Using Character to Generate Story

Entry points into creating stories differ for everyone. I’ve mentioned before that I come at stories from the characters, and that I write character-driven books. What this means is that, rather than “what if this cool idea” or “what if this cool magic,” I start with “what if this character premise.”

My novels are high concept, but my entry point to those ideas begins from a character and spirals out from there—and with every piece of the story I craft, I always go back to character.

Looking at some of my finished books, say with Tea Princess Chronicles, I started with the idea of a princess who quits and ends up managing a magical tea shop. For Afterstorms, I started with a woman who is both a badass sorceress while actively doing the work of mothering and also gets to have a romance. For my YA space opera, I basically asked, what if Gundam actually had a girl as the protagonist who gets to pilot the super awesome space mech?

And so on. The types of stories those became, the world-building, the themes borne out in them (things like what it means to do something in the world that matters and incremental activism, how societies try to make women lesser, and embracing the power that comes with upending people’s expectations and not walking a proscribed path, respectively)—they all started from those premises .

But how do I translate an idea for a character into a story?

Broadly, to know how the story arc works, I need to know who the character is at the beginning, which tells me who they are at the end—or vice versa. If they’ve come into their power at the end, then at the beginning they believe themselves powerless. They’re insecure about their place in the world at the beginning; they’re confident at the end.

And then I figure out what choices, and what actions to hang them on, would bring them from that beginning point to the ending. But that still takes a few leaps; albeit ones I can make these days out of longstanding practice, because figuring out character is really easy for me. It’s what I read for and what I write for. That said, being very into character development is not the same as being able to plot, so let’s talk about how you get from one to the other.

Here’s one of my favorite tactics.

Back when I was doing a lot of theater, one of the techniques I learned for how to dig into character was Uta Hagen’s questions. With some additions, these can be useful not just for understanding character, but understanding the relationship between character, world-building, plot, and story. These are the questions I focus on, with my adaptations.

What does your character think they want? (Let’s say, to be a hero.)

What do they actually want? (Hmm. How about security? They want to be a hero because they think the respect of masses will make people value them and protect them.)

What are the given circumstances? (Our character is alone, because war has destroyed the political and physical infrastructure of their world.)

What is preventing them from getting what they want? (An occupying force.)

What will they do—and what can they do—to get what they want? (Gather a ragtag crew to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.)

My parentheticals there aren’t the most original—they are in fact deliberately tropey as shit; can you tell I’m an epic fantasy reader and shounen anime fan?—because that’s not the point at this stage. The point is highlighting the fundamentals that make up the core of the story, and the logic of the story, to flesh out with what makes it yours.

Answering these questions doesn’t create an entire story on its own, but it does give me the basis for the subsequent questions I need to answer to make a story happen.

Like, okay, the protagonist is going to need a team—how do they assemble it? What unique skills does our protagonist have that would actually be useful in overthrowing an army, or attract people to be willing to work with them, and how do they acquire those skills? If they haven’t taken up arms before the start of the plot, why now? What changed, and why did it change?

Let’s take the starter questions in order.

The first two questions (What does your character think they want, and what do they actually want?) are key for interesting character development, because this is how you change expectations for not entirely predictable plots. What your protagonist thinks they want changes, and they get what they actually want (or need, which is an important distinction somewhat tangential to this post) in a way they could not have dreamed of at the beginning but that their actions throughout the plot nevertheless make inevitable.

Given my hypothetical parentheticals there, let’s say your protagonist discovers sacrificing themselves for the sake of a corrupt government might make them a hero in the public eye given the levels of propaganda management, but it would be empty and wouldn’t actually make them safe. But they make friends along the way who will protect them for who they are at whatever cost, so they choose to save their imperfect friends rather than the figureheads of society. They don’t become a hero at large but to the only people that matter, and they get their security in the way that’s meaningful to them. That sort of thing. (If you’re looking for practical published examples, Brandon Sanderson excels at this.)

The important part of “the given circumstances” question is that they have to be personal to the character. It’s not just “war has torn apart a country” but “war has left the character alone, and the character desperately wants to not be alone.”

Firstly, because if the stakes aren’t personal, nobody cares. Secondly, this is how your world-building and your point-of-view character are inextricably linked.

Characters don’t exist in a vacuum (or a white room >_>); they are born in their environments, and those environments shape and affect them even if they don’t define them. If they don’t, then the character won’t feel compelling but vague. If you think your character could exist exactly the same born into an entirely different fantasy world, they’re probably not sufficiently defined. (See also a unique challenge inherent to AU fanfic: how to make the characters still make sense to the reader when the setting they were created with is entirely substituted.)

Asking what actions the character can take, and the reasons they need to take them (what prevents them from getting what they want), are where we come to plot.

What are the tools your protagonist has to change their situation?

