Category Archives: Critiques
In light of Paris, I thought of this post I wrote shortly after my own city was attacked. My thoughts are with them, and also this:
“…the world is a better place than we think. This, in the wake of last week’s bombing, is important to remember, so I will repeat it: the world is a better place than we think. We can prove it, too. We can choose.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about vengeance lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the poor 8-year-old boy who was killed in Boston in the Marathon Bombing. More accurately, I’ve been thinking a lot about his father. The family are neighbors of mine and, while I don’t really know them at all (met them once or twice, seen them around the neighborhood, etc.), their loss has weighed heavily on me. You see, I, too, attend the Marathon sometimes. I, too, have small children.
It is cliché, but having children changes you. It changes you in surprisingly odd ways, sometimes – things you just don’t anticipate. Prior to becoming a father, I could not imagine a circumstance that would lead me to such a passionate state where I might kill in a fit of rage. Now, I know it is a very real possibility for me. After Sandy Hook, I was a walking…
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I had the great fortune this past weekend to attend the 2015 World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY. Here is a brief recap of my experiences there.
I drove out on Friday and arrived at about two in the afternoon. I checked in and got a massive bag of paperback books (seriously, there was a small library in there – I think the Kindle is going to go on a bit of a hiatus). As I knew approximately zero people, I wandered about for a bit.
Okay, I wandered around all day.
Going to conventions alone is a tough thing to do, especially if you’ve never gone to that particular convention before. While I’m not exactly shy, I don’t want to be that weirdo who creeps his way into other people’s conversations, so I walked around looking for somebody I recognized – my editor, somebody I’d met before, etc. It didn’t happen.
So, for lack of anything better to do, I bought a couple books on the Sellers Floor (a copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora in paperback for Scott Lynch to sign, a Game of Thrones Coloring Book for grown-ups, and one other novel – I wanted to find a paperback of a Max Gladstone book, too, but couldn’t find one). Then I went to a panel on Politics and Economics in Fantasy Worlds wherein the panelists discussed how important it was to consider such things when building a world (and admitted that most good fantasy authors do, to some extent).
Next up was a reading by Max Gladstone from a forthcoming work (not part of the Craft Sequence – wholly new!) which sounded really cool. I introduced myself to him afterwards, mentioning how we’re practically neighbors. I’m pretty sure that weirded him out. Go me.
Then I went to a panel on the surrealist scifi artwork of Richard Powers, which was really very interesting but I do not have time to go into here. Anyway, it solidified my belief in the strong ties between the Modernist movement of the early 20th century and the science fiction and fantasy genres (something to explore at greater length in a different post, I think).
Lastly, I went to the signing hall that night to get Scott Lynch to sign his book for me, which he did. Then I wandered around and around and around, wondering if I was going to spend the entire weekend not talking to another human being, when, lo and behold, Sarah Beth Durst, a YA/Middle Grade author I’d met in NYC recently, flagged me down. I hung out with her for the rest of the night, pretty much, since she’d been coming for a while and knew all kinds of people. I got introduced around. I met Katherine Addison, ran into Scott Lynch again, and really hit it off with fantasy author SC Butler. We stayed up way past our bedtime telling each other stories, which was fun.
My first day goal – meet new people – was a success!
Saturday, I went to a ton of panels. An absolute ton.
What were they on? Hmm…
- The Quest (and whether it has become passé). The conclusion was that it actually couldn’t become so, since it’s so ingrained in us. The line of the panel was Leah Bobet, who said “Not every quest needs to be David Eddings’ ‘go to each country on the map, find a friend, and slay the giant monster with the glowing blue thing.'”
- Anthropology and Archaeology and how it can influence Fantasy writers. It was interesting, but no real zingers.
- Faerie Courts and Fairy Courts and portrayals of the Fey in Fantasy literature. Much was made of moving away from Victorian Tinker-bell types and getting back to terrifying hobgoblins like Red Cap.
