Category Archives: Academics

Savvy Saturday – Ignorance, Arrogance, and Character Development

Most authors tend to put themselves or people they know into the characters they write. While this can make characters realistic, it also limits the kinds of characters they can include in stories to the kinds of people the author has had interactions with. I was confronted by the realization tonight that I have not been around very many high-school students in recent years – and especially not high-school boys.

Yes. I talked with one tonight. It was an interesting experience, and one that I will try to remember for my writing. I want to start off by stating the caveat that I will not try to extrapolate behavior or thinking processes to all high-schoolers, to all boys, or even to all high-school boys based from one case study. But it does give me an existence proof that some high-school boys do not behave in the reasoned, fact-based manner than I have come to expect from my academic colleagues or the students in my classes. In academia, however loopy one’s ideas may be, people are generally bright enough to not make blatantly false assertions, illogical arguments, or over-generalizations lest they be called on it and taken down a peg (or four). The same apparently doesn’t hold true for all members of the population. I’ve known that in the abstract. It’s a very different experience to see it in person.

Exaggeration itself is not a trait that many of my characters use in my writing, but it does occur. Many people, even rational ones, exaggerate when they get emotional. “Everybody hates me!” a character might wail. Or, “If I don’t pass this class, I’m literally going to die!” (Hopefully, said character is actually exaggerating in this case, or else the story might become a detective murder mystery.)

With this type of emotional exaggeration excepted, I’ve noticed that my own academic training and companionship tends to lead to a characteristic of my characters to speak accurately, carefully, and precisely in my writing. They tend not to speak on subjects about which they have no knowledge, or at least not authoritatively. They tend not to state “facts” as truth when those facts are exaggerations or are simply wrong – at least not to a global, sweeping extent. For instance, while a petulant character of mine might say, “I hate the girls in my class. They’re stupid and all they talk about is clothes,” (a statement which is likely an exaggeration, but may have some basis in fact), I would not write a character who would say matter-of-factly, “Girls are stupid. All they ever do is talk about clothes.” Or, “Of course fraternities don’t actually do things that are illegal during their hazing. If they did, they’d all get caught and stopped.” Similarly, while I might write a character who would say that they were sure that Candidate Y would win an election (and be able to back up their statement with poll results, historic trends, and logical reasoning), I wouldn’t have thought to have a character be “sure” that Candidate Y would win because all of their friends liked him and were going to vote for him.

While I would have expected that no intelligent person would actually make this sort of blatantly inaccurate statement or faulty argument – at least not make it and expect to maintain any sort of intellectual esteem with a listener – it seems that my view of the world was more limited than I had realized. In some ways, this is a good discovery. In the future, I will be able to make more use of a type of character and a way of speaking and thinking (judgmental and assertive in arrogant ignorance) that I would have been otherwise. Hopefully, this will give me greater breadth in the types of situations I can write and the realism of the worlds I can create.

I should note that I do not hold anything against the boy with whom I spoke. He is bright, and it is likely that with some years and maturation that he will realize that many of his views are…well…wrong. But until that point, I will chuckle and remember that not all high-school boys behave like college professors – and hope that I don’t annoy my readers too much when my characters suddenly have to deal with immature, arrogant people who assert things as fact that “just ain’t so.”

Savvy Saturday – Conference Insights on Identity

Academic conferences are great things: they give you free food (well, okay, REALLY EXPENSIVE food when you take into account the price of registration), unlimited coffee (whee!), and hours (and hours!) of exposure to cutting-edge knowledge. As an author as well as an academic, this last point is the really exciting part of conference. What’s most exciting is when the research that is presented has obvious and direct implications for story settings or character arcs. And today, for your reading pleasure, I’m going to share with you two of the latest insights from academia about racial identity and consumption that might affect the stories we tell as authors.

Identity changes due to physical moves

In the United States, much of our identity is based on skin color. White, African American, Hispanic, Asian – these things signal to people around us things about our stereotypical background, interests, and social class. Non-white individuals are “minorities” in the U.S., and tend to have minority status as part of their identity. What happens, then, when an individual moves to the United States from a country which has a very different ethnic/racial breakdown? If one is a member of the tribe in power in an African country, and is therefore used to being part of the majority, coming to the U.S. will be a big culture shock. Someone who, on the outside, looks like part of the majority culture (e.g. a white immigrant from Europe) will have a different cultural experience than someone who looks like part of a minority culture (e.g. a black immigrant from Africa) even if both of them grew up as part of their majority culture back home.

How might this play out in a novel? Consider having a hero who travels to a different culture and 1) is visibly different from the majority of individuals in that culture, 2) is not perceived as a rarity or high-status individual because of those visual differences, but 3) is attributed to have a different – and potentially problematic – cultural background than the character actually does because of those visible characteristics. What kinds of character developments or story problems might take place? That’s up for you to decide – but it could be fascinating!

The presence of scripts and rare identity signaling

Imagine that you are writing a fantasy story about two ethnic groups that are visibly distinguishable from each other. One (call it Group X) has historically had power and privilege, and the other (Group Y) has typically been subjugated. While there is a simple upper- and lower-class system based purely on race, it is unlikely that people from Group Y could ever escape from their structurally imposed status. However, if a middle class arises based on wealth, education, ability, etc. rather than ancestry, it might be possible for certain members of the historically low-status group to join it. If people from Group Y are still typically part of the lower class, however, and only certain elite members are able to join a middle class, it becomes important for those middle class members to outwardly signal their new group membership or risk being stereotyped as lower class based on their Group Y status.

The question is, how can the elite members of Group Y do this? The easiest way is to imitate Group X style – to identify a “script” of what middle or high-class people stereotypically do, and make sure to do it even more than members of Group X do. Following scripts means that conspicuous consumption becomes very important. Wearing the right types of clothing and accessories signals others that a person not only has the money to be able to afford higher-class material possessions, but that he or she also has the cultural capital (knowledge) to buy and enjoy the “right” types of possessions. Whereas people from Group X might be able to not follow their group’s script and still be ascribed high-class status, people from Group Y who don’t want to be perceived as low-class have to always follow the rules, always outperform, and to some extent, always consume more (and consume more “correctly”) to maintain their hard-earned status. Of course, this seeming obsession with outward appearance can lead people from Group X to disdainfully say that people from Group Y are shallow, materialistic, and that they try too hard – but if the alternative for members of a stereotypically lower-class racial group is to be perceived as an outsider, as poor and uneducated, or even as a potential criminal, it’s no wonder that signaling their true identity and achievements is a conscious part of their life.

In your stories, then, consider how the dynamics of history, class, and race/ethnicity intersect. The past impacts the present, sociological forces impact individuals’ stories, and consumption matters.

What stories have you read that have thoughtfully and carefully portrayed issues of identity and consumption? How might you incorporate these issues into your works?

Savvy Saturday – The Power of Psychology

As authors, we want to have our characters be real to life as much as possible. This means that we not only have to tell a good story, but we have to understand how and why people behave the way they do. Sometimes this is easy – sometimes people behave logically and in ways that make sense. Other times, however, people’s behaviors are driven by psychological realities that aren’t obvious on their surface. The more we understand the sociology and psychology of human behavior as authors, the more nuanced and realistic the characters we can write. Today’s blog post, then, gives an introduction to two psychological effects that can impact our characters: mere exposure effect, and the effect of cognitive dissonance.

