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

Chapter One – Update and Comparison

Short Stories

A few weeks ago, I posted the first chapter of my WIP, Tales of Drynic. The first post (found here) was a celebration of completing the first draft and first round of developmental edits. I really wanted to show the progress made between the first and second drafts in an effort to encourage young or new/unpublished writers — myself included — to keep pushing through. The first draft is always a mess. So is the second draft. But you learn so much with each pass through your work. So let’s talk a little bit about what has changed.

The draft below is the results of my first round of Critique Partner (CP) readthroughs. While I don’t want to explain too much terminology in this introduction, suffice it to say I swapped full manuscripts with a few other writers, and we commented on and made suggestions on the clarity of each other’s work. It’s a pretty vital step on the path to publication as these are the first outside eyes to ever see your manuscript. It’s necessary to ask other people to critique your work so that you can see what is and isn’t working once translated to the page.

A good critique partner will tell you both sides of the coin. Example: my biggest strength is character (if you’re surprised by this, you haven’t seen the library of content I’ve post here.) All of my CPs commented on their connection to my core characters and the clarity they are reading with. Conversely, I have two big weaknesses: clarity in my magic system and describing setting. It is important to remember the positive comments as equally as negative ones; positives build you up and help battle impostor syndrome and self-doubt, and negatives point to ways you can improve your craft.

This draft focused a lot on those changes — trying to immerse the reader in the scene and finding ways to more thoroughly explain the shapeshifting magic that exists in universe. Without any further adieu, I present the new-and-improved Chapter One of Tales of Drynic.

Stay safe,

Rena Grace

-|-

Synopsis: Abryn and her estranged older sister, Reislyn, were raised as some of the only dryfters in all of Ridgate. When Highborns from the East request the assistance of a mechanic and a medic, the two are forced to travel together with a group of strangers. The party continues west on a diplomatic mission to offer aid to a struggling city of non-dryfters — a place painfully reminiscent of their hometown.

-|-

Chapter 1; Draft 3

Abryn didn’t like working on weekends, yet she couldn’t remember the last one she’d taken fully off. This week, the request — supposedly urgent — was delivered rain-day morning while she and Wells fixed lunch. The messenger, a dark-skinned man with white patches on his face, had insisted they needed the job done by noon the next day. Before Abryn could get too many details, Wells had told him, in the politest way possible, to shove off. He didn’t mention it over lunch or for the rest of the day.

But there he was, propped up on the couch, disappointed black eyes watching for her early the next morning. Apparently, she was predictable. “You worked last weekend,” he said, leaning farther into the cushions.

“That was a two hour job. They just needed me to–”

“You were the only one working.” He seemed to know she’d stopped asking the firav to help work overtime, even if he wouldn’t come out and say it. “You skipped dinner to stand in the mud.” 

“Lucky me, noon is long before dinner.” 

He gave her a look and heaved off into the kitchen. She always felt worse when Wells gave up an argument. She emphasized that she’d be back for lunch and shut the door behind her. None of these requests were ever that difficult. There was really no reason to go bothering anyone else when she was fully capable of just fixing up whatever had broken down. 

Shaking his disbelieving gaze from her mind, Abryn jogged across town. Or at least she tried. While she could’ve waited for one of the trains that connected the Downtown to West Station, only two ran on sun-days. On top of that, they were in such bad shape even Abryn, built more for lifting than hustling, could outrun them. She heaved across the damp cobblestone streets, telling herself it was training for the next time Wells invited her on one of his jogs.

She made it to West Station, flicked on the warning signals for both the east and westbound tracks, and took a moment to catch her breath in the dark, dumpy control room. It was unlikely the signals were necessary; weekend deliveries weren’t common, and very few passenger trains travelled through Ridgate. She didn’t understand what made this urgent, but here she was. 

Abryn made it to the abandoned train by late morning. It was a beaten down engine cart with an empty cargo trailer behind it. Must’ve been part of a larger west-bound caravan. There was no sign of what or who was previously being transported. 

The engine cart had slipped an axle and leaned heavily to the left. The mechanism itself seemed fine; it could use a tune up, but it should make it back to the shop, no problem. The enclosed trailer behind it wasn’t attached when she examined it. The hitch was bent, and the socket had twisted open. Three of the cheap metal wheels had doubled over or snapped completely off. It must’ve been nearly slung off the tracks when the engine lurched down. The carts that the city of Leanns sent to smaller towns were always cheap and in terrible condition. Abryn took a firm stance and straightened the hitch back out, but there was little she could do for the socket. It wrapped unconvincingly around the ball and crushed it a bit, but the train would have to rely heavily on the chains to stay connected. 

She stood in front of the damaged side of the engine, considering her options. Heaving the frame onto her knee, she tried repositioning the axel but didn’t have the reach or the angle. The gravel mound the tracks were built on did not make for stable footing for long. She set the engine down as carefully as possible before letting her feet slide down to the still-fresh mud. It wasn’t going to be easy to get back to the shop like this, but if any one person could get it back, it was Abryn. She was the only dryfter in Ridgate that worked as a mechanic. They’d have needed six-or-so firav to get this job done, and that’s more hassle than the Militia cared to put into it.

She cranked the machine and put it in reverse on its lowest setting. It was another mile out of town to the next connection onto the inbound tracks, and she had no interest in going that far to come all the way back in the correct direction. The warning lights should stop all trains at West Station. If another train was coming she’d hear them before they’d even decided to ignore the signals. Standing between the two carts, Abryn lifted the inner left corners of each and fell into the engine’s pace, heading back to Ridgate. She knew that she had to be getting close to the shop when the cargo trailer lost another cheap wheel. It lurched hard to the right, and Abryn dropped the engine cart to keep the trailer from toppling off the tracks. Metal wailed as the engine continued to scrape town the rail. She jerked to stabilize both and dashed to shut off the motor. 

