In March, the Creative Writing Group talked about making our characters talk!
Sadly, the recording hit a slight technical issue and we lost the first part of the discussion. This was mostly the discussion of the more technical aspects of presenting dialogue: punctuation, paragraphing, conventions, etc.
I’ll be writing up my notes soon (links will be forthcoming). In the meantime, here’s the rest of the discussion. Enjoy!
Note: discussion includes adult material, themes, and language.
I’m so far behind! This is me, catching up on posting these fun and frolicsome discussions.
This one is from back in February, when we were discussing what makes a good action scene, how text differs to screen, and how to make the most of the tools at our disposal.
Note: discussion includes adult material, themes, and language.
You’ve made it through the trials of war and a harrowing battle sequence. There was tension and doubt, lives on the line, loss and gain. At the end of it all, there was a victor, and a price for all to pay.
I hope you have found today’s challenges interesting and intriguing, and maybe even a little fun. We have barely scratched the surface of this story, have had only glimpses of these characters, but you’ve made them live and breathe.
Their story is done; their fate has been decided. You may go on to tell more of their stories, maybe even adjust their destinies if you wish. This world and this war is yours and yours alone. These battlefields are all in your mind.
Thank you for taking part in these challenges. I hope you go forward and continue to create new and interesting worlds, and the events that shape them.
The doors are open, a fresh breeze is coming in. The Asylum releases you. Good luck, and happy writing!
Let’s move ahead. That first shot rang out ten years ago. Long or short, that final battle is all done now. The war is over. Let’s let the blood dry, the dust settle, and the fallout spread through the warring parties.
The smoke has cleared now. Think about what the battlefield looks like now, a decade later. How changed is it? What markers of the battle remain, if any?
Think about how that battle ended. Not everyone in the whole world was killed: let’s allow at least some to survive. A battle is for nought if there are none to remember it, and perhaps someone might learn something from this one to make better choices in the future.
Who stood victorious, when all was said and done? What was the cost, to both sides? What happened to the defeated side? How far did the ripples reach?
We know that the victors write history. Theirs is the story told loudest and most often. How was this battle framed by that story? How do the official reports say it went down?
The tenth anniversary of the battle is a chance for a commemorative event. Perhaps it’s official, or perhaps some veterans simply take it on themselves to do something. Which side were they on? Are they commemorating a great victory or a crushing defeat? Remembering those who fell?
How do they remember the last battle? How different is their view of it compared to the pubic memory? Do they recognise the battlefield as it is now? What do they do at this event? Are there speeches, or silence? Are there flowers, or banners?
Go back to one of the characters you wrote about in a previous challenge and bring them along. Give us a familiar voice and let it speak their perspective on all of this.
Tell us how it all ended, and the beginnings that followed it.
Challenge #5: Retrospect
The wait is over when the first shot is fired. Whether it’s the first arrow that arcs over the battlefield, the first report of a gun, the first missile launched, or the first laser emitted, there’s always something that starts the deluge. That looses the dogs and starts the conflagration.
This is the action that kicks everything off. Is everyone ready to act? Are the forces in position? Has everyone woken from their rest and had their last bathroom break? Does everyone have their orders and understand what to do?
Focus on that first shot. Think about the person who fired it. Which side is he or she on? Were they reacting to a signal? An appointed time? Did they mean to fire it? Was it carefully calculated, perfectly aimed, and intended to precipitate this entire battle? Or was it the slip of a hand, careless sex on a control board, a badly-timed nap, or a malfunction that caused a misfire?
Was even the side the shot first came from ready for it? Did anyone try to stop it?
This time, focus on that shooter. Tell us how that first shot came to happen, and all of the things that it caused. Show us the impact on one of the front-line soldiers (assuming this particular battle has some). Feel free to pull in any and all of the previous characters you’ve written about, as you wish. The battle is starting, and you get to determine how it goes and for whom.
Challenge #4: Who Shot First
We’ve considered those in charge of our warring armies. Now let’s take a look at those lower on the food chain: those closer to the front line.
With two forces lining up and tense about what’s about to happen, timing is going to be crucial. Both are racing to get ready, both are jostling for their best strategic position. No-one wants to miss something happening and risk being caught with their pants down, or asleep, or looking the wrong way. One side might be counting on a feint in order to make their real move. This all makes intelligence about each other’s movements of vital importance.
