Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Adapting our imaginations into prose

Hello, internet!

I’m slightly frazzled from travelling, so today’s post might be a little disjointed.

After several weeks of intense travelling (and sleeping off my intense jetlag) I’ve finally got myself back into a healthy sleeping pattern where I actually see some daylight now and then, and I’ve found that – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s really benefiting my writing. I sat down this morning determined to begin a fresh new draft of my book and I shot straight out of the starting blocks, writing 1,000 words and only stopping because I had to go and buy myself a shiny new phone.

I’m back now, with my shiny new phone successfully purchased, and I find myself eager to get back to writing. This is almost a novelty, because I’ve had a few weeks of fairly intense writer’s block, where I’ve been asking myself a lot of crippling existential questions about my writing and my desire to make a career as a writer, and it’s been tying me up and stopping me from getting any words down on the page.

I think there are a few factors which have renewed my creativity, as well as just having a healthier sleeping schedule. One was all of the advice and inspiration that I got from attending NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. It’s only now, with all of my travelling done, that I’m really finding time to apply all of the lessons that I learned to my own writing. Mostly the authors speaking at NerdCon just reaffirmed a valuable lesson that I already knew, but had perhaps forgotten: every writer, even your favourite writer, sucked to begin with. All of the great writers in history began with a crappy first draft, which probably didn’t even get published after they’d rewritten it into a well-polished final draft, but the only way they eventually got published was by writing, and writing, and rewriting, and rewriting. As Maureen Johnson always says, as an aspiring writer, you have to “give yourself permission to suck”. You have to abandon the idea that you’re going to like what you write, at least at first. The only way to get good is to be bad, and then improve.

Sucking at something

I find that advice very empowering, so whenever I get a fresh dose of it, I’m always raring to go and write pages and pages of my crappy first draft without worrying about the quality, which is exactly what young aspiring writers should be doing.

As well as that, though, I think I’ve stumbled across another important lesson, in my recent writing.

I’m really enjoying the latest redraft of my story, which I’ve only just embarked upon, but as I get it down onto the page, I can’t help but shake my head at how different it is from how I originally imagined the story, when I first envisioned the book and the world it’s set in, about two years ago. I like this new envisioning of my book, and more importantly I think it’s the ‘easiest’ incarnation of my world that I’ve ever come up with, in terms of how well the plot and characters melt down into a story that I can actually tell. It’s more malleable, and less troublesome to mould into scenes and plot arcs, linked by a consistent narrative, which of course are all of the essential bare-bones elements of a story that can eventually be turned into a book.

That doesn’t change the fact that the book is very different from the one I was writing a year ago, or even six months ago. The narrative voice is very different, the events have changed sequence dramatically, characters who were in the background have moved into the foreground and vice versa, the technology that they use has regressed by about a century in terms of it’s level of advancement, and I have introduced some explicitly supernatural elements that were completely absent in earlier drafts. All of these changes have made it easier for me to write, and easier to actually tell the story, but they have moved the book further and further from my original conception of the story and the world that it takes place in. And I’m completely okay with that.

I think when authors first conceive of a fantasy world, and think it out, their original idea can be a very beautiful thing. Perhaps that’s fantasy at it’s purest – when it is just mere fantasy, in a writer’s head. But it’s a mistake to think that the world in our heads at the moment of conception is going to be exactly the same world that appears on the page once we’ve finally written the world into prose. The world you’ve created has to be filtered through you if it wants to get into print, where other people can experience it, and you’re an imperfect vessel for that transition. You can’t just open the floodgates and let it pour out unchanged or undiluted. You’re a human being with wants and needs and time constraints and bills to pay, and ultimately you have to change the shape of the world you’ve created so that it’s easy to draw out of yourself as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s no good having a vast, wonderful and expansive fantasy world in your head if you find it impossible to turn into a story which you can actually write: if you can’t mould it into a format that will actually flow through your fingers and out onto the page. Ultimately, I think writability must come first, before any kind of integrity to our original vision. Sacrifices must be made to get the world out of our heads and onto the page.

In short, the important thing is to create a faithful prose adaptation of whatever fantasy world exists in our heads, the same way that a movie director would try to create a faithful cinematic adaptation of a fantasy world that exists in prose. There’s a certain nobility to preserving our original idea as much as possible…but it can be a useless nobility, if our goal is to get published. Sometimes characters must be swapped around, plots must be truncated or rearranged, and extrenuous dragons must be mercilessly excised, in order to make a book writeable. And, for that matter, publishable.

