A More Textured Story

Stories are not just about the characters on the page. True, they hold the bulk of our attention, but they would not exist outside of the world in which they live. We’re taught as authors that in order to sell the books that we write, we have to have character and conflict.

There are even formulas we are given while attempting to write query letters that focus solely on the character and the plot. But when push comes to shove, a lot of us aren’t reading a novel to see character and plot.

No, we’re there to experience a new culture. We’re there to meet more than just the protagonist, we’re there to see the kind of world that only the author could dream up.

We want to explore big ideas, such as the Trappist system that was just discovered by NASA. How many people are already imagining what it might be like to live there?

I certainly know I am.

But then, I did the same thing with Gliese – which is about 20 light years away from Earth and has several little planets orbiting it.

Gliese became the “shadow of the Big Bad” for my book Tapped. Rather than Earth being the host of civilization, I moved humanity to Gliese and made Earth a backwater town.

I have plans for Gliese. Big plans. Epic plans that I’m excited to implement in the coming novels. (And with Trappist just being discovered and all, you can bet I’ll be finding a way to nudge them into the Tapped series too.)

But beyond exploring new places, novels are also supposed to highlight the complexities of human nature. We read them to help us understand ourselves and the world around us. We just get to do it while jumping from planet to planet or befriending a dragon.

The texture of our stories is what makes them memorable. Harry Potter would not be nearly as memorable without Hogwarts and its talking paintings, moving stairwells, and history. Sure, we got a story about good vs. evil, but we got on broomsticks and with wands.

So how do you create this texture in a novel without info-dumping or making the book so long nobody will dare pick it up?

Well … I can tell you what I do.

I write the first draft.

And I don’t think about how long it is. I just write it. Anything and everything. Flashbacks, lengthy info-dumps, whatever I need to understand the depth of my own story.

And then … I edit.

 

Character Building

So I’ve been talking a lot about all this world building stuff and it occurs to me that the creation of character is intimately involved in this process. Elizabeth Bennett would not be the character so many women love if not for her house full of sisters, her loud mother, and her bookworm of a father.

Nor would she be the poised, respectful woman that we know if not for the society in which she was brought up.

Claire Fraser from the Outlander series would not be the character we enjoy if she hadn’t survived WWII as a nurse. Nor do I think she could have survived half as well in Jamie Fraser’s life without that experience.

Last week I discussed how I was using both my antagonist and my protagonist to help form the political spectrum of my upcoming fantasy novel Swans. I have a series of questions that I pose regarding how much or little power each of the characters have, where they got that power, and how they can use it.

That’s all plot and world building.

To understand the character, I have to ask the question of why they would or would not use said power.

Example:

Antagonist – Why is he pushing for slavery laws? Beyond what he can gain monetarily, why is he alright with the concept of people owning people?

Well, these two societies have been at war before. He’s seen first hand what can happen when two ultimately similar cultures come to blows and in his mind, keeping one culture enslaved is the lesser of two evils.

What does this tell me as the author?

It tells me he’s a veteran. It tells me he’s lost a lot of people he cared about. And it tells me he never fully approved of the marriage between his cousin (the King) and the Arundan Queen. Which means he has no qualms killing my hero and squashing any claim the Arundan people might have to the throne because, in his eyes, it’s the only way to preserve his own way of life and his own people.

It also tells me that this society is going to have a lot of bitter, frightened people. The division between these two cultures is deep and painful. And it tells me that there will be historical sites, battlefields and such, in the landscape that my characters can cross.

Again, I start with my antagonist. This is a new process for me as I’ve almost always started with the protagonist and built everything around them, but I have to say that it is clearly working. I have a much, much better handle on the plot and what this story is truly about than I normally do at this point in the process.

For any authors out there, I’d highly recommend building from the antagonist first. Keep the protagonist and antagonist side by side in the process. Whatever you ask for one, you need to ask for the other to keep it balanced and, ultimately, to keep the story interesting.

World Building – Graphic Detail Edition #1

Right now the boys (one mine, one his friend who stayed over for the night) are fixing the cushions on my sofa. They made a fort to sleep in for the night and my living room was a mess of brown pillows and mismatched blankets that I had to step over to get to my computer. There’s also a plastic Bat-Cave sitting near my fake fireplace with the Millennium Falcon parked right next door.

All the evidence of a night well spent with two 7 year-old’s.

The world we live in is not static. There’s color and shape and the blatant trace of human contact embedded in our environment. And while there is something to be said about a writer allowing room for the reader’s mind to build a particular setting in their own imagination, these details are also integral to telling a story right.

We’ve all heard the “show, don’t tell” mantra told over and over again.

“I want to feel the ocean spray on my face!”

“Let me taste the apple! Don’t just tell me he bit into the apple!”

But I’m going to tell you to stop.

Don’t write hoping to make your reader feel the ocean spray, or taste the apple. These are not helpful in telling your story. It’s actually really distracting and can draw your reader right out of the story. And the last thing you want is for your reader to be jolted out of the story.

Instead, let’s alter that mantra; show what is affecting your character.

Your character walks into a room – what impacts them the most? What jolts them? Based on who they are, what would they notice first?

I’m going to use Megan Shepherd from my current WIP, Persona, as an example.

Early in the book she comes to the home of Victor Von Buren, a very austere Naval Captain. When writing the scene where she first enters his home I have to consider not one but two voices – Megan’s and Victor’s.

Even though Victor isn’t present, he has left his fingerprints on his home. So as Megan is wandering through different rooms (which, I confess, I might have been giving a slight homage to the Von Trapp family in Sound of Music) she is not only reacting to the room itself, she’s reacting to the man who lives there.

A writer’s job isn’t to just paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind, it’s to make that picture important. It doesn’t matter if they feel ocean spray on their face, what matters is the emotion that can be hooked onto it.