This blog series is adapted from a section of an online workshop I conducted for Writers & Books in March 2020.
What is Character Alignment?
Character alignment is one of the character metrics in the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Stop rolling your eyes, hear me out.
First, a quick rundown of D&D. In the game, you create a character, and then the Dungeon Master creates a scenario for a player’s character to run through. Some of the steps in creating a Dungeons and Dragon character can help craft literary sci-fi and fantasy characters. For example, “character alignment” helps determine how a character might act as they navigate the Dungeon Master’s narrative. Assigning this same metric to a literary character can help assess their actions withing a story’s narrative.
Two facets combine to make a character’s alignment: how the character interacts with authority and society, and the character’s morality. As far as societal interaction, the character can either be lawful, chaotic, or neutral. For virtue, characters can be good, evil, or neutral. These two facets combine to make nine alignments: lawful good, lawful neutral, lawful evil, chaotic good, chaotic neutral, chaotic evil, neutral good, neutral evil, and true neutral.
There are a ton of charts online dividing characters from popular movies, T.V. shows, and books up into their character alignments. This one features the characters from Game of Thrones, which gives you an idea of what type of characters fall into which category. Here’s a Doctor Who meme along these same lines:
Throughout this blog series, I plan to explore what these alignments mean to literary character creation and development. I’m going to discuss traits linked to them, but, more importantly, I’m going to explain how each of these character alignments might act in a given situation. That’s the most critical aspect of this type of classification, it helps you figure out how a character will adventure.
So, here’s the situation I’m going to discuss, alongside the nine alignments: a character is in a market and encounters a thief who has stolen from them in a previous incident. The thief doesn’t see the character yet, so they have time to react. How will they act? – Each alignment approaches this situation in a very different way.
Next week, I’ll tackle the first alignment, Lawful Good.
This week I announced my newest book on my social media platforms. Tripping the Multiverse will be launched on January 21st, 2021, published by Black Rose Writing, the same house that published Forever People.
While 1/21/21 is a cool, palindromic date, it seems quite far away. But, it’s only nine months, and I have a lot of events planned for the book, including a cover reveal, a Goodreads Giveaway, and a book tour. Make sure to sign up for my monthly newsletter so you can keep up with all the developments.
I’m excited about Tripping the Multiverse for a ton of reasons. It’s the first in my Jade & Antigone series, which follows the adventures of a pair of science journalists who turned into reluctant heroes. It’s a lighthearted exploration of other worlds and alternate realities.
After attending a disastrous wormhole experiment at the mysterious Orion Center, rival science journalists, shy and brilliant Jade, and saucy Antigone gain unstable superpowers. This unlikely pair must learn to work together as they jump from dimension to dimension in search of a rogue scientist in a race against the clock to fix their broken home-world
Jade lives with her parents and sister, who is a locally well-known actress. Jade overcame her extreme shyness to secure her dream job as a science journalist. Jade’s freelance journalist gig doesn’t pay enough for her to leave home or the shadow of her younger sister. The failed experiment at the Orion Center gave Jade something she’s always secretly wanted– the ability to disappear into someone, or something, else.
Antigone, who would be known to her friends as Anti, if she had any, landed her job at the science journal through a series of tragic missteps. She flunked out of med school, and her father had to pull a few strings to secure her a job. Anti would rather be eating take-out while reading Bukowski or watching her favorite T.V. show, Boat Murdered. Unfortunately, the accident at the Orion Center shifted her into an alternate dimension where Boat Murdered never existed, so Anti must use her newly acquired extra-dimensional sentience to find her way home.
Other charters include Dr. Gustavo Osborne, an enterprising internet celebrity who investigates otherworldly phenomena along with his peppy Maltese dog, Eliot. And Harriet, the Orion Center’s eccentric and demanding research director.
I’m planning on writing a new blog series of nine blogs on character creation starting next week, but after that, I’ll write another Tripping the Multiverse teaser. The next one will feature some of the surreal worlds of Tripping the Multiverse.
This post is written in anticipation of my upcoming takeover of Facebook’s Fantasy and Science-Fiction Readers lounge today (5/1) from 2-4pm est.
World-burning, mayhem- causing villains can be fun, but the best antagonists are the ones who are multifaceted. My favorite antagonists are the ones who have understandable motives and sympathetic plights. There are also villains you love to hate, perhaps because they get away with it, or maybe because they’re only villains to one group of people and heroes to everyone else. Great antagonists and villains live in gray areas where the readers decide right and wrong for themselves.
