Okay, this is in incredibly petty nitpick, but: if you’re writing a fantasy setting with same-sex marriage, a same-sex noble or royal couple typically would not have titles of the same rank – e.g., a prince and a prince, or two queens.
It depends on which system of ranking you use, of course (there are several), but in most systems there’s actually a rule covering this scenario: in the event that a consort’s courtesy title being of the same rank as their spouse’s would potentially create confusion over who holds the title by right and who by courtesy, the consort instead receives the next-highest title on the ladder.
So the husband of a prince would be a duke; the wife of a queen, a princess; and so forth.
(You actually see this rule in practice in the United Kingdom, albeit not in the context of a same-sex marriage; the Queen’s husband is styled a prince because if he were a king, folks might get confused about which of them was the reigning monarch.)
The only common situation where you’d expect to see, for example, two queens in the same marriage is if the reigning monarchs of two different realms married each other – and even then, you’d more likely end up with a complicated arrangement where each party is technically a princess of the other’s realm in addition to being queen of her own.
You’ve gotta keep it nice and unambiguous who’s actually in charge!
Okay, I’ve received a whole lot of asks about this post, so I’m going to cover all of the responses in one go:
1. The system described above is, admittedly, merely one of the most common. Other historically popular alternatives include:
- The consort’s courtesy title is of the same rank as their spouse’s, with “-consort” appended to it: prince and prince-consort, queen and queen-consort, etc. This is how, e.g., present-day Monaco does it.
- The consort is simply styled Lord or Lady So-and-so, and receives no specific title. I can’t think of any country that still does it this way, off the top of my head, but historically it was a thing.
(Naturally, your setting needn’t adhere to any of these, but it would be highly irregular for it to lack some mechanism for clarifying the chain of command.)
2. The reason why the consort of a prince is historically a princess even though those titles are the same rank is basically sexism. This can go a couple of ways:
- In many realms, there was no such thing as being a princess by right; the daughter of a monarch would be styled Lady So-and-so and receive no specific title, so the only way to be a princess was to marry a prince.
- In realms where women could hold titles by right, typically a masculine title was informally presumed to outrank its feminine counterpart. So, e.g., kings outrank queens, princes outrank princesses, etc.
In either case, no ambiguity exists.
(Interestingly, this suggests that in a more egalitarian setting where masculine titles are not presumed to outrank their feminine counterparts, or vice versa, you’d need to explicitly disambiguate rankings even outside the context of same-sex marriages. Food for thought!)
3. It would also be possible to have two kings or two queens in the same marriage without multiple realms being involved in the case of a true co-monarchy. However, true co-monarchies are highly irregular and, from a political standpoint, immensely complicated affairs. If you’re planning on writing one of those, be prepared to do your research!
4. The next rank down from “countess” is either “viscountess” or “baroness”, depending on which peerage system you’re using.
(Yes, that last one actually came up multiple times. Apparently there are a lot of stories about gay countesses out there!)
I’d like to argue with this, but I can’t.
okay so hey let’s talk about something that bugs me in fanfic about artistic characters: not all artists will wistfully draw the dude they have a crush on’s face over and over in their sketchbooks. like, few of them. very few of them.
i went to a visual arts school full of horny, lonely young people ages 18-28 and we were all constantly showing each other our sketchbooks, as is the traditional combat maneuver of the visual artist, and you know how many sketches of anyone’s boyfriend or girlfriend or love interest i saw? several hundred, if you count anime characters. maybe two or three if you only count real life people. mostly we just drew our friends. as anime characters. i’m an illustrator. i live with other illustrators. i know my roommate’s girlfriend’s cute anthro dog oc’s better than i know her face.
so like— is your character an artistic? do they like to draw? do they have a crush on someone? is it unrequited? they’re going to fill their sketchbook up with like, inu yasha covered in blood. or whatever the cool sad anime is for kids these days, but definitely someone sad and covered in blood. or like two faceless dudes fucking a cake, i saw that once. i knew a girl who only drew people fucking cakes, her whole sketchbook. your character also might just draw dragons everywhere, or really bad robots in smudgey pencil. your character is at some point going to draw a really skinny girl with really big boobs, holding a sword.
but like, as a general rule, visual artists don’t casually or absent-mindedly render things that are hard or make them anxious. like, drawing realistically from memory a crush’s face. will your character draw maybe a wolf or a horse or a dragon that somehow symbolically represents the object of their affections? pretty good odds. absentmindedly launching into a whole portrait of their beloved without noticing because they are so romantically forlorn? very unlikely. drawing their crush’s favorite flower or food or animal or character or something? definitely.
anyway, drawing from life is tough. drawing from life from memory is tougher. unless an artistic character is stated in canon to be good at portraiture, they’re really unlikely to fill their sketchbook up with wistful handsome faces.
feel free to reblog this post and add your own opinion, though, if you’re another visual artist.
If I could offer one piece of advice to fanfic authors and fanartists it would be:
Make your work accessible.
Choose a tumblr layout that lets people easily reblog your work. Choose a layout where the links and next page buttons are easily found. Tag all your work properly and then LINK to it from your main page. Link directly to your AO3 or DeviantArt. Don’t make people search your tumblr just to find that fic they liked. Have posts available that link to your work so that people can reblog them. Do the hard work for people and make it easy for them to share your stuff.
The harder it is to find your stuff, the less likely it is people will reblog it and share it around.
do you have any suggestions for themes and layouts and such?
