The Marriage of the Hero and the Fool — C. Brennecke

Today I have the pleasure of welcoming a new regular contributor to the EFW gang. C. Brennecke, author of Seven Shards: The Colors of Wine, which is presently in production with Inkshares, joins us today with her first post, following this month’s lead on exploring character journeys in fantasy. 

In writing circles, especially fantasy writing circles, it is inevitable that the Hero’s Journey will be referenced from time to time. The same can be said of the Fool’s Journey in Tarot circles. By some stroke of chance, I discovered both of these sequential story structures around the same time. I realized almost immediately that, despite coming from completely different areas of study, the Hero and the Fool had a lot in common.

The Hero’s Journey, the story structure that appears time and time again in books and other stories throughout the ages, begins in the “known world” or “ordinary world,” which is then left behind thanks to a Call to Adventure. The Fool’s Journey, which is the path of life or path to wisdom as told by Tarot, begins in the “outer world,” which is departed thanks to the decision to leave home, as depicted by the Chariot card. As the journeys continue, both the Hero and the Fool experience a death/rebirth cycle, and just before the very end, both experience a final crossroad as well.

Upon discovering these thematic overlaps, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to take a closer look and perhaps unite them into one hybrid journey. Thus, the seed of their marriage was born.

First, let’s take a look at the groom. Here is the Fool’s Journey, adapted for storytelling by yours truly. (To learn more about the Fool’s Journey, click here.)

  1. The Magician – We meet the Fool as he’s demonstrating his will/agency. This might be shown by a mastered skill, a rebellious decision, a recent accomplishment, learning to influence his environment. etc.
  2. The High Priestess – A foreshadowing of things to come. We get a hint that a much deeper world or greater opportunity is out there.
  3. The Empress – The Fool’s love for his family, friends, and/or home is established.
  4. The Emperor – The laws of the world are established, including expectations that are put upon the Fool.
  5. The Hierophant – The Fool’s beliefs are established. Alternatively, a mentor may give the Fool guidance or warning.
  6. The Lovers – A choice that inspires departure from the status quo. The Fool debates this decision and may face opposition from family, friends, or the law itself.
  7. The Chariot – The Fool goes all in on his decision, leaving home and/or loved ones behind.
  8. Strength – The decision is tested and the Fool endures. He demonstrates courage, cunning, resourcefulness, endurance, friendship, and/or kindness.
  9. The Hermit – The Fool regroups after his initial trial(s) and seeks out guidance as his resolve wanes. The guidance comes either from a mentor or through serious contemplation/meditation.
  10. Wheel of Fortune – A world change takes place corresponding with the maturation of the Fool.
  11. Justice – Having achieved moral clarity, the Fool faces his own faults and resolves to right them.
  12. The Hanged Man – The Fool faces a new point of view that challenges his own perspective. Instead of fighting it, he listens and learns. There may be a sacrifice at this stage.
  13. Death – The Fool’s original quest is completed, perhaps at great loss, and a new goal is taken up.
  14. Temperance – The Fool heals and learns to take a balanced approach in the pursuit of the new goal, incorporating the lessons he’s learned thus far.
  15. The Devil – The Fool is tempted or manipulated off his path. He may be scared or even captured by an enemy for a time.
  16. The Tower – An unexpected catastrophe takes place. A known establishment crumbles, either via physical destruction or the reveal of a huge secret that changes everything.
  17. The Star – The Fool focuses on his goal, receiving encouragement and support from another when needed most.
  18. The Moon – The Fool continues alone and his resolve momentarily wavers as he faces fear and confusion.
  19. Sun – A greater power (or powerful friend) comes to the Fool’s aid.
  20. Judgement – The final trial the the Fool must pass. This is a there’s-no-turning-back/now-or-never moment.
  21. The World – The Fool is triumphant. Celebration ensues.


Now, let’s take a look at the bride. Here is the Hero’s Journey, paraphrased in my own words. (To learn more about the Hero’s Journey, click here.)

  1. The Ordinary World – The Hero’s normal life and personal history is established. The Hero is unaware of the larger problems of the outside world.
  2. The Call to Adventure – The Hero is faced with a challenge or problem to overcome.
  3. Refusal of the Call – The Hero refuses or hesitates out of fear. Alternatively, another character might voice their doubts.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor – The Hero encounters a mentor (or beneficial object) that readies her for the task.
  5. Crossing the Threshold – The Hero commits to her task and leaves the known world to start the journey.
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies – The Hero learns about the new world she has entered. She encounters tests, foes, and new friends.
  7. Approach – The Hero and her new friends prepare for the major challenge ahead. A setback may occur, causing her to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
  8. The Ordeal (Death and Rebirth) – The Hero encounters a major obstacle, usually a life or death scenario or the Hero’s greatest fear.
  9. The Reward – A temporary celebration. Having survived the Ordeal, the Hero accomplishes her goal or receives a reward.
  10. The Road Back – The Hero sets out to return home. There is a sense of urgency to the trip – ex.) the clock is ticking or an enemy is in pursuit.
  11. The Resurrection – The Hero faces a final test where everything is at stake. A sacrifice may be needed in order to pass this test.
  12. Return with the Elixir – The Hero returns home with her knowledge (“elixir”), which can be used to help others or be applied to future adventures.


And finally, let’s take a look at their marriage: The Journey of the Heroic Fool

Journey of the Heroic Fool

  1. Establishment of the Known World
  2. Introduction of the Unknown World
  3. Warning or Inner Conflict
  4. Commitment and Departure
  5. Trials
  6. Regrouping
  7. Moment of Clarity
  8. New Approach
  9. Death and Rebirth
  10. Wisdom Gained
  11. Final Temptation
  12. Catastrophe or Outside Pressure
  13. Resolve is Doubled
  14. Final Trial
  15. Triumph

So what do you think? Is this new spin helpful? Or is it all a bit foolish?

The Fool



1C. Brennecke is a fantasy writer, artist, and lifelong daydreamer. She works as a publications editor and organizes chaos for fun. Her first taste of world-building came when she discovered tabletop role-playing while studying art at Temple University, and she’s been creating worlds ever since. She spends many late nights on the computer in her suburban Philadelphia home, which she shares with her husband and a Sheltie that thinks he’s a cat.
Check out her website: or follow her on twitter: @bonebonetweets





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The Conflicted Heart of a True Anti-hero – by Melissa Berg

What is it about the anti-hero that we love so much? Today on EFW, author Melissa Berg looks at what makes an anti-hero and why this type of character’s journey is so compelling both to read and to write. Want more of Melissa’s articles? Check them out HERE.

We love to talk about heroes. And why not? Bravery in the face of evil, the one who stands up for the side of right while others grovel in fear… We admire such a person, because we are amazed and wonder if we could do the same. We use heroes to teach our children about good and evil, right and wrong. And we see real people, every day, running forward in the face of danger instead of running away. The stories we write are full of such heroes. Big or small, they are the ones who end up winning the day. We know what they stand for, and even with their flaws and mistakes, we know that they will win—sometimes before the characters themselves even know.

And then there are the villains… Oh how we love a good villain. Whether they are the evil genius, or they believe they are right and the only ones capable of saving us all by ruling over us, or they just want to see the world burn, we still watch in horrified glee at these megalomaniac demagogues. They are the opposite of everything good. They are the dark against the light, and there is usually no question as to their real intent.

