Saturday, 31 October 2015

It All Starts Tomorrow – Pros and Cons of Doing Nanowrimo


Well it’s the 31st October and Nanowrimo starts tomorrow as well as our million word challenge. For those who missed the million word challenge post – basically members of the Sheffield Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Group are going to see how long it takes them to write one million words. But for those of you, that are ummming and awwwing over whether to do nanowrimo, here are some of the pros and cons.

Let’s start with the cons and finish on a positive.

Con –

1.    November is a bad month. I don’t know who came up with November as the month to complete nanowrimo in but it is a bad month. Let’s start with its got 30 days instead of 31, but you also have Bonfire Night for the British and Thanksgiving for the Americans. As well as the start of the building up to Christmas.

2.    If you fall behind, it’s hard to catch up. 1667 words a day is a lot, especially if you have other commitments for example a full time job. And not hitting that word count means you can fall behind quiet quickly.

3.    Quantity over quality. Nanowrimo is about getting the words out, not about producing good quality. This means that what you are left with at the end of November is not great and will need some serious editing. (But you should do that after finishing every novel.)

4.    50,000 words is not a full novel. You are going to need to add to it and make that story grow to maybe even twice its length or more after nanowrimo finishes.

5.    Goodbye life, family, friends – you have a word count to hit. In order to write a good, coherent novel in 30 days, you’re going to spend an awful lot of time writing. And it is not just the writing, but thinking and planning. You’re going to live and breathe this book for 30 days, and that means that you’ll have to disappear to anything that is not essesntial such as your job and feeding your children.

6.    It’s stressful. Writing a novel takes work, hard work. Characters, conflicts, romances, arguments, fight scenes. It’s hard. It is difficult enough to write a novel, but add an extremely tight deadline, well it adds extra pressure.

7.    Cleaning your house will have never had been more appealing. You are going to get to some point that you are desperate not to be writing. And if you can keeping the writing going, well everything else will take a back step and your house will take a back step.

8.    Good writers read – well you wont be reading in nanowrimo, or editing, or much else for that fact. So you are likely to lose creative influences on writing.

9.    You will feel guilty feel guilty about anything else you write, be it an email, blog post or facebook post. If its not adding to the word count, it’s not helping.

10. You will be beome in danger of caffeine overload.


And now the pros –

1.    You get 50,000 words written and that’s a hell of a stab towards a first draft. And for some people that will include a beginning, middle, end an a whole list characters to work with.

2.    Once nanowrimo is over you have something to work with. It is easier to work with words that are already written and come December, you will have that work with.

3.    You will find out what is really important in your life. You will have to give up things to write and may just find out that you live without watching Pointless after work.

4.    Writing everyday creates discipline To hit that word count, you are going to have to write every singles day and get rid of all those things that may lead to procrastination, you have a word count to hit after all.

5.    You have a clear goal. “I will write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, starting on November 1st.  I will achieve this by writing 1,667 words a day.”  This is so much better than “I will finish my novel someday.”

6.    It gets rid of the fear of writing a novel. Having a set goal shows that you that it really can be done.

7.    It’s friendly. For most of the time, writing is a lonely experience, which is why joining a writing group is such a good idea. But Nanowrimo gives your forums, communities, people to root for you and bounce off ideas.

8.    It keeps you accountable (and motivated). Nanowrimo is public. People know your word count, they will ask how you are doing and you will not to fail for them and for yourself.

9.    It gives you a kick up the backside.

10.  There’s no sign up fees or anything else so actually you really have nothing to lose by giving it a go.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Doing Nano My Own Way

So Nanowrimo starts on Sunday, which for me is a good day to start as it’s a weekend. Sundays tend to give me more time to write but also my brain has generally not felt drained by other activities, making in normally my most productive writing day. And Wednesday, being my least productive day. Probably because it is the middle of the working week and my brain suffering from a certain level of mush. But I digress from the point of this post originally. So back to the my original point that nanowrimo starts on Sunday. And this week you are bound to find lots of posts explaining the pros, cons and realities of taking part in nanowrimo. Which I will talk more about at the weekend, but for today I’m focusing on the rules.

The aim of nanowrimo is start a new novel and write 50,000 words on that novel in the month. And that’s a great, if you have a new idea to start with or are not working on a current work in progress. But there is no hard and fast rules to taking part. So tonight, I am talking about my commitment to taking part this year. I am doing nanowrimo in my own way. My aim and I will monitor and publish my progress that I will write 50,000, just not on a new project on my current work in progress in order to finish it. I will let you know how I get on.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Writing about the future – how ‘hard’ does it have to be? by David Sarsfield

At the point of writing this blog, numerous media outlets are fondly reflecting on the intrepid Marty McFly and Dr. “Doc” Emmett Brown as they travelled twenty-six years into the future to, well, today - 21 October 2015. Looking through the various news stories, tweets and wall posts, I was struck by how preoccupied we seemed to be by how much the makers of Back to the Future II got ‘right’.

That’s understandable. Near-future projections – whether for comical effect or not - come with a tacit expectation from the audience that at least some of the things fictionalised will end up as part of reality when that near-future arrives. Some things the makers of the film got right i.e. visual communication; some wrong i.e. flying cars, hoverboards, pizzas that cook in seconds (my personal favourite!). In any case, all of this never stopped the film from becoming a commercial hit.

