CV Series: Structure through Character

The previous blog posts make it look as if I’d figured out every detail of my world before I even touched on character. That’s wrong. Character was one of those domino offshoots that happened right at the beginning. It weaved in and out of Worldbuilding and Magic, but it was the spine from which I created Story.

To take a hard deviation from the analysis of fantasy writers, the novel that most influenced and inspired my structure for Castle Valley was Anna Karenina. Despite its intimidating page count, there is nary a scene in Anna Karenina that does not drive the plot forward. Tolstoy has no strict guide by which he alternates perspectives every other chapter, or that each character gets an equal percentage of page time. Despite this meandering journey through different character’s heads, the reader never doubts they’re being carried forward by a deft hand. But the structure that builds the story is almost invisible. So how does Tolstoy manage this effortless pace?

Through character. This novel is about characters. Therefore it only makes sense that the plot is driven by characters. Everything they do, every decision they make, every conflict they encounter is born out of their fundamental selves. This forward motion is only enhanced by the fact that part of “self” is always changing. The characters are rooted in certain fundamental notions: Anna loves Vronsky, Karenin doesn’t want a divorce, Levin wants a family. That isn’t to say the characters never try to combat or reject their fundamental selves. But they are often trying to find their true, best state of being in spite of outward and inward pressures. This kind of character arc has a place in any genre.

So how do I tell a story about three estranged sisters working towards a common goal at cross purposes? I do what they tell me.

In a period of mild crisis about whether my idea was “enough,” I spent a lot of time trying to impose different structures: The Hero’s Journey, Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, Freytag’s Pyramid, etc. These structures absolutely have their place in certain stories. They even have a place in mine. But, as cheesy as it sounds, I can’t discover what the characters are going to do before I’ve written them. I understand their arc. I think I understand them. But for me, plotting out every scene in exacting detail before I’ve even opened up the Word document, has only ever killed spontaneity. If you’re not surprised by your story, no one else will be either.

Story structure is ingrained in our psyche whether we realize it or not. Often, after I’ve done a bit of free writing, I’ll find that whatever I’ve just done naturally inhabits those essential structures. Instinct has always been a better friend to my writing than over-analysing. I know some major plot points. I know as much about my characters as I possibly can before I start actually writing. So I’m going to take the leap…and find out what happens.

This post will be a work in progress, as I figure out whether or not I was full of it.

BONUS PICS: Character Moodboards







CV Series: A Little Bit of Magic

If I thought the science of fantasy, or even worse, the science of science fiction was hard, nothing compares to the science of magic. Because, yes, magic is a science. It is the science through which your characters understand their world. Through which you either engage a reader or engage their disbelief. Basically, it has to make sense.

This fact had already been engrained in me from a childhood (and let’s not lie, adulthood too) obsessed with all things Harry Potter. If you can say nothing else about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, you have to admit, her magic works. But she’s not particularly verbose in explaining her methods. So, after reading and falling in love with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I immediately went a-googling and found the invaluable tool that is SANDERSON’S LAWS. Read and commit to memory.

The three guideposts by which I built my magic were Source, Symmetry, and Limitation.


What did I know I needed? I needed to have magic that could turn half a country into a desert wasteland. Sanderson’s Laws teach us that all magic has to come from somewhere. It needs a source. So what if the land was the source? What if the life energy of plants, animals, maybe even people, fueled magic? What if someone used so much magic that they zapped a quarter of a continent of all its resources? That kind of magic would be unspeakably dangerous. It would have to be defeated. It would have to be outlawed. A few centuries later is where our story begins.


For character and plot reasons, I also knew I wanted my magical characters to be able to engage in a kind of telepathy. I already had magic sourced from life energy. What if I had magic sourced from mind energy? From willpower? Two types of magic.

One which has the power for great external destruction and has been banned for centuries. And another which has the power for great internal destruction and is the weapon of the sitting government. Energi and Influi.


