Category Archives: Writing Tips

Savvy Saturday – Communication Clashes

One of the most fun parts for me about being a novelist is world-building. Creating new cultures, mixing, matching, and inventing new values, beliefs, and histories, and then putting characters into them with their own individual goals and struggles is a wonderful challenge. One problem that authors often face, however, is showing the differences across cultures in a way that is interesting for readers and creates challenges for characters (often, these are one and the same thing). While different clothing, different foods, and different climates are all good and oft-used ways of distinguishing peoples from each other, one way that doesn’t get used as often is differences in communication. What does that mean? Here are three contrasts of cultural communication differences…

  • Loudness versus softness of speech

Some cultures prize being loud and bold in the way that one talks. Individuals may stand far away and shout at one another, stand close together and shout at one another, or be more quiet in the ways in which they address each other. Is raising one’s voice a sign of bold masculinity, or rude lack of self-control? Is being quiet a sign of respect or of cowardice? These differences may seem small, but they can be enough to make a character feel like something is different, wrong, or foreign.

  • Directness versus indirectness of speech

While some cultures value saying what one means and meaning what one says, other cultures tend to view language as more fluid, or as only one tool of communication. When one agrees to a contract, is one really agreeing, or is one expressing politeness but also stating through subtle hints and external cues that both of you should know that he isn’t really going to keep it? When an individual from a direct culture goes to an indirect culture, he/she may be seen as boorish and clumsy, completely trampling on the tacit rules of communication that everyone knows from being raised in the culture. In contrast, when an individual from an indirect culture goes to a direct culture, he/she may be seen as incapable, untrustworthy, or just frustrating because of his/her lack of ability to follow directions or to state when something isn’t understood or won’t be able to be completed the way that is required.

  • Argumentativeness versus politeness of speech

Some cultures value open debate and argument, while others avoid it to whatever extent they can. When someone offends you, do you insult him, his mother, and his dog, and challenge him to a duel, or do you smile, bow, wish him well, and then go off and silently work to destroy him? No culture is going to be without conflict. The question here is how that conflict is expressed. Characters from a polite culture might find themselves easily bullied or overpowered by individuals in an argumentative culture, but might also be more able to keep their calm and twist conversations to their advantage. Characters from an argumentative society would likely stand out in a polite society for their supposed rudeness, and they might seem to get their way more at the beginning of a story, only to find themselves countered later in the story by the “polite” individuals who have carefully worked behind his back to give him what they believe he deserves.


What other communication differences have you observed or might you imagine across cultures? Have you seen good examples of books that use communication differences to move plots forward or cause character growth?

Savvy Saturday – Novel Argumentation

One thing that fictional stories are exceptionally good at is exploring different sides of an argument or issue, giving a well-rounded treatment of it, and then coming to rest (more or less subtly) on one side or another. Of course, the potential for good exploration of issues does not mean that all novels explore issues well. Many authors abuse this power of the novel, making a book heavy-handed at best, and at worst, a thinly disguised essay with flat characters and trite plots. How can authors steer clear of these traps, without giving up the unique ability of a novel to wrestle with and comment on important topics? Here are three tips:


  • Give good arguments on both sides of a topic


One common mistake that authors make is to only present good arguments on one side of a topic, or to only explore an issue from one character’s point of view, and to thus essentially silence other viewpoints. Let’s imagine that you want to argue through your story that wisdom is more important than book-learning. This is an interesting argument, and one that could be explored and taken in many different directions in a book. An obvious, but mistaken, way to present the topic would be the “fairy tale approach.” The mother of the main character, for instance, might tell him why it is important to always act wisely. Two of the main character’s friends might then behave foolishly, though they are both intelligent, well-educated sorts, and get themselves into bad situations. The main character, then, would repeat to himself his mother’s advice, act on her instructions, and find himself magically rewarded with health, wealth, and a happily ever after ending. This is not a satisfying story for anyone older than six or seven years of age.