If your character’s a sorceress, maybe she’s solving problems using magic—in which case the readers may need to understand more about how magic works, be it the system’s rules that they’re breaking or that numinous magic is fickle so having to rely on it working is A Problem—for your stakes to work. If they’re a political operator, readers probably need to know how the politics work, so we can feel satisfied when they’ve managed something tricky without needing an explanation that slows pacing in the moment of why what they did was so clever.

Tea Princess Chronicles was my first time writing about a protagonist who isn’t some kind of magical martial arts action heroine. Her strength, established in chapter one, is listening, which I physically manifest through how I depict the fantasy tea ceremony.

For another example, I love Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker series for being stories of action and adventure and all kinds of magical battle shenanigans where the plots ultimately always hinge on the “nice” protagonist meaningfully exercising compassion.

As for the question of what actions a protagonist will take—that’s where the story is.

This answer doesn’t have to be, “what would drive them to kill the person oppressing them,” as is so common in epic fantasy; it can just as easily be, “they will focus their time and energy on building relationships.” See Mirage by Somaiya Daud for a great example of this one: her protagonist could easily become a violent rebel or a pawn of the oppressive regime, yet what she chooses is neither of those—she makes another path that is ultimately the only one that makes sense for her character.

Given a person in a particular situation who can do certain things, what will they choose to do, and why, and what does that mean? That’s the core of it all.

orange cat and black cat lying on different parts of me and looking incredibly smug

disparate elements working in tandem toward a narratively coherent goal aka trapping me

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Agency Failures in Plotting

Raymond Chandler once wrote of plotting, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Like most writing advice, this is useful to a point. When someone gives the writing advice of “kill your darlings,” the point is not to cut all the things you like about your story; it’s to cut the things you’re hanging onto because you like them but that don’t actually fit coherently in this particular story. When they advise, “write every day,” the point is (or should be, sigh, that’s another blog) to commit to making structural changes in your life that enable you to write consistently, not that if you don’t work on stories every day that you’re not a Real Writer.

But every time NaNoWriMo rolls around, I see upticks of people who have interpreted Chandler’s Law as a mandate to just keep throwing exciting things at the page until you have enough words to call it a story, or until you get through the part where you didn’t know what happened and then you’ll find yourself at the real story, which is… generally not how stories work.

A Twitter discussion last week about plotting (PS Elizabeth Bear is very smart about stories and has a substack newsletter you can follow) got me wanting to expand on how I think misunderstandings of this axiom can create problems in the plot rather than solving them.

The most common failure mode of plotting I read in fantasy is actually a failure of character agency.

(Requisite caveats before I get going here that I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who vastly prefers character-driven to plot-driven stories, an axis which is in some sense an arbitrary and nonsensical distinction but one that can nevertheless be useful for analysis. YMMV. As with all writing commentary, if my approach on this subject isn’t useful to you, discard it; no advice is universal. Onwards!)

Here’s why plotting can actually indicate an agency problem: a plot is not just “things that happen.” A quick Google search gives the definition of plot as “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.”

There are two key phrases here. The first is “the main events,” which seems self-explanatory. The more important one is “an interrelated sequence.”

Random events are not a plot. If the things that happen don’t have story resonance, the story is unsatisfying: nothing feels like it matters, because nothing does matter when it’s not meaningfully related to everything else.

The most common way I see this failure mode of Chandler’s Law play out in stories is when characters are just reacting. An explosion comes through the window, so then they have to escape! But then the escape to a place where a monster is waiting for them, so they have to run again! Then the nearest hideaway just happens to be the villain’s lair, where they have to perform Some Filler Caper to get inside but then conveniently stumble upon a villainous intent monologue?? And so on.

There are ways to make this work—almost anything can work in the right circumstances—but the question the author has to be able to answer is why. Why did the villain cause an explosion, if lacking that explosion the main character wouldn’t have acted? Why did they choose to go to the place with the monster? Now that they know the villain’s raison d’etre, what are they going to do about it besides wait for the next explosion?

So, there are two principles at play here. The first is that, protagonist or antagonist or side character, characters should do things for reasons that make sense given the knowledge they have.

If the villain had reason to believe the protagonist was already working against them and so was trying to take them out, this may be a good reason for the explosion. But just having an explosion because the author needs to get the character moving doesn’t work without narrative reasoning. (Nothing wrong with writing the explosion first to facilitate making words happen and then coming up with the reasoning afterward! But the reasoning still has to exist and make sense.)

Corollary: the narrative should make us aware of that reasoning.

If our main character is like, oh shit the villain probably believes I’m working against them even though I want nothing to do with this because of that thing they saw in my office!, cool. It can even work retroactively (protagonist: I wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t exploded my house! antagonist: I didn’t know you were innocent then, but you certainly aren’t now!).

