Friday, September 20, 2013

Fun With Campaign Cartographer

When I started writing fantasy again a couple of years ago, I purchased a mapping program called Campaign Cartographer. It's a very complicated program with a pretty steep learning curve. If you follow their basic tutorial, you'll learn to make a basic map, but many of the things about their interface, including much of the terminology for different components of the program, are non intuitive for someone like me (no background in graphic design or anything).

Still, it's loads of fun, and there's a pretty helpful online forum where you can get advice about various aspects of the program. The things that are still stymieing me are the issue related to scaling. I'd love to have a fairly non-detailed world level map where I could zoom into various portions to create more detailed landscapes. But this has eluded me thus far. Also, the city builder module has been a challenge. I purchased this because I thought it would be cool to make more zoomed in maps of a couple of the cities in my world.

It's probably overkill for a writer who just wants some to-scale maps of places in her world, such as what one often sees inset inside the first pages of a fantasy novel. I think the program is more designed for gamers (as the name suggests).

There's also the problem with world building being a potential source of procrastination, and world building being about far more than mapping. I don't agree with some writers who say mapping's a complete waste of time. I'm a visual person, and it is pretty helpful for me to have a sense for how long it will take to travel somewhere, or for what the terrain and landscape might be like in a given region. I've created the nations of Tarkilem (where most of Umbral Heretic occurs) and Andur with a given history and cultures in mind, but the act of setting them down on a map tells me where places need to be within each place in order to allow the story to unfold the way it does. I'll likely need to get some more details down for the countries called Minua and Zeryah and for the continent and lands within Sunabera to the south for the rest of what I currently envision for the series. There's another continent (Roksana) which is mentioned in passing during a scene in the novel.

However, unlike Tolkien, who had his whole world its history so completely in place by the time he wrote Lord of the Rings, that he knew where and what every single reference in his story (save the cats of Queen Berúthiel) fit into the whole, I've left a lot blank for the time being. Actually, I don't want to rope myself, or any future stories I might want to tell in this world, into anything too firmly. I know all too well the kind of flack writers can get when even little things that were hinted at or revealed in earlier books are contradicted in later ones.

So this map represents Northern Tarkilem, the part that is home to the North Hills (Tesk's home village is called Hallerby as it stands right now) and Sa Tarkil (the capital and where much of the story takes place). Another couple hundred miles to the south lies Andur, Jarrod's homeland, and to the East over the mountains lies Zeryah, Ruu's homeland. Tundenholme lies to the north of the North Hills, though this place doesn't come into the story. I'm still tweaking place names to try to get them a bit more aligned with some coherent linguistics. I don't have the expertise in languages to make up my own conlangs and have them sound like anything but random and strange, so I'm borrowing patterns and names from existing languages.

Still working on getting all the fonts large enough to read when the map is smaller than it appears in the program itself.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Personality Assessment and Writing

People have pondering about the nature of personality and temperament for millennia. I don't have children of my own, but my friends and relatives who do have all commented that it amazes them how quickly babies start to show signs of their individuality. Some are fussy, some are quiet. Some are cuddlers, some are more aloof. Some are shy, some are sociable. Some are highly organized and seek structure, others are more free flowing. Of course, many (probably most) people fall somewhere in between on many traits.

There have been many ways people have tried, largely unsuccessfully, to assess personality in people up front: phrenology, Rorschach ink blot tests,  handwriting analysis, humoral personality theories. It would be so handy if there was a way of simply and easily predicting what kind of education, career, social life, partner, hobbies, lifestyle etc. that would best suit an individual. In fact, some employers require prospective workers to take tests, such as the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, in order to determine if they are suited for a particular job.

The problem with personality assessment is that it is attempting to quantify or compartmentalize something that falls along a continuum. Once you coin a term, like introversion, creativity, intelligence, leadership, it takes on a life of its own. People assume it is a unitary and immutable trait. Most of the more scientific versions of personality tests, like Myers-Briggs, tend to rely on dichotomies. They ask either or (or yes no) questions. Some of the fancier versions have scales where you can use a number to indicate how strongly a particular statement applies (or doesn't apply to you). They then assign percentages for given traits.

