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.

NaNoWriMo again!

Screenshot anime Magic-Kyun Renaissance, featuring Monet

Return of the colors, from episode 6 of Magic-Kyun Renaissance. Tsukushi is known as the “Monochrome Prince” but upon getting to know this one special girl, he starts to see the world in colors again.

I have been taking part in the National Novel Writing Month pretty much ever since it became international approximately ten years ago. For most of that time I have taken November off as my paid vacation for the year. (Norway has 5 weeks of mandatory vacation. I like my job, but my boss could get in trouble if I don’t take my 5 weeks every single year. So may as well have something else constructive to do.)

To be honest, I feel that my writing has gone downhill lately, and it was never more than around the level of the $0.99 and $1.99 books in the Kindle Store. But at least I could write some pretty funny dialog.

That said, the craft is still in my fingers, it seems. This year, I did not pick a topic or even a genre until around an hour before midnight on the last of October.  At that point, I randomly decided I wanted to set a story in  a world somewhat similar to the anime Magic-Kyun Renaissance, which I had just watched some episodes of. (Legally, on Crunchyroll. Try it for free.) It is actually an anime for girls, based on a genre of games called “dating sims” (not related to The Sims from Maxis/EA). Most of these sims are for boys roleplaying a male character befriending and dating girls, but the reverse can also happen, and these games seem to be increasingly popular, and along with them anime of the same type. They tend to be more romantic and less erotic, which I don’t mind, and it is always interesting to see things from the female point of view (which is sorely lacking in my writing, seeing how I have never been female.)

***

Now, my NaNovel is not about a girl with a harem of boys adoring her. The viewpoint character and narrator is a young man, but arguably the girl is as much a main character as he is, at least at the outset she is the most active, the most competent, the one that moves the story forward. The male narrator is mostly preoccupied with himself (and his impending death, seeing how he has cancer and the hospital has given up on him). But in the corner of his eye there is always this girl, coming and going, doing what needs to be done, moving things forward, until the point (at the start of chapter 4, as of the draft) where it becomes obvious at least to the reader that she is the real hero of the story so far.

The part that is inspired by the anime, and then only partially, is the magic of the world, which is based on art. In the anime, exceptional performers in different arts have the ability to cause “sparkles”, patterns of light that flow from their art and awe the audience. That’s it, they are basically idols. Otherwise the world is as we know it. I wanted to go further. The Light of Arte, changed simply to Artlight in my novel, is more of a metaphysical or perhaps even divine element that is able to perform miracles or at least magic.

But only the most extreme combination of Talent and effort give rise to spectacular, obvious magic. Most works of art and craft simply has what the book calls Quality (a feature I also used in my failed and mostly boring attempt at a NaNoWriMo novel some years ago, called The Eternal Road or words to that effect. No wonder it was boring.) A work of high Quality does what you would expect it to do, but better than should be possible. If you sleep in a bed of high Quality, you sleep better than you would in a normal bed. But if a bed is made by a Master, it may be able to cure illnesses of body and mind simply by sleeping in it regularly. Only the Great Artists themselves can see the Artlight, and once they have done so, they lose interest in most things of the world.

The simple premise of the novel is that there exists a world parallel to ours, with the same flora and fauna and races of human (almost, at least) but where a single rule is different. In our world it is called Clarke’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But in Artworld (not actually called that by its natives of course) it is “Any sufficiently advanced art or craft is indistinguishable from magic.” As a result, our near-magic technology based on electricity doesn’t work there; crude steam engines is as far as you get. But instead they have art that can, in extreme cases, heal cancer, or open a portal to another world.

The narrator is 21 years old when he comes home from college to spend his last months with his parents. Then the girl next door shows up, revealing that her grandmother came from a parallel world and their family still has a way to access it. However, anyone who would have died in one of the worlds can never return there even if he or she survives in the other. Even if he can be cured – which is far from certain – he will never be able to return. He will have to spend his life in a world where modern technology is only a rumor and where democracy is not only a crime but a heresy. So that should certainly spice things up a little. ^_^

I don’t think there will be any cease and desist from the lawyers of Sunrise, Pony Canyon, or Broccoli. (I apologize for the Japanese company names, they are actually real.) As usual with my derivative works, I have condensed the original down to a very short paragraph before expanding it again into its own story. You would probably not recognize the original if I had not told you. Well, that could be because you don’t watch anime. Or if you do, you don’t read my half-baked novels. I can’t exactly blame you, but I try to write the kind of book I would like to read myself. It’s not like many other people do that.

