And now for something completely different...

Tonight je vous presente a small interlude, which is (I promise) more comical than it might at first seem. It's a story in the form of a very pretentious letter. I hope you enjoy... Or rot in hell. Whichever.

My Dearest Annette,

It was not a happy time. I would prefer not to tell you what I would have traded during my ordeal for even an ounce of tenderness, administered from the hands of a stranger. It should please you to know that I enjoyed no such ministrations. In retrospect, it's clear that such a thing was not meant to be. It was my plight, and I now understand it all too well.

Alone, I toiled in near darkness beneath the sparse light of the smoke spitting oil lamp which you presented to me on the occasion of my graduation from academy. With cramped hand, I worked at my masterpiece tirelessly, wordlessly, free of every distraction save the sound of my own ragged breathing, and I truthfully cannot imagine how much time passed. Whether it was months or years, I do not know. The memory assaults my mind fitfully, striking here and there without rhyme or reason as a guerilla might, never revealing itself for more than an instant for fear of riposte.

And what, pray tell, do I have to show for this herculean effort? What spoils did I recover from the private war I waged against silence? After all of those countless hours spent deadlocked in mortal combat against the wages of eternity itself, with naught to wield but a single quill and an inkwell full of ammunition, I can honestly report that I have gained nothing... I have absolutely and frankly nothing to show for it.

I can imagine right at this moment the look of astonishment and outrage that is surely twisting your lovely visage. “How?” You are asking in your honey sweetened voice. “Why?”

The answer is as simple as it is poetic, and shall no doubt solve another mystery presently troubling you. If you will grant me but one more tender mercy, allow me to conjur for you an image. There I sat in that mouse hole I once called a home, doubled over and contorted as a once proud vine deprived for too long of water and sunlight. Within the weakened grasp of my oil and dirt caked hands was the finished product of my efforts. The manuscript into which I had poured every last drop of my blood and vigor was complete, and all that remained of its extended gestation was the act of delivery. I was, to put it mildly, imbued from head to toe with a satisfaction that transcended human consciousness, rivaled only by that of Mary following the birth of the Christ or perhaps of God Himself as He settled down to rest on the seventh day.

For the first time in my life, a smile threatened to connect my ears by one massive, curving chasm, yet the existence of that smile was tragically cut short, for it was in that moment that the vile, traitorous oil lamp which had faithfully served as my sole companion throughout the ordeal decided in one fitful cough to tip over and spill its incendiary contents across my desk. In the span of a single human heartbeat, the flames danced out and across the oak desk and further across the parchment that was my manuscript, then proceeded to engulf the rest of my contemptible and tinderbox like home, and the entirety of the building to which it belonged in a rage of demonic flames the likes of which even the depths of hell might fail to produce.

That, my dear, is why there is nothing to show for the aeons I have spent sequestered in pursuit of greatness, and consequently also why you will find within this parcel the shattered remains of the oil lamp you presented to me on the occasion of my graduation from academy. May its remains serve you as well as they did me.

Rot in hell,
Your Fiance
Everett McAllister

P.S. Should you care to contact me, I may be found at the bottom of a bottle, or else face down in a gutter somewhere.

Although I prefer a shorter, punchier style in my usual writing, I also think it can be a helluva lot of fun to ham it up and watch those sentences run on and on. Run, tired little sentences. Run for your lives.

Until next time,
Keep it on ice, hep kats...


Write Thinking - Giant Roblog's New Column

The only constant is change...

Ready for a format change, Giant Robloggers? Today marks the introduction of Giant Roblog's first continuing, semi-regular column... Write Thinking. Posts marked as Write Thinking will contain articles on the craft of writing, with a heavy bias on fantasy writing skills.

Without further ado...

Write Thinking #1

Creating Characters Who Live And Breathe

"Character is what you are in the dark."
Lord John Whorfin

Something just wasn't working in my novel. The plot was honed to a razor's edge, but for some reason I kept getting stuck. The plain fact of the matter was that I just wasn't interested in what was going on... Worse, my characters weren't interested either. Everyone was simply going through the paces, spitting out their trite lines and getting on with business. There was no passion, no vigor. There were no signs of life.