I do! 😀
Personally I use Theme-Hunter to find the themes for all my blogs. They reblog direct from creators and have hundreds of options. Their Tumblr is really easy to navigate and you can go straight to the type of theme you’re looking for: say a two-column theme, or one with a side bar, etc.
Theme-Hunter also has code for pages: about pages, OC pages, Tag pages, and the like. AND they explain how to get them to work on your Tumblr, which is great if you’re not tech and code savvy.
Zelda Themes’ old library of themes also has some great layouts. I use I See Fire and was considering the Borrowers theme for the same reasons.
Tumblr also has some generic themes available for free that are good for writers. I find Easy A to be the best of them as it offers lots of preprogrammed links and options so there’s no need to edit the HTML at all.
Sometimes you’ll find a theme that is almost perfect but it’s just missing one of two elements. Fear not! There are loads of tutorials online and it’s as easy as searching Google to get that search bar on your Tumblr, or include a loading page.
And if you really can’t find something, a lot of theme Tumblrs will gladly help you out, or, feel free to message me and maybe we can look at it together.
If you’re a writer on Tumblr, you will definitely want the following on your blog:
- Like and Reblog buttons attached to each post
- Easily readable text in both size and colour
- a link direct to your AO3 or FF.net account from your main page
- a link from your main page to all your Tumblr only work
- Visible and obvious forward and back buttons
I would suggest a one-column theme with either a sidebar or header with visible links. Turn off endless scrolling as you want people to go far enough back through your work that their browser might crash. Don’t clutter your main page with unnecessary things. If you write for a few pairings or have several series on your Tumblr, consider a search bar or a Tags page.
Also consider people on different platforms. For example, I don’t have a PC. All I have and all I use is an iPad and the amount of themes that just plain don’t work for me is ridiculous. If there is no reblog button, I have to go to another person who reblogged the same thing and try reblog it from them as no reblog/like options show up at the top of the page like they do on PC. Sometimes I haven’t been able to reblog someone’s work, even though I wanted to, all because of their theme not having like/reblog buttons.
You want to make a reader’s experience on your Tumblr as hassle free as possible. Imagine you were visiting someone else’s Tumblr and wanted to find a specific fic of theirs so you could reblog it. How hard is it to find the fic? Is there even a link? Then look at your own Tumblr. Can people find those links? Do ALL the hard work for your readers. Don’t give them any excuse to leave.
- Sticking a landing will royally fuck up your joints and possibly shatter your ankles, depending on how high you’re jumping/falling from. There’s a very good reason free-runners dive and roll.
- Hand-to-hand fights usually only last a matter of seconds, sometimes a few minutes. It’s exhausting work and unless you have a lot of training and history with hand-to-hand combat, you’re going to tire out really fast.
- Arrows are very effective and you can’t just yank them out without doing a lot of damage. Most of the time the head of the arrow will break off inside the body if you try pulling it out, and arrows are built to pierce deep. An arrow wound demands medical attention.
- Throwing your opponent across the room is really not all that smart. You’re giving them the chance to get up and run away. Unless you’re trying to put distance between you so you can shoot them or something, don’t throw them.
- Everyone has something called a “flinch response” when they fight. This is pretty much the brain’s way of telling you “get the fuck out of here or we’re gonna die.” Experienced fighters have trained to suppress this. Think about how long your character has been fighting. A character in a fist fight for the first time is going to take a few hits before their survival instinct kicks in and they start hitting back. A character in a fist fight for the eighth time that week is going to respond a little differently.
- ADRENALINE WORKS AGAINST YOU WHEN YOU FIGHT. THIS IS IMPORTANT. A lot of times people think that adrenaline will kick in and give you some badass fighting skills, but it’s actually the opposite. Adrenaline is what tires you out in a battle and it also affects the fighter’s efficacy – meaning it makes them shaky and inaccurate, and overall they lose about 60% of their fighting skill because their brain is focusing on not dying. Adrenaline keeps you alive, it doesn’t give you the skill to pull off a perfect roundhouse kick to the opponent’s face.
- Swords WILL bend or break if you hit something hard enough. They also dull easily and take a lot of maintenance. In reality, someone who fights with a sword would have to have to repair or replace it constantly.
- Fights get messy. There’s blood and sweat everywhere, and that will make it hard to hold your weapon or get a good grip on someone.
- A serious battle also smells horrible. There’s lots of sweat, but also the smell of urine and feces. After someone dies, their bowels and bladder empty. There might also be some questionable things on the ground which can be very psychologically traumatizing. Remember to think about all of the character’s senses when they’re in a fight. Everything WILL affect them in some way.
- If your sword is sharpened down to a fine edge, the rest of the blade can’t go through the cut you make. You’ll just end up putting a tiny, shallow scratch in the surface of whatever you strike, and you could probably break your sword.
- ARCHERS ARE STRONG TOO. Have you ever drawn a bow? It takes a lot of strength, especially when you’re shooting a bow with a higher draw weight. Draw weight basically means “the amount of force you have to use to pull this sucker back enough to fire it.” To give you an idea of how that works, here’s a helpful link to tell you about finding bow sizes and draw weights for your characters. (CLICK ME)
- If an archer has to use a bow they’re not used to, it will probably throw them off a little until they’ve done a few practice shots with it and figured out its draw weight and stability.
- People bleed. If they get punched in the face, they’ll probably get a bloody nose. If they get stabbed or cut somehow, they’ll bleed accordingly. And if they’ve been fighting for a while, they’ve got a LOT of blood rushing around to provide them with oxygen. They’re going to bleed a lot.