Straw man arguments, weak arguments, or no arguments at all on the “other side” of an issue leave mature readers frustrated. “But what about all the times that practical common sense isn’t enough?” they ask. “What about the advances of science, saving lives by rebutting old wives’ tales that were seen as practical wisdom?” To combat this problem, authors must write scenes, characters, and dialog to show the best arguments of the “other side.” Only by showing the main character’s friends putting their book learning to good use and still failing due to a lack of wisdom can a good argument in favor of wisdom be made.


  • Give all arguments from complex, preferably sympathetic, characters


The second mistake the authors often make is to give the good guys all the arguments for the “right” side of an argument, and the bad guys all the arguments for the “wrong” side. If you have a realistic, sympathetic protagonist proclaiming his views, and then a tin-pot dictator in a black cape arguing against him, even the “other side’s” best arguments will fall artificially flat because of the negative light in which they are being presented. A powerful way of playing with audience’s perceptions, actually, is to make a main character be relatively neutral in an issue, and give some good, correct points to your antagonistic character to say. They may be slightly wrong, and the main character may have to figure this out for himself, but by having truth and insight found in all characters’ speech and actions (to some degree), an author can force readers to pay closer attention to the argument itself without being swayed as much by who is talking.


Alternatively, you might choose to not have an antagonist be the figurehead for either of the sides of the argument you’re wanting to make. Give the two opposing arguments to a main character’s two allies, or have the main character disagree with his best friend. Either way, give convincing arguments on both sides of the issue to sympathetic characters, and readers won’t be given the option of shutting their brains off as they consider what you’re saying.


  • Be nuanced in your conclusion


As an author, you have the ability to be as black-and-white or shades-of-gray as you want in your book’s conclusion. You might choose to have a strong, resounding victory of one worldview or belief system, with an overall story plot and a main character arc that both show the triumph of one way of approaching the world, while the antagonist represents the other way of approaching the world and is soundly defeated. If you go this route, however, you risk charges of being blatant and heavy-handed, or even “preachy” with your theme.


A more nuanced approach to the issue, created through the use of multiple scenes, can give readers a more complete and satisfying treatment of an argument and a more powerful conclusion. One advantage of the novel form is that you don’t have to depend on just one scene to tell readers what you believe about a particular issue. Instead, throughout a book, you can show different characters approaching the same broad issue from multiple perspectives in multiple situations. Sometimes, one approach may prevail, while other times, the other might end up being the right to use in a given situation. The amount of “wins” you give to each side of the issue will help influence readers to favor one side or the other. As an author, you may choose to have a 90-10% split for a definitive “this is right!” message, or for a more ambivalent ending, write something closer to a 51-49% division. Personally, I have tended in the past toward about a 75-25% goal in my writing – enough to show depth to an issue, but with enough weight of plot evidence on one side to make it clear to readers what my conclusion is.


What good books have you read recently that make a strong (i.e. more towards 100-0) or an ambivalent (i.e. more towards 50-50) argument about an issue? How did these authors make their points well (or poorly)?

Savvy Saturday – Truly Dangerous Villains

Too often in fiction, writers take the easy road of having white-hat versus black-hat stories: heroes are handsome and likeable, villains are ugly and mean, and it’s plain from the beginning who the audience is supposed to root for. These stories can be done well and are often enjoyable to read. But they also make it difficult for writers to surprise readers, and limit the types of stories that can be told.

Very often in real life, a person doesn’t know who their real allies and opponents are at the beginning. People can seem one way, and then turn out to be very different. When the same holds true in fiction, it can make stories more gripping, twists more astonishing, and readers ever more eager to turn the page. This is not to say that all characters have to be morally ambiguous. In contrast, giving villainous characters likeable traits and heroes annoying ones highlights the important parts of their natures while enabling readers to more fully interact with them as people. It’s easy to give heroes unlikeable traits at the beginning of a book – this is the basis of character development. It’s harder to treat villains well, to keep them evil while giving them just enough good qualities to make their offers seem tempting, their lies attractive, or their goals reasonable. Here are three ways that authors can do it.