- Violence and the Epic: how to portray violence in Epic Fantasy, why to do it, and when does it become gratuitous. Very interesting discussion. Glen Cook was on the panel and said less than a hundred words, but those he did say were doozies. Line of the panel (and probably the convention) was by him:
We live in a society where we think it’s really really bad to hurt people, but other places and times they’d throw a guy on the fire because it was fun to watch him scream.
I also listened to Scott Lynch read from The Thorn of Emberlain, which was freaking amazing and I can’t wait to read the whole thing.
That night I wandered around the art show for a while. The fantasy artists on display were crazy good. No pictures were allowed to be taken in the gallery (they’re trying to sell the artwork, you see), but take my word for it – jaw-dropping stuff. A lot of airships and steampunky stuff, for some reason. I loved one called “War Griffon” which showed a griffon decked out like a WWI fighter plane with a flying ace holding his reigns – goggles, cap, scarf, the whole thing. Very cool.
While there, I ran into Sarah again, and again I met a lot of other people by dint of my knowing her. Wandered from party to party for a while, then turned in late.
Sunday morning I went to two panels. First was “Genre Tropes That Deserve to Die,” which was mostly hilarious and offered numerous injunctions against having fantasy characters eat stew while on the road (it takes way too long to cook. Frodo and Sam would have never made it out of the Shire if they had to spend a day making stew every time they were hungry). It was pointed out, though, that all tropes can be done well. It just gets harder for some to work once they’ve been overused.
The second panel, and my favorite of the convention, was on weapons beyond the sword and how can be used in the fantasy genre. Very cool stuff, very interesting. Turned out there was an actual bladesmith in the audience who contributed to the panel a great deal. I stayed afterwards to talk with Ian Cameron Esselmont (who let me babble on about Alandar and The Saga of the Redeemed for a bit) as well as Chuck Gannon and the aforementioned bladesmith (whose name sadly escapes me at the moment). Very, very interesting talk.
Finally, then, there was the banquet. I got a seat at the Harper Collins table between my editor, Kelly O’Connor, and author Rio Youers. The table mostly talked about baseball. The awards were fun – all the winners seemed surprised, and pretty much nobody had a speech prepared. There was a real sense of community in the room, which was nice – these were all friends, all who knew one another, all who supported each other. It was a really pleasant atmosphere, and I know I’ll come back. I want to become a real part of this community, not just somebody on the periphery. Goals to shoot for.
But, with that said, the convention is over now. Back to work, both real and fanciful.
Congratulations to all the winners! I’ll be back next year!
Been kicking this around for a while. What has me posting it now is partly from a Q&A my publisher hosted on Twitter revolving around their open call, in which one person asked if there was room in fantasy beyond what is grim and dark and grimdark (Harper Voyager responded in the affirmative, and held up my book as an example of such). The other part is from my friend Teresa Frohock’s lovely post over on Tor.com regarding defining grimdark as opposed to horror (that post hasn’t much to do with this one other than the title; I just wanted to give Teresa a shout-out – buy her new book!).
When Shireen Baratheon was strapped to that stake, my stomach turned. I felt sick. All those memes shooting around on Facebook the week afterwards—the ones about how Stannis wasn’t going to win Father of the Year or whatever—were not funny. It was a horrible, horrible scene, gut-wrenching and soul-draining all at once. My compliments to the actors, the writers, and everybody involved with that scene. Holy crap, guys, did that ever work.
I find myself thinking a lot about Shireen Baratheon lately. She isn’t real and what happened to her didn’t really happen, but I find myself thinking about her anyway. I look at a horrible picture of a little boy drowned in the ocean, washed up on the beach, and my stomach turns. I see a picture of a Nazi soldier pointing his submachine gun at a Jewish family, the father throwing his body in front of his children, and I get sick inside. I feel just as horrible. And I think of Shireen.
Fantasy has been getting pretty dark lately. Have you noticed that? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like picking up a fantasy novel these days is more likely going to bring you down than bring you up. George RR Martin has, of course, said that he draws much of his inspiration from history and, as it happens, history is pretty dark and miserable territory. No doubt, the darkness of Game of Thrones and other “grimdark” fantasy stories out there are more “realistic” in the sense that the things happening in them are not any more extreme or horrifying than the things that actually happen out here, in the real world.
