On Writing: Flawed Characters

One topic that I find particularly interesting, but happen to be particularly crap at is Character Flaws.

Good or Bad Diet Choices |

The reason I say this about myself is I do what I suspect many writers do, and kind of just generate characters in a sort of pantser fashion – not necessary lacking in flaws but perhaps lacking in well planned or designed flaws.

As many of you will know, most experts in fiction theorize that the best characters have one specific fatal flaw, something that isn’t just pertinent to the plot, but in fact the plot revolves around the character resolving. Whether that is a happy story about a character learning and growing beyond their flaw, a tragedy about said flaw finally getting the better of them and/or solidifying and becoming worse, or very rarely an exploration of how the character manages to go through their story without changing one bit.

One issue I think is that there can be a bit on confusion between ‘flawed’ characters and the characters fatal flaw or ‘wound.’ I actually want to focus on the former for this post…

The difference may seem like splitting hairs, but hear me out here. [:)] A flawed character is essentially someone that doesn’t risk being a Mary Sue, or turning a reader off for being unrelatably or annoying perfect. But the exact nature of a flawed character is kind of hard to pin down, like, do they just need to have some faults sprinkled about them to be interesting? Or just need to be as bad as the book’s readers to stay in touch?

In thinking about I came up with a weird realization. The issue isn’t exactly about how a character should be, but the nature of the author/story/reader relationship. Generally the goal of a writer is to be invisible, or at least mostly hidden until rare moments of impressing the reader. One of the most common ways that writers unintentionally reveal themselves is excessive or obvious moralizing or preaching.

Characterization is one way this happens.

You see, there really isn’t such a thing as a perfect character, not really. What there is, is a character that the writer obviously thinks is perfect. When as readers we get annoyed at an apparently perfect specimen, what I think really gets under our skin isn’t so much a character without a flaw, its that they are being portrayed as not having flaw when really there is no such thing.

For example, the classic boy-scout Superman. Superman is often a painfully dull character, not only for his seemingly endless invincible powers, but his even more endless boy scout morals. Some writers however, manage to pen great stories about Supe’s by finding moral or situational conundrums that challenge the hero and thereby test his character. It’s not so much whether Superman is great or not, its how a writer shows their skill at setting up a challenge for the character or not.

If writers don’t setup a challenge, if they send invincible warriors into easily won battles, or pit Sherlockian detectives against simpleton criminals the issue isn’t actually that the characters are too perfect, its that the writers have shown their hand in gushing over their prowess in what are effectively Straw Man situations. It is in part either an issue with the character or the situation not being challenging, but the problem, I believe, is that it feels like listening to the author’s ideas about perfection.

If my thesis holds true the issue isn’t trying to slap some flaws on your characters, but rather to make sure you are exploring THE flaws of your character, e.g. don’t make your heroic and handsome superhero a secret Pokemon Go addict to try and round them out, challenge the idea of heroic handsome superheroes.

Hope this one made sense – getting a little bit circular and winding reasoning on this one!

What are your thoughts on character flaws?

and… How are you holding up during the global pandemic?

On Writing: Handling Mythology

So I recently watched the 2019 reboot of Hellboy and scathing reviews aside there was an interesting aspect to it which kind of reminded me of my own first ever novel manuscript I done wrote.

One of the amateur elements of my work was trying to incorp just about every fantasy element I could think of, I had Werewolves, Paladins, Witches, a Manticore, Faeries and possibly a psychic. In the words of a professional editor I asked for feedback from “it was all a bit much” (2019 Hellboy is similar, it packed with such about every mythos you ever heard of but never feels settled on anything)

Mythology of course is pretty complex at the best of times, see below, but there are ways and means of doing it well, I think…

The Norse God Family Tree although Laufy and Farbauti are reversed..!

All or Nothing

What I’ve observed if there really are two extremes of mythology being incorporated into writing, either its all go, or the world is gently introduced. Good examples of radical and far-reaching mythology can be seen in series like Pratchett’s Discworld, Harry Potter (sort of, Rowling is pretty original with a lot of her stuff). In these books pretty much everything is there and is there right from the get go. The trick I believe is in not trying to have any ‘normal’ included and ensuring there are some internal rules to prevent duex ex machina every second from something mystical.

On the other side are books like Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles, or True Blood where lots of other supernatural beasts are introduced, but pretty slowly over a series which primarily explores vampires.

I guess my point is that not so much that mythology has to be all or nothing, but rather that each extreme requires different world-building and characterization. I think one reason Hellboy 2019 jarred was because there was just a ridiculous amount of magic stuff going on, but it was trying to depict a real world with hidden underground magic stuff (hard to pull off when giants are real and in Great Britain).

Characterizing not Proselytizing

The other tricky element to pull off is making the mythology relevant to the character. I say tricky because its often presented as an MC being some sort of chosen one, or lynchpin to a world-ending scheme which seems relevant to the character, but I’m thinking its more about making the myths relevant to character goals and actions beyond just being excuses for action and special effects.