Here are some of my favorite villains and antagonists from literature and why I love them:
Javert from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Javert holds the reasonable belief that the law must be followed. Javert came by his hatred for rule-breaking honestly, having been born in prison to criminal parents. His rigid legalism puts him at odds with the protagonist Jean Valjean, who breaks the law out of desperation. When Javert discovers that Valjean is both a criminal and a virtuous person, he is unable to reconcile his cognitive dissonance. Javert is the epitome of a sympathetic villain. There’s not much to like about him, and pursuit of Valjean is frustrating, but it’s easy to understand his point of view.
The Comedian from Watchmen by Alan Moore
On the other end of the spectrum from the overly responsible Javert is the vile, abusive Comedian (Edward Blake). The Comedian’s murder is the graphic novel’s inciting incident, and the more I read about him, the more I was tempted to say “good riddance.” But, he’s a “Captain America” flavored hero to most of the world. His public heroics are undeniable, and his horrors are hidden to everyone but those who know him best. In a story full of villains, this caustic lowlife stands out.
Long John Silver from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Is there any villain more heinous than the betrayer? Long John Silver looks like a miscreant, with his missing leg and a squawking parrot perched on his shoulder. But, his seemingly kind nature and lowly position as the ship’s cook puts Jim the cabin boy at ease, until Silver orchestrates a mutiny and turns on Jim in a shocking display of treachery. The most villainous aspect of Silver is his capacity to be a good person, as he demonstrates with Jim before the mutiny. He doesn’t have to be malicious. Silver could be a light-hearted “gentleman of fortune;” instead, he’s a black-hearted pirate.
Bartleby from “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville
Bartleby’s catchphrase “I prefer not to” may be the most infuriating line in all of literature. The short story’s unnamed protagonist hires Bartleby as a scrivener for his law office, on the glowing recommendation from a colleague. The suggestion was a trick to get Bartleby off his hands as the scrivener “prefers not to” do any work, with no explanation for his disinclination. Bartleby is a blank slate sort of antagonist because I can see myself in his shoes. Who hasn’t “preferred not to” at some point during their career? Maybe Bartleby is burnt out, or tired of being exploited. Or, perhaps he’s never done any work and found a villainous way to shirk his way through life.
Great antagonists can be so much more than mustache twirlers with a plan for world domination. They can be just as exciting and compelling as the protagonists. You may even find yourself rooting for them, you scoundrel. Who are some of your favorite antagonists?
This is the 6th (and last) post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
The convergence of the social and the tech is what makes a story. Authors project a world into the future, and now create the people who live that future. The character’s movement through this new world is shaped by the tomorrow the author created. Maybe the character will need to overcome the obstacles presented by science or society, perhaps she’ll work with to improve the world, maybe he’ll be the inventor or the catalyst.
Instead of explaining this world, it’s best to give clues about it through the character’s interaction with their environment. Take, for example, Offred’s interaction with her room, upon waking, in A Handmaid’s Tale:
“When the window is partly open--it only opens partly--the air can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the chair, or on the window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in through the window too and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the polish. There's a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?
On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a print of flowers, blue irises, watercolor. Flowers are still allowed. Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder? Government issue?
Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.”
We can tell, just from this description of this future room, that Offred is trapped because the window doesn’t open. Her picture, ominously, doesn’t have glass. We can take a few guesses as to why. It also makes the reader wonder – who is the “us” who gets government furniture and is there a “them” who doesn’t?
The Power of Foresight
Social and scientific speculation combine in essential ways, and the rest of the world is taking notice. You may find yourself speculating on how climate change will change the future of sports and other outdoor activities. If you do, you could end up among the science fiction writers France has hired to take part in its Defense Innovation Agency – a group of writers who create speculative climate change scenarios for the French military.
Whether it’s predicting the future for the military, telling futuristic stories, or philosophizing on the impact of new tech, science fiction is a vital part of the fabric of the present and it helps to weave the tapestry of the future.
This is the #5 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
So, now that I’ve covered scientific speculation, on to the softer kind of predictive writing, based on social trends. Social speculation is less of a projection of where we think science could take us and more of a commentary on our current culture. For example, some people think that the internet makes us narcissistic – so what would a future look like where everyone is a raging narcissist; maybe we’re already there.
