story writing

The winner takes it all

Hey folks. Last weekend – using ‘weekend’ as a synonym for ‘Monday night’ because shut up – I talked about writing stories about failure, or that drove towards failure. You know, the sorts of stories that most people don’t want to read.

What do people prefer? Stories about success, unsurprisingly; stories about protagonists who overcome conflicts and succeed at their goals. Sometimes those protagonists are regular people; sometimes they’re Superman or Commander Shepard (FEMSHEP 4 LIFE). You know, stories that are fun rather than being a massive downer; stories that have a satisfying climactic ending rather than a gear-shifting anti-climax.

And yet, for all the fact that people (myself included) love these sorts of stories, they’re very easy to do badly. I’ve read too many stories and seen waaaaay too many movies where success seems pedestrian rather than exciting, where heroic competence is dull rather than engaging, and where the climax feels safe and predictable rather than exhilarating.

So once again Mister Tells-You-How-to-Write-Despite-Never-Finishing-Anything is here to give you some tips, this time on writing a strong story about a successful, engaging character. Trust me, I’ve read a lot of Batman comics, I’ve played a lot of D&D; I know how this shit works.

Success comes from competence

You have a main character and she’s awesome. She has two guns and she can pick any lock. And when she gets to the secret base to steal the gold-plated McGuffin, she walks in and out unmolested because Count Bad Guy trips over a staircase and knocks himself out rather than fighting her. Is that an exciting story?

The key to drama is conflict, and the key to an engaging, meaningful conflict is that victory has to be earned rather than given away. It’s important that the character succeeds through their own skill, ability and effort, not just through lucky breaks or through their opposition stuffing up. A hero who wins the day thanks to their rival’s incompetence or because she walked through the right door isn’t interesting, and their conflict (and victory) feels false. So when bringing your character out on stage, show off her skills – don’t hide her light under a bushel. Let her be aware of what she’s good at, let her use those abilities and let them be effective in overcoming obstacles and conflicts.

Failure comes from someone else’s competence

You want your character to win at the end, yes, but along the way it’s good for them to have a few setbacks and take a couple of knocks, if only so that they can bounce back from the defeat and learn from it. But if those setbacks are due to them not being skilled or strong enough to have a chance in conflicts (your hero has two guns but doesn’t know how to shoot them), or if she fails due to bad luck or random chance (her lockpicks get stolen by pigeons along with her lunch), then she doesn’t come across as a credible hero, she comes across as a schmuck.

The way to frame defeats, then, is to give your character competent opposition, antagonists or dangers that are simply greater than even her skills can overcome. She’s a crack shot with her pistols, but Count Bad Guy has bulletproof handwavium skin; she can read minds, but that doesn’t help when her yacht hits an iceberg. Situations like this position your antagonists and dangers as being meaningful and relevant, rather than just set dressing or minor speedbumps, because we never know if or how the hero will prevail. But prevail she will, because these conflicts can’t stop the narrative short; instead, the character can find new ways to get around the obstacle, either through improving skills (making armour-piercing handwavium bullets) or applying different abilities (picking the lock of the frigid prison at the heart of the iceberg).

Randomness brings narrative opportunities

So if you can’t use bad luck or external events to make your character win or lose, then what are they good for? Glad you asked. These externalities – sudden rainstorms, food poisoning, everyone in Chicago turning in a werewolf – open up new avenues for conflicts. A gunfight on the top of a burning skyscraper, with no way of getting off, is a lot more engaging than a gunfight in an empty street on a sunny day. Your hero can pick any lock with the right tools, but her picks were stolen by pigeons (remember?); now she had to improvise tools from bits of frozen scraps before the ice prison sinks. The context of the conflict changes, the parameters of description change, and everything gets more interesting.

External factors like this are also a good way of opening up new directions for the story, because they allow for different consequences and to explore the reactions of the main characters to those consequences. Your hero didn’t set that skyscraper on fire herself, and in fact got burned in the blaze, but now everyone blames her and she must avoid the police while seeking medical treatment. She escaped from the frozen prison before it sank, but now she’s stranded in the Arctic and the ice wolves are coming. None of these things are her fault, but they keep the dangers and conflicts flowing even after she’s succeeded to doing what she needed to do – she reacts to them, rather than them being reactions to her.

Flaws and weaknesses increase the awesome

It goes without saying that flawed characters are more interesting than perfect ones. (And in case it doesn’t, I’ll state it quickly – flawed characters are more interesting than perfect ones.) But flaws need to have an impact on the story to feel meaningful; your character being frightened of octopi doesn’t matter if the entire story takes place in the desert. A good way to make those flaws meaningful is for them to open up new conflicts as the character reacts against them – like an external problem, but internalised. Your hero hates Nazis, so she goes out of her way to bust up a ring of Illinois Nazi werewolves, and now she has to take them on at the same time as fighting Count Bad Guy. If she could have left well enough alone… the story would have been duller.

The other good way of making weaknesses work is to use them to raise the stakes in conflicts. Your hero has a bad temper, so when a contract negotiation goes bad she kicks over a table and calls the Pope a motherfucker. Now this negotiation is a lot more complex and difficult, and if she can’t mollify the Pope he’s gonna open up a can of white smoke on her arse – and won’t lend her the Vatican Guard to help her fight the Illinois Nazi werewolves. Which is going to really hurt when the ice wolves come for her in the Arctic… Flaws exist to get your character into trouble; trouble exists to make conflicts feel more important.

Victory has a price

Nothing in this world comes for free; victory needs not just hard work but sacrifice. For success to feel important, it kind of has to suck for the hero; she needs to give up something in the process. It might be love, happiness, her left arm, the chance to live a normal life or even her life, but whatever it is, it has to hurt; it has to be a price she would rather not pay. This is where too many blockbuster films slip up – the hero works for a victory (often by punching/shooting lots of people) but never sacrifices anything, never has to lose anything important to her to save what’s important for others. There’s no note of sadness (or at best a temporary one) in the relentless bugling of success.

And this, in turn, is the flip side of last week’s discussion. In a story of failure, the protagonist gives up the big goal for the small goal; they choose to fail at one in order to succeed at the other. It’s exactly the same in a story of success, but the priority remains as it was at the start of the story; the main goal is achieved, but the secondary, personal goal is forever lost. Batman can never be happy; Ripley never gets to build a life with Hicks and Newt; Commander Kirk can never just spend his days banging hot aliens. (Well, not unless the film is dumb.) Maybe it comes down to a choice, maybe it doesn’t; maybe the price is paid early, maybe right at the end. But winning has to be a kind of loss; that’s how you know it was worth it.

I really should workshop this gun-toting Nazi-werewolf-fighting cat-burglar concept more. There’s at least a novella in it.

Come back next week when I talk about editing! Or something else if I change my mind!

story writing

Fail to win, win to fail

No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful

Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful

No, I’m not depressed (I’m pretty much never depressed), nor am I quoting They Might Be Giants lyrics just because I saw them live earlier this month (an excellent gig). It’s just that I’ve been thinking about failure, as I am often wont to do, particularly on those days when I blow my own self-imposed schedule of writing blog posts on Sunday nights.

I like stories about failure; I like books where the main character sets out to do one thing at the start and ends up doing something fundamentally incompatible with that at the end. You know, books like Michael Chabon writes; pretty much all his novels are about failure on some level, especially Wonder Boys and Telegraph Avenue, both of which I loved. (His other main theme is dysfunctional father-son relationships, so it’s really like he’s writing books just for me.)

Stories about failure aren’t that popular, which is hardly surprising; we tend to prefer stories about success and overcoming odds, which are cathartic and dramatically satisfying. Last night we saw Star Trek: Into Darkness, for instance, which was well-produced and thrilling enough (albeit a bit ordinary on the whole), but there’s nothing in that movie about failure, and nor should there be. That wouldn’t be much fun. Still, sometimes you don’t want fun; sometimes you want to taste that human sadness, and a story about failure has that salty flavour.

So if you want to write stories that melt like mediocrity on the tongue (yep, taken the metaphor too far again), here are a few pointers on how to mix the recipe (doing it again PULL OUT PULL OUT):

Tell the right story at the right length

Genre stories of almost any stripe are rarely appropriate for fail-stories. You could say it’s because genre stories are about plot and fail-stories are about character, but that’s too reductive. Better to say that genre is about exploring ideas and seeing them through to fruition; fail-stories are is about swerving away from that fruition. We want to see the Dark Lord defeated, the mystery solved, the hot plumber nailed harder than Jesus; dash that expectation and there’s not much point in continuing. So fail-stories are generally the traffic of lit-fic; you can pull off something downbeat and melancholy and frustrated in genre, sure, but if you’re not Ursula le Guin maybe it’s best to try something else.

The other thing about fail-stories is that they tend to be either short or long, not medium-sized. Short stories are good fodder for fail-stories, because you can get in, set parameters, subvert them and then get out before anyone has a chance to get disappointed, like jazz in a minor key. Longer stories give you more opportunity to build connection and empathy for your main character (see below), which makes the process of failing more viscerally satisfying. Going for something in between, like a novella or a serial fiction, is trickier.