Subjective time

Screenshot anime Nozaki-kun

The time measured by clocks is constant, but the time measured by the soul is bewildering.

Time is something we are all very familiar with, and yet some scientists doubt that it exists: The equations that describe the universe work just as well without time. It seems to be just a name we have put on the increase of chaos: Intuitively if we see a video of a glass assembling itself from scattered shards, we know that it is being played in reverse. And yet, arguably, for most of our lives we are such a thing as that glass coming together. Our memories come together creating a more or less whole and balanced self. Even plants that grow are such things, being assembled from tiny pieces into an impressive whole. Life is like a countercurrent in the stream of time.

Although recent science dismisses time, and classic science presents a clean arrow of time, most humans have a more vague sense of causality. Yes, causes lead to effects, the past creates the present and the present the future. But we also feel that the future is real and influences the present. In English we even use the same word, for instance: “The reason I get paid is that I go to work. The reason I go to work is to get paid.” How can the two things be each other’s reason?

Our mind seems able to travel through time to a certain degree. Through the power of our memory, we can revisit the past and relive the joys and sufferings, although we cannot change it except in our imagination. By the power of anticipation we look into the future, although a future that is less certain than the past, and we take with us information back to the present. We study the outcome of our actions before we even act. And then we decide: “No, it is not worth it” or “Yes, it is worth it” and so the future – which does not yet exist – changes the present, which definitely exists.

Time is weird.

***

Time does not always seem to move at the same speed, either. Objectively it does, or very nearly so. (It slows down slightly when we accelerate, or so the theory of relativity says. But in ordinary life this is not measurable. You won’t live longer by speeding on the highway, possibly quite the opposite!)

When we are children, time seems to move quite slowly. A summer holiday is an ocean of time and we arrive on the other side as a changed person. In old age, the same summer is like a puddle in the road that we step over, barely noticing. Or that is the general tendency. But do all of us experience time the same way? I don’t think so. I have a strong feeling that, for some reason, my subjective time runs less fast than others my age.

“If you are a lifelong bachelor, you may not live till you are 100, but at least it will feel that way” someone said when I was a kid. As a lifelong bachelor, I certainly agree with this, but I don’t see it as a bad thing. “Don’t kill time, it is your life” said the Christian mystic and teacher Elias Aslaksen. I try to not dissolve completely into my habits and obligations, but learn something new and be aware of at least some of what goes on during my day.

Part of my subjective feeling of slow time is that I spend a lot of time observing lower worlds where time moves faster. Most notably, I have read books since I was little, although I read less novels now. The experience of the book’s characters are added to my own, giving me a feeling that I have lived much more than I actually have. (It is not just me: Old people sometimes tell of something that happened to them when they were younger, which the bookish listener will recognize as having happened to a literary character.) I am not sure if the same applies to movies, in which case most people should have this experience. I don’t watch movies much, except for some Japanese animation.

As a (mainly hobby) writer, I create worlds where years pass over the course of weeks of real time. (Not all writers do this – some my spend a year on describing a week.) I also play games such as The Sims series, where simulated humans live, age and eventually die after some days or weeks of real time. Other favorite games of my past are the Civilization series, where entire civilizations rise and fall over the course of a few days. Watching this gave me a subjective feeling of old age, which blends well with my lifelong interest in history and my reading of old books. I know objectively that I was born in 1958, but a part of me feels like I wandered the streets of ancient Uruk before Rome was even a village.

***

Yet another factor that determines subjective time may be how fast you process information. The more data that passes through and is consciously registered by your brain, the more time would seem to have passed. We know that in certain critical moments, the doors of perceptions are thrown wide open and time seems to slow to a crawl. Unfortunately it is usually not possible to make your body speed up to the same degree.

In my fourth dicewriting story, which I stared just after my previous entry, the main character seems set to become a speedster. Not on the scale of The Flash from the TV series that I believe is still ongoing in America, or the comic books of the same name. Just … living faster.

