Being a Better Writer: Campfire Conversations and Giving Characters Heart

Welcome back writers! It’s a new day, a new week, and a new chance to write something!

Me, I’m looking forward to finishing another short, currently titled Strange Catch, about a young teen in the Axtara universe (but on the other side of the continent) who finds himself in the company of a seafolk with a most unusual request …

It’s got some work to go. I’m discovery-writing this one, so already I’ve built in a few plot elements that I’ll need to go back and weave into the start of the tapestry for everything to make sense. But hey, I’m having fun and with some hammering I’m pretty certain it’ll make a nice addition to More Unusual Events. How about any of your writing? Any of you get anything special written this weekend? That short you’ve been dreaming about for months, perhaps?

There’s never a better time to start than today. Just saying.

Now, before we get down to business with today’s Being a Better Writer post, let’s go over other upcoming news, as I’ve got a few items on the docket. First up, Starforge progress! I know a lot of you have been waiting for news on this one, and I’m delivering today. Two bits of Starforge news.

The first? The Alpha 2 is going quite well. There are small things here and there to clean up, but it seems that the outlook thus far from those readers that have finished this juggernaut has been pretty positive. With that in mind, unless the Alpha Readers still working their way through find something huge, I can with high accuracy predict that the next phase of Starforge will be be Beta! Woooo! Getting closer and closer to that November release!

Second bit of Starforge news: The cover is complete. Yes, you read that properly. Which means that there will soon be a cover reveal so you can all finally see what you’ll be getting your hands on (and first-time readers will see) this fall when Starforge releases.

Look for a news post with the date soon!

Now, with that news out of the way, there’s one last thing I wish to talk about: Sales. No, not the deep discounts kind. I want to talk about sales numbers.

See, last weekend someone asked me about total sales numbers, wondering how many copies of a book I’d sold. So I sat down with my records and started going over the numbers. Lifetime sales of each book, adding them up and adding them to the total.

Readers, to date I have sold over 8000 books. In fact, the number is only a few hundred shy of being an internet meme! And just over a thousand copies shy of 10,000 books sold.

That’s a lot of books! And it’s only a beginning. With Starforge coming, and a new Jacob Rocke novel plus an Axtara sequel on the horizon, I think that there’s a chance that things could pass 10,000 this year. Maybe. If I’m lucky.

Still, that’s a monumental number. Maybe someday that’ll be the number of books I move in one year instead of ten (assuming I hit 10,000 by year’s end), but for now? Most people are lucky to ever sell a hundred books. Eight thousand is a large number of titles moved.

Oh, and just for the Axtara fans out there: While it everyone’s favorite banking dragon has moved more copies than Jungle, she’s still far behind Colony. About a thousand copies behind! Though she still sells pretty well.

Anyway, I’m considering ways to see about driving 10,000 sales before the year’s end, as 2023 will mark the ten year anniversary of One Drink unveiling itself to the world. It would be nice to have 10,000 sales to have shown for my first ten years worth of work!

Right right, we’ve talked enough about the news. Let’s actually get down to business and talk about writing. Today I want to talk about something that I touched on in a previous post, but only as an example before getting back on track.

Today? I want to talk about this concept in full. It’s something that can be a bit of a contentious topic across both writers and audience alike, but it’s also something that for many means the difference between a good book and a merely okay one.

I want to talk about what I call “campfire conversations,” and how they give characters, especially secondary ones, heart.

Hit the jump, and let’s dive into this (somewhat) contentious topic.

Now that we’re past the barrier, I want to start with why some people think this topic is a bit contentious. Make no mistake, I’ve seen people react on forums or chats to this sort of scene or element in a story in a negative manner. Not because it’s done poorly, but because they question its use or appearance in a story at all.

I will be clear here: I think these people are wrong. The folks that argue against campfire conversation scenes are those that subscribe to a singular golden rule over all others that “every scene, sentence, and word must move the plot forward, and anything that doesn’t should be cut.” Which is a good rule of thumb, but as an actual rule for writing in any iron-clad state can result in some very lopsided books.

Without diving into the anatomy of a campfire conversation—we’ll get to that in a bit—there are two core reasons that not giving place to such a scene is in general a mistake for a story or a book.

The first is pacing. Campfire conversations, as you might have guessed from the moniker I give them, are like a campfire scene in that they’re sedate or relaxed, at least in comparison to everything else that’s going on. Effectively, they are down time, something that gives the cast and more importantly the audience a chance to breathe, relax, and reassess.

