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Gen Con Panel Notes: Character Motivation

Elizabeth Bear, Gwenda Bond, John Horner Jacobs, Lauren M. Roy, Howard Tayler (m)

Take it as given that characters need to be motivated. Where do you start? When you want the character to do something important to the plot.
Bear – make them want something even if only glass of water (Vonnegut)
Also makes reader care about the character
Roy – yes. Also thinks about what their controlling worldview is. How they feel like it’s keeping them from getting what they want.
What’s different about their perspective
Jacobs – at beginning of musical, character sings their desire. It’s good to know when you’re setting out what you think the characters desires are, even if it’s preserve the status quo
Roy – conflict between what they want and what they need
Jacobs – authors create situations that strip away characters , leaves their core
Tayler – musical theater shows the use of tools we don’t get to use. Into the Woods, Agony – it’s a better Captain Kirk than his Captain Kirk. It tells what he want. It’s slimy but we’re on board bc of how it’s communicated
How do you communicate that to the reader as enthusiastically as musical theater might
Bear – protag should have strong want and conflicting need. Put in situations where those conflicting desires can be exposed.
The character who runs toward gunfire will make the plot for you.
Bond – Lois lane, easy to write because she’s so intrinsically motivated and creating her own obstacles. Also confidence porn, she has the ability to see things are wrong.
When starting out I would choose the wrong character. Often the ones that are easy to understand aren’t the ones w a deep desire that can sustain an entire novel.

Tayler – when character does a thing that the writer hasn’t earned. When James Bond is awesome in first 5 min it’s earned, but for an unknown character, how do you earn the readers trust?
Jacobs – example, Fury Road. It should have been Furiosa road. Max was divorced from everything, you have no clear idea of his motivations except flashbacks.
Regret is not a sting motivator, revenge is.
In first frame he has connection to dog, and later they transfer that to the feral boy. He can form a bond and when threatened he’ll act to protect that.
But at end he fades back into crowd…
Sometimes motivation is connection to other life…
Bond – girl is wire walker. Was worried about how to make reader believe she can do it. Grabbed the physicality of wire walking. Ground us in the body of the character so we feel it. You have to show that it’s not easy and that they trained or learned.
Bear – cheap way is training montage. And reaction shot.
Meeting Eliot in Leverage, great character introduction, bar with mobsters, walks out with macguffin.
Tayler – if he were the protagonist that wouldn’t work bc you’ve set up an impossible situation and won. In ensemble cast it worked.
Bear – it can work in a lot of ways.
Sherlock Holmes, teveryone takes it for granted that he can do this.
Bond – you’re so close to the protagonist that you forget to make sure that the other people in the story are reacting to them.

Tayler – what do you do to demonstrate that secondary characters have motivations?
Roy – show them interacting with primary characters. Small interpersonal interactions to establish the character and how they talk. Who they are in relation to each other.
Bear – point about conversations is good. Usually both people are talking about their own stuff and there’s a point of intersection. That’s how we build empathy,
Bond – it’s important that those characters …
Tayler – everyone hero of own story. We are in building full of people with motivation I need to get into exhibit hall to get this thing. And they were in my way when I wanted to get here.
We want to write that so our character’s quest to be the moderator runs afoul of real people.

Obstacles. What are your favorite? When you want to drive the character arc and plot, serve multiple purposes.
Bear – character is plot. If they’re doing something out if character the writer isn’t forming the plot from what they want.
There’s the thing they need to do to become a whole, complete being. Die Hard – he wants his wife back, he needs to become a person she wants.
Bond – be as extreme as possible within the bounds of credulity.
Make the obstacles tough from the get go
Roy – they have to choose, and think they’re making the right decision
Jacobs – there have to be realistic, often unforeseen consequences to what your character decides
One rookie mistake – needing more tension, bring in man with gun, tends to be a small conflict that you’re fabricating.
Bear – the character who is constantly in conflict because they’re brittle and mouthy, are better as secondary
Bond – can be primary if you see inside them…