Hopefully this helps someone out there. If you reblog, feel free to add more tips for writers or correct anything I’ve gotten wrong here.
How to apply Writing techniques for action scenes:
– Short sentences. Choppy. One action, then another. When there’s a lull in the fight, take a moment, using longer phrases to analyze the situation–then dive back in. Snap, snap, snap.
– Same thing with words – short, simple, and strong in the thick of battle. Save the longer syllables for elsewhere.
– Characters do not dwell on things when they are in the heat of the moment. They will get punched in the face. Focus on actions, not thoughts.
– Go back and cut out as many adverbs as possible.
– No seriously, if there’s ever a time to use the strongest verbs in your vocabulary – Bellow, thrash, heave, shriek, snarl, splinter, bolt, hurtle, crumble, shatter, charge, raze – it’s now.
– Don’t forget your other senses. People might not even be sure what they saw during a fight, but they always know how they felt.
– Taste: Dry mouth, salt from sweat, copper tang from blood, etc
– Smell: OP nailed it
– Touch: Headache, sore muscles, tense muscles, exhaustion, blood pounding. Bruised knuckles/bowstring fingers. Injuries that ache and pulse, sting and flare white hot with pain.
– Pain will stay with a character. Even if it’s minor.
– Sound and sight might blur or sharpen depending on the character and their experience/exhaustion. Colors and quick movements will catch the eye. Loud sounds or noises from behind may serve as a fighter’s only alert before an attack.
– If something unexpected happens, shifting the character’s whole attention to that thing will shift the Audience’s attention, too.
– Aftermath. This is where the details resurface, the characters pick up things they cast aside during the fight, both literally and metaphorically. Fights are chaotic, fast paced, and self-centered. Characters know only their self, their goals, what’s in their way, and the quickest way around those threats. The aftermath is when people can regain their emotions, their relationships, their rationality/introspection, and anything else they couldn’t afford to think or feel while their lives were on the line.
Do everything you can to keep the fight here and now. Maximize the physical, minimize the theoretical. Keep things immediate – no theories or what ifs.
If writing a strategist, who needs to think ahead, try this: keep strategy to before-and-after fights. Lay out plans in calm periods, try to guess what enemies are thinking or what they will do. During combat, however, the character should think about his options, enemies, and terrain in immediate terms; that is, in shapes and direction.
(Large enemy rushing me; dive left, circle around / Scaffolding on fire, pool below me / two foes helping each other, separate them.)
Lastly, after writing, read it aloud. Anyplace your tongue catches up on a fast moving scene, edit. Smooth action scenes rarely come on the first try.
Writing with Color: Description Guide – Words for Skin Tone
We discussed the issue of describing People of Color by means of food in Part I of this guide, which brought rise to even more questions, mostly along the lines of “So, if food’s not an option, what can I use?” Well, I was just getting to that!
This final portion focuses on describing skin tone, with photo and passage examples provided throughout. I hope to cover everything from the use of straight-forward description to the more creatively-inclined, keeping in mind the questions we’ve received on this topic.
So let’s get to it.
S T A N D A R D D E S C R I P T I O N
B a s i c C o l o r s
Pictured above: Black, Brown, Beige, White, Pink.
“She had brown skin.”
- This is a perfectly fine description that, while not providing the most detail, works well and will never become cliché.
- Describing characters’ skin as simply brown or beige works on its own, though it’s not particularly telling just from the range in brown alone.
C o m p l e x C o l o r s
These are more rarely used words that actually “mean” their color. Some of these have multiple meanings, so you’ll want to look into those to determine what other associations a word might have.
Pictured above: Umber, Sepia, Ochre, Russet, Terra-cotta, Gold, Tawny, Taupe, Khaki, Fawn.
Complex colors work well alone, though often pair well with a basic color in regards to narrowing down shade/tone.
For example: Golden brown, russet brown, tawny beige…
- As some of these are on the “rare” side, sliding in a definition of the word within the sentence itself may help readers who are unfamiliar with the term visualize the color without seeking a dictionary.
“He was tall and slim, his skin a russet, reddish-brown.”
- Comparisons to familiar colors or visuals are also helpful:
“His skin was an ochre color, much like the mellow-brown light that bathed the forest.”
M o d i f i e r s
Modifiers, often adjectives, make partial changes to a word.The following words are descriptors in reference to skin tone.
D a r k – D e e p – R i c h – C o o l
W a r m – M e d i u m – T a n
F a i r – L i g h t – P a l e
Rich Black, Dark brown, Warm beige, Pale pink…
If you’re looking to get more specific than “brown,” modifiers narrow down shade further.
- Keep in mind that these modifiers are not exactly colors.
- As an already brown-skinned person, I get tan from a lot of sun and resultingly become a darker, deeper brown. I turn a pale, more yellow-brown in the winter.
- While best used in combination with a color, I suppose words like “tan” “fair” and “light” do work alone; I’d just note that tan is less likely to be taken for “naturally tan” and much more likely a tanned white person.
- Calling someone “dark” as description on its own is offensive to some and also ambiguous. (See: Describing Skin as Dark)
U n d e r t o n e s
Undertones are the colors beneath the skin, seeing as skin isn’t just one even color but has more subdued tones within the dominating palette.
- Mentioning the undertones within a character’s skin is an even more precise way to denote skin tone.
- As shown, there’s a difference between say, brown skin with warm orange-red undertones (Kelly Rowland) and brown skin with cool, jewel undertones (Rutina Wesley).
“A dazzling smile revealed the bronze glow at her cheeks.”
“He always looked as if he’d ran a mile, a constant tinge of pink under his tawny skin.”
