StoryBuilder 1.0: Construct Your Magical Land!

Last week, I gifted you all with the perfect character building machine, and now you all have strange and wonderful characters, but nowhere to put them.  That is easily solved.  We will do the same thing this week with world-building.  After all, you can’t have characters without a world.  At least, I don’t think you can.  Maybe you can.  But probably not.

So here is a world-builder.

magic fantasy castle landscapeThe same rules apply.  Choose options from the categories below and make note of your choice so that you can find out what your wonderful world is like at the end of the post.  Once again, if you go for the exciting and unexpected route, you will get exactly what you deserve for such cheekiness.

BUILD YOUR WORLD HERE!

1. World Theme:

A. Roman
B. European
C. Asian
D. Totally Not Like Any Culture of This World

2. Add Some Landscape (Add any or all of the below):

A. Ancient Forests
B. Vast Fields
C. Grand Mountains
D. Bodies of Water
E. Something Unexpected

3. Local Color (Add any or all of the below):

A. Merchant Guilds
B. Gladiatorial Combat
C. Spy Network
D. Town Idiot
E. Something Unexpected

4. Government Structure

A. Democracy
B. Dictatorship
C. Anarchy
D. Monarchy
E. Something Unexpected

5. Local Wonder of Choice

A. Mysterious
B. Big
C. Ancient
D. Pretty
E. Something Unexpected

 

Alright, now that you’ve chosen your fantastical and wonderful and totally unique world attributes, you get to find out more details about your world of choice.

1. World Theme:

A. Roman: Welcome to the land of columns and togas and prodigiously prominent noses.  In your world, a very clean and shiny upper class spends its days bathing and talking about politics while the masses engage in bloodthirsty activities just for fun.  Everything is very well organized, but rebellion is simmering… just beneath the surface.  Business as usual.
B. European: Welcome to a totally unique world in which knights ride around castles and citizens herd sheep, farm, and look upon the occupants of castles for protection against roving bands of mercenaries.  Also, there are probably big, fire-breathing dragons.  Possibly trolls under bridges.  Maybe even unicorns, if you’re lucky.  But don’t pet the unicorns.  They bite.
C. Asian: In a land of zen, your world is filled with pagodas and orchids and very tiny gardens filled with sand and small rocks.  Your culture is clean and civil and all conflict takes place discreetly out of sight.  There are probably also dragons lurking around, but they are much more likely to want to sit down and debate philosophy and politics than they are to burn your house to the ground, which is quite useful.  The other supernatural creatures are not so trustworthy.
D. Totally Not Like Any Culture of This World:  In a land of fluffy castles made of flowers, your world floats on a cloud… in space.  The people are friendly… except when their flowers are stolen.  Herein lies most of the conflicts of the citizens, most of whom are fairies, some of whom are bunnies, and a few of whom are small, curmudgeony polar bears.

 

2. Add Some Landscape (Add any or all of the below):

A. Ancient Forest: This forest has been around since before anyone in your story can remember, or since their great grandparents can remember.  The trees are taller than most palaces and tend to make deep groaning noises as if they are sentient, which they probably are.  Entire societies of mysterious creatures lurk in these woods, some of which friendly, although most are probably not.  No one who gets lost in these woods ever finds their way out… except your characters because they’re special…
B. Vast Fields: Yes, these might just be here to take up space, but they are also useful for riding across at a quick pace, being inconveniently spotted by the enemy because there is no cover, or standing at one end to gaze at a looming destination on the other side.  These vast fields may or may not have names, but they will definitely be important to the plot.
C. Grand Mountains: Inevitably, these will need to be crossed.  Inevitably, there will be snow at the top.  Also inevitably, there will be trolls or carnivorous mountain goats lurking on the precipices.  And a final inevitability: part of the dangerous paths along the edges of these mountains which have been around for thousands of years will give way at exactly the same moment your characters are trying to cross.  Drama abounds in the grand mountains. Don’t forget to name them.
D. Bodies of Water: Whether it is a lake, a river, a sea, or an entire ocean, having a body of water is quite useful.  Like mountains, bodies of water pretty much always have to be crossed.  That is, except when they need to be dived beneath to discover some sort of underwater city.  Magical beings like to rise out of bodies of water, as well.
E. Something Unexpected: Your world is blessed by the incredible presence of an upside down sky-volcano.  Every so often, it likes to spit fire on the unfortunate masses who dare to live beneath it (luckily, this only happens every few hundred years or so, normally at some significant moment in some significant character’s journey to greatness).  No one knows what’s holding the volcano up or how the lava stays inside an upside down volcano.  It is a source of great academic interest – that is, when it’s not exploding and the academics are making a run for it.

