How do you build a world?

Part 1: The Five W’s and a H

Before reporting became a dying craft, every newbie was taught that a news story had to answer five fundamental questions:

Who, What, Where, When, Why

… and sometimes, How.

In any piece of fiction, these questions are just as fundamental.

I’m going to talk about The Questions, here, while referencing a particular set of books, my own, The Were Chronicles – “Random”, “Wolf”, and “Shifter”.

Question 1: WHO?

When a squib arrived in my inbox announcing a forthcoming anthology of short stories about Weres, – accompanied by an admonishment of “and let’s see something different than the usual tired old tropes!” – I sat down to write a story that immediately popped into my head.

It was a story about a kind of Were-being that was very definitely not a “tired old trope” – it was something that I’d never seen described before, a wholly crazy out-of-left-field idea…

…the Random Were.

A Random Were was a shape-changer who would change into the last warm-blooded creature they saw just before the moment of their Turn – and if it was their FIRST Turn then that would remain their primary form, the form that they will always turn to if they do not see any other critters cross their path in the crucial moments.

The idea had some wonderful comedic possibilities – and in fact the short story I began for that anthology was very light and humorous. It began by positing an unfortunate farmyard incident which left my protagonist’s mother stuck for the eternity of her existence on this world… as a Were-chicken. And trust me, this still gets a laugh if I read that section of the story in a public reading. A Were chicken is FUNNY.

Except that this story quickly ceased to be mindlessly amusing. The Random Were could not exist without rules, and the more I thought about the rules the more a cohesive Were society began to shape itself – a society consisting of various clans who shift true to their form (the Corvids, the Felids, the folk who turn into dogs or bears or sheep or llamas…), the wild-card Randoms (who were the lowest on the totem pole, for obvious reasons) and another new thing, the New Moon Were, the kindred who shifted at the New Moon and not the Full Moon and who generally found themselves living as bats for the three days and nights of their Turn.

They rose in front of me, these people, these races, this society, and they became as solid and real for me as any (now all too ordinary) human being I happened to cross paths with in the street.

I abandoned the short story. It became clear that “Random” wanted to be a book, a huge book, in concept if not words. It meant creating a whole new world and building it up from its foundations… peopled by characters who quickly became some of the best fictional people I had ever had the privilege to work with.

But quite aside from tackling the big questions this book was also an intensely focused one, dealing with things on a much smaller scale than societal pressures – dealing with family secrets, and very very personal issues. The big picture was the Weres and their society – but within it, etched with a diamond-tipped pen, a sharp storyline emerged, and at the center of it was a girl called Jazz.

Jazz was the youngest in an immigrant family of Randoms who came to a new place looking for safety from persecution in the land in which they had been born. The safety proved to be somewhat illusory, because it was, first of all, bought at the very high price of personal freedom. The Were kindred was just as feared and hated here as they had ever been before except in the new world this was carefully hidden behind “rules” and “laws”.

Laws, of course, have always existed to be broken – and there is a level of both subtle and quite open torment – bullying, discrimination – leveled at the Were from their human peers. Jazz’s older sister Celia, who is central to this story, bore the brunt of this torment, to the point that it led to the fracture at the heart of this family – the silences and the secrets surrounding Celia’s death from an overdose of a Were-specific drug.

“Random” is an exploration of an individual trying to find her place in her world (particularly when her own Random nature leads to a transformation which will leave her in a very uncomfortable position) as well as an exploration of what it means to belong to a family, a clan, a race, a species.

It is, on the surface, a story about Were-kind. It is on a deeper level a story about what it means to be human.

“Random” wanted to be a full length book – but it was obvious very quickly that the story I had begun telling would not fit into a single book. I had a series on my hands.

What The Were Chronicles became is not so much a trilogy as a triptych, with a story arc being approached in three different books by three different POV characters – and in “Wolf”, book 2 of the series, the POV character is Jazz’s brother Mal. Mal is battling his own demons – he is at 17 the oldest unturned Were of his generation, which is destroying him, especially since his younger sister Turns before he does; and also, perhaps far more powerfully, he sees himself as guilty for his sister Celia’s death (because it was he who procured the tablets which she took, which then killed her).

The frustration and the guilt make Mal a dark character, perhaps even an unlikeable one – but it is his strength, his convictions, his ability to grasp a nettle when required and endure the stings which are necessary in order to achieve a particular goal, his growth as a character, his willingness to learn and change and shoulder both love and responsibility when they are both laid upon him, it is all these things that make him unique, and wonderful, and real.

He begins his book, “Wolf” as a whiny and petulant boy. He ends it as a man. This is a coming of age story, and it charts a path which may be thorny but which is always true.

Mal’s friend is the titular character of Book 3, “Shifter”.

Chalky is a young man who has lived by his wits and fended for himself since a very young age. He has acquired self-reliance, and power, and knowledge, and a mastery of his not inconsiderable gifts. He is a talented computer hacker, and he is also, as the book’s title implies, a wild card in the Were universe. 

