If you haven’t read the first post in this series, Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name, go back there now to get caught up. Otherwise, we’ll press on with the third and final part of pulp icon Lester Dent’s look at characters…



This seems to be a tougher one.

But it’s important.

The something inside the character isn’t solid and readily grasped, as are the external tags. Abstract is probably the word to use. So an attempt to explain what goes inside may do one of three things—fail to explain anything, ball it all up, or sound asinine.

Sometimes an approach to the problem can be made by going back and thinking about the character, starting at birth and following right through, so as to get the feeling of knowing just how the character happened to be a certain kind of person.

In the pulps, seems this doesn’t have to be very subtle. The hero’s sister is killed by crooks, and so he turns detective and is ever-after the implacable enemy of crooks. Slight variations of this old one are run ragged in the pulps, and in a slightly refined state, again run ragged in the slicks.

The whole idea is to dope out some reason for the character acting like a hero, a villain, or whatever.

While this is being done, it may prove convenient to concoct a reason for the character carrying the external tags which had been previously devised. In the pulps, the reason can be simple. Clancy, the cop, has walked a beat so long he’s got flat feet, and therefor foot trouble—and because he’s walked the beat so long, he has a consuming ambition to get in the detective bureau and show up these young school-trained cops who lack the Clancy experience. The ambition is what drives Clancy to do the things he does in the yarn. Now and then somebody even dresses this one up and sells it to the slicks.

What is inside the character seems to be highly vital. It will probably tie in with the motivation of the story, help furnish the reasons for things happening.

The higher the quality of the story, the more important what is inside apparently becomes.

Maybe the less said about this the better, because it is an abstract process, and probably the only thing to do is to sit down there and dope it out.


—Lester Dent

This part is particularly fascinating to me as we see Lester Dent, co-creator and principle author of Doc Savage—a character not know for his internal subtlety and nuance—essentially punting on what is actually the most important aspect of creating a character worth reading. And yet, people are still reading the old Doc Savage stories, so what do we take from that? That Dent managed to “sit down there and dope it out,” in a way he couldn’t explain, even to himself? Maybe, but let’s get to breaking this down and reassembling it after we finish up with the essay itself:




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If you haven’t read last week’s post, Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name, go back there now to get caught up. Otherwise, we’ll press on without further preamble…


This is probably the most important step.

Tag seems to be the term generally used. It means that the character is next equipped with something that the reader can readily recognize each time the actor appears on the scene.

A simple example of an external tag for purposes of illustration might be the one-legged old rascal in Treasure Island. The wooden leg is the thing that is remembered, hence it can be considered the tag.

External tags are peculiarities of appearance, manner, voice, clothing, hobby, etc. Incidentally, it might be wise to neglect wooden legs, because editors have a horror of cripples in yarns. This taboo against cripples is worth remembering, because it seems to be ironclad.*

Tagging is reliable stuff, apparently, judging by how much it is used in fiction, plays, radio, movies, books. The motion pictures usually apply a very obnoxious form of external tag to one or more minor characters. A supporting player in a film who goes around trying to do something—work a magic trick, for instance—throughout the picture is an example of such a tag.

If the character is a minor one in the story, it seems possible to hang on a very obvious, even humorous, tag.

If the character is the lead—be careful.

Be wary within limits, that is… Don’t make the tag too goofy, although the manner of handling may have a great deal to do with whether the tag makes the character seem silly or not. But make it interesting and intriguing enough to be what it is supposed to be—a label.

As a further example of varyingly bizarre tags which are made credible, it might be convenient to return to Rex Stout and his Nero Wolfe character. The character is a tremendously fat man—which is a not-so-zany tag. But Wolfe also raises orchids, and will not be disturbed by absolutely anything when tending them. He drinks prodigious amounts of beer, which must be exactly right as to temperature. He has a ridiculous horror of any moving vehicle. He is a nut on food… which, incidentally, is not the full list of tags on this character, but the job is done quite entertainingly. The moment Wolfe comes onto a scene, one of the tags is waved like a flag, so that there is no doubt about who has appeared.

