Gideon the Ninth: The Best Fantasy Book of 2019

Lesbian sci-fi space necromancers in an Agatha Christie style murder mystery. That’s the premise of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. And, honestly, if you’re not already sold, I don’t think we can be friends. 

In all seriousness, though, this is one of the best fantasy books to come out in the last few years. It represents a certain cutting edge of fantasy, fantasy that pushes boundaries, includes marginalized voices, resists tropes, and is, in general, really freaking sick. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants something lively and full of personality.

The plot of the story (no major spoilers) follows Harrowhark, a necromancer princess who lives in the coldest reaches of the solar system, and her sword-slinging cavalier, Gideon. They hate each other and have since birth, but unfortunate circumstances force them to work together. They travel to the home of the immortal emperor, where they must compete with eight other pairs of necromancer and cavalier for the privilege of becoming one of the emperor’s lyctors. What ensues is a tension filled, nail biting mystery as the necromancers and cavaliers engage in a battle royale to solve the clues that the emperor left behind. Solving each of the clues requires coordination between necromancer and cavalier, something Gideon and Harrow have nothing of. 

The book does three things exceedingly well. The first is character. Gideon and Harrow are some of the most fun and likeable protagonists I have ever read. Gideon is consistently badass, sarcastic, blockheaded, and endearing. As the narrator of the story, her voice practically screams from the page. She has such an iconic way of telling stories. Harrow is a perfect foil. Cool, collected, blisteringly intelligent, and often cruel. The dynamic between them is at times humorous, at times frustrating, and at times it’s the most heartwarming thing in the world. In short, I think it’s brilliant. 

The story also has this fantastic intricacy of plot. With a cast of nearly twenty named characters, it might seem intimidating. But each one is so unbelievably memorable that you won’t forget a name. And the ways in which they interact are precise, believable, and complex. The ever changing dynamics of the characters and the mystery of the mansion and of who the emperor is and what it will take to become his lyctor make for some tremendously engaging reading. I was up until four in the morning finishing this book, and I guarantee you will too. 

Finally, the magic of the story is wonderful. Necromancy is a hard magic system. It is bound by rules and requires knowledge and training in order to use. At the same time, though, it’s rules are never explained outright to the reader. We have to piece together the definitions of terms like thanergy or thalergy, we have to learn what occeus matter is. And the discovery process is amazingly fun. It never feels frustrating. No, it always feels like we’re solving a mystery right alongside the characters. Gideon, the narrator, knows as much about necromancy as the reader. Her biting cynicism about the intricacies of necromancy as she swings a massive, ten pound broadsword around with wanton abandon never ceases to crack me up. 

Long story short, I think this is an amazing book. Harrow the Ninth, the sequel, is wildly different but just as pleasing to read. I highly recommend this book for people who like stylized writing, complex character dynamics, and a fascinating and original magic system. 

The Weight of the Seagull

Jake leaves the house and goes down to the rocks next to the sea and takes a cigarette from his pocket but the lighter won’t light because of the wind, even though he shields it with his hand and shakes it. He puts the cigarette and the lighter away. Scratches his head. 

The rocks are wet as the edge of the ocean swallows itself and throws it all back up, the waves are like a tongue flicking the rocks and spraying spit everywhere. Jake brushes the sea spray from his forehead. His suit is wet. He wonders if the rental company will make him pay extra for the laundry and the dead fish salt smell. 

One of his relatives finds him — Samantha’s aunt, maybe? He never got his in-laws straight, Samantha had a lot of them, biggy happy family that was, cousins and little brats, his family had been small, only child, when they came out to Deer Isle each year it was just Mom Pop and him, that was fine, that was how he liked it, got to run around all day on the rocks. i

Fuck. The relative is saying something. He thinks she’s an aunt. Maybe her name was Laura or something. “Jake? Jake? Are you alright?”

“What?”

“Are you alright?”

“My lighter isn’t catching.”

“Do you want to come inside?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“Everybody’s worried about you.”

He shrugs. “I’m fine.”

“Come inside.”

He comes inside. The wind pushes against the windows and the house, it’s old, real old, been in his family since forever, more or less, it protests the wind with a noisy yowl. Somebody hands Jake a little sandwich the kind with the umbrella toothpick in the white bread with no crust and too much mayonnaise and then a hand pats his shoulder. 

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

Jake nods along with the litany. They had the service yesterday, it was nice, Jake said some words that he wrote down on a piece of paper, he wrote them while the minister read from the bible, had to borrow a pen from the person sitting next to him. 

They all thought it would be a good idea to come to Deer Isle one last time. Jake’s selling the house. Last hurrah sort of deal.

Celebration of life, they called it. The funeral, that is. They made sure not to call it a funeral, Sam had been specific about that. Jake swallows his sandwich and rubs the mayonnaise off of the stubble on his upper lip. Forgot a razor. That was stupid. Sam says he looks like shit with a beard. 

He’s on the couch with Laura and half cousin and third nephew. Third nephew is telling a funny story about Sam when she was in college. Jake’s heard it before. He wonders if he should be doing the same thing. Thinking about her, that is. He’s not, not really. 

One time he walked the Long Trail in Vermont. Whole of Vermont. Three hundred miles. When he finished he realized that after that whole month of walking he just remembered only little snippets of it. When he tried to wrap his head around how fucking large Vermont was and had walked across the whole thing, he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t hold the image all together. So he didn’t, he let the sense of how long he had walked just shatter apart, and left himself with only the snippets and not a sense of having done anything all that important. 

Samantha’s life is a bit like that, he thinks. He hasn’t even cried.

The house on Deer Isle has a large backyard with all the right things to keep a group of people entertained in it. A grill and a badminton net and a patio and all that stuff that Samantha bought. Jake presumes the relatives all have drinks in the backyard and talk about Samantha, he only presumes because he’s not there. He’s watching the sea. 

It’s almost night. The wind has died down a bit. Waves aren’t as fierce, and the tide’s low. Kelp clings to the rocks like hair. It’s slimy beneath his fingers. Jake’s lighter finally works. He smokes a bit. 

Best part about Deer’s Island is the stars. He tilts his neck a bit to see them and sucks down a lungful of rat poison and night air and happy chemicals. There’s Orion’s Belt. There’s the Big Dipper. There’s the North Star. He doesn’t know any more constellations. 

There’s a noise on the rocks. He looks away from the sky. Below him twenty feet, is a boy. 

The boy leaps from rock to rock. His feet are bare and they cling to the slippery kelp like they’re made of fucking superglue, or something. He’s wearing a swimsuit with a cartoon animal on it, Jake thinks he watched that show when he was young. The moonlight — moon’s on the horizon, waxing gibbous or something, bright enough to reflect on the water — touches the edges of the boys bare shoulders and limns them with soft white shine. 

A wave rears back, pushes against the rock, and cascades into the air. The shower rains down around the boy and his laughter is like a handful of rattling sea glass. He lifts his hands to either side of him and splutters with droplets in his mouth. 

The boy turns and sees Jake. Jake freezes. He feels like he shouldn’t be here. No, wait, real life kind of returns to him, the boy shouldn’t be here, no one else lives on the island.

The boys waves. 

Jake waves back. 

The boy climbs up the rocks and sits next to Jake. “Hi.”

“How’d you get here?”

The boy’s legs dangle off the edge of the rock and he kicks them. Sometimes the ocean spray gets daring and reaches an impish hand to tickle the underside of the boy’s feet before withdrawing quickly. 

“Can I tell you a story?”

“What?”

“Mom tells me stories when I’m sad.”

“I’m not sad.”

“Oh.”

“You can tell me a story.”

“Can I?”

Jake shrugs like, sure, I won’t stop you.

“Okay. Here’s the story. Yesterday on the rocks over there there were two seagulls. One of them had a piece of bread in its mouth and was walking around like she was the happiest seagull there ever was. And the other seagull didn’t have any bread. So he squawked, ducked his head, looked all pitiful. Finally the other seagull gave him a little piece of bread, and flew away.”

Jake chuckles. “That’s the story?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know if that was a very good story.”

“What do you know about stories?”

“What happened next?”

“He dropped the bread on accident.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah.”

“How’d you know it was a girl seagull?”

The boy smiles. “I don’t know. But it made the story better.”

Jake looks sideways at him. “Yeah?”

“I have to go. Bye mister.”

“Wait, are you going to be okay on the rocks? It’s slippery.”

