Learning! — Fantasy Name Generators

So this post is sort of a cross between my typical ‘Learning!’ posts and a ‘Review’ post, but I thought it worked better here because it will serve it’s purpose better as a tool for learning rather than a subject of scrutiny.

Today I’m going to talk about a website: fantasynamegenerators.com. It is a resource for a lot of things. First and foremost is that it gives you random names for various purposes. If you can’t think of a name for a character in your book, this works well. It isn’t simple “generate thirty common fantasy names” situation, either. It has very specific generators for every situation.

Let me clarify a little bit. Let’s say you can’t think of a name for an elf character. Does the site have an elf name generator? Of course. It also has a name generator for dark elves and half elves, too. Three different generators for elves is nothing to sneeze at, but this site goes deeper. Blood Elf and Night Elf name generators from World of Warcraft, Elf and Half-elf for Dungeons & Dragons, Elf and Half-elf for Pathfinder, all the Warhammer elf races, generators for Lord of the Rings AND Lord of the Rings Online, as well as Magic: The Gathering, The Witcher, The Inheritance Cycle, Dragon Age, as well as a name generator for Harry Potter house elves. You want an elf name? Well, you’ll need to be more specific because there are nineteen different elf name generators on this site. Are some of them duplicate generators? It’s entirely possible, but even if there are lots of duplicates there is still more than enough variety to keep a creative person flowing with inspiration.

This site works for everything. All of the naming conventions for whatever fanfiction you want to write are all given to you, because a good chunk of the name generators on the site are from pop culture. But even if you’re working on a unique world of your own design, this site helps a good deal.

Whenever I’m trying to develop names for cities in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, or in any of my fantasy worlds in my fiction writing, I use this site. Not every generator works for my purposes, but at least one works every time. If anything, I just need to do some digging to find it.

Do I always use names from this generator? No, of course not. In fact, I wouldn’t even say I often grab names from it even when I am actively using it. Instead, I use the generators for inspiration, or insight into the naming conventions of whatever it is I’m looking for. Remember, it’s all about the creative spark. This sort of site isn’t meant to tie you down into any sort of rules. Quite the opposite. If it gives you a name you like, if it only started with a ‘P’ instead of an ‘F’, then it’s a success, because guess what: it is entirely in your power to change it. It would be silly to keep looking until the site gave you the perfect name. Instead, use the generators as foundations that you can throw your own color onto. That way the site is still pulling the brunt of the effort and allowing you to add the flair and the finesse. When I use this site, I often splice the names it gives me together, or sometimes the names I see spark an idea for an original one, in which case I have only the website to thank for pushing my own creativity along.

But maybe I haven’t convinced you of how useful this is as both a worldbuilder’s tool and a writer’s resource. This website also gives instructions in its spare time. It can give you description generators. It has society descriptions, armor descriptions, backstory descriptions, planet descriptions, you name it. If your town is too boring to interest a reader or your D&D party, pull up the town description to help add some flavor!

But wait, there’s even more. Recently, Emily, the website’s creator, recently launched a second site, called rollforfantasy.com. This site is geared more towards worldbuilding and roleplay than it is towards writing, but I still find it very versatile. Not only does it have guides for how to handle certain situations or how to build a stronger campaign for you and your friends, but it also has specific tools to augment the experience for you. It has puzzles you can implement into your game and free music you can use to set the tone of each session.

And you know what my favorite thing about all this is? It’s not the ingenuity or the vast amount of knowledge there is to gain with these sites. It’s the fact that they are constantly updated on a weekly basis. Not only that, but she responds to e-mails within days. She’s so active on these sites, and really, it’s a resource I couldn’t do without these days.

Any person working in any creative field (even as a hobby) could gain a lot using these sites. I highly recommend checking them out, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll exhaust yourself clicking all the links well before you think you’ve learned enough to solve all of your creative problems.

Learning! — Writing Weaknesses

One thing that sucks about the aspiring writer’s process of growth is learning to deal with your weaknesses. Obviously, everything anyone does will involve personal strengths as well as weaknesses, and writing is no different. One person might suck at writing compelling or believing dialogue, or be terrible at developing characters or plot, or not actually have a solid concept of how much description is too much or too little.

The difficulty with this is that, while everybody has strengths, these aren’t very prevalent. Writers often get two kinds of responses to their work. The first, and most common, is “This is great!”, of which there is no reply. In my experience, this sort of response is numerous, but unhelpful. It just means the reader doesn’t care enough to look for or point out your mistakes, or perhaps they are even lying just for the sake of encouragement. It is nice, don’t get me wrong, but it is pretty much useless.