With this in mind, does getting the future ‘right’ really matter? When it comes to writing fiction, I think this depends on two things: one, how far into the future you are writing about and, two, the type of technology and/or society that will shape your future world.

In the earlier days of SF, predicting the future wasn’t just a concern, it was a serious undertaking. Orwell’s (near-future) 1984 and Huxley’s (far-future) Brave New World are two classic examples. (In fact, such was Huxley’s seriousness that he wrote Brave New World Revisited over thirty years later to make checks against how far his world was being realised.) Where Orwell writes thirty-six years into the future, Huxley leaps to over seven hundred. Chronologically, they’re poles apart, but the ironic thing here is, as with Back to the Future II, there are slivers of accuracy that we see today. With Orwell, we have CCTV, an apparent ‘Nanny State’; ‘Big Brother is watching you’ is a commonplace phrase to describe infringements on individual privacy. With Huxley, we have hyper-consumerism, test tube babies and a globalised/over-organised economy. But aren’t these the key messages both authors tried to convey to the reader? There was other detail in both novels that were way off the mark, but these works were so successful because they contain aspects of life that were/are so chillingly ‘familiar’. We can forgive all the other ‘incorrect’ stuff. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation brings a wonderful milieu to life thousands of years into the future with technologies and societies much unlike our own. Does it really matter that Asimov alludes to the continued use of microfilm on Trantor? Not on your nelly!

These days, SF writers are far less shackled by prediction. When it comes to the future, we’re speculative, creative and imaginative to the point that almost boarders (but never breeches) the fantastical. We explore the plausible. We measure the possible based on what we see going on today. We’re not prophets! So what if flying cars, hoverboards and instant pizzas never actually happen. That’s just detail. In the words of Mark Twain, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

List of Writing Podcasts

I’m a big fan of listing to podcasts, so I thought I would post a quick list of the ones that I find useful to listen to. The descriptions in this post has been taken straight from itunes,

1.       Brain Burps About Books

Author Katie Davis hosts Brain Burps About Books as a "fly on the wall" show. It's all about the craft and business of publishing, now including all genres––not just children's books. Interviews with experts cover publishing, creating, promoting, and writing them.

2.       The Creative Penn

Information and inspiration on writing, self-publishing, print-on-demand, internet sales and marketing…for your book. All the latest in publishing 2.0 and using the internet to make more sales and promote your book.

3.       Dead Robots’ Society

The Dead Robots' Society, a gathering of aspiring writers podcasting to other aspiring writers, hoping to help each other along the way to the promised land of publication.

4.       Ditch Diggers

The new podcast from podcast award winners Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace, we look at the business of writing, all the dirty details and nasty secrets no one else will talk about. Bad agents, deals that fell through, and worse. But still, every day we get up and go to work, because this is our job.

5.       Helping Writers Become Authors

Helping Writers Become Authors provides writers help in summoning inspiration, crafting solid characters, outlining and structuring novels, and polishing prose. Learn how to write a book and edit it into a story agents will buy and readers will love.

6.       I Should Be Writing

Writing interviews and how-tos from a SF writer who's still learning.

7.       The Narrative Breakdown

The craft of creative writing, screenwriting, playwriting, children's books, and literary fiction as discussed by Cheryl Klein and James Monohan. We share tips and techniques of interest to any writer, student, or fan of quality prose fiction, screenplays, plays, English literature, etc. Each episode, we analyze popular novels, movies, Broadway shows, television shows, short stories, and more. Featuring various expert guests as well as material from Cheryl Klein's book 'Second Sight' and James' app 'The Storyometer.'

8.       The Newbie Writers Podcast

In this show we find out what to do with that idea you've always had on writing a book. We interview authors who have been there done that and where to begin, some tips and tricks in planning, plus a general chit chat.

9.       Odyssey Writing Workshop

Odyssey is an intensive six-week workshop for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror held each summer on the campus of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Top authors, editors, and agents serve as guest lecturers. These podcasts are excerpts from guest lectures.

10.   Rocking Self-Publishing

Each week we interview authors who have made it in the self-publishing world. Through these interviews we aim to provide actionable advice and inspiration for those who want to self publish. It should also be fun for readers looking to get an insight into the world of their favorite writers!

11.   Round Table Podcast

Each week, Roundtable hosts Dave Robison and Brion Humphrey - joined by authors, publishers and other literati - invite writers to present ideas for stories they’re developing. What follows is a no-holds-barred discussion of the story’s plot, character, pacing, and theme, in an attempt to transform rough concepts and unformed ideas into literary gold.

12.   The Self Publishing Podcast

Want to publish and sell more books? Want to get your writing into the world without contending with agents, publishers, or the other gatekeepers in traditional publishing? There's never been a better time to make money as a writer -- to take your books directly to readers and be in charge of your own business rather than jumping through hoops to please the Powers that Be. Full time authors Johnny B. Truant, David Wright, and Sean Platt (owners of the 2M+ words-per-year indie publishing company Sterling & Stone) explore everything related to getting your writing published ... and making money doing it ... in today's new DIY digital publishing frontier. This isn't artsy talk -- it's "authorpreneurial" business strategy that turns self-publishing from sideline into a rewarding career.

13.   Writing Excuses

Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Daniel Wells discuss writing techniques in a fast-paced, 15-minute format.


