Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Using Fate Core To Write Your Novel

Good morning, strap in and let's get to work. We start today with a story.

I was having lunch with someone yesterday and over the course of our discussion (which naturally covered what he could do to bolster his newly rejected novel), I began describing how he could flesh out characters to make them less static and make them multi-dimensional.

As I was talking and gesturing, I used the word 'aspect' a few times, and realized that there's a way to meld my two great passions, gaming and editing/helping people write better, and that aspects are the key.

Everyone go look at your most recent copy of your favorite Fate product. (There's still a week on Kickstarter! Get to it!) Now, go get a legal pad. And a pen.

For today we use Fate Core to write your novel.

We'll start by identifying what "aspects" are. For the purposes of our discussion, let's use this definition --

Aspects are phrases or sentences that express some element of the character, either physically, mentally or emotionally.

For example, that tall nervous blonde you work with has the aspects "Tall" "Blonde" and "Nervous Wreck".

So, how does this help you? Let's look at step 1.

Step 1:: Identify (and write down) 5 Aspects your primary character(s) has/have. (A primary character is your protagonist, your antagonist and anyone you spend more than 45% of the book describing)

Yes, five. I like to do them in some combination of physical and emotional/psychological descriptors, usually three and two. I'd stay away from a 4-to-1 ratio (particularly 4 physical and 1 emotional/psychological), because that may lead to your character looking pretty, but being sort of hollow inside. (This may or may not be called 'Kristen Stewart Syndrome')

What does this look like on paper? Here, let's talk about Batman.

- Forever avenging the death of his parents
- Rich & handsome playboy
- The greatest detective in the DC Universe
- Master martial artist
- Has a Rogues' Gallery (translation: lots of enemies)

Here I mention who he is - a rich & handsome playboy, master martial artist, and the greatest detective in the DC Universe - but also what he does - forever avenging the death of his parents - and what that brings him in return - lots of enemies.

What we've got is a snapshot of the character, and ideally something that isn't *only* a physical run-down of traits. This isn't a dating profile, we don't need to go on and on about someone's appearance in a superficial or sexist way - this is a chance to distill character down to key emotional hooks and connect the character to both other characters AND their world.

Just as character have aspects, so too do scenes. Most of time, scene aspects in novels are expressed as tension-beats, creating dangerous complications like a building burning down or a badguy about to shoot or a bomb about to explode. (They don't always have to be melodramatic like that, it can also be an uncomfortable conversation between two characters or something.)

Example: Barry is trapped in a burning office building. He can hear the sirens, so he knows that at some point, he'll get rescued. But until then, he's stuck in a smoky room that's growing progressively hotter and hotter. It's getting hard to breathe. He's not a strong man, but he's got to at least to try and make a break for it - maybe out the window before it's too late? 

In this example, the building has the aspects "burning down", "getting hotter and hotter" and "slowly suffocating in a growing furnace". Barry has the aspects "not the strongest" and "not quite Hero material".

Step 2:: Identify (and write down) how the character(s) make use of the 4 Actions. 

Fate Core has four key actions available to players. They cover a multitude of possibilities. Admittedly, I'm tweaking them here for our purposes.

a) Create an Advantage -- This is the ability of a character to use their skills and talents to take advantage/make use of the environment or situation they're in.

The ability of an author/creator to conceive of a scene's aspects (the elements that describe it physically, emotionally or psychologically) and parse them into phrases or short sentences is an invaluable tool for world-building, tension-crafting, or general descriptive capacity. Thinking about what goes down on paper and being able to think about it in an observational way, allows you to control and shape the scene more to your liking in a more intimate way.

So, look at your characters and look to their aspects and skills. Now look at your scene and its aspects. How can the character, in this one particular situation, use their aspects and skills to partner with a scene's aspects to reach the desirable outcome? Note: The desirable outcome is not always the same as the perfect outcome - the character's best option may not be coming out of a scene unscathed.

Now, you may be tempted to change aspects to suit the scene. Take caution - you're doing yourself a disservice (and creating a crappy character) if the character's aspects change at the start of every scene, just so that they come out smelling like roses and being perfect. Here's the rule - if you've got to change aspects, change it AFTER AND BECAUSE OF the scene that just happened, and remember, keep it to five.

To continue our previous example....

