Guest Post: How I Increased Narrative Tension by Giving My Protagonists Psychologically Realistic Flaws

Noah Lemelson is a short story writer and novelist who lives in LA with his wife and cat. Lover of Science Fiction, Fantasy, New Weird, and Punk. He received his BA in Biology from the University of Chicago in 2014 and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts in 2020. He has had several of his short stories published in both print and online magazines, such as Allegory, Space Squid and the Outsider’s Within Horror Anthology. Visit his website here to learn more about him and his upcoming book.

I’m not into the whole Chosen One thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to toss a hot take that all Chosen One narratives are bad. Like any trope they can be done well. But it has been done, and done, and done, and done some more. When I sat down to write The Sightless City (then “Untitled Lazarus Roache Project”), I wanted to tell a story about comparatively normal characters, not heroes chosen by gods or destiny. But normal does not mean boring. Too often books allow their protagonist to become dullest character. It’s a genuine challenge to make sure your point of view character is not just some window with legs, but a full and complex human being (or fantastical human being equivalent).

My strategy to make my POV interesting was to make each protagonist flawed in some significant way. They would be united in their opposition to Lazarus Roache, but I wanted each of their struggles to be individual and internal. They had been wronged, but they were not passive victims, they had active flaws that got them into their situations, and make it more difficult for them to escape.

To both explain what I mean, and to give a hint at how to write realistically flawed characters, let’s talk about the self-narratives. We each have a narrative about ourselves, explanations for what we have done, what we are doing, what we will do, and why. Often identities are a big part of this, labels either given to us or chosen by us (often a bit of both). These self-narratives give us a sense of who we are, and influence our future decisions, but they aren’t necessarily “true.” I’m not saying they’re always “false” either, obviously. It’s just that self-narrative are, like everything in society, constructions, ideas that are sometimes based on facts, sometimes on emotion, but often come from a blurry mix of reality, emotion, and expectation.

Marcel Talwar is a war hero. He fought to free Huile, giving up his leg and losing his friends in a fight for freedom. This is the identity he was given and one he embraces fully. But there is another narrative, another possible identity. Marcel Talwar is a war criminal. He caused thousands of brutal deaths. This alternative reading of his actions, as factual as his other identity, is abhorrent to Marcel. He does not actively consciously consider this possibility, and I don’t explicitly call him out on it in the book, but on some level he is aware of this darker narrative. This other interpretation does not make him question his war hero status, quite the opposite. He is so utterly convinced he is a war hero because the alternative possibility is so horrid. This leads to a massive emotional block preventing him questioning from his own decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. This is a significant character flaw. Marcel is a good person, in that he tries to be a good person and do good things, but he can be blind to reality when that reality threatens to unravel his self-narrative.

Sylvaine also has her own issues with self-narratives and identity. She is a Ferral, a beast-person, discriminated against her whole life. Ideally, she might find pride and security in her identity, and create a positive self-narrative, but she is unable to. Instead, she seeks to reject her Ferral-ness and prove, to the world and herself, that she is something more. This self-defense mechanism has found its focus in Ætheric Engineering. Ferrals are stereotypically considered primitive and simple. Engineering is the exact opposite of that, civilized and intelligent. She believes subconsciously that if she can just become an engineer, that will prove she is not just a mere bestial Ferral. She believes it will prove, to the world and herself, that she is deserving of respect and dignity. That’s not to say her interest in engineering is not genuine. She does actually love engineering, but her obsession is colored with a desperate self-loathing brought on by years of bullying and discrimination. Of course, this is what makes her inability to control æther so devastating, it’s not just the death of a dream, in an assault on the identity she is trying to claim, a cut into an old and deep wound. She keeps trying again and again to become an engineer, each failure just building more self-loathing, and as her desperation grows, as does her willingness to make questionable decisions if she thinks it might make her a real engineer.

Of course, its not just enough for these characters to have flaws, to have contradictions in their self-narratives, but these flaws need to manifest as actual conflicts in the plot. (I mean you could have a fully internal narrative, that might be interesting, but genre conventions for fantasy mean that at some point, something in the world has to change in meaningful and usually violent ways). So in comes Lazarus Roache, who, unlike the protagonists, is not trying in the least to be a good person. He is able to manipulate the protagonists not through simple threats or bribery, but by playing on their self-narratives, and their desperation to be the person they think they are.