The second is a little better, and that is constructive feedback. Telling you what’s wrong, and where you can improve. This varies from simple edits to overarching plot holes. This can be of varying use, but it too has its problems. The biggest is that it can be hard to remember to weave in strong points of a story while pointing out its mistakes. When I’m editing somebody’s piece, the only time I write down a compliment is when I find something so entertaining it throws me out of the story.

The problem with these two critiques is that they don’t give you a good picture of what you handle very well in your writing. The only time you could really find out is when somebody familiar with your work is pointing out general strengths, and even then it can be hard to know if they’re honest or knowledgeable enough to be accurate in their comments.

On the other hand, however, your weaknesses can become glaringly obvious, because the constructive feedback always includes the same sort of feedback. For me, it’s description. I never describe rooms or people. Often I just jump back and forth between dialogue and action, with a little exposition thrown in. Everything I ever write seems to be lacking in description, even when I compensate and intentionally describe more about the circumstance.

It is a little frustrating when you don’t seem to learn, but there is a way out. I’ve found a solution to my weakness: backtracking. I’ve stopped worrying about how little I’m describing in any scene. Instead, I just write it as I normally would, then go back and add description where it would make sense. What do I need to describe? The room? The people? When does that need to happen, and from whose eyes? That sort of thing.

I don’t think of this part as editing. I actually think of it as writing still, but that I’m filing in the gaps once I’ve poured in the foundation. If I tried to write description while I’m writing the rest of the piece, I would just get bored and end up describing too little. This way, I’ve already written the piece, so I don’t have to worry about what comes next, I just have to make sure I put in enough and ensure it makes sense with what comes before and after.

This actually works with a lot of weaknesses. If it’s grammar, don’t worry about it. Just write it and read it afterwards. If something feels off, change it. If your dialogue is lacking, maybe you could use some more. If not, channel what emotions the characters might have as you write. Either way, it doesn’t need to happen the first time through. Just get the words down, then work on the stuff you’re bad at. Once you’re done with that, then you can show other people.

Learning! — One-dimensional Characters

One problem that many a novice writer stumbles into when taking their first forays into novel writing is characters that are too one-sided. This is especially bad for main characters, who get a lot of the spotlight. You want to create an immersive world that takes the reader out of this one, and if a character is always depressed and unmotivated, it can feel unrealistic. So in this post, I’ll go over not only how to avoid making a character feel flat, but also in what circumstances it may be actually benefit a story.

Main characters. Arguably the single most complex things in your story, depending on what you’re writing, there’s a lot that goes into giving a character depth. I think that one major pitfall new writers fall for is focusing on their ‘fatal flaw’. They throw a bunch of cool and heroic personality on their traits, and then they stick on one bad one: arrogant, scared, lazy, etc.

The problem with this is that writers often use flaw as the first go-to for establishing conflict, and suddenly you have an entire major plot conflict built around the fact that your protagonist was too stubborn to apologize and admit fault, creating an antagonist and a lot of unnecessary events happen that seem unrealistically blown out of proportion simply because you needed a conflict trigger.

The other challenge is that readers often want to relate to their main characters. If you’re only showing us how arrogant and powerful they are, it’s hard to identify with that, because (practically) nobody is confident all the time. But you don’t want somebody that is constantly depressed over the loss of the loved one that died fifteen years ago because that isn’t very relatable, either.

Protagonists often have character arcs where they overcome their flaw, of course. Bilbo the grumpy hobbit realizes he loves adventure, Dr. Frankenstein comes to terms with the repercussions of his hubris, and Aang finally accepts responsibility and destiny over the course of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Many protagonists need arcs where they tackle and conquer their shortcoming. The trouble lies in painting the entire plot structure and the character around this flaw.

Aang is many things, not just ‘carefree and avoidant’. Rather, much of his character is shaped around it. He loves to have fun, and he’s very silly. Perhaps he wants to hang on to his childhood as much as possible. He also grows very attached to his friends, and maybe he’s scared of endangering them because of his destiny. The difference is that we aren’t seeing ‘carefree’ the whole time, we’re shown many aspects of his character.

So let’s say your character is too one-dimensional. How do you fix this? Well, ask yourself what other sides this character my have, even if they don’t show other people. You don’t want anyone on stage to seem like a cardboard cutout unless they’re part of the background, and main characters never are. If your protagonist struggles with depression, ask yourself what makes them happy. What used to make them happy, and why? If happiness isn’t an emotion you want this character to show the reader, what else could be used? Maybe they express their sadness as anger to other characters, so while everybody thinks that Protag has anger issues, the reader really knows they’re just depressed, a side they show the reader only when alone.