Standard Description Passage
“Farah’s skin, always fawn, had burned and freckled under the summer’s sun. Even at the cusp of autumn, an uneven tan clung to her skin like burrs. So unlike the smooth, red-brown ochre of her mother, which the sun had richened to a blessing.”
-From my story “Where Summer Ends” featured in Strange Little Girls
- Here the state of skin also gives insight on character.
- Note my use of “fawn” in regards to multiple meaning and association. While fawn is a color, it’s also a small, timid deer, which describes this very traumatized character of mine perfectly.
Though I use standard descriptions of skin tone more in my writing, at the same time I’m no stranger to creative descriptions, and do enjoy the occasional artsy detail of a character.
C R E A T I V E D E S C R I P T I O N
Whether compared to night-cast rivers or day’s first light…I actually enjoy seeing Characters of Colors dressed in artful detail.
I’ve read loads of descriptions in my day of white characters and their “smooth rose-tinged ivory skin”, while the PoC, if there, are reduced to something from a candy bowl or a Starbucks drink, so to actually read of PoC described in lavish detail can be somewhat of a treat.
Still, be mindful when you get creative with your character descriptions. Too many frills can become purple-prose–like, so do what feels right for your writing when and where.
Not every character or scene warrants a creative description, either. Especially if they’re not even a secondary character.
Using a combination of color descriptions from standard to creative is probably a better method than straight-up creative. But again, do what’s good for your tale.
N A T U R AL S E T T I N G S – S K Y
Pictured above: Harvest Moon -Twilight, Fall/Autumn Leaves, Clay, Desert/Sahara, Sunlight – Sunrise – Sunset – Afterglow – Dawn- Day- Daybreak, Field – Prairie – Wheat, Mountain/Cliff, Beach/Sand/Straw/Hay.
- Now before you run off to compare your heroine’s skin to the harvest moon or a cliff side, think about the associations to your words.
- When I think cliff, I think of jagged, perilous, rough. I hear sand and picture grainy, yet smooth. Calm. mellow.
- So consider your character and what you see fit to compare them to.
- Also consider whose perspective you’re describing them from. Someone describing a person they revere or admire may have a more pleasant, loftier description than someone who can’t stand said person.
“Her face was like the fire-gold glow of dawn, lifting my gaze, drawing me in.”
“She had a sandy complexion, smooth and tawny.”
- Even creative descriptions tend to draw help from your standard words.
F L O W E R S
Pictured above: Calla lilies, Western Coneflower, Hazel Fay, Hibiscus, Freesia, Rose
- It was a bit difficult to find flowers to my liking that didn’t have a 20 character name or wasn’t called something like “chocolate silk” so these are the finalists.
- You’ll definitely want to avoid purple-prose here.
- Also be aware of flowers that most might’ve never heard of. Roses are easy, as most know the look and coloring(s) of this plant. But Western coneflowers? Calla lilies? Maybe not so much.
“He entered the cottage in a huff, cheeks a blushing brown like the flowers Nana planted right under my window. Hazel Fay she called them, was it?”
A S S O R T E D P L A N T S & N A T U R E
Pictured above: Cattails, Seashell, Driftwood, Pinecone, Acorn, Amber
- These ones are kinda odd. Perhaps because I’ve never seen these in comparison to skin tone, With the exception of amber.
- At least they’re common enough that most may have an idea what you’re talking about at the mention of “pinecone.“
- I suggest reading out your sentences aloud to get a better feel of how it’ll sounds.
“Auburn hair swept past pointed ears, set around a face like an acorn both in shape and shade.”
- I pictured some tree-dwelling being or person from a fantasy world in this example, which makes the comparison more appropriate.
- I don’t suggest using a comparison just “’cuz you can” but actually being thoughtful about what you’re comparing your character to and how it applies to your character and/or setting.
W O O D
Pictured above: Mahogany, Walnut, Chestnut, Golden Oak, Ash
- Wood is definitely an iffy description for skin tone. Not only due to several of them having “foody” terminology within their names, but again, associations.
- Some people would prefer not to compare/be compared to wood at all, so get opinions, try it aloud, and make sure it’s appropriate to the character if you do use it.
“The old warlock’s skin was a deep shade of mahogany, his stare serious and firm as it held mine.”
M E T A L S
Pictured above: Platinum, Copper, Brass, Gold, Bronze
- Copper skin, brass-colored skin, golden skin…
- I’ve even heard variations of these used before by comparison to an object of the same properties/coloring, such as penny for copper.
- These also work well with modifiers.
“The dress of fine white silks popped against the deep bronze of her skin.”
G E M S T O N E S – M I N E R A LS
Pictured above: Onyx, Obsidian, Sard, Topaz, Carnelian, Smoky Quartz, Rutile, Pyrite, Citrine, Gypsum
- These are trickier to use. As with some complex colors, the writer will have to get us to understand what most of these look like.
- If you use these, or any more rare description, consider if it actually “fits” the book or scene.
- Even if you’re able to get us to picture what “rutile” looks like, why are you using this description as opposed to something else? Have that answer for yourself.
“His skin reminded her of the topaz ring her father wore at his finger, a gleaming stone of brown, mellow facades.”
P H Y S I C A L D E S C R I P T I ON
- Physical character description can be more than skin tone.
- Show us hair, eyes, noses, mouth, hands…body posture, body shape, skin texture… though not necessarily all of those nor at once.
- Describing features also helps indicate race, especially if your character has some traits common within the race they are, such as Afro hair to a Black character.