LokiMoriartyJoker              Loki – The Avengers               Moriarty – Sherlock               The Joker – The Dark Knight

So what about the anti-hero? Fiction is rife with anti-heroes that make us either love them or hate them in an intense relationship of give and take. The bad boys our mothers warned us about that make us love them, maybe even more than the hero of a story… I know I can say that I love to write them. My series has had three so far.



But why do we love the Anti-hero so much?

“Ooh, ooh, I know, I know!” And yes, picture Professor Snape rolling his eyes at Hermione…

The answer: Because they hold the key to the rich emotion and conflict of a story; they have a backstory and an environment that has shaped who they are more than anyone else.

And, I bring up Professor Snape because, in my opinion, he is one of the best anti-heroes of all. And what was so great about the telling of his story, is that we never knew for sure until the very end.

Commence crying in 3… 2… 1…


“The hero is who we all want to emulate, and the villain is the monster we must defeat, but the anti-hero is all of us, floundering in the dark, searching for the way of right… sometimes we may even find it.” ~ Melissa Berg

The arc of a character’s journey is what defines him or her as the anti-hero

SupermanVBatmanWhen we were kids, we all wished to be Superman, to have his god-like powers and be able to fly. But as we grew older and wiser, we realized that it is actually Batman who we relate to most, and it is within this complex character where we find our hero. Though it has its critics, I enjoyed the Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice movie, because the most intriguing part was what I felt and related to most, and that was the story arc of these two great characters. An older, more pessimistic, Batman was starting out in a very dark place; he was more of an anti-hero than ever. Still trying to do what was right, he had started breaking some of his own rules, using guns and killing lower level criminals a lot more. He didn’t trust anyone, and was skeptical of anyone else whom the people thought to call a Hero—even Superman, though he had managed to save the entire planet. In the case of Lex Luther, however, his instinct of mistrust was spot on, while with Superman, he was wrong. Before he was sure of either, he let his paranoia and anger get the best of him.

Then we have the big guy in blue. This perfect Boy Scout, who saw the good of mankind and tried to be the best he could be and use his power as a gift, started to feel the dark of human nature directed toward him. The hero in Superman was losing his way. He started to see Batman as the embodiment of the people’s shift of their faith in him, and he began to question what his purpose here really was. His love for Lois Lane and his mother, along with their true belief in him, is what kept him from falling over the edge completely. It is when the courtroom blows up around him, and he can do nothing to save those people, that he realizes his mistake. We see, for the first time, that Superman is not perfect. He has his flaws, like any other man.


As for Batman… at this point, he has already fallen over the edge, until even Alfred was losing his faith in the man he served, but hopeful that the boy he loved would return. Though these two heroes had started on the same team, Batman and Superman had now become opposites.

Lex Luther said it best:

“And now you will fly to him, and you will battle him to the death. Black and blue. Fight night. The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world: God versus man; day versus night; Son of Krypton versus Bat of Gotham!” ~ Lex Luthor

But this was not the real battle. This was an illusion of the mind, all created by the little guy with huge ambitions. Neither had really turned to the ‘Dark Side’. By creating this lie, Lex had broken down the convictions that had made them both strong. When these two, supposedly opposing forces met, the storm that raged was not as massive as Lex had hoped it would be, for by now, our two heroes had both landed in a place of gray; the realm of the anti-hero. And it was here where the storm gave way. They came to realize the truth of the common ground they both still held in their hearts, which was the unconditional love of those who had believed in them the most, and there the lie was exposed. They rose together, back into the light, to defeat the real monster in the dark: Greed, corruption, and power… the vices of man.


Ding… Ding ding ding… Ding ding ding ding… ding…


The journey of the anti-hero is what is so important. He may be someone misguided, a tortured soul of sorts, but his heart is in the right place. He may step the wrong way, put others in danger, even deny his heart for a while and betray the one he loves. But it is where he ends up in the end that makes all the difference.

In the first two books of my series, The Shifting Balance, one of the characters I loved to write most was an anti-hero. He was inherently good, yet in thinking he could make a change for the better, his actions only made things worse. At the moment of his descent, he realizes his mistake, and becomes trapped by his own decisions, believing he no longer has a choice. He must betray someone he cares for. He uses anger and resentment, and finds a flawed logic to justify his actions, and thinks that what he is doing is sound. Yet in his heart he is miserable and tortures himself to no end before he realizes the real truth: He always had a choice. There were several chances to take the right path, but he was blinded by his own anger. He had feared and then denied the truth of his heart, which was that he loved this woman he was working to betray. And if he had only allowed himself to love her, he would have found a way to set himself free. At the lowest point of his journey, he realizes this truth, and though it may be too late, he comes to a crossroads and must make a choice. Will he be redeemed in the end?

This is the type of character arc that moves me the most. You want to hate him, but you also want to help him; you want to yell at him and tell him he’s got it all wrong. And when he finally sees the truth, you want to have hope, all over again, that he will be saved.

Some anti-heroes are really the hero in disguise, but because we don’t know who they are, we can never be sure. They have an unknown past that has shaped them, things that made them unable to see the truth of their own souls, even when those around them know that they are good. They think themselves unworthy, so they play the part of the uncaring, brooding, and sometimes high-functioning sociopath, to keep people away from their ‘dark’ nature. Benedict Cumberbatch’s vision of Sherlock Holmes weaves a beautifully complex anti-hero. He tells people that he doesn’t have friends, that he is above all that, and doesn’t have the time or the energy for such a frail human weakness as love. So this he claims, yet there are times when you feel he is pushing people away more in an effort to make himself truly believe it. Even watching ‘normal’ life happen from the sidelines with the slightest of yearning. We feel his need, we see his empathy and his capacity to love, yet that he constantly shuts others out, makes us wonder: Why does he feel so about himself? What happened in his past that makes him believe he is anything but a hero?

He says to his arch nemesis, Moriarty, during their final confrontation and battle of wits:

“I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.” ~ Sherlock

sherlock HeroesHe says this in such a way, that I think he truly believes it, not just as a way to steer Moriarty toward a more amenable direction. He is an anti-hero still on the path of shadows, searching for the light of redemption, and only time and more seasons will show us what started this self-loathing to begin with.



This type of anti-hero’s journey is more subtle, but it is still just as interesting. We may know them for a hero better than they do. I have a character who I thought was an anti-hero in the traditional sense, but as his story grew, I realized that he is extremely good and loyal, and always strives to do the right thing, placing duty ahead of self, and wouldn’t think twice of rushing into danger. But his anti-hero tendencies have proven to be more about his attitude toward himself. He is a bit emotionally withdrawn. Though he is highly respected by those he serves, as well as by those he leads, his supposedly uncaring demeanor is actually a shell that he has built to hide and protect his true self. He was hurt by love in the past. So much so, that he has become trapped in a place that he cannot crawl out of. Because of this, his own self-loathing doesn’t allow him to live completely for the dark or for the light. He is in a world of gray, and could easily choose one way or the other. We begin to feel for him, and have hope that he will again, find love and set his true self free. But the question is: Which way will he choose? Maybe it is too late for him.

There is another favorite character similar to this type of anti-hero, and even a little like Severus Snape. Sawyer, from Lost, at first, seems to be a villain, then we see that maybe he isn’t so bad. But his actions crisscross over that gray area, merging and weaving with another anti-hero—Kate. It’s not until a few seasons in, that we find the truth of both of their pasts. Yes, they did bad things; yes, they expect others to stay away and not be ‘tainted’ by their terrible nature. But they are both inherently good, it is just their pasts and their environments shaping who they are and making them think that they are lost, when really, there is still a chance for their salvation; a light at the end of the tunnel—or in this case, the church entrance.