Give the villain a sense of humor

We all like to laugh. We may fear and hate serious, black-caped villains who threaten to destroy the world, but we don’t ever feel ourselves being tempted to join them. A villain who laughs, in contrast, who quips and jokes and is fun to be around (at least when they aren’t busy plotting how to bring down Our Hero), is dangerous to the hero’s soul – and to ours. It’s easy to be swayed by someone who is funny, because funny people are likeable, and we tend to agree with what (and who) we like. When evil is dark and serious and foreboding, it’s easy to notice it and avoid it. When it wears cheerful colors, a bright smile, and invites you to come along and join the fun, it’s much harder to refuse. Writing humorous villains, then, is a way of presenting a far greater temptation to a main character than they might otherwise face, and is a way of setting up a conflict that will be far more powerful for readers in the end, when they realize that the laughing villain is truly as dangerous – and needs to be stopped just as much – as the one who wears black and sneers at the world.

Give the villain a group of trusted friends or family

We’re all used to reading about lone villains who have isolated themselves from the world and hate everyone in it. It’s easy to fight against people who are fighting against everyone else – knowing that if the Lord of Darkness falls the entire world will rejoice is a powerful motivator to the hero. What if, instead, the villain is part of a small group of people who all trust each other, like each other, and work together as a team? The mafia would be a good example of this. Loyalty to one’s family is a good and honorable thing, and having readers see that loyalty gives a sense of depth and complexity to characters that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Murder is just as wrong when it’s done by a lone vigilante versus a mafia hitman with a wife and children, but a traditional hero would probably feel guiltier about bringing down the second than the first. Even if the hero doesn’t respond differently, if a reader sees the villain having human bonds and caring about other people – even if they’re other bad people – it can make their evil deeds seem more forgivable or justified. This then becomes an opportunity for discussions about the nature of morality and what, truly, the hero is fighting for.

Give the villain a brain

The famous Evil Overlord List is a classic example of how often this recommendation is not followed. Villains who are boring, trite, or maniacally-clever-but-make-stupid-mistakes are hard to take seriously. Heroes have to fight them, but there’s no doubt of what they’ll do. In contrast, villains who are smart, capable, and one step ahead of the hero make readers sit up and take notice. We tend to like people who are able to make things happen, who are movers and shakers, who are able to enact their will on the world. When someone evil is also capable and creative, that spells doom far more quickly than a villain who wastes time or resources, and/or is constantly narrowly escaping being caught by the cleverer hero.

Smart villains, villains with human ties, villains who make us laugh – these are the truly dangerous men and women we find in novels and meet on the streets. These are the ones that we not only need to fight against, but guard our hearts and minds against. These are the villains that make readers think, and heroes struggle.

How have you seen smart, connected, or funny villains used in stories?

Savvy Saturday – The Tempest

Last weekend, I had an amazing opportunity to see a live production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is a fascinating play that in many ways is a study of authorship, of power, and of writing itself. The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote before setting down his pen and retiring. Its protagonist, the magician Prospero, is often seen as an author-insertion character – Shakespeare’s writing a play about himself, in some ways. Like Shakespeare, like any novelist, Prospero creates stories that magically come to life to make others’ lives happier, and has to choose to use that power for good or for evil. The fact that Prospero uses magic in the context of a play to actually influence other characters’ lives is a narrative metaphor for the role of the novelist or playwright in creating stories about fictional characters, molding and shaping their lives, and in so doing, shaping and influencing the lives of readers.

As a fantasy novelist, it was great fun to see Prospero-as-storyteller, and Prospero-as-magician, shaping a story with his creative mind and narrative sense that would be fitting and would turn out “right” for all involved (him restored to his lost dukedom, his daughter blissfully wed to a prince, and mercy for those who have done wrong), and using his magic and mind to make it all happen as he willed. We, as novelists, have to have both creativity and a narrative sense to identify what kind of story to tell, and also a kind of magic – a storytelling magic – to create events and characters in such a way that they are believable, that they interact believably, and that they through their interactions with the plot ultimately create a story that will hold readers’ attention. Good stories aren’t just narratives, they’re living, breathing souls that speak to readers deeply, bringing with them glimpses of truth about real life. Good plays, similarly, aren’t just words spoken by actors; they are corporeal dreams that are inhabited for a time by real people, giving insight into life even as they entertain.

