The Pedigree of a Novel Family

Do you know what doesn’t last long? A half-way decent emperor. They drop like flies. They kick the bucket. They are…well, incinerated. Troubling, that.

Fortunately, if you haven’t noticed, the royal family in my books is rather extensive. Bearing that in mine, I thought I would give you an idea of the scope you’re working with in my books for their maddened political frenzy.  If you couldn’t tell: today, we’re talking The Hollow March and its sequels, so bust out those fantasy hats, people. Now, some of the folks below don’t even appear in the books, mind you—either fled or already dead, and the list is far from complete. This is not nearly so complete as something George R.R. Martin would whip out, for example. This list references those mentioned in the books and, in some cases, more prominent offspring. It does not capture the full embodiment of spawn, grandspawn, or the namesakes of the reigning house’s offshoots—the lines of Mauritz and Portir.

It is but a recording to give you some semblance of the House of Durvalle, and the uphill battle anyone (Cullick lions, perhaps?) facing them must surmount.

But really, do you see how eye squinting an experience this COULD have been?

But really, do you see how eye squinting an experience this COULD have been?

House Durvalle (Royal House of the Idasian Empire)

Foremost of the houses of Idasia, following their rise to power in “The Children’s War” a little over a century prior. Few still name them pretenders, though, largely due to the success of their reign. Three Durvalle Emperors have claimed the throne since then, with the current Emperor Matthias having the distinction of being the longest reigning monarch in the history of the Empire. Their descent is traced through the southwestern Duchy of Dexet, where a branch of the family still rules.

Emperor Matthias Rogimer Durvalle, styled “the Bold” and “He Who Rides,” aged 77 years.

  • His wife, Empress Noelia Tirozzi—deceased 15 years. Visaj.
  • His wife, Empress Surelia Jerantus. Binding their house to the Kingdom of Banur. Farren.

And their children: (13 children and 3 known bastards)

  • Joseph, aged 54 years. A Lord General. Visaj.
    • His wife, Mariline Debourge, binding their house to the Kingdom of Asantil.
    • His son, Prelate Barise
    • His son, Ser Haruld
    • His son, Yorne, the youngest, considered lost at sea.
  • Sarre—Deceased 30 years. Visaj.
  • Moira—Deceased 12 years. Visaj.
  • Leopold (later Emperor Leopold II), aged 38 years. Prelate. Visaj.
    • His wife, Ersili
    • His son, Anatole, aged 8 years
    • His daughter, Fiore, aged 6 years
  • Heinrich, aged 37 years. Principal Secretary to the Chancellor. Visaj.
    • His wife, Marren Certeri, binding their house to the Principalities of Ravonno.
  • Sara, aged 32 years. Handmaiden to Empress Surelia. Farren.
    • Her husband, Count Hernando of al-Saif, of the court of Narana in exile.
  • Gerome, aged 28 years. An Ambassador. Visaj.
    • His wife, Jesmere Turgitz.
  • Matthias, aged 25 years. Visaj.
    • His wife, Mecthilde Rusthöffen
  • Rufus, aged 23 years. A Count and Cavalry Officer. Visaj.
    • His wife, Anna Marie Venier, binding their house to the Principalities of Ravonno.
  • Molin, aged 20 years. A Cavalry Officer. Visaj.
  • Kanasa, aged 18 years. A Maiden. Visaj.
  • Rosamine, aged 9 years. Farren. (From the line of Surelia)
  • Lothen, aged 5 years. Farren. (From the line of Surelia)
  • Kyler Tessel, a legitimized bastard, aged 36 years. Styled Ser Tessel of Affing. Farren.
  • Gerhard of Torruf, a bastard.
  • Ilse of Anscharde, a bastard.

His brothers, Mauritz, called “the Wild,” aged 75 years. Master of Arms and Lord Justiciar. Visaj.

Portir, called “the Devout,” aged 70 years. Master of the Imperial Treasury. Visaj.

  • His grandson, Duke Urtz of Dexet

His sister, Atilde Debourge, wife of King Jon III of Asantil, aged 63 years.

Symbol: Two white, coiling, snake-like Gryphons, their heads ringed by the silver halo circlets of the Holy Church, a scepter in one’s claw and a sword in the other’s.

Traits: It has been said that all Durvalle eyes are green. This is baser rumor than earnest truth, but it is a trait which holds strong in their line, regardless.


