Structural Scales

Writing Advice

Last week, I talked a bit about my process when coming up with a structural system that fit my story. I highly recommend checking that blog out before diving into this one.

As a refresher, last week, I shared an alphabetical system that I created to help pace my story. Those beats were:
Addition: the beginning.
Battle: the first conflict.
Battle 2: the electric boogaloo.
Change: the midpoint revelation.
Disaster: the lowest moment.
Execution: the climactic confrontation.
Finale: the story wrap-up.

With these landmarks in mind, I was able to easily plot all of the major story beats to define EXACTLY where I was rushing through my story. But the longer I looked, the more I saw a pattern.
I know I’m not the first person to reuse structure at multiple scales, but the analyst in me could only truly appreciate this concept after I stopped trying to shoehorn my manuscript into someone else’s structural model.

In the largest context, the whole story follows seven overarching Story Beats: A, B, B, C, D, E, F. Let’s call those ‘big beats.’
At the next scale down, there is a similar breakdown within each big beat. This makes sense to me when considering that the structure was created to solve a pacing problem. But more than a numeric pattern, my chapters started to look rhythmic.
For example, within my ‘Addition’ plotpoint, I recognized it had its own plot. The first scene “added” by introducing the reader to the world and a bit of the magic. The second introduces the first subplot — the first ‘battle.’ The third chapter sets up the main plot — the second ‘battle.’ Chapter four marks the first “change” (plot twist) when the protagonist discovers that she will be spending this adventure with her estranged sister. This leads to the “disaster” of their first conversation, then the “execution” of progressing the story to the next big beat. Because of their actions, the characters are led to the “addition” of new members and new information, and the cycle of minis restarts in the first “battle.”

Different from the full structure, the ‘minis’ don’t complete full loops. And there’s a simple reason why: the story isn’t over. In most modern writing, problems aren’t solved until the end, and each action causes new complications, even when executed flawlessly. The finale is exactly that: the finish. I don’t want my readers feeling like I already absolved the problem they were most invested in. I want them to see how it all ties together in the end.

The mini changes, disasters, and executions lead directly into new additions and new battles up until the very end. Without the continuity, the story runs the risk of feeling scatterbrained and loosely related. Using the “minis” gives building blocks and footholds so that I know that each plot point adds value to the overall narrative. From the first battle to the last, each event has a connection to the next. Without the previous events, the story cannot progress.

Of course, my analytical mind encouraged the instinct to mimic and close the mini loops. That actually led me to a concern with this structure (maybe even my underlying problem of structure as a whole) — I want to keep this model from becoming a mold. If an overarching beat only has one mini battle, so be it. If the plan falls apart in the mini disaster, then that big beat doesn’t get a mini execution. Imagine how monotonous the writing would feel if you as a reader noticed a seven-chapter cyclical pattern.
Building this idea for myself taught me a lot about its weaknesses as it’s strengths.

To close out this session of ‘Rena thinking out loud’, I want to repeat that this structure evolved from a complicated circumstance: I am aware that I am an overwrite, and therefore forced myself to underwrite the first draft. I pigeon-holed myself so deep that I didn’t have the confidence to ground myself again. Obviously, I can’t know until the end, but I designed this method of thinking to be the first step in finding a balanced way of writing.
This blog really wasn’t meant as advice as much as just sharing my own process, but if there’s one takeaway it’s that you cannot improve unless you fail MISERABLY. At least that’s what happened to me.

Kind of a short post, but, hey, no reason to keep talking when there’s nothing to add.
Anyway, I hope everyone has a great week.
Stay safe,
Rena Grace

Continuing a Series

Writing Advice

So if you’ve been here before, you might have seen me sharing the drafts of the first chapter in my WIP. I may have never mentioned it, but I am plotting the Tales of Drynic as a trilogy. As of now, I am in the early stages of Beta Reading and Critiques. There are many edits between me and publishing book one, but that isn’t stopping me from planning ahead. 

In case you didn’t know, it is industry standard to write and market the first book in a series as a Stand-Alone story “with series potential.” As far as I understand, this primarily applies to traditionally published works, however, because I intend to traditionally publish, that’s what I know the most about. 

That said, I found myself in a pickle these past weeks. I knew I was unhappy with the ending of my first book but couldn’t pinpoint how to solve it. Needing outside help, I sought out Beta Readers to help stir up new ideas. The first to finish agreed that the ending was underwhelming and felt unfinished. I explained my situation further, and we opened a conversation on the matter. While this wasn’t a bad idea, I still struggled to pin down where I wanted to end up. 

So it was time for more research, and here I am to share that with you. Let’s talk about how other series treat their individual books. 

An easy, accessible place to start is Harry Potter. Not only is it mainstream enough for most people to have at least a vague understanding, but it’s got a lot of examples of individual stories woven together. So let’s run through the resolutions:

  1. Harry destroys the stone, Voldemort is defeated, and Gryffindor wins the house cup.
  2. Harry saves Ginny, kills the Basilisk, destroys Voldemort again, and Gryffindor wins the house cup.
  3. Harry discovers Sirius is innocent, finds the actual culprit, Sirius and Buckbeak get away, Gryffindor wins the house cup.
  4. Harry wins the Triwizard Tournament, Cedric dies, Voldemort is back, we find the actual Moody. *Tonal Shift.
  5. Harry destroys the Prophesy, Sirius dies, and Voldemort is exposed.
  6. Harry finds the fake locket, and Dumbledore dies.
  7. Harry destroys the Horcruxes, Harry masters death, Harry stops the war, Harry defeats Voldemort, and Harry starts a family.

Early on — in the first three books, especially — the stories are only kept in their specific order because it follows Harry’s chronological school experience. For all intents and purposes, book one could have introduced the Basilisk, book two could’ve talked about Azkaban, and book three could have sent us to find the Philosopher’s Stone. Adjust the ages, and the books work the same each time: they are closed cases, opening with the summer before school and wrapping up with the train ride home.

But then book four happens. 

On the surface, it’s the same: summer, school, new problems, problems solved, Voldemort returns, end of the year feast. Super similar right? Except it isn’t. Voldemort’s full return in this book is immediately followed by the first notable ‘good guy’ death since James and Lily Potter. And it’s a child. Books one, two, and three have satisfying, closed-circuit endings. But book four? Book four tells you that things are just getting started. Book four sees that you’ve made it through the opening trilogy and takes a chance. After Harry leaves the graveyard, there is no ending until book seven when Voldemort is defeated. Don’t get me wrong; plenty of people made it to or past book four and didn’t care to finish the series. But Rowling’s target audience needed to know that Voldemort had been conquered. After that point, the books were still episodic, but they were no longer stand-alones. 

Well, that’s great and all, but not everyone is writing a septology. Today’s hot trend is the trilogy — and by ‘today’ I mean trilogies have been growing in popularity at the same rate as the advancement of story-telling techniques. A trilogy sets up an overarching ‘beginning, middle, end’ with tiny ‘beginnings, middles, ends’ scattered through. But I’m not here to talk about the ‘Rule of Threes’ trope. Not today at least. I’m here to figure out how in the world to bridge my stories. So let’s keep following pop culture right to one of the most mainstream trilogies of the past decade-or-so: the Hunger Games. How does each end?

  1. Katniss saves Peeta, they kill the last tribute, then defy the ever-changing-rules to win the Hunger Games.
  2. Katniss is saved from the Hunger Games, Peeta is captured by the Capitol, and a revolution has started.
  3. Katniss kills President Coin, and she and Peeta leave the rebuilding country to start a family and recover from their trauma.

Looking again at book one, we get another example of a great standalone. The protagonist wins, the Capitol looks stupid, she gets to bring fake boyfriend home to see real-fake boyfriend. All is well in the world. But the success of book one — along with Suzanne Collins’s pre-established reputation with The Underland Chronicles quintet — prompted a second and third book. Similar to Harry’s fourth book, book two, Catching Fire, ends on a cliffhanger that no longer works as a standalone. Peeta is in the Capitol which is bad. Haymitch lied to Katniss about prioritizing Peeta which is bad. The Districts are rebelling which is mostly bad. Katniss has to learn how to be inspirational without using Peeta’s general likableness as a crutch… which is bad. And now they have to go hide underground and handle double the PTSD which, say it together now, is bad. 

In terms of pacing, the two series play out the same. If you condensed Harry Potter into a trilogy, I would argue books one, two, and three are part one; they’re tonally similar and end in a satisfying way. Books four and five are part two. They start on the foundation of the first part, cover a tone shift, and end with the ‘lowest point’ after the death of Sirius. This is an unsatisfying ending that begs for a conclusion. Books six and seven give that conclusion. 

*Note: there could be an argument made for book six to be included in part two, ending with the death of Dumbledore, but Sirius’s death was more of a shock. He was 36 when he died. He had plenty of life left. Dumbledore was approximately 150 and filled the ‘mentor’ role, which has an entire trope dedicated to the concept that mentors have to die before the finale. It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise.