What are your thoughts?

Writing While Wandering the World

I hope you all took the time to appreciate my awesome and aesthetically alliterative appellation for this post. Anyways, greetings from Poznań, Poland! I safely arrived here on Sunday evening (well, evening for me…it would have been late morning/early afternoon for those of y’all in the States). It was a long and glorious trip that involved 18 hours in New York’s JFK airport, a very cold layover in Moscow, frenetic dashing through two separate and highly confusing train stations in Berlin with 100 pounds of luggage, and my first ever ride on a European train as I departed Germany for Poland. I traveled through four countries in three days, and needless to say, I practically passed out from joy of arrival and exhaustion from carrying everything when I arrived, so thank you Lorien, for taking over my post for Tuesday whilst I recovered 😀

My response to finally getting here.
My response to finally getting here.

During the three day journey, I thoroughly intended to actually get some creative writing done. Ever since I got the job offer about 5 weeks ago, I’d been so overwhelmed with moving preparations and paperwork that the only writing time I had went into my posts for the Art of Writing and for my personal travel blog. Other than that, I had absolutely no energy for writing, so my poor novel had been eagerly anticipating the travel time as a period in which I would have time to work on it again. What the book didn’t consider was that even though three plane trips, three long layovers, and one three-hour train trip give you plenty of *time*, they leave you without much energy (and usually leave your computer in the same condition if the planes, trains, and automobiles don’t have electrical outlets), so physical writing isn’t always an option.

That, and you get distracted by all the random Russian words in the plane.
That, and you get distracted by all the random Russian words in the plane.

At the same time, however, I knew I also needed to get some work done on my novel so that I could actually get some pages written out once I recovered from the journey itself. Also, my characters tend to throw temper tantrums and get into trouble when I neglect them for too long, and I don’t want them trying to unionize like the last batch did. That…didn’t end well, let’s say. *shudders* The compromise I reached with myself on this issue was that I would do some of the mental work that would facilitate later writing. I’m an internal processor, meaning that  work through things in my head, constantly examining and dissecting them to figure out where they fit and what I need to do with them. It can be quite helpful when it comes to writing. In each location I went to on this trip, I ended up working on a different element of my book. In Phoenix, Arizona, where the journey began, I did some mental outlining of where I need my next chapter to go. In the JFK airport in New York, I fought a courageous battle against the urge to revise some later chapters I wrote a few weeks ago instead of working on the next chapters that needed to be written (I won, though the fight was bloody and the victory came at great cost – more on that in another post). Moscow, Russia, was the site of some social hierarchy construction, while Berlin inspired some ruminations on the necessity of a writing plan for once I get settled. Now that I am here in Poznań, I am back to work on the actual writing of my chapters (one of which should be done relatively soon), and I am resisting the urge to call myself the World Wide Writer. If I didn’t already have a title for my blog, that’s what I’d go for 😀 The process of writing my novel has officially gone global! And now it’s time for me to get back to work on it.

Writing versus Editing: The Eternal Struggle

Which is more important: writing or editing?

Obviously, that’s an unfair question. To a serious writer in any type of writing, the answer should be “both.” The act of writing itself is essential because it gets you into practice and gives you raw material to work with. While your first draft probably won’t be great the very moment you put it down on paper, at least doing so gives you a draft that you can revise and improve later on. That’s where editing comes in. Even if your first draft is crap, editing lets you refine it and hone in on the good parts while weeding out the bad. Editing and revision, especially after you’ve gotten some feedback or taken some time to come at your work with a fresh perspective, are what can turn a decent story into a good one, or a good one into a great one.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

For a good writer, writing and editing should of course go hand in hand. Without the act of first writing something, editing wouldn’t exist at all. And without the act of editing and continual revision over time, writing couldn’t be nearly as good as it is. So it seems impossible to answer the question of which one is more important.

And yet, nonetheless, I’m still trying to answer that question now.

Well, maybe I’m not asking which is more important–just which one I should work on now. Here’s why.

