Learning! — How Stars Are Classified

So, there’s a lot of different kinds of stars out there. We have our normal Sun, but then we hear about the stars that are thousands of times larger, the white ones that are smaller, and the blue-ish ones that are really hot. You may not know this, but hundreds of thousands of stars have been cataloged and classified, and when we graphed them, we found this crazy pattern.

It’s called the HR diagram, and from all the data we’ve gathered, the vast majority of the stars fit on one cohesive line when you graph them based on surface temperature and brightness. Today I’m just going to talk about this one picture and explain it so that you understand what it means and how cool it is.

The simple explanation is this: Bright, hot stars are at the top left, and dim, cool stars are on the bottom right. (You can see our own sun in the middle with its yellow buddies.) You see, since pretty much every star functions the same way and holds the same fundamental properties, they show similar results. The diagonal lines going through the diagram describe the size of the star. “1 Solar Radius” means its the size of the sun. “10 Solar Radii” means it’s radius is ten times larger than our sun, and so on.

So this interesting pattern we see here is that most stars are (relatively speaking) pretty similar in size. But why are the brighter and hotter ones larger than their red, small counterparts? Well, it has to do with the amount of energy it emits, but there’s more.

Let me hit you with this equation:

 

What does it mean? Well, it’s simple, really. “Stellar lifetime is proportional to the mass over the luminosity of the star.” In other words, “fuel over the rate in which it is burned”. This equations mean that bright, massive stars burn out extremely quickly compared to red dwarfs, and it’s why there are so few examples in the HR diagram above: there is only one blue giant for every ten thousand stars you look at. It’s just because they die out within a few hundred million years.

But if you look at the other side of the spectrum, the dim stars are extremely efficient at burning their fuel. In fact, as far as we know, not a single red dwarf star has ever died. They are so efficient it takes trillions of years for them to burn out, and that amount of time simply hasn’t passed yet. Our own star, by comparison, is five billion years old, and is scheduled for a permanent departure in the next five billion years.

So, given a star’s luminosity and temperature (which we can discover through parallax and spectroscopic measurements, respectively, being an entire can of worms I won’t get into today), we can tell pretty much everything about a star: how large it is, what it’s mass is, how long it’s lifetime is, and based on the stars around it we can also guess how old it is, since nebulas tend to form stars in clusters.

So in the HR diagram, that nice, even line of stars is called “the Main Sequence”. Pretty much every star you know about will fir somewhere on that line. And as for the outliers, that’ll have to wait for another time.

Learning! — Three Pronged Characters

Listening to the Writing Excuses podcast the other day, I came across a piece of advice that I found very interesting, and that is the idea of the “Three Pronged Character Attributes“. The concept is very simple, and that is the fact that each character in every book, especially important ones, should have varying levels of three huge characteristics. These characteristics are Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy. Pretty much every character you come across in any book or movie are going to have distinct levels of each of those things, but lets go over what each of them really means, referring to these attributes as being scales that every character has certain values in.

Competence is probably the easiest to grasp: How capable is this character when it comes to dealing with the issues they are facing. It could be any issue, really. Whether it’s defending the realm against a horde of evil murder-robots, talking a friend out of making a terrible decision, or telling convincing lies to the people around them. Gandalf, for example, is extremely capable. His capabilities, in fact, are literally beyond our understanding (partly because they’re never really mentioned). On the other hand, characters like Frodo and Bilbo are not as competent. Where Gandalf has maximum competence, Frodo and Bilbo have very little by comparison. They don’t have zero, because they do accomplish things they set out to do, and get to where they need to go, but nothing is easy because their tasks are in sleeping, drinking, and being merry (although Merry is probably the best at that last one). Their skills certainly aren’t related to fighting Sauron and outrunning the Dark Riders.

Proactivity relates to how much a character will act without any incentive. Again, Gandalf is very high on this scale because he’s always trying to fight the darkness, even before Sauron’s huge plans are set in motion. He has a distinct goal and is always trying his best. And here, too, Bilbo and Frodo score low. They are all but forced out of the Shire because they are out of options. Bilbo gets more points here because he seeks adventure rather than being forced to flee, but he still has to be coaxed by Gandalf and the dwarves quite a bit. A character with low proactivity will generally react to what the antagonist is doing rather than taking the initiative on their own. Superheroes are generally good examples of not being proactive in their respective stories, even when their competence is high.

Sympathy is a little weird. You would probably be inclined to think of how sympathetic the character is to things going on in the story, but that’s not what this means. Instead, this slider is about how sympathetic we the reader is to their problems and their personality. This is where Gandalf has none because he is impossible to identify with. Characters that score high on this scale are generally pretty relatable. Finally we see Bilbo and Frodo score high, because they are thrown into this world they don’t understand. The reader and the hobbits are learning about the world pretty much simultaneously, so it’s easy to identify with their struggles. Frodo doesn’t want to go off in this war, he just recognizes he’s the only one that can do it. He takes this responsibility by necessity, not because he wants to, and that is something a common reader can identify with.