But even so, many of the ways a person can respond to a question are highly situational. One of the "standard" personality survey questions focuses on whether or not one prefers to plan things in advance or just jump in. How I personally choose to answer this question may depend on what aspect of my life I am thinking about at the time. As a writer, I'm pretty much a pantser. I work best with a minimal (or no) outline. But if I'm planning a vacation, I'm not going to just buy an airplane ticket to some far-away place the day before, hop on, and hope I can find lodging and see all the interesting sights when I get there. So if I'm thinking of writing when I answer this question, I'll likely say I'm not a planner. But if I'm thinking about travel, lab work, or something where the consequences of not planning may result in my endangering myself or misspending a lot of money, I'm a lot less spontaneous.

For most life decisions, I like to do my homework, research the pros and cons of different courses of actions, get my ducks in a row. But when it comes time to make the final decision (which I've set up and structured), once I've narrowed everything down, I often go with my gut.

So one can see the dangers associated with trying to hem a person into a certain temperament or personality. There's no reason why a person can't be thinking in one situation and feeling in another. Or even be both at the same time. Even introversion and extroversion, which people tend to strongly self identify with (most of the writers I know claim to be introverted), can be situational. I'm pretty sure I trend towards introversion, and seem to be getting more so as I get older. But I still need contact with people sometimes. And I actually enjoy parties and social chitchat if I can get myself into the correct frame of mind first. In fact, I often tend to talk too much and too enthusiastically about things.

I teach for a living, which means I need to interact with people and be the center of attention on a regular basis. If someone told me I shouldn't teach because I score as a moderate introvert on a personality test, then well, I'd be out of a job. Honestly, aside from writing (which few earn a living at), I can't think of many careers that don't entail interaction with people on a regular basis.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, writers create characters, and the best characters are complicated, multilayered and conflicted. They have personalities, quirks, wants and needs. Sometimes these things conflict with one another , both within and between characters. If they didn't, it would make for a dull story.

I think personality surveys should be taken with a grain (or entire shaker) of salt. But I  still thought it would be fun to run myself and my novel's four major characters through an online Myers-Briggs survey to see where they came out. Since I am taking it multiple times (answering for each of my characters), I decided not to use one of the services that asks for contact information so they can send a detailed report. I'm a bit leery of giving my e-mail to strangers online anyway. I sort of assume they're going to try to find a way to get money out of me, or at least target me for advertising or nag me about career counseling. I decided to go with this version, though of course, it may not be the most comprehensive or accurate test.

Myself: INTP

Introverted (I) 56.41% Extroverted (E) 43.59%
Intuitive (N) 54.05% Sensing (S) 45.95%
Thinking (T) 52.63% Feeling (F) 47.37%
Perceiving (P) 61.29% Judging (J) 38.71%

This is consistent with results I've gotten on other tests, except I flop back and forth on the thinking/feeling axis a lot. But this version does show me as being very close to the middle of the T/F "dichotomy."

My Protagonist (current name Jarrod): INFP

Introverted (I) 83.87% Extroverted (E) 16.13%
Intuitive (N) 52.63% Sensing (S) 47.37%
Feeling (F) 57.14% Thinking (T) 42.86%
Perceiving (P) 56.25% Judging (J) 43.75%

This actually sums him up well. He's moody, even melancholic at times, and rather idealistic. He's a softie, though he thinks of it as a weakness. He doesn't give his trust easily and will tend to mull things over, almost to the point of paralysis, but then make explosive and irrevocable decisions based more on his feelings than logic.

My Secondary Protagonist (Tesk): ISTJ

Introverted (I) 58.82% Extroverted (E) 41.18%
Sensing (S) 54.05% Intuitive (N) 45.95%
Thinking (T) 52.78% Feeling (F) 47.22%
Judging (J) 53.33% Perceiving (P) 46.67%

An interesting outcome. As I see the character, she's introverted, though less so than Jarrod. So this is pretty accurate. She does tend to value logic and evidence over hunches and emotions, though part of her arc as a character is to learn to trust her gut in at least some situations and to stop thinking of her softer emotions as a weakness. She is actually a very kind, compassionate person, though she's afraid this means she'll be taken advantage of and that it will affect her objectivity as a healer and force her to be more of a caregiver than someone who discovers new treatments for disease.

