Smart People Talking: Lynette Noni #2

Lynette Noni
Lynette Noni at Brisbane Supanova 2015

Lynette Noni (who I introduced here) participated in a quite a few of the panel conversations at Supanova 2015, so you’ll be seeing a bit from her over the next little while.

Here, in the Kick Ass Characters panel, she joined Sarah J. Maas, Melanie Casey, and Kimberley Clark in talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly of creating characters that readers love (or love to hate).

Creating Kick Ass Characters

Find a way to relate to them [your characters]. Show the progression of their humanity. We’re growing as they grow.

We grow and learn alongside the characters we read.

Even if you’re writing a villain, it’s a good idea to make sure you care about, and can relate to, their plight. If every villain is the hero of their life story, that means that they’re on a journey of growth and discovery, just like the hero.

This is also one of the problems with ‘perfect’ characters. They’re the ones who get the girl/guy easily, are strong enough to save the day and humble enough not to brag about it. They’re sexy, kind, a genius… the list of their perfections is a long and tedious one. But no one is that perfect, and we can’t relate to the journey of a perfect human being.

People need flaws to feel real.

Remember, though: those traits they think of as flaws might not be what those around them think of as bad. Dumbledore believed it was love that gave Harry power, but Voldemort saw it as a weakness rather than a strength. People see things differently, and it can be fun to play around with that.

Humanity is a spectrum that we all move across throughout our lives. Sometimes, we’re good people. Sometimes, we’re really not. Sometimes bad people find redemption, and sometimes good people turn to the dark side. No one is all good all the time, or all evil.

We all have a potential to learn things. Show characters learning the skills, rather than just having them.

Since the era of David and Goliath, we’ve held a soft spot for the underdog character. They’re not perfect, they’re possibly not even adept. But they’re fighting on regardless.

We tend to give more value to the things we’ve worked to achieve, and watching a character learn and grow can be more inspiring and engaging that having them start off as a master of whatever skill they need to survive.

This doesn’t have to be shown in chronological order, though. Katniss learned to hunt because her choices were learning or watching her family starve. Though we didn’t see that progression in its chronological order, it still had a massive impact on our understanding of Katniss, and just how far she’d go to protect her baby sister.

We all have gifts. It’s how we use them that makes us powerful.

This is true in fiction and in life. Everyone has talents, even if we value some talents over others. On their own, they don’t make us good or bad, in the same way that knives or electricity aren’t inherently good or bad.

Most gifts and talents are neutral: they’re neither good or bad, they just are. It’s the way people use them that determine not just how those traits are seen, but the type of person that they really are. If you’re using art to cheer up sick kids, that’s awesome. If you’re using it to terrorise your ex, that’s really not okay. Both tell readers (and those around you) a lot about the artist.

This is one of the things that bugged me about Harry Potter: the idea that ambition and cunning were seen as such horrible traits to have. Ambition keeps you moving towards your goals, and cunning helps you find other ways to make things happen when plan A fails. Neither are inherently negative traits, unless someone chooses to use them to harm others. But when you think about it, Voldemort used intelligence (Ravenclaw) to meet his goals. He used bravery (Gryffindor) to meet those goals. And he used loyalty (Hufflepuff) as a way to keep his followers in line. It’s all about perspective as to whether something is good or bad.

Frozen is also a great example of this. How different would the story have been if the King and Queen had let the trolls teach Elsa how to control her powers? How would her life have changed if she wasn’t raised to fear that part of herself? I’ll take it a step further: what would have happened if her parents had told their kingdom about her powers, so that they weren’t scared of her? Her powers were chaotic and negative because she didn’t know how to use them, feared them, and so feared herself. But once she knew how to use them, and realised they weren’t evil (and neither was she) then there really wasn’t a problem. It’s how we use our gifts as well as how we see them, and ourselves, that makes us powerful or vulnerable.

When you read a lot, you tend to learn what works and what doesn’t.

This is why so many authors remind people that you need to read to be a writer. It’s through reading inside and out of your genres that you learn what works and what doesn’t. You can see what tropes are overdone, or could be subverted.

