Reader Perspectives: Prologues

In drafting my recent post on prologue usages, my husband and I got into a discussion about the different executions of this common element of story-telling. We discovered that he and I have had some very different experiences with the same prologues. As a service to other potential authors, and in light of our surprising disagreements, I asked my husband to take a look at some of the storytelling elements from popular novels and give me some feedback. This will be a new series on my blog that investigates reactions to various story-telling elements from a pure reader’s perspective.

For context, my husband will be my initial subject–he is an epic fantasy fan who was very invested in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series as well as the older Dragonlance novels, and as a result the first few of these will be mostly within his genre. Not everyone will agree with these opinions, but hopefully it will give some visibility into an aspect of what works and what doesn’t for some readers.

This week I’m looking at a comparison between the Rage of Dragons prologue and the Game of Thrones prologue.

Rage of Dragons

My husband’s response to the Rage of Dragons prologue genuinely surprised me. I wasn’t completely pulled in by that prologue, but he hated it–and I mean that he hated it to the point where he was intending to do a read through of the entire book to prep for a compare/contrast on his opinions versus mine on the book as a whole and instead he refused to finish the book. His problems boil down to three specific items that broke his interest and left him confused and frustrated.

  1. Multiple POVs. This is a point where I agree. If your prologue is long and complex enough to need four different POVs, then you either have a first chapter or a separate short story (depending on how closely tied the content is to the main plot of the book). My opinion was that the Rage of Dragons prologue is a separate short story, which, while a bit confusing, was… well… fine. My husband was just really annoyed.
  2. Confusing words and/or confusing word usage. This didn’t bother me because I’m pretty accustomed to reading things, not knowing what it means, and waiting to learn later. It infuriated my husband. We had a twenty minute conversation about whether “Ingonyama” is a military rank, a name for people with a specific magic ability, or a name for people who are used in specific magic rituals without having magic themselves. And a similar discussion about “the Chosen”, “the Gifted”, etc. Having read further, I think I know what those words mean…
  3. Naming schemes. This complaint started with the character names. Everyone (or at least everyone portrayed as important in the prologue) had a name that started with a T, even the guy who probably didn’t pronounce the T in his name. This is just a general frustration with fantasy books. Exotic names are great, names which follow naming schemes are great, but if every name starts with the same letter, you’re likely to have readers struggle to keep names straight. After pointing this out to me, though, my husband flipped to the map. I barely even glanced at the map on my read-through, but there it was. Just a big peninsula with a country-border arc on the land side (turning the entire country into a big oval). Mountains in weird places. Names like “the north”, “the south”, “the center”, “the Curse”, “the Northern Mountain Range”, “the Southern Fortress”, “the Central Mountains”, “the Southern Mountain Range”, “the Fist”, “the Roar”, and “Citadel City”. None of these names are inherently bad, but the combination of all of them really broke world-immersion for my husband. Suddenly, instead of feeling like he was reading a book with an overly complex prologue that left him unsure of a lot of world elements, he felt like the complex prologue was trying to make up for lazy world-building. Now, I don’t think Evan Winter is lazy and I think Rage of Dragons is a good book. But it’s worth keeping in mind that a little extra care makes a huge difference to a lot of readers. The inhabitants of the world likely call those various elements something, and it’s pretty rare for an entire culture to name a mountain range “The Northern Mountain Range.” One such name he could have gotten away with. Eight was pushing it way too far.

Game of Thrones

When we compare the Rage of Dragons prologue to the Game of Thrones prologue, there are some interesting differences. The Game of Thrones prologue is both shorter and, in some ways, slower than the Rage of Dragons prologue, but I’d argue it actually does a lot more work for the book and the series. Here’s a few of the elements that worked particularly well in the Game of Throne prologue.

