Five Questions to Help You Create a Fictional Culture

If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer, then you’ve probably tried your hand at creating fantastic creatures and aliens of all sorts. But inventing convincing aliens or fairy-tale creatures involves more than just coming up with cool looks or inhuman superpowers. If all you need for your story is just a scary monster or creepy creature, that’s fine – but if you want an actual alien race or people-group for a fantasy world, then you need more than just the basics of creature traits.

Here are five questions that you can ask yourself as you’re inventing people, cultures, races, and creatures for your fantasy/sci-fi stories. Continue reading

5 Types of Books to Make You a Better Writer

Some time ago I wrote a guest post about five books that have helped me as a writer. In this post, I want to discuss five types of books (as opposed to specific titles) that I believe can help you become a better writer.

A craft of writing book

This is one category that I need to work on more. I’ve read a few books on the craft of writing, but it’s something that even the best authors can always get better at. If you want to get better at writing, then constantly writing is important – but a how-to writing book can help you strengthen your writing strengths, adjust your weaknesses, and point out mistakes you didn’t even realize you were making.

A people skills book

You know those self-help books about different personality types or how to get along with other people? Those are actually really useful. Even though most of us writers are introverts who would rather just not deal with people at all thank you very much, the truth is that we do have to deal with people. Family, co-workers, and your readers – all are made up of people. Learning how not to alienate your fans or get stressed during a conversation can really make for a nice life.

And secondly, if you write any type of fiction, then – you guessed it – you’re writing about people. Even in more plot-driven genre fiction like sci-fi or epic fantasy, there are characters. Understanding how people work – especially those people who are not like you – can really help you add depth and realism to your characters.

A follow-your-dreams book

Go back to the self-help or inspirational section of the book store and get one of those upbeat books about never giving up on your dreams. Having the determination and the know-how to press through the doubts and rejections and keep going is ultimately more valuable than knowing how to properly punctuate. Writing can be a lonely and difficult thing. Hopefully you have a support network of other writers (whether a local writer’s group or an online forum), but you need to be able to encourage yourself, too.

A well-written book in your favorite genre

If you want to write good science fiction, then you should be reading good science fiction. If you want to write a cozy mystery, then read some good cozy mysteries so you know how to structure the story. This is probably not a difficult task for most writers, because you’re already reading books in your favorite genre, because it’s your favorite.

An important key here is the “well written” part. Don’t just grab the latest free ebook by a first-time author. This doesn’t mean that the book is bad or poorly written, but if your goal is to craft a well-written book, then you need a good example of one. You don’t necessarily have to go for a New York Times bestseller, but take the time to check the reviews, view a sample page, and maybe check the author’s track record or publishing history.

A well-written book in a genre you don’t usually read or write

Even if you’re a fantasy writer, and all you ever intend to write is high fantasy, you should still read the occasional mystery or sci-fi book or contemporary literature. Why? Because you can learn from everything. Character development, foreshadowing, proper sentence structure, proper dialogue tags, pacing – all of these elements that go into making a good story are important no matter the genre. Reading outside of your favorite genre can make you notice elements of storytelling or writing style that you might not have otherwise picked up on because your mind is stretching in a different way. There are excellent writers in every genre, and you might be missing out on some valuable writing tips (or even missing out on discovering your new favorite author) if you never branch out.

And see the previous point about the importance of using a well-written book, not just any old freebie or your teen cousin’s fan fiction. If your goal is to learn, then check your sources.

Do you have any favorite books that fall into one of these categories? Do you have another type of book that has helped you to grow as a writer?

Questions for Readers

This post is a poll of sorts, and I really would love your feedback! (It’s only three questions, and you don’t have to answer them all, so don’t panic). These are few things that I’ve been mulling over lately as I’ve been working on my fantasy stories, and I’d really like to know what other people think about these things. My questions are directed mainly at readers of fantasy and related genres. I welcome feedback from readers (and writers!) of any genre, but fans of fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal would probably understand these questions best.

So, here we go:

Do you prefer one-shots, duology/trilogy, or series?

I’m not trying to find the “best” or even the most currently “marketable” length – I’m just genuinely curious what other people are reading. And I’m honestly not sure which one is my favorite. So what’s your preference?

Do you like to have foreign languages translated in the text, or just have it left up to the reader to figure out words from the context?