I’ll reiterate here that pretty much every character you experience is going to have clear places on each of these scales. It’s important to note that you may be inclined to put a character somewhere on one scale when they belong elsewhere, and having somebody be “zero” or “full” on any one of these scales is pretty rare. Dr. Strange, for example (at least in the movie) has very little competence or sympathy at the beginning of the movie, because his expertise isn’t where he needs it to be and he’s both arrogant and rich. He is very proactive, which leads him to be able to fill those other scales as the movie progresses.

So when you’re thinking about the main character in your book or story, think about where they fit on these scales, and how their character arc changes their place on them as the story progresses.

Learning! — Sparks of Motivation (375)

Recently I’ve taken to writing a flash fiction piece every Wednesday (in addition to the projects I’m actively working on), and the stories that I’ve written have been based on specific writing prompts from Reddit. I had a quick little chat with somebody there about how any prompt can lead to an original story. For example, consider this prompt: “An unlikely and unqualified hero is given an immensely powerful artifact and is told he is the savior of the world before being forcibly whisked away to adventure”.

Now, besides the fact that this is a generalized plot structure, this can describe a great many famous book series in the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Truth, to name a couple. Does that mean these stories are similar? Not in the slightest. It works the same way with any writing prompt: any two people writing from the same foundation will inevitably write very different stories. The only time you’re really at risk of not being original is when a writer actively writes a story to evoke another specific story.

So when I’m browsing Reddit, looking for a writing prompt, the last thing on my mind is whether or not I can write a unique story. For anyone that wants to write but doesn’t, the first thing they have to learn is that the most important thing is to always make sure that whatever you’re planning on writing is an idea you’re excited about.

For any aspiring writer, starting off small writing short stories based on prompts is a great idea. You may have this awesome book series in your head waiting to get written, but don’t let it be the only thing on your mind. If I had to actually quantify the number of projects I have, whether ongoing or ones that need more thought before I can get started on them, I would have well over a dozen. Does it stress me out? Nope. Because at any point in time, I’m always writing whatever is most exciting to me, even if it isn’t as developed as some other ideas I have.

When I look for my weekly writing prompt, the only thing that I’m really looking for is something that sparks my interest. I read the prompts, and if I immediately get an idea for a scene, or a line of dialogue, or a story theme, I’m good to go. Could I pick any prompt and write a story based on it? Sure. But that spark of interest is what’s important. It doesn’t matter if nobody reads this story, or if you don’t like it. All that matters is that you’re motivated enough to get the story written in that moment, and the best way to ensure that is to look for that spark.

I’m not going to lie. Sometimes that spark never comes. Maybe I’m just not in the mood to write. Maybe the prompts I’m looking at really aren’t interesting. Maybe I’m just tired. You can’t force inspiration, regardless of how hard you try. And a harsh truth is that established authors are expected to write even without that spark. If you plan to ‘get there’ one day, you’ll need to be able to work without relying on working at your best.

But somebody that just wants to write doesn’t have to worry about that. The spark will come, so just be patient and don’t stress out.

Learning! — Pacing

Pacing is something I personally struggle a lot with. By virtue of how I write (with little to no preparation), it can be hard to figure out how fast scenes should be. That said, there are several things I try to keep in mind when I’m thinking about how fast the words should feel on the page.

Now, obviously time span is a loose term in writing. I can literally say “thousands of years later”, and in the context of that sentence alone, that amount of time has passed. So, when we talk about pacing and how long a scene really takes to occur, we’re talking about two completely different things. A short story can be a single instant in time or millions of years long, but it will have (almost) no impact on how fast paced the story feels because that part relies entirely on wording.

I’m going to bring up something that’s pretty obvious here. Obviously, going into more detail, using more words, and making the sentences longer in general would naturally make the story feel slower. If you use lengthy sentences, your reader will be forced to slow down, and it will make the entire progression of the story slow to a certain degree, and this specific sentence could be used as a good example.

On the other hand, short sentences change that. Small, clipped words makes reading easy. Don’t make it complicated. The simpler, the better. That way, the reader can go through it quickly.

I like to make lots of paragraph breaks, too.

It may not seem like much, but if you deliberately elongate or shorten sentences, it will naturally have a huge impact on how it is read. This isn’t important all the time, but in a scene that you want to increase a reader’s heart rate, or make a reader more emotional, it is another tool to be used.

