A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Timelines and Continuity. It had a lot to do with rearranging chapters during revisions, due to my nonlinear writing process (note: Professor Ron Block of Rowan University says all writing is linear, even when it’s not, because you have to write it and read it in a linear fashion across the page). As an example, I said I usually write, say, 6 chapters from Gabby’s POV, then 7 from Tock’s, then back to Gabby, and so on. But during revisions, I need to weave these chapters together to flow more fluidly back and forth between each character. The result can throw off some details that need to be fixed in revisions (such as if a character refers to something that happened “yesterday” but due to rearranging the order of events, it now happened “this morning,” or it won’t happen until tomorrow).
So why am I revisiting this topic? Well, my #NaNoWriMo novel, Arcana Revived Volume Six, is requiring me to look at chapter order in a very different way than in my previous first drafts. As an example, here’s the chapter order (before any revisions) for Volume Four, Mutation.
As you can see, I wrote 16 chapters in a row of Gabby, just because that was where my Muse was taking me. I kept writing on Gabby until I reached a point where I wasn’t quite sure what to do with her next. Then, to avoid getting log-jammed by writer’s block, I switched to Tock and Mae. I wrote with them for a while, then switched back.
Once I get to revisions, these chapters are more likely to go Gabby/Tock/Gabby/Tock/Gabby/Mae/Gabby/Tock or something like that. But when I was writing them, I just went with where my flow was taking me, in order to get all the words down as smoothly and quickly as possible. And it didn’t really hurt the narrative or the continuity at all, since Gabby and Tock weren’t directly interacting with each other in those early chapters. They’re in different places, going through different (but parallel and directly linked) events. Which was all building up to a point, close to the end, where their individual halves of the story merge and they end up in the same place at the same time.
This is the method I’ve really used with every book I’ve written so far, from Manifestation to Contamination (which is currently on Draft Two) to the next three books (which are all first drafts). It’s worked well each time. But the sixth book, which I’m currently writing for NaNoWriMo, is turning out to be an entirely different process. I’m handling continuity and the order I write the chapters in a completely different way.
As you can see in the chapter orders for Volume Six, I’m alternating a lot more between the characters from chapter to chapter. Really, this is what the above chapter order will look like after revisions. I’m just doing it during the first draft this time, spending no more than a few chapters in one character’s POV before I move to the next. This is because the stories are more directly interwoven than before. As a result, I have mostly fallen into a pattern where I write Gabby/Indra/Jaden/Gabby/Indra/Jaden in order. I have to do this because it’s not just a question of “which event happens first.” It’s a situation where all the characters are having a very direct impact on each other’s actions, so I can’t continue to write the next character’s chapter before I finish the first.
Here’s an example of two scenarios, one from Mutation and one from the new book, that demonstrate what I mean in a more concrete way.
During Mutation, there’s a point where the characters are battling a variety of giant mythological creatures that have come back to life because of the revival of magic. At one point, some of the characters are split up, so that Gabby is battling one Beast of Legend, Tock another, Mae a third, and Callia a fourth. The individual battles don’t impact each other, but they all impact the overall plot and together the battles determine whether everyone will be safe or if the Beasts will crush entire cities and kill thousands of people. So, after each battle has been decided, the characters can reunite and we can see the aftermath, but during each battle, each character is on their own (or “the character plus the miscellaneous supporting characters helping them fight”).
What makes the new book different is that for the majority of it, the characters are coordinating their efforts in the same struggle, instead of battling separate (but related) foes. For example, right now, Gabby is lying in ambush, waiting for a signal from Jaden that a certain task has been completed before it’ll be time to strike. But Jaden can’t do what she needs to until she gets crucial information from Indra and her cousin Vijay. So while I’m alternating between characters from one chapter to the next, they’re working together on a common goal, and their actions directly impact things. Gabby literally can’t proceed from her current position before I’ve written Jaden’s next chapter (unless she wants the entire mission to fail), and Jaden literally can’t accomplish her goal without the key information she’s waiting to receive. It requires me to look at the book differently than the previous volumes.
That’s not to say that either method, “nonlinear” chapter order or direct alternation between POVs, is better or worse than the other. It just means that the revision process for this volume will require less rearranging (in theory), since the chapters are already in more-or-less the order they’re going to stay in.
Hopefully things continue to flow well throughout the rest of NaNoWriMo. And if you’re also writing a novel this month, good luck, and may the continuity be ever in your favor.
The Doctor said it best. Time is a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey . . . stuff.
Especially when you’re on the first draft of a novel.
How a novel’s timeline works will depend a lot on the genre you’re writing in, how many points of view you’re alternating between, and whether or not your story takes place in multiple time periods (such as between a character’s present life and flashbacks to their troubled past). Even while working on a first draft, these factors are going to influence the decisions you make.
Some genres demand a more traditional linear narrative; romance novels, for example, tend to be very forward-moving in order to show the progression of a relationship, starting with the first meeting, through the first date, and into the complications that develop as the relationships grow. A mystery novel, on the other hand, is more likely to include flashbacks as key events are revealed while uncovering who committed the murder, where, and with what. A novel taking place in two time periods, such as a character’s adulthood and childhood, may alternate between each time period chapter by chapter. Likewise, a novel with two or more main characters may alternate between them, spending one or more chapters with a certain character before switching to the other.
But regardless of whether your novel is linear or not, you may find yourself having to make tough decisions about how to lay out the chapters. For one, it may be difficult to decide which character’s story to show first. For another, it may be difficult to decide when to move between the present and the past. Or you may actually decide to change the order that certain events take place in.
One way to make decisions can be to consider the emotions, themes, or motifs being represented in each chapter. You can then arrange the chapters to line up those that have thematic similarities.
The image to the right is a screenshot of my Scrivener file for Contamination, Volume Two of the Arcana Revived series and sequel to my first novel, Manifestation. The majority of the chapters are titled “Untitled X” because I haven’t yet picked chapter titles for them. If you look at the numbers, you can see I made some major changes to the order: 23, 24, 31, 25, 26, 32, 27, 28, 33, and so on.
