NaNoWriMo doubts

Made from screenshot in City of Heroes

Example of possible book cover for superhero novel.

In past years, I used to be really excited about NaNoWriMo, the (inter)National Novel Writing Month. I would lay plans starting already in August, and on the last day of October – which some of us refer to as NaNoWriMo Eve or NaNoWe’en – I would restlessly visit the forums while waiting for the midnight hour to strike. Oh, and I took my vacation days in November instead of in summer. Not anymore.

This year I kind of intended to participate, but after midnight I still did not have any good idea about what to write about. No, it is not like I don’t have ideas. I have more ideas than I can count. Ideas are like cats: If you take in two of them, soon your house is full of them. They are on your kitchen counter, they are on your couch, they are under your cupboard, they try to follow you into the bathroom. Actually, ideas usually succeed at this better than cats, but you get the point. There are always ideas, but none of them stood out as This Year’s Idea for NaNoWriMo.

Around an hour after midnight, I picked one fairly pretentious one, a metaphysical fantasy about an unemployed warehouse workers which gets picked by the Universe to send to the Universe’s niece which was in a difficult age, with excessive magic production and wars and disasters. Insert deep teachings about the Great Chain of Being and the Descent of the Light into Creation. I wrote a bit less than 2000 words on it before I decided that this was way too serious a topic for speed writing. Also, not much fun. So the next day I started over with a fluffier story.

Currently I’m writing about a gamer who tried to be a hero in Real Life and was stabbed and died. Or perhaps he didn’t exactly die. It is hard to know. What we know is that he wakes up inside his favorite superhero MMORPG, which was closed down the year before. Maybe this is his afterlife – he and the game are both dead – or perhaps he is in a coma and imagining all this. Or perhaps it is the future and his frozen brain has been scanned and uploaded to a supercomputer. Or perhaps he has been in a coma for many years and his actual brain has only now been connected to a supercomputer. Who knows? How are you supposed to find out from inside the game? If reality outside of reality was easy to find out, we wouldn’t have dozens of competing religions in the so-called real world, would we?

But mostly it’s just the kind of fluffy feel-good superhero story with the occasional challenge thrown in, that I myself would like to read. It is almost certainly not going to sneakily save anyone’s soul while they let their guard down.

So in the end, I am once again writing the kind of story I like to read. In fact, I am writing it because that is the only way I get to read it – the muses in my head won’t dictate a whole book to me if I can’t be bothered to write it down. That’s just how this thing works for me. So I guess I am, as you say in English, just pleasuring myself – in this case my mind rather than my flesh. But in either case, it is probably not something the rest of the world is particularly interested in. I may put it up with the old stories that are linked from my front page, in which case I will likely only post the first chapters as usual. We’ll see, nobody knows whether we will be here tomorrow. But if I am, chances are that I am writing. I do that pretty much every day, after all.

Writing Grammarly

Screenshot anime Amanchu

If you struggle to express yourself and put your thoughts into words, Grammarly might be a prized companion. For me who have at times struggled to stop putting my thoughts into words, it is just a curiosity.

I love living in the future, and I particularly enjoy all the new tools and toys and combinations thereof. In the latter category is Grammarly, an app/service that promises to watch over all your online writing and then some. (There is also a Windows app that can be used to write or proofread texts that are not meant to be shared online.)

One potential problem comes to mind immediately: What if your writing falls into the wrong hands?  We are not just talking about your love letters getting the wrong audience or the manuscript for your new book suddenly appearing written by a competitor. Any app that reads your writing could, in theory, also harvest passwords, credit card numbers and such. It was, therefore, an easy decision for me to not be among the early adopters of this software. But years have gone by and there has only been one scandal, which turned out to be overblown, and it had nothing to do with passwords and such. So as of today, I have Grammarly on my writing machine.

