Dragons as characters in your novel

Dragons have been a storytelling staple for ages. They have appeared in folklore tales where heroes slayed the dragons to save the damsel.

And in more recent literature, TV shows and movies, dragons have appeared as wild beasts to be ridden or even turn out to be allies. Adding a dragon to your story can create instant conflict as these mythical creatures breathe fire and hoard their treasure or they can be a loyal friend and protector.

Anyway you look at it, adding dragons to your novel can be a way to interject some engaging characters.

The thing with dragons is that there are so many variations in looks and behavior that they really can’t be lumped together. Whether they are villains or protectors, friends or foes, here are the two main categories of dragons.

Types of Dragons

Western or European dragon – These dragons come from European folk traditions. These four-legged, reptilian creatures with wings often have some level of intelligence and may be able to speak either through speech or telepathy.

They dragons live in caves or near rivers. Some breathe fire or poison. Some may hoard treasure. Sometimes these dragons can shape shift into other creatures including humans. Their appearance is varied. They can have horns, multiple heads or tails and come in variety of colors and sizes.

Eastern or Chinese dragon – This also encompasses all Japanese and Asian dragons. These dragons are often serpentine creatures with above-average intelligence. They too have four legs but are wingless.

They creatures represent primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are associated with wisdom, power and luck. Many are said to possess some form of magic. Temples and shrines are often built to honor them. Unlike the Western dragons, these Eastern dragons are portrayed as benevolent and kind.

Wyvern This smaller cousin of the dragon is a winged, two-legged creature with a barbed tail. It has the head and wings of a dragon but typically lacks the grace and intelligence of a dragon. They do not breathe fire or speak.

Dragons as characters

Since we are dealing with an imaginary creature, what you do with your dragon – whether you make him a ferocious beast protecting his lair or a full-fledge character adding conflict to your story – is totally up to you. You have complete control over whether your dragon is large or small, has one head or a dozen, and whether it has magical powers or any signs of intelligence. The possibilities are endless.

But if you are going to make your dragon more than a wild beast to be slain and going to make it an important character, you need to develop them as you would any other character. You need to know their desires, their back story and build their behaviors and characteristics around these traits.

My books

I love dragons, so they have shown up in all of my books. In my The Elemental trilogy, dragons are large enough for 5-6 people to ride. But they are far from beasts of burden. They are distinct, well-developed characters who speak telepathically but cannot breathe fire. My favorite is Zoot, a gruff, sarcastic black dragon that befriends Lina, the protagonist of the series.

In my stand-alone adventure, The Heir to Alexandria, the white dragon, Enchanta, plays less of a role in the novel. She too is telepathic, but her main role is to guard a hidden fortress, revealing it only to the rightful heir.

My current work-in-progress, tentatively called Blood Bond, goes back to making dragons main characters within the story. The tale is all about Soren and his dragon Dex. Here again, the dragons communicate telepathically and are key players in the plot.

So if you choose to add a dragon to your novel, feel free to go against the norm and create a unique creature that enhances your story. And remember, you are really only limited by your own imagination.

Editing your novel with the help of a revision outline

Last week I wrote about the different drafts your story will go through on the way to becoming a novel. During those drafts, you need to strengthen the characters and plot as well as reduce wordiness or strengthen your writing.

To do this, I find it helps to have something to keep me on track and remind me of all the areas that I need to focus on.

I am unsure where I got this revision outline. I believe it was condensed down and adjusted one from an online writing class I took years ago. But when I am done with my second draft, this is usually the outline I pull out to ensure I do a complete job of editing.

Even though the notes say to do only one of these at a time, I typically do several at once working on each chapter separately.

Revision Outline

Do only ONE step at a time. If you find another area that needs work – mark it and then continue with the current fine-tuning project. Work in block sections (defined by chapters). Complete each “block” before going on.

1.)    Structure – develop a clear, compelling plot.

a.)    Look for scenes that are passive/dialogue with no tension.

b.)    Scenes that don’t build or are anti-climactic.

NOTES: Each scene has a beginning, middle and end – there must be a climax/tension spot for each scene – make sure dialogue scenes have tension and are not just “passing time.”