Dropping the engine had caused even more damage to the frame. Just another thing.

In the adrenaline rush, her hands had dryfted into dark leathery claws without prompting. She only noticed when she saw the fresh gashes in the wooden siding. She slid down the gravel mound, chewing her tongue in irritation. Dryfting her hands slowly back, Abryn stretched out her fingers and wrists. Hands were the most likely to cramp up after impulse dryfts. She wiped the little spots of blood from the soft skin between the fingers and cracked her knuckles, considering leaving the stupid train there until the workday started tomorrow morning. One day wouldn’t kill them. If she left the warning signals up, surely people would stay off the tracks. Who would need to come through Ridgate anyway? 

But someone needed her to get it done. West Station was within sight. It wasn’t that big of a deal.

Abryn glanced back at the shop one last time and saw a thin, light-haired Militia boy, maybe a half a foot shorter and sixty pounds lighter than she was. No rank markings on a green vest; he was a Private. The black trim around the bottom meant he was part of Ridgate’s civic Militia. But she didn’t recognize him. Commandant Major Gentry had recently requested additional transfers, he must’ve been one of them. 

He noticed her look at him and timidly waved her over. With a deep, resentful breath, Abryn hiked back to the shop at West Station. She halfheartedly extended her hand, palm down in greeting; he examined her tattoos. He was definitely new. Ridgate’s whole civic Militia knew she was a dryfter, specifically tigruca. There were so few dryfters to keep up with here. After a few more moments, he cautiously responded, placing his palm on the back of her hand. As with all Militia officers, his hands were wrapped hiding whether or not he could dryft. His skittish nature implied he couldn’t, meaning he was a firav. 

“Lady Bryn, you’ve been summoned to the Central.”

“Tell Kaler that is not my name and that I’m busy,” she crossed the shop and grabbed their biggest dolly.

“Er… Ma’am, he says I’m not supposed to leave until you come with me.”

She strode back down the tracks. “I have things to do here.”

He pleaded again, following her to the abandoned carts. She shoved the dolly under the engine cart and wrestled the finicky tool into place. The rusty old dolly just barely lifted the engine cart off its broken axle. It wasn’t meant to hold that much weight, but with the station so close, it’d save her a lot of trouble, struggling to move it herself. She checked the connection again before striding to the back-end of the cargo trailer. She turned to face West Station and lifted the end of the trailer. He stepped back in apprehension. Abryn was right: definitely firav. 

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “this is an important matter. There are Highborns in town he needs you to speak to.”

“This is going to sound mean, but if it was that important, Kaler would have sent someone more important.”

“Ma’am, these are very important guests. He wanted the Central well-manned.”

Abryn gave him a blank stare and a fake smile. “Tell him I have my hands full. Literally, if you have to. It is supposed to be my day off, and I will not spend it playing games.”

The Private stood for a few more moments before retreating back to the shop and disappearing out the door. Abryn exhaled heavily and refocused on the task at hand. With the slick tracks, she needed better footing. She dryfted partially, letting the bones and muscles in her legs readjust. Her feet shifted, elongating under thickening skin. Claws and thicker foot pads would help with traction. Changing the joint location of her knees and ankles made it easier to lift and pull the cart behind her. The first few steps, the two carts didn’t want to move. The chains rattled and metal ground on metal. With a small grunt, the trailer jolted forward. The ball hitch had left the socket. Chains snapped tight in the middle, giving the assembly some momentum. Clawing into the gravel between the ballasts, Abryn got up to a heavy run sustaining it just long enough to coast into the shop.

She had just dropped it inside when the Private returned. She dryfted her feet slowly back to their human state, walking to the far side of the train to disconnect the chains and haul the engine cart onto a lift. Moments later, a lanky, black-haired figure joined her.

It was unlike Wells to be dressed before noon, much less out of the house. Yet he was here wearing a carefully subdued face of concern. Abryn studied an uncharacteristic urgency in his dark, hooded eyes. He kept most of the emotion from his voice, but it wasn’t completely hidden from her. “I was called into work this morning maybe an hour after you left. The Commandant Major is dead.”

“Gentry…” Abryn blinked slowly. “Does that mean Kaler is –”

“Yes, he’s Commandant now.”

“I see,” she pursed her lips and bit her tongue. Her heart beat a little faster. “He summoned me.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

“He sent you?”

“Yes; there are Highborns in Ridgate –”

“There really are Highborns here?” She stopped herself and calmed her tone, “Multiple Highborns?”

“Yes!” Wells hissed. “I passed one — almost my height — when Kaler summoned me to summon you. Said there was another one across town.”

She ran her fingers through her hair, “Well, what did he say?” 

“Nothing.” 

“What does this have to do with me?” 

“How would I know?” Contemplative silence trailed his words. He shook his head, his voice calmer, “I have to get back to the morgue and take care of my side of this mess. They should be near done draining him.”

“Do you think they had anything to do with the Commandant?”

“The Highborns? I don’t know. The timing is unusual if they aren’t involved. But then again, since when do they care about the hierarchy of the civic Militia?”

“When was the last time we had a Highborn in Ridgate?”

Again, he shook his head. “It was that older Cutov woman, wasn’t it? The one that promised to send more working-class dryfters from the capitol.” 

