This was a nice read and got me thinking quite a bit about my own writing, thanks for putting it together and sharing it MinoHotel Team.
Minotaur Hotel's Writing Manual I — Introduction, Basics and Characters
A few times I've received requests to know about our writing process in Minotaur Hotel. I've given little bits and pieces in response but the process itself is just sprawling enough that writing it all down is not a trivial errand.
A few months ago, however, U'Shadra asked about it by making a thread in the game's page. And on June 2nd was Minotaur Hotel's first production anniversary — an occasion which surely justifies putting in the effort. So I started work on this extensive document, which I hope will stand both as a celebration of our first year of work and a resource for VN writers to come.
We planned to publish the whole thing in one go but it turns out Itch.io's text editor would break and crash because it's sixty pages long. So we will break it up in a few sections and publish it over the next few weeks, which incidentally should make it more palatable as well.
Today's post in particular is divided into two parts. The first one deals with chronicling a bit of how Minotaur Hotel as a story started. You can skip this section altogether if you aren't curious about it, although it may be a bit informative for writers who want to know how trial and error the writing process can be.
The second part of today's DevLog is the de facto writing manual, most specifically the sections dealing with the basics of a story and characters. Next week we will see a more diverse assortment of topics, including plotting and mechanics, but for now that's it.
To the best of my skills I tried to create a powerful manual for fellow VN developers and aspiring creators alike. I won't say this is a comprehensive, all-encompassing manual and neither is it a list of unavoidable and ever-applicable rules. It is best if you think of this as our style, created out of our experience and based on what we learned while developing Minotaur Hotel.
This is, in a way, our tool box. You can call it our writing manual (which happens to be a very search engine-friendly name), but among us we call it "Asterion's VNchiridion". Take a look at what we have, pick the ones that fit your needs, make them your own.
Also, before we start, today's DevLog features a section written by Eddio, developer of Killigan's Treasure. Give his game a try, it's really good and we have statistical evidence that if you like Minotaur Hotel chances are you'll like Killigan's Treasure.
Without further ado, let's start.
1. Writing about minotaurs
When I was a kid my father used to read me the Greek legends. He gave me a picture book telling the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. It told in a few pages how Theseus the Athenian youth crossed the sea with other youths meant for sacrifice. At the island of Crete he met Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, who gave him a ball of yarn. She instructed him on how to survive the labyrinth. He came out victorious and sailed back to Athens.
Perhaps many other children have heard of the minotaur's story like this. It's a tale as old as time, we could say, that of a young hero vanquishing a monster and saving lives in the process. This version, however, glosses over important details.
For example, it ignores that Crete's claim to Athens' youth came as retribution to an inciting incident. While the interpretations of the legend vary wildly, one of them is that King Minos had a son called Androgeus who was killed by his competitors in the Panathenaic Games after he conquered all the prizes. It also ignores Theseus' less heroic qualities, such as him taking Ariadne with him and leaving her stranded on the island of Naxos, or how his inattentiveness led to his father's death just as he arrived back in Athens.
Most importantly, it ignores a great deal of the complex symbolisms crafted around the minotaur. According to the legend King Minos of Crete was blessed by Poseidon with a white bull sent from the sea, confirming his claim to the throne. Minos was meant to sacrifice the bull right then and there but took it for himself and offered a lesser one. As punishment, Poseidon cursed Minos' wife, Pasiphae, to be smitten by the white bull. She, as some would say, took the bull's lurch and became pregnant with a crossbreed.
These are the basics, but around it we construct interpretations. As an adult I heard it that this story can be seen as a tale about corruption and misappropriation of public goods — Minos misused his powers as king and, as a result, infamy and disgrace fell on his household. This may sound right, but it's also shallow. It ignores a number of contextual Cretan peculiarities, like the immensely sacred status given to bulls. Crucially it ignores Crete's and Greece's recurrent symbolism of gods taking the shape of animals — bulls most notably — to spirit away and impregnate fair maidens. In fact this is part of Crete's founding myth, and King Minos himself might have been sired by a bull if we believe the myth.
There is a clash here. The story we hear is that of a monstrous crossbreed cannibal, but the context we glimpse from myths and legends is that Asterion, the minotaur, would have been seen as something closer to a sacred being. This is, to me, one of the essential elements of the minotaur's story: a clash and mix of seemingly contradictory components in its protagonist, in the story's telling and in the imagery surrounding it all.
And it keeps going, mind you, but to give a very brief summary it is possible to attribute some of these contradictions to the history of Athens and Crete. We believe today Crete was once a hegemonic power in the region, charging steep taxes to other city-states (thus the imagery of sacrificed youths), and ultimately Athens was the victor of a political struggle which tilted the axis of power in its favor.
It was a struggle, we could say, between the self-proclaimed civility of Athens and its patron deity and the violent, chaotic forces of a brutal natural and political landscape. Poseidon favored Crete, and he fathered many of the legendary creatures vanquished by Athena's heroes. Herakles killed Geryon, Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, Theseus killed Asterion. It's a recurring story of an essentially Athena-worshipping hero vanquishing a raw, natural, chaotic force.
