Xilirite's Writes n' Sprites

World Building I: Pitfalls
Wherein I discuss the common mistakes I see beginner writers make when designing their world.

Originally posted here

World building is a topic I’ve gone into at length on the discord, and I’ve found that a trap many amateur writers fall into is overestimating how important world building is, as well as how much of it there should be. This is particularly a problem in fantasy writing, in part due to a lot of popular contemporary fantasy media receiving heavy praise for the world building they do, but more speculative fiction often has the same issues.

In short, world building can be used as a way to add texture to the setting of a piece of media, creating interesting and evocative ideas in the audience’s minds of what a life in this world would be like. It can also, more relevant to our purposes, serve as a way to form connective tissue between the plot, the characters, and the higher level concepts at play in the script. An example I like to use is how Dragon Age’s setting utilizes the Chantry, the world’s dominant religion, and the Veil, the central apparatus through which magic is done and which renders mages uniquely susceptible to demonic possession, to create several complex and (mostly) nuanced stories that wouldn’t be possible in a more mundane setting like, say, D&D’s Forgotten Realms world. In that franchise, you’re often introduced to complex world building that is looped back into the plot, with the early game asking the player to draw their own conclusions about the various unique elements of this world, and then in the late game providing an opportunity to act on those conclusions in impactful, meaningful ways.

The pitfall I often see is that several stories spend a lot of time on this world building stage, but without a clear goal. Elements are added to the world because they’re neat or thought provoking, but never acted upon in the script because, well, this is just a story about a blue haired dude that kills an evil emperor. This is assuming the script ever gets written, as I know writers who have lore documents hundreds of pages long, filled with character backstories, history, gods, detailed magic systems, dozens of races each painstakingly designed to not be analogous to a typical fantasy race, but not a single word put to page for the actual story they’re writing it all for.

Especially with how uneconomical script is in FEGBA (every sentence more or less comes with a pause for an A press, greatly slowing down reading speed and making dialogue scenes much longer than they could be), you honestly don’t have the time to loredump the player every few chapters every time you have a cute idea to impart. If you don’t want players to start skipping your dialogue, you need to be smart about what you choose to say and when, especially when it could be a loooooong time between each chunk of dialogue. Making sure important info sticks and is easily applied is important.

The best way to do this is to provide an anchor. In short, the player will have a much easier time consuming a piece of world building if they can tie it to something tangible in the script. It could be a character closely tied to this aspect of the world with strong opinions on it – now you not only have a face to tie this information to, but it’s been given context and emotion. It could be something the player witnesses firsthand, turning the world building from a thought provoking curiosity to a more directly engaging reality. On a simpler scale, it can just be making sure to bring things up as they become relevant, as this way the player is immediately shown the world building having a cause and effect on the real world, and can more easily conceptualize other ways that this same facet of the world building could manifest itself.

An example of bad world building is something like the ever popular FE intro narration, where you’re introduced to several nations, names, faces, concepts, and ideas before one can even find something to ground oneself in the world and make sense of the information given to them. Without context, information is meaningless, and the only knowledge that will stick for a player will be that which is made immediately relevant to them. Beyond that, the faceless, impersonal, and strictly informative nature of the info dump makes it boring to read. There’s no texture, no emotion, and so it fails both as story telling and as a way to efficiently impart information, as the vast majority of the info given is either entirely superfluous or restated later and better by an actual character within the script, now with the benefit of context.

My advice to writers first starting out, or romhackers who find the writing process intimidating, is to let world building come to you. As you find yourself adding new characters, new places, new complications to the script, feel what’s most interesting to you. You can always rewrite if you have an idea that conflicts with previous info but is too good to pass up, and my experience is that typically as you flesh out the world this way, the jigsaw slowly falls into place around you, as suddenly plot threads and character arcs become obvious and your ideas begin to criss cross. Don’t worry about figuring out the entire world before you start writing, just feel your way through the script and see what context comes naturally to you. Your plot, characters, and setting will begin to define each other symbiotically, and once you’re fully comfortable you can begin planning your setting further ahead, alongside things like character arcs and the twists and turns of the plot.

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green lady kinda very epic thoe

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I’ll have those myself soon as bosses of a route.

Dialogue I: New Lining
Wherein I discuss why poor new lining is disproportionately more harmful than one would expect.

So I’ve played a lot of romhacks since releasing the first patch of Lady of Masks, and I’ve been paying special attention to the ways these hacks are written, not just in the macro sense, which is what usually gets talked about in this community, but on the micro-scale as well. (gosh, I should write one of these about macro- and micro-scale writing just so the language is there. I’ll do that next I think.) The way dialogue ebs and flows, the way chapters thematically flow from one to the next, the word choice used on a character by character basis. Often, romhacks are actually quite good at this micro-scale writing, such that even when the overall plotting of a story is poor, or rudimentary, it’s often a fun ride regardless due to some colourful writing along the way. I’ve yet to see a hack that’s good at plotting but not at the moment to moment writing, but it’s very easy to think of games that do this – the JRPG genre is littered with high concept, tightly thematic stories delivered by way of stilted dialogue, bizarre character motivations, and long-winded lore dump.

The most common thing I’ve seen that damages many hacks’ writing, however, is a lack of thoughtfulness as to how dialogue is paced within the confines of the FEGBA format. I sometimes have a tendency to view my writing like that of a stageplay, in the sense that I imagine for myself the pauses that would come naturally if you were to speak the dialogue aloud. There are tools to more directly pace your dialogue in FEGBA, moreso if you use the epic Tequilla text engine rework which I will shill for every day until I shrivel up and die, but one of the easiest ways to pace your dialogue is simple: Where are your A presses?

I’m gonna be focusing more on the topic of A presses, though you can just kind of take everything I say here and divide the severity of it by like five for my thoughts on where your line breaks should go lmao. It’s less important by far, but it always always pays to be thoughtful about how your dialogue is presented. However, the placement of your [A] commands is generally going to be far more destructive when done poorly, and also has far greater use when applied proactively as a pacing tool.

Every dozen or so words, your player HAS to press A. You cannot (or, I suppose, should not, but liiiike those are the same thing ^.^) write dialogue in FEGBA without being acutely aware of the impact that this has on the structure and pacing of your dialogue. These A presses punctuate your dialogue constantly, and players will almost always read the point of your A press as a pause in their head. Not necessarily consciously, mind you, but if they read this dialogue (courtesy of Janus Lady of Masks, purely because it happened to be the text box I had open last):

They’re going to read each and every A press as being the end of a sentence, bc that’s when text stops being displayed on their screen. Read this scene with that in mind, with a short pause, maybe a bit less than a second, every time there’s an A press, and see what it does to the dialogue pacing. (As an aside, this problem is exacerbated for me, because I often don’t actually give punctuation in the things I’m reading space to breathe :fearful:) Now, read the ACTUAL dialogue, as formatted in game:

You can feel, in this, that the flow of dialogue is better. The A presses are coinciding with pauses you’re naturally making due to the punctuation, which both forces the audience to actually take in that pause and, far, far, far more importantly, prevents them from creating unintentional pauses that interrupt the flow of your dialogue. Setting up these pauses involves you being a bit creative with fitting your dialogue into the text boxes. Sometimes, you may want to do a line break earlier, even if there’s more space, because over the course of the entire line of dialogue, putting your line break one or two words earlier now will allow your future line breaks and A presses to align nicer without having any jank where your textbox is going like this:

As for using A presses proactively, we don’t have the luxury of having a lot of the more robust visual/audio storytelling tools that more contemporary or higher budget RPGs have access to. It’s difficult for us to time our cutscenes with the music; we don’t really have access to voice acting in a comprehensive sense (there are hacks with voice acting, but they are not voice acted games by any stretch of the imagination. The level to which some of these voice acted moments live on as romhack legend is a testament to how powerful the audio/visual space of your game can be as a storytelling tool); things like CGs are often prohibitively difficult to create in a high enough quality; the list goes on. Often, a strong audio/visual component can take a line that’s just kinda bleh into a key set piece within your game. Just think about how many iconic lines you can remember from a movie, TV show, or game that, if you were to just write them out, are just kind of alright. Oftentimes it’s the performance of these lines that you remember most, or the spectacle of the moment. But how do you get that out of a romhack for a GBA game?

The short answer is you don’t, really, but you can try anyway! The long answer is that it involves the way that you use what limited tools we do have to control the pace that the player reads your dialogue. You don’t have to only put your A presses in the most economical spots, you can use them as a way to space out chunks of your dialogue. A very basic example (again, not because they’re ideal examples but because I have them on hand from Lady of Masks):

By forcing an entire A press just for this one word, the emphasis is implicit even beyond that which is already has on its own. It’s the only new piece of dialogue the player gets between the second and the third A press, and so it’s bookended by two pauses and demands their full attention. The weight of that one word is then far greater than if it were delivered without the forced pause before it. This is, again, just a basic example, but this kind of application of the tools provided to you by the FEGBA text engine is necessary if you want to maximize your story’s bite. Script is just one part of the storytelling process, and proper application of that script is key to getting the most out of it.

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malgrave

This guy, My goodness, he’s quite the hunk! Love it!

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So, I want to talk about a larger and more interesting topic, but first I need to lay down some groundwork. The next few topics I’m going to talk about are, in this order, plot arcs, character arcs, theming, and then the interesting one, something I call synthesis. Basically every hack has, or tries to have, the first two, but the third is more uncommon and the fourth is (in the FEU community at least) very rare in my experience.

These are, necessarily, going to be less romhack-specific bits of advice, but I’ll still be writing them with an eye towards the peculiarities of the FEGBA format as always, so don’t you worry.

Story Structure I: Plot Arcs
Wherein I discuss the basic factors to consider when constructing the arc of one’s plot.

NOTE THAT THIS IS PART ONE OF A FOUR PART SERIES. WHILE THIS FUNCTIONS MOSTLY AS A STANDALONE TUTORIAL, PLEASE CONSIDER READING STORY STRUCTURE II, III, AND IV TO SUPPLEMENT THE KNOWLEDGE FOUND HERE, AS IT WAS WRITTEN WITH THE ASSUMPTION YOU WILL DO SO.

This is a broad subject, so forgive me if I’m less concise than I usually try to be (which, to be fair, already isn’t very much lol). When constructing a plot for a Fire Emblem game, there are some specific complications that limit the kinds of stories we can tell heavily. For instance, an FE game has to include large scale combat between dozens of people after every ~5-10 minutes of writing; or an FE game has to follow a larger band of combatants, and though most of them do not need to be mainstays in the plot, they will always contextualize the story as being one involving a small army of some kind.

Your story necessarily has to fit a Fire Emblem game alongside it, and this means that it has to exist in a context that can allow a Fire Emblem game to happen. Even if you want to do a smaller scale, more focused story (like in Storge, which has a strong focus on a familial relationship), you still have to include justification for why you have an army that constantly gets into fights. This is why many hacks default to fighting bandits for several chapters in a row; the army doesn’t really have a good justification for fighting yet, since the plot pieces are still being set up, so instead, bandits!