That last statement is the idea.

Wave the tag. It is supposed to be an unmistakable label by which the reader can recognize the character instantly.

Frederick Nebel, in a series of good pulp yarns he once did for Black Mask, used a minor character, a cop, who ambled through the yarns devoting his time to snitching things to eat, and it was entertaining. After stepping into the slick magazines—which he did quite successfully—Nebel refined the tagging device somewhat. As example, in a recent short, he used a grandmother who devoted herself assiduously to eavesdropping, the eavesdropping being an obvious character tag.

If the tag can be used in the plot of the yarn, so much the better. The best yarns appear to be those in which there is no deadwood, so if the tag pasted on a character should happen to be the fact that he is an amateur camera fan, it might help a great deal if the fact can be made use of in the yarn—possibly the knowledge of photographic chemistry enables him to recognize a poisonous chemical which has been used for the murder method, and thus thwart the villain somehow.

In Doc Savage Magazine, a pulp, this external tagging has been utilized freely. One of the characters is always dressed in the height of sartorial perfection, the fancy clothes being his tag. Another character has one of his tags following around after him; it’s a pet pig. A third uses words of the most ungodly length, jawbreakers nobody can understand, at the slightest excuse. And Doc himself has been labelled freely with typical hero tags—great size, bronzed skin, compelling flake-gold eyes, quiet manner, amazing strength, fabulous knowledge of various subjects.

The variety of available tags seems to be legion. One of the characters can hate something intensely and spend his spare time grumbling about it. Or he may have a pet peeve on yet another character in the story and start a squabble at every slight opportunity.

Now… How to dig up these external tags?… This is somewhat more difficult than finding a name. Unfortunately, there is no thesaurus of character tags.

Some professional writers, in order to simplify the problem, assemble tags as they come across them and file them away on indexed cards. The biographies of famous persons are sometimes used as source material for character tags.

Perhaps there is no way of solving the problem except to sit in front of a typewriter and write down different possibilities until one happens along and clicks.

It may prove wise to give some thought to the character tag before deciding definitely to use it… That is, can it be used conveniently in the story? It’s embarrassing to think up a swell, intriguing tag, then find out that the thing will not fit in at all with the plot or the action of the story.

Acquiring the habit of looking for character labels when reading published yarns may be a help. The name writers, the ones who appear issue after issue in the pulps and the slicks, appear to be the ones who use the most character tags.

Often more than one tag is hung on a character. There seems to be no rule against it.

But for simplicity of handling, it might prove more feasible to devise one main tag, and wave that one like a flag whenever the character moves on the scene. Then the other tags can be subordinated and used whenever convenient.

In summary: The tag is simply something that identifies the character throughout the story. If, for instance, it should be decided to give Clancy, the cop, some foot-trouble for his tag, it might start out by having him getting a new pair of shoes near the opening of the yarn, a special pair of shoes which he knows will relieve his feet. On Clancy’s next appearance, he has the shoes on, and they’re wonderful. Next appearance, the shoes aren’t wonderful, and they hurt like hell. Then he takes them off. Finally he winds up carrying them. and possibly in the climax he uses one of them to bean the villain. God knows how many times that one has been used, with slight variation.

Now, the next step in making a character:



—Lester Dent


* Trust me, I’ll be circling back to this bit of flagrant insensitivity in the weeks ahead, but, yeah… you stay classy 1940.


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I’ve been running an online Pulp Fiction Workshop, which uses as its starting point author Lester Dent’s famous “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot,” and you’ve seen it quoted here several times in various contexts. But Dent (co-creator and principle author of the classic Doc Savage stories, among many, many other stories across multiple genres) had more advice to offer his fellow authors. With some previous posts touching on character names, and my apparent reluctance to get into that all-important aspect of fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding: naming people, places, and things, it’s a good time to find a common starting point. If Dent can start us talking about plot and story structure, maybe he can start the conversation in terms of characters as well.