  1. The events of Game of Thrones prologue are directly relevant to events of the first chapter of the book and to the larger world as a whole. This doesn’t mean the characters from the Game of Thrones prologue are relevant. By the end of the first chapter all three of them are dead. But the events of the prologue are the reason for the admittedly quite sedate activity in chapter one of the book. The prologue also gives the reader knowledge about a scenario that most of the characters have little to no direct experience with. As a result, when Jon Snow heads north to join the Night’s Watch, we the reader know that there are some dangers he may face that even the other characters in the book don’t believe in. We haven’t been told about those dangers, we’ve seen them. That gives an extra level of weight and importance to Jon’s commitment and adds tension that the book and series would otherwise be lacking. In contrast, the Rage of Dragons prologue may be relevant to the entire series as a whole, but it isn’t relevant to the immediate opening of the book. It doesn’t give context to every decision and discussion the characters have. That’s not a deal-breaker, but it does mean the Game of Thrones prologue has a little bit less work to do in justifying its place in the book than the Rage of Dragon’s prologue.
  2. Everything in the Game of Thrones prologue is simple, direct, and easy to understand. Three characters are riding through the woods. They are investigating a report of some dead bodies and are actively discussing their theories on that occurrence. There are no secondary plotlines going on in this scene. Nothing for the reader to focus on but the direct information, context, and atmosphere built by the actions and words of these three characters. As a result, it is very unlikely that any reader is going to be confused by the Game of Thrones prologue. They might not be immediately invested in it, but they aren’t going to be wondering what’s going on (at least, not more than the characters themselves are wondering that). This can be a bit of opinion (some people like more complex or more obscure openings), but there’s something to be said for a simple, clear opening that delivers specific information in context without dropping the info-dump bomb on the reader. As well, when we get to the portion of the Game of Thrones prologue which does have combat, the same simple, one-focus style is used. In that context, it suddenly serves to build tension, focus the reader on the specific POV character’s reactions, and keep the events clear and impactful. The larger, ongoing combat the permeates the Rage of Dragons prologue keeps the reader’s attention constantly split. Okay, we’re on a boat talking, but you said there’s a war going on? Wait, now we’re in the war…are we going to hear about the queen? And there’s how many things going on? And which of these characters have I met before? And what am I supposed to know about the context by now?
  3. Which brings me to the third point, and the one I think is probably the most important part of the Game of Thrones prologue. At no point during the events of the prologue does it feel like the characters are actively using information the reader does not have. This is a big, big deal in fantasy prologues and honestly a lot of fantasy writing in general. It’s the main reason why the most common main character in epic fantasy is some form of naïve “everyman” character who is being introduced to a new world for the first time. The Farmboy learning he’s the Chosen One. The modern realm-traveler stuck in a fantasy world. The guild apprentice on their first solo mission. The mundane child admitted to a school of magic. The examples are endless, and primarily it’s because one of the greatest challenges in fantasy writing is getting the right balance between telling the reader what an experienced character knows and not spending pages info-dumping the appropriate backstory. The Game of Thrones prologue is a masterclass in doing exactly this. We have three characters. One is fairly new to a particular organization and somewhat uncertain. Another has some experience and is a bit cocky. The third is a long-time veteran who is always looking for clues as to what is coming next. We never learn the specifics of that organization in the prologue, just that it is called “the Night’s Watch” and that these members are out looking for information. Their job is not to investigate dead bodies, but the veteran thinks they might learn something related to their actual goal by examining the bodies. The characters know plenty of other bits of information about the world, but they aren’t currently thinking about any of those pieces of information, so we don’t get told them. Every action the characters take is a logical reaction to the information we have already been given up to that point. In Rage of Dragons, however, our POV characters mention summoning dragons, being hunted by something called “the Cull”, and a dozen other very specific references that the characters obviously know much more about than the reader does. As a result, those references feel more like coy, author-hidden hints at things that will be cool later. We the reader are immediately distanced from the characters because the characters are hiding information from us when they shouldn’t know we’re there. It’s not the same as the GoT character not explaining the mission of the Night’s Watch, because none of the actions those characters take are direct results of information the reader doesn’t have.
  4. And finally, naming. A lot of complaints around names can come down to preference, and it’s certainly true that people from certain backgrounds will find the character names in Rage of Dragons more complicated and confusing than readers from other backgrounds. But regardless of that, the names in the Game of Thrones prologue are more varied. We don’t have Gerad and Grendo and Gavin, we have Gerad and Ser Waymar Royce and Will. It’s easier to keep track of people when the names aren’t similar. As well, beyond character names, very little is actually named in the prologue. We have the three characters, the organization they are a part of, and the general term “the Others” for the creatures which attack the characters. Anyone familiar with the series knows that “the Others” is not the name for the creatures which attack. It is, however, a simple phrase which readers can quickly identify as referring to something scary that the POV character doesn’t understand. When we are later given an actual name for those creatures, we have enough context from the descriptions and other discussions to know that the name refers to “the Others” from the prologue. None of the other names those characters know have any meaning in this context, and so they don’t come up. In Rage of Dragons we get names for everything from the mysterious inquisition-style enemy that’s hunting the queen’s people to the name of the queen’s old nanny from when she was a toddler. Some of those we know to ignore, but the very inclusion of those meaningless names speaks of an improper scope for the prologue. Especially when you turn the page to chapter one and realize that hundreds of years have passed and the events of the prologue are ancient history to the protagonist. Why did I get the prologue-queen’s nanny’s name, again?

In Summation

I’m comparing Rage of Dragons to Game of Thrones partially because they’re the books my husband picked up, but mostly because they’re both good books. They have a lot of positives and, like all books, they both have some negatives. The interesting element of this comparison, though, is how the craft differed between the opening of each novel. And, to be fair, George R.R. Martin was a well-established author when he released A Game of Thrones while Evan Winter was releasing Rage of Dragons as his debut novel. That might be the entire difference between the books, since they both have obvious potential. However, the next time someone says they don’t like prologues, it’s worth discussing what they dislike about the prologue. If they dislike prologues like the one from Rage of Dragons, I understand. There are a lot of debatable craft choices in that prologue. And I do mean “debatable,” not “obviously bad but I’m trying to be nice.” Preferences vary and some people love that prologue. But in a lot of ways it’s a harder prologue to love than one that focuses on a more directed scope with a more straightforward approach and gives the reader the same information as the characters.

Self-Publishing Guide Part One: Editing

It’s official! My debut epic fantasy novel, Wake of the Phoenix, releases in eight weeks! This blog will have an eight week build-up even featuring in depth information I learned while tackling self-publishing interspersed with a series of fiction blogs from the four POV characters of my novel.

Several months ago I released a post comparing self-publication to traditional publication and looking at the challenges inherent in each path. While the discussion was a little tongue in cheek at times, it also captured some of the unexpected stresses I encountered after choosing self-publishing for my own path. Having now been through the majority of the process, I want to take a little time to evaluate those experiences and share some gained wisdom. I know everyone does this, but none of the YouTuber “My Self-Pub Path” videos did me any good while researching the process. As a result, I’m looking into four primary categories of self-publishing in detail over the next two months: Editing, Cover Design, Final Packaging, and Marketing.

Where to Start

One of the great challenges of producing a quality book through self-publishing is ensuring your editing is of high enough quality to keep readers entertained. There are several aspects of this struggle. First, knowing what editing you even need. Second, knowing how much to pay for editing (and having the money to pay it). Third, finding the right editors for your project. Fourth, scheduling edits at the right time in the process with enough leeway for unexpected turns. And fifth, knowing when your editing is done. There are other, smaller issues that I’ll also address in this discussion, but these are the major ones. And let’s be honest… I’ll no doubt miss some things, as well. No one’s perfect.

So to get this started, let’s define the types of editing. In order of when they should be completed, the types are Developmental Editing, Line Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading. For those who know these definitions a bit, yes, proofreading is a bit different, but I want to emphasize the importance so I’m including it.

