Category Archives: What To Write

Finish him! – Or, A Writer’s Ethical Challenge

There are moments in writing when I picture a scene from that game, Mortal Kombat, which was so popular in the…. Was it really back in the 90’s? Wow. Anyway, the fighters have been fighting, the player mashing and smashing buttons haphazardly, and one of the combatants is struggling to stay standing. The words, “FINISH HIM!” are emblazoned across the screen in gory red letters, and the player is compelled to throw one final blow…

I am currently at one of those moments. Thing is, I’ve had this scene in mind for weeks –– even months –– but even now, I cannot decide whether I will have someone finish off this foe, or if he will be taken away in chains. The pacifist in me says, “Oh, he’s just misled. Let him repent!” but the fighter in me says, “No! FINISH HIM!”

In reality, my protagonist has a history –– a messy history –– but he and his friends justify it by saying, “That had to be done.” How on earth does this relate?

Well, when I first started writing this note,* my protagonist had a choice to make. Kill off his rival, or let him off the hook? When I couldn’t decide, another character stepped in and decided for both of us, finishing off the villain (Thanks, unnamed deciding character…). I’m always conflicted about this.

See, on the one hand, I want to kill off the villain. Seriously. Get him out of the way! Let the good guy take his vengeance and live happily ever after! On the other hand… I am a bit of a softie, and perhaps a bit sentimental. I find myself thinking, “Oh, he can always change his ways.. It won’t be easy, but it can happen…” Or can it? I usually have to bring my villain to his wit’s end before he even considers regretting his evil tendencies, nudging him by reconnecting him with such things as people he misses or taking the blinders off to the awful things he’s gotten into. Not to mention, there is such a thing as an unrepentant villain…

But this whole scenario begs the question: Am I to be held accountable for the way I portray these situations? What does it say about me as a person? On the one hand, yes, this is fiction. On the other hand, how does this effect the way I look at people in real life –– or how my readers look at life? I ask these questions, not to give myself or anyone else a guilt trip, but because they are very real questions. When I write, I am getting into the heads of my characters, and I not only consider what the character would do, but what I would do. Would I be willing to value a person’s life –– and chance at redemption –– less than I value “justice”? How does one even discern whether the person in question is sincerely willing to make the effort to change?

This is where the shady characters step in and save me from my own debate –– the ones who are on the right side, but whose values that aren’t quite the same as those that I hold. I feel absolutely guilt free when they make these decisions, because I don’t feel like I need to agree with them 100% of the time… So that is my solution.

But is that enough?

*Footnote: This goes to prove that one of my many, many ways of procrastinating from writing is not mere business, Facebook, forums, or general procrastination, but writing about the struggles I’m going through with my writing. It’s both helpful and unhelpful, really. Helpful, in that it helps me process. Unhelpful, in that it takes me away from the actual story I’m writing. I started this note when I was in the middle of writing that scene, and finished it after writing several following scenes (and a few to fill in beforehand). It spans a few days…

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Villain? Or just on the wrong side?

At the risk of writing what could be a monstrous bunny trail, I have branched off into the doings of one of the villains from the great continent of Marda. I speak, of course, of the King of Ilona, the Black Lion –– Hendelmere. I have no idea whether it will make the final cut, but at the moment, I really don’t care if it does. I’m writing, and I’m having a heck of a lot of fun with it. I suppose that’s what matters.

Right from the start, Hendelmere has been a personal favourite of mine –– and it’s not the freaky yellow eyes or the black leather that he wears. No. Is it because he’s one of the “bad boys”? Erm… No. Generally, he is a cold, calculating scoundrel with a hunger for power. Manipulation is not beneath him, by any means. He sees mercy as a sign of weakness, so he rules with an iron fist. His temper is normally kept under control, but he does explode now and again when things go wrong. Everything on the surface of him cries out that he is a belligerant dictator, because he does not speak his full mind. I, however, know differently.

I have seen Hendelmere when he is locked away by himself. At first, he is angry about his predicament, but then he grows sorrowful. He misses his home. He misses his wife. He worries about his son, who is just as ambitious as he. He regrets the actions that have brought him to where he has ended up (to some extent). This is where I start feeling sorry for locking him away in a tower, and I start to wonder… Just how bad is he? Whoa, there. Back it up a bit!