Shakespeare, through Prospero, shows novelists the power and the importance of our art and craft. We must carefully think through the consequences of our narrative decisions. We cannot treat all characters alike – while some characters need to be brought up short by a flaming, terrifying vision of a fire spirit to drive them mad with guilt, others may need to be physically restrained lest they hurt themselves and others, and some characters may just be able to be warned and guided to do the right thing by sharing with them words of truth. While some characters are driven by the promise of true love, others are driven by the desire for freedom, for power, or for pleasure. Some characters are stubborn and do not take kindly to instruction, preferring to go their own way though they harm themselves over and over in the process. Others are more tractable, preferring to listen to instruction and advice (whether good or bad) and change their behavior with the hopes of improving their lives and situations.

And we as authors give them life and purpose and move them into tense situations, pull the rugs out from under their feet, tantalize them with offers of fulfilling their goals, and then make it difficult for them to reach those goals. We as authors pull the strings, weave the tapestries, tell the stories. And sometimes, like Prospero, in telling the stories, we find ourselves being changed. Sometimes, in telling the stories, we realize new things about ourselves. And sometimes, those things we realize can then be put back into the stories we write to help others. The dreams we envision shape our waking lives, and can be used to create dreams for others that, when they wake, make them “cry to dream again.”

One of Shakespeare’s dreams was The Tempest, and I am glad to have inhabited it for a time.

Savvy Saturday – Systems of Magic (I)

Magic is an integral part of nearly all fantasy stories. It gives fantasies a sense of wonder, a way in which the world is different from reality, and a source for fascinating drama, mind-blowing action scenes, good character development, and extreme world-building. Any author who wants to write a magical fantasy, then, needs to either choose or create a system of magic. There are several different types of common systems that can be chosen, and several different common ways in which magical systems can be created. What are they, and how do you choose? That’s what the topic of today’s and next week’s Savvy Saturday blog posts will be about. This week, let’s look at three of the most commonly chosen systems of magic, how they work, and their benefits and drawbacks.

Commonly chosen systems

Elemental Magic

 Fire, water, earth, and air, sometimes with light, dark, electricity, or metal thrown in for good measure, make for a standard and easily accessible system of magic. Mages may be able to access only one of these elements, or more than one. They may have personality types, physical characteristics, or a personal history that reflect their element, or they may not. Often, mages can actually manipulate the element in question (e.g. a fire mage calling fire to hand and throwing fireballs), and they may also be able to use the element to accomplish other tasks (e.g. a fire mage having super physical speed through use of the element’s power). This system of magic is attractive due to its mirroring of distinctive sources of power found in nature. It has a feel of realism to it that speaks to readers on a primal level. We have all felt the power of a storm or a fire – it makes sense that in a magical world, that power might be able to be harnessed and used.

One benefit of using this system of magic is that readers will already likely be at least slightly familiar with how the system of magic “should” work, so there is less mental effort involved and slightly less explanation needed on the part of the author as to why and how the system of magic works. On the other hand, because it is so commonly used, deviations from “standard” elemental magic will need to be explained more, and it is harder to create an elemental magic system that feels different and unique from other worlds that already exist. Books that use elemental magic should ensure that they have unique characters and compelling plot, as the system of magic is going to be more familiar (and less of a unique draw) to readers than other systems might be.

Life Force Magic

A second, and equally popular, type of magical system to choose for a fantasy world is one in which magic stems from the life force of the mage him- or herself. In some stories, everyone in the world might be able to harness their life force to do magic, while in others, only special individuals are born with the power. In some stories, life force magic is always corrupting and destructive (one has to use up life force to accomplish magical deeds), while in others it is a natural non-destructive ability like flexing a muscle. Particular rituals may be needed to unlock one’s magical potential, or to transfer life force from one individual to another, or to impart one’s life force into the action which one is attempting to accomplish. (For instance, spells might require the use of the mage’s blood to seal them or give them power.) Like elemental magic, life force magic is perceived as natural – there is a power and mystery to life itself, so it makes sense that in a magical world, that power should be able to be tapped into and used to accomplish great things.

