Permafrost's Writing Advice

While I’m well aware that this is primarily a gameplay community, story writing should still be given some thought unless you’re making something like a one chapter hack. I’m sure there are plenty of potential players who could lose interest in a project if the story never goes anywhere or if the dialogue is annoying. To that end, I thought it was worthwhile to share some writing advice.

This was inspired by Xilirite’s similar topic, so check that out if you haven’t as there’s already some good advice in there.

My first article is on plot twists and tropes, and you can check it out below.

Tropes and Twists

Conventional wisdom might tell you that plot twists are good and tropes are bad, but I’m here to tell you that plot twists can, in fact, be quite bad and tropes can actually be quite useful tools in storytelling. I thought tropes would make a good first topic because a lot of hack makers seem driven to change up the typical Fire Emblem formula by staying away from characters who are members of nobility. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s also nothing wrong with sticking with the familiar. In the long run, the overall execution of the story will be much more important to leaving an impact on the audience than background biographical information about the main character.

When thinking about whether a trope is useful or not, a good place to start is whether the trope accomplishes anything. So is there a reason that Fire Emblem protagonists are typically noble born? Fire Emblem is a series where armies clash on a battlefield. It therefore makes the most sense for the protagonist to be the leader of an army because having to follow orders would cut down on the amount of agency available to the protagonist. Having the protagonist be noble born is a simple way to explain why he is in a position to lead an army. While it is certainly possible to have a protagonist from another walk of life, it would take more dialogue to explain why that character is the leader, which risks bogging down those critical early moments when the audience is meant to be drawn in.

This brings us to FE9/10’s Ike, who is notable for not being of noble birth. However, his being the son of the mercenary leader is pretty much identical in function to if he was noble born. He becomes the leader because of who his parents were. It’s easy to understand and avoids bogging the player down in exposition about why one of the younger members is leading the mercenaries.

In my own hack, Deity Device, the starting units are about as basic as can be in Fire Emblem terms. There’s a princess, a Cain and Abel pair, and a Jagen. However, it’s because the characters have that familiar feel that their relationships can be established without needing to write stilted, expository dialogue. Saying that a character is another character’s knight is quick and easy, and having to go into some sort of backstory about why a character follows another will take a lot longer. And what needs to be kept in mind is that the audience does not care about the characters at this point. They have to do things before the audience will care, so time spent expositing is time when the audience could very well be lost. Therefore, establishing relationships quickly in order to keep the action moving is in the writer’s best interests.

The opening scene of Deity Device gives all of this information about the initial units:

Relationship Chart

Using character tropes was a big part of why this information was able to be communicated without forcing the characters to exposit about a shared past that they would have no reason to talk about outside of informing the player. None of this is to say that it’s a good idea to create bland, stock characters that the audience is likely to have seen before, but it is meant to impart that familiar does not mean bad or even unoriginal. Putting a different spin on an established trope can even be an effective way to make a character memorable.

This brings us to plot twists. I decided to talk about twists together with tropes because the reason for gravitating toward twists comes from pretty much the same place as moving away from tropes: wanting to surprise the audience. If nothing else, I would like to impart that it is not a bad thing if the audience can predict something that happens in a story. It can actually be a very good thing, as in the best case scenario, it means that the story and characters were well established enough that the audience could draw logical conclusions about what was being experienced.

The danger of writing around a plot twist is that, if the primary goal is to shock the audience, clues and foreshadowing will be kept to a minimum. It will therefore be difficult to write the twist in such a way that it doesn’t come across as either out of nowhere or a character making a complete heel turn on what has been established about him. Doing that will likely get a reaction out of the audience, possibly even a positive one in the moment, but that impression will likely sour after any reflection.

Obviously, the goal shouldn’t be to be predictable. The audience should want to see what is going to happen next. But the writer should not be viewing the audience as an adversary that needs to be outsmarted. The writer should be guiding the audience through the story, not trying to deceive it. Leading the audience toward incorrect conclusions in order to create a twist can leave an equally bad taste as a poorly developed twist. Again, doing so will likely get a reaction in the moment, but upon reflection, the story leading up the twist will likely just feel manipulative and will likely induce eyeball rolling upon any rereads.

