Chapter 33: Mastering the Gray Area

So often, stories follow a simple formula: good versus evil, us versus them, heroes versus villains. It follows the same rule that most author choices do: it doesn’t matter what you write, but how you write it. Quality writing comes from bold writing, but everything has to be written with an air of caution. If you’re going to give a character a noble trait, make sure to note it as noble. Likewise, if you’re going to give a character an evil trait, make sure to note it as evil.

With that said, most people in the world aren‘t a 0 or a 10, or even a 1 or 9. Writing gray characters are what make shows like Game of Thrones (except Season 8, but I don’t want to go down that road right now) and Umbrella Academy so successful.

A common route to take with gray characters is their confliction when making decisions. That doesn’t have to be true. They can just as easily be an antagonist who feel justified in their actions for sympathetic reasons. Or a hero who will sacrifice the few to save the many. To get to know the character better, think of those gut-wrenching questions like the trolley dilemma. Don’t be afraid to pull from their backstory (and they really should have one if your thought there was “what backstory?” to waver their decision in a different direction than the rest of their personality my convey.

There are generally two main categories of gray area characters. The lovable villain and the anti-hero. The lovable villain: who we know is bad but forgive them do to a few redeemable qualities. Think of characters like Loki or Darth Vader. Then, the anti-hero: who has no intention of being good but has some moralistic code that makes him/her rise to the occasion. Captain Jack Sparrow or Dexter Morgan.

I’ve always noticed two particular patterns when writing gray: characters that start together in the middle of the spectrum commonly end up in 2 opposing sides by the end; and, if characters seemingly start out one side of the spectrum at the beginning, they are pulled to the center by the thought.

If I had to sum up out to create the perfect gray area character, I would ask yourself these six questions:

  1. What is their overall goal?

  2. If higher on the scale, what is one thing that would make them cross the line?

  3. If lower on the scale, where do they draw the line?

  4. What is one thing unexpected about them?

  5. What is their background?

  6. Do they have any emotional wounds?

Chapter 28: 10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

Almost every novel’s top five main characters can be broken into these five categories: protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, mentor, and love interest. In a later blog, I will go into more specifics about each of these roles, but for now, I’m going to go over ten major questions to ask these characters in order to flesh them out and give your book quality characters to make the reader fully invested in their story. Some are simpler to answer than others, of course.  You might not think a name is anything more than just that, but I disagree.  I think this Japanese proverb says it best: Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names.  So without any further ado, here are the 10 questions to ask your main characters:

  1. What is their name? Every author has a different method to naming their characters. There are some other questions to consider when answering this one. What is their culture? What year is it? Some authors like to look up the meaning of names to help them decide. A good website for that is Behind The Name. If you’re writing fantasy, a good method could be finding a real name and altering it slightly. A good example of this is Eddard from Game of Thrones – changing the name Edward into a more gritty sounding name to fit the character.

  2. What role do they play to add to the plot? This can be protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, mentor, love interest, temptor/henchmen, skeptic, emotional, logical, etc. How will their existence complicate or propel forward the plot?

  3. What is their primary goal? Answering this question helps create such complicated plots like in Game of Thrones. (Can you tell I like the series from my many references?) What does their happy ending look like? What are they willing to do to achieve this goal? How does this goal align with the protagonists? How does it interfere with or what roadblocks does it bring to the protagonist’s goals? Will they get said happily ever after?

  4. What are their strengths? If they were being interviewed for their role in the plot, what would they say? A good place to start is answering if they appeal to ethos, pathos, or logos. In the terrible situations they get themselves into during the plot, how can they contribute to the plan to get themselves out of trouble or accomplish some heroic action? A good example is Hermione’s abundance of knowledge and common sense of preparation helps Harry Potter get out of several sticky situations. Another thing to think about is if there’s a trait that acts as a strength in one instance but a weakness in others. This is like how Scarlett in Caraval unconditionally loves her sister.  It gives her the strength to push past several emotionally draining situations; however, it also leaves her less cautious as she feels more desperate throughout the book.

  5. What are their weaknesses? Same as strengths, but obviously in reverse. If the story needs the character’s team to fail in that plot point, how would they contribute to that failing? Their impatience? Anger? Naivety? Cockiness? Stupidity? This is the entire principle that the series of The Agency is written around: a societal male underestimation of women that the protagonist spy takes advantage of continuously in her adventures.

