Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: fantasy writing

Oh, and it looks like we’re in Medieval England…again…

I’m Kim Alexander back to talk about fantasy world-building. This time I’m looking at those writers who make every heroine in their stories a—wait for it—princess.

This is different from Chosen One Syndrome, because when it comes down to it, every protagonist is a chosen one; you’ve chosen to write about them. In this installment, I’ll be talking about working for a living. (More about Chosen One Syndrome in an upcoming blog post!)

When we create fantasy lands like, oh, “Gondfloria” (pop. 2 mill. unicorns), it’s easy to use the default: faux medieval Europe. If we have a bunch of forbidding, craggy, windswept mountains with impenetrable fortresses (I always feel like it should be ‘fortressi’ even though I know better) atop them, the next thing we’re gonna do is make our main character a princess. (Or a prince, I don’t know your life.)

I’m here to suggest to be brave and try something else. I’m not saying we have to make our enchanted land of Gondfloria into an Arctic survivalist encampment. But, we need to think a little bit outside the box…okay, dungeon, especially if the dungeon is full of Northern European royalty.

(Full disclosure: the main character of my novel, The Sand Prince, is – as the title suggests – a prince. But I hasten to add that he’s astonishingly bad at it.)

Sometimes it seems like every fantasy novel I pick up is crewed by the same group:

  • The sullen yet hot warrior who is certainly hiding a secret (it probably has to do with sex)
  • The sassy thief
  • The wise elder (also a thief, possibly retiring, clearly not going to make it to the sequel)
  • And of course our hero, the member of nobility who under the cover of darkness runs with a bad crowd because Daddy Issues.

Any of them may be masquerading as the opposite gender because it’s…daring. My money is on the sassy thief.

Don’t any of these people have jobs? And no, I’m not counting ‘thief’ as a job. You can’t put it on a resume unless you’re actually applying to be a thief.

Even if we’ve decided it’s written in stone that Gondfloria has forests and castles and bears, we can still explore the lives of people living there without falling back on ‘princess’ or ‘thief.’

Here are a few suggestions, on the house: bear wrangler, bee keeper, lute carver, magical bee keeper (the bees, not the person), cook, fixer for the local mob boss, mob boss, magical bee keeper (the person, not the bees – gods, keep up!), innkeeper, wench (if you have an inn, you’ve got to have a wench; I don’t make the rules), bard, dog boy, horse girl, and then way down at the bottom, thief, and finally, princess. You’re welcome.

Look, we want our story to stand out in the enormous ocean of similarly themed and titled books. We can do that by either taping a $20 bill to the inside cover of each and every one…or by making it unique.

I look forward to reading your take on a hot yet sullen magical bee keeper who lives in the misty woods of Gondfloira. Feel free to get on your magical sassy pants and sprinkle some flash fiction in the comments. Also any suggestion for other cool roles (characters) who’ve been forgotten, overlooked, or given little or no love. Maybe one not yet thought about?

Oooooh, extra XP points!

Unicorn trainers? Those suckers are magical so surely they could be house-trained right? Dude in charge of the “Pigeon Messaging Service” that later was forced into rebranding and a name change because PMS a really bad name for a business in communication (one not involving knives and chocolate). Use your imagination! ALSO!

Are you tired of ye same olde same olde? Losing that loving feeling for fantasy because, when it’s all the same, that is well, to be blunt, the OPPOSITE of fantasy?

Next time: The Chosen One, or, It is foretold that you and you alone will fix this coffee maker and save mornings for all of Gondfloria!

***

I love hearing from you!

For the month of September, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!

(If you are getting this via email, open the blog post to see all the options and sign up!)

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday with me, Cait Reynolds. Today, we are going to go the distance. Literally. No matter what genre we write, our characters generally go places. The physical distance between these places impacts the timelines of our stories, pacing, and tension. Distance, great or small, can also be used to create atmosphere or to illustrate differences between characters.

But, before we get too much farther (ha ha, pun fully intended), here is the requisite photo of Denny Basenji, who is determined to go nowhere and do nothing.