Focus on building empathy

Like I said, it’s not about prioritising character over plot, except that I lied and it totally is.

If we don’t care about a character, their failures are just boring; if we do care about them, their failures consume us. If we can put ourselves in their shoes and want what they want, need what they need, then their inability to gain those things hurts us, reminds us of all the times we fell short ourselves. To hit that point, we need more than just interest in or enjoyment of a character; lots of people like James Bond but a film where he failed to save the world would not make us happy.

What we need is to identify with the character, rather than idolise them. They need to be someone at our own level, be that conceptually or emotionally or what-have-you; they need to be someone sharing our skin. We need to understand their choices and their pain; we need to be able to nod knowingly and think yes, I’d have done the same thing, damnit. Without that sympathy, we don’t care that Jane Doe didn’t find true love among the dugong-people of Neptune and instead became a Venusian hermit, we just feel frustrated that all that hot manatee-love didn’t materialise and oh God this example has gone very wrong.

Small victories, meaningful failures

The small victories / The cankers and medallions whoops sorry sudden Faith No More lyric let’s start again.

Look, no-one wants to read a book where the protagonist just gets his face rubbed in dogshit for 200 pages and then it’s the end. (If you do, please stop reading my blog, you’re creepy.) An engaging narrative has a constant escalation of challenge-response-challenge, a rising tension throughout the story’s arc – and to keep that arc rising in a fail-story, your protagonist still has to meet and overcome some of those challenges, just like in a regular and-then-he-saved-the-world-from-the-Star-Groaties novel. And no, you can’t just have him win at everything and then fuck up at the final hurdle, because that would just be shithouse.

Instead, your protagonist needs to win at the things that don’t matter to him and fail at the things that do, and what that means will vary from story to story. If the hero has to solve a crime while also keeping his marriage intact, you need to decide which of those is what matters to you, and thus which is what will matter to the character (and the reader). That usually means the one that’s most emotionally meaningful; a story where the detective gets closer to the killer while his marriage falls apart is more interesting that one where he can’t make sense of any clues but his husband can’t wait to go on dirty weekends with him. Go back to empathy; we understand those personal, human failures more than the fictional ones, so that’s where the focus needs to go.

Set stakes and then reset them

At the start of a story’s arc you define the conflicts and the stakes; this is what’s going down, this is the opposition, this is what will happen if the hero can’t get her shit together – and, most importantly, this is what the hero will have to sacrifice to reach her goals. This isn’t new; this is Storytelling 102, after the course in hey-maybe-your character-should-have-limbs. (Unless it’s important for the story that he doesn’t have limbs, which is cool too.)

The key manoeuvre in a fail-story is revisiting those conflicts and stakes around or just past the halfway mark of the arc and giving the character the opportunity to question them – to say ‘shit, maybe I’m not prepared to give up the thing that matters to me to obtain my goal’. I don’t mean that abstractly; I mean that the character has to confront that dilemma within the narrative, to question everything they’ve done before that point. And that’s the point where you posit new goals, conflicts and stakes; that’s the point where you lay out signposts to an alternative ending, one that both the readers and the characters can see.

Failure is a choice

And once those signposts are in place, you put it on your protagonist to decide while the reader is screaming in his ear no no turn back not that way! Because failure due to incompetence or intellectuality isn’t fun to read about, it’s just frustrating; it’s like a gaming session where the player rolls a 1 in the final session and bang there’s two years of the campaign fucked. Failure matters when it’s deliberate, when the hero throws in the towel, turns her back on the fight; when she decides that the TKO isn’t as important as going back to art school, or whatever.

Because in the end, an effective story about failure is a trick – it’s about success after all. It’s just that what ‘success’ means by the end of the story isn’t what it meant at the start. For example, Wonder Boys starts with Grady Tripp defining success as finishing his novel; by the end he defines it as being a decent husband and father, even if that means giving up on his life’s work. He fails at his first target, but that’s okay, because it stopped mattering to him as much as the second one – and because Chabon built empathy and immersed us in Tripp’s head and heart, that’s what matters to us too. Through an act of narrative aikido, the direction of the story’s desire is turned upon itself, and the character makes the choice to be flipped onto the mat.

It’s not failure. It’s just realising that you prefer the taste of defeat. And the reader, hopefully, will too.

I hope all that made sense. It’s been a long day. If not, I admit defeat OH SHIT YO SEE WHAT I DID THERE ah never mind.

As a counterpoint, next weekend I’ll talk about narratives of awesome success and how to make them not suck.

Because if anyone knows about awesome success, it’s me.


story writing

Fight fight fight

In Sean Howe’s fascinating book Marvel Comics: the Untold Story there’s a bit about Chris Claremont, whose seminal run on Uncanny X-Men defined pretty much the entire superhero genre in the 1980s. Apparently Claremont was completely disinterested in the action elements of the comic, usually letting artist John Byrne take charge of those with a note like ‘fill three pages with fight scenes here’; left to his own devices, Claremont would have just let the X-Men argue with each other in coffee shops about who was sleeping with who.

Stories like that, or the Gail Simone anecdote about an unnamed colleague who would just copy-and-paste the action scenes from previous scripts and then change the names, make me want to find these writers and shake them like Polaroid pictures, and not in a sexy way. To have the opportunity to write a great, meaningful fight scene and say ‘oh, I don’t care about that, just draw dudes hitting each other’ makes my heart fill with sorrow. Sorrow and kickspolde.

Nextwave 7

For my part, I freaking love fight scenes – in movies, games, comics and (especially) prose. Not because I am a hairy-knuckled thug who just likes watching biffo, but because fights scenes are one of the most enjoyable, effective, flexible weapons in the writer’s arsenal. Engaging fiction revolves around action, in the sense that it involves characters acting and doing things, and fight scenes are a powerful way to make that principle manifest. I’m finally getting the chance to write them in Raven’s Blood and they are huge fun, and I find myself wondering why I didn’t write them before now.

So then, in no particular order and at no great length, here are some things that fight scenes provide or illuminate and why you should write them.

Clear conflicts and stakes

Drama is founded in conflict, about two characters or factions competing for something that only one can win. Fight scenes push conflicts into the foreground of your story and make them overt, make them something that can’t be mistaken, and escalate them so that the fallout can’t be ignored in future conflicts.

And conflicts aren’t just about me-vs-you, either; they’re about the setting of stakes and defining what each party is trying to achieve. Again, fight scenes make this explicit, especially when the stakes are very high, such as ‘stop Mega-zilla from eating the world’ – but they also throw smaller stakes into sharp focus just from incongruity. There’s also dramatic potential in mismatched stakes – two parties trying to kill each other is a very different story if one party is trying to escape instead.


Is your character confident? Overconfident? Highly skilled? Lucky? Capable? In over her head? Nothing showcases and demonstrates a character’s traits like throwing her into action. Portraying character, after all, should be done through showing rather than telling, and fight scenes are all about showing, about acting, about writing with strong verbs – about your character applying her skills and style to shaping the narrative, and possibly also staying alive. Even minor, seemingly cosmetic things like tool use can reveal character in a fight; any gamer can tell you that ‘dude with a battleaxe and shield’ feels totally different to ‘equally skilled dude with a rapier’, and both are different again to ‘nun with a shotgun’.


You think I’m going to quote Chandler and ‘When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand’. And yes, that’s a good way to use a fight scene – to kickstart the plot’s energy when it flags or when you don’t know where to go next. But more pertinently, plots are driven by conflict, and we already established that fight scenes emphasise and demonstrate conflict. That makes fights a powerful force multiplier for plot, because pushing things into a physical confrontation leaves you with a whole host of consequences to follow up. Who got injured and now needs to recover? Who got killed, leaving a power vacuum that must be filled? What got totes blown up and needs to be rebuilt – and what might be found in the ruins? High stakes lead to major consequences, and major consequences reshape the flow of plot.


On the micro level, fight scenes are an excellent avenue for description; you need to let the reader visualise the physicality of the scene before you set it all on fire. Very few fights happen in featureless white rooms – although that would be an arresting image – and an engaging fight is one that takes in the landscape, tools, bystanders, chandeliers and other features of the environment, letting you describe in context without pausing for exposition. On a macro level, fights can also be used for worldbuilding, demonstrating the weapons, techniques and attitudes of your fictional society. A society where duels are accepted practice is different to one where they aren’t, and a society where duels are fought with giant poisonous flowers (as in The Book of the New Sun) is different again.


Is your story serious? Then fights are a chance to show broken bones, horrific pain and ruined lives. Is it a story of melodramatic derring-do? Then fights might be a romp where a hero fights off a legion of mooks with only an umbrella. Light adventure? Then all those impossible kicks and last-minute escapes result in no more than bruises and injured pride. Fights are one of the best way of establishing the tone of your story, especially in genre pieces, because they let you flag all the way physical conflict is different from how it is in the real world, and that puts readers on the same wavelength so that they understand the flavour of your gritty thriller, superheroic adventure or cartoon escapade.