Both sides are attempting to spy on the other. They might have scouts out in the field, trying to sneak close enough to find out what’s really happening. They might have someone trying to hack into enemy communications and decode essential transmissions. They might have a probe skirting enemy territory, sending back videos of the encampment. This is going to depend on the era you’re writing about, their available technologies, and the nature of the battlefield between them. Your scout might be an actual person on the ground, creeping through undergrowth and eavesdropping on perimeter guards, or they might be an intelligence analyst, processing captured data back at base. It might be something in between. It might even be a mole in the enemy camp, trying to get a vital update out to their true masters before it’s too late.
Decide who your scout is. Decide which side they’re scouting for, and who they’re spying on. What led them into this position? The entire battle could pivot on this person and their skills: if the enemy gets the drop on them in this final battle, it could all be over as soon as it starts. How are they handling the pressure: with practised ease, or are they starting to crack? Somewhere in between?
Think about the tools at their disposal and what they’ll need to do to get the information they’re after. Are normal methods going to cut it this time around, or are they going to have to try some extraordinary measures? Be creative; have your scout think outside the box. Now is the time to pull out all of the stops, to go that extra figurative mile.
Now consider what it is the scout finds in this last push. What is it they’re after, and why is it so important? What they come across may be a feint, it may be real, or it might be a mix of the two: that’s up to you.
Tell us the story of this scout and that extra mile. Tell us what they find, and if it’s what they were looking for. Tell us about their efforts to get the information back to the leader who desperately needs it.
Do they make it? Does the information get to where it needs to be? Does the scout make it out alive? Tell us the fate of this scout and their mission.
Challenge #3: Intelligence Test
Now we understand a little about one of the sides in this battle, let’s take a look at the other one.
The top dog has been doing well, particularly during this final stretch of the war. They may or may not be comfortable at this point, but things have definitely been going in their favour.
Think about how they’ve managed to get to this point. What was it that made the difference? The strength of individual men? Better arms or armaments? More resources or support? Was it pure luck that gave them some vital wins? A particularly skilled tactician in charge, or an unstoppable hero on the front line? Divine favour? A mixture of several of those?
Does everyone believe in the same reason for their success? What does the average soldier believe? Was this inevitable, because of the strength of their faith, or the number of their armies, or the weapons at their disposal, or the righteousness of their path?
What about their ‘camp’? Is it a similar setup to the underdog’s camp, or is it different? How is it different? Think about all the ways it differs or contrasts to the enemy’s camp. Is it about the equipment, the mood of the soldiers, the feeling in the air? Are the differences obvious? Or is it only the emblems on flags and equipment that mark the difference? Are they more alike than one might assume?
Somewhere in this camp, there is the person in charge. Think about this person’s attitude as they prepare for this final showdown. Are they complacent or nervous? Confident or grouchy that there’s so much fuss about what’s really just another battle? Do they have something to prove, or a perfect record to maintain?
A leader is nothing without a reliable and smart second-in-command. Someone to take their orders to where they need to be actioned, and to make sure it’s done. Someone to run interference and ensure everything is running smoothly. Someone to filter the distractions that are placed in front of the leader for consideration. They might even have more than one second, but for right now, let’s focus on one of them.
Consider what kind of person this second-in-command might be. What makes him or her a suitable second-in-command? Is it because they naturally complement their leader in some way, or because they’re able to fake it? Are they new at this position, or have they been in it for a while? Are they comfortable playing a support role, or are they, in fact, ill-suited to the position?
How does this person view their position? What kind of relationship does he or she have with the top dog leader? Is it an easy symbiosis, or a fractious duty? Is there trust and respect? Is this relationship still being built, or could it have been damaged at some point in the past? What is the second’s opinion of their leader and his or her tactics? What do they believe about their chances in the upcoming battle? What do they know about what’s going to happen? How busy are they as they await the battle?
Show us the top dog camp in the final few hours before the battle begins, through the eyes of the second-in-command. Again, don’t get to the end of the waiting period, not yet. This is all about the anticipation.
Challenge #2: Underdog’s Underbelly
Let’s not jump right into the heart of the storm, not right away. Let’s explore our players first.
Somewhere near your battlefield, two forces are gathering: top dog and underdog. You should give them proper names. They’re moving into position and preparing for the fight to come.