Now, there’s a common structure between these examples: the breaks are pre-established by set timelines. Each Harry Potter book tells of the events that happen in each school year. Each Hunger Games book tells of the events that happen in and around the Games. Now, that said, the finale book for each does not have to follow this trend (Mockingjay definitely doesn’t) because it is the ending. It doesn’t have to bridge a transition; its role is to finish the story regardless of when that finish is. Well, that isn’t always applicable. My manuscript included. So these examples only got me so far. That led me to another observation about these stories: both (in my opinion) are significantly plot-driven. 

While I enjoy reading plot-driven stories, my heart lies with character-driven stories. Let me explain where I see the difference. Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen are fairly static characters. Harry is written as a paragon — selfless, innocent, loving — despite his increasingly difficult role in society. By the end, Harry’s growth was more in his skill than his actual personality. He aged into a little more confidence and wisdom, but I can’t point to a particular internal struggle Harry overcame throughout the series. Katniss might be even more static. She enters the series hardened and cynical and despising the Capitol, she leaves the series hardened and cynical having overthrown the Capitol. Except now she picked a boyfriend and has more trauma than I can shake a stick at. The Hunger Games is dystopian and focuses more adamantly on the corruption of the government rather than the flaws of its jaded protagonist.

In my search for character driven stories, I landed on the Incredibles. So let’s talk about what happens between movies.

  1. Bob learns that his glory days as a solo-act are behind him, and his family is important. Helen learns that the world still needs saving sometimes, and sometimes supers are the ones best suited for the job. Violet learns that being different is okay, especially when you use your gifts to help others. Dash learns that there is a balance in being special, and that you are the one who chooses how you are going to use your power.
  2. Bob learns that he is not the best suited for every job, and sometimes he needs to learn and adapt or just stay out of the way. Helen learns that sometimes you have to be the change you want to see in the world. Violet… spends the movie liking a guy… and Dash spends the movie pushing buttons. 

While the second movie, in my opinion, dropped the ball on the kids’ further development, I think it did well continuing the arcs of Mr. and Mrs. Incredible. For this discussion, the relative success or failure of the second movie matters less to me than the bridge between the two. At the end of the original, each member of the main cast has gone through a significant development, and one often related fairly closely to their individual specialty. ‘Stronger together; be flexible; be seen; think before you dash.’ We are left with an open-ended scene that leaves the audience satisfied, and able to continue the story indefinitely in their own imagination. The second movie does a fairly good job of taking those arcs and continuing them along their logical paths. 

A pitfall of many character-driven series is continuing character arcs. Most authors and readers agree that they keep wanting to see growth from their characters if that’s what was set up by book one. But there are so many traps that an author must fight to avoid. A character might come across as too different, having lost something that made them likable in the first book. A character might look too similar, having randomly reset to the factory settings we found them at in book one. A character might settle too easily into a brand new mindset.

So how did the Incredibles handle this? Bob was a do-it-myself kind of guy. He started to open up to the idea of accepting help by the end of the first movie, but that will require time to adapt to. When Helen is picked as the face of the Deavors’ legalization movement, it stuns and destroys Bob. He isn’t used to being sidelined. He isn’t used to raising kids. He isn’t the stay-at-home type. And he is upset by it. The whole movie we watch him struggle to keep up with everything happening around him, and eventually, he is able to start asking for help. It takes a while, but Bob has to come to terms with the fact that he is not suited to do this job alone. You can’t bench press every problem away. Helen’s arc continues as well. She was adapting to the idea that embracing your powers isn’t necessarily bad. She saw multiple instances where her family would have been killed without the use of their different skillsets. And from there, she is encouraged to reconnect with her full potential. Once in this situation, she reacts like Bob did in the first movie, falling easily back into the role that she played for so long twenty years ago. She missed the rush and the opportunity to help people. Helen had to relearn her place in society, embracing who she loved to be while also adapting to who she is now. 

I hope this analysis was as helpful to you as it was to me. I feel more confident in the direction my manuscript needs to go, and where it’s most appropriate to stop between novels.


Stay safe,

Rena Grace

Writing Women Wrong

Writing Advice

This week, I had every intention of writing about villains I love… But I got caught up on a tangent elsewhere and haven’t been able to jump off of it. And that topic is the anime, Naruto. Yes, hello, hi. I am a twenty-something-year-old girl who loves Naruto. While we do exist, we are few and far between. That’s actually what I wanted to blog about today. I wanted to point at one of the big reasons I think it is difficult for girls to like the show, and that is because of the girls in the show. 

Two notes: First, I’ll try to keep this fairly surface level so that you can read this post without having watched the show because I think this is important. But we’ll see how that goes. Second, I will be referencing exclusively from cannon episodes of the anime; not the manga, not the filler, and not from Boruto.

So I grew up in the prime of Naruto, watching Part One as it came out dubbed on Cartoon Network, and by many metrics, I fit the target audience. The show is aimed very strongly at boys, but, hey, that’s the kind of media I always preferred. As a kid, I had a limited understanding of time, so I was never the best at scheduling myself to catch every episode. But I saw enough. When Shippuden started up, I remember going over to my friend Jessica’s house to watch the subs as they came out online; I was even less consistent with that, but it was enough to give the series a slot in my memory.

Fast forward almost ten years: my younger brother gets hooked on the show and watches it through in order — something I had yet to do. He loved it so much, he offered to watch it through with me immediately after finishing the thing. So off we went, finishing Part One and Shippuden in a matter of weeks. And, overall, I loved it.

But I’m not going to talk about how it’s great. Not today at least. Today, I want to express the sheer disappointment I felt basically any time a female character was introduced. 

First, I want to look at ratios and power balance. In Part One, we are introduced to a standard: there will always be at least three boys to every one girl. Each four-person squad has a leader and three pupils. Each of those teams except one has the same setup: male sensei ( notable and cool), two male students (often rivals or opposites), and one female who is almost always useless on missions, but exists in at least one love triangle. 

Let me elaborate. Here are our main teams in Part One:

  • Led by Kakashi (male), Naruto is strong and short-tempered, while Sasuke is strong, but cocky, calm and collected. Sakura is said to be smart, but does a total of two smart things in the 220 episodes that make up Part One: she was the best at walking on trees, and she woke herself up. Those two events are as lame and forgettable as I’m making them seem. 
  • Led by Gai (male), Lee is hardworking, loud, and ridiculous, while Neji is naturally-gifted, quiet, and serious. Tenten throws things. Not even super well. There are other characters with other abilities who still throw things better than the ‘specialist.’ I think she won a single battle. It was in Shippuden and it was against a clone of herself. She has a personality, but I struggle to describe it… That says a lot. 
  • Led by Asuma (male), Shikamaru is intelligent, low-energy, and methodical, while Choji is stupid, loud, high-strung, and impulsive. Ino has a potentially cool ability. It’s useful when her dad uses it. But instead, her primary function is to be the petty romantic rival to Sakura. Because girls are only as important as the boys they’re chasing.
  • Led by Kurenai (female, but don’t get too excited), Kiba is loud and aggressive, while Shino is quiet and weird. Hinata had a lot of potential, too. Like Ino, she has a really cool ability, but she’s not known for her fighting ability. She’s known as the quiet, socially awkward girl who loves Naruto. 

Even the team leaders do this three-guys-and-a-girl thing. Kakashi sensei is insanely talented, uses an ability he shouldn’t have, and carries massive emotional baggage. Gai sensei is insanely strong, quirky, and passionate. Asuma sensei is the cool-guy archetype and is at the center of an emotional arc in Shippuden. Kurenai sensei could break the mold by being the only female team leader… but instead, she is best known for trying to use mind control on a mind control master from a clan of mind control masters. After that, she gets pregnant and shows up when we need to be reminded that the baby daddy is dead and we should be sad. What a legacy, right?

Now, it is my pleasure to finally bring up the Sand Siblings, and the closest thing to a useful woman Part One has to offer. Temari. Temari is the eldest and leads the group more prominently than their actual leader whose name I never remember. She’s a competent fighter and a logical mind. And she has interests that don’t involve chasing boys. Her brothers are Gaara and Konkoro — overly serious and antisocial, versus cocky and goofy. While Gaara is the powercell behind their plans in Part One, it’s Temari that leads them. It was the first time I didn’t meet a female character and hate her by the end of the arc. And, let’s be real, Temari is great, but she is nothing compared to the other characters in the show. 

For me, the sad part of this all is the fact that Masashi Kishimoto knows how to write compelling characters. Let’s look for a minute at motivations:

Naruto: become the ninja president so the village will love him. Sasuke: avenge his clan in his own self-righteous way. Shikamaru: take a nap… lol, but for real, he just wants safety for those he loves. Kakashi wants to atone for his sins by protecting those around him. Gai wants to train to be the strongest he can be. Lee wants to prove that hard work can rival natural talent. Neji wants recognition for his skill despite his rank in the clan.  Kiba also wants to be ninja president, but for the power it holds. Asuma wants to bring flowers home to his lover. Shino wants to find cool new bugs. Choji wants to eat and marry someone who will feed him lots of food. Konkuro wants to be the best at his skillset. Gaara just wants to feel love.