There’s two main reasons why these chapters were reordered. One was to thread together the storylines of the two main characters, Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah. For example, 23-29 are chapters with Gabby, originally written all in a row and showing a series of events she went through in a single day. 31-38 are Tock chapters, also originally written as a single sequence showing what Tock went through. Part of the rearrangement was designed to interweave those two stories, since both sets of events take place on the same day. I felt that it made more sense to go back and forth between the two characters so that the reader can keep track of both of them and be carried along to threads of excitement, adventure, and tension at the same time.
The second reason why the chapters were rearranged is in order to keep chapters with the same emotional tone in the same place. For example, if there is a chapter with Gabby running for her life from mutant wolves and another with Tock fleeing from a military helicopter, those chapters have a similar emotional tone and tension. Later, there are chapters involving lots of combat, and even if Gabby and Tock are fighting different enemies, it makes sense to keep the action-oriented chapters back-to-back. And later still, there’s chapters where both characters are going through more emotional bonding (in one case as part of a romantic relationship, in the other, a budding friendship) and I wanted these chapters to be aligned as well.
These techniques keep the storylines in synch, even though the characters are in different places and going through different experiences. To see an example of this in action, consider the following clip from the movie Magnolia. It shows multiple characters in multiple different situations, none of whom interact, but all of whom are going through the same emotional journey.
The director of Magnolia has stated that his goal was to blend the experience of these different characters together so that it feels like one story, not eight. And he does an amazing job at it.
Another good movie to consider is Pulp Fiction. This movies uses a very nonlinear style of storytelling, and the scenes are arranged in an order that takes you on a certain emotional journey. The order of events builds on the emotions evoked throughout this journey, rather than worrying about the chronological order of events.
Of course, if you want to keep things chronological, you can also consider changing when an event takes place. For example, let’s say you’re writing a romance novel where two characters get together, build their relationship, have a huge fight, almost break up, then get engaged, go through turmoil with their families, then get married and have their happily ever after. You might decided that the emotional turmoil of the huge fight will go better with the conflict the characters are having with their families, because that adds additional tension from multiple sides all at once. You could therefore take the same fight and simply have it happen after the engagement, instead of before. Thus you’re rearranging the chronology to better serve the emotional journey.
These sorts of changes can be complicated, and it’s likely enough that you’ll go through several versions as you work through revisions. But I’ve found that reordering events can be an important part of improving a novel. Just be careful not to add more plot holes than you fix when you swap things around. There’s such a thing as being too timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly.
We all like a good fight, right? Especially when the people involved are wizards. From Dumbledore vs Voldemort to Yoda vs Palpatine to Willow vs Bavmorda, a good magically-powered duel can be exciting, dangerous, and visually stunning. It can also have a lot of differences when compared to more traditional martial arts (i.e. anyone fighting without magic).
I’d like to discuss some of the principles I find helpful in writing a magical fight scene, using examples from my upcoming novel, Contamination, which is currently in revisions (and will be released next year as the sequel to Manifestation). I was inspired to do this after reading some posts on fight styles, written by Kat Loveland. She wrote a blog post about using fight scenes to develop your characters, and another on showing emotions and motivations during a fight. They’re both excellent reads, and I definitely recommend checking them out (and following her blog for more updates, since she has two more posts in this series coming up).
To touch on a couple of points Kat raised in her post, before I move on to the magical stuff, I’d like to quote a couple of lines that do a pretty good job summing up what she was getting at. One is when she discusses different fighting styles, and she cites Jason Bourne as an example:
Jason Bourne is an assassin, plain and simple, his entire existence is get in, kill, get out. As a result there is no hesitation, no flair, no fancy movies just fast, efficient violence.
This is something to consider when it comes to the personality and goals of your character. Kat makes some comparisons that show why one fighter will be quick and efficient, while others might have reason to draw out a fight with fancy moves. These types of details can really tell you a lot about a character’s personality.
Another quote from her second post touches more on the emotions of the characters in a fight scene:
Ideally the reader is drawn into both the life and death drama of the physical violence but the internal drama that the characters present as well. There is no exposition going on yet you feel what the character is feeling, fear, rage or the need to prove that you are worthy and gain respect.
This shows another side of a fight scene, the way it can tell you about what a character is feeling in the moment of the fight, or how they feel when they have to kill someone.
So how does all this relate to magic? Well, just like a character’s physical fighting style (quick and efficient vs showy and elaborate) can tell you things about their personality, the way a character uses their magic can tell you about them as well. And there are a few questions you might want to ask about how your character’s personality dictates their magical strategies. I’d like to explore three aspects in particular, and I’ll share an example for each one.
1. To Fight or Cast Spells?
Not all wizards are strictly limited to using their magic. Harry Potter fought the Basilisk with a sword, a Jedi will alternate between a lightsaber and force powers, and even Gandalf pulled out Glamdring the Foe-Hammer when it was time to face down some foes with brute force. So if you have a character who can use both magical abilities and physical combat skills, which do they prefer?
Sometimes, this decision can be one they make based on necessity. Most genres show that magical abilities tend to be draining, leaving the user exhausted if they overuse their powers. In other cases, a character might find themselves cut off from their powers in some way (such as in The Wheel of Time, when Aes Sedai can shield others from the source of their powers, leaving them helpless). A character who can draw a sword and defend themselves physically will have a backup for when their magic fails. While another character will draw their sword first, and resort to using their magic only as a last resort.
Here’s an example of Jeremiah Pritchard, one of the main protagonists in my novel, fighting with both physical and magical abilities:
The men coughed and gagged on the smoke and fired blindly at him, their shots flying wide over his head. Then one of them rushed through the smoke, half-bent over and coughing. He rushed for the door, seeming not to see Jeremiah through the smoke.
Jeremiah whipped the butt of his rifle in the man’s face and knocked him back. The man fell backwards and slammed into the ground. As soon as the man hit the ground, Jeremiah pulled the stun baton from his belt and slammed the tip into the man’s stomach. The baton crackled and send out sparks as it unleashed its charge into the man. He shook and trembled on the ground, then went limp.
Another spray of gunfire whipped past Jeremiah’s head. A burning sensation built up inside of him. His hands shook and he felt the light building up inside of him. But when the shadowy figure rose through the smoke, Jeremiah didn’t reach for the light. He dropped the stun baton, raised his rifle, and fired a quick, clean shot that caught the man in the neck. He dropped to the ground in a heap.
