Bringing A Character to Life

Writing for games is vastly different from writing novels.

I should know. I’ve done both.

I love writing novels. I started my first when I was twelve, and have written several others since. Although I’ve yet to publish a novel, I’m currently working my way through my revisions on Dead London, and feel I’m getting closer and closer to having a publishable product.

As for video game writing, well, that’s something else entirely.

First, when I started writing for Sins of a Dark Age, the game had already been in development for years. The fantasy world of Amaranth had been meticulously constructed by the dev team, and by another writer. Because I started out working on the game’s sound, including dialogue, I was lucky enough to work closely with the writing team. I began getting to know the characters, the various factions they belonged to, and the various locations in Amaranth. When the game’s lead writer left the company, I was eager to take over.

One of the biggest challenges was attempting to match the writing style that had already been established. Sins of a Dark Age was a dark fantasy, but it was also whimsical, fantastical, and imaginative. The characters had personality, and they had deep backstories. It was important for me to match that.

One of the first characters I got to work on was also one of the most challenging to write.

Penn, the Boy Mage.

Penn is a precocious shepherd boy with a talent for magic beyond his years. At the Seeker’s urging, Penn has left his home to be trained to use his gifts. Quick on his feet, Penn supports his allies by conjuring helpful spirit manifestations.

Penn.pngPenn was tough to write for a number of reasons. One, because of his age. Even in a dark fantasy, it can’t all be doom and gloom all the time. Penn was meant to be the antithesis of the dark, brooding characters like Lord Dekain, The Plague Bringer, and the bloodthirsty antagonists like Slivus, the Vile. Penn was just a happy-go-lucky kid with a bright imagination and the power to summon sheep and fireflies. Yes, really.

But he was more than just a shepherd. Penn’s lore was the anchor that held the world of Amaranth together, and having been teased in promotional images since the game’s first announcement, fans of the game were eager to play as Penn. So, Penn needed to be more than just a happy, optimistic child with sheep-summoning powers. He had to have a deep, intriguing story.

A lot of Penn’s dialogue had already been written, and it had been recorded by a child voice actor. The actor had done an admirable job with it, but for the new and improved Penn, we needed a bit more depth. A common approach to voice acting for child characters in animation and games is to use adult females. It worked for Bart Simpson, right? We decided to do the same for Penn.

I ended up scratching a number of Penn’s lines that felt too bright or too bubbly for the dark world of Sins of a Dark Age, while attempting to retain his child-like optimism and spirit. I wanted to portray the character as an imaginative young boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s trying to stay bright, but he’s been forced to grow up too quickly.

Of course, in games, the burden doesn’t fall entirely on the writer. Part of bringing a character to life is the artwork, and the animation. Long before we recorded Penn’s voice overs, he was an animated character. Bringing in a talented voice actress took him to a whole other level.

Character Dialogue

People always tell me I don’t know when to quit. Which is definitely a compliment.

So close!

We also included character interactions. When Penn runs into Ziri, a blade-slinging ninja, he has a few questions for her.

Say, where do you keep all those blades? Do you have hidden pockets or something? Or maybe a magical bag that expands when you fill it up? Or maybe they’re magical blades? Or…maybe you summon them from another dimension?

Penn also interacts with Serewyn, The Forest Guardian, one of Penn’s mentors.

I’m gonna be just like you when I grow up…except, you know, not a tree.

The game also includes Quests, one of which is Slay the Dragon.

Dragon? No big deal.

As a writer, it can be pretty amazing to hear something you’ve written – in an Excel spreadsheet – brought to life by a talented actor

It’s equally amazing to hear a character’s voice in game, to see the character moving around and seeming to interact with the world around them, as you control the character. It really does feel like you’ve brought a character to life. The experience is quite different from writing a novel. It’s also much more collaborative; you rely on other writers, artists, animators, programmers, and voice actors.

To add further depth to the characters, Sins of a Dark Age also introduced Lore Books, collectible stories that revealed the backstories of the playable characters. After collecting all the pages, players could “craft” the lore books and read them in-game. I was tasked with writing Penn’s Lore Book, Chosen.