The boy is already gone. He scampers down the side of the rocks and leaves Jake’s view. Jake stands up abruptly and runs after him. He keeps himself low, one hand hovering just above the rocks in case he slips. The wind snags in his hair and blows it in his eyes. He runs until he reaches the edge of the rocks, on little promontory overlooking the ocean, but he can’t see the boy anywhere. 

He tosses the cigarette into the waves and goes inside. 

“Who are you going to sell the house to?” someone asks. It’s the next morning. 

Jake looks over at the person. “Who are you?”

They fade away into the background. 

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Someone else touches his shoulder. 

That night Jake comes to the rocks again. He tells himself that the boy won’t be there again. He’s just out for a smoke. Getting away from the stuffy relatives. He tells himself all of this. But when the boy is there again playing on the rocks, Jake waves to him, calls out to him. 

The boy looks up. “Hello, mister!” He scampers over to Jake. 

“Hey, kid,” Jake says. “Pretty night.”

The boy turns to face the ocean and leans out over the edge of the rocky drop off. He lifts one hand to his forehead, like a lookout. The wind is sharp. The boy has moonlight in his eyes. “Sure is,” the boy says. 

“What did you do today?”

“I swam, and I played in the water, and I collected mussels and–” 

“Sounds like a good day.”

“Pretty good.”

“Who is taking care of you?”

“Can I tell you a story?”

“Another one?”

“It’s a sad one.”

“Okay.”

They stand next to each other and watch the tide come in. 

“I don’t have anyone to play with,” the boy says. 

They’re silent for a little. 

“Is that the story?” Jake asks. 

“Yeah.”

Jake sits down. He turns his head to the side. 

“Why are you crying?” the boy asks. 

“I don’t know,” Jake says. “It was a sad story.”

“I guess.”

“I don’t, either.”

“What?”

“Have anyone to play with.”

On the third night, the last night, the next day all the relatives will leave and Jake will sell the house, on the third night Jake comes down to the ocean. The boy is there again. Jake is about to call out to the boy when he stops himself, afraid, and draws closer. 

The boy stands in the ocean. The moon pools in the dips between waves. The boy reaches down and dips his finger in the moonlight. He turns, moves his hand like the flow of a condor’s wing, and to his finger the silver thread of moonlight clings, a sweet note from the throat of woman who doesn’t care that she doesn’t know how to sing, the image lingers in Jake’s eye, the boy brings his finger back to the water where he dips it beneath the surface, lifts it into the air, the water follows his hands in ribbons, a sapling fountain with the moonlight dancing woven all between. 

Water twists about the boy, holds him up, the boy’s laugh, there again. The boy rises up to the sky and the constellations converge about him, the sky folds inwards and down, like it was reaching a hand to match the boy’s, the two of them straining, spinning, each turn of their hands the first stroke in a painting, their desperate reaches on the verge of twinning, boy and sky becoming one.

But the boy merely tickles the sky and the stars shiver at his touch, he falls back down a thousand feet into the water where he stretches his arms to either side and turns round and round, as the boy churns the water Jake feels it churn inside him as well. 

For a moment all limitation holds suspended, unreal, Jake leans forward and now it is his turn to reach out a hand as the boy performs a miracle in the waves, it feels as though he is there, standing aside the boy, the water and the sky lapping at his heel, he moves his arm and the world wheels, but he’s not there, not really, he’s just watching, but what does it matter if he’s there or not if it feels like he is? 

And so Jake holds out his hand and he can see Vermont he can hold Samantha and and and

A wisp of green energy curls from his palm. A single blade of grass. It stretches up and at its tip it buds and flowers. A splash of water trickles up alongside it and plops down in rainbow droplets. Fire crinkles up the grass stalk and twines with the water in a looping spiral and dirt bubbles beneath the grass, little granules of rocks. The grass grows thicker, becomes a rose, the petals are tongues of fire, the stalk is an iridescent stream.

The rose grows in upon itself and then flares out into indistinct racing lines of light and shadow. The lines hide in each other’s shadows and curl about in playful darts. The waving lines bleed together in a tapestry and the tapestry spreads wings.

A seagull hops in his palm on one foot. It looks at him and tilts its head with curiosity and he tilts his as well just as curious. He brings the bird close to his face and it chirps and flutters. He lifts his hand up to the fading light and the bird raises away on whispered wings.

How Bad Are Adverbs, Really?

Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use adverbs. I have heard this advice from a hundred sources a hundred times. It seems to be the one thing that style guides and literary critics can all agree on. Adverbs bad. But how useful is this advice? Is there a way that, actually, adverbs good? 

An adverb often serves to add specificity to an action. They also can convey emotion, add punch to a sentence, heighten tension and explain setting. They are an all purpose grammar tool. So why the hate?

In my own experience, whenever someone has suggested that I remove an adverb from my writing it is because I am using that adverb as a crutch. What I mean by this is that I am using the adverb to convey the information by expressly telling the reader. In reality, I should be conveying this information through other means. More specific language and detailed descriptions can often serve to convey the same information as an adverb in a more artful way. 

Everyone knows the classic example of how the sentence “he sprinted” is better than the sentence, “he ran quickly.” Why use lot words when few words do trick? Sprinted is a better phrase than ran quickly. But there are more complex examples. 

“The sun shone brilliantly across the grasses gently swaying in the wind.” A fairly stock description of a field. The problem with the adverbs here is not that they are bad sentences, but that they are always used to convey this image. Adverbs are bread and butter of cliche descriptions. A better sentence might read, “The grass dipped and wove in the breeze, each kernel of wheat reflecting the morning sun.” By forcing myself to avoid adverbs, I had to invent a more original way to describe the scene. 

Adverbs are also exceedingly dangerous when they are used as dialogue tags. From personal experience I know that nothing I have written has ticked a creative writing teacher off more than, “shouted loudly.” Oftentimes, an adverb modifying a tag is simply a sign of ameature writing. Even if the phrase is fairly solid, such as “said softly” which is a personal favorite of mine, it still comes off as ameature. I’ve found that using adverbs in this way is best done sparingly; often it can have good effects, but that effect is negated by frequent use. 

But I also believe that adverbs can be useful, if used well. Sometimes adverbs fit well with a more flowery style of writing, writing that relishes long sentences and complex structure. Sometimes an adverb is just exactly what’s needed to describe something as well. To use an example of a sentence I wrote recently: “she sits down heavily in a chair.” I can’t find a perfect verb to encapsulate that sense of sitting down with an angry harumph, but “heavily” does the job pretty well, and it doesn’t get in the way. 

Adverbs are a danger. When I go back to edit my work, they are something I look for, because I know I have a penchant to rely on them. Replacing adverbs with stronger, more direct language is usually the right call. But the only rule in writing is that there are no rules. If you feel the call of the adverb, don’t just sprint for it. Run quickly.

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Trail’s End

The car skips and bounces down the road. Gravel kicks up in streaks of dust behind the wheels. I look out the window and lean my head against the glass. 

“Well?” Amy asks. She’s driving. I’m in the backseat, stretched out, my legs pressing against one window and my head against the other. I look at my toes. Each of the nails is bruised. The one on my big toe is cracked in two different places. I wiggle them. I’m sure they stink, but I can’t smell it anymore and Amy is nice enough not to complain. 

“Well?” Amy repeats. She glances at me through the rear-view mirror, smiling. Waiting. Wanting something from me. 

“Well what?” I ask. 

“How was it?”

“Good.”

She laughs. “That’s not all you’re going to say, is it?”

“It was hard, too.” I smile back. “Sorry, It’s just…” my voice trails off. 

“Well, what was your favorite state, at least.”

“New Hampshire.”

“How come?”

“Had the prettiest mountains.”

“Did it help?”

“Did what help?”

“The trip.”

I turn my head and watch the forest slide past outside the window. The road we’re on stretches nearly parallel to the trail. It’s odd, because in the last half hour we’ve travelled what took me three days to walk. It doesn’t feel like just travelling, it feels like the car is erasing the trail, eating it up, turning it into a green blur barely perceived through a window. 

“No,” I say. “It didn’t help.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Amy asks. Her face is a mask of sympathy, tinted dark by the shade of the mirror. 

“No,” I say. “Just thinking.”

“You can sleep if you want. We can talk later.”

“Okay. Yeah.”