GPS, Equipages, and Transporters

Like I said, it doesn’t matter what genre we write. Every story takes place in a…well…place. Whether it’s another planet, a fantasy realm full of dragons, Regency England, or today’s Los Angeles, distance plays a part in shaping and defining the story.

Let’s tackle the easy stuff first. When we write about anyplace on planet Earth, all we have to do is use Google Maps to get a sense of location, geography, nearby locales, and distance (by planes, trains, and automobiles…and bikes and feet).

I generally keep a little written note of the locations in my story and how far from one to the other. It’s quick a quick reference guide for me as I write, and it eventually helps my editors and proofreaders ensure consistency.

Staying on planet Earth but going back in time, we are still dealing with the same locations (for the most part), so Google Maps is still our friend.

However, now, we have to add in another layer: transportation. Whether it’s a pilgrimage on foot, the complex transportation logistics of a Crusade, taking the carriage to the ball, or crossing an ocean or continent using steam-powered engines, the way our characters get places must be factored into the overall timeline and plot.

But…how exactly do we figure out how long it would have taken a farmer’s cart with two old horses to go twenty miles versus a smart little phaeton with a pair of bright, brisk ponies?

Ah, hello, Google, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.

 No, seriously, you can google that stuff. It might take a little bit of digging (depending on how complex the logistics or how detailed you want to get), but the information is out there.

To prove my point, I just typed in, “average travel speed by phaeton and ponies” on Google and came up with a wealth of information about travel speeds and terrains (in both miles and kilometers!). If I really wanted to nail the exact amount of time it would take Mrs. Gardiner from Pride and Prejudice to go around the 10 miles of Pemberley’s  Park in the phaeton, I would probably spend about twenty minutes to half-an-hour digging through Google results.

For science fiction and fantasy, we get to create the rules, but then, *sighs* we then have to play by them. We can create any alien planet or mist-ringed elven realm we want, but as part of basic world-building, we must actually build the world.

Look at classics like Dune and Lord of the Rings. Herbert has very specific rules and details about space travel and distance between Fremen enclaves on Arrakis. In LOTR, Tolkien provides perhaps the most perfect example ever of using geographical distance to create tension and manipulate the pacing of the plot.

For science fiction, it’s worth doing a little Google, Wikipedia, and science magazine website digging to get a basic understanding of the distances between planets, solar systems, and galaxies – and, how long it takes to travel between them in lightyears. Keep a list of every space station, planet, and outpost, and their distances from each other.

We can talk about warp engines and wormholes all we want in science fiction, but we need to keep it consistent. If we get our characters into a situation where the only way out is to go to warp 10, but the scale only goes up to warp 9.9 (looking at you, TNG *wink*), then, we can’t just wave a magic wand and have the raven-haired, emerald-eyed, 22-year-old engineering ensign with a tragic past suddenly come up with a way to achieve warp 10. 

This is a direct violation of Lamb’s Law of Coincidences: You can use all the coincidences you want to get characters into trouble, but you can never use it to get them out of it.

In fantasy, the same rules apply. I would even go so far as to draw what I like to call a “stick-figure map.” That’s a polite way of saying a bunch of blobs and dots on a piece of paper with arrows between the dots indicating distances between cities, kingdoms, continents, etc.

Magical transport needs rules, just like sci-fi transport. Treat dragons like horses: how fast can they fly, for how long, are there different types of dragons that go at different speeds?

Personally, all my dragons come with a V8 standard.

Polite nothings about the roads and the weather.

Conflict! 😀
Just like it’s natural for us to complain about traffic, tell stories of bad flights, or share information about how to get to a certain location and how long it will take, characters talk about distance and travel, too.

“It must be very agreeable to her to be settled within so easy a distance of her own family and friends.”

“An easy distance do you call it? It is nearly fifty miles.”

“And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day’s journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance.”

“I should never have considered the distance as one of the advantages of the match,” cried Elizabeth. “I should never have said Mrs. Collins was settled near her family.”

 

In this example from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, distance and travel are used to highlight the differences between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s wealth, social status, and character. It’s just one of the many brilliant examples of “show, don’t tell” in the book, but that’s another post for another time.