High School Reunion

Everyone gathers to hear the poets preen

on the source of inspiration:

how the athletes ran into

glass cases;

how the singer overcame

dead man’s notes;

how the clown croaked

on a moped’s swerving laughter;

how the skin of truth

peeled from our bones

as the noise of the streets

drowned our jail cell march.

Huddled over coffee and secrets

we agree only those without

stand alone.

That their haikus

lack the character

of conviction.

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We Need Another Emperor

New segment time!

Trying something a little different from the norm today, fellows. In the past few months, I’ve gotten a number of requests pertaining to my novels: specifically, for a little more of that information we writers like to call “worldbuilding”. Now, I’ve long since ceased with the whole, “Inside Idasia,” topics, but I thought perhaps expanding on some of the characters of the Haunted Shadows might fit the bill and quell some appetites. With that in mind, I cracked open ye olde notes and whipped up the first of what I’ll call: We Need Another Emperor—stories of Idasia. We start, appropriately, with the emperor as of “The Hollow March”. Enjoy.

Excerpted from the annals of Die Geschichte von Idasia (The History of Idasia)

Matthias I

Matthias came to the throne following the death of his short-lived brother, Joseph III, at a time of uncertainty for the laws of Idasia. Though the Altengard—the electors—of Idasia had confirmed him with little debate, there was some question as to his legitimacy. It had been Joseph who had been groomed for the throne, and his sickly statue had been seen as a staunch rebuke of the Durvalle line. Matthias was viewed by many as a bookish scholar, a boy with his head in the clouds. Many a rebellious lord at the time urged the claims of his younger brother, Mauritz, instead, or even those of his uncle, also named Joseph, and a long established councilor of his father.

Though he began his reign under the regency of his mother and his protector, the Count Palatine Kurste, it was not long until he reached majority. Within three years, he married a daughter of the principalities of Ravonno, Noelia Tirozzi. Theirs was to be a fruitful marriage.

He has survived no less than three attempts at assassination, all of them stemming from those early days. The most prominent of these, later to be known as the Burning of Bruchsal, resulted in the deaths of no less than the Count Palatine Kurste and three lesser lords. The conspirators, a group of no less than fifteen nobles and courtiers, were found out, strung up, and quartered before the gates of Anscharde. Although the Emperor’s uncle was never implicated in the crime, it is worth noting that he resigned his commissions shortly thereafter, and retired to his estates, his claim all but forgotten.

Though young to the throne, and untested before that time, Matthias was to reveal himself from an early age as a true and able emperor. Decisive, shrewd, a fine warrior and a finer horseman, he often played the peacemaker, but would gain the sobriquet “the Bold” for his strategic and quick-moving mind in times of war.

His empress, Noelia, was less beloved of the realm. Though beautiful and keenly intelligent, she was a creature aloof, severe both to courtiers and subjects alike. Some said she ruled the empire as much as her husband, but there is little proof of this. It is a notion stemming largely from how quickly the emperor turned from certain old policies upon her death.

For sixty-some years, their marriage nonetheless held true, and for the most part it was a happy marriage, from which many children (and eventually grandchildren) would flow. A fact which, many have claimed, has contributed to the state of affairs in the realm today…but this is not our tale.

For all the love they held for one another, Matthias was never a particularly faithful man. No less than three bastardies are recorded as his issue, on different women of his court, and noblewomen even in Asantil have claimed children of his own bearing. Of Surelia herself, eleven children would be born. Only one would fail to outlive her mother—this being the second, Sarre, who fell to plague in the flower of her youth, and would bear her parents much grief.

With the help of his brothers and his councilors, Emperor Matthias set out to reform the realm. He took the unified code of the old kings and reworked it, diminishing the rights of the old blood and paving room for new, whilst bolstering those of the littlefolk who toiled beneath his banners. Roads that had been allowed to wear for years were reworked, and new ones ground across the empire. This, in turn, funneled the supplies and troops which tirelessly expanded the boundaries of the nation, boundaries Matthias would be constantly attending throughout his lifetime, such that it was said he scarcely rested anywhere more than a day.

In his youth, so too was Matthias heralded as a champion of the faith, his marriage to Noelia and his own carefully worded essays on Visaj seen as a growing (and troubling, for other nations) link between Idasia and Holy Ravonno. After Noelia’s death, of course, this would change. Today, Matthias is sometimes called the Scourge of Visaj, though this is hardly fair. The emperor has always remained staunch in his faith. What changed were his people. As Farrenism spread throughout his lands, he simply opened it to them, allowing them the same rights as his brothers in faith.