2.)    Texture – Sharpen descriptive passages to make characters, setting, and action more vivid – SHOW, DON’T TELL

a.)    Look for too much/too little description

b.)    Clichés

c.)    Too many adjectives/adverbs

d.)   Information dumps

e.)    Background or setting info in the wrong place

3.)    Dialogue – Elicit character personality through conversation

a.)    Look at taglines (placement, too many, too few, too much extra information)

b.)    No information dump

c.)    Bland or melodramatic lines

NOTES: Read dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural/realistic.

4.)    Editing – Tighten pace and continuity

a.)    Look for repetition through implication

b.)    Slow passages

NOTES: Cut, cut, cut! Don’t repeat what the reader already knows or what is implied elsewhere. Be ruthless! Tighten up the copy without fear of shortening the novel.

5.)    Blending – search and destroy any weakness.

a.)    Look for soft spots – unclear character motivations, actions that seem contrived.

b.)    Fix by expanding or adding a scene so the novel flows.

The importance of the setting in each scene

You have spent time considering the setting of your novel. It could be London, a small beach-side community in Florida, on a distant planet or in the Wild West. You have thought long and hard about this choice.

But now as you get ready to write the scenes that comprise your story, you also need to spend some time considering where these scenes will take place within your setting.

If you have decided to write a story set in a high school, every scene won’t take place in the hall. Just as your crime novel won’t have every scene at the police station. You need to consider where the scenes will take place and develop these places. Just as you develop or know your overall setting, you need to know these sub-settings. You need to know their location as well as a description.

If you are writing about a college, hospital or police station, you need to realize that they all have certain rituals and protocols – almost as if they are a world all their own. Research and a visit to such places can make these places come to life.

But it isn’t enough to pick out these places and know their description. Authors also need to choose the right setting for the story event. Many authors don’t spend a lot of time considering where best to have some of their scenes or go with an obvious choice. But a change of location can change the whole scene. And that change could have the power to make or break a story.

Your character can be driving in the car, eating in a restaurant or relaxing at home. And each of these settings can bring different situations and stressors for your character. The traffic is stop-and-go, their dinner gets burned or the neighbor is having a loud party.

But what if you decided to go with a different setting?

As an author, you need to think about the individual scenes in your novel, and decide the purpose of the setting. Is it to hint at the back story? Set the mood? Foreshadow? Provide tension?

Let’s say it is the beginning of the novel, and you want to establish some characteristics of the protagonist. There are many good personal settings that can reveal truths about your character – their house, their office, their car.

But if you want to add tension to the scene consider locations that might cause stress – the site of a traumatic past event, a location where they might run into their enemy, a place that triggers insecurities.

Also when deciding on locations for scenes, they need to not only fit your story, but they need to fit your character. Maybe your character needs to reflect on some news. Would a walk in the park, a ride on the bus or sitting in a noisy bar suit their personality more?

Many times, authors settle on the first idea that comes to mind. And while this may be a perfectly good, acceptable idea, if they brainstormed and did some “what if” type thinking, they might settle on something that will make their setting amazing.

Fictional vs Real Settings: How to choose  

Last week, I wrote a list of questions that can help you determine the setting of your novel. One of the first questions was do you want a real or fictional setting.

There are good reasons to go with either option as well as negatives for each one. So how do you choose which one is best?

Every situation, every story is different and will have different setting demands. Some stories only work in a fictional setting (think Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars). And some benefit from real-world settings. And then there are some – such as romance – that could work in either location.

Here are some of the pros and cons of using fictional and real settings.

Fictional Settings

Pros –

  • You get to create a whole new city/country/world. Everything is the way you want it. You pick customs, government, the local law enforcement, where the hospital is located as well as where the forests, mountains and beaches are located.
  • If you are creating your own world, no one can tell you that your society is wrong. It is your creation and yours alone. If you want two moons or for people to live in pods, it is all up to your imagination.