Barry has to smash a window to escape the fire. He realizes that he doesn't have the brute strength to smash the glass by hand, but if he can pick up one of the chairs, he can hurl it through the window. Summoning courage and strength, Barry wades through the smoke, grabs the sturdiest looking chair he can find and in a run, sends it hurtling through the window, raining glass down onto the street!

Here, the scene aspect "full of chairs and desks" is created so as to provide Barry the tools he needs to make good his survival. This is justified because the building is an office building, so it's reasonable to assume it has office equipment in it. So while Barry isn't Hero material, in a survival situation, he takes the initiative and creates an advantage for himself - allowing him to make it to the next scene.

b) Overcome an Obstacle -- This is where the character(s) face down a challenge that requires them to use their skills. This is a test of the character's ability. And with that test comes risk - often injury of a physical, mental, emotional or social nature - but again, it's what makes the scene compelling to both read and write.

We keep with our example...

Barry finds himself looking out the hole the chair created. Yes, he thinks, this is where he gets out of here, but look down, it's higher up than he thought. And he's no athlete, but the fire's getting worse and if he doesn't jump now, he might not last long enough for the firefighters to rescue him.  So, he backs up as far as he can into the room and makes a run for it, jumping out the hole and into the alley.

Barry's obstacle is both internal (his fear) and external (he's got to try and run, then jump out of a burning building).  It's through these overcome scenes that we learn what sort of characters we have. Are they brave? Will they do the right thing? Are they capable? Are they cowards? Overcoming obstacles should be a challenge, not in some great Herculean way, but some element of who they are or what they can do should be tested.

Success brings the reward of character growth. Failure can also trigger growth, but carries with it consequences - the character ends up hurt in one way or another.

c) Attack -- Note: Because we're writing a story and not rolling dice, I'm changing the nature of Attack. My apologies to my Fate Core friends. An attack action is anything the character(s) do(es) to change the status quo or current situation. (Also, this can cover fights) This definition may seem a little broad, but coming off the heels of overcoming an obstacle, an attack action may partner up nicely here.

Whatever occurs in the scene, characters are going to react to it, because of it and through it. They are going to attempt to alter it, changing the circumstances and possible outcomes so that they're more favorable...and so that they can then go ahead and create more advantages. (See how this is starting to come together?).

This is NOT a call to make your characters more selfish, this is a raising of awareness that characters are a part of the scene, not always at the scene's mercy. Flat, one-dimensional characters can get tossed around the scene like red-shirted crewmen on Star Trek. Characters with some heft to them can weather the scenes, and push back.

Our example marches on...

Barry has jumped out the window and luckily avoids breaking both his legs when he lands. He separates his shoulder, probably fractures some bones in his foot, but for the most part, he's going to make it out of here alive. Thankfully, the firefighters arrive and the blaze is contained. We then join Barry getting interviewed by a cop, who believes Barry started the fire and got trapped inside. Barry has to change this situation, so Barry stands up for himself, saying that he knows who started the fire because he heard Larry talking about it the day before. 

Barry attacks the situation by challenging the cop's assumption that Barry is the culprit. (For the game mechanically minded, this is Rapport). The revelation that Larry is a suspect both moves the story forward by introducing new character Larry, but also introduces Larry's plot...setting up Larry as the likely antagonist if we haven't done so already.

d) Defend -- Again, I'm really sorry, Fate Core friends, I'm changing this. A defense action is when the character must preserve themselves from harm or preserve the status quo for the continuation of the story.

Our example...

Barry confronts Larry, just as he's about to set another fire. They tussle, but not before Larry reveals every detail of his master plan. Barry manages to get the upper hand for a moment, long enough to press Larry's hand into some freshly spilled paint, leaving palm prints all over the room. The police arrive just before the fire is set, and combined with the palm prints, Larry's going to jail. 

Here Barry has to use a combination of attack and defend actions, both during the altercation (obviously) but   also in a test of wills to coerce Larry's villain monologue out of him, which Larry was happy to do, because Larry was a jerk.

It's the synthesis of these four actions that tells the compelling saga of Barry and Larry. Story is about expression of aspects through challenges, created advantages and the attack and defense of the characters along the way.

It's my hope that this quick-and-dirty toolkit is helpful when you're writing. If you have any questions, please let me know. (Twitter, G+, email)

Happy writing.