Similar to elemental magic, one of the benefits of writing a story involving life force magic is that it is intuitive and natural for readers to understand. Drawing from a well of power inside oneself, or stretching a magical muscle the way one would stretch one’s arm, is an easy picture for authors to paint and for readers to adopt. However, as before, the popularity of this magical system means it can be difficult to write a magical world that feels unique and different. This magical system also does not lend itself as well to creating different natural visible classifications of mages; if all mages draw their power from the same source, differences would need to be created and pursued by the mages themselves rather than imposed externally. This can be a source for differentiation of a world, and thus a good and useful thing for an author, but will then need to be explained well to readers.

External Artifact Magic

Another common source of magical system is one that is based on sacred or powerful objects external to any individual. Magical swords, rings, rocks, crowns, trees, feathers, and so forth are in some ways the easiest form of magic for authors to work with. They may have specific external powers (e.g. a ring that controls the weather), or powers that enhance the wearer in a particular way (e.g. a ring that increases an individual’s intelligence). They may be sentient, semi-sentient, or simply things without any will or awareness. They may have an unending power, or be very finite in scope (e.g. a ring that grants three wishes). Artifacts of this sort may be explained away as having been created by a long-lost civilization, or be gifts of the gods, or be created by mages who have power of a different sort.

Benefits of artifact magic include being able to have ordinary people accomplish things that otherwise would be impossible, thus giving readers an added sense of relatability with characters. In addition, the existence of artifacts can be good plot devices or character development tools, as characters or kingdoms seek to gain, destroy, or otherwise interact with artifacts and the individuals who own or seek to own them. Drawbacks of this form of magic include its potential lack of internal consistency. Authors would either need to establish what artifacts can do and what they can’t, or risk having a world seem contrived and not make sense. The introduction of too many artifacts can also lead to power-glut or the temptation to make magic solve everything. If too many solutions to a world’s problems are the use of external magic, it detracts from the power of a story’s characters and their arcs and internal struggles. Readers want to see how people solve problems, not how people find cool things to solve problems for them.

Which of these three magic systems most appeals to you? Have you seen examples of them in use? Are there other benefits and drawbacks that you see? Leave a comment below!

Savvy Saturday – Worldbuilding at the Next Level

I’m at an academic conference this weekend, so this week’s blog post will be a bit different. In it, I want to share something amazing that I recently discovered about the writing of one of my favorite modern fantasy authors, Brandon Sanderson.

Brandon Sanderon’s key differentiation feature – his personal brand, as we would say in marketing – is that he is an amazing worldbuilder. Yes, he tells good stories with realistic characters. Yes, he is funny and clean in his writing. But what really sets him apart is the logical, consistent, intricate way in which everything in a world fits together and makes sense, even when a world is entirely Other than the world we see around us. Good worldbuilders tend to incorporate worldbuilding at three levels.

First, authors can create a world for a single set of characters, tell a story about that world with those characters, and move on. A good example is Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean. The world of these stories is rich and complex, and focuses on one set of characters and their story. When the authors want to move on, then, they create an entirely different world with entirely different characters.

Second, authors can create a world for multiple, related sets of characters. This option allows an author to reuse settings, cultures, refer to events that have already taken place, and draw readers back into a familiar world with fresh characters and situations. A good example is Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, which takes place a few years after the events of her Alanna series in the same magical kingdom of Tortall. The events of the Alanna books set in motion the events of the next series, and the protagonist of the second series occasionally interacts with the protagonist of the first, but the stories themselves are about different events and characters. Similarly, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series follows this model, with over ten books set in the same Redwall Abbey and Mossflower Woods, though with very few overlapping characters.

Third, authors can create a world for multiple, unrelated sets of characters. This option allows for a larger meta-story to evolve, as one series about one set of characters in one kingdom then gives way to a different series set on the other side of the world that might be influenced by the events of the first series, or may have only heard about the other kingdom as a distant rumor of a far-off place. Future books might bring individuals from the kingdoms together, or drive them to war, or they might remain wholly separate, but the world remains constant. Also in this category are series that take place in the same world but spaced hundreds of years apart, where the events of one series might be seen as legend or myth in another and (with this being a crucial distinguisher), the way in which the world works – its society, its geography, its magic, etc. – are different enough so that the reader does not feel that it is taking place in the same location.