The last anti-hero’s journey that I use in my series, is a little like the first, but the main difference here is that his innocence, like playing with fire, gets him into trouble. When this character realizes what he has done, instead of fixing it, he chooses to lay blame on others and hide the real truth. Pretty soon, his lie has become so big, that he feels it is easier and better to stay the course rather than tell his closest friends the truth. He justifies his decisions by believing he is doing something right for a greater good, a last ditch effort, because he sees no other outcome. He hurts everyone he loves by choosing such a path. In the end, he hurts himself the most. But even for one such as he, there is still hope. It all depends on the real truth of his heart, the journey he takes, and whether or not he can find his way back to the side of Light.

This is where the true anti-hero’s Journey lies. It’s what is in the hearts of these characters which makes them not necessarily evil, only a misguided logic that takes them down the darker path. They do what they feel they must, even if it hurts others or themselves. They feel trapped by duty, having to weigh the odds in lives lost, rather than seeking the harder choices that could end with their own death. This is what sets the Anti-hero apart from the Hero. A hero will always save others at the cost of his/her own life. The anti-hero might choose themselves over others, but will believe that they are doing it for the better. They tend to believe the lies, whether those lies are created by outside forces or in their own head about themselves.

To be the full and true journey of the Anti-hero, they must go down the wrong path, while seeking to do good, and in the end, they must crawl from the abyss and become the real hero they were always meant to be.



Melissa Berg is the author of the Shifting Balance Series, which has been her passion for the past ten years. She also works as an illustrator and studied art and design at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin. When she isn’t writing or painting or entertaining her son, she is pursuing the art of 3D computer illustration/animation, as a side project and to feed her fascination in the ever-expanding medium used for storytelling. She currently lives in Minnesota with her husband, young son, and a crazy Border Collie.

Check out my website or join my mailing list for further updates:

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Beyond archetypes: where the hero’s journey meets modern fiction

Welcome to August! This month, I have the pleasure of kicking off our topic: journeys and story structures in epic fantasy.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with Joseph Campbell’s the Hero’s Journey, also known as the Monomyth. Here’s a great article that explains it if you’re not:’s_journey.htm

Hero's journeyThe Hero’s Journey defines many a fantasy book. In fact, many fantasy writers who first start out, steeped in Tolkien or other writers who followed closely the plot archetype as modeled in Lord of the Rings, will adhere quite closely to the Hero’s Journey. This month, our goal is to explore how writers can break free of these roots, which, most readers (and editors and publishers) will argue, have become cliched in epic fantasy fiction.

The first step away from this is to step outside the box and ask just what story structure is; this is the first step toward gaining greater insight to the tools at one’s disposal when writing any story. Epic fantasy is no exception, and in our modern age of fiction, there’s all the more reason to explore whole universes of story in this sub-genre that are left uncharted due to adherence to derivative form, rather that bottom-up construction.

What is story structure? Simply put, story structure is plot, and over time, plot has come in many forms. Some work, while others don’t. We all know what it’s like to read a book that has no effect, or watch a movie that makes us want to walk out. Over time, through studying the stories that “worked” (keyword: moved their audiences), story analysts have been able to determine some fundamental plot archetypes which crop up in these any stories, and seasoned writers have learned the value of sticking within these archetypes, and the inherent risk associated with deviating from them.

The attempt to define what makes effective plot goes back to Aristotle. Plot (called mythos) was considered more important even than character. Aristotle did not have much to say about structure (just that plot has a beginning, middle, and end), but he did have a lot to say about what that structure must do: it must arouse the emotion of the audience.

freytag's pyramid

Freytag’s Pyramid

Aristotle explored the mechanics of tragedy (unfortunately, his work on comedy hasn’t survived), and out of this came, in 1863, Gustav Freytag’s pyramid.

Freytag took Aristotle’s simple 3-part plot one step further, creating the familiar 5 components many screenplay writers and outliners are familiar with — Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement.

But Freytag’s structure doesn’t say a lot about what substantive components an effective story should have. The Monomyth is one such outline of components, but what are the others?

George Polti’s, a French writer from the 19th century, laid out his 36 Dramatic Situations (published in 1916 in English and commonly used by playwrights and storytellers from that time forward). Here is the complete list:

  1. Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
  2. Deliverance
  3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
  4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
  5. Pursuit
  6. Disaster
  7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
  8. Revolt
  9. Daring Enterprise
  10. Abduction
  11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
  12. Obtaining
  13. Enmity of Kinsmen
  14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
  15. Murderous Adultery
  16. Madness
  17. Fatal Imprudence
  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
  19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
  20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
  21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
  22. All Sacrificed for Passion
  23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
  24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
  25. Adultery
  26. Crimes of Love
  27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
  28. Obstacles to Love
  29. An Enemy Loved
  30. Ambition
  31. Conflict with a God
  32. Mistaken Jealousy
  33. Erroneous Judgement
  34. Remorse
  35. Recovery of a Lost One
  36. Loss of Loved Ones

Taking a more global approach, William Foster Harris, in his 1959 book The Basic Patterns of Plot, argued that there were only only three kinds of plot archetypes: Type A, the happy ending; Type B, the unhappy ending; Type C, the literary plot. Ronald B. Tobias extended this in his 1993 book 20 Master Plots:

  • Quest
  • Adventure
  • Pursuit
  • Rescue
  • Escape
  • Revenge
  • The Riddle
  • Rivalry
  • Underdog
  • Temptation
  • Metamorphosis
  • Transformation
  • Maturation
  • Love
  • Forbidden Love
  • Sacrifice
  • Discovery
  • Wretched Excess
  • Ascension
  • Descension

Some storytellers like to think of plot archetype in a broader sense, focusing on the seven fundamental themes:

  • woman vs. nature
  • woman vs. woman
  • woman vs. the environment
  • woman vs. machines/technology
  • woman vs. the supernatural
  • woman vs. self
  • woman vs. god/religion

Yes, I am a feminist (I’m also in the middle of reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, where all people are referred to by the feminine pronoun by one of the main viewpoint characters, even if they are “of the male form”).

The plot archetypes I find the most useful, and which are most commonly cited by creative writing instructors today, come from the 2004 work of Christopher Booker (Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories), wherein, via Jungian analysis, he distills the works of his predecessors into an elegant collection of seven:

Overcoming the Monster: The protagonist sets out to defeat an opposing force (usually evil) which threatens her and/or her homeland. Examples:

  • Beowulf
  • Dracula
  • War of the Worlds
  • the James Bond franchise
  • Star Wars: A New Hope
  • Halloween
  • The Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter

Rags to Riches: The protagonist starts out poor and acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. Examples:

  • Cinderella
  • Great Expectations
  • The Prince and the Pauper

The Quest: The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. Examples:

  • The Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Watership Down
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  • Indiana Jones
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Voyage and Return: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with nothing but experience. Examples:

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Time Machine
  • The Hobbit
  • Gone with the Wind
  • Chronicles of Narnia
  • Finding Nemo
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • The Wizard of Oz

Comedy: Broadly speaking, this can be a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Booker makes sure to stress that comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. Most romances fall into this category. Examples:

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Twelfth Night
  • Bridget Jones Diary
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Mr. Bean

Tragedy: The protagonist is a hero with one major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately her undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally “good” character. Examples:

  • Macbeth
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Julius Caesar
  • Breaking Bad
  • Hamlet

Rebirth: During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. Examples:

  • Beauty and the Beast
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Despicable Me
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  • Gravity

Another approach that I like is Kurt Vonnegut’s plot curves. Here is a fun video from the man himself explaining the approach:

I mention this because just last year, Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor, exploring his field of specialty (digital humanities) ran a computer analysis on the database of known stories to confirm that, indeed, there are six (and sometimes seven) fundamental story archetypes, conforming to the fundamental shapes Vonnegut’s graphs can take on. To be more precise, when running a random sample, there are six 90% of the time, whereas 10% of the time, the computer will find seven. If you’re interested, Jockers has made available his analysis tools on Github, wherein you can run any story through to determine which of the fundamental plot archetypes it falls under ( I won’t get into Jockers’ work here, but if you’d like to find out more, you can read about his research on his website. Or, if you’d prefer a scholarly article with less scientific jargon, read about what makes the profile of a bestseller here.