Sunday, 18 October 2015

Writing an argument between characters by Matthew Presley

Developing characters will often lead to conflicts; if everyone agrees, then where’s the story? And just because characters are on the same side doesn’t mean they’re always going to agree. That’s when arguments come up; not between characters so opposed they can’t agree on anything, but characters who are very much alike, but frustrated that there’s still some conflict. The perfect example is the lover’s quarrel; just because a couple argue doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. If anything, the couples that don’t argue, the ones who stay quiet when they’re upset, have the real problems.

In a story, an argument’s a good way to show character. Is your character unflappable? Do they have a temper? Are they holding back? Is a secret going to come out, or are they smart enough to hold their tongue?

Some things to remember when writing an argument;

Be angry: If an argument has no emotion to it, there’s no character. That doesn’t mean everyone should be shouting all the time though! Think of an argument as an arc; there’s a beginning, a triggering event, escalation, then a resolution. If the character’s are quick to anger, the escalation’s going to be quick and the resolution may end with one of them storming out. Remember the argument doesn’t always start with the characters arguing; the triggering event might be later on, especially if a tension’s been building up for some time.

Write quick, not smart: Unless you’re Oscar Wilde, an argument shouldn’t be a series of witty rejoinders. Even the smartest among us can’t have the best lines ready to counter an argument all the time. When we’re arguing, we don’t know what’s going to be said next, and we don’t have the reaction time to come up with the perfect response; it’s a case of ‘right now’ over ‘right’. When writing, however, the temptation is to make every line perfect; that’s what drafting is for, after all. With an argument, however, the characters level of erudition should drop about three pegs, especially if they’re temperamental and especially if someone’s pushing their buttons.

I found that writing an argument quickly, without worrying about actions or speech marks, gives you a good starting point. I tried not to edit it as much as possible; no doubt some people will dissect it and find it makes no sense, but it’s an argument, not a court case.

Now’s not the time to exposit!: Let’s take a regular, everyday fantasy fiction scene where an argument arises over a son’s decision to join a league of assassins. I think everyone can recognise this as a fairly stock scene.


Father: How can you join the Imperial Assassin’s Guild, the Black Crows? Don’t you remember how they killed your mother?

Son: I remember, father, for I was there ten years ago when mother died at their hands! And my decision isn’t to do with that unfortunate night, but because my wife is ill and only the Empire had the medicine!

Father: Of course! You’ve been married two years; I remember when I gave you your mother’s ebony-handled dagger as a wedding present!

Son: As do I!


If we’re going into an argument and don’t know all this already, then now isn’t the time for an argument. Arguments that introduce new information should be shocking not just to the reader, but to the characters as well. If we know what’s happened before the argument, we have more idea what’s at stake and it allows the characters to act in character.


Father: You-you’ve joined the Crows?

Son: Father...

Father: After all they’ve done?

Son: Lydia’s sick, father. Don’t make this sound like an easy choice.

Father: I won’t let you shame me like this!

Son: I’m doing this for my wife, damn it!


What isn’t the argument about?: Conflicts don’t happen in a vacuum (Except space operas). If someone knows another person well enough to argue with them, there’ll be other things that have happened or that they know which come out in the argument. Bringing up the past might be vindictive, unnecessary, making the situation worse... All things an argument can do. If you set up a lot of things that could come up in the argument, it gives you a good reason for escalating beyond the initial triggering event.

So back to our stock scene; the expository version gave us a lot of things to work with. The triggering event was the son joining an assassin’s guild. That’s what starts the argument, but other things come up. The mother’s death, his wife’s illness, the father’s shame at his son’s decision. These aren’t really what the arguments about, but contribute to keeping the argument going.

Adjusting Resolution: Not every argument should be resolved quickly. People need time to cool down, especially if an arguments get personal or the stakes are high. There’s also a level of tension if a character leaves an argument half-finished; what if they don’t get chance to make amends? They could be heading out to battle; what if one of the arguers dies?

Beware the Bickering: Two people are thrown together by circumstance, and must stay in each other’s company because of reasons! But one considers his counterpart brash and arrogant, while the other sees his travelling companion as weak and snobby! What could possibly ensue but hilarity?

Annoyance. Annoyance will ensue if they can’t resolve their differences. Annoyance will make every line they say a chore. Especially if the argument is the first time we meet a character. Let’s try a quick example;

A fighter, a thief and a wizard walk into a bar. They want to find a healer. When one turns up, the healer chastises the thief for his criminal nature. He curses the wizard for using godless magic, and makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the ‘dumb brute’ fighter.

The three all agree to find find a nicer healer.

We’re not given a reason to like the healer. The healer’s a complete jerk! Can you imagine wanting him to stick around? Let’s try again;

A thief and a wizard rush into town; the fighter’s grievously injured, and they need to find a healer. When one turns up, he uses his magic to patch up the fighter, but won’t accept money off the thief, considering it a crime to accept stolen money. When the fighters recovered, he recognises the use in having a healer join the group. The healer has some misgivings about joining, but isn’t in a position to turn down work, especially as the fighter still owes him for the first patch-up. Along the journey, the healer and wizard have good-natured arguments over the good and bad aspects of each other’s magic, and despite his initial distrust of the thief, the healer recognises when his skills are useful in picking locks or hiding from enemies.

