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Category: Characters

Non-player characters (NPCs) in your fiction

Posted in Characters

Sometimes, in our zeal not to inflict too many characters on our readers, we forget that characters-as-scenery still have a role to play.

The image above is one of my real-life non-player characters, as rendered by a simple MidJourney AI image prompt [MidJourney has some challenges rendering animals….]. He's a shrew, and his name is Samson.

Let me explain…

We currently live in an 1812 stone and log cabin at the the top of a hollow embedded in the rise of the Allegheny plateau, part of a large bit of land we bought for hunting & vacation back in the '80s. (More details here and here and elsewhere.) The original settler's cabin had a single main room downstairs built into the hillside with a fireplace for living/cooking, and three rooms above for sleeping. A small plumbing/furnace extension in the 20th c. added a cellar/pantry below and another bedroom above.

Old buildings like this are, shall we say, semi-permeable to the local wildlife. Squirrels roll walnuts between the walls, snakes take advantage of knotholes in the logs, and mice dare our traps to spend the winter. Mostly they don't make their presence obvious, and we indulge in a fair amount of live and let live (undermined by occasionally disapproving cats who take matters into their own paws).

Recently we've added a member to our volunteer menagerie. A floorboard in the main room downstairs has broken at the corner and exposed a matchbook-sized hole to whatever ground-level original dirt or flooring surface lies below. And, so, a shrew has come to join us.

Now, a shrew has got about the fastest metabolism of any mammal. You never see one standing still, just blurring by at high speed, and since they're the size of a mouse or smaller, if you blink you'll miss them. We're sure of our identification, because the first one ran through the main room from the fireplace corner to the dogs' water dish in the adjacent cellar. We once carelessly left the water level too low for her to get out, and she drowned (providing the evidence). We lamented the unintended death (and named her Ophelia), but soon she was replaced by a successor who is providing us with a great deal of amusement.

You see, this one has taken up some form of construction. He zooms from the floorboard hole to the back of our cheap modern electric stove and proceeds to make an astonishing amount of noise involving metal and scrabbling (and jackhammers and god knows what) — this, despite the oven still being in use periodically, to no apparent effect.

And now comes the point of this post… We want to know what this shrew is doing. We've invented a rationale (he's building bookcases under the oven to hold his comic collection – hence the image above) and we've given him a name (Samson) in recognition of his prodigious activities.

We had to do that — this is a critter with agency whom we encounter on a regular basis. We had to create a story for him. It's what people do. It's beside the point whether the story is true or not.

Well, your fictional POV characters would do the same with the people and other critters in their environment, wouldn't they? That's what struck me; unlike some of my fantasy worlds with limited numbers of onstage people, my current WIP is set in a faux-regency urban environment, and that means that my characters would naturally see all sorts of people all the time — the beggar on a corner, the tailor's assistant sweeping his master's steps every morning, the gentleman who tips his hat to you because you have come to recognize each other on your daily walks, the mangy cat who shows up looking for a handout. None of these are named characters, and none will provide a POV, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be there, and that your real POV characters don't notice and speculate about them casually, the way we all do. Add them to your fictional world's environment and make it seem more like real life (and less of a vacuum).

Switching POV (Points of View)

Posted in Characters

Long-form storytelling is such a big project sometimes that it's helpful to be reminded of some of the mechanics underlying even the most basic of story forms. Comic strips are some of the simplest — consider the physical size limitations, just a few frames, or even only one.

In these short forms the basics really stand out.

The image above encapsulates an entire history of the interaction of two famous characters (permanent war, which the scheming coyote with his technical gadgets always loses to the roadrunner's effortless and almost magical evasions and reversals). Because of that long history, we can read the above image as the ending of a story with a reversal of the usual outcome.

One image, and a long history of character roles/knowledge on the part of the viewer, and we know most of the story already.

Think of all the prior knowledge we had to bring to that image — we did most of the work ourselves. We had to already know they were antagonists, that the coyote almost always lost, that the coyote's means were usually elaborate mechanical devices.

A writing prompt

Posted in Characters, and Plot

I was just cruising through book ads in my email, and came across this one (names X'd, since the identity of author/title are not relevant):

Bxxxxx is destined from birth to become a warrior, despite his farmer’s life. But when the Hillmen kill his family and annihilate his clan, he now has the opportunity to avenge those who he loved.

Bxxxxx must survive endless hordes of invading Hillmen and magic-wielding sidhe, aided by only a band of shifty mercenaries, and an ancient bronze sword.

Failure means his family and clan go unavenged. Victory will bring glory to Bxxxxx and his ancestors.

So, bog-standard sort of fantasy, and nothing wrong with that. It's just that I was in a hurry going through my morning emails (and I'm not getting any younger) and misread it, and was startled by the mistake into a reread.

I read:

“a band of shifty mercenaries, and an ancient bronze sword”


“a band of mercenaries, and a shifty bronze sword.”

Wow! Now that's a lot more intriguing. Not just an intelligent sword, but one that clearly has its own motivations and will, and probably an unreliable relationship with Bxxxxx.

In fact, I wonder if the sword is a companion for Bxxxxx or just a foil (sorry), or if instead the sword is really the hero, using Bxxxxx to achieve its aims.

Or, depending on the sketchy grammar in the ad (“who” vs “whom”), maybe the sword isn't morally dubious — maybe it actually shifts its form…

The possibilities spiral out from there, don't they? And they all seem like a potential improvement.

Targeting a specific audience

Posted in Readers, and Romance

Learn from the experts, I always say. You know who the experts are for this purpose? The writers of Romance.