In that story, speed is one of Erlend’s five specializations, and with an expected duration of 6 years this could make a big difference. I look forward to seeing how this will unfold when we reach the borderlands of human experience. How is it like when the world slows down to half speed and a day feels like it has 48 hours? How do you interact with the people around you? If it happens gradually enough, you probably adapt seamlessly, and don’t rock the boat by being too different in everyday life.

As it happens, I have a coworker of sorts – technically his company is the client of ours, but we work together and eat lunch together – and he is highly intelligent, possibly more than me. It is hard to say: While my intelligence is exceptionally wide, reaching into thoughts that most people never consider thinking, his intelligence is fast. Ordinary humans try his patience, because he knows what they are trying to say while they are still beginning to say it, and then they just keep rambling on, unaware that he already understands it better than they do. Usually he spends his lunch break reading his smartphone. The leftover attention is sufficient to keep up with what everyone in the room is saying.  This guy strikes me as a good match for a “near speedster”, someone who lives fast in a slow world. (Of course I won’t borrow any other traits from him. My characters are all unique, not based on real people.)

The clocks keep ticking, but perhaps we each hear them tick at our own speed…

Writing a twisted character

Screenshot anime Barakamon

My main character, who incidentally looks a lot like this too, is also a failure as a human being. Then again he is not entirely human, not that this makes things any easier.

My first two dicewriting stories more or less wrote themselves, but the third has taken longer time and generally felt much harder. I don’t think I can blame the skill specialization that I outlined in my June entry – in fact, I am quite happy with it and intend to keep it for my next story, although I can see some combinations being harder to write than others.

No, the problem is the main character. He is just not a very likable person, I’m afraid. Not to the people in his world, and not to me, and probably not to most of the potential readers. While the main character of book 1 was a gentle healer with a lot of empathy, and the second was more of a classical fledgling superhero type, Rune is a deeply conflicted person and a bit of a sociopath.

The conflict is between his home and his school life. His mother loves him unconditionally and considers him a precious gift to humanity. But at school he is bullied relentlessly for almost a decade. As a result, his basic outlook is a firm conviction that humanity consists of three groups: A precious few good and innocent ones, a modest majority of indifferent people who are just passively complicit in evil, and a sizable minority of nonredeemable villains who would serve the world better as dog food or compost.

This attitude is problematic under the best of circumstances. But Rune happens to be the son of an extradimensional super-wizard on the scale of Zeus or Odin, and over the course of the 87000 words story he goes from occasionally producing some almost symbolic magical effects to achieving casual mastery of cold, darkness and sickness. Toward the end of the first book, he is easily capable of killing anyone he wants in a matter of seconds – or more slowly if he so prefers – without anyone ever knowing. His conscience is not in itself holding him back: As far as he is concerned, killing bad guys is the fastest way to make the world a better place. The only thing that holds him back is the pleas of his mother, but will that be enough when facing people who are genuinely evil and proud of it?

I think what makes this so hard to write is that I understand the character all too well. I find it hard to argue against his view without resorting to religion. Specifically, I think you have to think like Jesus on the cross: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The moment you believe that humans actually know what they do and are in control of their lives, it becomes very hard to not condemn them. It is not a pleasant mindset for me to immerse myself in. I am rather happy to be seeing the end of this draft, finally. Hopefully Dicewriting Book 4 will be less disturbing.

Dicewriting refinement: Specializations

Screenshot anime Onii-Ai

Come to think of it, many authors are quite eccentric. Even so, I may still be the only one writing with dice. I hope to change that. If more people learned to write, I might not have to write the novels I want to read myself. I could just buy them for a few dollar on Amazon. 

My last couple entries have been about writing with dice. You may think that writing is about inspiration rather than perspiration, and I assume this is true for Holy Scripture, and perhaps to some degree for a few other profound, world-changing works of timeless beauty. But for the most part, writing is an office job where you have to show up, put in some semblance of mental activity, know your tools and build your skills. The current string of entries is about some quite unusual tools of the trade: Ordinary 6-sided dice.

I have written a bit over 100 000 words on book 2 in the “Semi-demigods” series, the series where I practice my “writing with dice” technique. This book describes high school (three years) for one of the supernatural characters. I am happy with the improvement I made from book 1, but there are still some things I may fine-tune in the next story.

