The gravitational pull of good characters

You know the rubber sheet crisscrossed by grid lines that Einstein used to demonstrate the effects of mass on gravity by dropping heavy balls onto? The heavier the ball, the deeper it plunged into the sheet, distorting all around it? Good characters should be like those bowling balls. The rubber sheet is your narrative. The thrust of your plot. A well written character distorts its passage through their unique outlook, strength of personality, and the actions they consequently take.

Think of a fictional character with real heft. Someone inimitable and striking like Granny Weatherwax. Any tale in which she were faithfully inserted would be completely changed by her presence. Add her to the Fellowship of the Ring, Rand al'Thor's party as they fled Two Rivers, have her meet Senlin as he ascends his tower - any and all tales would be changed by her addition. You cannot imagine it being otherwise.

The same goes for any character of true quality. Their insertion into a plot would change it. Whether they are noble or cowardly, forthright or conniving, a doer or a victim, they impact the tale. Subtracting or adding them makes for irrevocable change.

Why harp on this? Because if your character does not have a similar effect on your own story then they are not pulling their weight. Generic heroes suffer from having no gravitational weight. They drift on the tides of plot, doing as they are bidden, biddable and in turn forgettable. It's why Han Solo's are more memorable than Luke Skywalkers, why side kicks are usually more popular than the hero themselves: freed from the strictures of being the everyman hero, the sidekick or lancer can burst with character, prove more interesting, and interact with the plot in compelling ways.

And how do you turn your character into a bowling ball? By giving them agency. They act and are not acted upon. They instigate and do not wait. Whether with swords, words, wisdom or inquiries, they move forward. And in doing so, change the plot in a manner uniquely their own.



Some Advice for Aspiring Authors

A lot of folks have been slinging advice for new authors of late, and some folks have even emailed me directly, so I thought I'd hitch up my britches and step into the ring. To be clear, this advice is meant for writers intent on going the self publishing route. If you're going to start a round of querying agents, that's a whole different bag of tea.

First off, who am I to opine? Hi. I'm Phil Tucker, author of the Chronicles of the Black Gate and the Godsblood trilogy, plus a dozen other novels that failed to make an impression on the Amazon algorithms. I've sold close to 100,000 copies of the Chronicles, and have been writing full time now for more than a year. 

So: advice. Hear ye, oh nascent authors, oh daring scribblers of art and fancy! This is what you're in for if you decide to self-publish, as best I can remember and predict.

First, it's a tough gig. But it's also chock full of magic. It's like... mining for magic ore. Grueling, thankless labor until you hit that seam of mithril and then it's grand until the seam runs out. 

More specifically, there are no guarantees in this game, and going self-pub isn't a much greater guarantee of success than trying the traditional model. It's just a different style, mostly. First you have to write the best book you can produce, then get as many qualified beta readers to rake it over the coals, then rewrite it, then hire the best editor you can reasonably afford and polish it to a high gloss. Huzzah! You've done it. You've written a book. You're just getting started.

Then you need to put on your business hat (mine looks like a green felt Robin Hood one with a feather) and study your genre, learn how Amazon works, and do your level best to launch your book with all the appropriate t's crossed and i's dotted. The single most important element of success is your cover. 'Cause everyone knows everyone judges books by them, right? The purpose of your cover isn't to look great. Or be unique. Or accurately represent your soul. It's to signal to browsing readers what kind of book yours is, what genre and niche it falls into, and convince them to take a closer look. Toward that end, study the top selling books in your genre and make sure your book communicates the same stuff they do. 

Then polish your blurb, make sure your 'Look Inside' ends on a cliff hanger, get in at least 9 Amazon categories by stuffing your keywords, enroll your book in KU, set it up for pre-order perhaps a month before release, launch your print version through Createspace then take it down but use the remnant print landing page as a means for your advance readers to post early reviews, maybe line up some promotions with Book Barbarian and Robin Reads or whatever, then: launch day!

And this is where things get a little grim. You're probably going to sell twenty or so copies on day 1, fifteen copies on day two, five copies on day three, then settle in for a meager 1 or 2 copies each day thereafter.

Cue the deflation, the recriminations, the self doubt, the anguish and anger. What did you do wrong? Are you just not good enough? Do you suck at marketing? Should you never have bothered?

This is where most authors quit. There's a great pile of abandoned Book 1's languishing in the depths of Amazon. Abandoned by authors whose dreams fell before the cruel reality of self publishing, which is this: almost nobody's first book does well. 

Heck, I published nearly a dozen under various pen names before I got lucky. You can do everything 'right' and still not take off. And that's OK. Because this is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to be ready for that if you're going to succeed. The big names in this game are the ones who refused to quit. They're also talented writers, but that's not what got them to the top, or not all, at any rate. They're one and all bloody minded and stubborn. They had to make this work. They stuck in there and rode out the disappointment. They published Book 2, then Book 3, then started a new series. And each time they learned more about the gig. They changed their cover artist. Found a better editor. Studied the genre, saw what was selling. And kept at it.

I nearly quit in 2014. I launched a Kickstarter to fund an UF vampire trilogy which I launched over the course of a year to crickets. I was making less than $25/month after going all in. It was agonizing. But there was literally nothing else I'd rather do, so I took a deep breath and went back to the drawing board. And tried again.

And here's another truth: no matter how much you internalize this message and prepare yourself for your book 1 to not sell, it's still going to sting. You're still going to get hurt. You're still going to feel anguished and like an impostor. There's no way around it. We all secretly believe we're the next big thing. That our book will take off and become knighted and ride white Lamborghini's into battle as the crowd cheers its name and throws confetti in the air. 

And sure, that happens to one or two folks every year. But for everyone that has it easy, there are thousands who don't. And amongst those thousands are perhaps ten who will stick it through and make it big eventually anyway. 

Be one of those ten. Do your best, fail, and then do better. Read Chris Fox's books on self publishing. Stalk the Writer's Cafe of KBoards and ask intelligent questions, read launch posts written by successful authors, soak in the knowledge. Study the best seller lists in your genre. Pick your cover artist as carefully as you'd pick your next... pet? Make sure your product page looks amazing. Fail again. Try again. Toughen up. Learn how to read your reviews so that they neither make nor break your day. 

And most importantly, keep writing. 

You do all that, one day you might look up, blink owlishly at your Book Report page and realize that hey, you're doing all right. You're doing pretty well, actually, and if this keeps up, you might be able to quit your day job six months from now. Become a full time author. That your dream might actually be in reach. And why?

Cause you never gave up, you never stopped learning, you never lost that hunger, and you never, ever quit writing. 

LitRPG Concept Art

I'm working with artist Ben Juniu to create a series of monster portraits for my upcoming LitRPG trilogy. The idea is to have these portraits inserted within the books, so that as you encounter these monsters in the tale you are also treated to a stunning depiction of them. I love what Ben's done with this first monster, and can't wait to share more images as Ben sends them my way.


Author Devyn Jayse asked if I'd be willing to answer a half dozen questions. I said sure, and my answers are up on her blog.

Sample questions:

  • What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
  • What were some challenges you faced when you published and how did you overcome them?
  • What are your favorite fantasy tropes? Which ones do you wish would die?

Head on over and check out the interview if you're curious as to what I said.