Stories that don’t include something like this often wear their audience out, expecting them to put up with page after page or scene following scene of action and “We’re moving the plot forward at speed!” There’s no rise and fall to the pace, simply “fast pace” and “faster pace.”

And look, while there are audience members out there that are okay with this, they’re few and far between. Ever seen a review of a film or a book where the reader says that there was too much action and it all started feeling inconsequential? This is because there wasn’t proper pacing to give the action meaning. We’ve spoken about pacing here before many times, to the point that it’s a literal tag you can click on, so I won’t go further here into why proper pacing is a needed thing. I’ll simply say that pacing is provided by campfire conversations. Whether or not there’s an actual campfire involved, the fact that it gives the audience time to breathe and assess everything that’s happened thus far before the story shifts back into gear is vital.

Secondly, campfire conversations offer a valuable window into our characters—primary and secondary both—that makes them feel much more alive. Or, in other words, human. How many of you have read a story where outside of the protagonists, or perhaps even including them, all of the other characters simply felt like props, standees, or actors delivering a single role rather than a real person? I certainly have.

Some say “Well, yeah, it’s hard to make a character appear more than one-note when their sole appearance in the story is to deliver a line, or serve as a soldier in the background to the main character and their mission.” And they’re not wrong. It is hard to make a character appear more than one-note. Where many who say this go wrong, however, is in using it as an excuse not to try and make these characters appear to be more than they appear to be. In not bothering to even think about their depth past “soldier who will take a blade for the protagonist so that the situation is serious.”

Naturally, there are those who do try to do this but go about it entirely the wrong way. There’s a running joke about characters who show up and introduce themselves by saying something like “I’m Officer Sanchez, I have four children, a mother with cancer, and it’s my last week before retirement!” I’m sure each of us has read or seen more than a few. These are secondary characters that the creator is trying to expedite the character of, delivering the reader direct shots (needle or otherwise) that scream “Hey look, I’m a real person!” so that they can dive right into the action. This approach is done often enough that even harping on it in comedic commentary, like having a secondary character appear and yell “I’ll do it, I’ve only got a wife and three kids who love meeeee—DEATH” has become a bit of an old hat.

Campfire conversations give secondary and primary characters both a place to be natural and real with their development, where readers can learn about them organically and see how these characters, secondary though they may be, are the protagonists of their own stories, with aims, goals, and ideas.

Right … so we’ve talked a bit about why you should have a campfire conversation in your story, and what it can bring, but what we haven’t actually gotten to is what a campfire conversation is. Well, don’t worry, we’re at this bit at last.

The “campfire” bit is a bit of a clue, really. What do you think of when you think of a campfire? I would hope that you think of what most do around a campfire, which is relax, enjoy the ambience, and just talk. Usually about whatever you want. It’s shooting the breeze, sorting through the day’s events as you toss another log on the fire, the works.

I’m going to note right here that it doesn’t have to be a campfire. Plenty of you are likely imagining other scenes that give way to this sort of conversation right now. Firesides indoors. A relaxed lunch environment. Anything where people can let their guard down, be that a guard against marauding dragons or the boss peeking over their shoulder, and just decompress to be themselves for a moment.

Decompression is key here. If you have a bunch of characters sitting down but all they do is talk about the immediate plot at hand, while this can be a ‘pacing break’ to reassess for the readers and the characters, it’s not a “campfire conversation” because it’s still concerned with “Hey, what do we need to do to get the story from A to B?”

But if they sit down and put that aside for a moment, speaking of other things and letting themselves relax or take the pressure off by purposefully not speaking about the goals at hand—save maybe as a catalyst for speaking about anything else (like the classic “What do you want to do when this is all over?” question)—then it’s a campfire conversation. A collection of characters that are decompressing, ideally alongside the audience, and letting their sights be elsewhere for a moment.

Now I’m not saying that the other moments of low pacing can be ignored. A good story, like a good day, has a lot of different things going for it. The characters taking a lunch to talk about what their next move is? That’s usually a good scene, a way for the characters and audience to get a little downtime for the pacing but still keep things moving forward.

A campfire conversation is more than just that, however. As noted, it’s letting the characters specifically relax to do more than focus on immediately plot-relevant stuff. It’s letting them relax, shoot the breeze, and be themselves outside of the immediate threat, focus, or plot.