A development edit is one that looks at big picture pieces. This is the time when you’ll change character arcs, re-imagine how your plot goes, make changes to the fabric of your world, magic systems, or political standings, and remove (or add) entire POVs. You should not spend any time at this stage evaluating if a particular word is used correctly, if you could improve your minute descriptions, or if your comma placement is right. Any—and often all—of those details may change by the time you’re done with your developmental edits. Almost every book will need developmental edits, but not every book will need to be edited by a professional developmental editor. The decision on whether or not to hire an editor for this rests heavily on how thorough and diverse your critique partners and beta readers are.

Line editing is the next type of editing and that covers looking at the structure of your sentences, the clarity of your writing, and your word usage. It will also include small amounts of rewriting—a paragraph that is confusing might get rewritten, but if it’s a couple pages you’re back in developmental editing territory. This stage is sometimes (honestly, in self-publishing, often) combined with copy editing, which looks at internal consistency of details and technical grammar. However, these are different edit types and you should ensure that any editor claiming to do both at once is actually doing both. This is best handled with a sample edit, which most reputable editors won’t have any issues providing. All books should go through these edits using a professional editor well-tailored to your book. No exclusions. Trust me, you’ll be shocked by what they find.

The final type of edit, proofreading, is technically not an edit pass so much as a polishing sweep. This sweep focuses exclusively on typos and missed punctuation and is unique in that it can be done after typesetting so the proofreader can also catch oddities created by the formatting. All the other edit types should be completed before you start finalizing covers or formatting. The proofread is another area of uncertainty somewhat like the developmental edit. Every book needs a proofreading pass (or five), but there are a number of ways to do this without hiring a formal proofreader. That said, if you can afford a formal proofreader, it’s better to spend the money. I opted not to hire a proofreader and use volunteers from my network and I have been very, very frustrated with constantly catching typos that got missed as I prepare the manuscript for release. Nothing frustrates readers like a novel riddled with typos, and this is the stage that fixes that.

Planning Your Editing

In my personal research, the definitions above were the end of the discussion about how to select your edit types. But that doesn’t tell me anything about who to hire. So, in an attempt to create the resource I wish I’d had, let’s look at ways how you decide if you need a developmental edit.

Most authors don’t know if their plot arc sags or their characters fall a bit flat. They rely on critique partners and beta readers to tell them if their writing has issues, but finding good critique partners and beta readers can be challenging. So here’s a flowchart to help you decide if you need more developmental edits.

If you’re having trouble finding independent readers, you can try a few options. Reddit has a beta reader subreddit. Several book reviewer YouTubers have discord channels that help you connect with similar readers and you can find beta readers there (I use Jenna Moreci and Merphy Napier). Local writer’s groups are typically big on supporting critique partner swaps. Twitter has been known to help people network within the writing community. NaNoWriMo forums can be a great place to find like-minded writers. And if you can’t find anything else, I always recommend Scribophile. It’s where I started getting good feedback on my work that helped me focus on the type of writing I wanted to create.

When considering line editing and copy editing, remember that every book should have these done, preferably by an independent, professional editor. Line editing can maybe be handled by a robust critique partner group and an editing software like Prowritingaid but that’s riskier and if you’re going that route I highly encourage you to use an editor that does line edits and copy edits together. I do not recommend Grammarly—Prowritingaid is much better for fiction writers. I’ve already addressed proofreading. You need to do it, if you can afford to pay for it then do, but it can be done yourself.

The Cost

The next step in planning is deciding how much you can spend on editing. If you need a developmental editor, be prepared to save some money. For line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, keep in mind that skimping on those costs can really bite you later. That said, prices are very, very confusing in this field. A quick search will tell you that editing prices run between 1 cent per word for the low end of copy editing rates to 8 cents per word for the high end of developmental editing. Personally, for my 130k word novel, I paid $2500 for a combined line edit and copy edit (2 cents per word). However, I know indie authors who swear that’s insanely high and insist that edit should have cost only $800. So, it matters where you find your editor and what you’re looking for. Here’s a few resources to help you out.

  1. Reedsy—I used Reedsy and I was happy with my editor, although I do think the rate ended up being a bit high for the work she did. She herself said my line edits were very light because my writing was strong. That said, she wasn’t on the high end of Reedsy quotes. Don’t expect to get an editor from Reedsy that charges much less than I paid, and they may charge more. It’s a great network of professionals that can really help you get a selection of options, but it won’t be on the low end.
  2. I’ve heard very good things about Kimberly Cannon, although I haven’t personally used her. She’s on the lower end (0.6 cents per word) of copy editing and I’ve read some books she edited that had high editing quality. That said, I can’t tell you if those well-edited books were due to her work or not, only that the author of those books recommends her.
  3. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a listing of editors and you can post there requesting editors. When getting bids like this, make sure everyone is willing to give you a sample edit. That will (hopefully) protect you from scammers claiming to be editors who don’t really have the credentials or skill needed for the job.
  4. The Creative Penn is a web site with a ton of useful information on various aspects of self publishing. Her resource on finding editors is listed here. As with the above listing, I encourage you to ensure the editors you consider are willing to do a reasonably sized sample edit before committing to one.
  5. The Alliance of Independent Authors. I wish I’d found this organization before I booked my editor. They have a community you can talk to when you have questions and offer discounts on some editing services. Most of their editing is on the lower end of pricing anyway. This is another great resource and I highly recommend them for a variety of reasons. They’ll come up several times in my self-publishing discussions.

The Editing Process

Now you’re ready to schedule your edit. First, look at your timeline. If you’re doing a professional developmental editor, you’ll want at least six months from the start date to complete that process and maybe longer, depending on the length of the novel. You’ll be booking that edit at least three months out, maybe longer depending on the editor’s backlog. If you’re starting at line and copy editing, that typically take one to two months and gets booked three or four months out. Proofreading you want to book at least three months in advance as well, and just as a reminder, all other edits need to be done before you get to that stage.