Like many writers I love mythology, however I suspect many of us get caught up in showing off our well-read myth chops rather than making relevant stories…



Do you guys have any examples of mythology done great in writing? How about terrible?

(how about have any of you seen the latest Hellboy, what did you think?)


On Writing: Cognitive Bias

I have a slightly different topic to discuss today!

Something which is of immense interest in psychology and has really taken off as a topic for fascination in the mainstream is cognitive biases. Biases have a lot of relevance in writing especially when it comes to editing and feedback and I think discussing them can be useful in general anyway (ok maybe I’m just geeking out in psychology but whatever)

Cognitive biases sound like irrationality incarnate but its more accurate to say that they are essentially identified ways in which human beings think and behave that are not purely rational. Ironically for many centuries human beings were assumed to be purely rational creatures who, however it is far more accurate to describe us as intelligent beings who are capable of rationality but its not the default setting.

It’s really important not to slip into a defensive perspective and assume that this is a bad thing. The book Predictably Irrational is amazing on the topic and this is weird to get one’s head around, but being less than rational is actually a good thing. First of all life and the world is horribly/wonderfully irrational and our brains need to help us survive in it by making quick useful decisions – we’re not pulling out our pros and cons notebook every time we cross the road. Second many of our biases actually aid in making useful decisions, its only in certain situations where suddenly people appears to be terrible decision makers that cognitive bias becomes a major problems (see: all of politics)

Anyway there are tonnes of different quirks and traits that have been identified as common or universal biases inhuman thinking, but I think four in particular are useful to consider as writers.


Is an unusual bias, like many it may seem not that flawed at first. This is the tendency to incorporate prior information into our judgments, which sounds reasonable at first until you realize this occurs more around temporal proximity (stuff that happens immediately before) regardless of whether it is relevant or not.

Anchoring bias is used all the time in marketing, for example showing consumers original prices next to discounted (you should not buy things based on how discounted they are but by whether their price is fair at all). Again this bias makes a lot of sense because how else are we to make sense of the world but by linking things together? But the problem often occurs when we don’t realize how we’ve been influenced by unrelated material.

How does this link to writing?

Anchoring bias is important to consider because as a creator you as a writer will be influenced by a whole raft of factors in any given moment, which is great really for creativity, but its important to be aware of the anchoring effects of any given point. Especially during editing you may be unduly influenced by the words you’ve already laid down (which is a common theme in this post) the coffee you just drank before sitting down or the last work you read.

Now being influenced by stuff really is kinda the creative process, but what I think is worth considering is your readers will largely be working through your story as is, they will in effect be anchored by whatever words you put down, so as a writer/editor you want to be considering what the reader will be experiencing as they read your words not what you experienced as a writer to get there.

Sunk Cost

The Sunk-Cost fallacy is such an entrenched way of thinking its hard to sometimes accept that its an irrational bias. The Sunk-Cost fallacy is the perception that the amount of effort, resources or other energies that we’ve already put into a decision is important in whether that is the right decision. That is our ‘costs’ increases the value of something.

In terms of emotional experience his isn’t necessarily illogical, as we don’t want to see our energies go to waste, and we want to achieve the goal we perceive we’re working towards. Where the bias sets in is failing to see that emotional need isn’t relevant to whether that decision is correct or not (and perhaps should be abandoned).

Sunk Cost fallacy is common in financial decisions (including gambling) and is sometimes referred to as “throwing good money after bad”. For example folks might lose x amount of dollars gambling and find themselves thinking that the best decision is to continue gambling to try and earn that x back, when logic suggests that’s a good way to lose 2x dollars.

The sunk-cost fallacy can be seen in all manner of situations. Bosses push dud work projects because they perceive the efforts already made as wasted if they give up, people consider how long they have been in a bad relationship to be a good reason to stay (let’s maybe not dive into that one).

When is comes to writing Sunk-Cost fallacy is huge, because it related to all those tricky decisions around which projects to pursue, ‘killing your darlings’ and accepting feedback or editing suggestions. Let me assure you, a reader does not care how long you laboured over a scene if its a terrible piece of writing for your book.

Even though I know all this I still find the concept of how much a draft might have to change daunting once I’ve actually written something. It’s kind of a combo of different biases because its not that I’m so arrogant I think my piece is perfect immediately, its more that its hard to even perceive major changes once words are down on paper(micro-soft word).

The important part of sunk-cost fallacy is realizing that sunk costs create a powerful emotional reaction that we should acknowledge and attend to BUT realize that reaction does not factor into an objective decision about the best direction for your writing!

Backfire effect

The Backfire effect is a strange one that is an important element of combating the above two bias. When I first heard about the backfire effects I was completely flummoxed, I didn’t believe it. The backfire effect is the stronger the argument given against our point of view the more we dig our heels in and stick to our point of view. How does that even work?

