The Christmas Tree Approach

A seasonal metaphor for an approach to drafting your story.

I’ve just finished drafting chapter 31 of my current ‘work in progress’. Thirty one chapters! It’s certainly the biggest writing project I’ve ever taken on, and is proving to be quite a challenge. It represents a departure from the kind of storytelling I’ve stuck to in the past, and ultimately is part of a much larger story already mapped out. This is essentially proving to be quite a learning curve for me, and I’d like to share some thoughts on the drafting process, if you’ll indulge me.

In previous works I have adopted an approach to drafting that led to certain complications. I would sometimes strive to get it just the way I wanted it first time, looking to include as much ‘fanciful’ language as possible, which ultimately left entire paragraphs looking convoluted. For this current, very large work, I’m taking on a more bare-bones approach. Now, there is every likelihood that what I’m doing has a very distinct name that has escaped my notice. However, I’ve taken to calling it the ‘Christmas Tree Approach’ to drafting.

Now, for this metaphor to work, I’m afraid it has to be an imitation Christmas tree, not a real one. Sorry if you prefer the genuine article, but let’s keep in mind it’s a metaphorical tree. The reason it has to be an imitation tree is that such trees are usually able to be broken down into sections for storage, and in trees of average size, this means three sections. The larger base, the mid section, and the top.

Or, in writing terms: Beginning, Middle and End. Such is dramatic structure.

The most complex stories in the world can be broken down to these three key sections. When working on this new project, I mapped out the entire story in a very basic, hand written draft. Some of the details have evolved during the later writing process, but the fact remains that the overall structure remains in place. I know how my story begins, the central event in the middle, and how I wish it to end. The three key sections are in place, without which we would not have a story, or indeed a Christmas tree.

Now, with the various Christmas trees I’ve had over the years, once you’ve put it together, you need to go around taking hold of the imitation branches and begin manipulating them into position. Pulling this way and that way, bending up or down as necessary, pluming the tree until it begins to take a more pleasing shape. This, when writing, could be thought of as either the overall editing process, or the little bits of editing we sometimes do while writing.

I have striven to refrain from doing too much editing while still drafting the overall story, but it does happen. A key plot point, or indeed a hole, appears that needs your attention in order for the story to work. There is nothing wrong with this, but I have tried to limit the amount of times I go back over a chapter and start changing too much. Instead, I’ve been keeping notes about various plot points I may wish to address or indeed add once the overall draft is complete. This ultimately allows you to get a fuller picture of the story and where these edits fit in. This is why, ultimately, the pulling about of the branches can be thought of as the process of editing. Getting all the details in place to make sure the story takes shape the way you want it.

Once the basic dramatic structure of the story is in place, and you’ve edited it to make sure it all works, we come to the final stage of our metaphor. Decoration. Every home that celebrates Christmas will have their own way of decorating the tree, and I’m sure there is many an argument to be had over the correct way of doing it. However, for the purposes of this metaphor, you are the only one who gets a say over how you decorate your writing. You are in charge here.

Apart from a few moments of inspiration, in this current draft I have not been too worried if some of my dialogue or prose comes across a bit flat. What I have been focusing on, in the overall draft and the little bits of editing is the fundamental point of each chapter. What is it I want the character to say or do in this moment? What, on a basic level, is happening? This is ultimately part of making sure the story works in its entirety before you go about beautifying it. During the editing process, once you’ve filled in any plot holes you find, you can go back and look at what you’ve said and ask yourself one question: how can I say this better?

This is where you can allow yourself to have some fun and get truly creative. Play with how a character speaks and how they behave in order to craft that sense of individuality that is going to make your reader identify with them. Take that bit of dialogue and jazz it up a bit, so long as the underlying message remains. Find a better way of describing what is going on so that your reader is transported into the scenario without the event itself being lost in description.