Both sides are waiting. It might be for those last supplies or troops to arrive. It could be for orders from distant brass. It could be a signal to coordinate the attack. It might be an event outside of their control, like a break in the weather or the alignment of two certain stars. Whatever their reasons, both sides are currently in a state of suspension. Waiting. Preparing. Trying to second-guess what their enemy is doing or waiting for. Hoping that whatever they’re waiting for gets there before the enemy makes their move.
Go to the underdog camp. Think about the makeup of the camp: is it an actual camp, or a disparate gathering of forces, or a group of ships grouped loosely in the dark? Have they been dug in here a while, or just arrived? Are they still in transit to the battlefield?
What’s the tone of the camp? In the last hours of their wait, what’s the prevailing mood? Excitement, dread, determination? What are people doing? Are they ready, resting, or running about in a scramble to prepare for the battle of their lives?
Think about what the average soldier might be doing. Then move up the chain of command until you reach the person in charge of this group. He or she is probably not the ultimate leader of this side of the war – though they might be – but they are definitely the conduit to whomever is in control of the underdog side.
What’s it like in the commander’s presence? Is it the same as everywhere else in the camp, or is there a different prevailing mode? Is the difference subtle or stark?
Consider who this commander is. Give him or her a name and a title. How did he or she rise to this position? Is this what they always wanted, or a path that life has thrown them on? How competent are they as a commander? How are they viewed by their troops? Have they proven themselves in battle already or do they still have something to prove? Who have they been proving things to? Themselves, someone personal, their troops, their superiors?
What is the commander waiting for, and how optimistic are they feeling? How are they using these last few hours before the hammer drops?
Your first challenge is to write a moment in this commander’s last few hours before the battle. Not the end of the wait, but during. Tell us who this person is, tell us what they’re doing, and maybe, what they’re hoping to do. Show us a glimpse of an underdog girding itself for battle.
Challenge #1: The Top Top Dog
Welcome to 2016’s Writers’ Asylum. Leave your coat and sanity at the door, and prepare for a day of fictional lunacy like you’re never experienced before. Don’t worry if you hear the doors lock behind you; that’s the least of your worries now. Because we’re going to war with our own minds today.
Today, we’re going to explore a single scenario. You’re going to assemble all the pieces and lay them out on the board, and then we’ll see how the game plays out. First, however, let’s create the board.
The stage for today’s play is a battlefield. Imagine any battlefield you choose, from any genre or era. It might be a wide, open plain, or a valley, or a stretch of ocean. It might be a particular area in space, perhaps made interesting by a streak of asteroids, perhaps stunningly empty. It might be a stronghold ripe for breaching. It might be a border, or have some strategic significance, or have religious or cultural meaning. It might be chance that makes this place a battlefield.
Whatever its significance – or lack thereof – this place is going to host the last battle of a war. Think Waterloo, or Serenity Valley, or the siege of Helm’s Deep.
This war has raged for some time now. Neither side is willing to back down; both have thrown everything they feasibly could into it. Think about what they’re fighting over. Ideals. Territory. Resources. Religion. Safety and security. Riches. It might be one or all of these things. The combatants might be human, or machine, or something else entirely. It’s all up to you. So choose.
By the time these two sides reach our battlefield, things are reaching their stretching-point. Perhaps support back home is waning, or supplies are running low, or the fresh recruits just aren’t there any more. Perhaps everyone is just tired of it by now. The war is almost over; whatever else is being debated, everyone seems to agree on that point.
One side has been creeping ahead. There is a known favourite for this war, the ones that can’t seem to lose; we’ll call them the top dog. That makes the other side the underdog, and it’s dangerous to underestimate the underdog. This battle could be the top dog’s chance to put down any resistance to them once and for all, or it could be the underdog’s chance to turn the tide in their favour and break the back of a superior force.
There are lots of opinions about how this battle will shake out, and none of them seem to agree. The only things that anyone knows for sure is that there are two sides to this battle, and they are drawing up their forces around this one, last battlefield. They are assembled: in tents, or castles, or ships, or carriers. They are getting ready.
Are you ready? Do you know what your battlefield looks like, smells like, as this storm gathers?
Because it’s time to find out.