I lean back and close my eyes but I don’t sleep. I think about this picture I saw of a man at the end of the Appalachian Trail. He’s on Mt. Katahdin, on his knees, and he’s gripping the summit marker with both hands, pressing his head against the wood. Sobbing. The picture doesn’t move but I can see his shoulders heaving.

I thought it would be like that when I got to the top, to the end. But it wasn’t. I don’t know.  I looked at the view, which was nice, but I had seen better, and then I walked down to the parking lot and waited for Amy to come get me, drive me home. I thought it would mean something. 

Home is back in Connecticut for us, which means the drive is nearly ten hours. We take a pit stop at a convenience store outside of Portland. It’s dark now. We’re the only car in the parking lot. Neon signs say proudly that the gas is only $2.95, the light from inside the store is almost painful to look at compared to the rich dark of the clouded sky. The car’s headlights sweep across the asphalt and Amy cuts the motor. 

I get out of the car and stretch. The lights of Portland turn the sky orange in the distance. Even if there weren’t clouds, there wouldn’t be any stars. 

“I’ll get gas,” Amy says. 

“I’m gonna piss,” I say. 

My boots don’t fit linoleum tiles. They’re so scuffed around the edges that they look almost fuzzy. What used to be grey and blue has turned almost black with caked mud. The tiles are sharp and edged. They have the usual crumbs and dust and scratches, the store owner in the corner is busy sweeping the residue under the counter. 

“Hey,” I say. “Got a bathroom?”

He points. 

The inside of the bathroom is covered with funny quotes about alcohol. I’ve had one beer too many, but I can’t tell if it was the eleventh, or the twelfth. Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer. I chuckle at a good one about Winston Churchill. 

I’m so used to pissing on trees that I nearly forget to flush. It’s funny. I thought I might change. I thought I was supposed to change. But I didn’t mean change as in, I forget to flush. I meant change, as in, I cried when I held the sign on Mt. Katahdin. 

At the counter I toss a bag of Cheez-Its to the store owner, who scans them and tosses them back and then I toss him some coins, a game of catch. He looks me up and down. 

“Hiker?” he asks. 

“What gave it away?”

“The beard,” he says. I scratch at it thoughtfully. I haven’t shaved in six months. 

“That’s true.”

“Let me guess,” the store owner says. “Baxter State Park?”

“For a little,” I say. “I was a through hiker.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

“My son was a through hiker.” He gives me the receipt. “See any bears?”

“A few,” I say. “When I was in the White Mountains, I saw one trying to reach for my bear bag. I hadn’t hung it in the trees properly and it was too close to one of the trunks, and this bear had climbed all the way up it and was reaching its paw for the bag. As I watched, the branch it was on broke. Real awkward thing, too. Paws flailing everywhere. It stood up and looked around like it was embarrassed, scratched its ear, and walked away as if nothing had happened.”

The store owner laughs. “I’ll tell my son.”

“I had a son, too,” I say. 

“How old is he?”

“Would have turned fifteen in a month.”

When I get back to the car, Amy is sitting in the driver’s seat. The lights are off, so the only thing illuminating her face is pink neon, her expression bathed and washed and bleached. I get into the back seat. She doesn’t start the car, we just look at each other through the rear view mirror. 

“Did you get gas?” I ask. 

“I want to know why,” Amy says. 

“Are you crying?” I ask. 

“You were gone for six months.”

I don’t say anything. 

“You were gone for six months and you just left me.”

“Can we talk about this when we get home?”

It’s a silent car ride back. 

We sleep in the same bed. It’s the first time I’ve slept next to someone since I began the hike. She sleeps facing away from me. Morning light already fills the room with grey fuzz. I look at my hand, eyes open. Every part of me is aware of my wife, the weight of her in the bed, the warmth of her in the room, the sound of her breath and the smell of what she washed her hair with. All of the sensations are too much, I can’t handle the proximity, the constant reminder of another consciousness unable to sleep because the same grief is in both our hearts, I don’t want to feel her emotions as well as mine, so I get out of bed and I go for a walk down the street, in the same jacket I wore while hiking, barefoot, the concrete leeches warmth from my soles. 

In the morning I have the same breakfast that I had on the trail. Oatmeal, brown sugar, powdered milk. I eat it at the kitchen counter, hunched over the food, too bleary eyed to focus on much of anything.

Amy sits down across from me, wearing pajamas, her hair erratic. 

“Where’d you go this morning?”

“Just for a walk.” I pick up my bowl of oatmeal and wash it in the sink. The flakes stick to the side of the bowl and it takes a couple passes with the sponge to clean it out. 

“I thought you’d have had enough walking.” She smiles, it’s a joke, but it really doesn’t feel like it. 

“Me too.”

“I want you to tell me about it. Tell me a story.”

The bowl is clean by now but I keep scrubbing at it. 

“You didn’t call,” Amy says. 

“I texted.”

“Once a week, to let me know you were safe, like we agreed.”

“Did you want me to call?”

“Of course.”

“You could have, you know. I would have answered.”

“Look at me,” she says. 

I put the bowl down. I look at her. She reaches out and takes my hands which hang limp at my sides and holds them between us. Her thumb plays over the dirt on the back of my hand — a half hour long shower couldn’t scrub it clean — plays over the ridge of tendons and muscle I didn’t used to have. 

“I missed you,” she says. “I needed you.”

“I needed to do something,” I say. 

“I know you did.”

“You said it was fine. I asked and I asked and I asked if it was alright for me to go and you said you would be fine.”

“I didn’t want to control you.”

“I just… I needed my life to change.”

“Haven’t our lives changed enough?” Her voice chokes mid-sentence. 

“I got up each morning and I sat on the bus to go to work and all around me, everybody was living their lives, moving, you know, and there I was, pretending nothing was different, moving along with them, pretending like nothing had happened, and I couldn’t do that.”

“And on the trail? Did you stop needing to pretend when you were on the trail?”

I look away. 

“Look at me,” she says. 

“I kept pretending,” I say. 

“And for us?” she says. “Are we going to keep pretending, too? That nothing is different, that you didn’t abandon me, that our son didn’t–”

“Stop.”

“That our son didn’t die?”

“We could keep pretending.”

“I don’t want to. I want to walk with you. I want to feel everything I need to feel, and then I want it to be done, just done, however long it takes for the grief to go away. I want you to be there with me. ”

“I need to call work,” I say. “To tell them I’m back. See if I still have a job.”

“Okay,” Amy says. She turns away from me. “Okay.” 

I reach out a hand to touch her shaking back but I don’t, my fingers hover and then I draw them away. 

At the top of Mt. Katahdin I stand in front of the sign that the hiker from the photo held. I turn from the sign, look out at the view. Clouds curl about themselves in little wisps. Slopes and rocks and trees and cliffs and ridges all around in a jumble. 

I try to wrap my head around just how large the trail is. How large it is and I walked the whole thing, all two thousand two hundred miles of it. I can’t do it. I can’t hold the image all together. I can grab hold to a scrap here, a fragment there, but it is like a cup that has shattered. The shards of ceramic lie scattered in my mind. I pick up a shard and the rain patters against the walls of my tent, yet I am warm inside, wrapped in a sleeping bag, my headlamp reflects off the pages of my book. I pick up a shard and Amy and I are eating lunch while watching tv, I steal a potato chip from her plate and she steals half my sandwich and I steal her glass of milk and she steals a kiss.  I pick up a shard and it is my son’s fifth birthday, I hold him up on my shoulders and run like a donkey around the yard while he smears his face with pink cake. Every time I pick up a shard I am forced to put down the one I was holding, no matter how many shards I grab I can never make the cup whole again, I can never contain the entirety of my son in the breadth of my imagination. 

So I don’t try. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is Storytelling Perfection

It is rare for a show to grip me so fully as Avatar: The Last Airbender, by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. I rewatched it last week. I went through the entire sixty episode show in five days. I practically breathed Avatar, I was so invested. 

Avatar tells the story of the titular Avatar, a twelve year old boy named Aang. The Avatar is a being that can control the four elements, water, earth, fire, and air. The Avatar is supposed to serve as a mediator of peace between the four nations of the world, each themed after one of the elements. But Aang runs away from his duties, and with his powers raging out of control, traps himself in an iceberg. 

