer’s job. It’s our task to tie our MCs and other characters the reader cares about into knots that would challenge Houdini. I’ve done this more than once without an exit strategy.

Christy V Powell’s list is great, although I suspect she might have cut the stupid ideas that crop up in all my lists, like the giant frog that materializes in the evil king’s bedchamber and kills him with its acidic slobber.

Let’s look at this one of Christy V Powell’s possibilities: You could pretend to surrender to the king on the condition that he makes you second in command, and then poison him–especially if the poison mimics the effects of the disease, so people think it’s natural.

The You here would probably be the MC, and everything will turn on the characters of the MC and the evil king, whom we’ll call Zigurd, and we’ll call the MC Lady Edna, who is a renowned warrior.

Let’s start with the Zigurd. What might make him susceptible to persuasion by Edna?

We make another list:

∙ He’s considers himself a visionary and likes to delegate the nasty details to others.

∙ He has this deep-down fear that at bottom he’s not very clever, so anyone who sounds brilliant can win him over.

∙ He’s susceptible to flattery.

∙ He devises unpleasant loyalty tests. If Edna passes, she’s in.

∙ He has a mistaken idea that he’s fabulous at reading other people. He tends to guess wildly wrong about people’s motives.

You can keep going. Note that I’ve listed only qualities that make him vulnerable. We also need for him to be formidable, which may require another list.

Onto Edna:

∙ Her beloved brother was killed by Zigurd. She’s willing to sacrifice her life to bring the king down. What she lacks in skill, she makes up in determination.

∙ She is better than good at flattery. She has a knack for making people feel loved, no matter what the truth is.

∙ She’s a super-skilled liar.

∙ She’s a pastry chef, and her mother is an herbalist. (We may need to add to Zigurd’s list that he’s a glutton.)

∙ She’s a whiz at chess. Her thinking is always three steps ahead of everyone else’s.

Again, we can continue. And again, I’ve listed only qualities that make success possible. We also need traits that will handicap her–another list.

In both cases, the characters can have more than one quality on our list.

The reason for the second list in each case (of strengths for the villain and weaknesses for the hero) is that we don’t want to make success too easy. First Edna has to get into Zigurd’s good graces, and she may fail a few times along the way. Then, she needs to put her plan into operation, and this shouldn’t go smoothly either. Until the moment when Zigurd swallows the poison, the reader’s knuckles on the book should be pale.

The point is that, almost always, the resolution, happy or tragic, of terrible situations goes straight to character. Houdini got out of the restraints he set for himself because he was Houdini. I would have been dead if I tried his stunts. I just googled him, and a quick look suggests that people who preceded him used their skills at getting out of restraints to create other illusions. Houdini seems to have been first to make escape the main event. He was the real Houdini.

There’s another principle we can bring to bear: setting things up early. Suppose we decide Zigurd gives loyalty tests, and that’s how Edna will win him over. We show him giving a loyalty test to someone else earlier in our story. And to ratchet up the tension, we show the consequences of failing. Then, when Edna gets tested, the reader recognizes the pattern: Zigurd doesn’t trust people until they’ve proven themselves.

If we want to bring in a natural event, like the avalanche on Christie V Powell’s list, we have to be sure there are mountains in our setting and that people sometimes start them and know how to–more or less-aim them.

We’re always going for both the surprising and the believable. Surprising, because we’ve used sleight-of-hand (speaking of Houdini) to divert the reader from thinking about avalanches, and believable because the reader remembers that there are avalanches in this world.

Before I began learning to be a writer, I was into watercolor painting, about the least forgiving artistic medium there is. If I made a mistake–and I made lots of them–the painting was ruined.

But writing is kind. We can revise and revise again. If we need to change Edna or Zigurd or both, if we need to grow a few mountains or introduce a loyalty test, to save the day, we can go back and do it.

I don’t recommend revising until we finish our first draft if we can possibly keep going. We make a note of the revision and continue writing as if the revision has happened.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Pick the loyalty-test option. Write the scene when Edna takes it. Make it touch and go. Make the consequences of failure evident.

∙ Write the scene in which Edna wins Zigurd’s trust.

∙ Write the scene in which Zigurd eats the poisoned meatloaf (or roast hart). Make Edna almost have to eat it, too. If you’re up for it, write his suffering and slow death.

∙ Invent an escape artist. Think about the qualities she needs to be successful. Develop a plot around her and write the scene in which she tries her most daring stunt. Decide if you want her to succeed or fail.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Like- or Dislike- ability

First off, for any educators who are near Bethel, Connecticut, this Friday evening, June 7th, I and Alan Katz, author of many funny books for kids, will be hobnobbing with educators at Byrd’s Books. Details here on the website. I’d love to see you!

On February 27, 2019, Raina wrote, I need some help brainstorming! What are some traits that make a character sympathetic/likable to you, that go beyond just being a good person? (For example, do you like characters who are clever? Brave? Ruthless? Confident?)

And on a different note, what makes you dislike a character? I’m not talking about antiheroes or intentionally “unlikable or antihero characters, but rather things that make you dislike a character because they’re not written well.

Also, how do you have a character grow and overcome their flaws without having those flaws annoy the reader at the beginning? People aren’t perfect and usually change and learn/overcome their flaws throughout life, but I’ve noticed that people often get annoyed and stop reading before that can happen.