Grammarly promises to discover both spelling and grammar errors. The built-in text editor in Vivaldi (and Chrome) also catches spelling mistakes, but not grammar mistakes. (In the previous sentence, Grammarly wants to change “catches” to “catch”, presumably because the browsers Vivaldi and Chrome are two. Unlike me and you, it cannot see past the “and” to realize that the subject of the sentence is the text editor. Artificial intelligence is still no match for natural stupidity, as the saying goes.) Luckily you can tell Grammarly to ignore such a find, much like in Microsoft Office. Actually, in my experience, Microsoft Office is even worse at parsing grammar. But if you do all your writing in Office, you may not feel motivated to convince two grammar checkers that they are wrong and you are right.

Back in the good old days when I lovingly crafted my journal by hand in Notepad or some other pure text editor, it was common for me to find spelling errors when I read through my entry one year later. (Back then I linked to the year-ago entry because I wrote virtually every day.) When I read through them two or even three years later, it was not uncommon for me to find more errors. This is a human tendency: We read what we meant to write, not what we typed.

At this point in my entry, Grammarly has found one spelling error (I misplaced an “i” in Artificial) and two grammar errors that were not. It also disagreed on my comma usage in three cases, which I gracefully conceded, albeit under doubt. So I am probably not in the target group for paying customers. If you want to try for yourself, you can go to grammarly.com or just wait for one of their innumerable ads with which they flood the Internet.

2000 words a day

Screenshot anime A Sister Is All You Need

Well, I might not be an author, but I still write 2000 words of coherent, grammatically correct fiction each day. It is just not good fiction. Yeah, that sucks, but with the years you get used to not reaching your dreams. And still keep going.

I “won” NaNoWriMo by completing the goal of writing 50 000 words in November on a single book started this month. The book, as mentioned, didn’t become very interesting. I blame the characters. ^_^

Writing 50 000 words in a month on a single project is pretty routine for me now, so I had a couple subgoals. Write just over 2000 words a day, not slavishly but preferably at least as a 3-day running average. This worked fine, and I finished on the 24th. The other goal was to not have any “plot bunnies” or obvious fillers that had nothing to do with the story, like the year when my characters spent several chapters playing my favorite games. Those are things that are legal and common during NaNoWriMo, but when you have been writing for 50 years you should probably be able to skip that.

I did not actually write only 2000 words a day, of course. Those were just on that project. I had another more personal story that I wrote just for fun that also came along nicely, if not as fast as usual. And I still write nonfiction like my journal (not so much anymore since the age of journals is pretty much over) and answering questions on Quora.

I sometimes think I would be a better ghostwriter or cooperative writer. I have plenty of interesting ideas, but that is the human condition. Ideas are like cats, once you have two or three of them it won’t be long until the house is full and overflowing with cats. My plots could need work, but plot is overrated in my opinion. No, my biggest problem is that I can’t write believable characters, because I am not a believable character myself. Even my oldest brother expressed doubt, back when my journal was daily and more slice of life, whether it was fact or fiction. Of course, we have only sporadically seen each other since I was 9, so that doesn’t say so much…

Anyway, the way things are now, chances are that I will never be a good writer. It is OK for my harddisks to get wiped and my old manuscripts burned when I am dead. Actually that is probably the best outcome. But I still don’t have a time of arrival for that, so in the meantime I keep walking forward, at a speed of 2000 words a day.

Too good and not good enough

Screenshot anime Aho-Girl

I have written 36000 words, and have nothing to show. Story of my life.

I am talking about my NaNoWriMo writing, but it appears to me that this may have a wider application for myself and others.

I am ahead of the official schedule with my NaNovel: Currently at over 36000 words. This is pretty much as expected, I estimated about 2000 words a day on this project. I also write some other even more unofficial fiction. I have been blessed thus far to not have serious Repetitive Stress Injury to my wrist, as I often had in my early years. I even have had some repetitive typing work at my day job (this is the first November in quite a while that I am not having my vacation) and still can type mostly without pain, so that is good. But as expected in the dreaded Week 3, misgivings about the project rise up.

***

Problem number one is that the story is not very good. I just today read a thread on the NaNoWriMo Adventure forum, “Who is your favorite character” in your own story. And I realized that none of them were. The main character is certainly an unusual hero: The only known Player Character from when the the world was a game, he used to be one of the top non-Pay-to-Win players and has extensive lore and meta-knowledge of how the world works, which should make him quite powerful if he can survive the racism, fear and hatred as a scary-looking barbarian in a homogeneous society that sees itself as the only possible civilization.