The specifics aren’t important in this matter. I just want to point out the variety and depth of so many of these male characters. Let’s compare that to the motivations of the women mentioned above. 

Sakura wants Sasuke to love her. Ino wants to beat Sakura — specifically in getting Sasuke to love her. Hinata wants Naruto to love her. Kurenai is very much a background character, but I’d guess she wants to raise her son with Asuma. Tenten is a piece of paper who carries around knives and throws them when she’s told to. I don’t even know what she wants. 

Thank Kishimoto for Temari. She wants to be useful. She wants her brothers to ask for her advice; she wants people to know she is a force to be reckoned with; she wants to beat the crap out of you with her fan. It’s great. She’s stubborn and assertive and feels like a real person. 

And thankfully, in Shippuden, we’re introduced to a handful of other women with motivations. Tsunade loves drinking and gambling because she is a healer who feels responsible for the deaths of those she loved the most. Konan has one of the most creative powers in the show, leads a group of international terrorists on a mission to obtain world peace, and nearly kills one of the biggest villains in the show in a one on one fight. Kushina is terrifying; she comes from a powerful clan and carries a powerful creature inside her. But at her core, she’s silly and awkward and just wants to be treated like someone who matters.

The funny thing about all of these characters is that they each come with a love story that I, personally, find convincing. 

Woah, woah, woah. Did I just contradict everything I’ve been saying? 

No. My point stands. As a girl, I struggled to connect to the flat female characters we are introduced to. Time and time again we’re shown really cool guys and their really cool abilities, while girls spent their time on the sidelines cheering the boys on and trying to steal a kiss. And the backtracking done in Shippuden felt too little too late. 

And that is so sad! I connect so strongly with so many of the characters in Naruto, yet feel like my entire gender is an afterthought. I get angry seeing ways that the early women of the show could have been written to be compelling. I feel sad when I see how little impact even the useful women had on the show. I question why nearly every team has a three-to-one ratio. And why the female team members almost always set up a love triangle.

The anime got better over the years, and I hope Boruto is continuing to advance what women can do in-universe. Maybe one day I’ll share how I would go about changing the female characters to be more relatable. Step one, I think Sakura should have punched the shit out of Sasuke. Just once. That’s the minimum of what I ask. 

Thanks for tuning into my geekiest talk yet. See you next week. 


Stay Safe, 

Rena Grace

Lessons Learned from Characters I Love

Writing Advice

Welcome back to ‘I really, really love these characters and really, really love talking about my really real love for them.’

If you haven’t ingested any of this delightful content, I cannot recommend anything more than these shows, movies, and books. There is also nothing I can do to keep from spoiling these properties.

So let’s jump right into some delightful dudes. 

Remus Lupin [Harry Potter] 

When I think of Remus Lupin, I think of compassion. 

He appears for the first time in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as the newest installment of the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. The first notable thing about Lupin is seen through the lens of contrast. Harry’s first year, the class was taught by Quirrel, a nervous man who happened to have the antagonist of the series growing out of the back of his head. Pretty standard. It’s fine. There are limited comments made about his actual class, lessons, or teaching style. Most of his notable interactions happen outside of the classroom. I see him as less of a teacher and more of another side character who is in it just enough to set up his villainy, hidden in the shadow of our goodest-bad-boy, Snape. The next year, Harry is introduced to the self-obsessed egomaniac and notorious best-smiler, Lockhart. In the book and — maybe even more so — the movie, Lockhart is a buffoon, existing as a source of comic relief as he bumbles through skill-related tasks. We see more of his lessons and his role as an instructor in the Dueling Club, but these are used mostly to set up his characterization. Again, the most focus is put on his role outside of class — showing off, talking big, bragging, and interacting with fans. 

Which leads us to Harry’s third year. Enter Lupin. We first meet him on the train to Hogwarts — the only instance I’m aware of a staff member traveling via the Hogwarts express. He’s described as a little unkempt in a way that implies he is poorer than most other wizards we’ve met so far. Despite this, the first action he takes proves him to be a powerful protector, as Harry is attacked by dementors. Throughout the year, Lupin’s classes are shown to be the highlight of student life — contrasted again on a few occasions as Snape steps in as the harsh and relentless substitute teacher. Lupin’s role as a teacher and mentor is highlighted considerably more than his predecessors, from engaging lessons to his mentorship over Harry. He is continuously shown to be intelligent, compassionate, talented, and humble. These four traits are not particularly present in either Quirrel or Lockhart. 

Lupin’s character is given more context and depth than any other professor this early in the story. We discover that he was friends with Harry’s father, the assumed villain (Sirius Black), and the real villain (Peter Petigrew); the three called themselves Marauders and were some of the brightest and most talented wizards of their time. Snape hates him, not out of a bad gut instinct or a disdain for false arrogance, but for Lupin’s association with Snape’s childhood bullies. And, the icing on the cake, we discover that Lupin is a werewolf while also learning how poorly werewolves are treated in the wizarding world. With this thorough understanding of Lupin, we get a clearer glimpse of his motivations, fears, beliefs, regrets. He sees himself as the last Marauder standing, and that is tragic. The Marauders are some of the only people in the world who ever accepted him. He feels alone in the world, outcast because of something he never asked for nor could he help. Lupin elicits a deep empathy that neither of his predecessors nor any of his successors. 

Let’s go over that lineup again. Quirrel was a snivelling puppet for Voldemort; he was killed. Lockhart was a pompous prick; his memory was wiped, landing him permanently in the psych ward of St Mungo’s Hospital. Mad-Eye Moody was kidnapped, ‘drugged,’ and portrayed by a Death Eater. Umbridge was a monster of a woman sent to oppress the truth of Voldemort’s return; she was abducted by centaurs before scurrying back to hide within the Ministry. Snape was a double-double agent who, though base intentions were good, tormented Harry for his father’s sins and murdered the Headmaster. Then last, we’re given glimpses of the sadistic Death Eater siblings whose names I never cared to retain. 

It’s safe to say Lupin stands out. Lupin comes in as a favor to Dumbledore and leaves because he is unjustly (more or less, as he takes multiple precautions for the safety of the school) labeled as a threat. Lupin is kind to his students, respectful to his staff — aside from Snape and his grudge — and one of the most relatable characters of the series. He feels abandoned and shunned. He feels betrayed. He is scared of himself. And because of all this, he displays a compassion that outshines almost any other character. Lupin is Harry’s first true father figure. It’s a truly fitting title. His return in the later books is one worth celebrating, and his death defending those he loves is one that broke me. But what good would Lupin be without the full context? Because of other adults around him, because of his history with Harry’s dad, because of the parallels with the main cast, and because of his roles in society, Lupin is a powerful character that stands out among a vast, seven-book-spanning cast. 

Shikamaru Nara [Naruto] 

I could write an entire post on Shikamaru alone. This sweet boy is a delight. But not at all in a way you’d expect. Shikamaru is shown early on to be intelligent and skilled. He is not particularly strong; instead his strength lies in his incredible ability to outthink his opponents. He will let you think that you have him cornered until it’s absolutely too late. But you know one of the greatest things about Shikamaru? When we first meet him in the series, he is one of the laziest characters in fiction. 

In the first major arc, we watch invaders attack an arena and put most everyone to sleep. Those who stayed awake were the people fast enough to ‘release’ themselves before going completely under. So we’re following a few of the conscious characters, one of which is going through to ‘release’ others to help. She makes it to my sweet boy, Shikamaru, at which point we find out that he was asleep, but not because of the attack. No. No, of course not. Instead of joining in the fight around him, Shikamaru opted to take a quick nap. As annoying as that sounds, the stakes are fairly low at this moment and it’s early enough in the series that comedy is still a primary focus. And the narrative timing makes this a very funny scene. 

This scene sets up his arc. We’re given time for this kid — maybe 13 years old — to grow up. And it’s wonderful. 

After the attack is handled, we discover that Shikamaru is the first and only member of his class to be promoted that year. This is because of his carefully planned and logical assessment during his examination shown earlier in the show. Because of this promotion, he is called on to lead a rescue mission, where things go wrong. It’s at this point the writers show his fear of failure. After the mission, we’re led to the hospital where he has completely shut down emotionally. His father challenges him, asking him if he’s going to abandon his rank and to squander his abilities or if he’s going to push forward and grow into a leader that their village can rely on. Of course, he’d be a pretty terrible character if he’d chosen to give up. Over the next million-or-so episodes, he is given ample time to grow. We watch his teacher, Asuma, introducing him to a logic game. Shikamaru reads the handbook and immediately destroys Asuma in their first game, commenting on how Asuma ‘didn’t have to go easy,’ though that’s obviously not the case. We’re also shown more of Shikamaru’s father — an older, more mature version of essentially the same character — and imagine how Shikamaru might grow up. We watch him hide a strong love for his comrades behind a can’t-be-bothered facade. 