The problem was that I didn't really know my characters that well. That is, I knew all of the facts about their lives, but I didn't know who they were. They were little more than shallow archetypes... Granted, archetypes who did weird things, but archetypes none-the-less.

It was time to go back to the drawing board and really investigate these imaginary people. I needed to know what made them interesting people. More than anything, my characters needed contradiction.

Randolph's Law of Character:
Archetypes are boring;
Interesting characters are born from
their own contradictions.

Most of my characters were shallow stereotypes (which are a sort of archetype), and that just isn't satisfactory. Archetypes have no momentum. You're forced to drive them like cattle. On the other hand, interesting characters... Real, living, vital characters will tell the story for you. They'll do what they want to with or without you, and captivate readers as they go.

So, how does a writer create a living, breathing character? It's all about finding a character's contradictions. You have to examine the situations where a character will act "out of character", because that's where dimension and depth hide. Characters who always act "in character" are stale and predictable. They're mechanical, rather than organic. To most people, they're alien.

To take it a step further, an archetype only truly becomes a “character” when they do something uncharacteristic. They need to break out of the mould if they're going to live. Each and every human being is a walking mass of contradictions, capable of investing in multiple, mutually-exclusive beliefs all at once. It's what separates us from software. Without contradiction, a character simply looks like a cardboard cut-out.

Large contradictions are the engines of plot, while small contradictions are subtle details which make a character real. In order for a character to be well rounded, they must be composed of both large and small contradictions in their morals, interests and preferences.

Which leads us to this weeks exercise: Character Sketching

By "Sketch", I don't mean a drawing (but those can help). Instead, what we're going to be doing is describing a character in quick, rough terms. It's a quick and dirty description of who they are.

This is a really simple exercise, but it can do wonders for your writing. The better acquainted you are with your characters, the more the story will tend to write itself. When you get to a difficult part of a story, you don't have to imagine how a character would react. You already know.

In order to complete this exercise, you're going to need a notebook (or a pad of paper, or word processor, or blood & parchment... writing stuffs), an active imagination and about an hour of free time.

The first step is deciding who your main characters are. In the case of my book, there are 6 characters that are really key to the plot, and I needed sketches for all of them. Prime candidates are protagonists, supporting cast and (this is important) villains. Everyone that's central to the plot should be a fully developed character.

Once you've decided who you're going to be working on, we move on to execution.

  • Each character has 3 sections to fill out: Personality, Ethics/Beliefs & Goals.

  • Write everything down, no matter how seemingly insignificant or stupid. Brainstorming rules apply.

  • Don't be a perfectionist... These are personal notes, and no one's going to see them but you. You can put things in the wrong section, misspell words, and use poor grammar. Ain't that wonderful?

  • Keep an eye out for potential contradictions.

  • Investigate the differences between how a character views his own actions, and how other characters view those same actions.

...And that's it. I told you it was simple. What, you want an example? Alright, let's make up a character.

We'll start with an archetype. How about a white-collar worker in a software company? He wears pressed shirts, has a favorite coffee mug, is clean cut and well shaven, and is "career motivated". Now, on with the sketch...

Miles Bowden

Miles is an over-achiever with a high opinion of himself. He is aggressive, fast thinking, and is outspoken in most situations, especially when the topic is his low opinion of his peers.

Outwardly, Miles has utmost confidence in his own judgement and abilities, and has trouble trusting other people. On the other hand, he has complete faith in authority figures (teachers, bureaucrats, executives etc.) and almost always defers to their judgement.

In social gatherings, Miles is loud and usually the center of attention. He often declines invitations to parties, and his friends think he's "too cool" to go. In fact, Miles is very uncomfortable in large groups of people, and feels too much pressure to "perform".

His father was a botanist, and Miles himself enjoys looking at and collecting flowers. Absolutely no one knows this about him. He claims not to have any hobbies, because it would "waste valuable time".