3. Local Color (Add any or all of the below):

A. Merchant Guilds: Merchants are useful folk to have around.  They sell things, buy things, and also seem to know what’s going on in the world.  Their leader is usually corrupt, though, so your character should probably not trust him/her, although most characters will end up in the guildmaster’s debt for some reason or another.
B. Gladiatorial Combat: Inevitably, your character will end up in the ring if your world has gladiatorial combat, so be advised and consider some training to lead up to this.  This cultural atrocity will also figure largely into any sort of revolution against the current government.  Gladiators tend to be more than willing to get behind a rebellion and most corrupt leaders never see it coming.
C. Spy Network: These always know what’s going on, always influence what’s going, and always play both or all sides of any conflict.  The leader of the spy network may or may not be trustworthy.  Spies are shady by nature, so even the “good” ones will probably do some pretty nefarious things in the name of “right” which will cause your character all manner of empathetic guilt.
D. Town Idiot: Adding a touch of humor and the occasional, unlooked for insight, a silly character can be humorous, but also very annoying.  Your character (and your readers) might want this character dead, which will make any sort of sacrifice of the character later a little pointless.  These characters work best in small doses.
E. Something Unexpected:  Your character’s nation engages in the epic sport of bear racing.  Bear jockeys are a courageous lot who ride bears and attempt to get them to lumber forward rather than attack each other, their riders, or the audience.  Most races end a bit violently, but the sentimental attachment to bear racing overcomes all massacres.

4. Government Structure

A. Democracy: All for one and one for all!  Everyone has a say, but strangely, no one seems to care.  A handful of people have somehow still managed to take control of the nation.  This is probably important to your plot.
B. Dictatorship: One evil overlord/lady has taken control of the kingdom.  Obviously, one person should not have all this power and it will take a plucky band of freedom fighters to give the kingdom back to the people/rightful ruler(s)/other.  Don’t forget to give the dictator a very tall and dark and impressive tower to rule from, if s/he is into that sort of thing.  As a fun alternative, your dictator could be a friendly, relaxed person who is doing a very nice job keeping the country in line.  This will probably confuse your character a bit, but I’m sure there is someone else evil enough worth overthrowing.
C. Anarchy: No government exists and chaos reigns in this kingdom.  Your character is probably seeking some sort of order in the face of this chaos, fighting against the many petty thugs who have taken over various parts of the country.  There is a slight likelihood that it will be your character who will rise up to lead everyone (although your character is totally not a dictator or anything).
D. Monarchy: All hail the king and/or queen!  It is generally a toss-up whether the monarch is good or evil and this will usually affect the plot.  A strong evil monarch is often a very exciting villain to stand against.  A strong weak monarch is normally under the thumb of an even more evil power-behind-the-throne villain.  A strong good monarch will be a good ally once you convince him/her that the villain is truly Out There.  A weak good monarch should probably just be put in a corner until everything’s taken care of.
E. Something Unexpected: When your kingdom has social or political issues to be dealt with, a small group of chosen officials ascends a low mountain to present its queries to a sort of magical, giant orb which answers questions with “Yes”, “No”, “Quite Likely”,  “Probably Not”, or “Maybe, Ask Again Later”.  Sometimes the orb takes a good shake or two to get an answer out of it and often the answer is extremely unhelpful, but somehow, your country has gotten along alright anyway.  Your character, on the other hand, might object to this process for some odd reason.

