The One Where Joey and Monica Argue Over Who's the Best Beatle

I'm going to just off-the-bat admit that I'm not a huge fan of either Friends or the Beatles (nothing against either of them), but that title was probably the most clever one I could come up with for the topic I wanted to write about.

I tweeted out a couple days ago that I was having a lot of thoughts about ensemble casts, and that I was maybe going to write about those thoughts that night, which is naturally why I'm writing about them today. I probably should be writing the third act of Collapse of Kingdoms right now, but here we are.

I think a good place to start is maybe to properly define what I mean when I'm talking about an ensemble cast. I think that this can oftentimes be confused by something with a large cast of characters. By and large, most fiction has a single main protagonist, maybe two. The key to an ensemble cast isn't the number of characters, but the number of them directly related to the protagonist and their goals; sub-protagonists, if you will, whose own individual character arcs happen to, in some way or another, inform that of the protagonist.

The easy fantasy example here would be Lord of the Rings, which was the prototype for the adventuring party. Every member of the Fellowship had their own reason for being there, and (to lesser or greater degrees) their own character arcs, and yet the story wasn't about Gandalf's sacrifice and resurrection, or Aragorn's ascent to the throne, despite those being significant plot points, and major events in the lives of the respective characters.

I think that's probably at the core of what makes ensembles so appealing. Everyone loves the Hero's Journey. Everyone, at their core, wants to see good prevail over evil, to see the conflict resolved. Everyone wants to identify with that, to feel a connection with it. In works with a solitary protagonist, it becomes a bit problematic: does one write a well-defined character that only resonates with a fraction of individuals, or make a character a blank slate onto which one can project oneself? The former can result in a protagonist that can be disliked, even hated, by an audience, and the latter can result in a bland character met with indifference. Ensembles present a variety of characters prominent enough in the story that anyone can have their favourite. People like having a favourite - Ringo, Legolas, Chandler, Sir Gawain.

I mean, Ringo was never really anyone's favourite, but you get the idea.

Just look at Overwatch. I have neither the time nor the computing power to run the game, but through sheer cultural osmosis I can tell you that I'd probably main Tracer if I did.

So what about the other side of the coin? What about writing ensemble casts? I feel confident in saying that the Four Kingdoms books are definitely ensemble books, and with that I definitely want to add the caveat that I am by no means an expert on the subject. That said, I think there are some key points to writing ensembles that I've unintentionally cribbed from some of my favourite media, the latter of which I'll probably toss in at the end.

  • The Protagonist is the protagonist for a good reason - Whatever the central conflict of the story, the protagonist has to be at the centre of it in such a way that no one else in the cast could be. It's pretty easy to fall into Chosen One territory here (which, if that's your thing, cool), especially in genre fiction, but it's tantamount to making the story make sense.
    Footnote: No, the Eagles couldn't have just dropped the ring into Mount Doom, the same way the RAF couldn't just go and bomb Hitler.
  • The ensemble works because the characters are diverse - This should be a bit of a no-brainer, but no one would have watched Ocean's Eleven if every character was Brad Pitt, or Don Cheadle et. al acting like Brad Pitt.
  • Every character has a story, but not one so prominent as to detract from the main plot - It's easy to fall into the trap of finding your own favourite character as you write an ensemble, often not your protagonist. While each of the characters having their own personal conflicts adds dimension and depth, be careful not to let their stories overshadow the main plot. It will end up being a mess, not unlike the final season of How Barney Dated Robin and WHOOPS! I Forgot The Story I Was Trying to Tell.
  • Conflict within your ensemble is natural, but don't forget the resolution - Spend enough time with the same people, and personalities will clash. That said, your ensemble is also an ensemble because they have something in common, be it friendship, a common goal, or even blood ties. While 100% antagonistic relationships in any of these scenarios are not completely unheard of, actually think about your own family/friend group/workplace, and whether or not everyone therein would be able to function if there was nothing but toxicity between even two members - they probably wouldn't.

Like I said, I'm far from an expert, but I think these are some solid foundation points. I'll also add that, while I think I do a good enough job writing an ensemble cast, I have a few examples of various media that I've looked to for inspiration, so feel free to get into them and geek out with me about them!