The third pov character (Ruu): ENFP

Extroverted (E) 58.33% Introverted (I) 41.67%
Intuitive (N) 52.78% Sensing (S) 47.22%
Feeling (F) 59.38% Thinking (T) 40.63%
Perceiving (P) 55.88% Judging (J) 44.12%

Ruu is more outgoing than either Jarrod or Tesk, so the E rings true to me. He looks like an even split between intuitive and sensing, like my other two characters. He is more spontaneous and go with your gut than Tesk is, though he's more okay with that aspect of himself than Jarrod is. His main conflict in the story is his loyalty to his guild and his own desire to redeem himself so he can return home. But then his guild asks him to step outside his sense of what is right. This really is the core conflict all three of my sympathetic characters face in one way or another.

The antagonist (Danior): ESTJ

Extroverted (E) 64.52% Introverted (I) 35.48%
Sensing (S) 68.75% Intuitive (N) 31.25%
Thinking (T) 85.71% Feeling (F) 14.29%
Judging (J) 70.59% Perceiving (P) 29.41%

He is supposed to be Jarrod's mirror, so his turning out to be the opposite on all axis is rather predictable. They were best friends once, because their various traits complemented one another. Like Jarrod, Dan is a very fearful person. Unlike Jarrod, he's not terribly introspective, and he avoids thinking about things that make him uncomfortable or unhappy. So he's not really aware of his own fear much of the time, and when he is, his reaction is to defeat what makes him afraid, rather than understand where it's coming from. He is a leader, rather charismatic and an organizer, or he wouldn't be able to lead the umbral circle. It's important to note that his less than admirable qualities do not stem from his personality traits so much as his personality traits determine how his less admirable qualities will manifest.

This is something to think about when interpreting a Myers-Briggs result. All of the 16 basic "personalities" are described in terms of strengths. This may be why people will so proudly proclaim that they're an ESTJ or whatever. It's popular to (retroactively, I'd guess) designate historic or literary figures as one of the 16, so it can be exciting to find out you're "the same" as Marie Curie, or Lincoln, or Samuel Clemens, or whomever. Interesting that no really wants to know which personality type Stalin, or Aaron Burr, or John Hinckley Jr. Might be.

Some personality tests put things differently. I took a big five test, which asked some similar questions as the Myers-Briggs, but scored them differently. It basically told me I have a lousy personality, or at least, it emphasized the potential negatives that come with my alleged personality traits, rather than the potential positives. It didn't make me feel too good, even though I don't take these things too seriously.

May be why the Myers-Briggs test is so popular.

Someone asked me today whether or not I thought using a test like this might be beneficial for someone who is coming up with characters for a novel they're about to start writing. I wouldn't myself, since I'm a pantser (my messy, disorganized nature) and tend to "discover" things about people as I write about them. But like anything else in writing, if it works for you, then go for it.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Ten Writing Rules to Take With a Grain of Salt

Pretty much every budding writer has that moment of sick uncertainty that's triggered when someone tells them that they're breaking one of the cardinal rules of writing. The internet makes this an almost everyday occurrence for those of us who frequent writer's forums. Never before has so much free advice been at humanity's fingertips.

But there's a downside. Everyone and their dog has a blog (including yours truly), but not everyone's opinions are well informed. Some of the so-called rules are good general advice or guidelines, but even so, they have exceptions. Others simply leave me scratching my head. Guidelines are good. It's important to know where they came from and why they exist. If you choose to break them, it should be done with a clear purpose in mind, and you should solicit feedback from people you trust to tell you whether you've done so effectively. But you don't want them to become a narrative albatross around your neck.

Here's a rundown of some of them.

1. Never start a story with someone waking up. I think the truth behind this one is that novice writers will sometimes start a story with their protagonist getting out of bed and going through the boring routine of getting ready for work, all leading up to that moment when the boss says "You're fired!" or they have an accident that throws them into another dimension or find a magic frog or whatever. But unfortunately, many writers take this advice to meant that you can't ever have a story start with someone waking up, even if they're waking up to something very interesting.