And finally, on a much more general note, has anyone else noticed that characters in YA get a *lot* more scrutiny and criticism than those in other age categories? Be too snarky, and you’re “annoying.” Feel hesitation or ambivalence or change your mind about a situation (as any normal person would) and you’re “wishy-washy.” Be too perfect/special in any way and you’re a Mary Sue, make too many mistakes and you’re TSTL (too stupid to live). I have rarely, if ever, seen any reviews of MG books talk about characters like that. (Flat or ineffective characterization, yes, but nothing like this.) Do MG books just happen to have better-written characterizations than YA books, on average? Is this a matter of audience? (I’ve found that a lot of YA reviewers tend to be older teens or young adults (20-30), while MG reviewers tend to be parents reading with their kids or MG-aged kids themselves.) Or are we just holding fictional children and tweens to a different standard than teens?

You responded with a bunch of ideas:

Sarah: I think YA books in the Chick Lit category often portray teenage characters as full of angst, which is difficult to accomplish without making readers roll their eyes. There seems to be a big market for teenage girls who read for the “feels” instead of enriching their minds. Plus, so many YA books set up their characters in a way that allows for a steamy romance by giving them malleable morals or making them clueless to the situations they find themselves in. Though many books like that exist, they do not make up the whole population of YA books. Perhaps people roll up their sleeves when analyzing all YA books now and expect to find artificial motivations behind the characters’ behaviour. If I myself wrote a decent YA novel, I would rather that people give me a chance.

You may be right that we hold teens to a different standard. I think that’s because stories about teens deal with more controversial aspects of society and ethics than books about the lives of children do. If readers disagree with the treatment of these aspects in some YA novels, this may bring them to the conclusion that the characters are designed to be unrealistic to help further a “false” message.

Unfortunately, I have not read a large number of YA novels that exist today, so I may be way off.

Sara (no h): For the question about characters overcoming flaws, what I try to do is make the character realize their flaw and want to overcome it, but fail initially. Good intentions should probably make them sympathetic. And, if they know they have this flaw, they might joke about it in a slightly self-deprecating way, and that self-awareness should also make them less annoying. It’s like Jo in Little Women, who is definitely aware of how bad her temper is, and she wants desperately to change it, but for a while she can’t.

Chrisite V Powell: KM Weiland talks about each character having a Lie, a Want, a ghost, and a Need. The Lie is something that the character believes about the world, and all character flaws are symptoms of it. So, in my current WIP, my character’s Lie is that trusting others is a weakness. Her flaws include hiding emotions, keeping distant from others, running away when she’s uncomfortable, and avoiding new experiences. Her Want is to find a home, both physically and socially. Her ghost is the reason she has her Lie: what past experiences caused her to form her lie. In this case, bullying by her cousins for showing weakness, and a betrayal by her father. The ghost makes her Lie relatable, and her Lie makes her flaws relatable. Her Need is the same as her truth–it’s what she discovers through the story that counteracts the Lie and allows for growth. My character Keita’s Need is that trusting others can be a great strength that empowers her to find her Want.

So, the main way that characters change (still summarizing Weiland) is through rewards and consequences. In the beginning, when you see the character in their normal world, they are rewarded for their lie. However, once the plot gets going, acting on their lie gets punishments and acting on the truth gets rewards. They discover the Truth in the middle of the story and wrestle between the two until the climactic end.

Melissa Mead: Sense of humor is a biggie for me. Not so much snark, but witty or dry humor.

For the second question, I do think it comes down to the difference in audience. Middle-grade (MG) kids are easier to please (and don’t write reviews very often) than teenagers and readers in their twenties. Older reviewers may have gotten past the age of snark. Not, I hasten to add, that all or even most teens and twenty-somethings are snarky. This blog, which is a meanness-free zone and on which, I think, many commenters are teens and twenty-somethings, is proof of that.

Many years ago, I volunteered teaching an after-school writing class at the local middle school. One afternoon, I brought a prompt: to write a self-portrait, not just of the writer’s appearance, but also of her inner self (they were all girls). The ten- and eleven-year olds were very uncomfortable and didn’t want to do it, so I told them to write a portrait of a friend, which they were eager to do. Twelve and over loved it. One said it was the best prompt ever.

I took the difference as revealing a distinct borderline between the eight-to-twelve-year-old set and young adults (YA). Seems to me that young adults are more introspective, middle graders more outward-facing and less critical. Do you guys agree?

Also, fault-finding begets more fault-finding as tit one-ups tat. As soon as a chain of criticism begins it takes a while to run itself out. The YA publishing world may be in a cycle of attack that will end eventually.

Onto the first question.

What makes a character likable is the same as what makes a person likable in real life. Being likable isn’t the same as being virtuous, although when I think about it, I do tend to like people I admire. But there are people I admire whom I distinctly do not like.

I go for people and characters who are relatable, vulnerable, and fun to be around. I’m very fond of people who tell stories on themselves, and I’m with Melissa Mead in that a sense of humor has to be in the mix. We can make a list! I’d put kindness on mine. Here are a few more, but this isn’t an exhaustive list:
∙ Intelligence, at least enough to see around a few corners
∙ Energy
∙ Thoughtfulness
∙ A tendency to see the best side of things
∙ Calmness, or at the very least, an absence of hysteria
∙ Reliableness
∙ Honesty tempered by empathy
∙ Unsentimentality

I’m having trouble stopping. Enough!

Your list may be different–in fact, Raina’s short list is mostly different from mine (brave, ruthless, confident). It will be helpful sometimes to have real people in mind when we make the list and when we craft our characters, the likable and the unlikable ones.