The series is coming-of-age stories about part-supernatural kids, in the same genre as Smallville (the TV and book series), but not very similar apart from the genre. The best part of Smallville, in my opinion, was when Clark Kent discovered another superpower. But unfortunately this experience was fairly brief. He took some days to control his X-ray vision and heat vision, but generally his powers emerged at more or less full strength and he usually could control them easily. My approach is very different: A slow creeping change, a very slowly rising tide of power. Perhaps too slowly and too broad, I think now.

***

Due to a faulty implementation of two related abilities from the GURPS Psionics set, my character ended up with two powers that were way above most of the others, in this case telekinesis and especially flight. Rather than fix it partway through, I wrote it into the story, which worked out pretty well. There was also another power that was ahead of the pack, namely mind reading. But this was because it was favored by the dice. In the long run, the dice will even out, but that turns out to be a very long run. In the first book, the dice favored healing, and I wrote that into the story as well, but I don’t know why it happened.

What I do think is that the story benefited from a couple powers emerging earlier than the rest, rather than all of them being useless and then all of them being over the top. So I am thinking that for Book 3, I am going to implement a Matthew amplifier: He who has shall be given and shall have abundance. I am still pondering how to implement it, but I am thinking of marking the top 5 skills at some point, possible the first 5 to be rolled in the first place, and giving them bonus points. Like every third round will be reserved for the Primary Skills, or nearly so. The numbers 1 to 5 will correspond to the 5 Primary Skills, while a 6 passes the turn to the stat pool with a new roll.

Obviously this might be different depending on your genre, so I am not going to go on and on about the details.

Another tool-related note: I use a spreadsheet to keep track of the various powers and skills. For each time they change, I also write a [note] in my writing program (yWriter 5). This lets me reconstruct the power set at any particular time in the story, but it would be a lot of work to do that for any random scene. So I am thinking of extracting the bare-bones stats from the spreadsheet and posting the status at the start of each chapter (not part of the actual text, obviously, but perhaps in the internal chapter description). I tend to write very bare-bones and I think this could make it easier to expand on the story later. It will let me see at a glance what the stats were at the time.

Again, this is kind of specialized for supernatural coming-of-age stories. In a romance novel you might track the relationship between the various characters at different times, perhaps on a scale from -100 to +100. In a mystery novel you would keep a map of who knows what and believes what at each stage. But for now I am writing this, and these are my tools.

Plot ideas, on the other hand, are like cats: Once you have two or three, you will soon wake up with the house full of them. Going from dream to story is the hard work, and tools matter.

Even more Writing With Dice

Screenshot anime Kawaisou, featuring Sayaka

Telepathy is a pretty nifty psychic power, except when your ability to send thoughts develops before your ability to read them, and you don’t notice until you scare the cute girl. And there’s nothing you can do because the dice decided it. (Picture from the totally unrelated anime Kawaisou.) 

Apart from short breaks for keeping up with my MOOCs at least to some degree, and a day at the local clinic with a pretty harsh heart arrhythmia, my main free time activity is writing books I don’t know until I write them. See my previous post if you want details on how I wrote the previous story this way. I’ll link to it again at the end as well.

I was not perfectly satisfied with the “game mechanics” of my novel. The story overall was interesting to me, but the balance between power and skill was off, making parts of the story drag while others became too predictable. Only as a matter of nuance, not something I could not correct for using my amazing Authorpower. But I decided to make my job easier in the next book by tweaking the balance. More about the mechanics toward the end of the post.

***

The overall plot is the classic heroic coming-of-age story seen in numerous fantasy novels (Harry Potter probably being among the most famous and well executed, although it dragged on too long for me). Also Smallville the TV series used this concept, despite having a very different flavor, so you can see it is a very generic and flexible macro-plot. The most interesting part for me is one that is usually not given enough airtime, in my opinion, and is also the reason why I frequently create new characters in role playing games. The magical time when the impossible gradually intrudes into the ordinary world: The wizard apprentice casts his first spell; the superhero discovers that he can lift a car. I want to zoom in even more, to include the time when you still tell yourself: “It could be a coincidence”, or “perhaps I just imagined it”, or “there’s got to be a rational explanation for this.”