Mere Exposure Effect

First identified by Zajonc in 1963, the mere exposure effect identifies the strange fact that as humans, we prefer things we are familiar with to things we are unfamiliar with. His original psychological experiments found that people liked nonsense words or pseudo-Chinese symbols that they had heard before in the lab better than nonsense words or pseudo-Chinese symbols they had not heard before. The same has been found to hold true for sounds, images of faces, tastes, and so forth.

What does this finding mean for novelists? Well, first, perhaps that people tend to “rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of,” to quote Hamlet. The man enslaved to the evil king may resist freedom simply because he knows he can bear the life he has now, as miserable as it is, and does not know what freedom will hold. Similarly, if a character is thrown together “randomly” with a stranger several times, the character will tend to like and trust that stranger more than he/she will trust a “real” stranger, no matter how actually trustworthy either of those individuals might be. Characters that see their friends trying and eating a particular foreign dish, even if it seems strange at first, will probably find that particular dish less strange after a while than they would a different unfamiliar dish, even if they are equivalent in terms of objective foreignness. Of course, this effect can also lead to xenophobia: what we know is good, and what we don’t know is bad. Characters raised in metropolitan areas where they have been exposed to a large number of cultures and practices are likely to be more tolerant and accepting than characters raised in a single, limited cultural context. This also means that the more than a character is exposed to a behavior or belief – even if there is never an argument made for it and even if it is never actually brought up in conversation – the more the character will come to accept it implicitly.

Cognitive Dissonance

We all know that attitudes and beliefs drive behavior. But can behavior drive attitudes and beliefs? People who haven’t studied social psychology tend to say no. Surely our minds control our actions, and we don’t do things that we don’t agree with, right? Actually, science shows us that far more often than we’d think, our attitudes and beliefs are shaped by the things that we do. One of the things that humans are hard-wired to hate is hypocrisy – when people (and especially ourselves) say or believe one thing and do another. If we find ourselves doing something that conflicts with our beliefs, we tend to find ourselves justifying our actions, explaining them away, and actually changing what we feel and believe to make our actions make sense to ourselves. In other words, when a character helps someone, that helping behavior actually causes the character to like the helped person more, and conversely, if a character acts toward someone in a way that is not helpful, that action also tends to drive beliefs that the victim deserved what they got.

Dictators know very well the power of cognitive dissonance. Convince people that it’s okay in one particular instance to do something that conflicts with their belief system – for instance, bow to a statue just once, or on one particular day attend a rally that “everyone” is going to be at – and people’s wills will start to crumble. “It must be okay to bow to a statue at least sometimes,” people will think to themselves, “because I did it, and I wouldn’t do something that I don’t think is okay.” The next time the dictator orders them to do something similar, or even more extreme, the action doesn’t present as big as a threat to the individual’s self-image. “Just showing up to a rally” becomes “just saying the pledge of loyalty once” becomes “just putting one’s name on the roll of the loyalist party.” And if you’ve actually joined the loyalist party, then surely you must agree with at least some of what they believe in – mustn’t you? Psychologists tell us yes.

How might you use the mere exposure or cognitive dissonance effects in your stories? What stories have you seen with use them well to explain character motivations? Leave a comment below!

Savvy Saturday – Narratives and Numbers

As I continue to study at the Ph.D. level, I become ever increasingly struck by the power of story and narrative on the human psyche. Academics and scientists like to pretend that facts and numbers drive society forward. If we can find statistically significant results, they say, we can change the way the world views important issues! We can eliminate disease and poverty; we can make people happy, wealthy, and wise! Surely, they say, if people just knew the facts, they would change their behavior and the way they think.

Surely, novelists say to academics, surely you jest. There is a huge difference between knowing a fact and having that fact impact your life. There is a vast chasm between reading a scientific paper and actually believing that scientific paper if it says something that you don’t already agree with. Emotion, narrative, and the personal experience of real or fictional others, far more than cold, hard numbers, are what sway people’s opinions.

Here’s an example for you. Suppose you were interested in purchasing a new television. You might go to Consumer Reports, where teams of experts rate different televisions on a number of objective measures and tell you which is the “best” quality for the money. Let’s say that you pick the one you like, and then go to your best friend and ask her opinion of the matter. “Oh, don’t get that one!” she says. “My cousin got that brand of television last month, and he’s had nothing but problems with it!” What do you do? If you’re like most people, that one personal review from a friend – passing along information from someone you don’t even know – will carry as much or more weight than the scientific tests as conducted by experts in the Consumer Reports magazine, whose jobs depend on making accurate comparisons between products.

Why? People are relational beings. We value experience. We value story. Facts and science are useful tools, and can provide a much-needed check on incorrect thinking, but even well-trained scientists have to work hard to overcome their natural urge to believe concrete narrative at the expense of abstract science.

As storytellers, then, it is our privilege as well as our duty to remember that the stories we tell may have a greater likelihood of impacting people’s perceptions than do the cold, hard facts of reality. On the positive side, we can tell a story that illustrates truths about life in a way that argues for the worldview that we believe is real and right and will result in positive outcomes. (Of course, we must make sure not to be didactic – narrative has the power to persuade only when people are swept up in the seeming reality of said narrative.) We need fairy tales, as Neil Gaiman put it, not because they say that dragons are real, but because they teach us that dragons can be beaten.

Charles Dickens exposed the social ills of his day by writing the character of Oliver Twist, who readers pitied and empathized with to such an extent that they changed their opinions of the way England treated its orphans. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was credited with influencing public opinion of the horrors of slavery in the Deep South to such an extent that individuals were willing to go to war to end it. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game gives an example of a brilliant child who is able to think on an adult level, take command of military forces, and save the world when adults cannot – inspiring adults to change what they believe about the abilities of children, and children to believe that they don’t have to wait until they grow up to do something important and heroic. More recently, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy gives us a concrete picture of the power of media to shape public perception, and the risks, rewards, and terrible costs of standing up to an oppressive regime. The fact that certain individuals in Thailand adopted the Hunger Games’ three-finger salute as a form of silent rebellion against their country’s oppressive regime (an action they were arrested for) just emphasizes the power of fiction, narrative, and personal example to shape our world.

Of course, like any power, the power of narrative comes with responsibility. When writers do sloppy research, or support a position that is harmful to our readers’ wellbeing, our work has the power to stick in people’s minds for years and actually keep them from changing unhealthful behaviors or beliefs. Works that glorify violence, fail to show the ramifications and natural consequences of illegal or rash behavior, or more subtly affirm stereotypes or beliefs that are untrue can have pernicious effects on the public consciousness.

For instance, the idea of “love at first sight” is a dangerous myth that psychologists, religious leaders, and academics have combated for generations. While individuals may be physically attracted to each other in an instant, enduring love is only built through work, self-sacrifice, purposeful choices, and a decision to continue to love when the other individual seems unlovable. But this true type of love isn’t what’s shown in our culture’s stories. Our fairy tales, YA books, and romance novels imagine an unrealistic narrative of two people meeting by chance, being swept off their feet, and living happily ever after. Though there is no way of quantifying the damage that this narrative causes to young men and women who are seeking examples of what it looks like to have healthy, happy relationships, it would be fair to say that the effect isn’t positive.