In your writing, moments where your characters had a motivation problem and you solved it – an aha moment
Bear – one-eyed jack, 1st person narrator. Had problem with protag as unreliable narrator, withholding information. I couldn’t figure out what he was withholding. He had interesting backstory that was motivating him, took four drafts.
Bond – last week, had about 20k words which is where I stop and see where I went wrong. Girl who wants to be magician like her dad, he doesn’t wNt her to. She runs away to join circus. Wasn’t feeling like she and dad were close. Realized she’s been practicing on her own. Now she has something to prove, and is more interesting because she’s spent six years becoming an expert on escape.
Jacobs – my first novel, horror crime mashup. Vet with PTSD. …
Roy – weird hybrid of pantser and plotter. Ending of book came to her. Don’t know who’ showing to so,ve the problem , then character gets what he wants but it wasn’t what he wanted. So etimes you have to let it percolate and let your subconscious…

Is a need to do your duty a lazy motivation?
Jacobs – some motivations are more interesting than others.
Forrest Gump a lieutenant motivation wanted to die in battle, and was interesting character
Job of writer is to make it interesting
Tayler – protag is bodyguard, job is to guard the CEO. But critters asked what he wanted besides his job. So he joined the military to save the world, realized he can only save some people. Now he has a motivation, and at end he might get to save the world – that connection made the story work.
Bond – he wants to do his duty why?
Bear – guy doing his job – Clerks. And Ned Stark.
Jacobs – interesting thing about duty is pride and ego.

Running toward bullets – but what about a no confidant protagonist?
Bond – I love that kind of character. They’re almost immediately forced outside their comfort zone.
Bear – tragic arc is guy who refuses to grow. Use a series of carrots and sticks to get him to move to take more responsibility.
Jacobs – works really well with young adult.
Bond – even the most competent character is an asshole if they never question.
Roy – wendig’s Miriam. Sees people’s death. She tried to circumvent that but it happens anyway. If your character tries to run away, out the thing right back in front of them.

Character has motivation but finds it’s not as simple as they thought (are betrayed) and have to do 180?
Bear – the turn or twist.
Bond – hague’s 5 act structure, 10 percent of the story problem isn’t driving the plot, 25 is. (?)
Tayler – it is a disaster when you discover everything you wanted is wrong, it’s a powerful story. Now they’re lost, you rescuer them
Bond – Solitaire by Kelly Eskridge

Closing remarks
Bear – break stuff, make character react
Bond – yes
Jacobs – make it worse
Roy – have characters bullshit at each other, figure out how to interact
Tayler – watch people, if you understand why ppl want things that make no sense…

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Gen Con Panel Notes: High Fantasy Without Cliches

Josh Vogt, our own Kelly Swails (m), Robin D. Laws, Lauren M. Roy, Kameron Hurley

Favorite cliches
Kelly – farm boy saves the world (favorite)
Josh – destiny (least favorite)
Mcguffins (fave)
Robin – least – dark lord of darkest darkens embodiment of evil
Lauren – likes it when she’s surprised.
Josh – holly lisle had a series with a prophecy , society waiting for a messiah. He’s born in the middle of the book and someone kills him. It works well.
Robin – avoid D&D cliches
Josh – cliches are shorthand
Kelly – likes the farm boy cliche bc sometimes i don’t want to be wowed, just want mind candy
Kameron – fave – scullery girl will be queen
We’re always waiting for someone to choose us and say we’re amazing
least – medieval Europe (boring)

Kelly – do we need to avoid cliches
Robin – tricky distinction between trope and cliche
Hero’s journey seems cliche if you do it badly, but a trope if you do it well
Josh – be widely read so you know what’s been done – make a trope uniquely yours. Distinguish it or subvert it.