Because I’m not exactly sure how to explain the process without a hard example, I’m going to use Lady of Masks (my hack!) as an example, alongside the vanilla games, and explain how these games construct their plots. First, let’s talk about what LoM is before talking how I built it to be that. If you’ve played LoM, you may already have noticed that I never had to lean on the “fighting bandits” thing. While there are some complex character dynamics at play that begin to shake up the plot a great deal (but, of course, we can’t discuss that in depth until we talk synthesis), the actual core plot of LoM is very simple and gets set up very immediately: Haloseians invade Cerahn, Karth kills Fane’s mother, and Ileana is on the run from the Haloseian court and wants the king dead. All roads point in the same direction: fight the Haloseians to accomplish the various goals of the party, be they liberation, vengeance, or a spoiler!

Without spoiling too much, no matter what happens in the game, as motivations evolve and shift, this core goal of “fight Haloseians” never goes away. Much of the earliest early game chapters are spent establishing the reasons why the core cast is motivated to pursue this goal, such that the story can immediately pivot into what’s more important at that stage of the story, which is character development. The plot more or less remains on pause between 1-2 and 1-6, as these chapters are more or less just the escapades of the resistance, but the time spent is important for pacing out other aspects of the story telling. After 1-6, things are kicked into high gear and start to rapidly come to a head towards the finale of act 1, which of course isn’t public yet, but one of the biggest things that begins to happen is that the game expands beyond that core plot (defeat the Haloseian invaders) into new territory, as Maeve and Karth begin to unravel a conspiracy and the plot begins to focus on things beyond just the war between Cerahn and Haloseia – the various sects of the Haloseian faith, the scars of the previous and current wars, etc., all become more important – as mentioned before, the core plot pillar of “fight Haloseians” never goes away, but it meets complications, becomes recontextualized, waxes and wanes in importance as the plot twists and turns its way through to Endgame.
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Lady of Masks v0.0.2.emulator-9
Let’s put it in reverse for a sec. Now that we’ve established what Lady of Masks’ plot is like, let’s discuss the actually important part, which is how I went about constructing this situation. I think most people, myself included, tend to view their story as a series of plot beats and big moments, with chunks of script existing to connect those individual bits of plot together to form a plot. Let’s refer to these as, respectively, your plot skeleton – the bones of your story, the big stuff that the whole game is predicated upon – and the connective tissue – the meat, the muscle, the bits that stop those bones from just collapsing into a pile on the floor. I’ve seen lots of people (both in asking around before writing this and just in general) say they have a good idea of what their plot skeleton looks like, but they just can’t string the events together in a way that’s satisfying. The connective tissue doesn’t exactly come naturally – as a writer, you’re excited to write the big moments you picture in your head. The moment when Black Knight kills Greil, when they sing the galdr in the forest, or Ike’s duel with the Black Knight, these are the moments that you may be most excited to write in your plot.

Now, this will get way easier to understand once you read (and I write) part IV of this series, but using LoM as an example, we can already see how I’ve formed a lot of connective tissue. In the early game, there are only really a few plot beats that I had planned – Fane’s village is attacked and his mother dies, Fane meets Ileana the seer, the events that unfold at the end of 1-6 occur, and then Fane hunts down Karth for revenge. If you’ve played LoM, you’ll know that there’s so much more going on alongside this though – there’s the discussions between Ileana and Fane, Raphael’s growing discontent, the various villain characters, meeting with Jericho, attempting to save the knighthood, your several encounters with Maeve. Beyond the public chapters, there’s the hunt for information about Karth, the investigation being done into the creature met in 1-6, continued and growing tensions between Fane/Raph/Ileana, and further encounters with several of the previously established villains.

Through these various elements, several of them being character development, I’m using them to weave in justification to manoeuvre characters into the positions I want them to be in for the big plot moments. The cast meets Price so they can learn of the knighthood’s survival, and they meet Jericho so they can learn of the prison where they’re held. This is what allows the cast to get to the prison such that the events there can take place. Why does Price know about the knighthood? Because he’s looking for Rory, who was imprisoned alongside them. Why does Jericho know where they’re held? Because he’s Maeve’s retainer and she’s standing guard there. The party lures her away so she isn’t present for the battle, but she still has a reason to show up to that battlefield when she does to find the corpse of the creature, which then kicks off her and Karth’s investigation, which in turn sets up the setpiece that will be seen in 1-E.

This is the process by which you build connective tissue – you find the points where you can find overlap between the events of one chapter and the events of the next. Maybe it’s a character, or a piece of information, or an event that occurs that leads the party in a new direction – picture the chapter in early Awakening, where the party changes course from their destination to try to rescue Emmeryn.

Sometimes these bits of tissue are much easier than this – for instance, 1-5 and 1-6 are connected just by place, as 1-5 is the area outside the prison while 1-6 is the prison itself. Similarly, 1-2 just takes place along the road to Verense, which is the route that the party is taking after fleeing the attack on their hometown in 1-1. If the only way you can think to connect two events together is just that they happen in sequence as the party moves from point A to point B, sometimes that’s okay too – without getting into detail, much of LoM’s second act is just a journey from one point on the map to another, with a much more “one foot in front of the other” vibe to it compared to the first act which likes to time-hop a few weeks or even a month at a time.

This is what you see most frequently in the FEGBA games – the entirety of Lyn mode, for instance, is just the journey from one place to another, with the first chapter being at point A and the finale chapter being at point B. Now, Lyn mode like… sucks… but I promised I’d use vanilla examples! The same thing is mirrored in early Eliwood mode, when you’re often given a location to head to, and then spend a few chapters travelling there, getting into fights along the way and meeting new characters, occasionally running into bits of foreshadowing as you go. In the various FE games with world maps (Sacred Stones, Awakening, SoV) this is also very common – a huge number of SoV’s plot events are only connected by way of place, for instance, as your army journeys to reach the next major landmark in your journey.

While I wouldn’t advise overly relying on this method, it can be helpful if you mostly want to give time for character development, or if you have plot elements that you feel need time (either script time or actual in-universe time) to ‘cook,’ so to speak.

Now, of course, it becomes much much easier to form the connective tissue with the benefit of planning. Knowing what your plot beats are ahead of time, alongside your character arcs and your themes, will provide you with a much deeper well of content to draw from when trying to write script that’s relevant, advances the story in a meaningful way, and gets the player from one plot beat to the next. This will be touched on in more detail in part IV of this series, but in miniature; understanding the ways that your character motivations can (and should) influence the plot will make it far easier to figure out how to get to the next plot beat, as you’ll simply have to motivate that character to pursue a plot thread that leads to that beat. The more you know about where that character’s head is at and where they’re headed, the easier it becomes to find convincing and compelling reasons for that character to proactively seek out the plot in the way you need them to.

In Lady of Masks, saving the knighthood has the very obvious tactical advantage of acquiring a small and well trained army to supplement the resistance, but it comes with a huge risk and isn’t guaranteed to begin with, so Fane is hesitant. The thing that pushes him to pursue it? Cylean’s father is one of the knights presumed dead, and rescuing them also means rescuing her father. At this stage of the script, Fane is especially sensitive to this – he’s lost both his parents by this point. He knows how much he’d give to see his parents again, and he knows how much it hurts to lose a parent, and so the existing motivation of “saving the knighthood makes it easier to fight Haloseians” that ties this plot beat into the core plot of this act is being supported by the additonal, more complex character motivations at play, running concurrently with the plot.

But wait, what about coming up with those plot beats themselves? How do you think up a satisfying set piece or plot event? I’ve certainly seen a few romhacks whose plots more or less never reach beyond that core pillar of “fight (evil faction) because they are an evil faction,” who rely entirely on that “chapters are connected by place” factor to link chapters together, whose characters are mostly or entirely static. Most of these games are very gameplay focused, and what plot exists is entirely to string cool map ideas together, but in a writing-focused context like this thread assumes, we can do better, right? Well, it’s complicated. A lot of it comes down to knowing what elements of the story you’re most excited about, and leaning into them, and that mostly comes through the planning process – when you know your characters in more detail, for instance. For that reason, I’m going to discuss this particular aspect in greater detail once I’ve gone over the process of creating a character arc.

However, a lot of the time it really is just down to thinking about what would be cool to have happen. It would be cool to fight a lightning dragon on top of a big tower in a hurricane! What would I have to do to get my story from being about a young prince coming into his own as an adult to being about doing that cool thing? I’ll have to find a way to introduce the idea of a lightning dragon obviously, maybe the hurricane could be a cool plot point. Maybe the tower is special? But how? How is the player gonna find out about all this stuff? Is the dragon aligned with anybody, or vice versa? Is there a cool way I could introduce the dragon’s allies into the plot? Maybe the dragon is a person! Maybe it’s one of the protagonists, and maybe they don’t even know, and the story has a tragic element to it! Or maybe they do know, and it’s a grand betrayal when the truth comes out!

In the upcoming parts, I’ll discuss how to write a character arc in more detail, and with the extra advice found therein, I’ll also be going into how to use your character arcs to prop up the big moments in the plot, information that will be very important as we get closer to part IV where I’ll discuss the process of synthesizing all of the elements of your script into one cohesive whole. If you feel like there’s anything that you really wish I’d touched on before concluding here, let me know and I’ll maybe add an addendum to this.

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One of the general guidelines I set for myself in Deity Device was to not have the story state stay static for more than two chapters. I tried to have some sort of happening that was critical to at least one character’s arc and or that pushed the state of the plot past where it was when the chapter began at least every other chapter so that there wouldn’t be any battles that just existed to be another level of gameplay. Generally the only chapters that don’t have such a happening are the ones that are, as you said, linked by location, where one is the party fighting its way to a castle or other building and the next chapter takes place inside of it.

While it may have to be fudged occasionally, I found it to be a helpful guideline for avoiding creating chapters that were filler from a narrative point of view.

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I think this is pretty key to writing “good filler,” though I really hate describing anything as filler most of the time. Not every chapter can be as important as the next, and sometimes you need to spend a couple chapters setting up a few dominoes to knock down. In my experience, these are the best places to put the slower paced bits of character development that may be harder to fit into more active chunks of the script – introspective conversations between the characters, a hearty chat over a good meal, a brief look into the whereabouts of the villains, these are all good ways to have a chapter where you’re really mostly just working your way up to the next story event still feel as though the reader is learning something meaningful about the cast and the world they inhabit. In my own hack there are definitely chapters I added purely as a pacing / gameplay thing – I really wanted a second healer and an armour knight but I didn’t know where to put them, as well as an opportunity in the early game to do a bit of shopping, so I created 1-4 as a way to address those issues and added Jericho into the mix as a way to give the chapter a greater feeling of significance.

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Story Structure II: Character Arcs
Wherein I discuss the process by which I come up with, flesh out, and then develop characters. And also, wherein I discuss approximately twenty nine quintillion other things that are tangentially related.