The science aspect in world-building and social or trend speculations help to flesh out the characters. The tech may be the “why” of their lives, but the social consequences are the “how.” How your future society functions isn’t necessarily based around an emerging tech either. Just like with tech, you can take any social trend that’s happening now and project it into the future.
Social speculation is often a way for the author to discuss the status quo without direct commentary. Worried about the looming Vietnam War in the wake of the Second World War, Kurt Vonnegut used a man’s encounter with the humorous alien Tralfamadorians in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. With the alien’s ability to alter time and he wrote harrowing account of the horrors of modern warfare amid comic interactions with the creatures.
Whether you’re imagining the cultural implications of a specific tech – like Gibson’s cyberspace addicted society, or commenting on the direction of trends, akin to Atwood’s commentary on the religious subjugation of women, your characters are uniquely shaped by the futuristic world they inhabit. Just like we’re shaped by the world.
Thought Activity: Back to the Future
Part One: The Past
There’s a two-part activity I call “Back to the Future,” It plays with time and helps me think about how much society and changes in a few decades. We are somewhat of experts in the community we live in – so imagine describing your current 2020 day, and all the nebulous social constructs and interwoven technologies to someone living in the 1980s. I might say something like – “my phone also has a television and a camera, and I carry it in my hand.”
Part Two: The Future
Now reverse it. How might somebody 40 years in the future describe their day and their technology? Maybe they’d say – “it’s like your smartphone, but implanted in your visual cortex. It blurs other people’s faces in public to protect privacy.” So, it’s 2060 – walk us through a day, or a character’s day. What tech or trend has advanced, what’s obsolete, what’s brand new?
The farther back in history you get, the more you have to explain. How would you describe your smartphone to someone from the Victorian Era? Maybe you’d just say it’s “voices and pictures from someone very far away.” And on the other side – how would someone 200 years in the future describe their world to you? – Probably with similar vagueness and logical leaps. When speculating, it’s important to remember that you’re an expert on the present and near future, but the farther you get away from current society, the more unfamiliar your constructed world will become.
This is the #4 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
In an earlier blog in this series, I said technology is inert if you don’t use it. But unused tech isn’t a reality, and there’s often a direction to take- a choice that goes hand in hand with the invention. Nuclear fusion can be used for cheap power or to destroy whole countries. Social media can uplift and connect, or it can spread misinformation and lower self-worth.
Speculating on the direction of tech use helps shape the actual course of the tech once it’s adopted. Ancient religious texts, philosophical dogma, even the proclamations of rambling 60’s beat poets have little bearing on our current world, which is dominated by hyper-fast wi-fi and 24-hour connection.
Here, sci-fi writers become philosophers. We look to them to present a possible future and to help decide if that’s what we’d like our world to look like. Science-fiction leans toward the dystopian because often, writers wander into the future and run back with dire warnings. However, sci-fi can also offer us a peek into the utopias that may be possible if we play our cards right. The best work provides outcomes that are both positive and negative. This is the most realistic because it’s true to how things work out – nuclear fusion is both, social media is both.
Asimov sought to present a future where we lived side-by-side with A.I. in mutually supportive relationships. He aimed to foster respect for this new kind of intelligence as a counter to the popular stories of evil robots rising up and overtaking humanity. Asimov’s ideas have been around for decades and it’s possible, if not probable that his philosophies regarding the respect and care of A.I. are reflected in the development of the technology.
Of course, the advancement of helpful androids is to everyone’s benefit, especially the people who stand to benefit financially from their creation. Scientific speculation is often tied tightly to the soul of American consumerism. With only a little nudge, you can dream up things that people want. Watchers of the original Star Trek dreamt of the day when they could see the person on the other end of the telephone, just like an angry admiral popping up on the screen to admonish Kirk for his latest tawdry escapade. Or, years later, viewers saw and coveted the all-in-one portable tablet computers on the show’s successor, The Next Generation.
The capitalist version of sci-fi speculation may be the path of least resistance. You dream up a product you’d like and imagine what the world would be like if everyone had access to it – be it flying cars, self-cleaning clothes, or an immorality serum.
This is the #3 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
For this blog series, I’ve split speculation up into two categories – scientific speculation and social speculation. You could easily split the genre in any number of ways, utopic vs. dystopic, earth-based stories vs. space stories, and so on. But, Scientific vs. Social is both separate and entwined in ways that lends to an engaging discussion.
