Tag Archives: writing great characters

The Zen of Nightmares – How to Use a Dream Diary

I see this and panic a little.

I just had the worst dream.

I was trying out a new gym. When I returned to the locker room I found that my katana had been destroyed. That’s right, the one in the banner above.

I looked around the locker room, and all these thin blond sorority girls applied deodorant, dressed or did their hair. The smiled at each other, but never at me. I knew in my bones that they had done this. I looked down at the remnants in my hands. The blade had been snapped off a few inches from the cross guard. One strip of wood dangled off the tang, two of the pins were gone, and the wood on both sides bristled with jagged splinters where the end cap would have been.

I ran around the locker room looking for the blade. Three or four shards of it were being carried away on the backs of brown mice and black rats. I chased them, but they scurried down a hole too small for me to follow.

I wandered the streets with my shattered hilt. I saw the mice carrying the shards into a hole in a warehouse wall. I found the door and went inside. There were two men seated in the front waiting room, wearing baseball caps and looking at the floor so I couldn’t see their faces. I asked for the pieces back. The two men said they didn’t know what I was talking about, and then three lamia appeared from a back room. They were disembodied floating women’s heads, each with a spine still attached. They wailed and screamed, trying to bite me. I ran outside and slammed the door.

I had to get the pieces back. I went back inside. The two men were still there in their baseball caps, drinking beer and staring at the floor. This time, the blade had been reassembled, but it was weak and flexible like a tai chi sword. I burst into tears. I couldn’t see how a flexing blade could ever re-attach to the shattered parts I held. The blade, of its own volition, wriggled away like a snake. I went back outside.

I took a breath and stopped crying. I went inside a third time. The whole room had re-arranged, and the two men were working at two tables. Their baseball caps were gone and I could see their faces. One was blond and wore glasses. I asked them if they could fix my sword, and held out the pieces for them to see. They looked up at me and apologized. They only made latex boffer weapons here. The blade was gone.

I woke up on the verge of tears. I rolled out of bed, scooted over to my weapons rack and had to touch it to realize that my katana was still there, and undamaged.

What This Has To Do With Writing:

Nightmares make better story-seeds than dreams, and not always because of the conflict and content. My sword broke. So what? I could have just gotten a new one, right? Wrong. The anguish was never about the sword, it was about what the sword was/meant/represented. Once you write out your dreams, look at why they triggered an emotional response.

The dream seemed to point out my attachment to material things. Or how I’m clinging to something that’s broken. Or a warning that physical strength is fleeting.

Meaning without a story is preachy. Stories without meaning are hollow.

Tension and choice are the story. Any problem you create with technology or magic can be solved by technology or magic — that’s not compelling. The deep human meaning of these things is what makes them relatable. It’s not what you lost, but the idea of loss itself.

Part of a warrior’s path is the capacity to confront things that scare you — whether you’ve planned or not. We do it so others don’t have to. Your path is toward your fear.

When you want the hero (and the audience) to suffer, think about the underlying meaning of the event. If it’s contrived, it’ll fall flat. If you find yourself crying as you write, you’re on the right track. Are you translating those feelings to your stories in an authentic way?

Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.
― Stephen King

People with intelligence will… try to push through whatever they want with their clever reasoning. This is injury from intelligence. Nothing you do will have effect if you do not use truth.
― Yamamoto Tsunetomo


Timeless Archetypes – Building Characters Independent of Setting


“Warrior” is a much broader term than you think.

We’ve heard it all before. Nothing is original. The same characters get recycled over and over into different times, worlds, and scenarios.

True, true, true.

While entertaining some foreign exchange students, I brainstormed what to do with them. I thought I should take them to touristy places, or museums. My friend shook his head at me. “Don’t get stuck on their background,” he said. “They’re your age. Go do stuff you’d think is fun.”

The point he was trying to make is that the person — the individual — isn’t tied to a time or place. As such, their interests and psychology should determine their character more than the setting. Setting determines what’s cool and fashionable, but you could say with confidence that the Teenager will want to assert her identity by being rebellious — pursuing that which is cool and fashionable.

With this in mind, it’s important to represent archetypes honestly. Let’s take, for example, a soldier. Her job is war. He must keep his gear in good repair. She must execute her orders with efficiency. He must obey superior officers. She may believe in honor, or be completely jaded; but generally speaking soldiers want to LIVE.

They “believe” in laying down their life for their country, their king, or their Alpha Centauri Consortium, but mostly they want to get themselves and their buddies out alive. Or they want to plunder. Or develop their career.

Vikings went a-Viking to bring home enough wealth to start a farm. The Baby Boom happened right after World War II. See what I mean?

When developing characters, start with setting but don’t  get stuck there. Think about who they are, and what they want out of life. A great character will be the same person whether they’re on the battlefield, or a boardroom.

No matter where you go, there you are.”
— Buckaroo Banzai

I am a person before I am anything else. I never say I am a writer. I never say I am an artist…I am a person who does those things.”
― Edward Gorey