Abryn rolled her eyes, “I remember now. It’s a waste of my time to go sit pretty on Kaler’s arm and play politics.”

“You should go see this guy.”

“I have a job–”

“I can have bags packed tonight,” he cut in. 

Her fingers twitched at her sides, “That’s a big leap.”

“Is it? After all these years of swearing you’d leave if he promoted?”

“Do you see this frame?” she thunked the hollow cart. “Who else could straighten that out right?”

He narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t your primary shop. The semantics aren’t your problem.”

She set her jaw. “Well, what about Reislyn? Do you plan on leaving her with him in charge?”

“If it makes you feel better, go get her before we leave.”

“Because that would go well. I haven’t seen her in years. Why don’t you go–” 

“Quit dodging me,” he pulled his shoulders back. “Things are happening. I’m not sure I want to be around to see where this goes. I’d guess you have that same instinct, too.”

She dismissed the idea, “We can talk later.” Abryn shouldered by Wells and accompanied the young officer back to the Central.

-|-

The Private didn’t leave her side until the Central was in sight. It was a single story building — Ridgate had the only Central she knew of that didn’t have at least a second floor. Its grey shiplapped boards didn’t look great but were better maintained than most, even compared to the houses and shops Downtown. The deep green embellishments were repainted every decade-or-so, though the rest of the building had never been painted white, as was supposed to be regulation.

Kaler was waiting for her in the entrance hall. His auburn hair was distinct through the distorted glass in the windows, so she had time to find her most distrusting expression as they stomped up the bowing wooden steps. 

There was something off about him. She had never seen him disheveled. Not like this. They were subtle keys. He stood a distance from their officer friends. His brown eyes were restless; his arms crossed in front of his new, green-and-black Commandant vest. There was a stiff edge to his movements. He almost seemed nervous that those polished brass triangles might jab him if he shifted wrong. She wished she found satisfaction in his anxiety, but instead, it was unsettling.

With a deep breath, he put on a smile and reached out to touch her arm. She stopped out of his range. “What is going on?”

“Not in the mood to make new friends?”

“I never seem to like your friends.”

“You should probably get along with this one,” he said, maintaining his typical playful tone. “Either way, I’ve gone through quite a bit of trouble to get you an audience with some pretty important people. You could at least thank your Commandant, Bryn.” She held her blank expression, biting her tongue. He waited for a moment before brushing his unnaturally unruly hair away from his face. “You can quit reading so far into this summon. The Highborns have some engineering needs that you’re going to help them with. Ignore me, fine, but I know you’re too smart to decline their request.” He gestured to the Commandant’s office. His office now. “Well, you’ve kept them long enough. You learned common etiquette, didn’t you?”

Abryn didn’t give him the satisfaction of a withering glare. “Of course. I save it for people worth respecting.” 

Anticipation tied a knot in her stomach. She fixed her hair as best she could. Her fingers twitched softly at her side, but she cocked an eyebrow and straightened her posture. It was difficult to block out the whispers from officers across the entrance hall. Two Lieutenants pulled the heavy double doors open toward her. She walked lightly into the room, consciously reminding herself to breathe. Apart from a few civic officers — all women she knew to be dryfters — there was only a man inside leaning confidently against the desk. Abryn’s eyes immediately rested on the Cutov Highborn tattoos displayed on his neck under a heavy mane of hair. She gave a short, subtle bow and extended her hand in greeting. With a crooked smile, the man approached her. There was an almost aggressive bounce in his step — he wasn’t like that stiff, reserved woman she’d met a few years ago. Instead of returning the gesture, he brought her hand up to kiss it. 

She fought hard against the urge to jerk away, blushing. “Oh, so you’re a kisser,” she tried to play it off.

It was a risky first impression, but her gut reaction was right. His grin widened, and he straightened up and placed his palm on the top of her hand. “Your Commandant warned me about that quick wit. I knew I would like you.”

She recentered with a deep breath, taking this time to get a good look at him. His hand marked him as a dryfter — specifically a tigruca, like Abryn. He was a few inches taller than she was and wore a full-length maroon Highborn’s cloak open to his bare chest which, like his neck, bore several delicate tattoos. He had tan, olive skin and dark brown hair, straight and long down his back. There were a number of small, haphazard braids pulling unruly hairs back. He had a sharp face but chose to wear short facial hair that gave him a rugged look. He was thin for a tigruca with more of a swimmer’s build like Wells. 

“My name is Kerrix,” he said. “And you’re Abryn the engineer, yes?”

“Yes,” she replied, “but ‘mechanic’ is a more accurate description, Lord Cutov.”

“Don’t do that,” he waved his hands dismissively. “Titles are stupid. Just Kerrix. Anyway, I hear you’re the best in Ridge Gate. They also say you and your sister are some of the only drynic left in town. I imagine that makes you pretty invaluable.”

“Be useful or be forgotten,” Abryn nodded. “There are a few other dryfters — er, drynic — outside of the Militia. The only one I know personally runs the morgue for all of the Midland region.”

“By your logic, he won’t be forgotten either,” Kerrix nodded and flashed another crooked grin. “Let me get straight to the point, and we can talk details over dinner. I need your help with the train we’ve been using to get around the island. It’s been having engine troubles on and off since we left the Coast, and I’m afraid we’re on an incredibly tight schedule. We’ve put off fixing it as long as we could.”

She nodded with a smile, “Of course. I can help with whatever you need.” 

“Deal,” Kerrix said, guiding her out. 