- How comprehensive you decide to get is up to you. I wouldn’t overdo it and get specific to every mole and birthmark. Noting defining characteristics is good, though, like slightly spaced front teeth, curls that stay flopping in their face, hands freckled with sunspots…
G E N E R A L T I P S
Indicate Race Early: I suggest indicators of race be made at the earliest convenience within the writing, with more hints threaded throughout here and there.
- Get Creative All On Your Own: Obviously, I couldn’t cover every proper color or comparison in which has been “approved” to use for your characters’ skin color, so it’s up to you to use discretion when seeking other ways and shades to describe skin tone.
- Skin Color May Not Be Enough: Describing skin tone isn’t always enough to indicate someone’s ethnicity. As timeless cases with readers equating brown to “dark white” or something, more indicators of race may be needed.
Describe White characters and PoC Alike: You should describe the race and/or skin tone of your White characters just as you do your Characters of Color. If you don’t, you risk implying that White is the default human being and PoC are the “Other”).
- PSA: Don’t use “Colored.” Based on some asks we’ve received using this word, I’d like to say that unless you or your character is a racist grandmama from the 1960s, do not call People of Color “colored” please.
- Not Sure Where to Start? You really can’t go wrong using basic colors for your skin descriptions. It’s actually what many people prefer and works best for most writing. Personally, I tend to describe my characters using a combo of basic colors + modifiers, with mentions of undertones at times. I do like to veer into more creative descriptions on occasion.
- Want some alternatives to “skin” or “skin color”? Try: Appearance, blend, blush, cast, coloring, complexion, flush, glow, hue, overtone, palette, pigmentation, rinse, shade, sheen, spectrum, tinge, tint, tone, undertone, value, wash.
Skin Tone Resources
- List of Color Names
- The Color Thesaurus
- Things that are Brown (blog)
- Skin Undertone & Color Matching
- Tips and Words on Describing Skin
- Photos: Undertones Described (Modifiers included)
- Online Thesaurus (try colors, such as “red” & “brown”)
- Don’t Call me Pastries: Creative Skin Tones w/ pics 3 2 1
Writing & Description Guides
- WWC Guide: Words to Describe Hair
- Writing with Color: Description & Skin Color
- Describing Characters of Color (Passage Examples)
- 7 Offensive Mistakes Well-intentioned Writers Make
I tried to be as comprehensive as possible with this guide, but if you have a question regarding describing skin color that hasn’t been answered within part I or II of this guide, or have more questions after reading this post, feel free to ask!
~ Mod Colette
THAT FIRST SITE IS EVERY WRITER’S DREAM DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY TIMES I’VE TRIED WRITING SOMETHING AND THOUGHT GOD DAMN IS THERE A SPECIFIC WORD FOR WHAT I’M USING TWO SENTENCES TO DESCRIBE AND JUST GETTING A BUNCH OF SHIT GOOGLE RESULTS
Reblogging this again because I just had reason to use it. I needed a word for mild dislike, and all I could think of at the moment were the more extreme forms of dislike like “animosity” and “loathing.” That first link had a TON of good options when I typed in “mild dislike.” Ended up going with reproach.
These links are actually helpful, so yeah.
I treat it like it’s normal.
I know a huge narrative in writing is the Relatable Character, the person the audience can follow along with and “learn” the universe and the culture and the story and so-forth, but uhm…
Why? Why should that be THE archetype in modern fiction?
Fiction used to be about immersion–and there are a few authors who still know this, though they get panned a lot (whether you like horror or not, S. King is a master at immersion). We’d begin a story with characters who were already in that verse, who knew the things, who didn’t NEED to be hand-held.
Obi-Wan Kenobi does not need to be hand-held.
But flamethrower! That’s fanfic, and it’s got an established verse that we know about already!
Yes, but many people still write from the point of view of main characters who have just fallen into the universe six hours ago, and don’t seem to understand how their own lives function.
Harry Potter needed to be fucking hand-held, but JKR specifically set up a story that required that. …Granted, then she continued the hand-holding long-past the point it should have been necessary, but we’ll just ignore that for now.
Too many people pan The Phantom Menace, but you know what it got right? Immersion. We didn’t need to be hand-held on our way through the movie, even if we’d never seen a Star Wars film prior to that. We weren’t introduced to the Republic with this long narrative of its history, we were dumped right into the action and provided the verbal and visual context needed to know exactly what the hell was going on, and what was going on was that Shit Was Breaking The Fuck Down.
Who were the Jedi? Well, apparently they were hooded people having strange conversations, and were fucking TERRIFYING to the Nemoidians, who promptly lost their shit and get orders to make the Jedi dead. Then the Jedi prove that they have weapons that can CUT THROUGH WALLS so maybe the Nemoidians are just a teensy bit correct to be terrified.
There’s no need to hand-hold your reader (or even yourself!) unless the narative requires it. This is what people *really* mean when they say Show, don’t Tell. There are times when a reader needs to be told, but when it comes to cultural elements in a story that someone should already know?
It’s normal. Treat it like it’s normal…and your reader is going to believe it. So will you.
(Also if you don’t understand how something works for humans, research the shit out of it and then decide how that function would work in your non-humans. Basic biology is a wonderful tool.)
Readers can’t resist turning pages when characters are facing tough choices. Use these 5 keys to weave moral dilemmas into your stories–and watch your fiction climb to new heights.
#1: Give Your Character Dueling Desires
Before our characters can face difficult moral decisions, we need to give them beliefs that matter: The assassin has his own moral code not to harm women or children, the missionary would rather die than renounce his faith, the father would sacrifice everything to pay the ransom to save his daughter.