So then the tension of the story becomes two-fold. 1) Will my protagonists defeat the villains. And 2) Will my protagonists be able to work through the inner contradictions own sense of self? But these two conflicts are interconnected, failing to stop the villains can push them deeper into holes of their own psyche, while these flaws can in turn prevent them from effectively fighting the villain. To resolve the external conflict, they have to overcome their internal ones, and those are often much more complex and difficult to face. And I think, also more interesting to read about.

Urban Fantasy vs. Magical Realism

Hello writers! How have you all been? It’s been a while, I know, but I have just been lost in a sea of work. Kindle Vella is launching next week, and I have been working on my fantastic Ivy Labyrinth project that I mentioned to you all a couple months ago. I did an entire post on tips for writing urban fantasy, and it seemed to be reasonably enjoyed by all of you. But as I was writing the first few episodes of my serial, I realized I wasn’t actually writing urban fantasy. It had similarities, but it did not quite fit based on what I had read about the genre. I went searching for answers, and I discovered a new genre for me: magical realism.

Today, I’m going to share with you a short comparison of these two genres so you don’t make the same mistakes I did when starting a new project.

Urban Fantasy

In urban fantasy, the setting is most commonly a urban city although I have seen a few instances where the setting is a major or even rural town. Whoever and whatever your fantasy creatures are, they should live in the city and interact with the population, but their true magical identities are unknown to mortals. They should integrate seamlessly into the universe and fly pretty much undetected. Until the main character discovers them, of course, and gets drawn into their world and their struggles. My favorite example of urban fantasy is the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.

Magical Realism

In magical realism, fantasy and reality operate side by side. Magical elements blend into the real world like they are one and the same. Through the main character’s eyes, magic is presented as fact, as something that always has been and always will be. Sometimes the author doesn’t even explain how the magic works! They operate through the eyes of the main character who sees magic as an everyday occurrence, encouraging the reader to accept it as such as well. From what I have read, magical realism often contains a social or political critique of society. In my opinion, this doesn’t have to be an overly obvious factor. For me personally, I’m still trying to figure out where or if that element fits into the piece I am working on.

So there you have it: my very quick breakdown of urban fantasy vs. magical realism. I hope this helps some of you when figuring out which subgenre your story fits into. Happy writing!

Preliminary Tips For Writing Urban Fantasy

Hello writers! I’m finally winding down my semester, which has been the most chaotic yet. I apologize profusely for not putting out as much content in the last six months. There has been a whirlwind of things happening. The most recent one is the subject of this post.

When Amazon announced their upcoming Kindle Vella platform, I was super excited. I am writing something entirely new for the platform. The piece is actually an idea that I worked on in middle school and am now revamping and upgrading to a young adult urban fantasy serial. Urban fantasy is a genre that I have always enjoyed reading, but I have never tried to write it before.

Then again, I had never tried writing epic fantasy before I wrote my first book.

So I have done some research into what it takes to write urban fantasy, and I want to share that advice with all of you.

Tip #1: Setting Matters.

On every site that I read through, writers pinned setting the most important aspect of urban fantasy stories. In fantasy, the setting always acts as another character in the story. It should be well thought out and well developed. I spent eight months working on the worldbuilding for Chasing Fae due to its complexity. Urban fantasies are set primarily in cities, though some take place in an outer suburb or something similar. These cities can exist in the modern world, but they could also be set in an alternate world or universe. Authors often draw from real-life urban environments to construct the most realistic setting. Some even play around with the era, taking a city from the past and bringing magic into it.

One of the most important elements of developing your settings is where the magic and urban world meet. Writing Tips Oasis conveys it best: “There are two different ways that you can portray the city: as it is, or as it would be because of the magic”. Magic can either be hidden in plain sight or portrayed out in the open. It has to be perfectly blended with the modern world. Technology like airplanes, the internet, and cell phones are often utilized by characters from the mortal and the magical world. At the same time, the magical institutions should have their own set of rules and technology that work together with or alongside the mortal one. I’m still learning about what that looks like!

Tip #2: Choose your lead protagonists wisely.

Whether or not you are choosing one protagonist or multiple protagonists, it’s important to find those characters that you can showcase “unique, but accessible” points of view. Whether they are mortal, vampire, or dragon shapeshifter, your characters need to feel believable to your reader. The magical aspect should not define your character. Instead, they should be given a full personality. They should have desires, strengths, weaknesses, and that one thing that keeps them going during the day.