Another figure appeared at Jeremiah’s right. The man raised a shotgun and fired it right at Jeremiah’s head from point-blank range.
Jeremiah’s arms flung up on reflex, and with them came the light. A silvery-white field of mana erupted before him, crystallizing into a solid barrier. It deflected the shot, though the crystal buckled and cracked under the impact.
Jeremiah let the light dissipate as he rushed at the man. He used his rifle to knock the shotgun aside, then he swung his fist at the man’s head. The man crumpled under the blow, dropping to his knees. Jeremiah rammed the butt of his rifle into the man’s jaw and a loud crack filled the lobby. The man slumped to the floor, blood dripping from his jaw and the shotgun falling from his limp hands.
As you can see, Jeremiah uses his combat skills first, his magic second. That’s because of his greater confidence in his military training, as opposed to his uncertainty about his magical capabilities. He’s the sort of person who only uses magic as a last resort. He doesn’t trust it, and he doesn’t want to rely on it.
Will your character rely on their combat skills first, and save magic for emergencies? Or will they break out the spells right away and go for broke?
Another thing to consider in magical combat is a character’s ability to think on their feet and use what’s around them. Think of this as the magical equivalent of the way Jackie Chan fights in his movies. He tends to grab anything that’s handy and use it as a weapon, even if it means opening a cabinet door and slamming it in someone’s face. He’s not the type to make himself rely on a certain weapon or a certain style.
Magic can be similar. You don’t have to stick with one or two “signature” spells. Harry Potter, for example, tends to use expelliarmus quite often, so much so that his overuse of it becomes a plot point in the last book. But what if you have a character who can think on the fly?
Here’s an example of Tock, my golem-maker, showing how she can adapt to make use of whatever happens to be around her:
Tock screamed in unholy fury and started shooting. Mana channeled into her gun and charged the bullets up with unstoppable force. They flew through the air as blue streaks of energy and pierced the cop’s armored vest with ease. She emptied the clip into him, screaming pure murder the entire time.
The other cops fired back at her, and she threw her empty hand towards them. Their bullets flew with kinetic energy. She was an energy manipulator. If she could change her own bullets with kinetic energy, then she could drain it as well. The air between her and the cops began to glow and she robbed the bullets of their energy. They hung still in the air for a moment, unable to even fall as she robbed them of gravity’s pull. The glow faded and drew back into her hand as a compressed ball of kinetic force.
“Oh shit,” one cop said.
“You ‘urt my baby!” Tock screamed. She reached into her tool belt and pulled out a handful of thick screws. She hurled them with the force of a shotgun firing, the collected energy from the bullets channeled into them and magnified a dozen fold with the extra mana she charged into it. The second cop was pelted with glowing shards of metal that pierced his flesh and punched clean through the other side.
As you can see here, Tock breaks out the magic right away, something very different from the way Jeremiah fights. But she also doesn’t limit herself to the things you’d expect. She also smoothly switches from channeling her mana into a gun to channeling it into a handful of screws, using them as magically-propelled shrapnel. And that’s just a small example of how much she’ll think outside the box with her abilities. The more creative your character’s personality is, the more they can break from the norm when it comes to magical combat.
Will your character fight with a few key spells? Or will they adapt on the fly and never use the same spell twice?
3. Direct Combat or Ambushes?
Is your character the type to rush at their foes, hurling fireballs and lightning bolts from their hands? Or will they take on a more subtle approach?
Sometimes there can be merit to using magical abilities with stealth, like a ninja. A magic ninja. You might be faced with foes who are stronger than you are and have more experience using their magic. Or you might be outnumbered. Or you might have to worry about how long you can keep using your powers before your energy is drained and you can’t use them anymore. In any case, there’s always times when it can be a good idea to avoid a direct fight.
Consider this scene with my main protagonist, Gabby Palladino:
Gabby ran behind a bush and crouched down. With how dark it was, she hoped they wouldn’t see her. The heavy footsteps and sounds of breaking branches got closer, then the two soldiers emerged from the bushes. All Gabby could make out was vague shadows, barely illuminated by the moon.
“What’s that?” one of the men asked. They both stepped closer to where Gabby had been a moment before.
“Yeah, I feel it too,” the second man said. He leaned over and pointed to the ground right where Gabby had been crouching a moment before. He waved his hand over the area. “Something . . . some kind of energy. Like what we sense in each other.”
Gabby silently cursed herself. The mana pool was like a beacon in her senses, and no doubt in the senses of the soldiers as well.
The first man looked up in her direction and pointed. “There’s something else,” he said, “there.”
They moved forward, and Gabby froze in indecision. She could fight, or she could flee. I’m tired of running, she thought. She stood up and drew back the arrow she still held in the bow. She aimed low, letting her mana sense guide her as she targeted the invisible pool of energy on the ground. She didn’t want to kill these men; they were Northern Union soldiers. They were the good guys. She may not want to let them arrest her, but that didn’t mean she wanted them dead. She’d seen enough death.
She released the mana-charged arrow and let it fly. It shot through the air and landed in the ground, piercing right into the heart of the mana pool there. When the two opposing charges of mana—the one in the ground and the one in the arrow—collided, the energy erupted in a flash of light. Mana exploded and an eruption of dirt blew out from the ground. The two soldiers were thrown back, screaming. One smacked into a tree then fell to the ground, the other landed in a thick bush. Gabby could still sense the mana flows inside each man, so she knew they were still alive. She turned and ran to the side before they recovered from being tossed about by the explosion.
As you can see here, Gabby isn’t really a fighter. She doesn’t even go for the kill. She hides in the shadows, then strikes before her opponents know what hit them. Then she runs deeper into the woods before any other enemies approach. These are the tactics of a hunter or sniper, not a warrior.
Will your wizard kill from the shadows? Or weave illusions to deceive their foes? Or maybe even muddle their enemies’ minds and make them fight each other, ending the battle without the wizard having to set foot on the battlefield?
There’s many possibilities. And these possibilities say a lot about the personalities of any individual character. I develop each character’s style based on their personality, background, and experience.
So what about you? How will your wizard fight with magic?