In response to this assertion of realism, though, I am forced to ask a question: why am I reading a genre called fantasy, then?
My late father-in-law did not read fiction, as a rule. He didn’t understand why you would read anything made up when history was so stuffed with great stories that actually happened. He read biography after biography, history after history, and possessed a breadth and depth of historical knowledge that, frankly, blew me away (and I’m no slouch at my history, myself). His refusal to read fiction I found curious, but he had a good point. I mean, why read about something made up when you can have the same experience and learn about something real at the same time?
Those two questions: “why read fantasy if it’s going to be so realistic” and “why read fiction when history is full of interesting stories” are dovetailed. The answer to either question is the answer to both, and the answer is this:
We read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic.
That’s it. That’s the whole point of fiction—to believe that which is inherently false. Because my father-in-law had a really, really good point. If realism is what I’m after, then I read history. I watch the news. I study the facts. I wallow in the real world, with all its tragedies and imperfections and rough edges.
But fiction is something different. I’m not reading it because I want it to be real. I’m reading it to make the real into something transcendent. I want the unsolvable to be solved (at least partially), I want the evil to be vanquished (most of the time), I want my story to do what the real world can’t do for me—get me to believe in magic, get me to dream about faraway places and wonderful things and heroes and dragons and swords with names. In fantasy, there is no reason we have to be miserable. The world can do that for us.
Now I’m not saying I need pat, happy endings all the time, nor do I particularly enjoy the same thing over and over and over. What I wonder at is this wish to have our real-world cynicism encroach upon our fantastical playgrounds. So much these days seems to be another version of apocalypse, another bonfire of heroics. While George RR Martin’s brilliant work is perhaps the most obvious example of this mood, it is hardly exclusive to him.
“Heroes,” a friend of mine told me once, “must tread carefully in the world of Westeros.” That’s true. Jon Snow’s heroics got him nowhere, just like his brother and his father’s nobility doomed them. And, again, that is much the same as history—history doesn’t treat many of its heroes well. So, I suppose we can all nod sagely at Jon Snow’s untimely end and say “yeah—figures. What a dummy.”
See, the thing is, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to find myself scoffing the hero just to assuage my own pain over their fall. I don’t want to shake my head at (yet another) rape scene and say “that’s just how awful this place is.” This is fantasy, friends! We don’t have to make it that bleak and, even if we do, we can have our heroes win. We can have them overcome the horrible nature of their world and, by doing so, inspire us to do the same.
I guess you can call that naive if you want, but my response to you is that a little naiveté is good for us. Because, contrary to what so many of us believe, the world—the real, actual world—doesn’t have to be such an awful place. It can change. We have to believe that, don’t we? I worry when even our fantasies become grim, bleak landscapes of suffering and degradation. What does it say about us that we aren’t even willing to imagine a world where good triumphs over evil and the heroes save the day?
So that brings me back to how we read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic. For us—for our society, our world—I think the most implausible and unrealistic thing we can imagine is the idea of redemption and the ability for people to change. In fantasy, we have a unique lens through which to view our own world and, yes, we can certainly make it dark and horrible if we want. Indeed, a utopian story of happiness and light would be difficult to connect with, I guess. That said, there is no reason that in the darkness and the horror someone can’t stand up and say “no.” Some guard who cuts the little girl free from the burning stake and runs off into the wilderness. Some man in a fishing boat defying fate to save some drowning child. And then—get this—that person gets away with it. They are the hero for that moment in time, when all hope seemed lost. They are the person we all hope we can be, doing the right thing when it is hard. Sounds crazy, right? Some of you are shaking your heads, maybe. Some of you think that sounds lame or that I’m a pie-in-the-sky crackpot.
But I’m not. And for me, that’s what fantasy and science fiction are there to prove—not how weak we are or how terrible, but how wonderful we can be and how noble, no matter how awful we were in the past. It’s our world, folks. Let’s make it a beautiful one for a change.
Come January (ish) the third book of The Saga of the Redeemed, No Good Deed, will be released. It’s still in the editing stages right now and needs a fair bit of polish, but I think it’s a fine follow up to The Oldest Trick and fans of the series will be tickled pink to go adventuring with Tyvian, Artus, Hool and company again.
