All In The Details

As I continue to create and develop the many characters that will feature in the first part of the Epic Saga that I have dubbed the MASC Chronicles (as most series these days are entitled as such), I’ve also been figuring out the overall narrative structure to the individual novels as well as the series itself (not to mention how the events in this first series will impact the subsequent two series and its characters). These two elements are inevitably intertwined, as the characters’ actions, personalities and personal history will affect the shape of the plot, and vice versa.

Thus far I’ve been focused on the core group of recurring characters in the first series and their general personalities, overall appearance, and a bit of their backstory (though much of it is still tentative, as random ideas pop into my head that lead me to rethink or edit characteristics or background detail). I’ve also sketched out the  general narrative for the first series, though it’s very broad plot sketches for the majority of the first series – I’ve put a bit more detail in the first two novels. I do seem to do well with general plotting – I have years’ worth of scribbling in notebooks, and Word files about general ideas, general musings and general character sketches. It’s the details that keep me awake and usually perplexed.

I have (many) ideas of how I’d like the overall story arc to unfold, but it’s the details that often puzzle me – the interactions, the conversations, even the literal detail of the setting, whether it be the location or the character description. Of course, as these novels are to be mysteries (of the Golden Age kind, more cozy than hard-boiled) with splashes of steampunk, and inklings of supernatural/occult, there is only so much detail that can be revealed to the reader (and the characters). Trouble is, as the creator of this world (which will most likely be a slightly alternate universe than our own), I would need to figure out all the angles, plant the red herrings and sprinkle enough clues throughout without it being too obvious or formulaic (I’ve read several mystery novels wherein I was able to figure out who the culprit/murderer was well before the end of the novel, as well as novels in a series wherein the overall plot followed a set pattern, which brought down the suspense of the story). However, in developing the characters and mapping out the overall plots, I have adopted the private detective/sidekick format, with the sidekick as the narrator, as an homage Hercule Poirot/Captain Arthur Hastings and Sherlock Holmes/Doctor John Watson, detecting duos created by Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Such as the details with the protagonists and their quirks, equal attention must be paid to the antagonists, and other shady characters – of course with all of these characters and their motives and motivations, there are levels of complexity to be interwoven, and in turn interwoven into the plots in which the characters find themselves. Again, it’s all in the details – knowing how to plot out events, finding the right pacing and plunking in twists and turns (though not too few and not too many) – there lies the secret of a well written novel.

But then again, as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details” (and considering how this saga has changed over the years, and even over the past few months, that might also be a literally true). Time will tell how it will all turn out.

Character Building

The complexities of creating well-rounded and interesting characters is as daunting  a task as plotting out the intricate details of a story, regardless of the medium through which they are presented. The characters are at the heart of any story, whether they are the hero or the villain (or a mixture of both): they are the ones who dictate and shape the overall structure of the plot and how they relate to one another.

Well, at least mine do.

I’ve spent much of my time of late figuring out the personalities and back stories of the core group of characters that are to feature in the first part of the [proposed] three-part saga, nine in total thus far (there’ll be others, but I haven’t gotten around to them yet). What has been challenging is creating characters that are complex and unique, yet utterly believable (or as believable as can be given the quasi-alternate universe I’ve created for them), without them becoming caricatures or one-dimensional.

Of course, having (almost) nearly figuring out who these characters are and why they are the way they are, and do what they do, there’s the added challenge of presenting the characters, pacing how much detail to reveal to the reader, and to the other characters. Since I’ve elected to write in first person perspective, the narrator knows only so much, and ultimately has the power to choose what to reveal and/or conceal to the reader (and to the other characters), which presents infinite possibilities on how the story is to proceed.

For the moment, I’m focusing on the personalities, motivations and relationships of the characters, though I have given some thought as to how they would look – I have taken to using aspects of real people [usually actors] as a starting point, then mixing and matching to visualize my characters, which will in turn provide some insight into their mannerisms and fashion sense (or lack thereof).