A friend once said to me that the way to make a character likable is to have him save someone. I don’t think that’s all there is to it, but that can nudge a reader in the direction of like. Saving someone will arouse our sympathy.

In an MC, whose thoughts the reader will know, the voice of the character matters in creating likablility. And this is a good spot to bring in the traits from our list to reflect them in our MC’s thoughts. This makes me think of flaws–a likable voice can immunize me from a character’s flaws. If I like being in her company, in her mind, I’ll be on her side, and I’ll root for her to overcome her faults. Say she takes the easy way out to avoid arguments even when she should stand up for herself. If she’s self-aware, as Sara says, I’ll want to stay with her and hope for change.

I agree with Christie V Powell that change usually comes about through actions and consequences, and usually the medicine (the bad outcome) has to be delivered more than once.

As for unlikable, I don’t like people who, when I see them coming, I want to run the other way. I don’t like complainers or people who are endlessly needy, even though I like being helpful. Of course I don’t like people who are cruel or manipulative or evil. We can make another list.

In terms of bad writing, I get annoyed if a character behaves out of character and does for plot reasons what he never ever would do. To me, the writer of that character has committed a writing crime worthy of sentencing by a judge in the High Court of Writing Offenses. Another infraction is writing characters who are so vaguely defined they can do anything and don’t have to be consistent–because who are they?

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your main character is the judge in the High Court of Writing Offenses. Frustrated readers haul in characters who haven’t behaved according to their personalities. Attorneys argue their defense. The characters take the stand. There’s examination and cross-examination. Pick a character that has annoyed you by behaving against his or her nature or a character who is ill-defined. Write the courtroom drama.

∙ Your MC is brave, kind, funny–also whiny and self-centered. She’s preparing to face (in any way you decide) the villain of the story, who has taken her family hostage. Write the scene as she gets ready. Include thoughts, dialogue, and action. Reveal her flaws and make her likable at the same time.

∙ Sometimes it’s hard to find the likability sweet spot. Your MC, out of kindness and sympathy, has befriended a newcomer to the neighborhood, who seemed to otherwise be shaping up to be a picked-on loner. But this new friend turns out to be very high maintenance: clingy, jealous, demanding. Still, your MC is aware of the pain she’ll inflict if she dumps him. The reader does not want the MC to be a doormat and also doesn’t want her to be mean. Write her thoughts about the situation and then the scene in which she takes action.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Who me? Not I!

On February 18, 2019, ashes to ask wrote, I have a problem. A big one.

I have been writing stories for years now, but I’m stuck in a rut of what I nicknamed “Same Character Syndrome.” I’ve made countless characters, and at first they seem different— some are blonde, brunette, or red-headed, they all have different ethnicities, etc. The thing is, though, they are all teen girls who are slightly awkward nerds. They all have the same speech mannerisms, and they like to look pretty. I’ve tried to make other MCs, but they end up degenerating into the same ol’ mold that all my MCs are. I’ve been thinking, and I think it’s because they are all embodiments of me, the author. It’s terrifying for me to realize that I am the soul inside these people whom I have thought so different. It’s like I wrote up a cloning machine, and they all come out of it with different faces and backstories, but the same stuff inside.

How do I fix this?

Suggestions poured in.

Christie V Powell: What if, just for a training exercise, you tried writing a character based on someone else you know well? I did that a lot in high school. I thought it was funny, looking back, that I had two characters in different stories that were based on the same person, but they were totally different characters. One was a peacemaker who tried to smooth things over for characters who didn’t get along, and the other was a major source of conflict for my main character. I’m not sure if that was the mystical character evolution that writers talk about, or just my changing relationship with the person!

You could also try using different characteristics of yourself for different characters. Real people are contractions, much more so than characters. In one of my WIPs, I gave all three POV characters one of my flaws (though exaggerated, I hope). One of them lives in fantasy/dreams and doesn’t handle reality well. Another has goals that are more realistic, but she tries to make them come true without always considering the work and responsibility involved. The third struggles with guilt over something careless he did that had terrible consequences. He’s also slightly based on a historical main character, for his physical/outer descriptions.

Melissa Mead: Have you ever, just for fun, tried making up a character who’s the total opposite of you? Or a different gender?

I suspect that it’ll help that you can identity ways that your characters are like you. Ex, if you catch a character automatically obeying a rule, you can come up with a compelling reason for them to break it.

Song4myKing: A friend once told me that she felt the characters were stronger when men wrote about women and women wrote about men. She said it worked that way for herself, because she had to think harder when writing a man’s perspective. She couldn’t just rely on her own ordinary patterns of thinking, and assume her readers understood.

Kit Kat Kitty: I find it helpful to read books or watch shows that focus on one or more characters that are different from the characters you would normally write. (Especially if these different characters interact with each other) This has helped me so much with coming up with different characters. And it’s not just how they look, it’s how they act or feel or what they believe. And although this has already been said, writing characters of the opposite gender really helps if you’re trying to write characters different from you.

These are great!

I often wonder this about questions that come in, and I don’t mean to put down the question or the questioner. It comes up because we writers can be so unsure of ourselves and so ready to turn our criticism on ourselves. Here’s the question: Is this true? Are ashes to ask’s MCs really clones of one another?

When we find ourselves making this kind of judgment, it’s worth showing our work to someone else to be sure. In this case, ashes to ask would need to show at least two stories to this other reader, who doesn’t have to be a writer, just someone who loves to read and loves stories and, above all, isn’t mean. If the readers don’t see the similarities, we may be able to drop this worry.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s assume that ashes to ask’s assessment is correct and all her MCs are similar and very much like her. Ashes to ask also says that they start out different but degenerate into sameness. What to do?