 

5. Local Wonder of Choice

A. Mysterious: A green stone tower that emits a different song each month stands at the center of a field.  Anyone who tries to climb the tower gets about halfway up before being knocked off by a mysterious force, after which the climber begins to sing that same song as the tower incessantly thereafter.  Normally they also end up mysteriously disappearing later, but this may be because people simply can’t stand the singing.
B. Big: A giant, glowing ball hovers over a lake.  It doesn’t do anything.  It’s just really big and glowy.  Someone suggested touching it and everything called them an idiot.  No one seems to have tried.
C. Ancient: A book sits beneath glass in a small room at the back of a library.  It is covered in script from a language lost in the shadows of the past.  Someday… someone will read it. And then Everything Will Change.
D. Pretty:  It’s glorious, colorful, shimmering, and probably magical.  If you wear it, it might kill you.  Most people just gaze at it in awe.  What is it?  Well, no one actually knows, but it’s really pretty.
E. Something Unexpected: People travel from distant lands to stand within the Forest of Bad Riddles.  The trees tell horrible jokes that have no sensible answer, the kind that you can’t get out of your head, that make no sense, and that make you wish that no one had ever told you about the Forest of Bad Riddles or dared you to spend the night there.  Seriously, if your character has any shreds of nobility, burning this forest to ashes will be the first order of business.

Random, yes, but unique, right?  Now you have a world set up with plenty of space to fill in, magical names to provide to geographical features, and a character to drop in the middle of it all.  But you still need a plot, don’t you?  Don’t worry.  That comes next week.

StoryBuilder 1.0 – Create the Perfect Character!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for some of you, if you hear one more author complain about some form of existential crisis that results in the catch-all epidemic known as Writer’s Block, you are going to find a block (or a writer) and throw it at said author.  Because, really, there has to be something better to do than complain about being uninspired.

Or maybe there isn’t. Maybe authors just like to complain about writer’s block because it gives us a chance to explain how great our writing normally is when we’re not blocked – which is most of the time, for some of us.

At any rate, this post is not going to be about writer’s block.  Not at all.  I promise.  It is going to be about Inspiration and Creation and How To Build a Beautiful Story Out of the Strands of Creativity.  Or something awesome like that.

writers blockI promise that this is in no way the result of a horrible case of writer’s block that is causing me to question my calling as a writer or my ability to tell stories.  Not at all.

So, to start this month’s fun exercise in StoryBuilding, we are going to create characters together!  Doesn’t that sound fun?  At the end of this post, you will have the perfect character to introduce into your new world.  I promise.  (Note: No refunds for time, effort, or mental suffering will be offered if the character does not meet expectations or spontaneously dies during the course of the story)

The way this is going to work is that you are going to categorize your character.  Simply pick a letter in each category and make note of what you picked.  At the end, you will read the explanation for each categorization and have the building blocks for a brand new character.  Aren’t you excited?  I know I am.

 

BUILD YOUR CHARACTER HERE!

1. Character’s Backstory:

A.   Mysterious
B.   Tragic
C.   Royal
D.   Ignominious
E.   Unexpected

2. Character’s Appearance:

A.   Dashing
B.   Uninspiring
C.   Ridiculous
D.  Magnificent
E.   Unexpected

3. Character’s Character:

A.   Optimistic
B.   Brooding
C.   Humble
D.  Courageous
E.   Unexpected

4.  Character’s Priorities:

A.  Self
B.  Country
C.  Beloved
D.  Favorite Pet
E.  Unexpected

5. Character’s Weakness:

A.  Self
B.  Nemesis
C.  Beloved
D.  Allergies
E.  Unexpected

 

Now, I hope you made note of all of your choices because I’m about to tell you what you have chosen.  I will provide the descriptors for each of these category choices, and you will have assembled a complex and fascinating character to lead the charge in your new story.  Feel free to do this multiple times to add new characters to your entourage if you are in a questing mood.   (Note: I know some of you picked E: Unexpected for every single category.  You are about to receive your just reward for such a bold move)

1. Character’s Backstory:

A.  Mysterious: This character was found in a large soup tureen floating in the moat of some random duke’s castle and subsequently adopted by the local blacksmith.  No one knows how long the babe has been floating in the tureen or where the tureen or baby have come from.  Of one thing everyone is certain, however: This baby is Destined For Great Things. No pressure or anything.