A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who will be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget.
So, to create an intriguing character facing meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.
For example: A woman wants (1) peace in her home and (2) openness between her and her husband. So, when she begins to suspect that he’s cheating on her, she’ll struggle with trying to decide whether or not to confront him about it. If she only wanted peace she could ignore the problem; if she only wanted openness she would bring it up regardless of the results. But her dueling desires won’t allow her such a simple solution.
That creates tension.
And tension drives a story forward.
So, find two things that your character is dedicated to and then make him choose between them. Look for ways to use his two desires to force him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.
For instance, a Mennonite pastor’s daughter is killed by a drunk driver. When the man is released on a technicality, does the minister forgive him (and what would that even look like?) or does he take justice into his own hands? In this case, his (1) pacifist beliefs are in conflict with his (2) desire for justice. What does he do?
Another example: Your protagonist believes (1) that cultures should be allowed to define their own subjective moralities, but also (2) that women should be treated with the same dignity and respect as men. She can’t stand the thought of women being oppressed by the cultures of certain countries, but she also feels it’s wrong to impose her values on someone else. When she is transplanted to one of those countries, then, what does she do?
Construct situations in which your character’s equally strong convictions are in opposition to each other, and you will create occasions for thorny moral choices.
#2: Put Your Character’s Convictions to the Test
We don’t usually think of it this way, but in a very real sense, to bribe someone is to pay him to go against his beliefs; to extort someone is to threaten him unless he goes against them.
- How much would you have to pay the vegan animal rights activist to eat a steak (bribery)? Or, how would you need to threaten her in order to coerce her into doing it (extortion)?
- What would it cost to get the loving, dedicated couple to agree never to see each other again (bribery)? Or, how would you need to threaten them to get them to do so (extortion)?
- What would you need to pay the pregnant teenage Catholic girl to convince her to have an abortion (bribery)? What threat could you use to get her to do it (extortion)?
Look for ways to bribe and extort your characters. Don’t be easy on them. As writers we sometimes care about our characters so much that we don’t want them to suffer. As a result we might shy away from putting them into difficult situations.
That’s the exact opposite of what needs to happen in order for our fiction to be compelling.
What’s the worst thing you can think of happening to your character, contextually, within this story? Now, challenge yourself—try to think of something else just
as bad, and force your character to decide between
Plumb the depths of your character’s convictions by asking, “How far will s/he go to … ?” and “What would it take for … ?”
(1) How far will Frank go to protect the one he loves?
(2) What would it take for him to stand by and watch the one he loves die when he has the power to save her?
(1) How far will Angie go to find freedom?
(2) What would it take for her to choose to be buried alive?
(1) How far will Detective Rodriguez go to pursue justice?
(2) What would it take for him to commit perjury and send an innocent person to death row?
Ask yourself: What does my character believe in? What priorities does she have? What prejudices does she need to overcome? Then, put her convictions to the ultimate test to make her truest desires and priorities come to the surface.
#3: Force Your Character into a Corner
Don’t give him an easy out. Don’t give him any wiggle room. Force him to make a choice, to act. He cannot abstain. Take him through the process of dilemma, choice, action and consequence:
(1) Something that matters must be at stake.
(2) There’s no easy solution, no easy way out.
(3) Your character must make a choice. He must act.
(4) That choice deepens the tension and propels the story forward.
(5) The character must live with the consequences of his decisions and actions.
If there’s an easy solution there’s no true moral dilemma. Don’t make one of the choices “the lesser of two evils”; after all, if one is lesser, it makes the decision easier.
For example, say you’ve taken the suggestion in the first key above and forced your character to choose between honoring equal obligations. He could be caught between loyalty to two parties, or perhaps be torn between his family obligations and his job responsibilities. Now, raise the stakes—his marriage is at risk and so is his job, but he can’t save them both. What does he do?
The more imminent you make the choice and the higher the stakes that decision carries, the sharper the dramatic tension and the greater your readers’ emotional engagement. To achieve this, ask “What if?” and the questions that naturally follow:
- What if she knows that being with the man she loves will cause him to lose his career? How much of her lover’s happiness would she be willing to sacrifice to be with him?
- What if an attorney finds herself defending someone she knows is guilty? What does she do? What if that person is her best friend?
- What if your character has to choose between killing himself or being forced to watch a friend die?
Again, make your character reevaluate his beliefs, question his assumptions and justify his choices. Ask yourself: How is he going to get out of this? What will he have to give up (something precious) or take upon himself (something painful) in the process?
Explore those slippery slopes. Delve into those gray areas. Avoid questions that elicit a yes or no answer, such as: “Is killing the innocent ever justified?” Instead, frame the question in a way that forces you to take things deeper: “When is killing the innocent justified?” Rather than, “Does the end justify the means?” ask, “When does the end justify the means?”
#4: Let the Dilemmas Grow From the Genre
Examine your genre and allow it to influence the choices your character must face. For instance, crime stories naturally lend themselves to exploring issues of justice and injustice: At what point do revenge and justice converge? What does that require of this character? When is preemptive justice really injustice?
Love, romance and relationship stories often deal with themes of faithfulness and betrayal: When is it better to hide the truth than to share it? How far can you shade the truth before it becomes a lie? When do you tell someone a secret that would hurt him? For example, your protagonist, a young bride-to-be, has a one-night stand. She feels terrible because she loves her fiancé, but should she tell him what happened and shatter him—and perhaps lose him—or keep the truth hidden?