Many writers struggle with the notion that their first draft has to be near-enough perfect. They will strive to make sure it all sounds wonderful from the get-go but risk sacrificing the story in the process. I know, I’ve done it myself. Like most of us, I’m learning as I go along. No approach to writing is going to work for everyone, but I’m certainly finding that this is currently working for me. I’ve experienced a sense of flow in my writing that I’ve not felt for a while, and it’s allowed me to persevere with a project larger than anything I’ve taken on before. I focus on the essence of the story first, then seek to beautify it later.

Essentially, one cannot decorate a Christmas tree without first putting it together and pulling all the branches here, there and everywhere. The fun comes in making it look pretty, but you have to do the boring bit first.

I hope this has at least made some sense to you all, and in some cases actually proved useful!

Crafting That Brave New World -Vol 3

Volume 3 in my World Building series of blogs, looking at the nature of belief in a fantasy setting.

I’ll start by acknowledging the fairly lengthy gap between this blog and the last in this series. It’s been a long time. There, consider it acknowledged. Truth be told, I started a new part time job back in October which has meant my blogging efforts (such as they are) have taken a back seat. In all fairness to myself, I have also been very busy actually writing. Indeed, the very project that prompted this series of blogs on world building is coming along nicely.

A swift reminder, folks, that this series of blogs is to document my own experiences and discoveries when taking on the creation of a whole fantasy world, and should not necessarily be taken as expertise. One day, perhaps, but for now I am stumbling through and trying to make as much sense of it all as I can. Nothing new there.

This particular entry shall focus on the subjects of belief, faith and organised religion. The chapter I just finished drafting has my main character come face to face with the equivalent of a demon in his world. I may even go so far as to say the devil himself. Obviously I don’t wish to give too much away regarding this particular project, but suffice to say the being he comes across is not quite what it seems, or what my main character expected. This got me thinking as to the nature of belief.

My current project is being written, by and large, in the first person. My main character is reflecting on his life, during which his beliefs have undergone a great many changes, mostly as a result of his experiences. What I have found tricky recently is reflecting this in my character’s voice. He must describe his actions, his feelings and his beliefs as they were at that time in his life. The fact that he is recounting the events after many years could, if I am not careful, lead to too much being given away about how he will change throughout the story. So far I believe I have avoided this, but no doubt some points will be picked up in editing. That’s what it’s for.

So, without giving too much away here and now, just what are my main character’s beliefs? As a child, he listened to the sermons he was required to, and was forbidden from speaking of the devils he would later meet in person. He had, in my view, a child’s faith, but one with room to erode over time. He comes across many more devout than him, some of whom would not have coped with the experiences he ends up having, simply because their faith would not allow them to. My main character ends up conversing with both angels and demons, and discovers that the lines between them are blurred.

This might all sound a little woolly, but I firmly believe that it better reflects the full and in many ways true nature of belief. There are always those who believe more resolutely than others. Some people’s beliefs change over time and find their faith either growing stronger or waning. Some will hold firm to their beliefs, seemingly no matter what. Of course this is not always limited to religious beliefs, but for the purpose of this blog, we are very much discussing the main religion of the world I have set out to create.

When creating a whole culture, it is far too simplistic to say that everyone within that culture believes the same thing, or even if they all follow the same religion that they all follow it with equal devotion. You will always have your silent doubters, unwilling to speak up about their misgivings. Then there are the shallow, paying lip service to a system when it suits them. You will also get those who seek to use religion to further their own ends. Take a good look around our own world and tell me I’m wrong.

Then, of course, there will always be the equivalent of atheists. Those who reject the dominant belief system entirely. Then you’ve also got those who interpret the dominant belief system differently to others. Again, take a look at our own world and you’ll see what I mean. When crafting the religion of a whole new world, I believe it is important to reflect the nature of belief. Your characters live in this world, but they are not automatons. They each see the world differently, and will have their own thoughts and levels of belief. To have everyone believe precisely the same thing is robbing yourself of the chance for great conflict.

So, with all this in mind, what are some of the things to consider when crafting a religion in a fantasy setting? Again, remember that these are just my own thoughts on what I’ve done so far. You’ll find no theological degree attached to my name, but here we go just the same.