Book Review: Stormdancer

Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff

A year or two ago, my friend and coworker asked if we could stop in at Chapters on our way back to work during our coffee break. He wanted to grab the sequel to a book he’d read. Of course, I agreed, and we set off for Chapters. He found his book, bought it, and explained what it was about. Two words and I was instantly intrigued: Japanese steampunk.

The book was Kinslayer, #2 in the Lotus War series by Jay Kristoff, and it was the sequel to Stormdancer. I later went back to the bookstore and bought Stormdancer for myself.

It sat on my bookshelf for about two years, while I made my way through my ever-growing collection of mostly steampunk books. After reading all of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, all of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series (not to mention Prudence), as well as Doktor Glass (Thomas Brennan), The Constantine Affliction (T Aaron Payton), Whitechapel Gods (S.M. Peters), and Bronze Gods (A.A. Aguirre), finally, I got around to reading Stormdancer.

My only regret is not reading it sooner

Arashitoras are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shõgun, they fear that their lives are over – everyone knows what happens to those who fail the Lord of the Shima Isles.

I can’t say much else about the plot without spoilers. The book starts out a bit slow. To be fair, Jay Kristoff spends a lot of the first few chapters on setting up the world of Kigen and takes his time with it. It’s worth the wait.

Kigen is a world reminiscent of feudal Japan, but with chi-fueled technology – airships, mechanical samurai, and chainsaw-katanas. I guess you could say it’s not really steampunk (it’s chi-punk)…but that would be silly. It’s Japanese steampunk. And it’s awesome.

But when Yukiko and her father finally see the arashitora for the first time, that’s when book really picks up. It’s an incredible moment, just as powerful for the reader as it is for Yukiko. The arashitora is not only a magnificent mythological beast, but also one of the most interesting, fiercest, and most likable characters in the novel.

The book held my interest throughout the rest of the novel, with epic battles fought, political intrigue, a bit of romance, fantastical machines, and a climactic conclusion. The lead character had a ton of growth from beginning to end. As I read the few closing pages, it was hard to think of that angsty, obnoxious, emo teenage girl that graced the first few pages of the novel.

Definitely enjoyed Stormdancer, and would certainly add it to my list of favourites. Can’t wait to start reading Kinslayer!

Version Control for Writing

Using version control for writing

For my day job, I develop computer games. I’ve been doing that for about four years now. I’ve enjoyed a couple of different roles in the game industry, including sound designer and writer. For both of those roles, I’ve needed to understand and use version control software. So as I was giving some thought to a few problems I’ve been having with managing my writing – switching back and forth between different computers (laptop, desktop), losing track of which draft I’m on, and worrying about saving backups – I thought of applying version control software to writing.

Sure, github (and other version control software)’s intended use is for software developers – projects that are being developed by multiple developers – so it might seem a bit over the top to use for writing. On the other hand, github is surprisingly easy to use even just for very basic versioning, and it works like a charm. So, why not use it for writing?

Here’s how I’ve been using it

I’m not going to give you a full-on tutorial. I will walk you through some of the basics, though, and give you a brief overview of how I’ve been using github.

First, you’ll need to set up your account. You can do this by visiting github.com and clicking the bright green “Sign up” button. Then just follow their instructions. Once you’re all set up, download the desktop software from here. Got it? Great. Install the software (obviously), and launch it.

Next up, create a repository for your writing. I’m using the Mac version of the software. The Windows version might look a little different.

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On the Mac, you just click the little + icon. Then you type the name for your repository, choose where you want it on your computer, and click “Create Repository.” This creates a folder on your computer at the location you chose. I called mine Dead London and stuck it on my desktop.

Then, after I saved my latest draft of Dead London in the folder, the files showed up under Uncommitted changes in github.

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I typed in a summary and description of my changes (“Added latest draft of Dead London”) and clicked Commit and Sync master.

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I then downloaded the github application on my laptop. Then I cloned the Dead London repository (File>Clone Repository). Then, after I finished working on my laptop, I committed and synced my changes in github.

