Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.51: Wrap-up on the Year of Character

Your Hosts: Brandon, Valynne, Dan, and Howard

We decided to wrap up this year on character by letting Brandon ask us some deep questions. “We decided” might be the wrong phrase, because nobody except Brandon knew what the questions were, so it might be more accurate to say “we rolled with it.”

It rolled quite nicely.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson. It was posted to the web by Howard, who is also the one who didn’t post until twenty-eight hours and twenty-minutes after he should have. 

Homework: No homework. No prompt. But, y’know, if you want to flip through the homework you’ve done this year and consider what you’ve improved at, and where you might need more practice, that would be awesome.

Thing of the week: Fires of Invention: The Mysteries of Cove, Book 1, by J. Scott Savage.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:

Q: Are there characters in fiction or some sort of story that you have read that have changed your life in some way? Either recently or in the past? Who are they, and why?

A: Howard: A character in Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling, who was asked “What do you do?” and went and made an answer. Dan: The bishop in Les Miserables. Valynne: Atticus Finch. Because as writers, we have to walk in someone else’s shoes. And do the right thing, no matter what anyone else thinks. Brandon: Jenny from Dragonsbane, because it taught me that I can read anything about anyone, and it’s more interesting if they are really different from me.

Q: Is there a character you want to write about or tried and failed, that you still want to write about but haven’t found the right book yet?

A: Valynne: A loligoth with a filthy mouth. Brandon: a teen who grew up talking like a warlord. Dan: Gavroche growing into Enjolras. Howard: a cast of people in the Planet Mercenary RPG entries.

Q: Who are the best and worst characters you have ever written?

A: Dan: John Cleaver is best developed and favorite to write. Drudge from The Legend of Krag the Barbarian is worst. Brandon: Best? Well, Dalinar is most recent. Worst, Padan Fain got flubbed in the Wheel of Time. Valynne: best is the brothers in Ink and Ashes, who came to life and seemed like real people. Worst weren’t published, so pretend they never happened. Howard: The first year of Schlock Mercenary. Caricatures, and inconsistent ones! Best job? The ancient Oafan librarian.

Q: What about pointing out great characters from each other?

A: Dan: I love Capt. Tagon wondering if he could live up to his own legacy. Brandon: Valynne, your stepdad. Valynne: Brandon, Alcatraz. Howard: John Cleaver’s mom.

[Mary] Season 13, Episode 51.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Wrap-Up on the Year of Character.

[Valynne] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not going to get through all this in 15 minutes, but we’re going to try anyway.

[Brandon] So…


[Brandon] We have come to the end of another year of Writing Excuses. I think there’s another episode next week, but this is kind of the end of our character year, right here.

[Howard] This is also the episode where we say farewell to Valynne Maetani.

[Brandon] Aw… Valynne, you’ve been awesome. Thanks for being on…

[Valynne] Thank you.

[Brandon] But you still have one left to do with us, where I’m going to throw kind of hard questions that you guys. Such as… Let’s do this one.


[Brandon] I’ve got… These are hard questions.

[Howard] Okay.

[Brandon] Now I’ve warned you.

[Howard] I’m ready for hard questions. That’s fine.

[Brandon] All right. Are there characters in fiction or some sort of story that you have read that have changed your life in some way? Either recently or in the past?

[Howard] Yes.

[Brandon] Okay. Who are they, and why?

[Howard] I don’t actually remember the character’s name. But the story was Heavy Weather. The novel was Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling. It is a character who is handicapped, has a hard time breathing. Joins a group of storm chasers and at one point, one of the characters asks him, “So what do you hack?” The term hack meant what is it you do, what are you good at? At the beginning of the story, he couldn’t answer the question. They’re resource strapped, getting an education is hard. But he sets out to learn things. At the end of the story, the thing that he can hack ends up being really important. That moment really stuck with me. That someone was asked, “What do you do?” and he couldn’t answer the question, so he went out and made an answer. Can’t remember the character’s name, but I loved that.

[Brandon] That’s awesome. Dan, you said yes.