2. Never show dreams in stories. Like the waking up thing, dreams can be used in a clichéd or boring manner. One of the worst is the scene that the reader thinks is  an exciting (and real) event that turns out to be a dream. Dreams are rarely mistaken for real life when they're described to someone who isn't asleep (if I'm telling you how my cat turned into a racehorse last night, then  perched upside down from my ceiling, it might clue you in that I'm telling you about a dream). But if a trip into the dreamscape advances the plot or reveals something important about a character, then it may work well. And of course in fantasy or magical realism novels, dreams can be real, or at least have real consequences for a character. There are plenty of stories where dreams figure prominently. Lathe of Heaven, for instance.

3. Never use flashbacks. Like dreams, flashbacks can be overused or clichéd. Writers fall in love with their back story and sometimes make the error of thinking that their readers need a detailed picture of every traumatic event that ever happened to their protagonist. But when used properly, flashbacks are a legitimate literary device, and one that appears in many classic and contemporary novels.

4. No contractions in the narrative. I seriously don't know where this one comes from. It's probably something people remember from their college composition classes (though I don't remember my teachers ever forbidding them in all circumstances). This used to be the rule for formal, non-fiction and technical writing, though it's one that's been relaxed, even in those contexts. It hasn't been a norm to leave contractions out of fictional narrative since at least the middle part of the 20th century. Don't believe me? Pull a stack of contemporary novels down from your shelves. Unless your taste runs to omniscient pov novels written in a very formal and old-fashioned voice, you'll find plenty of contractions.

5. Write what you know. This quote has been variously attributed to Mark Twain, Hemingway and other prominent writers of yore. It's meant to be applied to emotional experience, and as such it is good advice. If you've never been terrified of anything, it's probably going to be pretty hard to describe what fear feels like. But it's all too often taken by budding writers to mean you shouldn't write about any activity or event you haven't experienced directly. I've even seen people say they're afraid to write opposite-sex characters because they're only supposed to "write what you know." Think of all the great works of fiction that never would have come into being if writers took this literally.

6. Always show, never tell. A good writer knows when to provide those little details. It's particularly easy to filter over emotions, to say, "she felt angry," rather than describing what her anger feels like and what she does and thinks as a consequence of her anger. But there's a place for summarizing and taking shortcuts in writing too. Sometimes it's all right for a character's eyes to scan a crowded tavern without describing every battered oak table and smoky beam. You want your reader to see and notice the details your pov character would see and notice and to skim over the things the pov character would skim over.

7. Never use adverbs and adjectives; never use passive voice; never use to-be verbs or participle phrases and all those other rules about specific sentence constructs. Lazy or careless overuse of any of these weakens your writing. Each of these has traps that a writer can fall into. But each of these forms is a part of the English language for a reason. A quick perusal of pretty much any published novel will find all of these sentence structures. Some use them quite a lot. We can quibble about whether or not the author in question had to do it that way, or whether changing their style would make their work more enjoyable. But it's clearly not stopping them from selling novels.

8. Don't ever use clichés. Obviously, you don't want to lace your novel with trite and thoughtless turns of phrase. But some clichés are widely used for a good reason--they evoke a clear image and can establish a frame of reference, and possibly voice. And of course, anything that's written "in character" may contain clichés if they're true to that character's voice and experience. If your pov character is the kind of person who would say that someone is slippery as an eel, then including it will reveal something about that character. And there's nothing more painful than a simile or metaphor that feels forced because the writer is struggling not to use a cliché.

9. Never use any verb but said to tag dialog. Said should be the default dialog tag. It's also all right to occasionally have characters ask or answer. These words tend to be invisible to the reader. But more descriptive tags do have a place. If you need to call attention to the fact that your character is shouting above the clamor of a battle, or that she's leaning in and murmuring something to the person sitting next to her, then it's perfectly all right to do so. What you don't want to do is to use "colorful" tags frequently (as some newer writers do in the mistaken assumption that said becomes repetitive). Another mistake is when writers use actions that occur right before or after something is said as tags. People rarely cough, laugh or snort words.

10. Never use exclamation marks. We're often told that the words or associated descriptions should let the reader know if something is being said emphatically. But they're a valid form of punctuation, and it's perfectly all right to use them in dialog, and even in deeper pov narrative. The problem is when they're used so frequently that they lose their punch or start to look like a pair of teenaged girls are texting one another (of course, if your story is trying to depict two teenaged girls texting one another, this may be just fine).