He misses his wife. Clearly, there’s a story here that hasn’t been told. One that I want to hear. The Black Lion, king of intimidation and full of demands, misses his wife. He doesn’t miss her body, he misses her. This in itself speaks volumes of him. Could it be possible that this man is actually capable of love? How can this be? I must know!

Let me tell you a little more about this guy. As dark as he can be in his treatment of his enemies, and as sneaky as he can be, he still respects the laws of chivalry regarding women. The flaw with this is that he does not enforce these rules with his subjects, nor with his allies –– but this is beside the point. Obviously, he has high standards that he holds himself to.

He also gains wisdom with age, learning how to choose his battles. He tries to instill this knowledge in his son, but his offspring is far more hot-headed and foolish than he. However, instead of bailing him out, he lets his son stumble and pay the consequences for his actions. This, in my opinion, makes him at least a half-decent father, even though his son is an unrepentant rogue.

Does this make him any less of a villain in the eyes of his enemies? Absolutely not. They know what he is capable of, and they aren’t likely to forget. They know that he is a careful schemer, and his motives are no mystery to them. But this begs one question.

If I were to write the entire story from Hendelmere’s side of things, with less emphasis on his brother’s kingdom, would he still be the “bad” guy? Do his motives and his methods alone put him on the wrong side of justice? Or is it simply a matter of perspective? As far as I can tell, he’s only “bad” in the eyes of the protagonist. In his own eyes, he’s just as chivalrous and moral as the “good” guys. He just happens to be leading the other team. Every single time I look through his freaky yellow eyes, I see something I like about him, and that makes him all the more intriguing.

So what does this have to do with writing? I am increasingly of the opinion that one of the key things that draws me into a story is a complicated villain. Yes, there is a place for the bad guy who is inherently evil and knows it, but the reality is that everyone, no matter how evil, is human. I have gone past the point of wanting to hear stories where the bad guys are just bad. I want to know what makes them tick and what makes them think they’re right –– or indeed, whether they really do think they’re right. I want to know why they’re such a screwed up mess. Is it pure and simple pride? Or was there some experience in their past that caused them to see things in a skewed manner? I must know, so I keep on writing…

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What To Write: Shared Worlds

Warhammer 40K Space Marines

NaNoWriMo starts in exactly a week! It’s incredibly exciting. That means that by now, you have probably been doing some major planning and getting yourself psyched up for what’s going to be an incredibly rewarding 30 days of literary abandon. But perhaps you haven’t quite decided what you want to write yet. You know you like fantasy (or science fiction), but you feel you either don’t have the time or the imagination to dream up an entirely new world. You don’t want to write a Harry Potter fan fic, because that seems lame to you, and yet you really want to have some characters sling some spells and swing some swords in a fight to restore ultimate order to the universe. Well, you’re in luck, because the topic we’re touching on today is the easiest to jump into, particularly if you have a bit of a plot idea in mind, but are stuck on the setting.

This is the concept of shared worlds. I consider it different than fan fiction, because these worlds are already utilized by many different writers—the only difference between their works and yours is the official sanction of the publishing body. The premier example of this is Star Wars. Star Wars contains an entire world of material beyond the six films, known as the Expanded Universe. There are far too many novels for me to count, and they run the gamut from the absolutely amazing (Timothy Zahn, one of my favourite sci-fi authors, has published nine to this date, with a tenth due to drop in December) to the totally terrible (remember Shadows of the Empire, Lucas Arts’ big promotional push leading up to the Special Edition original trilogy? I read it. Oh, God, I read the whole thing!). In addition, there are multiple role-playing games of both the digital and pen-and-paper variety.

That brings up an important point about these shared worlds—they are often drawn from role-playing games. Why? Because the nature of a role-playing game system is to establish a world, and allow you and your mates to define the characters however you wish. There are books upon books produced for the express intention of giving the game master the material necessary to detail a world for players, and that’s the greatest resource for you as a writer. Anyone who has ever played pen-and-paper role-playing games (I’ll be writing more about role-playing in a few later posts) knows that the game master is practically an author, without the writing on pages part. Role-playing games are an exercise in joint storytelling—and that means it’s incredibly easy to turn those resources to solo storytelling.