Once you have your timing decided, pick the right people. This starts with sample edits. You can also ask for other books they’ve edited and look at the quality of those (either from online samples or, if they’re in your genre, support your fellow authors and give the book a shot). As much as possible, I encourage using developmental, copy, and line editors who tend to work within your genre or similar genres. An editor who usually works on contemporary romance is going to be less valuable on a grimdark fantasy than one who usually works on urban fantasy. This isn’t the case for proofreading, since proofreading shouldn’t be subjective to genre at all, and is less true for copy editing. But it is something to consider. Also, make sure that the types of edits they’re suggesting fit your vision. One of the reasons I chose my editor is because I inquired about a developmental edit and she read my sample, was intrigued by my sample, and encouraged me to go for a line and copy editing instead of developmental because she thought the development was strong. Look for someone who’ll give you that type of honest opinion on your work.

And finally but most importantly, remember that the book is yours. If the editor you’re considering is telling you to make major changes to voice or book content that don’t fit what you want, find someone else. I promise you, there is someone else. If five different editors all tell you to make the same changes, maybe consider why they’re saying that, but never change your book to please one person. All editing is subjective.

The Final Challenge

I said above that one of the challenges of editing for self-publishing is knowing when the editing is done. I don’t have any tips for that one. Barely four days ago I was debating with my entire support team (my husband, my parents, and my discord communities) over whether or not to write, edit, and proofread an extra thousand word epilogue to add to my book in response to my ARC reviews because several felt that the ending was a bit rushed. I talked it over with everyone, got mixed responses (split about half and half), and finally re-read the ending. It ends where I wanted it to, and leaves the right feel at the end, at least for me. As a result, I’m not changing it. Part of that is because I like the end, but most of it is because I realized that those ARC readers aren’t getting what I am, so if I tried to “fix” their frustration with a new ending, they wouldn’t feel what I did there, either.

You may get your edits back and love them and never be concerned. Or you may hate everything the editor said and argue with yourself over every decision. But if you worry that this round of edits is maybe not enough for the next stage, or maybe you need another change before release, or whatever insecurities nag at you, consider this: I almost restructured my entire ending to include a new last scene on a whim eight weeks before my release day because I, like all authors, struggle to know when the editing is done. Sometimes you just have to let it go.

Tips for World Building

Building a fantasy world, even a contemporary based one, has a lot of pitfalls, and it’s easy to get stuck missing important details. Here’s list of ten things to consider when building a world to ensure you’ve created a complete, well rounded world for your story. Now when when someone asks you an obscure question, you’ll know the answer. And more to the point, it will give you fun details to drop into your worlds. Just remember, these questions are not an invitation to write a five page dissertation on your world’s social structure before your plot gets started (or in chapter three when your character goes to a history lesson).

  1. Where/how did your world’s religions start? Yes, that plural is intentional. The current modern world has 4,300 active religions according to some counts. If your world only has one religion, you really need to explain how that happened. But assuming your world has multiple, diverse religions, think about their origins. What common elements do they have? In modern times we can tell that most religions have some story about a world-wide flood, albeit with very different specifics. How do any common elements explain things that more primitive versions of your world may not have understood, and how do the differences display the individual aspects of your world?
  2. Why does your world have the social/economic/power structure that it has? Think about the histories that led to the current moment and decide why things got to where they are on a global scale. This includes governments, sociological class structures, and financial stability. Some stories will need more or less of this, but every story is affected by the world at large to some extent. Knowing the history that led to the current moment, especially anything you might have changed from reality in a contemporary-based fantasy, will help you build believable fantasy.
  3. How does the technology level of your world effect the availability of resources? This is the sort of thing a lot of people miss. We’re used to mass production and long-haul shipping. If your world doesn’t have those, then they better not be selling fruit out of season. If, on the other hand, they have advanced teleportation technology, then I’d expect trade to be massively disrupted from what we expect. Jobs that require travel should be basically obsolete. Sure, maybe you have to hop over to Africa for your meeting, but it’s just a trip to the teleporter and back.
  4. Where were cities built and why? This one is mostly for secondary-world fantasy, but it’s something newer authors may not think through enough. Typically, cities are built in areas where people were already congregating for other reasons. Examples include river valleys, oases in deserts, and wooded mountains rich in minerals. So if you have a dramatic castle built into the side of a remote peak with no mines nearby, you need to explain why. And don’t forget: that reason needs to be reflected in how the city is structured. A defensive keep built to watch a strategic mountain pass is not going to have broad windows and expansive balconies where the inhabitants can dance the night away under the stars.
  5. What biases does your character’s homeland have, and what biases do other countries have against them? This is always an interesting way to consider how the various elements of your world will interact. And if the entire cast of your book comes from one national background, there’s probably still some regional differences giving rise to biases and stereotypes. Those elements will make your world feel real and more like a living culture. If your world doesn’t have any biases… ask yourself why. Every country in the modern world has biases, some of them very, very different from each other. What happened to make your world different?
  6. What bits of history are believed in your world but are wrong? I wish more authors did this. It’s not unheard of, of course, but too many writers establish their world and make clear that the history they are telling you is objective fact. In terms of history, there is no such thing. We often use the platitude that “history is written by the victor,” but the more accurate statement is that history is written in the eye of the current beholder. Everything ever written is some parts right, some parts wrong, and some parts guess. The pieces of the past that your world guessed at or lied about will make a far more interesting setting than anything you can come up with for a static history.
  7. How does your magic system (and the prevalence or scarcity of magical power) change your society? More authors today consider these impacts than they used to, but it’s still quite common to have wildly powerful magic users living in an otherwise perfectly predictable medieval society (or society based on some other culture, although those are rarer). This is very unlikely. If people can walk around throwing fireballs at other people, why are they allowed to live by themselves rather than be forcibly conscripted into the army? Is it because they can throw fireballs at people and that makes the generals scared? Okay, but then they better not be hanging out in the middle of town being friendly, laughable old geezers. If anyone who trains for long enough at a temple can create water on command, I better not see any signs of water-borne illness in your society… Unless you have a sub-plot about the evil churches controlling the flow of clean water. Adding magic would affect every level of society, from the day to day dreams of poor children to the lives of every merchant to the economy and ruling structures. Using magic well means considering how your main character’s magic changes their interactions with their world not just in what they can do, but also in how they are viewed.
  8. What changes do fantasy creatures cause within your world, and how do they interact with the more mundane parts of the world? Until somewhat recently, contemporary fantasy was particularly bad about this. “The world is exactly like ours, except elves live in a parallel dimension and occasionally come do things in our world but no one notices.” Really? I doubt that elves occasionally meddling in our world had no effect on society at all. Also, how did those elves get in that parallel dimension, and what makes them elves other than them being long-lived, magic-ish, and having pointed ears? What even are elves in this world? Instead of giving your reader an existential crisis, spend a bit of time thinking critically about what your creatures are, how they came to be in the situation they are in, how the world reacts to them, and how they react to the world. This will give your magical creatures a sense of purpose in the world, rather than your readers feeling like the fantasy creatures are just flavor text.
  9. How are deviations from societal standards viewed, and what repercussions are there for rejecting society’s expectations? I haven’t seen many variations on this answer, but wouldn’t it be cool if there were? What if, instead of getting thrown in jail or cast out of their village or otherwise ostracized for rejecting societal standards, your characters got sent to a special school to help them build on their individuality? What if that was the source of all scientific (or magical?) research in the world? Or maybe those outcasts were used as focus groups and led to consistent re-imagining of political structures? Not every deviation from the norm has to be punished, and treating dissent as a virtue can create a fascinating counterpoint to whatever conflict you intend to pursue in the plot line.
  10. What defines your world in terms of art, music, and cuisine? I combine these three not because they are less important, but because they are common bits of advice. Most writers have heard the advice to consider when and what the society eats, for example, and everyone knows about the Lord of the Rings joke “What about second breakfast?” In the United States a lunch break is about all workers get, but in South America it was common (and may still be) to call siesta in the afternoon. Tea time in Great Britain isn’t as definitive as it used to be, but once upon a time it was taken very seriously as a required break. Music has a similar effect on cultures, and oppressive regimes regularly suppress music and art. As well, few fantasy novels involve the characters reading fiction, which seems odd, since we writers and readers love books so much. Does your world publish fiction, and if not, why not? Our world always has.