That completes my tour of plot archetypes. I hope you learned something, and more importantly, that this survey has inspired you to do further research into plot and what plot is, so you can add this to your storytelling and, as Aristotle insisted, stir the emotions of your audience.

Stay tuned for more on the journeys and storytelling structures and how we can explore the wild, wild west of storytelling in the epic fantasy genre!

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Nell Walton — Humor in Epic Fantasy

Inspiration comes in many forms, it isn’t all about setting the right mood or finding motivation to write, sometimes it’s about inspiring the reader. In her debut article here on Epic Fantasy Writer, author Nell Walton discusses one of the finer points of hooking the reader with the use of Humor. Read on to find out how! For more by Nell, click HERE!


man-reading-book-laughing1Almost all authors (including myself) often ponder what is it that readers want. We spend hours, weeks, months, days, YEARS, writing, rewriting, editing, agonizing over a particular word, sentence or turn of phrase.

And still, very often the reader just does not buy into the story. They move onto the next downloaded sample from Amazon, the next game, the next movie or Pokémon Go and all that work is for naught – at least with that one particular reader.

And really, how do you build a readership?  One reader at a time. And there is SO MUCH COMPETITION for attention these days it has become harder than ever to get someone to commit to giving their time to you, to give you the chance to tell the story that you need to share so desperately. In the face of all that competition, sometimes finding the inspiration to write can be a little daunting.

I have to confess that I have a little bit of Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to reading. In order for me to commit my time to read a book, my attention has to be nailed down within the first ten minutes or so of reading. Very often, in the first page, sometimes even the first line is when I make my decision to commit (or not). I’ve read a LOT of books and I know by now what will hold my interest and what will become just a long, dull slog (and life is too short for long, dull slogs).

I would like to give an example of a book that I almost put aside, but there were two sentences that caught my attention and made me commit not just to this book, but every other book in the series that follows.  PLUS, I have read everything that the author has published so far.

So what was so magic about those two sentences?

They made me laugh.

thousand namesThe book in question is The Thousand Names by Django Wexler, copyrighted in 2013. It is in an odd fantasy sub-genre; I guess it would be classified as military fantasy. I just call these types of books Black Powder Fantasy, because there are black powder weapons in use (rather than the more traditional swords and horses fantasy).

I downloaded a sample from Amazon and started reading. I slogged through the Prologue, and Chapter One. It wasn’t bad by any means (there was no eye rolling on my part, which is a guarantee that I will move on to another book), but it just was not holding my interest.  Then in Chapter Two, the magic happened – and with just two sentences.

I’ll just set the stage a little, one of the protagonists (Marcus) is a military officer and he is in his office reviewing some reports. He is pondering the different aspects of what his personal hell would be, and he realizes that it is paperwork.  Then there are these two sentences:

Marcus was starting to wonder if perhaps he’d died after all and hadn’t noticed, and whether he could apply for time off in a neighboring hell.  Spending a few millennia being violated by demons with red-hot pokers was beginning to sound like a nice change of pace.

At this point I laughed out loud. I identified with the character so much, I committed not only to that book, but the next three books in the series. Through humor and wit, Wexler snared me as a reader by making his character come alive.

So, the lesson is, if you can make someone chuckle, at least a bit, then you are well on the way to winning the battle for that reader to commit time to not only to enjoy your work, but tell others about it.

And, that’s what every author wants.

So, to me, inspiration can come through finding a way to make a reader laugh out loud – because usually I am laughing too!


nell_and_cheyenne_360 Fantasy and Science Fiction Writer. Author of Dragon Siege.

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World Builders 3.0 – Level 0: “Why are you building this world?”

Welcome to World Builders 3.0, an open-ended series that will run periodically on Fridays. For those who enjoyed the previous incarnations of World Builders, this next generation is going to zero in more on the process of world building itself while I work with fellow fantasy author and world building buff, Malkuthe Highwind to build through our posts a rigorous guide for fantasy world builders.

This week, to kick it all off, we start at the beginning, the question: where do you start?


John: So, my friend, I want to thank you for helping me set up my wiki. Finally, I have a wiki, where I’ll be formally building my world. We squashed lots of bugs to get things working and I’m excited to begin. The only thing is … where do I begin?

Malkuthe: That’s a bit of a tough question, I think, as far as world building goes, because there really isn’t a defined place that we as world builders can start. Sure, some people focus on characters and build a world around them, while some people take a narrative premise and start there. Other people, myself included, find bits and pieces of inspiration all over the place and then start there, building outward to create a world that could later be filled with stories and people.

John: In a way, what you’re saying is that world building is more of an art, and not a paint-by-numbers kind.

Malkuthe: Yes! That’s exactly it. World building is so complex and monolithic that trying to codify a process that every world builder has to adhere to is an exercise in futility. The best that we can accomplish ties directly into the distilled essence of world building: asking and answering questions. This is really the only way that a world, at least a compelling one, can come into being organically.

John: I can relate to that in my process, namely that for me, world building has always been an organic by-product of storytelling and I never set about the process of formally building my world. I’ve come to recognize, though, that this has led to serious flaws in my story, namely a lot of contradictions in the plot that arise from not having fully fleshed out some of the politics or motivations of groups or organizations.

Malkuthe: I’ve fallen prey to similar problems in the past, and originally, I thought it was about all the details that I was missing, but then I came to realize that really, the problem was that even if I was writing out all the details for these organizations in my world, I wasn’t really coming to understand them, both as an individual within the organization, and as the larger world outside of it. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t fleshing these entities out, but rather, the problems came from the fact that I was asking the wrong questions.

John: Which brings me to this collaboration we’re now calling World Builders 3.0, and how this began almost a year ago when in our conversations I said, “I want to know how to do this right.” I think as a kick-off for this series of blog posts, where we will aim to develop a helpful process and method for world builders, it’s good to explore just where to start.

Keeping in mind that yes, there is no one true way or grand unified theory of how to build a world, what would you say are the three most important things one should ask when setting out to formally building their world?

One fundamental question to kick off world building


Malkuthe: Well, I think that any world builder should start by asking a few meta questions about their world.

  • Why are you building this world?
  • What is the purpose of this world?
  • Who are you building this world for?

Those are the three most important things I think that anyone should ask before even attempting to build a world.

John: Those are great questions. In particular, the first questions really has lots of depth, just like most “why” questions in fiction tend to be the ones that lead deeper. In fact, why don’t we call that our level 0 question, the place where things start.

Malkuthe: Sure! The other two questions are important, and I’m sure you could ask other meta-questions, but you’re right in that the latter two questions are more personal and important, but if you want a great starting question, the first one is great because it essentially asks, “How are you going to approach your world building.” We all have different ways we’re going to approach world building. What about you? How do you approach it?