As storytellers, then, we need to both embrace and be cautious of the power of the words that we weave. We need to think critically about the issues that we deal with in our stories and the messages that we overtly or covertly share. We need to use our stories to accurately portray truths about the world we live in, to give faces to the facts and build our readers up rather than tear them down. We need to be thoughtful writers, and also thoughtful readers, doing the hard work of evaluating the stories we are exposed to and the facts in question rather than just accepting them. It is in this way that we truly can change the world, one heart, one mind, one narrative at a time.

Savvy Saturday – Unique Selling Propositions

Authors are good at many things: storytelling, character development, world-building, and so on. One thing that many authors are not good at, however, is marketing. Why should I buy your books, readers ask. Some authors respond by focusing on the plot of their specific latest novel. “You should read The Quest of the Unaligned,” I might say, “because it’s an exciting YA novel about a security chief from a technologically advanced city who has to go on a quest through a magical country – and it turns out that he’s their long-lost prince.” This is a good start, but this sort of statement doesn’t really answer the question of why your book is a better investment of money or time than are other books in your genre.

The answer to these questions can be found in marketing theory. Specifically, developing a “unique selling proposition” (USP) for each of your books can help you better communicate with potential readers about what needs your book fills, and who would benefit from purchasing it. A unique selling proposition is what it sounds like – a proposition, or reason, that you can use to sell your product, and it has to be unique compared to other products in the market. Now, by the time most companies have their product, they already know what their unique selling proposition is going to be. This is because the traditional way of doing marketing is to start by identifying a need for a given target market, then design and manufacture a product to meet that need. In contrast, most entrepreneurs (including authors!) tackle marketing the other way around. We start by creating a product – writing a book – that tells the story that we want to tell, then we try to figure out who else would like it and why.

The first step in developing a USP for a book is to identify what broad category your book falls in. What other books will it be compared to? For a product to succeed, it first has to have a minimum level of quality in all core areas that customers expect (e.g. no matter what brand of soda you buy, you expect it to be fizzy, you expect it to be sweet, and you expect the bottle to not fall apart in your hand). If a product lacks a minimum level of quality in one of these common elements, customers will refuse to buy the product, or will be sorely disappointed if they do buy. So what are the common elements in a book in your genre? What is it that every book has to have for it to pass the “yes, this is an acceptable part of this genre” test? Make a list! Some elements that come to mind for any book include proper formatting, a general lack of grammatical and typographical errors, a certain minimum word count, and, if a story, a beginning, middle, and end. Additional (and more interesting) components get added once you start talking about genres. Science fiction and fantasy novels, for instance, have to be set in a time and place that is not “the real world here and now.” If you promote a book as being a fantasy novel, for instance, but the only fantasy elements turn out to be a figment of the main character’s imagination, many readers will feel cheated.

Once you have made a list of all the elements that a book in your genre must have, put it to one side and forget about it. Readers don’t need to be told that a new soda is sweet and fizzy – they need to be told what’s different about it compared to all the other sodas out there. In your case, you need to make a new list: the features that your book has that are unique. This can include more tangible elements of your book, such as a plot, character, and setting, and less tangible benefits that readers might get from your book, such as enjoyment due to your sense of humor, scintillating arguments, or beautiful literary flow. The elements that you identify are what you can use to develop a unique selling proposition.

For instance, while academic books on economics exist by the dozens, only one (that I am aware of) attempts to discuss and teach real issues of economics by couching them in the context of vampires and zombies. In the context of fiction, think about the benefits that readers in your genre are looking for, then promise them that plus something else. That something else, based on the unique elements that you as a unique person have built into your book, will give readers a unique reason to buy. Why should they buy your fantasy novel instead of any other fantasy novel? Maybe because your fantasy novel is uniquely dark yet lyrical in tone, and based on Chinese mythology. Or maybe because it is one of the only novels that is set in ancient Rome and features a female superhero protagonist. Whatever the reason, the stronger and more unique your USP, the more likely your book will be to stand out, catch readers’ interest, and persuade them to give your story a try.

So what’s your book’s unique selling proposition? Leave a note in the comments below!

Savvy Saturday – Moral Malleability

angel_demon_foxesI attended an interesting academic presentation today on the topic of “Moral Malleability.” While it was written in a marketing context, it was very relevant to writing fiction: it dealt with how people tend to respond when a company (or, in a novelist’s case, a person or organization) does something we perceive as wrong. There are four main ways in which a person/character can react when they perceive that they have been wronged: they can choose to forgive unilaterally (not harbor ill feelings toward the other party), seek to reconcile (both parties work together to move forward), do nothing (but harbor ill feelings toward the other party), and most dramatically, seek revenge. Muahahaha. (The evil laughter wasn’t part of the academic presentation.)

Now, we all know that seeking revenge is typically wrong. It often involves behaviors that we would admit violate our own morals, or that even break the law. For instance, we’d all say that cheating, stealing, lying, and so forth are wrong. They’re not the kind of actions that we condone, and they’re not the kind of descriptions that we would apply to ourselves. But research has discovered that when people find that they’ve been wronged, their sense of morality tends to…well…fudge, a little. Suddenly, things that yesterday you would have said are wrong, today you might say are justified.

How so? Let me give an example. Researchers promised participants a dollar for filling out a long, complex survey. At the end of the survey, however, some of the participants were told that the company had made a mistake and hadn’t meant to include them in the study, but they would receive a dollar anyway; other participants were told that they shouldn’t have been included, and they would only receive 50 cents; and the last group of participants were told that they shouldn’t have been included, and they wouldn’t receive any money at all. Clearly, the last two situations are unfair and wrong, with the last being worse than the second. After this, all three groups of people were asked to complete a second (unrelated) research task: they were supposed to complete a number of math problems on paper, and self-report how many of the problems they got right, when they were showed the right answer on the next screen. The more problems they reported getting right, the more of a monetary reward they would receive. (Thus, respondents had a financial motive to cheat.)

As you might expect, the respondents in the condition that were cheated out of a dollar tended to report far more correct answers than those who were cheated out of 50 cents, who reported more than those who were paid the full dollar they were promised. Well, this makes sense, we might say to ourselves. They should have received money from the company – they’re just cheating in name only to get the money that was due to them.

But wait. There’s more. Another study was done where separate participants were asked to think about a time that a company did something that made them angry (half the respondents), or to think about a time that a company did something that made them mildly frustrated (the other half). Then they were asked how wrong it would be to borrow an item from a clothing store, wear it to an event, then return the item to the store for a full refund. The respondents who remembered being angry about something a company had done were far more likely to say that it was morally acceptable to “borrow” new clothing from a store with the purpose of wearing it and returning it – even though this company had done nothing to wrong them.

So what do these marketing and psychology findings tell us about our stories? Unfortunately, they tell us how real people tend to think and behave. If your character was wronged by someone, their “normal” morality may slip, and they may do, say, and try to justify things that normally they would view as wrong. This may involve trying to obtain through immoral methods what they believe they were owed, taking pure revenge (you hurt me, now I’m going to hurt you), or more practicing what the presentation today called “moral malleability” – letting your morals slide in a completely different situation because you’re feeling hurt and wronged by someone else.

Of course, this won’t happen all the time. Characters (and people) who have a firm moral compass will often resist the urge to do wrong, even when they’ve had wrong done to them. But whether or not your characters ultimately decide to do what’s right or wrong, to turn the other cheek or seek an eye for an eye, it’s worth knowing as an author that psychologically, the temptations are there. Believing that something is wrong isn’t the same as not doing the wrong thing, especially under pressure, or in a situation where one has just been wronged. So what will your character do? That’s up for you as an author to decide – but for realistic stories, make your decision based on realistic psychology.