When I was writing a scene about the journey of one of the characters in Kristen’s and my zombie western, I did spend more time – probably close to an hour – learning about railroad journeys from the East Coast to Arizona territory in the 1870’s-1890’s. This was much more involved for several reasons.

First, based on the exact year we are using, I needed to find out just how far the westward railroad expansion went. I discovered that while there was service to California already, the first tendrils of track had just begun to breach the borders of Arizona.

Therefore, the character would have had to end his rail journey a good 200 miles from his destination and take a stagecoach the rest of the way.

The time I spent researching this was not wasted, and not just for the fact that I was assuring that my facts were correct (socking it to the trolls!), but I realized how much this particular journey would represent abandoning civilization for the character, and it also gave me an opportunity to add in a hint of backstory for his relationship with another character whom he meets at a hotel in Denver when he is making arrangements for the next stage of his journey.

The failure, shortcomings, and limits of transportation provide us with fantastic tools for ratcheting up the tension.

Not to bring up bad memories of math class for many of us, but if character A is 60 miles away and trapped with a bomb set to go off in an hour, and character B can only travel 30 miles-per hour, what is going to happen to character A? (Leave your answers in the comments! Bonus points for creativity and flash fiction LOL.)

***

I love hearing from you!

For the month of September, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!

(If you are getting this via email, open the blog post to see all the options and sign up!)

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday, which today means, not just me, Cait Reynolds, but also Kim Alexander! Today, we begin by not only sharing the obligatory Denny Basenji picture, but also ONION! Because who doesn’t need more Onion in their lives? RIGHT?

Denny and Onion. Together at last.

Kim recently came to visit me (okay, she came to visit her brother, but I live in the same state), and we indulged in various shenanigans. Thankfully, none of which resulted in either of us needing bail money. But it is always within the realm of possibilities.

We decided that since have…er…taken up residence on Kristen’s blog and are teaching classes together, it would be good for everyone to know a bit more about us. So, today is a fun post with a Q&A.

So how do you two know each other, anyway?

Kim: We had the same publicist at a now-defunct publishing house! So we spent a lot of time drying each other’s tears. Cait used to like to prank call and pretend she was the New York Times book reviewer, it really brought up my spirits.

Cait: I pretty much knew we were soulmates when she sent me a mug that says, “We go together like drunk and disorderly.” Add in trips to see each other, questionable plans for larceny at Book Expo America every year, and a mutual love of the distillery industry, and well…yeah.

Out on the town. Together. Not committing felonies. At least, none that were detectable.

In a Thunderdome-style-loser-leave-town cage match, who do you see coming out as the victor?

Kim: Well, I’m scrappy, but she’s a lot more aggressive, and she fights dirty. On the other hand, I do store up my rage, and I have a lot stored up.

Cait: I’m just gonna come out and say it. Me. I would win. Don’t let my innocent looks and sunny attitude fool you. I’m a tough OG. I ran a playground gang in second grade.

What’s your favorite historical period to obsess over and why?

Kim: I am all about Dark Ages Europe. If there is the word ‘plague’ in the blurb, I will read it. It was a time (I think) that the walls between the real and unreal were much thinner–maybe because we had far fewer distractions, and life was so uncertain.

Cait: Really? I have to pick one? Whatever! Nobody puts Baby in a corner! I’m going to say France from 1600-1900. That’s right. Multiple time periods. *mic drop.*

What is the name of your pet and what do you actually call said pet?

Kim: Onion is his government name, but we call him Mr. Handsomeness Man, Squeakzilla, My Real Boyfriend, Big Sexy, and Bubba. (He answers to none of the above.)

Cait: Denny Basenji must live with the indignity of being called Bobenny, Smuppy Puppy, Lil’ Poopie, Booberry Banana Face Baby Butt, and Denny M’boops (dictator of a small African country in his mind). He is giving me side eye even as I type this. Oh, and did you know that Kim has a fish? I nearly asphyxiated when I saw this the first time.