When you finish a book, take a moment and think about what you liked and what you hated, and what you can learn from it. You don’t have to analyse everything in depth, but taking a few moments to contemplate what you read is really, really useful.

What we watch is two dimensional. When you read, you have five senses to explore.

Language can evoke the senses in a way that visual storytelling can’t. It’s easy to fall into the habit of trying to write a novel as though you’re writing a movie, but you can strengthen your writing by making it more sensory.

Sometimes I’ll do the really detailed research about character names. Other times, I’ll watch the credits of films and Google them.

Baby name books and websites are helpful, but looking at credits can be a great way to find a range of names from multiple cultures. Another writer (I can’t remember who, or when I heard it) spoke about getting names by wandering through old cemeteries, because you’ll get a range of names that aren’t necessarily popular now.

Our characters are sometimes who we don’t want to be, and what we do want to be. They’re what we fear, and aspire to be, and dream of.

Authors sometimes get accused of creating wish fulfillment characters: creating the sorts of heroes they wish they could be. But characters can be a way of exploring the darker sides of our personalities, all the while exploring the darker elements of humanity as a whole.

Oftentimes, in movies and in books, the villains that scare us the most are the ones that resonate with us on a personal level. They’re the ones that take our fleeting wish for vengeance to an extreme, and whose struggles in some way mirror our own.

The scariest villain is a human one.


Smart People Talking: Kimberly Clark

Kimberly Clark is the Australian author behind the Battles In The Dark supernatural fantasy series. Reign of Fury, the third novel of the series, was released last month.

During the ‘Creating Kick Ass Characters’ panel, alongside Sarah J. Maas, Lynette Noni, and Melanie Casey, Kimberly talked about the best ways to create a kick ass character, how to add emotional realism to their experiences, and warned against the dangers of forgetting the different types of strength.

Kick Ass Characters Panel

The ones that are intellectual are just as kick ass as the physical.

We get caught up in the idea of being ‘kick ass’ as a purely physical idea, but characters can be intellectually kick ass, or even spiritually so. Empowerment isn’t always about violence, and it’s important to remember that not every situation can be solved with physical strength or violence.

This is possibly more important with male characters, though, because we prioritise one version of masculinity (the conquering alpha-male type) as the pinnacle of masculinity far too often.

Notice the growing trend of the less muscular, intellectually focused male characters getting the larger female fanbase- Loki in Thor is a perfect example. Thor is gorgeous, but Loki got more female attention, despite being less muscular. It’s not always about physical strength- the emotional and intellectual play a large part in getting female attention, too.

Try new things. There are different things you learn along the way.

Don’t be scared to take a story in a new direction, or to veer away from the traditional storytelling ideas and techniques. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it wont, but trying new things makes you a better writer.

If you write one particular genre, try writing something worlds away from your usual.  If you always write male heroes, try writing a female voice.

You can also learn a lot about the way you write by changing your venue, or any rituals you have around writing. How well do you write in a silent space? What about a noisy one? What’s your noise level sweet-spot? We all tend to fall into writing routines, which isn’t a bad thing so long as we know why we do it. But it can be good to switch things around, especially if you’re struggling to write something. Shifting from typing to hand writing can help you to think differently, and can feel novel enough that you’re less inhibited about what you’re writing.

Female characters tend to have two roles as needed: the womanly character switches into BAMF mode because she has to.

Think of Ripley from Alien. She’s not necessarily the girliest of characters, but until she’s in a position where she needs to step up, she’s not running around like she’s the alpha figure in the story.

There’s a joke that gets rehashed in a lot of comedies, where women end up talking about the way you have to make men feel as though your idea was actually theirs. There’s lots of eye rolling and long suffering sighs, but it’s actually something that some women feel like they have to do to get their ideas taken seriously. Oftentimes, women learn that direct confrontation only inflames the situation, and so they have to find other ways to go about getting their needs met until there’s no other option but to take control, and deal with the aftermath later.