You don’t have to consider everything on this list before writing. Honestly, as a discovery writer, I rarely consider any of the things on this list before I start writing. But your final result should include several, if not most, of these elements to some extent. Just make sure you’re including them in ways that build on the story and not as check boxes to mark off.

For some original fiction, check out these posts:
For more thoughts on publishing and writing, check out these posts:

The Life of the Magic

By now, most fantasy writers have heard someone tell them about the importance of unique world building. Think of your world like its own character, the advice typically starts. Make it dynamic and have the world engage with the story in its own way. But what about the magic of that world? Is that just a wart on your world-character’s face? I’d argue that, for most fantasy, the magic system is more of a character than the world itself. Magic systems tend to have quirks and limitations, and most have some form of choosing who is better or worse at using them than others.

The thing that sets magic systems apart from other pieces of story creation is that we have tools for world building, for character creation, and for fleshing out characters. We even have tools for structuring and planning a plot (and some of us choose to use those tools to evaluate and edit rather than pre-plan). But we almost never talk about magic systems in this same way. Magic systems are often treated as either a mystical, unexplained pseudo-science that stands in for technology or as a flavor text that serves more as window dressing than a central piece of the story. And yet every fantasy author can pick out the magic system that captivates them years after they’ve finished reading the books. So what makes those systems so unique?

The is a question that many authors have tried to answer, and typically the answers come down the the author in question describing what their readers seems to like about their own magic systems. These answers range from Sanderson’s “A magic system is only as interesting as its limitations” response to several people who point to the sense of wonder in magic systems that create an entirely different world (think Harry Potter) and all sorts of other responses. This was a question I had rarely considered, accepting Brandon Sanderson’s commentary at face value, until I attended a workshop on magic systems at Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference in April.

That workshop was taught by C.R. Rowanson, who is a magic system enthusiast and the author of Restrictions May Apply: Building Limits for Your Magic System, a workbook dedicated to helping fantasy authors create limitations for their magic systems. In his talk, he provided two sliding scales of magic system attributes that combine into four essential types of magic with varying levels of each element. The two scales are hard magic vs. soft magic (one many of us are familiar with) and rational magic vs. irrational magic. C.R. Rowanson has a great explanation of these elements and I highly recommend anyone interested in this look up his upcoming nonfiction book on magic systems. A rough definition of his terms is that hard vs. soft magic refers to how much the audience understands about the magic while rational vs. irrational refers to how much internal logic the magic system employs (i.e., do the individual elements seem to be based on each other).

I’m going to talk about this topic in a slightly different context than C.R. Rowanson does. He focuses on explaining the characteristics which cause a magic system to have certain effects with a goal of helping writers build better magic systems. I want to talk about choosing the effect you want your magic system to have and evaluating how those effects change the type of story you’re telling.

Impact of the Magic

First, let’s talk about the impact of magic on your world and your story. There’s a lot of ways people use magic. Above I listed three: a substitute for technology in a low-tech society, a pure window dressing that rarely effects the plotline, and as a way to add fantastical elements in an effort to create a sense of wonder for the reader. Other authors use magic as a central plot element, often focusing on one or more characters learning how to master their magic in one way or another. Let’s list out a few uses of magic and discuss the effects we’re trying to create with each.