What do you think you’d be good at despite having no evidence at all to back you up?

Kim: I feel like I could be excellent at roller derby. I’m low to the ground and I’m good at fighting my way through crowds. Plus, they have cool nicknames, and I am seriously in the market for a nickname.

Cait: I have seriously been worrying about this question for days. Every time I came up with something, I rationalized how I could manufacture evidence to back up my claim. Therefore, I have decided that I would be good at the following: Mars colonist. I’m totally creative and manipulative, and I would have all the other colonists working hard to make sure I survived.

Why do you write fantasy/epic/para/romantic/tentacle?

Kim: I’m much more interested in relationships than battles, so epic fantasy might not be an obvious fit for me. But I am addicted to world building, particularly when it comes to clothing, food, color, jewelry, manners–the things we surround ourselves with that inform who we are. I love the idea of seeing our world through fresh eyes, which my main character gets to do. Also magic!

Cait: I love exploring what it takes to push a character over the edge of disbelief to belief, whether it’s in the paranormal, magic, or the fact that you deserve to be loved. I am fascinated with the transformative power of love in all its forms, from romantic to learning to love yourself.

Our books. You can find them on the “Books” page of this blog!

Tell me about your main character. This will be a startling insight into your personality.

Kim: Are you implying I am a half human/half demon prince who masks his social anxiety with alcohol?

Cait: Well, based on the zombie western Kristen and I are writing, I would have to say there is a bit of me in the 19th century Parisian debutante with social anxiety and agoraphobia, the battle-weary Prussian doctor who is a militant pacifist (because he likes irony), and the sheer cussedness of Zeke the goat.

What can people expect from taking your Fantasy World-Building Classes?

Kim: From me, you’ll learn the value of staring out the window. Not kidding! Most of my worlds are completely invented, so where I do my hardest work is thinking things through. We’ll talk about the stuff that may not immediately occur to you when you sit down to write. Cait has a very different method of approaching her work, which I guess is valid, whatever.

Cait: Kim stares out the window. I’ve literally seen her do it. For me, you’d find me going down a research rabbit hole or making orderly lists and notes of things in my world. That’s how I’ve come to specialize in giving the improbable a hint of the possible, which is what doesn’t just immerse a reader into your world, but pretty much gives them concrete boots and tosses them in the literary east river.

Our three-class bundle. You can also sign up for each class individually, but hey, don’t you WANT all the Cait & Kim you can get?

When you strike it rich and get that JK Rowling theme park money, where will you be found?

Kim: Railay Beach in Thailand. Third hut from the left.

Cait: Venice. In my palazzo. Drinking really, really good espresso.

Desert island book?

Kim: The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which taught me everything I know about writing fantasy, and writing in general.

Cait: The Complete Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson. And, I’d probably try to sneak in my “Life with Jeeves” omnibus by P.G. Wodehouse. Because the storytelling, characterization, and use of language is so masterful in these books, you find something new literally every time you read them.

Building a Better Fantasy World, from Planets to Partying

Kim and I have a lot to say about what goes into creating a fantasy culture. So much, in fact, that we had to break it into three classes, and we are STILL leaving stuff out (though, we’ll probably teach those in October). Anyway, here are some descriptions of the classes for you!


FROM THE GROUND UP: PUTTING THE ‘WORLD’ IN WORLD-BUILDING FOR FANTASY

Instructors: Cait Reynolds and Kim Alexander

Price: $60.00 USD per class or $150.00 USD for 3-class bundle.

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Wednesday, September 13, 2017. 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. EST

So, you’re writing a fantasy novel. That’s great! But before you put the first spell in the Mage’s mouth or the first sword in the princess’s hand, you have to stop, drop, and roll around in the geography of your bold new world. After all, the better you know the lay of the land, the more at home your readers will be.

This class will look at what goes into the world (literally) beneath your character’s feet. Topics include:

  • Distance: you can get there from here, but how long will it take?
  • How’s the weather?
  • Making maps work for you: where do you put the mountains?
  • What’s for sale? Import, export and commodity.
  • Portals, Doors, dimensions and realms–pick one (or more!).

