Your Characters According to Your Fandoms

As writers, we’re enveloped by stories. We all probably haves many — if not thousands — of stories that influence our own tales. Whether it be books, movies, TV shows, or anything else, we’re drawn to the struggles between characters in worlds we can’t reach and circumstances we’ve never experienced.

These things are often called “fandoms.” Popular books fandoms are Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, etc. Marvel and DC are vast movie and comic fandoms. Doctor Who and Once Upon a Time and anime shows are full of fans as well.

Fandoms have a lot to do with our daily writing life. They’re a huge source of inspiration and encouragement, as well as many other things. But today, I’m going to focus on one thing we can use to help develop our characters: categorizations.

That’s a really vague term, so to clarify, I’m going to use Harry Potter as an example. Harry Potter, perhaps, is used most frequently in what I’m talking about. In certain fandoms, there are what you would call “categorizations,” or maybe divisions, sections, whatever. In Harry Potter, they are Houses. Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Four different character types, if you will.

It can be a fun exercise to take your cast of characters and sort them into each House based upon their personalities. Evaluate their actions and reactions, their outlooks on life, etc. Do they fit evenly into one House or are they a mixture of the Houses? Would they be happy with the House they’ve been placed in or would they be unsatisfied? If they were stuck in a hatstall (a period of time when the Sorting Hat is stuck between two Houses), what oustanding quality will ultimately decide which House they are placed into?

There are, of course, tons of other fandoms that use categorization in their stories. The Divergent Trilogy has the factions of Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Candor, based upon your key qualities and aptitude factor. (Although, I think it’s really hard for you to not be Divergent based upon these attributes.)

Avatar: The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra, one of my favorite TV shows, divides their nation into people who can wield either earth, fire, air, or water. What element would your character be most likely to bend? Or another favorite series of mine, Percy Jackson and the Olympians (as well as Heroes of Olympus, its follow-up series), follows kids who are half-bloods, who have one Greek (or Roman, in the case of Heroes of Olympus) god/dess for a parent. Each god or goddess has different personalities and powers that lend themselves to their kids. If your character was a half-blood, who would their godly parent be?

There are many different ways you can take this, too. Broader ways that don’t focus on one specific fandom. If your character was a superhero, who would they be? If your character was in a fairy tale, which one would they be in? And so on. There are endless possibilities.

So what’s the whole point of this? Simply put: to have a fun way to get to know your character. If you’re like me, you love being a part of your fandom and obsessing over little details in the story — and if you’re like me, you equally love spending time with your characters and developing them to be stronger and stronger. This way, you can do both at the same time. Seems like a win-win situation, right?

What are some of your favorite fandoms and the categorizations they contain? How do they pertain to your characters? If this has benefitted you in some way, let me know! Thanks for reading, and keep on writing!

BONUS!: What is your character’s top three favorite fandoms (assuming they live in our modern-day world)?

~ J. Dominique

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Endings, Part 2: Types of Endings

Since my last post on endings got too long, I had to split it up. Don’t worry, this one is like half as long. You can read Part 1 here. Today, I’d like to focus on four different types of endings.

First, the epilogue. Should you have one? Depends, really. If you have a prologue, you could do a matching ending and have an epilogue. But then again, lots of people say don’t do prologues, so perhaps that holds true for epilogues, too. Personally, I think it’s fine to do prologues and epilogues as long as they are necessary and they add something to the story. Epilogues, to me, are really just like a bonus chapter. Just something a little extra that adds some more insight to the characters that you normally wouldn’t have. However, bonuses also can be unnecessary, so be careful with that.

How do you define necessary, though? Some people define it by saying it adds something to plot. That definitely works, but I think you prologues and epilogues often serve more to benefit the characters and the emotional undertones of the story. For example, in a novel I wrote, I included a prologue and an epilogue of my protagonist making an observation of her life before the story happened and how she lived in fear and then after the story happened and how she was now content with her life. The prologue gave us a background and a stepping stone into the story and the epilogue told us where the protagonist now stood (because she never said she was now content in the actual story itself). So yes, I do believe prologues and epilogues can be useful.