But this fellow does not really have any passion. He is not looking to get back to the real world to his family. He is not trying to protect his true love or find some precious person who is lost somewhere in the wide world. Actually he rather likes this world, and his main concern is to stay alive. Which is somewhat harder in a world of warring states, roaming bandits, supernatural monsters, wandering swordsmen and superpowered monks. Still, a quietly worried Swede is not really the way to keep readers on the edge of their chair, I suspect. He may be relatable, but so is your neighbor and your Facebook friends.

***

So far, so bad. The other problem is that the book is not bad enough to throw caution to the winds and do the NaNoWriMo “quantity over quality” thing. And by that I mean throwing in pirates and ninjas in places where they don’t belong. Or the Traveling Spade of Death that goes from book to book, possessing people to murder named characters. Or Belinda the Chicken of Death. If all you want is the word count and a text that is recognizably English (or some other known language), then Not Taking Your Book Seriously is definitely the way to go. But by and large, at this stretch of my life, I don’t start that kind of book in the first place.

In a way, this is the story of my life, and probably many other lives. It is certainly unique, but not good enough to stand out in a good way, and not bad enough to throw caution to the winds and go hitchhiking in Caucasus with a backpack of chocolate-filled fake gold coins. And so we keep slogging through, even when we have come to 36000 out of 50 000 words and can dimly see the end in the distance, and suspect that it will be unremarkable just like the path there was unremarkable.

“Someone is searching”

Screenshot anime Kamisama Kazoku

Maybe they are right there, but will you find them? What if to everyone else they look like everyone else?

I recently read that every novel can be summed up as “Someone is searching for something.”

This made me think about my current candidate for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, as I’ve mentioned in the previous entry. The main character and viewpoint character, a teenager who used to be an old man, now trapped in a world that used to be a game, is definitely searching for something. But I don’t really see him as searching for a way back home, not after the first pages at least. After all, in his own world he was ageing and with less than perfect health, no close family or friends nearby, no job and really no accomplishments to look forward to in the rest of his life. This was the world he loved, when he was not in it.

It did not take long for me to realize what he truly is searching for. Alone in a world that used to be a game, he is surrounded by Non Player Characters – people who used to be just pixels and scripts run by a computer, but who now have real lives of sorts. But they are still Non Player Characters. They know nothing about Real Life and the world from which he came. As far as they know, their origin and purpose and the meaning of their life lies entirely within this world, and everything else would be like pure madness to them. In fact, that is exactly how they will react if he tries to broach the subject.

And yet he must do so, because he is indeed searching. Not in the long run for a way back – that will come if it comes – but for others like himself. The one thing he cannot except is that he is the only one of his kind in this world, the only one for whom this world is not the ultimate reality. And it is not for him to find someone who says “OK, I believe you” even though that is hard enough. You’ve got to have been there. To share his memories before they are lost forever.

Of course, this is just a work of fiction. But it is an interesting perspective, is it not? I wonder if I could manage to write it.

Wuxia-inspired worldbuilding

Screenshot anime A Sister is All You Need

Worldbuilding is something novelists do all the time. Taking pictures of naked friends with our smartphones “for research” is not something we actually do. Rejoice therefore!

In my previous entry, I wrote about a Chinese comic I recently came across. It gave me some ideas for a short novel draft I could write for this year’s NaNoWriMo, the (inter)National Novel Writing Month.

I am not talking about writing fan fiction here. It is true that you could probably summarize both of them in a short paragraph that was identical, if you specifically was asked to do so, but that would require cutting out some pretty central themes. You see, I take this as an opportunity to practice the two new literary interests of mine from the last couple years: Wuxia and LitRPG. And the comic has nothing to do with LitRPG, which is the genre I have read the most by far this past year.

LitRPG is basically literature set inside a role playing game, or a world following the rules of a role playing game. There are basically two branches of this, the main branch is probably the one where in the future games become so lifelike that they are experienced similar to Real Life even though they are not actually real. Another branch is where the world is assumed to be real but has the same features as a role playing game, sometimes even including a user interface where you can see your statistics! That’s going a bit far, I think.