But tone is also a tool, and one you can use in many ways to keep the reader on their toes. A fight scene is a great way to make a light story suddenly feel serious, or blow off steam by turning a horror story into an occult adventure. Consider one of my favourite movies, Grosse Pointe Blank. For all that it’s about a hitman, the first two thirds of the movie has almost no action and works as a tongue in cheek, self-aware romantic comedy. Then Benny the Jet shows up and kicks the fucking shit out of John Cusack before getting stabbed in the neck in an amazing fight scene that takes a sharp turn into gritty, messy violence. Suddenly the tone is different, suddenly we take the story more seriously; suddenly the stakes – both physical and romantic – feel a lot more real.

Fuck, I love that movie.


Over and below the level of  plot, the question of what your story is actually about is one you should be addressing – and the best way is almost always through action. Fight scenes won’t illuminate every theme, but you might be surprised how much resonance can emerge from a punch-up that reflects your story’s meaning. If your story is about the price of success and the need for sacrifice, then a fight is a desperate, terrifying clash won only after losing an ally. If it’s about great risk leading to great reward, then a fight could be a kung-fu dust-up on the wing of a biplane with the fate of a city in doubt. And if your theme is ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ or something like that, well, there’s a whole library of fight scenes that have showcased that and similar themes over the years. You should read some of them.


Look, let’s just admit it – fights (fictional ones) are fun. They’re exciting, they’re entertaining, they’re full of colour and movement and stunts – and even the realistic ones are tense and gripping in that oh-god-I-want-to-look-away-but-I-can’t kind of way. A boring fight is hollow and pointless, providing no push to see what happens next – it’s like a cheesy karate-fight in a bad 80s action movie. But a powerful, entertaining fight scene draws you in, keeps you in suspense, makes you care about what happens to the characters – and then, having caught your attention with bullets and body blows, makes you care about everything that happens between the fights as well. For further illustration of this topic, see every film John Woo and Chow Yun Fat ever made.

Stylistic freedom

This is what I love most of all about writing fights – all the various ways you can whip up pace and movement and flash with just words. Fight scenes are a time for exclamation marks! ALL-CAPS SOUND EFFECTS! Adverbs! Adjectives! Run-on sentences that evoke a breathless rush and panic and then he turned to smash the zombie with a baseball bat but suddenly –

– there was a jump cut to another scene made with a hanging emdash!

And so on. Writing a fight scene lets me change up my game, vary the voice and style, break all the rules of my story’s grammar and do something different, something with a frantic energy that the story can’t sustain in the long term but that briefly facepunches the reader and then bodyslams them into the rest of the narrative.

Exclamation marks are a hell of a drug.

None of the above means that you must include a fight scene in your book, obviously. It’s not like Love in the Time of Cholera or Middlesex would have been improved by a car chase or a rooftop shootout. But if your genre and voice allow such things, if your story has a place for physical as well as emotional action, try to explore that space.

Jump in and give it a bash – possibly by having a character jump on someone and bash them.

character games genre story worldbuilding writing

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 2)

Last week I started talking about Guild Wars 2, not because it’s a fun game (it is) but because it’s an interesting object lesson in the use of storytelling techniques. I wrote about 1300 words about that, and I can only assume that I stunned all of you into silence with my brilliance ‘cos no-one offered even a single comment on it. Should I ask someone to rewrite my essay?

Well, prepared to be driven permanently mute as I continue to write even more on the topic of story, character and high-level armour drops!

(Also, this was meant to be finished and posted on Sunday night, but the Comedy Festival is chewing up my time and spitting out minutes and limbs.)

(And they’re not even my limbs. Not sure where they come from. Damned creepy, really.)

Choices matter

Throughout your personal story in GW2 you get called on to choose between two or three courses of action, which dictate what the next chunk of narrative will be. That’s excellent game design because it actively engages the player, making them feel that they’re an active participant in the story – even though some choices are weighted pretty heavily towards one more interesting option. (“Well, you could disguise yourself as a minotaur or do LAH LAH LAH NOT LISTENING HAND ME THE HORNS AND SUPERGLUE.”) In fiction you get that engagement by presenting the main character – the reader’s window into the story – with choices to make. Make your main character an active participant in their own story and the reader will follow suit.

…even when they don’t

On the other hand, choices need to be meaningful, and the ones in GW2 aren’t. Sure, they determine which mission you tackle next, but the end point of that mission lines you up to the pre-determined outcome and next stage the same as the alternative would. The game has a path, and your choices just determine which bits of scenery you set fire to along the way. In a story, choices need to be genuine decision points that shape outcomes and have permanent consequences, or else there’s no point writing about them. And as part of that, some of the most interesting decisions are the bad ones, the ones that don’t work out and push the story further into conflict. Go crazy with those.

Voice defines character

A key element of GW2 is that your character speaks, generally in conversational cut scenes – and the most important part of that is that your character develops a distinct voice. No, not voice acting, but a style and tone all their own, from the patient Sylvari to the belligerent Charr to the egotistical Norn. Each character expresses personality through their words as well as their deeds, and that’s vital for any kind of fiction as well. It’s also something you notice when it falls away, as it does in GW2 as multiple plot directions collapse into one, taking with them your character’s distinct voice – so don’t do that. Maintain character voice, even when the plot takes the character in a new direction.

At this point, I feel I should show you my character. His name is Cadmus and he is a Sylvari Guardian and he is level 80 and he fights with a sword and torch and he made all his own armour and he is very awesome and okay I’ll shut up now PS he is boss.


Fuck lore

I blame Bioware for the trend of emphasising the rich, detailed backstory of their game worlds by littering their games with infodumps and books/scrolls/datapads that you find and reach and squint at instead of actually playing the game. GW2 has plenty of backstory, but rarely stops to tell you about it – it shows you, usually by sending you on missions where history pops up, says hello and stabs you in the face. Short on exposition and long on action/character, GW2’s history leeches into you by osmosis rather than study, and that is a fine lesson to bring to your fiction. Stay focused in the here and now, let your characters discover history organically, and throw out just enough to provide context before moving on.

Genre is a big tent

If you’re looking for purist, traditional fantasy, GW2 is not for you. This is a world featuring giant Vikings, inquisitive plant-people, horned cat-folk undergoing an industrial revolution and a race of freckled gnomish mad scientists with robots and lasers. Add to that pistols, aqualungs, airships, battle armour, dozens of sentient races (most of them bad), anachronisms aplenty and wide swathes of horror and you get a take on fantasy that is anything but traditional. And that’s a good thing. Genre is vast, it contains multitudes, and purity is past its use-by date. Never feel hemmed in by what a genre is ‘supposed’ to contain – put in the things you want to include and the genre will swell to fit.

A consistent tone? What’s that?

Mind you, the problem with a big tent is that you might fill it with boxes, open them all at once and find that they don’t play well together. GW2 tries to present a series, often tragic tone within its main storyline, especially in the third act, but then destabilises that by getting you to enter an 8-bit computer game or fight the terrible Marxist-Leninist mole people in various pun-based locations. It’s hard to have feels when giggles are just a few minutes behind, and hard to maintain a tone of desperate urgency when you can just wander off and ignore the plot for a week while you gather armour bits. Any idea can be serious or silly, calm or critical depending on how you treat it, so long as you pick a tone early on and stick with it. If you’re going to be a purist anywhere in your own work, it should be tone – find your level ASAP and stay there to the end.

Pictures are worth a thousand etcetera

The visual world of GW2 is both rich and very carefully crafted, so that whenever you look around you know where you are. Every location has its own feel, from the sedate human kingdoms to the once-drowned-now-risen wastelands of Orr. Architecture is similarly distinct – you instantly know the cubic, gravity-defying ziggurats of the Asura from the dark satanic mills of the Charr and the re-purposed shipwreck-buildings of Lion’s Arch. Making everything distinct means that everything has instantly-identifiable flavour, embedding players in the world. Writers don’t get to play with visuals (well, most of us don’t), but we have other tools – word choices, prose rhythm, dialect, adjectives and more. Just as you give every character a voice, try to give every location and scene its own voice too; it makes the stories within them all the richer.

Exploration isn’t necessarily story

That said, if all you’re doing is looking at the scenery or exploring the intricacies of how the Shamu-Shamu people make purple whaleskin booties, your story isn’t going anywhere. GW2 encourages exploration with various tools, including the thrill of discovery and the lure of XP and treasure drops, but the story gets put on hold while you check out the landscape. Do you want to put your story on hold while people are actually, you know, reading your story? I thought not. As with lore, position the rich tapestry of your world front and centre by making characters run right through it, showing its colours and complexity for a second and then getting on with things. Story is movement. Always keep moving.

I could probably come up with half-a-dozen more object lessons, but it’s late and this essay is already long enough.

Let’s close by saying this. There was a time where prose was the Only Important Way of telling stories. That time is the distant past. These days there are lots of ways of getting a story into the reader’s head and heart, from games to graphic novels to epic poetry to multi-part interactive fiction experiments on Twitter. I’ve been talking about Guild Wars 2, but I could have drawn similar lessons from pretty much game, any movie, any (mostly) well-crafted piece of storytelling.