  • Magic is a tool for solving problems. This often fits into my definition of “magic as science.” Typically there are extremely strict rules to the magic system, typically the reader knows those rules, and most of the time those rules relate to each other. A lot of the thrill of these magic systems is the reader guessing how the system might be used within its strict rules to solve a problem which does not, at first, appear vulnerable to that magic. I describe these as “magic as science” because in many of these stories the magic might as well be electromagnetism. The lay-person doesn’t understand how electromagnetism works, but the rules are strict and we use it on a daily basis to create the society we understand today.
  • Magic is a source of problems. This one can go two ways. For option one, we go the same route as above (magic as science) but someone is using said “science” in an evil way or the “machine” has broken and is endangering the world. The danger comes from the characters needing to work against rules they’ve been taught to follow. Option two is actually my favorite for problem-magics: wild magic that no one fully understands. This one needs to be vague to the reader but have enough clear elements that the resolution feels believable. Unlike option one, the threat comes from the character’s needing to figure out what the problem even is, turning the story into a bit of a mystery.
  • Magic is a set piece, adding flavor to the story. This one almost has to be vague. If there is clearly defined magic in your world, then your readers are going to suggest ways to solve problems using that magic and if the characters don’t try they are going to look stupid. The primary exception is if you have a well-defined but very, very weak magic system and never put the characters in a place where that magic can be useful. If all the characters can do is conjure a cup of clean drinking water once per minute and they are never without fresh drinking water then the magic is a set piece. A kind of boring set piece, in my mind, but different readers enjoy different things. With a vague system, though, you can drop interesting bits into the world that never directly change the direction of the plot but build a certain feel for the world… Although now I’m wondering what interesting societal differences there would be in a world that is essentially mundane but never has to worry about clean drinking water. For every rule there’s an exception, after all.
  • Magic is a creator of societal hierarchies. This one is actually rather popular. It’s not that my world has a strict caste system based on arbitrary characteristics, it’s just that the people magic tends to choose are elevated to higher status. My conflict is all about how this lower-caste person is found to have magic and my society has to re-evaluate itself! While the setup here does feel a little cheap to me, it’s also pretty realistic (at least to one way of considering the potential outcomes of magic existing). Most of these stories are “this could be you” stories, which gives us two main types. Wish fulfillment stories where the magic is presented as cool and exciting, or warning stories where the magic caste is found to be terribly corrupt and the magic itself is often addictive or prone to leading people astray.
  • Magic is so prevalent as to create a completely different world. I’m defining this one a bit overly-specifically because any of the other options can have magic that is so pervasive as to completely change the world from what we know. The point with this item on the list, though, is to look at stories where the entire point of using magic is to change the world substantially from what we know. Most historical fantasy falls into this category because a lot of the stories do less looking at magic’s effects on other elements and a lot more looking at how magic would change a specific historical event or time period. The thrill of this magic system is seeing how similar things might be with fantastical elements mixed in while delighting in the changes. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, for example, have flying contraptions that people use for war because, with dragons, why wouldn’t that be a thing? But a lot of the rest of the world is still very similar. That dichotomy is interesting to fans of these types of magic systems. It’s particularly interesting that both historical fantasy books and many high-magic epic fantasy books fit into the same category here. With high-magic epics we’re seeing a completely re-imagined concept of what a magic world might be, where with historical fiction we’re seeing the result of one minor change. But in both the magic functions to create a sense of fascination with the magic while often not relying directly on the magic as a problem solver or creator.

Now, this list makes no attempt to be comprehensive. The goal is to look at a few categories of magic usage and discuss the effects the writer is trying to create. Every piece of magic we include in our work needs to have a purpose, but like our characters and our plot elements, that purpose can vary. No one would ever say that you can’t have side characters that simply flesh out the world without adding to the plot. We often recommend that authors add insignificant details about their world to give depth to the society. And yet we treat magic, with all its complexities and quirks, as nothing more than a tool for our manipulation.

Treat your world like a character? Sure, if it fits. A dynamic world with complex effects is great. But your magic should live, and it should breathe life into the things it touches.


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Character Brainstorming Tricks

Ever get stuck trying to flesh a character out and decide to use writing prompts to get some context? Prompts are a great way to flesh out bits of a character you don’t always think about. But if you’re like me, you write fantasy, and basically all writing prompts and character exercises are about contemporary worlds. Here’s a few designed to help you build more rounded characters in fantasy worlds. Several of these can be used in contemporary worlds, as well, with minor tweaking.

1. Your character is standing at the edge of a battlefield.

What do they feel? Why are they there? What do they do when confronted with the sight? Write two paragraphs explaining their emotional reactions, their goals, and their actions, including at least some explanation of why this battlefield matters to them (i.e., maybe it’s an old battle where a family member died, or a recent battle they fought in, or a recent battle they didn’t fight in but are now stealing from the dead bodies of).

2. Your character comes face to face with a creature they thought was a myth.

How do they react to this strange creature? Do they call it by the mythical name, or assume their myth is false and try to investigate? Do they run, think they’re dreaming, or try to reassess their world view? Write two paragraphs explaining their experience, and in the process, give some sense of what the creature is they have come across.

3. Have your character describe something they have always wanted but never been able to have.

This can be something they can’t afford, something they have only ever heard of from travelers, something in myths and tales, or a social connection they don’t have (i.e., lover, lost parents, sibling). Make sure they don’t use descriptions they wouldn’t know (a farmer in a humid climate with low technology would have no idea what a forest fire is) and try to capture their worldview in the description.

4. Your character is hungry.

How do they get food? Do they have food on hand, and what type of food do they get? Do they have to ask someone to get them food? Do they have to go work in order to afford food? Make sure that your description includes their opinion of their status in regards to others around them, as well as how commonly they perform the steps you describe.

5. Write a conversation between your character and someone with a different world view.

The conversation can be about anything that is not their world view differences (i.e., their children, the weather, the looming prospect of war). Try to illustrate the differences in world view without directly stating them.

6. Your character has a meeting that is finally going to get them something they have always wanted or needed, but a family member gets into trouble and needs help at the same time.

Does your character go to their meeting, or help their family? Who is their family member, and how does your character feel about them in general? Write at least two paragraphs describing the decision and your character’s reactions to it.

7. Your character is visiting a new location.

Describe how they evaluate the visit. Do they notice architecture or social differences? Signs of wealth or opportunities for exploration? Write a short scene in which the only action is the character walking through this new location. Use their reactions and observations to reveal what about the location interests them.