But that is Athens' version of the story. What's the Cretan side? What's the story of Prince Asterion, adopted son of King Minos (who too was fathered by a bull of divine origin)? He who was given a profoundly significant name — Asterion means "Starry", the name of a founding father of Crete. These clues point us towards a different interpretation: at least once in his life this being that went down in infamy, whose death is celebrated as an achievement of Western culture, was loved.
I wanted to write about that love.
In 2012 I stumbled on a painting called "The Minotaur" by George Frederic Watts. It encapsulated many of these themes, of which I had been vaguely aware of thanks to my father's own knowledge about Greek legends.
I found it fascinating.
Back to the painting. Ultimately it led to me writing a short story trying to explore these ideas. It was about a female thief who, taking the symbolic role of Pasiphae, had to face the ghost of a child-turned-monster. She fails in her quest and is brought down, but the monster does not harm her. In the end her consort comes to save her — except no one is in danger, she is safe (although unconscious) and the final confrontation is about pacifying the ghost.
When I describe the story like this it may sound intriguing. But let me assure you, it was a horrible and unreadable mess. The characters weren't fleshed out enough, the end goal was vague at best, important elements just sprung up from nowhere because I hadn't planned things ahead of time. The biggest one, however, was the insincerity of it. In truth I wanted to talk about the monster — then why was I being dishonest and putting the lens on the mother, then the stepfather, and only vaguely showing the story's essential core?
You know you wrote trash when not even your family can get through to the end. So, like a good boy, I edited it. I must have created around ten different drafts over the next year and a half, expanding this short story into the size of a novella. From 5.000 words to 10.000, then to 12.000, all the way to 28.000. But no matter what, it wasn't good. So I shelved it and went on with my life. I wrote three more stories after that and... I gave up on writing altogether. My life circumstances had changed and I no longer enjoyed it.
I stopped writing fiction for nearly five years. I had until then dreamed of being a writer and I gave up.
But I suppose some stories don't give up on you even if you gave up on them. Over the years Watts' painting kept popping up, so I gave it another try. This time it was about a man who is cursed into becoming a beast, and then has to find similarly cursed people. It didn't go very far at all. Looking back I can see why. I still struggled with sincerity — I kept struggling against the fact that this was a story about the minotaur.
The third attempt was more successful — a string of short stories, inspired by fairy tales, about men who were cursed into becoming beasts. This one marked a big milestone for me because I established that each and every story in this collection would either have a gay romance or none at all. Monsterhood in my story was linked to homosexuality.
To hell if it meant it was unpublishable. I wrote for myself and a handful of friends.
That is, until I decided I wanted to write about a minotaur. Until then the monster had been fish-like. The minotaur, I realized, was the true protagonist I wanted all along. That was intimidating, to such an extent I couldn't proceed. I never finished that story, but it made me realize what I wanted. It was always about Asterion.
And then one day I decided to make a little DnD campaign with my gay online friends. That came after a friend (nanoff, who's the programmer and artist for Minotaur Hotel) made his own campaign about a haunted mansion filled with puzzles. Mine was about a whimsical town with weird, peculiar people and a fantastical mystery relating to a bottle of magical wine. And there was a minotaur too.
My campaign didn't go well. It was actually really boring and I ended it prematurely because the players weren't engaged. But I realized how much I liked the minotaur character. Later a friend from the same group (mystline, one of our editors) made a campaign of his own and I rebuilt that character into a minotaur cleric. My buddies told me he was enjoyable and fun to have around, that was a victory.
And then a dear friend (Kangarube, who is actually one of Mino Hotel's writers today) suggested a book to me, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. This excerpt from its summary speaks for itself.
Autobiography of Red is the story of a boy named Geryon who, at least in a metaphorical sense, is the Greek monster Geryon. It is unclear how much of the mythological Geryon's connection to the story's Geryon is literal, and how much is metaphorical. Sexually abused by his older brother, his affectionate mother too weak-willed to protect him, the monstrous young boy finds solace in photography and in a romance with a young man named Herakles.
I read it all in one night. It was electrifying and I felt like this was the story I wanted to read all along. I was happy because I found it, sad because it was so brief, shaken by how close it hit me, angry and jealous because I wish I had written it. I was on fire. I needed to write again.
I prepared two ideas. One was about Asterion in today's times. The other was about a town full of quirky people and a very Asterion-like but otherwise human character.
I just wanted to get the words on the paper. The second idea seemed more promising to me, and consequently more intimidating, so I shelved it and started with the more basic one — the minotaur in an afterlife of sorts.
This time I gave up on any pretense of high-brow writing. No fancy tricks. The ideas started coming up, all those bits and pieces from all the failed stories I had written since 2012. The quirky town from my campaign became a hotel, ideas from previous stories would later be incorporated into guest characters.
Asterion, though? He remained the same, business as usual.
Then I picked a format. On 4chan there are "quests" which are about a storyteller (Quest Master or QM) who gives a prompt. Users jump in to tell what the protagonist should do and the QM incorporates it into the story. There was also a thread I had been frequenting then, /gmad/, where I had read stories I really liked, written by Anonymous users. Very honest stories. I started writing for /gmad/, then made a general of its own for this project (/minoh/).