If the story is well executed, then the audience will stick with the story in order to see how things happen, even if it has a good idea of what kind of ending there will be. And providing a complete experience will contribute to the audience retaining a positive impression of the story after experiencing it.

So let’s put it all together by talking about something concrete. Star Wars is pretty easy to talk about because it’s such a cultural touchstone. And it so happens that the first movie (Episode IV) is full of tropes, to the point that it’s essentially a mashup of of a Western and a King Arthur story with a sci-fi setting. After it made a ton of money, the world building ramped up and sequels were planned, but the original movie is, at its heart, a very simple story that uses well established concepts to make it accessible in spite of its niche setting.

There’s a farm boy who goes off to seize his destiny as a hero, a roguish outlaw, and a wise old wizard, and together, they save a princess. Even though these are all things the audience has probably seen before, the movie does a good enough job of making the journey worthwhile that the familiarity doesn’t diminish the experience.

By contrast, the big twist that came in the the next movie is arguably one of the worst bits of storytelling in the first trilogy (hear me out). It is never, in any way, suggested before the reveal that Vader is Luke’s father. And making it work required retconning Obi Wan’s statement that Vader had killed Luke’s father into a symbolic statement that is true “from a certain point of view.” It also makes Luke and Leia’s interactions up to that point so awkward on a second viewing that even Lachesis feels uncomfortable watching.

And yes, the revelation of Luke’s parentage was certainly a big moment that shocked moviegoers, but did it really contribute anything? The final showdown between Luke and Vader in the next movie could have played out much the same if Luke was trying to redeem a once valiant Jedi even if there was no blood relation between the two of them. It cleaned up the issue of which leading man would wind up with the princess by taking Luke out of the running, and that’s about it. Nowadays, the legacy of the reveal is just a line that your annoying uncle probably thinks is funny to work into his ramblings (if you are that annoying uncle, then shame on you) and that’s about it.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. Basically, don’t feel bad or feel like you can’t use an idea if you think it might be a trope, and don’t be too zealous in concealing information in order to pull off an epic twist. There are always going to be cynical people who will try to say that a storyline or characters are too derivative or too obvious. Just don’t worry about pleasing those people because it’s likely you won’t, no matter what you do.

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Good read. Thanks for sharing your tips.

One thing I’ll add about tropes - a key piece to making them work is not trying to be too derivative or allusory to another character.

I see this often in hacks where a character is so similar to another known character that it takes me out of what I’m playing. Ie “oh so this is blue Sain.”

Something I always aimed to do with character writing was try to make them feel and talk like real people (in most cases at least).

So much of this comes down to not beating on a characters traits every time they speak, and giving other elements to their personality time to shine. The challenge is tying it all together.

I often ask myself “would so and so think or say this? How would they respond to this situation?” This exercise helps me differentiate characters and establish the baseline for a scene. While may I start with a trope or archetype, I’ll think through what would give them their own voice

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This was an enjoyable read and a nice lesson to learn.

I feel like making characters talk like real people would be a bad idea considering how much people correct, pause or straight-up interrupt their own sentences in regular conversation. That might work well in movies, but I don’t think it’ll work well in text.

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Aw I was planning on talking about tropes soon! ^.^ this was a fun read, and it’s cool to see a shoutout to my thread, sparse as it currently is.

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I had to pause at the Lachesis bit, that was great

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I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong about having characters stumble when speaking or anything like that, well in theory anyway (if that makes sense) lul

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I think Pandan is meaning (as mentioned in the last paragraph of his post) that it isn’t necessarily to write it as a person might actually speak, but how they would intend to speak, stuttering or other issues aside. Get inside of their “head” and pretend that you are the character when you’re drafting their dialogue. How would they respond to the situation, how would they talk (aggressive, passive, stern and informative, quizzically, etc.) in response to who they are talking to (is it a friend, a superior, an enemy, a stranger, etc.), is it a topic that they’re knowledge and passionate about or something that they’re riffing on, and so on.