*Major Spoilers for Naruto: Shippuden* After a time skip, Shikamaru is an older teen embracing his role as a successful tactical leader. And again, things go wrong. Shikamaru gets in over his head, at which point, his old mentor, Asuma, swoops in to save the day… and dies. All the playfulness of childhood is gone. The writers masterfully spend the time necessary to let the audience feel the pain and anguish that he’s trying to hide. And he does hide it. He goes for a while before his father — remember, a very stoic, logical figure — sits down with Shikamaru one evening to play that same logic game Asuma taught him. They play in near silence. His father occasionally comments on things like Shikamaru’s uncharacteristically bad gameplay. They really allow this scene time to emphasize the mood. A few minutes in, his father mentions how proud he is. Later, he says that it would be a tragedy to go to his own son’s funeral because of something vengeful and reckless. Finally, full of rage for possibly the first time on screen, Shikamaru flips the game over, and the warm candle light is blown out. The two are left in a solemn blue darkness. His father gets in his face and, in a deadly serious tone, tells him to let it all out. All the anger and sadness. There is an immense understanding in his father’s eyes. A sense that the older man had experienced the same loss and bottled it up the same way. His father leaves him in the room alone, and after the door closes, Shikamaru lets out a soul-rattling sob. *okay, spoilers done*

That is character development. That takes a trope of the ‘smart man who is too logical to have emotions’ and gives it so much room to breathe. Shikamaru feels like someone I could know. He feels like someone I want to meet personally. I’d go get coffee with this person. That way, as we keep following his arc, we celebrate his victories, and we crush under the pain of his losses. 

Ling Yao [Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood]  

If ever there was a character I love as much as I love Shikamaru, it is the heir to Xing himself. Ling is introduced as an absolute goof. He shows up fairly early in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (though excluded from the 2003 series) and, before we know he is royalty, he tricks our protagonist into paying for his meal. Over the next couple episodes, he pops up as what is probably best described as comic relief and a bit of well-timed exposition. He seems likable, but I wrote him off as a throw-away background character. As we get to know him, we find out that he’s on a mission to discover immortality so that he will become the next emperor. It’s introduced as a very neutral action. Political gain is fine, and this motive puts him on the same track as our heroes — they’re looking for a powerful stone, a philosopher’s stone, in hopes that it can solve each man’s problems. 

The longer he’s around, the deeper his character goes. Ling is a beautiful example of a trope called “Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass.” In a nutshell, this is a character who, in one way or another, seems harmless, useless, or just plain silly. However, when the time comes, they are not to be messed with. 

Ling is introduced with two faithful bodyguards who he frequently ditches. While it’s clear they care deeply for Ling, he at first seems a bit dismissive of them. Until we see his first fight. Ling has the great displeasure of battling two very strong homunculi early on and really showcasing his skills. He comments at some point that, as one of fifty heirs vying for the throne, he had to become skilled enough to — well — not get assassinated. He and one of his bodyguards, Lan Fan, hold their own for a while, but when Lan Fan is hit, the prince chooses to retreat. However, he doesn’t just flee, he runs with her on his back. It’s a tense scene, as the two are followed by inhumanly fast creatures skilled at tracking, and Lan Fan is losing blood fast. Despite her protests, Ling adamantly refuses to leave her and save himself. This sets up his most defining belief: a King is a servant to his people. As committed as his bodyguards are to him, he is committed to them, even if he enjoys joking around by running off.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m not going to talk about the character fusion that happens around the midpoint. But even considering that, Ling’s priorities never change. He will become the next emperor because that’s the position from which he can best protect as many of his people as possible. It is that unwavering resolve that makes him so interesting because, unlike our protagonists, Ling does not care about the cost. He sees no moral dilemma using an item made from human sacrifice. I think it’s unlikely he’d make one, but if one exists, he has no qualms about it because it is the means that leads to an end that he is passionate about. That end is something I think we can all empathize with. When Ling loses people close to him, he feels more than sorrow; he feels responsibility. Ling bears the injuries, death, and sacrifices of his friends as his personal burden, as if they’re his fault and his alone. He frequently questions his abilities to rule with the logic ‘what kind of a king am I if I can’t even save one subject?’ It’s flawed logic and puts an immense amount of pressure on him, but it’s a noble cause. It hurts so much more to watch Ling react to the sacrifices of his people because we as the audience have seen how personally he takes these matters.

I could keep going about these characters pretty much indefinitely, but I think it’s better to stop here. Next week, I think I’ll talk about some of my favorite villains! See you then!


Stay Safe

Rena Grace

Lessons Learned from Characters I Love

Writing Advice

You know, I feel like it’s a great time to gush about some lovely characters from some lovely properties that I love. Ya know?

I enjoy a variety of media and that’ll be represented here. If you haven’t ingested any of this delightful content, I cannot recommend anything more than these shows, movies, and books. 

**A note for the format: I am going to talk extensively about the first character. The other discussions will be considerably shorter.

I’m going to split this into several posts This week, I’m going to talk all about some awesome ladies! 


Toph Beifong [Avatar: the Last Airbender] 

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Toph is the total package. In a show of fantastic characters, it was difficult to say ‘let me just pick the best one’ because each character feels so real. How do you compare these very diverse personalities, skills, traits, and dynamics? Because of the interconnectivity of all the characters, I struggle to identify favorites. But I wanted to talk about Toph for a very specific reason:

Toph receives one of the flattest arcs of the show. There are characters with a fraction of the screentime go through massive, compelling changes. And that’s the reason I want to talk about her here. A lot of you authors out there — myself included — have spent a lot of time learning from pros. I know that I’ve done a fair amount of research looking into what makes compelling characters, and, while there are cases like Indiana Jones where the ‘flat arc’ is perfectly acceptable, it is often suggested that the best way to convince your audience to latch onto a character is through a beautiful, symbolic arc. Yet here we are. 

One of the greatest things about Toph is the way this minimalistic arc plays into her character. When we first meet her, she is confident, powerful, stubborn, unyielding; she is the perfect foil for our MC, Aang. She embodies everything he needs to learn from her. She is an earthbender through and through. And to strip her of those traits would lessen the impact that she has on Team Avatar as a whole. Her minor arc centers around the slow-growing appreciation for authority, and it is just enough to ground her as a realistic person — a child who is still growing and learning. 

Of course, one of the best things about Toph is her blindness. I’m sure you writers out there have been warned against ‘writing a token ___ character’ to fill a diversity quota. Readers of the world are begging –demanding– diversity. And rightfully so. The world is full of a menagerie of people, yet the basic character template is ‘straight, white, able-bodied male until distinguished otherwise.’ That is a tragedy. Therefore, the response to this is to include one ‘checkmark’ character. Because that will satisfy fans. One character of color. One LGBT character. One character with a mental or physical disability. Bonus points if you lump several characteristics into one — a black female, wheelchair bound, who likes girls because lesbians can be hot. What a great idea. If you don’t understand sarcasm, understand I do not agree with this method. 

So what does that have to do with Toph? Her blindness is not used as a way to fill a quota. Her blindness is so well integrated into the world and her character. Why is she the most incredible earthbender? Because she can’t see, she developed an ability (that makes sense in-universe) that shows her what is happening. Want added drama in more mundane activities? Toph can’t see anything when they travel by sky bison. Need a way for Team Avatar to know they’re being pursued? Toph can feel people coming long before they’re close enough to attack. She isn’t a one-trick-pony. She is integrated into the story in every way. Without Toph and her blindness, the story could not happen the way it did. 

Asami Sato [The Legend of Korra] 

Originally, this slot was taken by Megara from Disney’s Hercules, but Asami hits all of the same points plus a few extras. When we first meet Asami, she’s the pretty romantic rival to Korra. She gets a standard meet-cute with their current shared-love interest, Mako, and sweeps him away to a world of wealth he’d never known before. Another show might take this opportunity to tell the audience they should be rooting for Korra and Mako to end up dating because Korra is the MC. The writers could have made Asami unlikable in a dozen different ways. She could’ve been snobby, dumb, petty, manipulative, unfaithful… Shoot, they gave her two chances to oppose Korra — once when Mako and Korra kissed and again when her Equalist father asked her to turn against Team Avatar. 

Legend of Korra has its faults, but I think they really wrote a beautiful character in Asami. She is level-headed and kind. She is hard-working and smart. She is independent. Oh, and did I mention, she is a non-bender? She is at a disadvantage in a straight fight, yet holds her own. And in a world where the market is overflowing with ‘strong women’ who look just like Korra, Asami is a great reminder that strong women come in all shapes and sizes. She wears heels and makeup and her hair is always perfect. She is soft-spoken but unwilling to be plowed over. She has strong emotional reactions — something Korra also offers in a way I appreciate. Asami is just a joy. The writers took a character who I assumed I would dislike, and they let her become one of my favorite characters in the show. 