Savvy Saturday: Why Curiosity?

questionmarkCuriosity is a strange and powerful force that every writer needs to know how to harness. When readers are curious about what is going to happen next, they keep reading. When they are curious about a world, they pay attention. When they need to know the answer to a mystery, they may go crazy trying to figure it out, but they’ll go even crazier if you try to stop them. Curiosity is incredible. It can come to life in a moment with overwhelming power, keep one’s attention locked for hours (or days) at a time, and drive people to do dangerous, stupid things, (“Why is the door on the third floor of the spooky mansion locked with a large ‘Keep Out’ sign on it? I have to go in and find out!”). But at the same time, curiosity is also curiously weak. We are easily distracted creatures. The same curiosity that burns passionately inside us in the short term can quickly flare out or be transferred to a different focus. In addition, when curiosity is satisfied, it is often strangely disappointing – the pleasure of knowing the answer to a riddle, for instance, is often far less powerful and emotionally intense than the wonder and curiosity that one experiences when one does not know the answer.

If I tell you, for instance, that there are three key things that every writer should know about how curiosity can be used to help tell a gripping story, I almost guarantee that your curiosity will be roused (at least a little). But then if I begin telling you why it is that your curiosity is roused – that scientists have discovered the reason that curiosity is both so powerful and so transient – I can equally almost guarantee that your attention has now been transferred to this new question. Keep hold of your hats, folks. We’re in for a curious tale.

The theory of curiosity is fascinating. In 1994, Loewenstein wrote a brilliant article on the topic, appropriately titled “The Psychology of Curiosity,” in which he explained what curiosity is and how it works. To begin with, curiosity is rooted in the psychological truth that people don’t like loss far more than they do like gain. (For a more detailed discussion of this, see my blog post on “How to be Biased.”)

Curiosity occurs when people’s attention is focused on a gap in their knowledge – on a point of deprivation that they didn’t know existed before. This gap, or hole, gets stronger and more important in an individual’s mind the more the perceived deprivation is. If everyone around you, for instance, hints about knowing a secret that you don’t – no matter how mundane and irrelevant to your life it turns out to be – it’s likely to bother you until you know it too. Alternatively, if you have a certain amount of knowledge about a field, and then discover that you don’t know about a sub-topic in that field, you’re likely to be driven to find out what it is even if few others care. In both cases, being alerted to not knowing something puts you into a state of felt deprivation that can only be satisfied by the gaining of enough information to fill the gap.

This doesn’t mean, however, that people will sustain their curiosity until they know everything about a topic. Instead, curiosity is most powerful to drive people to gain insight into a problem (in Loewenstein’s words) rather than to gain incremental understanding. For instance, in an experiment, individuals were instructed to click on squares in a grid to turn them from blank to part of a picture – they had to click at least five out of forty-five squares, but could click on as many as they wanted. In one experimental condition, each square showed a different picture of an animal. In the other experimental condition, each square revealed just one part of a larger picture that was a single animal. Which condition do you think resulted in more clicks?

elephantYep – people were more curious as to what animal the single picture was going to show, and so often clicked enough of the pieces so they could tell what the animal was going to be. Some of them clicked on all of the pieces to get a full picture, while others only clicked on enough to give them defining features of the animal, (“oh! It’s an elephant! Okay.”), while far fewer of them stopped at just five. Clicking on enough pieces to see what the picture is is an example of gaining insight, while clicking on pieces after that, or clicking on the blank squares in the “lots of animals” condition, is an example of incremental understanding, where each new piece of information doesn’t get you closer to solving a larger problem.

Finally, the drive to satisfy curiosity is not a drive to know so much as a drive to go through the process of satisfying one’s curiosity. For instance, I could tell you that a dangerous murderer broke out of the wizards’ prison of Azkaban by turning himself into a dog and sneaking past the soul-sucking guards. But wondering for the whole third book of the Harry Potter series exactly how Sirius Black escaped when no one was ever able to escape before, trying to put clues together, and finally having a big reveal of what happened and why, made the story gripping and kept readers turning pages far past their bedtime. (Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything…*cough*) This is also why giving unwanted spoilers to rabid fans is basically asking them to kill you. “I didn’t want to just know who the masked murderer was,” they would scream, “I wanted to experience the process of finding it out for myself!”

So what can these insights about curiosity teach us about writing stories? As I stated in the beginning of this post, there are three key ways (plus a bonus one! Are you curious?) to use curiosity to keep readers engaged.

First: Have an overarching plot question to be answered. This is the most obvious way of incorporating curiosity, and the one that most authors are best at. How will Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and the rest save Middle Earth from the evil Sauron? (And will they?) How will Katniss survive the deadly Hunger Games? (And will she?) Who actually killed Mr. Ratchett on the Orient Express train? (And why?) While plots don’t need to have a single plot question, and can instead have smaller questions that tumble into each other (e.g. “what is this world and why am I here?” becomes “how can I possibly become the hero that this world needs?” and then “how can I actually defeat the villain and what do I do then?” and finally “how can I apply what I’ve learned to my real life back home”), each of these questions would need to be related to each other and gripping, keeping the audience wanting insight rather than incremental knowledge. If this first, most basic step is lacking, a story will plod in a “and then this happened, and then this happened” kind of way, with no real drive to it. Alternatively, each chapter might be gripping, but the story itself might feel disconnected. As you tell your story, then, make sure that you relate most scenes in some way to the overall plot question at hand, to drive the story forward and keep audiences focused.

Second: Let your characters keep secrets. This also applies to your narrative voice. Quite simply, your main character and/or you the author might know what’s happening, and may drop hints or describe a situation but simply choose not to explain what’s going on. This might continue until readers put together the pieces themselves and get their “ah-ha” moment, or until the character chooses to make a grand reveal. Good mysteries do this well. The writer will show us all the clues we need to solve the mystery, but won’t tell us who the villain is (even though the detective knows), until the trap is set and the climax is ready to unfold. On a smaller scale, if we see our (male) main character get a letter printed on pink paper that contains three lines of text written in a flowing cursive script – and then see the character ball it up, throw it in the fire, and tell his manservant in a shaking voice to forget that he saw the letter, we are likely to be intrigued. Who wrote this letter? Why did it affect our main character so much? What does he plan to do, and what will he actually do? If we know these answers at the same time our main character does, we are going to be far less invested in the story than if we’re forced to wonder and keep reading, looking forward to finding out the answer. In short, we’ve gotten invested in the situation simply because we know that there’s something important that we don’t know.

Third: Make your main characters themselves curious about something. This happens a lot in books, when your main character (or side characters) are the ones actually asking the questions that drive readers’ curiosity. For instance, in my novel The Quest of the Unaligned, Alaric knows from the beginning that many people, including his guide and friend Laeshana, think that he’s the Prince of Cadaeren, son of King Kethel and Queen Tathilya. But this doesn’t make sense – his parents are dead, but he knew who they were. As readers, we know that Alaric really is the prince, but since Alaric and Laeshana don’t know about Alaric’s background, we remain curious as to how Alaric got to the city of Tonzimmel as a child and why, until other characters fill us in. Other examples abound, with main characters seeing mysterious happenings, whispered conversations that they can’t overhear, have strange feelings that something is important but they don’t know why, or seeing patterns and knowing that they must be a clue to a mystery, but not knowing how. With all of these examples, the key is to show readers that there is something important that they don’t know, and make this thing more urgent for them to find out as time progresses.