So many times before I had been bogged down by trying to achieve fancy writing which I could then publish somewhere. But as I said, I gave up on all pretenses of "fanciness." It was about exploring my ideas on Asterion in a format that was enjoyable and accessible to people.
Back then I could only hope for a dozen or so readers, which became a strong point in favor of the story. I could tailor the experience to this very small group, make it intimate and personal. Out of this a few emergent qualities popped up — mainly that Minoh was never designed for wide appeal.
I was under the assumption that what people wanted were characters like you'd find in Extracurricular Activities or Adastra. Asterion, meanwhile, was essentially built on top of elements I believed were outside the usual experience. He's been through a lot, the power imbalance around him is massive and, as a consequence, his capacity to consent is questionable. He is also fundamentally submissive, both as a consequence of his history and as a trait he always displayed. His baggage affects his sexuality.
More astute readers might have guessed that Asterion must be a bottom, and indeed that is the intention. He is unapologetically written as the essential submissive bottom, which wasn't a very rational decision from a business perspective. To put it bluntly it seems like there are more people in our audience who prefer dominant. People rioted when they learned they'd never get to see him top in the original story.
It was also way too gay and dirty to be fashionably LGBT. I was writing for a crowd of teratophiliac monster lovers and I was proud to provide them with material. To add a little bit of light-hearted fun I asked people to throw around ideas for guests. I tinkered with them, gave 'em my twists and put them in.
These little occurrences may sound odd to you if you joined us in this ride after the visual novel was released, but for us it's part of the playful attitude we and the original group of readers cultivated. It was honest writing and honest reading. It was also niche to the bone, written for the smallest audience imaginable. It was the Internet equivalent of going to a dingy bar in the rough side of town every day to tell a story you wrote in a hurry earlier in the afternoon on a coffee-stained napkin. The feedback was honest and direct — a few minutes after posting an update I'd get a handful of readers telling me what they thought.
Midway through people became attached to the project. What would happen after the story was over? Some people weren't ready to say goodbye and I suppose I wasn't either. So I talked with nanoff, threw a few ideas around — could we translate this into a visual novel format? I had a number of ideas I didn't have the space to develop in a fast-paced quest that would strengthen the story.
We invited people to join. Awoo and Nemo came in, the two people whose stories in /gmad/ had done so much to push me to write. And then more friends, all the friends we made along the way, came in too. We had culture in common, a tongue-in-cheek attitude that comes with being an Anonymous content producer who does it all for free. For degenerates like us when someone online said they busted a big fat nut to our writing we took it as a badge of honor.
If you want to make money you sure as hell don't write niche, kinky furry erotica online while letting go of even having a pen name. Things were non-commercial from the start. Writing was enjoyable, impacting people was heartwarming and the responsibilities that came with keeping something like a Patreon would just kill the joy. And that wasn't even touching on the absolute mess it'd be sharing profits. So we all agreed on going non-commercial and then we wrote a whole lot.
To a certain extent telling how Minotaur Hotel came to be is a matter of preserving and celebrating our brief history. Hopefully our readers will be able to appreciate it a bit. But as I mentioned in the introduction to this document, there are a few lessons here for aspiring writers, mainly relating to dealing with "failure."
- It takes time to get better at writing. It's not out of the ordinary for your first stories to be unreadable.
- Big ideas can be intimidating and paralyze you. If you let go of your expectations they can flow more easily.
- It's ok to try and fail, you can always try again. Don't be afraid of failure. If you make small, quick projects you can improve yourself at a faster pace.
- Don't stop honing your writing.
- If you want to write a visual novel you can start with a novel-like draft to see if the story works — it takes extra effort but it helps.
- Make an honest story.
As you read the rest of this document, keep our context in mind.
1. Asterion's VNchiridion
There is no reason why anyone should consider my view on how stories should be written above anyone else's. But people have asked so here I will try, to the best of my skill, to lay out as much as possible about our writing process and my general knowledge about writing.
This is what we do. It has worked well for us, and I know some of this advice has helped other VN writers. Whether you choose to follow it or not is up to you, and in fact what I will suggest is that you consciously pick and choose what works best for your project.
In truth there are no hard rules about writing, with perhaps a single exception that what works, works. As a consequence it pays off to have a clear vision, and the will to at times disregard the advice that goes against your goal.
This means that here you may find advice and feel like showing your middle finger in response. That's good. I would much rather you get angry with me and try to show me how it's done than get sad or demotivated for whatever reason.
Before we start let me reiterate this in a very clear, concise way.
Concise instructions on how you should read this
- Pick what works for your stories and style.
- Tinker with what doesn't. Make it your own or reject it altogether.
- Don't take any of this as prescriptive rules. This is how we do it, our style, and other authors/teams should make their own.
- There are no hard rules. Just make something that works.
Now we start.
How to write a story
A story is a sequence of causally connected events happening across time. They always have characters, which often but not always change as the story progresses.
Stories are always about something — not because the writer wants it, mind you. While writers often write about something, should you purposefully write a story about nothing at all or in particular, readers will still try to extract meaning out of it. Should they fail to, it will most likely leave them feeling hollow.
Humans seek meaning in narratives. Here's an example:
Bob was a woodsman. He was crushed by a falling tree and died.