Tragically few see it as such, even amongst his own family.

Thus the greatest problems of the later years of Matthias’s reign would be two-fold: religious dissension, and the unheard of simplicity of too many heirs. Though his son Joseph was named heir apparent from birth, there was no love lost between the two men. Following Noelia’s death, Joseph openly rebuked his father’s policies of conciliation with the Farrens, and for his decision to take up a Farren bride. Some have pointed to the son’s days in the military less as a chance to build his character than as a means to remove him from the emperor’s daily sight.

Of his children from Noelia, only Princess Sara would embrace the new faith. The others would remain steadfast, and there are many who have spoken of “the great factions,” of the court, contained only by the will of Matthias himself, the personal loyalty of his bannermen, and the soothing words of his skilled Chancellor. That the Emperor has had two more children since from his marriage to Surelia Jerantus, a princess of the Jerantus line of the Farren-littered kingdom of Banur, had not aided matters, though.

Today, however, it is the war with Effise in the east which holds the attentions of the scribes of tragedy. For years, the two nations had seethed over their borders. Effise’s navy had long controlled the seatrade routes, while Idasia held all land routes to the west. Effise had long held the advantage of technology, being masters of the cannon, but Idasia was far the larger, and flush with the wealth of its conquests.

For all this, all accounts agree it was the Council of Anscharde which decided things. Matthias’s decision to allow equal rights of property and worship to Farren and Visaj alike, and the murder of an Effisian diplomat on his return from that same council were to be the sparks of a brutal war which has stretched for nigh a decade now. The Church of Visaj, as well, has used this proxy war to push its agenda in the court of Idasia, and to funnel money into Effise.

Matthias has proven himself on the field of Effise, and abroad. Under his reign, his military accomplishments have included:

  1. The Duchy of Walim, in the west, was brought into the sphere of the Empire’s influence. Its old duke, an uncle of Matthias’s, died without issue. Attempts to put a niece upon the throne were contested by Matthias, and the resulting war ended in a year’s time.
  2. The Kingdom of Surin, in the east, was reduced to a chaotic strip of land, generations of petty warfare between the two nations finally brought to a head and the waning power of the kingdom utterly smashed. The Idasian Empire seized the remainder of Ulneberg forest, and all of Surin’s holdings on the western side of the River Jurree. Surin’s king was rendered incapable, its royalty reduced to little more than first amongst many, a horde of barons squabbling for scraps.
  3. The aging Kingdom of Durscht was finally eliminated in the south, its lands split between the imperial provinces of Varstein and Karinth, and the southern Wine Coast thus secured for Idasia.
  4. The Margravine provinces of Momeny and Arlaine were founded in the east, with land seized from Effise.
  5. The Effisian navy was smashed by a resurgent Idasian fleet in the Crystal Bay and, consequently, the Effisian blockade of Imperial territory was lifted. Never before had the Idasians been anything but a land power, yet thanks to retrofitted cannons developed by an Idasian admiral, imperial cannon gained a ranged superiority unmatched by neighboring states.
  6. At the Battle of Halensa Fields, the Zuti menace was finally checked. After having consumed the Kingdom of Naran in the west, Zuti forces had moved to take Asantil and Lorace. Recognizing the threat to its western borders, the Empire joined the coalition of Marindi states on the fields of Asantil, where its cavalry, as well as the advent of gunpowder proved a decisive victory for Marindi nations, and spelled the end of Zuti ascendancy on the continent.

For more than sixty years, Matthias had led the Empire of Idasia to the very peak of its power and prestige. He is called “the Bold,” “He Who Rides,” and the “Good Emperor Matthias.” Yet as the war in Effise drags on, and initial victories have dragged into stubborn sieges, some question whether the aging Emperor, once renowned for his nightly travel from castle to castle and town to town, can still hold up the nation he so embodies…

(Haven’t read the books? Keep up on the fantasy and dive into The Haunted Shadows. Just click the image below!)