So, scientific speculation, for the purposes of today’s blog, I’ve lumped together with technological advancements. It’s anything hard and apart from human behavior or societal trends, although it will undoubtedly be effected by and affect human behavior and patterns.
So how do we as laypeople predict the next breakthrough? For one, scientific and speculative discoveries come from the same mental space, and the most significant inventions are often sudden and underappreciated at the time.
William Gibson, the science fiction author, credited with coming up with the term “cyberspace” – a term we use every day – was simply trying to come up with a word to describe the place behind the screen. He tried out “infospace” and “dataspace” before finally settling on a term that sounded right. He first used the term cyberspace fleetingly in his 1981 short story “Burning Chrome” and then expanded on the concept in his inceptive cyberpunk Neuromancer.
Gibson wasn’t being predictive when he named cyberspace, he was just descriptive. He was prophesizing, however, when he described it:
“Cyberspace,” Gibson said in 1984, “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation. . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.” – Sound Familiar?
So, how does Gibson do it? He has a deep engagement with the present and an insatiable curiosity that drives him to investigate the emerging and the theoretical. He pays attention to the news surrounding science and tech, he watches how people interact with new tech as it becomes widely adopted, and he looks at how inventions have changed society throughout history.
Can you replicate this method? – of course. Here's the thing with scientific speculation: the future is never here. We’ve never arrived at the place that was written about. Instead, we are taking what is already around us and hammering a future out of it. More importantly, we’re considering the ramifications of these breakthroughs – or potential discoveries, and wondering what will happen when they’re widely accessible. What happens when everybody has a robot? Or – what would our world look like if medical science doubles life expectancy? This is where philosophy merges with science and why science-fiction is so important.
This is the #2 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
This idea of social commentary instead of simple forecasting means the level of accuracy in science fiction isn’t as important as the philosophical content. Just as technology itself is inert, it’s how we use the technology – or how we use the speculation - that matters.
Consider Margret Atwood – the mother of all speculation and her commentary on the religious and societal subjection of women. The elements of The Handmaid’s Tale include women forced to cover their bodies and the subservience of females in the name of religion. Neither of those concepts are new, in fact, they are part of some of the oldest tenants of society. What makes The Handmaid’s Tale speculative is it takes something happening currently and pushes it forward, more and more, until it reaches a future extreme.
Note that a future extreme path for a scientific breakthrough, technology, or social precept is not the end of it. Atwood’s Gilead is not the end of misogyny; it’s a stage of misogyny, and the situation could get better or worse for the women in Gilead.
Don’t be afraid to make drastic predictions when you’re speculating. The future consequences of emerging tech and trends often seem extreme to someone looking forward, while it seems perfectly average to the person living it. The proliferation of automotive use would look radical to someone from the bygone era of horse and buggy. Conversely, someone closely watching the emergence of the combustion engine in the 1800s may have predicted the future widespread use of cars.
When you’re consciously immersed in current science, events, and social spheres you can make canny predictions and adroit philosophies. When you practice on your own, you may want to start with predictions of the near future, something that may emerge in ten or twenty years because we don’t have to squint when we're looking at something close by. I could look at the popularity of 15-30 second video sharing apps like Tic-Tock and imagine a future where video snippets are the new preferred mode of communication – a la text messages.
Your prediction doesn’t have to be completely serious, because it’s some percent commentary and some percent prediction. So, for example, we’ve seen that Andy Warhol’s idea that everybody gets 15 minutes of fame has somewhat come true in our age of blogs, YouTube, and social media. So maybe, in the future, everyone’s 15 minutes is mandated and scheduled, in the name of fairness. I might know, from the day I was born, that, for example, at 9am on February 28th, 2022, I will get my 15 minutes in the global spotlight. I get my whole life beforehand to plan how I’m going to use those minutes.
Use the comment section to tell me your predictions. Save any predictions you make and use them to write short stories or as part of your sci-fi worldbuilding.
This is the #1 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
Speculative and Science Fiction Writers are the explorers of the future. Until we invent time machines, speculation is the closest we can get to peering into what the future holds for us. But how do we explore? Those writers from our past who got it right, who successfully speculated – how did they do it?