Character writing in the context of an FE is such a fascinating concept that I can almost 100% guarantee that I’ll return to this topic at some point and discuss it from a different angle, but I’m going to try to be comprehensive here anyway. Between the problems with deployment (some units will have to go unused and will become more or less unusable relatively quickly), permadeath (most units can die at any time and become unavailable for further development), and the already scarce script budget of the FEGBA format (as discussed in the A press tutorial), giving your entire cast time in the spotlight is very, very difficult to do. Many players will use a unit for an entire game and never read a single support, talk event, or boss dialogue from them, their experience of the unit being wholly defined by that unit’s introductory dialogue. This means that despite having a cast of dozens, if not half a hundred, playable units, you’re only really likely to give significant character development to a small handful of them.

I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to tackle this topic initially, and I think that trying to tackle this thing from the top down is… ill-advised :sweat_smile: so instead, I’m gonna divide this into little sub-parts. You know, Story Structure II-i, II-ii… Like a textbook! :stuck_out_tongue: Discussing the various types of characters that you have in the FE games, and the ways you have to handle them differently. Despite the ensemble nature of the FE games in a mechanical sense, you can’t really tackle the story telling in the same way an ensemble JRPG might, and so you sort of have to stratify your units to some degree.

Main Characters

As always, I’m going to use my own hack as an example, and as always, this isn’t because it’s the best possible example, but rather because it’s the only FE game where I can 100% say for sure what the intent behind every decision was. I’ll also be referring to other media, both FE and otherwise, to talk about the ways that characters can grow and change in both satisfying and dissatisfying ways, as a way to point to examples of the consequences of some of the schools of thought at play here.

Your main characters are, in this context, not just your lords, but any set of characters that are important to the plot in some kind of long-term way. Arbitrarily, I’m also going to say they aren’t antagonists, but only because I plan on discussing them separately – for examples of antagonist main characters, see your typical Zuko archetypes, your “redemption arc baddies.” We’re going to discuss how to have your characters grow and change throughout a plot in ways that are both purposeful and meaningful.

Your goal, when writing any kind of character arc, should be to try to reinforce the themes of your story – since Story Structure III doesn’t exist yet, we’ll just skim over how you establish the themes of your story in the first place and just describe it as the “moral” of the story. Your character arcs can also be used as ways to steer the plot. I start to run into a problem here; I’ve already stumbled over not having yet established the concept of themes, and now I’m already running into a situation where I have to explain things I wanted to touch on primarily in Synthesis. I’ll try to keep it to what we need to know right now:

While it’s not a hard and fast rule by any stretch of the imagination, your character arcs will be far more likely to fall flat if they’re something that develops in a fashion more or less separate from the rest of the facets of your script. If one of the main topics your game touches on is “family,” then a main character having a character arc about, say, “the nature of power” is gonna feel a bit disconnected. Similarly, if your major character moments are more or less totally disconnected from the plot, then both are going to feel less impactful – if your protagonist just had a life changing revelation, but the plot doesn’t react to this, it’ll feel wrong. If something occurs in the plot that should drastically alter your characters’ perception of the world, and then they’re right back to same old same old, the audience will start to believe that the plot doesn’t actually matter to the characters. If that’s the case, why should the audience care either?

When planning a character arc, you probably want to do it alongside the main plot. The low points of a character should coincide with low points in the plot, and the same is true for a high point. Not every ‘point’ in the plot needs to be a point for every character, but they should coincide. These points should be congruous with each other in some way – if much of a character’s arc is about them coming to grips with their past, then a plot event that evokes some of that trauma is prime real estate to bring them to the forefront for a time. If a character’s arc is about them feeling powerless, then perhaps when it’s time to triumphantly snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, it should be that character who makes the decisive move. You can do this in the other direction too, of course – if one of your characters is undergoing a redemption arc, you should include moments in the main plot where that character has to make the choice to be better – giving them a plot where they’re always doing the right thing will make the redemption arc fall flat.

In my own hack, one of the biggest driving forces in the events of the main plot is Fane. Spoiler warning I suppose, although people have stopped respecting this as a spoiler for quite some time :rage: but at the end of the currently public build, Fane’s mentor is killed and he takes control of the player army in an official capacity. These pair of events kicks off a steady fall from grace, as Fane tries to grapple with a lot of very big questions while being, mentally and emotionally, in a very very dark place. When constructing this character arc and the various beats that happen in it, I was also keeping in mind what the main plot was intended to be – I wanted to tell a story about a lot of heavier subjects, like how war leads to radicalization which leads to more war, the act of othering, the way institutions can twist religion into a cudgel to suit their own needs. To determine how a character like Fane plays into these themes, I had to consider: Where does this story end? How does it get there? Just as importantly, how does Fane get there? And where does his story end? Where are these things different, and where are they the same? It’s in finding those similarities that much of the work is done; finding the points in your story where things are lining up, ‘clicking’ together like a jigsaw puzzle.

I like to look at writing almost more as a discovery than a creative process, like an archaeological dig – you set up your story, but when you start digging you start to find things you never planned for and never knew existed. Things start to just make sense, and it’s when they stop making sense and begin to come into conflict that your next step starts: modifying what you already have to where it makes sense. Maybe you intend to have a character, as part of their arc, do X thing – but, as you’ve developed the game, you’ve found they tie really nicely into Y theme, and now them doing X thing contradicts their newfound (and, in your opinion, far more valuable) role in the plot. Determining what you’ll replace X with to accomplish the same goals while still furthering Y theme, and doing this several times throughout the scripting process with all of your main characters. Don’t be afraid to change your plans or modify existing text in service of a more interesting ‘line of play.’ That is to say, if you come up with an idea that’s more interesting than what you had before, it’s worth it to put in the legwork to reconfigure the script to fit that idea 9 times out of 10. Even if it seems like a lot of work, it’ll be worth it in the end once you have every element of your story working in perfect harmony.

So to summarize: Main characters, those being the characters what drive the plot forward, should almost always have their character arcs be closely intertwined with the ups and downs of the plot arc(s), and should similarly be tied closely to the themes. To construct their arcs, it’s often best to picture things from the top down, looking at what you want that character to do in the story and where you want them to be at the end of the story and comparing these goals to the goals of your story as a whole, and then ‘zooming in’ to explore the similarities and differences between those goals, tweaking things where they start to feel like they don’t make sense and trying to leverage the moments where you feel things overlap or contrast in interesting and engaging ways.

Minor Characters

This is the weird part!

So, Fire Emblem games have several dozen minor characters in them that are more or less totally useless to the actual script. In this context, I’m gonna define that as “characters that aren’t important to the plot, but are recurring fixtures of the script in some capacity.” In an FE context, “the script” gets extended to “the game,” in that they stick around not as part of the storyline but as a gameplay element. Imagine the minor characters in a JRPG, or a TV show you like; chances are, even while markedly less important than the protagonists, they fulfill some kind of tangible auxiliary role, even just “being comic relief.” The Biggs and Wedges of the world may not be necessary for the plot to function, but their presence still helps to oil the hinges, so to speak, and make sure things run smoothly.

However, this is less so for the Darts and Gonzalezes (Gonzali?) of the world. Despite having the potential to be the one that strikes the decisive killing blow against the ultimate evil of the world, these characters have next to no impact on the script in any tangible way. Despite this, due to the gameplay constraints of Fire Emblem, they can be made important enough by the player to be present for the most pivotal battles of their world. As a writer, this leads to a strange situation – there’s an impulse, at first, to try to develop every character in your cast; to have them all contribute in dialogue, having different characters show up across various dialogue scenes. However, it doesn’t take long to get mired in conditional hell, and it pretty quickly becomes more or less unfeasible.

Real quick, I’d like to highlight the romhack Deity Device as an example of a writing approach that works very well for that game, and that I’m also going to discourage :stuck_out_tongue: DD chooses to keep its cast size dramatically low, far smaller even than FE8 – I would say the closest analogue in cast size is Three Houses. However, where 3H struggles to give most of its supporting cast things to do besides stand in a semi circle around Byleth and spout one-liners, most of DD’s characters have extensive time in the spotlight. They’re involved in the main events of the plot, have entire gaidens dedicated to developing them, have story moments that result in them changing as people. More than any other SRPG I’ve ever played, Deity Device nails the ensemble cast feel, though to a degree it comes at the expense of a few core FE tenets – with such a focused cast, there’s very little room to customize your team, even on a replay; ironman is definitely not intended with how few deaths it would take before you started to really run low on worthwhile units; losing even one or two units can bar you from pretty huge chunks of storytelling, which is very unfortunate if you’re invested and want to see everything; but despite all that, the storytelling benefits are plain to see, as by the end of the game, damn near every unit you have deployed has had a detailed story arc unfold, and you feel much closer to them all for that reason. This is all to say, you can make a game where every character is well developed and shares time in the spotlight… it’s just really really hard, comes with significant sacrifices, and starts to feel like not-FE very very quickly.

Creating a character arc for minor characters, then, is very, very hard to do. It’s also, if we’re being entirely candid, completely optional – your gruff sword mercenary that’s only in it for the cash can remain that way all the way from chapter 1 to endgame if you so wish, and nobody’s going to bat an eye so long as they aren’t a permanent fixture of the main story. Your options for giving these characters are pretty limited – you can do gaidens like Vision Quest or 3H, which gives specific members of the cast gaidens devoted to them that are more or less totally disconnected from the main plot; you could have some fancy character-specific events like in Genealogy; but for the most part, your bread and butter tactics for developing the various units in the army will be simple talk events and their support chains.

Supports are time consuming. You may be able to picture in your head how time consuming supports are, but I guarantee you it’s two or three times as time consuming as that. Finding conversations for dozens of characters to have with each other, each one needing to be meaty enough to remain interesting and engaging for three full dialogue scenes, each one being significant enough that it doesn’t feel like a waste of time to read them all, each one feeling unique and exploring a new facet of both characters involved, and then just the sheer time spent writing it all out, it’s a lot of work. How unfortunate, then, that supports are by far the most effective tool at developing your minor characters!

So, I’m gonna do a tutorial on writing supports in detail, bc it’s like… a big process… but for now, let’s assume you just know how to write a good support in a vacuum, or that you’ll read the support tutorial in a timely enough fashion to retain all the info. Just knowing how to write a good support is only half the battle – making those supports matter to the game being played is the next step. While its support system has… several problems, I’m going to gloss over them for a moment: In 3H, one of the greatest strengths of the game’s script is how often the supports loop back in on the main themes that the plot and worldbuilding are trying to push. Often, the discussions that unfold in the supports touch on things that really matter to the world at large – they discuss problems that arise due to the reverence that crests garner; they discuss the stark class divide; in Blue Lions, they discuss the primary events that will prove to be instrumental to Dimitri’s arc later in the game. The things you’re reading about in the supports will later come into the main plot and be important, or at the very least feel important, and it leads to a very strong sense of cohesion between the themes, the world, and the characters that holds up right until the plot starts to derail. (Please, by the way, don’t respond to this post by telling me that the 3H supports are bad or that the characters are one note or whatever else. I understand that, it’s just not relevant.)