In his absence, the Fire Nation declared war on the world. A hundred years pass, and two water tribe members, Katara and Sokka, find Aang and break him free from the iceberg. They tell him what has happened, and together they set out on a quest to teach Aang how to control the four elements and defeat the fire nation. All the while, they are chased by the troubled and conflicted Fire Nation prince, Prince Zuko. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only story I have ever experienced that I would call objectively perfect. There are many stories that I find subjectively perfect, that is, stories that I find emotionally resonant for specific and personal reasons. Some of these stories I even enjoy more than Avatar. But Avatar is different. Avatar is a perfect story. 

First, the characters. Not only is each character an absolute joy to watch on screen, each has a level of complexity and depth that I’ve never seen matched. These characters are so well constructed that you can use them as a template for storytelling. They are textbook examples of what makes a character interesting. 

For example, let’s take Prince Zuko. His character arc (I won’t spoil it) is one of the most beautiful, slow-burn, artful evolutions of a character I have ever witnessed. It is meticulously constructed — with side characters like Uncle Iroh and Princess Azula tugging Zuko in different directions, leaving him torn apart. Those two characters represent possibilities for Zuko’s future. Each is compelling. The audience understands why Zuko would choose one or the other (even though we’re screaming at the screen for him to choose Iroh). His personality reflects his anguish, the choices he makes show his confliction. 

An average, imperfect story would allow Zuko to be the only interesting character, and leave Iroh and Azula as static, representative side characters. But Avatar is different. Avatar makes sure that Iroh and Azula — though they serve as narrative foils for Zuko — are each complex and dynamic in their own right. Iroh struggles with his legacy as a fascist military leader, he grieves for his son, and for his surrogate son. Azula is crushed by the weight of responsibility and the desire to succeed, and she turns from a calculated and precise person to an uncontrolled maniac. 

The true beauty of this show is that Zuko has two narrative foils who pull him in different directions. Yet his two foils are complex characters. They have narrative foils pulling them in different directions. And the people pulling them are complex characters, and so on ad infinitum, until the show’s cast is wrapped up together in an astonishing web of deep, emotional relationships. 

Second, the world building. Avatar has exemplary world building. Each aspect of the world ties into the plot and the characters, and visa versa, all of it wrapped up in harmony. The ability to control the elements, “bending”, directly ties to the identities of the four nations, to the landscape itself, to the characters. The creators of the show were deliberate in thinking through the consequences for each choice they made. If a society consists of people who can move mountains, what do their cities look like? If a society consists of people who can fly, what do their cities look like? All of these questions are answered with gorgeous precision. 

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention just how simply fun the show is to watch. Team Avatar — the ragtag collection of protagonists — are ridiculously charming. I watched the most mundane filler episodes with such a broad smile on my face, happy to just watch these hooligans go about their business. 

The animation helps make the show fun to watch. The fight scenes are fluid. The artists took no shortcuts. The action — especially The Last Agni-Kai (if you know you know) — is often stunning. Bending is tied to martial arts. When characters use their magic, you can feel the motion as though you were moving yourself. Earthbending feels strict, solid, abrupt, and unmoving. Waterbending is wavy and dynamic. The animation sells this effect terrifically. 

There are many stories I enjoy more than Avatar. But each of those stories is flawed in a way that I would hesitate to give an unqualified recommendation. If I tell a friend about those stories, I would say, “I love this show. But I have to warn you…”

I don’t have to give a warning when recommending Avatar. Watch this show. Watch it again if you already have.

How to Create a Fantasy World

Creating a fantasy world is a unique pleasure. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve survived a tedious lecture by drawing maps in the margins of my notes. There’s something invigorating and refreshing about conjuring an unfamiliar landscape in your mind and walking down its twisting passes. I’d wager us writers are never bored while standing in line — we’ve always got a world to think about. 

I find these worldbuilding games are actually quite useful. All stories need a setting. Fantasy stories especially so. In many ways, the setting is the calling card of fantasy, it’s what separates your book from all the rest. So your world has to be immediately eye-catching. It has to be, well, fantastic. 

I read a lot of fantasy. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. So I’ve read about interesting worlds and I’ve read about ho-hum worlds. I’ll try to summarize what made the interesting ones stand out. 

A Dynamic World

Treat your world just like another character in your story. It has contradictions and hidden natures, flaws and personalities, it has relationships and desires. And just like your characters, your world should change over the course of the story, and it should change in a variety of ways. 

The world should be in the process of change even before the main characters are introduced. This adds a layer of verisimilitude. Nobody will believe that a world has been stagnant for hundreds of years. Our world is constantly changing, as politics, culture, technology, and the environment shift like the tides. Your world should reflect this. 

Brainstorming what direction your world is changing in will help answer a lot of questions about the world itself. You’ll need to know who is driving the change, who supports it, who stands against it. You’ll need to pick hotbeds of change, chaotic melting pots where the machinery of your world is oiled. 

The world should also change as a result of interacting with your main characters. This does not have to be a major change. Indeed, a whole ‘world’ so to speak can be just a small village, and the change nothing more than a few smiling faces along the street. Showing the effect your characters have on the world, though, is a good visual metaphor for how the characters themselves have changed. 

A Unique Premise

As a kid, I once explained the premise of a book I wanted to write to my father. Of course, it was garbage — I was a kid. But I was proud of it. My father asked me one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. “What makes your book different?”

At first, I was defensive. “My book doesn’t have to be different,” I wanted to say. “It just has to be good.” But as I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve come to realize my father was right. Your idea does have to be different. That’s what makes it yours

There are an infinite number of fantasy worlds. Don’t limit yourself to the ones already imagined. 

When I brainstorm a premise, I try to make sure that there are several things incorporated into that premise. Conflict, mystery, and potential. 

Conflict is straightforward, and it ties into the above section on change. The premise itself should have tension inherent to its nature. Things should feel like they are happening, and that those happenings matter. Your premise should have a certain edge to it, as if the world was on a precipice and anything might tip it one way or another. 

Most fantasy and sci-fi stories follow this advice. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, concerns a world plagued by the knowledge that at any minute aliens could come to finish them off, and they wouldn’t have any defense. In The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkein, the conflict concerns the tension between the people of Lake-Town and the dragon Smaug, who live within eye-sight of each other. 

In these examples, the conflict consists not of outright warfare, but rather the anxiety that comes from knowing that you are living in the events that precede warfare. (It doesn’t have to be warfare, though. Too often the genre of fantasy fetishizes the military. The conflict can, and probably should, be anything but warfare). 

Mystery is also an easy thing to work into your premise. Most good premises have an unknown quantity about them. Figuring that unknown quantity out is the plot of many fantasy novels. 

Examples include dystopian novels like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, in which the mystery is how the world ended. To give a contemporary example, in The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, the mystery is who killed the protagonist’s family. In the same vein, the mystery in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is finding out why the mythical ‘Knights Radiant’ disappeared. 

A mystery has the potential to immediately hook the reader. The easiest way to keep someone turning pages is to promise a hint at solving the unsolvable. The more impossible the mystery seems, the more invested the reader will be in learning its truth. 

In order for the reader to care about the mystery, though, the characters in the story need to care about it as well. When a reader grows to like a character, they take that character’s desires and feelings as their own. So if the character wants to know the answer to something, so will the reader. 

Potential is a vague concept. A strong premise should have a sense of unlimited possibility. That the events in the story only scratch the surface of what your premise can offer. The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett is the best example of this. A simple premise — a world that’s flat, instead of spherical. But the sheer amount of content in that world is mind boggling. There is always something new to discover, and things that you thought you knew well are shown to have even greater depth than you could have imagined. 

Rules To Follow

Fantasy (and sci-fi) are great because of the unfettered control you have over the world. But randomness is only compelling in small quantities. Readers like to have a sense that the world follows an order. That there are laws of nature, and though those laws may be different from the ones on this earth, they are just as absolute. 

Essentially, this boils down to predictability. People get pleasure while listening to music because they can anticipate what note will come next. Their prediction is based off of the pattern that the song and the genre have established. And breaking from that pattern can be pleasing too, just only in small, well thought out doses. Storytelling is the same way. 

Each world you create should establish rules of operation. The reader grows to understand these rules and feels confident in their ability to predict what will happen if, say, an apple falls from a tree. When you break those rules, it can be refreshing and surprising. But if you break them constantly, the story feels disjointed. 

Limits are far more interesting than powers. An omnipotent god is probably going to be an uninteresting character. But a god limited by a complex sense of morality can be incredibly interesting. Your world functions in much the same way. If anything is possible, then there is no longer excitement in doing the impossible. 