Cons –

  • Creating your own city or world can be time consuming. You are starting with a blank canvas, and you need to fully develop your setting for your characters to work and live in it. The type of city or world you create will determine the reactions and behavior of your characters. Fully developing your city/world includes making a map of the area so you are consistent on where everything is located, and how long it takes to travel to those places.
  • There is no immediate connection with your reader. When you mention Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon, readers can visualize the place. In your fictional world, you will need to add more descriptions to make this place come alive for the reader and be believable.

Real Settings

Pros –

  • There is typically less research when using a real location as your setting. This is especially true if you write about a place you know well. You know how it smells, how the morning air feels, how the people move and talk. You will know the layout of the city. You won’t have to research the setting as you know it and hopefully that knowledge will come out in your writing.
  • Readers already know some of these places so you can spend less time establishing your setting. When you mention the Manhattan skyline or the Washington monument, people will know what you are talking about.
  • The history, folklore and local stories can be woven into your story and give it authenticity.

Cons –

  • You have to know the place you are writing about well especially if it is a popular place like New York or Las Vegas. If you get something wrong about where something is located, or how long it takes to travel from one place to another, then those readers who know this place will be irritated, and these inaccuracies will chip away at your novel’s authenticity. If you are writing about a well-known real place, no amount of research on the Internet will replace actually going to the location.
  • Using a real place in a fantasy setting can actually sometimes make it harder for the reader to believe what is happening. They doubt things that contradict what they believe to be true. In this case, a pure fantasy world actually might work better.

And no one said you can’t do a little of both. You can set your novel in a real city but have your protagonist live on a fictional street or subdivision. Or you can start in a real place like London and ended up at a fictional magical school. You just need to pick a setting in whatever location will work best for your story.

Today’s Featured Author – Michael Bolan

Today, I welcome author Michael Bolan to my blog. His latest book, The Stone Bridge, the gripping conclusion to the Devil’s Bible Series, was released in November. You can purchase The Stone Bridge on Amazon.

Interview

What or who inspired you to start writing?

Irish people seldom answer a question directly. So for me, there were two beginnings. The first was when my brother came to visit me in Prague, bringing my nephews. I had to scramble to come up with an itinerary that was suitable for two teenagers. We had dinner one evening in a medieval restaurant, complete with firebreathers, pipers, dueling swordsmen and buxom wenches. The restaurant was called the King of Brabant and my elder nephew asked why. I then began to make up a story that blended real history with devices from books that I loved with ideas of my own. I kept it going for five days, ad-libbing as I went. It wasn’t until a few months later, when I was visiting my wife’s parents that the writing began. We had a minor (?) argument which resulted in her telling me to “just go and write a book or something”. So I stormed off to the dining table, opened my laptop and wrote 11,000 words in one sitting – by far my most productive day ever.

Please tell us about your current release.

The Stone Bridge is the final volume of the Devil’s Bible Series, which follows the final four years of the Thirty Years War, 1645-1648. Chronologically, the story is accurate, following the battles and intrigue that led to the end of the war. In terms of characters, there’s a mix of real and imaginary, with a few dramatic liberties taken. One of the most surprising things I discovered in my research was that the armies of the time were made up of many nationalities, so you could have Scots fighting for the Bavarians against Scots fighting for the Swedes. Mercenaries came from all over the world, so I cast some of my mercenaries as Fianna – semi-mythical warriors from Ireland, bringing a fantasy element into the story.

Do you outline your books or just start writing?

The Devil’s Bible just happened, which was simultaneously good and bad. I never once suffered from writer’s block during the process – the ideas just flew onto the page. The downside was that the final book needed a fundamental rewrite (11 of 20 chapters) because the loose ends just wouldn’t tie up. It cost me at least six months of writing and editing to fix this, which, given that I have released three books in two years, was a major delay. My next series, (working title Gods & Fighting Men), is being more carefully outlined and planned, although not to an excessive degree…

Did the story turn out the way you planned from the beginning? If not, what change happened that you didn’t expect?

The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley. They certainly did with the Devil’s Bible Series. Actually, the book itself is supposed to be cursed, so it’s little wonder that things went off course. First up, it was supposed to be a book. Not three. I was over 100,000 words into the story before I checked how long a book should actually be. To my chagrin, I realized I had gone way over the suggested word limit and was only halfway through the tale I wanted to tell. The other thing that still annoys me is when my characters do their own things. I’ve had characters change sides, suffer horrendous injuries, even pluck out their own eyes – all without my say-so. It seems that the lunatics have taken over the asylum…

Have you started your next project? If so, can you share a little bit about your next book?