Hollow March eBook Cover 2

Species of The Haunted Shadows

For more information on The Haunted Shadows, the series of books in which these folk play a part, I recommend you go to this page. The following are simply excerpts from my bookishly worldbuilding notes which some (though far from all) of you might find interesting. Questions? You know who to poke. Though most the characters you meet in the novels are, in fact, human, it should be noted there are some other folk out there–some reduced to fleeting shadows, some more commonplace than others might suspect.

Care of PublicDomainPictures.Net.



  1. Aswari—Surface Huldrene. Endangered. (Call themselves Sattar. Often interned or on reservations.)
    1. Rough, almost bark-like skin. Provides chameleon-like effect in woodlands. Flakes with age.
    2. Thin, frail, but agile. Thin lips. String-like hair.
    3. Elongated feet and hands.
  2. Usird—Northern Huldrene. All but extinct.
  3. Otanil—Called Druwen by the Idasians. Dark-skinned Huldrene. Live side-by-side with the Zutam.
  4. Iruwen—Cave Huldrene. Black-skinned. Extinct.
  5. Lamara—Half-Huldrene.


  1. Greyish-green in color. Very hairy bodies. Bigger in frame to humans, and tend to be slightly stooped in posture.
  2. Quite strong. Nomadic in tendency, initially, but when their hordes banded together, and learned the power of their Curii steeds, waged war on the Huldrene nations. Those local to Marindis have a particularly strong hatred for Aswari.
  3. Originated in the hills and mountains of what is now Marindis.

Vell—thinly-scaled humanoids. Webbed toes and fingers. Simple-minded. Largely extinct.

* Anything sentient, but non-mankind, humans have taken to calling “Old Folk.”

Glossary of Pet Names

By request, and out of a bit of this writer’s silliness, today’s posting is a composition of many of the various little…shall we say, pet names…from my book series, The Haunted Shadows. Be they character to character, or referencing some of the overarching groups and figures that dominate the political landscape, the fact is, people will be people. They like to have fun. And certainly my own work can’t be so dark all the time.

If you’re one of my readers (and thank you for that honor, by the by), and you notice I’ve missed any, please feel free to chip in with a few of your own that you’ve noticed here or there.

  1. Es—Rurik Matair’s pet name for his friend Essa.
  2. Ru—Essa and Usuri’s pet name for Rurik.
  3. Roo—Essa’s pet name for her cousin, Rowan. Much to his lasting distaste, and frequent threats.
  4. Zu-zu—Essa’s Pet Name for Usuri. Not that she would ever use it to her face. Magical mayhem has a habit of inducing that particular bit of sensibility.
  5. Chi-chi—Essa’s mocking name for Chigenda; only says it to Rurik, lest a spear come unbidden into her backside. When she was asleep.
  6. Dust knight—the established name for the “ronin,” as it were, of Marindis. Masterless knights, they have been growing in frequency with the number of wars throughout the continent–be they men that have been displaced of their lands by these wars, young sons without inheritance, or, as is popularly believed, mere sellswords simply claiming the title of knights for their own sense of satisfaction.
  7. Bloody Friars—popular mocking name for the Inquisition, in jest of their work. This has become especially popular in Idasia, where a high population of Faren “heretics” has left a great distaste for the Inquisition’s work–which often involves the torture or “extraction” of confessions from those they deem to be undesirables. Though rarely involved in outright murder–without the consent of local nobility–they have a history of roughness in their manner, by the orders of a particularly zealous Patriarch.
  8. The Bastard–In Idasia, this title applies to one man and one man alone. While there are many bastards (and of the Emperor, certainly), the man known as “the” Bastard is Kyler Tessel, the eldest of these unfortunately born children. A general in the Imperial army and one of the closest advisers to his father, he is of particular distaste to Idasia’s extensive nobility–both for the reminder of what he is, and his zealous nature.
    Also popular: “Ser Bastard,” and “the Black Seed.”

Purposeful Literary Cruelty

While it is true that writers are, essentially, lying liars who lie (an article of great fun, by the way), another fact of life is that writers can be really quite cruel. Truly, we have a way of putting our characters through hell.

I should know. My name’s Chris, and I am a cruel little man. Minus the little.

I remember the first story I read where there is some true, authentic suffering going on. As a child, I had read Lord of the Rings and any number of other little fantasies and classy hist fics. of the day, but as much agony as that ring lays on Frodo’s head, it still doesn’t quite fit the bill of character torture. Change pace to something like Flowers for Algernon, where you get to see the height of a man’s bliss, only to watch the tortured, tragic fall, as his own mind degrades around him, and even memories begin to fail—and then, you shall truly know the horrors of what a writer can unleash.

