Category Archives: characterisation

When world-building overwhelms.

I may as well say right at the outset that whilst quality world-building is a great thing, you can have too much of it.

A number of years ago, I bought and read a fantasy series by a new author. An Australian imprint was looking for someone to spearhead their fantasy publishing down under and had found someone to publish. This was before the rise of ebooks, note. It is probably just as well I don’t remember the author’s name because the books were atrocious. My enduring memory was how little characterisation there was. Like most epic fantasy works, there was a great deal of magic, adventuring and gods dabbling in the affairs of men.

But the story was dry as dust. The world was interesting, the magic system fairly original, but everyone was a cardboard cutout of a cliched idea. It was difficult to discern anyone’s motives and most of the action was mechanical.

In other words, characterisation was sacrificed for world-building.

You wouldn’t be surprised to know I’ve long since gotten rid of those books.

More recently, I started reading another epic fantasy novel by a much more well-known author. Like most in the genre, there was a prologue filled with characters that I did not expect to see again and narrating events I would expect to be only referenced in legend in the rest of the story. So far, so good. The first real chapter started with some action – a somewhat mysterious assassin was at work, fighting off mooks as he sought his target in a place he didn’t really know. Completely tropish scene, clashes of culture driving action and interaction, plenty of opportunity for small info-dumps about the world. Which the author took. The assassin has a few magical skills unusual in the culture of his quarry and us readers were treated to quite detailed descriptions of how it worked.

There was a warning there, I think. Because it turned out it was a second prologue.

The next “chapter” was with another set of characters in a third location. And more world-building. The chapter after that did it again! But this time – finally – there was one character in common. His circumstances were vastly different, however, and I nearly didn’t recognise him. But then it happened all over again with the next chapter!

This novel has a lot of world-building. A lot. Maybe too much. Arguably too much to throw at the reader at this point in the novel. It’s all quite interesting, but I’d much rather have characters I can get to know instead of introducing them and then putting them on a shelf for a little while. It makes for a read that doesn’t engage me as well as it could.

And no, the novel I am describing is not A Game Of Thrones, although that work has also been accused of the same problem. The book I am referring to is The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve seen other authors do the same: as well as George R. R. Martin, Peter F. Hamilton comes to mind. His space opera The Night’s Dawn Trilogy does the same thing: multiple interleaving threads, scads of major characters and an immense amount of world-building.

But Hamilton makes it work. The characterisation he lends his characters is a match for the world-building and the action moves at a solid pace. I don’t feel Sanderson is giving his characters enough room. However, it is early in the novel and this problem may sort itself out.

But I still maintain that world-building can crowd out characterisation. It’s not a good idea to let that happen.



Filed under Brandon Sanderson, characterisation, George R R Martin, Peter F Hamilton, storytelling, world-building

Every experience is a learning experience

One of the oft-repeated pieces of advice for aspiring writers is “write what you know”. There have been multiple arguments about quite what that means. Does it mean you can’t write about life on a farm if you’re only ever lived in a city apartment? Does it mean you can’t write about spycraft if you aren’t trained for it? Does it mean a white middle-aged man can’t write from a black girl’s perspective?

Writers are always doing research. Not just formal research – deep in the reference sections of large libraries, or down the back of specialised book stores, or finding and buying obscure works off the ‘net – but also informal research. Watching people around them. Listening to stories and paying attention to their own experiences.

I got threatened with assault on the train yesterday afternoon. I know I don’t have any combat training and I rather doubt the pimply adolescent with more arrogance than sense did either. It was an intense experience corralling my reactions under the wash of adrenaline. There is a reason it’s called the “fight-or-flight response” because that’s the two options your body presents. It is calling for basic animal reactions. It is a difficult time for rational thought. Without any sort of training in the arts of hand-to-hand fighting, it was all I could do to not physically attack back and to go for diversions instead.

What did I learn out of this?  The immediate learning is that an untrained defender will not behave coherently. It is incredibly difficult to respond rather than react. This is why those who are expected to go into such a situation are trained so heavily. They need an instinctive response in that situation and that’s what training provides. Perfect information for writing a warrior in fiction. Especially one who is yet to undergo the necessary training.