In any organised religion, there is a structure. A hierarchy. The person at the top. In my case, it is a race of beings seen and spoken to only by one person at a time, the Warlock Emperor. These beings, these angels, select one person to rule over the empire, their chosen representative. They do not present as omnipresent gods, however, more like guides or teachers. Their choice of emperor, however, is absolute and to suggest that their choice is flawed would be considered heresy of the worst kind. The Warlock Emperor sits atop the throne, commanding both the civil and religious bodies of the empire.

Of course, as with any religion, the ministers and followers are organised. In my world, there is the Congregate, the body that administers the teachings of these higher beings to the masses. Of course, there are plenty of names to give to such religious bodies, all of which can sound grand or intimidating when spoken by a character with enough reverence. I went with ‘Congregate’ to suggest a more humble purpose, but the reality is quite different. Once again I’m verging on giving too much away, and this first draft isn’t even finished yet.

Within this religious body I’ve created, there are the ministers, responsible for preaching. I’ve gone with the simple term ‘Followers’, to once again suggest a kind of humble nature to this system of belief. The duplicity therefore lies in what the characters within this system do, despite the image of humility they present.

I certainly haven’t forgotten the dissenters. Those who go against the dominant belief setting one way or another. Indeed, I’ve got a civil war brewing over whether or not these higher beings actually exist, as well as a secretive, forbidden cult that are considered highly dangerous, and not without reason.

The main point to consider when creating a religion for a fantasy world is how that religion and the society you have created intertwine. Do you have characters for whom religion is not necessarily a big factor in their lives? Do you have characters that would do anything in the name of their beliefs? Are there conflicts between differing factions, and how did they come about? All these are things you can look at to give your world and the beliefs of those in it greater verisimilitude.

The main impact this can have on your actual storytelling is that it can greatly inform and enhance the interactions between certain characters. What one character says can provoke a number of different reactions depending on who they’re talking to. Does what they say carry more weight with another character because of their beliefs? This is very much how much of the real world works, so weaving it into the world you’re building can only enhance your writing.

Crafting That Brave New World -Vol 2

Volume 2, detailing my exploration of world building.

Geography has never really been my strong suit, even after I got 99 out of 100 on a geography test in Year 9. The missing point was because I’d misplaced Bordeaux on a map of France. It is, however, maps that I’ll be discussing in this blog and how important they are when world building.

As well as not being much of a geographer, it will surprise few to learn that I’m not particularly skilled at drawing. Embarking on this new project has meant having to more than brush up on both, although admittedly the map I have drawn for the world I’m building will be most likely handed over to a professional at some point with a cry of “Make this look much better, please!” The map itself, crude as it may be, is something I’ve found to be surprisingly helpful in visualising not just the world, but the story too. As I said in the first volume of this blog, the story comes first.

I’d already worked out the basic premise of both the world and the story before setting out to draw the map, which informed a few key elements. There needed to be a main continent, with two large islands on the west and east coast of that continent. To the south, we see the top of another continent, which is as of yet, undeveloped. At first, I began dividing up the main continent into different nations. While this will be vital to the story, after a bit of research, I was reminded of a basic principle. The idea of borders as we know them are a fairly recent notion. It is geographical features and obstacles that would have formed the first, rudimentary national borders. It therefore become necessary to add a series of mountains along one border, which in itself then informed and enhanced the lore of the world I’ve been crafting.

Economics also have to be taken into consideration. The world I’m crafting is very much a fantasy world, and magic plays a part in everyday life, but it isn’t the answer to everything. The people living in this world still need to acquire food and materials, so the notion of trade comes into play. If I’ve got two continents, where is the best place along the coast to establish a port or two? How has the location of a settlement influenced its development over the decades and centuries? As an example, I have one settlement essentially right in the middle of a pass between mountains which border two countries. The settlement was set up as a fortress, originally, and has to rely on its friends to the east for supplies. The fortress has become a little less essential as a military post over time, allowing for a small city to develop, but nowhere near the level of those cities closer to the ports. All little details that should be considered when crafting a new world.