Done well, not only does this provide downtime and a bit of a break for the audience and the characters, but it also will give those characters, primary and secondary, space to let themselves be on display for the audience. Since they won’t be talking about the mission or goal or whatever, instead they’ll talk about what they want to talk about. And in letting these characters just chat about whatever as they share a meal, marshmallows, or some form of futuristic or fantasy treat, we give these characters—especially the secondary ones—a chance to let their humanity shine through.

Let’s use an example. Let’s say you’re writing a fantasy story about a duo, say a brother and sister, who are both skilled in some form of magic or whatever and have been chosen to go on a quest to end some long-lived magical war. Along with this mission they’ve been assigned they’re given a military escort, a half-dozen or so soldiers who don’t do magic but serve the role of caring for their mounts, keeping them alive, etc etc etc.

Now, in the course of the adventuring bits of the story, these soldiers might get one-liners, sure. Or maybe some running commentary on a fight or escape that gives them a little backstory. And that can help flesh them out a little, sure. Maybe we’re even being really clever and have one of them say something that requires an explanation, making a more natural segue into their background than simply marching up and introducing their name and plot-relevant details.

But a campfire conversation is a moment when, perhaps after a big battle or a close call, all the characters can relax and destress and just be themselves for a brief moment. It will allow for the protagonists and secondary characters to engage on a field of open ground, where for a brief moment the primary concern isn’t the protagonists’ goals, but just on being laid back with the other characters who the story doesn’t revolve around.

This is a moment where they can show off the character that has been by necessity “concealed” from the reader. They can talk about weird stories from their youth, memories of what they used to do when kicking back before the story started, whatever is appropriate for that character.

In the process, these characters take on definition and more humanization, much quicker than they would simply serving in the background. By allowing them to be part of the foreground of the story for a moment, they gain three-dimensional characteristics, definition and detail that will stay with them when the moment is over and they move back into the background.

Campfire conversations are avenues to give our secondary characters definition, shape, and form. To show off their humanity so that the reader does care when later in the story, two of them make the ultimate sacrifice for our protagonists. So that they’re more than just a blank-faced actor in the background, but a person who is involved with the plot for their own reasons.

Now, I will note that there is still a “wrong way” to do this. One of the requirements of a “campfire conversation” is that it actually be a “campfire,” IE relaxed and natural. If you plan for it, then you’d best make sure that you don’t go into it with a script of “OK, now this character will say this specific thing, and then this character that specific thing, and then we’ll wrap it up so the plot can get moving again!”

I’ve read stories that do this with their campfire moments, and they come off feeling fake. They lack a feeling of being genuine, instead feeling like a scene that was scripted to deliver the audience more character data and then end.

Don’t make this mistake. You can have something that you want to come up, yes, but one of the key elements of a campfire conversation is the organic feel of it. It needs to feel natural, as if the characters themselves are in full control. If you take that away to try and force it in a direction, the strings you’re pulling may become apparent to the audience and defeat the point.

Sure, this might mean that your campfire conversation runs a little longer than you intended. Maybe it even accidentally brings in a subplot or creates one. Maybe you didn’t want that.

That’s what editing is for. You can clean it up or shorten it down later. See what the early readers think, or you think on a reread. For now, let the characters breath a bit.

Now, it almost goes without saying that you shouldn’t let it go too far. Do keep an eye on things and pull your campfire back to the plot before long. How is up to you. Sometimes it’s the characters agreeing to get back to work, other times it’s a sudden spike in the tension as something bad happens … How is up to you.

But do end it and get back to the climax with a refreshed, reassessed reader that now has been given a glimpse into the lives of your characters, primary or secondary.

And that’s it! That’s a campfire conversation, a neat scene you can pull out of your writer’s toolbox to give your secondary characters more depth and your plot a nice downbeat. They’re not always right for every story, but there’s plenty of good to them that should make them a consideration for what you’re working on, especially, I’ll note as we close out, for a longer story that your audience needs time to breathe in.

So, you don’t have to put them everywhere, but when you do use one, make sure you let the characters be themselves and use a relaxing campfire to unwind as one should. Let them be … them.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Campfire Conversations and Giving Characters Heart

  1. Nice discussion, Max. And congrats on your book sales!
    I am beginning work on my third trekking adventure book, and for this one I camped for a month on the John Muir Trail, so your “campfire” conversation post was perfect.
    Thank you,

    Liked by 1 person

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