What doesn’t work: Our protagonist going, gosh, I wonder what we should do now? Hmm. Hmmmmm. Oh hey look, the plot has exploded through my window, even though this would not make any sense given what we eventually learn of the villain’s goals!

Which brings me to the second principle, which is: reacting isn’t enough if it doesn’t eventually result in action.

There is a separate but related discussion to be had about what agency even is in storytelling. There are ways to write passive protagonists, or protagonists whose choices are so circumscribed by their environments that so is their ability to act (for an excellent example of the latter, read Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri).

But if the plot is always having to come through the window explosively at the protagonist to get them to do something, and once that impetus is done they’re always idly waiting for the next impetus, it’s not the character driving the story.

It’s easy for me to get bored by this kind of narrative, because it’s not the point-of-view characters making it happen. That level of disconnection from choices creating effects with narrative relevance leaves me wondering why this story matters. Why are we reading this version of events, from this perspective?

An example I love to hold up when talking about with how agency works is The Goblin Emperor by Katharine Addison aka Sarah Monette. This is in part because the protagonist doesn’t for the most part take the physical actions people often associate with fantasy—he’s not a fighter or a wizard. So what actions does he take? Being entirely trapped within a political framework, it’s the conversations and how he manages them, the people he chooses to reach out to—or reject—and why, that make this story go. The people he uplifts, that he focuses on building bridges (literally and figuratively!)—this is what makes the story work. He does react to events that come at him from outside, but he doesn’t just react: even while reacting, he is always making choices toward being the person he wants to be, figuring out whether it is possible and how to accomplish his goals.

Here’s another way to look at it: Chandler’s Law is fine as far as it goes. There is nothing wrong with an explosion coming through the window and the characters having to escape. But how they escape should matter. It should tell us something about who the character is, and not just what they can do, but they will and won’t do. That explosion should also affect what they decide to do next—and begin doing!—rather than just waiting for another explosion to show up.

It’s not enough to have a man come through the door with a gun to make your plot happen. The man has to be relevant, and so does what the protagonist does about the situation.

Relevant to what? How do you make the plot matter? That’s where we get back to basics.

What’s the core of the story you’re trying to tell?

Is it an action-adventure coming-of-age story, where our protagonist learns their own power? Or is it an action-adventure where our protagonist ultimately learns they’re “powerless to amend a broken world” (many thanks to GGK for that phrase) and becomes an antihero? Or a spy caper full of daring adventures where the real friends are the ones we make along the way, including our enemy-to-ally who came through the door with a gun? Or is it a political romance, and the enemy with a gun becomes enemy-to-lover?

You’ve got options. My choice always comes back to character, because the character development I want my protagonist to have dictates how the story goes. But you can equally well make these decisions based on what actions thematically serve the world-building idea you’re exploring or that develop the cool magic you want to explode at the end. The man coming through the door with a gun isn’t what makes the story; it’s how that fits.

So it behooves you to ask, why this thing, and not something else? “Because it’s cool” is a good starting reason, but only if it can be made to matter to the story you’re trying to tell.

Why is your protagonist the protagonist, and not someone else?

(Someday I would like to read an orphan farmboy protagonist who gets to be the main character because his unique skill at cultivating rare turnip varieties is critical to saving the world and not because he is The Chosen One. But I digress.)

What can the protagonist do, and what will they do, that no one else will?

If your protagonist is reluctant to do protagonist things, why did you choose them? What would make them actually take action—by which I mean, make choices that affect the narrative—on their own initiative? Because they’ll need to, for the story to be satisfying.

A plot is not just events that occur; it’s a sequence of interrelated events. And a story with point-of-view characters who only react to events without making choices that affect them is a story with agency problems. Because while character and plot may be two different things, if they’re not working together, the story may not be working as intended, either.

For more on how I actually use character to create plot that does tie in, continue on to the next post!

black cat and orange cat curled on opposite sides of a coffee table which divides a sunbeam

protagonist and antagonist making interrelated choices

Planning with Intent

At and after our wedding, we of course received many well wishes and comments about the event, but I couldn’t help noticing a huge percentage of what people noted specifically was that our wedding was “creative” and “very us.”

The former was possibly inevitable, both of us being fantasy writers. The latter was extremely intentional.

A lot of people probably assume Django and I are both imaginative people, which is true. What is possibly less obvious is that we are both epic planners. We will research possibilities, craft logistics and backup scenarios, and do the work to actually make our dreams into reality.

I want to share some wedding pictures (I don’t have them all yet, but our photographer Rose Lily posted highlights on Facebook!) in part I admit to brag, because I think we did a great job of pulling off a wedding. But I also want to talk about, rather than the spreadsheets and the budgets and that side, intentionality in planning. Not just because of how it mattered with our wedding, but because it’s also something I think about and apply to my life—and my writing career in particular. All the spreadsheets in the world of wedding timelines or word count trackers won’t serve you if they aren’t set up bearing in mind what you actually want to accomplish.