Time and space matter in storytelling. It’s still taking me a bit of research to nail this one down, because as I’ve said, this blog is an exploration of my journey. I’m not claiming to know everything. A map usually comes with a scale, to let you know just how great a distance a centimetre on the map represents. Ultimately, this informs just how long it takes a character to travel from one place to another. Of course, it depends on their mode of transport, and I have cheated just a little by creating a breed of horse that’s been trained and enhanced with spells for greater speed and durability. Still, the point stands. If you want a character to be in one place today and another tomorrow, you need to be sure of how long it’ll take them to get there. There’s no teleportation in this world, no great shortcuts.

Similar to this, being able to see one location in relation to another has helped me a great deal when it came to visualising the story. The bulk of the action in the beginning takes place in one location, but as my main character begins to travel, I found that having a map to look at really did inform certain decisions about the story. If your character needs to get somewhere but must avoid a certain place, the map shows you where they must go. It also allowed me to better visualise certain political alliances, based solely on geographical locations. It makes battles easier to see and informs the tactical decisions you make your characters take.

In summary, it really is true what they say. “Location, location, location.” This is the first time I’ve tried using a map to inform my story telling, and it’s been a revelation on many fronts. Even if it never ends up being seen by anyone else, I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone dabbling with the genre.

What Motivates a Villain?

Some things to consider when creating your antagonist!

They say a story is only as good as the bad guy. We love to hate them. They provide conflict for our protagonists, allowing the tension in a story to mount until it all comes to a climax in the final confrontation. So, if you’re looking to craft a villain for your story, the first thing to consider is “What do they want?”

Every character has a motivation, something they want. Even the most seemingly insignificant background character might just want to live a peaceful life and make ends meet. That is a motive. Your antagonist, however, usually wants something more. Let’s take a look at some of the classic motivations for an antagonist and some questions for you to consider when writing them.

Power

Many villains seem to want power for the sake of power, and sometimes this is the case. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as John Dalberg-Acton put it. When it comes to villainous characters within a story, they can usually be divided into two categories; those who became corrupt once they achieved power and those who were corrupt long before. The quest for power and what they’re willing to do for it might be what defines your villain. What lengths will they go to? How do they treat those in their way? Do they have the ability to govern that they believe they have?

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of people who have gained power only to find that the quest for it isn’t as satisfying as having it. Perhaps the most dangerous type of antagonist is one who has gained power, and even though they are inept, they are also unwilling to give up their position. The question then becomes what will they do to keep their power? Is the fear of losing their power what corrupts them and causes them to do terrible things? Shakespeare’s take on Richard III (while historically dubious) presents an all-round power hungry villain, a man who does terrible things in order to become King, then commits further crimes to make sure he keeps his crown.

Many villains strive for power because they’ve convinced themselves it is theirs by right. The principle of the strong ruling over the weak. They might feel they’ve been unjustly overlooked, or that life itself has deprived them of what should be theirs. Taking this approach when writing a villain usually mandates a ‘corrupt from the beginning’ mindset, but keep in mind that few antagonists actually believe themselves to be ‘evil’. In their minds, they are righting a wrong and doing whatever is necessary. Even pantomime villains have a motive, but they’re now pretty much the only ones to actually revel in their villainy.

So, if it’s the quest for power that’s motivating your villain, consider from the beginning what they would use it for. Give them reasons, even if the antagonist never states them outright. Keep that motive clear in your own head and you’ll find it more likely to slip into the writing with a greater degree of subtlety. Again, it’s only pantomime villains that really feel the need to declare their intentions in full!