John: When I approach world building, it’s for my story. Don’t get me wrong, fascination with Tolkien’s process of bringing a world to life is what got me into fantasy writing and it was the act of building my world that came before I had any success getting a story to hold together, but really, from the beginning, it’s been the stories that define my process. Even going back to when I was twelve and walking my morning paper route dreaming up fantasy world ideas, these were all centered around mythic stories or historic stories. I got fascinated about and explored my developing world as a result of exploring the stories that formed when I thought about it.

So for me, it’s about the story, that’s why I’m doing this, and my world building is to make the story more cohesive.

Malkuthe: For me, I often world build to bring ideas I have in my head to life—to play god, in some sense. To me, world building is less about the story and more about creating something that could effectively function as a simulation, were there powerful enough computers for it. I want to make a world that, in some far-flung sci-fi future where Virtual Reality is king, I could live in…

johnrobinwall11John: Wow! Now that you describe your process like that I can relate. Last winter when I was designing all the maps and working with a programmer to develop the Blood Dawn game, I got excited about the idea of bringing my world to life through simulation and wondered about exploring non-linear narrative through a RPG-esque simulation. For example, instead of reading a book, the world could tell its story through the process of a given user wandering through the world environ and encountering / finding out about elements of the world, and using that in turn to unlock aspects of the world.

Stepping back and thinking about this a bit more, it sounds like we have two ways to approach world building, based on these three meta-questions. I suppose this could mean, depending on one’s answer, there could be unique approaches to subsequent world building depending on your answer.

For this one question, 6 answers are the gateway to another level of questions

Malkuthe:  Oh, definitely! You are doing world building to solidify a plot, while I am doing it to make a setting more vivid, and for that reason, our answers to the three questions are, while similar, quite different. There are many other reasons to world build, though, and none of these are necessarily mutually exclusive, either. For example, you could build a world that both helps the plot along and is good enough to be a simulation. I think that some writers even focus on a single character and then create a world around them to fit their backstory and make it more compelling. I’ve done that before, although it wasn’t necessarily a single character that I worked with, but rather a pair of them. The world grew not from their individual qualities, but rather from the dynamic between them.  How about you? Have you ever done world building for other motives?

John: Well, although I build for my story, in truth I’ve always built with the desire to bring the world I encounter in story to life. It’s that fascination with the world itself that you see around you that makes me want to stop and explore a little. My fascination with world building goes back to childhood and Tolkien’s maps, wondering what was in the spaces on the pages that he never fleshed out, wishing we’d find a zoomed-in map of some part of Middle-earth never before seen. I wanted to go there.

As I started creating my own stories, I would draw maps, make languages, create peoples and races and families and exotic calendars. I organized my notes into directories and loved that finally I had the freedom to do what I couldn’t do with my wishful thinking over Middle-earth. For me as a fantasy writer, it was the ability to create a world and know no end to where I can turn my eye that compelled me to devote my vision as a writer on one world, one narrative that brings that world to life.


But even that got me curious about world building itself because as I wrote Blood Dawn, for example, I found that there are other worlds, or hints of them, and I realized that rooting myself in one world doesn’t mean that’s the only world that exists and can be explored. Needless to say, the process of storytelling is a gateway to the realm of world building and I’ve been immensely curious about world building in and of itself and how I might approach it as its own art separate from storytelling, a sort of parallel pursuit separate from the work I do as a writer – parallel but complementary the way a left hand fits in a right hand.

Malkuthe: Case in point. Whatever your motives might be for building a world, whether you’re building for a character, for the story, or to create a livable world, they don’t necessarily have to be pursued to the exclusion of all others. For me, although I build worlds for the sheer pleasure of creating a world that I could maybe live in, stories that could take place in these worlds are ever-present in my mind, and I make sure that the world I create provides much opportunity for possible narratives.

Now I think that you and I can both agree that world building is an incredibly integral part of the process of writing, especially for us fantasy types and our cousins in sci-fi. I think that there are few other genres where the world itself has so much impact as a part of the work. You mentioned that you started world building as a complement to your storytelling, but I have to ask, were you ever under the impression that world building is this huge, scary, daunting thing?

John: I can’t say I ever felt that way. Overwhelmed by the exciting possibilities, though, would be one thing I’ve felt – and feel even now that I’m looking to explore some more formal world building for Blood Dawn’s world. If anything, my concern is, since world building is such a HUGE area, how can I make sure I’m putting my time into the right things? For example, I might get carried away with writing out all my nation names and deciding on certain things like what kind of flags / nation symbol displays do they have, etc., and all the while needing to know how local commerce works in the city in which my story is set might be critical. While writing the first draft of Blood Dawn, I only did world building as needed, but I felt all the while like there was so much more I could do. I resisted, of course, not wanting to lose writing momentum while I stopped to explore.

Maybe this is my math and programming brain at work, but I’ve wondered if there is a fundamental set of questions, not a paint-by-numbers kind, but a system of asking questions whereby I can make sure that in going in and exploring, I’m asking all the right kinds of questions. I recently played my first D&D game and enjoyed how there is a whole system to mapping out the fundamental details of my character before starting out – so really, it’s that kind of thing I’d love to have, but instead of a D&D character, it would be a world that I’d love to be able to map out through creating templates and sheets that could be organized and interlinked in the form of a wiki.

Malkuthe:  The meta questions which might arise from further exploring that first “Why are you building your world” question will be our guide, I think. This should define the parts of world building that you focus your efforts on. And you should definitely find areas of focus, because painting with too broad a brush could seriously hurt your work. I believe that a world that feels as though it is alive and breathing is much more compelling than a world that is breathtakingly expansive. In fantasy, especially, worlds that feel alive curtail the idea of “plot armor” since events appear to happen organically, instead of conspiring to keep the protagonist alive.


Any fundamental set of world building questions should come from the meta questions, I think. As we’ve said before, world building is all about asking and answering questions, and the answers that an individual might have to the meta questions can give rise to all sorts of other questions that better define what should be the scope of their focus and help to outline the basics of their world. We’ve touched on a few possible answers to the first meta question: building for characters, building for plot, or building for the setting in and of itself. Can you think of any more before we take a closer look at how these motivations can help define the areas of focus to help us further map out the next level of meta questions?

John: I’m in total agreement and think perhaps a great way to think of this would be a question tree. Our level 0 meta question about why we are building the world itself is the root, and there are branches, each of the possible reasons, which could be seen as different world building orientations perhaps.

Here’s a bit of a map of our series, as I’m seeing it:

World Builders 3.0 – Level 0: Answering the World Meta-Question:

  • Why are you building this world?
    • To develop character
      • Further meta-questions about ways we can develop world from character, i.e. questions about vocation, family, race, religion, attitudes, etc. (Level 2.1.1, with episodes for each question)
    • To develop plot
      • Further meta-questions about ways we can develop world from plot, i.e. questions about group motivations, political motivations, individual motivations, etc. (Level 2.1.2, with episodes for each question)
    • To develop setting
      • Further meta-questions about ways we can develop world from setting, i.e. questions about history of setting, architecture, people who inhabit, etc. (Level 2.1.3, with episodes for each question)
    • To develop story
      • Further meta-questions about ways we can develop world from story, i.e. questions about world context, cultural context, historical context, influencing world elements, etc.
    • To develop world itself
      • Further meta-questions about ways we can develop world from world itself, i.e. questions about what nations exist, world economy, all races, world history, etc.
    • To develop elements of the world
      • Further meta-questions about ways we can develop world from world elements, i.e. questions about a given relic, calendars, languages, religions, etc.