Yet the more I thought about it the more I saw it – internet forums are rife with this, people endlessly arguing opposing points, sometimes with incredible detail and passion and not getting anywhere with their opponents. For myself I realized the backfire effect is totally real – if someone presents a strong argument against my point of view, nine times out of ten that galvanizes me to work harder to backup what I believe.

I’m getting my psychology geek on again, but this fascinating effect relates to how arguments make us feel, not just being irrational twits (ok a little of that). Basically when a powerful argument against us is made, we understandably feel tense, possibly frustrated. There is a deep irony here that our inclination then is to seek to reduce our discomfort by confirming our own view point.

(the oddest thing about this is that the most persuasive arguments tend to be flawed but relatable thesis, rather than 10 pages of purely logical evidence based argument – this is because people’s defensiveness isn’t triggered so they are more likely to reflect on your points and have their view swayed – the world is a strange place)

In case this common theme hasn’t become apparent, this relates to writing in that when you’re editing especially with feedback from others: the best feedback they give might in fact give you the worst emotional response and may ‘backfire’ making you double down on your original sunk-cost work.

Transparency illusion

This is a slightly different bias – that I have a tendency to report slightly incorrectly.  Transparency illusions relate to having difficulty understanding that what we know or experience isn’t as obvious to others. This can range from being annoyed at your partner not picking up on how you feel – to a really interesting one where once we know something its very difficult to see that knowledge as any other than obvious. For example try asking people a general knowledge question that you are sure they don’t know. It’s surprisingly hard (its a bit easier to ask incredibly specific or technical knowledge).

Transparency illusion is very important to consider when writing for detail and clarity. I am absolutely terrible at this element, its very easy to know what you mean by your writing (duh) and really hard to read over your own work with fresh eyes. I don’t really have a magical wand for this one, but I think this is why beta-readers and editors are extremely important – this is also why sometimes its useful to let a draft ‘sit’ for a while before re-writing as the break can help purge your brain of ‘what you knew you meant’ at the time of writing.

I’m pretty sure there are tonnes of other bias relevant to writing, luckily they also make good story fodder for finding character flaws or sources of tension!

What other biases interest you guys, and how do you think they relate to writing?


Image result for cognitive biases"

On Writing: Clarity

I’m reading Phillip Pullman’s Daemon voices, and one particular insight from his first essay/speech stood out to me.

He talks about clarity being supremely important for a writer, using the metaphor of a clear pool of water – the writing/water must be clear to show the reader whatever is going on at the bottom of the pool, which could be complex, confusing or mysterious despite the writing being crystal clear.

I think this is something that many writers have trouble with, certainly with my writing buddies I have trouble explaining to them the importance of clear writing even within a mysterious plot.

The confusion is that much writing appears to be obtuse, we’ve all heard of red herrings, unreliable narrators and tend to praise the ability of authors to imply meaning indirectly. So how does that all relate to clarity?

The trick is in the distinction between the writing and the content. No-one should ever be confused by what your writing is trying to say, they may well be confused by the content you present them but should never agonize over what you mean when you say words.

For example consider a scene within the much loved “A Song of Fire and Ice” (I’m going to be vague to prevent spoilers and errors as its been a while since I read it). In the scene one character lies mortally wounded, but imparting instructions to another pair of characters. The scene ends with the wounded man asking for “a favour”

Now in hindsight, and probably obvious to most people who aren’t dumb like me, the wounded man was asking the other character to put a swift end to their life, which they obliged. (I only realized this when the scene happened in the show and thusly ‘showed’ it happening) At no point in the narration was their any prose describing the character stabbing the other to end their life, it was very much something implied.

So in terms of content, pretty oblique right? Strongly relying on the reader correctly ascertaining the meaning of the dialogue “favour.” How does this fit in with the idea of clarity?

Well, while the scene relied heavily on reader understanding at no point was the writing unclear per se, nothing needed to be reread for understanding from a prose point of view.

I’m not 100% sure I’m being clear here (ironic much) but what I’m getting at this idea of what is OK to make a reader go “huh?” about and what isn’t. No reader should be left scratching their head to make sense of a sentence, whereas its generally acceptable, potentially desirable to leave a reading scratching their head because of a mystery within the story.

As I suggested earlier, I think that writers struggle to make this distinction between mysterious stories and problematic prose. Writers often seem to think that because prose is riddled with deeper meaning, it doesn’t matter if its actually immediately accessible. To me this is like a movie director not worrying that their set is poorly lit because they are filming a mystery thriller.

I like Pullman’s idea of writing needing to have ultimate clarity, even its the clarity to reveal something confusing, its like being precise with where you put the confusion.

Anyone else read this collection? Thoughts?

I’m looking forward to the rest of the pieces.