Degeneration means there was a process that could be halted. I generally recommend that we write an entire story before revising, but in this case revising as we go along may be helpful. Before we start a day’s writing we can look over the work of the day before. If our MC says something that is just what we’d say in those circumstances, we can LIST! other possible things she might say–or think or do. When we plug in new lines of dialogue or thought or new actions, our MC will take shape.

I like Christie V Powell’s idea of basing an MC on someone you know. When it’s time for this MC to speak or think or do or feel, we can decide how that actual person would react. One of my favorite of my prompts in Writing Magic is to think of two people we know who aren’t romantically involved with each other. The next step is to imagine that they’re forced to marry. Doesn’t matter how old they are. We can adjust that. The final step is to write their dinner table conversation on their first anniversary. The fun is that these people, finding themselves in an unexpected (to say the least) situation, will still be themselves, will speak as they would, will adjust to circumstances as they would.

Ditto to Melissa Mead’s suggestions about writing a main character who’s either our opposite in terms of personality or a different gender.

Or a different species or kind of creature entirely.

My characters are plot-driven. I come up with MCs who will both be challenged by what I’m going to throw at them and able to survive whatever it is. Most of my characters are much braver than I am, for example. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I made up a shy heroine with reserves of courage. I needed her to be shy and not to want the quest that she enters into. By contrast, I’m not very shy and I don’t know if I have reserves of courage. I hope if I need them they’ll be there!

So, it’s worth thinking in the planning stage about what kind of characters we need to make our plot happen. If we’re writing a romcom, for example, we might think about the perspective on love that our MC needs to have for our particular romance to have many bumps but come to a happy conclusion.

My favorite example of a story in need of a character comes from the fairy tale, “The Princess on the Pea.” What kind of character might feel a pea through all those mattresses? I think there’s more than one answer, but we need to consider the question going in. (Or she might not feel the pea, but she has to contrive to pass the test.)

Like real people, our fictional characters are defined by what they do, say, think, and feel–most significantly by what they do. Our plot is shaped by what they and other characters do. If ashes to ask revises as she–or he or they–goes along, the changes she makes to her MC will affect her plot, and she’ll need to adjust.

We need our plot and our MC to work together. Let’s think about some situations. Our MC becomes embroiled in a secret society, but once in, she gradually realizes that its aims are malevolent and that it mistreats its members. Her goal becomes to undermine and destroy the society and to save the innocents in it. What sort of MC should we design who may succeed in the end but who will have a lot of trouble along the way, whose nature is both aligned and misaligned with her mission?

Or, our plot is about colonizing a newly discovered region, empty of humans but supporting herds of intelligent unicorns who don’t know what to make of the newcomers and are reluctant to share their place. The colonizers are fleeing their home country or kingdom because of their beliefs, whatever they are. Going back isn’t an option. Who can be our MC for this?

Or, our plot takes place in a time of famine. Our MC is the oldest child in a poor family struggling to survive. Who will our MC be, who will both fail and succeed in helping?

Or, in this time of famine, our MC is upper class and has plenty to eat. What kind of MC would involve herself with the starving and would both fail and succeed in helping?

I say fail and succeed because we need an MC for whom the task will be particularly difficult, to create tension.

To make our MC different from ourselves, we can ask how we would go about these challenges and then LIST! other possible ways and the traits necessary to carry them out.

Having said all this, however, let’s go in the opposite direction. Suppose we’re stuck with one MC. No matter what we do, we keep writing the same character again and again. All is not lost–even if this character is us in disguise. We know ourselves, our complexity. We come alive on the page. It can be a good thing. We may have invented a character, or a cast of characters, who can sustain us from book to book. Think mystery series! Think fantasy series! Think series in general!

Here are five prompts, which you probably saw coming:

∙ Try my exercise from Writing Magic.

∙ Write the scene in the secret society situation when our MC realizes that the organizations goals are not what she or he thought. For extra credit, make the MC not be your gender.

∙ Write the first contact between the humans and the unicorns. Make your MC blunder terribly. For extra-extra credit, switch it up and make her be one of the unicorns.

∙ In the famine situation, your MC’s older sister is close to death from starvation. Write a scene in which he attempts to find food and fails.

∙ In the famine situation, your wealthy MC happens upon the starving sister. Write the scene in which she initially fails to help.

Have fun and save what you write!

Why Dunnit

Two events to tell you about before the post:

On Saturday, May 18th, from 12:00 until 4:00, I’ll be signing books at the Millbrook Literary Festival, held at the Millbrook Public Library, 3 Friendly Lane, Millbrook, NY. From 1:30 to 2:30, I’ll be on a panel about novelizing fairy tales.

This is a time change: The next day, Sunday, May 19th, at 4:00 (not 2:00), I’ll be among a group of poets reading at Byrd’s Books, 178 Greenwood Avenue, Bethel, CT. There will be time before or after to chat.

Hope you can make one (or both!) of these!

On February 14, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I have a great plot; great conflict; great evil scheme — but why on earth is the bad guy doing what he’s doing??? I have trouble coming up with motives. I find an evil plan, then try to shift around the pieces of my story to find a motive that makes sense, but I just end up expounding on the plan — making it more “elegant” (to refer to A Tale of Two Castles) — or making a new one, but I still don’t have a motive. For example, in my WIP, there’s this king that turns out to be evil and basically wants to kill off the whole kingdom — but why??? The best I can come up with is that he’s bored with royalty, but who’s that cold that they would kill thousands of people because they don’t like their job?? Help!

