(Note: This is about my writing, but there is no need to have actually read my stories in order to read and understand this article.)
The next novel I am planning to publish, Piper’s Story, was, until last week, almost finished with the editing and polishing. I feel the need to share some of the frustrations I go through as a writer, so here goes.
Piper’s Story (not the actual title) fits temporally between “The Nightstone” and “Of Maia’s Mist”. I don’t write full sequels and prequels since the primary characters are not the same and the main stories do not bleed through from one book to the next. Piper’s Story is about two characters, Piper and Elia. Elia makes an appearance in “The Nightstone” and both are minor characters in “Of Maia’s Mist”.
I say that it was nearly finished. It’s not now.
While re-reading it, I came to the realization that the plot was: Character introductions, identify a problem the characters shouldn’t actually care about ( I call this the “Bones Factor” after the TV show.), traipse across the country, realize the problem was not what it seemed, traipse across the country, identify the new problem, traipse across the country, kill some people, thus eliminating the problem.
In simpler terms, the story sucked.
In more complex terms, I realized that the book is character driven, as every story should be, but it’s too character driven – the antagonist, as it stands, is barely involved with most of the story. This is not unusual in fantasy literature. Most people know Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Smaug is the story driving antagonist, but has no interaction with the protagonists except for two scenes at the end of the book. There are several single scene antagonists along the way, like the trolls and Gollum, but for the most part the journey itself is what Bilbo must overcome. Though a definitive piece of fantasy fiction, anyone writing such a tale today would be ridiculed.
Modern readers expect a much more intricately built story. A good primary antagonist should be the causal factor in the majority of the hardships the protagonist faces along the way towards the ultimate confrontation.
The problem I am having with Piper’s story is that, while that is true of the current antagonist, the links are weak and the antagonist is weak. The characters are awesome, but the main antagonist is not a real challenge. It’s just another ‘bad king’ scenario with the quirks and twists to make it unique, but it’s still too weak to drive the story. For 22 of 25 chapters the antagonist isn’t even aware of the protagonists.
I would say that in 95% of fiction, the best conflicts are “man vs. himself.” Characters must develop and the external antagonist is not the real story – it’s the excuse to tell the story, in literary terms, a MacGuffin. Often the most obvert antagonist is really just there to be a driving force to cause the heroes to analyze themselves and make a significant change.
There’s something to be said of a heroic battle, and if well written, such scenes can satisfy a reader as the resolution of a story.
Crime novels are an example where the protagonists rarely have a significant character change. It’s just a puzzle where the main character must put the pieces together and the biggest change we’ll see is some epiphany where the pieces all come together–ideally foreshadowed with a metaphorical allegory. (Is that redundant?)
Romances are almost always the main characters moving towards each other then apart due to some character flaw, then either correcting or accepting the flaw and then moving towards each other until they ultimately get together.
For some reason, when I think Romance, I think Romeo and Juliet, but that particular Shakespearean story is not actually a romance, it’s a tragedy. Romeo and Juliet don’t have the back and forth about whether or not they are in love, it’s love at first sight, which makes for a romantic, but boring love story.
Three days ago I had a complete novel that just needed some editing and polishing. Today I have a bunch of scenes that I might be able to use as character development once I build a framework around a much better antagonist.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about how there are no original plots. It’s all in the characters and presentation when writing a novel. The fantasy plot that is most detested among publishers is where the protagonist travels from point A to point B, gathering allies along the way such as a warrior, a healer and a sorcerer. Along the way they encounter random situations where each character shows off their skills and then they get to point B and nothing else happens. Slightly better is where Point B involves a big fight. That one is the plotline of “The Hobbit”. With well written characters, that heroic final fight is sometimes what it takes to make a good fantasy read. David Eddings wrote two five-book series that used this plot line and sold millions of books. Edding’s encounters along the way were less random than Tolkien’s.
Fantasy novels do require a diverse cast of characters. Travel is fun because it allows for the exploration of cultures. What makes the above mentioned plotline bad is the word “random”. Everything must contribute to the story.
And that is making my current project difficult. Everything did contribute to the main plot, but the main plot was weak and the connection was not always obvious. So I changed the main plot and the main antagonist. The new plot was there in the original version but was a minor plot. I’m swapping the two, but now I have to contrive a reason to be at point B. For those of you who do read Piper’s story when I publish it, you’ll see what I mean.
The new antagonist not only has a role in most every obstacle leading to the climax, it’s an active role. I’m going to remove all of the traipsing across the country bits except one major journey and one day-trip.
When I say that my stories are not prequels and sequels, that’s only true about the primary plotlines. The secondary plotlines weave through all the stories. I play with time-travel a little. In this book we will see the development of one of the string pulling characters from “The Nightstone” and how he becomes a major force in the universe by the time of “Of Maia’s Mist”. If you’ve read them, you know who I’m talking about.
So, Piper’s story is still a few months coming. Probably four or more. On the brighter side, I will be releasing a print version of “Sheillene” along with a collection of shorts here soon and the print version of “The Nightstone” should be in early July. What follows, even I am not sure of. I have other stories written, just not polished.