[Dan] I did say yes. I’m just trying to decide which one. As cliché as it is, the bishop from the first 70 pages of Les Mis. I mean, they… He gets like one scene in the musical. Then you say, “Oh, that’s gonna be cool. I’m going to go read the book.” You realize the entire first like 90 chapters of that massive book are all about this guy before we even get to Valjean, and you just learn about this bishop and who he is and why he is so nice, all building up to the moment where Valjean steals his silver, and instead of accusing him, he gives them all the rest of the silver and says, “Here. I’ve bought your soul for God. Go be a good person.”

[Howard] “You forgot some.”

[Dan] Yeah. He really did change me. Because he’s just an incredibly cool guy.

[Valynne] One of my all-time favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird. I first read it in sixth grade. I was 12 years old. Atticus Finch, his… That character has just stuck with me forever. There’s a line in that book where he talks about walking in someone else’s shoes. That is something that has stuck with me for so long. Also, just trying to… I think that as we… As a writer, that’s what we have to do all the time, is walk in someone else’s shoes. But I was also just so in awe of his ability to do the right thing no matter what. No matter what other people thought. I think as a child, especially that young, you’re always worried about what other kids think about you. Having grown up in Utah and being Japanese-American, I was always worried about what people thought about me. So I loved that, where you just do what you think is right no matter what anyone else thinks. That was very life-changing for me.

[Brandon] I’ve often mentioned Dragonsbane is one of my favorite books. Jenny from Dragonsbane is the main character. What this did to me… It’s more meta than what you guys… You guys have inspiring characters…


[Brandon] I actually… I love [garbled] I’ve often mentioned that. But to be different, what changed with me when I read this book was it felt like… And I’m probably wrong in this… But it felt like society had taught me that as a teen boy, I should read books about teen boys. Right? I was so bored of the books people were giving me, and this is a book about a woman… Middle-aged woman having a midlife crisis. Kind of. In a fantasy world that’s really cool. She’s choosing between her family and magic, and stuff like this. She’s probably younger in the book than I am now. But in my head, it was like this woman is so old. You can’t get more removed from who I am. Yet I love this book more than any book I have ever read. When I was reading it. It was part of what taught me, all that stuff about I should be reading only books about 14-year-old boys when I was a 14-year-old boy, that… It just threw that all out the window. Said, “No, I’m not…” I mean, I’m sure there are great books about 14-year-old boys, but that’s not what I have to read. I can read anything I want about anyone I want, and I can find it more interesting when they’re really different from me. That was kind of game changing for me and my teenage brain, particularly because the woman in the book reminded me so much of my mother, in kind of good ways. Like, she reminded me of my mother because my mother had always had to choose. When she had been in college, she’d chosen between having me and going and getting a prestigious degree in accounting. She’d always talked about this choice, where she went back to accounting, but when she had a young kid, she wanted to raise the kid. That was her personal choice. As a teenager, I had always thought, “Well, of course she did. That I am awesome.”


[Brandon] In reading this book, I was always like, “Forget your family, woman. You can be a wizard. Leave, go do the magic.” I’m like, “Oh, wait. That’s the choice my mom made. Accounting is magic to her.” It was one of these really eye-opening things. So, there’s my Dragonsbane rant if you haven’t heard it before.

[Brandon] Let me ask you guys this one. Is there a character you want to write about or that you’ve tried writing into a story and they’ve failed that you still want to, but haven’t found a chance to get in the right book? If so, who are they? Why didn’t they work, or why haven’t you found the right story for them yet?

[Valynne] Well, in the book that I’m currently working on… It’s called Seven Deadly Shadows. I’m cowriting it with Courtney Alameda. It’s a Japanese young adult dark fantasy with all these yokai, demons, and every twisted Japanese monster you can think of. We have this character that I wrote that I absolutely loved. She is a teenage girl. She is a loligoth and dresses really cutesy and has the filthiest mouth you have ever heard.


[Valynne] We had to cut her because she just didn’t really add… She just wasn’t adding to the story. I hope, at some point, I can use that character just because I love the idea of having this cute little like Sailor Moon type girl…


[Valynne] Just running her mouth off at everything.

[Brandon] Mine is similar. I actually just found a place for them. About four or five years ago, I came up with this idea for a character who, as a little girl, loves stories of like barbarians and like Genghis Khan and like great warlords, and always spoke in these dramatic like, “I will drink the blood of my enemies from their skulls,” as like a five-year-old.