Back on my desktop, all I had to do was sync, and I now had all the latest changes from my laptop. And I also had a backup on the cloud, plus a history of my changes.

Past Lives

I don’t really believe in reincarnation.

Much as I am taken in by the romantic concept of reincarnation, I don’t really believe in it. It’s a nice idea, to think that we might have had past lives, that we might live on in some way after we’re gone, and I can easily imagine myself in some distant path, in another body but with the same soul. Sure, I like the idea, but do I truly believe? No, certainly not.

But then, earlier this year, I took a trip to London. I wanted to carry out a bit of research for the novel I’m working on (Dead London), and I also just needed to get away for a little while. I had been to London before, as a child, but surely that wasn’t the only reason that my trip to London felt more like a homecoming than a vacation. I felt a strange kinship with the city, the sense that I somehow belonged there. It was difficult to leave; I began forming plans to relocate, even while I was still there, and I gave it serious consideration when I returned to Vancouver. Later, when I looked at photos from my trip, I felt not merely sadness for my trip being over, but actual homesickness. I had never felt homesickness before – so why was I feeling that for a city that I had merely visited? Was it possible that in some distant past, London truly was the place I called home?

Perhaps, not so distant a past…

When I think of London, a city with a long history, I can’t help but associate it with a particular time period. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve watched too many movies or read too many books, but I tend to picture the city lit by gaslight. I think of Jack the Ripper stalking the streets, of Dickensian orphans working in factories or as chimney sweeps. I think of a city filled with fog and smoke. I think of gentlemen and ladies attending the opera or the ball, while the poor die of consumption. with slums and tenements only blocks away from the wealthy elite. I think of opium dens and absinthe. I think of Victorian London.

If I truly did have a past life, maybe it wasn’t so long ago. For all that it seems like the distant past, given how rapidly technology has changed in the past century or two, the Victorian era isn’t really that far in our past. Not, when you consider the long life that London has had. So, if I did happen to believe in reincarnation, I might be swept away by the notion that a past version of me once walked the streets of Victorian London. Perhaps he – or she, for that matter – once looked into the face of Jack the Ripper. He might have been a famous artist, or a humble factory worker, or an inmate at Newgate Prison, destined only for the hangman’s noose.

Perhaps that’s why I felt such a connection with London. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a simpler explanation. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been writing and researching Dead London for several years now, and it’s become so ingrained in my imagination that it has begun to feel like home. One of the many curses of being a writer, after all, is that our characters can at times feel more real or more important to us than real people. A city like London is quite the character.

Book Cover Design Tutorial (Part Two)

Background

In Part One of this tutorial, we looked at creating text for our titles and author name for our book cover. In this part, we’ll design a background. For my Clocktown example, I started by creating a new layer (Layer>New>Layer…). Make sure this layer is below your titles.

On this layer, I added a dark blur background, which I downloaded from Splitshire.com. Resize the image to fit your canvas, using the Transform tool.

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Next, I added a texture. There are a ton of places to find textures online, many of which offer textures for free. A quick internet search for “free textures” should yield a bunch of results. I used Vintage Halftone Textures Volume 1 from Creative Market, which I downloaded during a free giveaway.

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As you can see, it’s looking better already.

Next up, make a new layer, and choose the gradient tool. Choose black for your foreground color, light grey for your background color, and add a gradient at an angle. Change the Blend Mode to “Darken,” and the Opacity to 80% for this layer.

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Moving on, I wanted to use an image that really helped sell the clock theme for the book. I decided to keep it simple and use a photo of a clock. Here’s where you might want to start digging into stock photos; these can be purchased for a reasonable price from a number of different sites. Some websites do offer free stock photos, but it can be difficult to find the right photo for your project when you are limited to free options. Consider taking your own photographs. I dug up this clock photo I’d taken a while back.

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Drag your image to a new layer and resize to fit. Reduce the opacity for the layer, and use your eraser tool to blend it in smoothly.

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Next, I added another texture. I used this one from TextureKing. Resize to fit using the Transform tool, and hit Enter. Change your Blend Mode to Overlay and reduce the Opacity. At this point, I also adjusted the positioning of my clock photo, adjusted its Opacity, and blended a bit more with my eraser.

