In this article I shall review various commercial (that is to say, “not free”) software applications that writers may find useful. I will not review software for which there are perfectly viable Free and Open Source alternatives. This is why you will not find Microsoft Office reviewed in this article — see my article on Free and Open Source software for an alternative to MS Office and other commercial software This list of recommended commercial software for writers is rather short compared my to list of Free and Open Source software, mainly because there are only a few useful commercial software packages for which there is no free or open source alternative. Most of the software listed here is for Windows only, except where noted.
Keep in mind that none of this software is absolutely necessary. Some of these applications will assist in your research, or in world building, or in the creative process of writing. But no software can write your stories for you. Do not become bogged down in the technology — if you end up doing nothing but building worlds and designing characters you run the risk of never getting to your story. I personally have found the best tool for writing to be my own imagination.
Software like Dramatica can be both a blessing and a bane. A blessing in that it gives you a structure and form to follow, removing much of the guess work regarding plot, theme, and characterization. However, some writers may find this structure restrictive and confining. Having said this, Dramatica can be an indispensable tool. Dramatica uses a “question and answer” method to ask you about your story to help you build up an overall story line and establish character archetypes and associations. It does not write your story for you, but rather, it is a tool to help you create plots, themes, character relations, and motivations. If nothing else, Dramatica will force you to think about your story and characters before you put a single word on the page. This can (and most likely will) spare you from gross plot holes, save you from a few unnecessary re-writes, and may even help you see possibilities that you might never have otherwise considered. Dramatica Pro is the full version of Dramatica and costs $199.95 (a free demo is available). Dramatic Writer’s Dream Kit lacks some of the more advanced features, but is easier to use and and costs $59.95. Dramatica Pro and Dramatic Writer’s Dream Kit are available for both Windows and MacOS X.
Whether or not you purchase Dramatica, the Dramatica website offers a number of free resources. Every writer should read the Dramatica Theory Book (available as a PDF file here).
ProFantasy is a set of tools designed for enhancing RPGs (pen-and-paper role-playing games), but these tools can be easily adapted to world-building for writers. Each ProFantasy tool can be purchased separately (so you can buy only those that you need), or the “whole shebang” can be had for a little over $300. Below, I will highlight those tools that are useful to writers since some ProFantasy tools are only useful to gamers. You can buy ProFantasy (either bundled or individually) at their website.
Campaign Cartographer 3
“Whenever you need designs, whether it’s roleplaying games or wargames, fantasy, modern or SF, CC3 can help you create them. From entire worlds and countries, to floorplans and furniture, CC3 can do it. You can map out your entire campaign world, place your troops in the field, or chart your galactic empire. So, who uses CC3? Authors, games designers and thousands of gamers and have mapped out the worlds of their imagination with CC3. We’ve improved CC3 to match their needs. ” (-from the ProFantasy site). By itself, CC3 is $44.95.
Fractal Terrains is probably the fastest way to generate worlds and landmasses — simply click and in seconds a new world is instantly generated. FT Pro delivers you an entire world complete with climate, rainfall and temperature zones. Not the world you imagined? Just click the Next icon again, and again, and again… You can then export that world as an image, animation, or to CC3. FT Pro also allows you to “paint” altitude or climate adjustments to suit your whim. You can raise mountains from nothing or sink entire continents. FT Pro works stand-alone, or as an add-on to CC3. By itself, FT Pro is $39.95.
Perspectives Pro is primarily for gamers to design the layout of castle rooms, dungeons, and so forth, but it can also be useful to writers. In stories, just as in games, key locations should always be mapped out, not only for consistency, but also to give your written description a solid foundation. Perspectives Pro allows you to create a complete three-dimensional picture of a room, but the graphics are geared toward medieval fantasy. If you’re writing sci-fi, forget about it. By itself, Perspectives Pro is $39.95.
City Designer 3
Need to design that bustling capital city that is the setting for your story, or the small village where the party stops off the night? City Design 3 can help you create the smallest village or the greatest metropolis, letting you lay out incredibly detailed city maps with ease and speed, right down to the style and shape of each house. CD3 is an add-on for CC3, and costs $39.95.