This sequence of events contains a character, Bob, but it is so barebones that one could argue it lacks an element of connection. What led to Bob's death, aside from being a woodsman? Let's try writing it again.
Bob was a woodsman. One day he went out to work. Because his boots were so old and badly-kept, while chopping a tree his shoelaces were undone. When the tree was falling Bob tripped and was crushed by it.
It's better now. There's causality there, and because of it the readers extract meaning from it. Bob died because he didn't care for his boots. A professional should care for the tools of his trade.
Stories always carry the potential for meaning, regardless of whether or not the writer so intended. It is inescapable — or, to be more precise, if you wish to abandon meaning then you must abandon the concept of coherent narratives altogether. It's either play the game by the rules or not at all.
This does not mean, however, stories require grand meanings. They can be about small things. You don't need to write about war and all its ramifications, you can write about the beggar who lives at the street corner and his uncontrolled alcoholism.
In fact small stories are often more poignant. The story of a single girl going through hard times may be inconsequential for the world at large but it was the whole world to her. If it's honestly important for someone then readers can relate. Intensely specific narratives can reveal unexpected flashes of emotion.
Some ideas may be too subtle to precisely express in a single sentence, and some writers can grasp meaning in non-verbal ways. They may be able to grossly indicate that their story is "about Y" without offering much beyond that in the way of an explanation. Or maybe you do have a theme but it's not clear yet in your conscious mind.
Perhaps this is what some would call a "flash of inspiration". While writing from these themes may be tricky, many great works came from it.
That said, themes are not an arcane mystery. This is not about convoluted interpretations offered by teachers and professors. It's about the simple fact that writers often make stories about something. If the writer refrains from doing so the readers will do it for him.
Themes as landmarks
Because meaning is inescapable, we the writers are better off taking the wheel instead of letting fortune dictate what our stories are about. When you become familiar with the idea of meaning and themes you will find it's one of your greatest tools. Let's put this in perspective.
Minotaur Hotel is a story about Asterion, the minotaur from the old Greek myth, whose story is, in turn, about a number of things I have described in the first section. It's about the whims of gods, mistakes committed by parents affecting their children, about being visibly and inescapably different from others, about being cherished and despised. This is fertile ground for storytelling, but we went ahead and added our own themes — a story about the use and abuse of power, creating a community, being lost and looking for a place of belonging.
While writing Minotaur Hotel there have been many times where I felt lost myself. How should the next characters be? What should happen next? And whenever that happened I looked back to these themes, like a lighthouse in a storm, and I set my course towards it. The next characters should explore the theme of being lost, the next events should explore the use and abuse of power, and all of it together revolves around the central element, Asterion and his story.
Pick themes, make a landmark out of them, and you will always be able to find your way back to the narrative.
Characters, arcs and threads
A story has its overarching themes, but we can also add specific ones to each character. We don't have to, but we can.
Sometimes characters are just there to move the plot along, to give exposition, to make the world more realistic. But when it comes to visual novels we would do well to have a cast of very solid, round characters. This usually implies a character arc — a sequence of events over which a character changes. It is wise to weave characters, themes and arcs together, to build them all up simultaneously.
Character arcs are an essential element in most stories. Fiction will often feel hollow or frustrating when its characters go through misadventures without learning anything or changing somehow (although sometimes that is the story's point, in which case it can be done.)
Knowing what a character arc is, however, does not necessarily equip you to make a good or incredible one. I wish I could say how the great masters of literature designed their character arcs. Since I can't what I can offer is telling you what works for us, how we do it.
It always begins with the same ingredients. First we take our main theme — being lost in some shape or form, having nowhere to go. But that's such a general thing. There are so many ways one can be lost, right? Lost in a physical space, for starters, but... How about losing one's family and friends? What about being unemployable and as a consequence incapable of integrating into regular society? What about being lost in one's own mind? Losing one's ideals, losing sight of yourself?
From this larger theme we pick a narrow slice — a way one can be lost. That can give us some solid ideas on how to proceed, but it still needs another ingredient — an emotion. What I always do is try to think of an image, a metaphor, something that strongly conveys an emotion which is fundamentally relatable. It must be something very intimate and particular. It must hurt a bit. Sharing tender things is difficult, but it makes for good writing.
Now we have a particular theme and an emotion. We must make sure these two fit together. A story about the inertial feeling of being depressed would not work with an extroverted character like Luke, for instance.
Beyond the consideration of whether the particular theme and emotion fit together, we take into account a few more things. Mainly, we don't want our characters to be melodramatic, to tug on the heartstrings with cheap tricks. We don't want the character's backstory in and of itself to be a source of engagement, it should be the execution of the story which has an impact. In order to achieve this we have another principle, we call it "salted caramel" writing which we will study in a moment.
Well, at this point we have a particular theme and an emotion, and we know this emotion fits the boundaries of Mino Hotel. So then we take this and feel around ideas for this character that best convey these foundations. We pick a species, nationality and construct the backstory with this in mind. We also establish early on, in this stage, where this character is going.
Because we have a very particular theme in mind for each character — all relating to being lost — then the logical conclusion to their arc is resolving this. That's another useful feature of designing characters around a theme.