To that end, let’s spend the next few weeks looking at Lester Dent’s essay “Wave Those Tags” (aka “Tag ’Em”), which was first published in the 1940 Writers Digest Yearbook:


This, again, is a personal opinion…

Here is a formula. It is a formula for creating characters to put in fiction yarns.

A blueprint, to say it another way, for making characters.

Now… before launching out in this character blueprint, it might be a good idea to borrow some sales psychology and build up the thing a little. To show, in other words, that it’ll work—that it is being used successfully.

While there seems to be some wariness about admitting it, most writers apparently work to formula to a great extent. Most pulp writers have seemingly devised a sure-fire masterplot, and have been writing and selling the same yarn over and over for years. A surprising number of the slick* authors seem to do the same thing. And there appears to be an inclination among editors to have their own idea of a formula for a yarn, and not buy anything that doesn’t fit. They call this the groove, or the slant.

[I’ve edited out a few notes from the original Writer’s Digest editors here, preferring to stick with Dent’s central point. —PA]

In order to write a story, it seems best to start with a plot and characters. Yarns can be written without either one, but it may be a little difficult to make a living selling them.

Whether the plot comes first, or the characters, seems to be a subject for argument. One method is to build the characters, then dope out a plot in which they strut their stuff in their respective manners. The other system is to construct the plot, then manufacture characters to fit it. Possibly an argument can be avoided by saying: start out the way that seems most convenient. Professional writers make both systems work. Most of them apparently mix the two systems.

Since this isn’t about plotting, it might be best to say nothing more about plots.

Possibly the initial step in creating a character should be.



It is very doubtful if the name is the most important step in creating a character—but it does seem to be the natural first thing to do.

Names are convenient as handles. But it helps if the characterizing doesn’t stop with merely finding a name. One of the loudest squawks from editors is that so many characters are just names being dragged through yarns.

Making the name of the character different from that of any other actor in the story is usually a good idea. Should there be Morgans, Mermans and Murtons in the yarn, somebody may be inclined to become confused.

It may also be nice to have the name sort of express the nature of the character—convey some suggestion as to his manner, appearance, nationality, occupation, or something. This gag appears to be quite widely used.

Examples: Dashiell Hammett used a detective character named Spade, which was a hard digging instrument quite in keeping with the name… Another writer of whodunnits, Rex Stout, seems inclined to make use of predatory animals as a name source—Nero Wolfe and Tecumseh Fox being two instances. A further analytical dissection of these last two names might lead to the surmise that, in the case of Nero Wolfe, the name Nero was used because it conveys the idea of a guy who is inclined to fiddle while Rome burns, which the fiction character at times apparently, although never actually, does. The name Nero might also have certain inherent leonine qualities. The Tecumseh Fox name might be analyzed as implying a man who was as sturdy and inscrutable as the old Indian chief, externally, while actually being as sly as a fox… Erle Stanley Gardner has had great success with a character named Perry Mason, although here an analysis might approach conjecture. A mason is a builder, and the word parry means to fend off: which is the way the character works—fending off numerous enemies while building his cases. (No guarantee went with this paragraph of mindreading.)

If heroes have manly names, it may help.

Taking a thesaurus and looking up words with strong, manly meanings, then improvising upon them, might be a trick worth trying.

In the pulps, this approach to name-making often is obvious. Pulp hacks are guilty of characters with such names as Click Rush and Mace and Lash.

Apparently the names of flowers and pretty things are frequently used for the beautiful young heroine in the yarn. The thesaurus could be consulted for these, too.

A reliable old gag for getting names for foreign characters is to open an atlas, look at the map of his native country and pick out a town, river, mountain or anything that has the flavor, and use that.

Foreign language words for trees, flowers, food or such things can be used, providing one has a book on how to speak the foreign language.

Villains may possibly be made to sound like rascals by using harsh, unpleasant names. Example: Didn’t Hammett use a villain named Gutman?