As she passed, Abryn refused to look at Kaler, only nodding to officers who stood a short distance from him. Her stubbornness prevented her from reading his expression, but he carefully watched her leave. 

Strolling into the roughly paved courtyard, Kerrix described an efficiency problem and listed off a few circumstances when the machine would quit running altogether. Apparently, he and another — Bryst — had to roll the train into Ridgate when they couldn’t get it to start back up. She sympathized with that effort. 

The Highborn didn’t seem to notice how foreign he looked, walking from the fairly regulated blocks near the Central into the arbitrary construction found in the overcrowded neighborhoods that made up most of Ridgate. He waved off her suggestion of taking the tram, occasionally commenting on a homegrown garden or an artisan’s furniture stand built onto the front of someone’s home. Though he never mentioned anything negative, he seemed to be making mental notes about the small tenements, dingy bathhouses, and crowded communal wells. 

Across town, Kerrix’s train sat in the boarding lane of West Station. Abryn would have never believed it, but apparently Highborns travel on weekends. It was likely their request to take care of the blockage west of the city.

The Highborn train was beautiful: four sleek, black-and-maroon, luxury carts held together with bright silver frames and polished connections. It looked like a sleeping carriage and a dining car between two engine carts facing opposite directions. The windows — aside from the dark, reflective glass of the sleeping cart — were clearer than any in all of Ridgate. It seemed that its connection to the powerline above was purely optional. Abryn had never seen a battery-powered engine up close before, much less tinkered with one. These machines were made to be faster with higher-quality materials and maintained by real, trained engineers. Confident it couldn’t be that hard, she stepped into the engine cart to learn a few things. With a basic understanding of the power source, she checked for the issues Kerrix had mentioned and hopped out to look at the mechanism.

“So,” Kerrix perched himself on the edge of the platform, hanging his feet over the side, “tell me about Ridge Gate. You must like it here if you chose to stay.”

Abryn considered the best answer to give. “I’ve been here my whole life. These people really need all the dryfters they can get to stay. Only ever visited other firav towns in the area; almost always on job requests. Spent a few years in Leanns, but I was pretty young.” He waited for her to say more. “It’s difficult to make a real comparison to other places on the island. We’re a small town. Not many travellers come through, so I don’t hear much about other places.”

“Should it get more travellers?”

“No,” she said a little too quickly. “I mean, we’re glad you came through, Lord Kerrix–” 

“I told you, Kerrix is literally fine. You and I aren’t that different.” 

She refrained from outright agreeing with him. “Well, Kerrix, there’s just not much to do here other than work.”

“Doesn’t sound ideal.” 

She pulled hard on a slipped belt which snapped and crumbled in her hand. She was a little heartbroken. This engine wasn’t nearly as well-maintained as she had expected. “It’s not that bad.” She stuffed the broken belt into one of her many self-stitched pockets. She had a few available replacements in the repair section. She was sure there would be one the same length.

He chucked, “That wasn’t even a little convincing. You’re not being honest. Do you like it here? I’ve heard some call it ‘Death Valley.’”

He wanted honesty, huh? “What do you really expect from Midland’s main cemetery?” Her voice echoed slightly off the interior of the train. “Half our land is devoted to dead people other towns cart in. A quarter of the remaining is devoted to taking care of the carts they use, and the rest, we have to cram as many houses on as we can, yet the Militia still refuse to let firav live in Downtown. I’m sure you’ve noticed our lack of palaces.”

He had a boisterous laugh. “Sounds terrible. I hear palaces are very desirable these days,” he said. “Without palaces, why does anyone stay?” 

“Where else would they go?” Abryn asked back, her tone remained even, but the humor had faded some. She thought of her earlier conversation with Wells. “Reislyn, Wells, and I — dryfters could relocate, easy. I don’t know about the East, but around here, it’s much harder for firav to just move.” 

“And if they had the option, do you think they would leave?”

“Some of them, I’m sure,” she replied. “Maybe even most.”

“Would you have enough trains for that kind of move?”

She peered out from under the cart to find him looking at her. His face was impassive. Like that was a normal question to ask. “Not really; I keep a lot of available, but mostly trailers, not passenger carts. You never know when some firav plague could wipe out a quarter of Pinewood or Dupesville. That becomes our problem very quickly. And if we’re saddled with a bunch of useless, broken-down carts, that’s on me. They need me and my mechanics to keep trains running to keep them safe.”

He smirked, but the expression didn’t reach his eyes. “Highborns understand that sentiment. Keeping people safe. You just want what’s best for every person out there.” He shrugged his distant expression away, shifting to a kneel. “Well, listen, don’t work through lunch or anything. We’d like to leave by nightfall, but as long as we’re out of town today, we’ll stay on schedule. I’m going to find my travelling companions and look for food. Any suggestions?”

“All the good food is near the Central, just outside Downtown,” she said. “There’s a sweet older woman in shop 607. She serves great soups and gives great life advice.”

“Sounds like you speak from experience.”

“Of course not; she learned it all from me.”

He laughed again and told her he’d see her later.

Abryn worked for a little while after his footsteps faded away. The remaining adjustments wouldn’t take long, and she wanted to get more information from Wells. Hopping back to the platform, she jogged into town. Slightly winded, Abryn walked the rest of the way to the morgue, a pale blue building that didn’t feel appropriate for its function. The back door was always locked, but, lifting on the handle while pushing at the top, the bolt could be maneuvered out of it’s socket. She scrubbed oil and grease off as best she could and checked for any cuts or scrapes before slipping into one of the sanitation gowns. Though the tiny tears on her hands had long-since healed, she maneuvered into a pair of tight gloves before entering the cold room. 