That said, I think you’re also devaluing the context of someone’s speech. Sure, it might get repetitive if you do it all of the time, but someone that is meek or unsure of themselves (ex: Florina) might be a good candidate to stutter parts of their words or to tail off and not finish their sentence every once in a while, especially if they’re in a situation that warrants it (i.e. when her Pegasus nearly gets shot down and she lands on top of Hector). She gets meek and flustered for a single moment when she learns that both she and her mount were “caught” by Hector but then transitions back to why she was there, and it shows that, despite her comment to Lyn before leaving that she isn’t (as) shy around men as before, she still isn’t completely over it and has more room to grow.

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Sure, but maybe not at the rate that IRL humans do. If you take this transcription and leave out certain symbols like the ones for changes in intonation and speech rate, it’s still a slog to read through, IMO:
https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Jefferson-transcription-example-colon-stretched-sound-02-a-pause-of-02_fig5_348618469

I think that’d be a better approach than the one they actually wrote down.

I didn’t say there was no situation that warrants stuttering or leaving sentences unfinished. My words were:

People don’t stutter or leave sentences unfinished only when they’re meek or unsure of themselves. People stutter and leave sentences unfinished all the time.

Depends on how you use it. In context, it can help give a character more flavor if they phrase things in a way that is not grammatically correct, or use specific words incorrectly.

LordGlenn’s interpretation of what I said is also correct.

Generally, I agree that characters should avoid being difficult to discern because of how they speak, unless it’s to help characterize them or provide context in some way.

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Oops. Sorry for getting ahead of you.

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Hehe, it’s not as if I called dibs or anything. Excited to see what else you write in here!

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For my next article, I’ll be discussing the specialness of main characters. This was actually something I was veering into talking about before with tropes, but I decided that it was really it’s own topic. I’ll be talking about quite a bit about the Tellius games, so spoilers follow.

How special should a main character be?

From reading posts here on FEU, there seems to be something of a fear among hack makers of creating main characters who are too special. The reason for this is seemingly to avoid creating a “Mary Sue.” My understanding is that a Mary Sue is a character who is, without explanation, superior at pretty much any task he undertakes to others and is universally loved by the other characters. It isn’t a term that I’m in the habit of using as I believe it’s thrown around with such great frequency that it doesn’t really mean much other than that the person using the term doesn’t like the character. However, if the fear of creating a Mary Sue is influencing writing, then that makes it worth talking about. And from personal experience, I wondered whether some of my characters, particularly Nathan, would be called Mary Sues after I released Deity Device.

Writing a main protagonist is inherently different from writing supporting characters because a main protagonist needs to carry the plot. She needs to have the will to move the plot forward as well as be involved enough in the plot that major events will be meaningful for her. This necessitates that the protagonist is somehow special. This specialness can take many forms. It can be the way the protagonist sees the world or an exceptional skill, but there should be something that an audience can identify as why a particular character is the one on an adventure and not literally anyone else in the world. That isn’t to say that a character needs a super special bloodline or she must be the best in the world at something to be a protagonist. A character trait as simple as exceptional courage or a strong sense of justice and the will to act upon it can lay the groundwork of a protagonist.

A good rule of thumb is that characters should be equal to the events they’re involved in. It will come across as dissonant if a mundane person with mundane thoughts is made the center of a large scale adventure or brutal conflict. Yes, such people can play roles in and are affected by the conflicts of nations (basic Fire Emblem stuff), but to position such a person as the focal point will leave the audience scratching their heads. It isn’t cheesy or evidence of some over indulgent power fantasy to have characters with brilliant tactical minds or monumental battle strength at the center of such events because that is who belongs in those situations.

So how does this work in practice? Between, Ike and Micaiah, Micaiah is the one who often has allegations of being a Mary Sue thrown at her. But I would argue that Ike exhibits more Mary Sue traits. As a disclaimer, though the Tellius games are often pointed to as some of the better written games in Fire Emblem, I am not a fan of Path of Radiance’s story, though I love Radiant Dawn. This is mostly because the plot never goes much beyond: put the rightful ruler back on the thrown after she was ousted by evil country. Ashnard is also very one dimensional and is barely aware that the protagonists exist, so the ending doesn’t really feel like a culmination of anything.