To sum it all up, I’ve found the easiest way to give characters depth is to ask them what circumstances provide what emotion to that character. If I can’t think of anything that would make the character happy, I invent something out of the blue. Maybe it’s coloring books. Why? I don’t know, but I can explore the reasoning behind it in the next chapter or a rewrite. It doesn’t have to make sense immediately. Maybe your character will tell you why coloring books are so special to them on their own, and if they do, let them. Sometimes your characters will know more about themselves than you do.

So, all that said, when are one-dimensional characters okay? Well, simply put, anyone who doesn’t get a spotlight can get away with being one-dimensional. If the camera doesn’t focus on them too often, them only expressing one emotion is perfectly fine. In fact, if a character isn’t important enough to give the reader more than their name, I don’t even consider them characters. People at a party are furniture, part of the scenery, not meant to push any part of the story one way or another. Cardboard cutouts are fine here. As the story progresses, fleshing out their character can work, but be careful with this, the more complex a character seems, the more important they may seem to the reader. Don’t give depth to characters that don’t need it.

As a side note, flat main characters can work, but it requires a lot of work, and I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say, don’t try it unless you’re deliberately putting the spotlight on a flat character.

Learning! — Beginners are Unoriginal

A big problem that beginning writers (and other content creators) have is that they struggle with the concept of being original. Obviously, it’s really hard to come up with things that are original. There are so many things out there it almost goes without saying that anything you try will have been done before.

But what many aspiring writers don’t realize is that this doesn’t really matter. One of my first blog posts was about how originality is a myth, but really the core concept of being unique boils down to three things.

The first is that the single most important thing for a writer to do is to read and write. It doesn’t matter much what you read and write, in fact. You could spend your days reading magazines and writing a blog (self burn) and it still counts for author brownie points. They may not teach you as much as reading and writing novels, but practice is practice. Don’t waste your time not writing because you’re worried about the words not being poetic or unique. That’s not what matters.

In fact, this leads me to my second point, and that is that originality is far from unattainable. The only thing that isn’t original, in fact, is straight up plagiarism. If I told you to sit down and spend the next few weeks writing The Lord of the Rings from memory, filling in all the gaps with plausible plot points, it would end up being pretty different. I’d bet that if you changed all the names, the only thing that would bear much resemblance to Lord of the Rings would be the plot structure . Certainly the words wouldn’t be the same. Tolkien is practically old enough to be considered literature, for crying out loud. All things considered, I’d wager an experienced writer that took me up on this bet would be able to publish if those gaps they guessed at were compelling enough. (This activity would probably be an excruciatingly painful and unfulfilling exercise, though. Would not recommend.)

My third point is that it is perfectly acceptable for an aspiring writer to be intentionally unoriginal. Fanfictions are good writing practice, because the story structure is all yours. It’s a good crutch because you don’t have to invent new characters, but it still teaches you a lot. At the same time, writing a story about a group of kids that discover a new world will teach you about pacing and description regardless of how much you base its characters or events off Narnia. I would actually consider this sort of thing a great idea if you want to hone a specific skill. If you want to know how to put sentences and paragraphs together before you start stitching personalities into characters, fanfiction is a great place to start. If you like to build characters, don’t be ashamed of copying the plot-line of your favorite book.

Here’s the takeaway, really. This goes for everything, not just originality.

An aspiring writer can do no wrong as long as they are both reading and writing.

Learning! — Common Grammar Mistakes

Lately I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and while I haven’t really learned anything about the craft, he did answer some of the ‘why’ you shouldn’t do some things. Stuff that I had known was bad, but couldn’t really explain what was bad about it. I’ll reiterate some of the things he said, using my own examples, but really the best way to learn the things in that book is to read it. Even in a half memoir-half advice book, he still has a great sense of humor.

He describes the writer as needing a toolbox when they get to work. They need all kinds of things, first and foremost are a vocabulary and grammar. He emphasizes that having a big vocabulary isn’t necessary for a writing career, but it would naturally improve with time as one reads and writes more. He gives lots of examples from famous novels with large vocabulary and a small vocabulary.

