It isn’t possible to do this for every single character, but those playing a major role are owed a tangible existence by the author. Characters with no depth may appear to readers as one or two-dimensional, and this should only apply to incidental characters who may only appear once or very occasionally. I have read an awful lot of books in which many, if not all of the characters, are nothing more than words on the pages they are written on. Stories are nothing unless they come alive in the mind and stand out with a firm existence on those pages. It’s no good for an author to introduce their characters simply by name and the words that come out of their mouths; I want to know what they look like, what their body language suggests about them, and I want them to have distinctly individual personalities.
There are a few people who have read something of my writing already who have told me that many of my characters represent different sides of my own personality. This is undoubtedly true. Authors who truly care about their writing and their characters will inject some measure of their own life experiences and emotions, and also the experiences and emotions of those they know or of peoples they have researched. If you’re one of those readers who really engages with a story and its characters on a personal and emotional level, I hope that there will be at least one character of mine that you might relate to.
The point I am trying to make here is that as a reader, I am so often perplexed by the lack of empathy from some authors, and I want to express my desire to bring my characters to life. I can’t promise that every reader will think of my characters as three-dimensional, but I can dream, and hope that many still will. One of my favourite quotes is from the poet, Robert Frost; “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Not every story is going to touch every reader in the same way, but the effort should always be noticeable. Characters should have a very strong, tangible presence on the page, or they will fail to touch hearts and minds, and nobody will be able to see them as anything more than a name.
Any author worth their salt will implement consequences or some form of penalty for characters who use magic. You cannot walk, or run, or swim without expending energy, and likewise you cannot think, or perform any sort of mental activity without doing the same. Nevertheless, some characters may be more adept at using magic and have greater endurance than others, and this can be reflected in racial traits, and/or experience and talent. I’ve seen floating continents or islands in many fantasy worlds, but few of them ever explain what actually keeps them aloft. If anyone ever says “well it’s magic”, I will shoot them with as sarcastic a comment as I can think of. What, pray tell, is controlling that magic? Is there a natural disturbance in the atmosphere? If so, what caused it? Did some ancient magician use a powerful spell to lift it into the air? If so, how has it remained aloft for centuries or millennia if said magician is long dead?
No fantasy world is believable if it has a magic system that the author cannot explain. It might be asking too much of an author to explain every single detail, but they should be able to tell you, during the course of their stories, enough so that it at least makes logical sense. Physics may work differently or be more malleable in a world that is not Earth, so if you have more than one moon in the sky, the author should be prepared to explain that one as well if the ocean tides are no different to that of our own world. There must always pros and cons, for without them there is little to no clarity. Even the most supremely powerful being needs some form of weakness to make them believable, even though to the rest of the world it might seem as though they have none. There ought to be some penalties somewhere along the line.
This has just been a short piece to explain my stance on how I believe the use of magic in fantasy worlds needs to be explainable in order for readers to make sense of it. Speculation can only be taken so far after all. I hope you find it useful.
How often have you read a book that involves topics you’re passionate about? I am not referring to genre, but rather themes and subjects that may be involved. You may have a particular interest in ancient history and mythology, or modern warfare, or in this case, the age of sail.
I have a penchant for wanting to be as accurate as I possibly can be, even with fantasy. If there’s no way an author can explain how his/her world works scientifically or magically, then they may lose their clarity and integrity. My own world typically has a 17th-18th century setting, but also merges with and links to medieval and ancient times, and so I endeavour to research words and inventions linked to those eras. There is always wiggle room in fantasy and science fiction, but whatever you write has to make sense.
If you want to tweak any aspect of a subject for your writing, you need to know enough for those changes to function in your world/story. In historical fiction based here on Earth, there’s no excuse for mistakes. You really need to know your history inside out. In fantasy and science fiction, however, an explanation is necessary. Altering something for your own amusement isn’t the way to go unless you’re intending on writing parodies, which would also need to be made clear. One author I’ve read the work of stated he made changes for his own personal amusement. By all means change something for your own amusement if you’re writing solely for yourself and not for a wider audience, but avoid it in your writing unless you can explain your changes so that readers will understand.
As we get down to discussing all things nautical, do you know how long it takes to sail from the United Kingdom to the Caribbean? Let’s be pedantic and say that your vessel can only set sail if she actually has sails. Modern cruise ships, I’m sorry to say, cannot sail because they have no sails. So what’s the answer? Don’t know? Well, if you average at around 10 knots from the moment you depart Cardiff, you might get there in about two weeks; three weeks if you’re doing 7 knots. That’s assuming your characters are on board a 17th century sailing ship and the wind is favourable from start to finish – which is unlikely unless or until you’re hitting prevailing winds in the right direction.
If you have an idea of how far your characters will be sailing, try using this fantastic website I came across – www.sea-distances.org. I had a fair idea of short distances from having sailed on tall ships in real life, such as Cardiff to Southampton. Without stopping off at a port and with the wind solely in the ship’s favour, that can take about two or three days.
And what about nautical terminology and how sailors generally behaved? Bear in mind that the majority of your readers probably aren’t going to be seafarers, they probably aren’t going to understand what you’re talking about when a ship is preparing to lie-to unless you’re going to explain what that means. The same goes for a tacking order such as, “helm’s a’lee! Ready about!” They mean nothing if you aren’t familiar with the jargon and aren’t given an explanation. Have a look for the Haynes manual on HMS Victory by Peter Goodwin to find out about how to sail an 18th century man-o-war, the Sailor’s Word Book by W. H. Smyth, and Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton. For information specifically about piracy, I recommend Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly, and The Sea Rover’s Practice by Benerson Little. You’d be surprised at just how much information there is to take on board out there – pardon the pun.
Speaking of puns, and of course phrases, you might want to look up where every day idioms originated. You’ll find a lot of them, such as: three sheets to the wind, showing one’s true colours, and no room to swing a cat, are nautical in origin. And don’t forget the kind of language that was generally spoken by sailors back in the day, and how they sang shanties both at work and at leisure to keep up morale. They tended to use a lot of profanity, and accents/dialects varied considering they all came from a variety of countries, regions and backgrounds. Pirates did not typically wander around shouting “arrrrrgh!” either, though some of them, such as Edward Teach (or Thatch – better known as Blackbeard), were born in the south-west of England, meaning their accent/dialect would sound like your stereotypical pirate.
Don’t, however, be too concerned if your characters have motives or back stories that might seem a little clichéd; the last thing you want to do is change who your character is just because a handful of people might groan and roll their eyes. You won’t be able to please everybody. So, if you have a pirate who’s descended from nobility and has a penchant for being a ladies’ man like I do, don’t worry about it. However, you should be aware of both truths and myths, and apply them to any one individual’s personal circumstances, and build their personalities on that basis.
Ultimately, you must write what works for you, but realism and familiarity are needed for your readers to make the right connections. Research on any given topic is key for authors, and I hope that I’ve been able to shed some light on all things nautical, and how you might further your own research. If you should make any changes to how something works, be prepared to explain how and why it works the way it does so your readers can understand.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover.”