Everything you take in can teach you how to tell stories, whether by example or as a don’t-do-this object lesson. Keep your eyes peeled and your mind open, and you can learn from any of them. All of them. And make your stories better in the process.

Also, I’m patrickoduffy.3067 on Jade Quarry server, looking for groups to tackle the lower-level dungeons and maybe a guild to join. Send me a tell. I’ve got your back.

character games genre story worldbuilding writing

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 1)

Look, I make excuse after excuse about why Raven’s Blood is taking longer than expected, and many of those are more-or-less true, but here’s the real reason – I’ve been playing the shit out of Guild Wars 2 for like the last four months.

I have an addictive personality, and MMOs scratch that itch harder than Wolverine with shingles. Which is a terrible metaphor, I know.

Anyway, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on exploring Tyria, fighting elder dragons and experimenting with various ingredient combinations to level up my cooking skills. And something that’s become clear to me is that GW2 is a game based heavily around story, character and exploration, and that it uses some interesting techniques to get those elements across while still delivering lots of action and fights. So, much like I did with Batman: Arkham City last year, I’d like to look at how Guild Wars 2 uses the tools in the storytelling chest to make something that’s more than just whacking digital pinatas for imaginary gold – and how sometimes it uses those tools well and sometimes not.

See, it wasn’t just four months of wasted time; it was research.

Arc after arc, raise after raise

The structure of GW2 is a classic zero-to-hero tale, but one that’s remarkably coherent and well-structured. The core storyline is broken in regular chapters, each of which reaches a natural end point that segues neatly into the next arc, and each of which raises the overall stakes. You start off as just another adventurer, fighting bandits or in a rivalry with mad scientists, and by the end you’re spearheading the battle against the great dragons and their unending army of the undead in order to save the world. And that progression is largely smooth and unbroken; you can always look back and think that it makes sense that you wound up where you are. The pattern of establish a status quo / upend it / fix it / establish a new status quo where the stakes are higher / repeat is the meat and drink of storytelling; it’s always worth considering as your main course.

But keep those doggies moving 

The thing about that arc-to-arc movement is that it doesn’t give you much room to breathe between arcs, or else you lose momentum and don’t make the transition smoothly. Time elapsing in the narrative is fine; time elapsing for the audience is problematic. GW2 does the usual keying of  events to levels and places, and most of the time you gain the requisite experience for the next mission in the process of getting to the location – but not always. A number of times I found myself coming up short and needing to potter around someplace else to gain a level or two, which bled away a lot of the urgency of the storyline.  In your storytelling, don’t give characters unnecessary downtime between arcs – if time has to pass, it’s better to start the next chapter with ‘Six months later’ than to blow a whole chapter describing how nothing important happens for a while.

Character is at the heart of story

It doesn’t matter how rich the backstory and environment of your world is if there’s no-one for us to experience it through. GW2 does a great job of basing everything that happens around your character and their actions. All the plot-important events are instanced, so you don’t see all the other players doing exactly the same mission, and fully-voiced cutscenes bookend each event so that your character is actually interacting with NPCs and shaping the narrative rather than just being given a checklist of objectives. Over the course of 80 levels, I became not just invested in my character’s XP and bitchin’ armour choices but in his personality – a great achievement for an MMO, and the primary thing you want to achieve in your fiction. Do it the same way – build the story around your character and then let personality emerge from action and dialogue.

But your POV might be from the story’s kidney

GW2 positions your character as central, but not as the primary plot-driver; that role is taken up by various characters in the story arcs, with you as their lieutenant/assistant/main legbreaker. Doing so is understandable – you need NPCs to give you missions to drive play – but it still ends up with you being secondary in someone else’s stories. While it’s possible to make this work in a story (such as in the first few of Glen Cook’s Black Company novels), it’s more likely to leave readers feeling that they’re missing out on the story or reading about a less-interesting character. So if you’re going to place your main character outside the absolute centre of your story, make sure that their own story is at least as interesting that what’s going on front and centre.

Situations create narrative

GW2 largely eschews the traditional quest-journal approach of most MMOs in favour of a network of events that are married to locations and situations. Some are static; you enter an area and there are problems that are immediate and obvious (eel-men preying on wrecked ships, unexploded bombs in an orchard, uppity polar bears etc); just by wandering around and interacting with the environment you complete the event. Others are dynamic, suddenly starting up and bringing change into the scene – and some of those are links in a chain of events that change with consequences. If bandits attack a water pipe, you can try to fight them off; if you fail, the pipe is blown up and now you have to help repair it. This gives everything a feeling of import and weight; the world changes with you, even if only for a little while, and other players will be affected by your deeds. This is the kind of feeling you want to impart to events in your fiction. The best stories are not  just handed down from on high; they emerge naturally from reactions to a situation, they shape the actions of characters and are shaped in turn, and the consequences that follow the event meaningfully changes the narrative.

Sometimes that narrative is a bit dull

When a situation calls for a variety of actions – combat, puzzle solving, interaction, chopping down trees or whatever – then it’s engaging on several levels. When it just involves attacking an indeterminate number of monsters using the same two weapons for ten minutes… not so much. GW2’s static and dynamic events are a mix of the inspired (especially when you end up putting on disguises and changing form), the serviceable and the just-hit-enough-things-until-it’s-over, which is as quotidian as it gets for a video game. Over in the writing world, you should probably try to avoid the quotidian, because those are situations that don’t have tension, conflict or emotional resonance, and the narratives and consequences that emerge from them just aren’t interesting. Of course, ‘quotidian’ isn’t the same as ‘ordinary’; lots of normal human interactions are charged with conflict and meaning, and can give rise to powerful stories. But situations that only allow for limited character actions, that don’t matter in the overall storyline, that don’t present more than cosmetic consequences… it doesn’t matter if your story’s set in Melbourne, Metropolis or Moria, that bit of it’s going to be dull. Skip it.

Okay, we’re well over 1000 words at this stage, this post is two days late and I’m only half-finished, so I’m breaking this in half. Come back next weekend for part two, which will be at least as exciting and educational as this one.

Plus I’ll add some screenshots of my character. He looks boss.

story writing

Nothing but the tooth

So I had a plan for the week that’s just ended. It was to go to New Zealand on Tuesday morning, spend the next three days conducting day-job-related meetings, spend the evenings working on Raven’s Blood in my hotel room and then to fly back on Saturday afternoon.

Instead, this happened:

Yes, my skull turned blue and transparent and a red light flashed in my jaw.

No, wait, I mean I got a toothache. A REALLY FUCKING BAD TOOTHACHE, YOU GUYS. So bad that I couldn’t sleep or focus on writing; so bad I had to cut the trip short and come back on Thursday night. Fortunately my doctor was able to fit me in on Friday morning and I got a root canal. Which are not very much fun, but better than losing your mind due to constant pain.

Ah well. Life goes on.

But this is a writing blog, not LiveJournal, so how can this experience be used in a story? Well, the obvious answer is a story about toothache, but BORING AND ALSO OUCH. I’m more interested in the derailing aspect – the idea of a story cruising along as intended until some outside influence comes into the narrative.

I mean, sure, you could just write it that way – a sudden interruption and then you return to the plot – but that’s not the way to go. As a reader and editor, I don’t like extraneous material in a story; if an event or character or situation doesn’t meaningfully contribute to the story, it doesn’t belong there. Real life has stuff that just happens, but the whole point of fiction is that it’s not real life, even when it pretends to be.

So what are some ways to make something like this work to improve the story?

Let’s say that you’re writing an urban fantasy story in which Con Johnstantine, Greek occult investigator, is looking into a case of crotch goblins manifesting in people’s pants.

…hmm. Possibly the painkillers are still fucking with me. But let’s roll with it.

Okay, so there are crotch goblins and Con is on the case, but in chapter 6 he gets a massive goddamn toothache and needs a root canal. Here are five ways to work that kind of left-field event into the story and make it feel not only relevant but meaningful to the overall narrative.

Delaying tactic

Con is on the case and close to a break-through, but then the toothache knocks him for a loop for three days/pages. When he recovers, it’s too late, and Shit Has Got Real – the crotch goblins are rampaging across the entire city! External distractions and problems can be good obstacles to put in a protagonist’s path to slow them down and raise the tension. They’re especially useful because they don’t damage the character’s perceived competence – Con didn’t let things escalate because he’s a bad occult detective, he just got sidelined by something that could happen to anyone.


Con goes to see the Flagstaff Dentist, putting the case safely on hold for a while. He strikes up a friendship with a dental technician, and perhaps will learn to love again, but then she gets possessed by the crotch goblins and the tragedy renews his determination to rid the world’s underpants of evil. To be honest, I don’t love subplots – unless you’re working in a strongly compartmentalised milieu like TV or comics, I generally find them distracting. Stay focused on the core story, rather than noodling around the edges! But an exemption can be made for subplots that illustrate points of character or personality, or let them develop in ways that the main plot probably wouldn’t allow.