If you’ve read some of my other posts on this blog, then you might know that, with some exceptions, I haven’t worked on writing novels in a long time. Two years of grad school and other responsibilities will do that to you. Yes, I’ve still been writing throughout all this time, and not just for school. But since my free time has been sparse for a while, I’ve focused my attention more on shorter works, such as poetry, blogs, articles, parodies, and maybe one serious short story. While I once dreamed of writing best-selling novels (or even halfway decent ones), I’ve barely worked on any for at least two years–probably closer to three, really.

But now, all that could change. I finished my graduate degree last month and, for the first time in about two decades, have absolutely no intention of continuing my studies in the fall. It’s summer and I have plenty of free time to catch up on reading, Netflix, and perhaps even writing. I have at least a few friends (and/or family members) who are using this summer to work on novels, and I want to join them because at least a part of me misses it.

But there’s a couple of problems. First, I’ve been out of novel-writing for so long that I’ll really have to re-cultivate my motivation for it if I’m going to make any progress at all. Secondly, there are two different large projects that I’ve wanted to work on, and I don’t know which one to start with or to give my attention to first. And that’s where my conflict between writing and editing comes in, because one project is a full novel that needs editing, and the other is an unfinished novel that needs writing.

I’ll give you a quick summary of both:

My full-length novel is a superhero story, tentatively titled Fractured Heroes (although I’m still not fully satisfied with that

This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.
This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.

name). It follows an ensemble cast of seven main protagonists, all superheroes or crime-fighters of some sort, with various personalities and character flaws. Some are brutal and violent; some are cold and detached; some use the outlet of heroism to seek redemption from a past of guilt and shame. But when they uncover a dangerous super-drug and a plot to destroy their city, this disjointed group of heroes has to band together and rely on something greater than their individual selves. I wrote this story throughout 2010 and 2011 (it was long enough to be two NaNoWriMos, and then some), and it’s gotten good reviews from a few friends and online forum readers. At some point in 2012, I had a trusted friend read through it and make comments or suggestions about how it could be improved. So I have a large document full of my friend’s comments…and I have made very little progress since then in going through those comments or revising my story at all. However, I would love to revisit it and get it good enough to send to a publisher one day.

And the other story I’m working on is a futuristic, dystopian one called The Joining. A couple centuries into the future, society is built almost entirely upon romantic relationships and physical pleasure. On their eighteenth birthday, everyone is expected to choose a partner and be joined with them for life. But one seventeen-year-old boy doesn’t fit into his society’s customs and doesn’t like feeling rushed to commit so soon . What is he to do with his Joining ceremony fast approaching? I started working on this story sometime in 2012. I outlined the entire plot, so I know more or less what I want to write. And in all that time I’ve written a walloping two chapters, about ten pages or so. I’ve got a story in me and I want to get it out, but I just haven’t had the time!

Of course, I want to work on both of these projects eventually, so maybe this dilemma is a bit redundant. If I really planned it and worked at it this summer, then I could certainly do some of both. Still, since I haven’t done that yet, I’m a little torn, and I’m opening it up to input.

Which one do you, my faithful readers and fellow writers, think I should focus on more so? And why? Is it better to get a new story idea out of my head or to hone the one that’s closer to a finished product? Which story sounds more interesting to you? And do you have any wise advice for a long-dormant novelist trying to get back in the game?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Dear Xylexyvok

Dear Mr. Critical,
I am Xylexyvok from Zerefyv. I recently killed Xoveck in the battle of Ylexo with Vozet. My issue is no one cares. They can’t get much past the first page of my story. Help!
Sincerely,
Xylexyvok


 

Dear X,
Your issue is your name, the cities you visit, the people you fight, and the weapons you use are all unpronounceable, impossibly complicated, and I can’t understand one in there words in any given sentence.

I read a book like this. It’s one thing to take inspiration from cultures of the past. It’s another to randomly put x, z, and v in just to seem special. It makes it difficult to follow. I put the book down after a paragraph. Everyone else I’ve spoken to tells me I need to finish it, because the story is amazing, but I can’t get past the naming, and honestly there are too many great books out there to keep reading one I struggle with.

So the issue is a simple one. Simplify names, stop being so alien (unless you’re legitimately being alien), and make it so people can say the names. Make it obvious when you’re talking about people and places. Our own cities and villages rarely correlate to names.

That’s it. This is a really simple fix for you and your writer. Keep it simple, keep it pronounceable, or at the very least keep it true to an influence.
Sincerely,
Mr. Critial

Staying in Practice with Short(er) Prose

“You’re doing NaNoWriMo, right?” people keep asking me.