But, I recently found out, Sanderson has embarked on a fourth mode of worldbuilding. He has actually created separate worlds, separate series, with separate characters, that are all in the same universe, and linked by characters who can travel between worlds. This idea takes the possibility for a meta-story to the next level. Now, instead of worrying at most about how the plot of one series might affect the next series set in that world, bounded by the same rules of society, magic, religion, and history, readers can cross these boundaries and imagine how the events of one epic fantasy series with one set of magical rules might somehow affect another epic fantasy series with a different set of magical rules. For instance, in one of Sanderson’s worlds, magic works through the ingesting of metals and a corresponding ability of the mage to perform a particular activity by “burning” the metal – for instance, soothing another person’s emotions. What happens if a person from this world goes to another world where magic emanates from large, powerful storms and manifests as light trapped in crystals, where anyone can use devices powered by this magic, and mages can create and move physical objects via magic, but certainly cannot manipulate emotions? You get characters who do things that aren’t quite explained in-world, characters who are thought odd or prescient by other characters, characters who have some kind of authorial license to do things and say things that readers who don’t know better will shrug at and say, “I guess the character was lucky.”

For readers who do know better, on the other hand, this type of writing is mind-blowing. What does Sanderson have planned? (He has confirmed that he does have a plan.) How will the series eventually link up with each other? How can characters travel to different worlds? What do they want? Besides being an amazing marketing strategy to encourage readers to buy and finish entire series from the author they might not have otherwise been interested in, it is an amazingly large writing and worldbuilding strategy. Not only does Sanderson have to plan out how any given series will go, he has to plan out how this series fits into his universe’s meta-story.

As a worldbuilding writer myself, I am in awe.

As a reader, I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

Savvy Saturday – Seasons’ Greetings

It’s the first weekend of spring! The sun shines longer each day, the birds wake up weary adventurers with their oh-so-cheerful predawn calls, the earth smells of rain and growth (or snow and slush, depending on the variable weather), the sun’s warmth provides a much-needed counter to the chill breezes that still blow crisply through the land, and the kings of the many realms begin their preparations to defend themselves against the hordes of the enemy who will no doubt be moving very soon to wreak chaos on the innocent of the earth.

How does seasonality affect a fantasy story and the writing thereof? As hinted above, different seasons lend themselves to different types of possible large plot events, small plot events, and written description that give life to a narrative.

Large Plot Events

Certain seasons tend to either enable or discourage characters from certain types of actions. Wars tend to be fought in spring: armies suffer a loss of morale and men if they are forced to fight, march, and sleep in snowy (or just below-freezing) conditions for too long. If kings wait for too long to begin their marching and attacks, however, their enemies have more time to prepare their own strategies and catch our heroes off guard. Similarly, spring is the ideal time to begin any journey or project that will take a long time to complete. The last thing that a reasonable character wants to have happen is to be stuck in a strange place, tired, with one’s resources drained, as winter begins to howl through one’s bones.

Of course, some activities that might occur in a plot occur specifically because it is a certain season. These include, for instance, holidays such as the winter or midsummer solstice, seasons of activity such as planting time, harvest, hunting season, or the beginning of a school year, and weather-driven tasks such as road repair, preparations for monsoon season, or migrating (as a tribe or on one’s own) to a summer or winter location. Your story, then, will depend as much on the natural environment of your characters’ society as it will on your characters’ own personality and goals. A tribe of hunter-gatherers will be far more affected by the changing seasons than will a colony of settlers under space-domes on a terraformed moon. (At the same time, if your terraformed moon suffers from regular seasons of dust-storms or intense solar flares, it could cause significant plot difficulties for your characters.)

Small Plot Events

How do the seasons affect your characters’ moods, clothing, daily activities, goals, and expectations? A knight will probably do many similar activities throughout the year, but may find that his winter clothing either restricts his movements as he rides and fights with the bandits who ambush him, or he might alternatively find that his thick winter clothing protects him from their first unexpected attack, giving him time to react and engage them in combat. A girl looking for a way to pass the time in between classes might go on a walk in the spring or fall, and in doing so might pick flowers or gather fallen leaves, while in the winter she might sit by the fire and read, sew, or stare out the window, frustrated at how confined she feels during the long season of cold. Any of these activities could serve to advance a plot, but incorporating season-specific activities into a plot helps ground the reader in a time and place of the author’s choosing, making the world and characters in question seem more real.