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Next, I added yet another texture. Again, I used the Overlay Blend Mode, and adjusted the Opacity, and cleaned the layer up with the eraser. This time, I used this texture from TextureKing.

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Next, I added another Blur Background. I used the Soft Light Blend Mode, and left the Opacity at 100. I got my Blur Backgrounds from Creative Market, but again, you can find these with your search engine; there are plenty of free ones out there (try Splitshire, for example). Since we’re using the blur background to add a bit of light to our image, try to find a brightly colored one.

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Now our background is starting to look pretty good. It’s time to add something to the foreground.

Foreground

Again, you’ll want to dig into stock photos for this part. As my cover is only being used for the purposes of this tutorial (for now), I decided to try to find stock from Deviant Art; if I were to publish, I would need to purchase a license. Many deviant artists don’t make their stock photos available for such purposes, so you may want to look elsewhere.

For my tutorial, I’ve used The Power of Belief 1 by Robnote, as the artist is kind enough to allow his stock to be used outside of deviant art. Note that I have credited him here.

After adding the image to photoshop, I resized the photo so that the man’s face was taking up almost the entire canvas, and positioned it so that only half of his face was visible.

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I then erased the background of the photo, leaving only his face visible, and changed the Blend Mode to Lighten. I adjusted the positioning of his face somewhat, and to make the image easier to work with, I cropped it to fit the size of the canvas. We’re almost done.

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The next step should add a bit more interest to the cover. We’re going to give him clocks for eyes. I used another photograph I took myself, added it to a new layer, and adjusted the size to match his eye. I then changed the Blend Mode to Screen, and using the Skew tool, adjusted the clock so it was right over top of his eye.

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Change the Blend Mode back to normal and erase around the clock so that only the face is left.

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Using a soft edged eraser, trim around the eyes a bit more. Change the Blend Mode to accentuate the eyes. I ended up using Screen, but I also found a few other Modes that I liked.

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Finally, I added one more texture. This one, I applied over top of all of my layers, including the text.

Here’s the final cover.

CoverDesignTutorial.jpg

Book Cover Design Tutorial

Today, I’m going to offer a tutorial on using Photoshop to create a cover for your book. In today’s publishing world, authors are often responsible not only for the writing, but also marketing, graphic design, and web design – self-published authors are definitely left with the task of creating covers, unless they can afford to hire an artist. In a world where books are often judged by their covers, it is essential to design a book that looks professional, but a lot of authors do not have the skills to create their own covers.

Recently, I came up with an idea for a new book series. It’s called Clocktown. I’ve got another book series in progress, so I’m not going to start on Clocktown yet, but just for fun, I thought I would use Clocktown as my example for this tutorial. Here’s what we’ll be making.

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Titles

Never underestimate the power of a good font. Typography goes a long way towards making your book cover look professional, so choose a good font. Hint: don’t pick Comic Sans. For my Clocktown example, I’ve chosen Ornatique, because I wanted something that was both quirky and decorative. I also used Time To Get A Watch for the letter ‘o,’ in order to help sell the clock theme.

Once you’ve downloaded and installed your fonts, open up Photoshop. Create a new document. Make it big; remember, you can always scale it down later. I’d start with 3200 x 4800 pixels, as we can always make smaller versions later, depending on the specifications of the publisher.

Then, using your text tool, draw a rectangle near the top and type your book’s title. For my example, I’m using Clocktown. I’ve adjusted the font size to 600.

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I would almost always recommend using a font with Small Caps – that is, a font that uses small capital letters rather than lower case. If your font does not have Small Caps, use all capital letters for your font, then adjust the size of the first letter of each word in your title, and adjust the size and spacing of the other letters.

Because I’m using multiple fonts, I’ll need to adjust the size of the second font to match.

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I also adjusted the size of some of the other letters to add character and drama to the title.

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Finally, I’ve used the Create Warped Text tool to further accentuate the title.

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Then I’ve further warped the text using the transform skew function (Edit>Transform>Skew).