Fantasy, myth and science fiction are good venues for exploring issues of consciousness, humanity and morality: How self-aware does something need to be (an animal, a computer, an unborn baby) before it should be afforded the same rights as fully developed humans? At what point does destroying an AI computer become murder? Do we really have free will or are our choices determined by our genetic makeup and environmental cues?
#5: Look the Third Way
You want your readers to be thinking, I have no idea how this is going to play out. And then, when they see where things go, you want them to be satisfied.
There’s a story in the Bible about a time religious leaders caught a woman committing adultery and brought her to Jesus. In those days, in that culture, adultery was an offense that was punishable by death. The men asked Jesus what they should do with this woman. Now, if Jesus had told them to simply let her go free he would have been contravening the law; if, however, he told them to put her to death, he would have undermined his message of “forgiveness and mercy.”
It seemed like a pretty good trap, until he said, “Whoever is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
I call this finding the Third Way. It’s a solution that’s consistent with the character’s attitude, beliefs and priorities, while also being logical and surprising.
We want the solutions that our heroes come up with to be unexpected and inevitable.
Present yours with a seemingly impossible conundrum.
And then help him find the Third Way out.
I hope this helped! I’ve been really busy today, seeing how my mom had surgery and I’ve been trying to continue writing my novel today as well. I thought I’d squeeze in some more stuff for you guys!
If you have any questions or just want to talk, feel free to visit my ask box!
Tagged for future reference
There’s a certain type of prologue that always makes me
deeply suspicious of the book I’ve just started reading. I don’t know if this
prologue type has a name, but I’m sure you’ll recognize it from a few examples:
- Average Joe is doing something mildly dangerous
that he often does in his line of work, like patrolling a castle rampart or
taking a shortcut home through a haunted alleyway. He’s accompanied by his
dear, disposable friends, Average Sue, Average Bob, and Average Jill. But this
night, something is different. Something is coming for Average Joe. It picks
off his friends one by one, always managing to stay hidden. And when Average
Joe finally sees it, he screams “By the gods!”—or just screams—and we, the
reader, are told that he sees it, and how he reacts, but not what the thing
actually is. End Prologue.
- Scholar Joseph is researching an ancient and
mysterious force, being a scholar. He suddenly hits upon a shocking discovery.
We are not told what this discovery, exactly, is. But the kingdom is in danger!
He must warn the king—nope, too late, someone stabbed him in the back. End Prologue.
- Evil Overlord Jxoxex is busy torturing children
and kicking puppies when his Evil Advisors approach him. The Evil Ritual is
complete! At last, after a hundred or a thousand years, he can rise again to
complete his Evil Plan! What’s the Evil Plan, you ask? Who knows! Certainly not
the reader. End Prologue.
Chapter one begins in a small farming town in the middle of nowhere
(or a castle scullery) in which a teenager of mysterious parentage is looking
forward to the Harvest Festival. The events of the prologue are not mentioned
again until 400 pages in.
I think I will call this type of prologue the Ominous
Prologue of Vagueness.
I have a cynical suspicion that authors use the Ominous
Prologue of Vagueness because they know that starting their story in a
pleasant, sleepy farming town is dull. The Ominous Prologue of Vagueness is
supposed to make us forgive 50 pages of mundanity in the hopes that soon, we’ll
get back to something interesting. But at this point in my life, I am utterly
desensitized to a prologue in which bad things happen to characters I don’t
know. Your world is in danger from an ancient evil? Get in line. Without any
kind of distinguishing detail, the malevolent evil force itself is only an
eyelash more interesting than the preparations for the Harvest Festival.
This reminds me of my recent rewatch of the original Star Wars movies, and my realization that the movies are absolutely brilliant from a storytelling standpoint. Because on one level it does do the jump from Ominous Threat to Sleepy Farm Town, but it does it in a way that works.
Let’s count the ways:
- First, it isn’t vague about the threat. In the first few minutes, we find out exactly who the players are and what is at stake.
- Second, it keeps the two parts of the story connected via the droids. In fact, it actually takes a shockingly long time for us to meet our supposed hero-protagonist; but it doesn’t matter, because we are emotionally invested in the droids.
- Luke’s entrance is actually very understated, because we are still focused on the droids. He could almost be a quirky disposable side character that the droids meet and then leave ten minutes later. His entrance isn’t a “Okay now everyone look at this boring farmboy here I know he’s super boring but I promise he’s important because I’m making you look at him.” We are immediately invested in him only because of his connection to the big space battle we saw a few scenes ago (again, via the droids), not because there is a flashing sign over his head saying “Farmboy of Destiny Here.”
So in conclusion, if your prologue is not connected to your first chapter in an immediately obvious way, you need droids.
Made-up bullshit names for plants and herbs.
Unless in your world you get milk from a “milk-beast” you don’t put people to sleep with “sleep-weed.” There are dozens of real plants that actually put people to sleep:
I found them after 0.35 seconds of googling.
(herbologists out there: I know there are probably some mistakes there. Feel free to correct me)
On one hand, yeah, I get it that it’s nice to learn about something real in fantasy books.
But on the other hand…I am NEVER going to throw real herbs into my stories. Not unless I know it’ll be near-impossible for a child to overdose. Not unless I know I can take time (without an editor removing it) to explain how to safely prepare these tisanes.