Thanks for the shout-out to A Tale of Two Castles!

Villains always seem to fascinate us on the blog. What does this say about us? What is our motive? Mrrah ha ha!

Lots of you weighed in.

viola03: Maybe this evil king’s motive could be that no one wanted him to be king (or thought he had what it takes or something), and now he wants revenge. Or maybe he’s an impostor from an enemy kingdom which wants to annihilate the other kingdom.

Writing Ballerina loved this but still wanted her general question considered.

K. R. Garcia: For motives, I find you have to start with the character. It helps me to find something painful in a character’s past that they either work to improve for the benefit of others (hero) or improve for the worse for others (villain). Here are a few common motives for villains: revenge (my favorite) is a fun one because the cause can be revealed as a twist. Thirst for power can be done very well and make terrifying villains. Stigma or vendetta against a group or population (for example, an evil wizard who despises muggles) can make for a fascinating radical/political kind of villain. In real life, motives are complex, so it’s a good idea for a character to have multiple motives. For example, my WIP’s villain wants revenge on another character as well as power.

Jenalyn Barton: A lot of time motive stems from a character’s background. For example, if the bad guy is a former slave who was treated poorly by the royals, he probably wants to get rid of them out of a desire for revenge. If he was once one of the royals who was banished for refusing to conform to society’s expectations of him, perhaps he desires to change society to fit his lifestyle and wants to expose all the corruption that he knew went on behind the scenes. Perhaps he was bullied and treated poorly as a child and ends up taking out all of his pent-up aggression on his subjects. The possibilities are endless! If you figure out his background, his own personal story in which he thinks of himself as the protagonist, you may find out his hidden motive.

Christie V Powell: I’ve recently discovered the ennegram personality system, which is kind of like Meyer’s Briggs if you know that one. They give a primary want and motivation for each personality type, as well as what a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ person looks like. I find it really useful for motivations, especially for villains. Here’s the long version: https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions/
Here’s a quick break down:
Type 1: Idealistic reformer. Basic Desire: To be good. Basic Fear: To be evil.
This is actually my main villain’s type. They believe that the world is black and white and they are motivated to shape the world into the way it should be–in a villain’s case, through inappropriate means.
Type 2: Caring Helper. Basic Desire: to be loved Basic Fear: to be unwanted.
Type 3: Driven Achiever. Basic Desire: Success. Basic Fear: to be worthless.
My love interest and one of my villains both have this type. They struggle to be authentic and can be manipulative. in order to appear successful.
Type 4: Artistic Individualist. Basic Desire: To be themselves. Basic Fear: To be insignificant.
Type 5: Intelligent intellectual. Basic Desire: To be competent. Basic Fear: To be helpless.
Type 6: Dedicated Loyalist. Basic Desire: Security. Basic Fear: Being unsupported.
Type 7: Fun Enthusiast. Basic Desire: To have basic needs fulfilled. Basic Fear: Deprivation and Pain.
Type 8: Dominating Challenger. Basic Desire: Freedom. Basic Fear: Being controlled by others.
Type 9: Easy-going Peacemaker. Basic Desire: Peace of mind. Basic Fear: Conflict and Loss.
It’s really hard to write a type 9 villain because when ‘unhealthy’, they tend to disassociate from the world.

Melissa Mead: A type 9 villain would probably be clingy and try to make everyone conflict-free, even if it meant, say, lobotomizing them. All for the greater goal of Peace, of course.

Kyryiann: When I was struggling with this problem in my WIP, I decided to learn more about my villain. With me, a lot of brainstorming happens when I’m just thinking about the story. I had already decided that the villain was brothers with one of the main protagonists, a king, so I was trying to figure out why he was trying to destroy everything his brother loved.
The king’s wife is an important character, and as I was thinking about the three of them, I figured that she would have come in contact with the villain. The woman had spent some time with the king and his brother because her father wanted to arrange an alliance with their two kingdoms. She would have spent time with each brother individually.
That’s when it hit me: what if the villain had fallen in love with the woman, but she chose his brother instead?
This put a whole new spin on the plot. I eventually decided that the villain thought that his brother had forced the woman to choose him instead of the villain.
That’s basically a step-by-step process that I go through for most of my novels.

I’m struck by the potential for tragedy as well as for villainy in Christie V Powell’s list. Some of those basic fears are very sad and also touching–worthlessness, insignificance, helplessness, etc. A villain may become villainous because the only other option she sees is her deepest fear, as in: At least if I kill everyone in the castle, no matter what happens, I’ll be famous. I won’t be insignificant. Shakespeare in King Lear, if I remember right, rolls both the villainy and the tragedy together. Lear fears being unloved, and everything follows from that.

We don’t always need motive for a villain. I’ve used this example before: Sherlock Holmes’s adversary, Moriarty, the great criminal mind. I don’t think Arthur Conan Doyle ever gives him a motive. We can intuit a motive, though–or maybe Doyle suggests one or two indirectly: greed and the challenge of getting away with his crimes–being smarter than the agents of the law.

