- Isn't that a nice farmhouse? Oh it landed on your sister... oops... well these things happen don't they?
- Do you prefer boiling or roasting? Why are you looking at me like that? I was only asking how you wanted your potatoes done.
- Kids get everywhere don't they? Oh they don't visit much since you tried to get a couple of them in the oven? Pauses. Ever thought of going for the vegetarian option in life? Maybe you'll make more friends that way.
- I'm sure it was nothing personal. Okay the king and queen didn't invite you to their princess's christening but that is no reason to take on so. We are more mature than that, aren't we? Aren't we?
- It's getting nice and warm again, it's great to see spring at last. Was it me or was last winter a really long, cold one? Oh you prefer it like that, do you? Well you're on your own there. I know the wildlife agree with me. I've even seen a lion out there... said his name was... oh you don't like lions, especially those with a name? Well you can't get on with everybody in this life can you?
Some species can be very touchy about what is said to them. Things not to say to your average fairy tale witch include:-
We've all had at some point to deal with someone we really would rather have avoided either by phone or, if really unlucky, on the doorstep. Always an embarrassing situation and the potential for misunderstandings and rows is huge. And I'm not naming names, so there!
But in a fictional setting, who would the unwelcome guest actually be? In a fantasy/science fiction setting, I think the range is huge. All those species to choose from (and invent!) for a start. There'll be plenty in there to set against each other!
So, as well as working out who the unwelcome person/being is, let your reader see why they're unwelcome. The unwelcome guest has got to make your hero/heroine desperately uncomfortable at the very least and for good reasons. Funnily enough they don't necessarily need to be an enemy. At times friends and family can make you feel uncomfortable (this is the moment you look at yourself in the mirror and honestly face up to why this is! If they're all doing this, the problem is going to be with you!).
How does your leading character handle this situation/person? Can they turn the unwelcome guest into one that is welcome? If your leading character is the one at fault and therefore generating the uncomfortable feelings by their own actions, what do they do to rectify this?
What is really meant can be very different from what is said! For example, in a fictional magical world, this could include:-
Some of the things you will always find on a magical shopping list includes:-
Picking up the pieces is something we all face, usually far too often for our liking. How do your characters do this? Are they successful? How do they cope with the things nobody can directly overcome or which, at best, are likely to take years for them to come to terms with as best as they can?
What drives those characters who pick up the pieces left for others? And are they doing this deliberately or have they somehow got in the way? I always felt sorry for the three bears in Goldilocks as they were left to pick up the pieces literally!
That reminds me that picking the pieces up usually has obvious tragic implications but can you use it for comedy too? I think so. How do your characters cope with being laughed at? Does it lighten mood or raise tensions?
The "new chapters" element is particularly apt for me as I signed my first book contract today for a flash fiction collection. An independent publisher, who has published my stories in anthologies before, had been looking to produce a flash fiction collection and I thought I should try it. Always be open to potential opportunities!
Of course new chapters in life occur to everybody and they should occur to characters too. What new beginnings are your characters facing and what has led to these? Are your characters looking forward to them or are they apprehensive about what the future now holds? Have they done anything to try to avoid facing major changes?
As for old chapters, Part 2 of my Medieval Weekend review is now up on Chandler's Ford Today. I am so grateful I live now. I have no doubt back then I would've been a peasant. There's no shame in that but it is the thought of not being able to read and write that makes me grateful for the vast improvement in education and literacy.
Talking of which, how literate is the world in which you set your stories? Are your characters well educated and by whose standards should we, the readers, judge this?
What are the driving ambitions of your main characters? Do they get to achieve what they set out to achieve or do they find, by the end of your story, they have wanted to have achieved something different? Visions change... so how about theirs?
Ambitions can, of course, drive a character on to achieve something very special. How would this work out in your tales? Ambitions between characters can clash so how are those clashes resolved? And what about those characters who seem to lack ambition? Is that really the case or is it a case they lack confidence to be more public about it?
What fosters ambition in a character? How do your characters handle those who are their rivals?
I used to love the series Tales of the Unexpected. The twists in the tales here could be very bizarre, criminal or both! But in fiction the unexpected gives writers a huge range of ideas to explore.
There are the unexpected joys a character receives, as well as the unexpected horrors they might have to face. How does your character react to these? Do they find it hard to accept joy when what they've known most is horror/sadness etc? I love the way The Lord of the Rings shows the impact of Frodo's adventures and makes it very clear Frodo cannot go back to being exactly the way he had been. (It would've been very strange if he could).
There are the unexpected changes in another character that Character A has to deal with, regardless of whether those changes are positive or not. The classic example here is Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice coming to the inescapable conclusion she had been wrong about Mr Darcy (and he in his turn had misjudged her).