If we know where their story begins and ends, it's easy for us to then prepare their content with plenty of foreshadowing (aka, dropping hints and setting up what's to come). Luke is an example of this. Every piece of his introduction is deliberate and sets up things to come. It also lets us be cheeky, play around with things that seem trivial or obvious but might hold twists.
Another important element relating to this is the idea that every hint we are leaving behind is also, in a way, a promise. Let's take a look at Luke's introduction and see how it goes.
Luke is a very patriotic American griffin. We meet him for the first time in Cape Canaveral, where his family comes regularly to watch rocket launches. This year no one came, but he did regardless. He's alone, looks off to married men and lusts for them. One of them wears a NASA jacket — he finds that very attractive. Later on, while going back home, he becomes the central piece in a truck stop orgy where he's used by a number of faceless men. In the end when he's alone with the guy he seduced in the first place he reaches out for a moment of tenderness, but he's rebuffed. When he's on his way out he looks to the starry sky.
Well, what would happen if Luke's story ignored all these very deliberate elements and talked about something else entirely? Readers would feel (rightfully) disappointed. So it's important to be deliberate, don't go around excessively laying threads.
This is only the foundation of a character, however. What comes next?
Character, plot and logical exhaustion
The point of "exhaustion" is reached when a story element has been fully explored. Everything that could be said has been said. Adding a single word more becomes a detriment, something that tarnishes what should be a clean ending.
We can apply the idea of exhaustion to multiple elements in a story.
- Plot exhaustion: When the plot threads have been fully concluded. The driving conflicts are resolved. If a story proceeds after this point (and it's not reaching its end) it will seem cold and purposeless — it will remain hollow for as long as there is no driving force to take its place. Inserting a new plot here is likely to feel wrong and tacked on.
- Character exhaustion: When a character's threads have been tied and its arc is concluded. There are no more adventures this person needs to endure. Similar to plot exhaustion, you can add more threads here but unless you planned for them in advance it will probably feel wrong.
- Logical exhaustion: When all the themes in a story have been explored fully. Adding more story after this point can work if it's building up to the very ending of the story — all themes are explored, our hero achieves a profound realization and, in a single smooth move, runs up to face the evil he set out to vanquish (plot conclusion) and save his friends (character conclusion).
It can be extremely powerful when a writer can close all of a story's elements in a single move. It can be like kissing a cherished lover for the last time — electrifying, unforgettable — before bidding them farewell forever. But it cannot always be done. Some stories are fundamentally incompatible with this. Still, what I usually do is start with the end and build from it, backwards. Here's an idea. With that ending in mind I then wrote the following summary. Note how everything is constructed towards a big climax.
Theme: surviving and interrupting a generational cycle of abuse.
Plot: a character must face the scars of her abuse and her family's in order to overcome her issues and stop her abuser from hurting more people.
Conclusion: all threads come together when the protagonist faces her abuser and wins — because she managed to heal others and because her abuser was hoisted by her own petard
With that ending in mind I then wrote the following summary. Note how everything is constructed towards a big climax.
Ana is a lonely, bitter 30 year old woman. All the way to when she ran away from home in her 18th anniversary she had been abused by her grandmother and that left physical and mental scars on her. Now, 12 years after her escape, she realizes she's become a horrible person as well — and sets out to explore her past to change herself. She also learns her grandmother is going to take charge of an orphanage and she can't allow that.
Ana's arc is exploring the full extent of her abuse and changing herself for the better. She's set on not letting the cycle of abuse to go on — we could say these points constitute the story's theme.
In order to achieve this, Ana will first go through her brother, father and mother — all three of them victims of the grandmother's abuse in their own ways, and they each hold incriminating proof that can stop the grandmother from getting the orphanage.
The brother was abused much like Ana and ran away as well on his 18th anniversary. It hurts seeing each other because of the memories it brings up but they quickly rekindle their fraternal relation. This brings some comfort to Ana, but there's more to come.
The father was abused in many other ways by the spiteful grandmother but failed to protect his children, and still lives around her influence. Ana and their brother have a tense confrontation with him — he's both a victim and an abuser by omission, so he must come to terms with his failures. The father does his best to be forgiven. Meanwhile Ana and the brother recognize his status as a victim. Peace is made.
The mother is both the most abused person (she was the daughter of the abusive woman, after all) and the main responsible for allowing the grandmother's abuse. Ana, her brother and father do everything in their grasp to bring her to reason and fail. It turns out you cannot save everyone.
On the night before the final confrontation with the abusive grandmother, Ana goes back to her childhood home — now abandoned — and is taken by a powerful emotion. She started the story as a horrible woman but now she found compassion. No matter what happens she has saved herself from becoming a monster, but there is still work to do.
The following morning Ana, her brother and father make a case to stop grandmother from getting the orphanage. Here we show the conclusion of the brother's and father's arc as well.
Ana and her family fail. All seems to be going badly. But Ana's mother, despite being loyal to grandmother, lets something slip — this comes as a consequence of her being so thoroughly abused over her life. This unravels the grandmother's plan, she fails to get the orphanage, the day is saved. The plot is concluded.
Each family member had their arcs concluded now, including the mother and grandmother. Everything is coming to a close.