This dual nature can also be true for men, though. If you think of Captain America, he’s not constantly the alpha male figure. He’s just a guy until he has to be the leader, and then he’s a BAMF because that’s what’s required.

It helps to put things into your stories to show that male and female characters can work well together, or balance each other out.

The battle of the sexes is a tired trope. Let it go. Unless there is a really, really good reason for it, seeing all the men try and lord it over all the women while the women roll their eyes and go along with it doesn’t work that well in modern fiction, because it immediately distances half of your audience. But on the other hand, it’s just as ineffective having all the women lording it over men, too. One half of the audience gets a laugh, the other gets frustrated at the weak writing of an entire gender.

Men and women have different strengths and weaknesses, and watching them work well together to balance out those weaknesses is both engaging and fun. Seeing that the characters respect each other, even if it’s a relationship based on teasing,

There will always be some tense relationships between the genders, for a variety of reasons. But not every male/female friendship is tense or based on one person being treated better than the other. In the same way, not all male/female friendships end in romance. Men and women can just be friends, and can have equal and respectful working relationships.

When it comes to fighting, each character is particular in their set of skills and the weapons they use.

Though Hawkeye is a trained agent capable of working with modern weaponry, his weapon of choice is the bow and arrow. Thor prefers his hammer, Captain America prefers his shield. Black Widow uses guns and widow bites. Her close quarters combat looks a lot different to, say, the Winter Soldier’s.

If every character had the same set of skills and abilities, and the same amount of emotional investment in the fight, it would be boring. It would be equally matched, and the fights would go on forever and end up being about luck more than anything else. Having your characters have different strengths and weaknesses in fighting means that there’s room for unpredictability. There’s room to have a David and Goliath moment now and then.

An addendum, though: if a character has magic, it works best if there’s a limitation or consequence to it. If he conjures food, where does it come from? Does it get taken from the nearest shop (which would make it stealing, and have potentially bad consequences), or is it made from nothingness somehow? If it’s made from nothingness, how nutritious is it really going to be, and how do you digest magic?

With each scene, you want to bring in what’s happening at the time.

Whether the action is big and terrifying, or small and mundane, it’s going to be impacted by external events. A character scared about the quest they’re on isn’t always likely to react calmly when there’s a metallic scraping sound in the darkness. Maybe their best friend has dropped his sword (or frying pan), but in the moments before they know what happened, how suave will a scared character really be?

Let’s go back to the idea of the fight scene again. If your character has just been dumped, then there’s a range of ways that could impact a fight scene. Maybe they’re furious, and ready to vent that anger onto someone else. Maybe they’re devastated or in shock, and not really in a position where they’re at their best and most effective. Or maybe they’ve decided they can’t live without their love, and have decided on suicide-by-fight scene. If they’re really lucky, they can compartmentalise what’s happened to focus on the fight (but really, there’s generally some measure of bleed through below that calm facade).

Characters, like people, have a range of potential ways of reacting to a big change in their lives, and it won’t always be a healthy reaction.

Remember though, you don’t want your character internally contemplating their break up mid fight, unless there’s a really good reason for it. It’s really hard to create a believable reason for that, though. Even a character like RDJ’s Sherlock Holmes, who is able to figure out and orchestrate a plan of attack in a matter of seconds, is prone to getting distracted and stumbling in a fight.

Characters need a purpose to be included. They need to have a reason why you’ve got their point of view there.

POV characters need a reason to get that attention. If they’re not moving the story forward, or adding useful information or narrative tension, then there’s no reason for them to be speaking.

All main and secondary characters need to add something to the story. If they’re not doing anything, or if another character could be doing the same things more convincingly, then it’s time to kill your darling.


Smart People Talking: Lynette Noni

Lynette Noni at Brisbane Supanova 2015
Lynette Noni at Brisbane Supanova 2015

Lynette Noni is a YA fantasy author, starting her series The Medoran Chronicles with the first exciting installment, Akarnae.

Lynette was one of the writers that attended Supanova in Brisbane this year, and had audiences incredibly impressed with her natural charm and passion for reading and writing.