“Uh, no,” I reply. “Not this time. Sorry. I’ve got too much else going on right now.”

“Come on! You should do it!”

“I mean, maybe I’ll try a little bit. But, realistically, I just don’t see it happening this time.”

“Lame!” they chide me.

And I almost wonder if they’re right. NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month, for those unfamiliar) is designed to help you actually write something even in the midst of your busy schedule by setting reasonable goals for each day and having many people all writing at once to help keep each other accountable. And I know I’ve been the one on the other side of the spectrum at times, encouraging and/or pressuring my friends to be as gung ho about creative writing as I am. So what does it say about me that I’m not willing or able to put forth the effort this time around?

I did participate in and successfully complete NaNoWriMo three years in a row, but that was back when I was still an undergrad. Now that I’ve moved up in my education and taken on more commitments, this is my third year in a row not doing NaNo, and I do kind of miss it. I even have a plot outline in my brain that I’ve been wanting to get out on paper for some time now. But it’s looking again like this November is not going to be that time.

The good thing, though, is that even though I’m too busy to do NaNoWriMo, it doesn’t mean that I’m not writing. It doesn’t even mean that I’m not writing for fun. As I touched on in another post, while it’s been a while since I’ve tackled any larger works of fiction, I’ve shifted my attention in recent years toward shorter prose of various different styles. In addition to writing for this blog, I write articles for an ezine, I’ve dabbled or tried my hand at other online magazines and forums, I recently put out a few posts full of lighthearted anecdotes on my personal blog, and have of course been writing academic papers for my grad classes too. While part of me looks forward to the day when I can work on my novel(s) again, I dare say that I’m not exactly being slack in my writing right now.

Image taken from studentleadercollective.org
Image taken from studentleadercollective.org

Maybe you’re like me, and you want to stay in practice with your writing, but the thought of a huge, lofty project seems daunting or unrealistic right now. If that’s the case, then you may benefit from hearing what I’ve been doing to try to stay in practice even in the busy times of life:

  • Be disciplined. We’ve probably all heard before that good writing requires discipline and dedication. I don’t really have anything new or profound to add to that conversation, except that I’ve been finding that it really is true. While it’s not a novel, working on short prose and academic writing like I’ve been can be plenty daunting on its own, especially if you’ve taken on several different projects like I have. This week I put out two posts on my personal blog, because they had been in my head for a while and I wanted to get them out into the world, but I also had this blog post due and the next article for the ezine, along with at least five pages of a rough draft for a grad paper. How do I do it all in the same week? The only answer I can really give is discipline and making writing a priority. Lately, after all my other homework and reading is done, I’ve usually been using the last hour or so (sometimes more) of my day before bedtime to write, instead of to watch TV or whatever. It’s a good time for me to get a lot of thoughts out in a relaxed manner (as long as I go back and edit later when I’m less tired). Of course, each person’s schedules and habits are different, but I’m willing to bet that you have time to write in your day if you just work a little bit and prioritize to find it.
  • Be flexible. Being flexible can incorporate a few different things. For me, working on several short pieces at once, it means that I have to be able to go back and forth easily; sometimes I’ll work on two or three or four different pieces in the same day or night, and I have to be able to focus on each one without letting the mental shift feel too jarring. But flexibility also means writing what you can when you can. If you’re not sure what to write in the absence of one grand, overarching project, then just take whatever smaller opportunities come your way, or start a journal or blog about your own personal experiences. If you don’t have a huge block of free time in your day that you can devote to writing, then use the smaller times you do have, and cram it into five or ten minute slots wherever you can. Since there’s no one definite formula for good or consistent writing, you need to find whatever works for you and be willing to do it, even if what works for you is drastically different from one day to the next.

    Image taken from busywriting.net
    Image taken from busywriting.net
  • Be creative. If you’re used to writing creative fiction, then the idea of shorter prose may not appeal to you as much at first. But writing blogs, articles, and other short works doesn’t mean you can’t still be creative and let your own unique voice shine through. There’s not room in this post to delve thoroughly into what constitutes the genre of creative nonfiction, but it’s basically telling a story the same way you would in fiction–except that the story just happens to be true. You can still give things your own interpretation and your own personal spin and narration. Just because you’re writing something short and (arguably) more serious doesn’t mean you can’t express yourself and have fun with it, too.