There are so many ways to be a writer, after all. There are so many stories you can write, so many side opportunities you can pursue to supplement or complement, so many sides of yourself you can share publicly in different ways. We only have so much time in this world, and I choose to spend it deliberately.

Casey with veil flying in midair, trees behind her.

When it came to the subject of weddings, it got to be something of a joke between Django and I how, given the many weddings we’ve been called upon to attend in recent years, both of us would end up analyzing logistics and vision afterward. So when it came time to plan our own, we put a lot of thought into what it was we were trying to accomplish.

Casey and Django leaning together, their image reflected in the pond next to them.

Which begins with a very basic but also critical question, which is: why have a wedding ceremony and reception at all, given the cost in time, energy, and funds? What’s the point of it all?

For us, we wanted to bring together our communities of families and friends made throughout the years, to share with them who we are together. To share with them the foundation of our home, which is each other and the life we’re building here, for them to join us as we joined forces in making our home together. And that goal paved the way for most of our structural decisions.

Casey and Django holding hands and posing together.

What is our home? It’s our literal house, for one thing—and so the day after the wedding, we invited people there for brunch!

More broadly, it’s the Pacific Northwest, the place where we live on purpose because it resonates with us. It’s the forests we adventure through, and so it was a forest where we held our wedding, chosen and decorated to evoke an elven forest vibe, and it was the Pacific Northwest cuisine we catered there. It’s the place where Django and I have celebrated our anniversary and made memories many times, where we held our rehearsal dinner, combining both.

And less physically, it’s books, and it’s stories. We held our welcome reception at the bookstore where I work, with displays of our favorite fantasy books and our favorite local desserts. And specifically it’s fantasy: it’s our shared interest in anime and Japanese culture, which we brought in with our ceremony music choices of songs with epic fantasy moods and the food prepared for brunch. It’s dragons and swords and dashing capes, and the magic we feel with each other and in this place and that we build it, together.

wedding party posed as Ginyu Force.

GINYU FORCE ASSEMBLED.

It’s that we approach this not as the start of our story nor as the end of it, which would render whatever comes before or after less meaningful; it’s marking a change in the continuing adventure we’re on together. And in the spirit of what we wanted to accomplish, we wanted the whole event to feel cohesive. So we chose the physical locations and the kinds of events that would suit us, to be ourselves and share that with our guests, and everything was designed around combining these elements: fantasy and stories, forest and adventure, home, and us.

Beyond that, we talked and established our top three goals for the wedding itself (which, given our fortunate but nevertheless limited budget, affected a lot of decisions, in terms of how much we could afford to spend overall and how we chose to allocate that money).

  1. We wanted to look awesome in pictures.
  2. We wanted to love the food at our wedding.
  3. I wanted to dance. (And Django wanted to not spend the entire reception dancing.)

picture from behind of Casey and Django walking away from ceremony.

In a way it’s hard to talk about our decisions in brief, because everything overlaps, but it all comes back to these same starting points. That last goal affected venue choice: we needed a place that would have separate spaces for dancing and people not dancing, so Django would be able to carry on conversations and actually be able to hear—but also not have walls between us, so he could dance with me at all. Then to take advantage of the forest setting, I wanted an outdoor wedding, and given that we didn’t get to start planning this until October, we had to rush to look for venues that weren’t already booked and then get the save-the-dates out as quickly as possible since so many folks would be traveling from out-of-town and needed to be able to prepare. And to get the save-the-dates out and give people the information they needed to start planning, we had to make a series of other decisions to have that information available on a wedding website, the URL of which would be provided on the save-the-date.

Our plates full of food, including tri-tip, lemon salmon, pesto pasta, spinach watermelon salad, roasted vegetables, and bread. selection of appetizers, including berry goat cheese tarts, maple pork belly bites, and a mushroom goat cheese tart.

display of a bazillion mini cupcakes in assorted flavors.

some of the food from the wedding!

Many decisions later, I had the wedding website up (chosen for which website had the functionality and appearance options we needed) to set the tone, as the hub where people could go for information about us and this event. On the home page there’s a picture of me and Django in a forest location at an important moment for us; there’s an introduction (“Adventure!”) that begins giving an impression of who we are individually and together, crafted to also introduce the mood for the wedding and what people could expect if they chose to attend; there’s a brief description of each event that echoes it; and all that ripples throughout information throughout the website and every other logistical and aesthetic choice.

Our stationery for the save-the-dates and the wedding invitations themselves was customized to reflect this as well. We chose dark purple (which, among other things, connotes magic) for the wedding color, and then used it for both the storybook format of the save-the-date with dragon stamps and the magical forest vibe of the invitation.

storybook style save-the-date pictured next to purple night forest wedding invitation.