During her Impossible Quests panel, with Isobelle Carmody and Juliet Marillier, she joined in the conversations around character death, epic questing, and writing  great stories.

Impossible Quests Panel

Quests are what we want to achieve.

We all dream of being better than we currently are, of changing the world or making an important impact. Epic quests, especially, give us a chance to see people taking those stands, and changing their worlds.

I completely suck at plotting! I tend to have a start and finish if I’m lucky. As long as you have an idea of the whole arc, it’s fine.

What was great about this panel was the different ways each author approached their writing. If Isobelle is driving at night, guided by headlights and a hope for the best, and Juliet has a full map at her side, and has studied it closely so she knows what to expect, Lynette’s approach is more a spontaneous road trip. It’s not about making the quickest time or finding the short cuts (which Juliet has quite possibly found). It’s about going from A to B and letting the journey be the point.

Sometimes it’s good to leave some strands open for people to wonder about.

Readers add their own experiences and understandings of the world to every story they read. It’s why so many of us see the same characters in vastly different ways. I’ve spoken in the past about the way we relate to the characters that somehow reflect either our ideal self, or some element of the life journey we’ve been on. We also tend to dislike the characters that remind us of people we’re currently annoyed at (looking at you, Tony Stark in the ‘Civil War’ trailer).

One of the reasons people get so frustrated with film adaptations is that it’s impossible for the characters to meet everyone’s expectations of how a character should look and sound. Those are the things we fill in without giving it a moments thought. We have preconceived ideas of what heroes and villains sound like (have a look at how many British actors play villains, and how many heroes have American accents), but especially if we’re white, we’re also more likely to assume the hero is generally like us (which is one of the reasons why people get upset when the hero doesn’t meet the general norms of storytelling, and isn’t a straight white guy).

In the same way that readers love imagining a character, we are more than happy to fill in minor gaps with our own experience or understanding.

Judging by the poor reception to the Deathly Hallows epilogue, sometimes less is more when it comes to tying up the loose ends at the end of a story. Yet, judging by fan reactions from Sleep No More (Season 9, episode 9 of Doctor Who), we’re also not really fond of not having the big questions answered by the end of the story. There’s a line between leaving some strands open and readers feeling like there’s a gaping plot hole there- the problem is that the line’s width varies with the reader. Some people like more strands to explore, some like everything neatly packaged. It’s one of those things that you’ll never please everyone with.

The beauty of the story is in the challenges that arise when you don’t take the easy route.

There are two conversations here: Deus ex machina, and the heroes journey.

Deus ex machina is cheating. Don’t do it. Easy fixes to problems aren’t the answer, because they’re never satisfying. In the last post, I mentioned Juliet talking about the limitations of magic being important. Without them, everyone has infinite power and they can solve problems nearly effortlessly.

Which is boring. Really, really, boring.

But those restrictions need to make sense, the same way that a character choosing the harder route has to make sense. If only girls under the age of 16 can do something, I’ll want to know why, because that’s quite a specific age range, and besides, what happens when they have their sweet 16th?

If a character has a choice of two paths, I’ll want to know why they chose the path they did, and I’ll want it to make sense in the context of the story. A convenient ‘meh, let’s see what happens’ won’t always be enough to justify that choice, especially if it’s an area they know well, they’ve been warned away from, or if there are cartoonishly clear signs that it’s a really bad idea.

Juliet also talked about characters learning something by the end of the novel, and that’s important here, too. A quick, easy journey doesn’t create opportunities for emotional growth. There are no real lessons in getting what you want effortlessly (and it’s not really a quest, is it?)

The challenges you throw at your character test them, train them, and shape them into someone new. They teach that character how to transcend their limitations, and to believe in themselves more and more. Perhaps its a baptism of fire, and it’s nothing we’d ever wish on actual human beings, but those challenges, and those difficult journeys, make the potential victory so much sweeter.

Don’t go easy on them, because easy victories aren’t as memorable, and characters breezing through life aren’t, either.

