Okay, this one’s up.
Disclaimer here: I’m not saying one has to distrust character profiles and world-building notes. I tend to use them. I think one pitfall of them, though, is that authors allow themselves to get enslaved by them. Any bit of information in the profile must be put in the story, no matter how out-of-place it may be at the time. Any new idea the author comes up with while actually writing the story, which may contradict something in her corpus of notes, has to be abandoned. I think this leads to some awfully overcrowded and anemic fantasies. Why not let the actual words do the work for you instead? Below are some ways to do that.
1) Let X random character name do the name-building for a culture or region you haven’t figured out yet.
So there’s this guy that shows up on-page for perhaps a short scene, perhaps a little longer one. Your heroes are named things like Hal and John. This guy is named Redorrinirk. So obviously he’s foreign, and sure enough, when he mysteriously attacks the heroes and they kill him, they find out that he was carrying messages in some kind of cipher. They hightail it to the government, maybe, or, depending on what their standing with said government is, just hightail it so that the City Watch doesn’t catch up with them.
Where’s Redorrinirk from? And what are the names of the people who live there? This could be especially important if his government starts chasing the heroes to get the messages back. “Random guy 1” and “Random guy 2” get boring when they’re supposed to be the main antagonists. Who are they? Come on, speak up!
Well, you’ve got one name to guide you already. Redorrinirk’s people, or nation, or clan, or tribe, or whatever, seem to favor longer names, non-English names, names with a lot of r’s (which could be expanded to names with a lot of liquids, thus giving you the l option), names which end with r + consonant, and names with stops in them. (The stops are b, c/k, d, g, p, and t). Given that, an assassin coming from the same clan as Redorrinirk, but named Holly or Samantha, is going to look a bit out-of-place.
Sure, sure, the name Redorrinirk could be an alias, or atypical of his country. But why not have some fun with this? The character or name you think of as a throwaway line can conjure a definite picture in your mind, which in turn can lead to a definite picture of those antagonists. This may humanize them. And I’m all for humanizing everyone in the story, antagonist and protagonist both.
2) The pictures of the landscape in your mind may be a better guide to direction than you know.
There was a point at which I was trying to write on a continent where the Dragondeath Ocean was to the east. At least, it was to the east on my map. Persistently, I wrote “to the west,” and had a few scenes of characters visiting the beach and viewing sunset over the ocean, before I realized what was wrong.
At that point, I accepted that my mind was trying to tell me something, and redesigned the map. I made no more mistakes like that.
This can’t happen all the time. Maybe you’ve already written a good portion of the story that regards the direction your mind wants to be “north” as south, and that can’t be altered. But check with your mental image of a place before you start writing. Want the first scene to be of the morning sunlight creeping in through the window and touching the heroine’s face to wake her up? That window must be facing east. Perhaps she gets out of her bed, stumbles, blinking, across the floor (because she’s not a morning person), and opens the door, on the western wall, to go to the outhouse. Perhaps this side of the house is still mostly in shadow, and there’s an ambush waiting for her there.
None of this would be possible if you had a heroine with a west-facing window. Think about how the pictures in your mind connect with the words you’re actually writing, and perhaps then it will feed back into the plot.
3) Let heroes’ exalted positions reveal other positions around them.
I was, at one point, writing a political fantasy novel in which my hero, himself a son of sort-of aristocracy (it’s complicated), met a minor character who lived on his family’s extensive estates in the city. I realized that I didn’t know what name my character would automatically give someone like this, someone whom he didn’t know. I came up with “tenant.”
Then it appeared that there was a whole rent system I had never bothered to develop, so I went along and found out about it. It wound up informing the political structure, as well as the economic structure, and telling me how food would get to this city and how it would survive famine if famine ever came. It also made my hero’s position make a little more sense, and led to things like magical ledgers, connected to each other across distance, in which the Speaker for that estate would write reports of rents collected, crops grown, and so on, and have the reports show up in the Lord’s or Lady’s ledger. When the reports stopped coming from one of his estates, my character knew something was wrong, and could go investigate it.
The majority of fantasy heroes will probably continue to be rulers and royalty and generals and so on. (Though Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn is an example of how you can tell a really great story from the perspective of someone like a camp follower, who moves mostly among the servants, squires, and other camp followers). However, they don’t have to exist in a vacuum. How do they address people of other classes? How do they react to them? What duties do they have towards them, and vice versa? This can lead to more development of the world, which in turn leads to more plot.
Story and world supporting each other. Is there anything more wonderful?
4) Let the characters’ past add things to the world.
So often, there are characters with Mysterious Pasts™, who just smile and shake their heads when the hero demands to know about them. Then characters from the Mysterious Pasts™ (whoops, almost forgot the trademark there) show up and start chasing them, until the mysteriously smiling character has no choice but to confess the truth. It all ties back to the mystical amulet around the hero’s neck, of course.