I realize I haven’t said anything particularly profound and new here, but this is what has been working for me recently. Still, if anyone has any good tips on how to balance writing short projects with everything else in life and also work on a novel somewhere in there too, I’d be glad to hear them! 😛 But whatever you’re writing this month, keep at it and be consistent! You never know how it might help you stay “in shape” as a writer and improve your craft for the future.

What’s in a Name?

Today’s topic is about an aspect of fiction writing that seems relatively minor, but can actually be fairly important. It’s something that (in my experience, at least) isn’t usually the first big idea that pops into the mind of the writer, but often, when well-chosen, ends up being an important aspect that sticks in the mind of the readers. What I’m talking about is naming characters.

NametagPersonally, I’m not very good at coming up with names. That can apply to titles of a work, or, more along the lines of what I’m talking about here, to character names. I usually can figure out easily what I want my characters to be like–their personalities, backstories, driving motivations, manners of speaking, and more. But not their names. This results in me having a well-developed person in my mind who I feel like I know very well, and yet it’s a bit awkward because I don’t know what to call them. Sometimes, when writing an early draft, I’ll just refer to the characters with titles such as “Male Lead” or “Female Lead” or “Villain” or whatever until I think of something more permanent–and I’ve heard of some fellow writers doing this too.

On the contrary, I’ve heard some writers say that, once they know a character well enough, the right name just comes to them, and it feels like the only one that fits that character. If you’re one of those writers, then that’s great! However, as I somewhat touched on in my last post, I personally am not the type of writer who can just churn out something on a whim and have it be good. I need to put thought, time, and good reasoning into my writing before I’m satisfied with it–and that applies to character names as well.

So, if character names don’t just come to you in random bursts of inspiration, then what’s the best way to think of them? I’m afraid I don’t know. But I’ll tell you a few methods that I’ve used in the past.

  • Just pick whatever sounds good.
    • There’s not a whole lot I can say about this one because it’s fairly subjective and imprecise–just a matter of personal preference, really. Go through the baby name book (is that still a thing?) or search for online name generators, because there are a lot of them out there–some for ordinary, everyday names, and some for more unique fields such as fantasy and science fiction. Just pick a name that you like and that seems to fit with your conception of the character.
  • Pick (or avoid) names with personal significance.
    • Some writers like to pick names based on people they know, such as if a certain character is based on or reminds them of a real-life friend or acquaintance. Personally, I used to do the opposite. I would try to avoid using names of people I knew, because I didn’t want my perceptions of those people to influence my perceptions of the characters. Of course, the more people I knew, the more difficult it became to find names that weren’t attached to anyone in particular for me, so I usually don’t make this my primary criterion anymore. Still, names of people you know, and their personal connotations for you as the author, can sometimes be a good way to decide whether or not to use a certain name.
  • Put in some secret or special significance.
    • This is one that I, personally, like to do whenever I can. If you want your character’s name to mean something, but you don’t want it to be super obvious or directly connected to real people, then find some distant connection that’s not so easily recognized, such as a rearrangement of letters or a reference to another character.
    • For example: About five years ago, for my first-ever NaNoWriMo, I wrote a story about aliens, with a heartfelt but painfully obvious Christian allegory underneath. I named the Christ-figure Ussej Thrisc, and I’m sure I thought at the time that I was being incredibly clever by rearranging the letters of “Jesus Christ,” and calling the villain who betrayed him Usdaj Troicasi. Some of my friends who read the story told me that they enjoyed figuring out the name puzzles of those characters and others, but I have to acknowledge in hindsight that in this case, once the names and their significance are figured out, the cleverness is thinly veiled from that point on.
    • These days, I don’t do as many anagrams, but I still like the names to have some significance, even if it’s one that only I know about and others might not recognize as readily. Sometimes, if a character is loosely based on a previously established character, or if I see a connection in my mind to another work, I’ll try to “borrow” parts of the other character’s name in order to pay homage. For example, in my superhero story, the dark vigilante’s secret identity is Wayne Murphy, and I fully admit that I took the first name “Wayne” from the last name of anotherWayne dark vigilante’s secret identity. (The other names in that story have similar significances, but that’s the only one I’m giving away, so if you ever read it, then you’ll have to guess.) Similarly, in my dystopian story about the dangers of forced or unhealthy romantic relationships, I’ve tried to appropriate the names of various literary and historical figures who were known for their bad relationships, such as Romeo, Juliet, Lancelot, Bathsheba, and Delilah (and I slightly alter them for the purposes of subtlety, resulting in characters named Lance, Sheba, and Lilah). The readers may or may not get all the connections, but the names at least mean something to me, and I still get to feel like I’m being clever and sophisticated by putting subtle literary and historical allusions into my novel that the common man probably won’t get right away. So if you want your characters’ names to mean something, try taking the name of a person or character who already means something to you, and rearrange or alter it a bit. Be creative and see what you can come up with!
  • Remember to pick something that works with the setting. This is more of a side issue and may not help you actually generate the names themselves, but you want to make sure that you pick names that are appropriate with the time, place, and tone of your work. For example, if you’re writing an epic high-fantasy adventure far removed from Earth, then you probably don’t want your main hero to be “Bob.” The name is casual and sounds silly in the context of the serious world around it (unless you’re writing a tongue-in-cheek satire, in which case it’s perfectly appropriate to feature an android named Marvin). Similarly, if it’s a real-world drama of ordinary people, then don’t pick anything too eccentric just for its own sake. But sometimes a good balance of the familiar and the exotic can be helpful. For example, futuristic stories like the one mentioned above will sometimes go with names that are less common, but not entirely unheard of. I like to think that names like Lance, Sheba, and Lilah help to give the setting some distance from our own culture, but also enough familiarity that the story still feels tangible and possible on some level.