Sure enough, Relmot Gentry — former Commandant of Ridgate — lay lifeless on the autopsy table. He had been a respectable man, distant and professional but kind. Most importantly, Gentry had held high standards for his officers, especially command staff. She looked away quickly, already feeling squeamish. 

Wells glanced up from the gaping hole in the dead man’s chest and dismissed his assistant. Even though one of the firav would have drained Gentry’s blood as soon as he arrived, Abryn impulsively touched the mask over her face, keeping back from the body and sending Wells an expectant look. 

“He was definitely murdered. Absolutely brutalized. I see no signs of drugs or poison; he was just overpowered. And you won’t be surprised to hear that the bruises were significantly worse on his right side.” Kaler was left-handed. Wells looked at her, his hooded eyes tired and resigned. “What did he want from you this time?”

“He gloated a little,” she leaned back on the wall and focused on keeping her voice steady. “Puffed up real big trying to fit that new vest of his. But it was mostly about the Highborns; they need me to fix some issues with their train.”

“And what do they want?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” Abryn shrugged. “The one I was with kept asking me about Ridgate. What it’s like, whether I like it here, if I wanted to leave, if others wanted to leave. I didn’t ask why he cared, but I got the feeling he didn’t want to talk about himself.” Wells gave a thoughtful hum. “He was odd,” she added. “He had some odd questions.”

“I would imagine we seem odd to him,” Wells said, ” the dryfters that choose to live here.” 

She agreed with a sigh. “Anyway, I came by to get lunch. Are you close to finishing up with this?”

He looked at his disgusting gloves and shook his head. “You should go talk to Reislyn instead. Get lunch with her — she works nights these days.”

“We’ll have time to talk about this after I finish up with the Highborns. Who knows, they could give me some kind of medal if I do a good job. ‘For services to home and country.’ Or the ‘I’m sorry you live here’ award.”

Wells rolled his eyes and gave her a knowing glance before going back to work. 

“I’ll be at the house if you change your mind.” She sighed and let herself out. 

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

Chapter One – Preview & Comparison

Short Stories

In honor of completing my the first draft of my Work in Progress (WIP), I’m going to share a side-by-side preview of my first chapter before and after the first round of edits! This post isn’t meant to exclusively promote my work; I want this to be encouraging to new authors. The first draft is about getting words on a page. You have to get through that entire draft before you can really start editing. For newbies, editing as you go is overwhelming and can bog you down to the point where you never finish the whole draft. Speaking from experience, most of the things I wanted to add in or change were informed by the end of the book, but I only knew that after I finished.

That said, the working title of my novel is Tales of Drynic: Tigruca. It is the first installment of a New Adult (NA) magical realism series.

Synopsis: Abryn and her estranged older sister, Reislyn, were raised as some of the only drynic in all of Ridgate. When Highborns from the East request the assistance of a mechanic and a medic, the two are forced to travel together with a group of strangers. The party continues west on a diplomatic mission to offer aid to a struggling town of non-shifters — a place painfully reminiscent of their hometown.

-|-

Chapter 1; Draft 1

Abryn hated working on sundays. Train carts were annoying enough to drag back to the station; the wet tracks just made for another inconvenience. Better than working on rainday, but still a less than ideal. On top of the slick tracks and difficult hold, she could rarely convince the firav mechanics to help with weekend repairs. Today, she had received an urgent request and decided it was pointless to stop and ask anyone. She’d rather get it done. 

The shop was in sight when another wheel snapped off its axle. The falling cart slipped from her hands with a metallic thud, threatening to topple over. The quick motion cost Abryn her grip on the tracks; she slid gracefully down the gravel mound. Chewing her tongue in irritation, she stared up at the cart, debating leaving it for tomorrow. It was tempting. But it apparently had to be moved today.

She glanced toward the shop and noticed a thin Militia boy. He was a scrawny private she didn’t recognize. Probably a new recruit; the commandant had recently requested additional troops be transferred to Ridgate. He saw her notice him and timidly waved her over. With a deep, resentful breath, Abryn hiked back to the shop. She halfheartedly extended her hand palm down in greeting; he examined her tattoos before cautiously responding, placing his palm on the back of her hand. As with all Militia, his hands were wrapped hiding whether he was drynic — like Abryn — or firav. 

“Ma’am,” he croaked, “you’ve been summoned to the central.”

“If it’s Kaler, I’m busy,” she sauntered back toward the broken cart.

“Ma’am, he says I’m not supposed to leave until you come with me.”

She didn’t stop. “I can’t say I care.”

He pleaded again, following her onto the tracks. She tossed the newly-broken wheel inside the cab and lifted the front again. The way he stepped back in awe, he had to be firav. “Please, ma’am,” he said, “this is an important matter. There are Highborns in town he needs you to speak to.”

“If it was that important, he would have sent someone more important after me. No offense.”

“Ma’am, these are very important guests. The commandant wanted the central well-manned.”

Abryn gave him a blank stare and a fake grin. “Tell him I do not have the time or patience to follow his every whim today. It is supposed to be my day off, and I will not spend it playing games with him.”

He stood for a few more moments before retreating back to the shop and disappearing out the door. Abryn exhaled heavily and refocused on the task at hand. With the slick ground, she needed better footing. She dryfted, letting the bones and muscles in her lower body readjust. Her feet shifted, elongating under her skin. The claws and thicker foot pads would help with traction. Changing the joint location of her knees and ankles made it easier to lift and pull the cart behind her.