On Writing: Character Goals and Motivations

Kurt Vonnegut is attributed with the quote: “every character in a story should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water” 

And generally speaking this is advice much passed around, but in my typical style I want to dive a little deeper into this idea and try to understand why its so important for characters to have a goal and/or want something, glass of water or otherwise


First point is that there really isn’t too much more generally relatable for a character than wanting something. While the specifics can vary wildly (e.g. we might not relate exactly to suddenly finding out your a wizard and off to Hogwarts, but almost everyone relates to feeling out of place on first days of school). And almost all of us understand the roller coaster ride that is getting/not getting or fighting for what you want.

Having a character not want something is almost throwing the connection to the audience to chance, perhaps hoping the reader will bond with their characters over taste in music, or fashion choices.


A more tension filled point is that characters goals create a sense of dynamics and motion within a story. The instant you introduce a desire or a goal, you raise a number of questions: will they reach their goal? What will they do to get it? What happens if they are thwarted? Most importantly a goal creates a sense that the character cannot stand still, or perhaps more accurately a promise to the reader that this character is going somewhere.

Of course with multiple characters’ goals, this creates the playground with which the conflicts of the story become manifest. Will characters have similar goals that are mutually exclusive (e.g. love triangles) conflicting goals, or perhaps motivations which sit comfortably together but methods which clash?


Similar to the above point, character’s goals also provide a context for other events. Sure its sad when a characters beloved pet cat dies, but it creates even more impact when that cat is a familiar that the MC needs to help channel the spell they’ll use to save the world (OK a bit over the top but hopefully point made).

I always remember the scene in Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo gets horrifically stabbed by the Ring Wraith. Obviously its a terrifying, well written scene, however something that really makes the incident stick is the fact that Frodo (and the team) have an overarching goal, and while a stabbing is a fairly dramatic event anyway, the fact that the goal of the MC is thrown into turmoil adds so much more emotional impact to the event.

Framing the Story

Finally goals kind of are the story. I guess this is a matter of philosophy and perspective but in almost all respects, stories are about people getting what they want or not. Don’t get me wrong there is obviously literary studies galore to explore the exact nature of fiction , but really when you get down to it 99% of fictional tales are MC + goal(s) = what happened?

That is not to say that fictions is about one MC, and one goal and whether they achieve it. More often than not a story is about how that character’s goals change or are shaped by the events of the story, to go back to Lord of the Rings, Frodo originally just wants to help get the ring to Rivendell, then volunteers to be the Ring Bearer to Mordor, and as the story progresses his perspective on that goal changes from being a hopeful quest to a self-sacrificing nightmare journey that Frodo never recovers from.

Most books on writing will talk about the key plot points being decisions made by characters, and if those decisions aren’t about character goals then what are they?

I think there is a whole other post worth of material exploring the relationship between active and passive protagonists and whatnot, but I think I’ll leave this one here on Goals.


Happy New Years everyone!

What are your thoughts on character’s goals and motivations?



On Writing: What if readers think I share my hateful characters’ views?

Slightly different topic today – every now and again this sort of question pops up on writer’s forums, and while I don’t have every answer I figured I’d at least lay some thoughts down.

Image result for evil writer

By the way by hateful views, we’re kind of talking about various forms of bigotry, particularly racism and sexism – Dr Evil type villainy is not usually hard to deny as an author!

First of all I want to address whether this is a non-issue or not. The worry that one’s readers may assume that an authors hateful characters share said authors POV fits into the broader discussion about whether its OK to ‘offend’ people as a writer. A subject which to say is somewhat divided is probably an understatement – however many pundits express that offense is an inevitability, and at times a necessity of writing and effort to minimize or reduce this is needless worry.

I take a different stance to this, but perhaps not because of the obvious reasoning. Hateful characters seem like an important part of fiction, and they are going to make some uncomfortable. Authors, I think, should take steps to distance themselves from such views through their skill at writing. So not so much writers should worry about offense, but that they should take steps to ensure proper characterization.

Now I’m not saying that writers should be polishing their disclaimers, pre-writing interviews or adding footnotes to repudiate their characters. Rather I think that if they are playing with hateful views that some extra care and attention is giving to character voice to ensure that the views are firmly entrenched within story not without.

Like many points I make, this may seem like common sense, however fiction often prompts a number of assumptions, for example if a view-point is expressed by a protagonist its usually assumed to be a virtuous viewpoint. Well sort-of, one of the key parts of fiction is of course MC change, usually including some sort of learning experience. however even though this may be a change from a “wrong” viewpoint the whole change is assumed as normative or OK. That probably sounds like gobbledygook – what I mean is for example Frodo Baggins starts LoTR complaining its a shame Gollum wasn’t killed earlier in the piece, to becoming a strong pacifist, while a big change in POV occurs the whole character arc fits relatively comfortably as a viewpoint (e.g. Frodo doesn’t go from serial killing to passive or something).