A good hissy, snaky sounding name has helped make many a villain.

Telephone books can be a source of names, or of confusion.

The gag of using expressive names, while a much-used one, might possibly be overdone. The comic strips make use of it to an extreme degree, but editors of fiction magazines may prefer that it be tamed down a little, made more subtle.

Now… here is the next move in creating a character:




—Lester Dent


* In the parlance of the day, slick = the highbrow magazines printed on higher quality paper vs. pulp = lowbrow magazines printed on cheap wood pulp/newsprint paper.


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Everything everyone has ever written is about something. Even the simplest note has some underlying message, every shopping list begins with some intent, even if it’s as simple as “every home needs toilet paper” or as personal as “the things my doctor told me to start eating so I won’t die.”

How could something as huge as a novel be any different?

One of the early chapters in my book The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is entitled “Have Something to Say.” There I get into the concept of theme. Now, “theme” is a word that can have multiple definitions, but for me it simply asks: What is the idea at the heart of your story—what do you have to say?

In that book, I wrote:

The theme of your novel is a choice only you can make. If you try to take a stand you don’t believe in, your story will ring hollow. Your novel requires your unique political perspective, moral compass, ingrained ethics, religious beliefs, and worldview.

I think this is one of the two wellsprings from which a novel begins to form. The other is the even looser concept of the “idea,” which we’ve touched on recently too. The idea is the beginning of a narrative, or some bit of story that appears maybe even fully formed in your imagination, but theme is what you’re using that idea to communicate, or as Jane Yolen wrote in her brilliant book Take Joy:

Writing a story is a great deal like building a house. There is all that paperwork before you even begin. Notes. Research. The jotting down of ideas. But the most important beginning step is still warming things up at ground level so you can erect your story over that important foundation—the theme. For that is what theme really is—the sub-basement of whatever tale you are planning to tell.

Not everyone has to be a “political author,” and not every book has to be a “political book,” but any story should start with something you have to say. And everyone has something to say. If you’re a human in the world, you have something to say and the right to say it, and you can deliver that message in the form of fiction.

I’ll admit to some reluctance in using that word “message,” which runs the risk of being read as me advising everyone to pick sides, to beat each other over the head with some kind of specific political gripe, but that’s not at all what I’m saying. What you have to say doesn’t have to be all that controversial or in any way confrontational. George Orwell went on the offensive in 1984, but other authors, like, say, C.S. Lewis, rounded the edges of his message in the Narnia series, but both authors had something to say and they said it.

Everybody knows by now that I’m a huge Dune fan, and I’ve been slowly working my way through the whole series, including the new books. I’ve finished the books that I’d read previously—and I basically never re-read books, but I re-read those—and I’ve made it to where I wandered off in the 1980s. Last week I started in on Heretics of Dune, which was published about twenty years after the original. In a brief introduction to that book, author Frank Herbert mused a bit on what he set out to do when he wrote the original novel:

It was to be a story exploring the myth of the Messiah.

It was to produce another view of a human-occupied planet as an energy machine.

It was to penetrate the interlocked workings of politics and economics.

It was to be an examination of absolute prediction and its pitfalls.

It was to have an awareness drug in it and tell what could happen through dependence on such a substance.

Potable water was to be an analog for oil and for water itself, a substance whose supply diminishes each day.

It was to be an ecological novel, then, with many overtones, as well as a story about people and their human concerns with human values, and I had to monitor each of these levels at every stage in the book.

I find this fascinating, and I’d like us to think of this in terms of an exercise.

Before you start your next novel or short story, in your notes or even just in your head, think about what you have to say, embracing at least one, and any combination of Herbert’s: It is to be…

  • It is to be a story that does some particular thing—that has some specific goal in mind.
  • It is to produce another view of an institution, way of life, philosophy, religion, ideology (etc. that exists or existed in the real world.
  • It is to penetrate the workings of an institution that exists or existed in the real world.
  • It is to be an examination of something happening or that has happened or I think might happen in the real world.
  • It is to have a particular thing, possibly heavily fictionalized, that is of concern in the real world.
  • It is to be a [?] novel in which [?] could be any combination of one or some of: political, entertaining, romantic, funny, heartbreaking, eye-opening, etc.—and this list could go on almost forever. But the point is, it’s a novel that has some kind of point of view—your point of view.