Bonus tip: Don’t let readers get distracted or bored. The thing about curiosity is that it’s easily forgotten about. If you have a character do something strange in the first chapter, and it becomes important at the end of the book, hint at it a couple of times throughout. Remind your audience what it is that they don’t know. Remind them what’s at stake in the story and why it’s important that they gain the information they don’t have. At a smaller level, try to incorporate small tidbits of curiosity throughout your story. Why is this minor character behaving as she does? Can our hero trust the shopkeeper? Why does everyone keep commenting on the color of the king’s eyes? Is it really possible to meet the gods, like the fables say? Answering these small-scale questions and then raising new ones as the story progresses, as well as reminding them about the large and as-yet unanswered questions makes for a pleasant curiosity-satisfying experience throughout the course of the book while still drawing readers on toward the end with an ever-growing sense of urgency. And that urgency is why readers turn the page. That urgency, furthermore, is what leads to highly satisfying resolutions – assuming that the author answers all the questions that he or she has raised throughout the book.

And that leads to one final comment: Answer the important questions you ask! While some authors say that you have to answer every question you raise, others say that not everything in a world has to be explained. Wherever you fall on this continuum, one thing is not optional: if you are ending a story, you must answer at least the important questions you raise in the story, the ones that involve key plot points and character motivations, or you will leave your readers with an unsatisfying reading experience. You will have showed them a gap in their knowledge that will never be filled. Do not do this. Questions that you raise are like promises. Keep reading, you say, and I will fill this knowledge void that I have showed you. Having given those promises to readers, make good on them! Raise questions, answer those questions, and they will keep asking, “What happens next?” and “When does the next book come out?” and “What else are you writing?”

And that, good readers, is the answer to why curiosity is important and useful for writers. I hope you enjoyed the process of satisfying your curiosity – now go put it to use! I’m *curious* to see what you come up with.

Savvy Saturday – Marketing Time Travel

It isn’t often that I get to use my fantasy/sci-fi novelist background in my “real job” of being a marketing PhD student, but it occasionally happens. One of the most fun instances of this I’ve seen so far happened this past week. I had assigned group projects, for which the students had to make up a new product and develop a marketing plan. The more creative the product, I told them, the better. This was a marketing class, not an engineering class, so they could feel free to “invent” something that wouldn’t actually work without worrying about it.

And so one group wrote a marketing plan for a time travel machine.

pyramidsThis is where things got fun. “All right,” I told them when they proposed this idea. “Tell me about this time machine of yours. Does it go to the past or the future or both?”

They hadn’t thought that out yet. Did it matter?

Oh yes, I told them. If they want to just use a time machine for their own personal use, either is fine. But if they’re going to start marketing something, they’ll have different issues of national security and their own personal safety to deal with if they go into the past versus the future. If you go into the past, you “just” need to worry about changing history and screwing up the present. (Easily solved, by the way: either create a machine that is “out of phase” with history so you can’t interact with or be seen by historical people – great for archaeologists, not so much fun for wannabe-heroes – or, as this student group decided to do, create a new identical-to-ours parallel universe every time the machine is activated, so any actions you take won’t have any impact in our world.)

If you go into the future, however, you may be able to bring back knowledge that could have military or political significance for today’s world governments. Going into the past is a “vacation” or historical expedition. Going into the future could reshape the world balance of power. As marketers, we really don’t want the things we sell to get major governmental attention. Especially not the sort that ends with the product’s creators dead in an alley somewhere and the time machine in the hands of the highest bidder.

The students decided to stick with going into the past. Smart move.

The next big question was how to market this product. Would you be selling the machine itself, or the opportunity to use it for a length of time? If the latter, what would be the most profitable “market segment” (group of people who would be interested in the same type of product for the same type of reasons)? Some might include archaeologists who want to publish groundbreaking research, people who love a particular era of history and want to see it with their own eyes, and ultra-rich individuals who want to time travel because it’s new and different and exclusive. The easiest group to target, and the one that these students chose, is the last one.

But how would you contact these ultra-rich individuals? If you were marketing to people who love history but were middle class, you could advertise in travel magazines and on the History Channel on TV. If you were marketing to archaeologists, you would contact the universities with the best archaeology programs in the world and invite them to submit proposals for what research they would do, and the top proposals would be granted permission to use the time machine (for a sizable fee, of course). But wealthy individuals don’t respond to TV ads or typical magazines, and they don’t all belong to a single organization with a governing body that disseminates information.

Most likely, then, you’d need to pursue a public relations and personal selling strategy: make the news, then follow up one-on-one with interested parties (or their event planners or personal assistants). For instance, you might reach out to the agent of a celebrity who has portrayed a famous historical figure or an archaeologist (e.g. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones), offer him/her a free trip through the time machine to see something that pertains to the role they played, and then have them give an interview regarding their experience to a major newspaper. Once you’ve made a splash in the headlines, and included in the news story that this new “exclusive” product/service is available for those “discerning” individuals who have the means and the interest to go on a trip that is beyond the reach of most of mankind, you should start getting sales pretty rapidly.

Of course, this whole process made me want to sit down and actually write a story where this occurred. So often, time machines in fiction are made either by brilliant scientists who have little business sense and just want to see if they can do it (“What will the future be like? Let’s find out!”) or by driven individuals who want to visit a particular time/person in the past (“My true love died; I’m going to invent a time machine so I can be with him/her again!”). Why not write a story about a businessman who is interested in time travel (who isn’t?), but who cares even more about giving the world what they want – and enhancing his (and his employees’) wealth position in the process? This person would be a protagonist, not a “greedy industrialist” stereotype, and the story’s main plot wouldn’t revolve so much around “will the machine work and what happens if it breaks?” but “how will this machine’s existence shape the world of the protagonist?” and “how can the protagonist best use this device to change the world?”

It would change the world of the protagonist, to be sure. Once the machine’s safety was established, the world would most likely embrace the new reality and the company would be the leading authority on any issue of historical importance. (What REALLY happened? Book a tour with our company and see for yourself!) On the other hand, a CEO would also certainly have time machine detractors and individuals who wanted to abuse the system. People who are concerned about public safety (what happens if someone brings back the Black Death?) or about ethics and morality (if you create an alternate universe every time the machine is used, do you then destroy a world full of sentient beings every time the machine is turned off?) would likely protest and attempt to get laws passed to shut the machine down. Individuals without a promising future might want to go to the past and stay there. How would your company handle individuals who refuse to come back? If the company turns off the machine with a person from our world inside, is the individual simply stuck in an alternate reality forever, or do they die as the alternate universe is destroyed? These are sticky issues that a CEO would have to deal with.

The marketing plan that I graded didn’t answer any of these questions. I didn’t expect it to. As a novelist, however, I had a fantastic time raising these questions to my students, and encouraging them to think about how they would implement real marketing issues in an “out there” scenario like this one. And who knows? Maybe someday the scenario will actually be real – at least in a novel or set of short stories.

What do you think, readers? If someone actually invented a time machine like this, how would it change the world? How would you expect it to be marketed?



Savvy Saturday – Differences That Go All the Way Down


Writers find it relatively easy to create characters who think as they do. It’s much harder to write believable characters who are devotees of a different moral paradigm. This is not to say that it’s hard to write villains: characters who are “just plain evil” can be slapped into a story with a few wide brush-strokes and left to cackle maniacally and murder anyone who stands in their way. (Preferably with a ray gun.)