I don’t know about you Malkuthe, but laying out this list based on where our discussion has taken us this week, I’m pretty excited! Not only to I want to think of how I can put my world through the ringer with this, I’m excited for us to probe this further and see what expanding this tree does for us.

I also realize this series of posts will take us years to write, but why not? Despite worldbuilding being such an integral part of writing, there’s so little out there to help the amateur writer. I’d like us to keep this going. Why not give other writers a great handrail that they can use to aid them navigating the ins and outs of worldbuilding? And, I’ll be applying this to my world wiki as we go so this is a great pace-keeper for me.

Malkuthe: I’m pretty excited, too. This is a mammoth undertaking, I think, but as far as I’m concerned, if it helps writers develop better, more compelling worlds, it’s going to be worth all the effort. Yes, there might never be a by-the-books method of world building, but I think that the idea of creating a handrail is great. I think we need to point that out, too. This series isn’t going to be about step-by-step instructions to world build. Instead, prospective world builders should look at this as a guide, picking and choosing the question trees that they feel would be best suited for their own particular worlds.

Next week, we’ll be taking a closer look at the first possible answer to the first meta question: creating a setting for characters. We’ll talk about what aspects of the world you should focus on, and bring up a couple more questions that could directly tie into this. I know that this might be a daunting amount of information for our audience, though. Perhaps we could consider creating a wiki companion to make the information more easily accessible in the future? What do you think?

John: Absolutely! I’d love for this to be as rigorous as a D&D campaign questionnaire, which doesn’t mean it’s a one ring to rule them all, but that it’s rigorous and any other writers making use of our system will come out with a world well-questioned.

What I also love about this approach is it’s not a linear process. We’re presenting a question tree that one can jump on in any place on any given day to develop their world through answering these questions in whatever way seems appropriate on that given day.

Let’s make this wiki! In fact, how about at the start of each subsequent installment, we include this evolving question tree as a reference link at the start so that readers can check in with it – and put it into action on their worlds right away. I certainly know I will as soon as I get back in my writer’s chair later this summer.


Thanks for reading along! Thanks, Malkuthe, for being my co-author for this series. You can look forward to future Friday posts from us as we develop our rigorous “fundamental set of questions” for fantasy world builders.

Please, if you have any questions, let us know in the comments. We’ll factor it into our future explorations.


Malkuthe is the author of Dwindling Glory, an LGBT+ novel series that tackles the perils of religious radicalization and speculates about a world where fundamentalism has gone rampant. He is currently a student of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manitoba, but he is a writer and a world builder first and foremost. With nearly nine years of world building experience for everything from novels to short stories to forum roleplays to Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, he is a self-proclaimed world building buff with a penchant for High Fantasy.

He has an in-development setting that he hopes to use for future Dungeons and Dragons campaign which is visible to the public: The Shardscape.

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On the Two Types of Inspiration — By Elan Samuel

Today, Elan Samuel returns to EFW to discuss inspiration. After convincing himself that he was done waiting for inspiration to strike, he decided that he could seek it for himself. Read more below. For more by Elan, click here.

Image from

Over and again I hear (or read) established authors being asked about where they find their inspiration or how they “do it,” where it is simply “write books.” It’s a question I can certainly relate to, after a fashion. Truth be told, I’ve asked it many times. The reality of the creative process is not so glamorous, and folks like me (the less experienced and those of us on the beginning of our authorial journey) want to know the secret sauce. How is it that people like Brandon Sanderson and Stephen King can write so much? How did author x or y even come up with their incredible ideas? How can I do it too? We call them “gifted” and “talented,” but rarely do we use the more appropriate “skilled” or “disciplined” to describe the behaviors and abilities of some of our best-loved creative minds.

I’ve heard many answers to the questions above, but a few stuck with me in such a way that they’ve reframed my thinking when it comes to inspiration. Those answers can be summarized as follows: “It’s hard work, I write every day, and I don’t wait for the muse.”

I think there are two kinds of inspiration when it comes to creative work, each of which functions differently, and both of which can be cultivated. I will call them “Idea” and “Execution,” though you can call them whatever you like. Left- and right-brainedness, thought and action; whatever works for you. I’m working at training myself in these two respects now. Perhaps thinking about creative work this way will be helpful to you. I certainly hope so.


Coming up with creative ideas for fantastical worlds, dynamic characters, and engaging plots strikes me as the easier of the two Inspirations to train. This is the stuff that, nine times out of ten, comes to us first. For me, story ideas crop up from everywhere. I use a task management app to keep my life in order, and one of my categories for items in the app is “Miscellaneous Writing.” The stuff that goes in there is what coalesces out of the ether: anything from a dream I remember to someone interesting I saw on the train to a tweet that made me upset to substance-free story titles that just sound cool. Usually it’s a description of something I saw in lofty prose with a provocative title; something like The Blind Carpenter.

For me, a new kernel of an idea is a fairly frequent thing, and I’ve extrapolated ideas out of each of the examples I gave above. The thing that helps me the most when it comes to coming up with ideas is immediately writing about it—even if it’s just a single paragraph. The Blind Carpenter becomes more than an interesting person I saw on the train. In fact, the person on the train was only the beginning, and once I start to type the idea outgrows the spark that kindled it.

That wasn’t always the case for me, though. It took conscious effort to look differently at the world and start to tell stories about it as I watched it pass by. I could have just seen a blind man in a high-visibility vest and thought nothing of it, or simply that it was safe and practical given his disability in a city. But after reading an MFA writing prompt that encouraged students to go outside and start making up stories about what they saw, I tried it out for myself.

The result is that I have a folder full of ideas for stories to tell; far more than I currently have the discipline to pursue. The question of “where” ideas for far-out stories come from has changed for me, since I started that exercise, to “what was the thing that sparked your imagination?”


Sisyphus had a stone and a hill.

I have a pen and paper, or more frequently a blank Scrivener file and a keyboard.

It’s a little melodramatic, but it’s an issue I and many other creatives of all kinds face: the problem of actually doing the creative work. It’s easy to get distracted, easier still to get discouraged, and easiest of all to just never start. Some new writers can’t help it; they write without stopping and have no trouble getting in the zone. For many others it comes in fits and starts. I’m more of a fits and starts kind of guy. I’ll do no writing for months at a time, and then BAM. 15,000 words in a week. So what happens when I have a deadline? Usually, I miss it. Not good.

A friend of mine clued me in to a few simple tricks through which he conditioned himself to drop into the right mindset almost immediately. They have to do with setting and totems. Allow me to explain:

A comfortable setting can be anything that works for you. At times, I’m only able to write with the hum of a bustling cafe distracting the curious portion of my brain. Other times I’m in my dead-quiet office at 3:00am banging away at a manuscript. The common thread is that I’m removing certain types of distractions from my environment. I block all social media apps and websites, turn on the Focus app, and get to work.

That doesn’t always work, though, so I need to rely on totems to carry me through. My writing totems are fountain pens and high-quality notebooks. I shop at Goulet Pens, and have something of a fountain pen addiction, but when you have a special pen and notebook that you use to tell your stories, just holding those implements can get my juices flowing.