Then start writing. And don’t be surprised when, at the end, you find you’ve written something at least a little different from what you intended.


—Philip Athans

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This post originally appeared on the blog Mel Odom and I set up for the Arron of the Black Forest series—a series that stopped, unfortunately, at the first book—but looking back at this I thought it was worth sharing again, not just to maybe throw a little light on that old eBook, but to reconnect with H.P. Lovecraft in a fun way, separate from all the discussion of Lovecraft the racist, and so on, and touching back on Lovecraft the weird, absurdist wordsmith . . .


In my travels through the stygian corridors of the noisome internet, I ran across the brilliant site Cthulhu Chick in which we’re given a list of some of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorite words—the often antiquated usage he’s known for, and some other popular favorites. Since I knew going in that The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff was as much an homage to Lovecraft as anything, I kept this list next to me as I wrote, trying my damnedest to use as many of them as I could.

Here’s how that worked out, with the number of times Lovecraft used that word himself in parenthesis after each word, which is called out in bold:

There was more than one ghost in this accursed (76) place, and all of them were focused around this “Captain,” a man who was a failure in life, and who died a cripple, tortured by his household servants.

She was not what she appeared, but an undead thing, the blasphemous (92) shade of a woman dead for nigh on a century.

“I am but a servant,” the demonic (55) force inside Latimer replied. “Chief among the servants. You have met a few of my less fortunate charges.”

Why not let this Captain have me, so you and your Groundskeeper and whatever else lurks in this eldritch (23) hovel can—”

And the magus started to nod then just fainted (189), falling in a heap on the leaf-littered flagstone floor.

Arron took note of the Hound’s furtive (60) glance his way.

The gambrel (21) roof bowed, paint flaked off, and rainwater cascaded down from the corners, making little waterfalls all its own.

A gibbous (9) moon shined and stars twinkled above him, eclipsed at one edge by a semicircle of roiling clouds.

As the bog ape gibbered (10) and screamed, roiling its troop to a murderous frenzy, Arron stared into the dead eyes of his brother.

“You don’t know me,” the ghost said and even as she spoke her face changed into a hideous (260) mask of decay.

There was no one home to hear his knock, and probably hadn’t been since time immemorial (25).

He saw the skeletons of trees, the spilled-entrails jumble of the thorny underbrush, but could only feel the animal—or animals—that lurked (15) there.

Something screamed at him—a sound like a little boy shrieking in mortal (27) agony—and Arron turned and ran for the house.

Using just the sounds of its tiny clawed feet on the sparse gravel, Arron swiped at the nameless (157) thing with his axe, but the battered old blade passed through nothing but air.

This isn’t one of the fishermen from Gifford’s Quay, one of the noisome (33), superstitious local fishmongers who know better than to set foot on the path to Dragon’s Cliff.

Far more powerful than the hurricane’s gale, the force of her singular (115) cry lifted him fully off his feet.

Arron couldn’t believe he was having a conversation with a ghost, but he realized this spectral (60) girl was the first “person” he’d spoken to at any length in weeks—the Heteronomy’s stooge in the barn not withstanding.

Arron’s nose filled with the stench (59) of the decay of not just the house, but the entire civilization that built it.

Arron looked back down the old road into the stygian (6) darkness of the sparse forest.

This swarthy (14) child of the Heteronomy may do well, once we’ve taken some pieces of him, once his soul is consigned to Outer Darkness and his earthly form carved clean for the Captain to inhabit as a hermit crab moves from shell to shell to shell as it eats and grows and breeds.

I’ve seen the barbarian hew at walls, rage at the tenebrous (9) air, and hurl himself through the attic window, but I have not seen him oppugn* the living.