This is especially true when designing magic. The challenge is maintaining a sense of power, mystique, and intrigue, while also maintaining a sense of stakes and the possibility of failure. Balancing these two aspects is the core problem for many stories. Often fantasy writers will be criticised for the magic feeling like an unlimited plot device, or they will be criticised for the magic feeling too rule-bound and indeed, not very magical at all. 

My recommendation is to blend both aspects. Give your magic rules. But remember that it is still magic, and magic by definition is something that breaks rules. Allow the magic to be just as emotional as it is scientific. If you establish that magic has concrete rules, then scenes in which those rules are broken can be extraordinarily powerful.

Depth

It is an unfortunate truth that an interesting world requires an immense amount of research and preparation. 

You should know every detail about each country or culture or city or feature of the landscape. How it was created. How it operates on a day to day basis. What if feels like to be a part of it. What are its different aspects and how do they interact with each other. 

This will require a decent amount of knowledge about the real world. When I create a fantasy culture, often I will do research on the cultures I’m drawing inspiration from, or simply on the idea of culture itself. What creates culture? What creates conflict between cultures? Real life cultures have dozens of different, interconnected parts. They have customs, history, conflict, religion, clothing, food, all mish-mashed together. I’m always careful to make sure my fantasy cultures reflect this level of complexity. Above all, I try to avoid recreating real life stereotypes in my made up world. 

For geographical features, real world accuracy is important as well. If you have a river that spills into the ocean, have you made sure to include a watery delta? If you have a snow coerced mountain range, have you remembered the flooding season in the springtime as the snow melts? When a reader has to ask these questions it removes them from the story, it breaks their flow. 

Interconnectedness

Finally, each of these disparate aspects of your fantasy world should connect to each other. Your characters should feel like they derive naturally from the world that produced them, and your world should feel like it thematically relates to your characters. The landscape should see the effects of the magic, and the design of magic should be influenced by the landscape. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender, created by Michael DiMartino and Brian Konietzko, does this extraordinarily well. Each character reflects aspects of the culture that they were born in. Toph, from the Earth Kingdom, is tough, resilient, and unmoving. Aang, from the Air Nomads, is light, playful, yet capably of ferocity. Their cultures created them. But each culture also has thematic resonance with the character arcs in a symbiotic and circular way. Characters and worlds were not designed separately in a vacuum, they were designed together, interwoven. 

Avatar also is the most obvious example of tying the magic system to the landscape, in that magic literally derives from a person’s surroundings. Earthbenders control earth, airbenders control air. But it is connected in more subtle ways as well. The Air Nomads live in a place that only airbenders could reach. The Earth Kingdom is defined by immense constructions of stone — something only earthbenders could create. When the world of Avatar was created, DiMartino and Konietzko made sure to consider how magic would influence it. 

When I create a world, I try to consider how each element would affect every other element. If I create a nation with a strong religion, I then ask myself how that religion affects daily lives and customs, how it would affect history, how it would affect neighboring nations. If I create a magic system, I ask myself how magic would be used on a day-to-day basis in construction, politics, warfare, and home life. 

A great exercise you can do is imagine a local tavern (or the equivalent) in your world. A storyteller sits on a stool, entertaining the patrons. What stories does that storyteller tell? Why do they choose to tell those stories? What do the patrons think about those stories? In answering these questions you can delve into the inner workings of your world in a deeply personal way. 

To The Words On The Tips Of Our Tongues

The box rested in Emily’s hand. Mud speckled her arms and her face and snarled her hair. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes as she examined it, how intensely her gaze scoured the surface as though its contents could save her.

Porter leaned against a nearby tree – and this too I remember clearly – because his arms were crossed and his head was turned. 

The box was a rectangular affair, as they often are. Back then, it looked blank. I know better now. It’s lid wouldn’t come off. 

“It’s aliens,” she said. 

“Aliens aren’t real,” Porter scoffed. He kicked at a stone, affecting an air of disinterest, a false confidence held only by pre-pubescent teens with far too much testosterone for their own good.

I didn’t believe in aliens, but I did believe in Emily. You couldn’t help but trust her; every word was electric with her own spellbinding confidence. It seemed impossible that Porter could ignore her. 

“How will you open it?” I asked. Oh, how I captured the essence of the moment! So succinct was that sentence, so vital. Although I would not grasp the ramifications of my words until much too late. 

Her scrawny limbs quivered with the effort of prying the lid off. Porter laughed and she glared at him. “Get me a hammer.”

“No, you won’t get that lid off.”

“You try.”

“Don’t want to.”

“Then get me a hammer.”

He pried himself off the tree. “I’m going home.”

“Adam, you get me a hammer.”

I jumped a little, surprised. “Okay.”

Emily’s mother stuck her head out the screen door that opened onto the back yard. “Emily! It’s time to take your medicine!”

The box disappeared into Emily’s house, where it ended up on a shelf in her basement and I soon forgot about it.

Emily didn’t. 

I think it was high school when I next saw the box. Maybe middle school? At least four years had passed in any case. We were in Emily’s basement, me and Porter and her. Porter had grown taller, he had to duck beneath the insulated pipes along the ceiling. He played tennis. He walked with long, deliberate strides. 

Emily sat on his lap, and he on a tattered couch they found on the side of the road. Porter absentmindedly brushed the hospital band on her wrist. I sat on an armchair across from them. Her messy brown hair did a poor job disguising the red scar on the side of her neck. The stitches had only just come out last week. I must remember her eyes were the same, even though there were bags beneath them.

“Oh, look at this,” Emily said, springing out of Porter’s arms and swiping the box from where it rested on her workbench next to a large microscope and a smattering of screwdrivers and wrenches. 

“You kept that?” Porter laughed. “It’s useless.”

“No, it’s not.” Her eyes burned. “I can’t even scratch it. Totally unbreakable. And it’s got these really small carvings all over it.”

Porter snatched the box from her hand and peered at it. “You’re mind must be going, Emily.”

And the room fell silent.

“Emily, I didn’t mean that,” Porter scrambled. For a moment, we all saw through his nonchalance to his terror, but he pulled the veil once more across his face.

I interrupted. “Have you tried laser-based spectroscopy? For the box?”

They looked at me. I hadn’t said a word for the last hour we had been together. Porter laughed at me, but Emily was just curious. “No, I haven’t. What is it?”

“Mr. Dimmock has a setup for it. I’ll show you how to use it, if you want.”

For the next year Emily was a regular fixture in the chemistry lab. Often I would just sit and watch her watch the box. She was never frustrated, even though she tried every tool in the lab without success. After that year, her hospital visits became so frequent that she didn’t have the time any more. 

I graduated and left for tech school. Emily stayed. I lasted a week before I called. 

“Adam?” she said.

I held the phone closer to my ear so I could hear every word, every catch in her voice, every lilting syllable. “Emily? How are you.”

“I’m good, how are you?” She laughed. 

I wasn’t laughing. “I meant really.”

“So did I. How was the first week of college?”

“Good. Fine. I’m worried about you.”

“Adam.”

We grew silent. I changed the subject. “Have you made any progress on the box?”

“I have, actually.” Even though we were 2,000 miles apart I could still see her eyes dance, a smile flicker across her face. “The designs are so intricate. I haven’t found a pattern yet, but I know I’m close. Porter thinks I’m crazy, the amount of time I spend on it.”

“Porter?”

“Didn’t you hear? He’s staying back home.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t believe he’s doing this all for me. He’s not even going to school. Got a job.”

“That’s really nice of him.”

“I spend the whole day looking at the box sometimes. It’s not even about the lid anymore, I don’t think. I  run my hands across the designs and I feel like I’m getting there, like there’s a word on the tip of my tongue.”

We were silent. I had run out of things to say.

“Hey, Adam?” Emily asked. 

“What?”

“If I -”

“Emily, stop.”

“I’m serious.”

“Okay.”

“If I get too sick, I want you to have the box. I want you to figure out what’s inside of it for me.”

A month later I got a package in the mail. There was a note on the outside, her once steady handwriting now trembling.  “Here’s to words on the tips of our tongues. Good luck Adam.”

I spent every waking hour with the box. Under a high powered microscope, I could see Emily was right about the designs. Swirling notches carved into the unbreakable material. I would lose myself in them as they fractured and spun, like the swirling of stars on a cloudless night. How could something so small be so seemingly endless? There was a pattern. Or almost, at least. The carvings were aimless yet organized, both particle and wave.