By making your supports particularly topical, so to speak, you can create a similar sense of cohesion. Your characters, after all, are experiencing the main plot just as you are, even if they’re not in any of the scenes. Why wouldn’t they, too, be contemplating some of the same things the protagonists are? Why wouldn’t they, too, have strong opinions about the pivotal events that lead to your plot’s inciting incident? In my own project, many of the characters will discuss the same themes that Fane is grappling with, providing a variety of alternate perspectives on the topic. By the time you’ve read your fair share of the supports, you’ll have a vast well of opinions to draw from in coming to your own conclusions alongside Fane and the other protagonists, and by understanding those conclusions in context, you can draw a greater degree of significance and meaning from them all.

But how does this relate to the arcs of those minor characters that are doing the talking? A savvy reader may already notice what’s going on here – it’s just like before. You’re mapping these characters onto the same wavelength as your plot, as your themes, as your main characters. This time it’s softer – you can’t pace it out quite as well, though talk events can be used to give specific insights on specific chapters, so you’re not aligning the pace of these arcs with the pace of the main plot. Instead, it’s more of the general shape – “where are these characters going, and why, and how?” are all questions that are answered in part by those same questions we asked when trying to determine Fane’s character arc. In much the same way as Joshua and L’Arachel mirror the arcs of Eirika and Ephraim (on paper, at least, since FE8 isn’t well written enough to actually have functioning character arcs), but simply live out those arcs on a smaller scale, your characters can do much the same on an even smaller scale by ruminating on the topics that are most important to them in their supports, with their A support (which, for our purposes, we’ll assume is going to be limited to only one, as that’s the FEGBA standard) acting as a character’s final statement on those topics.

That’s not to say every character in your project has to be compartmentalizing the exact same traumas :stuck_out_tongue: In most plots, you’ll have multiple arcs to draw from. I’ve been using Fane as a central example, but of course in my project there’s other major characters, such as Ileana, Maeve, Raphael, Lionel, and even some characters that haven’t been introduced yet like Pouri, not to mention the villains! Several of their arcs are intended to intersect and overlap, but each is still a distinct entity, and several characters are more closely aligned with one than the others and thus tend to map onto those character’s arcs more concretely. There’s also the various themes of the game, each of which is of varying importance to the various protagonists – the questions of faith don’t matter much to Fane and Raphael, but are of vital importance to Ileana and Maeve, for instance, and many characters find themselves discussing several of the themes, even multiple at the same time.

There are, of course, methods to have more control over these character moments – talk conversations, as we mentioned before, are a great way to make sure your minor characters progress their arcs when you want them to, since most A supports can be theoretically reached ~3 chapters after a unit joins unless a chapter has a hard turn limit. There’s also base conversations, or support systems that progress on a map-by-map basis rather than turn-by-turn, like in Tellius or Vision Quest. Think about what solutions work best for you; a more structured approach will lean itself more to characters that grow in structured and fixed ways, while the looser approach as seen in FEGBA leads to a more free-form kind of development that you may find feels more natural and easier to keep track of.

To summarize: supporting characters can’t really be afforded the same kind of screentime as your main characters due to the structure of an FE game. For that reason, their arcs, when they have one, tend to be contained to their supports and a few optional (and often easily missed) side events, like a talk conversation or something similar. Because of this looser structure, the way you build their arcs should be similarly loose – rather than mapping it directly onto the rhythm of the main plot, these arcs should instead be more about providing tangible growth for the character while broadening the player’s understanding of the primary arcs and themes of the game.

Antagonists

Yeah fuck you we’re not done here. Time to talk about my favourite topic: bad, dangerous men that are just no good for you :smiling_imp:

Okay, okay, this one’s gonna be a much shorter section, don’t you worry. Now, first and foremost: Your villains don’t always need an arc, but in my opinion for them to be compelling they always need to at least have had one. A villain can be static throughout the entire game, and often they are, but understanding who the villain is and how they became the way they are can shine a light on the underbelly of a lot of the themes you’ve been playing with. Say your protagonist is a young prince attempting to prove himself in the wake of the death of his father – in other words, Ephraim. If your primary antagonist did much the same many years ago, but decided to prove himself by, uh, being evil, then you can use that framework to explore some of the ways that NotEphraim has faltered in his journey, the ways he can do better, and to highlight his eventual overcoming of those trials and being better than his evil no-good counterpart. This is a very basic way to handle it, but sometimes that’s okay; your villain doesn’t need to be the centrepiece of your entire plot. Sometimes, your story just needs a bad man to hit who represents all that the protagonist opposes most!

Of course, there are tons of ways you can handle villains in ways that tie into the themes and character arcs of your game. One of my favourite games for illustrating the power of strong theming in the villains is the new God of War. Nearly every single character in that game, in some way, comes from a broken family, and their arcs either involve them mending the rift in that family, or else failing to. Both the minor and major villains do the things they do due to their relationship to their family – to prove themselves to their parents, or to spite them, or to outdo their siblings, or even to kill their families. The protagonists, as well, are constantly grappling with their role as a family – a father trying to do better by his son, a son who wants to prove himself to his father and doesn’t know how, and both are only caught up in this mess due to their quest to scatter the ashes of the mother. It’s easy to see the number of ways that the protagonists, whose relationship is so strained, could go astray – the ways Kratos’s attempts to teach his son could turn him into a monster, the ways Atreus’s attempts to find himself now that his mother is gone are coloured by the people that they meet for both good and ill. They’re easy to see, because everywhere you go you see characters that are living through, or have lived through, or even have died from, these same sorts of situations.

So by this point, you get the drill: often, the easiest way to build your villains is to look at the protagonists and their role in the plot first and foremost. Unlike the previous two categories, though, and the reason why I didn’t want to just fold antagonists into a prior category, it’s much harder to get good results by just trying to trace a similar trajectory but just, like, evil-like. Instead, it’s more about understanding what those elements mean for the story, and creating a villain to suit it. Sometimes, this means creating a villain that represents a twisted reflection of the messages of the game – a protagonist that has to contend with the consequences of following his strict sense of honour who then faces off against an antagonist whose idea of what honour entails pushes him to do horrible things, bringing the differences and similarities between their beliefs into stark focus. Other times, it may mean creating a villain who’s anti-thetical to the protagonists – that same honourable protagonist goes up against a man who believes that a code of honour holds one back, as foolish idealism. It may even mean a villain that is instead just an honest reflection of the protagonist – Mr. Honour must face a man just as honourable, in much the same way, but who serves an opposing cause and, despite their mutual respect, must cross blades with his peer. In this way, whatever villainy is seen in this villain isn’t just an example of a path that the protagonist could have gone down, but rather is a condemnation of the protagonist himself, as that same capacity for villainy is shown to exist within him. And of course, sometimes you just need a moustache twirler – a big boisterous evil guy we love to hate, whose death we can cheer for without reservations. It can be fun!

So in conclusion, your antagonists are best served as some kind of foil to the protagonist, or an elaboration on the themes of your game when taken to their worst interpretations… and… um… I think that’s finally it?

All Done Time!

I… didn’t expect it to take this long. There’s so much I didn’t even touch on, things that I mentioned in passing or that I never mentioned at all so I could touch on them later in more detail. I really hope that this was helpful in some way – You’ve noticed perhaps that I’ve been talking a looooot about themes in this one. That’s gonna be what we talk about next: how to establish, develop, examine, recontextualize, and execute on a theme.

Even more than previous tutorials, please if you have any feedback on this one, let me know – this one is huge, and I’ve been writing it for like three days now, my eyes glaze over when I try to go over it to edit it, but I do want to make sure it’s as informative as possible. If there are things you feel I didn’t go into enough detail on, or things you feel I glossed over or that you think I should have mentioned, or if you think I could have explained something better, speak up! I’ll edit the post to make it the best I possibly can.

I promise the wait between parts II and III won’t be so long this time – I was swamped with FEE3 work.

12 Likes

Good post. Going to ramble for a bit on my favorite writing topic, minor characters.

I’d tack on with minor characters that the amount of writing you give them is also important. While 3H’s character writing is generally strong, I’d argue the minor characters get fleshed out a bit too much for how much depth they have because of how many supports they have and how some of them are repeats in terms of characterization.

I’d say 4-6 supports per character in a hack is a sweet spot, especially for more minor characters who may not have as many well-defined traits. Exploring the different facets of their characters rather than repeating the same elements is important.

Put another way, I’d say your main cast, plot, and antagonists are like the main elements of your dish - perhaps the core ingredients of your hackrom stew. Minor characters are like seasoning. Not essential, but when properly applied it can elevate a work. I’d argue that many of the most widely celebrated stories across movies, games, and books, generally have ensemble casts, or at least enough characters with enough characterization that fans of the media can find their obscure favorite (The Peanuts, The Wire, Pokemon, Sonic, Mario, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc. - all large casts)

South Park is a lot like Fire Emblem - it has a big cast overall, but only a few stay in focus, with many relegated to background roles in the episodes they appear in, barring a few dedicated ones (like Xil’s aforementioned gaidens in DD or VQ).

I recall in older seasons they tried to highlight one of my personal favorite characters, Tweek, by elevating him to one of the main 4 boys in the show - and it didn’t really work because while he was entertaining in small doses, the character didn’t have the depth to get to do much more than his central gimmick more often with the additional screentime, and has since been relegated to the background. Conversely, also figuring out which minor characters are popular and have potential for a bigger role, can help the work and the story evolve. Butters or Randy are good examples from South Park of minor characters that had more depth, allowing them to carry episodes more frequently.

In an FE context, this could mean figuring out who is worth exploring more in a gaiden or in additional talks/supports (Butters, Randy), as well as knowing the limits of what a particular character can contribute (Tweek).

When it comes to minor characters, give enough to ensure the audience knows what they’re about and leave them wanting more.

4 Likes

Not counting, the units used during the distant past chapters, Saint’s Blood has the same number of playable units as Deity Device. :flushed:

This reminds me of when my brother was playing more Deity Device, he really enjoyed Lailah’s dialogue and wanted more of her. I answered that her flippant personality doesn’t really work for carrying a story and she wasn’t really designed as a protagonist.

3 Likes

The approach works well in your hack for two reasons; one, structurally, the entire game is built around it, and two, in execution, you clearly had the know-how to tell such a story without too many major hiccups in pacing and the like. I mostly recommend against it bc these tutorials are more aimed at people that have little to no writing experience, who are unlikely to make structural gameplay changes in pursuit of story and are unlikely to know how to juggle that many characters without bogging the game down.

5 Likes

Story Structure III: Themes
Wherein I discuss the methods by which I identify a story’s themes and integrate them into the storytelling process naturally and elegantly.

lol

Themes are a pretty major element of the writing process, and one that I think in an amateur context are often hard to approach. It’s easy to go into a storytelling process with an understanding of who your characters are or what you want the plot to look like, but it’s much harder to immediately understand what that story actually means – yes, your rapier wielding lord has defeated the dragon worshipping emperor, but so what? How has this story succeeded beyond merely justifying why chapter 22 is a castle map or why I get a pre-promote general at chapter 18?