I’m enrolled in Rowan University’s Master’s in Writing graduate program. I’m currently working on my master’s thesis project, a project which represents the bulk of my final year’s work. The requirement of the thesis is a 30,000 word written work (or equivalent, as some students are pursuing research-heavy academic projects that will come in at lower word counts for the same amount of effort). The type of project is open-ended; some students are writing memoirs or nonfiction pieces, others are doing academic research, and others are writing novels. I’m using the thesis project to write the sixth book in the Arcana Revived series, following the stories of Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, who made their debut appearances in my first novel, Manifestation.
Part of the thesis project, in addition to writing the novel itself, is creating an annotated bibliography of the sources that informed or inspired my work. In the case of a creative work of fiction, such as mine, this can include the works of fiction that inspired me or where I drew some of my ideas from.
But what counts as a “source” in this context? Well, the professor is pretty open minded about that. Our sources can include, among other things, books, movies, news articles, poetry, and in my case, webcomics and video games.
Some of my sources are, naturally, fiction novels:
Jordon, R. (1990-2013). The Wheel of Time. New York, NY: Tor.
Anthony, P. (1977-2014). The Xanth Series. New York, NY: Del Rey, Tor.
Hickman, L., Hickman, T., & Weis, M. (1984-2014). Dragonlance. New York, NY: Random House.
Roberts, R. (2014). Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m A Supervillain. Virginia: Curiosity Quills. Boswell, H. (2012). Mythology. United States: Artemathene Books.
I listed the various novels that have influenced me in different ways. In some cases, they influenced the way I write about magic (The Wheel of Time, Xanth). In other cases, they influenced how I write about specific elements in my series such as steampunk-style inventions (Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m A Supervillain) or angels and demons (Mythology). Or even how I’m structuring the different novels and collections in my series (Dragonlance). I deliberately chose a wide variety of sources in order to show the various ways that my work has built off of what came before me.
Some books, naturally, aren’t going to be works of fiction:
Stein, S. (1995). Stein on Writing. London: St. Martin’s Press.
In this case, it’s a book on writing techniques that greatly informed the way my novel is written, from the character descriptions, to the dialogue, to the way the chapters are laid out. These variables are as big of an overall influence as any specific works of fiction that inspired me.
But what about a book that, well, isn’t exactly something you’d expect to see cited in a bibliography?:
Martin, J. & Rateliff, J. (Eds.). (2003). Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.
That’s right. I’m citing the DMG, because it taught me a lot about world-building, from designing my cities to developing the politics and culture of my world. I also drew from concepts of the multiverse and various parallel dimensions, which are common D&D tropes. My characters explore some alternate dimensions where the laws of physics aren’t quite what you’d expect, and my designs of those dimensions were heavily influenced by the DMG.
And, of course, there’s another book that I drew heavily from:
God. (1400 B.C.). The Holy Bible. Moses (Ed.) Manuscripts written while children of Israel wandered the wilderness for forty years after the Exodus.
Yes, I’m serious and yes, that’s how I’m citing it in my bibliography. That’s correct APA format for citing a book edited by someone other than the author (Moses transcribing God’s words). And I’m quite serious about the importance of the bible in my writing. My main character, Gabby Palladino, is very religious. Over the course of the novels she’s struggled with falling prey to the seven deadly sins, she’s worried about the state of her immortal soul, and she’s sought guidance frequently through prayer. And from her own persona guardian angel.
Girl Genius is a webcomic that heavily influenced my other main character, Tock Zipporah. Many of her personality traits as a mad scientist/inventor are based on Agatha Heterodyne, protagonist of the Girl Genius series. Without reading that series, Tock wouldn’t be who she is today.
Then, of course, there’s movies and TV shows:
Johnson, M., Steuer, P., & Adamson, A. (2005). The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. United States: Walt Disney Pictures, Walden Media.
Whedon, J., Greenwalt, D., Noxon, M., Kuzui, F., & Kuzui, K. (1997-2003). Buffy the Vampire Slayer [Television series]. Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox.
Kring, T., Hammer, D., Arkush, A., & Beeman, G. (2006-2010). Heroes [Television series]. Philadelphia, New York: NBC Universal Television Distribution.
Todd, J., Todd, S., & Nolan, C. (2000). Memento [Motion picture]. United States: Summit Entertainment.
I drew different types of inspiration from these different shows and movies. Memento is a heavy inspiration for my newest major character, Jaden Farrell, who suffers from severe memory problems. The Chronicles of Narnia influenced Gabby Palladino, who, as you can see here, is modeled after Susan Pevensie, played by Anna Popplewell. And Buffy and Heroes influenced me as works with superheroes and supernatural forces fighting in grand struggles for the fate of the world.
One last source, of course, might be the one that stands out the most:
Sakaguchi, H., Kitase, Y. & Ito, H. (1994). Final Fantasy VI [Super Nintendo game]. United States: Square Enix.
Yes, I’m citing Final Fantasy in the bibliography for my master’s thesis project. I’ve mentioned the influence Final Fantasy has on my writing before, starting with the concept of magic returning to a world that had lost it. Some of the Final Fantasy summoned monsters, like Shiva, Leviathan, Quetzalcoatl, and Titan, also influenced the types of monsters that appear in my later books. In fact, this video game was probably the most important and influential source of all, more than any of the books I’m citing.
It just goes to show that inspiration can come in a variety of forms. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t draw on unorthodox sources in your research. What you find might just surprise you.
One of the most common questions I get asked (and I think most writers get this) is “Where do you get your ideas from?”
I’m on the record as saying that I get most of my ideas in the shower. But I don’t think that’s really the answer people are looking for (even if it IS a good answer!). Nor do they want to hear that my stories are taking place somewhere in an alternate reality somewhere and I’m simply watching them and seeing what happens (even though I believe this to be true).
Instead, I think what people really want to know is, “How can another writer use your own idea-generation techniques for themselves to create a good book?” Which is something a bit more substantial, and something I can actually go into detail about.
The first thing, in my opinion, is to start creating some fascinating characters.
I mentioned before that I’ve created some characters based on roleplaying games. This can be a good place to start. A game, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, Storium, or an online roleplaying forum, can be a good way to delve into a character’s personality, goals, mysteries, and nuances. The more time you spend with a certain character, the more you’re going to get to know them, and the more depth they’re going to have. If a character already has a lot of depth and development before you start writing page one of your novel, you’re going to have a lot more to work with.