I am planning on writing my Kindle Vella story from four perspectives. Serials specifically lend themselves well to multiple perspectives. One will be a mortal woman, one is a male dragon shapeshifter, one is a naiad with siren blood, and the last is an elemental fire mage. There are quite a few more magical races that I am including, but I don’t feel the need to have each of them have a main voice. Hopefully, I’ll be able to showcase many of them through secondary characters.

Tip #3: Pacing Is Important.

Though there is a variety of advice out there about what kinds of urban fantasy plots are the best, the pacing notes seem to all be the same. Readers of urban fantasy expect their stories to have a healthy dose of action. Of course, there need to be quieter moments to allow readers to breathe, but this genre tends to be fast-paced. Subplots are also important to help bring layers to the story. Romance is often a chosen subplot, but it’s important to make sure that you don’t let it take over the story. That may transfer your story into paranormal romance! Writers’ Digest adds that urban fantasy is sexy; a good sex scene or subtle eroticism teased throughout the book keeps the reader’s heart pounding.

I’m looking forward to tackling this story idea. Any one else who enjoys reading or writing urban fantasy? Any advice you want to share with the rest of us?

Happy writing!

Chasing War’s Presale Campaign Is Now Live!

Hey everybody! I’m so excited to share that Chasing War’s presale campaign is officially live! I can’t believe I’m doing this again, but I’m so thrilled to get this new story out to you. Chasing War picks up right where Chasing Fae left off with Grace taking her new place in the Upper Realm. Spoilers from here on in. When Grace arrives at the House of the Evening, she is instantly thrust into the world of the nobility. As the heir to a throne she didn’t even realize was hers, she has to navigate magical education, dangerous politics, and a stepfamily she never asked for. With her tutor, Talon, and Aiden by her side, Grace steps out into the Upper Realm only to find a war exploding under her gaze led by the House of Darkness. She and Aiden must quickly strategize against the invaders while searching in earnest for the remaining six prophecy members. As the war rages on and more pieces of the puzzle fall into place, Grace must make a decision about who to trust and how to lead.

Click here to check out the presale campaign and preorder your signed copy of Chasing War today!

New Landing Website!

Today, I am launching my brand new landing website, cadyhammer.com! This will serve as a place to find the most up-to-date information about me and my books. My dad bought this domain for me years ago when I was a kid in hopes that one day I would use it. It makes me so happy to be able to showcase this site under my name as a part of my author pathway. I hope you all will check it out!

And don’t worry, Fluff About Fantasy will still be updated on a (hopefully) bi-weekly schedule. I plan to keep this site as active as possible as well. Sending good wishes on the first Monday of the new year!

Goodbye 2020!: Writing Goals For 2021

It’s the end of 2020, the end of the most tumultuous year of my life. From March to December, I have been sequestering in my house due to an underlying health condition. My world that felt so big suddenly shrank to the size of my parents’ houses. Suddenly, I was writing, studying, and just living with my family all the time. It has been quite a learning curve. My heart hurts to be away from my extended family, my friends, and the love of my life. It aches for all the loss we have seen this year.

But some really positive things came out of this year too for me. I published my debut novel, Chasing Fae in August 2020. I spent March to August working to make it as perfect as I could, and it’s been out for nearly five months now. I love being a published author. It is such a liberating experience. I love how creative I get to be while writing and working on the business side. I also had a really great semester; I finished with a 3.59 GPA. Puts me in great contention for grad school.

As I look ahead to 2021, I want to share my author goals with you.

Books Planned to Release in 2021

I have three books that I hope to release by the end of the year. I’m going to list these in order of potential release, but know that these are subject to whatever schedule I can work out.

First, I am happy to announce a new project that I have just started: a prequel novella to Chasing Fae. This novella will be a series of stories from the House of the Evening to weave in a little bit of background and foreshadowing into the Fae’s world before book 2 of the trilogy comes out. Readers will see Grace’s parents fateful meeting, Neil’s perspective on that final scene from Chasing Fae, and a look into Grace’s new stepmother, High Lady Elise, and what it took to get where she is now. It’s a short project, and I’m hoping it could be out sometime in the spring.

Second, my untitled nonfiction project that I was previously working on with New Degree Press will be my first full-length self-published book. I am working on a combination of additional research and drafting right now. I shifted the direction somewhat on my original premise, and I think it is going to make the book more engaging and interesting.