All of this is a very long winded way of saying that characters viewpoints are important, and if not handled then writers should worry about hateful viewpoints being misconstrued, not necessarily because its “offensive” (highly sarcastic scare-quotes intended) or that an author should be too precious about what readers think of them, but more because strong hateful views will stand out to the reader and easily break immersion.

So pontificating aside here are a few thoughts on how to do that:

  • Ensure that character’s views are expressed in a characteristic way, that is probably embedded in a believable story consistent with their overall character. If a hateful character is setup as a stereotype or they are forced into situations which expose their nasty point of view it can feel contrived, which in turn makes a reader feel like the POV has taken precedence over story


  • Show don’t Tell. Sometimes the tritest advice is the most useful. As we know shown drama is more powerful than told, and its more likely to be interpreted as in story, rather than author’s opinion.


  • Make use of foils. I often struggle with this concept, but it makes sense. A foil is a contrast or  comparison character within the text that helps shape the narrative. A foil can be a character with opposing views, similar-but-different views (for example if your MC is mildly sexist, their best friend might be outright misogynistic). It needs to be said that this probably shouldn’t be too obvious or you might find yourself in another ‘author intruded into the story camp’ where the reader gets sick of the writer trying to hard to distance themselves! The use of foils though is creating perspective, again within the story, of the hateful POV if your story show-cases multiple stances a reader isn’t going to assume the writer holds any particular one of them.

So just to recap, my view is not that writers should be overly freaked out that readers will assume that they are their characters worst viewpoints, however we should freak out that our stories actually seem like stories and not extensions of ourselves. Whether a viewpoint is hateful or not we should worry about this, although it is likely that stark hateful views bring along some additional baggage requiring more TLC than more run-of-the-mill views.


Just my thoughts on a slightly different topic: are there any other strategies that need to be added?

What are your thoughts on handling characters hateful viewpoints?


On Writing: Killing your Characters

Now I have to confess after not posting for some months, and getting towards the end of my 3rd year posting on Lonely Power polls I can’t quite recall nor easily discover whether I’ve covered this topic before! Nevermind its hardly the worst sin to repeat oneself is it (perhaps on a long car trip)

Death Tarot Card Art Tarot Card The Death Card Poster No | Etsy

Today I’m looking at an interesting and controversial topic: killing your characters.

Ever since Game of Thrones got really famous, character death is a major discussion topic on writer forums everywhere. Unfortunately its a complex and tricky area of writing, and in my humble opinion one that can easily spurn or disappoint readers whether you err on the side of keeping your characters safe, or slay them too impulsively.

I think the first thing to discuss is that death has different significance depending on the genre and specific themes of your story. This may sound a little common sensical, but what I’m getting at is that a death in Game of Thrones has a different significance to 50 Shades of Gray. The most obvious point being that different genres bring different expectations and thus will create different impacts within said genres. Very, very broadly speaking any actiony adventure type tale, whether fantasy, thriller, or Sci-Fi the handling of death will dictate how harsh dangerous the world is, and determine the tensions that arise from deadly situations. Compare and contrast the difference between a GoT character facing off against an enemy and Harry Potter doing so. Admittedly the HP universe is pretty deadly for a kids series, but overall readers truly do fear for GoT character’s lives whereas most times you can have faith that Harry isn’t going to die any moment (so as a writer one has to draw tension from other outcomes, humiliation, loss, injury etc)

That’s quite a practical view of death in general, however doesn’t dive into the deeper aspects, the next layer I believe is the meaning of a death. While the following list is most definitely not exhaustive there are some pretty poignant reasons to have a character die:

  • to receive comeuppance
  • sacrifice
  • To churn development of other characters
  • As a major source of antagonism (consider the frequent death of characters who are lynch pins in preventing villains success)
  • Symbolism

As well as not being exhaustive, the above list is not mutually exclusive. A hero can sacrifice themselves in a way that also provides comeuppance.

I don’t want to be pretentious, however my thoughts are that merely having characters killed off to show how gritty your story is, or to shock readers will fall flat unless their is some more powerful plot points in play. Now this isn’t about being flashy or writerly, I don’t think its that readers are super demanding for meaning, it’s more that as a reader you’ll have a sense of a death being flat if the meaning isn’t there.

Finally the deepest layer is to acknowledge that death, being the flipside of life, and all stories ultimately being about ‘life’ is a necessary part of literature. Regardless of the exact plot points or story meaning death on its own is steeped in meaning and significance. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I’m trying to express myself here, but in the same way that a sex scene will be embarrassing and awkward if presented wrong, death too if handled poorly will not hit readers the right way. It’s not about high drama or purple prose, but understanding how character death sits with the genre, meaning, and culture that the novel is and lives in.

What are your thoughts on the topic?

