Driving the Story and the Game

In the early drafts of The Pagan Night (when it was still called The Heretic Blade) I had a problem with characters. Their motivations, specifically. My readers kept saying things like “I have trouble believing so-and-so would do the things that he’s doing” which is a troubling thing to hear. I spent some time tinkering with backstory and with the scenes that led up to the scenes in question, but I was never able to get it quite right. That’s part of the reason that draft never saw the broader light of day. Even the draft that made the rounds to the publishers continued to suffer slightly from that problem. The fact that I’ve rewritten this book six times has something to do with it, but the larger problem was really a matter of character creation. And it’s something I saw a lot in other books, and in my own writing in the past, so I think it’s worth addressing.

In the book, my problem was in order of creation. As with most books that I write, when coming up with the world of Tenebros I started with a single theological truth. Then I created some cultural institutions around that truth, devised ways that the different cultures interpreted that truth differently, and iterated that a few hundred generations to get the final religious/social/cultural structure that would define the world. That’s just how I create.

Once I had that, I looked for the points of tension in that culture, and the institutions that would drive that tension. Up to this point I feel like my process is pretty solid, but then I made a mistake. Once I had those points of conflict and tension, I came up with the plot of the book. Once I had the plot, I created the characters that would fill in the plot holes. And that’s a mistake. Because everything that my characters did after that point was in service to the plot, rather than in service to themselves. I think this last iteration of the book solves that, because I stripped it down to a couple of characters and had their personal conflict (father and son, hero and heir, heretic and saint) drive the story. Looking at the world that way really refreshed my own perspective on things.

While waiting for edits back, I’ve started working on something else. Always writing. That’s how writers are, man. But this time, while I’ve done the Great Theological Truth thing, and the world creation, and the social/cultural/religious structure, I stopped at that point and just created a character. One person who I personally can relate to, and I’ve put him in an interesting situation, and I’m going to let the story grow on its own. I have some ideas, some scenes, and some conflicts that I intend to insert, but I’m going to get to those places organically, and not worry about what happens in between.

For the curious, here’s the first paragraph from this enigmatic new work:

The eldren had a way of forgetting, of sealing memory into stone and dropping their sorrows into the black waters of the lake that lapped against their floating city, to sink beneath the surface, never to be remembered again. The lake is gone, the city is gone, the eldren dead and legend, but the stones remain. They whisper underfoot of broken love and angry hearts, of children dead, of glory never realized and dreams turned to ash in an age before the age of mortal flesh. I walked among these stones, looking for a friend.

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