Django commissioned artwork for a wedding crest for House Wexlair, which resulted in a perfect image of two dragons entwined, in flight separately and together. Our initial idea was to get custom seals and send our wedding invitations sealed with our house crest in (purple) wax, which we did, and it was awesome. (Let it be known we were Extremely Clear at every step of this process that we were inviting people to a nerd wedding =).) But then we had this custom artwork, right?  So we put it on everything.

piles of wax-sealed envelopes lined up.

We had an actual crest, which we used as the idea basis for our guestbook. (As an aside, let me just say that this wedding was largely accomplished by Etsy rather than DIY—unless you count all the planning, which we did ourselves and not with a coordinator—and most were not expensive.) We also put it on the sword we used to cut the cake! (The sword, FYI, is now known as Wexcaliblair and is getting a sign noting it as such for our wall.)

wooden shield engraved with crest and "House Wexlair"; smaller blank versions of same sit in front with instructions to decorate them for the guestbook.

sword engraved with crest and our names.

Close up of sword courtesy of Graham.

 

We put it on bookmarks, which we chose as our wedding favors. They’re made of wood and decorated with leaves, evoking the forest vibe, they’re engraved with a woodland fairy kind of font that would read clearly on wood (I will refrain from delineating all my font choices for the various signs and stationery and websites and all for this event, so this is just to say I they were all chosen very deliberately and I had a lot of fun and the ampersand in the bookmark font is a magic wand!!), they have purple tassels to match the wedding, they mention adventure, and they’re used for books.

bookmark: crest on top, followed by text "Casey and Django Starting New Adventures" with engraved leaves.

We put it on the ring box for our wedding rings. The wedding rings themselves were another series of choices for us. The rings are both custom-designed for each of our different aesthetic preferences that nevertheless coordinate in terms of finishes and feature dragons in flight. Mine also has leaf details as a callback to my engagement ring, also chosen to evoke an elven vibe. It’s fantasy and dragons and stories and us, all combined in rings. Because if we’re going to wear symbols of our love for each other every day, shouldn’t they reflect who we are as individuals and together? Shouldn’t they be special, and should they not look awesome? Obviously they should. (And if you’re in the Seattle area I recommend Green Lake Jewelry Works and our designer Benjamin Marchant highly.)

dragon rings sitting atop ring box, which looks like a small log engraved with the crest.described dragon rings and engagement ring on stone tile.

There were so many other pieces. Django and I don’t drink alcohol, but since I used to work at a root beer store, we had a root beer tasting instead of a cocktail hour.

selection of root beer, including Boylan, Frostie Vanilla, Sprecher, and Cicero Salted Caramel.

Our centerpieces? Crafted around dragon eggs. The eggs were DIY, but by my superhero maid of honor Dodo. And Django handled the rest, incorporating leaves for the forest and more.

centerpiece: circular glass vase filled with sand; dragon egg sits in the middle surrounded by tea lights. sprigs of leaves surround the vase.

We didn’t want advice on how to be happily married together, but I came across the idea of a bucket list card, where people suggest adventures you should go on together, and that seemed entirely appropriate.

card that reads "bucket list: help us plan our lifetime of adventures"

Rather than tossing rice as we processed out from the ceremony, we discovered we could get custom magic wands—with tinkling bells and ribbons in purple and silver for our magic wedding colors, and the effect as people waved them was incredibly cool. (In related news, ping me if you need a cat toy? XD)

Casey and Django beginning the walk toward the audience after the ceremony, as everyone lifts wands to wave.

It’s the women in our families who most enjoy dancing, and my mother and I in particular have a history of dancing together. So rather than separate parent dances we had the mothers—who gave speeches at the wedding whereas the fathers who helped sponsor the rehearsal dinner and welcome reception spoke the night before—open the floor with me for dancing.

Casey dancing with her mother and mother-in-law on either side. Casey dancing with friends once the floor has been opened.

Casey dancing back into Django as he tries to concentrate on signing the wedding license.

Wedding cleanup had begun by the time we got to sign the wedding licenses. I’m still dancing, obviously. With thanks to Dodo for capturing this. =)

And there’s a customary wedding thing we didn’t have in our ceremony or anywhere else: flowers. I don’t care about them. I didn’t want to have to deal with them. Florists are exorbitantly expensive, and for something I don’t care about, I wasn’t going to spend money on it or exhaustively figure out how to do it cheaper or even have a substitute for bouquets. That time, effort, and money was better allocated to what I actually cared about. Like: more dragons!

purple glass goblets with metallic dragon stems that link to form a heart.

Or our unity candle! We lit this together during the ceremony (because we are planners, we had a backup plan of lighters already on hand when it was too windy to get the classier tapers to light XD), and the candle was a dragon egg in our wedding colors (there’s purple under the silver coat), that, when melted, would reveal a tiny metal dragon figurine inside. (I do not kid. Etsy is truly a dangerous place.)

close up of Casey and Django lighting the dragon egg.wedding party under ceremony arch.