This isn’t really about conlangs (constructed languages, like Elvish or Klingon), although that could be a subject for a blog post all on its own. When a character is speaking in another language (one different from the point of view character’s primary language) I’ve seen several different methods used:

The writer puts the character’s dialogue in brackets instead of quotes – [I bring you my sword], said Vlen – to indicate the language change. Or—

The writer simply states the language switch: “I bring you my sword,” said Vlen in Elvish. Or—

The writer has constructed at least the basics of the language, and uses it, with or without a translation as part of the narrative: “Mdash nii hwena,” said Vlen. I bring you my sword.

Have you read books – or written books – using one of these methods? Or a different method? Do you have a favorite? What method of inserting other languages seems the most awkward or interrupts the flow of the story?

Do you love or hate a book with a glossary or appendix?

Many fantasy books have landscape maps or genealogical maps, often at the beginning of a book. But what about other stuff that might come at the end of a book, like a glossary of conlang terms, a pronunciation guide, or an appendix explaining a cultural history or technological specs? Do glossaries and appendices get you excited about learning “behind the scenes” stuff about the world of the book, or do you get bogged down because it feels like a textbook?

 

Thanks! I truly want to know what others think about these storytelling elements. I look forward to reading everyone’s answers!

10 Quotes about Life from Babylon 5

I’ve written another post of quotes from sci-fi and fantasy, but I thought I’d do a part two and make it exclusively quotes from the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m rather fond of that show. Not only is it one of my favorite TV shows ever, it’s one of my favorite epic fantasy stories, in any medium. The writing was brilliant, and the episodes were full of witty dialogue and quotes of wisdom.

As I asserted in my previous quotes post, we can learn a lot about real life from stories of fantasy.

It takes a rare kind of wisdom to accept change and redemption in another. Many would refuse, seeing only what was, not what is. – G’Kar, “The Hour of the Wolf”

You seek meaning? Then listen to the music, not the song. – Kosh, “Deathwalker”

We are all born as molecules, in the hearts of a billion stars – molecules that do not understand politics or policies or differences. Over a billion years, we, foolish molecules, forget who we are and where we came from. In desperate acts of ego, we give ourselves names, fight over lines on maps, and pretend that our light is better than everyone else’s. – Delenn, “And All my Dreams, Torn Asunder”

We are all the sum of our tears. Too little, and the ground is not fertile and nothing can grow there. Too much, and the best of us is washed away. – G’Kar, “Objects in Motion”

Touch passion when it comes your way, Stephen. It’s rare enough as it is. – Marcus, “Lines of Communication”

I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not explained everything. – G’Kar, “Mind War”

We are dreamers, shapers, singers, and makers. – Elric, “The Geometry of Shadows”

Fighting a war is easy, destroying is easy. Building a new world out of what’s left of the old: that is what’s hard. – Delenn, “Lines of Communication”

Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet. You can travel farther with both than you can with just one. – Brother Alwin, “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars”

Now we make our own magic. Now we create our own legends. Now we build the future. Now we stop being afraid of shadows. – Delenn and Sheridan, “Into the Fire”

Happy Valentine’s Day from a Few Fictional Couples

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, here is a brief post about romance. I’m not a reader or writer of the romance genre, but I like a good love story as much as the next gal. So here are four of my favorite couples from sci-fi and fantasy.

Éowyn and Faramir – Lord of the Rings

I could have picked Arwen and Aragorn from this series, but I actually like the story of Éowyn and Faramir’s relationship better. There’s less romance, since they don’t actually get together till the very end, but I like how these two tragic characters who have faced death and lost loved ones find healing and joy with one another. And their union helps to re-forge the ties between the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, so that’s always a plus, too.

Helen Rossi and Paul – The Historian

This couple is from a book that I recently read called The Historian. (I discussed this book briefly in another post here). These two people wind up together on an unexpected quest to find a common loved one who’s gone missing (Paul’s professor, who is also Helen’s father). Since the story is told in the first person by Paul, we get only his feelings for Helen, but the author did a beautiful job of showing Helen’s growing affection for Paul even without getting the reader into her head. Although the actual “love scenes” in this book are minimal, the characters’ passion for each other is evident on every page.

Gomez and Morticia Addams – The Addams Family

I mentioned the Addams family and love in another recent post. Gomez and Morticia are well known for their propensity to drop whatever they’re doing at any random moment and engage in a passionate encounter. But in addition to their chemistry and sweet murmurings in French, they have a solid, deep love that is never shaken by external or internal conflicts. They are a together-together couple who raises their family with strong (albeit bizarre) values, and they show unconditional love to everyone in their family.