Something like 50% of all fiction sold is in the Romance genre. The most successful writers in this genre (and some are very successful) are specialists in volume and audience targeting.

Generally speaking, Romance readers are high-volume consumers of their favorite authors. Several books/week is not unusual. No one author can produce enough to satisfy them (though many are incredibly prolific), but they can be confident of selling each new work to their standard audience, which is a great motivator to pin down exactly what their audience wants.

The good news is that there are scores of romantic setups that work for one person or another, and for minute romantic specialties. The bad news is — disappoint one of your readers by not satisfying her (and it's usually “her”) expectations, and she may be gone forever.

The bottomless well of British humor

Posted in Characters

There's no question — P. G. Woodhouse does it best.

His well-honed diction for the innumerable stories of those bumbling idiots (by and large) who came up through the English public school system to graduate (or not) as members of the nominal Drones Club have been delighting readers for decades.

Bertie Wooster and his keeper (um, valet) Jeeves are the best known players in this sunny world of nothing-ever-goes-permanently-wrong. Bertie and his fellow drones while away their time concocting preposterous schemes and shrinking from their occasional responsibilities.

But Wodehouse is just one of a great many witty authors utilizing this trope of companions in feckless idiocy. One of my other favorites is Georgette Heyer (1902-1974). It doesn't matter whether or not you like the romance genre — Jane Austen's “Comedies of Manners” launched a century-later fashion in Regency romance and Heyer is by a very great margin far the best author of these. The characters and the plots are light and amiable, the period research is impeccable, and her language is a delight. Instead of the Drones Club, we have a class of rich, young men referred to as Corinthians, among other things.

Parcheesi as a model for character emotions

Posted in Characters

Let's see if I can make sense of something I've recently observed.

If you don't know the rules of the game of Parcheesi, don't worry about it. There are variants, but I'll just stick with one version. Here's the part that matters to this discussion:

  • You have up to 4 moveable pieces that have to go from a starting point all the way around the board and into the center. If they are “killed” (an enemy piece lands on their space), they are knocked back to the beginning.
  • You have up to 3 opponents trying to do the same thing first from their starting point.
  • You can send someone else's piece back to the beginning by moving to its space, unless the space is protected.
  • Some spaces are protected and pieces on them can't be knocked back to the beginning.
  • A space can hold no more than two pieces. Any space with two pieces is a barrier and can't be passed.
  • You roll a die (in some versions two dice, but we'll stick with one for this example) to determine how many spaces you can move one of your pieces. You can't refuse to move. If it is not possible to move that many spaces, you lose your turn.

Whew! So, here's the stuff that guides your thinking every time you take a turn…

  • When you roll the die, you have a 1/6 chance of any particular value.
  • You have to pick which of your pieces to move (and not all may be moveable that many spaces).
  • You have to pay attention to where the other players' pieces are, in case they roll a value that could eliminate one of yours.
  • You have to be conscious of which players are closer to a final win in case you can preferentially knock one of their pieces back or block them.
  • You have to consider which of your own pieces are closer to the end (and have come the longest distance), making it more expensive to lose them.

Now, like all games that include chance as an element (unlike, say, chess), the emotions of gambling manifest. Before you roll the die, there's an ideal outcome, and before your opponent rolls, there's a worst possibility. So, at every die roll you find yourself cheering for one outcome and dreading others.

Stories that never grow old

Posted in Heroes, Plot, and Villains

Never be afraid to revive the old tales (poor monstrous Polyphemus, about to be blinded by Odysseus after a hard day's work shepherding). They've survived this long for a reason.

How do we change from feral infants to moral men? By learning the stories of our culture, and we've had stories for as long as we've had language.

We tell each other stories of how cleverness can beat strength, of how strength can defeat evil, of how evil can seduce weakness, of how weakness can learn cleverness.

We learn the many ways that we can make wrong choices, at the peril of our lives or our souls, and how we can rescue ourselves and others from those choices. Or fail.

Humor, stoicism, endurance, discipline, sacrifice, kindness, temptation — stories give us a handle on all these things.

The foundational religious texts are just, after all, more stories teaching the same things. The existence of the actual deities are the excuse for the stories, but the stories themselves are what strike to the core of how to communicate the morality of the lessons.

Morality is essential to humans — we can't escape it. If we don't imprint on a worthwhile cultural template, then we'll imprint on a bad one. In terms of education, “reading, writing, and, ‘rithmetic” are secondary to language and morality. If we don't learn moral codes of behavior, moral ways of life, well… the rest matters very little.

And we learn how to behave by the stories we hear. Religious or philosphical or ethical justification for those behaviors comes later.

So tell good stories — stories we can learn from. Stories we need to hear.

How espousing a cause can cripple a novel

Posted in Characters, Science Fiction, and Setting

Ann Leckie's award-winning trilogy (2014-2015) (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy) are well-written and interesting classic Science Fiction.

With one caveat — she is so concerned about making a modern cultural point (“what if there were no real differences between men and women”) that she undermines one of the tropes of her world.

While I don't agree with her premise (“what if there were no differences…”), I don't object to her use of it — these sorts of “what-ifs” have always been part of SFF. But let's look at how she instantiates it.

To begin with, the primary language uses only an ungendered pronoun, so everyone is referred to as “her”. This may seem, um, “brave and stunning”, but actually English is already headed there with the use of “they” as a genderless singular (e.g., “If anyone comes early, give them a drink.”) So, while the gimmick is a bit irritating, it doesn't really matter.

Here's what matters…