This is what I did with both Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, my two primary main characters. Before I ever wrote the first line of Manifestation, the first volume of the Arcana Revived series, I had written a lot of short stories and roleplaying scenes with both characters. I actually wrote over a million words on each character, most of which is now buried on some old forums deep in the web.
You can actually read a couple of the stories I was developing here on the blog. One of them, “A Hard Life in the Big Easy,” is actually the very first piece of writing I ever wrote about Gabby. It’s a short action/adventure piece showing her in a fight for her life. Of course, there are many differences between what you’ll read in that story versus what you’ll see in Manifestation (such as how that story takes place near New Orleans, whereas Manifestation is on a completely fictional world). But the heart of the character is still the same. (It also contains possible spoilers about Gabby’s role in the novel, just a warning.)
There were other characters I wrote about during those roleplaying years, but they didn’t all make the cut. For example, I had a lot of fun writing the crime lord Aamon Dukushu (especially when dancing ballet), but in the long run, his storyline didn’t feel like one I could reboot and expand upon in a new series. I also had another character who didn’t fit because she was an alien, one who didn’t work because he was designed more for a romance plot than an urban fantasy adventure, and another who didn’t fit because she was a lycanthrope and I didn’t want to include vampires or werecreatures in this series. All in all, I had over a dozen good characters with strong backgrounds and interesting plots. But I had to pick out the two gems of that batch who had the most potential for growth, the most passion, and the most ability to generate conflict.
I picked out Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah because they both fascinate me, and because they could not be more different from each other. Gabby is a poet, a gentle soul, and a girl who would never hurt anyone if she had a choice in the matter. She bears a lot of great burdens on her shoulders and she rises up to take on responsibilities that no one should have to bear. She can also get a bit sassy with a very punny sense of humor (something she uses as a coping mechanism when dealing with difficult situations).
Tock on the other hand, is a lewd, rude, crude mechanic who likes to get dirty, build things, fix things, and follow her urges. She also never takes shit from anyone and she won’t hesitate to tell you exactly what she thinks about you. Messing with Tock is generally a bad idea, though she usually won’t go out of her way to start trouble with others.
Once I picked out my two gems: the gentle poet and the shit-talking mechanic, it was a matter of putting them in a situation together and letting the sparks fly. But to get the most sparks, I had to make sure they were tied together.
I wrote a while back about the crucible, a technique for building tension by putting opposing characters in a situation where they’re stuck together. They’re either forced to deal with each other as family, as coworkers, or as people trapped in the same place and unable to escape each other’s company. This can mean either physically jailed or tied up and forced to stay together, or it can simply mean they’re stranded together, such as on a desert island. Or, in my case, in a city going through an unexplained supernatural disaster.
After that, I basically let the characters write the story for me. I had these two fascinating characters, the poet and the mechanic, trapped in a city filled with danger, magic, mystery, a touch of romance, and a dash of attitude. I could have thrown any two characters into that setting when the magical dangers started to appear, but having two characters who were both strong willed but had vastly different viewpoints made for a much better story.
It was also interesting to see how they each reacted to the dangers around them. After all, how do you think you would react if you found yourself surrounded by dangerous people with uncontrolled magical abilities, in a city held in the grip of fear and chaos? Gabby, the gentle soul, and Tock, the short-tempered mechanic, each react to those situations differently, and I feel like that adds a lot of depth to the story.
They’re my two gems, and I love them. That’s probably why I’m about to start work on the sixth novel with these same two characters, still going strong, and still completely different from each other.
There can be a lot of complications that arise when you work religion into a piece of fiction. You might risk offending people, you might get the details wrong and misrepresent a faith, or you might simply be uncomfortable addressing something that can be such a sensitive topic. There’s a few different ways to address these issues, depending on your genre and the role that religion plays in your story.
Fictionalizing the Faith
Fictionalized religion can take on a couple of different forms. A simple example would be creating characters in your novel who are priests, nuns, churchgoers, or anyone else involved in religion in some way. Your fictional priest might be “believable” as a priest, but he’s never going to be 100% like any real-life priest, even if you are inspired by some people you know. Even your fictional “West Podunk Baptist Church” won’t be quite the same as any church in the real world. This can give you a certain amount of leeway, since if your priest has a love affair with an teenage girl, solves murders, crimes, and mysteries, or gets drunk and hangs out with bandits, people won’t necessarily think you’re saying all priests act like that.
But sometimes you need to get a little deeper into questions of faith and spirituality. Sometimes, going into those questions is the whole point. So how do you address those questions?
One strategy can be to draw references directly from the Bible. It can be easy enough to find a Bible passage that relates to whatever it is you’re writing about, even gangsters committing brutal murder (and then having a spiritual awakening and deciding to wander the Earth). Using direct biblical quotes can be an effective way to keep your writing grounded in real-life religion, while understanding that the characters and their actions are still dependent on their personal interpretation of the Bible. In other words, no one who watches Pulp Fiction would claim that the passage Jules quotes is actually meant to condone murder; they just see it as the way Jules himself acts with regard to religion. You can also take this fictionalization a step further by making up your own Bible quotes–the passage Jules quotes in the scenes linked above is actually part real quote, part fiction.
If you want to stay away from actual Bible verses, you can also speak more generally about spirituality, sin, and the religious questions surrounding them. In my novel, Manifestation, the subject of religion comes up a number of times. One example is the question of whether something you did counts as a sin, if you didn’t mean for it to happen. Then there’s the question of whether God actually punishes the wicked like He did in so many old biblical stories. And one of my favorite scenes involves the question of how to find your soul. This scene comes right after Tock asked the question “How do I feel my soul?”:
Father Donovan tapped his fingers against his lip for a moment, studying her. “All right,” he said, taking a deep breath. “When you put it that way, I think I understand what you’re getting at. Let me answer your question by asking you this . . . have you ever loved someone?”
Tock frowned, her face scrunched up as she stared at the priest. “Like, a boy?” she asked.
Father Donovan smirked, then shrugged. “A boy,” he said, “a family member. Your parents. Anyone.”