Written Description

Finally, seasons give an author an opportunity to make their writing a full-sensory experience. Visual cues of the seasons are easy to incorporate into a scene – mentioning snow, bare trees, a pale sky, and seeing one’s breath in the air, for instance, are easy ways of cuing a reader to think of winter, while pale green shoots emerging from the ground, birds hopping in tree-branches, melting piles of snow, and flowering trees all tell readers that spring has arrived. Auditory cues similarly enhance the reality of a scene’s setting. Describing the lazy buzz of a mosquito in the summer, the rustling of dry leaves in an autumn wind, or the crunch of snow underfoot draws readers in to feel a scene more than they would if only visual elements were incorporated.

The other senses – taste, touch, and smell – are also useful for grounding readers in a world and a specific time of year. Snowflakes taste cold and clean on one’s tongue. Spring breezes are perfumed and pleasantly cool on the skin. Lips get chapped, skin cracks, and extremities tingle and eventually go numb when exposed to the cold. Summer thunderstorms bring warm rain that smells of electricity.

As you read stories, then, pay attention to the author’s use of seasons. Does the story happen during a specific time of year? Does the physical environment and weather matter to the plot? Do characters actually interact with the changing world around them? As you write your own stories, consider purposefully how you might use seasons to convey a more holistic, real setting to readers that will help them lose themselves in your world.

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: Language and Meaning

Have you ever considered how language itself influences the way we think? As a fantasy writer and sociologist, I am fascinated by how our perceptions of reality as a society are influenced by the words we use, and the way in which we use them. I came across several interesting articles this week that speak to various ways in which language has shaped the way we see our world – and that can give interesting ideas to writers who are looking for other worlds to create.

First, our language shapes the way in which we view color. While all languages distinguish between colors to a certain extent, there are many colors we have words for today that were not so distinguished in other times and lands. The color blue, for instance, was wholly unknown and unrecognized in many ancient cultures, including ancient Greece ( Further, when we don’t have words to distinguish between colors, those differences are harder for our eyes to process. A different study found that in Russia, where the language has different words for light blue and dark blue (as opposed to English, where nearly every shade is just “blue”), Russian speakers found it easier to distinguish between colors that fell into different “official” shades than colors that fell within a given “official” shade, whereas English speakers found it equally difficult to tell all of the colors apart (

As a writer, what would it look like if a culture didn’t distinguish between green and blue? What would it look like if a traveler from a land that did distinguish between more colors came to a land that did not? Little touches such as color use or non-use might help give your work a strange, other-worldly type of feel that would draw readers in with fascination.

Second, our language shapes the way in which we view direction. English speakers tend to use the self as the reference point for directions – we tell people to turn right, go straight, and turn around if they’ve gone too far. Other languages use absolute directions: north, south, east, and west. Interestingly, individuals who speak these languages have a much better sense of direction than English speakers do. They are always subtly aware of what direction they are facing, as they align themselves to an absolute grid rather than a relative one (

As a writer, think about what advantages and disadvantages seeing the world in absolute directions would bring to a society. Individuals from this society would probably make excellent tracking and hunting parties, as their direction sense would help them not get lost and communicate and work efficiently and effectively with their fellows. If a society like this grew more developed, it would be likely that all towns/cities would need to be laid out in the same simple directional grid to avoid confusion. Rules such as “drive on the right hand side of the road” are easier for us to apply in an English context, as they equally apply on roads pointed north/south, east/west, or that curve around rivers and mountains. Written instructions in that kind of language would need to include initial orienting directions; before one could be told which pedal in a car is the brake, for instance, one would need to be told that one should make sure one’s car is facing north. (The east pedal, then, is the gas, and the one immediately to the west of it is the brake.)