GETTING TO WORK: PROFESSIONS, POLITICS, AND PRODUCTION IN FANTASY WORLD-BUILDING

Instructors: Cait Reynolds Kim Alexander

Price: $60.00 USD per class or $150.00 USD for 3-class bundle.

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Wednesday, September 20, 2017. 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. EST

If you’re working on a fantasy novel, chances are you’ve already decided what the ‘feel’ of your universe will be. This class will help you turn that feeling into a working, fleshed out civilization.

Before we’re done, you’ll know where your world stands in technological advances, what everyone does for a living, and how they get to work every day.

From the wench in the pub to the backup janitor who cleans the jump-drive, everyone’s got to have a gig.

Topics include:

  • Bronze, stone, atom, or magic? Level up!
  • What do you do all day? Putting your characters to work.
  • How did you get here? From feet to flying cars (or monkeys), pick a ride.
  • Do you take plastic? Economics beyond ye olde marketplace.

ROMPS AND REVELS: ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE, AND CULTURE IN FANTASY WORLD-BUILDING

Instructors: Cait Reynolds Kim Alexander

Price: $60.00 USD per class or $150.00 USD for 3-class bundle.

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Wednesday, September 27, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

When a bunch of characters get together, the first thing they’ll do (after slaying the dragon/alien/Elder God) is want to kick back. It’s human(ish) nature!

So let’s explore what the denizens of your fantasy world do on their free time. It can be the serious business of organized religion to the even more serious business of sporting events, to the most serious thing of all–fashion.

In this class, we’ll find out what your characters are reading, what they’re eating, and which team they’re rooting for. Topics include:

  • Celebrity and pop culture – who are the Biebers and Beatles of the world? Why is it important?
  • Ceremony and ritual – religious and/or secular celebrations.
  • What fashion dictates – what your shoes say about you.
  • What is the equivalent of chocolate cake and champagne in your fantasy world, and who gets the first slice?

I love hearing from you!

For the month of September, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

 

Just how all of us want to dress in Texas summer.

Today, we are going to talk about a problem that plagues sci-fi and fantasy more than any other genre—over fascination with gizmos, widgets, world-building and magic at the expense of the core story and bigger theme. What makes science fiction or fantasy fiction great? What makes it endure for generations? Let’s take a look-see…

Great Stories are about Heroes

All great stories are about people. Fiction is a window into our souls. Stories are a safe place to watch conflict and learn how heroes resolve that conflict. Heroes are not normal people. If our heroes are normal people then that is called “bad fiction.” Heroes are normal people who (eventually) do extraordinary things. They keep going even after (it seems) that all is lost.

But what makes a real hero?

A hero must be relatable.

He/she needs to be relatable so we can connect. We have to see some aspect of ourselves in the protagonist. This is the element that will pull readers into the story and not let go until the end. Perfect characters are not relatable, ergo dull as dirt.

A good hero also has room to grow. 

This is also known as character arc, and it is vital for great stories. Lack of a character arc is one of the reasons that movies based off video games are often less satisfying. Video game heroes are fully actualized on Day One, ergo boring (Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft). The real heroes, the ones that make us dance on the edges of our seats? They begin as unformed clay that we know is going to get a serious pounding. But, once the fires of adversity harden this character? Watch out.

A good hero, if pitted against the Big Boss Troublemaker in scene one should be toast.

If Frodo of the Shire started scene two of the movie at the foot of Mount Doom, he would have been, well *shrugs* doomed. It is the journey that creates the hero. Frodo goes from being a naive fool to a hardened warrior willing to embrace a suicide mission to make the world safe and right, and that is why we stand and cheer.

Gizmos & Magic Does Not a Story Make

One of the biggest mistakes I see in fantasy and science fiction is the writer gets too fascinated with gizmos, magic and world-building. Yes, all of these elements are important, but they are not the core. Icing is awesome and butter cream icing is super awesome, but if it is smeared over canned dog food, we don’t want to eat it. We don’t care how thick you layer that butter cream icing. No matter how many sprinkles you add. No matter how many beautiful roses made of icing, we still don’t want to eat dog food.