One of the aspects people kept pointing out to us was how perfect our ceremony was, and I have to say it does help to have the best officiant. We were delighted when our friend Amy agreed to be our officiant. And at one point in the planning process when I was like, “AMY I have a bad?? idea WHAT IF we structured the ceremony like a story!” her response was that this was a great idea, and then she singlehandedly figured out how to make it work and it was amazing. It was a fantasy story structure that then included references to how stories work and excerpts from some of our favorite fantasy stories, and through it all she perfectly reflected who we are, separately and together.

Casey putting ring on Django's finger.

The other specific piece of the ceremony people were especially impressed with was our vows. This is in part because Django and I are both writers, and evidently they could tell. But I think it’s also worth noting that we wrote these vows together. We decided what was important for us, to say and to hear, and we crafted them accordingly. So they were meaningful to us, and the audience got a window into that, too.

Casey and Django holding hands while making vows.

 

It also helps, and I cannot overstate this, to have the best people, as we took to referring to our collective group of best man-type positions and crew. They were critical support for us in the preparation for the wedding and downright heroic during the wedding events themselves. We armed them for battle accordingly.

wedding party all wielding daggers and swords. close up of one dagger, engraved with the phrase "friends who slay together stay together"

And of course, there were the clothes. There were some fraught times involved on that axis to put it mildly—in particular, because problems with my dress threatened the primary goals of looking awesome AND dancing, it was a failure point that despite very intentional effort had the potential to make me unhappy—but ultimately we made it work. I wore a dress and accessories that reminded me of an elven princess, and Dodo wore a purple dress that made her look fae in the best way. The best man complemented the fantasy space emperor vibe we worked out for Django, with non-Western style shirts and fantasy details. And Superhero Seamstress Friend Marissa didn’t just contribute tailoring: she was entirely responsible for creating everyone’s capes.

Casey and Django posing with their capes.

The photographer’s highlights album doesn’t have any cape pictures, so this one’s courtesy of Graham.

Why even have a fantasy wedding if you can’t wear capes, I ask you? So we did.

And that’s really what everything boiled down to, ultimately. Why even have a wedding if you can’t be who you are and do what matters to you and celebrate both?

So we did.

Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? What do you think that looks like, and how do you make that happen—on a grand scale, and in the details?

Do you.

Wedding Recovery

I am married!

And would you look at that, I have… not coincidentally, not blogged for several months! Whee!

I am delighted to be married. I admit I am also delighted to be done planning the getting married. (I’ll write about it. Just not this post.) And it was such a whirlwind at the end that I’m finding myself sluggish about remembering how to have a schedule that does not prioritize wedding tasks.

(Not that they’re done. T_T But let me have this moment?)

In a way it reminds me of finishing a novel, in that a wedding is a large scope project that requires consistent effort for a long period of time, but then if I finish the draft in a big push I’m—exhausted, and I get to take a break, but then once the break is over I have to… do other things?? Start editing? Work on a different project? But it’s so different from the schedule that I’ve been chugging away at steadily it takes me a couple weeks to regroup.

So that’s where I’m at. Wedding planning took way more time and energy than I had initially anticipated, let alone the wedding itself, and now the things that got pushed onto the list of ‘this can wait, deal with this after the wedding’ have all come up at once, it being after the wedding all at once. I’m reintroducing all those other things back into my life slowly as I reassemble my schedule.

And I’m getting back to writing—not just Tea Princess Chronicles, but also a new project I’m super excited to be embarking on! I started it before the wedding, but now I get to really pick up steam.

Though I’m not diving in quite as rapidly as I had hoped to, because my brain feels listless, which probably means I’m still introvert-recovering from an extreme exertion of socializing and executive function and body complications (the week leading up to the wedding was super not free of them, alas). So I’m dipping my toe back in this week and hoping by next week I’ll be up and running maybe not at full capacity, but with at least a little more focus.

In the meantime, I’ll be reading, figuring out what on earth has happened in my kitchen and inbox, tending the cats that have been attached to me since we returned from the mini-moon (literally: I have the holes in my leg from Sakaki’s kneading to prove it), and idly planning my next big logistical adventure / writing project of expansive scope, because that’s a thing my brain apparently does when left to its own devices for too long. It is never boring in these parts!

So bear with me, friends? I’m getting back up and running. ❤

the cats, attached

We Rebuild

My social and news feeds have been full the last couple days of the news of fires at the Al-Aqsa mosque and Notre Dame, cornerstones of our history and cultures. I’ve seen people both talking about how we can possibly rebuild and how rebuilding will never make it the same; both are true.