Warning: violence and war ahead. If that upsets you, these challenges are not for you!
I’ve seen catalyst characters crop up in a few books and stories, and I have to say, I’m not a fan.
What do I mean by ‘catalyst characters’? I mean characters around whom important things happen, but through no action or choice of their own. Their mere presence can cause things to happen or turn out differently than if they had not been there. This may or may not be recognised by others in the story, and may or may not be manipulated by others (to their benefit or detriment).
One of the most obvious examples is Fitz in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. He is called out explicitly as a catalyst in the text (I believe another character refers to him this way at one point), and he’s pretty much told that he serves no other purpose.
Similarly, Ara in Tanith Lee’s The Heroine of the World is a catalyst in the story. The prophecy states that ‘lightning is attracted’ and predicts that she will influence the events shaping the world, but at no point does she take a proactive or even particularly conscious part in it. She winds up moving through the story like a doll.
In both of these cases, the catalyst characters are our viewpoint. The protagonists and heroes of the story are other characters entirely, and we’re put in the position of watching the real struggles in the story happen to other people, from the perspective of someone who has no ability to change what’s going on (for better or worse). Also, these viewpoint characters barely seem to understand what’s going on.
It’s a strange choice for a writer to make. The point of view doesn’t have to be the hero of the story (as I mentioned in a recent CWG meeting, Sherlock Holmes would be very different if he told his own story; Watson’s viewpoint is humanising). The choice of viewpoint is important, as it frames the reader’s perspective and interpretation of the story.
Ultimately, both of the stories mentioned above felt slightly detached and out of touch with the real story that was happening around these characters. As a reader, I was increasingly frustrated, partly because I wanted to know more about what was really going on – the interesting parts of the story – and because I wanted to shake these catalysts into doing something.
I’ve come to realise that the lack of agency they employ is a big part of why I struggle to like these characters. Ara lacks even the desire for agency and floats along in the story like a doll in a bubble. Fitz is vastly out of his depth in both knowledge and skill, and doesn’t get beyond doing what he’s told (at least as far as I recall, and I’m only referring to the Farseer trilogy; I haven’t read the subsequent series revolving around the characters in the trilogy).
I kept wanting the catalysts to take an interest in what’s going around them, to at least think about it and try to do something. Even if it’s the wrong thing, even if it’s pointless: I wanted them to at least want to try. To have a goal, to strive, to fail, to care. To become involved and interesting. But they didn’t. They were just catalysts for external things, like the butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a drought.
I keep trying to think of other examples of catalysts, and I struggle to name many. I think that Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz comes close: things happen around her, but she’s not the usual kind of hero that we tend to see in stories. She defeats the first witch by being in a house caught a storm, and the second is an accident (she doesn’t know that the water will kill the Wicked Witch).
However, Dorothy is a likeable character. She’s proactive: she actively sets out to find her way home, and has her own goals and struggles. She tries to do the right thing and to help, and it matters to her what’s going on around her.
In her own story – finding her way home – she’s the hero. In the story of Oz, however, her role is more of a catalyst. She inspires the other characters to do what’s necessary to resolve the issues at hand, simply by being herself. She helps the Scarecrow to go on to become the leader of Oz; at no point does she look likely to take the throne herself.
Through her, we get to see the whole story, including the parts she probably doesn’t understand well herself (like the Wizard and his manipulations). Unlike Ara and Fitz, she’s proactive and driven, and has an interesting journey within herself as well.
By the end of the story, I don’t think Dorothy still qualifies as a catalyst. She is sent on a mission and, in the end, succeeds in defeating the Wicked Witch. But she does seem to start out as a catalyst.
That growth is perhaps what I find most lacking in Ara and Fitz: they never grew beyond being a static catalyst. Ara has almost no arc at all, and Fitz doesn’t manage to escape the bounds of his catalyst role. This is why I got the urge to shake them, and rolled my eyes as I wanted them to step out of this role and into something more active in the story. I wanted them to get involved. This is why these charaters are the reason why I won’t ever re-read these books again.
This leaves me with some questions:
- Can catalyst characters be effective, engaging viewpoints?
- Can a story about a catalyst ever be interesting, if they never grow beyond being a catalyst?
- What other other examples of catalysts are there? Are any of them likeable?
- Is it just me who feels this way?
I’d love to here what you all think about this!