In both games, Ike is pretty much portrayed as being a perfect human. His ideas and worldview are never meaningfully challenged, and in fact, his outlook is seemingly used as the narrative’s measure of virtue. This is partly because Ike never has any consistent conversational partner to bounce off of. There is a group of more significant characters who get screen time: Titania, Soren, Mist, and Elincia, among others. But these characters float around Ike, occasionally chiming in, rather than standing on equal footing with him.

The morality of other characters seemingly depends on the extent to which they recognize the goodness of Ike or the degree of Ikeness, they themselves have. Characters like Tibarn see the world similarly to Ike and are thus good. The Begnion Senate is framed as antagonistic in large part by making it the antithesis of Ikeness. When Ike speaks rudely to Sanaki and nearly kills the hope of getting help in Begnion, it isn’t a framed as a failing of Ike but rather that the system is wrong for not recognizing the virtue of Ikeness. Likewise, characters such as Elincia’s retainers are made to grow by coming to respect and act according to Ikeness.

Ike’s lowest point is after Greil’s death, but even then, he’s largely surrounded by people who assert their belief in him, with only two deserters being largely cast in a negative light for leaving. Ike’s only failure is being unable to stop the battle that leads to waking the goddesses, but characters who would seemingly be better versed in diplomacy such as Elincia are unable to do anything either.

On the other hand, Micaiah is constantly made to choose between her goals and her beliefs. More than anything, she wants to free Daein, but to do that, she winds up allying herself with Izuka, who she finds morally repugnant. After freeing, Daein she fights battles that she does not believe in for the sake of preserving it.

Micaiah’s decisions also cause her to be rejected by other characters, as when Tormod and his friends leave after defeating Jarod, not really wanting to be involved with what Micaiah has gotten herself into anymore, and several of her allies, such as Jill and Zihark, can be coaxed into joining the other side.

From all of this, the conclusion is that the Mary Sue label is meaningless. I really don’t have a problem with Ike as a character. This was all to give footing to say that characters should be as special as a story needs them to be. The sort of assumed perfection that Ike has is something that people claim they hate about Fates’s Corrin, but it would seem that even that sort of thing can be pulled off in a way that people will enjoy. If a story needs a character who was born to be a vessel for a deity, then it’s up to the writer to make that work. If a character needs to be a genius to get through what the story will put him through, that’s fine. It’s better to be upfront about it and tie characters’ abilities to how they get through the plot than to have an “ordinary person” stumble through the plot through luck and coincidence.

What follows here is pretty much a bonus round of my conclusions on why Micaiah is regarded as a Mary Sue and not Ike.

The simple answer is that it’s because Micaiah is a woman. A recent trend in media has been to push poorly written, overpowered female characters to the forefront of stories for marketing purposes, which has caused some people to cynically regard any female protagonist as a Mary Sue. However, all of Micaiah’s followers come from her ability to produce results. She’s never portrayed in the story as someone who dominates the battlefield but rather as someone who turns the tide through prophetic visions.

On the opposite side, the qualities that Ike is loved by others for and that seemingly make him the center of the universe are traditionally masculine qualities. He’s gruff, he scoffs at etiquette, and he enjoys eating meat. In general, these more wild attributes are considered masculine qualities while more polite mannerisms are considered feminine as the trappings of civilization lead to the traditionally female sphere of the domicile. This is even mirrored in the way in which the game sets up Zelgius as a sympathetic enemy by portraying him as a strong, upstanding warrior who is under the thumb of a gaggle of girly men led by Valtome (who uses such turns of phrase as “I look forward to scraping you off my immaculate nails.”).

So basically, Ike isn’t considered a Mary Sue because his personality resonates with a lot of the player base. This might also be why some react defensively whenever it’s suggested that Ike’s most important relationship is with a man. (my own take is that Ike comes across as more asexual or that the writers weren’t interested in writing any sort of romance for him). Again, none of this is to say that Ike is a bad character or that people shouldn’t like Ike. It’s more to point out that terms like “Mary Sue” or “overpowered OC” aren’t really meaningful when it comes to writing a story.