  6. How old are they? This will largely contribute to several of their characteristics because the following answer must be answered: what kind of environment did they grow up in? There’s often the said cycle of: strong men lead to good times lead to weak men lead to bad times lead to strong men, and onward. Also, did they deal with certain discriminations that took place before the plot begins?

  7. What is their connection to protagonist? How do they know each other? If they have a history together, at the very least summarize it for yourself so that it can contribute to their relationship. Does the protagonist like them? Do they like the protagonist? Is there anyone in particular that they are close to or care about?

  8. What is their occupation? How a person chooses to earn money says a lot about them. Could their occupation add to the contribution of why their an asset to the team? An example of this is Philo in The Scorpion King and how is knowledge of science from his job as a court magician helps save the ‘good guys’ more than once.

  9. How will you introduce this character? Is their depiction in that first scene true to their character or do you want to give some misdirection? How much does the reader know about them at their first appearance? Do you want them to be mentioned before officially meeting them or do the readers only know what the protagonist describes at the first hello?

  10. How are they different in the beginning of the story versus the end? In order to be believable, every character needs a growth arc. A good example of this is following Claire Danvers in the Morganville Vampires series. While several of her main characteristics stay the same throughout the books, her bravery grows and her strengths against the varying antagonists shifts.

Chapter 27: The Art to Foreshadowing

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” – Anton Chekcov. This quote ultimately leads to foreshadowing. Throughout the entire first quarter of your book, you should be planting small lines, actions, and thoughts that lead to the events later in the book (or series).

First, to give one of my favorite examples of excellent and subtle foreshadowing. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf is introduced as a wise figure. In the scene, Frodo is upset that Gollum is still alive to torment him, and the following exchange occurs:

Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill [Gollum] when he had the chance.

Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that die deserve life, and some that live deserve death. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not bee too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

Not only did Gollum ultimately guide Frodo to Mordor, his biggest role (and ultimately the one Gandalf’s comment is foreshadowing) takes place after his betrayal. When Frodo finally reaches Mount Doom, he ultimately finds himself unable to destroy it, as it has gained power over him. Only the struggle with Gollum leads to the destruction of the ring, an event that Frodo nor Gandalf can ultimately see.

I think it’s best to start with what to avoid when foreshadowing. Don’t foreshadow or allude to a possibility if it’s not actually foreshadowing something that will happen. Leaving the readers with so many desires to be fulfilled and then not executing them will leave them feeling confused. It’d be like Shakespeare beginning Romeo & Juliet with the fateful line “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.” If he had ultimately let the lovers live, the readers would be left feeling robbed of a promised experience/strife. Also, don’t let foreshadowing give too much away. If you ultimately give away the endings of all plot twists through foreshadowing, your readers will be left bored. An example of perfectly walking the line of how much information to give is the prophecy in Game of Thrones:

When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone. There will come a day after a longsummer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him.

This prophecy hits all the perfect marks. Although it tells us future events, we still don’t know who the prince is. Fans continuously come up with new theories all the time. This foreshadowing gave the readers just enough that they want to see it happen, but not letting them know who it is and adding to the angst of the situation. The only way that this foreshadowing could be ruined is if the white walkers end up defeating everyone and no one makes “the darkness” “flee before him.” Also, there’s enough going on in the series, that knowing the white walkers don’t win isn’t the only ending piece we want to know. We need to know who lives, who dies, and most importantly: who ends up on the Iron Throne (…or if it’s destroyed). That is, after all, the first major ending piece that was introduced to us wanting to know in “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

Finally, don’t foreshadow something not important. It’d be like J.K. Rowling foreshadowing hints about Moaning Myrtle instead of Mad-Eye Moody in the Goblet of Fire. Except being present when an important scene took place, she as a character served no purpose, and foreshadowing is better used elsewhere.