At this point I knew that Energi magic was sourced from life. But I didn’t know what could actually be done with it. What gain would make the cost of that magic worth it?

This was my first attempt at the things Energi magic could do:

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 3.48.14 PM

My mistake was starting wide. Not placing limitations. Which, as Sanderson tells us, are essential for any kind of interesting storytelling. Magic (and characters) without limitations cannot fail, and therefore, are boring.

Influi magic naturally lent itself to limitations. Telepathy, influence, exchange of willpower. So if Influi magic was the purview of the mind, shouldn’t Energi be the purview of the body?

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 3.47.17 PM

At the basest level a magic system should make your reader wish for magic. To imagine how they would wield it, where they would fit in your world. And the only way they’re going to do that, is if they believe it.

BONUS FACT: There’s a misconception that Influi Magic is the art of the mind, soul, and heart; but really it is only the purview of the mind. The soul and heart cannot be controlled by anything other than human self, human nature. CHARACTER.


CV Series: Worldbuilding

The idea for Castle Valley came in two halves. The part that came first, as it often does for me, was the world. I was on my way back from Lake Powell, eyes slightly glazed from three days drinking on a houseboat for my brother’s 50th birthday, when I came through a valley. On one side—the rock and sand and desert you’d expect for the middle of Utah. On the other—a sea of green. Lush and bright and thriving. The only division between them a two-lane stretch of highway. Thus the notion of a world in which one half had been magically drained of all life, and how and why a wall came to separate them.

The idea for the world was the easy part. Making it feasible was a little harder.

First step? Research. The earliest research a writer ever does is reading. Reading and studying. Particularly the masters of fantasy worldbuilding. Two that were especially helpful and generous about their methods were George R.R. Martin, and Brandon Sanderson.

Martin exemplified culture—how landscape trickle down to effect every element of storytelling. The characters, the language, the food, the customs, the history. Particularly the history. Martin understands every element of his world. He has centuries of backstory that, while never info dumped, add a depth and believability to his world that he would never be able to accomplish otherwise. In order to build my world, I would have to understand the people who lived, died, fought, and worked there. I’d need what any good fantasy writer needs—a family tree.

Castle Valley Family Trees

Castle Valley Family Tree

Then came the documentaries. Planet Earth, Human Planet, Frozen Planet, Life. Basically anything that involved that little spinning globe on which we all reside. I took extensive notes on any and all practical or descriptive details that might eventually be relevant to my story.

After that, lots of googling and harassing my scientific friends (thanks R. L. Tierney) on geography. Environmental science (yes, science) became the bedrock (lol) on which I built my world. Was it even possible for a civilization to survive without rainfall? Without plants? How would my miles-long man-made canal-wall (wow, that’s a lot of dashes) function in relation to natural rivers? Where would borders of neighboring nations form? I’d need the second thing any good fantasy writer needs—a map.

This is the ‘after’ picture of my world:


And this is the before:


That’s right, I used the highly scientific method of throwing a bunch of noodles on a piece of paper and drawing continents around them. No, those aren’t noodles. I was at work (I’m a great employee, ask anyone) and didn’t have noodles at my disposal. What exactly they are I couldn’t tell you. But the grease spots they left on the paper did form the foundation for several lakes.

So what comes after all this very serious science? Why, MAGIC, of course.


Bonus Pics:


Castle Interior Layout


Castle Exterior Layout


The Making of a Fantasy: Castle Valley Series

Writing is a series of dominos. A series of dominos that branch in a million different directions. My process starts with the fall of the idea. What follows, as I try to create my world and my story, often leads me in unexpected directions. Eventually, (though don’t ask me how) the dominos connect and, hopefully, form art. This is the structure I will try to impose on this blog series about the making of my in-progress YA Fantasy, Castle Valley. There may be some overlap and winding digressions, but I hope you, like me, will be able to step back when all the dominos have fallen and see the pattern.