Sometimes we can deduce a motive in the results. This happens a lot in murder mysteries. Somebody has been killed, and the detective hero works backwards to find out why, how, and who. The why is the motive. At first our sleuth suspects the heirs to the fortune of the victim. Then she comes to find out that the dead man was funding civil rights lawyers in a totalitarian state. Agents of the state come under suspicion, too. There are more surprises, fresh suspects. The motive isn’t discovered until the murderer is identified. In this case, we, the writers, have to know the victim as well or better than we know the perp.

Some real life villains, like the Unabomber, for instance, write manifestos that go on for hundreds of pages and attempt to justify their acts. In the Unabomber’s case, he was opposed to technology and expected to start a revolution. That was his motive, though lots of people are Luddites without being violent.

So how do we get from motive to action? I think expert opinion is divided about whether one has to have some sort of psychological disability to carry out terrible acts. I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s worth thinking about as we craft our villain. Is a compulsion operating? Now I’m thinking about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Is Mr. Hyde capable of not being evil? We get into predestination and free will. This is deep!

We can decide one way for a certain story and another way for another. In one, our villain’s motive can rise out of his compulsions. She doesn’t feel safe unless she’s in control, so she’s controlling. Another can feel dead inside. He needs to inflict pain in order to come to life. Eek! With this kind of reason for villainy, we don’t need much more in the way of motive. Just pity the poor person who crosses this villain’s path at the wrong moment.

We don’t have to go far from here to the question of evil. Terrible things happen to people in fiction and real life. Is there evil? What’s its nature? How does it operate in our story? In our villain?

Writing Ballerina liked Viola03’s impostor suggestion because it helped her plotting. So we can think about the kind of villain who will send our plot zooming in the right direction. In the fairy tale “Rapunzel,” for example, we need a witch who wants a child and then, later, wants to imprison her in a tower. In the fairy tale, her actions are unmotivated. She just does what she does. But for the story to work in a longer adaptation, her motives are key to everything. Who would want a child and than want to jail her? We don’t necessarily need a back story. Basic character will do. She may love babies and hate children, for example.

In my loosely related version, Lady Klausine takes Perry because she wants a child, but she isn’t the one to shut Perry up in the tower. That’s her husband, Lord Tove, whose motive is extreme prejudice. So I divided the two villainous acts (and the reader comes to sympathize, if not excuse, Lady Klausine).

In Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel, the witch’s motives are entirely different-fascinating and unexpected.

So a single fairy tale plot can support multiple motives. To come to the one that we want to work with, we can consider the world of our story and the values of the people in it. We can think about the challenges this villain with his motive will present for our MC. We can make a list! Like this:

Smart villain
Bumbling villain
World view that makes him act as he does

And so on. We can elaborate on the ones that appeal to us and see how they will affect our plot.

Fun can come into it. What kind of villain with what kind of motives will we enjoy writing? Because villains are often a delight to write. More than any other character, our villains give us permission to write over the top. They are generally an extreme, so we can be wild writing about them.

Here are three prompts:

∙ The parents in “Hansel and Gretel” abandon their children in the forest. The reader is told that this is because the family doesn’t have enough food, and that the mom is more willing than her husband to leave them. But the witch is cast as the major villain. Come on! Who would abandon children in a forest or anywhere else? Who would go along with such a plan? The parents are villains! What’s their motive? Write a scene or the whole story, revealing the real motive.

∙ Your world is a dystopian bureaucracy with a jillion departments . Your villain is the Minister of the Department of Transportation, whatever kind of transportation is used in this world. And he, deviously, makes transportation a misery for everyone. Goods are late getting where they’re going. People’s commute quadruples in length. The tiniest aspect of everyone’s life in this world is disrupted. Write a scene in which you show the reader how he operates, and why.

∙ The sirens of Greek mythology sing sailors to their death. Pick one and make her the villain of your story. Invent her motive and write a scene or the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Idea Garden

Reminder: I’ll be at the Westchester Children’s Book Festival on May 5th. Details here on the website.

On January 31, 2019, Ainsley wrote, I was wondering about story ideas (most asked question ever) and how you develop them into books.

Two of you responded expansively.

Jenalyn Barton: Observation is key! Carry around a small notebook and write things you notice that interest you. They don’t have to be full-blown ideas yet–that comes later. Here are some examples from my own notebook:

4/13/13 I wrote: “Impression: ‘stately mountains adorned with powdered wigs & rich white furs’”
5/26/13 I wrote: “Yesterday while I was waiting to pick [husband] up from work, I noticed that the power lines overhead had an audible buzz, almost like big bees or something similar.”
6/4/13 I wrote: “Character Trait: [Great Aunt] is convinced that planes are dropping pollutants/chemicals on us, & you can tell by the line of smoke a plane makes in the sky.”
12/28/13 I wrote: “Lies spew out of their mouths like vomit.”
7/4/14 I wrote: “Observation: You can sometimes see footprints in the grass when someone has been there recently”
9/21/14 I wrote: “Image: Clouds wrapped around mountains like luxurious furs.”

Later you can take an observation or two and try to combine them into an idea for a story. My current WIP, “Goldwater,” came from combining three observations together. One came from when I took a plane to Chicago and noticed that the light of the sunset reflecting off the rivers looked like someone had drizzled liquid gold over the land. One came from the song “I set fire to the rain,” and the last one came from a character in an anime with the nickname “Thunder Beast.” I combined the three together to come up with the concept for my story. The concept was that a mythical Lightning Beast, thought to keep the world’s magic in balance, dies and contaminates all the rivers with its golden blood, causing magical phenomena and natural disasters, though no one knows yet what is causing it. But my story still needed the main character, so I came up with the idea of a young mother who is devastated when her toddler son dies in a magical natural disaster and travels to find the Lightning Beast to demand that it bring her son back. The story then began to take on a life of its own.