When trying to foreshadow, you first have to decide what’s important enough. This means before you start, you first have to have everything at least outlined. If you’re writing a series, if possible, have a general idea of how you want the overarching plot to end. That will in turn help you plant your foreshadowing early on. This is exampled in “the prince that was promised” first being referenced in A Clash of Kings (in a scene that wasn’t in the TV series), when the late Prince Rhaegar Targaryen appears to Daenerys in one of her visions in the House of the Undying in Qarth, stating that his son “is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire”. (While this could be interpreted as revealing that Jon is the prince that was promised, the vision is erred in that Rhaegar is talking to his wife Elia about their son Aegon – not Lyanna, Jon’s mother. This, again, leaves wiggle room.) This reference to a prophecy that wasn’t relevant until later in the book series makes it well-placed and more of an ‘ah-ha!’ moment when it became more central to the white walker threat.

Next, decide how you want to do it. First, this decision is very genre-specific. Prophecies, for example, tend to be strictly fantasy – except for Star Wars, that somehow got away with it. Often, it’s through character dialogue, like the earlier example with Gandalf. Or how in “Little Red Riding Hood”, the mother is concerned for Red’s safety, foreshadowing the appearance of the wolf. These can come more full-circle, as well, like in Avatar. Grace says, “I’d die to get a sample,” referring to the Tree of Souls. Later, when she’ wounded and the bring her there to try but fail to save her, before she dies, she says, “I should get a sample.” In the cinema world, the most famous of this method is Obi-Wan telling Luke Skywalker that “Darth Vader killed his father”.

It can be also through descriptions or random facts that you teach your readers about your world. Or, better said as ‘name but don’t explain’. A good example is how J.K. Rowling references Hagrid’s motorbike having been owned by Sirius Black, a character that obviously becomes much larger two books later and on.

Another method is to foreshadowing form of the setting, like when this opening line of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” foreshadowed an early death: “The leaves fell early that year.” The perhaps overused version of this is using rain at a funeral, although weather can be an excellent tool to symbolize future events. For example, when someone comments on a possibility, using the weather at the moment of foreshadowing instead of during the actual scene. In this group also falls showing physical signs before the actual result. This is a good reference to Anton Chekcov’s quote from earlier. This is like J.K. Rowling describing Dumbledore’s shriveled and black hand before we knew about horcruxes.

Lastly, I’m going to answer ‘when is the best time to foreshadow’? If in a standalone book, my general answer is the first 25% of the novel. The main reason for this is because this is largely when you’re building up the plot and subplots, and it’s easy to subtly and gracefully insert your foreshadowing. This doesn’t mean you can’t later, but be careful – your readers have started piecing things together and it might give away more than you intend.

For a series, there really is no fits-all answer. My only suggestion is that depending on the length of your book, start small and build up. George R. R. Martin didn’t tell us what the ‘prince that was promised’ was past the name until Stannis Baratheon’s main entrance into the series later on. Additionally, if you’re going to give away something as large as that the white walkers fail, for example, make sure that you’ve set up enough other points that the readers will want to know to give them the drive to finish and see how it all turns out.

When done correctly, foreshadowing can be used so that when your readers pick up your book for the second time, they’re thinking “oh shit, how did I miss this?” It’s a great tool when used properly. Feel free to leave comments below of either your favorite foreshadowing moment in literature or a way you’ve used it in your own books!

Chapter 12: Game of Thrones, Theories, and Lessons

As an epic fantasy writer, I am one of many people who recognize the talent of George R.R. Martin.  He has challenged the genre in many ways, despite his self-proclaimed difficulty with writer’s block.  (I must say, as well, that the fact someone so successful still struggles with something that I myself do is such a comfort in this trying profession.)  I’d like to begin by saying some of my own theories for the remainder of the season, and then finish off by saying what we as writers can learn from him.

My first theory stems from my biggest fear in the show: a dragon dying.  We all know it’s going to happen.  My only hope left is that it isn’t Drogon, which I doubt will happen this season because he’s Daenerys’s personal one, and I don’t see her going into the deep end the remaining two seasons.  Plus the poor baby was already injured in Episode 6.  So, what could be worse than them dying?  Them being taken over by the Night King.  As seen in the previews, Jon finds himself in a bit of a predicament up north.  I’m feeling pretty certain that Dany is going to send up either Rhaegal or Viserion to save him.  I think the rescue mission will end up being successful, with sacrifice of the dragon.