There; the argument isn’t gone entirely, but it’s spread out over a length of time to make us appreciate the healer’s characters. He still argues a little with the thief, dislikes the wizard’s magic and might consider the fighter a dumb brute, but he’s not slamming his beliefs against our established characters. What’s more, he gave aid to the injured fighter before arguing with the thief. That’s enough reason to, if not like the guy, then at least not hate him.

But maybe your characters are more stubborn? Let’s try again.

A thief and a wizard rush into town; the fighter’s grievously injured, and they need to find a healer. When one turns up, he uses his magic to patch up the fighter, but won’t accept money off the thief, considering it a crime to accept stolen money. The thief takes umbrage at this; how is his money worse than anyone elses? The healer knows about the thief’s criminal nature; he’s been branded by the guard, so he might’ve been caught stealing at some point. The thief argues that it was years ago and the fighter’s been helping him reform; the healer begins to question how the fighter got injured in the first place. The fight is stopped, however, by the fighter; he recovers his sense enough to thank his healer, explains his injury, and tells the others to leave it till the morning when he can sort out payments. The next morning, the thief and healer are cold to each other, but the fighter recognises the benefits of them working together. The healer is doubtful, saying he won’t help in any crimes. With the fighter’s assurances of honest payment, the party’s journey continues.

The argument has a bit of tension to it, but the healer’s not so annoying the party won’t want him around (as well as the audience). Also remember the following point...

‘Screw this, I’ll do it alone!’: A common goal isn’t enough to stop people splitting apart if their differences are too great. Yeah, the evil baron needs defeating, but would you rather work with people who hate you, or that you get on with? Besides, if everyone else is a tool, they’re not going to be much use against the evil baron, are they? Especially if they’re criminals, godless magicians and dumb brutes!

Some fiction uses the situation to keep characters together. Red Dwarf has a central animosity between Lister and Rimmer that runs through the entire TV show and book series, but also isolates the characters from the world they knew. Farscape features a lot of bickering between the main crew of the Moya, however they can’t split up; they’re all wanted criminals, and at least together they have a mutual defence. If they split up, the Peacekeepers would presumably imprison them again. In your story, if the arguments continue without either side backing down, there must be a good reason why people don’t part ways. ‘Because the plot says so’ isn’t a good reason.

Above all, have fun. While as a person I’m shy and quiet, I find writing an argument fun; it gives me a chance to write heightened emotions in a way other scenes can’t. But that’s just my opinion; feel free to debate if you disagree.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The North Will Rise Again

"Caenthell will stay buried, and the North will not rise again until I freely offer my sword to a true descendant of the High Kings—or until one takes it from my dying hands!”

With this curse, the Warlock Malessar destroyed Caenthell. The bloodline of the High Kings disappeared and the kingdom faded into dark legend until even stories of the deed lost their power. But now there is an Heir to the North.
Cassia hopes to make her reputation as a storyteller by witnessing a hardened soldier and a heroic princeling defeat Malessar and his foul curse. But neither of her companions are exactly as they appear, and the truth lies deep within stories that have been buried for centuries.
As Cassia learns secrets both soldier and warlock have kept hidden since the fall of Caenthell, she discovers she can no longer merely bear witness. Cassia must become part of the story; she must choose a side and join the battle.
The North will rise again.

Due next Friday - 23rd October, Steven Poore's book, The Heir to the North will be released (it is already available for pre-order). Steve is a member of this writing group and as well as being so happy for him to have his book published, which is very well deserved; we also all know how good this book is. We have been privileged to hear the early drafts and Cassia is a true heroine, an interesting and complex character and her story is well worth the read.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

What is Nano?

So I opened up my emails and found an nanowrimo email sitting in my inbox, so I thought I would devote the next three weekend posts to taking about nanowrimo, And the first post will be on what is nano? You will probably have heard the word thrown around if you visit the online writing websites but maybe unsure of what it actually what it means.

In simple terms –

Na – national

No – novel

Wri – writing

Mo – month

It basically means to write a novel in a month, which breaks down to 50,000 words in 30 days (as November is the chosen nano month). 50,000 word was chosen as that is the size of a small novel even if most novels tend to come in around twice that length. Nanowrimo participants are free to start at one minute past midnight on the 1st November and have to stop at one minute to midnight on the 30th November. That works out at hitting 1667 words a day for the first 29 days and 1657 words on day number 30.

Taking Part

To take part in nano, the only thing that you need to do is sign up to their website: which will help track your progress and give you tips and hints to help keep motivated and help you keep that word count growing – because yes, nano is about the word count. The other catch to Nanowrimo is that the story you write has to be a completely new one. This means that other than notes and pre-book plans, plots etc that no words have been written on the novel and you really are starting fresh on the 1st November.


There are no official prizes for ‘winning’ nanowrimo, although those that complete the task of 50,000 words can submit them to the website for verification after the 25th November and receive a certificate. The real prize to nanowrimo is the sense of achievement, the knowledge that you can keep writing and meet a target, and the first draft or the first 50,000 words towards a first draft of your novel. The reason I say first draft is, no book should ever be published either traditionally or independently without going through draft, not least for the factor that bound to be mistakes when you are churning the words out that fast.