 

Self Preservation

There are very few selfless antagonists out there. They’re in it for themselves, first and foremost, although there are some that are arguably thinking of others. Magneto, for example, leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants, fights for his fellow mutants against human aggressors. Forever at odds with his counterpart, Professor Xavier, he commits violent acts in the name of defending mutant kind. This raises a whole other question of whether violence is acceptable in defence, or does a more diplomatic approach get better results? For some villains, there is nothing but fighting the good fight, and they’ll do it by any means necessary. Again, such antagonists don’t believe that what they’re doing is wrong. They’re defending themselves against an enemy, but they’re usually not picky about who is labelled as an enemy.

Such antagonists, claiming to be fighting for a greater cause, usually won’t see the need to differentiate between the enemy and the innocent. Having been backed into the ultimate corner, they’ll usually hold to the belief that you’re either with them or against them. No room for middle ground.

The other way to look at self-preservation as a motive is more literal, the notion that a villain truly is in it for themselves and will do anything to keep themselves safe. Taking this approach when writing an antagonist allows for a more callous, cruel character. They’re more likely to sacrifice others, even those on their own side, if it means that they stay safe. This also allows you some options for when an antagonist is facing a truly hopeless situation. How are they going to respond? Does the thought of their inevitable demise drive them past the breaking point?

 

Obsession

This one is often very closely tied to the previous two motivations. They say obsession is dangerous, even more so in a character that means ill to others. If you want to paint your antagonist as obsessed, decide for definite what they’re obsessed with from the beginning, then stick to it. Is it an object? A person? Why do they want this so badly? What will they do to get it, and how do they react to the prospect of failure?

As a little sub-set to this, let’s take antagonists that are obsessed with money. They say the love of money is the root of all evil, after all. There are few examples of antagonists obsessed with accumulating wealth for the sake of having it, because ultimately most writers will consider what having great wealth brings for that character. In most cases, we circle back round to power. Being ridiculously wealthy affords one the chance to be incredibly powerful and influential. However, we should not dismiss the notion of greed as a motivation.

For many villains in film, literature or even real life, enough is never enough. Don’t be afraid to make your villain undeniably greedy, for it will help sour the reader’s view of them, but if you want to avoid making them a one dimensional money grubber, give them a reason for always wanting more. It ultimately moves the plot along, giving your protagonist something to thwart. In the classic legend, the Sheriff of Nottingham is most definitely greedy, but it’s his attempts to wed Maid Marian that cause Robin Hood to stop him once and for all.

 

Revenge

This can feel a little over used as a motivation, but I prefer to see it as a classic when handled properly. Keep in mind what we’ve said about antagonists, namely that they don’t believe what they’re doing is wrong. If someone has thwarted them, in their eyes, they have been most unjustly wronged. If you’ve decided to make your character obsessive and cruel, revenge on your protagonist is the natural way for them to go. Villains are almost never the type to simply ‘let it go’, though there are rare times when circumstances force them to do so. One of my own antagonists in my second novel is forced to forgo his chance at revenge when it becomes necessary to team up others for his own protection.  The principle here is ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

It’s tempting to say that, like the pursuit of power, actually getting revenge is not as satisfying as wanting it. If you want to give your antagonist real drive and bring a sense of threat to the story, make it clear that they’ll stop at nothing to get vengeance. While this might seem to contradict the point I made about my own antagonist, keep in mind that it all comes down to what you want the reader to believe about your villain. If you want them to fear for your protagonist, make it clear just what the enemy will do to get hold of them and leave them with no doubt as to what they’ll do when the time comes. Writing a credible villain is coupled with making the reader fear for your protagonist, the character they’ve come to root for.

 

In conclusion, when sitting down to map out a story, I’d advise making notes on your antagonist if not first, then certainly put them high on your priorities. It is their actions that are going to create the problem for your protagonist, and their actions are based on their motivations. Decide what they want from the beginning and determine in your own mind just what they’re prepared to do. Write these down and keep them close to you when writing. True villains don’t need to declare their every evil intention, they just need to act upon them. If you know just how terrible your antagonist is, it will shine through in your writing.

 

For me personally, lack of empathy is the true source of villainy. Sadly, there are many people in real life for whom empathy is an alien concept. In these difficult times, please look out for each other while striving to keep safe.