[Brandon] Which is just like… Then I’m like, “Oo… I’ll grow her up to a teen and she’ll still talk like this.” I didn’t write the book, and I didn’t write the book, and I didn’t write the book. But I finally found a book to write. It’s actually… Should have just come out last month. Called Skyward. But I finally found a place for her. There’s other characters still floating around. But that’s the one I’ve kind of had a quest to get right for a while. It finally kind of came out.


[Brandon] It’s just she’s so much fun to write.

[Dan] I have twice now over the last 10 years of my career tried and failed to write a specific book that is kind of my… Take Gaston from Les Mis… Or not Gaston. What’s the name of the little boy?

[Brandon] Oh, yeah. Gavroche.

[Dan] Gavroche. Take Gavroche and grow him up into Enjolras, and show that entire process of the street urchin becoming the rebellion leader. I… That’s like a Holy Grail for me. I’ve tried it twice. I haven’t gotten it to work. At some point, I’m going to make that work.

[Howard] In the course of creating the Planet Mercenary RPG, I wrote a dozen or more encyclopedia entry type things about locations that mentioned various people. I did the first drafts, then I went back and added details here and there to make those people more interesting. Insofar as I was able to fit that in encyclopedia entry stuff. Many of them are so interesting to me. I just want to sit down and write entire stories about them. Because that’s how you end up in an encyclopedia is by being important and historical and fancy and interesting and cool and stealing spaceships and whatever. Their stories are not mine to tell yet.

[Brandon] All right. We’re going to stop for our book of the week. We have a special treat for you guys this week. We have Dan the audio man, as we call him. Dan Thompson, our audio recorder for all the episodes recorded here in Utah. Sometimes we have other audio recorders abroad, but Dan has been helping us out for a number of years and he never gets to be on the podcast.

[Howard] Everything you hear from us runs through his wires, and yet… We never hear his voice. In fact, Brandon and I haven’t even let him talk yet.


[Brandon] So, he’s going to give us a book of the week this week.

[Dan Thompson] Perfect. Thanks, guys. Book of the week this week is actually Mysteries of Cove. It’s that series by J. Scott Savage. It is about a young boy, named Trenton Coleman. He grows up, or he grew up, in a world where… As you start reading it, you don’t realize the world’s inside of a cave. The various things that he sees, he views, he does is based around the fact that he has never left being inside this mountain. In the book, being an inventor is actually a curse word. So… I don’t know what else to tell you about the book, except for it’s…


[Brandon] But you love it.

[Howard] You like it.

[Dan Thompson] I love the book. I love the descriptions that Savage gives. I love how he introduces the characters, the character arcs that are in the book. It actually… His character arc takes several books to develop out.

[Brandon] That’s awesome. The name of the first one is?

[Dan Thompson] The name of the first one is Fires of Invention.

[Brandon] Excellent. Thank you to Dan the audio man for our book of the week.

[Brandon] I’ve got one last question for you, and then we’ll talk… We’ll do just a little bit of housekeeping. Like talking about what we’re going to do next year and things. But your last question. Who are the best and worst characters you’ve ever written?


[Brandon] Woo hoo hoo. Best and worst characters that you have ever done?

[Dan] Worst as in I really screwed this up?

[Brandon] Yeah. Sure.

[Dan] Kind of worst?

[Brandon] However you want to define this.

[Dan] Okay. It’s very hard for me to pick any character other than John Cleaver. Simply because I’ve written six books and a novella and two short stories about him. I know him backwards and forwards, inside and out, and I have taken him on to incredibly long and painful character arcs. So, yeah, I gotta say John Cleaver is certainly the best developed, and one of my favorite characters to write. In terms of the worst character I’ve ever written… Oh, man. In a published book or anything?

[Brandon] It doesn’t… It can be unpublished.


[Brandon] It can totally be…

[Dan] Because if it’s unpublished… I’m currently going on… On my Patreon, I’m going back through some of my old trunk novels, and writing annotations on their chapters. I had a guy in… Do you remember The Legend of Krag?

[Brandon] Yeah.