Nanowrimo was started by freelance writer Chris Baty back in July 1999 with 21 participants taking part, all located in the San Francisco Bay area (California, USA). In 2000, nanowrimo was moved from July to November. This was said to have been done "to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather."
In 2000, the nanowrimo website was also launched for the first time. This website was designed by a friend of Chris Baty. 140 participants signed up in November 2000, including several from other countries (than the USA). In addition to the website, Baty started a Yahoo! Group allowing participant to socialise. After a number of questions, nanowrimo’s ground rules were created. Namely (a) the novel must be new (b) the novel cannot be co-authored, and (c) the novel must be submitted in time to be verified. Of the 140 participants, 29 completed the challenge.
In 2001 that number of 140 participants grew to 5,000 and in the end 700 completed their nanowrimo novel. Nanowrimo has continued to grow strongly every year, and by 2013 over 400,000 people participated (in 2010 it was calculated that 2,872,682,109 words were written.)


One of the main reasons (other than the challenge and getting a first draft ready) that people sign up for nano is because of the community support.  The website has official forums which offer advice, information, criticism, support, and an opportunity for "collective procrastination." The forums are available from the beginning of October, when signups for the year begin, until late September, when they are archived and the database is wiped in preparation for the next year.
Most areas/regions/cities will also have in person events. They are actively encouraged to coordinate at least two kinds of meet-ups; a kickoff party, and a "Thank God It's Over" party. Other events are also scheduled, including weekend meet-ups or overnight write-ins.

Published Nanowrimo Stories

So since 2006, there has been roughly 100 NaNoWriMo novels have been published (after going through later edits). These books have been published traditionally, through small presses and independent/self-published.

Some notable titles that started life as nanowrimo novels are:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, published by Doubleday
Persistence of Memory by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, published by Delacorte Press
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, published by St. Martin's Press
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, published by Dutton Juvenile
The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough, published by Del Rey Books
The Night We Said Yes by Lauren Gibaldi, published by HarperTeen

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Building a Fantasy world- Races by Matthew Presley

There comes a time in every fantasy writer or artist’s life where they realise a simple truth; humans are boring. We’re so boring that our inclusion in a fantasy story feels like pandering to the human community with obvious human tokenism. I mean, sure, some humans might be individually interesting, but we’re not all super-strong, intelligent or fast. We lack wings, fins, spikes, tusks, retractable claws or prehensile tails.

Adding fantastic races into a fantasy story seems inevitable, unless it’s a human-based story to cater to human viewers’ desire for realism, or even worse, implied human superiority. There are things to take into creating a fantastic race, however;

Call an elf an elf: Myths and legends give us a shorthand for some strange creatures. It’s a temptation to try and make your elves different by calling them something else; they’re not elves, they’re Quoth! Yeah they still have pointy ears, live in the forest, wield longbows... But they’re nothing like an elf!

If you want to make your elves different from the modern fantasy stereotype, it’ll take more than a name change. You could have the Quothian elves, who live in the Quothi forest or something, and they might refer to themselves as the Quoth, but an audience will understand them as elves. If you want them sufficiently different from elves, look at what you can change.

Write a story, not a game system: World of Warcraft has, at a rough guess, 20-30 separate races (not including tribal differences). The Elder Scrolls has ten main ones, with an additional 10-20 minor ones (goblins, trolls, minotaurs) that serve as monsters. Dungeons and Dragons has somewhere in the region of 100 sentient races, with the possibility of thousands more if you allow more monstrous possibilities like outsiders or fey, or easily into the millions if you count templates.

There’s a good reason for this; they’re games. Game systems like to give players options, like what kind of elf/goblin/rat-lizard you play as. In terms of stories, however consider this; every new race added to a story requires time given to their background and culture. So you’ve got eight types of elves; Light elves, dark elves, fire elves, water elves... How are they different? How are they similar? Why is there eight types; do they have a common ancestor? If they don’t get any story time, they become monster of the week. If they do get that time, you could be spending more time explaining than getting on with the story. If the story needs there to be a new culture that’s different from the protagonists, come up with a good reason why the protagonists will interact with them for the time needed to show that culture.

Monster-human balance: The further from human a race becomes, the less relatable they’ll be as a character. Let’s say you want a new creature in the forest; not elves, but Triffids! Intelligent Triffids with a detailed and sophisticated culture... It doesn’t matter for two reasons. One; Triffids aren’t public domain as I thought at first. Two; it doesn’t matter what Triffid culture is like. They could write exquisite poetry and dream of travelling the stars, but they don’t have a face to convey their emotions, or a voice to speak with. Giving them that still isn’t enough; Triffids in the forest? Yeah it makes sense for about ten minutes, but then you remember Triffids walk with their roots, which is fine on a flat surface, but how do they get past a fallen tree? Or climb out of a foot-deep hole? Or get up if they fall over? Bipedalism is successful for a reason!

This isn’t to say Triffids can’t appear in your story (assuming you get the necessary permissions), but a Triffid protagonist or character raises too many questions; they’re too monstrous. With less extreme examples, things like reptiles or insects don’t have very expressive faces; if you have a lizard character, how would you convey more subtle emotions? How do you stop dwarves from being one-dimensional bearded diggers? Is there some common ground a human could connect with to dwarven society? Do they have pets? Do they take their kids to the park on the off-days? Giving a race a sympathetic trait with humans can stop them being one-dimensional; giving a character some differences from their races stereotype helps to flesh them out.