She had just dropped the cart inside when the tiny light-haired man returned. She drifted her feet back to their human state and walked to the far side of the cart to examine the freshly broken wheel. Moments later, a black-haired figure joined her. Not the Militia man. 

Wells wore a carefully subdued face of concern. Abryn studied the urgency in his dark eyes. He kept most of the emotion from his voice, but it wasn’t completely hidden. “I was called into work this morning maybe an hour after you left. The Commandant Major is dead.”

Abryn blinked slowly. “Does that mean Kaler is –”

“He’s commandant now, yes.”

“I see,” she pursed her lips. “He summoned me.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here. There are Highborns in Ridgate –”

“There really are Highborns here? Multiple Highborns?”

“Yes,” Wells hissed, “I passed one of them when Kaler summoned me to summon you. But he said there was another one.”

“What does this have to do with me?”

“I don’t know.” Contemplative silence trailed his words. He shook his head, “I have to get back to the morgue and take care of my side of this mess.”

“Do you think they had anything to do with the commandant?”

“The Highborns? I don’t know. The timing is unusual if they aren’t involved. But then again, since when do they care about the hierarchy of the civic Militia?”

“When was the last time we had a Highborn in Ridgate?”

Again, he shook his head. “You should go see them. I’ll get a bag together in case we need to leave quickly.” 

“That’s a big leap,” Abryn said.

“Is it? After all these years of swearing you’d leave before he promoted?”

She set her jaw. “I wouldn’t leave Reislyn. Especially with him in charge.”

“No,” Wells agreed. “You’d get her before we left.”

She dismissed the idea, walking past him to the door.  She hadn’t seen her sister in a while, maybe a couple years. Jerking free of her thoughts, she left Wells behind and accompanied the young private back to the central. 

-|-

Chapter 1; Draft 2

Abryn didn’t like working on sundays. Train carts were annoying enough to drag back to town; the wet tracks just made for another inconvenience. She had received the initial request the day before, but Wells had talked her out of working another rainday. He reminded her that the firav mechanics would never help during a shower when they wouldn’t be able to keep a firm footing. His argument wasn’t wrong. But Abryn knew her workers better than that — they were unlikely to work either day of the weekend; putting it off made little difference. She had given up on asking them for weekend volunteers months ago. Anyway, the messenger claimed the job was urgent, requesting removal before noon on Sunday. She didn’t need to waste the time arguing when she was capable of doing the job herself.

She skipped breakfast, jogged across town, turned on warning signals, exited through West Station, and had found the abandoned carts before eight. It was a beaten down engine cart with an empty cargo trailer behind it. She was pleasantly surprised to find that it had been moved onto the emergency lane instead of left on the outbound tracks. 

The engine cart had slipped an axle and leaned heavily to the left. The engine itself seemed fine; it could use a tune up, but it should run fine on the way back to the shop. The trailer behind it wasn’t attached when she examined it. The hitch was bent, and the socket had twisted open. Three of the cheap metal wheels had doubled over or snapped completely off. It must’ve been slung off the tracks when the engine jerked. The carts that the city of Leann sent to smaller towns like Pearl and Ridgate were always cheap and in terrible condition. Abryn took a firm stance and straightened the hitch back out, but there was little she could do for the socket. It wrapped unconvincingly around the ball, but it would have to rely heavily on the chains to stay connected. 

She paced in front of the damaged side of the engine, considering her options. Heaving the frame onto her knee, she tried repositioning the axel but didn’t have the reach or the angle. The gravel mound the tracks were built on did not make for stable footing for long. She set the engine down as carefully as possible before letting her feet slide down to the still-fresh mud. It wasn’t going to be easy to get back to the shop like this, but that’s why they always called her — the only drynic mechanic in Ridgate. They’d have needed six-or-so firav to get the job done, and that’s more hassle than the Militia cared to put into it.

It was another mile out of town to the next connection onto the inbound tracks, and she had no interest in going that far to come all the way back in the correct direction. The warning lights should stop all trains at the West Station. If someone ignored that, she was sure she’d hear them coming before the collision. She cranked the engine and put it in reverse on its lowest setting. Standing between the two carts, Abryn lifted the inner left corners of each and fell into the engine’s pace, heading back to Ridgate. She knew that she had to be getting close to the shop when the cargo trailer lost another cheap wheel. It jerked hard to the right, and Abryn dropped the engine cart to keep the trailer from toppling off the tracks. She jerked to stabilize both and dashed to cut the engine. Dropping the cart had caused even more damage to the frame. In the adrenaline rush, her hands had dryfted into dark leathery claws without her prompting, leaving gashes in the wooden siding. She slid down the gravel mound, chewing her tongue in irritation and dryfting her hands back. 

She considered abandoning the train there until the work day started tomorrow. She could just leave the warning up and hope people would stay off the tracks. West Station was within sight. She could send some firav to grab it first thing in the morning. But they needed her to get it done now.

Abryn looked back at the shop one last time, and saw a thin, light-haired Militia boy. He was a scrawny Private she didn’t recognize, probably a new recruit. The Commandant had recently requested additional transfers. He noticed her look at him and timidly waved her over. With a deep, resentful breath, Abryn hiked back to the shop at West Station. She halfheartedly extended her hand, palm down in greeting; he examined her drynic tattoos before cautiously responding, placing his palm on the back of her hand. As with all Militia, his hands were wrapped hiding whether he was drynic or firav. 

“Lady Bryn, you’ve been summoned to the Central.”