Neither setting nor the totems, however, is a powerful enough force to defeat procrastination and self-doubt. The thing about execution is that it most certainly requires inspiration. The catch is that the inspiration needn’t be divine or random: we can train ourselves to manufacture it. Hearing writers like Sanderson and King talk about it, they write every day because they taught themselves to do it; because it is their job. I have a day job, and I get up and do it even when (and especially when) I’m not really in the mood to do it. If I want to take this whole “writing thing” seriously, I ought to approach it with the same discipline and determination I do with my day job. Sure, it’s not earning me a living yet, but it’s what I live for.

For Ideas, everything inspires me, if I let it. For execution, I need to inspire myself. Either way, I try to keep both halves of my writer’s brain stimulated daily.


Elan SamuelBy day, Elan Samuel is a writer and editor at a tech company in San Francisco. By night, he writes fiction and reviews books of all kinds on his blog, The Warbler. His wildest dreams include becoming a published author and building a career in which he can read all day, preferably near a body of water.

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Invocation of the Muse – by Melissa Berg, Plus Some Great Music to Inspire Great Writing!

Today, author Melissa Berg returns to talk about the Muse! What do you use to get inspired? Below, Melissa will call upon those mystic Goddesses to help you find your Muse, while sharing some of her favorite music. What does she use to get creative? Maybe you’ll find something new to love! Want to read more by Melissa Berg? Go HERE.

Globe Theater

The Original Globe Theater

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene! Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all, the flat unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object: Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt? O, pardon! Since a crooked figure may attest in little place a million; and let us, ciphers to this great accompt, on your imaginary forces work. Suppose within the girdle of these walls are now confined two mighty monarchies, whose high upreared and abutting fronts the perilous narrow ocean parts asunder: Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; Into a thousand parts divide on man, and make imaginary puissance; Think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth; for ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, carry them here and there; jumping o’er times, turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour-glass: for the which supply, admit me Chorus to this history; Who prologue-like your humble patience pray, gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.”

~Prologue and Invocation of the Muse, from Henry V, by Shakespeare


The Muse, once thought to be nine Goddesses in Greek Mythology, which issued forth their creative flow of inspiration and creativity to the minds of mortals, were considered the forces of imagination. These ancient authors, from Virgil and Homer, all the way to Shakespeare, often called on the Muse to enact their power over their works, their stage, their actors, and even their audience. Sometimes they simply invited the muses to sing directly through them. They presided over such works that included music, epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, hymns, astronomy, history, love poems, and dance.

Apollo and the muses

Who’s to say these ethereal purveyors of creativity aren’t still among us now?

In our more modern times, our contemporary muses haven’t changed all that much. We may not pray to them and ask for their inspiration, but we still invoke the need and inwardly hope that they will breathe through us their spark. That fire of creativity, which at times and left to smolder, will burn and drift through us as though of its own free will. These are the moments, as writers, as artists, we yearn for. Perhaps there is some inner God or Goddess, hiding in our subconscious. The place where frail and delicate dreams are created until they float and scatter, like drifting embers, down to the logic and grounded world of thought; here they are molded and pounded and worked into something more tangible, more meaningful, more thought provoking. They become the adventure, the parable, the message that teaches, and the epic hero’s journey, where they can even inspire and surprise their own creator. When this happens, you know you have been touched by the Muse.

Today the muse can be invoked by many things: Reading other beloved stories, the images and writing of great movies and TV series. Science and astronomy, which takes us to places so vast and unknown that we must cast open wide our imagination just to understand it, can strike that flint stone of creative energy until a roaring flame is ignited. While closer to our own and much easier to read, is the act of people watching. Whether you are just a casual observer or interacting with strangers everyday, just watching and listening can sow the seeds of character and personality types, with backstory, drama, and conflict, that later will spill forth with bountiful fruits when the time comes to bring forth a new character, even when you are unaware of it. Every person you’ve ever watched, talked to, gotten to know, will swirl among the ether and deliver a persona full of depth and life.

If a Muse shows up at your door, welcome her in with open arms and a cup of coffee (or even a glass of wine)

Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Sometimes the muse will call upon us when we least expect it. I am a visual thinker, I am also an illustrator, and I have loved movies for as long as I can remember. Often I find when watching a movie that has an exciting scene, I am suddenly thinking of my own novel, and the moments that have yet to be written. I see my characters in a similar situation and start thinking about how they would handle it. And then I am already planning out the sequence and anticipating how I will write it. For instance, we were watching the latest Mission Impossible movie not so long ago—a genre far removed from epic fantasy. There is always the great heist scene where Ethan Hunt and his team must break into a high security facility and steal some kind of data that is so classified it ‘doesn’t exist’. They always manage to succeed, barely. As I was watching I was thinking: “I need a heist scene!” I already have the specific elements laid out for such a heist. My characters need to find something very important that will most likely be hidden in the vaults owned by a rich and fearsome bad guy, and the stakes are quite high if they fail. Now I just need to think of all the particulars and how it will work in a fantasy setting that doesn’t have infrared technology and cameras that watch and see their every move. Do I need said technology for my heist to work? Absolutely not, because the core of the drama and action is the story and the characters that drive it. Will they succeed? I’m not going to say… as I smile deviously.

It was movies and a few specific TV shows that really made me want to start writing—and one particular book series that I started out loving, but because it was missing something and disappointed me quite a bit at the end, I decided I should just start writing my own; just for fun, and to see if I could. That’s when I found out what the creative spark, or the muse can really do, and I was amazed. What helped me to find my ‘voice’ was my love of the Lord of the Rings movies. The opening prologue with the whispered poetic verse in Elvish, echoed by the common translation pulled me in and kept me there, wanting more. It spoke to my already poetic nature (I guess I’m a romantic at heart, but I love a good action story almost as much).

At the same time the TV show Battlestar Galactica was on—the new one—and I was instantly in love with the drama and conflict that drove the plots and characters. But one thing about it that was different and I loved, was the way they gave a tiny preview of what was to come right after the opening credits, flashing across the screen to the tension creating rhythms of kumi-daiko style percussion (love that too).

It was these two ideas that were in my mind when I first started writing, and is why, in each book after the prologue, I have a passage of poetry that hints at what is to come in the pages ahead. I enjoy writing poetic prose, and I take the chance whenever I can in my series. By doing this, it resonates that invocation of the muse in a way, and sets the reader up for the style and voice that I write in—something very much like the style of the Lord of the Rings movies.

“Darkness lies cold and empty.

Like a shroud of despair, it hangs over all.

Yet out of the mist and shadow comes a light, shining as a star.

It rises like a beacon in the night.

Hope will be ignited,

Love will set her free.

For the way of the Prophecy has come,

and the Stars shall chart her destiny.”

From Prophecy of the Stars, Book 1 of The Shifting Balance

When a Muse plays hard to get. Maybe she is an introvert, don’t take it personally.