I will go for a plot device used in a Japanese light novel series, Overlord. In it, the main character remains in the game when it shuts down, and instead of being disconnected he follows along with the game world when it disconnects from the real world into some parallel universe where the game is real and real life is not. In Overlord, the main character retains all his powers and artifacts and even the base of his guild, making him hideously overpowered. I am not going that far.

Worldbuilding 1: “Real” Life

My main character – let’s just call him Marty Stu for now – is a 68 year old retiree sometime around 2030. He has some unnamed health problems by now but is still faithfully playing his favorite MMORPG, the Wuxia-inspired Lands of Soulcraft. When the game is closed down after 12 years, he decides to stay up all night playing till the end. However, in the last seconds before the shutdown time, he becomes dizzy and loses consciousness. Some time later, he wakes up and realizes that he is somewhere in the game world, but this world is now real and he is a teenager again. Either that, or he is dreaming and can’t wake up. Or dead.

Worldbuilding 2: Lands of Soulcraft – the game

The game had a cult following, but was also infamous for design decisions that made many players either give up or ragequit.  Leveling in the game is extraordinarily slow – if you have a job and a family you can expect to spend a year gaining one Rank. There are ten of these, although only five are known in the beginning of the game. Each Rank has 5 Rungs. The Ranks are from lowest to highest: Iron – Copper – Silver – Gold – Platinum – Topaz – Emerald – Sapphire – Ruby – Diamond.

The metal Ranks exist in the Lush Lands, where the first half of the game takes place, a land where the heroes mingle with various ordinary people. To advance to the gem Ranks you must leave for the High Lands, the mysterious mountain world where immortals are said to live. Here are no farmers and only a few courageous traders in guarded camps at the bottom of the valleys. The land is populated by powerful monsters, mysterious races, and masters of swordmanship and Soulcraft (basically magic). Once you go there, your opportunities to return are severely limited, and you cannot use any powers gained there in the Lush Lands even should you be able to visit. A condition for going back is that your powers are restrained for the duration.

You gain rank by a combination of three factors: Practice, Lore and Exploration.

Practice is the simplest but the most boring. You practice with weapons and body training or meditate using various spiritual practices to improve the strength of your Soulforce. You can basically do this as a player while reading a book on the side. Obviously this get a bit different if you are trapped inside the game which has become real.

Exploration is the opposite: It is exciting but requires your full attention, and the results may vary a great deal. Quests give you rare experience that is valuable in leveling up, and you find rare weapons, armor, amulets, and ingredients for Alchemy and Inscription (enchanting).

Lore is found in the many large libraries. The game has thousands of books, hundreds of them are important for understanding the game mechanics. They are detailed, complex and interwoven so that some players claim the game actually equals university level. Understanding the game lore only superficially will hamper your progress, but once you have deeply understood, experimented with and practiced the game lore, “reincarnating” as a new character is much easier and faster than your first time. You may even catch up with and overtake your first character, because it is possible to make stupid decisions that hurt your maximum abilities forever. (Much like in Real Life.) This detail caused a great deal of ragequitting, by people who discovered after up to five years that their character was flawed beyond repair and would never become number one in this world.

To make things worse, the lore in the Lush Lands is hideously incomplete, something you will only learn in the last half of the game. Basically the greatest heroes of the Lush Lands are just milling around in ignorance, making do with what looks to them like a complete, deep and rich lore but is actually grade school compared to the deeper understanding available in the High Lands. Among the discoveries is that some characters that had seemed to be irreparably flawed were actually in a pretty good position to advance if they had continued long enough. Cue more ragequit.

The game was destroyed when it was sold to a large gaming company that made it free to play but sold Rank promotions and other goodies for real money. The High Lands were overrun by rich noobs who had the most powerful characters in the game world but no idea how to play. This caused the regular players to quit, and the noobs to quit as well, and the game closed down two years after the acquisition.