“That is not my name; tell him I’m busy,” she crossed the shop and grabbed their biggest dolly.

“Ma’am, he says I’m not supposed to leave until you come with me.”

She strode back down the tracks. “I have things to do here.”

He pleaded again, following her to the abandoned carts. She shoved the dolly under the engine cart and wrestled the finicky tool into place. The rusty old dolly just barely lifted the engine cart off its broken axle. It wasn’t meant to hold that much weight, but with the station so close, it’d save her a lot of struggling to move it herself. She checked the connection again before striding to the back-end of the cargo cart. She turned to face West Station and lifted the end of the trailer. He stepped back in awe; he had to be firav. 

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “this is an important matter. There are Highborns in town he needs you to speak to.”

“This is going to sound mean, but if it was that important, Kaler would have sent someone more important after me.”

“Ma’am, these are very important guests. He wanted the Central well-manned.”

Abryn gave him a blank stare and a fake grin. “Tell him I have my hands full. It is supposed to be my day off, and I will not spend it playing games.”

The light-haired Private stood for a few more moments before retreating back to the shop and disappearing out the door. Abryn exhaled heavily and refocused on the task at hand. With the slick tracks, she needed better footing. She dryfted, letting the bones and muscles in her legs readjust. Her feet shifted, elongating under thickening skin. The claws and thicker foot pads would help with traction. Changing the joint location of her knees and ankles made it easier to lift and pull the cart behind her. The first few steps, the two carts didn’t want to move. The chains rattled and metal ground on metal. With a small grunt, the cart jolted forward; the ball hitch had left the socket. Chains snapped tight in the middle, but the assembly had found some momentum. Clawing into the gravel between the ballasts, Abryn got up to a heavy run sustaining it just long enough to coast into the shop.

She had just dropped it inside when the light-haired man returned. She drifted her feet back to their human state and walked to the far side of the train to disconnect the chains and haul the engine onto a lift. Moments later, a black-haired figure joined her. Not the Militia man. 

Wells wore a carefully subdued face of concern. Abryn studied the urgency in his dark eyes. He kept most of the emotion from his voice, but it wasn’t completely hidden. “I was called into work this morning maybe an hour after you left. The Commandant Major is dead.”

Abryn blinked slowly. “Does that mean Kaler is –”

“He’s Commandant now, yes.”

“I see,” she pursed her lips. “He summoned me.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here. There are Highborns in Ridgate –”

“There really are Highborns here? Multiple Highborns?”

“Yes,” Wells hissed, “I passed one — almost as tall as I am — when Kaler summoned me to summon you. But he said there was another one.”

“What does this have to do with me?”

“I don’t know.” Contemplative silence trailed his words. He shook his head, “I have to get back to the morgue and take care of my side of this mess.”

“Do you think they had anything to do with Commandant Gentry?”

“The Highborns? I don’t know. The timing is unusual if they aren’t involved. But then again, since when do they care about the hierarchy of the civic Militia?”

“When was the last time we had a Highborn in Ridgate?”

Again, he shook his head. “You should go see them. I’m going to pack a bag tonight. Do you want one too.” 

“That’s a big leap,” Abryn said.

“Is it? After all these years of swearing you’d leave before he promoted?”

“They’ll need my help on this repair.*

He cut his eyes disbelievingly. 

She set her jaw. “Fine, I wouldn’t leave Reislyn with him in charge. He could take it out on her.”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Wells said. “If it makes you feel better, get her before we leave.”

She dismissed the idea, walking past him to the door. “We can talk later.” She hadn’t seen her sister in a while, maybe a couple years. Jerking free of her thoughts, she left Wells behind and accompanied the young Private back to the central. 

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

Plotting Compelling Characters:

Writing Advice

-inspiration and individuality in succinct profile sheets-

-part two-

Welcome to the second half of my character sheet break-down. If you’d like to start from the beginning, click here to check out part one. For everyone caught up, I have five points to talk about today. Let’s jump in with a brief introduction to the topic.

Previously on RGS Writes… For many readers, an interesting premise only gets you so far. Without compelling protagonists, antagonists, and support staff, it can be difficult to get invested in the plot. Character questionnaires can be overwhelming, and, in many cases, they only vaguely relate to your unique story. So like many others, I am going to share my personal character profiles. This sheet is specifically made as a quick reference for consistency and are reserved for primary and secondary characters only. 

As with anything, my guide might not be exactly what you need as is, but I’m going to run you through my process step-by-step so that you can decide what helps and what just bogs you down.

This link gives you access to a fully completed sheet for my character, Abryn, if you would like to follow along visually.

-|-

Let’s talk about character’s skill set.

Strengths & Weaknesses:

When considering a character’s abilities, the most important focus should be balance. If you want your characters to be relatable, they must have both. In the real world, no one is made up of 100% weaknesses or 100% strengths. Always strive to have equal amounts; also keep in mind severity. A character is not balanced if the main three strengths are “strongest person alive, can compel anyone to their side, and isn’t afraid of anything.” (I’m looking at you, anime.) Then their biggest weaknesses are “can’t find clothes that fit them right, their friends love them too much, and they don’t know how to fix a car.” While unbalanced can be used intentionally as satire or comedy (I’m looking at you, OnePunch Man) it is not relatable. One of my favorite ways to balance S/W is to have them feed each other.