What he does not explain, is that there is also something that certain words do to prose. An obvious example is that when your narrator speaks formally using large words, it implies that they are more educated or even above the action of the story (proverbially), especially if the narrator is not actually a character in the story. By contrast, somebody who uses small words can often come across as slow, but it also sends a message that they are simple. ‘Simple’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be. You can have a wise old grandmother that knows a lot yet speaks only in one or two syllable words. There’s quite a bit of implication that goes with words, but don’t let a limited vocabulary keep you from writing. That’s a point that he really hammers down on.

As far as grammar goes, he points out that a lot of people shy away from that word because of what they think it means. It means knowing what all the parts of a sentence are called, being able to identify what is past perfect tense and what instances it is and is not okay to use such a tense. But really, a writer doesn’t need to be equipped with that sort of knowledge. The idea that you need to know what a prepositional phrase is before you can even use it in a sentence really gets under my skin (see what I did there?)

There are two things that Stephen King makes clear when talking about grammar. These are two rules that every aspiring writer hears a lot, but On Writing is the first time I’ve read why these rules are a thing.

The first is to never use passive voice. If you don’t know what that is, the short answer is when the subject of the sentence is letting what ever verb is happening happen rather than making things happen (like in active voice). “The door was closed” is passive, but “Jeremy shut the door” is active. Why make the subject of the sentence the door when you could make it about Jeremy? A door isn’t important. It’s a door. You’re not going to hurt its feelings by excluding it as a character from your story.

To Stephen King, passive voice makes the author seem timid or nervous. Using passive voice makes the writing feel a bit more authoritative. “There’s no questioning what happened to the door now!” the novice thinks. But that makes it no less weak. In the first sentence, we have no way of knowing whether ‘closed’ is simply the state of being that the door is in, or if somebody closed it. You could amend this by saying “The door was closed by Jeremy“, but why in the world would you willingly construct a sentence like that? This is a story where things are happening, your narrator should feel more like a commentator at a sports arena than David Attenborough describing the behavioral patterns of a frustrated Jeremy.

The second rule is to avoid adverbs. These are words that end in -ly. You could say “Jeremy shut the door angrily“, and it works. It really does. But a lot of people would argue that adding the word ‘angrily’ takes away the impact of the sentence. Why? You shouldn’t need to tell us how he shut the door. The context of the rest of the sentence and the paragraphs prior should tell us what mood Jeremy is in, leaving the reader to conclude for themselves how he shut the door.

Stephen King says that the use of adverbs expresses not a lazy writer, but an insecure one. One scared of being misunderstood. In good writing, the addition of adverbs would be redundant. Pretty much any time you would use an adverb, a writer should look back at what came before and think “Do I give the impression of ‘angrily’ in this context?”

If the answer is yes, don’t use the adverb. It’s a word that doesn’t add anything to the story, and your story shouldn’t have any useless words! If the answer is no, then you need to work on your subtext. Put ‘angrily’ in the paragraphs without using the word ‘angrily’. Make Jeremy express anger through his words or actions. Use different words! “Jeremy stormed into his room and slammed the door.” There, now we can be sure that the reader needs no help understanding what kind of mood Jeremy is in.

This is a sliver of the things Stephen King points out in his book On Writing, and I’d highly recommend it. I believe the audiobook is also read by the writer himself, which is pretty neat.

Learning! — Background Music

It goes without saying that lots of music that is attached to TV shows, movies, or video games is often meant to supplement the visual aspect to whatever media we are presented with in our daily lives. If we’re watching a movie, the things that we’re hearing occupy roughly half of our attention (if we are to base that entirely off of the common five senses), and we obviously won’t want to be hearing dialogue or clothes shuffling the whole time, so music plays a critical role in a lot of what we see and do.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as throwing in your favorite rap album to a sitcom, because music plays with our emotions and subconscious a lot–meaning any thing we’re watching would have to also have music that helps us get into the mood we’re meant to be feeling at that given moment. A sad song to help us feel sad when a character experiences the same emotion. An intense battle hymn to accompany the climax to our favorite action movie. Whatever will help bring out the emotion that scene is meant to give us.

With video games, soundtracks often do their best to supply a bold theme, as well. Many good soundtracks are capable of evoking the feeling of the game just by listening to that music. An action game will typically have much higher tempo music than a story driven game simply by virtue of how it is meant to be played. Journey, a short and extremely simple yet abstract game, focuses entirely on exploration and the beautiful landscapes and art style. It has lots of slow, drawn out melodies played by violins and soft woodwinds. As far as I can recall, there is very little percussion throughout the entire soundtrack (timpani, usually, which itself adds a soft beat of its own). This makes the audience relax as they view for the game for what it really is. Journey is not a game to be won, but a story to experience.