[Dan] The Barbarian. Krag was okay as a character. He didn’t really come across well. But the character that totally falls down in that book in hindsight now, looking back, is his sidekick named Drudge. One of the weird conflicts in that book is that people who died don’t actually die anymore, they just wake up and are still there. The first person that happens to was named Drudge, and he was supposed to be my kind of snarky evil zombie thief character. He just never works. His character is different from chapter to chapter. Nothing he does is important or adds to the story, except for the fact that he exists.

[Howard] Maybe naming him something…


[Howard] Less… Less…

[Dan] Less on the nose?

[Howard] [garbled plodding]

[Dan] Yeah. He didn’t work.

[Brandon] So, I’ll force myself to go next, so you guys can think some more. Best is always hard, right? Because people ask, “Who’s your favorite?” and I can never answer this. Because I’m like, “Well, it’s whoever I’m writing right now.” That’s who my favorite is. Who is the best and most nuanced? Like, what does that even mean? I’m kind of on a Dalinar high right now, because I just finished Dalinar’s book, so it’s probably Dalinar right now. But I don’t know if he’s actually the best. Worst, I’m going to take a different tack on, because I’m going to answer this… The character I probably treated the worst is in the Wheel of Time. Because I inherited 2000… 2200 characters, I think, named characters. The one I think I flubbed the most is probably a character named Padan Fain. It’s not like I knew I was flubbing them, but, judging on fan reaction after the fact. He is the one that there’s the consensus of Brandon just did not do a good job with this character, didn’t seem to know what to do with him. In truth, when I was writing him, I was just like, “Oh, yeah. This guy, we’ll do this thing with him.” It was just kind of part of my big massive spreadsheet.

[Howard] You weren’t a Padan Fain fan.

[Brandon] I wasn’t a Padan Fain fan. Well, I didn’t even know that I wasn’t. Right? I was just like, “Oh, of course, he just does this thing over here.” Like I didn’t even… It wasn’t… [Garbled]

[Howard] You didn’t even know that there were Padan Fain fans. That wasn’t a thing.

[Brandon] There are other characters that I’ve done that that are in the Wheel of Time that are controversial. But I don’t think I did as bad a job. Some I got better at, and others, I defend my interpretation. But I have no defense for this character. Just because universally people are like, “Yeah, he just… Just dropped the ball.” Vanished from the last book when they felt like he was supposed to have a really big part in it.

[Valynne] Okay. Well, I’ll go next. I think the characters… I see this… They’re not main characters. But I think the characters I did the best were in Ink and Ashes, her brothers. The reason why I say that is because I’ve gotten so many comments on how realistic their relationship is, with their sister and how they are really horrible to her sometimes and then at other times they’re sort of protective and loving. I like the way that they came to life and just seemed like real people. So I think those are the characters I’ve done best. I think the characters that I have not done such a good job on our fortunately ones that are not published, so…


[Valynne] I don’t ever have to worry about that, and we’ll just pretend that they never happened. You don’t need to know.

[Brandon] Howard?

[Howard] I’m going to fall on my sword here. The entire first year of Schlock Mercenary is full of terrible caricaturization. Because the characters themselves were caricatures, and I wasn’t consistent with them. My idea of… I didn’t even realize that I was writing a cast full of people who were like me. For starters, there was, I think, one female. Had no idea that this was what I was doing. I was just writing something that was fun. I got better, to quote Monty Python. But, yeah, the whole first year of that. I’m not happy with the caricaturizations, I’m not happy with the whole cast. But…

[Brandon] You have the misfortune of having… And the fortune of having your first year… Anyone can just go look at it.

[Howard] Anyone can just go read it.

[Brandon] The rest of us, they’re in the trunk, and you have to… Go to Dan’s Patreon to see [garbled into]

[Dan] To see all my crappy early…

[Howard] One of the reasons why I’m just going to pick all of them as bad, because for any given week of comics, you’re going to find things that just ring wrong for that character if you’ve read them later in the strip.

[Brandon] That’s legit.