Be aware of what’s been written: No matter what race you write, there’s going to be a similar concept in someone else’s myth or fiction. That doesn’t mean ‘don’t write a certain race because someone else has already done it’, but familiarising yourself with other work let’s you know some of the clichés or characteristics of that race. Being aware of clichés lets you either use it or go against it. Dwarves in the Warcraft franchise have always been stereotypical miners, blacksmiths and engineers, however in later expansions the Dwarves are less focused on monetary or military gain, instead using their skill sets to become archaeologists, attempting to solve riddles of their races creation. Discworld Dwarves, however, fully embrace their mining heritage, though the stereotype of an axe-wielding, chainmail wearing dwarf only occurs away from Dwarven lands (parodying how some real world cultures become more patriotic the further from home they are).

Example races

So far our example kingdom has been humans only, with some vague spirits supplying magic. The first question is ‘does the story need a new race?’ What would adding a new race provide to our story, other than complication? We’ve been keeping human for one very good reason; human audiences don’t need to have a human explained to them. While a fantasy audience knows what an elf is, how about someone who doesn’t read a lot of fantasy? How do you explain that without stopping the story dead in its tracks?

We can say the example kingdom encounters our new races during its expansion; beyond the superstitious tales of borderland locals, however, there’s been little interaction. Although dwarves, elves, orcs or goblins would be perfectly acceptable for this role, we’ll try to stay away from them for now.

Description: What does the new race look like? How different are they from humans? Can some be mistaken for humans, or are they fundamentally different? Can their description be done succinctly, or is a detailed description required?

Culture: While having a direct analogy to a human culture can be potentially insulting or stereotypical, having a rough approximation of where our race is on the civilisation ladder can give us an idea of how to depict them. Remember that culture changes over time; what happens to the Dwarves when the mine runs out? Also consider basic needs; a desert people who wander the endless sands might be a romantic notion, but unless they’re completely divorced from biology, they need to eat and drink something. Look at how human cultures adapt to their surroundings, and consider how your new race might be similar or different.

Pros/Cons: In most worlds, humans are the dominant species. This is because humans are the major audience for fantasy writers, who are usually human as well. However, if there’s a race that’s bigger, strong, more intelligent or with better technology, there should be a reason why that race isn’t dominant instead. The following are common reasons;

Adaptable humans: humans are far more versatile than other races. We can change to suit hostile environments, we more readily accept new developments and we can alter our society quickly. This isn’t much of a stretch of what humans are capable of; it’s how cultures have progressed and gained advantages over others in history, after all.

Fecund humans: while longer-lived races might have an advantage against short-lived ones, this advantage goes out the window when birth rates are considered. A human mother can have multiple children with a gestation of nine months and that child physically matures in 15-20 years. How long till an elf or dwarf is considered mature? How often can they get pregnant? Is there something that slows that rate down? Is there some cultural aspect to their numbers; do chiefs of the Lion-men kill all the children of their enemies when taking over a pride? Conversely, what limits the Ant-people that hatches 10000 eggs per season, from overwhelming humanity?

Alliance humans: while other races bicker and squabble, humanity’s strength is in diplomacy and negotiation. Humans form empires of peace and prosperity, or tyrannies with them at the top. Humanity’s willingness to learn and accept other races’ and cultures might lead them to better developments than either culture could reach separately. The dwarves might invent steel, the goblins might have gunpowder, but it’d be humans that invent the cannon.

With these variables in mind, let’s build some new races!

Ratfolk: Rather than a typical dwarf as the underground species, we could have something more ratlike in appearance. There’s been a bit written about rat-men in history and fiction, both villainous and heroic. Rats in Asian cultures are more noble than in Europe, where they’re considered infectious vermin. If we set our ratfolk somewhere in between; at worst, they’re filthy and wasteful, but at best they can be capable of spiritual and intellectual endeavours.

‘Intellectual’ might be a bit misleading; ‘cunning’ might be better. Between a normal human and a normal ratfolk, the human might be cleverer and have learnt more, but a ratfolk will have better instincts and sense of opportunity. Anyone whose owned a pet rat will know they’re smart, mischievous and opportunistic; that personality could serve as a basis for ratfolk society, even if not all of them have the same outlook on life.

Description: The average ratfolk should be smaller than a human and weigh less; a full grown ratfolk would be as tall as an eight year old human. Giving them rat heads, feet and tails isn’t stretching the design too far; they’re not so different from humans that they become monstrous, and their faces can convey emotions, which stops ratfolk characters being flat or stilted.

Culture: We’ve already mentioned they live underground; rather than mines, however, its more likely to be oversized warrens in ratfolk lands. If our kingdom advances to the point of city size, ratfolk might skulk around the undercity. At this point, however, they could be good builders and diggers; they’re not always vermin in human settlements, but willing to work as labourers or architects, depending on their intelligence.

Rather than growing or farming their food, ratfolk are still hunter-gatherers; if a predator attacks, everything important must be able to be picked up and carried underground. Because they’re foragers, they’ll scavenge from larger villages; they’re opportunists, after all, so there might be friction when human concepts of ownership meet ratfolk concepts of ‘you weren’t there when I took it’. I’m imagining a disgruntled farmer chasing ratfolk off his field as they drag away piglets and sacks of grain. In larger settlements, where the locals have guards and swords, ratfolk will at first begrudgingly follow the law, then after a few generations accept human standards.