B.  Tragic: This character was living a happy life selling apples in a market with his/her mother until, one day, an Evil Man on a black horse came and not only destroyed the apple cart, but stole every single apple.  Also, the Evil Man killed this character’s mother.  Thus began this character’s journey.

C.  Royal: This character is the second child of the king and queen of the country.  The royal parents shower all their attention on the first child and heir, causing extreme bitterness in this, the second child.

D.  Ignominious: This character was a farmer who raised sheep.  That’s about it.

E.   Unexpected:  This character insulted a fairy who was already having a bad day and was immediately put under a curse which causes the character to turn into a rabbit on the full moon.  No cure for this curse has thus far been discovered.

2. Character’s Appearance:

A.  Dashing: Congratulations.  Your character cuts such a dashing and noble figure that others are constantly begging to join this character and pledging their loyalty and gazing rapturously upon such incredible dashingness.  This is quite a burden for your character to bear.

B.   Uninspiring:  Read the above description.  Imagine the opposite.  No one respects this character or thinks they will amount to anything.

C.   Ridiculous:  This character has purple hair in a world where purple hair is both unlooked for and frowned upon. This character is also a bit on the short side, a bit on the wimpy side, and a bit on the no-one-knows-what-to-make-of-you side.

D.  Magnificent: This character has purple hair in a world where having purple hair is exotic, unique, and worthy of admiration.  Also, this character is often assumed to be royal, whether this is true or not, which makes things difficult when looking royal is dangerous.

E.   Unexpected: This character is a dragon, complete with big, scaly body, the ability to breathe fire, and an unfortunate tendency to frighten the populace of surrounding countries.

3. Character’s Character:

A.  Optimistic:  This is the character the annoys everyone with a sunny outlook on whatever predicament they might be in.  Nothing is ever too bad to be overcome.  A proclivity toward making long, inspiring speeches may or may not endear this character to others.

B.   Brooding:  This character hates the optimistic people of the world, is not prone to speaking much, and prefers to look darkly at things and assume the worst.  For some reason, others still find this attractive in your character, much to your character’s annoyance.

C.   Humble:  This character is not worthy of anyone’s high regard no matter how awesome they may be.  This character wishes everyone would stop assuming such good things about him or her and wants nothing more than to serve, despite being the leader and main character.  This character is simply not good enough to be so good at everything.

D.  Courageous: Leading every charge, risking life and limb whenever a small child or kitten is being assaulted by a minion of darkness, caring not at all if he/she lives or dies, this character may or may not be truly skilled in battle, but will bravely sally forth regardless.  Often seen sporting war-wounds which are simply ignored, this character will stand up for Truth and Right and battle Injustice and Evil unswervingly.

E.   Unexpected: This character is a combination of all of the above, a complex individual who hopes for the best, plans for the worst, hates attention, and loves taking unnecessary, but impressive risks.  This leads to an assortment of conflicted emotions that often paralyze this character in a state of indecision just when important decisions need to be made.  This character’s friends and foes alike are often confused and nervous whenever a confrontation is imminent because one never knows what to expect.

4.  Character’s Priorities:

A.  Self:  This character may have many good qualities and is well aware of them, which is why this character deems it so important to preserve such a valuable life as his/her own, perhaps at the expense of someone slightly less valuable.  This may seem callous and unheroic, but your character realizes that it is utterly impossible to be a hero if one is dead or imprisoned or otherwise inconvenienced.  Keeping oneself alive is a first priority from which every other heroic trait might naturally follow.

B.  Country:  For better or for worse, this character loves king/queen/president/dictator and country more than life itself.  This may become something of an issue of the country somehow fails to uphold other standards of the character, but ultimately, preserving the country from foes foreign or domestic is this character’s goal.