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Dang, that’s deep. It’s makes me want to be careful with making the characters not to be too overpowered and be the main focus at the same for both men and women. Like the media that has so many Mary Sues besides just Fire Emblem have different characters just want to pleased the audience and end up failing and displeasing the fans of said beloved franchise like Star Wars (Sequel Trilogy), Masters of the Universe (Just Revelations from Netflix) and so on with female main characters that wanted to encouraged young girls and end up giving them the wrong idea. Just slightly off-topic, but close enough to what you’re saying. Just had some experience with encountering things that are outside from just Fire Emblem.

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Yeah, Micaiah as a so-called “Mary Sue” didn’t really make sense to me either, and felt more like a reaction to her being an antagonist from the Greil Merc’s perspective for some part of the plot.

I think the most important thing with “overpowered OCs” is that it needs to be believable in context, and that they shouldn’t win if it doesn’t make sense. In an FE style story, a loss or a strategy gone awry can be a great character development moment if pulled off well, especially if supporting characters adequately challenge the Lord here or at other points in the story.

Basically, you want to avoid MCs that are always right and never challenged - it isn’t compelling. Even if they are presented as “Great” in some way or have good luck (Ike is a good example), you miss out on so many development opportunities and chances to showcase their reaction to and growth from adversity if you make them all-powerful.

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Legendary post, was an amazing read :pray:

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Wait until you read the comment section of literally any Chinese cultivation novel.

“Wtf the MC lost?! This story is garbage!”

“I can’t believe a girl had to rescue him! Worst MC ever!”

Etc

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By the gods if only the script writers for Gundam Seed thought like that.

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Going back a bit, but I wanted to take a moment to comment on this particular point, since either I’m misinterpreting it or I don’t really agree. This is one of many things that can be done well just as much as it can be done poorly.

Occam’s Razor (in short “the simplest, most straightforward explanation for something is usually correct”) is a useful principle here, actually, in that it’s what plot twists often exploit in order to work. While I think most people are aware that any story has the potential to go in many different directions from any point, their default assumption will probably be the simplest progression; the “path of least resistance” in terms of predicting where the story will go. That said, “where it makes sense for a story to go” is not limited to just this “path of least resistance”, and I think that’s kinda what a plot twist hinges on. Ideally, you’d want a plot twist to be something that absolutely makes sense in retrospect and is hinted at and built up to, but that waits until its moment in the limelight to really assert itself strongly in the audience’s perception of the story.

Of course, your audience is not going to be comprised of just one kind of person, and different people engage with narrative media differently. It’s not a bad thing for plot twists to be conducive to prediction by perceptive audience members! It means you laid the groundwork for them well, in fact; that’s how it should be. But a plot twist is, kind of by its very nature, a disruption to the status quo of the audience’s expectations, and is entirely dependent on them to even be a twist at all. You could include literally the exact same event in three different stories, and it could be a straightforward plot beat in one, a plot twist in another, and a nonsensical ass-pull in the third, all depending on the context leading up to it and how it’s integrated into the larger narrative.

That aside, I’d also say that it’s important to actually be going somewhere with plot twists in just the same way that you should be with any other event in the plot. What do the events of the twist mean, both for the characters and within the story’s themes? How will they be followed up on? How do they inform what comes next, and how do they recontextualize what’s come before? Plot twists are really tricky to truly do well, and I don’t claim to have a perfect understanding of them, myself. So, these are really just my own thoughts on things to keep in mind regarding them.

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I think Frost was more referring to some stories directly feeding the reader/player deliberately wrong information in order to give the intended twist more punch.

To attempt to make an example out of what we know in fire emblem, a bad twist would be if it turned out the falchion was actually just a normal sword and to defeat medeus they actually had to use the starlight tome when everything up to that point says only a divine dragon or the falchion can kill him.

Since the player had been fed false information the entire time leading to a weak twist and would result in what would be shocking the first time but irritating on repeat playthroughs/reading because the player already knows all the story beats telling them that they need the falchion to win is outright wrong.

Not the best example i know.

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Twists need to be difficult to predict, but make sense upon reflection to the reader to be interesting IMO. It’s when it is a “twist for the sake of being a twist” that issues arise because the foundation for that twist isn’t there, and it’ll feel forced.

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