What’s hard to write is someone who is moral, but whose concept of morality is slightly different (or very different) from the author’s. If it’s done badly, people who read your story and believe differently from you will be offended that you misrepresented their point of view. (Phrases like “straw man attack” and “stereotyping” tend to get thrown around at this point.) If it’s done well, however, creating moral conflict between two characters can shed light on real issues in society today. Writing moral conflicts – and then showing how those conflicts turn out – gives the author the power to invite people into his or her view of reality, and possibly even change people’s ideas about how the world is or should be. It’s a heady concept, but to make it work in reality, you have to understand how other people really think. You have to not just step into their shoes, but step into their heads.

As a sociology major in college, I took a class on contemporary social issues where we discussed this whole idea of differing moralities. The topics we studied were diverse and numerous, ranging from education to religion to politics and beyond. But whatever we studied, the professor kept coming back to one point: some differences go all the way down. At their core, some people come at the world with such different basic assumptions that there is no way that they will ever agree with each other – because even if they use the same terminology, they value fundamentally different things. Freedom versus moral behavior. Equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity. The good of the collective versus the good of the individual. None of these are bad on their own, and good people have fought and argued tirelessly on both sides of each. But they aren’t ever going to agree. Not without a change of heart as well as a change of mind.

So how as a writer do you accurately portray people on two sides of a sticky moral issue? Here are some tips.

First of all, don’t get lazy in your characterization. Characters who follow a different moral narrative than your protagonist shouldn’t be ugly, mean to small children, stupid, insufferable, or anything else that will “automatically” make your readers dislike them. (At least not unless the narrative truly requires it.) Let’s say that I’m going to be writing a story that features two individuals, one of whom believes in “equality of outcome” and the other of whom believes in “equality of opportunity.” Here’s a lazy way of showing which one is “right.”


As John walked home from the bus station, he smiled a greeting at the wrinkled woman in the tattered shawl who sat at the street corner of Elm and Maple. As usual, she smiled back – her teeth yellowed but her eyes bright – and as usual, John reached into his wallet. It wasn’t her fault that her boyfriend had left her with five kids to feed, or that the scumbag one-percenters who ran the town refused to pay their employees a decent wage. With as hard as she had worked to make ends meet before she’d gotten sick and had to quit her three minimum-wage jobs, she deserved a wholesome meal at least once a day, and by God, he was going to make sure she got it. He pulled out a ten dollar bill.

Suddenly, tires screeched and a horn blared just feet from his ear. Jumping to one side with a muffled oath, John just caught a glimpse of the driver of the red Mercedes as it flashed past. A round, fleshy face, a blindingly gold watch, and a contemptuous sneer. The car honked again at the mud-spattered farmer’s truck in its way, sped around it with another squeal of its tires, and was gone. John shook his head. “Someone should teach that punk a lesson,” he muttered.

“And who’s that gonna be?” the woman at his feet asked bitterly. “You?” She looked John up and down, at his cheap Walmart shirt and his patched blue-jeans, and shook her head. “He’d get you fired, son. You and anyone else in this town that dares tell him that he’s no better than the rest of us.”

“I know. It just isn’t right.”

“You’re tellin’ me.” The woman raised her eyebrows. “Thanks for the ten. It’s nice knowing there are some people around who still care about humanity.”


Atlas_shruggedFor the other side of the debate, go read some Ayn Rand. Either way, this kind of story makes an argument that will only appeal to people who already believe in the point you’re trying to make. If you’re trying to write a moralistic piece, then that might be what you want to do. If, however, you’re trying to write a piece of fiction that accurately and thoughtfully portrays real people, you’ll have to make your arguments much more subtly. Show people who believe in different things both behaving in a way that readers will find attractive (at least in some situations). Show them both having flaws that don’t relate to the characteristic that’s the moral issue of your story. Show them both making mistakes and learning from them. Show them listening to each other.

Once you’ve established that your characters are real people, your audience will care about them a lot more. Then, when your overarching narrative shows that the protagonist’s viewpoint is what will solve the problem of the story that you set up, the ending feels more believable and less preachy. It takes more work, but in the end, it will have a much greater impact on readers – and that’s worth it.

In our story above, let’s keep John as our “friend of the people.” He’s a worker at Walmart who believes that everyone deserves the right to have a certain standard of living. He cares deeply about the poor, and thinks that no one needs to earn a million dollars a year. People who are rich and greedy (which is pretty much everyone who’s rich, because if they weren’t greedy they probably wouldn’t be rich) should be required to help out those who haven’t gotten as lucky. He gives away ten percent of his income every year to help people who are down and out, and he volunteers on the weekends at the Homeless Mission. Everyone who knows John thinks that he has a real heart for the poor, and that he’s a real kind guy – if a little intense.

In the new version, however, our protagonist will actually be John’s coworker, Angelee. Raised by a single mother, Angelee is working at Walmart to put herself through college. She’s earning a degree in finance, because she’s good with numbers and she wants to make sure that she’s never broke the way her family was when she was growing up. To that end, she has seized on every opportunity she’s encountered and has always striven for excellence in the work she does. She fully expects that within a year she’ll be getting a job offer from a finance company, that she’ll study for and become a financial planner, and that she’ll use her knowledge and skills to start the first financial planning practice in her city – which she hopes will provide a much-needed service and also make her comfortably wealthy in the process.

Here’s a conversation that might happen between the two of them, very early in their relationship.


“You give money to that bag lady every day?” Angelee asked, aghast.

John crossed his arms. “She’s not a bag lady! Her name is Roseann and she has five kids to support. So yeah. It’s the least I can do to help.”

“She isn’t a bag lady. So…she has a job besides asking for handouts?”

“She can’t work. She’s been sick.”

“For how long?”

John shrugged. “I don’t know. A year? Two?”

Angelee snorted. “Yeah. My mom had friends who were that kind of sick. Sick of work, sick of life, sick of waking up early and saying yes sir and no sir and doing things they didn’t feel like doing. If you and people like you stopped putting money in her basket, I’d bet she’d get well enough to work right about the time her stomach started rumbling.”

“You don’t even know her! How can you say things like that?”

Angelee raised her eyebrows. “I lived next to people just like her for eighteen years. Right until the day I moved out of the dump my mother had us living in and started at State College.”

“And you don’t feel bad for people who aren’t as fortunate as you are?” John shook his head, incredulity written in his eyes.

“Don’t take that tone with me. I wasn’t ‘fortunate’ – I worked dang hard to get here. Those people all had choices sometime in their lives, just like I did. They could have chosen to study more in school, or to get a job and stick with it even when they didn’t like it, or to not shack up with their boyfriend and get pregnant. I chose to take two jobs, including this miserable one, and go to college so that I could escape from all of that. So no, I don’t feel bad for those bag ladies on the street corners who get to sit and gossip all day while people like you and me work our butts off. And no, I’m not going to give them my money that I earned unless I see a much better reason for it than, ‘they don’t have as much as I do.’”

“I didn’t know that people could have hearts as cold as yours. Do you care about anyone besides yourself?”

“That’s rude. And yes, I do, though I certainly don’t need to justify myself to you.”

John gave her a knowing look. “Sure you don’t.” Turning on his heel, he walked away.