8. What myths, legends, religions, or traditions does your character believe in?

Write at least two paragraphs outlining their views on myths, religions, and other traditions, spiritual or otherwise.

9. Your character’s closest friend or family member moves away, or, alternatively, they move away from their closest friends and family.

What does your character attempt to do on their first day without their usual support group? Write a short scene in which your character goes through their day without the people they usually rely on. Make sure they face at least one challenge they would usually go to their friends or family for help with and decide how they resolve the situation now that they don’t have that support.

10. Your character encounters someone less fortunate than they are.

Do they attempt to help the person, or leave them alone? If they try to help, in what way do they help? Write a short scene in which your character talks to someone who has suffered worse than your character and describe how your characters feels, what they do, and how they view their interaction with this person.

Devel…opment in the Details

World building is a complex process, and everyone has their thoughts on how to do it best. I’m not going to give a list of Do This and Don’t Do That, because no single piece of advice will ever be universal. Don’t dump all your world information in long paragraphs of explanation? Tolkien would like to direct you to The Silmarillion. Don’t use flashbacks? Try out Red Sister and Lies of Locke Lamora. Neither are quite up my alley, but I understand their use of flashbacks is exquisite. And all three of those books have readers who hate their world building for the exact reasons that others love the world building. Because reading taste is subjective.

What I want to talk about is something I think is a little more universal than any specific strategy. Something that almost all methods have in common. A unifying theory of world building, if you will. Details.

Conventional Wisdom Says…

Most people have heard some version of where I’m starting. If you go to a writer’s conference, or ask questions of any experienced writer or publishing professional, you’ll tend to hear the same thing. Give the reader just enough world building to understand the immediate action of the scene. Apply small details like smell, taste, touch along with your sight, but don’t go overboard. Fantasy writers get this particularly hard, because they have a reputation for info-dumping. The character wouldn’t stop and examine the scent of the stable before shoveling manure, so why are you pausing to describe it?

Yeah, your character probably wouldn’t do that. But as writers, we aren’t creating reality. We’re creating a false narrative that always focuses on things our characters wouldn’t notice in order to emphasize the important parts of the story. Think about how this plays out if we apply the “would the character do this” logic to another situation. If I watch an adult man and his younger sister, neither of them would refer to each other as sister or brother except in specific cases, like introducing themselves to a stranger. So if I write a first person narrative where a man and his sister interact with only people they know, does that mean I’m never allowed to tell my reader they are siblings? That’s illogical. Some level of contrived narration is necessary, and everyone knows that. So why can’t we have a stable hand walk into a stable and pause to grimace at the scent of unshoveled manure before he gets to work?

And the right answer? Maybe you should. Just not every time.

Details Done Right

Many years ago now, I used to be an obsessive player of World of Warcraft. Eventually I stopped playing (for a number of reasons, but primarily because I disliked a particular expansion’s changes), but when I did I tried out the then-new MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic. I never got too invested in that one. After a while, I heard about Rift which was supposedly really good at keeping engagement, so I tried it. Fun game, but not something that really drew me in like WoW. I also tried the Monster Hunter MMO—not my style—and the Lord of the Rings MMO—felt really old. Eventually I found myself completely without an MMO for years. I missed it and I told my husband that I wanted to play WoW with him again, even though many of the things I’d enjoyed were no longer present.

And I loved returning to WoW.

I didn’t have the time to commit that I had in the past, so I never became a top end player. But it was like going home, and that made me wonder why. One day, as I was sitting in the city of Stormwind waiting for something in game, I noticed that the two children who had been chasing each other on a loop around the city since the game’s released had reversed roles. Originally, the boy stole a toy from the girl and was running around taunting her with it. Now, the girl had taken a toy of the boy’s and was taunting him. There is no quest, or event, or achievement, or anything else involving these children. They are the purest form of flavor text, and that explained to me why WoW stole my heart and four other games failed. The details.

As you’re playing through early versions of WoW, you’re walking down the road and you see a dire wolf. That wolf might charge out of the grass to the side and attack you, but it also might chase down a rabbit to kill and eat. It depends on who is closer and what “threats” the wolf perceives. It’s all programming, of course, but there were no wolves chasing rabbits in SWTOR, Rift, Monster Hunter, or LOTRO. There were no patrols of opposing faction guards traveling the roads of Arathi Highlands and sometimes getting into fights with each other instead of the player characters. The wolves, guards, and monsters in those other MMOs were only there to chase you.

This is the difference between a book where the stable hand stops to grimace at the stench of un-mucked stalls before getting to work (once, not every time) and a book where you don’t even see the stable hand unless he happens to be central to the plot in one way or another. The momentary distraction of real life makes the bigger, world-changing or story-altering or character-defining moments feel real. When everything plays into the central narrative, nothing feels authentic.

Just the Right Amount

This is, of course, not an invitation to infodump the history of your world in the opening to your novel. To retain my video game analogy, I’ve played through every race opening in WoW at least three or four times (some a dozen or more) and I can’t tell you anything about the content of the opening cinematics for any of the races. I don’t remember any of it. But I remember those kids running around Stormwind and the toy vendor who sometimes has a white kitten for sale. I remember Anduin Wrynn as a 10 year old moping in the palace wondering where his father was. And hundreds if not thousands of players remember the struggle to locate Mankrik’s wife, who wasn’t where he said she was. It’s the small things that people remember.

So, when you’re building a new world—especially a secondary world fantasy, which needs so much more explanation than one set in contemporary worlds—how do you manage to insert these details without dropping the novel equivalent of a WoW opening cinematic? Well, there’s a few methods that often work.