“With Cosmographer Pro, you can add computer-aided cartography to your sci-fi game and create ships and worlds like never before. You get easy new drawing tools, textures and a palette of several thousand symbols to rapidly construct ships. From one map you can print a one-page overview, a miniatures battlemat, or a deck-by-deck blueprint. Produce sector and subsector maps with routes, data, and a choice of more than 100 cosmic bodies and 50 spacecraft. Then touch down with planetary maps and bustling space-ports.” (-from the ProFantasy site). For sci-fi writers, Cosmographer can help you design star ships, space ports, space routes, and world maps (though FT Pro and CC3 are more suited for world maps). Cosmographer by itself costs $39.95.
“Fractal Mapper is a high-powered mapping system that lets gamers create a wide variety of maps — dungeons, continents, cities, and more. With it’s easy to use interface, powerful features, and unique capabilities, making high quality maps with Fractal Mapper is a breeze. Also included is a free add-on program called Fractal World Explorer. With this program you can create and edit stunning 3d shaded relief maps. In addition, FWE allows you to edit temperature and precipitation to create deserts and glaciers. You can even export an elevation contour map for use in Fractal Mapper.” (-from NBOS the website). More on Fractal Mapper can be found on the NBOS site. Fractal Mapper is similar to Fractal Terrains, but has significantly more features. On the other hand, it cannot export files for use in ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer. But for designing world maps (or location maps) it’s all you really need. Fractal Mapper is competitively priced at $34.95.
Another product from NBOS is AstroSynthesis, a “revolutionary new star mapping system for sci-fi gamers, authors, and space buffs”. AstroSynthesis allows you to map star charts, space routes, and sectors, and does it all in 3D space. AstroSynthesis also includes a powerful star system generator to fill out the map, and can randomly create large areas of space, automatically placing star systems, nebula, and other stellar bodies on your sector map. The generator will also generate planets, moons, asteroid belts, as well as extended planetary data such as atmospheres, gravities, temperature, etc. AstroSynthesis said to integrate with Fractal Mapper & Fractal World Explorer. More on AstroSynthesis can be found on the NBOS site. AstroSynthesis is priced at $34.95.
“Poser is the 3D figure design tool for artists, illustrators and animators that enables you to easily create 3D figures from ready-to-use human and animal models. For realism, map facial photos, grow and style dynamic hair, or add dynamic cloth that flows. Quickly output images and movies for use in any project. Poser is easy to master and affordable, yet rich in professional features.” (- from the Curious Labs website). Poser 3D is more a tool for 3D artists and animators, but it is a simple enough tool for anyone to use. Poser is useful to writers in that you can model characters for your stories. Do you constantly have to look through your notes or previous chapters to remember if a character’s eyes were blue or gray? Was that scare on the left or right cheek? Was her hair wavy or straight? The best way to describe a character, and keep that description consistent and concrete, is to have fully-realized image or picture of that character. Poser allows you to do just that. With Poser you can design a character down to his or her hair style, eye color, and clothing, and can set the character into various dramatic poses. If you are comfortable just sketching your characters or referring to a written character description, that’s fine. If you would rather see your characters come to life, perhaps you should look into Poser. Poser retails for a painful $499 (though you can get it on Amazon.com for much less).
Microsoft Encarta Reference Library
I wish I could recommend something other than a Microsoft product for your encyclopedia, such as Encyclopedia Britannica DVD edition, but Encyclopedia Britannica software is simply not up to par with Encarta. Encarta Reference Library (the complete suite) is easy to use, comes with a dictionary, thesaurus, and world atlas. All are useful tools for writers. I won’t say anything more about Encarta, as I’d rather not advocate Microsoft products, but this is the best choice for an encyclopedia on your PC. Microsoft Encarta Reference Library retails for the surprisingly fair price of $22.95.
A Good RPG
Though it may not be software, I suggest that you find a good RPG for the purposes of designing characters. Role-playing games give you enormous flexibility in character design — everything from physical appearance, to skills, abilities, flaws, and super-human powers. In choosing an RPG, you must select a game that fits the basic genre of your story or novel. However, even for (and especially for) fantasy writers, you should steer clear of D&D. The D&D fantasy stereotypes are notorious, and most editors today can smell a character created in the D&D style a hundred leagues away. Instead, I would recommend using one of the so-called “generic” RPGs such as GURPS, FUDGE, or Fuzion. FUDGE and Fuzion are free to download online, but I have found GURPS (now in its 4th Edition) to be overall the best choice for designing characters in stories and novels. The GURPS sourcebook, GURPS Fantasy, is also a good resource for both gamers and writers alike.