Any world that has been expounded upon enough and with enough freedom for new creation can count as this kind of shared world. Having this kind of world can be incredibly freeing to some writers (myself included) because it means that a lot of details have already been taken care of. It also allows us to research, much like we would for a novel set in a real-world location. It also means that you can be wrong. If you’re writing a story set in The Forgotten Realms, and you say that Bahamut is the god of the Dwarves and that the Drow are a peaceful race of subterranean dwellers, you’re going to look like an idiot, and everyone will hate you. Writing in one of these pre-created worlds is incredibly restrictive—more so than fan fiction, at times. In fan fiction, you can change something major, like putting Hogwarts in Germany, instead of the UK, and say “well, that’s what my story is.” If you write a Star Wars novel where Coruscant is located on the Outer Rim, that’s not “your story.” It’s incorrect.

So where is the line between fan fiction and these “shared worlds” drawn? It’s a little tricky to define, but I see it this way—if you are writing about pre-established characters, you’re writing fan fiction. So, to continue using Star Wars as an example, if you’re writing about Leia Organa’s adventures as a young girl, you’re writing fan fiction. If you’re writing about a bounty hunter fighting for survival in the underworld of Nar Shaddah, you’re writing original (gasp!!!) content in the shared Star Wars Universe. This is where I think Star Wars differs from (and is superior to) Star Trek—while there is Star Trek fiction published, it’s almost exclusively about the crews of the ships (or stations) on the various television series. There is no established canonical Star Trek Universe outside of the shows and films. For Star Wars, there is.

So where can you find these worlds to write about? I love looking at what pen-and-paper role-playing games are available. There’s also a wealth of other geeky materials that you could draw from, but sometimes determining if something has the appropriate depth to make it into this kind of story is difficult. Not every role-playing franchise does. World Of Warcraft obviously does, because it’s been written about by so many different people over the years, and the lore and setting are well established. Starcraft, much less so, because while there may be some stories, they’re mostly just the tales of the games, and no extremely developed world has been built around them to the extent that it has in World of Warcraft. Halo is much the same; while there is some level of detail to the world, it’s really only the level of detail necessary to tell Master Chief’s story. While Halo 3: ODST attempted to explore elements outside of the main storyline, it didn’t develop the world enough for there to be an accessible resource.

If you’re looking for a grim sci-fi world to draw from, however, I highly recommend Warhammer 40K. Not only are there already many, many novels and short stories written in this world, the universe is absolutely massive and well-developed. Just take a look at all the tabletop war game material and the extensive resources from Fantasy Flight Games for the pen-and-paper RPGs. There’s even plenty of art to inspire your imagination (like the picture of some space marines above). And yes, Warhammer is older than Starcraft. Blizzard imitated Games Workshop, not the other way around. The Mass Effect world would also be a legitimate source for this kind of game, because the amount of in-game information that Bioware provided about the world is absolutely staggering, but keep in mind that if you write about Commander Shepherd, you’re writing fan fiction, not this other variant.

For fantasy, there are always the Dungeons and Dragons worlds, including The Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. Some of these worlds already have such established plots that it might be difficult to fit your story into them, but I trust that with a little wiggling and jiggling, you can do it. Remember, these worlds may be established, but they still have plenty of room for additional creation in them. I also like to draw inspiration from Magic The Gathering, which presents an idea of “Planes of Existence” where magic all follows a five-colour mana system, and powerful Plainswalkers go around creating chaos. Or something like that. Looking at the Planes of MTG can be inspiring for helping create settings. Keep in mind that your erotic Garruk and Liliana adventure on Innistrad is fan fiction, not shared world fiction (please send it to me!).

So, have you gotten inspired yet? Do you have a favourite “established world” that you write in, or have you ever used one to significantly influence your own fiction? Do you think this is all bogus? Discuss it in the comments! Again, I apologize for this being a late post. On Monday, I’ll give my last pre-NaNo prep piece on how I feel about outlines, and what I think is a productive way to prepare for the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. Then next Thursday will be Day 1, and I’ll be talking about that. Happy writing, everyone.

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