Another trick is to vary the length and type of actions in the story. In an action sequence, a lot of the things happening are important. A broken arm will hurt, and it happens quick. But you still have to worry about not breaking your everything else, so the tension rises. In a slower piece, a character might wash the dishes, then look outside and reminisce about the past, then pet their dog, etc. None of those are very big or important actions, so including them will slow down the tempo of the thing being read.

This is also a huge reason why “info dumping” on chapter one is such a bad idea. Telling us about the history of the characters or the place makes the piece feel so much longer than it really is, and since the reader isn’t hooked yet, they’ll just put the book down. That’s why the forty page introduction to Fellowship of the Ring feels like an eternity–there is literally nothing happening in the book.

In general, if the scene is not one that is meant to feel particularly slow or fast, the safest best is to vary sentence structure. Don’t get your reader invested into more than you need them to be, and just relax. I think most writers will naturally find the ‘natural’ story pace given practice.

Learning! — What Every Character Needs

Back in December I talked about how I make characters. The simple explanation is that, like with everything, I start with an idea I like, and build from there. I keep expanding until the thing that I have is fully fleshed out. The idea is the important thing.

But I’ve realized that with characters, it’s still only half the picture. It isn’t enough to have a good idea and arbitrarily add things that make sense, because we’re using this character in a story, not in real life. Now, when I say “using it in a story”, I mean any story. This character can be from a game, a novel, or even be your Dungeons & Dragons character. One thing that aspiring writers don’t realize is that even in stories that resemble real life, stories are not real life, but I’ll cover this some other time.

So, you have that ‘idea’ which is the basis for this character, but you don’t know what “expanding until it’s fleshed out” means. No, you don’t have to make a family tree or figure out what their childhood was like (although if you want to, by all means). There are two things that every character in every facet of storytelling needs in order to feel believable and “real”: flaws and goals. They need to have very clear personality traits that are undesirable, and hopes for the future.

That’s it. It’s important to note here, that just because a character has flaws and goals does not immediately make them believable, just that a character without one or both is incredibly difficult for anyone to relate to. (This is also a tool some writers use to make characters less ‘real’. A god or extremely powerful figure in a story may be presented without flaws, for instance.)

Whenever I make a character important enough to be given a name or focus in a story, I give them flaws and goals. In order to determine what they should be, it’s important to think about what medium this character is presented in, and how they will be presented to an audience (even if that audience is your D&D group).

For example, the goals of a ‘Villain’ should be very clear and defined. In fact, that may even be the first thing you want to start out with, because the ‘Hero’ will often have to take action and make decisions based on what the Villain is doing. The flaw(s) of the Villain may be the way the Hero manages to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. On the flip side, the goal of the Hero could be to simply “stop the Villain”, or it could be something more indirect, like “serve the greater good”, or “make things return to the way they were”. These are cliche responses, of course, so for a character as integral to the story as the protagonist, you may want to think of something more interesting, but it’s a start.

The flaws for the Hero are generally what makes victory so hard to attain. Frodo is not exactly the best man for the job of ‘Ringbearer’ (in some respects), which makes braving Mordor such an ordeal. If the same job was given to Gandalf (who has minimal flaws, if any), it would have been a different story. The story of how a wizard flew some eagles to a mountain and then dropped the ring in with no issues. Nobody wants to read that story.

Just as everyone has flaws and goals, so to should characters. Even unattainable goals are still goals, and even simple flaws like ‘selfish’ or ‘rude’ work. Just keep in mind that the more important the character (to a story or game), the more in-depth and descriptive these flaws and goals should be.

Learning! — Fraunhofer Lines

Instead of going over writing advice (as has become the norm), I’m going to talk about something I learned very recently, and that I find fascinating.

Have you ever wondered how we could possibly know what stars are made of? Or how hot they are? Or whether or not they are coming towards or away from us? What about their magnetic field or their rates of rotation?

We can know all of that because of a simple little thing called Fraunhofer lines.

When Sir Isaac Newton was doing his thing, inventing gravity and science and all that, he of course observed the visible spectrum by shining a beam of light through a prism that separated it. He observed that red light waves have a lower frequency and a longer wavelength, whereas violet light has high frequency and a short wavelength.

Centuries later, in 1814, Joseph von Fraunhofer saw that with thorough inspection, the visible spectrum had several black lines going through it, as if there were little pieces missing.

Eventually, he found that these lines were missing in accordance with what the light was made of. If the light was coming from an object made of sodium, for example, two lines in the middle of the yellow spectrum would always be missing. If the object was composed of sodium and magnesium, the lines in yellow would be missing in addition to several lines in the green spectrum. Any object composed of specific colors will always express the same lines in the visible spectrum in the same places. With thorough inspecting of the types of light a star emits, that is how we can tell what it is made of.