Next, I would like to talk about cliffhangers. First in the essence of series. Should you leave your book on a cliffhanger? It’s really a tempting idea. We, as the readers, hate it when authors do that. But we, as authors, love torturing our readers. Cliffhangers are interesting little endings, really. They don’t generally happen in the middle of a climax, but after, when the characters think things have calmed down only to be surprised by a violent twist in the plot and — the end! And we have to wait a whole year for the next book . . .

So should you end one of your books in a cliffhanger? I think that’s a personal decision, really. I don’t think you should end the final book of your series in a cliffhanger because 1) that’s just mean and 2) there will be a revolution and 3) that will prove to be an awful ending and will backfire on you. However, the others are fine (in trilogies, the second books most often are the ones ended in cliffhangers).

Second, pertaining to stand-alones, should you end your book in a cliffhanger? Well. I can’t say I’ve read many stand-alone novels that end in such a way. There are many short stories that end that way. But novels? It’s hard to write a good, long novel and then end it on a cliffhanger. So should you? Again, it’s a personal decision. You might have angry fans, but if you feel it’s the right decision for your book, then by all means, do it. If you feel that your book is calling you to do it, that it leaves the right resonance with your readers, go ahead. You are the author. Never forget that.

Third, I’d like to talk about tragic endings. Where things don’t go right. Someone dies. The couple doesn’t get together. The protagonist doesn’t get what he/she wants. The horror. I admit, I haven’t read many stories with tragic endings. However, one thing I know is that even with tragedy, remember that there must be some happiness or hope or light somewhere. Death and grief and rage happen. Life goes on. People deal with it all the time. It’s harsh, it’s cruel. But it’s true, and perhaps that’s what makes it a tragedy. I read once, when writing particularly intense scenes, to focus on the small, seemingly unimportant details. I thought that this seemed like ingenious advice. Because, really, it’s the stupid, small things we think of rather than the important things. What incredible advice.

Finally, the fourth type of ending I’d like to focus on is the open-ended. There are two kinds of open-ended: the really vague and the only slightly vague. By “really vague,” I mean the type that sort of ends on a cliffhanger and totally leaves you with an ambiguous ending. By “slightly vague,” I mean the kind that doesn’t exactly tell you what’s going to happen, but hints at the character’s most likely decision. Open-endings kind of drive me nuts, honestly. I know the author is just like, “I want the reader to choose!” but I’m one of those people who are just like, “But I don’t want to choose — I want you to choose for me ’cause I’m so bad at choosing and I have no idea and you’re the author! You know what really happens anyway!” That being said, I do respect their decision and I do see what they mean by an extent. I would even consider doing an open ending myself someday.

I think, with open endings, resonance will be especially important. If you are wanting the reader to choose an ending, or have a specific ending in mind, you will definitely want them to feel something, right? Stylistically, you’ll want to be very careful with your words. Pointing them in a certain direction will be hard, but readers are smart, too, and if you place the right clues, they can figure it out. Never make it too obvious.

So what do you think about these four alternate endings? Think about trying one of them out, or are you already planning on doing one of them? How is that going for you? Have you read any of books that have used these endings before? How did they pull that off (good or bad)?

Once again, thank you for reading!

Hoping all your writing endeavors are going well and that this has benefitted you in some way,

~ J. Dominique

Endings, Part 1: What Was With That Ending?

Endings are some of the hardest things to write, the hardest things to create, the hardest things to get just right so that the readers are left with just the right impression.

There’s no other way to put it: Endings are tough.

That’s not to say that beginnings and middles aren’t hard, too. They are, don’t get me wrong. With beginnings, you have to hook your reader so that they will continue reading. You have to promise them that this is a story worth continuing. And with middles, you have to take your characters from Point A to Point B, while keeping your reader captivated the whole time.

It’s not easy.

But endings, to me, are the hardest of the bunch. Why? Because they are cumulative. They are the fulfillment of both your beginning and middle — your ending is everything you’ve been leading up to. If you don’t manage to nail it, you’re done for.

Sound intimidating? It should. Endings can make or break a story.

Maybe just because I’m really picky, but I have never really found many series with a ending that has left me breathless, holding the book and wanting to never let it go. The few series that did leave me that way were more because I was sad they were over because I’d grown up with them, rather than because they had such a great ending. (For example, while I was quite disappointed in the Heroes of Olympus ending, I still cried over it, because I grew up with the Percy Jackson series — which, on a side note, Percy Jackson and the Olympians had a rather satisfying ending.)