Worldbuilding 3: Lands of Soulcraft – the world

Once Marty wakes up in the game world, he notices that it seems completely real. He can not only see and hear, but also touch and smell. He gets hungry and needs to eat and drink. The people he meets seem way too intelligent and realistic to be Non Player Characters, but none of them have heard about any other world that is more real than this one. More disturbingly, nobody comes back from the dead. What has happened? Where is he?

Is he comatose in a hospital, dreaming that he is trapped inside the game? Or did the psychic energy of the many dedicated players actually create the game world in some alternate reality? Or did it already exist and the original designer of the game was some kind of psychic? Is Marty dead and some kind of deity or karma has shunted him to this world? Or is his body dead but his brain frozen down and later thawed up to be wired into a computer recreation of the game? And most importantly: Are there others from his world there? And if not, what is his relationship with the people of this mysterious world? And what is his destiny there?

The width of time

Screenshot anime Futakoi

If time were to restart, where would it take us? Life is not only short, it is also very narrow: You can only walk one single path, and it is hard to see far from it.

Today I will continue on the topic from my previous post about imaginary time travel of the mind. The main character leaves the present (which is fairly late in his life) and travels back to various points in the past, eventually to his teenage years, living through life again. Even before any other psychic powers manifest, the second iteration of life starts to diverge a great deal from the first. This is to be expected when you have decades of memories from the future. But the truth is that even with a much smaller and more vague core of memories, life would still have begun to take a different path. (I wrote “different past” here accidentally, but that’s not too far off either.)

Famously, biologist Stephen Jay Gould (of “punctuated equlibrium” fame) said that if we could rewind time to when life began, the lifeforms that would result would be completely different today. Meaning that there was so much randomness in the process that even if the circumstances were exactly the same, the outcome would still be different. There is some philosophical debate about whether the material universe really is non-deterministic, but what is clear is that it would take extremely little to change history if you intervened early enough.

In a similar way, if you could travel back in time to your childhood, it would take very little to change your fate, perhaps in a major way. A few words, perhaps even a smile or a frown, could have set you down a different path. Certainly some things are pretty much set in stone: Your height, your basic intelligence, your skin and hair color, and at least part of your sexuality. But many other things could end up very different. Your education, your job, the place you live, your spouse or lack thereof, even your weight.

So what I am saying is that even with the same body, we could each have lived a thousand different lives if we got to start over. All it would take to change our path would be the song of a little bird … or a vague sense of deja-vu.

***

But if we really do live our lives many times, we do not remember them. Scientists tell us that even deja-vu is not a paranormal thing, but a misfiring of the brain. I wonder about that: When the brain has an ability that is found in most people, it does not seem unlikely that it has some purpose. Whether you believe in creation or evolution or some combination of them, it seems suspicious that something as elaborate and expensive as the human brain should come with functions that have only negative value. (Remember, the brain uses about 20% of the body’s energy at rest … it is an obvious place to cut down if you don’t have unlimited calories, which only part of the world has even today, let alone in the past.)

Be that as it may, for us who don’t have the power of remembering multiple versions of our lives like fictional characters, I guess the closest we come is to get to know other people. They may not be us, exactly, but they tend to have a least some things in common with us, while other things are different. Well, if you want to try, there’s my archives from the years when I wrote a long entry every day. That should certainly be enough to get to know me better than eveb my own brothers do. Whether it is worth the time, though, I am not so sure. We are all different, but some are more different than others.

 

We want to live long…

Screenshot anime Erased

Screenshot from the anime “Erased”, in which the main character’s mind travels back to his childhood to change the past. Well, that’s one way of living long without growing old: Living the same time over and over… Of course, I thought of that years before the anime.

Thanks to the current ongoing Shellfish Festival here in Mandal, I get some free live music whether I want to or not. Today I caught a very catchy tune that has been around for a while here in Norway, “Vi vil level lenge” by Halvdan Sivertsen. There’s a YouTube clip for those who may want to listen to it, but it is in Norwegian. It is actually a song mocking cosmetic surgery mostly, but the recurring lyrics are some I can certainly identify with: We want to live long, but we never want to grow old.