The ending shows Ana one year later having a family dinner with her brother and father. All is well. She is in the process of adopting a child. The cycle of abuse has been interrupted. The theme is concluded.
Adding a single word after that would make the ending poorer.
Before we conclude this topic, however, I need to add one thing relating specifically to character exhaustion. You see, if you pack too many arcs and threads the story may feel rushed, and if you pack too little it will feel stretched thin. Ideally a story ends when all loose threads are tied up (although sometimes you can leave a few hanging forever, as a sort of lingering mystery), so when you are constructing your characters it's important to keep in mind how much content you'll need out of them.
This leads us to think about either packing characters with few or many threads. It looks like a dichotomy, right?
That said, it is possible to go down a third route — at least, that's what I believe. It's what I personally call "inexhaustible characters." It amounts to making a character that's a treasure trove of threads — almost like a bottomless chest. You can keep pulling threads for all eternity and it would still feel natural.
If you watched Twin Peaks there is a character there that fits this bill — it's Laura Palmer. She's a beautiful, promising young woman who does charity work and is the Prom Queen. She was also abused sexually all throughout her teenage years by a mysterious man who invades her home. As a consequence she leads a double life as a sex worker and is a drug addict. She represents and explores the dichotomy of perfect girl and "whore" in a truly poignant and horrifying way. The whole Twin Peaks series is constructed around exploring this character and the effects her death has on her community.
Laura Palmer, for all intents and purposes, was an inexhaustible character and source of conflict — until the mystery of her death was revealed because of executive meddling, thus killing the allure and sentencing Twin Peaks to an undignified death.
Let's take Laura's example and abstract a bit. What I think is a character can be made inexhaustible if he or she is constructed on top of a very general theme — in her case, a good/bad dichotomy — then made very vivid and specific. While Laura's theme is general and common, the character itself is such an uncompromisingly specific manifestation of it.
This forms the soul for an inexhaustible character. Because the theme is general but the manifestation specific, we can use this character as a construct to try and explore something that is truly inexhaustible. In a way they are embodiments of the human experience, through their trials and tribulations we can relive some of our own emotions and life experiences. Because their stories are specific and concrete they are relatable, but because their themes are general they become placeholders for larger human conflicts. When an inexhaustible character achieves a victory or falls to defeat, whatever the specifics are, their arc becomes a general statement about humanity itself.
This is why the story of Laura Palmer — the murder of a single young woman — can be constructed to have the gravity of a world-changing event. This is a personal tragedy that is all too possible in the real world, and whatever happens is placed in the context of what it means to humanity as a whole. And when it comes to themes Laura explores... We could talk about the dichotomy of good and bad in humans for decades and we'd still have more to say. So even in this sense she is inexhaustible.
But there is more. To close the deal we need some mystery — this character is made opaque, there are events the reader is not privy to. In Laura's case it's her misfortunes and misadventures, each one more tragic than the next, and to a greater extent all the town of Twin Peaks constitutes the wealth of mysteries which will be explored.
To close it off, an inexhaustible character needs a lid. That's a final mystery or plot thread, one which if resolved undoes all the tension and kills the story. In Twin Peaks it was the identity of Laura's murderer.
If an inexhaustible character is a vase from which you can always pull new threads, new revelations, you as a writer must always remember to keep it tightly sealed. The reader must never glimpse into the vase itself... Except, if you wish, when it's time to say goodbye.
Take off the lid, turn the vase sideways and show it to the readers. Let all the mystery dissipate. Then it's time to say farewell and leave the stage.
Regarding taking off the lid of an inexhaustible character, by Kangarube
A writer's preparation can be seen a lot like an actor's preparation-- what's important is that the performance rings true, not that the actor was thinking about Chopin and a dead dog.
You need not reveal most, let alone all, in the end.
It's possible that your readers will feel longing and pain at this point. But it's the good kind of pain, they might even miss your story like a dear friend. After all, it's best to leave when you are ahead then linger until things go sour.
This whole thing — how many threads you pack into a character — takes on a special twist in the field of visual novels. To put it bluntly, VNs have a tendency towards packing too few threads and stretching them out thin.
This comes out of a number of factors. Just how many plot threads can you put in a high schooler or college student, for instance? Not many, teenagers and young adults tend to be unremarkable. The quality of being remarkable usually comes from extreme experiences or living out your life, and since teenagers are young the writer is forced to use traumatic experiences as a way to give more meat to them. But that becomes an issue in and of itself — the cliché of the attractive character with a dark and troubled past that can feel unearned. Another way to add salt like this is by making the characters exceptional — but that can also be an alienating factor.
Coupled with how VNs tend to be so long, this is a recipe for stretched-thin characters. So, how do we solve this?
Well, for starters we can make older characters with more diverse life experiences and conflicts. We can then pack more threads that feel organic. As a side note, the idea of Minotaur Hotel having mythical beings with very long lifespans as guests came as a way to give us the space to make these very unorthodox characters.
If you still want to make young characters, you can use your setting as a source of plot threads — sci-fi and fantasy stories can do this better than slice of life. In a world where everyone has to fight to survive it's not unnatural for a character to have killed before, so you can explore harsher storylines without making it too dramatic.
