This post is partially inspired by John Gwynne’s epic fantasy series The Faithful and the Fallen. I’ve read three books of the series, and overall I have enjoyed them quite a bit. If I had to make comparisons for the series, I’d say it’s what you would get if you crossed the Belgariad with Game of Thrones. Somehow, that mix works. I recommend it for those of you who want to see a modern update on a more classic type of fantasy.
But there’s one aspect that trips me up a bit as I’m reading it. There is a significant amount of point-of-view time given to characters that quite simply are not sympathetic at all. Some of them are still interesting characters, but I don’t care what happens to them (other than perhaps rooting for them to die). This results in an uneven reading experience for me, and when I’m reading these chapters, I simply want to get back to the characters I like.
This brings me to a larger question. What are readers looking for? Would people rather read about sympathetic characters or unsympathetic characters who are still interesting? As a reader myself, I don’t mind occasional time spent in the head of an interesting but unsympathetic character. But then there are books that take this to an extreme. An example of this, for me, would be The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker. The characters are all complex and interesting people, but I couldn’t stand reading about them because I honestly wouldn’t have cared if they all died.
On the other hand, you can give me a flat character who’s sympathetic, and while I might not love the story I’m reading, I’ll still root for them. Maybe that makes me a heretic. After all, it seems these days that the trend is to write about antiheroes. For me, antiheroes are good as a spice. Maybe you have one or two point-of-view characters who fit that description. In Gwynne’s series, it still generally works because you don’t spend nearly as much time with the unsympathetic characters. A lot of that time is meant to reveal what the antagonists are up to, which can be difficult to establish when you’re using third-person-limited point of view.
This same issue has been my biggest struggle with some of the bigger fantasy series out there (A Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan, The First Law trilogy, The Broken Empire, etc.). I don’t hate the books by any means. I see what others like in them. But when I read them, I don’t enjoy them nearly as much as something by Brandon Sanderson or Jim Butcher, authors whose characters may not be as complex. But I like them.
In my own writing, I have to be careful to strike a balance between what I enjoy as a reader and writer and what other readers will enjoy. Most of the time, it isn’t too hard. I know my audience is more Brandon Sanderson readers than George RR Martin readers. My books have a fair amount of violence in them, but they wouldn’t be considered Grimdark by any stretch of the imagination.
Modern fantasy has influenced me in some ways, however. I will admit that I kill my fair share of characters (perhaps some GRRM influence there). But I still write in a world where there’s at least a fundamental theme of hope, where heroes screw up but still try to do the right thing. And, yes, I do sprinkle in a few antiheroes (and anti-villains–they’re so much fun to write).
So I’d say I strike a balance on this spectrum. I want my characters to be both interesting and sympathetic. Of the two, I’d say I lean more toward sympathetic, but I don’t want to write boring characters either. It can be a delicate balance, and to make my characters interesting, I make sure that they make mistakes. A perfect hero is a boring hero. Flaws are what make us (and characters) human. And yet I believe a hero can be flawed without being a terrible person.
Now I fear I’m rambling on. What are your thoughts on this question?
In the plotter vs. “pantser” (one who writes by the seat of their pants) debate, I used to be firmly on the plotter side. I’m generally a structured person, or at least more structured than a lot of creative types. I’m an Electrical Engineering student in addition to being a writer, so I use a lot of my left brain.
Because of that, I always thought I should outline my books. At times, this has worked for me, but I’ve discovered more and more that I get my best ideas as I’m in the flow of the story. Outlining is an entirely different process. I don’t quite feel the story the same way, and my ideas are less inventive.
This becomes especially clear when I write series. The farther I get into writing a series, the more likely I am to deviate from my original outline. I got to the point where I was doing this so much that I decided I should just throw out the outline altogether.
However, that might be too extreme of a response. I don’t quite make up everything as I go. I form a mental outline. I know where I want to get, but if I discover something more interesting along the way, I’m perfectly happy to alter my mental plans.
This can lead to some inconsistencies between books, and that’s part of the reason I’ve decided that I will generally write an entire series before publishing any of it. That way, if I introduce something important in book 3 or 4, I can go back and throw in some hints toward it in book 1. A lot of planners are able to do this kind of thing because they outline the entire series in advance. I’ve tried, and it simply doesn’t work like that for me.
When I was considering trade publishing, I always had issues with throwing away the outline because trade publishing tends to work differently. You rarely write the entire series before publishing any of it. I know Michael J. Sullivan (author of the very good Riyria Revelations, Riyria Chronicles, and Legends of the First Empire series) does this. But he did start out self-publishing.
Now that I’ve decided to go with self-publishing, I can write my series however I want, and writing them this way helps me to give you a plot with a lot more interesting twists and turns.