A theme, in a storytelling context, is broadly speaking a concept that the author is attempting to explore, in the hopes that it may broaden the audience’s understanding of that concept or prompt them to explore it in their own ways. In my last post, I mentioned God of War as being uniquely laser focused in exploring the theme of Family – overbearing mothers, distant fathers, quarrelling brothers, confused sons, the game presents the player with a myriad of examples of the ways our complicated relationships with our families can affect us. I can’t very well use the same example twice, so let’s try one this forum is likely more familiar with; Fire Emblem Three Houses, for all its script’s flaws, has a pretty consistent thematic throughline linking its various characters and plotlines together. It’s there from the very first trailer; the Crests are to blame. 3H is very interested in exploring class dynamics (EDIT: More accurately, they’re an allegory for the circumstances of one’s birth, which is a more broadly applicable theme. Class dynamics are still wrapped up in this, but SirSpensir pointed this out and I felt obligated to include it), primarily through a simplified lens via the Crest system, and it’s a near constant element in almost every character’s backstory. Sylvain’s misogyny and casual disregard of others, Edelgard and Lysithea’s past traumas, the conflicts in Almyra and Duscur, Even in gameplay, your characters at the start of the game are divided into Noble and Commoner, prompting you to take note of this divide between the lower and upper classes of this world. While the script struggles to tie this theme into the main narrative in satisfying ways as it enters the back half, this still works well as a jumping off point; you can trace many of the issues facing the characters in this world back to one overarching concept.

This particularly tightly knit version of theme isn’t necessarily the only way to handle it, of course. In the hack Vision Quest, most of the characters in the game are mostly just their own people doing their own thing, and the theme of the story is a relatively lightly touched upon exploration of power; for a lot of hacks, this is likely to be the approach taken, where the themes of the story are mostly just a common recurring element moreso than something the author is keenly focused on interrogating via the script. But how do you even identify these concepts enough to develop one into a “theme” without going out of your way to write one into the plot?

I’ve said before that the process of writing is more like an archaeological dig. You know where you’re digging, and roughly what’s supposed to be under the surface, but the specifics of what you find will often surprise you and recontextualize the entire whole. Themes are often found through this kind of process. As you write, take note of what topics you keep revisiting time and again with your characters. What are you most often leaning towards writing? What kinds of characters do you often find yourself envisioning? Where are the places where your various plotlines and character arcs lining up in ways you find intriguing?

For an example, in my own hack, Lady of Masks, there are a few themes I’ve been playing with, some of them planned and some of them not. The project has always been heavily focused on matters of faith, how it can be wielded as a cudgel or used to enrich one’s life, the complicated relationship one can have with their own faith or the institutions behind their beliefs, etc., but after starting the project, I often found myself returning to the same topics as I was writing supports for my cast. Many of the characters have somewhat storied pasts due to a history of conflict and unrest within the region. The younger characters are eager to make their mark on history, and the older characters are often filled with regret over their own roles in what history has already been written. Many characters have lost people dear to them and wish to do right by their memory. In this way, I began to realize that another major theme of my project, completely unknown to me at the start, was that of legacy – the legacies we leave behind, the legacies left to us, the legacies we wish to live up to, the legacies of nations and of conquests, all of these things came up so consistently that I made the decision to lean into it more heavily, addressing the topic with more clarity and retooling existing characters who brush up against the concept to fit it more snugly.

However, let’s say you identify a theme through the process I described, but find you don’t really have a big lesson to impart about the topic. What do you do? Do you need to have something definitive to say about it? The answer is… not really, no. A theme isn’t necessarily a “moral of the story,” despite popular belief. I wouldn’t be a real fan if I discussed this topic without discussing this next game; Yakuza 5 is a game focused extremely heavily on exploring one theme to the absolute best of its capabilities, and that theme is Dreams. There are videos out there chronicling the number of times the word alone is said in-game, and the total number is nearly 500. Nearly every character has some kind of dream that’s integral to their character arc, be it a dream they wish to achieve, a dream they’re helping to achieve, a dream they’ve already achieved, so on and so forth. Across the game’s staggering runtime, it hardly deviates from this topic, even in its sidequests. However, the game doesn’t have any kind of definitive statement on what dreams mean to people. Some dreams are bad, some dreams aren’t worth achieving, some dreams are less important than what you already have, but also some dreams are freaking sweet and awesome. What’s the takeaway? :person_shrugging: who knows. That’s for you to decide; the game explores the topic in its own way, and leaves you to draw your own conclusion about what this means. The vast majority of stories, no matter how tight or loose the themes are, will do this. So don’t worry if you don’t think you can adequately make a definitive statement on a theme. The important part is that you explore a topic in a way that’s interesting to you, and is meaningful to you. The audience will derive meaning from your work so long as you can accomplish this.

In a romhack context, there are unique benefits and drawbacks to the formula that can affect how you explore your themes in significant ways. FE being a game about large casts gives you a uniquely powerful tool with which to approach the thematic elements of your story from a wide variety of angles. With several dozen characters, minor and major, allied or antagonistic, you have a lot of options, especially with the use of the support system or any similar approximation. However, you also have a far more limited script with which to do this exploration within; FE scripts are far more limited in runtime and provide far less opportunities for “smaller scale” optional scenes – by which I mean, relative to a more traditional RPG, you don’t get the benefit of things like side quests and the like with which to flesh out your world, and have to rely primarily on what limited time you have in the main script and otherwise on recruitment dialogue, talk conversations, supports, and maybe the odd village scene. This means you typically have to be pretty efficient about how you go about tackling these topics if you want them to land without the help of optional dialogue that many players may not get the chance to see.

The best way to do this is to make sure that, in furthering the main plot, you’re also furthering this thematic exploration at the same time. I’m going to discuss this in far more detail in the next tutorial, which will be entirely about this process, but in miniature; let’s assume a hypothetical wherein the theme you’re most interested exploring is that family theme from earlier. If your protagonist and antagonist have a Luke / Vader thing going on, where the former is related to the latter, it would be very difficult for the plot to advance along the lines of your Luke becoming ready to face your Vader without grappling directly with the theme of how the family dynamic comes into play in that process. Maybe this not-Vader character has a pair of underlings, siblings who are constantly competing in violent and vicious ways; maybe your Luke has a sibling of his own, and his relationship with them is complicated. Maybe your Luke is old enough that he has his own son, and he sometimes worries he has more not-Vader in him than he’d like. Maybe not-Vader himself is caught up in a complicated father/son relationship of his own with some power even greater than him, and you can draw parallels between the two relationships while also exploring how they differ. By tying in the thematics of the story with the major characters and major plot beats, you can find more chances to explore these themes without bloating your script to an unwieldy size.

In your own hack, I encourage you to be flexible and open to a pivot if you find yourself having stumbled into a topic that interests you. Give your characters quiet moments where they can reflect with one another, and see what feels most natural for them to reflect on; find what’s important to your characters, to your world, to you as the author. Once you have an idea of where your head is at, capitalize; look for other places that you can work this topic in, or plot elements that previously felt underdeveloped that could fit into this new framework. Make it a significant part of your next recruitable unit’s character; write some support chains that can really get at some of the specifics that the broader plot might not have the real estate to explore. A strong theme applied properly and charismatically can be transformative in how much investment a player can have in your world and its primary concerns, and can elevate your plot beyond just another fantasy romp where the blue haired man kills the dark cultist man and saves the world.


Jeez uh… I’ve been busy, huh? :sweat_smile:

I sort of intended to do all of these as a batch of tutorials, but the character arcs one was so long that it burnt me out something fierce, so it was pretty hard to motivate myself to come back. The next part of the series will hopefully not be super long once I do get to it – we’ll be discussing how you work your themes into your world building, your world building into your character arcs, your character arcs into your themes, etc etc; I’ll probably use a lot of examples from my own project, again because it’s the only one whose creative goals and process I can actually discuss with authority, and because that tutorial far more than the others is going to be about application rather than trying to create an understanding of an element of storytelling that an amateur writer may have struggled to grasp up to this point. Discussion of application, of course, benefits best from examples of application, and this process is something that primarily happens behind the scenes.

There’s also a few other topics I want to discuss – this one was a bit less FE centric than I would have liked, but I want to touch on things a lot of people ask about in the FEU discord, like how to write support chains or discussions about “Camus” characters, and I’d like to throw my hat in the ring to provide an easier to point to resource for such discussions in the future. For now, though, I’m going to focus on finishing this particular set of tutorials – as always, any feedback would be greatly appreciated. I’m trying to cut down on length, but I want to provide a wealth of examples for those who struggle with more abstracted learning, which can lead to a lot of bloat. Are these examples helpful to you at all, or would you rather I stick entirely to practical discussion? Are the anecdotes from my own personal projects helpful, or do they just read as shilling with extra steps? I’d like to improve these as much as possible, so please let me know how you feel – any suggestions would be helpful. Thanks for reading!

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Updated to add a couple extra paragraphs that are a biiiit more prescriptive, to try to go at least one extra step beyond just a basic overview of what themes are and how to identify them.

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I wouldn’t say discussing your own project comes off as shilling because it’s the only way to talk about something that you have first-hand knowledge of. You certainly can discuss other works, but any commentary on what the writing process was like could only ever be an educated guess.

This I disagree with. Art is a form of communication. If the events of a story don’t offer any meaningful commentary on the theme, then the story will come across as babbling and leave the audience thinking “so what?” That probably sounds harsh, but getting an audience to care about characters and a storyline isn’t easy, especially without things like voice acting or facial cues from the characters to help things along through the brain’s natural responses to tones of voice or facial expressions. In hacking, you’ve got text on a screen, the position of a character’s eyes, and map sprite movements with which to reach the player.

Themes don’t have to be super deep to be effective. I’m not saying that someone’s story is worthless if it doesn’t take a deep dive into the human condition. Going back to your Star Wars example, the theme of most Star Wars plots is Resistance, and the statement it makes on that theme is to not accept dominance by the strong and to not lose hope in the face of overwhelming odds. I doubt the franchise would have taken off if it had portrayed acquiescing as an equal choice to resisting in terms of the morality and outcomes of that choice, and in fact, the Cloud City arc is saying not to acquiesce to power.

While there is room for someone to disagree and say, “Lando had greater responsibilities to think of than helping his friend, and he made the right choice,” the movie is clearly, saying: “You can’t gain anything by acquiescing to the powerful because there is no reason for them to not change the terms and you will always be at the mercy of the powerful.” But if the movie did not frame acquiescing to power in either a good or bad light, it wouldn’t really spark agreement, disagreement, or really any thought at all. It would merely be an event that happened: rebels on the run seek help from an old friend but are betrayed and have to flee again. While it would still be putting events on screen for the audience to look at, it is unlikely to cause the audience to engage much with the story or characters beyond observing them playing out in the moment.

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Hmm, maybe I could have worded it more clearly. Your story can be both a thorough exploration of a topic in ways that are meaningful and valuable while still ultimately not having a definitive statement to make on how one should feel about those themes.

Using my own story as an example, there are a couple themes that are really bouncing around the plot that are mostly offshoots of the primary goal of the script, which is to explore the ways that nationalist zeal and rhetoric leads to radicalization. On this theme there’s no ambiguity on how I feel about it, and, like your star wars example, there’s no time spent trying to offer a second opinion.