If you don't have a conducive setting then I'd suggest picking one non-dramatic but life-changing idea and craft it into an engaging thread. Make it very specific, as specific as possible.
For example, there are many young people with divorced parents. Divorce is a "common tragedy." It can severely impact a child's life, but it's so common nowadays. Take such an idea and make it even more specific — what if the divorce came from the father cheating on the mother, but the mother was abusive to both the father and child before the cheating incident? This makes the narrative deliciously complicated, and whatever comes next for this child (raised by the dad, mom or by both) is fertile material for a story. If this is for a visual novel then we can put this as a character's backstory and slowly reveal it over the game. And right there you have an unorthodox character with a wealth of plot threads that doesn't sound unrealistic or excessively dramatic.
To finish this session, there is a final point I should raise about inexhaustible characters — they are a bit like catching lightning in a bottle. I don't believe it's a thing we can do at will, even if we sure as hell can try. But even if we could do it at will, chances are it's not very smart to do it more than once or twice per story.
To put it bluntly, inexhaustible characters draw attention like nothing else. People can get impatient if said character gets pulled away for too long from the camera. If you get two or more such characters then things can get unmanageable. And if you are making a visual novel with a cast of dateable characters then a single inexhaustible character can make all others bad in comparison.
Irreconcilable opposites in a character, by Kangarube
Make a character who can occupy apparent opposites. Because real people aren't as "consistent" as characters can be.
So there is something to be said about perhaps starting to write a character just with two apparently irreconcilable opposite traits/aspects, and attempting to think/feel your way into having the opposites make sense in a single person.
This, too, creates a sense of "conflict" where the reader needs to work to reconcile two aspects that apparently cannot exist together, but obviously, as shown by the character, do.
Concerning this, too, "opaque" characters is something Ray Carney talks about a lot in other essays, characters who cannot be easily read or defined at a glance by standard means, or highly troped methods — about how difficult it is to make characters "opaque" in the way people are in real life. It is surprising how truly cartoonish and childish some characterizations become when you stop to think about it.
"Salted caramel" writing and unearned drama
Have you ever eaten a spoonful of sugar? Some children can stomach it — I had a friend who as a girl would take handfuls of it. But now that she's an adult I know she can't do it anymore — it's nauseating, really. All that sweetness is just unpalatable.
When you look at more sophisticated sweets and desserts (more refined than a handful of white sugar, I mean) you'll find that they often mix multiple sensations together. Dark chocolate is bitter and sweet, some candy bars have nuts to add a bit of crunch to it, lemon cheesecakes get a bit of acidity along with the sweetness, salted caramel can have crunchy salt crystals.
This whole situation applies 1:1 to writing. Children love simplicity — good heroes, bad villains, save the world plots. But adults usually enjoy something a little bit more complex. Villains with good reasons and virtuous goals, flawed heroes whose fatal imperfections may prove their doom, complex plots with far-reaching implications, intertwining themes making multiple reflections clash and struggle against each other. Sometimes stories for a mature crowd can go as far as abstaining from having some elements altogether — maybe the antagonist is no villain at all, maybe the protagonist shows no heroic qualities, maybe the conflict is fully internal and there's no outwards action, and so on.
I usually frame this concept as "bittersweet writing," but I suppose "salted caramel" is more tongue-in-cheek. Surely better writers have a name for this but this does the trick. Regardless, salted caramel writing usually leads to the story bouncing around in the reader's head for longer. There's more to chew, more flavors to discover, more to discuss with peers.
This is easier to accomplish when the writer remains a bit distant from the characters. If you are too emotionally invested it's hard to throw some dirt on your protagonist's face, harder yet to make your villain virtuous.
This idea applies particularly when it comes to describing emotional states, in my opinion. As a shorthand, the main emotions people feel are happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety and disgust. That sounds very restrictive but think of it like a color wheel — you can start mixing them to form more complex reactions for your characters. Let them feel and struggle with complex sensations.
As morbid as it sounds, the best example I can offer for this is the passing of an elder. Imagine someone who lived a long, fruitful life, who's now bedridden and in pain. It won't be long before they are gone. You may love this person dearly (perhaps it's a family member). I'm sure it hurts to see them go but there is a chance you were fortunate enough to hear a few consoling words in the line of "they lived a long, happy life." While death is a tragedy to be mourned, a life well lived deserves a measure of respect.
Another point to take into account is unearned drama. Let's begin with a question: why do some stories narrate horrific tragedies successfully and others feel unbearable while doing the same thing? Why is a non-fiction piece on the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagazaki more bearable than an amateur-ish fiction where the perfect protagonist has a dark and troubled past?
It's because pain, drama, tragedy, it all has to be earned. Unearned pain is dishonest and insincere — readers often abhor it, unless they are primed to have particularly low standards. It's pure, raw sugar. Add complexity, however, give it some verisimilitude (which is different from "realism", mind you) and it will be more bearable. By all that is holy, throw in honesty.
Learn to look into yourself and feel when you are reaching out for dishonest drama. Some people seem to be blessed with a divine sense of shame. I've seen a writer lose his inspiration and drive altogether when overstepping boundaries. The creative block it generated was bitter but the honesty in his writing is sweet. Perhaps you are as fortunate as that — if you aren't, try and look for your particular tells. Know yourself and stop your cursed hand when you are compelled to write melodrama.