John Sheridan and Delenn – Babylon 5

This pair is probably my favorite fictional couple ever. There’s a lot to say about these characters and the way that their relationship is written into the story. Their romance grows slowly and naturally – it takes a year and a half before they begin to realize their feelings for each other. They’re from different races (which used to be at war) and so the cultural tensions are always subtly present, even after they’ve been married for years. I also like how these two stay happily married, even through the rough spots, and they always make decisions together as a couple. (Short-term romances seem to be very popular in TV shows, and almost expected in sci-fi TV shows, after the precedent set by Captain Kirk in classic Star Trek.) Also, all of the other characters (well, most of them) love Sheridan and Delenn as a couple, and are constantly supportive of their relationship. Their goodbye to one another at the end of the series is one of the most poignant partings ever (can anyone watch the finale “Sleeping in Light” without crying?)

Delenn and Sheridan, from "Babylon 5"

Delenn and Sheridan, from “Babylon 5”

So who’s your favorite fictional couple? Please share!

Fantasy Characters as Role Models

Finding role models in fiction is not a new concept (or even a new idea for a blog post, probably). But I’ve been thinking and reading lately about characters, how to write them, and what they can mean to readers. So here’s a short list of some of my favorite characters from fantasy and science fiction, and what they can teach us about how to live and how to behave.

Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings Loyalty

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite Hobbit sidekick. Except he’s more than just a sidekick. He’s more than a gardener, a bodyguard, or even a good friend. He’s a man so loyal to his friend and to his own word that he faces off against orcs, a giant spider, and a raging volcano just because he told Gandalf that he’d protect Frodo. His word is his bond, no matter what.

Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series – Courage 

Hermione can be described in many ways: smart, clever, nerdy, loyal. But really, none of these traits would enable her to accomplish half of what she does if she weren’t exceptionally courageous. Courage isn’t the absence of fear – it’s feeling the fear and doing what you need to do anyway. From the first book on, Hermione bravely steps out to help save the day, never letting fear of Voldemort – or worse, expulsion from Hogwarts – stop her from doing what she knows is right.

John Sheridan from Babylon 5 – Justice

Captain Sheridan is the perfect leader for the Babylon 5 space station – he’s brave, smart, and a true warrior. All of this stems from his fierce sense of justice. When faced with the tough decisions of life, the ones with no clear-cut right or wrong, he uses his sense of justice and fairness to temper his decisions. He lives by the understanding that every decision – good or bad – comes with consequences. Whether others label him as a hero or a villain, he stays true to his principles of justice and personal responsibility.

Fezzik from The Princess Bride – Honesty

Fezzik the gentle giant is kind, patient, and maybe a little slow, but he’s the most honest character in the story. While he never directly rebels against Vizzini, his honesty prevents him from carrying out his malicious orders to kill Westley. He’s intensely loyal to his friend Inigo, and once he determines that Buttercup and Westley are the good guys, he never stops supporting them because he believes in rightness and honesty.

Princess Anna from Frozen – Compassion

Anna is brave, eternally optimistic, and loves her sister dearly. But really, her greatest role model-worthy trait is compassion. Her love for Elsa is more than just a sister bond. Despite her shock and confusion when Elsa reveals her powers, Anna immediately understands how Elsa must be feeling. Her ability to empathize with Elsa’s fear and loneliness is what drives her to literally freeze to death for her sister’s sake.

The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz – Wisdom

The Scarecrow is the smart one without any brains, but he’s also very wise, which is a different sort of intelligence. Wisdom such as knowing when to take charge – which he does for most of the story – and when to let someone else lead (by telling the Lion that he’s the one to lead them into the Wicked Witch’s castle, or by submitting to Glinda’s authority at the end of the movie). Wisdom tells him to trust this strange girl and her little dog. The intelligence of knowing the Pythagorean theorem is less important in life than making wise decisions.

The Addams Family – Love

From the movies to the classic TV show to the original cartoons by Charles Addams, Gomez and Morticia Addams have represented the ultimate in passion and romance. But there’s more to love than romance. Love means sticking together no matter what storm is raging, or standing up for a loved one who might be acting very unlovable. This family may have dead flowers as the centerpiece and a loose hand that runs around the house, but they have love. No outside force or inner turmoil pits Gomez and Morticia against each other, or draws their children away. Even Uncle Fester’s poor decisions can’t make the others turn their backs on him. Any family that wants to stay strong should put as much of an emphasis on love as the Addams do.

Yes, I know that this is a really short list. I could have listed several hundred characters, and made this post longer than the epic fantasy trilogy I’m working on, so I had to pare it down somehow. If you have a favorite fantasy character that has positive role model traits, feel free to share in the comments!