His ears rattled under the onslaught of the preternatural, ululating (4) shriek—then his eardrums burst and his eyes snapped closed against the pain.

It mixed with the drool that all but poured out of his mouth to spatter his chest an unmentionable (16) green.

The storm will fuel his fear, ignite his superstitions to fill his heart with unnamable (22) horrors, but at the same time it will drive him here, to me.

Shandy had come to this house in the loneliest stretches of the Hooks in the middle of a hurricane to kill Arron and bring his head back in trade for a pouch of coins, but still the barbarian couldn’t leave a man to this unutterable (13) fate.

I was particularly proud of the times I managed to work more than one into a single sentence:

The pain was monstrous, but nothing compared to the fetid (22), dank (19) effluence of the creature’s charnel (20) breath.

Something small, tentacled (28), and loathsome (71) dragged itself across the path in front of him and was gone, but even then, even with his mighty forearm thrown up against his eyes, Arron could sense its foul presence.

“Behold,” Latimer said—but Arron knew without anyone having to tell him that this was no longer Latimer, but some new demented spirit, some indescribable (25) madness (115) from beyond the grave.

For H.P., with cyclopean, amorphous, iridescent respect!


—Philip Athans


* I grant myself bonus points for this one. Don’t oppugn my methods for sending you to the dictionary a couple times at least!

And . . .

Yes, I’m fully aware that here you see characters (monsters, more correctly) referred to as the Captain and the Groundskeeper . . . Do what I say, not what I do?



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I read what other authors have to say about writing. I wouldn’t say I read that “obsessively,” but definitely “regularly.” You should be doing that to—and, I guess, if you’re reading this right now . . . you are!

Though I don’t do guest posts here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, I thought maybe this week I’ll more or less turn it over to a few other authors—from articles and interviews of theirs I’ve read , on the subject of ideas and inspiration.

How does a story actually begin to form in an author’s mind? How does it move forward from vague concept to finished prose? This is the Big Mystery out of all the many and varied Big Mysteries in the realm of creative writing.

Where do ideas come from? What is the source of human creativity? I have no idea, so let’s see what a few smart people have to say . . .

Neil Gaiman tackles this head on in “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” where he concentrates on an author’s inner dialog:

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.

You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if . . . ?

(What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? What if you all found out that your teacher was planning to eat one of you at the end of term—but you didn’t know who?)

Another important question is, If only . . .

(If only real life was like it is in Hollywood musicals. If only I could shrink myself small as a button. If only a ghost would do my homework.)

And then there are the others: I wonder . . . (‘I wonder what she does when she’s alone . . .’) and If This Goes On . . .. (‘If this goes on telephones are going to start talking to each other, and cut out the middleman . . .’) and Wouldn’t it be interesting if . . . (‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if the world used to be ruled by cats?’) . . . Those questions, and others like them, and the questions they, in their turn, pose (‘Well, if cats used to rule the world, why don’t they any more? And how do they feel about that?’) are one of the places ideas come from.

Often ideas come from two things coming together that haven’t come together before. (‘If a person bitten by a werewolf turns into a wolf what would happen if a goldfish was bitten by a werewolf? What would happen if a chair was bitten by a werewolf?’)

Isaac Asimov, the Grand Master of Grand Masters of science fiction, wrote an essay called “How Do People Get New Ideas?“ in 1959 that, though more concerned with the development of new scientific theories, still has a lot to tell us about creativity in general and the dichotomy of creating as a strictly personal, isolated pursuit and the concept of the “cerebration program,” which we might call a “writers group”:

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

But how to persuade creative people to do so? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.

The optimum number of the group would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted. A larger group might have a larger total supply of information, but there would be the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating. It would probably be better to have a number of sessions at which the people attending would vary, rather than one session including them all. (This would involve a certain repetition, but even repetition is not in itself undesirable. It is not what people say at these conferences, but what they inspire in each other later on.)