He can change, as his kind can, into something other than human but for him this is not constrained by the phase of the moon or restricted to three days (neither more nor less). He can Turn into whatever he wants or needs to Turn into, whenever he wants, for however long he wants.

So my characters Jazz in “Random”, Mal in “Wolf”, “Chalky in “Shifter”, and Celia, the eldest sister, who spans all three books – these are the faces of the answer to my “WHO” question.

These are the characters who bear the weight of my story on their shoulders, which sometimes look entirely too fragile to hold up the load. But they are strong, my people. And they have a story to tell of their kind, of their families, of themselves.

Aspiring writers often ask how characters are created – and I have to disappoint them with an answer that, for me, characters aren’t created, they are born. My characters tend to step out of the back of my mind, fully formed, demanding that I sit down and take dictation.

They are real to the point that they will come and sit on my bed at night, kicking the side of the mattress with their heels, and tell me I am “doing it wrong” if they feel that I am. And they are usually right, damn them. To me, the person telling the story is a real companion, someone I know well, someone with whom I can squabble and tussle but whose opinions about their own story I deeply respect and whose suggestions (if I may call them that) I take very seriously indeed.

When it comes to “WHO”, it is very important to me that I know and understand the dramatis personae of my stories. Because without a strong “WHO” everything else can disintegrate fast. Do I begin with character, then? I could answer yes but again every story is different.

Sometimes it’s a situation that the characters are in. Sometimes it’s no more than the whistle of a distant train. Stories go where they will. But in the end, they are anchored by character – by the “WHO” in the equation. Because without a strong answer to that question you have invisible people who never come to life at all, and a story with characters who do not live – for you, the creator, as well as for those who will be reading about their lives when your story is done – is a story which will crumble to ashes at a touch.

Find out more about the Were Chronicles HERE

The Random World

There is a new world out there, a vivid and complex world full of Were creatures and normal humans living in an uneasy alliance.

It’s where my new series, The Were Chronicles, takes place and the first book, Random, is now available — just in time for Christmas, for all you book lovers.

This new world is populated by far more Were creatures than the traditional Werewolf or Vampire bat. In the world of The Were Chronicles, there are Weremice, Werecrows, even Werechickens. In fact, there are Weres of virtually all kinds of warm-blooded creatures, mammals and birds.

There are also New Moon Weres, who don’t Turn at the full moon, but when it’s not visible in the sky, and Randoms, who can turn into the last creature they saw as the change was coming on them.

The Weres share this world with the normals, living lives of not quite quiet desperation. They are tolerated, but face constant discrimination and bullying. They are carefully regulated, forced to live in isolation or even imprisonment during their Turns, and forced to carry identity cards stamped with a dehumanizing paw print.

The tensions between the two groups constantly threatens to erupt into open warfare.

Random has been out in e-book form for a short time now; the paperback edition will be released just after Christmas. But if you would like to give one as a Christmas gift, may I suggest that you preorder it (see links below) and stuff a note in your favorite reader’s stocking that it is on the way.

Random, The Were ChroniclesMy name is Jazz Marsh.

I am a Random Were, which means I am a Were of no fixed form – like all Random Were, my family can become any warm-blooded creature which is the last thing they see before they Turn.

For me, when my time came, that meant… trouble.

I was quite young when I lost my older sister, Celia, and my family never spoke about her. It was only when I found the secret diaries that she had left behind that I began to discover the truth behind her life and her death.

I never understood what drove my moody and dangerous older brother until I began to get an inkling about his part in Celia’s death… and until, driven to the edge of patience and understanding, he finally had to face his own Turn problems… and disastrously took matters into his own hands.

One thing is clear.

Everything I thought I knew about Were-kind was wrong.

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Where you can buy Random

Dark Quest Books

Amazon

Amazon ebook

Barnes & Noble

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What readers and reviewers say

You will never read another shapeshifter book like this. Every surprise will catch you unwary. And, like me, you will find that others will have to pry it out of your fingers.” ~ Tamora Pierce, bestselling author

Random isn’t just a story about shapeshifters, it’s a story about humanity. It’s about what it means to be a member of a family, a culture, a race…what really made me fall in love with Random is the way Alexander writes. There’s a beauty to her language, an intelligence and insight.” ~ Angela’s Library, review blog

It’s about were-kind, but it’s so much more. It’s about finding your place in your family, your country, your world. It’s about prejudices, and _human_ rights, and love of your family. It’s deceptively easy to read, because it’s a complex story, clever and intelligent…” ~ Maggie Forest

The experience of being an immigrant, the experience of being different, the experience of being treated unfairly by self-righteous authority and being powerless to do anything about it, are all here, beautifully depicted, unflinchingly described, shown with all their terrible consequences.”  ~ Mike Reeves-McMillan

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The next two books in the series, Wolf, and Shifter will be out in 2015 from Dark Quest Books.

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Quote of the day

Jorge Luis Borges~~~~~
Alma Alexander       My books       Email me

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