Those are some of my best suggestions for coming up with character names. What methods or techniques do you use? Sound off below!

Holiday Special: Have your characters celebrate

November and December is an exciting time of year to me. There are a lot of celebrations in a very short period of time. For teaching, it was the promised land of the school year, followed by the drought of no days off until Easter. There are also so many fun festivities to enjoy. Surely you have two or three at the very least between Halloween and now. If you don’t practice them, no doubt you can name them. Many of the holidays evolved, as well. Winter Solstice is arguably one of the first, if not the first in the season. Christmas stemmed from it so the pagans had a reason to convert in northern Europe to Christianity. Don’t deprive a society of a good party or things get ugly.

In your own world you have your mythologies and legends. You have celebrations and holidays. It becomes very easy to leave these in the background and never utilize them when it’s such a story rich point in time. Festivals reveal a great deal about the culture and characters. For culture, there could be human sacrifice. The Mayans had a ballgame where the winner was sacrificed to the gods. There could be a lot of sex. Thank Saturn for those long and exhausting nights. Perhaps people get drunk and play horrible music, while laughing, singing, and dancing. Create a celebration in your world that would compliment the belief structures and cultural norms you already have in place.

Sometimes celebration is a dude wearing a tie, running a spoon up and down a washboard. There was a lot of alcohol involved.
This tells you a lot about both character and setting!

How your characters react also says a lot. An individual who plays very hard at the ballgame believes in the gods and rewards in the afterlife. A character struggling between his wife and the gods may throw the game, desiring to see the birth of his son. During the orgy of Saturn, perhaps a boy has fallen madly in love with one particular girl and has no desire to make love to anyone else. Meanwhile, he catches her being passed from one man to the other, declaring she refuses to ever settle down with a man when such fun is readily at hand. How will he respond? In the drunken celebration, does your character play the washboard like an idiot, or does he scowl and go off in the corner? I picked the route of the joyful idiot. Choose a few characters from your story. Come up with a brief idea of how they react to your festival, along with how they might act with each other at the festival.

Now add some depth to your event. The ballgame was originally entertainment. There was no grand meaning to it, there were no gods watching the game and waiting for their snack. However, a volcano erupted and killed thousands. The shaman said they needed to sacrifice, and a team said the winner of the game should have the honor to feed the gods to save the many. Ever since then, the volcano has been dormant. Obviously it’s working.

Originally the festival of fertility was between man and wife. The goddess was different, along with the religion. When a decadent conqueror saw the ritual, they turned it to their own desires and it became a celebration of unbridled lust. A corporation wanted to figure out how to make a lot of money, so they convinced people to pay in order to watch a musical, drink, eat, and play instruments from the old days. Ultimately, the locals rarely take part in the festival, but the tourists show up in droves. A strange mouse-like creature also appears from time to time. Look at your own cultural celebration. Come up with a history for it, what the original purpose was, how it changed, and why it changed. Remember that history is also written by the victors. Chances are the orgy would be pinned on the “uncivilized” conquered culture and a few generations later no one would be the wiser.