When I know I’m gonna kill characters x, y, and z, I distance myself from them. Writers surprised by their character’s deaths equals reader surprise.

In a way, this goes in opposition to Juliet’s idea that loving the character makes it more likely that the reader loves them, too. But it’s incredibly telling about Lynette’s writing style. For her, knowing a character is going to die means the very real risk of signposting it, and not having the death have such an impact on readers. It’s probably a good idea to go back and check to see if you’ve inadvertently distanced yourself from the characters you knew were going to die in the story.

The quest isn’t just about defeating the bad guy.

As soon as your quest is only about defeating someone, it loses some of it’s potential power and impact. There needs to be more than a hero/villain smack down, because really, what’s the hero going to learn other than how to duck or throw a better punch?

We want to see the characters grow and change. We want to see them learn something, and become something greater than they were at the start of the story. Seeing them win Ultimate Smack Down might be satisfying for a moment, but is it really worth hundreds of pages of reading?

Smart People Talking: Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier
Juliet Marillier at Supanova 2015

Juliet Marillier is a beloved writer of historical fantasy, and the creator of such literary favourites as the Shadowfell, Sevenwaters, Blackthorn and Grim, Wildwood, Saga of the Light Isles, and the Bridei Chronicles.

Juliet was one of the writers at Brisbane’s 2015 Supanova Con, where she was an incredibly popular speaker. During her Impossible Quests panel, alongside Isobelle Carmody and Lynette Noni, she discussed quests, writing, and the subtle art of killing characters.

Impossible Quests Panel

A quest is anything you aspire to. It doesn’t have to be slaying dragons- quests come in all shapes and sizes. They’re all around us in the world we live in. Smaller scale stories are quests, too.

Memoir is a type of quest, because the author is on a journey to learn or achieve something of immense value to them, and potentially to the people around them, too.

It’s been mentioned in the Isobelle Carmody post about this panel, but if someone is deeply invested in something, and/or on a journey to learn, grow, and change, then they’re on a quest, regardless of the genre you’re reading.

Quests are a big decision.

Quests aren’t simple, quick to achieve tasks with no emotional investment. The characters are taking a huge leap of faith by accepting the quest, and risking something in the attempt. Perhaps one of the reasons the Hobbit is so popular is because we can all relate to Bilbo’s reluctance to agree to that risk.

If a character isn’t scared, there should be a reason for that beyond ‘he’s brave’. Bravery isn’t an absence of fear. Absence of fear tends to be a psychological/neurological  issue, a lie, ignorance, or foolishness. If a character isn’t emotionally invested, why are they there?

I can’t think of any characters on a quest without any emotional investment in the journey. Gamora wants to stop Thanos. Drax wants revenge against Ronan. Rocket, as much as he plays the uncaring s.o.b, isn’t prepared to leave his friend behind even if it gets him killed. As much as Rocket tries to hide his affection, and as gruff as he is, the audience gets to see cracks in the armour, and his softer side. Sure, he’s not exactly invested in saving the universe at first, his focus is on his friend’s safety (and isn’t that a common theme?), but he’s also the first one to find a way to protect innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

It can be fun to play with the exterior persona, and the actual personality. And quests give writers a fantastic opportunity to do so.

Particularly for newish writers, a common difficulty is getting bogged down in the middle. That’s why having a basic framework can be helpful.

Though not all writers work the same way, if you’re struggling to get through the middle of the story, then it can be useful to have a basic understanding of the steps you need to take to get from the start of the story to the end.

If Isobelle’s writing style is like driving at night, seeing only what’s in the sights of the headlights, then Juliet is a proponent of at least sketching a rough map on a napkin before you start driving.

I need to know quite a lot about the plot and where the characters are going.

Juliet calls herself an arch-plotter, because she’s quite detailed in her planning work. She uses cards, and different colours to differentiate between the various narrators in her stories. She believes that it’s harder to get writer’s block when you have a list of scenes or chapters you need to write, and know what has to happen within them.