The naming of characters is also a tricky business – names are important for they hold the key to the character’s identity, and may (or may not) have a greater meaning in the grander scheme of things. Examples of this include the characters River Song and The Doctor himself, from the Doctor Who series – I’m sure there are many others, but those are the two that come to mind immediately (as the Doctor Who episode “The Name of the Doctor” has recently aired, and I’ve fairly become quasi-fixated on all things concerning Doctor Who lately).

Most of my characters have had some part of their name change at some point in the writing process (though interestingly thus far, there have been a handful of names that have remained unchanged through the years). The manner in which I pick names is somewhat random, though I often take inspiration from what I am interested in (whether it be in literature, film, television or theatre) at the time when I’m working on the characterization and mix and match, with interesting results. I also take into account name meanings and origins, and match them as best as possible to the character, having a baby name book as a useful reference (or not).

Thus far in this epic saga (still) labeled the MASC Chronicles [though I have yet to figure out for what “MASC” is an acronym, if it actually is an acronym], there are to be a core number of families (as this saga is to span several centuries) and figuring out lineages and other family ties is yet another “fun” challenge. Thankfully, programs such as Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots have provided some inspiration on how to tackle this task, though starting at the end and working my way backwards is one way to approach character building, though in doing so I sometimes find myself bouncing between time periods, alluding to personality traits and such throughout, and its impact on the family and personal history of the characters (there will most likely be a separate blog post about historical accuracy, so this is not the blog post to discuss this).

Of course whether or not these characters I’ve created remain the way they are/were when they were created is debatable – as stated (I think) in previous blog entries, the assignment of protagonist and antagonist has switched from one character to the other, and back again (or has remained ambiguous). How these characters will end up is anyone’s guess – I’m not even quite sure, and I’m the one creating them.

Or am I?

A Question of Perspective

When relating a story, one of the most important (if not the most important) element is perspective – how, by whom, and when the story is told is just as relevant as what the story entails, and whether or not what is being communicated is true.  As Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker in The Return of the Jedi,  “You’re going to find many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

When plotting and writing a story, regardless of genre, another vital aspect in the storytelling is from what point of view to relate the tale – most works of fiction are either told in either first or third person point of view. With first person perspective, the narrator is a character within the story, relating his/her own perceptions on the events for which he/she is present, and only privy to information observed or told. With  third person perspective,  the narrator is outside the story, telling the story with all the facts at his/her disposal, privy to the thoughts of all the characters.

Of course, this is quite a simplified explanation of these narration styles, and I’m quite sure there are other blogs, sites  and published books that go into fuller detail on the intricacies of narrative style, and the pros and cons of using one over the other. The bulk of my writing thus far has been in third person perspective, with much emphasis on descriptions and inner monologues, and the requisite amount of dialogue; writing dialogue has never really been my strong suit, with much of what my characters say sounding either too formal or quite melodramatic – I credit years of watching Masterpiece Theater and General Hospital for that duality in “style”).  I find writing in third person gives the reader more insight into the characters and as well as the overall story, so that the reader can follow the narrative from an omniscient point of view. It seemed the “easier” way for me to convey the story, and as the sole repository of the facts (as they were), accorded me with some semblance of power and control as to how the story was to unfold, and what information to impart to the reader.

However, I’ve recently tried my hand at writing in first person perspective, initially to see if I could (having not done so previously) and I have found it an interesting experience which has added another dynamic layer to the overall plotting of this saga I’ve committed myself to writing. Of course, another reason for my foray into writing in first person perspective was to pay an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Agatha Christie, both of whom had written mysteries using the first person perspective (there have been other authors I have read who also employ the use of first person perspective, but Conan Doyle and Christie were among the first I had read while growing up).  In working out the details for my mystery saga and the characters within, the question of which character was to be the narrator was a puzzling one, fraught with infinite possibilities. I could simply follow the formula laid out by Conan Doyle and Christie and have the detective’s assistant/associate be the narrator, or I could have the detective as narrator; furthermore, a character not associated with the detecting duo could provide insight into the mystery, or (for something completely different, but not unheard of) have the antagonist relate the story, or even the victim (to an extent, I’m not quite sure if this avenue has been used in the literary arena, but I’m sure it probably has).