But then what?
When I originally envisaged this series, when my expectations for my writing career were still glittery and untrammeled by the forces of reality, I thought I might write something like nine books detailing Tyvian’s story. Had the first novel been a runaway hit, I probably would have. Now, while it has sold relatively well, it is not a bestseller by any stretch of the imagination. Writing this series for the next seven years seems a poor career move at this juncture.
No Good Deed doesn’t complete Tyvian’s journey, but it does leave us somewhere comfortable-ish. There is still more to say, though. At least two books’ worth. If I could get a contract to write those two books with Harper Voyager, I’d be happy to walk away having completed a solid series with a satisfying conclusion (even if there was potential for more to be done at a later date). The question, though, is whether that’s the right career move.
There’s other books I’ve got that I can revise and get ready for publication. I’ve got some Urban horror/fantasy, I’ve got some multiple-reality stuff, I’ve got a space opera and a military scifi and another epic fantasy series all waiting in the wings. Maybe, if the Saga of the Redeemed isn’t taking off, I’d be wiser to let it go and get a new title ready instead.
If I had an agent, perhaps I’d ask her. That’s part of the problem, though – I don’t have one. Can I get one when I’m midway through a series? I’ve got some leads on some agents, but I don’t yet have a complete manuscript to send them (book 4 is still very rough), so e-mailing them seems premature. Of course, if I wait too long, then they’ll forget who I am. Strike while the iron is hot, they say.
I’ve gotten conflicting advice on this, too. On the one hand, some folks say finishing what you start shows you’re a professional and a reliable person. On the other hand, some folks think it’s a mistake to get locked into a series this early in your career. They both make good points. Also, a sale to continue a series that hasn’t flopped with a publisher I already have a relationship with is probably a lot easier than selling a brand new idea to somebody I don’t know, even if that new idea might be a hit. There’s just no way to tell.
The conundrum reminds me of that oft-misunderstood poem, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. Most people assume, given the last line, that it is a story about bucking convention and making your own way in the world. It’s not, though. A careful read reveals that the speaker has no idea which road is actually less travelled and, furthermore, it is notably ambiguous that choice that made “all the difference” is even a positive thing. The poem is more about the arbitrary nature of fate and the illusion of self-determination. It is far darker than all those commencement speakers would have you believe.
And so here I am, at the diverging of a road. Do I keep telling the story of Tyvian (whom I dearly love), or do I go somewhere else and resolve to come back (“Yet knowing how way leads on to way…”)?
For now, I press on with Tyvian and his gradual, theoretical redemption. I have a bit more time yet. Hell, the decision might be made for me – The Oldest Trick could become a sleeper hit or my publisher could turn down a request to extend the series cold. Who knows? I do, then, what I have always done as a writer: put one foot in front of the other, place one more word on the page, and let the gods decide my fate.
When I was a kid, I was legitimately afraid of Halloween night. As a problematically imaginative boy, I existed in a world wherein I had constructed an elaborate cosmology of evil spirits, monsters, and ghosts that stalked me each time the sun went down. While this peculiar obsession of mine likely brought to me to my current state (creating fanciful worlds for science fiction and fantasy stories/novels), it was somewhat stressful for pre-adolescent me. Any sight of the trivial horror tropes of Halloween stood to haunt my nightmares.
Remember those aisles in the grocery store which, around October 1st, would start to be lined with rubber masks? Yeah, I wouldn’t walk down those aisles. If I did, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look. Likewise those elaborate, gruesome displays some people set up in front of their houses – plastic skeletons, a severed arm of Styrofoam, fake blood dripping over plastic fake eyeballs – these places were fairly terrifying to me (though mostly after dark). Come to think of it, much of my young life involved strategically deciding when to close my eyes and not take in the “horrors” that would parade about each Halloween or, for that matter, in any given television show or movie I watched. Apart from the first time I saw it (around 1986), I didn’t actually see the Ark-opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark until I was in high school, despite watching the movie about ten times in the interim. Same deal with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
I remember being convinced that seeing things that were scary would harm me in some way. Initially, when I was little, I felt that the scary things were in some way actually real and might awaken if they caught me looking (it was for this reason, by the way, that I sought to dress as something with a weapon or natural defenses every Halloween – just in case, you understand). As I got older, I was just concerned about getting vivid nightmares (and I used to have very vivid nightmares). Halloween night, of course, was the metaphysical climax of this feeling of terror. I loved the candy, sure, but as I walked around my neighborhood, I kept my flashlight gripped tight and made sure my plastic sword was loose in the scabbard. My weight was firmly over the balls of my feet. I imagine I looked like a spooked deer.