I worked ceaselessly on the box. Stopped going to class. Every day I felt like I got a little bit closer and closer and closer.  

I got the news that Emily was dead seventeen minutes after I figured out how to open the box.

I called Porter.

He was crying when he answered the phone. “Fuck off.” 

He hung up.

I called again. “Porter, I need to talk.”

“Fine. Talk.”

“I figured out how to open the box.”

“Fuck the box,” Porter said. His voice was quiet, broken. “Fuck the box, fuck you, fuck her for giving you the box. I don’t want to hear another word about that stupid box.”

I didn’t know how to respond.

“I’m sorry,” Porter said after a while. “I’m… “ he sighed. “What’s in the box?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

“I haven’t looked.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s dumb.”

“Tell me about Emily,” I said. 

“What the fuck do you want to know? She’s fucking dead, Adam.”

Now I was crying. “Just tell me about her.”

“She was really pretty and had nice legs. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Me neither.”

We waited for a long while on the phone together. The static was comforting. It helped to know that we were both feeling the same thing. 

Porter broke the silence. “I understand. About the box, I mean. It’s not dumb that you haven’t looked. In the last few months, before she died, we didn’t know. How long she had, I mean. We didn’t know which words would be her last. So we made everything count. And now, knowing how long she had just fucking sucks. It wasn’t very long at all. I want to go back to when we didn’t know. I miss her.” 

He laughed a little.  “She was really fucking pissed that she died before finding out what was inside that fucking box.”

“Maybe.”

Static again. I hung up.  

How to Structure a Story

All stories have structure. Simple structures: the hero wants something, they attempt to get it, they are thwarted, and then they succeed. Complex Structures: frame narratives, flashbacks, multiple perspectives, subplots. Structure is the substance and shape of your story. It is the events that transpire, and it is the sequence and manner in which those events are related to the reader. 

But what is structure? What are the different patterns, what are the accepted customs? How can I break from those set ways? These are questions I ask myself frequently. I researched them, but the answers proved vague and disparate. I hope to be able to synthesize what I’ve learned into more bite-sized chunks.

Choosing the structure of your story is an important part of the storytelling process. It helps your reader know what they are getting into. It gives them a pattern to follow in their head. And when you deviate from the structure, your reader knows to pay attention. But how do you choose which story structure is the one for you?

Everyone’s process is different. I can only speak for myself. In answering that question, I like to  examine the accepted canon of story structures. 

Types of Structures

I find it a little funny that almost every major writer will attempt to create a definitive list of every type of story. Kurt Vonnegut does this in his lecture titled “The Shapes of Stories.” Christopher Booker wrote a book called, The Seven Basic Plots, and the contents of that book should be self explanatory. Robert McKee in Story gives a list of the 25 different film genres. Joseph Cambell proposes a single unifying story in the hero’s journey. Film experts tell you the three-act structure is king, theater aficionados will tell you the five-act tragedy is the supreme form. 

But of course, the end result of all these lists is that it’s super difficult to find anything definitive, so I mostly stopped worrying about it. Following any one of these formulas too closely will result in a, well,  formulaic story. I’ve learned that I can express myself best in the ways that I deviate from these forms. 

The crummy part is, in order to deviate from a form, I had to first learn what that form was in the first place. Which was kinda a pain. I’ll do my best to give an overview of the major ones.

The Hero’s Journey

This is a classic. You’ve probably heard of it. The above image is my summary of its different components. I made it in MS Paint, so it doesn’t look great, sorry about that.  In essence, the hero’s journey concerns a single protagonist. He (most typically male, but as I said, true beauty comes from breaking the standards, which is why many people find heroes with other genders to be more compelling) is living an ordinary life, in a world that he understands. 

Then an extraordinary figure calls him to adventure. He resists, then agrees. He leaves the world he knows and enters into a world of mystery. He meets friends, mentors, allies, enemies. He struggles and fails. He reaches the very bottom of misery or hardship, and then overcomes that to claim his reward. 

Finally, he returns, his character changed by the events he encountered. The world he once knew is now different to him. Perhaps he’s removed from it, jaded. Perhaps he’s able to fix its problems.

Sound familiar? I could spend the rest of the article listing books that use this structure. Rather than following this formula to a T, I found picking and choosing elements from it to be really helpful. It turns out the hero’s journey has a lot of important lessons. 

Characters should make decisions. Not a decision between good and evil — that’s hardly a decision. But decisions between equal options. Do I go on the adventure, or do I stay where I am? That’s a story beat that will never get old. 

Characters should have allies. Friends are cool. Teachers are also cool. Positive relationships can bring out different aspects of your character’s personality, and when those relationships are taken away, it can bring out even more aspects. 

Characters should have opponents. People who are searching for the same thing as your character. Rivals they can respect, or hate, or anything in between. Forcing your characters to overcome obstacles is how they grow. 

The abyss is crucial. It’s a bizarre part of storytelling, but I’ve found that we all like watching characters suffer. It doesn’t have to be physical pain, and indeed, it probably shouldn’t be. Instead, find what hurts or terrifies your character the most, and then inflict them with it. That’s the abyss. 

Redemption and reward is so satisfying to read, especially if I’ve just watched a character overcome their personal abyss. I love those moments where a character is recognized for what they’re truly worth. 

Finally, the return. The hobbits come back to the shire. The juxtaposition of who the character is now and where they used to be highlights their growth (or downfall) and emphasizes the theme of your story. 

As much as I find these elements interesting, an author truly grabs my attention when they break these elements. My mind walks along the pattern, ho-hum, and then boom! The mentor dies on page 3, instead of halfway through. Wow! Where is this story going? 

Rising Action, Falling Action

I bet you were taught this in high-school. At its core, this is a simplified version of the hero’s journey. This structure is too simple to be useful, but it still has lessons to teach. Personally, this graph taught me the power of escalation. 

Stories should increase in intensity over their duration. Economics states that though something may be originally pleasing, the more times we are exposed to that thing, the less pleasing it is. In order to maintain that original level of pleasure, we need to up the ante. 

If your character gets injured, that’s exciting. If your character gets injured in the same way, that’s less exciting. But if they get even more injured, that’s just as exciting as the first time. 

Finally, tensions should come to a head at the climax. Everything is realized. The excitement has never been this high. The story is resolved with a flash and a bang, and then things return to normal. 

However, this graph is flawed. As a kid, my English class had a visitor from a local author. She showed us this graph:

Now this is cool. Just as the same injury, if repeated, loses interest, readers will also lose interest if the pace of escalation stays the same. Escalation itself becomes boring. To fix this, you can alternate between highs and lows. As the story progresses, the highs get higher and the lows get lower. 

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, is a good example of this. The story concerns a dad and his child walking through the post-apocalypse. If the story were just suffering, it would be boring. But the story alternates between suffering and hope, and then takes that hope away. Reading The Road feels like the author is tantalizing you with the promise of comfort for these characters. You keep reading because you want to know if they ever actually find safety. The answer would be too obvious if the story had no variation. 

My Personal Process

I like starting with an archetype. Perhaps I saw a really cool movie about an antihero, so now I want to write about an antihero. I do a little reading. What are the conventions of the antihero story? Where can I subvert them? I learn that antiheroes need a foil, an innocent character. The antihero and the innocent need a reason to be forced together. Now I have the foundation of a story. 

Next I add a genre. I throw it on top like seasoning. Perhaps I want to tell a story about a cyberpunk antihero. Oooo. What are the conventions of cyberpunk? I do a little reading. It turns out I need dystopic capitalism, virtual reality, and degenerate body modifications. Where can I deviate from those?

Now I turn to the hero’s journey. What does my character want? What prevents them? What helps them? How do they change over the course of the story? Answering these questions gives me a basic outline of start, middle, and end. 

Finally, I create escalation and de-escalation. I come up with a moment of intensity, and I follow it with a moment of peace, and I repeat that process until my story reaches a climax. And each time, I increase the magnitude, until I have taken both ends to their logical extremes, and there I find the abyss and the reward from the hero’s journey. 

I do this process for each character and each subplot. Usually genre stays the same, but perhaps in my cyberpunk story one of the subplots is a romance. Anything goes. I allow myself the freedom of having the story be as long or as short as it needs to be to realistically cause change or growth in my protagonist, antagonist, and secondary characters. Sometimes this results in a short story, other times, a novel. 