Of course, not all stories start this way. It’s different not only for each writer but also for each individual story a writer is working on. But learning to pay attention to your surroundings is the best way to start. Orson Scott Card said, “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.” Learn to pay attention, write down observations, and ask questions, and you’re on the right track.

Melissa Mead: If it helps, here are some things that came together to become “Malak’s Book.” (And that show how long this book was stewing in my head!)

The first place to publish my stories was a magazine called The First Line, where all the stories in an issue start with the same line. Once the line was “Mamma has always had a love for other people’s possessions.”

TFL likes creative interpretations of the line, so I wrote a story where the “possessions” were the demonic kind, and the narrator was “Mamma’s” half-demon son. It was a fun idea, but the story got rejected. It needed something more.

A while later, I was watching The Crocodile Hunter. Steve Irwin was holding up a big black snake with a bulge in its middle and saying “This is a happy snake. He’s warm, he’s got a full belly…”

Right after that was Iron Chef America. Somebody had made lamb sashimi. I looked at that pink blob of raw meat quivering on a hunk of rock salt and thought “Who’d want to eat that?”
“I’ll bet that snake would like it.”
Things started clicking together, and that generic half-demon became Malak, half serpent-demon, who just wants to gorge himself with raw meat, then find someplace cozy to sleep it off, only the demon-hunters are out there…

(Bonus TV moment: If anybody’s a Doctor Who fan and saw the episode The Girl in the Fireplace, at the moment when little Reinette asks “What do monsters have nightmares about?” and David Tennant’s Doctor turns from fighting them off and says “Me!” I literally shouted “That’s Malak!” That fierce chivalry and absolute determination to keep anyone from harming that little girl- That’s my Demonboy. Plus DT looks PERFECT for the character, if he were to wear an alligator costume on the bottom.)

So, ideas come in all sorts of ways, and both Jenalyn Barton and Melissa Mead find that serendipity is a big factor. If Jenalyn Barton’s flight had been at a different time, if she didn’t know that particular song, if she hadn’t seen the anime, her story idea wouldn’t have taken shape the way it did. And for Melissa Mead, no First-Line prompt, no Crocodile Hunter, no Iron Chef America–no book about Malak.

But–and this is important–both of them would have produced something else. Because they were receptive, open for ideas.

I’d call that the number one element in idea development: receptivity. Writers always have an eye out for ideas.

Notice that neither one of them judged her ideas. Jenalyn Barton didn’t say to herself, You can’t find a story in clouds– they’re just water vapor. Melissa Mead didn’t think, Snakes are cliche.

Nothing kills what might be a fertile idea deader than negativity.

(And nothing else as effectively makes writing a hard, onerous slog.)

So, element two is no judgment.

The fodder for our ideas is various. Jenalyn Barker mentions landscape, a song, anime. Melissa Mead talks about a prompt, like The First Line provides, and TV shows.

In case it’s escaped anyone’s attention, an excellent source of prompts is THIS BLOG–as well as my books, Writing Magic and Writer to Writer. And I’ll repeat, because uncertainty about this crops up fairly often: You are free to use my prompts, the ones you find here or in my books. They’re meant to be used. You won’t be infringing on my copyright.

I tend to go to fairy tales, myths, and history for ideas. The inspiration for my novel Ever came from the story of Jephtha and his daughter in the Bible. I turn these sources over and over in my mind and squeeze them and poke and prod–sometimes for years–until something I can use takes shape.

Even then, the whole story never comes to me fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. I get glimmers, on the basis of which I brainstorm, write notes, make lists. Eventually, I discover a character or two and a sense of the end of my story.

More notes and lists and a beginning comes. I start writing.

Naturally, I need many more ideas to get through a first draft, so I write notes and lists again. If a story is giving me trouble, my notes may be longer than the story itself. No matter what point I’ve reached, I still have to be receptive and nonjudgmental.

Notice how we describe getting ideas: we get them; they come to us; we have a eureka moment–as if the air is full of invisible ideas, the size of midges, and they fly in if we leave even a chink open–if we’re receptive.

This is how it feels. Ideas arrive. I don’t think it’s a deliberate process. If we’re receptive, our subconscious sends ideas. That’s why it feels so delightful. One moment we have nothing, and the next, something. We seem to have done nothing.

There are things, though, that we can do to prime the pump. An activity that doesn’t call for words or much thought, like walking or peeling potatoes, can free our minds. It’s a two-step process. We think obsessively about our project or just our desire for an idea. We may feel hopeless because nothing is coming. Then we let it go to take a walk or a shower, and–bingo–an idea shows up. A midge has flown in.

These idea midges are only for us. My midge won’t do much for you. In its DNA is our complete biography. An idea appeals to us because it’s made for us. It works because we went to the circus when we were seven, because we like salmon-and-peanut-butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread, because humid air doesn’t bother us. And so on. We’re the only one who will know what to do with the idea when it shows up.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Melissa Mead has written about a half-demon. Try writing about a half-fairy-half-gnome. Brainstorm about what such a creature would be like, what it might want more than anything else, what would be challenging for him or her. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Write or type “Once upon a time” at the top of a sheet of paper or screen. Write ten things that might follow. Take a walk. Write ten more.