Series, I believe, are harder to write endings for than stand-alone stories. One reason is that they’re longer, so you have more characters and more plotlines, both external and internal, to wrap up. Your readers have stuck with you longer, so you have to deliver an even more epic ending.

By the way, by “epic,” I don’t necessarily mean full of action and heartbreak and explosions. No, to me, epic means more along the lines of something that leaves you craving more, even when you’ve finished. Something that makes you think of nothing else for the next few days. That makes your heart ache at every reminder of the adventure you’ve shared with the characters. That’s epic.

So now that we’ve defined endings, how should we go about writing a good one? Good question. Here are a few tips.

1. Write what your genre calls for. If it’s an action story, make sure to include plenty of action. If it’s a romance, make sure to get the characters together (unless you’re writing a tragedy . . .) and include nice, sweet scenes that’ll make your readers’ feelings turn to mush.

Bonus Tip: Endings are a culmination of conflict and stakes. So, obviously, your ending will be the biggest event of the highest amount of conflict and stakes and suspense you can manage. Again, like I said above, this is not to say it will be full of magical warfare or aliens invading the Earth. It will be epic, though.

2. Resolve the problem. If it’s a series, maybe you won’t defeat the big bad guy right then, but at least give your character some kind of triumph. Let them achieve what they wanted from the very beginning, even if it isn’t exactly what they imagined.

Bonus Tip: The resolution of the problem will most likely happen during the climax of your story. Often, though, the resolution will happen through this little device called “deus ex machina.” Ever heard of that? It’s basically a contrived way to get your characters out of a difficult situation because you are (probably) too lazy to think of a logical, creative way yourself. (“I’ve been writing this book for so long now . . . I’m tired . . . the ending’s finally here . . . can’t I just get it over with?” — thus the deus ex machina.) However, do not fall into this trap.

Often, I have found lots of endings to be ruined by too short of a climax. They spend a lot of time building a wonderful world and complex characters and then, BAM!, the story ends and I’m just left staring at the acknowledgments and wondering if someone tore out some pages, because how could the story end there? Was that really all of the story? Don’t hurt your ending by making it too short. And yes, I know, it’s hard to make action scenes long — don’t try to draw them out, of course. But write in the sensory details, the emotions of your characters. Catch your readers up in the intensity of the scene. And please, oh please, write your ending without using deus ex machina.

3. Don’t leave plot holes. Unless, of course, it’s a series. If it is a series, make sure you resolve those holes by the end of the series, though. But still, don’t leave too many things left hanging, even in the first book. Make sure to find all of your plot holes and make note of it — readers have an irritating knack of spotting things you didn’t think they’d see, or things you didn’t even notice in the first place. They’ll criticize you till you die if you forget about someone who was fairly important to the plot in the first book and then disappeared off the face of the Earth by the end.

Bonus Tip: Okay, so I know even your trained eyes can’t catch everything, so this is where your family and friends and fellow writers come in handy. Have them read your story! You are not alone, remember that. Writing is a lonely job, yes, but if you are to be left alone to your own devices . . . well, let’s just say that your story will be riddled with plot holes. (Believe me, when you have other people read your story, they’ll find a whole host of plot holes immediately that you haven’t even thought of. It’s unbelievable and kind of humiliating, but you’ll learn to deal with it; it’s part of being a writer.)

4. Give your protagonist an emotional satisfaction. This was kind of mentioned in Number 2 and the two definitely overlap. There’s the usual “protagonist goes searching for happiness/or love and figures that it’s where they were in the first place.” Stuff like that works.

Bonus Tip: In this tip, I would like to bring up three very popular Young Adult series as examples. Be warned: there may be spoilers.

First, the classic Harry Potter. In the end of this series, Harry has defeated Voldemort and it’s finally over, almost unbelievably so. The world is free of the Dark Lord, but not without its losses. However, within our protagonist, we still see a semblance of happiness and hope, and in the epilogue, we can tell he’s become content with his life and is finally at peace. Has Harry Potter reached an emotional satisfaction here? Yes, I think so. Check.

Next, I’d like to focus on another iconic series: The Hunger Games. Like many others, I was immediately captivated by the first book and even the second, but the third book left me a little disappointed. Most of it felt slow, and then the ending felt entirely too rushed. Many characters died in just a few pages for seemingly no reason and Katniss’s actions in the epilogue seemed to defy her original intentions earlier in the story. It seems she’s found happiness and perhaps is a little more content with her life. Is she emotionally satisfied, though? It’s a little vague.