  • Patrick Weekes' Rogues of the Republic
  • Final Fantasy IX (I didn't play VII, and this one is magical)
  • Love Hina
  • Erin M. Evans' Brimstone Angels
  • Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

What are some of your favourite stories featuring ensemble casts? Who are your favourite ensemble characters? If Ringo Starr played Overwatch, who do you think he'd main?

Probably Agent 76, right?

In Which I Discuss Projects, Writing and Otherwise

It just seems like a good day for a blog post, I suppose.

January has been a slower month than I would have liked. Maybe I can attribute that to a general post-holiday consumer dearth, I guess. Maybe people are too caught up with books received over said holidays. Having not had a prior January with which to compare book sales, it's difficult to say, and as such I can't exactly pay it that much mind, an author's journey being a marathon rather than a sprint, and all that.

If nothing else, January kind of seemed like a setup month for what is looking to be a pretty adventurous year. I updated the Upcoming Appearances Page a couple weeks back, which is confirmed events, and therefore excludes the signings at Chapters locations in Toronto, of which dates are being discussed, as well as cons I haven't yet confirmed (Anime North and FanExpo).

Further, I will be doing a radio interview with the awesome people at the Stouffville Public Library next week, and a Reddit AMA over at /r/Fantasy on the 18th. The interview will be pre-recorded, and I imagine will appear in a digital format that I will link to as soon as I'm able. All whilst working full-time and slowly chipping away at book three.

If this sounds like complaining, it isn't. I enjoy keeping busy. I recently had a conversation with my mom and my sister, musing about the fan-favourite hypothetical of winning the lottery, and when I had offered that I would just quit my job and write, my sister balked at the notion.

"You couldn't do it." she said, assuming that I had meant simply becoming an eccentric millionaire hermit who spent sixteen hours a day weaving tales. "You're the only person I know who does the dishes when he has the flu because he can't just relax."

She's right, of course. Sleeping in past (maybe) 10am, doing nothing all day, spending time in pajamas whilst not sleeping; these things all drive me kind of nuts. I can remember going to Cuba some years ago, and having a hard time coping with the idea of spending a week sitting by a pool. I am, by nature, a borderline frenetic individual. This is why I am looking forward to everything I have on my plate for 2015 so far, on top of taking on an additional writing project.

Yup, a small publisher called Realmwalker Publishing is releasing a multi-author short story anthology called Legacy. Unlike most fantasy anthologies, which have authors writing stories that are thematically similar only, this book centres around the timeline of a family of wizards within one of the Realmwalker series, each story serving as a snapshot of an important event in the family's history. I'll probably have to take a few weeks hiatus from working on the next Four Kingdoms book, but I have to admit that it's going to be interesting, even a little refreshing, to take a step back from Olhean for a while and play in someone else's world.

Oh, that reminds me. Olhean? That's the name of my world. There's actually a good deal more about the world that I plan on posting onto the site at some point. Let me know what you guys might like to see in the comments!

P.S. Don't everyone get excited and congratulate me on the Legacy thing yet - it's an open submission format, and they announce who they've chosen all the way in June. Sending me some positive mojo would be much appreciated, though.

Excuse Me While I Grognard

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition soft-launched yesterday, with the starter set being released at select game shops, and the free basic rules PDF showing up on the DnD website. This is kind of a big deal, as Wizards of the Coast has been very publicly crafting the release for the last two years. Lots of people are very excited, and seeing as DnD is kind of a large part of why I do what I do, I thought I might take some time to write my thoughts on the whole thing.

A lot of what I've seen so far is interesting. The idea of having a core rule set as a framework from which you then add whatever supplemental rules best fit your table is an interesting idea, and is very indicative of the fact that WotC had one primary goal with 5e: try to please everybody.

...everybody except those of us who play 4th Edition, anyway.

To elabourate, I'm sure that plenty of people who played 4e participated in the last two years of open play test, and contributed to the final result accordingly, and that there are plenty of people who played 4e who are very much excited to give the finalized 5e a shot. My issue is not that the opinions of us 4e players were ignored, but that ultimately, our preferred edition was cast aside.