Key subplot

Better yet, have the subplot lead into plot points that directly impact the core storyline. Even dulled by anaesthetic, Con realises that novocaine would be a useful weapon against the crotch goblins. He grabs a case of it from the dentist’s after chatting up the dental technician and uses it to take out most of the goblins before fighting their king, David Bowie. This is more satisfying because the diversion means something concrete; on the other hand, you shouldn’t make the subplot an absolutely vital part of the story’s outcome. A secondary plot should help overcome a secondary obstacle, not the primary obstacle.

Parallel plot

Con thought crotch goblins and toothache were problems enough – until he realised that the dental technician was in fact the Tooth Fairy, hidden in witness protection and being hunted by the Toothpaste Mafia! Now he has to protect his new love and the city while manoeuvring his two enemies into wiping each other out in a riot of mouthwash and underwear. This is the classic A-plot/B-plot structure used in many a book (including The Obituarist) and it’s a great way of adding depth to a story without muddying the waters of a single narrative. Swap from one to the other, using the moves to control pace and tension, and then bring them together at the end.


Hah! You thought this book was about crotch goblins! But no, it’s all about Con and the Tooth Fairy fighting King Colgate and his army of floss demons, ready to crack open the dentures of all reality! The goblins were just a fake-out, and Con can clean them up with a holy water douche in the denouement or epilogue or something. This kind of bait-and-switch can piss off readers who get invested in the fake-out early, but if you’re careful with it you can use it as a form of world-building; it gives the strong impression that there are many equally valid concerns in the world that the protagonist must deal with, rather than just one cah-RAZY problem.

So whether your story’s about crotch goblins or academic intrigues or just too many hot dudes wanting the protagonist’s number, there are ways to throw a wrench into the works and still make it feel organic and meaningful, rather than tacked on.

Just be sure not to hit me in the face when you throw that wrench. My gums are still pretty tender.

In other news, I turned 42 yesterday. Whoo! It was a somewhat muted celebration, as I’m still not in great shape from the root canal, but I’m having a proper party next weekend.

If you feel like giving me a present, consider the gift that keeps on giving – a positive review of one of my ebooks over on Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords or anywhere else that people might see it. Come on, folks, this dental work isn’t going to pay for itself!

…man, what if dental work could pay for itself somehow? There’s a story in that. A squicky one.

character story superheroes

Faster than a speeding narrative

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman, and specifically thinking about how to write Superman stories.

Which, let me be clear, is not something I tend to do very often. I am Batman-man, after all, and while I’ve always been perfectly happy that Superman exists I’ve rarely been all that interested in reading about him. Good character, but not my favourite.

But the last few years have seen Superman appear in many stories that get the character very wrong, and these things irritate me when I read them. Worse, those wrongheaded approaches get enshrined into continuity as ‘definitive’ stories and interpretations, and the stories that follow take their cues from these flawed sources.

And now we have a belligerent, ‘edgy’ Superman who is alienated from humanity, quick to lash out in anger and willing to dismember and decapitate his enemies. Yes, that actually happened in the new Justice League title, because what we’d always wanted to see was the world’s greatest hero tear aliens into bloody shreds. Kids love it!

Everything about this is terrible. EVERYTHING.

So I feel the urge to pontificate on how to write Superman. Which is not difficult, despite what people say – hell, it’s so simple that even a schmuck who has no comics writing experience whatsoever can see it. Because there is an elemental purity to Superman, the first and most important superhero, and that purity shines through like yellow sunlight through green fog.

Many of the changes seem to come from the oft-repeated ‘conventional wisdom’ that Superman is a hard character to write, or to relate to, for two reasons:

  1. His enormous physical power makes it difficult to challenge him
  2. His morality is simplistic and makes him emotionally uninteresting

The interesting thing about these arguments is that they are both stupid – or, more precisely, both backwards. They position the two greatest opportunities in writing the character as problems. They are Bizarro reasons that am make perfect sense me am love eating ground glass.

Here’s the thing about ‘challenging’ characters – that’s not how writing a story works. Writers don’t ‘challenge’ characters, because the setup and the outcome of the story (or scene) are determined by the writer in the first place. There’s no challenge, there’s no uncertainty, there’s no rolling dice to see if the hero or villain win this month. Instead, you need to approach things in terms of conflict.

What are the stakes? What are the conditions? What does the character want? What can/will they do to achieve it? What do they need to overcome? What are the consequences of success and/or failure? These are the fundamental questions a writer needs to consider, and they are the questions that shape stories – and that determine what kind of stories work for a character.

So when someone talks about Superman being ‘too powerful’, that speaks to a problem with the stakes and conditions, not the character itself. A story about Superman catching a car thief isn’t going to work because the stakes and the consequences don’t match the character, not because he’s ‘too powerful’. And anyway, we’ve seen that story before, right?

Instead of a problem, think of Superman’s abilities as an opportunity. Superman’s physical power does not exist to let him overcome conflicts, it exists to allow him to engage in conflicts – the more amazing and over-the-top the better. His power level allows you to open up immense conceptual space and come up with magnificently impossible situations. Suns should be exploding, continents should be liquefying  dimensions should be tearing asunder. You have a chance to make up something amazing when you write Superman – do that, rather than, I dunno, have him walk slowly across America while lecturing poor people about how they shouldn’t commit crimes.

The other thing about going balls-out in the imagination stakes is that it means creating antagonists who can also operate on that level. Again, this is something some writers see as a constraint (they really wanted to make that car thief the bad guy) and I see as an opportunity, because it means the power levels cancel out and put the focus on personality. When that playing field is leavened – or, more correctly, equally heightened – what carries the day is not physical power but courage, determination and humanity. Superman doesn’t win because he is strong; he wins because he is brave, kind, inspirational and selfless. He wins because of that simplistic morality that is the other major complaint about the character, because the heart is the most powerful muscle of all. 

And here’s the thing about ‘simplistic morality’ – fuck your cynicism, human goodness is real.

Yes, we are flawed, but we can work to overcome those flaws, and we do so every day. I see people striving to help others every day, in whatever way they can – and for most of us those are small ways, sure, but we still try. We can be terrible to each other, but we don’t have to be. And in Superman – in the lightning that Siegel and Shuster captured in 1938 – we can imagine what simple human goodness could do if given the ability to act. Superman does not refute the notion that power corrupts; he refutes the notion that power must corrupt.

Some people think that’s old-fashioned. I think it’s beautiful.

Certainly there is room for that moral strength to be tested – that, in the end, is the most exciting part of any conflict involving Superman, because exploding suns are all well and good but we need something human to connect to. The point is, though, that there’s a difference between it being questioned and being subverted or mocked; between it being a source of conflict or a source of failure. Stories where Superman wonders whether torture can be justified (the animated feature Superman vs the Elite), where Jonathan Kent hires a branding consultant to design the S-shield (Superman: Earth One) or where his power alienates him from humanity and makes him feel superior (Kill Bill, of all things) utterly miss the point of the character. Superman gives us something utterly human to aspire to; he tells us that goodness can come from our genes, our upbringing or our innate character. That humanity is not something to be overcome, despite what Nietzsche said.

Alright, enough of my ranting and italics. Where does this get us?

Well, if we work from these principles, we can see that Superman stories should embrace the impossible, putting him at the start into situations no normal person could survive or perhaps even understand. He’s not blase or jaded by the situation, but nor is he cowed. His powers let him engage with those impossible situations, while his moral strength allows him to overcome the conflict facing him – the alchemical wedding of Super and Man.

For my money, the perfect Superman story that illustrates all of this is not All-Star Superman, although that is one of the finest Superman stories ever told; it gets everything right, but puts too much of its focus on other characters and situations. Instead, I’d like to nominate another Grant Morrison piece, Superman Beyond, a tie-in to the unfairly maligned Final Crisis.

In it, Superman is recruited by the interdimensional Monitors of Nil to battle a threat that could end the entire multiverse. But the Monitors’ bleedship crashes in Limbo, a wasteland between realities populated by forgotten superheroes, a place where stories go to die. When Mandrakk, the Dark Monitor, comes to tear Limbo apart and destroy all realities, Superman rallies the forgotten heroes to fight back while he travels outside reality to the Monitors’ home. There he takes control of a giant thought-robot to fight Mandrakk, unleashing the conceptual power of his own story to overcome the metatextual erasure of reality, finally casting the vampire Monitor into the Overvoid before flying back to his own reality with a single drop of infinite energy in his mouth that he uses to save Lois Lane’s life.

That probably all sounds a bit crazy put like that, and it must be said that coherency is not a hallmark of Final Crisis, but the majestic inventiveness and scale of the story make it wonderful. It’s a story where Superman must battle threats not just to humanity or one universe but to the very concept of universes, where he has to accept the idea that his life and everything he knows is on some level fictional but still worth fighting for, where he needs to place faith in alternate universe versions of himself (even in the evil one), and where in the end he is motivated to give it everything he has by his love for his wife.

Also, parts of the story were in 3D, special glasses and all.

Fuck. Yeah.

That’s how you write Superman,

Look, I’ve been talking in the specific about Superman here, but in the end this all applies to any powerful or competent character. Actually, strike that – it applies to any character, at least one interesting enough to write about. Because it’s always important to ask the right questions when writing about conflicts, and it’s always important to let the character’s personality be involved in how that conflict plays out. It’s just that it’s easier to expound at length (great, great length) on those points when I have a blue-and-red example to attach to them.