General Advice

At the end of the day, don’t stress about structure. It doesn’t matter if your story adheres to three acts or five or which of the seven basic plots applies to you. It’s your story. Ignore conventions, do it. 

But it is helpful to pick an established structure and to change it. The hero’s journey, but female (The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood). The hero’s journey, but in space (Star Wars). Classic fantasy, but with realism and stakes (A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin). Each of these stories follows some conventions, some pattern. And each of these stories subverts that pattern. Know the story you want to tell, know what is expected of you, and know how and when and where to defy those expectations. 

The best way to research is to read. I like to write fantasy. So I read fantasy. Way too much fantasy, if my wallet is any judge. I read critically, I read to analyze the story for its component parts, and I learn a little bit more about the structure of fantasy. (Sometimes I’ll steal an idea from a story. Don’t worry, everybody does it. All you have to do is call it ‘inspiration’ and nobody bats an eye). 

I’ll conclude by tentatively adding one more proposal to the lists and lists of types of stories. A story is a character who wants something and is prevented from having it. When the dust settles, that’s all a story is. 

Creating A Complex Character

My favorite feeling is falling in love with a character. Grinning stupidly whenever they’re on screen or sobbing with them as they struggle. Watching them learn and grow, and cheering for them without restraint, and then that empty ache when the story is over. 

It’s a rare feeling. The greatest challenge for me when I write a story is attempting to give this feeling to the reader. I am not always successful — it’s the most difficult task in storytelling. But each time I fall in love with a character, I learn a little bit more about how to replicate that process. 

This is, of course, a bare bones overview. Characters are insanely complex things to discuss. I would argue characters are far more complex than us humans. Each of these points I will assuredly discuss again, at a later date, in more detail. But for now, this is a good summary of what I have learned. 

Motivation

All characters need motivation. Motivation has two parts: a what and a why. The “what” is more superficial. It can be anything. True love, treasure, a friend, a castle, personal growth, adventure. I find it helpful to imagine the moment in which the character achieves their desire. What are they holding in their hands or their hearts? Who surrounds them? What are they thinking about?

The what is not nearly so important as the why. A character can want true love, and seek it, and find it, and that makes for a compelling romance novel. But when the novel explores why the character wants true love, it reaches another level of poignance and thematic power. Answering the question of why your character wants something often is an easy way to strike at the very core of who that character is. 

Flaw

Character flaws make a story interesting. You don’t need to like a character to fall in love with them. In fact, most of my crushes are on villains who I would never want to invite to a dinner party but who I adore watching on the screen or page. 

Choosing a flaw for a character is a delicate process. Flaws should be relevant to who the character is at their core and to the story itself. If you have a character whose flaw is, say, murderous rampages, but then that aspect of the character is never explored, they never grow, and the story never concerns it, then it’s not much of a flaw. Indeed, many stories are centered entirely around the flaw and overcoming it. This is the most basic and eternal form of character arcs. 

Take Prince Zuko, from the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. His character flaw is, principally, that he’s doing the wrong thing. The rest of his story is the process of him realizing that and redeeming himself. What makes Zuko so compelling is his struggle as he turns himself around. Fixing his flaw digs at who he is at a very base level. It requires him to confront his father and his sister over the way they sculpted and manipulated him. Zuko’s flaw is a central element of his character and the story as a whole. 

I would advise you to steer clear of flaws that are based only in personality. Being an obnoxious person isn’t much of a flaw if it is left at such a surface level. Rather, I find it helpful to connect the innards of a character with their outtards. Zuko’s flaw is not that he shouts or is angry or is kinda annoying. Those personality traits result from his deeper flaw; he’s doing evil deeds, and knows it. 

Change

Dynamism is essential to a character. The process of their change more often than not ecompasses the entirety of the story and drives its events. 

They can change in many ways. Commonly, they overcome their flaw. But some stories focus on negative change, a deepening of the flaw. Other stories focus on a revelation concerning a hidden nature. Others focus on establishing a relationship between two characters. All of these count as change. 

Change should be directly tied to motivation. Their motivation, and the pursuit of that motivation, is the vehicle that drives their change. I would advise you to steer clear of having a character’s motivation be change. Rather, focus on finding ways to cause change as a result of motivation. Let motivation be a more physical goal, something the character can hold in their hand, so to speak. Let the mental goal follow naturally as a result of achieving the physical goal. 

Indeed, it can be powerful to consider the idea of  ‘change’ as a secondary motivation for your character. But this time, it is not a motivation they are aware of, or at least, it is a motivation they are afraid of admitting. It is something they keep hidden, even from themselves. 

Again, consider Prince Zuko. His flaw is his evildoing. But his motivation is not simply “do good things, instead of evil ones”. His motivation is to capture the protagonist, Aang. This is a physical and definite objective. In the process of doing so, he learns to do good things, and fixes his flaw. 

Not all characters should change. Your protagonist and antagonist, definitely. Their supporting relationships, probably. But everyone else? Most characters in a story are content to exist as they are, and they serve a valuable function in doing so, as a way to induce change in other characters and as a metric for measuring that change.  

Contradictions

Robert McKee, in Story, describes his opinion on  what makes a character interesting, and it is one that resonated well with me. Essentially, McKee argues, characters are interesting when they have contradictions in their nature. The more contradictions, the more interesting. 

For example, take Han Solo, from Star Wars. Han Solo is likeable because of the contradiction inherent to his roguish nature and his heart of gold. The juxtaposition of those two traits is powerfully dynamic. 

Or, consider Snape, from Harry Potter. Snape is far and away the most interesting character in that series, and it is because of his contractions. He’s mean to Harry, but looks after him. He’s stern and cold, but deeply emotional. He (spoilers, but you definitely already know) loves Dumbledore, but kills him. These contractions are fascinating. The reader asks themselves how they came to be, how they could possibly coexist. It makes his character into an intriguing mystery. 

I structure contradictions around two conflicting statements, connected by a “but”. The character is this way, but also the direct opposite way. For main characters, I might have a list of 5 or 6 powerful contradictions. For supporting roles, I keep it to just 1 or 2.  That’s just personal preference, though. 

Relationships

A relationship with another character is principal to making both characters interesting. Relationships are like the idea of contradictions, above, but in a macro sense. The character is this way, but this other character is that way. Perhaps it’s helpful to think about your story as its own character, and the relationships inside as the contradictions that make it interesting. 

In any case, relationships are useful for a couple of reasons. First, they’re just fun to watch. A dynamic relationship between two characters is more enjoyable than anything else. Two friends with chemistry, working together to solve a problem. A protagonist and an antagonist who respect each other even as they compete. Like contradictions, relationships get more interesting the more opposite two characters are. A character and their foil forced to coexist is the premise of like every buddy cop movie ever made. 

But second, relationships are ways to drag out different sides to your character that they wouldn’t otherwise have shown to the reader. If your character is a gruff bounty hunter, that’s all they will present. But pair that gruff bounty hunter with a child who reminds them of who they used to be, and their gruff exterior will soften. Pair that bounty hunter with a villain they detest, and they will show determination and resilience. Pair that bounty hunter with a love interest, and they will start to reveal passion and emotion. Use relationships to plumb the depths of your characters. 

Hidden Nature

This is much more optional than some of the above techniques. I found that by answering the above questions, especially brainstorming contradictions, my characters already possessed a hidden nature, and I didn’t have to work at it. 

A hidden nature is simply any side of your character that they don’t show to the general public. This isn’t an essential thing for every character. But thinking about what your character keeps hidden, why they keep it hidden, and how that secret eventually and inevitably gets revealed, is a helpful process. 

Physicality and Personality

These two are the most fun parts of character creation, but they are also the most superficial. In my own character creation process, I find that I imagine physicality and personality first, and then promptly ignore them to move on to the more relevant things. 

However, both of these are still important. In what is swift becoming a common thread for this article, physicality and personality are most interesting when they contradict each other and themselves. A giant who speaks in a soft voice. A gangster who wears hand knitted sweaters. 

I will sometimes imagine my character in passing situations. If I’m in class, I imagine my character sitting next to me. What are they wearing? Did they arrive late? Are they slumped over, bored, or sitting straight backed, attentive? It’s like a little game I play with myself, and it proves to be an effective exercise. 