Kameron – wanted lots of unfamiliar aspects, so using the stable boy story helps ground the reader in something familiar
Kelly – part of discovering yourself as a writer and not writing cliche stuff is doing it at first
Robin – how to make it suck less – look at the characters. If the character is fresh and new and specific people will like the other elements, but if the character is also stock, the book sucks
Josh – that’s why antiheroes are popular
Lauren – give yourself permission to have fun

Kameron – people are drawn to passion, they see you’re having fun. Write the book you want to read.

Robin – if there is something else you want to do professionally, do that instead
(Digression into productivity)

Blending genres as a way to subvert a cliche
Josh – Genres are a marketing tool, readers don’t care
Robin – is it two cliches and therefore twice as bad? Or did it make it new and cool?
Example: the movie Priest – ideas disconnected from historical context and an uninteresting character.
Kameron – big fan of worldbuilding. Sees a lot of lack of imagination. People do a thought experiment and then don’t think through how various technologies would transform their lives. Like transporter technology. The more you think through, the richer the world will be.
Combining genres is difficult to sell. Call it the thing that it is most like. Mirror Empire is an epic fantasy. God’s War is science fiction.
Lauren – booksellers ask what section to put the book in, they do t want it in two places
Josh – you see a lot of cobbled together steampunk…
Or our world with magic, but we wouldn’t have developed the same tech. You have to think about the consequences.
Good examples?
Lauren – Defiance
Kameron – Cherie Priest new series, thriller horror gothic mashup. Jeff vandermeer, China mieville. Lots of the new weird – combined horror and fantasy
Robin – first season of true detective – cop drama and horror
Josh – max Gladstone – urban fantasy, high F, SF. Cat Rambo beasts of tabat
Kelly – kris rusch – Paloma, police procedural set on the moon
(But fantasy and SF are settings, not plot)
Kelly – we blend a lot – SF and mystery, or thriller
Josh – Jim Hines libriomancer, definition of mashup.

Define high fantasy?
Kameron – the great man theory of history, vs low fantasy which is the grunts
Robin – one steals from Tolkien one from Robert e Howard
Josh – the stakes – alter the world vs more personal

Will learning how to craft a mystery help your writing?
Kelly , kameron – yes.
Robin – read literary fiction. If you want to learn character which is the basis of all interesting writing, read literary fiction.

How do you not fall on the tropes like elves, dwarves?
Kameron – read really widely.
And travel
Robin – read science and natural history
Kameron – cultures – anthropology and history
Josh – aliette de bodard’s Aztec city

Do you have to put things back into satisfy editor or reader?
Like super hero origin?
Kelly – quality of critique makes a big difference

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Gen Con Panel Notes: Eliciting Emotional Responses

I’m at Gen Con this weekend, talking writing and playing games. Every time I go to a con, I take notes at panels, and then often don’t look at them again. This year I’m sharing.

Eliciting Emotional Responses

Greg Wilson, John Helfers (m), Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth Bear, Aaron Rosenberg

Having the readers connect w characters on an emotional level. How do you craft a character, plot, or book that will resonate with readers?

Eb – get the reader to connect with the character (sympathize with)
Doesn’t believe in audience insertion characters
How :
Give the character something they want very much, something they love very much. Or make them incredibly interesting.

GW – create the character that the reader is in real life. Wesley in sttng. But it didn’t work bc ppl didn’t want to identify with him, they wanted to be Picard, Riker, worf…
Don’t make a character that is the reader. Make a character the reader can understand and get to know, even if they don’t agree with or like them

Ar – making their emotional responses reasonable. Unless you’re going for the opposite.
Ned stark in GoT – most sensible people wouldn’t throw everything away for honor, but it caused an emotional response in readers
Cw – everyone gets what he’s doing, we’ve all put ourselves on the line for something. The chestnut write what you know. You’ve experienced awesome stuff and terrible things. Some writers are afraid to mine that. You have to look to your own life for emotional moments.
The struggle in SF is ppl make the quest the thing you care about – but that’s not what ppl care about. They care about the hero’s problem with his mother and him trying to impress the princess.
JH – collection of WWII novellas. Protag betrayed other pows because it’s dishonorable to try to escape. His wife has become a prostitute to support herself – you can’t eat honor. The different emotional response of the two of them.