In The Hollow March, my own first addition to the literary world, I have been told that I don’t just pick on my characters—but that I have a penchant for it. But between a raging war, a vengeful son, and a daughter that had her father burned alive, there’s never really a question of whether it’s going to be a dark world. It is at the core of my setting, my plot. The distance between people, and the horrors we unleash upon ourselves—it’s one of the core human elements I seek to explore in my writing. In reality, almost everyone has some burden they bear, some torture they must struggle with and to overcome—and I seek to bring that reality into my fantasy world.

Oh, Eddard. (Care of Game of Thrones wiki)

Oh, Eddard. (Care of Game of Thrones wiki)

In another fantasy work, the popular Game of Thrones series, pain likewise doesn’t seem to be the exception, but the rule. The whole nation seems a nest of vipers, all looking to kill one another from anything from familial to religious and the ever-so-key political woes. Everyone is a tortured character. Everyone has their burdens. It also makes for some of the most gripping cliffhangers you ever did see in literature…painful as some of these can be for some readers to stomach.

One of the big questions in the writing community is simply: why? Why are these sorts of “dark” and “gritty” tales gaining such popularity? What happened to the good old fluffy days? We certainly don’t want to go out on the streets and do this stuff ourselves—let alone have it happen to us—so why do we find it so enthralling?

Contrary to some’s belief (I’m looking at you Shades of…bleck), it doesn’t stem from the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me.” Nor is it that we are globally, psychologically fubar’d.

Rather, I feel it’s more of a matter of realism—of balance. In the past, you’ve had your irredeemably evil. You’ve had your glittering good. Never shall the twain meet, save in a battle for the world’s souls. A lot of this pain and agony we see nowadays is due to us getting more into the villains’ POVs, and stripping our heroes of that purely heroic trait. We’re making humans, and humans are, at their heart, flawed creatures. We’ve seen it enough in reality to know that—in things like fantasy, we’re just now getting around to asking: what happens when you take an all too human character, and simply add all those other magical/mystical/etc traits to the world around them? How would that impact an individual’s mentality—a world’s, even?

We dig into the dark side of the human psyche because, at heart, we want to learn. Why, why, why we ask, would they want to do this? What drove them to it? It’s not the action the captivates, but that great, almighty why. Getting into villains’ POVs improves a story. That is my opinion. I will always hold to it. I don’t want to just see evil for the sake of evil—to see why the villain did it, well, frankly, this interests me as much as the struggle against.

Oh, hey Sauron, how are y--OH, GOD! ((c) New Line Cinema and Wingnut Studios)

Oh, hey Sauron, how are y–OH, GOD! ((c) New Line Cinema and Wingnut Studios)

Will the bad guy still sometimes be as crazy as a cat on the nip? Well, yes. But getting in their heads—especially hearing them justify their actions (yikes)—can make for some truly atmospheric, emotional, and downright creepy scenes. Furthermore, showing us those villains that aren’t straight up crazy, or straight-up wretched, but forced into the role, or doing the wicked because of what they think is the good—these are always characters that strike a chord. That engage.

A dark lord is great every now and again, but if he exists for nothing but the nasty, at all possible times, and the hero nothing but the good, what do I gain from the experience? There is no learning. There is only the “oh no, he’s bad,” followed by the inevitable defeat. A certain sense of repetition and dullness seeps into the cracks between.

What’s more, struggles like these modern shadows bring us an opportunity to question and engage morality. Will motivations, justifications, and ethics themselves be flawed? Of course. But we get to see how they play out, how they interact, and why exactly they are the way they are. We don’t simply split the world down the middle and say: “Black and White,” if you please. We are forced to confront the shades of grey.

Inevitably, some people will do a drive by of such a work though and label it the downfall of western civilization. Or a sign of your own inherent wickedness. Don’t scowl. Don’t sulk. At that, I say: laugh. It should be expected, but you shouldn’t take it to heart. It’s not wicked to think, and to ponder different natures. Nor are you promoting them. You’re simply delving into the world and stripping away the colored coating so often applied.

As ever, if a scene doesn’t need to be there, it shouldn’t be—but you shouldn’t water down your work simply for a fear of potentially snarky reviews. Embrace your style, as it was meant to be embraced. All writers face critique. Don’t let it break you.