Curiously this is the theme of my current main dicewriting project. Not the cosmetic surgery, but living long without growing old. It is a story about psychic time travel, in which the mind rather than the body travels back in time. You may remember one extreme instance of this as the movie Groundhog Day. I thought also reviewed the book The first fifteen lives of Harry August  by Claire North, but it seems this is one of the innumerable entries I have written and not uploaded? There are a number of related stories that largely fall in between these, featuring people whose minds are sent back in time (usually without their control) giving them the chance to “do over” some part of their life. It is something that I am sure a lot of us have thought about. It is a natural human trait to do this in our minds, although for me as a hyperlexic it is difficult to do so without something to write on.

So anyway in my Imaginary Random Psychic  series, the main character has the ability to travel at will into the past (although not before puberty) and stay there until he decides to leave, or until he catches up with the time he left. At that point, he returns to Real Time. The catch is, the timeline he was in disappear shortly after, like a dream. Even though it feels completely real while he is there, nothing of it remains when he returns. Nobody else remembers anything of it, and even his own memories soon become vague and dreamlike. Skills he has cultivated in the other timeline are reset, as is his health. Only a vague narrative remains. He is able to maintain a connection to a timeline for a couple minutes, allowing him to write brief diary entries during long stays in the past, but if he stays longer the timeline is lost in the swirl of All-Possibility.

The “imaginary psychic” part refers to a secondary effect of traveling through the fourth dimension of time: Gradually he starts to drift sideways in the fifth dimension and vertically in the sixth dimension, gaining supernatural powers. The powers of the fifth dimension augment his natural abilities, making him stronger, faster, more intelligent, resistant to damage and to ageing. The powers of the sixth dimension are indistinguishable from magic: Telepathy, telekinesis, healing, various forms of energy manipulation. But these abilities increase very slowly, rarely noticeable from year to year and hardly from decade to decade. It is only over centuries of living his life over and over that he gradually becomes aware of his supernatural powers and gets used to them. And like everything else, these abilities too fade when the returns to Real Time.

It seems like a slow and steady wish fulfillment fantasy, and I intend it as such too, but there is a subtle undercurrent that undermines that aspect of it: No matter what he achieves, it is un-achieved by time. If he finds love and a family, he is sure to lose them. If he makes friends, they are sure to forget him. Even when he gains some power to change the world for the better, the world forgets him and reverts to what it was. Even inside the story, all his triumphs are hollow from the start.

Of course, the same could be said for real life. “Futility! Futility! says the Preacher. Utter futility! All is in vain. What does a person gain from his labor that he strives with under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1, the Bible.) Or, to translate the Buddha’s partings words: “All things that have form are subject to decay.” We who have meditated for a while may actually have caught some glimpses of the fifth or sixth dimensions, but the truth is that even eternal time is not enough. Anything that can be accomplished within time is trapped within time. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as the Americans say. Only the spirit can transcend the six dimensions of space and time.

We want to live long, but even then we will just as much be forgotten. Transhumanists want to reverse ageing or upload the mind to computer networks that can last for millions of years. Certainly that would be great, but even the stars fade and galaxies shatter. There is no escape hatch that can be opened from the inside of creation.

Not-City-of-Heroes Fanfic writing

Screenshot from City of Heroes character generator

This picture may be created by the City of Heroes character generator, but the heroine Nordic Spring is from the totally imaginary MMORPG Paragons which never existed in our world, only in the world of the novel I am currently writing (my second NaNoWriMo novel this year, after I won the 50 000 words challenge with my first story, Artworld.) In contrast to Artworld, I am having a blast writing Paragons of Virtue, where Virtue refers to “Virtue City”, the city formally known as “Virtual City” before it became real, and totally not the Virtue server in City of Heroes, which is an intellectual property held by NCSoft Inc, whose lawyers are probably on the Internet like most people these days.

Nordic Spring is one of the characters in my story set in the defunct MMORPG Paragons that has mysteriously become real. She is a Nature / Ice Guardian, which is totally not a Nature Affinity / Ice Blast Defender from City of Heroes, seeing how CoH doesn’t exist and never has in that world. Before coming to the alternate reality of Virtue City, she was a slightly physically challenged, long-haired woman named Tove something or other, which is totally not a poorly disguised rewrite of Tuva, not that it matters since they are both imaginary and all.