∙ Think about the most complicated person you know. Put your feelings about this person to the side and think of circumstances that would be difficult for her. Imagine a time period that she could fit into. Write a scene for her in those circumstances and time period.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Retell

Just to let you know in case you can come, I’ll be signing books at the Westchester Children’s Book Festival at Mohawk Day Camp in White Plains, New York, on May 5th. I’ll be there from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM, and I’ll have time to chat. I’d love to see you!

On January 10, 2019, Emily F. wrote, I’ve been working on a retelling of the Mulan legend. What I’ve been wondering is, how far can you take a story from its origins before it stops being a retelling? For example, would you consider it to be a retelling of Mulan if it’s not set in China? I was reading book reviews of another Mulan story, and the reviewers seemed generally unhappy with the fact that the author took the story out of China. And that’s only one example of a way I’m deviating from the original legend…

Any thoughts on what makes for a good retelling?

Christie V Powell wrote back, Do you feel the need to label it as a retelling? If not, you can just write the story you want to write, and if people notice the similarity, it’ll be a fun bonus for them. Most retellings that I’ve seen don’t label themselves as such. Disney added a tiny “inspired by The Snow Queen” in the credits of “Frozen,” because the story was so different.

One of my favorite books when I was little (I have no idea what the title was) was a retelling of The Arabian Nights in a Native American setting, incorporating actual or made-up Native American folk tales. This was about sixty years ago. I suspect the tales weren’t true to the culture, but I don’t know. I hope they weren’t actually offensive. Anyway, in my ignorance, I loved it. If a thousand reviewers had been miffed about the transplant from one society to another, I wouldn’t have cared. And I liked very much that I had the inside dope that this was a transformed Arabian Nights. I enjoyed making the connection.

I agree with Christie V Powell that you don’t have to call your creative work a retelling. And, going the other way, I think, no matter how far you stray, you can call it such if you want to. Ella Enchanted and some of my retellings in The Princess Tales are pretty faithful to classic versions. But in other of my fairy-tale based books, like A Tale of Two Castles and Ogre Enchanted, the connection is pretty tenuous. I don’t think I did in A Tale of Two Castles, but in Ogre Enchanted, I cite the source, the fairy tale, “The False Prince and the True, on the copyright page. And I do the same in all the Princess Tales. My hope is that kids who see the citation will be moved to read the originals. Then they can have two pleasurable reading experiences. They can notice the differences between the stories and ponder why I made the changes I did.

Is a story still “Beauty and the Beast” if the beast is a wasp, and when he’s transformed he turns into a sheep with golden fleece? If we think it is–if the fairy tale inspired us–and we want to claim a connection, no one has the right to say we can’t.

Critics’ opinions vary about everything. I would advise that we not dwell on negative judgments of another author’s work and certainly not apply them to our own. Even this particular reviewer might have a different opinion about our story. Some critics might even like the variety that came with the change of location and whatever else.

Really, when we write, we have to please only ourselves. Later, after we’ve revised more than once, we may have to please an editor and then a copy editor. No one else. Critics are on their own. Even readers are.

But the wonderful thing is that if we please ourselves, if our story is true to our own ideas, then readers, and sometimes critics, will find the truth in it and be pleased, too.

Having said all this, however, I wouldn’t make Mulan the title of my story. In the text, I might not even mention the name Mulan except on the copyright page or in an afterword, because the mention might send the reader out of the story.

As for what makes a good retelling, hmm…

I love it when I find a new way in my own work to look at a fairy tale and when another author shows me a new way. Donna Jo Napoli, for example, always does this. Her novel, The Magic Circle, tells the tragic-but-triumphant story of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” and her Zel, among other things, explains the witch in “Rapunzel.” Beast is “Beauty and the Beast” from the beast’s POV (as is my Ogre Enchanted, sort of, but in an entirely different way). My favorite of her books that I’ve read is the lighthearted and endearing Prince of the Pond, a retelling of “The Frog Prince.”

I also love a straight retelling that honors the original, like Robin McKinley’s Beauty, a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” which set me to writing Ella Enchanted. Beauty tells its story in beautiful language. The atmosphere enfolds me, and she treats her characters with great sympathy. Also, another important feature in a retelling: Robin McKinley brings the world to life.

I appreciate when an author finds a surprising way into a story, as Susan Fletcher does in Shadow Spinner, in which she tackles the story that frames the tales in The Arabian Nights. I had wanted to do the same, but I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to make the sultan sympathetic, because he kills a series of young women, but Susan Fletcher does it by stepping back–her MC is a young girl with a limp, who hunts for stories when Shahrazad runs out.

And I’m delighted when a retelling deals with the wrongness in a tale. I can’t find it online, and I don’t own it, but a picture book exists that reveals that the real hero of “Rumpelstiltskin” is the eponymous dwarf. He saves the miller’s daughter’s life three times, and he makes sure, I think, that she discovers his name. Recognition has been a long time coming!

There are other fairy tales out there that need attention! Greek myths, too! Here are three prompts based on them:

∙ Explain the miller in “Rumpelstiltskin.” Write a scene that shows why he boasts to the king that his daughter can turn straw into gold. Go on to explain why the king makes death the punishment if she fails. If you like, make him sympathetic–a tall order, in my opinion. Write another scene in which the miller’s daughter does more than wring her hands, in which she actually accomplishes something.

∙ Before you read Donna Jo Napoli’s version, write the backstory of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.”

∙ Retell “Sleeping Beauty,” but put it in the modern world, no more than three miles from where you live.

Have fun, and save what you write!