So take three axioms from this:

  1. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the parameters of a conflict.
  2. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the outcome of a conflict.
  3. You can (and probably should) use completely different traits to shape parameters and outcome.

And those apply to heat vision, intellect, juggling skill or just particularly tight pants.

Or indeed no pants. Let’s see Superman fight that.

story writing

The rape less travelled

So everyone’s talking a lot about rape lately.

That’s kind of a weird thing to kick off with, isn’t it? But it’s true, at least in gaming circles. Much as speculative fiction grappled with depictions of race and culture a few years ago in the RaceFail 09 debacle, gaming (video, RPG, whatever) seems to be hitting a period where parts of the fanbase are (quite justifiably) finding fault in their preferred media.

In this case, it’s female gamers (and their male allies, of course) speaking out about depictions of women in games. Which they’ve done for a long time, because a lot of games depict women in really fucked-up ways, from lesbian sex ninjas to big-titted prizes for male characters to win. Other games depict women in much better ways, and indeed in really interesting and effective ways, but it’s the shitty depictions that get the attention – and rightly so.

And all of that has pretty much been horses for courses for ages, enough so that game companies seem to think we’ll be bored with standard, easy misogyny and are instead playing the rape card to get our hearts started.

The tipping point for the explosion of discussion on this seems to be the new Tomb Raider game, of all things, a prequel in which we learn how Lara Croft learned how to do flawless backflips while wearing Daisy Dukes. But because the notion of a capable female protagonist is just crazy talk, this prequel casts Lara as a vulnerable Other that gamers will want to shepherd and protect rather than embody or empathise with. Lara is just a weak girl, and players must look after her as she’s beaten, brutalised, starved, kidnapped and threatened with rape. Screw up and she dies; make a mistake and she is raped and killed. And then you reload and she’s fine and you can try again.

Man, that game sounds fan-fucking-tastic, don’t it? Because the best way to pave the way for an escapist adventure where you shoot dinosaurs and explore a wardrobe of belly shirts is to drop us off at Rape Camp for a spell first.

One of these things is not like the other

Reaction to this has been largely negative – imagine that – and the game’s producers have started backpedalling so hard they’re running the Tour de France in reverse, but the important thing is that it’s really kickstarted a discussion about rape culture in gaming. And kickstarted a whole pile of rape threats to any woman talking about rape culture in gaming, of course, because the human race is awful.

(If you’d like to read more on these topics, I recommend this excellent article by Daniel Golding, which talks both about the problems with gaming culture and how we can perhaps work to understand it as a product of the general culture. Seriously, check it out.)

And while this is all happening in the world of videogaming, it’s also cropping up in the smaller, less visible but equally problematic world of roleplaying, which also has a long and storied history of treating women as Scary Vagina Mutants and rape as just one of those things us fellas can joke about with impunity. The uptick in women saying ‘hey, this is shit’ and games pushing the rape button for attention is smaller there, but it still exists, and the waves being caused by the videogame discussion are lapping against the dicey shores and kicking over rocks.

Under one of those rocks lives James Desborough, creator of ‘hilarious’ ‘games’ such as Hentacle and The Slayer”s Guide to Female Gamers, which are every bit as charming as they sound. His attempt to cash in on the outrage women feel about being objectified and othered was to write an essay called ‘In Defence of Rape’, in which he says that ‘rape or attempted rape is a fucking awesome plot element’. I won’t put in a link to that, because – and I want to say this in as professional and dignified a manner as I can – Desborough is a piece of ambulatory dogshit shaped like a man. He’s a noxious, pathetic failure of a person who’s built a ‘career’ out of publishing games that objectify and demean women, that glorify and trivialise sexual assault, and that present the most egregious kinds of misogyny under the argument that ‘it’s just a joke, don’t take it seriously’. If you want to see an indepth takedown of his pathetic ‘argument’, there’s a terrific essay over at MightyGodKing that does just that.

Rather than an image of any of this awfulness, please enjoy this photo of the Dalai Lama hugging a penguin

(Also, I’m sure that during his regular egosurfing Desborough will find this blog and leave a bullshit comment, and I’ll delete it and block him, just as I’ve deleted and blocked his bullshit comments on other social media platforms in the past, and he’ll cry martyrdom and censorship to his rape-is-awesome fanbase and they’ll talk about how terrible I am while rubbing their dicks. This is a dance that has happened before. It is a dance that will happen again. Like the Macarena, but one dancer is a piece of dogshit.)

There’s a lot of back and forth about Desborough, his works, roleplaying’s attitude to rape and all of that happening on various gaming forums right now, as well as petitions, flamewars, accusations of censorship and the like on other platforms like Google + and Facebook. People are angry. That’s possibly a good thing, because anger can motivate people to get things done. Or it can motivate them to scream and snipe at each other on the internet for the foreseeable future. We’ll see which happens.

But in any event, there’s a quick (!) précis of what’s been going down in the world of gaming and discussions of rape.

Fun times.

But although I occasionally discuss gaming because I love games so goddamn much, this is primarily meant to be a blog about writing. So what about rape in fiction? Should writers censor themselves and shy away from the topic? Should it be taboo? Or should they view it as a ‘fucking awesome plot element’?

Many writers have used rape well as a meaningful and important event in their novels and works, from William Shakespeare to Alice Sebold. And many more writers have used rape for cheap stakes-raising and shock value, or as a clumsy and trite tool to motivate female characters who can only be defined by their femininity and by ‘overcoming’ it through trauma. And, obvious bigot and censorship lover than I am, I think a writer who views fictional rape as ‘fucking awesome’ is unlikely to write the next Lovely Bones or Titus Andronicus.

What to write instead? Well, here’s a great quote from author John Perich (whose book Too Close to Miss is on my Kindle and waiting to be read):

On the Great Wheel of Unfortunate Fates that writers spin whenever they need something bad to happen to a protagonist, there are several entries for men:

  • Losing a job or a source of wealth;
  • Getting hurt;
  • Getting scarred;
  • Losing a loved one;
  • Having a loved one kidnapped;
  • Having a loved one used as leverage for a threat;
  • Being arrested;
  • Being seduced by nefarious people;
  • Being betrayed;
  • Being watched by nefarious people;
  • Being lost far from home;
  • Etc.

If your protagonist is female, however, there are only three:

  • Sexual assault;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Pregnancy.

I’m exaggerating for comic effect, but not that much.

(As Perich says, this is an exaggeration, but it’s an effective and useful one.)

All of this is particular interest to me because I’m writing two books right now that star female protagonists, and young female protagonists at that. I want to cast those young women as interesting and flawed characters who overcome trials and their own weaknesses to find victory, albeit in very different kinds of stories, and in a way that engages, rather than alienates or upsets, both male and female readers.

Here are things that happen to Gwen in Arcadia:

  • Struggling to tell fantasy from reality
  • Becoming homeless
  • Making really bad decisions that hurt herself and others
  • Unrequited love
  • Reading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time
  • Being chased through Melbourne’s alleyways by a private detective
  • Failing to protect that which she loves most
  • Doing everything she can to make it right again

Here are things that happen to Kember in Raven’s Blood:

  • Getting arrested for sedition
  • Trying to repair her relationship with her father
  • Uncovering the truth about a vanished masked avenger
  • Fighting golem-men, giant snakes and other monsters
  • Nearly drowning
  • Running across rooftops
  • Dealing with tragedy and loss
  • Taking up the mantle of a fallen hero

Here are the things that won’t happen to either character:

  • Getting raped
  • Being threatened with rape

These are stories that involve physical and emotional danger and turmoil, and I want to make that danger and turmoil exciting and gripping. But taking rape out of my repertoire doesn’t do much to stop me telling the stories I want to tell and to (hopefully) make those stories exciting and emotionally engaging. Hell, it doesn’t do a goddamn thing to my work.

In the end, writers have the right to use rape as a device in their stories. And if they exercise that right, they then have the responsibility to exercise it well, with sensitivity and care and for powerful emotional effect, rather than using it for cheap, visceral pops. When they succeed, it should be acknowledged; when they fail, it should be discussed; when they don’t even try to do it right, they should be criticised and possibly even condemned. (Certainly if they’re arsenuggets like James Desborough.)

For my part, though, I think I’ll just avoid it, because I don’t see a need for it in the stories I’m currently writing and those I’m planning to write.

(I may have a future idea that requires addressing rape, sure; I get lots of ideas, and maybe Future Me will come up with a story that demands a careful and responsible depiction of sexual violence and its consequences. Past Me did that once, after all; the short story ‘Godheads’ (in the anthology of the same name) includes sexual violence, although it’s in the past and mentioned only obliquely without being described. But I don’t see it happening for a good long time, and if it does I’ll try my hardest to explore it sensitively – and if I find I can’t, I’ll change my idea into something that works better.)

To summarise:

Can rape be used as a worthwhile plot point in a strong narrative? Absolutely.

Could I use rape as a worthwhile plot point in a strong narrative? Possibly.