For example: My character, Abryn, is particularly observant; it’s one of her great strengths. She notices small details very naturally. But this comes back on her two-fold. She often doesn’t know what to do with all the information she picks up. She ends up thinking very little about important things OR she spends all her time over-thinking things that were not intentional or meaningful. That is a significant weakness, because it pushes heavily into her Mis-belief and her Biggest Flaw (Which we’ll talk about next.)

Polarizing traits like this adds to the depth of the character. A bad trait that can be good poses the question of “how could that come back into play later?” It can set up satisfying payoff or devastating heartbreak if a trait denoted “good” or “bad” changes the trajectory of the story when used unexpectedly.

Internal Conflict:

I group this as a sub-category of S/W, but want to clarity that it is a bit of a separate entity. While I encourage you to have as many Strengths as Weaknesses, that list does not necessarily include the Internal Conflict: the Biggest Flaw and the Mis-belief. In a way, the two build off of each other. However, while S/W can be external or internal, the Internal Conflict is about what your character is doing to hold themselves back.

The Biggest Flaw of a character is often either a culmination of two or more of their weaknesses or the root of multiple weaknesses. And this manifests itself throughout the story. A big flaw can be anything, but consider making it deeper than a surface-level issue. Keep in mind that it is the “biggest flaw;” it must have screen-time and present itself as a problem. Again, I think it is realistic to occasionally show that flaws can be beneficial some times — that can be a reason they continue to exist in a person. But it is common and satisfying to have a character face and overcome that flaw over the course of the book or series.

The Mis-belief, much like the flaw, is something that is ingrained and deeply rooted into the character’s mind and lifestyle. It grows organically from past events in your characters life and becomes the lens through which they see the world. Over and over again, the character will interpret and react to situations in a way that continues to solidify the false way they see the world. The important part of your main character’s Mis-belief is that it is directly related to the story you’re telling. It ties into the themes that mean the most to you. Part of their journey is the way they conquer this lie that they have told themselves. Author and Youtuber Abbie Emmons has a fantastic video on the topic that goes into a lot more depth than I do here. I recommend you check it out here. After this post, of course.

-|-

We’ll finish up with by rounding the character out.

Goals, Ambitions, Fears, Secrets:

To flesh out characters even more, I keep an entire section for smaller details that make the character feel more real. These additions are not as vital to character development in terms of moving the story forward. I treat this section as a pile of nuggets; they are things I know about the character that might become relevant, but also might never be said. This might be the place where you talk about your character’s dislike of snakes or their dream to become an astronaut — specifically if the story does not revolve around those things. I consider the person I based this character off of and think about how their nuances make them real and unique from others I know.

Hobbies and Quirks:

Everyone loves the “quirky character,” but I think that term has been reduced and made exclusive to a very specific personality type — the eccentric, odd, and most often female or LGBT. It’s almost become a PC description for someone weird but lovable. It’s not seen as a very “protagonist-y” trait, so quirks are assigned to sidekick characters or specifically atypical heroes. Limiting who has quirks and who doesn’t feels unrealistic to me. Every person you meet from the rugged badass to the sexy seducer to the wise mentor as quirks, sayings, or ticks specific to them. Quirks should not be reserved for the “manic pixie dream-girl” or the “cloud-cuckoo-lander” tropes. Greatness often lies in the details of a work. Details compel readers to keep going back to the same book or movie-goers to rave and rewatch a well done film.

Not every book should include that the protagonist played tennis in high school or can lick their elbow. But it’s rewarding to notice them repeating a gesture their mom uses or playing the piano absentmindedly when they mull over a big decision.

Emotions:

I love finding quirks in a character’s emotional reactions. Being consistent with these ticks can add a subtle layer of subtext for the reader to find in between the lines of your manuscript. In my WIP, I wanted to focus on three commonly repressed emotions– sadness, nervousness, anger– and lying. While lying isn’t really an emotion, people have quirks that can give them away. Lying is a reoccurring theme in my work, so it is important to me to differentiate each person’s most notable give-away. This slot is very specific to my current manuscript and might not be relevant to everyone. But it also might add a layer of consistency to tense pieces, reminding you as the author to let the characters show what they’re feeling, even if only in a fleeting moment.

-|-

And there you have it. My character sheet rundown. As I said at the beginning, no sheet is one-size-fits all. In the week since I uploaded part one, I have already gone in and moved things around to be easier to access. I’ve pulled a specific place to put motivations and moved where I denote their optimistic/pessimistic outlook on life. This character sheet is not exhaustive. It doesn’t go into backstory or plot anything for the future. I lay out which ever characters are in the scene and let the sheet help me breathe life and individuality into my little book children. I hope this post was helpful to you!

Stay safe!

-Rena Grace

Hi, I’m Rena Grace

Short Stories

Well, welcome!

I am a writer and storyteller, and I have been all my life. I come from a family of storytellers. When I’m not writing or listening to stories from my family, I am consuming all the media I can find. I love to read, find a good TV series, watch writing videos on YouTube — you name it. And I listen and watch all these things with a critical eye because that’s the way to learn.

When looking at specifics, I have a real interest in the fantastical. I love reading and writing unique magic systems, then seeing how they would interact with the world. Of course, the setting can only get you so far. I believe a story is only as good as it’s characters. I get incredibly attached to well-written characters — I have made it through fairly ordinary premises because of the extraordinary nature of the people involved. You could even take that back to the stories my family tells; there’s nothing magical about a day at work, but I care what happened to the “character” who was working and their friends.

All that said, I’ll be posting a variety of content; I share writing advice, short stories, media analysis, and updates on my fantasy WIP.

Tune in for updates and come connect with me on Twitter. I’d love to see you around!

Stay safe!

RGS