For a moment, Tock thought about Frankie Palladino. She didn’t know quite what was going on between her and that boy, though she didn’t think it was love. Not yet. Feelings, to be sure. Something more than the physical acts they’d shared. But not love. She could only think of one person she’d ever loved in her life. “My granddad,” she said, her voice a soft whisper.
“And how can you explain that feeling?” Father Donovan asked her. “How do you ‘find’ it, as you put it? How do you ‘use it when you need it’?”
Tock frowned, thinking it over. Thinking about her granddad made her chest hurt. It had been . . . seven months? Eight? Yet the loss was still so fresh. Her fingers gripped the edge of her blanket, and she wanted to wake up Minty so that he could hug her.
She didn’t notice when a tear fell from her eye. “What you’re feeling right now?” Father Donovan said, speaking in a soft, calm tone. “That comes from your soul.”
There’s no direct biblical quotes in that passage. There’s no real connection to a certain religion (and, in fact, I never specify which church or denomination Father Donovan belongs to). But it addresses religious questions in a way that relates to the characters and their goals and desires.
But what if you want to take the fictionalization a step further? In that case, you might decide to just make up your own religion.
A common trope in fantasy novels is to invent whole new worlds with unique sets of gods. This is seen most commonly in Dungeons & Dragons, and in D&D-based books, like Dragonlance.
A completely fictional religion gives you a lot more freedom. You can create your Gods from scratch and decide on their personalities (Are they kind? Vengeful? Nurturing? Scholarly? Warlike?). You can develop wars between different religious groups without risking offending any real-life people who feel like their religion is being mis-portrayed. And you can develop entire histories for these religions in order to tie them in with the plot you’re developing.
Completely fictional gods are most commonly seen in stories that don’t take place on Earth, but there are exceptions. A great example is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where many episodes dealt with villains who worshiped one demonic god or another. The fifth season even had a goddess as the main villain, and there was a triad of demon-gods working behind the scenes throughout most of the spinoff series, Angel.
Then there’s alien religions seen in various Star Trek series. The most well-known is probably the Bajoran people on Deep Space Nine, who worship a group of deities known as The Prophets. To the more scientifically-minded members of the crew, The Prophets are nothing more than aliens who happen to exist in a sort of parallel dimension outside the normal flow of time. Thus, their ability to send the Bajorans messages about the future is less “religious prophecy,” more “time travel.” But the series blurs these lines a number of times during its seven-year run, especially since Captain Sisko is seen as a religious figure, known as the Emissary, because The Prophets speak to him.
There’s probably other ways to address the use of religion in fiction, but these are certainly some of the most common that I’ve seen. If you know of other examples that use a different strategy, please feel free to share them!
Tock barely glanced back at Frankie Palladino as she pulled her pants back on. “I gots work ta do,” she told him. She ignored the hurt pout he gave her. She was too busy to worry about coddling some fool boy’s feelings.
“Oh,” he replied, his tone steeped with disappointment. He watched her dress, then said, “I just . . . I thought maybe you’d stay . . .”
Tock snorted as she pulled her shirt on. She scanned the floor one more time for her underwear, but she had no idea where it had been tossed to. She grabbed her backpack off the ground and slung it over her shoulder. She would have thought most boys would be grateful for a girl who didn’t want to hang around and cuddle. “More important things ta do, mate,” she told him. “It were fun though, aye? Maybe we does it again sometime.” It was still early in the morning. Tock had pulled an all-nighter, working on her engineering project until well after dawn. Around breakfast time she’d decided that a morning romp with Frankie was exactly the distraction she needed to clear her head. The engineering lab was still open, however, and now that the deed was done she intended to get right back to work.
“A-all right,” Frankie said, lying half-propped up on the bed, naked except for the sheet across his lap. The sight of him was almost enough to make her change her mind and stick around for another go. Frankie was the definition of tall, dark, and handsome, with an athletic figure that looked quite nice when he didn’t have any clothes on. She didn’t normally get all hot and bothered over jocks, but this one sure had pushed her buttons.
Tock shook off the distracting thoughts and turned to leave, but the boy leapt up in a flash, still naked, and intercepted her before she could get out the door. He pulled her into a deep kiss, which she allowed because he tasted so damn nice, but it didn’t touch her on any deeper level. As he pulled back, she caught a look in his eyes that showed her it had meant more to him than it had to her. Not my problem, she thought. They didn’t know each other that well. They were flunking the same history class together, had shared lunch in the student center a few times, and that was about it.
Frankie took one of her hands in both of his. “When can I see you again?” he asked, his voice soft and eager.
Tired of being delayed, Tock turned towards the door. “Whenever, mate,” she said. “I’s see ya ’round, aye?”
Frankie held her hand, his face scrunched up as if he were searching for some excuse to keep her around a little bit longer. Tock sighed and got ready to explain to the boy that it had just been a good time, but she was interrupted by a loud ringtone sounding from somewhere in the dorm room.
Frankie ignored the ringing and held Tock’s gaze. Her face reddened. The ringtone sounded again. “Ya gonna git that?” she asked him.
He sighed and released her hand. “Yeah,” he said. He started searching for the phone, but it was nowhere in sight.
Tock looked around while Frankie dug through the clothes on the floor searching for his phone. She spotted the jeans she’d pulled off him a short while ago and picked them up, then dug the phone out of the pocket and tossed it to Frankie. He gave her an awkward smile and swiped his thumb across the screen to answer the call.
“Mom?” he said. He paused and listened, then a frown crossed his face. “Wait, what? Gabby or Adrianna?”
Tock frowned and stepped towards the door. She didn’t know who either Gabby or Adrianna was, though she remembered Frankie mentioning he had a couple of sisters. One of them had just had a baby. Frankie had come back to the dorms late last night after the little tyke was born and bumped into Tock. He’d asked her to dinner, but she’d been too busy with her engineering project to spare him the time. As far as Tock knew, both of Frankie’s sisters had been perfectly fine when he returned to the dorms last night. “Oy, mate,” she whispered, jerking her thumb towards the door. “I’m gonna bounce, aye?”
He looked up at her, still listening to whatever his mom was telling him over the phone. His expression darkened and he broke out in a sweat. “Is she okay?” he asked.