I think about it like this: as we move through time, all of reality is replaced, piece by piece by inventions and ideas that were once speculation. Straw huts became brick huts, and then wooden houses. Medicine was based on magic, and the humors, and then slowly, piece by piece, science. And then better science.
As speculative writers, it’s our job to look forward and find the next piece of reality that’s set to be replaced. It might happen slowly, like medicine, or there could be a catalyst that changes course, like travel restrictions in the wake of 9/11 – we’d never walk through an airport the same again.
There’s no formula to help you figure which arm of society is going to be soon replaced by a cybernetic prosthesis. 100 years ago, who could have predicted that we’d outsource our socialization to electronic media?
On the other hand, some authors can predict the future with astounding accuracy. In his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner predicted “wearable technology, Viagra, video calls, same-sex marriage, the legalization of cannabis, and the proliferation of mass shootings.”
When asked how he was able to so clearly envision many of the tenets of the near future, Brunner cites his study of history and his intense focus on current events. Science Fiction superstar and inventor of the cyberpunk genre William Gibson (who we’ll discuss at length later) cited a similar preoccupation with the present as his inspiration. As we’ll see throughout our discussion today – speculation on the future is a veiled comment on the here and now.
This series will focus on how study of the past and engagement with the present helps science fiction writers create vivid, believable futures. I hope you enjoy this journey to the future with me.
Other Blogs in this Series:
I read fourteen books in 2019, two over my usual goal of one per month. I’m not entirely sure how I found the time, but a long, electronics-free vacation, coupled with the brevity of Pratchett’s books, had something to do with it, I’m sure.
Here are some of my favorite books I read during the last year, and why I loved them. If you’ve read any of these and want to chat, I’ll be taking over Facebook’s Fantasy and Science Fiction Readers lounge this Friday from 2-4 pm, so make sure to stop by. This takeover is part of the Lounge’s Anniversary Giveaway – more on the giveaway at the end of the post.
Books 1- 5 of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
I had heard about Discworld before and was intrigued, but I like to read all the books in a series, and 44 novels seemed like much too big of a commitment. After some research, I found out that the series is kind of split into subseries that follow different characters, with all the stories occurring on the Discworld.
I read The Color of Magic and loved it. Pratchett’s voice is so light and fun, it’s easy to breeze through these books, which are a deft mix of high fantasy and high fantasy parody. He pokes fun at the same aspects of fantasy that I do, while still telling a complete and compelling story. I ended up reading the first five books in the order they were written, as opposed to the subseries order or the order in some of the complex Discworld series maps I’ve seen online. I’m happy with this reading order, and I’m currently on book six – Wyrd Sisters.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
About half of the fiction I read is outside of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy spheres. I like to focus on classics I’ve missed, cozy mysteries, vampire camp, and current books with a buzz. Commonwealth falls into the buzz category, which is often a disappointment to me, but I found Patchett’s sweeping family saga captivating. However, had I researched it before I picked it up, I would never have read it.
Mild spoilers ahead.
The book starts with a chance encounter, which leads to an affair and an eventual marriage that blends two families. The blended family siblings are the main characters of the story, which covers about half a century of their lives. Their brother’s accidental death is one of the book’s catalysts and the reason why I would have skipped it if I had known. My brother died accidentally a few years ago, and I planned on avoiding books with sibling death as the subject until I wasn’t so raw. However, Patchett handled the topic with care and insight. Deaths like his leave in a hole in reality that can only be lived around, not ever filled, a fact the author understood perfectly.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Great American Cookbook by Clementine Paddleford
I’m a cookbook person. I own about a dozen standards, a ton of cooking magazines, and I check out a new cookbook at the library once a week. I checked out The Great American Cookbook, and I knew I had to buy a copy for keeps.
The book is divided by American regions and then by state, with each state offering classic location-specific recipes. What makes this unique, besides the top-notch recipes, is that almost every recipe comes with a story about the person who provided it, often with a description of the cook’s home and meal from the author. It gives each dish a personal, comfy feel.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi Reader’s Lounge Giveaway
Facebook's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Readers Lounge is one of the best places on the web for genre readers and authors. They're celebrating their first anniversary with this awesome giveaway! Here’s the link to enter: http://fsfreaders.com/event/one-year-anniversary
Remember to stop by the lounge for my takeover on Friday, January 10th from 2-4pm EST!
How many books are you planning to read in 2020? What’s on your list? Tell me in the comments!