  1. Start with a small moment. This sounds pretty antithetical to most current advice on how to start your book (that you should start the book with conflict), but it’s actually not contradicting that advice. “Conflict” doesn’t have to mean “something big and dramatic” and it turns out that for most readers a small conflict is easier to attach to in a strange world than a big one. So instead of starting with someone dodging a fireball, start with your character being turned away from a shop because it’s closing time while the character argues that if they can’t buy the extra blanket they came for their sister might become deathly ill from the cold wraiths that stalk the city. Now you have a small moment that grounds the reader in a simple need (to help their family stay warm), have signaled that there is magic in this world (cold wraiths), and have a conflict on page one. Does it matter if the sister or the blanket ever come up again? Probably not, if you handle it properly.
  2. Find reasons for the character to connect events to larger world building elements. You have to be a little careful with this one so you don’t fall into the trap of everything existing just to serve the plot, but done right this is the best way to include backstory and world building. Consider the difference between these options: your character is trying to decide whether or not to take a magical sword and suddenly remembers that magical swords are the only way anyone in the world gets magic and he needs magic to defeat the villain. OR Your character is trying to decide whether or not to take a magical sword and suddenly remembers that if he gets the magic from a magical sword he might be stuck with it forever because magic swords always turn people into wizards and he worries about how he’s going to live the rest of his life as a wizard. The last one doesn’t tell you he needs magic to defeat the villain, but we probably suspected he needed magic anyway. What it does do is give you an element of worldbuilding. Every person with magic in the entire world has touched a magic sword, and as a result gave up any other dreams that magic might interfere with in order to have that magic. What might their motives have been? This world feels more real now because the magic power up is a thing that could happen to anyone, with uncertain consequences.
  3. Introduce new characters through context with existing characters, but give them interests outside the main plot. And more to the point, don’t drop a bunch of characters at once. If you have a group of seven people, take the example of Lord of the Rings and introduce them slowly, through the book. There, we first met Gandalf and Frodo (and Bilbo, of course, but he wasn’t a major character in Fellowship). After that, the important people inserted themselves in memorable ways throughout the story, such that no one forget the main characters. Merry and Pippin are the mischievous hobbits who tend to get Frodo into trouble. Sam is the loyal friend, Gandalf is the exotic visitor Frodo remembers from his childhood. And at no point do these other characters feel like they had nothing going on outside of the main story. Sam has the girl at the inn, Merry and Pippn are literally in the middle of something when they get dragged into the story. Gandalf straight up vanishes for months on his own business. If your characters come in because of a connection with or forced interaction with existing characters but recognize other elements of their lives that still matter, you create deeper characters. And deeper characters imply a deeper world.
  4. Remember what things are new to your character, and what your character would notice/think. This is a common mistake that writers make at all levels of experience. My character is terribly poor. He doesn’t even have a home, just sleeps on the street. And he writes a quick note to his friend and slips it under the door as he runs off to get dinner at a local tavern. Wait, what? He can’t find a place to live, but he can afford paper, pen, ink, and to buy food from a medieval restaurant-equivalent? These tiny details can be extremely hard to remember, but they can also make or break the immersion level of your story. If I don’t understand the social and economic aspects of society, how will I ever understand the character’s personal struggles within that society? Most fantasy authors have been cautioned a dozen or more times against info-dumping this information, but you don’t need to. All you have to do is have the character notice how exotic the taste of the tavern food is while others turn their noses up at the plain, unappetizing meal. And give me a reason he has the money this time, but there are a dozen or more reasons for that.

Beware the Conlang

This should really be a point on the list above and the broader concept here is relatively simple. If you create a new language (a “constructed language” or conlang) and then write long explanations in it, your reader won’t have any idea what you’re saying. I doubt anyone really needs that information told to them. But there’s a more complex issue at work here, so I’m going to temporarily misuse the term “conlang” and broaden the definition into “any term either created for a fictional story or significantly re-purposed from its usual meaning to suit the needs of the story.” This expanded definition allows me to more easily discuss a problem I often see in fantasy and science fiction writing. I once saw a description of a novel that went something like this (conlang terminology, names, and some events changed primarily because I don’t remember any specifics, just the effect):

In the Mor’can Galaxy, Flerbendurdin Ajaor Kinlishious faces the deadly Hyncrix as the Flerbendurdin Council Flerbenmental for aid from the Junocipetrish. When Flerbenguard Jocsiaron…

Dude, I have no idea what this says. I guess maybe there’s a war? Or is it insurgents? Is Flerbendurdin a noun or an adjective? At the point where I had to stop mid description to try and identify what parts of a sentence the various new terms formed, the author killed any chance of me looking at the book. Your pitch is supposed to entice the reader with understandable character and conflict hooks. It is not designed to explain the world-building.

This is an extreme example, but it’s a problem fantasy authors always run the risk of facing. This is because every fantasy story has something that falls into my expanded definition of conlang. “Seeing” is a normal term that many fantasy writers use to mean “see the future,” but its most common usage actually means “perceive with the eyes.” Every fantasy author has to find ways to introduce new language without confusing the reader. Too often, in trying not to infodump, we make mistakes in this space in and give way too many details without anywhere near enough context.

For all my flippant disregard, I understand the problem this author faced. I once attempted to pitch a novel that featured zero human characters and the main character was of a serpentine race somewhat reminiscent of half-dragons from D&D. The thing is, their lore was that they believed themselves to be descended from real dragons, but in actuality dragons were pure myths and these creatures had a completely different historical lineage that mattered to the story a lot. But how do you pitch that book? You have to say the main character is a “half-dragon” because anything else either ignores the character not being human or adds a bunch of conlang/world building details that the editor doesn’t care about. As an author, I railed against the idea of mislabeling my character, but failing to find another solution, I called my main character a half dragon and his main enemy an elf. The editor replied “Everyone loves dragons and elves, but why do I care about yours?”

How Do You Use Details Well?

I like to think about the moments that worked for me in WoW. The children in Stormwind. They added flavor, depth, and complexity to the world, but if I was describing the game I’d never mention them. Details work best as seasoning, like salt in King Lear. It sounds like a minor thing and you’d rarely bother to mention it in a description. But what would your story be like without any?


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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For some original fiction, check out these posts:
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