Finally, I’d like to turn our attention to a story that was spawned from The Hunger Games’s success: the Divergent trilogy. When I first read Divergent, I thought it was a fairly decent book. When I read the second, however, I was disappointed. And upon re-reading the first two and then reading the third when it came out . . . yeah, Veronica Roth, I decided, didn’t really know what she was doing with the series when she started it. SPOILER WARNING: Divergent ends with Tris, our protagonist, dying. Her brother, Caleb, a coward and traitor from the beginning is trying once again to redeem himself by sacrificing himself to save the others. But Tris, seemingly selfless as she is, decides she can’t let that happen and takes his place and dies. I read on Roth’s blog her explanation of why she did this, saying that it was in Tris’s core nature to be selfless. However, while reading the books I never really saw that in her. And to me, it was only ever told to us that Tris was selfless, not shown. That aside, can our protagonist be emotionally satisfied when they’re dead? Sure. However, Tris was not.

The whole book of Allegiant was convoluted, featuring POVs of both her and Four with no real point or distinction in both, the revelation behind the Divergents was contrived, and Tris’s death was simply shock value. Was Tris emotionally satisfied before she saved her brother? I do acknowledge the fact that she probably did it because of whatever bond they shared before he stabbed her in the back, but I do not believe she was content with the relationship they currently shared, not her current relationship with Four. Allegiant was the most disappointing ending I’ve read in a while (in case you didn’t get that from this small rant).

5. Leave a sense of resonance. Most authors want their readers to feel something very specific at the ending of their story — relief at the characters living to see the next day, sadness over the book ending or a character dying, excitement for the next book, contentment from how the book turned out. Whatever it is, you want your reader to feel something. They have to finally place the book down, and say something like, “Wow. That was just . . . wow.”

Bonus Tip: The Dictionary defines resonance as: “the prolongation of sound by reflection; reverberation.” In our case, it’s not necessarily sound, but the prolonging of heartfelt feelings by words. Make sure the story continues to stick in the reader’s mind, even after they’ve finished turning the pages. How do you leave a sense of resonance, though? Other than following the tips above, I’d say that word choice is very important. Whatever tone you want to resonate with your reader when they finish is what sort of words you’ll want to use.

Structure, too, is important. If you want your reader to speed through the climax and feel the suspense, then short chapters and lots of white space on the page. If you want the ending to be a bit slower and savored, then you can include more descriptions and such.

Of course, your last scene is the most important, too. What is the very last impression you want to leave on your reader? A sweet conversation and kiss between the main couple? A philosophical statement that the protagonist finally understands? When writing the last scene of your story, it’s best to probably keep the cast of characters small and intimate. The resolution should have already happened and your protagonist has (most likely) come to terms with how they’ve dealt with things. Imagery is very important in scenes like this, because it helps permanently etch the scene in your reader’s mind. They know the end is near and they will be craving every last detail, especially if they have loved every bit of the book until now. Don’t drag the last scene on too long, but make it short and sweet, with just the right amount of things it needs to leave that sense of resonance.

I’d actually written more on endings, too, but this has already gotten really long, so I’ll be splitting this into a two part series. So I’m ending it here for now. Next time, I’ll be talking about different types of endings.

So, what do you think? What books have you read do you think have the best endings? Which endings have disappointed you the most? (Not necessarily restricted to just books, either!) How do you usually go about writing your own endings? Do you plan them about before even beginning your story? Have you ever found yourself using deus ex machine before? Do you think you’re solving the conflict well, not leaving plot holes, and giving your protagonist emotional satisfaction? What about resonance?

Thanks for reading! I hope this has been helpful to you in some way.

Until next time. Keep on writing!

~ J. Dominique

What We Can Learn From Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a kids show. At least, that’s how it’s usually marketed. But for those of us who have watched it, we feel that it’s more than that. We’ve been captured by its three-dimensional characters, its moving plot, and its brilliant animation and premise. And while it may be aimed for kids and it may have its moments of kiddish fun, I know people who are college-aged or adults who love it (my dad, who is fifty, is an example).