C.  Beloved:  True love conquers all, and any villain worth his/her salt knows that to get to your character, all they have to do is find your character’s beloved and place that individual in some creative form of danger.  Your character will risk life, friends, country, and any unfortunate person who gets in the way in order to save this most prized and treasured of beings.  Most likely, your character’s beloved is somehow a key point in the villain’s plot anyway, so saving him or her conveniently serves two purposes.

D.  FavoritePet:  Who needs people?  Your character’s favorite steed, favorite dog, or favorite bird is somehow constantly in danger and constantly in need of saving.  Thankfully, this favored pet of your character will end up saving your character’s life at a significant juncture, thereby justifying your character’s strange priorities.

E.  Unexpected:  Your character wants nothing more than to be a traveling bard.  Every experience, both good and bad, can be turned into a song.  At the end of it all, your character hopes to write the ultimate ballad by which to be remembered forever.  Your character is frequently caught composing a new tune during critical moments of the plot.

5. Character’s Weakness:

A.  Self:  Your character has issues.  While somehow remaining lovable, your character often questions his or her ability to solve problems, be a leader, be a follower, save others, save him/herself, or otherwise succeed at the given task.  If anyone insults your character’s appearance or ability, your character is immediately consumed by self-doubt.  It is both irritating and endearing.

B.  Nemesis:  The villain of your story is either the character’s sibling or schoolmate who knows all of your character’s weaknesses and goals, being a former confidant.  After a falling out, which was in absolutely no way your character’s fault, of course, the villain is determined to destroy the main character by any means necessary, and is frightfully creative in doing so.

C.  Beloved: See above description of Character Priorities: C.  Pretty much everything threatens the life of your character’s beloved, rendering your character incapable of making logical decisions, inspiring headlong rushes into traps, and ultimately causing your character to question any moral principles once held if they stand between the character and his/her beloved.

D.  Allergies:  Whether it is peanuts, glowing green rocks, or some mysterious antagonizing agent in the possession of the villain, your character cannot seem to get through an entire chapter without stumbling headlong into something that causes excruciating pain, delirium, and poor decision making specifically to this one individual.  Since no one else is affected, having friends around can be helpful, but this allergic reaction will occur in conjunction with any important plot point.

E.  Unexpected:  Your character is deathly afraid of rabbits.  This may or may not be known to the villain at the outset of the story, but probably will be by the climax.  Woodland areas are traumatic to your hero, as are most grasslands, farmland, and pretty much everywhere else.  No one is quite sure how your character is still (mostly) sane.

 

Share Your Results!

Having reached the conclusion of this character description workshop, you should now have a complex and interesting person to work with for your story.  No two characters should be alike, even if you’ve picked the same letters as someone else, so if you would indulge me in sharing your character’s description, adding your own details and filling in the basic outline a bit, I would be much obliged.

Next week, we’ll do some world building in a similar fashion.  By the end of the month, I expect to have several bestsellers in the making.

You’re welcome.

Wordy Wisdom: Why We Love Our Living Language

Okay, I admit it.  I’ve been pretty harsh about words these last few weeks, and that’s not fair at all.  Words are wonderful.  Words are magical.  Words allow us to craft our thoughts, just so, and lead our readers on a path of thought, adventure, whimsy.  Finely crafted words invite us to trespass into other worlds for as long as our eyes are captured by the pages.

Let’s be honest.  We love words!

(Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog… )

So, enough of the lambasting of the poor unworthy adjectives and the literal things that aren’t literally literal (… actually, no, I’ll never give up in my fight against poorly used “literally”).  Let’s focus instead on well-crafted and well-used words.

First of all, after how twitchy Twain made us about those pesky adjectives and poorly placed adverbs, I think we need to call him out on how little credit he is giving to beautiful writing.   When I think of descriptive passages and the images they summon to the imagination, I think of George MacDonald’s Phantastes:

“The trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning, while their roots were planted deep in gloom; save where on the borders of the sunshine broke against their stems, or swept in long streams through their avenues, washing with brighter hue all the leaves over which it flowed; revealing the rich brown of the decayed leaves and fallen pine-cones, and the delicate greens of the long grasses and tiny forests of moss that covered the channel over which it passed in the motionless rivers of light.”