I get it, when WotC released 4e, most of the devotees of 3.5e cursed the company's name, and jumped ship for Paizo's 3.5 re-skin Pathfinder. Much of the internet panned 4e as "too videogamey" or "un-rollplayable". Truth be told, I'm fully willing to admit that 4e does have it's hang-ups: combat can be slow, especially with inexperienced players, the idea of combat powers can lead to a lack of creative play from inexperienced players, a lack of codified rules on roleplay can make it hard for inexperienced players to rollplay.

At the end of the day, yes, WotC could have made improvements to 4e. Truth be told, later releases like Halls of Undermountain and The Neverwinter Campaign Guide really tried to push a lot of the non-combat options 4e had to offer, but in the end, WotC opted not to stay the course and hope to weather the storm, but to cut and run. 4e materials were only published for four years before the 5e play test was announced. Sure, all the seasons of Encounters up until the most recent were 4e compatible, but by and large, the edition was unceremoniously dropped and left for dead.

That, ultimately, is what bothers me most about the 5e launch, not that my preferred edition is no longer being published, but that it was never given a proper chance to evolve, or at the very least that it wasn't even given a proper send-off.

Anyway, long story short, I'm not going to be an edition snob. I may even eventually pick up some 5e material, but if you're at my table, expect to pick some at-wills, encounters, and dailies, because I love 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and Avandra knows someone needs to.

That Clicking Feeling

Generally speaking, I'm a pretty analog guy. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of things that have been made better or easier by technology, and I willingly admit that I indulge in many of these conveniences daily, but there are several archaic practices that I prefer simply because they feel better. I genuinely prefer the feeling of holding a book and turning the pages, of flipping through D&D manuals to write up a character sheet with a pencil. There's something visceral in these kinds of actions that one simply cannot get swiping a finger across a screen or using a point-and-click software that fills in the blanks for you. Among this list of serotonin-seeping sensory triggers, right up there with power chords and no-complies, is the feeling of fingers across a nice loud keyboard.

The sound is a big part of it, I think, especially when rifling off a string of words in rapid succession. It's similar to what I imagine fighting game enthusiasts feel when they keep piling onto a combo. It sounds and feels like progress, like you're really getting something done.

I wrote the first draft of The Summerlark Elf for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In order to "win" NaNo, I had to write an average of 1,667 words per day for thirty days. During the month of November 2013, I threw myself so entirely into writing that initial draft. I woke up and wrote before going to work, and stayed up until one or two in the morning after work to keep writing. My older brother gave me an old tablet so that I could write on the go, which I did: on the bus to or from seeing Deanna, or on break at work. I even bought a bluetooth keyboard to help streamline the act of writing on said tablet.

I was hungry, driven, and committed. I made sure that I tried my hardest to clock in those 1,667 words every day. I chided myself if I didn't, and resolved to make up the difference the next day. When all was said and done, I passed the 50,000 word goal, and even managed to do so a few days early.

Writing the second book has been... different. There are probably a number of things I could chalk it up to, say the fact that I'm working more hours in a more mentally engaging position at work, or the fact that this book is taking on a broader scope than the first, with more characters and plot-points, but what it comes down to is that, comparatively, I have written roughly 36,000 words in the last four months. I am effectively writing in one week what I used to write in one day. I still write on my breaks at work, but that has been more or less the only time I've written, and there are days where I simply look at a blinking cursor for forty-five minutes, and maybe write a paragraph or two of dialogue, if only for the sake of getting a few words down, to say that I wrote something that day. The fact of the matter is, though, on days like that I don't feel like I get that clicking feeling.

So, what is one to do? I'm not giving up, if that's what you're afraid that I'm eluding to, fine readers. Worry not, the story is far from over. What I need to do, however, is figure out how best to fix up my routine, to recapture that frothing motivation that coursed through me like a disease last November. I've got a few ideas, and I'll no doubt report their efficacy to you all as I try them out, but for now, I'm simply content to be writing down this blog post, to get that feeling of a barrage of clicks under my fingers, that sound of ideas coming to life.