Clothing for ratfolk follows one rule; you own what you can carry, and vice versa. If they leave something behind, they don’t expect it to be there when they come back; its entirely likely another ratfolk would think its useful too. So the clothing would be flexible enough to be worn in all weathers, and have several pouches and waterskins attached.

Technologically and magically, ratfolk are less skilled than humans, and they certainly can’t ride horses. Their culture hasn’t progressed to the point where they can have specialists; each ratfolk might be a part of a tribe, but each individual would have to be self-sufficient.

Pros/Cons: Ratfolk have some major disadvantages against humans, especially horsemen, archers and mages as we’ve described in our kingdom. However, these are military disadvantages; on a personal scale, they might have some unexpected benefits.

Economy of scale: A smaller creature requires less food and water to survive than a larger one. A full-grown ratfolk could eat half of what a human would; a roast chicken would be like a roast turkey in comparison. This is a big advantage in cities if they have to buy food, or in sustenance farming if they sell their surplus. When ratfolk live in human settlements, they can live in greater density as well; a two-room hovel would be big enough for a family, maybe two.

Birth/growth rate: Rats have multiple kits in a litter, and a rat mother can have multiple litters. Though the mortality rate keeps rat populations in check, ratfolk would have a much better chance of surviving to old age. If we say a litter of three or four is the norm, and they reach maturity in ten years, they’re much more fecund than humans. They don’t live as long, however; by thirty they start balding and getting flabby, at which point they leave behind all belongings and take a long walk into unexplored lands.

Opportunists: Whenever I think of rats, I think of my friend’s pets who’d scamper off as soon as you looked at them, but if you back was turned they’d root through your bag and run off with a chocolate bar. Ratfolk should have that trait; maybe not actively thieving, but taking an opportunity when one presents itself. While that incorporates thieving (The shopkeeper went into the backroom! What did he expect to happen?), it also makes them more able to take risks and use their skills to an advantage. They could work for human hunters to flush rabbits out of their warrens, or run market stalls and identify easy sales. Conversely, setting a ratfolk in the town guard will thwart the local pickpockets; when you can spot a mark, you can notice other people spotting it as well.

 So we have ratfolk; relatively primitive and certainly no match for our kingdom’s army, but numerous and adaptable enough to fit into human society (whether they want them or not) once they’ve had enough acclimatisation time.

But no fantasy story settles for one race of Others [citation needed]. What can replace the forest-loving elves, if ratfolk (sort of) replace dwarves? Squirrelfolk would have a certain charm, but they’d be too similar to ratfolk. What if we replace one well established race with another?

Vampires: Urrrrrgh. It’s really hard to write about vampires. Okay, I’ll rephrase that; it’s really easy to write about vampires, it’s really hard to write original vampires. Let’s go through the ISO Vampire checklist, shall we?

1)      Dangerous

2)      Sexy

3)      Immortality

a)      Leading to Angst

b)      Suggesting connection to historical event/figure

c)       Leading to outdated clothing

4)      Significant Other

a)      Protagonist Human (See Addendum SOPH)

b)      Vampire/Vampiress (Supporting Articles 1&2)

c)       Long dead (Supporting Article 3a)

You get the idea. This doesn’t mean all vampires are angst-riddled pretty boys, however; a lot of the best vamp-fic involves those that embrace their powers and enjoy immortality. Eternal life is one of humanity’s unobtainable dreams; don’t rain on our parade by making it look rubbish! (Although the film ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ has a brilliant monologue on immortality; immortality isn’t angsty or cool, but really boring.)

Anyway, angsty vampires wouldn’t fit our world. Our example kingdoms hasn’t been civilised for very long; vampires aren’t going to be much better. Rather than aristocrats, they’ll be tribal vampires living in the forest.

What makes Vampires different from Elves? While the vampire myth is pretty malleable, one thing is constant; thirst for blood. Vampires that don’t drink blood aren’t vampires. Ones that find ways to weasel out of this flaw aren’t much better. Feeding on animals, hanging round butcheries... Are these vampires or not? Our vampires are guardians of the forest; they’ll feed off an animal if they must, but the blood of intruders is better for them. Ratfolk learnt this long ago; humans are slower on the uptake, especially if our vampires are mysterious and a bit sexy. After all, a minute of neck action from a forever-young goth is better than forty years of dumpy ball-and-chain, right?

Description: As I’ve been writing this idea for vampires, I’ve had several images in mind, all by one artist; Steve Argyle’s work in Magic: The Gathering, especially the Zendikar set. Instead of aristocratic vampires (For those and other tropes, see the Innistrad set), Zendikar vamps were swamp dwelling tribes, driven by bloodlust and hunger and decidedly more feral than other depictions. I think that art’s a good start for our example world; barely civilised tribes of vampires whose thirst for blood is a constant, uncontrollable craving rather than an easily sidestepped habit.

So why would a bunch of blood-crazed demihumans care about the forest?