What I see.  What do you see?
What I see. What do you see?

 

Now, maybe we are all seeing different trees bathed in different light, different leaves and different moss. Does it matter?  Does it make the image that this passage conjures for each of us any less lovely?  Adjectives can easily become trite, meaningless, and overdone.  An adverb is more often excessive than a necessity.  However, in the right place at the right time, we can use words to transform a wisp of an idea into an image that is almost tangible, and there is something eminently satisfying in the product.

Furthermore, as readers, we have the privilege more often than we realize to appreciate the wordsmithing of others, their images and ideas unfolding before us.  We make the images our own and so both share them with their creator and adopt them into our own library of treasured thoughts and stories.  This is the constant and endless delight of the reader, an abundance of words transformed into an infinite store of impressions.

The wonderful thing about words is that, while we do submit to their meanings on the one hand and allow them to create a picture for us when we approach them, we are on the other hand and in another way their masters.  We are the creators of the words themselves and we are allotted some of the responsibility of giving them meaning.

Sometimes this goes horridly awry, and more than one stuffy wordophile (I don’t exclude myself from this category, by any means) turns a nose up at such travesties as ain’t and irregardless and… you were waiting for this one… literally.  Words that aren’t words or shouldn’t be words or aren’t being used the way they should be used – we gaze in most respectable and erudite horror upon these little gremlins of our language and try (uselessly, alas) to squish them the way Twain squishes adverbs.  Of course, he didn’t have very much success either (Do you see those adverbs I just used, Twain?  And I’m not even sorry).

But there are two things that we must remember, no matter how stuffy we are or how much we love to preserve our sacred, lovely, beautiful vocabulary just as it is.

First, for a language to be alive, it must be allowed to grow, change, and flourish.  Now, I do still firmly believe that trimming little, rogue branches is in the tree of la langue‘s best interests.  We should definitely discourage the words that are senseless and correct mistakes as they come our way (in the nicest way possible so that our friends don’t start apologizing every time they write anything they know we’ll see… Not that this ever happens to me).   However, aside from the words that just plain shouldn’t be allowed, there are new words and new meanings that are always springing up, and I think that we might approach these with more fascination and excitement than gloomy discouragement.  Our language is still alive!  It is growing!  Our culture, one generation after another, is exploring and creating and inventing new words and new meanings as our world continues to change.

And some words are just fun to say, aren't they?
And some words are just fun to say, aren’t they?

 

Take for example a word that is quite appropriate for this post: text.  A word that means words, born of the idea of a substance, like textiles, something you can touch and feel and hold in your hand.  Something solid.  In our technological age, text has changed.  We might become a bit nostalgic about it, but we might also see the magic in it.  Text has grown and expanded, still attached to the page, but also floating off of and away from it, a collection of thoughts sent invisibly (magically, as far as I’m concerned) from one device to another.  It’s not just a thing anymore.  It’s an action.  I can text someone.  Let’s set aside the usual bemoaning of what the digital age has done to our youth’s perspective of the written word (a worthy subject for another day) and just contemplate how many ideas are being sent in all directions all the time.  Because text has changed.

The second thing that we must remember about words is that we are not passive onlookers.  We are a part of our culture’s language, and we participate in its lively evolution.  Words don’t magically appear; someone starts the process.  Shakespeare is responsible for the use of a massive number of words in the English language.  We can go into a zany rant about a bedazzled arch-villain because Shakespeare was awesome and creative (short story idea, just in case someone wants it).  We chortle and gallumph because Lewis Carroll wrote nonsense that just might make sense.  Words are fun, and while I sometimes like to say that only Masters of English should be allowed the privilege of adding to our vocabulary (I told you I was a stuffy elitist), the fact is, if you write it, text it, say it, or share it, and someone else loves it and passes it on, a new word or meaning can very easily be born.