I got out of this unharmed, of course. First step was to flee to the next carriage, then I called upon the train guard, who (to my considerable surprise) gave me a seat in his cabin to let me recover in a safe space. Because recovery is also needed from an intense adrenaline burst. This is also good information for writing. Once the emergency is over, your body pays the price: there is weariness, emotional vulnerability and in extreme cases even nausea as everything goes back to normal. I kind of suspect having a safe place and someone watching gives a reference point for ‘normal’ to aim for.

This is definitely not an experience I would normally want, let alone would want to repeat. And, sadly, it made me a bit more wary of which carriage I boarded on the journey home later that night. But I am aware of my own reactions enough to be able to learn from it. This is what makes me a writer.


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The story is stuck


I have a wonderful starting scene that sets up a lot of promise, especially what my hero thinks about a few key things. I have an outline of where I think I want to take him, mostly to challenge what he thinks about what I’d already revealed. And I have a few more scenes that start the journey.

Problem is, I’m having trouble making this work.

I find it difficult to write a story in patchwork. I prefer to start at the beginning and finish at the end. Not all my stories happen completely that way; there has been a short story where the last scene was written before I’d finished the third last. But mostly I don’t like to leave gaps as I write.

And that’s why I’m struggling. I need to get my characters past the city that they don’t belong in so that the rest of the story can happen. But coming up with things other then deus ex machina is proving oddly difficult. I mean, the hero wants to go to this city, but he’s a farmboy and really has no realistic idea of what a city is like. His pregnant wife is following along, but she doesn’t want to go to a city. Besides, there is a supernatural reason she won’t survive in a city, too. Have I mentioned this is a fantasy adventure story?

I think I need to refresh my memory of my hero’s character. The opening chapter was written months ago, and I think he was a bit more feisty than I’ve portrayed later. I mean, he isn’t supposed to be the sort to follow along behind others: he does decisive, and I’ve robbed him of that. Ah. Yes, he needs to clash hard with the two mercenary friends he’s acquired because they know cities and he doesn’t.

And that’s not even taking into account the wider story where there are (so far!) at least three groups of people looking specifically for him. And he not only has no idea this is happening, but would have no clue as to even why. I have been calling him my hero for a good reason!

So I think he needs to be presented with the fact that staying in the city is the worst thing he can do. Now to actually put in my story why.

Thank you, Internet, for listening!


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Realistic Courage

What makes your life interesting? What do you get up to that is exciting, different, strange? What do we let ourselves do to get away from the dull, ordinary, the boring?

It might be a cliché to say that this is why some writers write. A writer can live vicariously through his characters. On a basic level, a character in a story can get up to things a writer cannot. Exotic, impossible things. Ride the Orient Express in the late 19th century? Fly a spaceship to the moons of Jupiter? Hunt a woolly mammoth? But they can also do less overt things. Like run for office in their city. Like solve an impossible murder mystery. Like defuse a long-forgotten bomb from World Word II. Or even more subtle things. Standing up to the boss’s boss even though it means instant dismissal. Asking that girl out in high school even if she’s already seeing someone. Probably.

I would go so far to say that a writer must live vicariously through his characters.

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Filed under characterisation, men, storytelling, writing

The evil writer

As I write this, the latest episode of Doctor Who, “Angels Take Manhattan”, has now aired not only in its home country of Britain, but in the US and also on Australian TV. If you haven’t seen it yet and are intending to, stop reading. There May Be Spoilers.

That said, I would say it was a good episode. The most important thing that happened in it was that it was the last episode for The Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory. At least on that point it sorted out how they would leave The Doctor in a reasonably original way. But there was really no other way to do it.

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Filed under characterisation, Doctor Who, Steven Moffat, storytelling, writing

Imagining your hero

When I see a novel adapted to TV or film, I sometimes wonder how closely the lead actor on the screen matches what the author imagined. Especially for the more closely adapted works.

Sometimes there are obvious liberties. Lord Vetinari, the Patrician in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is usually depicted in official art as being extremely thin and having black hair. Yet when Going Postal was made, Vetinari (played by Charles Dance) is clearly blonde. Some fans did not like the change.

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Filed under characterisation, David Eddings, Helen Fielding, writing