(And if you like what I’m preaching, I encourage you to indulge with my fantasy series, including The Hollow March and its sequel, At Faith’s End. Or if you’d like something a little more sci-fi for your afternoon sortie, have a look at short story “New Frontiers,” published in its entirety on this blog. Hopefully, you won’t be disappointed.)

So long, Mary Sue

Reading the Story of Oenone

Reading the Story of Oenone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hello, children. Today we’re talking about a very special girl: a girl named Mary Sue. Yes, I know, you’ve probably heard the name. She’s quite well known. Possibly because she does everything better, harder, faster, stronger (yes, get the song going in your head now—I’ll wait) than everyone else, without having anything particularly interesting about her. The tragedy is that she’s a rather common sight around the literary parts. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret…

We don’t really like Mary, or her cousin Marty. In fact, most of us try to shut out the lights and make like no one’s home when they come a-knocking.

What’s more, while they have a rather high turn-over ratio in the literary department, I tell you this now: they do not have to be. And that, dear fellows, is the point of today’s post.


The works of George R.R. Martin are POPULATED with genuine characters, Arya Stark among the most memorable and popular of them. “Arya” (Photo credit: Jemimus)

Think of your favorite books. Why were they so? While any number of factors may come into the picture, I can guarantee, at least in part, that it had to do with the characters populating the story. What made them stick out to you? What gave you a connection with them? Think on what your favorite writers did successfully, and you will be at least part way to the process of winning the battle yourself.

But winning isn’t copying, so let’s move right along. I’m sure you know who your characters are. Unfortunately, far too many people are far too general in their exploration. What we need, and what you need, is to give these characters personality—not a defining, all-consuming trait. Hopes. Fears. A fancy little scar perhaps—with a good story behind it. There is a tendency to try to make your characters the best, because that is what you want to see in your writing.

At a word: don’t. Don’t be afraid to—excuse my French—fuck them up. We want individuals. Not another polo from down at the Gap. Substance, my friends, is the key to warding off Mary Sue.

“But Chris!” the voices cry. “There are so many characters in my book. I can’t possibly take the time to make them all unique, can I?”

Can you take the time to slap us with a detailed back-story on everyone in the kingdom? Well, no. And frankly, we’d get a little bored. But that doesn’t mean individuality falls at the wayside simply because of lack of history. Personality shines through in many forms. In language. In subtle cues of motion. A tick, perhaps. Because of the span of some novels, I realize some will see more spotlight than others, and some may see nothing but the edged shadow—you may even make placeholders until you figure out what exactly you want from a scene.

That’s fine. That’s only natural. But with every creation must come writing. Create your placeholder. Then go back and write him into existence—go over the words, the shift of his body language—and figure out what he, red shirt though he may be, desires from this conversation. What his job is. How old he is. Get a picture in your head before you try to give us one.

They may have one scene, but they should sprout from it like flowers at that first stormy bloom.

Yes, sometimes you will have to spritz them with water to get them to cooperate. It’s okay. As long as you don’t spritz your computer screen, you should be fine. (And supposing you didn’t, you can keep reading this. Goody!)

Some of these characters will inevitably not even be in “the plan.” They may come out of nowhere, on a fancy or a whim, to make right just one, particular moment that simply wouldn’t work with anyone else. (It’s good to have a purpose, you know?) Will this frustrate you and complicate matters, particularly as you try to sort out names for all these handy fellows? Assuredly. But they’re what helps the story move from point A to point B. Your main character can’t do everything.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy M51, NGC 5...

It’s all for you! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And if the story’s seeding new life on its own, well, then you can pat yourself on the back and know you’re headed in the right direction anyways. When creation begets creation, the writer has done right. Use, and let live. Flaws will come. Issues will arise. These characters haven’t met with as much time as your spotlighted folks, but guess what—that makes them more human.

And it never hurts to have a few humans in the battle for galactic dominance.

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People of the Shadows

I love this image.

I love this image.

A year ago I started a segment called “Inside Idasia,” addressing some of the facets key to the world of The Hollow March. Religion, Politics, and a touch of good old fashioned geography, to paint a few pictures (and I really do need to set down and write out a few more of those, with At Faith’s End just around the bend, but silly me, anytime I find myself wanting to write about my world, I find myself inherently writing more for the world. Short stories: my anti-drug.)