Anastasia Romanov [Anastasia] 

It’s finally time to talk about one of my favorite animated movies out there. Our title character, Anastasia, is loosely based on the real life Russian Revolution in which Czar Nicholas ii is overthrown, and he and his whole family is killed. The following circumstances lead to a series of conspiracies that one of the daughters survived. Of course, that daughter was the inspiration for this magical, musical, happily-ever-after adaptation of the real-life events. 

So let’s actually talk about the movie. Because of the magic of amnesia, our grand duchess ends up in an orphanage at the age of 8 with no idea who she is or where she came from. Nothing aside from a locket that convinces her to go to Paris. We are shown that she is loved by her fellow orphans while butting heads with authoritarian figures. She is shown to be a bit aloof as she continues to show a strong will that favors that of royal privilege. This very fitting personality trait sets her up for fantastic banter and push-and-pull relationships with the headstrong Dimitri who helps her travel from Russia to France. 

I adore the character of Anastasia because she is so perfectly balanced. She is kind but proud. She has no intention to be run over. She is determined but unsure in herself. She has serious doubts that the path she is pursuing leads anywhere. I am a sucker for a snarky character who is stubborn and sassy while hiding a fear of the unknown. 

Next week, I’m going to talk about some of my favorite boys in fiction. I hope to see you all then!


Stay Safe, 

Rena Grace

Searching for the Theme

Writing Advice

Across the internet, in niches of the writing community, the topic of theme is pretty widely discussed. Spawning from years of reading-class conversations over literary icons, thematic statements can feel simultaneously obvious and vague, practical and mystical, tacked-on and over-thought. 

What even is a theme? 

“Theme, of course, is a statement, direct or implied, about the author’s ideas of the human condition.”

Ah… of course. That makes sense. Thank you Google.

I have heard theme renamed many things that feel more relatable: the ‘big idea,’ the ‘universal truth,’ the ‘commentary on humanity.’ The Lesson. The Moral. The Take-Away. But even those words can feel pretentious and unhelpful.

To take an example right out of Mrs. Peirce’s AP Lit class, let’s look briefly at the Great Gatsby. An incredibly basic summary of the story might look like this: Jay Gatsby gains wealth in an effort to win the adulterous affection of a past-lover, Daisy Buchanan, eventually leading to his death. From this statement alone, I could argue that two large thematic ideas are wealth and love, because they are two of the biggest factors in the writing, and, therefore, in the summary. Gatsby gains wealth in order to pursue his lost love. Many of his biggest goals revolve around gaining those two things. Love and Wealth. Wealth and Love. Seems simple enough. Yet, if you were to Google themes of the book, you would get lengthy lists that varied with each source. “The American Dream,” “justice,” “power,” “greed,” “ambition,” and on and on and on. 

And suddenly we’re overwhelmed again. How is this supposed to help us as writers? What can we learn? I think there is one great lesson: there is no one right answer. Don’t overdo it; I believe every story has a theme, whether intentional or not. Let your story happen, and these elusive themes will happen the same.

Still concerned? Hoping to be more intentional? Let me walk you through my process:

In my writing, I look for one theme. No more, no less. And for me, that theme starts with characters. 

In my current manuscript, Tales of Drynic, my main character’s name is Abryn. Abryn is a mechanic who chooses to work in a poor town, even though she doesn’t have to. She stays because she has abilities that the townspeople need, and she needs to feel needed. That’s her goal, her motivation, and her philosophy. Be useful or be forgotten. Because her self-worth is tied to her usefulness to other people, she is constantly learning new skills. Not only can she fix machines, but she can cook, she can knit, she can play guitar, she can be what you need her to be. Because she is a fast learner, she develops a false-pride and a sense of hollow self-importance. Because she clings to this false-pride, she becomes upset when she doesn’t pick something up or have an aptitude for any one thing. She is uneasy around blood, and that is a large point of shame, as she feels useless in medical situations. She keeps herself in a cycle of learning, hoping to be the best, and refusing to have faith in others.

When the story begins, you meet Abryn as a workaholic who bears the weight of her town’s transit-repair team — a job she sees as vital to the survival of the townspeople. She is introduced to royalty who tempt her with an offer to help them save surrounding cities from collapsing on themselves. She is put in a position of power that feeds the belief that she is earning worth because of her help and involvement. Time and time again, she is presented with options that give her a sense of control; she is given the opportunity to take matters into her own hands on a power-high that can cause ripples across her small island-nation. 

If you consider these character traits, ideals, fears, beliefs, and flaws — things you likely already have baked into your own character — you can start to see them weave a coherent through-line that leads to an idea about humanity. Theme is often directly linked to character and character growth; it’s easier to learn from other people, even if they’re fictional. 

To me, Abryn’s story says that self-worth cannot be earned. To you, it may mean that perfection is unattainable. Another might see that one person can’t do everything. Another learns that it’s important to love yourself. All of these answers are just as valid as the last. The thing is, I — as the writer — am only focusing on the one. I cannot stop the reader from seeing different truths, but this truth is the one I want to tell myself. That is how I find my themes — by looking at my life and asking what I need to teach myself. 

So maybe that is a place to start. It can be overwhelming to look at the world and try to make a statement that applies to everyone. It’s intimidating to find a way to say “love is the most important thing of all,” or “world-peace is the best option” without sounding pretentious. Maybe the most important place to look is at your flaws, pains, and tragedies. Funny thing about humans, we often need to learn the same stupid things.

That’s all I have for this week. I hope it gave you a direction to look in. 


Stay Safe,

Rena Grace

Comparing Group Dynamics

Writing Advice

As a piggy-back to last week’s blog, let’s talk about more team dynamics. Just like in part one, I’m going to be using some basic tropes of the five-man-band to make these comparisons. As a refresher, the five-man-band is a tried-and-true method of team building that helps authors build a balanced team. The basic players are as follows: To start, you have the Leader, who does exactly what you’d expect — lead. Next up is the Lancer. This character is the right-hand-man of the group; they tend to be the closest to the protagonist, and often poses the most internal conflict of everyone — though that’s not necessary. There are a lot of flavors to Lancers: the best friend, the almost-as-good rival, the cranky loner, the literary foil (we’ll talk more about that in a bit.) Next, you have the Heart, the emotional center of the group; the big guy, the group’s muscle; and the smart guy, the group’s brain. As we talked about last week, the most interesting team members often have complex and unique relationships within themselves as well as with each other. Though, as you’ll see today, there are examples of simple teams done really well.

Before we jump in, let’s talk a little about the Literary Foils. Typically referring for single characters, a literary foil is something that uses opposite characteristics to highlight features of your protagonist. Selfless Leader? Greedy Lancer? That’s a foil. The differences highlight important traits. I’m going to be using this literary device on a group scale to talk about how some of our favorite teams stack up to their in-universe counterparts. 

Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Zuko VS Azula, Zuko, Mai, Tai Li

Let’s start with one of the hottest topics in the world right now: Avatar. Among so much more, Avatar the Last Airbender has an amazing team dynamic, but it also has an incredible foil team. 

this is your spoiler warning. I will be giving specific examples that will spoil character arcs.

Starting out with our favorite pacifist monk; Aang is in a subcategory of leader, being a “chosen one” of sorts. While he is kind and loving, the role of the Heart would probably go to Katara. She fulfills the Heart role in a very motherly way. Her brother Sokka — the self-proclaimed “idea guy” — plays the role of the Smart guy, with Toph as the Big Guy in a small package. 

In comparison, the ladies of the Fire Nation work in a much different way. Azula, in all her terror, is a powerhouse in this trope. She takes up three of the five roles as the Leader, Big Guy, and Smart Guy. She always has a plan, and it is at least three steps ahead of anyone else. And in terms of pure power, skill, and talent, the princess is on a completely different plane. This sets up a super interesting dynamic for the rest of the group. While Tai Li is a very traditional Heart — soft and kind and vulnerable — I would argue that Mai Is as well. Mai is in a constant state of emotional shut-down, though she is far from un-feeling. I would call her an anti-Heart or a hidden-Heart. The way the writers chose to use Mai and Tai Li as foils to each other furthered Azula’s separation from them.

Notice how, holistically, Team Avatar’s spread is infinitely more balanced than Azula’s. We see that once the Hearts of her group leave, you see the princess incapable of making coherent plans or applying her strength effectively. While Team Avatar does struggle when Sokka is high on cactus juice or before they have the brute strength and power of will Toph brings, they don’t crumble under their own weight the same way Azula does.

Now, you may have noticed I saved our favorite cranky, honor-obsessed enigma for last. I thought it would make the most sense as we get to see him as part of both groups and by himself. Zuko is a great example of the almost-as-good rival on both teams, and this works to his benefit as a stand-alone character. Since he was little, you see his technical skills paling in comparison to his sisters; “she was born lucky, he was lucky to be born.” Once he joins team Azula as teenagers, he takes up the implied role of Lancer. Being the only other bender puts him in direct comparison with his sister in the way the other girls aren’t; this comparison reinforces that he is still only second best. As a further foil to his sister, he portrays another level of what it means to be a Heart. He is the midpoint between Mai and Tai Li, internalizing all of his negative feelings like Mai but is much more open to expressing them like Tai Li. 