I have found myself wondering what happens next; what my characters (those that survive) do after the earth-shattering events of the trilogy. It’s not like you can just go back to normal life when you are the richest man on the planet, or married to a demi-god and transported to a parallel world slightly out of sync with our own. My next series follows the Fianna warriors and my heroine as they deal with the problem of reuniting the faery realm with our world. While there will still be a strong element of history and politics in this tale, it’s much more of a fantasy than the first series. I don’t want to give too much away (especially as I haven’t even finished the planning), but I’m excited. It’s going to be awesome.

What was the most difficult thing/ scene to write in this story?

I had two challenges with the Devil’s Bible. The first was the way that history ran. 1645 was a year of battles and change, as was 1648, so they were well laid out for me already, whereas not much happened in 1646 and 1647. That’s a simplistic way to look at things, but peace negotiations and trade deals aren’t all that exciting… So I sent my characters off on a quest to keep them busy until the history sped up again. The other challenge I had was with my bad guys. I really don’t like the main evil character – he makes me feel dirty. It’s not that he’s inherently evil: he’s a distillation of how nasty people can be – sociopathic, psychopathic, sadistic and perverted, while maintaining a sense that he is right and everyone else is wrong. I had to write him in short bursts, and I was always in a bad mood after those chapters.

Do you have an all time favorite book?

I have a gazillion favourite books, for different reasons, but the most important book for me isn’t viewed as a classic, except to a very small niche. I was a precocious reader, devouring Lord of the Rings, etc. as a young child. And then I went through the most middle-class teenage rebellion in history – I stopped reading – I think just to annoy my parents. From a handful of books a week to nothing, I simply didn’t read anymore. After a year, my mother made me a deal – any book I wanted to read, she would buy. I was in the local bookstore and saw Raymond Feist’s Magician. After admiring the cover art, and reading the blurb on the back, I asked if she would buy it. She did, I read it, and the rest is history. I recently read the final book of the series that Feist set in that world, thirty years after setting out on that journey.

What book are you reading right now?

I’m reading the coolest series at the moment – The Desolate Empire series by Christina Ochs. Christina is the funkiest author I know – she writes in the back of the cab while her husband drives a long-distance truck. Her series is also based on the Thirty Years War (that’s how we got to know one another) but takes the whole period and rewrites it as a realistic fantasy, changing the names of the countries, noblemen, etc. but covering what actually happened. I have almost finished Valley of the Shadow, the second of her planned six books in the series, and I’m hooked.

If you could meet two authors, who would you pick and why?

People are talking about how many famous people died in 2016 – David Bowie, Prince, Castro, Zsa Zsa Gabor – but I’m most saddened by the loss of Umberto Eco. His mind was like the Garden of Eden, capable of taking the smallest of ideas and growing from it an entire ecosystem, a beautiful jungle of words that twist and captivate. I loved his stories, but most of all I would want to ask him about an essay he wrote, called How to Travel with a Salmon. You see, I have done the same, flying from Vancouver to Ireland in the company of a dead fish…

From the living, it would have to be Neil Gaiman. The man is immense: prolific, varied, crazy. His ideas are as close to creation as I have ever experienced and he remains grounded. Or at least as grounded as anyone can or should be. I can only imagine that a conversation with him would not end up where one might think…

Book Blurb

stone-bridge1The Rapture continues to wreak havoc across Europe in its quest to acquire the elemental Seals, the only thing preventing the Devil’s Bible from purging the world in fire. Brought to Prague by the Fianna, the Seals’ only protection lies in the secrecy that shrouds them.

Reinald, leader of the Rapture, enlists the world’s greatest minds to free the Devil’s Bible from the depths of Prague Castle, where it has languished under lock and key for centuries. Meanwhile, the plans of the Four Horsemen unfold, wreaking havoc and misery across the entire continent.