Characters should also sound distinctive from each other. Not just in their actual voices, but what and how they say things. This is more than just an accent. Are they easily angered, do they speak in exclamations, are they quiet in large groups, timid, braggadocious. A fun challenge is to write different lines of dialogue for your characters without the name tags attached, and to see if you can spot the difference. 

Finally, though, I would advise you not to focus too hard on this part of your character. Don’t define your character by how they look or sound. Define them by their decisions and their relationships and their goals. 

Physicality and personality are at their most useful when they serve as keys into your character’s psychology. The gangster wearing hand knitted sweaters is more than just a gimmick, it’s a clue that they care about their mother and that they don’t care about what other people think of them. The reasons why a character looks and sounds the way they do are more compelling than what they look and sound like. 

Competence

A much smaller point: it’s fun to read about a character who is competent. This competence can be in anything; social interaction, fighting, math, you name it. But giving a character a skill that they are better than anyone else at is an easy way to make them seem cool and likeable. It plays into the escapist part of fiction — when I’m reading, I read to feel like someone else. I’d rather feel like someone who has a skill than someone who is totally useless. 

Suffering

Your character should suffer. A lot. In ways that really really hurt them. Similar to competence, suffering is an easy way to make them relatable. We all know what it’s like to suffer, at least a little bit. If your character suffers too, it inspires empathy. 

The easiest way to make a character likeable is to make them suffer in an unfair way. Have someone lie and take credit for their work, have someone not believe them, have them be cheated by the system. A small warning though — this kind of suffering is often superficial. It’s useful when creating an immediate connection, but it’s difficult to create a truly meaningful story if the principal plot point is based off of a miscommunication. 

Additional Note

Sometimes the most compelling characters are the ones who are noticeably missing one of these aspects. Characters without flaws, or without motivations, or without change, or without relationships make for some of the most interesting characters in fiction. 

Writing is full of rules, and the first rule of writing is that you’re allowed to break all of the rules. But the second rule of writing is that you should know why you’re breaking the rule. 

My Character Sheet

Everybody creates characters in their own way, and every way is valid. This is simply the way that I find the most useful, and if you find it useful as well, feel free to claim it and personalize it and make it your own. 

  • Name
  • A paragraph or seven on physical description and personality
  • Flaw (s)
  • Contradiction (s)
  • Greatest Fear
  • Change
  • Hidden Nature
  • Motivation
  • A list of their relationships with other characters, how they feel about those relationships, and what purpose to the story those relationships are meant to serve. 

Creating A Villain

How often have you heard the advice, “A good villain is the hero of their own story”? This line is a step in the right direction. But I find it simplistic and I find that it fails to encompass everything a villain should be. 

One of the most helpful things for me has been to change the very words I use. Rather than hero and villain, I prefer protagonist and antagonist. Following the etymology of the words, they mean he who acts and he who acts against. These words are devoid of moral qualification. They don’t specify good and evil, the way hero and villain do. They also imply a more intimate connection between the two characters, a more direct opposition. Often, a typical villain may have a goal and a typical hero’s goal is stopping the villain. But a protagonist and antagonist are much more deeply concerned about the other. 

Rather than thinking of a villain as the hero of their own story, think of your antagonist as a character with the same goal as your protagonist. Take, for instance, Thanos, from Avengers: Infinity War. A character often lauded as a great villain. To me, what makes him great is not that he is the hero of his own story. Rather, it is that he and the Avengers both want the same thing: happiness for the people of the universe. The distinction between them is the lengths they are willing to go to achieve that end.

All antagonists are different, and the process of their creation is different as well. There are no rules when it comes to creating an antagonist. We all already have an instinct for what makes a villain compelling. But there are a few common tricks and tools you can use to refine the process. Don’t feel a need to use all of these, or even any of them. Rather, see if one may pique your interest, inspire you in a new direction. 

A Piercing Connection

One type of antagonist is a character uniquely capable of hurting your protagonist. But I don’t mean physical pain. Rather, a good antagonist is one who represents the protagonist’s greatest fear, who causes their greatest failure, who terrifies them in a uniquely personal way. 

For an example, consider Captain Beatty, from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For those unfamiliar with this book, Fahrenheit 451 concerns a story where the general populace has been rendered complacent by addictive media, and a fire-fighter’s occupation is burning books. Captain Beatty is the fire chief, Guy Montag is a fire-fighter who is beginning to doubt the system. What makes Beatty a compelling antagonist is that Montag is deeply afraid of him. Beatty has compelling, logical, and impassioned arguments for why the status-quo is a force for good. He represents the syrupy ignorance that Montag is trying desperately to escape, he represents the claws of complacency dragging Montague down. He pierces deep and without mercy into Montag’s character. Beatty is uniquely capable of exposing Montag’s flaw. Overcoming Beatty requires Montag to overcome that flaw. 

Or, instead of someone who can hurt your protagonist, someone who can stop your protagonist is also interesting. If your protagonist is competent in a field (which I recommend they should be) have your antagonist be your protagonist’s true equal. Or, furthering this idea, have them be better than your antagonist. Sometimes a neat antagonist can be a flawless version of your protagonists — or someone whose flaws are more well hidden. 

Contradictions

In the article about complex characters, I discussed briefly the power that contradictions have in making characters interesting. Of course, the same applies to your antagonist. The type of contradiction is a little different, though, and there are a couple of common archetypes that you can use. 

Because your antagonist is likely someone doing morally questionable deeds, guilt can be a powerful contradiction. “This person is evil, but feels bad about it.” It’s such a simple contradiction, used in nearly every story, yet its power never diminishes. As always, consider why the person feels bad about it. What part of their character lends itself to guilt?

The opposite is equally compelling. “This person is evil, but doesn’t feel a bit of remorse.” It’s easy to allow this kind of antagonist to become just another run of the mill villain. But there’s also an opportunity to have a character with unique power and presence, a self confidence that your protagonist may be lacking in, or a truly fascinating ideology. 

Another contradiction is persuasiveness. “This person is evil, but goddamn if they’re not making a great case for their side.” These kinds of antagonists really make you stop and think. Ozymandius from Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is one such villain. He murdered the population of New York, but he had a terrifically persuasive reason why. 

Charisma

This technically falls under the category of contradictions. “This person is evil, but they’re super likeable.” But making a character likeable is such a vague and complicated issue, and so I wanted to devote a bit more time to it. 

Many of my favorite villains fall under this category. I may disagree with them entirely, but darn are they fun to watch. Antagonists with charm, humor, poise, grace, wit, all of these attributes we would never expect to see on a villain. 

One surefire way to make an antagonist likeable is to give them relationships. The relationship could be a negative one, that causes your antagonist pain. For example, there’s the classic archetype of the new kid at a new school, and the popular school bully. An easy way to make that bully likeable is to give them a father figure who is distant and abrasive. 

The relationship could also be a positive one. An antagonist with a love interest that they care about deeply is wildly compelling to me. An antagonist with friends, or a mother, or a puppy, equally so. Just as relationships bring out different aspects of your protagonist, the same is true for your antagonist. 

Arc

My favorite antagonists are the ones who change over the course of the story. They don’t necessarily have to change for the better, or redeem themselves, or anything like that. They just have to be dynamic. 

The reason for this is because dynamism in a character requires a couple of attributes. A flaw, a motivation, self-awareness, struggle. All of these are the building blocks of a likeable character. 

Even cooler is if the antagonist changes as a result of interacting with the protagonist, and vice versa. This intertwining of the two characters can result in incredible relationships. 

Classic Villainy

Classic villains, the big bad evil guy, the cartoonishly evil, these have their place in fiction. I prefer to see these classic villains used in relationship to a more complex antagonist. For a pristine example, take Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. The Emperor is a classic villain with no redeeming characteristics. His purpose in the story is to contrast with the actual, more likeable antagonist, Darth Vader, and to cause Vader to redeem himself. 

Additionally, the classic villain can be useful if the story is more of a character study about a complex protagonist. Many war novels fall under this category. “War” is a classic villain, no redeeming contradictions there. But it’s used as a means to explore the complicated depths of the protagonist. 

In Conclusion

This is by no means a complete list of what makes an interesting antagonist. There are hundreds of different rules you could find, and following them all would result in something nonsensical. 

My final word of advice is just, when push comes to shove, make your story about characters. Don’t attach moral labels like hero and villain to them. Make it about characters, characters with reasons and goals and backstories and personalities. Let them interact with each other as they would naturally, and let them change as a result of that interaction.