Tock fidgeted, one hand still on the doorknob. Frankie turned away, focused on the phone call. If the boy’s got family troubles, Tock thought, I should leave ‘im to ‘em. She hesitated, chewing on her lip. She watched Frankie for some sign of whether he wanted her to go or to stay.
“Okay,” he said into the phone. “Okay. I’ll be right there.” He jabbed his thumb at the screen and ended the call. Tock waited. Frankie stood there, trembling. His eyes were unfocused and he stared into the corner.
“Everythin’ awright, mate?” Tock asked. She bit her lip and chided herself for such a dumb question, but she hadn’t known what else to say.
“I don’t know,” he said. “My sister. She’s in the hospital. I need to go.”
He stepped towards the door, then stopped and looked down at himself. He was still naked. Tock handed him his pants and he pulled them on, then grabbed a shirt off the floor.
“Well, I ‘ope she’s okay,” Tock said. She turned the doorknob, but hesitated. “You gonna be awright?”
Frankie took a deep breath and nodded. He sat down on the bed to pull on his shoes. “Yeah,” he said in a strained voice. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Tock nodded. She wasn’t sure whether to hug the boy or leave him be. “Awright then,” she said, opening the door. “Go on. Take care o’ yer sis. I’ll see ya ‘round.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”
Tock hurried out the door and down the hall. She felt bad for leaving like that, but she had her own problems to worry about. She had an engineering project to complete and a history test she wasn’t going to bother studying for. She didn’t have time to get involved with Frankie’s family. She hadn’t even met the Palladinos, nor did she plan to. Still, as she headed to the engineering lab to get some work done, she kept wondering about Frankie’s sister and hoping she was okay.
I’m a writer (obviously). My favorite genres are fantasy and sci fi. I’ve written in both, though nowadays I write in a genre that could be seen as blending the two together: Urban Fantasy. There’s tons of magic, monsters, and supernatural mysteries in my stories, but at the same time there’s scientific elements to the way magic works, there’s advanced (though not futuristic) technology, and there’s even times where the magic and the technology work together (that’s something commonly referred to as “magitech” or “magitek”).
But not everyone seems to “get” urban fantasy. Take my father (…please!). I was talking to him about my writing the other day, and I tried to explain to him that my new novel, Manifestation, is urban fantasy. He asked me what makes it “urban.”
“Does it take place in a city?” he asked.
“Some of it,” I explained. “Some is in the suburbs.”
“So why isn’t it ‘suburban fantasy’?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that question, especially when I mentioned that “urban fantasy” is mostly synonymous with “modern fantasy,” as opposed to traditional fantasy that typically takes place in a medieval world. Then he asked me about fantasy stories that take place in farmlands or other areas that don’t count as “urban.”
So what does make something “urban”?
For starters, dictionary.com defines “urban” as “of,pertainingto,ordesignatingacityortown,” “living in a city,” or “characteristicoforaccustomedtocities;citified.” So clearly, an urban fantasy story that takes place in any populated area big enough to be a “city or town” could count, though by this definition, a small rural town with a sparse population probably wouldn’t really count.
We might get a little more leeway if we search deeper into the etymology, which tells us “Urban” is also a male name, meaning, “refined, courteous.” But I have a hard time finding much of anything courteous about wizards and dragons rampaging through the streets of New York, so I think I’m going to have to reject this answer.
To make matters worse, Wikipedia defines urban fantasy by saying that “The prerequisite is that [the story] must be primarily set in a city.” So is my dad right? Does it not count as urban fantasy if it takes place on a farm, or in the suburbs? And with such a vague definition, does a medieval city meet the criteria? I certainly don’t think of urban fantasy as being medieval fantasy that is “set in a city.”
Fortunately, there’s a bastion of knowledge that can help us solve all of these problems by offering undisputed wisdom about the nature of fiction: TV Tropes.
The TV Tropes page for urban fantasy offers a definition that I think is pretty accurate (and which contains a footnote that discusses the very problem we’re trying to define here):
Urban Fantasy, also sometimes called “Modern Fantasy”, is a genre that combines common fantasy conventions with a modern setting (Note: That is to say, a setting which is significantly more advanced than the Medieval European Fantasy popularized by Tolkien. Around the Enlightenment or Industrial Revolution is sometimes considered the absolute earliest an Urban Fantasy could take place, though it may depend on portrayal). The name “Urban Fantasy” is sometimes taken to imply that all works in the genre must take place in a large city, but this is not the case. Rather, the name implies throwing fantasy elements into our urban society. Still, it’s very common for Urban Fantasy stories to take place in a large, well-known city, all the easier for their fantasy elements to hide themselves in.
I think the key phrase in that definition is “our urban society.”
The idea of an urban society is a fairly new one, historically speaking. There was a time, not so long ago, where most people lived in rural areas and worked farms for a living. Sure, there were plenty of city-dwellers, and have been for thousands of years. But it’s only in fairly modern times that we have metropolises filled with millions of people, and we see many farms being operated as corporate plantations instead of family-owned fields of crops. There are still, and always will be, plenty of farmers in the world. But a huge portion of the population (at least in my country) get their food at the grocery store, their milk at a convenience store on the corner, or their meat at a deli.
Another way of saying it is that an urban fantasy story takes place, not necessarily in a city, but instead, in a world where most people are city-dwellers.
Though I doubt my dad will actually accept that answer. But since he doesn’t read my blog, we’ll just keep this one between you and me.
And of course, I can’t discuss urban fantasy without talking a bit about my own urban fantasy novel, Manifestation, which most definitely takes place in a world where most people are city-dwellers. For now. If I keep throwing catastrophe after disaster after cataclysm at them, I might need to redefine “urban” all over again. But the two main characters, Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, do live in a modern-day city and its suburbs. As for the kind of trouble they get into in the streets of San Lorien, well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. But I can tell you that there’s danger, excitement, kissing, and a whole lot of magic.
They also explore questions that is another big part of the nature of urban fantasy: Where did the magic come from? How does someone manifest an ability? What causes it to spread from one person to another?
And for Gabby, the most important question of all: How do I survive when I’m surrounded by the arcane and supernatural, by things I can’t understand or control?
Magic comes in many forms. There’s the literal magic of a wizard, ala Gandalf or Harry Potter. There’s the metaphoric magic of a first kiss. There’s the trickery and sleight-of-hand associated with stage magic. And of course, there’s Magic: The Gathering (which I was pretty hooked on when I was 14).