The intense reactions and grief people have to even perceived loss of these landmarks (much was saved!), and how these places figure into our personal experience, is something that I keep thinking about.

When I moved to Japan, my Japanese colleagues introduced me to the concept of a “power spot.” This is a term used to mean, essentially, a place that seems to be imbued with spiritual power, particularly of the natural world, powerfully enough that you can feel more spiritually in-tune just by physically visiting.

My Japanese colleagues all agreed that one such power spot is Ise Grand Shrine, or Ise Jingu. Travelers more often visit prominent shrines in the Kansai region of Japan, but Ise Jingu is Japan’s preeminent shrine because it’s dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom, the mythology goes, Japanese emperors are directly descended. The chief priest or priestess of Jingu, accordingly, always comes from the imperial family. So it’s not a power spot because of its natural beauty; it’s spiritually sacred in a more literal way.

But the reason I’m thinking about Jingu and power spots is because of a unique tradition they practice: the shrine is rebuilt every twenty years.

They’re not the only shrine to practice rebuilding, but barring a few circumstances like war, Ise Jingu has been rebuilt every twenty years for centuries. According to my quick check of Wikipedia, the first ceremonial rebuilding occurred over a millennium ago.

It’s not the same shrine as it was then—but it also is.

Ise Jingu has stood in that spot, in a form people recognize as Ise Jingu (and presumably the goddess also recognizes as the place where she is enshrined), for centuries.

There are many reasons for the rebuilding process, but to me, it seems to be a critical part of the act of commitment to caring for the shrine and what it represents. And I wonder if that demonstrated commitment to caring is part of what gives the shrine its power, and what countless people feel when they visit.

Even when the structure has remained the same, our conception of and relationships to them change, because humans—their values, their societies—change. It’s not just a landmark’s place in history that gives it relevance in our lives and makes it powerful: it’s the power we give to it when we decide what it stands for and how we will relate to it.

Notre Dame will never be what it once was, but neither will we. And I believe that not only will Notre Dame be rebuilt, iterated to endure with changes—because in a way it’s a kind of power spot, too, and we haven’t lost it in the ways that matter—but that the act of doing so will change and rebuild us, too.

the cats helpfully enduring my own personal commitment to iterating (art) by blocking me in.

Holding the Emotional Core

I’ve been doing a lot of story brainstorming and outlining work lately, and I noticed an interesting trend in my process I thought I’d share!

(All usual caveats that “process is personal” and “do whatever enables you to make stories that work” apply.)

There are parts of stories that are movable for me, but there are core beats–whether it’s a clear understanding of character motivation, a plot turn, or a world-building detail–that I often come up with on the fly but once thought up I know can never be changed, like a fixed point in time in Doctor Who.

When I’m brainstorming what needs to happen, or who a character is, or how a magic ability works, I know I’ve hit upon an idea with thematic resonance and merit when the act of writing it down makes me wince (or cackle!) in the sense of, ‘wow, self, a little close to home! I see we are Calling Ourself Out with that burn’.

These are the questions I’m grappling with in my own life, which means that when writing I’ll be teasing out issues I don’t have easy answers for. That’s the kind of chewy, meaty core where great stories brew (how many metaphors can I mix in only two clauses? I’M LEAVING IT), where characters make imperfect decisions and there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, only trying and doing and changing.

These are the pieces, for me–perhaps especially the off-the-cuff, wallop-me-from-behind-in-surprise pieces–that don’t change, that I make extremely sure not to change no matter what kind of revisions a story goes through, because they’re the emotional core of the story. So they tend to become the pieces I hang other bits off of, like story core nodes that hold everything together into a cohesive whole.

These are the truths that make it my story, the one only I can tell. And because they’re important to me they naturally lend the story weight and matter. When you write what you know in an emotional sense, it feels authentic because to you it is, and I think that carries through to readers.

So there are some puzzle pieces that I will still shuffle around, remove and replace, after making various decisions. But there are some that may look just like all the others from the outside, but that I know are the thread of why I’m writing and require special care, even if I landed on them by accident.

In related news, I remain convinced my fingers understand story better than my brain, which means I’d better go apply them to my notebook again!

Happy reading,

Casey

The cats demonstrate commitment to holding the line.

Making My Life and Rounding a Decade

This morning I woke up late, was finally coaxed out of bed, and returned to my cats with tea to spend the next couple hours reading a book without any particular urgency or guilt that I really ought to have been doing something else. While this was the first day in several I was able to spend in this excellent fashion, it was possible, which is a remarkable indicator of my success this year: to be able to be happy being.

Strap in, friends; this is a long one.

In past years, my annual year-in-reflection birthday post (yes, I know it’s December, life happens and I’m not fretting about it) has often been a way of discovering for myself the pattern of my efforts and accomplishments. This year, I knew ages ago what I’d be writing about, which is this:

Sustainability.