That’s not to say I throw away the outline completely. I’ve been known to outline a few chapters ahead of where I am. That can help me write more quickly during my writing sessions because I’m not figuring out what’s going to happen next. More often, my mental outline is good enough to carry me through, and I’m able to figure out the details as I write.
The key thing as a writer is finding a process that works for you. This process works for me right now. In the future, I may decide to go back to outlining. I don’t think you should ever get stuck thinking there’s only one way to write that works for you. Writing is a continual process of experimentation, and every story is going to have different needs.
As a fantasy writer, I am naturally a fan of the genre in all its forms. Books, movies, video games–basically, if it’s fantasy, I’ll probably be a fan of it. But that raises an important question. As a fantasy writer, should you focus on books alone, or should you branch out into other areas for inspiration?
Personally, I think there’s a lot to be gained from fantasy video games. But I could be biased in that. Part of the reason I got into writing fantasy was from playing some of my favorite Square RPGs as a kid on the Super Nintendo. Those games helped me fall in love with the genre (and then I read Harry Potter, and I was doomed to be a fantasy fan and writer for the rest of my life).
One of the biggest places where video games help me is in crafting my settings. The best video games these days, in all their beautiful graphical glory, depict some absolutely stunning settings. I’m a pretty visual person, but I would have trouble coming up with some of these settings on my own. However, now that I’ve seen these beautiful images, I can use them as inspiration and make them into something that’s all my own.
Some of the best story-driven games also feature characters you fall in love with. The great thing about these games is that they are usually forced to show instead of tell. Generally, in a video game, you do not see a character’s internal thoughts. Everything must be conveyed through dialogue and visuals. And some games do this quite well. For example, I recently played the remastered version of Final Fantasy X. I felt such a strong connection to the characters in this one, and the story had me in tears a few times.
When it comes to stories, though, you have to be careful about how much inspiration you take from video games. In an RPG, you face a lot of minor battles, which are interesting in that format. In a novel, however, you cannot have your characters fighting Slimes every two pages. That’s going to get old very quickly. If you’re going to have battles, you have to be careful about which ones you show, or you’ll risk making your story repetitive.
Then we come to the all-important question. How much time should you spend playing fantasy video games? These games can use up a lot of your time, and if you’re not careful, you’ll spend your time playing games instead of writing.
As a writer, you should always focus on your writing. Whatever your writing goals are, it’s important that you hit them with consistency, and if playing video games is using up too much of your time, you’ll have to cut back.
When it comes to writing, I’ve heard from many writers that the biggest thing you need for productivity and longevity as a writer is the ability to write consistently. You don’t write only when you’re inspired. Even when you don’t feel like it, you sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard (or typewriter or longhand, if you’re so inclined). It doesn’t matter how you get those words down. Just get them down.
I recently wrote about setting word count goals. I’m not sure I’ll make my 50,000 words a month goal, but that’s okay. I’m writing consistently and productively. I’ve hit at least 1,000 words 10 of the last 11 days. Over that time, I’ve written over 18,000 words. Per day, it doesn’t seem like a lot of words, but those words add up. At this write, I should manage three books in a year without too much of a problem. Of course, there’s also the revision process, which I need to get better about.
For those of us who are writers, word count goals are a love them/hate them kind of thing. We love them when they remind us to keep our butts in the chair and our fingers on the keyboard. We hate them when we feel like we can’t ever reach them.
There are many benefits to word count goals. You see this from something like National Novel Writing Month (or as it’s more commonly known, NaNoWriMo). A lot of writers take advantage of this month to actually finish their stories.
However, it has its drawbacks. Some writers cannot write at the 1,667 words per day required to hit that goal and do so while writing something that isn’t complete crap.
Thankfully, I’ve never had that problem. I believe I’ve finished early every time I’ve ever done NaNoWriMo. But it is a problem for a lot of people, and what’s the point of writing a novel if it’s so bad you’re just going to scrap it? You have to find some middle ground.
And that means you have to set some kind of goal. It could be a daily word count goal or perhaps a monthly word count goal. That’s what I’m leaning toward at the moment. Due to an unpredictable work schedule and varying amounts of schoolwork, it is difficult for me to set aside the same amount of time every day for writing.
That means that there may be days where I write nothing or crank out just a few words to keep the creative juices flowing. On the other hand, there may be also days when I hit 5000 or more words. In fact, I wrote over 12,000 in one day when I was finishing up my World in Chains series.
The point I’m trying to make is this. Come up with a word count goal you can actually stick to. In some ways, it’s like dieting. Most diets don’t last because people take on more than they can handle. That’s not the way to do it with word counts either. You’re just going to end up resenting the time you spend writing, and if you aren’t enjoying yourself, what’s the point?
So that’s the key. Find out what word count goal you’re comfortable hitting (whether it’s daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly). Then hold yourself accountable to that goal. It sounds simple stated like that, but it isn’t always easy to put into practice.
Let’s hope I can do so myself because I need to get better about writing consistently.