Any time he is by himself, Zuko demonstrates all three characteristics of the group (Leader and Lancer are a bit redundant in solo situations) as seen in the episode “Zuko Alone.” He is smart enough to stay alive, stay under the radar, and keep out of trouble for the most part. He kind and loving in the way he takes care of the Earth Village family. And he is strong and capable when he defends them from the power-hungry soldiers. It’s common for the “loner” variant of the Lancer to have a well rounded skillset but not good enough to remain a solo act for too long.

Once aligned with Team Avatar, you see him in the full role of a Lancer. He equalizes the team, adding the last bit of balance they were missing. Literally, he is the last element needed, giving him an element of the Big Guy. His knowledge of the Fire Lord and Fire Nation gives him an element of the Smart Guy. And his willingness to help each member of the Team accomplish some goal — some even finding closure on their character arcs. He also fills in the important role of in-team tension. While it’s great for teams to get along, things won’t be great always. Sometimes you have to allow your arch-nemesis onto your team to teach you firebending. Zuko was brought on after months of opposing Team Avatar, and each had an additional, personal reason to mistrust him. But this mistrust lead to the vital episodes that Zuko spent helping each team member with a personal task.

You can see how, while Team Avatar has very simple, straightforward alignments, they are foiled by their most intense, highly-complex rivals. Zuko’s inclusion in both groups highlights just how different the dynamics work. 

Kirk + Spock + Bones VS Future Generations

Live Long and Prosper, my dudes. Through sixty years and almost ten series, Star Trek is a great example of how diverse these five-man-bands can really be.

The original show gave us one of the earliest dream-teams on television. While you could argue to fit additional members in the additional slots, no one beyond our original three (Kirk, Spock, & Bones) really have much impact on the team’s makeup. It might be slightly different in the new movie adaptation, but I’m sure the premise is similar. Captain Kirk is, by rank the leader. In great 60’s fashion, he is the most charming, the most charismatic, the best at whatever the episode needs. Like Our Harry Potter example last week, he is a relatively simple character, leaving the nuance to his closest friends. Spock, his Lancer, fills in both the roles of Smart Guy (the logical mind of the expedition, as well as the most familiar species with space travel) and the Strong Guy (again, because his species is innately stronger than the human race.) Bones, as a doctor who works under a moral code, is the Heart; his medical knowledge also gives him some Smart Guy characteristics, allowing Captain Kirk to simply exist, supported by his colleagues.

Decades later, The Next Generation breaks down the players into the one-a-piece method of the trope. Captain Picard is again our Leader. Ryker, the second in command, is our Lancer. Dianna is an emphatic therapist, making her our Heart. Warf, a Klingon warrior, is our Big Guy. Data is an android, filling in the role as Smart Guy. This is the simplest way to set up a team. Everyone has pretty clear roles, and there is hardly any significant overlap. If you’ve seen the series, you know that the simple setup works for this story, allowing more focus on plot than characters. TNG focuses largely on creative worldbuilding, vast adventures, and unique scenarios. There was no need to over-complicate things by splitting the focus evenly between plot and characters.

Another couple decades pass, and we get our next great run in the series Voyager. In stark contrast to The Next Generation’s plot-driven story, Voyager feels almost completely character driven. We, again, start simple with Captain Janeway as the Leader. Chakotay is the second in command and plays the Lancer, as well as a fairly spiritual version of the Heart. Pretty straightforward. In this generation, I consider the technology to be the main “Big Guy” as it does a lot of the plot-driven heavy lifting. That leaves us with a really interesting setup for the role of Smart Guy. B’Elanna is far-and-above the best engineers; The Doctor is a hologram with access to an infinite amount of data with no limit on mental capacity like humans; Seven-of-Nine is a Borg — a species that thrives on accumulated knowledge from other civilizations galaxy-wide — so she knows more about the universe than the rest of the crew combined.  In a story like Star Trek, it is important to have a wide range of knowledge on your team at any time. This setup puts a strong focus on the internal conflicts of the show, minimizing the need for physically strong characters. The writers devote a lot of time to problem solving, both academic and emotional; they even give Janeway a handful of episodes to explore the relationship between leading and taking care of one’s emotional state.

Each generation has its own take on power and skill distribution. I’d say that Star Trek’s only baseline consistency is actually in their Leader characters. They are generally only that: the Leader. As with many main protagonists, they are well-rounded in everything, while other characters take up specific support roles for each trope. Obviously, with such large casts, each person can bring something a little different to the table to balance out the mix. It’s important to consider how each character is vital to the success of the team. How would your team work without any one primary member? If the team would function fine, maybe reconsider that character’s value in your story. 

There is no one-size-fits-all mold for any team. In fact, that nuance is what makes readers want to keep engaging. It is important to look at your story and decide how nuanced your team needs to be to fully benefit the story. An awesome skill/power dynamic is an easy point of interest for your reader to latch onto, but it isn’t always necessary to every story. Using tropes like the five-man-band makes your characters easier to understand and remember, even if your reader has never had the trope explained to them. While it isn’t the only way to work, it is an effective method to consider. The biggest benefit is the versatility and variety you can get while staying in this format. It keeps your team in check without taking away the freedom you have as an author. The possibilities are endless!

That’s all for this week. Next Monday, I’m considering annotating the team I built in my current WIP, Tales of Drynic. If you’d be interested in seeing that analysis, I’d love it if you left a comment down below!


Stay Safe!

Rena Grace

Group Dynamics in Fiction

Writing Advice

In an era of self-isolation and social distancing, I want to talk about some of my favorite teams in fiction. One of the fastest ways to get me personally hooked is by setting up a group of characters that I love to see interacting. 

As with all elements of fiction, a number of tropes and trends have arisen over the years around the ‘dream team.’ Overly Sarcastic Productions (OSP) on Youtube has a fantastic video on the semantics of this trope, and I highly recommend checking them out after this! I’m going to hit on the basics of their video to help frame today’s blog.

Let’s start with something obvious: the best teams work best when each member contributes something. OSP really successfully discusses the most common members of the five-man-band: the Leader, the Lancer (right-hand man), the Heart, the Big Guy, and the Smart Guy. These five archetypes cover basically anything you could need for a five-man team, but using these cut-and-dry outlines can make a character feel flat and one-dimensional. Oftentimes, the most successful way to combat this is by combining archetypes.

Let’s start out with the simplest example.

Harry + Hermione + Ron (Harry Potter)

How could I talk about team dynamics without discussing this generation’s golden trio? Harry and the gang fall into a looser five-man-band, occasionally picking up Neville or Luna as the Heart or Ginny as the Big Guy. But on their own, they’ve got a pretty obvious Leader-Lancer-Smart Guy composition. On the surface, at least. This dynamic is interesting specifically in the way it splits up the roles of Lancer and Smart Guy. Ron is the quintessential Lancer — the first best friend, the side-kick, the one who’s always there. But the entire Weasley family is a wealth of knowledge. When it comes to the wizarding world, Hermione is nearly as lost as Harry is, as both grew up in muggle homes. Without Ron, there would be no nights at the Burrow to see how a magical family lives. There would be no explanation of unusual items and customs. Ron’s experience makes him more of the street-smarts guy, but that role is a pillar of many stories. 

As for Hermione, yes, she is bookish, and she in every way fills the stereotypical ‘smart guy’ role. But! She is also a wonderful foil to Harry. She is committed to overachieving in classes while Harry exists in a more passive world of natural talent and chosen-one-ness. And despite that, she stays with Harry through everything. She is unyielding. She helps him and Ron with homework because she can’t stand to see them fail. She isn’t mad when Harry is entered into the TriWizard Tournament because she cares so much more about Harry’s safety. She stays with him every second while looking for Horcruxes. She doesn’t even leave when he’s cheating to beat her in Potions. 

Because of the complexity of his friends, I wouldn’t say that Harry has a very complex archetype. He leads because it’s his story. And that works! I have so much love for these characters, especially the way they are written in the book. They exist on an even playing field. The story works because they exist together, creating a unique unit that feels unstoppable. 


Captain America + Ironman + Thor (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Next, let’s talk about everyone’s favorite superheroes — well, they’re mine at least. However, many of you astute readers are questioning me. “Don’t you know there are more Avengers than that?” To which I say, yes of course. But these are the ones that matter. Even considering Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye, the three listed above are the characters I care about the most. They also happen to be the most interesting characters to examine.  

Lined up against our five-man-band archetypes, there are some pretty quick parallels: Tony Stark is very obviously the ‘Smart Guy,’ Thor is obviously the ‘Big Guy,’ and Steve Rogers is obviously the ‘Heart.’ Very simple, clear alignments. It becomes a little muddier when you look at the other two “roles” of Lancer and Leader. 

Before we get there, let’s talk about the Leader v Lancer relationship. At its most basic level, Lancers are the right-hand man; they’re the second in command; they’re often the closest to the Leader. The Lancer often provides in-group opposition to the Leader. In good writing, the Lancer is a foil to the Leader, accentuating that characterization. So what does that do for our Avengers example?