JH – audience insertion character. Twilight. So blank you can put yourself in there. Is it an effective use or a cheat? She did it successfully.
AR – it’s an exception. Unfortunately it spawned others trying to do it and not succeeding. Considers it a chest.
EB – it’s a focus on a different thing. One of the best characters recently is Katniss. Twilight seems like Bella is more of a scaffold or placeholder. Katniss is extremely well developed, prickly and difficult. She’s not a typical protag, not easy to like.
Both can appeal to readers for different reasons.
Harry potter is not particularly strongly characterized. Like twilight it’s a world people want to go live in.
AR – in HP the world is amazing. Twilight is less about the world than the specific vampire characters. Bella is a blank slate for the vampires to react to and act upon. Harry is an active character.
EB – the most interesting character is the one who runs toward gunfire.

GW – in HP you have an ensemble cast. Gives people a way to approach from different angles.
AR – it’s hard to craft a character you’ll…a cast gives you a broader range of emotional responses.

CW – one way to see it in action is sit at the rpg table. You’re creating characters and motivations.

JH – group dynamic – examples of minor characters in your books? Does reader attachment influence how you see them?
EB – I don’t have the bad boy gene. Han Solo is chewbacca’s sidekick. I sometime write complete jerks and get fan mail who say x is so sexy.
AR – does lots of tie in writing so characters aren’t his. In back of head has possibility for pirates of Caribbean. First movie is good. Second one has character who should be in supporting role as focal point. But it doesn’t work. In first movie we id more with the lovers. Sparrow is secondary. When you make him central the emotional responses are muddled and we can’t connect who him.
EB – so don’t make a movie where darth vadar is the central character?
AR – sometimes characters pop up who are entertaining … Love to hate
CW – the audience doesn’t know what they want. We’re there to hurt the audience. The characters are the proxy by which we torment the audience.

GW – In twelfth night you have ensemble quest. Main character could be almost any of them. The jester is always wiser but if they’re at the center of the tale they’re not the outsider
When sparrow is at center who’s his foil? It overwhelms what the audience is looking for.
Sometimes if a character pops up that people want more of, making them the center makes them lose what makes them interesting in the first palace.

Ar – emotional responses don’t work well when dealing with 24 syndrome. Jack Bauer should be dead. Nonstop emotional responses become ineffective. You need highs and lows so reader can catch their breath.
CW – in music terms, you’re looking for multiple instruments.
GW – it’s dynamics. changing the energy you feel.
The only exception is movie crank where guy has to keep his heart rate high.
Ar – but there are still ups and downs. Where adrenaline drops and poison starts to take effect


Recut trailer of Monty Python and holy grail – makes it into a serious movie. Contrast between ridiculous encounter and how serious they take it.

Depressing endings and having readers still come back – have a ray of hope
People feel better after seeing King Lear – they saw the mistakes, his common humanity. They hold their own family closer.
CW – likes complicated victories where some is won, some lost
EB – that’s more realistic.

Emotionally withdrawn characters?
JH – wrote one unintentionally. Very reserved. A diametrically opposed person started talking to her and connected with her on her level.
EB – in Worldwired every character begins in post traumatic distress, numb. It was hard and don’t recommend it. Handled it by giving people goals and dealing with the emotional disconnection part of the conflict.
The depression itself becomes an adversary. Dealing with Spock – put him in situations where emotional response is part of the struggle.
They can also serve as a foible for other characters. Can become an obstacle for the other characters.
It comes down to finding ways to insert conflict.
Watson – Holmes would be hard to pull off as a narrator.
GW – Susan Calvin is less human feeling than the robots she’s talking about. (I, robot) movie changed that, badly.
The Magicians – character is emotionally withdrawn. Because that’swhat teens Grossman knew were like.