So to end this month’s long-winded, wordy exploration of reading, writing, and the words we use, I want to know what you think of words.  What is your favorite word to say?  What word do you love for its meaning, origins, or impact?  What fabulous word do you think should be added to our vocabulary?  Maybe we can spread a new one and make our language grow a little more (something to replace literally as an intensifying adverb, perhaps?  Please, I beg of you!)

* * *

Previous Bits of Wordy Wisdom:

Too Much of a Good Thing

Very, Very Verbose

I Literally Died!

Wordy Wisdom: I Literally Died!

Congratulations to all of you!  If you are reading this, it means you survived not only the Ides of March, but the Day of the Leprechaun.  That is no small feat.

Our exploration of wordiness continues.  This week, we are going to focus on a wordy sin that is not mine, but is one that I notice in others.  I notice it constantly and I judge.  So, here it is:

I literally hate the word “literally.”

First of all, let’s ponder the above sentence.  If I hate the word, what is the point of emphasizing that my hatred is literal?  What other kind of hatred is there?  Let’s also note that “literally” is an adverb, and as we all know, adverbs are not to be trusted unless they prove themselves useful.

I will give you a hint about this one: Literally is almost never useful.

WhenLiterallyReallyMeansLITERALLY-73138We should first talk about what “literally” means, because that seems to be an issue.  When we define something as being said or done “literally”, we are telling our readers or listeners that something is real, actual, or true.  If something is literal, it is not figurative or imagined.

The word “literally” is meant to be used as an understood contrast.  We are making a distinction so that the reader/listener knows that something we might normally think is not real, is in this case real.  This meaning has been lost, sadly, in favor of another.  Instead of meaning that something is actual as opposed to figurative, “literally” now means “oh my gosh, like, seriously!”  And it literally makes me want to scream (but I restrain myself).

For example:

  • “You have to watch this video I saw on YouTube!  I literally died!”
  • “I literally want to kill people who can’t park.  It’s so annoying!”
  • “I was literally lost for an hour before I found my classroom!”

Our first sentence is something one of my students said to me a few weeks ago.  I’m not sure whether I was more concerned that a dead student was sitting in my classroom or that she was callously suggesting that I watch the same video which had done her in.  Ironically, what she means by “literally” here is “figuratively.”  So, it seems that “literally” now means the opposite of “literally.”

In our second statement, we have a psychopath who has violent tendencies toward untalented drivers.  Most of us have probably experienced some degree of road rage, but we can only hope that our desire to kill is not literal.  Or, if it is, that we are not given the chance to carry it out.  The number of people who have the literal urge to kill worries me.

Our final sentence is a profound example of worthless wordiness because the word “literal” means nothing at all.  If our speaker was indeed lost for an hour, then the word need not be there at all.  If the person was not lost for an hour, then s/he is a liar and the word serves no purpose except to mislead the listener.  There is no point whatsoever to using the word in this sentence.

For some reason, “literally” has become a means of expressing the serious or extreme or dramatic nature of something.  We feel the need to add weight to our statements; thus, it happened literally.  The word has become a way of adding emphasis rather than adding meaning, but it is becoming so overused and so misused, that it adds neither.

This literally makes me want to cry.

Actually, I don’t want to cry.  I’m too annoyed.

How should literally be used, then, you ask?  When would it be appropriate?  One use for this word is when something that is normally figurative or hypothetical is actually happening or being discussed.

For example:

  • “The first pancake I flipped when I tried to make breakfast for the campers literally flew out of the frying pan and into the fire!”
  • “That’s not my cup of tea.” “Oh, you don’t like Earl Grey?” “No, that’s literally not my cup of tea.  Who stole my tea?”
  • “That kid is literally between a rock and a hard place, isn’t he?” “Should we help him get out?” “Nah, he’ll be fine.”

All of these statements are based on phrases that we know quite well, but in these cases, they are actually happening in one way or another.  The figurative has become literal.  As a result, the use of “literally” allows the audience to appreciate the irony and to recognize the figurative versus the literal.