Am I going to use rape in my books? No, because I don’t fucking want to. And I think that’s a reasonable desire for myself or for any other writer.

(Yes, this is the point of the whole post. Because why use 40 words when I can use nearly 2000?)

None of that makes me Internet Writing Jesus or the most sensitive and loveable of all dudes, of course. Saying ‘hey, I don’t plan on writing about rape’ only clears the bar of Things Worth Saying because that bar is set so goddamn fucking low that even snails have to hump their amorphous butts over it. But yet some trails of slime still manage to go under the bar, and we find awful toerags like Desborough at the other end, extruding shit from their keyboards, so there is at least a little bit of value in saying that.

Which is kind of sad in and of itself, to be honest.

story writing

I can’t turn it off

So we went to see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows a couple of nights ago. It was decent, if not amazing; it was more a straightforward action-adventure movie than a mystery, and the script was crammed with obviously deliberate Holmes-on-Watson shipping subtext, but the pace was cracking and the characters interesting. I liked the first one more, but this was okay.

Afterwards, though, there was a post-movie -dinner conversation about the fate of one character who is killed off early in the film (no spoilers – well, unless you count ‘people die’ as a spoiler). Everyone found the death unsatisfying and a waste of an interesting character, and a number of my friends speculated that perhaps the character faked his/her death, and wasn’t really dead, and what had really happened was an elaborate ruse.

I came back with my standard response to this sort of thing: ‘Well, nothing ‘really’ happened. These are actors performing from a script, not real people, and nothing that’s not up on the screen is part of the narrative. Unless there’s a scene in which the death is shown to be a fake, there’s nothing else to say.’

And this makes me sound like a boor with a stick up my butt, I know. That may in fact be true. Lord knows I can be a humourless git at times. But what I’m trying to say that is when I read a book or see a movie or whatever, all I see is the text; all I see is what’s there in front of me. Because that’s the thing that actually exists, that can be analysed and understood and picked apart, that’s the thing that causes an intellectual/aesthetic/imaginative/indigestive reaction in me. It’s an artefact that can be understood and/or appreciated for its own beauty.

But for many readers, there is the urge to extrapolate, to imagine further; to see the book/story/movie as a window into another reality about which statements can be made. This is the fanfic urge, the worldbuilding urge; the urge to see implications, to imagine the unseen scenes between the ones on screen/the page, to see the text as a partial glimpse of something larger.

And it’s fundamentally an urge I don’t understand. And my inability to understand that desire and that state of mind – to see a text as reportage rather than artifice – is something I often wish I could overcome. I think I’m missing something, because to me the book is only ever words on a page. Hopefully smart, beautiful, well-chosen and properly-punctuated words, words that make my brain race as I stitch together imagery and meaning from them… but still, I can’t understand how you go outside the text, how you can ask whether what happened on the page/screen was what really happened.

Nothing really happened. Someone made it up. And I always feel that that’s a much more amazing and wondrous thing that the notion that the author/creator is someone just channelling a reality that exists somewhere else.

If you like to imagine books as windows into another reality, one that can be envisioned and then examined… honestly, I kind of envy you. That’s pretty cool. There are times when I’d like to turn off the constant analytic assessor in my head and believe, even if only for a second, even if only as a deliberate choice. But I can’t, and when conversations turn to that, I get a bit incomprehending and should probably learn to be quiet.

I have a similar mix of incomprehension about, for example JK Rowling’s claims that the character of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels is gay. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of them, but I did hear about this in the news on a slow day a few years ago.) As I understand it, when criticised for not including any gay characters, she said that Dumbledore was gay but that she chose not to include any signs or suggestions within the text that that was the case. But that’s fine, because the character has a reality, and this utterly-invisible reality is enough to deflect any criticism.

This is my Potter-truth

For me, that’s the same as saying that Dumbledore was actually an animated chocolate golem, or fought crime as Batman between novels. Sure, it never came up in print, but if he can be gay without, y’know, being gay, then my theory that Harry is actually a sackful of ferrets perfectly pretending to be a human being is just as valid, because that’s a reality that just doesn’t happened to be mentioned in the text. And yet, if I say that loudly at Potter conventions, suddenly I’m the guy escorted from the building by security and beaten up in an alley by Hermoine cosplayers. Again.

Mind you, saying that you can’t extrapolate from the text isn’t the same as saying there’s no such thing as subtext. Subtext is the foundation of meaning upon which a narrative rests; it’s not overt, but it’s still internal the text. Extrapolation, on the other hand, is external to the text; it’s the reader/viewer bringing their own desires to the material and reshaping the narrative to fit. Which is an interesting process, and it’s one I’d like to understand more, but it doesn’t seem to be doable. This is the way my head is, and I can’t turn it off; all I can do when I encounter a text is dissect it on its own terms. It can’t be real for me; it can only be a crafted object.

But on the flip side, there’s something great about taking books (and movies and plays and comics, yeah, but mostly books) on their own terms – as works of craft and art and imagination. For me, saying that all there is is what’s on the page isn’t a way of denigrating narrative, or saying that those who like to extrapolate are crazy/bad/wrong/Republican; it’s a way of celebrating the text and the act of creating it. Text is a joyous thing; text is what you get when a (hopefully) passionate, inspired writer sets out to create a thing of beauty. To celebrate it for what it is, rather than what it can be inferred to be, is no different than celebrating the Sistine Chapel ceiling as a work of great artistry, skill and technique, rather than as an accurate depiction of God and, um, whoever the other guy is. Is it Adam? That would make sense, I suppose. But I don’t need to know that in order to appreciate the power of the work, and I don’t think we need to act like a narrative is ‘real’ to still acknowledge its power and its worth.

Invention is more fun than extrapolation. If only so we can argue that it was the Potter-ferrets that faked their death to throw Sherlock off their trail.

character games story superheroes writing

Arkham City – the writing dos and donts

I don’t think anyone will be terribly surprised to hear that I spent most of the last two weeks playing Arkham City, rather than Christmas shopping, writing or spending quality time with my wife. I mean, come on, it’s a video game about Batman; the only way to make that more attractive to me as a package is have it dispense a shot of bourbon from the controller every time you get an achievement.

But as of yesterday I have finished the game (both the core plotline and the host of side missions) and having done so I think there’s a lot to consider from a writing POV about the way the game handles its stories and characters. Arkham City does some things right and some things wrong – more the latter than the former, to be honest – and a lot of that is pretty directly applicable to writing fiction. So let’s step away from the fact that the game is a lot of fun and features my favourite character and see what else we can learn from it.

(No, this isn’t a transparent attempt to justify the hours I’ve spent beating the crap out of bad guys on the TV. Honest. Cross my heart.)

Also, warning: if you haven’t finished the game yet, there’ll be some spoilers here. They might ruin your enjoyment. Or they might not.

Plot from premise

For a start, let’s talk about plot. Although promoted as being sandboxy and ‘open-world’, AC has in fact a very central plotline. More specifically, it has two central plotlines. First up, Hugo Strange has turned half of Gotham City into a giant prison, full of psychopaths and lowlifes, and Batman has to find out what Strange is really up to. On top of that, the Joker has infected Batman and a lot of hospital blood supplies with a deadly disease, so Batman has to determine and find the cure before he (and hundreds of others) die.

This is classic stuff – you have an A-plot and a B-plot, you move the spotlight between the two as the story progresses, and you use developments in one to modify the other. It’s very much the approach I’m taking with The Obituarist, for example. By having two main plotlines, you can build tension in one and then move to the other to maintain suspense, or pull the trigger in one to ramp things up in the other. Having just one core plotline in a long-form work doesn’t give you the same richness or as many tools, and you run the risk of pushing that plot too hard and boring your readers.

In addition, AC has about a dozen side plots and missions, plus a parallel storyline about Catwoman. Most of these link strongly to the strong central premise of the game – Gotham City is now a prison that causes far more problems than it solves. As I’ve said before, a strong premise is a constant story generator; you can bring an simple idea to it, put it through the premise/machine and some kind of plotline will come out. Video games tend to be premise-driven, of course, but AC‘s a good (not exceptional, but good) example of how it can work.

Bait, switch, drive a truck through the holes

But while AC has a central plot, that’s not to say it’s a strong plot. Or a coherent one. Or one that makes a goddamn lick of sense in some cases.

So yes, Hugo Strange is doing something bad. But you spend most of the game ignoring that, despite the fact that it’s the A-plot that’s central to the premise and plastered all over the blurb of the CD case. Instead, the Joker-infection plot takes over the core of the game and drives it forward, forcing you to ignore the increasing urgency of prison developments while you look for a cure. Which requires you to fight ninjas in an abandoned subterranean steampunk cult temple.


You’ll go on a vision quest. You’ll punch a giant shark and a pair of one-armed former Siamese twins. Solomon Grundy throws electrified balls at your head. And a bunch of other stuff that floats in and out of the story for no really comprehensible reason. Finally you’ll get a cure, only for it to be stolen and the Joker to target Batman. At which point the A-plot comes back and Strange gets the legal right to kill everyone in the prison (!), and you rush to stop him while the Joker allies with the ninjas. Except that’s all bait-and-switch too, and brings with it a couple of plot holes that left me staring slackjawed at the TV, wondering how no-one on the writing team stopped and said ‘wait, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s just fucking stupid’.