Well, that’s all fine and good for worldbuilding, but today I thought we would take a few moments to address another key facet of that gem: the fellows in the shadows.

“Let’s get out of here before one of those things kills Guy!” ~Gwen, Galaxy Quest

For any book, we tend to know our characters. They drive the story. They set us on the path. They’re the fellows in the spotlight! Good-good, very good. But what about the other guy? You know, that fellow actually doing the work, fighting the battles, offering life and limb to the king sitting back on his horse and musing on the morality of war. I suppose in Star Trek terms, they would probably be called the Redshirts. Poor, sweet redshirts.

Spock using the Vulcan nerve pinch on a doomed...

Spock using the Vulcan nerve pinch on a doomed redshirt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your heroes have trainers. Your kings have soldiers. Your armies have blacksmiths and tailors and who knows how many other people there to keep the greater machine going. Even the farmer is key, though his screen time is likely faint, for the food he provides that keeps hero and army alike moving through the motions.

These are the figures that add layers to your stories, dear friends. Even the people we don’t see should be key to the tale—we should know they are there, and be able to piece out what they do. It adds layers to your world to have the personality there. The society. The living, beating heart of your creations. Not everyone can save the world, but everyone—young, old, mother, father, son, daughter—plays a part in its continuation.

I’m not saying you should stop the pace of your book entirely and slap us with the biography of every Tom, Dick, and Mary Sue that happen to be crossing on the trail, but there should be fleeting glimpses of the world beyond your characters. Let their eyes see it, fleeting, unconcerned perhaps, but let those glimpses in—the light it can shed on your world, even in the span of a sentence, can be telling.

Essentially: make your world feel lived in. Your main character is there to drive us forward, but let us know there is more than his own soul. After all, if we never see traces of the thing he/she’s fighting for, then how do we feel the connection to that fight? Make their world our own.

Gryphon gargoyle, Bryn Mawr college

Did you know that in The Hollow March gryphons are not only alive and well, but utilized as beasts of burden and scouting steeds? Do they play a huge role critical to the story of the plot? No. But they are there, lurking, moving, pecking at the dirt for grubs and grass and the like. Glimpses appear. Nonchalant entrances into otherwise focused scenes. But just those glimpses tell us something we would not have pieced together of the world otherwise. (Also, there will be more of them in the upcoming At Faith’s End. A few faces may even be eaten—but you didn’t hear that from me.)

Insight—it’s a beautiful thing, no?

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Hero and Villain

“So Dawn’s in trouble…must be Tuesday.”
~Buffy (of the Vampire Slaying variety)

Forever (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Buffy and Dawn. “Forever” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Heroes. Villains. The great ones live on in our hearts and minds for decades after the pages have grown still in our hands. They give us something to root for and rage against—reflect hope and terror and keep our eyes glued long after the shadows have crept into our dens.

But what do the good stories need from these figures?

Personality, first of all. If TV is to be consulted, the world is filled with megalomaniac villains bent on destroying the world (which they live on, mind you) simply because someone ate the last pizza roll. Or snubbed them too many times in the theater. Just as it is filled with Mary Sues there to stop them because it’s what they were born/trained/facebooked their way into doing. And we’ll love them for it because they did what no one else would. Well. That’s a thing.

Pizza rolls appetizer

Pizza rolls appetizer. People have been killed for nomming less. (Photo credit: Burger Baroness)

In fantasy in particular these days, such simplistic stereotypes seem to be getting moved away from. While good vs. evil can be at the heart of the story (it’s at the heart of some of the very best stories!), characters are windows into the world, and to one another. Give them layers. Give them neurotic tendencies, intricate motivations, hopes, fears, reasons—there’s no reason they can’t have heroic traits, or evil superpowers, but give them at least a little ground as well. Hell, give your hero some naughty leanings (oh you smuggler you—always shooting first). The anti-hero is ever popular. Why? Because he’s layered.

Conflicting personal, religious, or political motivations can add all sorts of layers. Such could put limits on them, or just the opposite. A member of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, is not exactly likely to shy from a bit of bloodshed to achieve what they think a greater good. Because it’s what they feel their faith commands. A chivalrous knight, however, might refrain from torture, because he would see it as a sully to his honor—or his lord’s honor.

People turn to fantasy for an escape, often enough, but to truly draw them in, we need a living, breathing world—and that means characters that are more than the central goal.