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You’ll also want to create text for your author name, subtitle, etc. I’ve also added a divider, using a decorative font. I’ve used Old Retro Labels for my divider and I used Ornatique again for my name.

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Layer Styles

So far, we’ve created a fairly basic-looking title for our book. It can still be taken up a notch, by giving the title some depth and texture. The easiest way to do that in Photoshop is to use Layer Styles. Right-click on the Layer for your title, and choose Blending Options.

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This opens up the Layer Styles panel. Here, we can adjust a number of settings for our font, including Bevel & Emboss, Drop Shadow, and Pattern Overlay. This is where the magic really happens.

Let’s start with Pattern Overlay. Click the check-box to turn it on, choose Normal for Blend Mode, and leave the Opacity at 100. Choose a Pattern. You can either choose one of the default patterns included with Photoshop or download and load a new one.

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Next, add a gradient overlay. Change the Blend Mode to Color, leave Opacity at 100, and choose a gradient. Click on the gradient to open the Gradient Editor. You can choose one of the Presets or create a custom gradient. I’ve created a custom gradient with shades of brown and black.

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Next, we’ll want to add a drop shadow. You’ll be able to see it more clearly once you’ve added a background for your cover. For now, these are the settings I’ve used.

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Next, Bevel & Emboss.

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And finally, Stroke.

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Remember, you can always come back and adjust these settings later.

Once you’re happy with your Blending Options, click OK. Then, right-click on the title Layer, and choose “Copy Layer Style.”

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Then right-click on each of your other layers and choose “Paste Layer Style.”

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In the next part of the tutorial, we’ll look at creating a background for our cover. In the meantime, here’s what we’ve got so far.

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Here’s Part Two.

Story Structure

Lately, I’ve been struggling to make progress with my draft of Dead London.

I had a solid beginning, but I couldn’t figure out how to get from beginning to end. I began to feel like I was never going to get anywhere. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was missing something crucial structurally. Without proper story structure, I could never hope to get anywhere. So I started digging through the internet to see what other writers had to say about story structure. That’s when I realised…

There was so much I didn’t know about story structure, I was like a skydiver, jumping without a parachute. No wonder my story kept plummeting.

Much to my surprise and delight, story structure can be broken down into different parts: these components even have names. I had heard of some of them. The Inciting Incident. The Climax. The Resolution. But there were other plot points that I didn’t know much about. Pinch Points. The First Plot Point. The Key Event.

The First Plot Point

Of the many websites I came across, this one was one of the best. And the author writes dieselpunk!

“The first plot point is the moment when the setup ends, and your character crosses his personal Rubicon. But this isn’t just an event that happens to him…This is an event that either incorporates or is directly followed by the character’s reacting in a strong and irrevocable way.”

The more I read up on the First Plot Point, the more I began to wonder what mine was. Not a good reaction to have. You would think that I would know my story so well that once I understood what the First Plot Point was, I would know immediately what mine was. I had to give it a lot of thought. Eventually, what I realised was that I’d put my First Plot Point too early. Much too early. The First Plot Point should occur around the 25% mark. Mine happened around the 3% mark. Again, way too early!

From the same website:

“If you’ve ever watched or read a poorly plotted story that skipped or postponed the first plot point, you probably instinctively sensed the story was dragging. Likely, you grew bored and got up to do something else without finishing the story. No first plot point means no turning point means the first act drags on too long—or, conversely, if the first plot point takes place too early, the second act drags on.”

Finally, I had figured out one of the major problems with my story structure. At last, I was ready to get back to writing. With a few changes to the first couple of scenes, I shifted my first act to avoid that First Plot Point from happening right away. Then it was just a matter of coming up with a new First Plot Point. I think I came up with a good one. Dead London is a zombie novel, so the First Plot Point had to have something to do with zombies. I won’t say more than that because spoilers. But what I will say is that after fixing the end of Act One with a solid First Plot Point, I finally feel like I’m on track to write the novel I initially set out to write.

Hopefully this helps someone else as much as it helped me! Now that I’ve got the First Plot Point down, I’ve got to nail the First Half of the Second Act. Then onward!