I will climb off my soapbox about this particular issue, now (not literally – I’m sitting down).  Hopefully, you have learned something.  If I have instilled even a little paranoia these last few weeks about adverbs, I will feel good about myself.  And now you understand the perils of the literal versus the figurative.

Let’s choose our words wisely and use them well.

Wordy Wisdom: Very, Very Verbose

Last week, I wordily confessed my wordy sins.  I tend to over-express things.  I want to make absolutely sure that the reader understands just how funny a scene is in my story.  I want my vision of a character’s expression or the sound of their voice – how they say something – to come through so that the reader shares my experience when I imagined up my world and my characters and my adventures.

I want them to see the details.

pos-adverb The problem is that no matter how detailed I am, every reader is going to see something different.  If I describe the trees as deepest emerald green, arching their branches majestically over the stone path like a cathedral ceiling, a hundred different readers are going to envision a hundred different emerald, branchy , arching, cathedral tree ceilings.  One of the key differences between a book story and a film story is that the reader’s eyes are given a picture in the latter, but in the former, the picture is created in the minds of both author and reader, and that picture changes as a result.

The question is, how much information does a reader actually need to get the general idea?  If we authors have conjured up a scene in our heads, we want to guide our readers as close as we can get them to that image.  What can we say to get them there?

My imperfect solution is often a succession of adverbs and adjectives, descriptive words that define and direct the scene.  I want my characters speaking angrily or dramatically, quietly or excitedly, impulsively or thoughtfully.  For instance: “Don’t touch that.”  How is the character saying it?  Why?  What does it sound like in my head?  I want my reader to know.

mark twain
Mark Twain always looks like he just stepped on an entire family of adverbs.

Mark Twain said that if we see an adverb or adjective, we should kill it.  My response is on the defensive side.  First of all, what did adverbs ever do to Mark Twain?  Secondly, I don’t think someone with a pen name has any business telling anyone else that they are being excessive.  And thirdly, sometimes an adverb creates exactly the right feeling we want to express, and removing the word removes the feeling.

What I think Twain may be getting at in his extreme way is the virtue of moderation.  I have begun to go back through my story, and one thing I am looking for is how often I use descriptive words, particularly adverbs, that can simply easily be removed.  If I take it out, will the meaning change? Do I need it?

Words like “excitedly” and “obstinately” and “incandescently” are large and dramatic and easy to spot.  I love adding “rather” to sentences to convey instant irony.  Everything can be “rather” something.  Of course, if everything is “rather” something, “rather” doesn’t mean anything, at all.  I have to be very careful to eliminate excessive “rather”s from my stories.

One of the sneakier adverbs that catches me is “very.”

And now I’m paranoid.  Have I used it in this post?  Is it lurking somewhere nearby?

Yep.  Found it.

I am afraid to admit the number of times I have gone through a story and found a whole host of “very”s living within it. If Twain thinks that adverbs are the enemy, then he would probably say that “very” is their leader.   “Very” is not just its own problem.   “Very” always has friends –  modifying friends in the forms of adjectives and adverbs and more adverbs.  “Very” can become “Very, very”, which can then be added to another adverb, another adjective, stretching on and on until the sentence is nothing but a whole lot of “very”s and nothing else.

This is, needless to say, very, very bad writing.

I cannot agree with Mr. Twain that all “very”s are bad.  Adverbs have their place, as do adjectives.  We must describe and define in order to give our pictures life and depth.  There is, however, a great deal to be said for strong, meaningful words that need no trimmings.  Something very, very bad is awfulhorrid, despicable, or vile.  Something said excitedly is blurtedexclaimed, or gasped.

We have at our disposal enough word that are defined in themselves that we do not so often need crutches.  Adjectives and adverbs have their place.  They need not be always killed.  But they will be more effective if used less often, and the story will move all the more swiftly and surely if there are fewer words wandering around in the middle.

(Who wants to count how many adverbs I used in that last sentence?)