The main reason why these plot turns and events are problematic (apart from the huge holes) is that they’re divorced from the central premise discussed above. Playing a shellgame with plotlines can be interesting if done well, but are frustrating when bungled, and when your story wanders too far afield from the concept that got the reader interested in the first place. Similarly, while some side plots emerge fairly naturally from the central plotline and core premise, others come out of nowhere and feel completely tacked on (especially the one involving Azrael, which is either utterly pointless or an extended teaser for the next game in the series). Fun in and of themselves, their stories don’t satisfy, just as a disconnected subplot in a novel leaves the reader feeling distanced from the main story because of the apparently-pointless detour.

Oh, and the game finishes before you get a chance to cure the hundreds of infected patients in wider Gotham. Apparently there’s a post-credit epilogue that deals with that. But here’s a free tip for writers – if 80% of your novel has focused on a race towards a vital goal that must be achieved, forgetting about it and leaving it to be resolved off-screen and mentioned after the novel wraps up is bad fucking writing.

Rising tension

The advancement model of most video games is well-established by now, and AC does not do anything all that different. You start off fighting small groups of weak opponents, mooks and thugs who do their best to fuck you up but fail because you put your boot through their faces. You fight a few more groups, encounter a boss who has to be fought using different tactics, gain a new gadget or skill, and after a scene advancing the plot you’re back on the streets – except now the groups of thugs are a little bigger, a little tougher and using new weapons/tactics that you have to adapt to with your new powerups.

This is so far from radical it’s practically voting for Malcolm Fraser, but AC does it very well indeed. As the inmates form into massive gangs and get access to guns, shields, body armour and other toys, you never get the chance to feel complacent, even though you’ve also gained new advantages. There’s a constant pressure there to counterbalance but not negate your sense of achievement and to push you to do better, to give you the feeling that the stakes are continually rising.

As in games, so too in prose. This kind of rise / plateau / fall back to a slightly-elevated status quo / rise again pattern occurs over and over again in novels, and that’s because it works. It’s a slow dance of action, consequence, elevated stakes and into action again that gives a story an engaging pace and a reason to keep reading, if only to find out how the protagonist deals with this new turn of events. And it works for both action-packed page-turners and more introspective works; the raised stakes may be bruised emotions rather than 20 dudes with knives and tasers trying to slice your nipples off, but it’s an elevation nonetheless.

Too many c(r)ooks

The premise of AC gives a lot of room for including distinctive characters, as does Batman’s massive rogue’s gallery, almost all of whom have enough depth and history to be a convincing central threat as a core antagonist. What we get instead is a lumpy mishmash of unclear roles and pointless cameos, where characters that deserve substantial development time instead get five minutes of focus before tagging in a replacement to handle the next blip of plot. Within the main plotlines alone there’s a confusing blur of characters, from Mister Freeze to Two-Face to R’as al-Ghul to the Penguin, and they fall over each other in the race to take centre stage and justify their existence.

The side quests are even more rife with these additional characters, such as Mr Zsasz, Mad Hatter, the aforementioned Azrael and (sigh) Hush. In addition, riddles and clues about the whereabouts of more villains are all through the game, in such volume that they become overwhelming. When you find Calendar Man, of all people, sitting talking to himself in a glass-walled cell under a building, not contributing anything to any plotline in any way, it doesn’t make you feel that you’re glimpsing a wider world, it makes you feel like DC is throwing every bit of their IP against the wall in the hope you’ll go on to buy the action figures. Or inaction figure, in this case.

More is not always better, and a massive dramatis personae doesn’t automatically make your setting feel vast and varied; if you stick them all into your story at once, it makes it feel cramped and cluttered. It’s better to use a small number of characters and give them multiple story roles, so that they have recurring reasons to take focus, undergo development and then organically move that focus to another character with an overlapping remit.

Also, don’t put characters behind glass. They might suffocate.

The perfect antagonist

But for all that there are too many characters, there’s one that stands out above all the others as an incredibly engaging and fascinating opponent.

No, not the Joker or Two-Face, and certainly not the barely sketched Hugo Strange. No, it’s the Riddler. Who can kiss my entire arse.

The Riddler’s shtick is that he’s littered Gotham with riddles and trophies, which you obtain by solving puzzles, some of which are simple, some of which are just goddamn bullshit. You could ignore them, but he has hostages, and to free them you need to solve the puzzles, unlocking the locations of deathtraps as you go. And all the while he’s alternately mocking you for your stupidity and accusing you of cheating when you work out the combination of tricks and gadgets required to save a hostage.

It took me a week to finish the core plot. I spent the second week collecting trophies and solving ridiculously complicated puzzles because it was personal – because everything about this plotline was the Riddler saying that I, the player, was not smart enough to figure out his shit. So when I finally found him, pulled him through a set of weak floorboards and punched the question marks off of his hat, the triumph wasn’t just Batman’s, it was mine.

Now, as a writer, you can’t make the reader solve puzzles to turn the page – not unless you’re doing some very interestingly ergodic sort of stuff – but you can target the reader directly through a character’s portrayal and development. If you can make the reader take a character’s actions personally, whether thanks to identification with the protagonist or pushing emotional buttons directly (which is tricky, but kudos if you can pull it off), you give the reader a big reason to care what happens next. Don’t just leave them wanting the protagonist to succeed – leave them wanting the antagonist to fail. Do that and they’re yours.

Action is character

I’ve harped on this in the past, and I’ll probably harp on it again in the future, but action – stuff actually happening, onstage, front and centre – engages the reader and defines character far more than description. And like most video games, AC is action-adventure focused, and you’re constantly doing stuff. Well, more precisely, Batman is constantly doing stuff, and that’s a meaningful distinction. You’re more like a director than an actor or author in this game, guiding and making decisions for Batman rather than micromanaging him. He knows what he’s doing, and his actions show it – he fights hard, he always knows what gadget to pull out, he moves confidently from hiding place to hiding place, pausing only to silently smother a goon or electrify Mister Freeze’s armour. And outside the fights, it’s action – confrontation with villains, working out puzzles, infiltrating hideouts – that advances the story (albeit unevenly at times). There are cut scenes and conversations, yes, but those are still focused around conflicts and the actions required to resolve them.

The upshot of this is that the story never stalls, because there’s always something happening – even if, yes, that story and those actions don’t always make sense or connect properly. And because of this, we never have to be told that Batman is a man of action, that he’s prepared to do whatever it takes, that he thinks on his feet and refuses to lay down even when weakened near to death by the Joker’s disease – because we see him doing those things, and because we help and guide him as he does those things. There are dozens of backstory snippets that you can collect as the game goes along, but you lose nothing by ignoring them, because the story and character development doesn’t take place there – it takes place in the now, in the action, and in the immediacy of the moment. Just as it does in a novel.

Action is character, even when you don’t want it to be

The flip side to the above, of course, is that when a character says one thing and does another, it’s the action that presents the character to the reader.

And what AC presents is a Batman that talks a lot about never killing and doing the right thing (he even makes a little speech about it at one point), but his actions say something else. No, he never kills anyone, but he’s fine with letting people die through inaction. The game is rife with instances where you stand by and let the body count rise because you’re too concerned with other priorities. For example, a plotline with Deadshot has Batman waiting for the assassin to pick off targets so that he can pick up clues afterwards, rather than working from day one to prevent the killings. And that’s not even touching on the ending, where Batman slowly and reluctantly gets himself organised while Strange’s men deliberately massacre a third of the inmates, or where he carefully knocks out and incapacitates half-a-dozen armed gunman and leaves them littered around Strange’s HQ, only to abandon them to die when the joint explodes. These actions reveal him as either callous or incompetent, no matter his stated plans and sensibilities.

Ditto the thuggishness of his brutal interrogation of captured henchmen – bad guys or no, you can’t help but feel a moment of sympathy for them when Batman first terrifies them and then smashes their heads into brick walls or drops them off ledges once they spill the beans. I get that Rocksteady’s vision of Batman is darker and grimier than the traditional DC version – although it’s a pretty good fit for the less-well-written depictions in the new DC continuity that’s deliberately targeting the age-18-35-male demographic – but they’re still trying to describe the character as heroic within the game, and his actions belie that, leaving their protagonist more like an easily-distracted bully.

As I’ve said before, actions speak louder than words, especially in prose – which is weird, given that it’s all words, but you know what I mean. It’s all show not tell once again, and if you show your character doing the opposite of what you tell the audience he’s doing, they’ll think he’s a hypocrite and that you’re confused about your work. Make sure it all lines up, and remember that what happens on the page is what the reader will take in above all else.

See, folks, that’s all it takes to get me to write 2500+ words – Batman. If only he popped up in Arcadia I’d have finished the book months ago.

Next week, some flash fiction (plus visual stimulus!) for your Christmas reading. Just the thing for warming your heart after you have your pudding.