Utilizing this first person perspective also allows for the tale to be told from each of those different points of view, providing the reader with varying accounts of the same event; I could utilize all of the aforementioned possibilities, but that could (and probably would) lead to confusion for the reader, as well as for the writer – to keep track of which character was narrating, and to follow the timeline [but then again, as often pointed out in Doctor Who, time is not a line – it’s all wibbly-wobbly]. I’ve read a few novels wherein there are jumps in time during the narrative, back and forth, forth and back – some authors juggle the skips in time well, and the story is relatively easy to follow, others not so much – it just leads to a lot of reading and re-reading, and re-re-reading.

Then there are some novels I’ve read that have a blend of both first and third person perspective – clearly outlined for the reader to follow – this seems to be the best of both worlds, with a (usually) singular eyewitness account blended with a bit of omniscience. Tentatively, this is the route I plan on taking for Tainted Blood, the first part of the MASC Chronicles, though I haven’t quite decided on who will ultimately be its narrator.

So many perspectives, so many possibilities.

The Intricacies of Plotting Out An Epic Saga

I have profound respect and admiration for authors of epic tales, the creators of entire worlds, cultures and philosophies (or put their own spin on our world) who fill them with complex characters, and weave tales of adventure, often tinged with romance and intrigue. The ones who know how it will all end and cleverly insert dialogue or include descriptions that appear to be non-sequiturs at first glance but turn out to be vital clues that only make sense at the very end (or after a major revelation).

As outlined in this blog thus far, my simple short story expanded to become a three-part saga with each series containing multiple books, with a multitude of complex characters set in a Steampunk-esque universe over a large span of time (the Steampunk angle is a relatively new element in the writing process). As such, figuring out how the narrative threads and character story arcs that run throughout relate to one another has been an ambitious if not daunting task. Add the fact that these stories are also self-contained mysteries, and the task becomes doubly ambitious and daunting.

While it may be logical to start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, as Oscar Hammerstein II famously wrote), sometimes starting at the middle (or at the end) and working backwards (much like how George Lucas presented the tale of the Skywalker family or how Steven Moffat presented the character of River Song) also has some logic. All of this has led to much plotting and pondering and not much actual writing, as things seem clearer to me when I know the basic outline of the entire story arc, and filling in the details as I go along. Thus far this tactic has been applied the first part of this saga, (though I’ve put some thought into the next two series) which has resulted in my plotting out, and tentatively writing the first two novels in the first series concurrently.

Another intricacy in working on such an expansive saga is the amount of exposition involved, from the character backstory, and the relationships between characters and how it all fits in the overall story arc. When dealing with important, plot-changing information, figuring out what to reveal, how much to reveal and when (and where) to reveal it is also a fascinating conundrum – of course, revealing such information is inevitable to the reader, but revealing this to the characters within the story adds another layer to the storytelling.

As my epic saga (tentatively entitled the MASC Chronicles) is an evolving one, plot points, character development and narrative flow is bound to change, and has changed over the past few years. Characters who used to be the antagonists of the story have now become the protagonists, character motives have changed, and sequences of events have been arranged, and rearranged. Also with the addition of the Steampunk angle, creating an alternate universe from scratch is another work in progress, and adds yet another layer to the narrative flow.

There are infinite ways of how a story can be told, infinite possibilities of how to present characters, relationships and situations, it’s hard to choose exactly which path to take, and if the path that is chosen is the right one. I just hope I am able to find my way through these intricacies and present a story that is complex and interesting.

May the Fourth Be With You.