Well, all three have very distinct moments of leadership. I believe — even aside from their solo-films — all take charge as the commanding force of large battles. 

Cap leads in the Battle of New York, leaving Thor to zap things and Tony to decide on his own what should be done. In this situation, Tony is the Lancer to Cap’s Leader. It highlights that Cap is a team player with the charisma to shine, while Tony is more of a quick-thinking, individualistic rogue.

In the Battle of Sokovia, Tony takes the lead, taking responsibility as the creator of their current issue, Ultron, with Thor playing Lancer, mostly by extension through the life-lightning he used on Vision. Cap is just there to punch things and save people this time around.

In the Battle of Wakanda, Thor is the turning-point in the fight. While Cap did what he could, leading the charge and calling the shots, he was the Lancer here, dependent on the God of Thunder to join in and decmate the army more efficiently. When the time came, Cap put up a great fight against Thanos, but it was Thor that was there to deliver the final blow, making him more of the Leader. All this time, Tony is in space, incapable of filling any real role.

While there’s nothing special about saying “Tony is smart, Thor has powers, and Cap is a sweet, lovable softy,” there is something special about the way their leadership dynamic ebbs and flows. 


Quasimodo + Esmeralda + Febas (Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame)

This is one you might not have expected to see on this list, but I really really really wanted to talk about the success of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unlike the two examples above, there really aren’t many characters to add to make this a full five-ish man band. Other main characters include the scary bad guy, those comic relief rocks, and that one gypsy-narrator who can’t decide whether or not to be omniscient. 

That means this group works exclusively by itself. For this one I want to abandon the roles of Leader and Lancer because I don’t think they really apply to what has been done here. I want to talk about the other three roles and how every character fills every one. 

Let’s start with our main guy, mister Quasimodo. This guy is incredible. And the first thing you’re likely going to notice is his heart. His introduction scene shows him encouraging a baby bird to fly. You see a gentleness that warms your soul right before you’re reminded of the manipulative asshole who raised him to be timid and fearful and ashamed to exist. Yet Quasi loves him until the end. After recognizing years of abuse, neglect, lies, neglect, manipulation, murder — shit, nearly stabbing the woman he was falling for — Quasi still tries to save this monster from falling off the cathedral into the depths of lava-hell. And that’s not even touching the love he has for his friends.

… Yet… there was that one time he held Febas in full armor with a single hand. And that time he effortlessly moved the stone seal from over the Court of Miracles. And that time he literally broke down stone columns of an architectural masterpiece. You can’t deny he’s incredibly strong! … Yet… he is also smart! He devised an escape plan for Esmerelda, and he figured out how to read the map to find her.

Of course, if we’re going to talk brains, let’s talk about Febas. While he fits the typical ‘big guy’ persona — strong soldier who breaks into a burning building, who chokes out a guard, who catches our very heavy protagonist from falling to his death — I think he’s much more than that. Aside from a startling wit, he is always quick to pick up on things. He is the only character to recognize Esmerelda in disguise. He helps her escape Frollo by thinking quickly and saying she had claimed sanctuary. His immediate instinct when trying to decipher gypsy code is to literally translate the Latin or Greek or Aramaic. 

Our sweet captain also has an immense heart. He is generous with money; he risks his life to save those unrightfully oppressed; he falls in love with someone of much lower social status. 

Which leaves us with Esmerelda. She is loving. Her song God Bless the Outcast is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I know of. She defends Quasi when she doesn’t even know him, simply because of the love she feels for the oppressed. She uses that love to give others confidence, reading Quasi’s palm to tell him he isn’t a monster. That scene leads to the fact that she’s brilliant — both observant and quick. She keeps up with Febas’s banter — in fact, she’s never without a come-back. 

But I think most notable is her strength. Everything Esmerelda does, she does with her full strength. On the physical side, the dancing she does is not light work. Neither is the insane escape sequence she pulls off shortly after. She then goes hand-to-hand with an experienced soldier. And then there’s the scene where she dives into a river, strips Febas’s armor off, swims him to the surface, and gets them both to the bank. Are you kidding me? But it’s more than that. She prays with all her might; she loves with all her might; she leads with all her might; she defends with all her might. It’s a big presence that leaves an impact.

All this leads back to the group and it’s dynamic. All things considered, I would say Febas is most like the “Smart Guy,” Esmarelda is most like the “Big Guy,” and Quasimodo is most like the “Heart.” The Hunchback of Notre Dame is incredible because it gave us three characters with incredibly powerful (and incredibly similar) skill sets without any one of them stealing the show. Not only did they accomplish that. They did it while flipping stereotypes on their heads. Strong soldiers are supposed to be dumb. Dancers are just ladies with no agency. Big, bulky guys should just tag along to lift things. These characters have one of the most beautifully complex team dynamics I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t seen this movie in a while, I highly recommend you watch it, if for nothing else than a phenomenal display of great writing. 


I think next week, I’ll release a second part, talking about some of the teams I didn’t get to. These will be teams that I want to go more in depth with, comparing and contrasting in-universe examples. Specifically teams from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar the Last Airbender. 


Stay Safe,

Rena Grace

Characters from Life

Writing Advice

Since finishing my first draft and jumping head-on into draft two, I have allowed myself a lot more time to really consider each of my characters as they appear. If you’ve seen my Plotting Compelling Characters blogs (part one; part two) you might remember me talking about how my process is fluid and evolving. Since the first installment, my personal character sheet has continued to change, as I noticed things that were missing and prioritized them over others.

In my current editing, while I do look at some of the traits/fears/etc, I find that many of those things already exist in my mind because I have based every character loosely on someone I know in reality. I call this a character’s ‘Base Model.’ When I’m stuck, the first question I ask is “What would [real person I know] respond? What language do they use? What kind of leader are they?” With that answer, I can then decide how closely the fictional character would mirror their real life base model.

This process is like an artist who betters their skills by drawing from life. You take what you see, adapt it to a different medium, and take what you learned on to future projects. I’m going to walk you through how I pick Base Models and use them to make my characters stand out from each other.

Compile & Analyze

As with so many processes, the best way to start is with a brainstorm. This brainstorm is simple enough to do wherever. Whether in a notebook or in a digital format, just let your mind go through people you know. Write down everyone, just as they cross your mind; in the beginning, there is no reason to try to file people in compartments or with any kind of system because you’re just getting as many ideas as possible. I found that the people who came to mind first were often the people I knew most about. There were definitely exceptions to that rule, but it tends to be easiest to remember people who impact you the most, both positively and negatively — and that’s just what we’re looking for! Family, friends, teachers, mentors, friends-of-friends, neighbors, coworkers, old classmates — I even went through my phone contacts to make sure I didn’t forget anyone I found compelling.

Now, I obviously don’t suggest you remember every person you come in contact with. Listing ‘the janitor on the second floor’ is only going to help you if you have a general idea of this person’s personality. So while I encourage you to make the list broad enough to get a variety of personalities, ages, races, backgrounds, and more, don’t let this become a rabbit’s hole you never escape. All things should be done mindfully and in moderation.

Same as with the list, it can be helpful to have a short synopsis of people you know in relation to your story. That sounds vague; let me explain: My story has a heavy emphasis on leadership and different ways people lead. So for my analysis, I picked a handful of candidates and wrote a paragraph about how they lead. I picked extroverts; I picked introverts; I picked blatant leaders, and I picked behind-the-scenes manipulators. Having these ideas on hand helped me not only align character-to-base, but it gave me a broader understanding of one of my themes. It’s an exercise in observation as much as it is in writing. Again, I caution you to used this step in moderation. I did not analyze each person’s relationship to the greater themes of the multiverse. Some people, I wrote a few descriptors for. Some people, I wrote nothing for. Always keep the goal in mind!

Play Matchmaker

I’m not talking about love or relationships. I’m talking about finding Base Model options for each character.

I typically start this process with a character’s broad personality in mind; I have already decided things like Meyers-Briggs Personality, Star Sign, and Love Language (more on that here). From there, I go through and assign possibilities.

Let me give you an example: I’ve talked in the past about the Main Character in my current WIP, so let’s bring her up again. Her name is Abryn. She’s a mechanic; she’s practical, perfectionistic, reliable, sarcastic, observant; she hates criticism, can be distant and aloof, and is hard on herself. So with that in mind, I set off looking for people with similar personalities. *Note: it is very important to stay neutral!*

As with all MC’s, I put myself on the initial list. I saw a lot of myself in her, but I didn’t want to stop there. I ended up with quite an odd list: my simultaneous good friend and rival, a girl who stole my high school boyfriend, my best friend’s husband, my first boss, an ex boyfriend, a guy I fell-out with in college, and a girl I knew in high school. Of these eight people, four of us are girls, four are boys. Gender, race, age, and sexuality does not have to align with the character herself. I know these people in different ways and to different degrees. But they all had characteristics that reminded me, at least some, of Abryn.