Why does everything tie back to the mystical amulet? Sure, perhaps that’s all you have room for in this story, but a world is larger than a single story. Or, at least, it damn well should be. ‘Scuse me. *kicks Jordan and Goodkind*
Let a character’s past, as you develop it, have glimpses of “Bunch of Scary Guys Not Appearing In This Book.” Perhaps you know exactly what happened, and that can be saved for another story. Perhaps you don’t know, exactly, but this has given you the will to find out. Perhaps the mysteriously smiling character has still not confessed everything, and he has enemies chasing the party who don’t have anything to do with the mystical amulet; they just want to kill him deader than dead for raping their hive-sister. This shades the character and the world both. (And it’s a great device for adult hero/ines, who certainly have had more happening in, say, thirty years of life than just running into a bunch of Scary Guys once).
“But I can’t get all that in there!” the aspiring fantasy author whines.
Really? Last I checked, most fantasy books are long, and lots of ‘em are in series. (Hey, another idea for a rant! How to write a story and make it a stand-alone!) But most of them don’t deserve the length, because the author doesn’t honestly have a story to tell that requires that many pages. She bloats it up by adding unnecessary description, mythic histories that do little but prove how Special the mystical amulet is, angsty scenes where the character moans, villain POV chapters that do nothing but make them look even dumber than the author already portrays them as, and chapters where the character does nothing but look at pretty scenery and wait for something to happen. If she told the story straightforwardly, smoothly, and with prose like silver lightning, it would probably be just one book.
Exploration of characters can justify a book’s extra length. Then the hero isn’t just the hero; he’s one of a panoply of well-developed characters. And the reader, who may like the mysteriously smiling character a whole heck of a lot more than the hero, feels even more satisfied. And the world grows, because Bunch of Scary Guys Not Appearing In This Book are over there somewhere, where the mystical amulet doesn’t touch them, and what are you going to write about them, hmmm?
5) Go where the random takes you.
A couple months back, one of my characters was creeping bravely down a hall, wondering where the hell her priests were and why they were taking so long to butcher the poets. She heard a scream. It could have been at a distance, and then she would have gone on and found that the poets were dead, but there was a hell of a lot of fighting to be done before they were conquered; it was just taking her priests longer than expected.
Instead, because I decided, “Why not?” I had the scream come from behind the door next to my character. She opened it and found a minor character she’d known, one on her side, pinned to the wall with knives through her wrists, belly, and ankles.
And the whole course of the story, and the world, changed, because she knew and I knew the poets wouldn’t have done that, but a bunch of priests gone rogue from the service of her goddess, who specializes in torture, would have—and managed to leave the woman alive, too.
When you feel a random impulse to put things closer or farther away, or have something happen that’s meant as a light diversion, or show the character recoiling in pain instead of laughing at a joke the way she should have, don’t always explain it away. Don’t let it always be minor. Follow it sometimes instead, and see what happens. A new part of your world might bloom in front of you.
6) Ask yourself “Why?” if characters aren’t doing things the easy way.
The characters in one of my worlds didn’t ride horses for millions of years. I originally said that they didn’t tame horses, but they weren’t that stupid. So I dug around and found out that horses didn’t evolve naturally; instead, unicorns and other horse-like creatures had taken their niche. Horses showed up later, when one of the world’s greatest heroes figured out how to create life and created them first, since he’d dreamed of them.
Why aren’t your heroes riding horses? Why aren’t they taking the sensible, short route through the mountains? Why aren’t they eating this perfectly available and rather tasty-looking food, instead of digging through briar patches until they find that other root? Why do they insist on using sign language when they can speak aloud? (One of the creepiest and coolest characters in Glen Cook’s Black Company books is the mage Silence, who can talk perfectly well; he just doesn’t want to).
All of those could have rather stock answers: The author wants the heroes to ride magical creatures instead, or take this high, cold pass to be captured by Orcs, or eat this particular root because it has magical qualities, or be silent because their tongue was cut out as part of the torture by the Dark Lord. But there could be better ones, ones that matter to the history and growth of your world. Perhaps something terrible happened in the shortest route through the mountains a long time ago, and since one of your characters is an empath, he or she would go slightly nutty if forced to ride through it. Perhaps the available-looking root is really the tendril of a predatory tree that will snap up and strangle a character if he comes too close, then haul him off to be eaten.
There’s so much fun that you can have with this—provided, of course, that you notice that your characters are seemingly doing something stupid in the first place. Don’t inconvenience them terribly, provide alternatives, and then give them no reason not to use those alternatives. I would feel rather contemptuous of a character who had the choice of a short, safe route and a dangerous one, and chose the dangerous one with no explanation given.
Rather personal. But that’s all right.