After an incredibly rough year culminating in a deeply upsetting outcome, this year I decided I needed to adjust my course. I’ve been pushing as hard as I could for years, learning how to prioritize writing for myself, how far I can push myself.

It’s far.

And I crashed and burned out, hard.

Because what I hadn’t established for myself was stability. I didn’t have a job I could foresee myself still working at happily, or sufficiently lucratively, five years down the road if a publishing contract never comes about. I could prioritize writing, but I’d also learned to de-prioritize myself. Financially, emotionally, logistically—I needed to shift my goals for myself to be less dependent on what is ultimately outside of my control.

I made myself take a step back, which was a feat in and of itself. I thought about what kind of life I want, and I worked on building some structures into it and slowly settling into them.

Stories are absolutely part of the life I want, will always be, but taking a step back in terms of writing means that I only fully wrote and edited one novel and one novella this year. That only had me feeling unproductive, even though there are countless professional writers who don’t manage a single book in a year—or perhaps insufficiently ambitious, because I can do another full novel plus revisions on top of that in a year if I choose to. This year I deliberately did not.

And I’m proud of the work I did. I got to work on some secret projects I’m excited about. I love my weird shounen anime-style but with women (tournaments! friendship! magic swords!) novella. Tea Set and Match is the first sequel I’ve ever written, which was its own education and journey, and I’m happy with where I landed. Tea Princess Chronicles resonates more strongly with people than I ever imagined, and readers’ responses to it have heartened me in turn. (I am still not quite over the shock that people want to give me money for my fiction, particularly fiction I give away for free. It flabbergasts me every time.)

(As an aside, if you want to support artists: tell other people about their work, buy their work, and tell the artist their work mattered to you. Those three things get us through.)

Stories are also now part of how I make my living, which has long been a goal, and now it’s taking another form. I’m going to keep writing, and I’m also now a professional indie bookseller, which combines a lot of my project management skills as well as a long history of shouting at people about which books they should buy!

On another axis, bookselling has given me an avenue to build a form of activism into my daily habits, working on change on a local scale. I don’t have the time or money for many other forms of activism that matter, but engaging day by day and face-to-face within my community is something I’m prepared and satisfied to be practicing. I look forward to taking that even farther as I grow into this work.

Working at a bookstore has been a dream of mine for years, and now it’s work not instead of but in addition to writing that I actually care about and can sustain me. That’s huge.

Adventure and friendship are also hugely important to the person I want to be. This year I ventured off to Tibet with a friend, a trip I haven’t written about much because it’s difficult to convey how surreal it was. It truly was an adventure, in both the positive and negative connotations that word can imply—in the sounds and silences, in the visible history, in how we use and are used by our bodies. But it was also an exercise in traveling in a way that still felt like an adventure without going at a pace that made me unhappy, with support in place to address the unexpected—and friendship that is uplifting rather than pressuring.

And after what seems like forever of living where I do, I finally begin to feel like I have a core of close friends. The kind who go out for ice cream when you’re bored or sad or just very enthusiastic about ice cream, answer calls at weird hours and talk about everything, and share otter pictures and watch ridiculous movies; the kind who are there for the fun and the hard.

I also got engaged, which is its own kind of adventure! There’s the adventure of wedding planning, of course, but I really mean the adventure of deciding you want to build a life with another person and actively setting about entwining your lives together structurally, in figuring out the life you envision for yourselves and working to make it reality. This was a step a long time coming, and I am glad to have finally made the choice to go down this path.

I also turned 30, which seems like it ought to have been a bigger deal than it was. I went out of my way to make sure I celebrated thoroughly, but I think the most notable thing about embarking on a new decade is that I don’t feel any stress about it.

I had a great year.

I expect even better to come.

And I’m going to go and make that happen for myself.

For those keeping track of my flying adventures, this year I flew on a hot air balloon, accompanied by my fiancée. A less dangerous flight for me than some—given, in succession, skydiving, flying trapeze, indoor skydiving, ziplining in Thailand, and paragliding (…okay now that I’ve located 5 years’s worth of posts on this website I do feel a little old)—but one I could share with the most important person in my life.

I’m not giving up on flying adventures, but for my 30s I’ve decided to change the annual adventure requirements:

Every year, I want to go somewhere new.

And I started that this year, too: with Tibet, and again on the actual day of my birthday with a tea party to visit friends in Victoria. Sustainable adventure and connections, in concept and action.

So I’m still busy and sometimes overwhelmed. I always will be, because I am too ambitious to ever truly rest, and I will never, ever stop pushing myself to be more. But I’m learning to adjust my goals and expectations, plans and efforts accordingly.

I’m learning to have the life full of stories, adventure, impact, and connection that I want—sustainably, all at once, because I am also too ambitious to settle for less.

Ready for a new year and decade an adventures,
Casey