Concerning honesty in writing, by Kangarube
It is the things that are particular to you and you worry might "not be relatable" if you put them in, but instead they just add more humanity in the end. The more private and particular the concern, the more likely there is something real behind it.
Look at what MinoAnon said about cheap melodrama and cheap tragedy, and what Ray Carney said about bullshit. Keep your story close to home in some way or another — the more you set it "a long time ago in a galaxy far away" rather than the NOW of your own life, the more room there is for faking it, second-hand ideas, half-formed emotions, and pale relationships. It is kind of important to really put your own heart into it. Without something you truly think and truly feel, there is no amount of intricate "world building" that will free your story from the dull and the commonplace. There needs to be an idea expressed.
(Concerning that Ray Carney essay: Reading it really was a very important moment to me. It was the one thing that actually made me feel confident enough to start trying to write scenarios for films. I cannot suggest it enough as a rousing call to action for more honest and heartfelt narrative art.)
Every beginner writer who watched fifteen minutes of Youtube videos about creative writing knows that characters need flaws. Some writers don't even need to be told that, they merely intuit it out of their previous readings.
But some flaws are born better than others. In writing you'll find those who write the often talked about "Mary Sues," aka perfect little angels with token flaws at best. Many beginner writers know better than to write them already, fortunately.
For visual novels the issue I often see is a notch less visible than Mary Sues — it's the character who has flaws, yes, but they are harmless and don't really matter. To a certain extent I understand why it happens: it's because we often want readers to feel attracted to these characters and serious, realistic flaws are icky. They are a threat to the desired effect.
Still, what I suggest is that you think about this. Is your character flawed enough? Are you coddling him because of fear, or out of being too attached? If so, is there some way to make him flawed while not sending your audience away?
What I do is for each fatal flaw I also give a redeeming virtue. I try to walk the tightrope, write a character whose flaws and virtues keep the reader at the edge of giving up on him. Another idea is hinting at the flaws at first, carefully hiding them away until the reader is captivated, then exploring them one by one with honesty.
These are only two ideas. How you deal with this puzzle will have a large impact on your characters. The bigger the flaws, and the tighter their character arcs, the more impactful will be the payoffs at the end.
Another good pointer is that you should show your characters' flaws until their logical conclusion. If a character is a compulsive liar you can show how it affects his life in a number of ways, not only when it's convenient for you. Think of flaws as having weight and momentum to them — if you throw a heavy steel ball it will keep rolling and well after it hit the ground. If you can show the ball organically rolling until it stops that will have an effect in the readers.
Character voice and accents, by Eddio
When thinking about how a character talks, it's important to know how and where they grew up, within the context of your story. Their personality feeds into this, of course, but the people they grew up with (or without) also factors in. Does a character try to be polite in every conversation with other people, or do they simply not care and would much rather order them around? Do they overanalyze what someone says and ruminate on it internally, or does it go in one ear and out the other? These are the types of questions to ask yourself when writing a character's dialogue.
For example, a character that grew up in the countryside will likely have an accent that uses a lot of contractions, double negatives, and the like because, "There ain't no time to be talkin' like city folk." With just a short sentence, this character is communicating that they're short on time to talk, they don't care about sounding "proper," and they have a disposition against people from urban areas. These linguistic differences are the result of growing up around others who adopted the same manner of speaking, perpetuating and becoming more distinct from how "city folk" talk. In a conversation with someone actually from the city, there will likely be a stark contrast between how this character speaks and how the city person speaks.
What's important to consider, however, is not to go overboard with these types of dialect differences. You want your player to actually be able to read what a character is saying. Some characters may have strong accents, some may have barely an accent. What you want to avoid is forcing players to read a sentence like "Y'all'd b'better off talkin't'at there city man." (Unless you want the character to be hard to understand, but this usually isn't the case.) Keep it sensible.
Above all else, make sure it sounds like a natural conversation. Read your character's dialogue aloud yourself and see if you can imagine a person raised under similar conditions speaking the same way. It will take some practice, but if you can hear your character's voice in your head as your write their dialogue, you're well on your way to writing a believable character.
A distinct dialect can breathe a lot of life into how a character talks, so long as it's done well.
The conclusion for now
I hope you enjoyed this DevLog. Next week we will take a look into a whole new host of topics — mechanics, how to plot a build, rising tension and so on. We will have a guest section written by Roddorod, developer of Nerus talking about mechanics.
If you have a topic you'd like to see us cover tell us about it in the comments! I can still add it to the next DevLog.
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This a great resource for writers as well as a fascinating look at the history of Minotaur Hotel. My favourite bit is where you say that it's what worked for your team. I've come across too many guides with a this-is-what-you-must-do attitude. This is good information which is useful to anyone writing without being prescriptive . Makes notes for Jake and Brock's character arcs. I'll definitely be reading the next parts.
This is a *lot* to digest.
... I might start writing again, though
This is quite the document. But, as a writer myself, I intend to take adantage of it, to the best of my ability. I can't imagine the time that was put into writing it.