One thing I learned from role playing games is that you need newbie zones where the challenges are realistic for your power level while you learn your role. In a way, the whole first book for each character is a newbie zone. He meets ordinary human challenges, just more of them than most people around him. This is not a time to deal with natural disasters or bloodthirsty dictators, but the way the hero deals with the baby version of the larger threats give clues as to who he will be when he is ready to put on the cape or the crown.

The first book was put on hold after about 80 000 words. It needs a rewrite and an ending that transitions to the next book, if any, but overall it was a satisfying experience. The next book is at a bit over 45 000 words now and still pretty early, though I may speed up a bit now. It is a new story with a new main character, using the same overall plot but different subplots and new dice throws. Intriguingly, the dice seem to know early on what kind of character I am writing. It is a bit spooky. I even close my eyes when tumbling the dice, and they still create patterns that suit the personality to some degree.

***

The current book is completely stand-alone and implied to be on a different world, albeit both are very close to our own, alternate timelines that separated from ours only decades ago. The background is the same: A “demigod”, a planeswalker with overwhelming psychic powers, has visited Earth in secret and begotten a boychild to protect the world through the trials to come. He then zips off, leaving his heir to grow up as a normal child, although looking a bit unusual and developing more slowly because of his longer lifespan. (The planeswalker in the two stories is not the same, although the purpose of his visit is.)

In this case, the powers begin to develop at the start of his last year in junior high school (school year ten in Norway, where this book takes place). I have also ramped up slightly the speed at which the powers grow stronger, while ramping down skill growth so that there is a greater element of uncertainty. Even with that, the psychic powers are little more than party tricks for the first year and a half, most of them even longer.

***

The dice rolls are the same as outlined in my previous entry, but there is now an exception on skill rolls. Up to an actual skill of 12 (as determined by the combination of INTelligence and skill roll) all rolls that begin with 4 (skill group 1) and 5 (skill group 2) increase the skill by one. But once the actual skill is 12, I roll another die. If it shows 6, the one-point increase happens to power level rather than skill. At skill level 13, either 5 or 6 means the point is transferred to power. And so on, although never below 1. Skill will increase more and more slowly over time, until it only rises at 1/6 of early increase. Meanwhile power will increase faster and faster until it scales at 11/6 of early increase. This is more intuitive in the results it yields, as a small increase in power will be very noticeable early on, but less and less so. Meanwhile skill determines the chance to succeed and the level of control, and these should improve rapidly at first and then more slowly. I am pretty happy with this setup so far.

I have also increased the soft limit on all physical stats (not INTelligence) to 20, which is the borderline between human and superhuman. This boosts his physical, seemingly natural abilities relative to the psionic, seemingly supernatural ones. Unlike the gentle healer of the first book, Tormod is a more robust hero and inclined to fight back, which does not necessarily end well even when he succeeds. He has some issues to resolve and lessons to learn before he is ready to save the world, or at least a small corner of it, in a hypothetical sequel.

Writing with dice, again

Screenshot anime DanMachi / Dungeon ni Deai

The status of my white-haired main character has grown a lot! That’s because I roll dice every Sunday morning. It also makes for very fast writing, as it turns out.

Since April 18th, I’ve had fun writing a fiction story. Around the end of April 26 (that would be 8 days later) I reached 50 000 words. It’s slowed down a bit since (65 000 by the end of the month), which is good because I have other things to do as well. Also to avoid repetitive stress injury from insane amounts of typing, I could not do this all year round. But it is a pretty awesome feeling when the writing just runs through the brain onto the screen.

The fiction is a coming-of-age psychic mini-superhero story using dice. The scope is similar to that of Smallville (the TV and book series) in that it follows a boy with unusual abilities from he discovers them until he is fully grown. But the tone is very different. The powers are different, and they start out very weak, so much so that at first they are indistinguishable from coincidence. There are also no truly superpowered enemies or allies – for the duration of this story at least, it is assumed that the Main Character is the only of his kind on Earth.

(There may be sequels, or maybe not. The story as first draft is extremely bare-bones and I might easily expand it not only by adding detail but also by writing scenes in between existing scenes. In the hands of a better writer, this story could easily be as long as Smallville. Then again, in the hands of a better writer, Smallville might have been worth watching more than halfway through.)