“Idiot,” Angelee said to his back. “Someday someone’s going to pop that beautiful bubble of dreams you’ve built for yourself, and you’re going to have to live in the real world.”

“Same could be said about you,” John responded over his shoulder. “And I want to be there when it happens, Scrooge.”


So who’s right? Both characters are sure that they are. Who would end up “winning” in a novel? That depends on how the author crafts the story. Perhaps Angelee gets to actually know Roseann, sees the injustice that is built into the capitalist system in her city, and she and John become crusaders for the underdog. Or perhaps John finds out that Roseann isn’t really sick and has been spending his money on alcohol and drugs, he realizes that he hates his hand-to-mouth lifestyle (a result of giving away all his surplus income), and he decides that he’s going to go back to school and gain marketable skills.

Or, more likely, perhaps they both give in a little bit but continue to maintain their basic worldview. Maybe Angelee decides that Roseann is an exception, and decides that she’s going to start giving some of her income to people who really need help. And maybe at the same time, John recognizes that investing time now in pursuing an education and a high-paying job will ultimately lead to the ability to help more people in the long run than if he continues to volunteer at menial tasks and give a percentage of his minimum wage away. The story could go any of these ways, now that we have developed characters who feel deeply and strongly about their beliefs, and behave realistically (but not stereotypically) based on them.

So how are you going to incorporate differences that go all the way down into your writing? Or if you aren’t a writer, look for these issues the next time you read a book. Pay attention to how the author develops his/her argument for whatever moral issue or theme the book is addressing. Do the differences go all the way down? How does the author resolve whatever moral conflicts are presented? Is it believable, or do people change too dramatically? Does the author well represent the different points of view of the conflict he or she is writing about?

Have fun!



Savvy Saturday – Ready or Not

It’s that time of year again. The birds are singing, the grass is green, the weather alternates between hot and cold and dry and wet, and the students don caps and gowns and march across a stage with much pomp and circumstance, to the cheers of their friends and teary eyes of their parents.

It’s time for graduation.

As exciting as it is, however, graduation isn’t a time of pure celebration and good cheer for all departing students. For some, it’s a time of mixed emotions: fear of the unknown, loss of leaving the friends one has lived and studied with for four years, trepidation about going to college, beginning a new job, or finding a job at all. College graduations are especially difficult, as the student leaves behind academia after sixteen (or more) years of schooling to begin an entirely new chapter of life. Some students feel ready. Others are more hesitant.

Even in a fantasy world.

The story that is today’s Savvy Saturday post is dedicated to this year’s college graduates – and to one college graduate in particular. You are ready to “be an adult” and live life on mission. To make the world a better place. To go where you’ve been called and do what college has prepared you to do. You’ve matured and grown and developed your talents since you started college as a bright-eyed freshman. As you move on to the next stage in your life, keep your thirst for wisdom and knowledge fresh in your mind and the friends and relationships you have built close in your heart.

And many, many congratulations. You’ve earned them.




Ready or Not


A.L. Phillips


Xiristin held up the ring so it caught the light of the eight torches that blazed along the wall of Josin’s Jewelry, Amulets, and Artifacts.

“It’s exactly as you ordered it, my lady,” Josin assured her. “Are you ready to proceed?”

Ready? Heavens, no.

“A moment, if you please,” Xiristin said, continuing to scrutinize the piece she had commissioned. If there was any flaw in the ring, the magic she was about to perform could be fatal. All members of the Order of St. Pew were allowed one token to carry with them in their travels: one item of power, carrying the sacred signs of the Order itself, to help them on their way. Many chose to imbue their talisman with healing, with good luck, with protection. Simple spells, spells any fourth-year of the Order could accomplish.

But unfortunately, a simple spell wasn’t what Xiristin needed. And so she turned the ring slowly in her hand, looking for the slightest imperfection. At its top, a garnet red as heart-blood caught the light of the torches and reflected it around the room in a hundred shimmering sparks. A silver shield engraved with words of power shone proudly in the center of the top face of the stone. Around the garnet, a circular inscription proclaimed that ring’s bearer was a member of the Order of St. Pew, while the ring’s delicate silver band gleamed with etchings of figures, letters, and numbers.

Eventually, Xiristin let out a breath of relief. Josin was right: every letter on the ring was flawless, every figure exact. “It’s perfect,” she breathed. “Thank you, Josin. This is truly magnificent.”

Josin face lit up, and he gave her a bow. “My lady is too kind.”

Xiristin smiled back, but her stomach tightened as her hand closed over the ring. Now that the catalyst for the spell was in her possession, the danger she was putting herself in suddenly felt far more real. “Let us proceed,” she said, trying to sound confident. “Is all prepared for the casting?”

“As my lady directed.” Josin swept his hand toward the open doorway to his left.

Xiristin followed the jeweler, sweeping her long blue cape over her shoulder as she walked so it wouldn’t catch on the many display stands that flaunted gold, silver, and a rainbow of jewels for interested purchasers. As she entered the bare workroom at the back of the store, she shivered at the sudden drop in temperature. Here, there were no cheerful torches set in the walls. The room’s only light came from a bright blue flame that burned in midair a few inches above a round stone table at the room’s center.

“The wards are set?” Xiristin asked.

“Indeed, my lady,” Josin replied. “And the materials you requested are here.” He gestured to a small stool next to the table.

Xiristin glanced at the items on the stool: a dragon scale, a phoenix feather, a bowl of glowing water from the Sweet Sea, a perfect seven-sided crystal from the Mines of Memory. All expensive and rare, but all worth it.

Assuming the spell worked.

She forced a smile on her face and thanked the jeweler.

“It is my pleasure, my lady. May I be of any further assistance?”

Xiristin was about to say no, but then she remembered and bit her lip. “I hope not,” she said carefully, “but if…if anything happens…would you see that my horse is returned safely to the Order? Sprightly is her name; we’ve been through a lot together, and I would hate for anything to happen to her.”

Josin’s face had paled. Everyone knew that riders of the Order and their horses never separated from each other unless one or the other perished. Clearly, the jeweler hadn’t realized quite how dangerous the spell was that he’d agreed to let Xiristin perform in his workshop. “As you wish, my lady,” he finally said. “May you and the Order of St. Pew prosper.”

“And may you prosper in the Order’s care,” Xiristin replied. Once she heard the click of the door behind her, she focused her gaze on the fire and concentrated, trying to force away her nerves.

Ready or not, it was time to begin.

Xiristin took a deep breath in, then blew out, both with her breath and with her magic. As she blew, a breeze began to swirl about the workroom. It kissed Xiristin’s cheeks, pulled stray tendrils of hair from the intricate blond braids gathered at the back of her head, and whistled merrily as it gained strength.

Any other day, Xiristin would have laughed along with the breeze, and given it time to play before sending it to work. Today, however, she merely tucked her hair back behind her ears and pointed to the stool. Immediately, the wind whisked the phoenix feather and dragon scale into the air. They tumbled together on the breeze, whirling around the room in ever-tightening circles until they met the blue flame at the room’s center.


Xiristin braced herself against the sudden vortex of power that surged into existence. She had never felt magic this powerful before, and this was only the beginning of the spell. “Primus,” she said, her voice shaking. She braced herself: at her word, her ears popped with a change in pressure, while the flame turned bright gold.

Xiristin suppressed a surge of elation. It had worked! Focus, she told herself. This was only the beginning.