This will give you a few good scenes, something to build up to, and a better understanding of cultures and characters. I hope it helped. If you have other ways you try to incorporate culture into your stories, post it below!

As The World Turns (in your novel)

Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones, Final Fantasy VII, and Orpheus (White Wolf table top game) all exist in this post.

I was playing Saint’s Row the Third when this idea struck me. I’ve thought it before, but never with such clarity.

Novels should be a point in time of incredible change. It’s that chapter in your history text book instead of a mere two paragraphs. It’s the story grandpa tells you about his grandpa, which you in turn will tell your grand kids. We still hear stories about how my four or five times great grandpa served under General Meade in the Civil War. Something incredible happened, and life would never be the same. While these moments are improbable, most people don’t read for the mundane. They read for the (believably) extraordinary.

I played a table top game called Orpheus. Or more so I read it and prepared a story and my group said it sounds boring. Neither here nor there. Anyway, the game was broken up into six books which were to make a movie set up. The movie set up, though shorter, works fairly well for any form of storytelling. I’m really only hitting the first and second step in this post.

Start your story with a norm. It doesn’t have to be a happy norm. In Orpheus you worked for an organization that fought ghosts. You started off as a human, a human who could do astral projection (naturally or with a drug), or a ghost. In Final Fantasy VII you start out as a mercenary with work to do. In Game of Thrones we get to see the Stark family in their natural habitat, along with a bit of a look at the natural order of the kingdom. Look at one of your favorite books, TV shows, video games, or any other story and try to find out what the norm is. There are obviously degrees of normal, whether it’s for the character or an entire nation, but you can get a pretty good sense of what is setting up the story.

Now change the world. Don’t love tap it. Don’t nudge it. Make us think you will do that. Convince the reader there is a plan and that we will ride that roller coaster. Set up plan after plan on how things should go and make us believe it will remain on those tracks. Then quietly place us in a car and side swipe us with a truck. Make sure we can see the truck out of the corner of our eye the entire time. Force us to realize in that moment that every single hint was there for us, but we were looking forward with such intensity we refused to look at the semi barreling at us ever so obviously.

In Orpheus, the company was destroyed by hired hands and you’re wanted by the feds. Prepared for another chapter of how I worked for this ghost hunter company, my jaw dropped when I read about how it all suddenly and violently changed. The hints were there, I should have seen it coming, but I just assumed nothing would interfere with my beautiful little path. In Final Fantasy VII you fall in love and wish to rescue a poor girl wrapped up with the corrupt government, a government you once worked for. The Starks are separated early on and their luck is never good. You watch a family get temporarily pulled apart to watch an honorable family get cleaved in twain over and over again.

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Like free wallpapers? http://freepspwallpapers.wordpress.com/tag/cataclysm/

Notice the theme of each of these; some form of exile. The world will never be the same either over all or for the main characters. Some decision has happened which completely alters the plans so carefully laid out. The village they lived in was destroyed (Jade Empire), the beloved family is kidnapped and used as blackmail (Red Dead Redemption), Enkidu is brought to fight Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh), Lancelot sleeps with Guinevere (King Arthur), and the list goes on. In a romance, the story might start with a divorce, a break up, a need to leave home for vacation, or some other push out of the nest. An action flick usually starts with a warrior, modern or ancient, realizing something is a lie and having to right that wrong. Obviously by blowing up everything.

The most important part of these alterations is they should bring real change to the world, not just something superficial. Using Saint’s Row to come full circle, this is what struck me about their world. When you start, it’s fairly benign. Sure you were just punched in the face by a rival, but it was local and small. You do lose your home and need to start over, but that change was small compared to how the world advanced. As time goes a paramilitary organization comes in and suddenly the fire power of law enforcement is significantly better. The story continues and martial law is brought down on one of the numerous islands so whenever you’re there, you start at a low wanted level. The bridges are brought up so you need to jump them to go anywhere. What truly kicked me in the teeth, though, was a green smoke which came from a small factory island. The island was suddenly zombie infested. It would always be that way. Each stage had irrevocably altered the landscape. I get in some genres this won’t work as drastically, but aren’t most of us sci-fi and fantasy writers? If we can’t completely alter our world, then what genre can?

