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Friday, November 19, 2021

Talking Shop: Turning Bad Ideas into Good Ones • By Eric Dontigney

Yesterday’s post focused on what geek queen Felicia Day refers to as “chocolate fountain” people. That is, creative types for whom ideas flow like a chocolate fountain. For those people, the problem is never having or coming up with ideas, it’s sorting out the really good ideas from the not-so-great ideas. What about people who don’t have that idea machine in their brain? What if you’re one of those people for whom the very occasional idea is the only idea you get? If you can’t count on a steady stream of ideas and the one idea you do have isn’t awesome, what’s the next step? In other words, can you turn bad ideas into good ones?

The good news is that, yes, you largely can turn not-so-great ideas into better ones. Case in point. Legend has it that Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera books started out life as a challenge that he could write a good book from two bad ideas. The bad ideas were Pokemon and the mythical Roman Lost Legion. For anyone who hasn’t read the books, here’s a very brief precis.

The books follow Tavi, a young man raised on a farm in the hinterlands of a very Roman Empire-esque society. The people of Alera (a major continent on the alien world of Carna) bond with furies – elemental spirits – that grant them magical powers. As Tavi grows, he becomes more deeply enmeshed in the political strife afflicting the Aleran Empire.

On the surface, this sounds like a textbook coming-of-age fantasy series. So, what did Butcher do to elevate the bad ideas into something more interesting? First things first, he made Tavi the only person in all of Alera who didn’t have a Pokefury. This let him make his main character a natural outsider and something of a freak in the eyes of the rest of society. That allows for the main character to provide an audience-friendly perspective on the culture.

It also creates lots of ground for character development across the books. The main character simply faces challenges that no one else faces. For example, if everyone else uses fury-magic to turn on the lights, what is your lead character supposed to do? How does the main character handle conflict if the standard method of settling disputes is a Pokefury fight? What kind of occupation can he have if all occupations rely on Pokefury magic?

Next, Butcher built a world that had some conflict designed into it. Since this is based on the Lost Legion, the Alerans are transplants to this alien world. They had to displace someone when they arrived. That gave Butcher some history to weave into the story. There are still extant native species on the planet. They don’t necessarily love the Alerans. This sets the stage for either low-level or higher-order military conflict.

By doing all of that, Butcher gave himself a lot of advantages in turning a couple of ho-hum ideas into a story that people would want to read. How can you do the same with your speculative fiction idea?

“What if” questions are your friend. What if I gave my main character a real or perceived major flaw? What if I change the setting? What if I make the bad guys superhuman or supernatural? What if I make the bad guys sympathetic? What if I make the good guys less sympathetic?

The answers to those what-if questions prompt more and more specific questions. What if I make the bad guys sympathetic prompts questions like:

  • How do I make them more sympathetic?
  • How do those sympathetic features alter their culture/society?
  • How do those sympathetic features alter their interactions with the main characters?

Now, look at the question of what if I make the good guys less sympathetic. That prompts questions like:

  • Can the good guys instill loyalty in the main character?
  • How far will that loyalty really go?
  • What factors might prompt an apparent betrayal by the main character?

The big takeaway here is that the devil is in the details. The more questions you ask about the characters, culture, good guys, and bad guys, the more details you get to work with in the story. By the time you get done mixing and matching those pieces, you’ll often find that your not-great idea has turned into something much more interesting.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at

SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!

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