The crystal was next. When the wind carried it to the flames, the fire roared up around it until the crystal itself burned gold.


As Xiristin spoke, the air turned frigid, while the flames around the crystal turned white as the snow around the building where she and her cohort had resided for the past four years.

She swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat as memory intruded sharply into her casting. There would be no snow in the land to which she was being sent. She and her cohort were all receiving their arms tomorrow, the latest in the long history of the Order of St. Pew to be commissioned to fight for Freedom and for the Faith. But she was the only one being sent to the far western desert.

Her instructors had told her time and again that she was ready. She knew in her head that they were right: it was time to leave, time to begin her new apprenticeship with the masters of St. Davidus who would hone her skills until she was a master herself.

And yet…

Gritting her teeth, Xiristin pointed to the bowl of water on the stool. The wind lifted it into the air, whirling it around the room without spilling a drop until it hovered above the white flames that roared in midair. She motioned: the water slowly poured down onto the fire. Steam hissed, filling the air with the scent of roses. When it cleared, the fire now burned in the crystal alone, its white flames dancing and leaping inside the stone’s faces.


The crystal turned red: the color of the heart, the color of the garnet in Xiristin’s ring. Power hummed out from it, prickling the hair on her arms.

The priming was complete.

The woman’s breath was coming heavy now, and her head felt light, dizzy, like it did after studying all night for an exam. And that had been the easy part of the spell.

Xiristin let out a long breath, concentrating as hard as she could even as her heartbeat pounded against her skull. Now she would see if she was ready, if her training was sufficient for the spell she was attempting to cast.

If it wasn’t, of course, she wouldn’t know. She tried not to think of what it would be like to be sucked into the vortex she had created, for her life to be ended in a flash of fire and her memories dissolved into smoke.

It wouldn’t happen, she told herself. She was ready. She had to be.

Slowly, Xiristin stepped forward, holding her new ring out between her thumb and her first finger. With every step, the hum of power from the crystal in front of her grew stronger. Carefully, her hands shaking, the woman extended the ring, then let go. It hovered in the air just above the crystal. She held out her hands on either side of the ring, calling her power to her. And along with her power, her memories.


Encouragement, the White Council had whispered over her head when she had accepted the call of the Order four years ago. Joy. Hope. These you shall bring to a world lost in darkness. They shall shine in your soul, a light never to be quenched, and thus you shall push back the shadow wherever you ride.


The scene shifted. “You think you can do it alone? Ha!” Xiristin’s mentor folded his arms over his stout middle and fixed her with a skeptical eye. Stantus was more grizzled than some at the Order, and blunter than most, but still sharp as an arrow. And as hard as he tried to hide it behind a veneer of cynicism, Stantus cared about his initiates. It was why Xiristin liked him, why she kept coming to him when everyone else in her cohort stayed away.

Not that she liked him all the time.

“I won’t be alone,” she retorted. “I’ll have Sprightly.”

Stantus just snorted. “See above. If you’re stupid enough to try to fly solo, you’re going to crash and burn,” he told her. “Happens every time. The White Council fills your heads full of self-empowerment and actualization garbage, gives you a mission to change the world, and sends you off by yourself, all eager and bright-eyed. Then they wonder why you don’t last a month. Bloody knuckleheads, the lot of them. Not that anyone cares about my opinion.”

Xiristin raised her eyebrows and folded her arms to mimic his. “What would you recommend, then?” she said testily. “I have to go where I’m assigned, and I already know that there isn’t anyone else from the Order at St. Davidus. Unless you’re suggesting that I recant my vows and flee while I have the chance.” Her barbed sarcasm would have made her cohort-mates wince, and her other instructors assign her penalty duties for lack of respect.

Stantus, however, just laughed silently. “Can if you want to,” he said.

Xiristin gave him a pointed glare.

“All right, all right. You want to shine in the darkness and give sweetness and light wherever you go and all that mumbo-jumbo? Then make bloody sure you don’t burn out. And to do that, to continue the metaphor, you’ll need fuel. Lots of it.”

As he spoke, Stantus rummaged through the piles of manuscripts and scrolls on his desk, raising clouds of dust. “In fact, you’ll need…” he said, discarding one yellowed document after another, “this!” He held up a scroll tied with crimson and white ribbons.

“What is it?” Xiristin asked, reaching for the scroll. It was delicate in her hands, but power radiated through it into her fingers.

“A life-spell,” Stantus said.

Xiristin raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t those rather…dangerous?” she asked.

Stantus’ mouth quirked at the understatement in her tone. “Only if you can’t handle it,” he said. “You asked my advice, I’m giving it. Tie the Order to you through your memories, and your memories to you through your talisman. Don’t let this place and its people – knuckleheads and all – fade from your mind. Don’t let future shadows cloud the joy that you’ve been given and the lessons you’ve learned here.” A cynical smile came to his face. “Of course, even with a life-spell on your talisman, you won’t be able to complete your mission alone. No one can. But you might make it at St. Davidus long enough to find allies.”


Xiristin focused on the ring, memories flying through her head as fast and breathtaking as Sprightly’s gallop. Memories of the Order’s grand buildings of red brick and white stone, whose turrets soared toward cloudy skies. Memories of the laughter and late-night debates she had shared with the others of her cohort. Memories of her instructors, of her training, of the music and joy and hope and light of her four years in the Order’s care.

Memories of who she had been, and how she had changed, and who she knew she was.

Filling her mind with her memories and her vision with her ring, Xiristin spoke the words she had memorized from Stantus’ scroll.

As the incantation flowed off her tongue, the fire within the focal crystal concentrated beneath its top face. Brighter and brighter it grew, until it suddenly sprang upward, the fire of magic, of memory, of life, flowing from the crystal into the ring in a rush of energy. It was too bright to look at. She squeezed her eyes shut, blood rushing to her head as power burned in her veins, all crystalizing and focusing Xiristin’s memories in the silver band and its blood-red stone.

Finite!” she gasped, and it was done.

It was done.

She was alive!

Xiristin’s breath came in laughing gasps. She sank to the floor on trembling legs, sweat dripping down her face, and rested her head on her knees. She couldn’t think; she hardly had the energy to breathe. But she was alive, and the crystal had stopped glowing, and the ring that hovered above it was now filled with a silver light.

With a small exhausted smile, she sat on the floor, content to just gaze at the ring. It was another fifteen minutes before her strength returned enough for her to push herself up from the floor. Her fingers still shaking, she reached out and touched her new talisman. The ring was cool and smooth, and as she ran her fingers over its band, joy flowed into her spirit: familiar joy, her own joy, but now crisp and fresh and clear as a mountain stream. She slipped the ring onto the fourth ringer of her right hand – the traditional place for a ring of the Order – and laughed aloud in delight.

The spell had worked.

Hope, joy, encouragement: there they were, secured in memory, protected against the darkness. There they were, a fount that could overflow through her to a world in need. Though she would soon leave behind the columns of pines and gentle streams of the Order of St. Pew, its teaching and music and light would live in her heart and her soul always. Her friends would be with her, as would Stantus and the White Council.

And when she rode into the west, it would be with hope and joy and light held firmly and forever in her right hand. Xiristin’s eyes brightened at the thought of her upcoming assignment. She would keep light and hope in her heart, even as she learned from the masters at St. Davidus. She would fulfill her mission.

She knew it in her heart.

She was ready.

The End


Copyright 2014, A.L. Phillips