Third, our language shapes the way in which we see numbers. Some societies only distinguish between one, two, and many, and some don’t have a concept of zero. A society that groups numbers by tens has a different conception of space and time and mathematics than societies that group numbers by sixties, as did ancient Babylon. The groupings that we find to be natural lead us to break up the world into those groupings, and to try to use those groupings in our daily lives. What would it look like if a society’s mathematical system were based in root 2 or root 15? The first is binary, which is computer language. A system based on it might lead, for instance, to a strong cultural norm of either-or answers: one or zero, yes or no, on or off, right or wrong.

These are only a few examples of how language affects the way in which we see reality. Other more subtle ones include passive versus active voice (for instance, Spanish tends to grammatically deflect responsibility for negative actions – “el plato se me rompió=the dish broke itself to me” instead of “I broke the dish”), and formality of language based on whether one is addressing an older or younger person, someone of a different social class, or someone of the same or different gender.

Of course, as a writer, you aren’t constrained by the grammar choices of Earth’s languages. What types of grammatical rules and quirks might you insert into a culture that would subtly affect the way in which its speakers view the world?

Savvy Saturday: Writing Male and Female Characters

I was asked recently how, as a female writer, I approach writing male characters. In several of my works, including The Quest of the Unaligned, the point-of-view character is male, meaning that I write as if I am inside that character’s head. How do I make sure that it sounds right?

I’ve actually thought about this issue quite a bit – I want my characters to be real and sympathetic to readers, to behave in a manner consistent with who they are and who they have been raised to be by their society. Identifying how men and women behave differently, then, is crucial for writing believable characters. However, the implementation of this is surprisingly easy, since people are far more similar than many of us realize. The trick is not to consider writing a “male character” or a “female character,” but to write a person. A person has goals, motivations, personality, strengths, weaknesses, things they desperately want, and things they desperately fear. Men and women may show these slightly differently, but at the core, we’re all still human beings. We yearn for acceptance, for respect, for safety, for adventure, for success, for love. I would probably say that 80-90% of the action, dialogue, and character development pertaining to a given character in a book could be gender-flipped and readers wouldn’t notice the difference.

It’s that extra 10-20% that adds gender roles and male/female biological differences in thought processes, etc., that makes writing characters of the opposite sex realistic. As a female writer, I have learned that for male characters, I cut out most of the introspection regarding emotions and relationships that I would include for female characters. I also have male characters try to focus more on what the problems are at hand and how to solve them, whereas my female characters may not move so quickly to strategizing and action in every circumstance. My male characters tend to want respect – to be noticed, thought well of, and to prove themselves. While my female characters tend to want these things as well, they also may value harmony, relationships, and being listened to and understood more than male characters would.

For instance, Alaric, my main character in The Quest of the Unaligned, is trained as a security chief to act to assess situations, protect the innocent, stop and detain criminals, and provide physical solutions (e.g. fighting) to problems. He sounds very male, but a female security chief of Tonzimmel would be trained in the same way. I could write the same situation – stopping a thug, for example – and the reactions and dialogue of the two security chiefs would likely be very similar. What might be different would be how the two security chiefs would react to a potentially dangerous situation. Alaric, for instance, refuses to believe Laeshana (his friend and guide) when she says that Dragon Canyon is inhabited by real dragons, and gives her an ultimatum: she can either accompany him into the canyon or not, but he isn’t going to be late for his appointment, and so he’s going to charge forward and trust to his skills to handle whatever dangers lurk in the canyon. If I were writing a female security chief in this situation, she would probably be more willing to listen to what Laeshana had to say, would probably consider whether being late was actually as bad as seriously harming a relationship with a friend, or at least would talk with Laeshana a lot more about why it was that she thought there were dragons in Dragon Canyon rather than simply turning away from the conversation and charging down the canyon full speed ahead.

Finally, I do make sure to have some male beta readers read my work. They are a crucial part of my writing improvement process. Just like I have fantasy-loving beta readers who can tell me if my magic is unclear or my monsters sound too much like something they read recently, and just like I have English-major beta readers who help me catch awkward wording or problems with story flow, I have male readers who note when my male characters are behaving in a way that strikes them as odd, unusual, or inconsistent with their expectations.

Mostly, however, I just try to write characters who are complex people, and let those people create their own stories.