But then it all changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but everything became less scary. I started opening my eyes, tearing back the curtain. I started watching more horror movies. Now? Halloween isn’t scary. If anything, it’s the opposite – a banal display of half-assed “horror” tropes ladled together in a kind of stew that, in juxtaposition, are more absurd than scary. Like, seriously, how am I supposed to interpret the fifteen apparently “severed” heads stuck on your white picket fence? And why are they in such wildly differing states of decay? And what’s with the one that’s smiling? Gimmie a break.
I don’t scare easily anymore. Yeah, a horror movie can get me to jump, but that’s less “horror” and more clever use of loud sound-effects and fast camera cuts. Losing sleep? Nightmares? It’s been years. In fact, I find a lot of things other people find terrifying to be simply…odd. How can you be afraid of clowns? They’re clowns!
Now, while this means I live a much calmer, much saner life than I did as an eight-year-old, I do think, sometimes, that I’ve lost something crucial. There is something magical in terror, isn’t there? That little spike of adrenaline I’d get as I ran into the house with the autumn wind and the skitter of leaves chasing me; that boiling feeling in my stomach as I put my hands over my eyes and refused to feel the “eyeballs” in the local haunted house – there was something special going on there, in that brain of mine. Fear forces your imagination to fire on all pistons. Not seeing what you fear is infinitely more powerful than seeing it. All those years with my eyes closed, I was constructing truly terrifying edifices in the dark of my own mind. Now that I’ve opened them, well, there’s no going back. Those eyeballs are peeled grapes. That guy jumping out from behind the haystack in the hockey mask is a volunteer actor from the local high school and, for that matter, is two inches shorter and about twenty-five pounds lighter than me. I’m not scared anymore.
Sometimes, though, I wish that I still was.
I just read a piece by Aliette de Bodard on Tor.com about how oppressive systems perpetuate themselves. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (good read, by the way – nice, fast paced, and very Star Wars-ish). Also somewhat coincidentally, I’ve been working on another book in The Saga of the Redeemed that, in fact, deals with popular revolution against an oppressive regime.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that revolution is very much on my mind.
(please pause as the NSA zeroes in its internet snoopers…)
De Bodard’s article has it exactly right – oppressive systems do not persist in spite of the people but with their approval (tacit or begrudging as it may be). One of the things I liked about Wendig’s novel is that he goes out of his way to mention and show how people put up with the Galactic Empire for so long because that was basically how it was done. That was just how the world was. Yeah, they sucked, but if you kept your head down and didn’t cause trouble and just went along to get along, you’d be more-or-less fine. Luke Skywalker, remember, was going to apply to the Imperial Naval Academy in Episode IV. Not the rebels. The rebels, I’m betting, didn’t offer much in the way of career options or recruiting centers. Yeah, young Luke wanted off the farm, but he didn’t want off it that badly that he was going to throw in his lot with a bunch of crazy terrorists.
Wendig also tries to demonstrate how messy the transition from Galactic Empire to New Republic is going to be, too. For one thing, as the tagline says, the war isn’t over. There’s a lot of Galactic Empire out there, folks, and it isn’t about to roll over and die. Well, not all of it. Some of it will, some of it will go rogue, other parts will keep fighting. Criminal syndicates will take over backwater systems. Vigilantes will run amok. Basic systems and services will break down. Lots and lots and lots of people will die. That’s just for starters, too, and during that time you are going to have a lot of people asking one question:
“Was the Galactic Empire really all that bad? Was it worse than this?”
In Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, he talks about something called the Thermidorian Reaction – the period of calm that follows the furor of revolution. Most interestingly, this reaction sees the relaxation of some revolutionary policies and, in the end, results in the new order sharing a number of potent similarities with the old order. In other words, the revolution, in the end, doesn’t change society half as much as it thinks it will. The Russian people weren’t a hell of a lot better off under the Soviets than they were under the Czars; the new system of the United States wasn’t all that much different than Britain; the current rulers of Egypt are scarcely any different than Mubarak. Heck, it’s basically the same people in charge. Again.
In the Saga of the Redeemed, particularly in the next book or three, I want to deal with the awkwardness and horrible mess that is involved in “fixing society.” Tyvian, bound by the ring’s influence, has to act to do what is “right,” but what is “right” doesn’t always translate to what is “best” (as he points out strenuously and at length). Indeed, there seems to be some doubt on his part that any improvement at all is possible, especially given that, in the end, all new world orders are made up of the same things: human beings.
While I am perhaps not as cynical as my protagonist (heaven forfend!), I do wonder if people understand what they’re advocating for when they propose to tear down an oppressive system. We make it sound so easy sometimes – the American Revolution was won at the Battle of Yorktown, and that was it (and yet, in 1812, we were basically still fighting it). One battle – one war – does not a revolution make. Society changes slowly, very slowly; it’s like the melting of a glacier. Sometimes a big hunk falls off all at once and there’s a huge crash, but that was made possible by a long, long process of the supporting ice melting out from underneath. Even then – even after it falls – it will just freeze back again come winter unless we are vigilant (or we raise the ambient temperature of the globe sufficient to…actually, you know what? Different discussion for a different time.).
The revolutions of the world are not just the stories of Luke Skywalker or George Washington. They are also the story of the pain, suffering, and deaths of thousands or even millions of souls trapped beneath the wheels of history. If you need a reminder of just how ugly a thing that can be, you need look no further than the barbed wire fences surrounding the nation of Hungary and the poor, starving people huddled on the other side.
I will now put forth a premise that I shall seek to support:
You cannot love both The Hobbit and The Silmarillion in the same way.
I don’t mean to say that you cannot enjoy both – it is possible, and indeed I myself do enjoy both. I am saying you cannot love both in the same way and,
arguably (though I am less certain on this score), you likely cannot love them the same amount. The reason for this is narrative distance.
In The Hobbit, you are right there with Bilbo every step of the way. You learn his quirks, his thoughts, his every move. You are tired when he is tired, full when he is full, and so on and so forth. The narrative distance is small. Granted, Tolkien does maintain a certain distance from his character (the narrator often has little asides to the readers about this or that), but for the most part you are deep in there, in the trenches of Bilbo’s adventure. It begins and ends with him, and it is told in that way. Heck, the name of his memoir is There and Back Again. Indeed, one could argue that at least half the uproar against Peter Jackson’s…well, let’s just say indulgent adaptation is that so much of the story eclipsed Bilbo’s journey, his growth, and his triumph.
In The Silmarillion, things are different. This is not the story of an individual (though there are many important individuals to like). It is not the story of a single act or battle (there are numerous to choose from). The Silmarillion is a epochal tale, spanning a full Age of the Middle Earth (or two). The characters, though personified, are not people. You don’t know how Feanor likes to drink his tea. You don’t know what it was like for poor Galadrial to walk across Helcaraxe with the other Noldor when the world was young. Was she cold? Frightened? You have no idea. The story doesn’t tell you and, what’s more, doesn’t treat such details as important. The Silmarillion is a book of history and myth for a fictional world and, therefore, the individual is subsumed beneath the tides of peoples and ages. You are observing the world from an extreme narrative distance granting you unparalleled breadth and scope of narrative, but no intimacy. When Gothmog smites Feanor down, you couldn’t give a shit.
You’ve probably noted that I have a bias, here, but I’m trying not to. There is nothing wrong with a broad, mythic approach to storytelling. Many wonderful stories are told that way – The Iliad, much of the Old Testament, and many modern fantasy and science fiction novels, as well. It’s a totally different flavor, though, than the intimate tale. I contend that you can’t love them the same way, because they are fundamentally different things.