I’ve discussed magic on the blog before, but that series (written inthree separateblog posts) was more about the rules of magic, and how to develop them and then break them. Today, I’d like to talk a bit about what makes magic really “magical,” and where the line is between magic, tricks, technology, and metaphors.
The idea came to me when I was talking to a friend about the release of my first novel, Manifestation. I mentioned that the book contains magic and kissing, among other things. Which got me thinking about the difference between a metaphorical magic kiss, and a literal magic kiss.
The idea of a “magic kiss” is a well-established trope. From Snow White to Sleeping Beauty to the Princess and the Frog, it’s a common idea in movies, books, and other media for a kiss to have the power to save lives, break spells, and make the audience get all misty-eyed. Heck, even The Matrix did it, which bent the perception of reality when Trinity’s kiss from outside the Matrix was able to save Neo’s life inside the Matrix.
So where is the line between the actual magic that alters reality, and the metaphorical magic that gets your heart fluttering? It might be harder to pin down than you think.
The Little Mermaid is one of my favorite Disney movies (despite the fact that I could go on for hours about the poor gender roles being portrayed here). I even wrote an article analyzing the communication practices in the movie, especially with regards to when Ariel loses her voice. But for today’s discussion, I’d like to bring up the “kiss of true love” that is a key plot point in this film.
As I already mentioned, it’s common for “true love’s kiss” to break a spell and save the day. Except that in The Little Mermaid, that’s not quite what’s happening. There’s not technically any literal magic involved in Ariel’s kiss. Though understanding the difference requires taking a look at how Ursula’s spell differs from, say, Queen Grimhilde’s in Snow White or Maleficent’s in Sleeping Beauty.
With both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the magic kiss essentially serves as a counterspell. The evil queen discovers in the “fine print” of her spellbook that the spell can be reversed:
“Ah, hear this! ‘The Victim of the Sleeping Death can be revived only by Love’s First Kiss.’ ‘Love’s First Kiss.’ Bah! No fear of that. The dwarfs will think she’s dead. She’ll be buried alive!”
The queen then proceeds to use the poisoned apple anyway, thinking the counterspell will never be possible (it wouldn’t have been, if the dwarves hadn’t put Snow White in a glass coffin and if the prince hadn’t been a necrophile). The kiss in Sleeping Beauty functions in a similar way, except that the counterspell is added in after the fact by the blue fairy’s magic gift.
Ariel’s kiss is different than both of these. For starters, her kiss isn’t a counterspell; instead, it’s the only way to stop the spell from reversing and turning Ariel back into a mermaid. In addition, the kiss in this case is something Ursula chooses to add into the spell. It’s part of her deal with Ariel a condition of the contract that Ariel willingly signs. Ursula’s use of a contract implies that she could have set just about any conditions she wanted. She could have said, “Prince Eric has to brush your hair before the sunset on the third day,” or, “You need to paint a portrait of Sebastian before the sunset on the third day.” This means that, technically, the kiss itself isn’t magic (by the literal, not metaphoric definition of the word). It’s just an arbitrary action that Ursula chose because it was a fitting lure to use with Ariel’s desire for Eric, and one that she was sure she could prevent from happening.
(Ursula, of course, cheats.)
So that’s an example of a magic kiss that turns out to not be as magic as we thought. But what about a normal kiss that turns out to be more magical than we realized? For that, we turn to The Sword of Truth.
Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth novels have a set of characters known as Mord Sith. They possess a variety of magics (most of which are used to torture people and break their wills, turning them into slaves). They also look really hot in red leather, especially Cara.
The thing about torturing people with magic dildos Agiels, the Mord Sith’s pain-inducing weapon of choice, is that if you’re not careful, you’ll kill your prisoner instead of just breaking their spirit. As a result, Mord Sith also need to be experts at providing emergency first aid. This includes using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which is referred to in the books as “the breath of life.” Mouth-to-mouth is also often referred to by others as “the kiss of life.” And while the Sword of Truth books never use the term “kiss” to refer to it, there is definitely an intimate aspect to the breath of life:
A Mord-Sith shared her victim’s breath when he was on the cusp of death. It was a sacred thing to a Mord-Sith to share his pain, share his breath of life as he slipped to the brink of death, as if to view with lust the forbidden sight of what lies beyond in the next world. Sharing, when the time came to kill him, his very death by experiencing his final breath of life.
–“Soul of the Fire”
This almost makes it sound like the opposite of what’s happening in Snow White, a kiss to share the experience of someone’s death instead of just bringing them back from the dead. But, of course, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation isn’t really “magic,” it’s just science.
Or is it?
The TV show Legend of the Seeker, based on Terry Goodkind’s novels, had a different take on the breath of life. As seen in the picture above, the breath of life was depicted as an actual magic breath that could be used to infuse life back into the victim. While this isn’t quite a kiss, it certainly is damn close, based on the intimate pose it’s been portrayed in. So in this case, we have a metaphorical kiss that turned out to be a magical one.
So it seems like there can be a lot of blurred lines when it comes to magic kisses. It makes me wonder whether Snow White could have been revived by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, or whether the princess could have saved the frog with a metaphoric kiss instead of a literal one because, eww, warts.
Of course, nothing will ever take the place of the real magic of a first kiss. That’s simply priceless.
Manifestation, Volume One of the Arcana Revived series, is now available.
The story follows a teenage girl, Gabby Palladino, as she is drawn into mystery and danger as the world changes around her:
Gabby Palladino believes in magic.
Her parents always tell her that magic is nothing more than foolish superstition. But she grew up reading ancient fairy tales known as the Fables of Arcana, which filled her mind with wonder and mystery. When those myths and legends start to come true, Gabby learns that real magic is far more dangerous than the bedtime stories she always believed in.
When people begin manifesting the powers of arcana, Gabby finds herself surrounded by dangers on all sides. She encounters people who can melt steel with their minds, create earthquakes, and summon flames from their bare hands. She must struggle to survive in a city gripped by chaos and destruction, while trying to discover why people are manifesting abilities that have been lost since ancient times.
What she learns will make her question everything she believes in, about the world, her family, and even her own self.
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