Not content with forcing his siblings from their ancestral home, Reinald sends a vast army to harry and persecute them, forcing them to flee ever eastwards. Taking shelter with their friends, Willem, Leo and Isabella commit to one last act of bravery, making a final stand to defend the city of Prague.

As each nation commits its final resources into the conflict, all roads lead to the Stone Bridge that divides Prague, where the Sons of Brabant and their Fianna allies will face the ultimate test of their strength.

About the Author

michael-bolanIt took Michael Bolan over two decades of running in the corporate ratrace to realize that all he actually did was tell stories.

There was no Damascene revelation for Bolan which caused him to pen his first work of fiction, “The Sons of Brabant”. An avid reader, he simply felt that he could do as good a job as many of the authors he read and decided to put his money where his mouth was.

Living and working in many countries left him with smatterings of a dozen languages and their stories, and his love for history focused his ideas on the Thirty Years War, the most destructive conflict that the continent has ever seen.

Now living in Prague (again), Michael brings alive the twisted alleys of the 17th century and recreates the brooding darkness of a fractured Europe, where no-one was entirely sure who was fighting whom.

Michael writes while liberally soused in gin, a testament to Franz de le Boë, who was mixing oil of juniper with neat spirit while the thirty Years War raged around him.

You can find out more about Michael on his website or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

You can purchase The Stone Bridge on Amazon.

 

Novel writing: More on creating your system of magic

Last week, I wrote about the Rules of Magic. These are pretty simple: Limit magic or give it a cost and stick to the rules. Basically, magic can’t be the answer to everything, and once you set up your system of magic you need to stick with it.

But today I want to go into some of the details of things you might want to consider while you are building your magical system.

Where Magic Comes From

Image of opened magic book with magic lights

Image of opened magic book with magic lights

One of the first steps to creating your system of magic is to decide the source of magic. By knowing this, you can easily set limits for the magic based upon the type of magic. Below I listed a couple of possible sources for magic.

Energy – Magic could be similar to heat, magnetism, electricity or movement. It could be from astral radiation, human emotion or energy fields in the ground. Perhaps your wizard pulls their power from the plants or animals/people around them.

Limitations on this type of magic come easily. We know it takes a lot of energy to move a big rock verses a small one. We can easily imagine it requires more magical energy too. The larger the action, the more magic or magical energy required.

Higher Beings – Perhaps the magic comes from gods or other powerful beings. Then the deity can either perform the magic on the mage’s behalf or perform it through the mage. Perhaps the gods do not have to do what the mage wants or there are several gods and you either prayer to a different one or perhaps only to “your” god. Of course with this you need to set limits on what can be done as you won’t want the divine ones answering every prayer and bringing back loved ones who have perished.

Objects – perhaps the magic comes from holding/wearing a certain item such as a scepter or amulet. Or maybe the exposure to particular spices, plants or another item embeds that person with magic.

Shifts in reality – Maybe your character can move outside reality or somehow bend it to their purpose. Or perhaps they are shifting through a parallel world.

Accessing magic

You have to have more than just a source of the magic. Your spell caster/magician/wizard must have some way to control or wield the magic to accomplish their goal.

Thoughts – Characters use their mind or thoughts to direct spells.

Communication – Whether it is saying magic words or writing them down, spells can be verbal or through some other form of communication, including a prayer to a deity, hand movements or drawing magical symbols.

Recipes/rituals – Maybe in addition to speaking some words, your spell caster/magician/wizard needs to mix up a potion or follow a series of moves.

Objects – Magic may only be accessed through a magical item such as a wand that either channels a wizard’s power, or it could be as simple as wearing a magical amulet that controls/directs the magic.

Explaining Magic to your Readers

Now once you have your magical system devised, you should know everything about it. You know how it works and what limitations it has. But nothing says you need to tell your readers everything. Just like when you create a well-rounded character with his/her own back story, you don’t have to let the readers know everything.

You should, however, give them the basics, or they may be wondering “Why can’t he…”

The easiest way to do this is to have someone who doesn’t know about magic asking questions. A dialogue about magic would be far more interesting than a few paragraphs containing an information dump.