For best purposes, there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence—not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness. For this purpose I think a meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room.

Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.

To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.

For a more spiritual take, in the introductory material for his graphic novel collection Screaming Planet, mad genius Alexandro Jodorowsky wrote:

I admit that I would often get down on my knees and pray to my unconscious: “I can’t imagine my way out. Please, give me the solution!” After a while, the solution would pop into my mind. I do mean “pop,” because I wasn’t crafting it. I just contented myself to receive it fully formed in my mind. In those privileged moments, my heart would beat faster and with an exquisite joy I would exclaim: “Thank you, my unconscious! Thank you for this gift!”

And in the additional material for my online Horror Intensive (which is starting up again in a couple weeks), I quote the great Stephen King three times on the nature, source, and wellspring of ideas. The first is from an interview with Rolling Stone:

I can remember as a college student writing stories and novels, some of which ended up getting published and some that didn’t. It was like my head was going to burst—there were so many things I wanted to write all at once. I had so many ideas, jammed up. It was like they just needed permission to come out. I had this huge aquifer underneath of stories that I wanted to tell and I stuck a pipe down in there and everything just gushed out. There’s still a lot of it, but there’s not as much now.

Next, from a Paris Review interview in which he discusses commenting on, or being inspired by, current events or trends:

Take Cell. The idea came about this way: I came out of a hotel in New York and I saw this woman talking on her cell phone. And I thought to myself, What if she got a message over the cell phone that she couldn’t resist, and she had to kill people until somebody killed her? All the possible ramifications started bouncing around in my head like pinballs. If everybody got the same message, then everybody who had a cell phone would go crazy. Normal people would see this, and the first thing they would do would be to call their friends and families on their cell phones. So the epidemic would spread like poison ivy. Then, later, I was walking down the street and I see some guy who is apparently a crazy person yelling to himself. And I want to cross the street to get away from him. Except he’s not a bum; he’s dressed in a suit. Then I see he’s got one of these plugs in his ear and he’s talking into his cell phone. And I thought to myself, I really want to write this story.

It was an instant concept. Then I read a lot about the cell phone business and started to look at the cell phone towers. So it’s a very current book, but it came out of a concern about the way we talk to each other today.

Then he doubles down on his warning to jump on those ideas when they’re still there in this interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:

But for me, you reach a point of diminishing returns. Also, I’m older. I wrote more when I was younger, working on two different projects: I’d work on something new in the morning and something that was done at night. But it was never done to make money. It was done because all those ideas were there. They were all screaming to get out at the same time and they all seemed good.

Personally, I get my ideas from a demon baby that lives in my brain and tells me things by whispering them into my soul.

Y’know . . . like they do.


—Philip Athans



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I know for sure that as a reader of fantasy, and to a slightly lesser degree, science fiction, you have run across a common word with an initial cap used to convey some special emphasis, or just general “specialness,” and used not in place of but as a proper name. Maybe you’ve committed this sin in your own writing.

This is not good. It’s not good worldbuilding, and it’s not good writing.

Okay—it’s not the end of the world, but . . . yeah . . . it kinda is.

For me, at least, it’s the end of your unique world, because when you do this, especially when you do this most of the time, and there are some of you—and you know who you are—who do this almost all the time, I stop living in your world and start seeing your writing. Or worse, I start seeing the lack of attention paid to the worldbuilding.

If you can do a match case search for anything on this list and find it in your work in progress, this is your wake up call, your challenge to build just a little bit more world in that particular spot. And this is not at all a complete list:

the Council

the Wizard

the School

the Hero

the Villain

the Throne

the Sword

the Dragon

the Tower

the Forest

the City

the Temple

the Doctor (except for that English guy)

the Ranger (J.R.R. got that one, you can’t have it back)

the Kleenex… wait, that one you actually need!

Kleenex is a brand name—always look up brand names and type them the same as you see on that brand’s official web site.