The main main character of the story is Lightwielder Trainee, a Light/Light tank. The tank class is a mainstay of MMORPGs since long before CoH was made, and it is not spelled “tanker” like the corresponding archetype in CoH. Also, CoH doesn’t have Light powersets, although it has Darkness powersets, which work differently. (The MMORPG Champions does have a Light powerset, but it works slightly differently from in my imaginary world, beyond the obvious implications of the name.) Before coming to Virtue City, Lightwielder Trainee was an underpaid office worker named Markus. In the story he is mostly referred to as Markus when doing internal monologue or talking with friends, and Lightwielder Trainee when doing heroic things or being mentioned by others. Only Tove knows his former identity, and the other way around, as they used to team up together almost every day for several years, to the point where people thought they were a couple.

Of course, now that they are physically in the game world, who knows what will happen. But I am pretty sure it will be rated T for Teens, like the game itself. Or “Young Adult” as they say about books.

***

I am having a blast writing this story, it is one that practically writes itself. Which is great because I get to read a new chapter or two each day. The downside with stories that write themselves is that I have less control over them than if I crafted them from scratch. For instance, I had planned to introduce Tove early in the book and use her as an alternate viewpoint character to avoid this becoming just a translation from 1st person perspective.

One thing that bothered me about Artworld was that the heroine got way too little exposure and development because the MMC (male main character) was the narrator. An interesting character was largely kept unexplored and the romance was badly understated because the MMC did not really understand her emotions. (What guy can understand a woman’s emotions anyway?) So I decided that my next book would be 1) not a romance, although there might be pairings and triangles in it, and 2) not a first person perspective. In practice, however, I am now on the 6th chapter of what I call “translated first person”, by which I mean it reads as if it was written in first person narrative and then someone went through the text and replaced all instances of “I” with “he” (or occasionally the name), “me” with “him”, “our” with “their” and so on. Only one person has internal monologue, only one person’s feelings are clear to the reader, and the reader does not know things the main character doesn’t know.

Translated first-person perspective is very common in LitRPG novels, even in good ones like Aleron Kong’s Chaos Seed. But having recently rewatched parts of the anime Log Horizon, based on the LitRPG books by the same name, I see how useful it can be to expand the scope a bit, even if you maintain a main character. If you compare Log Horizon to Sword Art Online, another popular Japanese LitRPG which was made into an anime, you will notice that the main character of SAO has a pretty strong Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) flavor. In other words, he is too perfect and overpowered.

One of the most appealing aspects of LitRPG is that the characters are constrained by the game mechanics. You have to do your grinding and your artifact quests in order to become powerful, you cannot muddle through until toward the end of the book, when everything comes to a climax, the main character suddenly has godlike powers because of his heroism or his love or his heritage or an ancient prophecy or because Mystra said so. That is one of my major turn-offs about conventional fantasies, and conversely one of the things I love about LitRPG is that the character has to do the grinding to power up, use his creativity to find the best strategies and tactics based on understanding the rules, and gain the cooperation of other heroes or even villains to help save the day.

So what I wanted to write was a kind of “Log Horizon meets City of Heroes” (except not really). But the writing style, as much as I love writing and reading it myself, may get in the way of making this what I wanted.

Of course, it is still early. I mean, as of Chapter 6 (16000 words) we are still in the character’s first day in Virtue City, and he is still level 4. The tentative female main character has just arrived and is level 2, having done only a street quest so far. (Notice that the quests are usually called quests or quest missions, never just “missions” because this is totally not City of Heroes. I am sure not even lawyers could misunderstand that.)

But now it is time to get back to City Park, which is totally not Atlas Park, the starting zone in City of Heroes. Just like Factory Row is not Kings Row, Steel Towers is not Steel Canyon, and so on.

I can’t write Log Horizon

Screenshot Log Horizon

A minor character – in more than one sense of the word – from Log Horizon. Even these are surprisingly well developed (in this case only in one sense of the word, thankfully).