Another upside to detailed plotting is that there’s less revision at the end. Those of us with a meandering, exploratory first draft have a lot of work required to smooth it into shape. Plotters like Juliet don’t have as much work to get their draft into shape, because they’ve already figured out the basics.

Juliet’s writing routine is to write three chapters, edit them, and then move on to the next three chapters.

A lot of quests in real life are misguided (look at the Crusades). A quest is not necessarily a good thing, so you need a note of learning at the end. Life isn’t perfect. Maybe it’s the getting of wisdom: the satisfaction that someone has learned something.

Not all quests are good, and not all quests are being done for the right reasons. That super secret organisation your character is aligned with? How do they know they’re trustworthy? What would happen to your character if it turned out they’d been secretly working for the enemy (think Agents of SHIELD, or Alias)? What if they realised they had innocent blood on their hands?

People do a lot of horrible things for a lot of dodgy reasons. The thing is, even if we think those reasons are stupid, they make total sense to the person who believes in them. Sometimes, though, we start off believing those reasons and ideas. They make total sense to us, even if other people don’t seem to get it. But eventually (hopefully) we start to question, and doubt, and eventually turn away from those ideas. That journey towards understanding is a quest. Characters that never learn from their mistakes, or question anything in their lives, get boring very quickly.

Characters don’t have to just learn the psychologically healthy lessons. If they’ve been betrayed, they may not learn a particularly healthy lesson from it. Maybe they stop trusting anyone. Maybe they stop being so compassionate for a while. Or maybe they learn to be more careful in their choice of people to trust. It depends on the character’s personality, and their emotional investment in what happened.

Isobelle talked about the quest as an impossible ideal, and Juliet agreed with that idea. To her, if you can’t truly bring eternal peace, then it’s vitally important that your character at least takes some measure of wisdom with them as they return home.

Using magic to get characters out of trouble all the time is sloppy writing.

Don’t do it. Magic needs limits and boundaries to be effective in storytelling. If it can do everything, there’s no story to tell because the issue could be solved in a matter of moments with very little effort.

Done well, the death of a character that you love is a heart breaker for readers.

Writing the deaths of characters you love is painful, but necessary. But if you love your character, and are invested in them, there’s a good chance that it’s reflected in your writing, and the reader is invested, too.

The character deaths with the most impact are the particularly tragic ones (oftentimes this gets seen as ‘babies and animals’, but think about Lily Evans- we never really knew her as a character, but the idea of this woman standing over her baby and refusing to allow him to be harmed makes for a visceral, heartbreaking scene), or the deaths of characters you love or relate to.

Smart People Talking: Isobelle Carmody

Isobelle Carmody2
Isobelle Carmody during her Supanova 2015 signings

Isobelle Carmody is the author behind the Obernewtyn Chronicles, The Legendsong, The Gateway Trilogy, The Legend of Little Fur, and a heap of stand alone novels. Recently, the final piece of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, the Red Queen, was released, closing a near 30 year journey for readers.

Isobelle was a guest at the 2015 Brisbane Supanova convention, and these are some of her words of wisdom from that weekend. During her time on the Impossible Quests panel, alongside Juliet Marillier and Lynette Noni, she was discussing the idea of the quest, the art of writing, and the problems with killing off characters.

Impossible Quests Panel

Practically everyone is a misfit at some point. Everyone has some need to strive towards something. There must be something more.

Quests are important because it’s about the journey from novice to master, or from ignorance to knowledge. The character will grow and change as they travel the story, and it’s important not to set up a perfectly perfect hero or heroine. We all start out imperfect. We can all relate strongly to the misfit character working towards a goal greater than themselves.

It’s hard to relate to perfect characters, because none of us are perfect, and none of us go through life without struggling to achieve our goals and dreams.

Everything that’s written is a quest. Any great book has a quest at its heart. Every great quest has truth at its heart.

Finding Nemo is a quest to reunite with a son. Hamlet is a quest for vengeance and justice. Detectives quest for truth and the restoration of order, most killers are on a specific quest for a specific reason. Romance is the quest for love… every character is on some kind of personal quest. It may not be throwing rings into volcanoes, but they’re still working towards something.