Any examples of well written or terribly written death scenes?


On Writing: The Paradox of Endings

I’ve just finished reading James Scott Bell’s The Last Fifty Pages and something in particular struck me about his analysis of endings…

The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings by [Bell, James Scott]

that being the paradox of endings, at least for novel length pieces of work. You see, for the most part, if a reader has made their way all the way to the end of your book then you’ve succeeded. The beginning and middle have done the true heavy lifting of enticing and engaging your audience to deliver them to the final words of your story. Commercially they’ve bought your book (or never were going to) and artistically the reader has committed the time to your pages and characters.

And yet what do readers talk about after the book is over? I mean sure they’ll mention their highlights from the tale, but endings are what people mull over, discuss and debate and at times lambaste.

In my experience readers don’t typically appreciate the efforts of first pages, introductory acts or skillful handling of the middle of a novel – by which I mean they unconsciously enjoy the book, however they don’t put a book down and go “what about that cross-over to the second act?”

So whats going on here? Maybe its just recency, i.e. literally just the last bit of the book to stay in a reader’s memory, or perhaps its a cultural phenomenon to make a big deal about how a story ends.

I think the truth is something more complex. Endings are not just about tying up and resolving the lose threads of plot you’ve developed, nor are they just a writer trying to add a final flash to their prose. Endings I think are a final statement on the story, we all know that fiction can live a life of its own away from the writer, however an ending is like the author tugging on the lasso and bringing the story down to earth. “And they lived happily ever after” isn’t just a mildly cheesy and idealistic statement about post-fairy tale life, its a statement about the resolution of the story, which again paradoxically isn’t just a bold prediction that the characters lived out the rest of their days in happiness but also a statement about the rightness of the story and the characters that they tend lived ‘happily ever after.’

Imagine if you crammed “and they all lived happily ever after” in the concluding statements of classic Romeo and Juliet? I mean obviously there are some practical speed-bumps to this statement  (spoiler alert I guess) however it wouldn’t just be the fact that we know our leads are not even living that would put this ending at odds it would be the dissonance created by making such a statement about the story we’ve just heard. If Google is to be trusted the last lines of Romeo and Juliet are in fact:

“For never was story of more woe. Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Almost the opposite of happily ever after right?

Just to be clear, my point isn’t about the very last line of novels, but endings in general.

While I think there is an awful lot to cover about endings (and an awful lot that could be covered by better writers than me!) I found this paradox of endings quite interesting. James Scott Bell points out that readers unsatisfied with your ending won’t by future books, however I find most writerly advice about endings focus a lot on the sort of ‘practical’ side as it were, whether plot points are tied up, whether the MC has learnt something and so on. These are super important elements to get your head around, however as always I like to use this blog to explore the odd and untrodden elements of fiction.

So in conclusion, I think endings are important for many things, but one particular strange aspect that writers often don’t talk about. That being endings are a final thesis statement reflecting on the rest of the story. Twist endings for example throw our perspective of the tale into turmoil.

Thanks for reading – what are your thoughts on endings?



On Writing: Thoughts about World Building

The truth is I’ve been thinking about this topic for ages, but avoiding it for equally long. This is because to be perfectly honest I don’t know a lot about the finer points of World Building and there really is a tonne of resource out there already from people wiser than I.

Image result for a planet being built

But in my usual style I do have some random thoughts and insights that I though worth mentioning.

A good start might be to discuss what exactly is ‘World Building’ and address an interesting controversy of whether all books contain World Building or whether its a specific technique typically present in certain genres but not others.

While World Building seems pretty straightforward and obvious as a term I think as story component it’s place is somewhat confusing. For me World-Building exists as an extended part of the Setting, essentially as in implication of what ‘the world’ is like outside of any given scene. That is not to say that World Building isn’t present directly in the scenes but its how it sits with the reader, and the sense of this is what the world is like.

An example to make my gobbledygook clearer – contrast two books with similar basic names: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Emma Donoghue’s Room. Almost every scene of The Road is desolate and horrible, and every effort is made to communicate that this is what the world is like now, so not only are individual scenes constructed to present this Setting, its strongly designed to create a sense of a world that is the same. In Room, the setting is a claustrophobic and horrifying situation where child and their mother are trapped in said Room. Part of the tension of the story is the unknown of the wider world, and the design of the story is not to imply or describe the wider world beyond the setting to maintain the intense feel of the setting.

What I’m trying to say is that different stories have different World-Building needs. Not every story creates a sense of the wider world within its tale, and this is OK but the way I would phrase it, is not that some stories don’t have World-Building but that the focus of the story is on the immediate settings of the characters, and the implications of the wider world are less significant.

So why is World Building considered so important for certain genres?