From there, I had to start removing people from the list. This was when I really started to finalize who Abryn is. I took myself off first because, while I know the most about myself, I know too much about myself. The best part about this process is that it isn’t an exact science. It’s guesswork. And I didn’t like the idea of always knowing what I would do in the situation. There are too many interesting and unique people in my life; I wanted to explore what they would do.

The second person to go was my friend-rival who I realized was a perfect fit for my character Kerrix. Slowly, I pulled people until I was left with two options. If you’ve seen my Example Sheet for Abryn, you’ll know that those two people were “Brett” and “Jeff.” And that was great. I was able to go all the way through my first draft with both names until I figured out that “Brett” was the more accurate option. (I’ll leave it to your imagination how I know him in real life.)

Each primary and secondary character got this same treatment. Bryst is based on an old roommate; Reislyn is based on a girl I played volleyball with; Kaler is based on a guy from church; Estrella is based on a girl who doesn’t like me. Sometimes Base Models will know each other in real life — several of my characters are based off of people from my childhood church. That can be a really fun dynamic to adapt to more precisely fit the characters. However, I find it just as fun to stretch my imagination to consider how someone from my high school might interact with someone they never met from my college.

Beware of Clones

Never forget that the character comes first. Base Models are a great foundation, but they don’t need to be shoe-horned into the story. Think of it this way: all types of buildings have foundations. An open-air gazebo might have just a concrete slab foundation with beautiful columns built right on top; the foundation would be very apparent, but it’s not the focus of the space. A house might have a shallow foundation, too, but all kinds of things are built on top of it. You can’t see the slab through the flooring, but it’s still there. A five-story rock climbing gym would have a deep foundation that would be difficult to see. But it’s that specific type of construction that makes the interesting space possible.

Now I’ll leave you with what is probably an unpopular opinion: Just because you don’t like someone, that shouldn’t automatically make them the villain in your work. I know that some really compelling bad guys and bullies have been direct rewrites of real life jerks, but be mindful of how you use it. Hell, supervillains are most convincing when parts of them feel real and relatable. The trap I see authors fall into is a form of power-creep. It’s the opposite of the self insert “Mary Sue” where everything the self insert does is perfect and nothing can stop them. The evil power creep — regardless of genre, age demographic, or plot — happens when the author lets their hatred for the real life person fuel their portrayal.

I highly discourage using your writing to tear down someone you don’t like. Maybe you noticed that when I was picking people to become the Base Model for Abryn, many of the options were people I don’t have great relationships with. Abryn is my MC, a character I think is really cool. How could I compare her to people I probably wouldn’t want to speak to again? It’s because I’ve taken a neutral stance on the real-life models I considered. Kaler is an antagonist based on a friend; Estrella is part of the good guy squad, but her Base and I don’t really get along. But these personalities were exactly what I wanted to see in the characters. I love complex characters. Sometimes we as humans can get so caught up in our feelings about someone, we flatten out the complexity, amplifying what is terrible. It brings me right back to writing a character as their own person, separate from their Base Model. Life inspiration is great, but writing revenge fiction can really overrun a story if you’re not careful.

Anyway, I know this post is going up on a Tuesday, but I hope to see you back here next Monday for more writing content.


Stay Safe

Rena Grace

The World of Magic Systems

Writing Advice

Magic Systems are one of my favorite things to read and the thing I’m most passionate to write about. So I’m going to talk through four completely different ways creators use Magic Systems WELL.

Before we get started, I want to lay some terminology groundwork:

Magic in fiction can be almost anything that makes your world unusual. It doesn’t have to be cut-and-dry “a wizard waved a wand.” But whatever it is, I believe some rules should exist to govern it. 

Soft Magic is the loosest form of magic. In its most extreme form, the author may know of rules that guide it, but the reader is left in a vast plane of limitless creativity. Soft magic systems make it easy to continue to “power-up” the characters almost unlimitedly with minimal backlash. Audiences know going in that there was more to this power that they didn’t understand.

Hard Magic, on the other hand, is completely governed by rules. Even if the reader doesn’t have them all, the author knows the exact limits of the power and the reader has a fair idea. The hardest of magic systems keep an impossibly tight grip on their magic so that it works as rigidly as the laws of our world.

Power Creep is the bane of my personal existence. Essentially, it lets the characters continuously surpass the “maximum” over and over again against the laws of the in-universe magic. I do not enjoy watching a character become the “best ever, the end” just because the story says so. Power Creep is most notorious in anime or long-running series where the author is constantly raising the physical stakes — often ignoring internal struggles as a way to engage audiences. Power Creep is easier to fall into in a Soft Magic system where the rules are loose anyway. And while an audience might forgive it for a while, there is a reason that I recognize Dragon Ball Z memes, despite never watching the show. 

Most magic systems exist on a sliding scale between hard and soft systems — and both can be plagued by power creep if not careful. I’ll tell you now that I have an undying love for hard magic systems and consistent consequences. I want to know what cost the magic has and the toll it takes on the user. As with all stories, the magic of the worlds mentioned below affects how the story plays out. BUT I will be discussing strengths based on magic alone not the complete “package.” Anyway, with that set up, let’s jump into these examples.

Harry Potter and the Semi-Soft System

No one is surprised to see this here, but that’s because it’s almost universally seen as an iconic and fairly well-done magic system. I love fantastical realism, and the use of the soft magic system really works here because the premise is about expanding your view of your current world. There are rules that exist — only wizards can use magic, magic seems largely hereditary, and you need a wand to use it — but the world implies there is no limit to what a wizard could seek out to learn. Despite having a softer magic system, I never felt terribly jarred by any character’s ability, not even Harry. Some people had talents in some areas, others in others, and others were Dumbledore. But even the vast power of these super-wizards felt set up and earned. Part of the success of the series can be accredited to the step-by-step view of the learning process. Few things were natural to our main cast. We see where each succeeds and where each fails which feels realistic!

Avatar: Rules of the Last Airbender

Our hard-magic example is not only incredible — but incredibly topical. The premise is beautifully clean and simple: some people move water, some earth, some fire, some air, and some nothing. But one person, repeatedly reincarnated, can mess with all four of the elements at the same time. Perfect, easy to describe, clean, hard magic. From this base premise, softer principles are derived without leaving their lane. Waterbenders can manipulate water wherever it is, earthbenders can manipulate the impurities in metal, and firebenders –innately tied to manipulating energy– can produce concentrated fire as electricity. Aside from a single mix-up concerning what element lava would be considered, the Avatar universe is consistent and believable. It’s enhanced by the part bending plays in worldbuilding, and the part different fighting styles direct how each element moves through stances and forms. More strongly than in Harry Potter, we start to see a consequence specific to using the power in the form of physical exhaustion. If Harry is winded, it’s not from casting wingardium leviosa for too long; chances are, he was running, and that poor boy doesn’t do a lot of cardio. Yet Aang often shows signs of exhaustion after lifting a large rock or concentrating really hard on controlling a flame… On top of not doing enough cardio.

Star Trek: Wrath of Not Seeming Magical

I purposefully chose this futuristic society over its more popular counterpart because it doesn’t feel as inherently magical as something called “the force.” However, there’s a reason “sci-fi / fantasy” get bunched together, and this is a great example of it. Star Trek — and a newer take produced by Fox called The Orville — use technology as the magic. Occasionally, an episode may feature an inherently magical species (the Q is a great example in The Next Generation), but the show is always stolen by the different inventions that make the series possible. Their ships move faster than the speed of light; their tricorders can analyze and instantly tell vital information about people and places; their replicators literally materialize anything they have data on. That all feels very magical to me. Sci-fi does a great job convincing readers that their soft magic system is a hard magic system. All a writer has to do is yada-yada some science-y reason something exists, and — poof — there it is. Yet, it’s that claim that “this is science” that makes it seem like it’s governed by rules. 

Mistborn: The Series I Don’t Joke on Because it’s THAT Good

This might be a new one for those most familiar with visual media, but let me tell you: the Mistborn Series is everything I want out of a magic system. Brandon Sanderson is in no rush to explain the way the system works. He gives you pieces and parts over three whole books, implying in book one that everything fits into a strict set of rules. And it does. Unlike the previous three examples, the Mistborn series keeps almost everything obscured. It gives hints and ideas of what is to come, but the audience learns everything about this incredibly unique magic system with a group that is trying to figure out the extents for the first time. Everything you need to know is scattered throughout the books, including in mysterious journal entries that precede every chapter, but the reader has no idea what it means. Every time something new clicks, it is incredibly satisfying — like finding money in your pocket.

Overall there are hundreds of right ways to do a magic system. Recognize that many people many different things. As I mentioned earlier, the magic system in Dragon Ball Z is not at all what I’m interested in reading, but if you do a Google search for “top anime of all time,” you better believe it’ll show up. Write the magic system you want to see, but if I could give any advice, I would recommend considering exactly what your magic can and can’t  do.

I’ll see you all next Monday!

Stay Safe!

Rena Grace