Even though Avatar is a show and not a book or novel, I think that observing other types of storytelling (such as movies, shoes, plays, poetry, etc.) is important. The different approach someone uses to write a movie may give us some insight on how to write our book. (Although, writing a movie is different than writing a book, often methods of writing will overlap.)

For those of you have not watched the show, I recommend it. Based on Japanese anime, it’s a really wonderful show. I won’t really go into the plot here (so no spoilers), but focus more so on its strong points.

Avatar excels at making three-dimensional characters. Arguably the best part of the show. While they may start off a bit flat (Aang is just a goofball, Katara a worrier, Sokka’s a sexist, Zuko’s your typical hotheaded bad guy), they really grow into likeable characters that have their own flaws. Aang has the fate of the world on his shoulders; everyone is telling him what to do, what they think is right, but he wants to form his own path according to what he believes is right. And he still finds ways to have fun during this. Zuko, while starting out as a cliché bully, grows and develops into a conflicted characters who gets lost in his way to find the right path.

The point I would like to make from this is that while your character might start out as a cliché at first, one-dimensional, make sure you add other layers and make them three-dimensional. One-dimensional characters are static, flat, clichés. But with three-dimensional characters, you not only have what they appear to be (the first dimension), but you have their backstory, their motives and goal, and why they are the way they are (the second dimension), and finally: who they are, underneath all that. Their underlying personality, their core, that is inevitable, unchangeable, no matter what (the third dimension).

The second thing I’d like to point out about Avatar is its plot. There are three seasons and each has about twenty episodes, lasting twenty minutes long. If you’ve watched the show, you’ll notice that, especially in the first season, there are quite a few “filler” episodes. Filler episodes are episodes that don’t really move the plot along. However, the plus side of filler episodes is that they add a great opportunity to develop your characters. And in Avatar, even if the episode was mostly filler, the writers never failed to add in character development — and they could usually always add a connection to the main plot, too.

What I’m trying to say is sometimes you do need a “filler” scene. If we have all action, it can wear down on the reader. Sometimes we need a break to sit back and just enjoy some simple character development that still adds something to the plot, however small, but moves the characters forward more so.

These filler episodes are also a good time to highlight a single aspect of your character (a skill they’ll need to use later, a backstory, a motive or goal they have, etc.) or story or subplot. For example, in “The Great Divide,” which is often considered the most useless episode in Avatar, Aang must learn how to put his peace-making skills in practice for pretty much the first time. As the Avatar, a symbol of peace and harmony in the world, this is important. While it’s definitely not my favorite episode, I do think its value is undermined.

The last point I would like to make about Avatar is that, even though it’s supposed to be a “kids show,” it has somehow managed to touch the hearts of so many people, ranging from kids to teens to adults. Is it because of the characters, the plot, the themes? It certainly does amazing at all of those three. There are many inspiring quotes from the show, the characters are memorable, and the plot is heart-pounding and awe-inspiring.

One thing I’d like to say about why I think it’s so wonderful is because it’s a kids show. It can’t rely on the shock value of curse words and it can’t include lots of gore and blood or show us inappropriate things to try and make us think it’s a “mature” and “deep” show. It has to rely on more subtle, relatable things. Actual story-telling methods, not just fanservice, which, unfortunately, a lot of stories these days fall prey to.

Perhaps it’s just my opinion, but I think that if Avatar had been made for an older audience, it would lose some of its innocence and charm. It wouldn’t be the same. The lessons we learn through the characters wouldn’t have the impact that they do.

What you should take from this comes to two things: 1) don’t rely too much on shock value or giving in to what your readers want (aka service) to try and make your story “good,” and 2) stories, even if it meant for one particular audience, can transcend ages. At the core, if a story is good, it will be heard.

Have any of you ever watched Avatar: The Last Airbender? What do you think of the show? What are some important things you think we can learn from it?

(On a side note, I did not really mention Avatar’s sequel, Legend of Korra, because while I do enjoy it immensely and still think it one of the best shows out there, I enjoy its predecessor more, and decided to focus solely on it since I think Avatar outshines Korra in nearly every way. I will say, though, that I found a lot of Korra’s villains slightly better than Avatar’s (namely Ozai, that is; Azula and Zuko, if you want to call him a villain, were great).)

Thanks for reading!

~ J. Dominique