My second theory has already been proven partly true.  It stemmed from the fact that I’ve been upset on how focused on the Army of the Dead Jon has been.  Yes, it is obviously extremely important; however, he can’t just wish his other enemy into non-existence.  While it’s true that Cersei would be weary to travel up north to the snow, she’s proven herself to be resourceful with the help of Qyburn.  But then, I thought, wouldn’t Cersei like to know about the army marching toward her kingdom?

She showed that she already has planned to use this in her favor, but it’s unclear if she actually believes the army to be real.  Will her sentiments change when she sees the walker that Jon brings back?  Or will she remain just as heartless as she’s grown to become?  That’s not even mentioning the fact she just claimed to be pregnant.  So, here’s my theory:

The baby, if he/she isn’t just a lie Cersei conjured up, will be miscarried.  Why do I think this?  Because, quite simply, it’d be the last straw for Cersei to go full-on Mad Queen.  The only thing that ever made her a sympathetic character was her love for her children.  I don’t see them bringing her back towards sanity, so this would be just what she needs to not give a damn about the Army of the Dead.  Despite the proof that I believe Jon will successfully bring back, I think that she’ll still not care due to the miscarriage.  She’ll still manipulate Jon and Dany’s armies, with the hopes that they’ll lose men and give her a more even fight for the war to come.  I also think that will be the point that Jamie calls it quits with her and joins the effort to fight the north.  She’s going to do something so diabolical that he just can’t forgive her.

Now, what about the group headed up on this dangerous mission?  They basically put a bunch of bad ass characters together to make an epic team.  I’m fairly certain Jon will survive long enough to show King’s Landing the ‘live’ walker.  (If not, that’s just cruel…)  So, who’s going to die?  Let me just say, if the answer’s Gendry, the list will also extend to the writers of this show curtesy of myself.  There’s only two things known to kill the dead: Valyrian steel.  I’d like to think that Jon was smart enough to man all the people he’s bringing with the steel, but honestly with him who knows.

Either way, I’m sticking to my theory that the dragon is coming to save them, meaning there will be fire.  Who’s someone we know that is scared of fire, despite his recent vision?  The Hound.  I’m pretty nervous for his possible death, but to be honest his plot in the series has basically ended.  As an author, I don’t see what much else he could offer to the storyline, so they might as well give him a glorious fighter’s death.  I also don’t see the Brothers without Banners lasting long.  They’ve never been up north, and have no idea how to fend for themselves in that type of situation.  I think they’ll be part of the ‘sacrifice,’ and that was why the Lord of Light told them they have to go – so that Jon (and hopefully Gendry) can survive.  I’m iffy about Jorah’s storyline.  Personally I think he’ll survive, if for anything that I’m hoping that he has time to repay Sam for healing him.

I was hoping Jon going up North would mean that Bran would have time to tell him that he’s a Targaryen, but apparently Jon didn’t feel the need to go say hi to his two siblings he thought was dead before going out to his possible death.  Now, there’s always the chance that Bran wrote it in the scroll he sent to warn Jon about the marching army.  That could possibly explain his genuine lack of happiness despite finding out about his two favorite sibling-cousins being alive.  Or it could just be Jon being Jon.

On the subject of Jon being Targaryen, people were freaking out over how Drogon let Jon pet him.  “It’s because he’s Targaryen!”  Okay, but can than really be your logic if you don’t agree with the theory that Tyrion is also Targaryen?  After all, all three dragons decided to spare him when their mother was miles away.  Your logic can’t change based on what you want or don’t want to be a thing.  Rather than theorize over if Tyrion is a Targaryen or not, I’d rather try to think of where he would be in the family line – or in other words, what would his claim be to the throne if it was true?

Rhaegar (bless his soul) has so far shown himself to be the best of their bloodline, aside from Daenerys.  So, unless he decided to bang Lady Lannister in between his marriages, he wouldn’t be Jon’s older brother.  There’s also of course the age to reaffirm that.  That means that, if Tyrion is a Targaryen, he’d be son of the Mad King (or possibly one of his siblings).  Then that begs the question of if he is the older or younger than Rhaegar.  No matter what, he’s a bastard, and that weakens his claim on the throne.  But let’s be honest, Tyrion would be such a good king!