(When I say these 65 000 words are “bare-bones”, I mean as in “we only know the hair and eye color of the main character and his best friend”, “we don’t know the layout of any buildings”, “we don’t know the local plant life but the setting is said to be in northern Europe” (it is actually in Denmark, to the best of my knowledge, with a brief vacation in southern Norway which is mentioned in one of the first chapters.) It is the complete antithesis of filler. Pretty much all except the action and dialog is left to imagination, at least as of today.)

***

Now about the dice. The psychic powers are very closely based on GURPS third edition, the Psionics chapter with a little extra detail from the Psionics extended rulebook. This is a robust, realistically scaling role playing system that lets you transition seamlessly from the everyday to the fantastical given enough time. In my case, I roll the dice every Sunday morning (story time, not my time!) and increase one stat each time.

For those who want to try this approach but not for psychic powers, they may want a different time scale and a different skill set. But I particularly like psionics, so.

At the start of the story, as the Main Character enters high school, he is noticeably weaker, slower, clumsier and (barely noticeably) stupider than the rest of his class. The only stat that is above average is Longevity, which is one I added as a vital stat, which it is not in GURPS. (In GURPS there is a life extension subpower of healing, I am skipping that in return.) Because longevity has already kicked in, the character is aging more slowly than his classmates, so that at the onset of high school he is only just past puberty. This delay explains most of his weakness, which also makes him a victim of relentless bullying ever since his childhood.

Each Sunday morning (story time) I roll 1 ordinary 6-sided die first to determine the type of stat to increase. In my setup, there are two groups of psionic powers plus vital stats. The first group is variations of telekinesis and telepathy. The second group is miscellaneous psychic powers such as teleportation, ESP and healing. Each of these have a power component (the strength of the psychic power) and a skill component (the chance of success and level of precision, if applicable). The eyes of the die translate as follows:
1 = basic psychic power group
2 = misc psychic power group
3 = vital stat
4 = basic psychic skill group
5 = misc psychic skill group
6 = vital stat up to 15, after that reroll

After determining the group, a new single-die roll determines the exact power or stat to increase by 1. For example: Roll 1 = 2, which means we will increase the raw strength of a miscellaneous psychic power. Roll 2 = 6, which takes us to the specific power of healing. (As it happens, in the actual story this power got a higher than average number of rolls throughout the story, to the point where I tried to vary the way I threw my dice, including using two different dice for the two rolls, but the phenomenon continued. Make of that what you will.)

As for skills, they start at IQ-3. This is not really useful information unless you know GURPS. But it means that when the vital stat of Intelligence rises, the skill stats increase along with it but the power level does not – only the chance of success and degree of control.  So with starting INT= 9 (IQ 90) an accumulated skill roll of 1 would give an actual skill of 6, or a chance of success of 9.3%. For the first chapters, I added a beginner’s luck to the narrative to introduce some of the powers into the story, but then the Main Character naturally finds that it is almost impossible to make it happen again until months later when his skill has improved again. His powers start out almost useless and stay that way for his first year in school, where he continues to be bullied mercilessly but increasingly often get premonitions that warn him, or miraculously escapes before getting too badly beaten up. At this point he has really no offensive or defensive powers beyond running away.

The dice only determine what is possible, they do not decide the story as such. But they do push on it. Due to the early and relatively rapid growth of his healing and telepathy, it was natural to develop him into more of a healer type. Certainly his mother  sees him as such. As a result, at the end of high school he decides to become a nurse, and after a year changes studies to doctor (physician) as his intelligence continues to increase. This means that for the most part, detective or combat abilities are downplayed even when his powers reach a level where such a role would become possible. If the dice had caused a rapid increase in strength and telekinesis early on, he might have become a more classical combat-oriented hero.

***

Obviously this approach will not work for all genres, but perhaps it can help someone else escape from writer’s block. There are also many other ways in which dice can be used for fiction. In my Sims 2 blog, for instance, my simulated neighborhood Micropolis was exposed to random events from year 40 onward, such as climate change or the outbreak of a genetically modified disease. I had a list of possible events and used dice to determine which of them actually happened, if any, and in which order. I hope this can give blocked writers some new ideas. Good luck!