Finally, Chasing War! I have been working on this sequel for a little while now, and it has been amazing. I really cannot wait to bring readers further into the Upper Realm. However, as I’m seeing from my beta readers, it’s going to take some significant revision to make it the way I want. Expect this one to be out closer to the end of 2021.

New Website and Email Newsletter

I am launching cadyhammer.com this month! This will be my home landing page for people wanting to learn more about me and my books as well as subscribe to my email newsletter. I will continue to create posts for Fluff About Fantasy, but it will be on a bi-weekly/monthly basis rather than my primary focus. I’m excited to finally use my name domain.

I also want to consistently put out a solid monthly newsletter to keep fans engaged with personal stories, special looks at my works, and early access to pre-order announcements. Since I’m transitioning to being a fully indie author, you’ll see many more opportunities to preorder books and get special extras.

Marketing Boost

The hardest part of the publishing process for me is marketing. An author has to do this constantly while also continuing to write. (I’m also a full-time student!) For me, my primary focuses will be on expanding my social media presence with my Facebook page and Instagram. Twitter will take more of a backseat and serve as my way to connect with other writers, and Pinterest will get a monthly update as I move forward. I plan to learn how to use Amazon and Facebook ads effectively, and who knows: maybe I’ll have the opportunity to attend another writing conference once the pandemic is over.

That’s everything to look forward to from me in 2021. It’s quite a lot of goals, but I think I’ll be able to manage. Wish me luck!

Structuring Your Novel – Save The Cat! Beat Sheet

This month, I have been primarily focusing on getting Chasing War into a place where I feel confident that over the next few months, I can make it amazing. This sequel has tested me a lot already in the drafting stage. The story is good, but there are much more problems than when I was drafting Chasing Fae. Maybe that’s me though; there may have been just as many problems back then too. 😀

A few weeks ago, I just knew something was wrong with the book. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it was. At first, I thought it might be a bunch of missing plot points. Maybe the book needed more substance? But that didn’t quite feel right. Although I needed much more character development, this was a second draft, and something more was missing. I took to Twitter to ask for help. An author, Shawn T. Anderson (@ShawnTWrites) told me about Save The Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody, a book about novel writing. He told me it was a great diagnostic tool for plot problems.

I did some searching and ended up on Samantha Gilbo’s website where I found a great step-by-step guide on how to outline your novel using Brody’s book. It included a free beat sheet that I would highly recommend you grabbing; it helped me visualize the process much more clearly. I don’t want to directly copy over what she has said, so I’ll give you a basic overview and have you read her article on your own.

Act 1: The Beginning

  • Opening Image – A scene that shows the protagonist in her world before the adventure. It can be an introduction to your main character or if it’s a sequel like my book, a showcasing of the new state your protagonist found themselves in at the end of book 1 before everything changes again.
  • Setup – Multiple scenes that reveal the protagonist’s current life and the world around them with all of their flaws. Sometimes you may introduce supporting characters or some sort of initial goal for the character to work towards.
    • Somewhere in there, there will be a scene where your main theme is stated, something that hints at what your protagonist will learn over the course of your book.
  • Catalyst – A scene where a life-changing event happens to your main character that launches them onto the path of the rest of the story.
  • Debate – Several scenes where the protagonist debates what to do next.
  • Break Into Two – A scene where the protagonist decides to accept their new role, embark on their new adventure, and/or otherwise enter upon the point where everything will change.

Act 2A: The Middle (Part 1)

  • B Story – A scene that introduces a new character or a series of supporting characters that will ultimately help the protagonist on their journey.
  • Fun and Games – A multitude of scenes where the protagonist either succeeds or fails in a series of events that show off the new world they have been thrust into.
  • Midpoint – A single scene where the above section either ends in what Gilbo describes as a “false victory” (if the protagonist has been succeeding so far) or a “false defeat” (if the protagonist has been failing so far). Gilbo provides some great examples in her description.

Act 2B: The Middle (Part 2)

  • Bad Guys Close In – Depending on which direction your midpoint takes, the next several scenes will show an impactful turn in the protagonist’s path. In the situation of a “false victory”, everything will go downhill from there. In the case of a “false defeat”, things will slowly begin to get better and better for your main character. In either choice, the external bad guy (antagonist) or an internal enemy (like fear or a false belief) are closing in.
  • All is Lost – A scene that takes your main character to their lowest point.
  • Dark Night of the Soul – Multiple scenes where the protagonist takes time to process everything that has happened so far. This usually brings forth some revelation that ushers them into the story’s finale.
  • Break Into Three – A scene where the protagonist realizes what they have to do to fix the external story struggles as well as their internal struggles.