However, you’re making an assumption that, in not coming to a single firm conclusion, the themes of a story are necessarily advocating for all possible sides. I don’t think this is true at all. To return to an example used in my original post, Yakuza 5 spends an absurd amount of time exploring its primary theme, and it does have things to say on each of the individual explorations therein. It can firmly state its stance on each of these topics, while still leaving the door open at the end; there is no definitive answer from the game on how we, as people, should feel about “dreams” as the game posits them to be. You get to see what the game views as unhealthy or destructive dreams, what the game views as aspirational or helpful dreams, what the game feels may happen once a dream comes true both for better and for worse. The game never goes “dreams are good” or “dreams are bad,” but rather posits that many dreams aren’t really worth pursuing or achieving and that you should be more mindful of this. The exploration of the themes isn’t about making a statement, but instead about providing the reader with a myriad of lenses through which to view the topic in their own lives, and I don’t think this is any less valuable.

Looping back to LoM, there’s much said about the matter of faith and belief in the plot as the script moves into act 2 and 3, but there isn’t really meant to be a firm statement on it, because it’s too complex a topic. There are, of course, indictments of those characters who wield their faith in unhealthy ways, and you can draw meaning from what I may view as being unhealthy, but there’s no moment where a definitive answer is proposed, nor do I intend there to be one. Instead, the most definitive this ever gets is how it ties into the main themes – that being, faith can be a powerful tool in the hands of nationalist institutions, and considering how hard the script comes down on those institutions, it’s easy to guess where the script lands on the matter of faith as an imperial cudgel. In my personal life, I don’t have a very firm stance on the topic either so much as I have a complex relationship with it – much of my extended family is heavily religious while my more immediate family and I are not, and this manifests in a lot of tricky to navigate situations – situations I’m keen on exploring in my own work, but that I don’t really have an answer for, and hopefully I can express the texture of that situation through my writing and prompt people to think on how they feel about it, using my own script as a jumping off point for building a greater understanding of the topic.

When I say most media does this, I really do think that. There are certainly a lot of pieces of media that moralize pretty heavily, some in a way that feels natural and many more that feel heavy handed and awkward about it, but I think the vast majority of themes that appear in most media aren’t even intentional in the first place and often have very complex and open ended conclusions to draw from them. There are very few philosophical concepts that can be neatly tied up in a “thing good” or “thing bad” answer, and for every Star Wars with an unambiguous bad guy and unambiguous good guy, there’s a Kentucky Route Zero that presents you with a complex tapestry of character, theme, and meaning, then asks you what you see in it.

Final point: I don’t think Star Wars has very strong themes at all, despite George’s noted anti-war politics, primarily because it’s not really trying to have them and is mostly just a fantasy romp with an anti-authoritarian bent to it just through the nature of having an evil empire. FF14 Stormblood is also a story about rebellion against an evil empire, but it has so much texture to it – it explores why people rebel, why people don’t rebel, why people might side with the empire against their own people, and still ultimately comes to that exact same answer you posited. However, it does so having thoroughly explored a wide variety of characters whose relationship with their homeland and with the occupation is complex and layered, such that when the script does get to the point that it’s making more definitive statements, it has the legs to stand on. On that note, it’s perfectly okay for a story’s themes to be about as complex as Star Wars’ themes, especially if you’re an amateur writer mostly in the hacking business for, say, the art or the gameplay or what-have-you. My goal with these posts is primarily to get people thinking about their own stories and how they can apply the processes I describe to their own work to elevate beyond where it may currently be, and I hope that these posts have done enough to get the gears turning that they’re worth the time spent writing them.

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A statement on a theme doesn’t need to be A is good; B is bad to still be making a statement. While I don’t have first hand knowledge of it, what you describe in regards to Yakuza 5 is still making a statement. It sounds like it’s showing a variety of scenarios to respond to the sort of common wisdom/accepted platitude that achieving one’s dreams will lead to happiness. To which it’s saying, it might or it might not because people don’t always know what’s good for them or think through to the logical conclusion of their desires.

A lot of the characters in Deity Device struggle with not feeling guilty over acting for their own sakes and spurning what society expects of them. When they defeat one of the main antagonists, they reflect on not feeling all that celebratory because of the weight of crushing another person’s most deeply held desire. They ultimately conclude that it was still right to stop the antagonist because his desire involved treating others as things. Stopping to reflect on how something isn’t intrinsically good just because it was someone’s choice or desire doesn’t mean the story isn’t making a statement about self-determination being intrinsic to the nature of human beings.

I’m saying that an author can’t bring up topics and expect the reader/audience to get something out of it regardless of said topic is presented. If an author is going to introduce something, that something should have some sort of purpose, and the author should know what he’s saying about it, even if that something is: “This topic is confusing and reasonable people can struggle with sorting through it.” Even if the author, himself, is unable to draw a concrete conclusion, he should know what he intends to say or else the audience will be left asking why it was brought up in the first place.

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Story Structure IV: Synthesis
Wherein I discuss how each of the previous three entries in this series intermingle, building off each other to create a cohesive and meaningfully complete whole.

Intro A: What is synthesis?

Throughout this series, I’ve been saying the same thing, over and over; “we’ll be discussing how to do this in more detail at a later date.” Well, a later date has finally arrived, and today I want to talk about the hard part of writing a story; the part where you take the plot, the setting, the characters and their character arcs, the themes, and combine them all to make a story. It’s easy to theorycraft about how cool a character would be or about how fun a setting is or how much you’re gonna explore X topic, but it’s hard to place all of those things into your story, execute on all of them, and make them all feel like they belong. This is often the thing I hear people ask me the most when I discuss things like theming; what’s the point? Why do we care about theming? Why do we care about a sense of place and immediacy in a setting? What does any of what I’ve been talking about mean when put together?

I’m sure there’s an actual term for this, but like everything I do I mostly come to these conclusions on my own and use the terminology that most makes sense to me; for me, this process is synthesis, as it’s the process by which the disparate elements of storytelling are synthesized into a meaningful product.

Intro B: Synthesis in Lady of Masks

We’re gonna work backwards for a moment here, as I think it will be far easier to understand what we’re working towards if I demonstrate by example what we’re working towards here by providing you with an example of the result of synthesis. In essence, to synthesize your story, you’re going to be looking at each of the ways the four pillars of your story that I’ve outlined in the past overlap, feed into one another, and support each other’s messages. Below is a chart I’ve made outlining, from the top and going clockwise, the characters, themes, plotlines, and setting of Lady of Masks. Take note, as you read, of the way similar concepts come up over and over throughout. I recommend starting at the setting and working your way clockwise from there, but the chart format is specifically so you can jump around as need be.

You’ll notice, by the end, that it becomes quite hard to disentangle several of these elements from each other, particularly in their thematic significance. The plotlines are all extremely character driven; the characters are all products of the setting; the setting is tailored entirely to fit the thematic elements of the character and the plotlines involving them. This is because this is not a starting point from which to take off, but rather a synthesized story that’s been being worked on for more than two years. Each of these elements has already been merged with the others, such that there’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation going on wherein neither one is necessarily based on another one as they were all built in unison based on earlier drafts of the story where these elements existed in isolation.

While I knew I wanted to do a commentary on extremism and nationalism with the storyline, most of the other themes were found via the writing process. Characters like Ileana and Maeve didn’t even exist in early drafts of the story, or at least the way they existed was so different from how they exist now that they were essentially entirely different characters. The plot was barely more than a set of three or four “big moments” I wanted to hit and a vague idea of ways certain characters might react to those big moments. The setting was barely established early on, to intentionally leave as much room as possible to fill in these gaps with information that supported the more significant ideas I ran into as the writing process began. It was synthesis that allowed me to take my plot from the equivalent of some scribblings on a napkin to what it is today.

Intro C: what does the chart mean xil what are the arrows

Alright, let’s get down to business.

The characters are all introducing major concepts that then become thematic elements, or else become responses to some of the questions that might be raised by the consideration of these thematic elements. In this way, the characters feed into the themes; their actions shed light on the complexities of these themes, provide new ways to view them, new questions and new answers. Without these characters, there would be no conduit through which to view the way these themes affect real life. Characters are people; we are people; seeing these themes reflected in the characters elucidates why these themes should matter for us as people.

The plot is primarily a way to structure the way the player will receive all this information, in the way I personally view it. Since I start with characters first, the plot is for me usually a vehicle through which those characters are explored, and I decide how they’re explored by way of the thematic elements that characters introduce to the story. In this way, the themes are fueling the story, having been fed by the characters that embody those themes. Each of these plotlines is meant to help develop the themes for the audience, and my understanding as the writer of these plotlines as to how they’re going to do that is borne of my understanding of the themes; an understanding borne of my prior understanding of the characters and the concepts that they introduce to the story.

The setting is a place within which the plot and characters are allowed to reside. The plot kind of acts like a river, eroding paths through the setting through which the “topography” of the setting is defined. In a more literal term, the plot dictates the paths the setting takes; what’s important to be established? What history has to have taken place? What places have to exist? How does faith factor into all of this? Ethnic groups? All of this is information I decide based on what’s relevant to the plot – as I explained in my worldbuilding writeup, short though it was (and yes, I know it technically wasn’t labelled as being part of this series, but it still exists :angry:), worldbuilding that isn’t relevant to the story being told is, in my opinion, superfluous and meaningless outside of maybe a bit of flavour. In an environment as economically tight as an FE plot, you only really have time to explore those inconsequential bits as either spice added to a dialogue that’s significant for other reasons, or via supports and the like. In this way, the plot feeds the setting, as the setting has to allow for and support each element of the plot. Elements which, as we discussed before, were formed by way of an understanding of the themes, which we understand due to the characters and the concepts they’ve introduced into the story.

But now we’ve circled back around: the characters are borne of the setting, in a literal in-universe sense. They grew up in it, have opinions on it, share a history with it, etc… The characters may have existed in a vacuum when I first made them, as that was where I started when I began writing LoM, but now we have setting to provide greater context; a setting informed by the plot; a plot informed by the themes; themes informed by our characters; characters who, now, are being fleshed out and developed even further as according to the setting we’ve established.

New emphasis is being added to them, and our understanding is being fleshed out across the board now: by knowing their history, the setting has been built upon, and the historical event we’ve added has thematic elements that we now think are worthy of pursuing, and so our themes have been developed as well. That pursuit is done through the plot, which requires having characters to act out that plot, meaning the characters now must be fleshed out further in order to figure out how they’ll act out this element of the plot alongside everything else they were already doing. This fleshing out strengthens the themes again, finds areas where those themes overlap and reinforces that which connects those themes together, weaves them backwards into the characters and plot and setting; again and again, so on and so on.

This is what synthesis is; it is the way that you fold each element of your story in on each other, over and over, each time discovering new places where the fleshing out of these elements leads to a greater understanding of the entire whole of your script.

Of course, you’ll notice that it starts to jump around there by the end; go back to that chart and draw a bunch of extra arrows all over the place that just point from everything to everything else. There’s no linear way through which your story is going to be developed; you’ll have epiphanies about each and every element of the story, and these will have domino effects that lead to other epiphanies about totally unrelated elements. So long as your understanding of the script is progressing upwards, you’re successfully synthesizing your plot.