NaNoWriMo and a half

Screenshot anime Inou-Battle

Right now, writing stories is fun! I love writing books about Books of the Truth. ^_^

I wrote earlier in the month about my “winning” NaNoWriMo – it is not actually a competition except with ourselves and with time, admittedly worthy adversaries – and how my victory felt hollow because I had taken to heart the National Novel Writing Month’s slogan of “quantity over quality”. It is not like I was writing gibberish or random sentences, but my 50 000 words were basically an exploration of wish fulfillment and the price thereof. It was, I now think, aiming downward, digging into a lower world. My favorite writing goes in the opposite direction: Aiming upward, toward higher goals, higher worlds that humble and amaze those who are found worthy to see them. But of course that is hard to write.

Even so, after a few days of well deserved rest, I started on a second story which was more satisfying. It may even grow to something publishable one day if I get to live.

***

The basic worldbuilding is actually one I have used before: Parallel to the mundane world (to several mundane worlds, actually) lies a magical world dominated by wizards. They are not the formal rulers of the realm; there are kings for that. But they rule by majesty and lead through awe, for their power is not inherited by blood nor is it bestowed by ritual, but is the power of wisdom won by learning the Truth. They are Hermetic mages, although that name would not be familiar in their world. When a teenager has read a thousand books in his or her lifetime, the Wizard Guild will know, and a representative is sent to induct them into the knowledge of the Truth. They are given access to the hidden libraries that contain the 20 000 Books of Truth, also called the Books of Thoth  (or Thothe in the local language, which is more fond of vowels than ours.)

Thothe was the legendary divine king of Atalan. In his lifetime he achieved all knowledge, insight and wisdom that one can bear and still remain in a human body. He invented a new and better system of writing, and wrote his wisdom down in the legendary 20 000 Books of Truth. After giving his books to the world, Thothe laid off his human body and ascended to the heights of the spirit world, but before this he  promised to return in the world’s greatest hour of need to save human civilization once again. It is said that whoever reads and understands all the Books of Truth will be the reincarnation of Thothe.

Reading 20 000 heavy tomes of concentrated wisdom seems too much for a single lifetime, but this is where the Gift of Thothe comes in. Each of the Books gives a magical ability to those who have read it, and the first book, named simply the Book of Truth, bestows upon its reader the Gift of Thothe, that every moment spent reading the Truth, thinking of the Truth, meditating on the Truth, practicing the Truth and dreaming of the Truth will not age their physical body. Therefore, wizards who are ardent in their pursuit of the Truth can live for hundreds of years. They can become immensely powerful, to the point where the people of their world refers to them as gods (roughly translated – it is known by all that they are not the Creator, but they are thought to be His servants and representatives.) But there is yet another limit.

Thothe describes the Truth as a tree whose root is in Heaven and its branches here below. Its trunk is one, but in order to reach us down here, it has many boughs and branches. After reading the Book of Truth, you can choose one of various branches to follow. Each of the books that represents a main branch can be read directly after you have understood the Book of Truth, while others require you to first read the book that is the “trunk of the branch”, which then opens the way for one or more other books and so on. Some of these branches are open for all wizards. But there are seven pairs of branches that are complementary, and to most they appear opposite. If you have begun to study one of them, the opposite branch will make no sense at all. The words and sentences will be readable, but you will not be able to get the message, because it will seem opposite to the Truth you already know. Only people with a particularly great inner capacity for the Truth will be able to grasp one such pair, and any who does so is sure to be known as a god and nominated to the High Council. Only legendary gods, appearing rarely through history, have been known to learn as many as three of the pairs. And it is said that only Thothe, on his return, will know them all.

Well, Thothe may have to hurry up, for a new challenge is upon the world. But to understand this, we have to return to the mundane worlds, worlds such as our own.

When a teenager in our world has read a thousand books in his or her lifetime, a librarian will give them the 1001st Book, which seems to be a fantasy novel about a young boy who has read a thousand books and gains the ability to spend his dreams in the magical world. It gives some details about this world and the kind of things one may expect there, and also an introduction to the writing system, the Runes of Thothe, which is one in which each rune represents one syllable. They are constructed in a logical way, so that syllables that have a sound in common will also have some features in common. If the teenager goes on to actually learn this syllabic script, they will wake up one night in the Magic World, in a body that is a copy of the one they had in the mundane world. There a wizard or group of wizards will take them under wing and provide for them as they begin to learn the Truth and become a wizard in their own right.