So I have my plot point, yet I’m having trouble ‘seeing’ it. My characters are standing in a blank room waiting for me to tell them what to do, how to feel, and when to act. The pieces are set, but the board has no checkered squares. This is when I need to call on my next favorite muse and that is music. Music comes from the Greek word Mousikē, which literally means ‘art of the Muses’. And it’s no wonder. What other medium speaks directly to the soul? What is as much a part of our culture as it is a part of our bodies? Our brains are wired to respond directly to music, no matter your age or where you come from. Yet its virtually unknown as to why this is. Obviously some of it has to do with social behavior, the way singing in a collective nurtures a feeling of inclusion and confidence in a group. We learn to work together more smoothly and there is less conflict or confusion; this skill would have been necessary in order to survive. It also has to do with understanding the voice, the natural rhythm of cadence, and here we can also subconsciously perceive emotion or an eminent threat. But there is an aspect of our response to music that proves it is so much more. It not only makes us want to move and pay attention, it also speaks directly to our emotion. When watching a movie, you may not even notice the music is playing, but you are still reacting to it. It’s what helps to draw out the emotion of a scene. We literally feel it. Recently I finally saw the movie Interstellar. Upon first viewing I really liked it. But once the credits were done and after the music stopped I started thinking about the story and I realized there were things about it that bothered me. I won’t get into what those things were because this isn’t a movie review, but I know why I didn’t really notice these issues as strongly while I was watching. Hans Zimmer’s score transcends the story. He makes us feel the emotion of it, even when the logic makes no sense. The amazing melodies of the pipe organ that he uses throughout makes us not care about the plausibility of the motivations of the characters because we are only thinking about the emotion. I will say, at the end it was barely enough to stretch my imagination into believing it. (Though for reasons of where my own story will delve into, I was very interested in and appreciated how they worked in the unknowns of a Black Hole and what might be at the ‘bottom’ of one—but that’s all I will say about that… smiles deviously again).

For me, music creates the visuals, and because of this, music is what I use in order to see my story about 90% of the time. My characters become more clear, I can feel their emotion, I know how they will move and can even hear them talking, crying, or raging. Every step of their epic battle moves with the drums of a great piece of music. When I need to look more closely and ‘see’ the story happen, I get back into the habit of listening to music for about an hour before I sleep. It is a meditation of sorts. The room is dark, there are no distractions or interruptions, and my mind can fully relax. The music starts and I watch the play unfold. Each piece of music will issue different emotions. I will often jump from one scene to another depending on the song that is playing. I most often use soundtrack music for the same reasons I mentioned above. I have a few favorite artists that are more mainstream and have lyrics, but I use those to visualize my story as a whole, almost as a preview or music video playing out in my mind. This helps me to get into the whole mind set of writing and invokes the mood of the scenes to come.

Here is a list of some of my favorite music that I have used for writing. Have fun listening, and hopefully you will discover that perfect Muse you were searching for:

I have recently discovered Pandora and Spotify (I know, I’m a bit behind… mostly because I had always stuck to my favorite playlists that I already owned). I have been looking for a new Muse. My series is divided into three main stories beneath the overall arching plot, and each story runs the course of two books. For Book 1 and 2, I used, quite heavily, the soundtrack to Battlestar Galactica by Bear McCreary. There are several seasons of the show, and this offered a large spectrum of emotional cues within the main character themes and melodies. Have a listen to one of my favorites, and in my opinion one of the most beautiful and breathtaking pieces ever written for a tv show: Roslin and Adama.

This song literally turned into the main love theme for my two main characters. As many times as I’ve heard it, I still get goosebumps when the drums come in and the rhythm picks up. In my mind, I choreographed whole battle scenes and fights to the interweaving moods and rhythms that McCreary created for the cylon/human struggles, which changed and evolved during the course of the show.

For Book 3 and 4 I needed something a little darker. I’ve always been a fan of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. Though most of his work has lyrics, many of his albums have instrumental pieces too. Yet the subject of the lyrics works quite well for me because the words can mean different things to the listener. If I associate it to one of my main characters and their slow but steady fall into darkness, along with his feeling of helplessness in not being able to avoid that fall, songs like The Wretched and The Great Below are close to perfect for the emotion I need to evoke. A running theme throughout my story is the element and symbolism of water, and The Great Below is full of imagery and sounds that conjure a dark ocean at night, and a lost soul struggling to stay afloat amidst the darkness. If I could create a video of a specific scene, I would use this song. (This is a clip, so go ahead and get the FREE Spotify app to hear the whole song, you won’t be disappointed!)

I also listened to the soundtrack for the movie 300 by Tyler Bates. It has an epic yet dark quality to the emotion that I was looking for.

Now I am searching for something new and different for Books 5 and 6, something that has evolved and grown with the characters. I’ve been using Spotify to discover new artists and create a new playlist, and I have found some favorites. I am still using Nine Inch Nails (mostly because they have become my favorite band over the years and he is still releasing new music) but I’ve also started listening to a lot more of Hans Zimmer’s scores. Interstellar and Inception are beautiful.

The Dark Night Rises is wonderful too, and though the theme makes you think of Batman a little bit, it doesn’t nearly as much as the iconic score for Tim Burton’s Batman of 1989, written by Danny Elfman.

Other artists, like Audiomachine have proven to be almost exactly what I’m looking for.

Bear McCreary is still creating new music too. In fact his popularity has grown in the last couple of years. He has started scoring movies, and he has scored some amazing music for the Starz series Black Sails and Outlander. Outlander has a lot of bagpipes, so it doesn’t quite work the way I need, but Black Sails—an amazing show about real Pirates by the way—uses sounds and instruments from the time period with darker, and sometimes, heavier melodies that are perfect for high stakes action. Unfortunately neither Spotify or Pandora carries the Black Sails music, so I bought it, but it’s definitely worth it.

(I should add here, I am all for buying music. I know a few musicians, and it’s a hard business, support them first and foremost if you can. In fact, most of the songs I have put on my Spotify playlist I actually own as well. But it’s a great tool for discovering music you won’t hear anywhere else before spending the money.) On my wish list is the soundtrack for The Walking Dead, also by Bear McCreary, but unfortunately AMC has refused to make it available anywhere. There are great moments in that score that are more ambient mood enhancing harmonies with a gritty and sometimes creepy edge.

Another one that I could make a video for and really gets me amped up for writing, is the cover of Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Lorde. Her haunting voice, along with the lyrics, throws me into visions of the big finale of my series. I can see it now… so epic! I can’t wait to write it!

There are many other songs and albums that I am falling in love with, so if you are looking for some new inspiration and would like to follow my playlist on Spotify, the link is here:


As a side note: In high school I was a bit of a soundtrack nerd, it was almost a hobby of mine. I listened to John Williams or James Horner more than anything else at the time. But, that was also because the only new stuff coming out was Hammertime, Ice Ice baby, and the Humpty Dance. The radio was a musical vacuum back then. It wasn’t until my college years when awesome came back to music. I was all about grunge, and owned many flannel shirts, and then U2 came into my life with a little thing called Zoo TV and I was changed forever…

Music has that way of living with you and becoming a part of your life. It should also be a part of the stories you write, even if the reader will never know. It is probably the greatest Muse of them all.

Invocation of the Muse in Fantasy

The Hero’s Journey is a part of the history of the nine Muses, and when you choose to add to this amazing tapestry, you are already ‘praying to the Muses’ and invoking their spirit. They will be drawn to you, and will breathe into you their song. Let them in, no matter when or where they call to you, for once you get to the last page and write The End, that force of magic has alighted in your soul, you have become a part of the very spark of human nature: The need to create, to wonder, and to sing.

Bonus song:

This is the song that first got me started learning the complicated world of 3D animation using Blender 3D. I heard this and instantly wanted to use it for a trailer for my series. The song was originally written for the 80s fantasy movie Legend. This is a cover done by Trent Reznor’s side project, a band called How to Destroy Angels, and was used for the movie Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Bonus fact: His wife is the vocalist. This song speaks to me…



Melissa Berg is the author of the Shifting Balance Series, which has been her passion for the past ten years. She also works as an illustrator and studied art and design at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin. When she isn’t writing or painting or entertaining her son, she is pursuing the art of 3D computer illustration/animation, as a side project and to feed her fascination in the ever-expanding medium used for storytelling. She currently lives in Minnesota with her husband, young son, and a crazy Border Collie.

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