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Publishing Income and Sexism


No, this isn’t a post about how women make less money in publishing (I suspect that’s true, but I don’t have hard-and-fast data; if you cared, I’m sure other bloggers have written about it). This post, really, is nothing more than an observation.

Several writers publish their writing income each year. You know that dream you had as a kid about getting to school and realizing you’re naked? Yeah, I imagine publishing your income is a bit like that. I’ve seen a few men post their incomes–and to be honest, I’m not sure if every single one of them post their day-job income along with their writing income. Regardless, they post their earnings, and the vast majority of comments I see are “hey, thanks for sharing,” or “that was super-informative, thanks.”

Yesterday, a writing acquaintance posted about another writer who had posted their income (including both writing and day job). The acquaintance’s post was basically “yeah, boo-hoo, I’m so sorry you’re only making X dollars a year.” The first comments on this thread were of the “the author shouldn’t be complaining,” ilk. Two points: 1) just 20% of the author’s income comes from writing and b) the author is female.

Now, I’m not usually one to beat the sexism drum. I think it’s like anything else: if you believe the world is nothing more than one big ball of sexist fascists, well, you’re going to think everything comes down to sexism. In general, I don’t see the world that way and so my first reaction typically isn’t “well, he’s a guy, so …” or “of course that happened, she’s a woman …” Having said that, I have to say this: what in the fucking fuck. Really. A man posts his income and folks are like “thanks for sharing;” a woman posts her writing income and folks are like “quit complaining, you should be happy to make X.” I mean, come on. 



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Editing is a craft

So it turns out that editing is a craft, too. I don’t mean editing your own work or critiquing others–though that certainly applies, too. No, I mean editing several stories for an anthology.

This is the third year I’ve run programming for the Library at Origins Game Fair and edited the accompanying anthology. While I have certainly edited the previous editions–made suggestions, asked for changes, etc.–this year I’ve done that much more. Cut 2000 words! Your story starts here, not there! I like the story but not the structure–is there a way we can fix that?

Why is this?

Mostly, I’m feeling more comfortable in my editorial skin. I know what I want and I’m not afraid to ask for it. I respect all my authors enough to know that they are capable of making any change I request. I’ve grown as an author, too, so I see more issues with story than I did before. It’s been an enlightening and fun process.



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In the Word Mines

So I have officially started writing the new book–working title PROHIBITED–and I’m having a lot of fun. My usual process goes something like this:

  • Get idea for character/situation
  • Noodle around with worldbuilding
  • Answer most brainstorming questions with “I don’t know, I’ll figure it out as I get there”
  • Tear my hair out while writing the first draft
  • Figure out what the book is actually about as I finish it
  • Live large during the rewrite

This time it’s gone more like this:

  • Get idea for character/situation/setting
  • Research the hell out of time period
  • Noodle around with worldbuilding
  • Write/submit proprosal
  • Really flesh out the world/setting
  • Delve deep into character motivations
  • Write/submit detailed outline
  • Live large as I write the first draft

At least, so far. Admittedly I’m not far into it, but already I see a difference. I’m not wondering what happens next; I already know. I’m not finding out who my main character is; I’m already quite familiar with her. I find that I’m spending more of the writing time teasing out how to best present the information I already know rather than figuring out what I know. Usually I find first drafts emotionally draining. So far, I’m finding this book to be energizing. Each session I’ve exceeded my word count goal, and when I stop I can’t wait to sit down again. This is probably a combination of all the prep work I did and the setting (which I absolutely adore).  


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Okay, okay, FINE. I’ll tell you the secret.

Sort of.

So I’m working on a new project. While I won’t tell you the particulars, I will tell you it’s speculative fiction set in Prohibition-era Chicago. So you know that that means. Flapper girls and speakeasies and maaaaagic. I am so, so excited to build this world and research the era. I’m reading history books! I’m researching gangsters! I’m watching documentaries! Next I’ll research fashion and language! I will also be keeping my liquor cabinet well-stocked, because you know. One shouldn’t research Prohibition without a drink in one’s hand. By the time it’s all said and done this will be the most research I’ve ever done. Hopefully my liver will still be functional.