But there’s more to it than that. Because light experiences the Doppler effect, a process that shortens or lengthens wavelength based on whether something is coming towards or moving away from the observer, we can also use this here. If we observe that a star contains sodium and magnesium, we will observe their respective lines. But if these lines are shifted left or right of where we would expect them to be, we can use the Doppler effect to measure what direction a star is moving relative to us. If the lines are slightly further towards red (“red-shifted”), we know the star is moving away from us. If the lines are closer to the blue side of the spectrum (“blue-shifted”), we know the star is moving towards us. We can even tell which direction a star is rotating by using the Doppler effect on different areas of the same star.

Fraunhofer lines tell us so much about the world around us that they have, in a sense, singlehandedly birthed the science of astrophysics. Since every object will have distinct chemical signatures, we have been able to use them to analyze and learn why the universe is the way it is in an all new perspective. Using them has told us most of what we know about distant stars and galaxies, and without them we wouldn’t even know the universe is expanding at all.

Learning! — What a Story Doesn’t Need

One of the things I’ve struggled with a lot in the past, especially in the context of my own  universe, is knowing what is and is not important for the reader to know. Specifically, I’m referring to the ‘scenes’ the author shows. Pretty much zero books will encapsulate every moment in a character’s life, even if the chapters are continuous. For example, how often does any character in any fiction book you’ve ever read eat? How often do they use the restroom? How well do they sleep at night?

These are examples of something a reader doesn’t need. Unless your story is about a person trying to survive, taking an extra effort to establish that your characters are eating regularly is unnecessary. “Hold on,” you may ask. “Does this mean putting food in a story is pointless?”

Certainly not. Food is still important for your characters. It is simply going to be in the background the whole time. If your characters are having a feast, that ‘scene’ is not going to be about the food they’re eating, but the character interactions therein, or the information somebody receives. It is a nice detail to add what food they are eating, but it is never the focal point of the story.

Consider Lord of the Rings here. Very few times during their journey does Tolkien describe to us a meal that they have. We can assume that they are eating, so in order to establish to the reader what is going on, we can simply say “Before they departed from the land of Lothlorien, the elves give the fellowship waybread.” After describing what this bread does and how much of it the party has, we can rest assured that food is not going to be relevant to the reader unless the author decides otherwise. We only need to know what a character is eating if it is a concern for the character, too.

The general rule here is that everything is assumed to be fine unless the author tells the reader it isn’t. We always assume a character is well until the author tells us he is sick (though conveniently making the protagonist catch a cold just to make the next scenes harder for them could annoy some readers, even if it is a possibility in the real world). So basic physiological necessities are never a concern for a reader. They’re focused on the story, after all. They don’t need to read about your characters taking potty breaks.

But the more prevalent question here is worldbuilding. This applies more to sci-fi and fantasy writers than anyone else. New writers are notorious for the dreaded “info dump”: pages and pages of explanations of a nation or character’s background with no actual scene happening. Tolkien is a great example of this here, too. An editor in today’s market would have thrown out Fellowship of the Ring because the forty page prologue has no setting: it’s all set-up.

Funny enough, as much of a problem as it seems to be, it’s an easy fix: just take it out. If you have to explain something to the reader, just don’t. If I already know everything about a character’s history and past experience, I won’t care to see how they interact with others in the story. But if the first impression I’m making of this character is through dialogue, I’m going to have to guess what this character’s history and past experience is. And here’s the thing.

It’s okay for the reader to guess wrong.

The best authors in today’s world force readers to guess and predict. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle is a trilogy describing the life of Kvothe, a man with many names spoken of in legend and whispers. The third book isn’t out yet, and we the readers still have no idea why he has the title ‘Kingkiller’. There is implication there, obviously, but in the end, we just don’t know. This is why books like this do so well. They force the reader to ask huge questions that we don’t get answers to until much later on.

So if you’re building your own sci-fi or fantasy world, complete with nations and politics, and you don’t know the answer to the question “How much do I tell the reader?” The answer is probably going to be ‘very little’. The Archive of Nacre Then is over seventy pages long. I’d say over eighty percent of it has never been mentioned or even hinted in any of the fiction I’ve ever written in the universe. The reader doesn’t care about a desert bird that pecks rocks to find turtles, so if it’s never important to a story, it should never be mentioned. Does that mean those birds shouldn’t exist? Of course not! It helps me as the author develop a complete and dynamic world. Elements like this that the reader will never see are still crucial because these birds will at least indirectly influence the culture of people around them, and the more pieces that I have, the larger this world will be.

Think of a fictional universe like an iceberg. Ninety percent of an iceberg is submerged. Somebody looking at this iceberg will never see that ninety percent. But the larger the iceberg gets, the larger that ten percent is, and the more detailed this universe seems to the observer.