Daenerys Targaryen

Oh, hello Khaleesi! “Daenerys Targaryen” (Photo credit: tr.robinson)

Daenerys Targaryen (or most characters, honestly) from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a wonderful example of this philosophy. The woman is driven, almost relentlessly, by her desire to return to Westeros and crown herself queen. But she is distracted often. The duties of a khalasar bind her as well, while the safety of her dragon children binds her to otherwise illogical action, and her hatred of slavery pushes her to root out those that would push it forward. She is learning.  She is growing. But she has clear morals, a layered personality, and conflicts that result from both.

Intelligence. Far too often I’ve found myself screaming at main characters for some of the…well, stupidest decisions I’ve ever seen. Those moments you cannot help but think: who would ever do this? Characters, like people, need to think, and this means both the good and the bad. So Melvin the Dark Lord wants to take over the world. Fine. That’s great. But how? And why? He has to know it won’t be easy. Likewise, if he knows there’s a hero out hunting for him, why would he think monologing over a slowly moving chain-prison is a great way to off the fellow? Have the intellects clash between your characters. Play them off one another. Make them adapt—not one-trick ponies.

Struggle. Be it with their own inner demons, or with one another, the hero and villain should struggle as much the notions and outcomes of their conflict as with the conflict itself. Each should be working toward a resolution. What will they do to achieve? What will the struggles force out of them? Does morality factor in?

They, and their struggle, are what should be moving our story along.

Setting the Mood

The writer is an oddity in this world for a simple reason: he is more than the personality of self, but a soul that must be capable of tapping into a hundred different personalities as the pen may guide him. The writer, matched perhaps only by actors, artists, and spies, must have the capability to tap into the inner workings of the mind and breathe life into characters that are nevertheless nothing like him.


Biting. Sparkling, drooling, or just plain snarling, it’s still not cool. (Photo credit: virginsuicide photography)

Remember that little detail the next time someone sneers and calls your labors child’s play. Also refrain from biting. People don’t like biting very much.

Yet the problem with this arrangement is that, often enough, we find ourselves at the whimsy of moods. Fickle things, really, but they can be the key difference between a well-written scene and a downright enthralling one. I would never council a writer not to write simply because he doesn’t feel quite into character—that’s the beauty of editing, of the multiple drafts we must insist upon our craft—but it can make things difficult. Some characters may be so inherently different—perhaps so dark, or so flamboyant—that our own minds cannot begin to connect with them on a regular basis. The mood—their mood—may strike us once in a month, once in a year, and if we do not throw ourselves at their scene in that time, we may never capture perfectly that essence for which we so strive.

I know, I know. You’re thinking: Chris, why are you making this sound almost spiritual? Are you high?

We are notoriously fickle people, us writers, and this is the reason. We have to be. Our moods roll with the wind, and our writing with it. Though we can train ourselves to perfect the skill of our pen, the creativity behind it ebbs and flows as the storm upon the sea—we never know quite when and to what means it will gather.

Fortunately, there are ways to help manipulate ourselves. To manipulate the moods and personalities we so crave. While nothing’s ever certain, they can help:

  1. Music . Why do you put the Barry White on when you know that special someone’s coming over? Because deep down everyone knows that music stirs the heart and moves the emotion to the beats. A sad song can drag us down to the deepest depths of mortal despair. A fast song can revitalize a weary body. A smooth song, peppered with those deep, low notes and reverberating bass well…be still those quivering legs. Probably also relevant to your Valentine’s Day interests.
  2. Travel. I don’t mean a road trip—although that might not hurt either. Simply, I mean get outside. Go to your favorite place. Climb a mountain. Sit down in the local coffee shop. Walk the lonely streets. Different places, different people—these things can strike a chord as sure as that picture of a sandy beach you stare every day at your work desk.
  3. Read. Watch. Listen. Tell me this is self-explanatory.
  4. Drink. Oh come now, surely you knew this was going to be here somewhere. While I’m not advising that you go out and get yourself royally bombed (be sure someone else has possession of both your keys and any Text Message-capable devices), there is something to be said for the mental tweak such beverages bring. They’re mood affecters—it’s what they are made to do. Have yourself a sip, let the liquid do its work. Don’t overdue it–just one or two. At worst, you relax (never a bad thing for a writer), at best you unlock the very best level of the creative flow. Just be sure to go back and edit extra carefully in the morning.

A little trip can go a long way.