Well one part of the vampire myth I’ve always liked is weakness to sunlight. Although this part of vampirism isn’t constant, I think it should be a part of our vampires. Forests provide plenty of cover during the day, even if the sun breaks through the canopy; hollow trunks could be stand-ins for coffins for the truly feral, while the more structured tribes could have caverns instead of crypts. They’re not really interested in maintaining the forest from an ecological point of view; instead they protect it for their own selfish needs. More trees means more canopy cover, more edible plants and fruits means more fools willing to venture too far into the woods, and besides, vampires don’t need the dried husks of their victims; that’s good fertiliser!

This makes vampires very much a monster race; there’s not much chance of peaceful contact when one side eats the other. In a few more generation, their society might be forced to adapt or die; munching on the local peasants is one thing, but munching on the Kingdom’s citizens is likely to end with tar and torches.

Physical description: I got very sidetracked there. Physically vampires are pale-skinned, dark-haired meeeeeeh. No. Steve Argyle might like his vamps that way, but we’re trying to break clichés here. Why don’t we go for a different aesthetic? Instead of ‘moonlit waif’, let’s go ‘earthy commune’ types. They still don’t have a tan, but their skin shows they’re not afraid of a hard nights work. And how difficult would running round the forest in a tailored suit or leather corset anyway? Some tribes might totally feral and hunt in loincloths; the ones that do wear some clothes are going to be pretty grungy, what with the brambles and soil and blood spurts. Salvaged clothes from their victims could be one source of clothes, while some might be skinners and tanners; fitted clothes or armour might be too specialist right now. And as cool as long cloaks billowing behind them might be, these are forest creatures; it’s hard to look cool when your cloak gets snagged and yanks you backwards.


Pro/Cons: Vampire’s big cons are sunlight and thirst for blood. Pros are eternal youth, superhuman strength and agility, and enhanced senses. We’ve gone over how the thirst for blood really is a drawback; how about we go further? Vampires in our world must drink blood to stay young, and only the blood of humans can reverse their ageing. If they go a night without finding food, they’ll start to age rapidly; they’re only a few meals from dust, so they’re ravenous hunters. This keeps their numbers down; too many apex predators and the ecosystems going to collapse. Vampires are highly aware of this; they’ve probably had to survive a few population bottlenecks, and the ones who made it through found ways to keep the supply safe. Protecting the forest and the various juicy herbivores inside it would cause conflict between other races, while humans would be a delicacy for the strongest. Turning a human into a vampire would be a taboo; the vampires know they can’t outnumber their food supply, and anyway, why waste the Elixir of Youth when you catch it?

Okay, so we’ve got rats underground, vampires in the forest; for the last race, I’m going away from mammals. I’ve had a fondness for reptiles and lizards for a long time, so why not lizardfolk?
Lizardfolk: Reptilians have appeared in several franchises, in both fantasy and sci-fi. One common aspect is the idea that lizard-people are cold blooded. I’m not a fan of this idea; I think if a species had evolved to sentience, it shouldn’t have to rely on hot weather to keep moving. If we’re chucking out cold-bloodedness, we can chuck out the cold-blooded characteristics; lizardfolk aren’t all patient, slow to anger, and outpaced by their human counterparts.

Description: Standing six feet tall with a reptilian head, tail, feet and skin. Their coloration varies wildly depending on habitat, and some have horns or small frills in place of hair. They don’t share human nudity taboos, but ones that have contact with humans will wear clothes adapted to their size and shape.

Culture: Lizardfolk live in marshes, jungles or deserts, depending on which type of lizardfolk or which fantasy setting you’re looking at. If we’re moving away from the cold-blooded stereotype, though, why not move them out of their comfort zone? Our lizardfolk live in the mountains; think warm mountain ranges like the Pyrenees rather than the Himalayas. These lizardfolk evolved from mountain geckos, no crocodiles or iguanas. Adventurous lizardfolk put on thick coats and scale new heights rather than skulk about in swamps. Settlements are built into cliff faces or on outcrops; many are unreachable without the mountaineering skill of our lizardfolk. This means some tribes don’t deal with other races often; villages tend to be self-sufficient, and because they’re difficult to invade, most human tribes don’t bother.

I like the idea that these lizardfolk are skilled at archery as well. Food on the mountain is scarce, but goat-horn bows and flint arrows can reach high-flying birds like condors and vultures. Lowlanders need ranged weapons to defend their homes from foolhardy invaders.

Families of lizardfolk are fairly disparate; because one family might have its home covering an entire outcrop, new families would be expected to venture out and find their own space. In lowland village, the society could expand its borders conventionally, though no society had reached the size of our human kingdom.

Pro/Cons: While a lizardfolk might seem stronger or dumber than a human, in our world it’s pretty close to call. Lizardfolk lack organisation at the moment, but humans are only just getting their heads round monarchy and armies; when lizardfolk see how well these advances work, what’s stopping them?

Lack of diversity- when a society specialises too much, it suffers. So if archery works really well for the lizardfolk, why bother with close range fighting? Clubs and claws are enough to settle most close-up problems, but wouldn’t be so good against armoured enemies. The culture is also adapted to mountainous terrain; this could be reflected by their understanding of the Wild Way. They don’t venerate the spirits of the Forest or Plains, and have no connection to the Shadow Way. If it comes down to a fight, humanity might have more ways to win, making them more adaptable.

 That’s three retooled races for our example kingdom; in the next article I’ll look at fantastic creatures.