Food preparations are one of the most easily made “fan creations” you can have rise out of a book series, since everyone has food on hand or can run out to a store to buy it, or go outside to try to forage it (if they see the internet says they have it living wild in their area). And you really, REALLY don’t want to accidentally lead someone who is young, or who just doesn’t know shit about cooking or chemistry or foraging, down a path where they poison themselves trying to make something. And that’s not even touching on foraging and “false friends”, where a plant might look one way in your area and be safe to eat, but might be poisonous elsewhere in the world where a similar-looking plant is found. There’s a mushroom in the united states that looks similar to an edible variety in Asia. As I understand it, a lot of poisonings occur among immigrants to the US from the region that has the friendly, edible type of mushrooms because they think the US variety is just as safe to eat, and it’s not. I would hate, hate, hate to set up a situation like that as an author, by assuming that a friendly, edible plant in my backyard doesn’t have false-friends elsewhere in the world.
J. K. Rowling handled this by making her potion ingredients fake or improbable to use. She could have had Snape talking about deadly nightshade, but he’s introduced talking about bezoars. Bezoars are from an animal’s stomach–hard to get, and gross.
Patrick Rothfuss handled it by making sure the dangers of fucking chemistry up were very firmly highlighted.
Unless I have a lot of time and place to safely explain how to use a plant, I’m absolutely going to go the “safe” route (”cheap” route to some of you) of using made-up herbs. I’d rather people be irritated with me being cheap or having weak worldbuilding than finding out some reader went and made themselves ill or dead because they trusted that information from my work was complete or correct.
Sure, some or all of those in the list above might be perfectly safe with no poison lookalikes around. I drink Rooibos tea myself–although I’ve never gotten sleepy from it.
But I’m just not educated enough about plants–even after having lurked on several sites online for months–to take a chance in my writing, since it’s just not me that’ll be taking a chance, but possibly readers who assume I know what the fuck I’m talking about. (When I might not!)
A very interesting response. I admit I hadn’t thought of the dangers of realistic herbology, but you’re right, especially for children’s books.
I think there’s a more elegant solution than just making up a name, though. Say “a certain herb” rather than the specific plant’s name and you’re fine. Or smudge the details.
Steven King does something similar with the crimes in his book—describing hotwiring a car in great detail but getting some things intentionally wrong so you can’t go out and do it.
In the vein of ladydomini’s response, I’d favor made-up herb names for an additional medical reason – even if something is super-safe or fairly benign in terms of side effect profiles, people generally don’t take these things in a vacuum, and you can never, ever cover drug-herb interactions in a fantasy world. (You can’t stop and say “Aeryn used St. John’s wort to help her mood, but wouldn’t have if she’d been on SSRIs like Prozac because of the risk of serotonin syndrome, or if she was on birth control, certain HIV meds, transplant drugs…”)
But there’s a second reason why you might choose to make up names, and that’s etymology. (It’s also why I picked St. John’s wort instead of going with one of the above herbs.) Because if you’re in a fantasy world where there are neither saints nor dudes named John, St. John’s wort doesn’t make a lot of sense to name-check, and referring to hypericum perforatum wouldn’t be any better. That’s not going to come up as *much,* but it’s definitely another reason.
(A third might be that you want an herb that has fantasy-world properties – something that doesn’t exist in the real world. Granted, you could randomly say valerian has magic-nullifying powers, but you might want magical plants for a magical reason – or maybe you want a plant with a pharmacological profile that doesn’t exist in the real world. I’m thinking here of ASOIAF’s moon tea and the tansy plant – it’s apparently both a very effective contraceptive and an abortifacient.)
So, yeah, this aspect of fantasy has never bothered me – I’d be more bothered by seeing real-world herbs incorrectly used, especially given the potential for RL trouble. (I guess whether you’d want your healers to be super non-specific or to say “I used tansy and athelas” is a matter of preference at that point; given the abundance of made-up names in the rest of fantasy, made-up herbs don’t bother me.)
Given how many times I read stories like that as a kid and tried to recreate ‘potions’ in the backyard….yeah I’m glad a lot of them were made-up names because me being a clever kid, I would have gone looking. Especially if I’d had the internet. Unless it’s like a practical, safe, real-world use (like “Annie put aloe leaves on her burn to help it heal” or “Margaret drank ginger and hibiscus tea to help her get over a cold”), I’d not include it. Made-up herbs work nicely and less chance of too-clever kids getting Ideas that could be a problem later.
Hell, the side effects make this a valid concern even with ‘harmless’ innocent ones. Did you know for instance that only SOME hibiscus flowers are edible for humans? Or that parts of Dandelion or Aloe if consumed can be a diuretic – which can be dangerous if one is dehydrated? Even aspirin (or ‘willow bark’ if we’re going with old-school herbs) can be dangerous to the wrong person – it happens to be a blood thinner, which is sometimes good if you are having a heart attack, but not so good (i.e. potentially dangerous) if you are menstruating, hemophiliac, bleeding or anemic.
I’d actually urge similar caution with crystals and rocks btw; some stones cannot be safely exposed to sweaty skin or water or heat or what not, because they produce unsafe chemical reactions under the wrong circumstances.
as a former dumbass kid that had to be stopped from drinking poison nettle tea after reading a YA wiccan flavored book,
please. Use fake names of plants.
This is the kind of thing I would never even have thought of, but it’s a really interesting and valid concern.
i have indeed thought of it, and would like to propose a solution to satisfy both parties:
use made up plants, but put some effort into designing them.
don’t call it ‘sleep-weed’, call it ‘slugbane’ or ‘ketterling’s false poppy’ or ‘somniflora’ or ‘purple fretleaf’. give it a name that sounds like a real plant name. problem fucking solved.