Part I: Synthesis by example

Let’s, for the sake of demonstration, begin with an example by way of the character of Fane, the red haired guy from the chart. His character is interesting as a product of synthesis because, divorced from everything that he causes and his knock on effects throughout the script, he’s actually an extremely simple character, as you could probably tell from how short his section on that chart was. Much of his depth as a character comes from his relation to the world around him and the specificities therein.

When I began Lady of Masks, Fane was the only character I knew I wanted. He was going to be an archer, he was going to be a hothead, and he was going to get revenge. Obviously, because it’s a Fire Emblem game, he needs some friends: I made Raphael, his more level headed friend, and Lionel, his old mentor, to fill the roles of “melee guy” and “jeigan guy.” (For fun, you can keep in mind, as I discuss everything up ahead, that this entire process took place for each of them as well) I decided very early on after I began writing him that the big thematic thing I wanted to tie to that revenge was a critique of nationalism; one way or another, I wanted his revenge and the process by which he attains it to be inextricably tied to the nationalist rhetoric of both Fane himself and of the homeland he represents.

But wait! Perhaps you’ve already seen it, but we’ve already begun some synthesis: I knew that, as part of my exploration of the character of Fane, who was my starting point, I was going to have to have a plot arc where he seeks out his revenge. I also knew that, if Fane was meant to mirror his homeland’s nationalism, that such would have to become a major part of the setting. And, of course, all of this stemmed from my interpretation of the concept he introduced to the plot (hot headed revolutionary seeking revenge) into the thematic element that he would go on to embody (nationalism and extremism among youths in volatile environments).

Let’s trace one of these lines: Cerahn becoming a country with a history of nationalism led me to question a few other elements of the script. Haloseia being the aggressor, for instance, is complicated by Cerahn’s newfound history as an expansionist, nationalist, militarized nation. So, too, is the character of Lionel, and his role within that machine; with him comes complications for both Fane and Raphael, who are proteges of Lionel and thus are only one degree of separation away from this entire apparatus of war. These complications echo into their involvement into the plot; how does this recontextualize the way they navigate the situations put before them? How does it change their reaction to the world around them? How does it change the audience’s interpretations of these characters, and the themes that are supporting them?

Let’s trace a new line: Fane’s revenge plotline necessarily includes a subject for his revenge, in this case the character of Karth. But who is Karth? For me, Karth ended up being a good man, or at least a man with the potential to be good, wrapped up in a terrible system, doing terrible things because it’s what he knows and he doesn’t know how to make it stop. In an indirect way, however, this had a knock on effect backwards again into the plot: now, the resolution of that revenge plotline is hollow. Karth was not an evil man who deserved comeuppance; in fact, had Karth been allowed to live, he would have solved the plot months before the protagonists do, and untold amounts of suffering could have been avoided. We’ve ping ponged multiple times now just between character and plot as I attempt to answer this question of who Fane wants revenge against and what makes them interesting to explore as a reader, but I’m also fleshing out Karth’s history and his place within the setting, and each time these elements becomes stronger, it feeds back into the themes that those elements are working towards, making them stronger as well.

But now that we’ve traced these two lines, they’re intersecting on us: Karth’s role as a character, Cerahn’s role in the setting, and Fane’s relationship with both elements has created new space within the story: I may understand Cerahn and Karth from the perspective of Fane, but I now want to explore Haloseia so that I can have a window through which to depict Cerahn from an external perspective and through which to depict Karth through an internal one. Enter Maeve, a character who didn’t even exist for much of LoM’s early lifetime and who quickly became one of the main characters of the entire game, with an entire act of the story dedicated to her and her journey through Haloseia. I don’t need to tell you that this, on its own, creates dozens if not a hundred new lines that we could trace: nearly every element of the script is now recontextualized in the face of this new and extremely important character, who I quickly find isn’t just proving to be a handy answer to the question of “how do I display unsympathetic characters in a sympathetic light and vice versa,” but also to the questions raised by the themes, namely “what are you even supposed to do in the face of all these horrible power structures?”

You see, I’d created a world that felt incredibly bleak and hopeless: Fane was fated to spiral out of control, Ileana would have everything she loved taken from her, Raphael would lose the man he’s closest to and gain nothing in return, and there was no conceivable tidy way to make this world feel like it invited anything but more of the same brand of misery back upon itself, repeating endlessly forever. I wanted an answer, and Maeve was that answer: suddenly, through the act of synthesis, I had identified, explored, and then solved a major problem I had with the construction of my script; a lack of warm humanity. Maeve is a character who doesn’t perpetuate the cycles the world is trapped in; instead, she intervenes, and helps those trapped within it heal, at first in small ways, but then in larger ways. She herself starts in the same headspace I was in as a writer: “what can somebody like me do against something so terrible as this?” and ends it as being the person arguably the most responsible for having put a stop to it all.

This is what synthesis can do for you: by uniting each element of your story, you will uncover more and more about your script, revealing gaps within the script for you to fill in and opportunities within the script for you to capitalize on. Eventually, after enough synthesis, you’ll have answered all the questions you have about your script: each thing that had you thinking “hmmm, idk how I wanna handle this” or “huh, this actually seems a bit inconsistent” is solved by this process, by looking at each element of your script and connecting the dots, filling in the spaces left in between with whatever makes the whole function properly.

Part II: Synthesis by doing

So now, we want to figure out how you can do synthesis. Everyone writes differently and starts from a different point in the process; whichever one you’re most comfortable with starting on, feel free to start there, though I suspect if you try to start with themes you’ll have a bad time.

The first step is, of course, as outlined in my tutorials for each one of these elements, and so depending on where you’re starting you’ll want to refer to those. On a basic level, though, you probably want to form a list of “must haves” for you: What tone are you going to be mostly writing in? What do you REALLY want in this story? What do you NOT want in this story? Figure out these things early – I prefer to do so by just writing blindly and seeing where my head’s at, but a lot of people prefer to plan things out in a plot document before they start writing. So long as you can identify the core elements that will make up the heart of your first draft, you’re good to go.

Now, once you figure those things out, write whatever you’re writing until you hit a point where you’re suddenly in another pillar’s territory. Say you were writing a character and then realized you have to establish what their past was like, and that doing so necessitates fleshing out the setting: take that opportunity, right there, to flesh out the setting only insofar as it pertains to this element. Flesh it out as much as you feel the need to; if you run into another similar roadblock, repeat the process from that step in that new pillar, adding characters or a thematic idea to potentially play with or a plotline to pursue. Not all of these need to make it in game, but just knowing what your little tapestry looks like is an important first step before you can decide what you actually want to do longterm.

Eventually, you’ll have reached a point akin to what I had at the start of the first draft of Lady of Masks: There are three characters, Fane Raphael and Lionel, and they live in a place called Cerahn, and they’re being invaded by a different place called Haloseia, and both of the young characters are proteges of Lionel, who is a war veteran from the old war, which was a war where Cerahn invaded Haloseia, because the countries hate each other due to a theological dispute and because Cerahn is deeply nationalistic and expansionist and wanted Haloseian land, which makes this war a retaliatory war and makes Lionel complicit in a war of aggression, which means that Fane, a character who I already knew going in I wanted to have a revenge character arc, possibly learned some of his flaws from his mentorship by Lionel, and that Raphael did not learn these flaws because he isn’t being taught the same things as Fane…

I hope that illustrates the process I was describing properly. As you hit questions from the things you’re writing and try to think of interesting and thought provoking answers, you’ll often find equally thought provoking new questions to try to answer; extrapolating these out over the course of a half dozen or so chapters, and you can end up with a pretty robust understanding of your world, characters, and plot, as well as a decent early understanding of what themes keep coming up. I would recommend keeping a kind of mental tally of how many times a particular thematic element rears its head through the natural course of you writing – if something only ever appears once, you probably can discount it as being a theme worth building around, but if the same idea keeps coming up again and again and again, then you should probably go ahead and codify it as an actual theme of the story and think about the ways you might want to explore that theme using the elements you already have in play and whether or not you need to add new elements to support or properly explore that theme.

Eventually, you’ll have a robust enough understanding to reach the point I was at during the beginning of Part I: at this point, you shouldn’t even need to be writing out the story to start uncovering these little connections, inconsistencies, and gaps that the synthesis process exists to help you work through. You can begin thinking ahead, planning character arcs throughout the entire game, planning the conclusions to all your major plotlines, planning the thematic elements and the ways you want them to provide your audience with food for thought or enriching takeaways. Rather than these little bits of “linear” synthesis, where you’re jumping from point to point as you try to figure out what it is you want to be writing on a basic level, you can move on to the more “holistic” synthesis I was describing much earlier, where you’re often tackling multiple things at once without even really trying to do so or having to devote specific attention to any one element of the script. Your story will start to become interwoven enough that you can’t make a major modification to any one pillar of the script without it having consequences for the other pillars; your story will start to coalesce into one singular, cohesive, complete product.

And it might take a while :sweat_smile:

The process I described for Lady of Masks has been ongoing for two years, and is still not even done. Almost nothing I described above is something that pertains to act 3; act 1 has been done for a long time, and act 2 has been being written and rewritten for a while, but act 3 still hasn’t begun any form of production, and much of the planning being done for that stage of the script is, itself, being done via synthesis; as I solve problems during act 2, how does this in turn help me figure out where I want to take act 3? This isn’t something that you’ll do for a few days at the start of the writing process and then from then on it’s just a matter of putting the words on paper: it’s an iterative process that is constant and persistent. Your goal is not to “finish” synthesis: it’s simply the means by which you answer questions within your script that arise as you run into roadblocks or intriguing possibilities via the writing process.

Part III: Why synthesis matters

There was a question I got a lot after my post about themes in writing, and I didn’t really have a clean answer because of the fact that it was something that was best explained in the broader context of this piece, with every element of the process by which I build a story laid bare. The question was “what does developing the themes of my story actually materially do for me?” alongside the unspoken but implied question of “why do themes even matter at all?”

Themes, as you might have already noticed if you’re already experienced or are particularly sharp at noticing patterns, are the glue by which each element of your script is connected. Without themes, your characters, setting, and plot have no meaning; with them, not only are they provided meaning, but they provide each other with meaning as well. You now have a purpose; a guiding principle by which to approach each element of your script. When you design an element of your world’s history, or its politics, or its people, or the events that will transpire upon it, you now have a goal to which you’re working towards; you can design these things to serve a purpose within the broader whole of the story, rather than being an act unto itself. If a nation is evil, it isn’t just evil; it’s representative of some core concept, some thematic statement that you’re trying to make, as it embodies that which the themes of your story paint as the worst thing a nation can be; if a character is good, they aren’t just good; they’re representative of a belief, or a concept, or an ideal, one that you believe is worth striving for; if a plotline is complicated, it isn’t just complicated; it’s asking questions that you wish to see answered, or perhaps that you can’t answer but want to explore a variety of potential answers for, or that you believe the audience should ask of themselves.