Recently, I read Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem and, following that, read Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. Both of these stories maintain a pretty healthy narrative distance between the reader and the characters. Even though Three-Body Problem runs a fairly close Third-Person Limited point of view, you don’t feel close to the characters. Your connections with them are mostly businesslike, with the exception of one character (one of the first ones you meet). Likewise, The Grace of Kings tells a sweeping saga of rebellions and empires and battles and politics, but only one character really captures your attention and, even then much of what he does is held at a distance from the reader. You do not live in Kuni Garu’s shoes. His struggles are not your struggles. You like the guy, sure, but you are only mildly disappointed at his setbacks and modestly gratified by his victories.
I’ve come to the conclusion that, personally speaking, such styles are not for me. I am in it for the character, ultimately, and the character alone. I can extend my concern to a group of characters, certainly, but there is only so close I can get to so many. One of the reasons why I am drifting away from George R.R. Martin these days is because there are so many POV characters in Westeros that I’m losing interest. Martin, to his great credit, has spent about five books having his cake and eating it too – telling a sweeping narrative of historical proportions while also keeping you emotionally connected to (most) of the protagonists. That, however, is a slippery tightrope, and he’s losing his footing for me. I don’t think I’m alone there.
My closest inspirations for my own fantasy work are the likes of Robert Jordan (who wound up having much the same problem as Martin is struggling with at the end), Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch. For them, character – the individual – is the key to the story. Tell as many generational tales as you like, but I want to be able to feel at home with the protagonist. I want to hear Kvothe sing, I want to trade dirty jokes with Locke and Jean, I want to get in arguments with Nynaeve and watch her tug her braid in frustration. If I can’t have that – if I can’t make a personal, intimate connection with the characters I’m supposed to be caring about – I’m not going to get invested in the story. I might enjoy the story, but I’m not going to love it the same way.
EDIT: Apparently WordPress ate the start of a paragraph. It has been replaced.
Firstly, let me give you a souped-up version of something I doodled in a meeting the other day:
I know, I know–I shouldn’t have been doodling. They were talking about bathrooms for about fifteen minutes, though, so I don’t think I missed much.
Anyway, my spiffy Venn Diagram isn’t why I’m here today. The diagram is a lure – a trap, if you will – to draw your attention to something much more awesome.
This September 24th to the 27th in Dover, Vermont is the 2015 ITVFest (Independent Television and Film Festival). It is a film festival dedicated to the independent film maker, the independent television producers, webseries makers, and so on. To quote from their website:
ITVFest (the Independent Television and Film Festival) is the original public festival and network of the world’s best independent television pilots, webseries and short films.
Every September, we bring together over 1,000 filmmakers, actors, writers, directors, producers, financiers, Hollywood executives and general public fans to relax and connect in the Vermont mountains.
Our beautiful Vermont location makes ITVFest the most unique (and useful) destination TV/web festival throughout the world. Hollywood is a relationship based business and professional producers and studios often look to hire people that they already know and trust when creating a new project. Unlike big city festivals where it can be difficult to interact with the right people, ITVFest in Vermont offers a unique opportunity to meet fellow professionals and make these lasting connections that can lead to prosperous careers.
Studios trust that what they see at ITVFest is the best of what is out there in the expansive digital universe. Quality and talent shine at ITVFest, giving the world’s best filmmakers direct front door access to Hollywood’s best studios and networks.
Technologically savvy and forward thinking, ITVFest prides itself on being for and about the creators of quality content – regardless of industry status. Our content creators range from new filmmakers to Emmy winners.
In short, this is a great opportunity for anybody interested in filmmaking or its associated industries. And you know what makes it even cooler?
I’m presenting there this year!
Yup – Yours Truly will be giving a little talk and presentation on world building in science fiction and fantasy stories at 11:00am on
Sunday Saturday, and I could not be more excited! This festival sounds like it will be tons of fun and I’ve heard good things about previous years. If you have half a mind and are anywhere close to Vermont, you really should come check it out!