Here is my challenge for you! Create a norm. Make up a character and some small setting, and come up with what a normal day is. It should still have some tension, though really all normal parts of life have it. Give them goals and desires. Once you have these goals, start coming up with how your character goes about obtaining it. Get him closer and closer to that end game, even if he only takes one of twenty steps. Now figure out how to make those goals nearly meaningless. Smash the character with some force that makes his goals nearly meaningless, or at least secondary. Remember, the world stops for no one. Keep it moving. Keep it interesting.

Setting up your novel: Theme and Mood

I know there are several ways to write a novel. Tolkien just ran with it. GRRM already knows who sits on the Iron Throne. Each of us have likely at least started a story where we planned it out or which we just sat down and started writing, making up characters and settings as the whims struck. With Nanowrimo so close, however, I’m going to give a little guide that may (or may not) help you with your literary challenge come November.

There is an entity which is oft ignored by authors. Theme and mood are ultimately the driving, intangible, overarching feel and lesson of the story at hand. Sure it may shift a little in a few scenes, but at the end of the book what should the reader come away with? This paints everything else you write.

Mood is fairly simple. Is it up beat? Is it dour? When the reader finishes should they feel like a piece of their soul just died because their beloved king died? And then his son? And the mother? And by the end you’re left wondering what’s the point of life? (You know what I’m talking about) This can change quickly scene to scene, but still there will be an overarching feel the reader has fairly consistently.

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Check out more here.
http://soaringvisions.deviantart.com/art/Ren-Tao-Consistent-Brooding-312977003

Theme is where life gets complicated. What does theme even mean? I get breathy when I think of it, it exhausts me so. The theme could be the overall lesson, an image that shows up often, a culture which you pulled information from, or any other very prevalent thing. That’s right, theme is so wide as to get described using the word thing.

Theme as culture

I try to make sure all my worlds have a real world basis. I don’t always keep very true to it, and sometimes it’s a grouping, but I find it gives it far more reality. I recently worked on a world which borrowed heavily from Norse society. The gods were a little different, the basic world was slightly different, but at the end of the day they were my inspiration. However, remember the society doesn’t have a monopoly on their culture, especially in this day and age. Sure they are the primary source and should be used, but the Norse culture has been rehashed a dozen times. When getting into the mindset I read the Edda Pros, sure, but I also played the snot out of Skyrim. I no longer simply read about the gods and the way of life. I was able to live an interpretation of it. And it got people off my back for playing Skyrim. Remember, research can be fun.

Theme as what the reader should perceive

Once upon a time there was a bear who sat down at his tablet and chiseled a story halfheartedly without any central theme for the reader. In the end all the cubs thought he wanted them to maul humans. That’s why bears eat us. Don’t promote bears eating humans: have a central theme.

In school this was that annoying thing called a thesis. The harder part now is you don’t have a the last sentence in your first paragraph telling us what your theme is, you have a hundred or more pages inferring it. Come up with the purpose of your story. Perhaps write down two or three ideas. When you write, this is your north star. It’s to keep your message consistent. Martin is telling us the common people suffer when there’s war. Tolkien is telling us great things can come from small packages and go on an adventure. If you read the books you really like, chances are there is some underlying theme that you follow throughout the book.

Now your theme can also end up like your thesis for your college papers likely ended up: you finished writing, read what you put down, and then wrote your thesis. To have a theme now is just to help guide you. You understand what struggles should be apparent and what type of settings you might desire.

Theme as items

You remember in high school when they told you “This color is used throughout the book because…” and then you started yawning and wondering if you’d get that date over the weekend? Me neither. There was no date. However, writers often use symbolism of some sort to indicate more than the color of the drapes. Figure out which symbols match your feeling and include them. Just jot them off on the side and when you decide to use your theme in the future, check that list to see what you can incorporate. I’m writing a story with gods of life and death. When death was near I would either show the god of death or the goddess of life in disrepair.

The key to all of this is to remember it’s malleable. You’re not writing it in stone, but giving yourself some direction. This will help to set up in the future. It helps give you an idea of what you want to do. Take these as guides which can be removed or replaced at a whim. I’ve just found it helps a great deal to start my novel by first writing down the mood and theme. I also do it for individual scenes, but I’ll touch on that later.

Until then, what is a mood you would like writing about? What is a theme for your readers to take from it and how will you show that throughout your book?