As for the others, and especially with successful examples like the Doctor and the Ranger sort of making me look like a jerk here, I get what you’re going for. This isn’t just a tower, it’s the Tower. But then, if it’s that important to the people who built it, why didn’t they name it? Here’s a picture of a very famous building:

The Building rises up over the City.

Note that it isn’t called the Building.

In pretty much every case, I caution you to fall back on an existing rule of grammar and syntax before you make up one of your own, and only make up a new rule if it really means something to you. So just as military ranks you’ve created, like spearmaster, should follow the same rules as existing military ranks like captain:

“Where is Spearmaster Galen?” Bronwyn asked, having not seen the spearmaster since leaving the Tower for the Breakfast.

“He went fishing with the swordcaptains,” the custodian replied. “You’ll find him down by the Lake.”

So should everything else:

“Where is Spearmaster Galen?” Bronwyn asked, having not seen the spearmaster since leaving the tower for breakfast.

“He went fishing with the swordcaptains,” the custodian replied. “You’ll find him down by the lake.”

But if the tower is a particularly special tower, and there’s more than one lake . . .

“Where is Spearmaster Galen?” Bronwyn asked, having not seen the spearmaster since leaving the Tower of Seven Spears for breakfast.

“He went fishing with the swordcaptains,” the custodian replied. “You’ll find him down by Zargrandis Lake.”

Now these have become proper nouns.

Just like the Empire State Building or the Mall of America, it’s the Tower of Seven Spears. And note that the article before it is not capitalized in the middle of a sentence, so it’s the Tower of Seven Spears and not The Tower of Seven Spears.

And woe be onto thee who forces an editor to fix every instance of The Council, even if it’s The Council of Twelve, which makes it a particular (proper noun) council.

And just like we name lakes Lake Michigan or even Crystal Lake in the real world, the Lake becomes Zargrandis Lake in my fantasy world.

I just made up the name Zargrandis on the spot, by the way. He was a famous mapmaker who was the first to start coloring in lakes with blue paint, or so I’ve just now decided. I Googled the word Zargrandis because you should do that with every name you just make up in case it means “eat shit and die” in Swahili or something. All I got was an ice cream shop in Surabaya, Indonesia that leaves off the s at the end, so I’m good. They’re on Foursquare.

Let’s face it, a good 90% of fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding comes down to naming stuff.

Naming characters, naming cities, naming continents, naming mountain ranges, and so on. Ed Greenwood didn’t invent the concept of a continent, but when he created an imaginary one of his own, he named it Faerûn, not the Continent. J.K. Rowling didn’t invent the idea of a boarding school, but when she created one she named it Hogwarts, not the Boarding School.

People name stuff. And okay, not every name is particularly creative. The biggest city in America is named after a much smaller city in England—the Puritans not necessarily known for wild flights of fancy, I guess—especially since it used to be named after a city in the Netherlands before the British colonists got all British and renamed it. But see? There’s a little story behind the name of that city. It’s not just the City.

America is full of hyper literal place names like Death Valley or Boring, Oregon or Volcano, Hawaii. But most of the time we name places after some kind of feeling we want to convey, like the town of Fertile, Iowa, which probably is; or Pyongyang (Peaceful Land), North Korea, which definitely isn’t.

We also like to name places after significant historical figures, like the city of Lafayette, Indiana, named for the French general who fought for the newly-independent Americans in the Revolutionary War; or the state of Washington, where I live, which is named for a character in the popular 1970s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter.

I’d like to live in a town called Malice because I’m a big fan of the Jam, but I live in Sammamish, which is a native Lushoostseed word that, according to Wikipedia, means “meander dwellers, or willow people,” which is just kinda weird. But whatever inspired that, at least it isn’t called the Town or worse, the Suburb.

See where I’m going with this?

How to name places, much less people, is a bigger subject that I don’t want to blow through here, but at least let’s start with not simply hitting a generic word with an initial cap—at least not past the placeholder phase.

Both the Editor and the Reader will appreciate it.


—Philip Athans


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