This is where things start to get really tricky. I’m going to start with Epic Fantasy as this is where people usually talk about World Building, but I think there are a few things going on. First of all I think there is a weird amount of pressure in the Fantasy Genre to ‘World Build’. This has created an unusual backfire effect where every author and their dog are trying their best to come up with the most epic world ever, kind of making World-Building a bit trite and overdone, in that way its almost just a trope for Fantasy, meaning that readers would find it weird if a Fantasy story didn’t contain World Building elements. Equally Fantasy tends to require World Building to support suspension of disbelief. Trying to tell a story of dragons and magic in the ‘real world’ creates all sorts of double takes. Harry Potter managed to pull off a World where the magic community existed in secret alongside the ‘real-world’ but I feel like it was a challenge.

But World Building isn’t just restricted to Epic Fantasy, Historic Fiction requires a different sort of World Building Technique, where the author communicates an authentic (but still purely fictional) sense of a past time. Even contemporary fiction creates a ‘World’ for us even if it is being sold as ‘real life.’

Some common pitfalls:

In discussing all that, I think its worth mentioning some common problems with World Building. The main issue being a contrary sort of positioning of this fictional element, you want to create a sense that your characters exist within a world, yet too much focus of the narrative on said world and not the action of the scene will often ruin both. For me the trick is about character reactions. The way that characters navigate the scenery tells the reader about the World. To go back to a previous example, Harry Potter’s reactions contrasted with his experienced friends helps create the Wizarding World for the reader. The way Gandalf teaches Frodo about Middle Earth as they journey through it creates a strong sense of World.

That said always recognizing what is harder to believe for the reader and planning how to introduce fantastical elements is super important. I’ll never forget a ridiculous fantasy story I was reading and eventually put down – there were numerous problems but one hilarious one was the author had set up a gritty Game of Thrones/Gladiator type setting where a couple of characters escaped a tyrant’s city. Once they were outside the city walls one character was like “right I’ll just call my gryphon.” Up until that point there had been no suggestion that gryphons or any other similar creatures existed in the world, let alone that the MC had one they could summon!

The previous example was about too little World Building but new writers often struggle with too much. Or in my opinion not paying enough attention to timing. Many authors attack their World Building in a logical manner starting their stories “In the beginning” (i.e. with the beginning of their universe) – I think this is in part why Prologues are somewhat of a dirty word in new fiction because of the tendency to dump World Building information into the start of the book. While a sturdy creation myth or fictional history is great to have underlying the stories within your world, its rare to be a useful part of the actual story you’re trying to tell. This may come as a a surprise to many who follow the Stereotype of Lord of the Rings but Tolkien’s classic doesn’t actually contain that much World-Building per se. Or more specifically the creation myths, explanation of character origins and so forth is relegated to the appendix, or the Silmarillon. The World Building that occurs in Lord of the Rings is what fits with the narrative of the story.

I’m waffling on a bit for the topic, I just wanted to hit one last insight which I stumbled on recently, and that is what makes a “good” (man I’ve overused quotation marks this post) Fictional World?

Most people will advise a great depth of construction of your World, but I have a different take:

A good fiction world is one that sparks the imagination.

While there is no doubt that Tolkien’s thorough creation of Middle Earth added to its appeal, I also think the World has a sense of many more adventures that could be had within it than just the stories told. Same for Hogworts or the Wizarding world of Harry Potter, while there is a lot of detail creating an authentic sense, the way of the world is built creates a feeling of there being more out there, more potential especially.

I’m not saying that good World Building means the opportunity for fan-fiction, its more that what is laid down in the story inspires rather than limits the reader’s thoughts. Even bizarre and simple concepts like Pokemon are super-popular because of the way the World can act as a template for more adventure. Again not necessarily advocating for endless sequels either, its more that the sense of the World for the reader creates fuel for the imagination. Middle Earth, Narnia, Hogworts, Even the Districts of the Hunger Games provide possibilities and potential beyond the exact story. I think often writers feel they have to precisely dictate their world’s in order to be acceptable and create a tight story, but my suspicion is as readers we’re willing to accept plenty of random and spontaneous stuff as long as the world feels alive and filled with possibility.

So that’s my thoughts – keen to hear yours!

On Writing: What makes a good series?

These are the best series, according to readers!

Recently I’ve just finished a couple of series that I first started about 10 years, ago and of which the first books of were some of the first books I ever reviewed online. Both were 5 book sequences and finishing them off got me thinking about what actually makes a good series.

First of all it might be worth mentioning some external motivations for series. I think that as writers we tend to be a little idealistic about series, feeling that not only are our characters delightful enough to warrant multiple books, but wanting that sense of a work being a part of something bigger. Novels aren’t typically just a flash in the pan, but there is nothing like a long running series to create a sense of something epic and significant.

In a similar vein traditional publishers are typically happy with a successful series. While a new author might be a risk to promise multiple book deals, a well selling series is a good investment, regardless of quality or art, its nice to have a steady source of sales based on name (author and titles) alone.