So what unexpected surprises will you spring on your characters? How will they drive the plot? (If they don't in some way, is there any point to them?). What hidden depths in your characters will be revealed as they cope with the unexpected? It should be fun to find out!
And of course in a magical setting, the range of what is possible in unexpected surprises is greater. If magic is used in a non-traditional way, be it for good or ill, what are the consequences? What happens if someone from a background not known for its magical abilities suddenly discovers they have a talent for magic? How would your fictional world handle that unexpected development? Would they welcome it, persecute the "non-entity" for acting above their station in life or seek to control it?
It isn't just magical beings the visitor needs to be wary of when on tour in a magical world. There are everyday household objects which should be treated with a huge amount of caution given the track record in using these things, almost always for evil purposes. So my list of objects to be wary of includes:-
The basic rule is fairy godmothers do not like greed/selfishness so, as long as you avoid asking for the following, you should be fine and be in with a real chance of getting what you asked for.
I love it when I can tick things off my writing list. I know it sounds silly but that simple tick makes me feel I've achieved a great deal and that in itself encourages me to write more. I've sent off a flash fiction collection relatively recently and, yesterday, a short story collection. Tonight I've set up a Word Press blog called Allison Symes: Collected Works where I intend to link my website posts, Facebook author items and Chandler's Ford Today posts. The idea is to provide excerpts with links back to the original sites. The new blog will be used for my writing news too. Next on my list is to redesign my business card...
However, going back to fiction, do your characters have their own versions of the bucket list? Or things they want to have achieved by the time they reach a certain age? How does this come into your overall story? What happens when they achieve their goals? Do things work out the way they hoped or for better or for worse?
In a magical setting, does the use of magic help achieve objectives or complicate things? I can see the latter happening particularly in worlds when only a few have magical powers (and the majority resent this). Can your characters tick things off their imaginary lists?!
What lessons do your characters consider they've learned from their pasts? Are they open about their humble backgrounds or do they try to cover this past up? What part of the past does your ruling party/government etc celebrate and which do they never talk about (there's bound to be something!)?
Given the time frame of your stories, can you see how life has improved or worsened for the societies you've invented? And how do historical events, real or fictional, impact on the setting, the characters and the story you want to tell? We are all shaped by where we come from and our experiences, past and present, and fiction should reflect this too. The then behind our stories is important to the now.
My current Chandler's Ford Today post is Would You Like a Medieval Life? and reviews a recently held Medieval Weekend near my part of the world. The weekend was a lot of fun and I learned a great deal. I like almost anything which helps bring history to life.
So when it comes to our stories, especially the longer fiction, how does our world's history affect the time in which you are specifically writing? No world is unaffected by its history so what past events still haunt your people in your tale? What do they commemorate? What are their triumphs and disasters?
Who records the history officially and is this challenged? Is the official history backed up and if so how and who by?
What is important, socially and otherwise, to the peoples you've created on the page? Should be fun finding out!
Amongst the things I would ask Cinderella had I the chance to do so are:-
On a general note I have found interviewing my characters a great way of getting to know them properly and in discovering just what their hidden depths are.
What is your character prepared to defend to the death, literally or otherwise? That no matter what pressure they are under they would never give up or betray?
Equally what is the luggage, again literal or otherwise, they carry around with them that they desperately need to get rid of if they are to make progress? Do they succeed in doing this? What gets in their way (and that can include themselves)?
What is the one possession your character would save above all else? What would they go back into the fire for? One course I learned so much from at Swanwick Summer School was a course on character pyschology. Fascinating stuff and it will be of enormous help in future character creation. One of the sessions was a look at the characteristics of psychopaths. This was both scary and enlightening, especially the total lack of empathy. What matters most to them is themselves...
What matters most to your characters and what threatens their ability to keep hold of this? How do they deal with that threat? Some of course will rise to the challenge, others will fall apart when facing any threat. So how do your characters react and why?
Turning on the charm has, of course, been one of the standard ways a good con artist draws people in and then fleeces them! But in fiction it need not just be charm that gets turned on. Horror stories of course do the exact opposite as their characters turn on whatever it is that makes them turn to evil.
The really good characters are an interesting mix of good and evil. These are the ones you can't predict. The ones who could go either way. For my money, the best example of this is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series.
I like characters like Snape where you can see the obvious "trait" but where they can still keep you guessing. Are they really the villain or are they putting up a front to shield someone else?
Do you put some of yourself into each and every character you invent? Okay in fairness, I will answer that one myself first.
And the answer is no! Some of my characters have some traits of mine, others have none at all. So I would say it is difficult to take my "cast" and say he/she/it is the "real me" in fictional form.
I think that is how it should be. After all the people you meet around you and get talking to will have some elements in common with you. Indeed that kind of "hitting it off at once" is often due to recognising those core elements. But nobody will have everything in common with you. Even identical twins have their differences. Each person, and therefore each character, is unique and should be recognised for that uniqueness.