Act 3: The End

  • Finale – The protagonist takes matters into their own hands in this multi-scene segment and solves their dilemmas. Gilbo breaks this out into five separate parts, which I would highly recommend reading about in her article. I found it super helpful.

My Results

After reading over this format and filling it out for Chasing War, I found out what my problems were! Turns out, the issues with the draft had to do with structure rather than plot. I ended up making a sheet to rearrange the entire first half of the book. The inciting incident needs to occur earlier, and magical lessons needed to be spread out throughout the story. In the process, I found seven places to add new chapters that would connect subplots better. When I wrote everything out, I instantly felt this wave of relief and honestly, thrill wash over me. I had solved my problem!

All in all, I would highly, highly recommend using this method if you are having problems with plot or structure in your novel. It absolutely revitalized my excitement for this sequel. If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

Tackling A Fairytale Retelling

Hey everybody! I’m back! I finished up my last class of the semester on Friday, and now (despite exams), I have much more time to concentrate on my writing and on this blog. I have been trying to brainstorm topics relating to writing fantasy that readers would be interested in. I have a few, but if you have any ideas or topics that you would love to read about, please shoot me a comment or a message!

For today’s blog post, I want to chat about a subgenre of fantasy that I am thinking about attempting: the fairytale retelling. After the Chasing Fae trilogy, I’m considering taking on a Robin Hood retelling. It is one of my favorite childhood stories, and I have some pretty solid ideas to take the story in a new direction. It’s a subgenre that I enjoy reading, but it has to be done right. So I have been exploring the web for the best tips for writing a fairytale retelling, and these are the top three that I found.

Tip #1: Read Your Chosen Fairytale Carefully.

Before you take on your fairytale retelling, you must read the original! Whatever the story or fairytale may be, find the original version and read it from cover to cover. Make some notes on the various elements of the story. Essentially, you have to take stock of what you have to work with: characters, general plotline, what details of the world are available. It may seem tedious, but you want to capture every detail you can so you can build from there.

Tip #2: Figure out what you want to change.

Next, you’ll want to decide how much you want to change for your retelling. Here’s a few ideas you may want to think about:

  • Whose perspective do you want to tell the story from? Will it be the protagonist, or will you take it from a different perspective?
  • Do you want to update the setting? For example, will you be changing the time period to the present day? How will the world change?
  • How do you want to enhance the characterization? How can you make the main characters more full, more well-rounded to suit your purposes? What minor characters might jump into the spotlight?
  • What is your twist? What is your unexpected element that is going to make this retelling unique?

Tip #3: Build a world around the story.

One of the things that is interesting about classic fairytales is that often the setting can be quite nondescript. You hear about the “beautiful castle” or the “rolling hills”, but it has very little other details. This gives you the ability to dream big with your worldbuilding. That is one of the things that I am most excited to tackle in a fairytale retelling. Take this opportunity to take those little details and go wild. If you want more inspiration on how to take your worldbuilding to the next level, check out my Worldbuilding tab for worldbuilding questions and tips.

That’s all for now, friends. I’ll write more posts soon! Happy writing!

First Bookstore: Park Road Books!

Hey Charlotte readers! I’m super excited to announce that Chasing Fae is officially stocked at Park Road Books! I was so thrilled to see my book in the front window and on the shelf at a place I love to visit. I spent lots of time here in high school searching for autographed copies of my favorite books to collect. I also found some of my favorite new books in their store. If you stop by, feel free to send me a picture!

Podcast Episode: Booked All Night

Hey friends! My latest podcast appearance just went live this morning, so I wanted to quickly share it with everyone. Booked All Night is a fantastic YA book blog that I love, and I’ve been working with them for quite a few weeks now. I posted both a guest post and an excerpt of Chasing Fae with them as part of my book launch blog tour. Jess, Maggie, and Dan were a great trio of hosts who had me laughing and sharing plenty of stories about the creation of Chasing Fae and my plans for book 2. I hope you’ll take a listen!

Booked All Night Podcast (site)

Spotify

Anchor.fm