Regardless of the why we like series though, it thought it might be useful to consider what actually makes a good series:

Familiar but with something new:

Part of the key of a good series is striking a balance between offering what fans want more of, and having something novel within each story. While there is some argument that there are plenty of repetitive series out there that sell and sell (and sell), I would counter that the really striking books that stick in our heads and spark talking points in reading circles all over strike the right balance.

A good example would be Harry Potter. The series essentially grows up with Harry and the audience at the time. While each book contains familiar settings, and certain plots points, each book is also quite different in many ways.

For a counter example I would suggest Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. While some people don’t mind them, I think that the radical changes to content, and focus of the stories (if you’re unaware of the series it kind of starts of like Buffy with Guns, and is still going as 50 Shades of Grey with Vampires). That example is probably more of an abrupt shift in the series as a whole, but provides an example of not straying from the core values of the series.

Balancing Tensions

Probably the most challenging elements of series is mapping an overarching journey while still having compelling individual installments. I notice that a lot of long running epic fantasy series suffer from this, often having the lame fourth book, and for some reason always a ‘flashback’ novel.

I think the reason this is difficult is that its difficult to sell a tense novel when its set within a larger context of a series, like when they arrest a suspect within the first 15 minutes of the CSI episode and you know its not them, or it is them after they get let out though…

This could just be my stance on this, but I think the trick is avoid linearity, or at the very least avoid multiple installments on the same trajectory. Often I see writers take the risk of just divvying up the steps of the “heroes journey” or other scheme into multiple books, which can make things pretty stale. What I mean by avoiding linearity is to not make the whole series about one journey, for example even with the same MC Book 1 could be the more traditional hero journey, book 2 more about hubris and fall from grace, and book 3 about redemption. OR each book can deal with a different direction of the heroes journey.

Careful with Stakes

One of the most troubling elements of series is dealing with the stakes. In the MCU people are concerned (note I haven’t seen Spider-man yet) about how Endgame managed to create some of the most epic stakes ever, and how the universe can go on to still entice viewers afterwards.

Not all series reach such heights but stakes do get very challenging. Setting them too low might make an individual story dull (although could actually be one’s best bet) trying to ramp up stakes has multiple issues. First if you overdo it then people will haven trouble getting invested, once you’ve had the MC save the world its hard to get enthused about them saving the local community in the next book. This sort of applies to “this time its personal” stakes, although in this situation if you put the MCs love interest, then their mother, then their business partner in harms way it just starts to feel mildly abusive or something perpetuating the stories.

Also burnout becomes an issue (no not yours you silly writer, although could be a topic for another post), but for readers really believing that MCs have gone through XY and Z, often in short spaces of time becomes unbelievable, or rather unbelievable that they keep being the hero rather than a nervous wreck (note some series deal with heroes becoming nervous wrecks and I think that is super cool [not the wreckage the fact they address it])

The obvious solution to stake issues is to slow build, although this can sabotage individual stories within the series. The other trick is not to meddle to deeply with the actual stakes but exactly what they mean. For example having a villain in book 2 that isn’t actually that much worse than the serial killer in book 1 except its the MCs brother (ok cheesy AF I know but it shakes up the formula). Finally switching the type of stakes up, having global issues versus more personal ones, challenges that address different elements of the characters, different sacrifices that have to made, that sort of thing.

Ending a great series

This is a huge topic and possibly meriting and entire post in itself, I don’t really have all the answers as a writer, but can offer a few thoughts as a reader.

I think the best endings, perhaps somewhat obviously, have to deliver on the promise of the series. One of the reasons people are pissed at the GoT TV series is there was so much raised throughout the series that didn’t have any resolution. While there were some callbacks there wasn’t really a sense of tie in between the beginning of the story and the end. While an overarching question or thematic issue isn’t always possible there should be some sort of sense of a major question being answered. Like in GoT it would have been nice to have a better sense of did characters make the right choices, did they do OK? While some it was suggested as such there was a real sense of things weren’t terrible and the villains died so shows over alright? Not all series have one overarching point, but a good ending plucks a string of resonance that fits with the whole sequence. For example if Childs ever decides to resolve Jack Reacher’s story it should finish with something that fits (but fits I mean says something about not necessarily being super tidy) with his actions throughout the show. So if he settled down with a wife it was in a way that contrasted his nomadic ways and made sense in the story, OR say the series ended with Reacher sacrificing himself to save an innocent bystander, it was in a way that resonated with all his past actions.

Endings don’t necessarily have to tie up lose ends definitively, buts its always important to say something, to give readers a sense that things are supposed to be left open, or unaddressed or concluded as they are. Not saying spelt out just not neglected.

Speaking of endings that is about all I can think of for this topic!


What series do you think ended well (whether it be books, TV, movies)?

What do you think makes for a bad series, or a promising but ultimately disappointing one?