Right now I have a solid story concept and a nebulous idea for a plot. Right now it’s also the Best Idea I’ve Ever Had that I Will Naturally Fuck Up Somehow Because I’m a Shitty Writer. So all systems are normal.


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Rejections Aren’t Always Bad

So last week I got a rejection from an anthology market. The rejection wasn’t that unexpected–while my story fit the theme, it did so just barely, as if seeing it from the corner of its eye. Still, it disappointed me. I’d submitted a story I’ve been noodling with for several years, and I liked this draft a lot. The editor said I could rewrite it to better fit the theme and resubmit, or I could submit a different story if I wished. I ran it past one of my writing groups and while they gave me great advice on how to make this version better, they basically said to not change it to much to fit the theme. Which means I’ll probably be writing another story.

There are several points I want to make about this whole exchange that I think highlights my growth as an author.

1. While I was disappointed by the rejection, it didn’t define me or my writing. The editor liked the story–she said so, and I believe her–but it didn’t fit her needs. I didn’t feel a need to look into the deeper meaning behind her words. I didn’t crave her validation. I didn’t have the desire to immediately rip apart my story and make it something, anything, that this editor wanted. I didn’t have the “please please like me” feelings running through the back of my head. This is probably because …

2. I knew what story I wanted to tell. I knew I had gotten pretty damn close with this draft. Is it perfect? No. But it’s way better than the story I wrote eight years ago. It’s better than the attempt from two years ago. Will I be able to write it better in five years? Probably. At least, I hope so. But you know what? I told the story I wanted to tell in an effective way.

3. Points 1 and 2 are probably helped by the fact that this story is a deeply personal, semi-autobiographical one. It’s as close to non-fiction as I could get but still call it fiction (the impeding asteroid that will hit Earth helps with that). Still, it’s a mark of my growth as a writer that point 3 didn’t supercede points 1 and 2, if that makes any sense at all.



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Inside Writing

Another week, another science fiction/fantasy kerfluffle. Only this time, it’s being talked about in USA Today and the Washington Post. Mainstream media, in other words, and not just blogs, i09, and Boing Boing.

This sort of infighting is pretty “inside baseball,” meaning that most of us on the inside are aware of all the scuttlebuts and gossip and such. In recent months our fights surrounding the Hugo Awards (hosts, nominations, what have you) have found their way to outsiders.

I find the whole thing exhausting and distracting. When I feel my anxiety start to ratchet up, I remind myself why I’m in this game to begin with: the readers. I didn’t start writing to win awards or be an industry darling. I started writing so I could connect with readers through words. So I could entertain them and give them an escape from real life for an hour or three. Remembering that helps get my mind back on the task at hand: writing compelling fiction.


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March Madness (And I Mean Basketball!)

The NCAA basketball tournament is my Christmas. Okay, maybe not exactly. It’s like Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one! I fill out brackets and watch the games and root for the underdogs and talk to anyone who will listen about Creighton or SLU or the Big Ten. It probably annoys every one around me but I don’t care. I get hooked every year. This year I took a moment between games to really think about why I’m so obsessed with this tournament, and came up with drama, insurmountable odds, and stakes.

All of these are also components of great fiction (funny how that works out, huh?) Every single player on the court has skin in the game. They all have something at stake: they’re a senior and this is the last time they’ll play college ball; they’re from a “Cinderella” school and will be unlikely to get another bid; they’re playing for their dying father; they’re underdogs and have a legitimate shot at knocking a giant out of the tournament; they hope to have a shot at the NBA; a coach’s job is on the line; a winning team stands to gain better recruits for their program. Sweat and blood and tears are spilled over the course of three weeks and every single drop symbolizes something for someone. It’s fascinating to watch.

Fiction that incorporates meaningful, emotional stakes is better than fiction that doesn’t.

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