I have belatedly finished watching the second season of the anime Log Horizon. (Legally, in this case on Crunchyroll which is a site that lets you stream anime and read manga for a quite reasonable fee, and in some cases for free but with a time delay. They don’t have light novels yet, though, as far as I can see, but recently they have a lot more manga. I watched the anime, but it is based on light novels that I have not yet read.)

The novels fall squarely in the LitRPG category, which I have mentioned before. This genre is stories that take place inside roleplaying games, or worlds nearly indistinguishable from roleplaying games. In all cases I know of, this refers to MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. While I am sure there is a lot of fanfiction on the Internet based on existing games, the games in the LitRPG books are original creations which may be more or less vaguely similar to existing games, but generally more advanced. As such the stories are usually set in the future, where games have become even more immersive. And then, in several of these stories, the characters find themselves literally transported into the game world, a parallel world that is now their new reality.

This is also the premise for Log Horizon. One day after a new expansion to a popular game has been rolled out, suddenly the players find themselves trapped in the game, their in-game avatars now their bodies, and the game world fully real to all senses. This causes various problems at first, for instance at first you cannot make food without the in-game cooking skill even if you know how to do so in real life. Some of the strongest guilds try to become rulers of the cities and enslave others. The tentative main character of the story is Shiroe, a young man who plays a fairly pure support class (Enchanter-Scribe) but is fiercely independent and introverted by nature. He is valued for his obsessive knowledge of the game and as a master strategist, and manages to organize a “round table” of different types of guilds to serve as a loose kind of government, preventing the player-killer guilds from taking over the capital city. (Players that are “killed” in the game revive at the cathedral, but it is said that each death causes you to lose some of your memories from Real Life. As such, most players avoid it as much as possible, but some seek it out.)

While Shiroe is an interesting personality, the story really shines because of its many supporting characters, which are given a great deal of personality each, and interact in sometimes dramatic and sometimes comical ways. In this regard, Log Horizon differs from many LitRPG stories, including some that have been made into anime. In a way, it could be said that these are really single-player experiences. The most extreme example I can think of is Overlord, in which only one player is transported into the alternate world, as far as we know, although certain events imply that one or more others may also be there. The rest of the cast in Overlord have personalities, but are clearly marked as non-player characters and therefore inherently less real. The perhaps most famous LitRPG anime is Sword Art Online, in which there are thousands of players, but the main character Kirito is written as superior both in skill and personality, causing the other players to seem largely irrelevant except for his love interests.

A concept often used about amateur writers (and especially prevalent in Fanfiction) is “Mary Sue”, often called “Marty Stue” for male characters. A Mary Sue is a character that is supposed to be relatively ordinary, but is written as superior in every way, unbeatable and ridiculously overpowered in every way that counts. The Mary Sue is often given character flaws that are not flaws, often an excessive humility that serves only to highlight their superiority. The story treats the Mary Sue differently from everyone else.

In Log Horizon, Shiroe is possibly the smartest person in the game, but he is limited by his supporting class character. He only shines when he can make others shine. You will not see Shiroe stand up alone against an army of enemies and defeat them singlehandedly. But because of his reliable support, he is loved by his friends and they go out of their way to help him even if they don’t always understand his plan. Several of the other characters are given opportunities to shine in their own right, including a large story arc featuring some of the underage players going on a quest.

Log Horizon is not the only LitRPG anime with multiple well-developed personalities. There is also Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, which I actually encountered as a novel before I saw the anime. The main characters are few but well developed, including one who dies partway through the story. This story differs from most in that although the world is similar to a game world, the characters do not arrive there by playing a game.

***

I wish I could write stories like that, with multiple believable characters. But that is still beyond me. I am now past 40 000 words on my designated NaNoWriMo novel of the year, but it is a rough patch. I had hoped that the colorful personalities in the Royal Art Academy of Greater Akikei would interact with each other and the narrator character to fill this part of the story, but so far they have remained flat and hiding in the shadows. One of them is actually kind of active, but she is too much of a cardboard caricature, not a believable person like the two main characters. She certainly does not add much in the way of romantic tension, although I will give her a few points for trying. The rest are little more than nicknames and I find myself unable to wake them up.

Oh well, it is good that I am not a professional writer after all. I guess I shall continue in my office job until I die or am disabled.