He likes black coffee, nice clothes, and being alone. He is especially attracted to women who remind him of his first grade teacher. He dislikes sweet foods and alcohol, and he hates rebellious people (considers them traitors?).

Miles was raised Lutheran, but is not especially religious (attends on holidays?). He does believe in god, but more as a passive force than as a person. He occasionally muses that order in the natural world is the manifestation of god.

He believes strongly in the value of authority, laws and the establishment, often preaching about the topic with an almost religious fervor. Law is "what separates man from the animals." Contrary to this, Miles cheated on several tests in school (including placement exams), and feels continuing guilt over the matter.

He claims he could not kill a person, but agrees with the death penalty. He also feels war is a justifiable tool of diplomacy, but doesn't want to know anything about it. He generally is politically conservative, but feels strongly about environmental issues.

Miles is driven to be "succesful". His father was an indistinguished researcher, and Miles has always felt that the man wasted his life. He absolutely refuses to have the same fate. Unfortunately, he followed his goal single-mindedly and is now working in upper-management in a company he doesn't really care about, while suffering his second ulcer.

Granted, this isn't the most interesting character in the world, but we certainly know enough about him to start a story. We know a bit about his thoughts, feelings, secrets, likes and dislikes. Undoubtedly, a lot more would be generated in the process of writing, but this is fine to begin with. Most importantly, there's some internal friction in Mr. Miles Bowden... Places where he's made the wrong choices (in his own estimation), and places where he could grow as a person.

It's that simple. Now run off and do a couple character sketches. After all, if you don't know your characters, how will we?

Keep those pens in motion, kids.


Removing the Civilization IV Demo's Turn Limit

Greetings, salutations and a heart-felt howdy-doo!

Looks like I missed a ton of fun things this past month, like the release of the Civilization IV demo. Now, I don't want anyone to misunderstand me; I'm not one of those icky strategy gamers (ewwwwwwww). On the other hand, something about the Civilization series has made it a legendary time-waster and heroine-like-addiction. Best of all, it looks as if numero quatro has fixed almost everything I hated about previous entries in the series.

Unfortunately, the demo only allows 100 turns. ARGH! This situation is akin to showing me a new Ferrari, letting me sit in the drivers seat, and then telling me to get the hell out. The situation needed to be rectified.

It seems the new trend in game design is to include as many assets as possible in human readable (and editable) code, in order to make modding as easy as possible. In the case of Civilization IV, all of the game logic and resources are hand-delivered in Python and XML, conveniently located in the Assets directory. I think you can see the glimmer in my eye already. :)

Long story short, 20 minutes of fumbling around delivered unto me a fix for all my woes. All that's necessary is changing one line of Python code, and VOILA! Needless to say, I was playing the "demo" until 7:00 this morning, and I'm about to take it for another spin.

Oh... You wanted to know how to do it, too? I think I can work something out.

Easy as pie. Just follow these steps, and you'll be civing away.

  1. Browse to the \Firaxis Games\Sid Meier's Civilization 4 Demo\Assets\Python directory (which is located in your Program Files by default).

  2. Open CvGameUtils.Py in your favorite text editor (notepad will do).

  3. Go to line 18, which should read:
    if ( gc.getGame().getElapsedGameTurns() > 99 ):

  4. Then simply change the value (99) to something more agreeable. Mine currently looks like:
    if ( gc.getGame().getElapsedGameTurns() > 65536 ):

  5. Save the file, and run the game.

You'll still see a counter in the upper right, telling you that you've got X many turns left, but at 0 it just disappears. I've succesfully played up to the 18th century, with only a couple minor problems. The tech tree comes to an abrupt stop leaving you with crossbowmen and war elephants, and I have had the game become unstable a couple times... Then again, what do you expect? It's a demo. :)

That's it. I told you it was easy, didn't I? Now run off and go play... Giant Roblog will be back next week with some blabber about standards based web-design, and how much I'd love to drop-kick Internet Explorer.

Keep it chill, kats...