In Episode 6 there was clear tension between Arya and Sansa.  Little Finger, being the little cunt he is, saw this and is now trying to manipulate the two sisters into fighting.  In the talk after the episode, they mentioned how Arya is used to being the cleverest one, and that she’s not used to Little Finger.  They happily left out the fact that Cersei has been dealing with both Cersei and Little Finger the entire duration of the show.  She knows how they work, and has become a heartless entity in the making.  She can be paralleled with the Cersei back in the day – a power-hungry game player with only her family to keep her empathetic.  Although I will always love her, Sansa has been rather standstill this season.  So, with her knowledge of the game, and Arya’s over-willingness to kill, I’m looking forward to (hopefully) the two of them outsmarting Arya.  She was also recently given the dagger by Bran that was used to attempt his murder – the one that Little Finger claimed he’d given to Tyrion, although never proven.  Let’s be honest.  From the beginning, Tyrion was never someone who would send an assassin after an unconscious, cripple boy.  It’s pretty safe to say that was a ploy for Little Finger to start his chaos ladder.  Just think of the poetic justice of Arya using that dagger to kill him.

Now, with all that said and done, what can we learn as writers?  The first is pretty damn obvious: the power of a good death.  As authors, we often become attached to the characters we make.  Who wouldn’t?  We put a lot of working into their creation and development.  It means we look for any way possible to keep them alive, no matter how improbable.

Always take a step back.  How can this character contribute to the plot?  If they’re simply alive because you want them to be, take a look at what their death could do to the plot.  I’m not saying slaughter them by the masses (perhaps avoid weddings…) but sometimes a character can be more powerful for the storyline by dying than staying alive.  Look at your characters as a bystander who doesn’t know them would.

The second thing to learn from Martin is the power in overlying plot versus per book.  Throughout all of Game of Thrones, the biggest thoughts have been: (1) the overall fight for the crown and (2) the threat of the Army of the Dead.  As one of the plots comes to a close, the other is beginning to take full force.  Then, there’s the balancing act of fulfilling an entire plot with a great climax within each book/season.  Before starting a series, we as authors have to think: what do I want the end to look like?  This process is of course different for each individual.  For my current series, I just have a vague idea of who I want to have the power, and what nations I want to be left standing.  I’m about to write a timeline of what I need accomplished in each book for that to happen.  Otherwise, I put a focus into each book of an outline before shifting into actually writing.  Some famous authors have claimed to have written their stories backwards.  They knew how it wanted to end, and then they decided what could happen for them to get there.  However you decide to do it, realize what you want to be the central focus and themes.

It’s up to you where the focus shifts towards per book, but be sure to put some part of critical information to the overlying plot in each book.  Because, really, it should all tie together.  When you’re outlining your book, be sure to put in several key scenes.  Otherwise, you’re dragging your readers through muck instead of showing them insight on what they’ve grown to care about.  From there is where you should flesh out and expand into the plot of the individual book.  Generally thinking about the climax first will help you put in all the scenes to get there, and then editing, editing, and some more editing.  Flesh out scenes.  Give depth to characters.  The whole nine yards.

The third thing to learn from Martin is diversity in characters.  Ned versus Robert.  Tyrion versus Tywin.  Cersei versus Jamie.  Arya versus Sansa.  Robb versus Jon.  Varys versus Qyburn.  All those people started in basically the same position at the start of the series, and now look at them.  They all had key personality traits and then became detrimental when it came to the test.  Really take the time to get to know your characters.  If something happens in the plot, truly take time to realize what they would do in that situation.  And, don’t stop there.  How would that scene change them?  Reassess them as a person.  Your plot should be as complex as your characters, and they should complement each other to create the final masterpiece.  That doesn’t happen through forcing your way through and rushing your way to the finish line.

I’d like to end with some cool merchandise that you can buy!  To the bottom is a photograph I took personally after I received the bottle opener, with a pencil to the side for size reference.  If you want to be the Hand of the King/Queen, it’s an awesome but useful gift that you can buy here.  The other is the adorable dress (purchase here!) which is just subtle enough to be worn every day, but yet fully and completely showing off your inner Westeros lover!

 

 

 

 

Cure for Writer’s Block

 

What’s better than working on your latest novel or reading a good book?  Doing it OUTSIDE.  This weekend I encourage you to find a park or even a coffee shop with outdoor seating.  You’d be surprised how it can get your creative juices flowing.