Every novel is a new journey of discovery.

This is true for the reader as well as the writer. In every story, the writer is learning more about themselves, their writing, and the worlds and characters they’ve created. But in stories, readers get to see themselves as a hero, get to explore new worlds and grapple with new ideas about who and what they really are.

I didn’t feel like I do it (writing) right.

Even highly successful, beloved authors have that self doubt. We all seem to believe that there’s some ‘one true way’ to write a story, and if we don’t live up to it, it can make writers feel like they’re not writing right. But the truth is that there actually isn’t only one valid way to write: every writer needs to figure out what works for them and go with that, rather than trying to force themselves to work within a system that destroys their creativity or inspiration.

You don’t have to know where you’re going as long as you know where you’re starting from.

If lots of plotting doesn’t work for you, don’t force yourself to do it. Isobelle’s description of her writing process works well with the night driving analogy: you can’t see much, only what’s lit up with the headlights, so you don’t necessarily know all the details right away.

A quest is towards some kind of perfection. There is no real perfection, so all quests are impossible. It’s striving for the unattainable.

Destroying a ring wont create eternal peace, because there will still be bad people/beings around, cheerfully still being bad. You can’t kill all evil, because there’s evil inherent in everyone. Your perfect partner will never actually be perfect. The ideal their fighting for is always going to be bigger than they can ever truly achieve, but there’s something beautiful, tragic, and heroic in the idea of watching someone bring about massive changes in the name of an impossible goal.

The true quest is something you figure out along the way, parallel to the quest you thought you were going on. Acceptance of imperfection: that’s the quest.

Life doesn’t ever run smoothly. There you are, sailing home from the Trojan War, and then all this stuff happens and you get home to find your house overrun with suitors for your wife’s hand.

It’s the way it goes. There’s an expression ‘the gods laugh when men make plans’, and that’s true for quests, too. Situations evolve, for good or bad, and sometimes you’ll get to the end of the quest and realise you shouldn’t take the magical doohickey from its hiding place because really, it wont end well. The Winter Soldier is a perfect example [SPOILER ALERT]: Steve (Captain America) thinks his quest is to subdue the Winter Soldier, until it turns out that the villain is his childhood friend, Bucky, who has been brainwashed into servitude. [END OF SPOILERS] The quest shifts as the truth of the situation becomes known.

Quests can be external or internal. Learning to live with the differences within you is a worthy quest.

It’s not all destroying rings and terrorising one armed Russian assassins. Sometimes quests are about overcoming internal limitations and beliefs. Look at Dorothy: all that hard work and it turns out that the power was within her all along. Quests don’t have to have a high death count to be valuable, or worthy. Sometimes someone getting up and facing the day is a more epic, heartbreaking quest.

There’s a truth in stories that sometimes requires characters to die. There’s a truth in films and stories, and you know when they get it wrong.

Though ‘kill your darlings’ is a well-known bit of wisdom, a lot of writers still hesitate to actually kill their characters. Or, and I’m looking at Buffy and Supernatural here, they just bring them back to life, over and over, backing away from that decision. If there’s a valid reason for the character to die (shock value and fridging don’t count as valid reasons), then kill characters when the story calls for it.

There are some times where the “I’m dead/not really” trope is useful, but it feels disingenuous when it comes across as the writer toying with reader/viewer emotions, or backing away from a narrative decision.

Character death should feel like a surprise, but inevitable at the same time.

Deaths that make no sense, or that happen out of nowhere for no discernible reason, are annoying. Does a fictional death matter if the reader doesn’t know or care about the character? Do readers feel anything when unnamed red shirt 18 croaks?

Sometimes heroes fail. Sometimes, even though we desperately want them to succeed, they have to sacrifice themselves to make it happen.

And sometimes? Sometimes they stumble, or go left when they need to go right. Sometimes the villain has the upper hand and is smart enough not to monologue about it. Sometimes they’re outmatched, even though it breaks our hearts.