Today is definition day, as I go into more details about two terms I’ve used recently in my articles.

Cheat – As an author, you are god of the world of your story. It is your duty to create said world and present it to your readers. In theory, you should make it as real as possible: every page should be filled with the weather for that day and location, the history, geography and cultures of the area, the genetics and full history of every ancestor of each character in your scenes. Of course, you could spend from now to the heat death of the universe on world building and have only a fraction of the detail a real, true world needs. Cheats are methods we authors use to fill in these details so we can share our stories with the world in a timely fashion, thus why cheats are ok, even necessary tools of the author. Examples include using someone you know to fill in the holes of a character. It is no coincidence that Angela, based on Paolini’s sister, is one of the more interesting and near-real character in his Inheritance cycle. Some scholars have theorized that Treebeard from Lord of the Rings was drawn from Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis. The same goes with using cultures you are familiar with to give more life to imagined ones (just be careful about clichés here – such as Scotland/Ireland culture as the model for Dwarves).

Of course, building whole worlds from scratch is more challenging than modern or “contemporary” fiction because the authors of the latter already have ingrained knowledge about idioms and styles of their world. Thus, when working with more exotic settings, another common cheat is what I’ll call “focus”. This is when you use the major area of knowledge you specialize in to build up that area of your world. Example: Tolkien (peace be upon him), was a master of language. Hence, Middle-Earth is filled with multiple, detailed languages, but has a shortage of ecology and biology to them (what would a Balrog autopsy be like?). I myself, am a heavy student of biology, but am quite poor at languages (me no use engrish good often). Thus, the Mythopia wiki (yes I am working on a wiki while I write) is filled with life cycles, dietary habits, and so on, with languages shushed off to the corner. Whatever realm of knowledge you are best at, study it, get good at it, and make it the cornerstone of your world’s realism. If you make that well developed enough (and generate good will from readers) they’ll be willing to cut you some slack on more lacking areas.

Crutches – “But Nate!” I hear you say, “Isn’t everything above a crutch?” Nope. Cheats are a way for authors to work around the reality of our finite lives and knowledge. Crutches are the refuge of lazy, hack writers who don’t want to put in the effort that you, as an author, have agreed to do for the reader as binding as any employment contract. Take one of my first articles where I mentioned the crutch of sex within romances. You may not be able to create Tengwar 2.0, but every story will have created interaction in it so there’s no excuse not to put the work into those interactions. You may not be able to tell us the organ structure of your big bad, but you owe the readers an understanding of his/her motivations. Does that mean you can never use any crutch in a story ever? Nope, there are two exceptions:
1. As side details. Any side characters or tangent to the main story are acceptable places to use crutches. A minor villain can be just evil or crazy if need be. Of course, making even the most minor opponent a rich and fully fleshed out character will enhance your story, but use a crutch on them won’t harm it either (not harm it like using one on your main villain).
2. Self-awareness and extra effort. If you’re at least aware that you’re using a crutch in a story, then you can put in the extra effort to overcome it. Does your epic romance start off with them getting off? You’re still going to need those relationship building scenes that every other romance has. Why then did I say you’ll have to put in extra effort? Because as the work goes on and you grow weary of story weaving, the temptation will become very strong to rely on the crutches. Why bother with that eighth romantic scene? They did it already so everyone knows they’re willing to fight/die for each other (then shouldn’t whores have dozens of heroes taking stupid risks every day?). As long as you are aware of the crutch and work to overcome it, you might end up with a good story after all.

Good writing to you…

P.S. In all of this, I only used some of my favorite examples of cheats and crutches but since there are obviously more, how do you tell them apart? A good rule of thumb is the measure of research. If something will require a high amount of highly specialized research (double points for college degree), then getting around it will involve a cheat. If something is fundamental to the story and can be researched with a few hours of interviews or people watching, then getting around it involves crutches. Or you can just imagine that you’re explaining this shortcut to me. If you hear in your head me saying, “That’s no excuse!” then you need to get some medicine for hearing voices.

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  1. OverlordDan on 27 January 2009, 08:05 said:

    Once again, great article. I’m amazed how many good, well-written articles are on this site. Thanks for taking the time to write and post this.

    It really helps.

  2. Cory on 27 January 2009, 08:44 said:

    Thank you. I’m pretty sure this is going to help a ton.

  3. LucyWannabe on 27 January 2009, 10:08 said:

    Ohhh, wonderful! I like all of this, but I love the part about writing the things you’re more familiar with—I’m not a big languages person or am a geography expert, but I do know a lot about entertainment so most of my fantasy worlds wind up having a detailed musical history. __

  4. Spanman on 27 January 2009, 23:58 said:

    Shucks. Now I can’t get away with being a lazy writer anymore.

  5. Rand on 28 January 2009, 18:35 said:

    Good. I’m definitely seeing the sex-crutch issue in a book I’ve been reading.

  6. Snow White Queen on 20 February 2009, 16:30 said:

    Long time, no see, folks. I think I have now managed to resuscitate my computer. Somewhat. We’ll see how it goes.

    Anyway, Nate, I’d just like to say that I really do like these articles of yours. They might not be long, but they’re to the point and useful!