So can you tell your characters apart easily? Are you sure your characters are not all clones of yourself (no matter how diluted down)? What is the unique selling point of your characters? What makes you want to write about them? Why is it Character A's story and not B's?
Plenty to think about there then...
One great source of ideas is to look behind stories and songs and work out the themes (see my post, Generating Story Ideas, on Allison Symes - This World and Others for more on the latter. This was inspired by an amazing Lyrical Challenge workshop at the recent Swanwick Summer School). Common fairytale themes include:-
Below are a couple of photos from the recent Summer School. The grounds of the conference centre were lovely and walks around the lakes there would have inspired further stories I'm sure.
I've just returned from the Swanwick Summer School where I had a fabulous week, learning lots, making new writing friends and eating far too much delicious food. I also came back with drafts of some flash fiction pieces and a short story I hope to get ready for a competition after this blog post tonight. One lovely thing about social media is the way it is easier to stay in contact with people (and I don't know why it is but I always respond quicker to a FB message, to an email or whatever than I do "real mail" delivered by the postman but there you go). So hopefully I'll conjure up wonderful thoughts of a great week whenever I contact/am contacted by people I met at Swanwick.
But it is now back to earth with a bump and a return to real life. So how do your characters do this when they have had this fabulous adventure but it is all over? I love the way J.R.R. Tolkein does not gloss over the fact Frodo was badly damaged (especially in terms of mental suffering) by all that he went through. Equally Sam was not so damaged and could/did make a new life for himself in the way Frodo could not. So when thinking about what happens to your characters, for the ones that survive, how do they survive? How do they cope with all that they have seen? Is their society sympathetic? (And if not, why not?).
All of us like to think we know where in life we’re going and most of us are realistic enough to know that it won’t always turn out the way we think! Sometimes the journey ends up being better than expected, sometimes not.
So how do your characters react when their “life plan” ends up being disrupted, for better or worse, permanently or temporarily? Reaction to a crisis (even if that crisis is just in the mind of the character!) should show a great deal about them and their nature. How do others who were relying on them react to unexpected changes of plan?
And if the “where in the world am I going?” refers to an actual journey, how vital is that trip to your character’s development and the plot? What is special about the place they’re going to and, if they don’t know immediately, where are they going and who is sending them? The Lord of the Rings to my mind is the best quest story and while Frodo knew he was going to end up in Mordor had no idea how he was going to get there. Equally there are stories that revolve around the character only being given a bit of information here, another there and they have to piece it all together.
So where in the world are your characters going, literally and metaphorically? Are your characters turning out to be as you’d initially planned them or have they taken on a life of their own? The latter is a good sign, it means your characters are “alive”, there’s a spark to them that will come through on the page but does this mean re-evaluating your story or the way in which it is told? Plenty of food for thought there!
What is the climate on the fictional world you’ve created and if it changes, as it has on Earth, is this a good or bad thing? What if anything is being done about it? What is the political climate like?
My Fresdian (later Rose) is considered eccentric for her deep interest in the natural world but who, in your stories, would you show as caring for the wildlife when nobody else will? Could your overall plot have a well written environmental theme to it?
Can the change in climate benefit any of your characters and, if so, how? And could climate change be forced on your world by the actions of a neighbouring, less environmentally friendly planet? If so, would that automatically lead to war?
I’ve discussed before that the happy ever after ending is one reason why fairytales remain so popular. Even as children, there is some awareness that life is not always fair (just ask any child who has ever been bullied) and the idea that things will work out all right in the end for the good character is very appealing. But of course where you get a good character, there is their nemesis, the source of their problems in the first place. So what might have happened to some of these characters once Cinderella and co waltzed off into the sunset?
Are holidays celebrated in your fictional world? If so, what are they? What are their historical origins and do they apply to the entire population or only part(s) of it?
How do your characters celebrate? Feasts etc are expected (!) - see the celebration of Bilbo’s 111th birthday in The Lord of the Rings to name one example. So what makes up your feasts in terms of food and drink? Who does the preparation?
Are holidays linked to religious festivals or deliberately kept separate? Equally is there a mixture of religious and secular events?
If a holiday is a traditional one that everyone takes part in, would there be any grounds for characters to object to joining in? For example they are not from the religion the holiday is based on so don’t feel they should take part. Is that attitude tolerated or is it a case of “you will celebrate whether you want to or not”?
Are the holidays a genuine time of relaxation or used to keep people under control?
I'm Allison Symes and I write novels, short stories as well as some scripts and poems. I love setting my work in my magical world, the Fairy Kingdom, and my favourite character is Eileen, who believes hypocrisy is something that happens to other people without caring that statement is hypocritical in itself! Eileen is huge fun to write for and about.