But remember that as you let your reader know about magic you cannot withhold a critical rule/ability of your magic system until it conveniently gets your characters out of a plot jam. This will only annoy your readers and reflect poorly on your writing.

Why use Magic

Now I love magic but if the magic in your story doesn’t do anything to further the plot or characters, it is not worth having in your novel. In the end remember that your story is about characters and not the magic.

Here are four questions to consider before adding magic to your story.

1.) Does your magic affect your character?

2.) Does magic cause conflict?

3.) Would your story be the same without magic?

4.) Would the characters be the same without magic?

And when answering these questions, it isn’t just that magic affects your story but how much. If you can do without magic, it is best to take it out. It has to have a purpose before you include it.

The best systems of magic are those tied to your characters or plot. If you want to really see what your characters are made of, briefly take away their magic and see how they manage.

To learn more about writing about magic, check out my other posts on magic: Rules of Magic, Magic & the Gods, Magical Duels, Innate vs Learned Magic and Believable Magic.

World Building: The Rules of Magic

When I was a child, I always thought it would be interesting to have magical powers. You could levitate a snack to you or close the door without even getting up. You could keep someone from grabbing you or perhaps start a fire with just a thought. But not once when I was thinking of these magical powers did I consider that there would be a limit to what could be done.

However, if you are writing a story, whether it is a fantasy, romance or horror, with magic in it, you need to spend some time developing a believable system of magic. Magic needs limits or consequences. Without these, whoever wields magic would win. There would be no conflict to your story or in other words, no story. And without a story, you have no readers.

Since magic is often a big part of a fantasy novel (the genre I write), I have written about it numerous times – Creating Believable Magic, Innate versus Learned Magic, Magical Duels, and Gods & Magic. But looking back over what I have written, I realize there was more to address so I have written a 2-part post about Magic.

Part One – The Rules of Magic

rules-of-magicBefore you begin writing, you should know everything about your magical system. You need to know the ins and outs of what type of magic your characters use or will run into. You need to know what they can’t do and what happens when they use magic. But as you develop that magical system, you need to remember the Rules of Magic.

Rules of Magic

1.) Limit Magic/Give Magic a Cost

2.) Keep to the Rules

Limit Magic/Give Magic a Cost

Magic needs limits. If magic is all-powerful, then a wave of a wand or a simple incantation would solve every problem. Your story would have no conflict. How do you have magic and conflict? It is simple – give a limit to what magic can accomplish or give it a cost so that it isn’t used freely.

Limiting magic is easy. The possibilities are endless – magic could require a specific set of actions/knowledge, magic only works for those with access to certain items, the strength of the magic is based upon the location of the source, or magic can only be used for certain purposes.

Now there is nothing to say that magic can’t be commonplace and everyone in your story can wield some form of magic. But there still needs to be rules to what they can and cannot do or the magic has no real purpose in the story and could be left out.

You also may want your characters to have to pay a price when they use magic. If magic is effortless, it doesn’t feel real. When you run away from a bear, you use energy. When you drive your car, you use fuel. Everything comes at cost and so should magic. Maybe they have to make a deal to give up something (first born) or offer a blood sacrifice. Or perhaps using magic makes them age or takes away days/years of their lives or at the very least drains them temporarily of power. Again, the possibilities are endless.

Keep to the Rules

Once you design the rules of magic in your world, you need to stay true to them. You cannot decide to change the rules just because you want to. You cannot create surprise magic out of the blue to save your characters. Yes, that might mean difficult choices have to be made and consequences accepted. But keeping to the rules will make your story believable and increase your credibility with the reader.

Now nothing says you can’t have a “chosen” one who is extra special or more gifted than others. But even he should not be able to break every rule. If you want them to stand out from the masses, allow them to break only one rule of your magic system. And you should make absolutely certain that the exceptional case is declared early and perhaps repeated several times. (Such as the prophecy of the chosen’s one’s coming.)

And this wraps up my two rules for creating a magical system. Of course, there is so much more to be decided – where magic comes from, how your characters access it, how to explain the magic to your readers and whether you even need magic in your story. I will cover all of that next week.