Make sure the core story is there. Great stories are a Stake Sandwich. All stories have two layers of objectives with stakes sandwiched in between.

Core Story Problem (Outer Journey)-–What is the core problem your protagonist must resolve before the story ends?

Drop Ring of Power into Mt. Doom.

Stakes–What will happen if your protagonist fails to become a hero? The more that’s at risk, the better the story and the higher you can ratchet the tension.

Naive halfling (Hobbit) who’s never been away from home (out of the Shire) must drop Ring of Power into a volcano in the heart of enemy territory before the forces of evil (Sauron) can use the ring to enslave and destroy protagonist’s known world, including family and friends (Middle Earth).

Core Character Problem—How must your protagonist change in order to defeat the Big Boss Troublemaker?

Naive insecure halfling (Hobbit) must harden into warrior-hero who is willing to do anything to destroy evil.

Note the halfling shows that Frodo has a physical disadvantage (to go with a couple of emotional disadvantages). He is not physically who we would think of when the word “hero” is used. Not only is he small in stature, but he is small in how he views himself. First, he is childlike and naive, which is why he nearly ends up minced meat at The Prancing Pony. 

Warriors don’t just trust anyone and they don’t hang out with friends who have warrants out for their arrest for stealing salad fixings. Frodo, also, doesn’t see himself as a warrior, let alone a hero and yet that is exactly the transformation that takes place.

Movie One—Naive Hobbit transforms into Apprentice Warrior Hobbit

Movie Two—Apprentice Warrior Hobbit transforms into Warrior Hobbit

Movie Three—Warrior Hobbit transforms into Hero Hobbit

As the story arc progresses, so does the character arc until the journey has hardened Frodo enough to be willing to lay down his life to save the world at the end. Yes, there is a lot of magic and world-building and wild creatures but they never overshadow this fundamental core, the journey of a boy to a hero.

Great Fantasy and Science Fiction often are about Bigger Themes and Human Questions

Phillip K. Dick was a master at this. Minority Report asks the question about justice versus free will. Justice and freedom are in a reciprocal relationship. As one increases, the other decreases. More justice, less freedom. More freedom, less justice. Yet, in a world of perfect justice, do we actually lose what it means to be human? Do we trade perfect safety for free will?

Blade Runner explores what it fundamentally means to be “human.” At what point could an artificial lifeform be considered sentient/human? What moral imperative should guide us as we make artificial lifeforms more and more intelligent? What duties and obligations do we, their human Creators, hold?

In both of these stories we can see the hero’s journey. In Minority Report, the poster boy for Pre-Crime is the one who will take down Pre-Crime. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. There is a deep and compelling question of free will versus predestination, thus blending in matters of faith.

In Blade Runner, the hunter will become the protector. There is a dramatic irony in that the Replicants are being mercilessly hunted down and terminated for their “lack of empathy.” The story showcases human hubris and the struggle to remember what it means to be human…compassion, care, empathy.

Digging Deeper

When you start out to write your fantasy or science fiction, think of larger questions your story might answer or at least explore. What does it meant to be human (I, Robot)? Can different races work together even after betrayal (Lord of the Rings)?

Are there religious or political themes you can add to your core story (Dune—substitute “petroleum” for “spice.” Explores the idea of “jihad” and the battle between the “religious establishment” {the Bene Gesserit who are in the pocket of the Guild} and the true messiah and holy warriors who will take it all down)?

Who would be the most unlikely hero for this particular story? What can transform him/her? What crucible is perfect to fire out this imperfection?

In the end, what I challenge you to do is to reach below the surface elements. World-building and magic and gadgets are cool, but they are surface. Dig deep into the tender parts of your humanity, and that is where the real treasures are.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi or fantasy stories? Why do you love them? What bigger questions did they probe? I know I listed a handful and I could write a 100 pages on each exploring the deeper stories and themes, but what did you see? What other selections would you add? Do you get frustrated by stories that are all gadgets and no substance? Does it not bother you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of August I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.