Contrast this with my favorite game ever, Dragon Quest VIII, and you’ve got the blaring brass in the overture that screams “buckle your pants, we’re going on an adventure!” You’ve got cymbals slamming and drums pounding. Basically, the common elements of this soundtrack involve all the instruments one would associate with a classic Arthurian knight’s tale. Everything is loud and big, but not fast. This game has plenty of action, but really it’s about the world and seeing loads of different monsters and places. Lots of the music in this game is very “open”, with ascending notes that give the impression that a door is opening into a different world. It has plenty of strings, but here the strings play a harmony, for often it’s the brass that gets the forefront in these pieces.

With music that isn’t meant to be actively listened to, there are two super important things that are necessary to help subliminally tell the audience what mood they should be in. Those things are tempo and instruments. The tempo translates directly to how fast you want your audience’s heart to be racing. With Journey, there isn’t a whole lot that will scare you. You might as well be reading a book on a quiet rainy evening. With Dragon Quest VIII, the tempo is often quick, but it gives the impression of a brisk walk down the country side or playing tag with some friends. With something more horror or action based, you want their heart to be pounding, as in “Oh no this demon is going to get me if I don’t run faster” sort of pace. If you set the tempo at that pace, your job is already halfway done.

The next time you’re binging Netflix or simply out at the movies, try to listen to the film score. Pick out the instruments being used. Think about how different that song would be if it was an electric guitar, or xylophone, or tuba playing that melody. It would feel out of place, sure, but chances are that sort of switch would work just fine in a different movie with a different theme.

Learning! — The Elements of a Scene

I’ve been thinking about my own writing, and actually trying to objectively look at why some of my scenes are stronger than others. Now, there are a million and one reasons why a scene might be weak, but I’ve found a trend recently that explains why some scenes simply need more work to make acceptable.

I hear a lot about how “a scene should always do at least two things”, but really, it’s hard to quantify that because what does and doesn’t count as a ‘thing’ a scene does? All scenes should generally move the plot forward somehow, so that’s one thing, if you’ll allow it to be.

Without dedicating a whole lot of time to this, there are only a few things scenes can really do: teach readers, establish important bits, move characters, and answer questions. Anything and everything boils down to those four things, but those are some pretty broad things, so lets unpack them.

Teaching readers is simple. Fantasy authors need to teach their readers about the world. But all authors need to teach their audience about what’s going on. Magic systems need to be explained, sci-fi technology needs to be explained, etc. Scenes like this tend to happen less and less as a novel progresses, obviously. We shouldn’t need to teach the reader anything after a certain point.

Establishing important bits is a bit harder to explain. This is where we get character background, the history of the world, the reasons for the conflict, things like that. This is anything that isn’t instructional. If a character has anger management issues, I’m not going to teach you what that is. I’m going to establish what it means to that character and perhaps why they got to that point.

When I say a scene should move characters, I mean this both literally and figuratively. Naturally, characters will move as the story progresses. They’ll go to new places and meet new people, etc. But this also refers to character growth and character arcs. If characters don’t move in any specific scene, you should probably ask yourself if that scene is important (and it might be!), because without moving characters you risk slowing down the plot.

Lastly, answering questions. Yes, this does include “What is behind the secret door”, but it’s way more than that. Really, the big question here is ‘Does the POV character get what they want in this scene?’ Now, you could argue that every scene should always have an objective for the character, but I think that’s a restrictive way to think about it. Going from one place to another could require a scene, but they’re not usually achieving anything by doing that: it’s just necessity. No. What I’m talking about here is “Protagonist X runs to the castle to save the princess! Does he achieve this?” That is the question of the scene. The answer could very well be ‘No’, but there should be an answer in this context. If that question isn’t answered, then why are you showing us him going to the castle gate as it’s own scene? Why is that important? Well, if you’re not answering a big question, it has to include one of the other scene necessities. Maybe it’s to establish that the moat is just one big trampoline, and you’re including that scene to foreshadow how they characters escape in the next scene.

So, yes. All scenes should have at least two of those four elements. But let me give some warning. Teaching readers is often way less important than newer writers tend to think. In Chapter One, you don’t have to explain how the magic system of this universe works. You just have to establish the POV character and, likely, move them to the next chapter by establishing a conflict and answering how they accomplish this. This is how everything begins, from The Hobbit to Steelheart to Big Hero 6 to Rogue: One. The list here is endless, really, because all of those things need to happen in order to get an audience to be interested.