[Howard] The one that I am… I mean, there’s several characters that I’m very happy with currently. But the one that I think I’ve honestly done the best job with was… I can’t remember their name right now. They’re the ancient Oafan librarian who now speaks GalStandard West with a GalStandard Peroxide accent which is full of lots of gerunds and wind metaphors and water metaphors. Writing that voice… I mean, they’ve only got maybe 30 lines of dialogue in the strip. But every one of them reads to me like perfectly in character alien poetry. It was hard to do. I spent a lot of time on it. When I go back and read it, I get sense of wonder from that character. Which just doesn’t happen to me with the other characters I’ve written.

[Dan] So, can I turn this around, at the risk of running wildly over time? And ask us to point out great characters from each other? I will star… I’ll go ahead and start.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Dan] Because one of my favorite characters of Howard’s is one of the many iterations of Capt. Tagon. Because they die and they come back. There’s one of the strips where he sacrifices himself, basically, by running a massive warhead into a room full of enemies and killing them all. Enough of him survives in a databank somewhere that they bring him back a few years later. Now, the new version of Tagon is one who has to live up to the legacy of himself, and realize I don’t know if I could do that. I don’t know if I could run a nuclear warhead…

[Howard] Who was that guy?

[Dan] Into a room. I don’t know if that’s who I really am. He is a fascinating character, and I love him.

[Brandon] All right. I’ll go with Valynne.

[Valynne] Okay.

[Brandon] I really like the stepdad. He was… He’s not on the screen that much. But the menacing/loving mixture that he balanced back and forth with, where I couldn’t decide if I were scared of him or if I were thinking of this protagonist, the main character, I’m like… Half the time, I’m like, “Oh, you’re just an idiot. He obviously loves you. Stop. You’re being a teenage idiot.” Then I’d be like, “Oo… He might be scary!”


[Brandon] That was part of what kept… I mean, that was what… Not part of. That’s what pulled me through that book. Page to page was the mystery of this person and who he was.

[Valynne] Okay. I’m going to name one of your characters that probably doesn’t get talked about too much. Alcatraz.

[Brandon] Oh. Okay.

[Valynne] I just loved that idea of… Part of it is just the world that it was set in, but I love the idea of… I think that we are all so flawed, and just thinking how nice it would be if some of these things could be looked at as positive things. That’s like a dream.

[Brandon] So, Howard, now you have to say something about Dan.


[Howard] Um… Yeah. The character didn’t live very long. It’s the second book. The cat.


[Howard] No, no, no, no, no. John Cleaver’s mom. Whose arc is beautiful and heartbreaking and perfect in ways that John Cleaver’s arc never could be. I mean, I like John Cleaver as a character, but his mom gets… She earns…

[Dan] The best hero moment in the entire series.

[Howard] She gets the best hero moment in the entire series. And in terms of… And it is because, in part, her role as mother is already societally sort of the role of saint. She excels at that. In a situation where anybody else would run screaming, terrified, from what’s going on. So… I don’t remember her name, she’s just John Cleaver’s mom. Probably had a name, huh?

[Dan] April.

[Brandon] Now that we’re done patting ourselves on the back…


[Brandon] That was actually really good, Dan. That would have been a better way to phrase that question is we pick our worst and someone else picks our best.

[Brandon] We are done with the year of character. Next year, assuming I finish the outline…


[Brandon] And it looks good, it’s going to be world building. So we will do a year of world building.

[Dan] I’m very excited about that.

[Brandon] We don’t know where the cruise is yet, because we’re recording this in January 2018…


[Brandon] For December of 2018. But those go up in January, usually, right? [Garbled]

[Dan] I think we’ll find out next week, actually, where the cruise is.

[Brandon] Your homework, by the way, as is tradition, in our last episodes of the year, we just say you have no homework. You may go and enjoy the holidays and not feel stressed that you’re not getting your writing done for this week. We give you an excuse to take some time off.

[Howard] But if you feel guilty, flip back through the homework you’ve done and try to identify something that you’ve gotten better at in the last 12 months.

[Brandon] Awesome. We are, as always, very thankful to our patrons for supporting us. Thank you to our listeners for supporting us. Thank you, Valynne, for being on the podcast this year with us.

[Valynne] Thank you.

[Dan] Yay!

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. A year of character. You’re… Yeah, you’ve got an excuse this time. But… If you feel like it, go write anyway. Happy New Year, guys.