24
May
10

keeping the balls in the air

A few days late, but I was overwhelmed this weekend launching my website! www.rachelaaron.net! This is also why my first three blog entries are magic district cross posts, no time to write three new ones! But I promise there will be new and unique content forthcoming. In the meanwhile, enjoy the pretty rollovers!

Everyone knows the famous Checkov quote, “If there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third.” It’s one of the best bits of writing advice I’ve ever heard, but in my line of work, writing adventure fantasy, I’ve had to make a few adjustments… “If there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third, then fired again in the fifth. By act 9 they should have morphed into cannons, and by act 13 the main character will be dual wielding them as planet destroying deathstars with hilts.”

Ok, that’s a little over the top, but hopefully you get my point. Lots of times my stories start with a magical system, some new and interesting way for the world to work. As soon as I have this in mind, I start working on a way to break it (or letting my husband break it for me). I think of this as player character testing. You know in role playing games how players will exploit every tiny trick of the system to get more power? I think this is the natural human reaction to constraints, which is what all systems are at their roots – power limitations. So when I get my characters and sit them down in a new world, the first thing I do is try to think how they will break the system, or at least abuse it horribly. It’s the best sign they’re acting like people and not like cardboard.

The down side of this is that with every new book, things get a little more out of hand. Characters need progression — new challenges, bigger stakes. Those secret power dueling pistols you showed in book 1 are old hat by book 3. You have to go bigger, cleverer, and the threat has to get bigger as well. And if you start big, like I did, then when you reach book 4, where I am now, things are REALLY big. That’s why I thank any power who’s listening that I made a plan at the start of this. So while things will get up to universe altering changes by book 5, hopefully they won’t get stupid.

That’s my biggest fear, really. I’ve seen so many series that start off amazing and just get stupid at the end, mostly because the characters have outgrown their world. They’re simply too powerful, nothing’s a challenge anymore. So I deliberately set my power scale at the very beginning in the hopes of avoiding this problem. I wanted big, dangerous, flashy, interesting, but not unbelievable. The important thing is that I haven’t left my main set of powers, my dueling pistols. Sure they’ve gotten bigger and crazier, but I haven’t had to change the rules of my world to accommodate my now very powerful, late series characters, and I never intend to.

Of course, we’ve still got 1 more book to go…

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2 Responses to “keeping the balls in the air”


  1. May 24, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Your new website is gorgeous! So pretty, and easy to navigate. Love it.

    Love this post too…amazing how fast things can spin out of control in a series if you do what you must, go 100% with every story and push it as far as it can plausibly go. But it’s a chance we have to take, I think — better to go too far than not far enough…

  2. 2 Jeremy
    May 24, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    While you’ve certainly got to provide new challenges as a series continues, I’d actually argue against the ‘bigger stakes’ premise. Throwing ever larger/more dangerous opponents and situations at the hero and having the hero power up to meet them, while common, is all to often a cop out/artifical means of boosting excitement that just leads me to get frustrated even with a series that I might otherwise really like (this is especially true in shonen manga, where it’s commonly done to the point of stupidity, but I’m really starting to fear that the Dresden Files has reached that point for me over the last few volumes, which would make me sad.) Outside of epic fantasy, the events have to shake the _characters’_ worlds, but needn’t have any great impact on the world at large to be enjoyable.

    I’d point to two of your fellow Magic District authors as examples that work better for me than the standard power-up/bigger stakes model usually does — Margaret and Diana’s series have actually gone the opposite direction. They were dealing with dangers having a much larger overall scope in the first books, and the threats in their second books were much more localized, but still interesting because they had important consequences for the characters.

    This is not to say I don’t think the bigger stakes model can work and be fun, mind you. You’ve directly and indirectly addressed two of the main issues that I usually have with it. Indirectly, you’re writing a trilogy, which inherently puts a limit on the scope of the increases (one or two reasonable increases work much more easily than a constant string of them). Directly, by planning for them from the beginning and making sure they’re consistent with the setting you’ve established.


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