One night in the mundane world corresponds to eight days in the magic world; time flows differently there. The world is very similar to ours (except much of the polar caps have melted and the sea level is about 30 meteres higher) but for some reason the moon is much closer to Earth, with a month lasting only 8 days. (The tides are also higher, obviously.) It is only on the Moonday night, when the moon is new, that a wizard may cross over between the worlds. Normally only the mind crosses over, and the body in the Magic World will age 8 times as fast, if not for the Gift of Thothe. This causes some interesting side effects for the teenagers who, at least until they have fully understood the Book of Truth, will be gradually older in one world than the other. (This plays a role in this year’s story, as the main character’s cousin is a middle school senior in Mundania but two years older in the Magic World. That’s incidentally the same age as the main character, just saying.)

Now, the civilization of Atalan has survived the disastrous flooding that covered its homeland in water nearly 10 000 years ago, 2 000 years after the reign of Thothe. It lives in balance with nature, growing food organically, its population in balance due to the advanced health care provided by the wizards, and high standards of hygiene. Although the civilization is pre-industrial, literacy is universal and people live simple but healthy lives, enjoying good food and cultural activities. Those who do not want to have children (or not have more children) get their fertility turned off by a wizard who has the necessary magical knowledge. Likewise those who want children can have their fertility increased. Various forms of fertility magic are at the core of the Atalan civilization, boosting both agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as voluntarily regulating population.

But lately, civilization is under threat. Someone has introduced steam age industry on the continent west of the ocean (presumably North America), along with ironclad ships and gunpowder. Most likely it is a crossover wizard that has turned against the traditions of his new world and taught them as much of our science as their society was able to duplicate. Traders protected by powerful warships and soldiers have arrived on the coast, forcing the local towns to let them set up their trading bases. From here they have begun flooding the land with cheap mass produced goods, disturbing the delicate balance of society. But this is just the beginning: The invaders are also marketing a different philosophy, one that says that wizardry is just tricks and psychology, that there is no Truth, no gods and no spirit world. The people, they say, are being suppressed by a ruling class of tricksters holding them down in a primitive agrarian society and a sparse population, whereas industry could provide them with unlimited luxuries and fill booming cities with their happy offspring.

While a culture war is taking place on the coasts of Europe, the invading army from the west has already taken control of the British Isles (which are somewhat smaller due to the flooding) and deposed the local kings, killed any wizards they could find, and outlawed religion under threat of capital punishment. The rest of Europe is likely to follow … unless the wizards can hold the invading barbarians off until Thothe returns.

Sounds like something that could become publishable one day, doesn’t it? If I manage to keep my teens reasonably chaste, at least. You know how they can be, it can be hard to make them concentrate on the Truth for long.

Won NaNoWriMo

Screenshot anime Inou-Battle

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed about writing a novel.” Well, unless it is as bad as mine.

I totally won NaNoWriMo this year. I wrote over 50 000 words of one continuous story. That’s all it takes, and I did it in less than two weeks. Mission accomplished with margin, as we had one month to do it. I am a master of quantity, woo.

The quality was terrible. I think a decent editor would have killed about 90% of it. There was all kind of irrelevant stuff, only one character worth mentioning, very little plot and virtually no drama. It was basically a mix of wish fulfillment and midlife angst. But no one is asking about that on NaNoWriMo.org. Quantity is king. At least I got verified that I still have that. Also I dispensed with some of my signature writing traits, like the long dialogs, often humorous, and barely worksafe humorous references to human sexuality. This year’s story would probably have passed a Republican party convention without any critical remarks, except that it was repetitive and lacked direction.

So yeah, it was an OK practice, but nothing more than that. It is not something that could be salvaged and made into a publishable work without a complete reboot.

I am not sure whether I am going to continue doing NaNoWriMo, even if I live for more years, which I sincerely hope. I feel that I have mastered quantitative writing now. I hope there will never be a time when I need to write for a living. And if there was, I would rather write fact than fiction, these days. There is so much beauty in truth. Just before NaNoWriMo started, I signed up for an edX MOOC about exoplanets. It is somewhat heavy on math, but, exoplanets! Planets around other stars! Alien worlds! Thousands of them! Isn’t that much more interesting that the petty power plays of insignificant humans? Let alone insignificant imaginary humans.