Synthesis, by extension of being the means by which you connect each element of the script to each other, is also the means by why this thematic glue is applied. It is how you provide meaning to the words on the page, how you make the world feel alive and real, how you make the events taking place feel meaningful and weighty, how you make the characters feel vivid and fully realized. This is, in my opinion, the heart of what writing is: the development of a story from a simple set of events that happen in sequence to the art of transporting the reader to another place, immersing them in that place, and leaving them feeling enriched for having been there.

A lack of synthesis means that you’ll walk out of the experience feeling unfulfilled. You’ll be asking yourself “was that it?” or maybe “what was the point of all that?” or even “man, that was a waste of time.” Without synthesis, all a story is is some guys doing a thing in a place until they’re done. Through synthesis, you can ground each of these elements into the other ones, making them feel as though they weren’t created but rather born, naturally, of the world and the circumstances they’re in. It’s how you create a reality within which your audience can explore the concepts you propose to them; it allows us to ask and answer questions we wouldn’t be able to access as easily in our own day to day lives. And, in my opinion, all of this is the entire reason why I write in the first place: to try to write something that makes somebody think, reevaluate, and come to a new conclusion that in some way makes their life better for having visited me.

Conclusion: What about Fire Emblem?

The hard part about writing this is that I don’t really know how to connect it to the specific rhythms and complications of Fire Emblem romhacking. I don’t really know if I have to, but that’s ostensibly the whole point of this series: to provide writing advice specifically as it pertains to this medium and this community. However, I think the synthesis process is the same, with or without the Fire Emblem framing, which one exception: You have way, way, way more room to explore some of those tinier, less meaningful themes due to the support system.

Yeah, remember that chart? There’s actually a really major theme that was only hinted at on there: Legacy. The legacies we leave behind, the legacies we inherit, what it means to live up to one’s legacy or to disgrace it, or if that’s even something possible in the first place, or if legacies even exist, or if a legacy can be real if it only exists for some select few… This is a big element of the script that I touch on a lot, but it’s primarily relevant not to the main plot and its progression but to the supports. Many of the characters in the hack are grappling with carrying on the legacies of those who came before them: Peter and Cylean both have their own ways of carrying on the legacy of the Cerahni knighthood; Bug fears he’s tarnishing the legacy of his parents, but also fears that if he chose any other path that he’d be tarnishing their memory instead; Ramm is trying to carry on his wife’s legacy, and by extension Gael is trying to carry her mother’s, but both fear that they are inadequate; Gregory rejects his legacy entirely and wishes to escape from it to live free from anyone’s shadow. This is the connective tissue by which much of the cast bonds. It’s a world where a lot of pain has transpired, and a lot of its inhabitants have a complicated relationship with their past due to the sordid history of the setting.

However, while it’s a theme that greatly intrigues me and that I love writing, it’s also one that only really matters in small ways in the main plot, overshadowed by the larger and more consequential questions. I would have chosen to drop it entirely were it not for the support system’s existence allowing me to explore tangential concepts like this to the degree that I feel they deserve.

Inversely, of course, the limited script of an FE game means that you have to be very selective about which themes you pick up for the main plot to tackle; you can only fit so many words before it starts to drag reeeeal bad, so you have to pick wisely.

Hopefully, this advice, in conjunction with the advice that came prior, can help you elevate your script from being merely a conduit by which map concepts are introduced to the player to being a meaningful, weighty, emotionally resonant, and philosophically true to yourself work.


And that’s the story structure writeups over and done with.

It’s been an incredibly busy time for me this past half a year, and I wanted to get this one over with while I still had this unfortunately fleeting moment of relative freedom and calm. This was something I was really excited to write about, but also something that’s really hard to put into words in a way that’s actually helpful to somebody who’s never heard this process described to them before. You’ll notice a lot of this sounds similar to stuff I said in previous parts; it is VERY hard for me to try to explain how to do things in a vacuum when this process is so important to how I work.

As last time, I would greatly appreciate any questions about things you felt I wasn’t sufficiently clear on or that you fear you may be misunderstanding or misinterpreting. I want to make these little ‘tutorials’ as helpful as I can, but it’s hard to grasp where I might be coming up short when, for me, a lot of this process is second nature to me, and I may be accidentally skimming over things that are actually much harder to grasp, or much less obvious, than I might recognize.

The next set of write-ups will probably be much more lightweight than these ones have been, closer to the worldbuilding piece rather than these big monolithic walls of text. Let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to touch on in the future, and I’ll add it to my to-do list.

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Good write up, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I agree that the process of synthesizing and considering these elements and their interrelatedness is critical for writing well. I’d be curious to get your thoughts on this, but one thing I am always conscious of when writing is the subtlety of themes and the openness of interpretation.

Part of what makes a work worth discussing is that different interpretations can exist, even if they are the “wrong” ones or not the author’s intent. While I think some degree of clarity is important, I also think there’s value in obscuring certain themes and points to enable more discussion and interpretations.

Pending the complexity of the work, I’m sure folks will be able to view things through multiple lens. I’m curious how you think about balancing this when working this way and having such a clear vision of what it is you’re trying to say – I worry that too much clarity in themes and how they’re written can make them feel really hamfisted.

Lastly, I can’t reiterate enough how important revision is to the writing process, especially as you synthesize across these elements. I recently finished “On Revision”, which articulates the importance of drafting over and over again. (The book is focused on academic writing, but principles still apply here)

I am guilty of being lazy and doing a lot of things on the first take, but taking the time to revise thoughtfully always makes the work stronger. This permeates throughout the post, but felt it was worth stating directly - rewrites good!

I’d be curious to get your take on worldbuilding and lore – I find these are things new folks get really wrapped up in, but struggle to translate into action and meaning. My view is that worldbuilding and lore are better to know and to only show when the time calls for it - no one cares about lore unless they care about the characters, setting, and plot of the story you’re telling – the stories that come before and its history only serve to enhance that. Regardless, would be keen to see you tackle this subject and your approach since it’s likely more thoughtful than my own.

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Response A

This is I think a matter of execution combined with a similar misinterpretation as to my thoughts on themes as from the last time this discussion went down. Maybe it means I need to explain myself a bit better, or maybe it just means we conceptualize themes differently.

There are no “wrong” themes, really, though there are certainly interpretations on a text that one might disagree with another on. Part of why I framed the process of synthesis as a process of building an understanding of your script was that it’s a matter of how you, as the writer, conceptualize the story you are writing. You can, if you so wish, choose to write in a theme-agnostic manner and let the chips fall where they please, but themes will still emerge; for me, I find that an understanding of what the script means to you specifically is an important way to begin forming ideas on where you want the script to end up to have it be as satisfying as possible by the end.

It’s sort of like trying to line up all the holes in the various pages of your script so you can fit them into your… ring binder of a story :sweat_smile: the themes are what allow me to locate those places where each of the individual elements of the script overlap, and once they’re all lined up, they all slot in to where they belong and fit together.

Understanding the themes that an author has in mind going into a script can help you as a reader understand what they’re trying to say, but you can just as easily not learn this information or even intentionally discard it if you prefer your own interpretations of that story’s messages; however, as an author, I also have my own interpretation of the script and its meaning, and my own reasons for feeling as though the script is meaningful and powerful.

I think about Lord of the Rings, and the ways people argue constantly about whether or not it’s fair to view the books as being analogous to either of the world wars – Tolkein himself was adamant that the books weren’t a work of allegory, and yet a lot of people find direct parallels in many elements of the novels to those events; are the people wrong because Tolkein didn’t mean for people to draw these parallels? Is Tolkein wrong for expecting readers to disregard the world around them when trying to contextualize his story within their own lives? Or is the actual truth that the messages we draw from a piece of media are only important insofar as they’re important to us as individuals?

I also think about the number of older stories that, while certainly not written as such intentionally, became wildly popular in LGBT circles due to their ability to see their own struggles represented in the abstracted narrative struggles of these protagonists. They are not wrong for seeing themselves reflected in these works just because the authors weren’t keeping them in mind when they first wrote them; they are drawing meaning from the text, connecting it to their own values, beliefs, lived experiences, and present day reality, providing that text with meaning beyond what may have initially been intended. Even just finding meaning in a storyline as it pertains to events that hadn’t occurred at time of writing is, in a way, the same kind of “wrong” theme; I hope this explains why that isn’t a healthy way of viewing writing.

As an aside, though, stuff like this starts to break down if you start looking at things like satire or reads of the text that are grossly selective of what information is included in constructing the thesis. I think other people have given far better explanations of the former than I ever could, and the latter is just arguing and bad faith and shouldn’t be accounted for in discussions like this.

As for your point on heavy-handedness:

I addressed this topic in my discussion with Permafrost, where I attempted to explain that there’s a difference between themes that are a statement of some sort (nationalism bad) versus themes that are an exploration of a topic and its many facets. Permafrost and I disagree on the nature of themes in this discussion, but I still stand by my explanation; these are topics that have weight and meaning to me, topics that make me think and that I want to explore in detail through the medium of fiction, but that I don’t presume to have a definitive conclusion on. Instead, their purpose is to prevent the many conflicting pathways that this exploration leads me down, and then handing the torch off to the reader; what do they make of this exploration? How does it broaden their understanding of the topic, and how does that differ from how it broadened my understanding of the topic through the process of actually writing it?


Response B

This was definitely something I implied but should have made more clear; yeah, the part of that process I described where you write a bunch of things, then figure stuff out? That involves rewriting, possibly even scrapping everything you already wrote to fit the new understanding of the script. I’ve referenced it before, but one of my favourite quotes about writing comes from Noah Caldwell-Gervais; “it’s heartbreaking to be put in a room with two of your favourite paragraphs and a bullet for one of them.” Cutting, rewriting, breaking down, and remaking the work you do, even the work you’re proud of and enjoy the most, is integral to the process of refining your work, sharpening it to a razor edge.


Response C

I have talked about this before, but I do wish to return to it in more detail one day, maybe by tackling a specific element of it rather than, as the initial one was, writing in response to a question another hacker asked.

Essentially, though, I agree with you – the setting is only as important as the people who live within it. If you want to tell me about your world, you need to make me care about it; give me a character who has an impassioned opinion about the world, or a character whose life has been directly impacted by an element of the politics, or a character whose goals are entwined with the mechanics of the setting, but please do not give me a book in a library that tells me a list of dates and royal houses, or a long dry textbox explaining some ancient history or obscure and pointless magic system.

No matter how much you love your world, unless you’re writing a campaign guide for a pen and paper, I’m not going to care unless you give me reasons to care. And, as you might have gleaned from the post above, my opinion on how to best do so is to use characters, plot, and themes to draw me into the narrative, and then hook those three things in to the wider world so that I’m then drawn into caring about that as well.

I would like to note, though, that this is of course only my personal philosophy on writing. Some people adore worldbuilding – just look at the popularity of the Souls brand of storytelling, or the seemingly endless number of Brandon Sanderson fans. If worldbuilding is something you care about, as a reader or as a writer, I encourage you to tap into that passion whenever possible; it will enrich your experience with the artform, and I don’t want anybody to let my very utilitarian “only what matters, when it matters, and nothing else” approach discourage them from focusing on building a world and then building the rest of their plot from there.

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