Plot and story derive from conflict – anybody who’s tried writing anything has figured this out at some point. In order for something to happen, you need the character(s) to do something. In order to make that something they do interesting, there needs to be something at stake. Things are only at stake if there is some situation in which Option A is preferred over Option B and yet, with inaction or failure surpass some obstacle, Option B will come to pass or remain. That state of affairs is called “conflict” – I want A, but I have to overcome (whatever) to achieve it, otherwise B.
So concludes your really, really basic lesson in plotting stories.
The idea of conflict is simple enough, but how to go about creating it is infinitely complex. You need things to be at stake, yes, but what constitutes that? Furthermore, how large should the obstacle be preventing the character from achieving their goal?
To present an example:
- Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
- Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.
With #1, we have our stakes: Bill wants milk. With #2, we have our conflict: in order to get milk, Bill needs to figure out how to avoid his neighbor. In this particular story, the stakes are not very high and the obstacle not too dire (if Bill doesn’t get milk, what’s the worst that can happen to him? If Bill is caught by his neighbor, how bad are the consequences, really?). The conflict, in other words, fits the situation. It seems realistic. But what happens when you mess with that formula?
- Bill needs to get to the doctor or he will die.
- Bill cannot leave his house, or else his neighbor will see and then he’ll be stuck discussing lawn care for half an hour.
So, obviously, Bill leaves his house. The obstacle (talking lawn care for fear of being rude) no longer seems significant. Bill just points to the giant gushing wound in his side (or what have you) and blows past the neighbor. Here, the obstacle isn’t sufficient to match the stakes, and the conflict doesn’t really work. Let’s try this again:
- Bill needs to go to the store to get some milk.
- Bill cannot leave his house, because if he goes outside he will be eaten by Great Cthulhu.
Here, the obstacle is far, far too great to make it reasonable for Bill to leave. He can go without milk for a little while if the alternative is certain death and madness in the tentacled maw of a Great Old One. The stakes just aren’t high enough to justify the risk.
In order to have a good conflict, you need to know how to balance the stakes and the obstacles appropriately, or the plot begins to break down and become nonsensical or absurd. Things can’t be easy for the characters nor can they be impossible to the point where nothing would happen. As a writer, it is your job to ride that line between the easy and the impossible. You need to be what I think of as cruel.
Your characters must suffer for their goals, yes? Well, it’s your job to make them suffer exactly the right amount to make their victory seem worthwhile. Make it too easy, and there is no payoff. Make it too hard, and everything becomes dismal and sad. You, the writer, are in a certain sense a torturer – you need to rake your main character over the coals just enough that he talks, but not so much that he dies. As any torturer will tell you (well, I presume – I don’t actually know any torturers), that’s a fine line to tread.
I got much of my practice doing this by running role-playing games for my friends and playing in RPGs run by others. The best GMs, I’ve found, are the ones cruel enough to make victory seem impossible but also kind enough to make it possible for you to succeed. I played in one campaign once where our victory was clearly, obviously assured – the GM would not kill us or even maim us terribly, and everything always worked out in the end. It was boring. On the flip side, everybody’s played those Call of Cthulhu games where everybody dies inside of two hours and the monsters win – also a bit boring after you’ve done it once or twice.
The best games? The ones where you’re counting every hit point and scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as ammunition and special abilities go and yet still, somehow, you’ve got to save your PC’s father from the clutches of the Liche King or he’ll be lost to you forever. You’re sitting there on your buddy’s couch, heart pounding, because you know your character could die and everything could go south and, whaddya know, you actually care what happens (stakes!) but the obstacles seem so impossible (conflict!). What you don’t know (or maybe don’t always realize) is this: your GM is scared, too. He’s sitting on the edge of his seat, because yeah, he’s made it crazy impossible and, no, he won’t back down. If he backs down, he loses everything – you lose everything. So he throws you a line here and there, he encourages you, and he prays that the dice go your way just enough so you can win. And what a win that is!
Conflict – writing – isn’t too far off from that. At least, that’s what I think.
Just a reminder to pre-order your copy of The Oldest Trick from anywhere fine e-books are sold! It releases 8/11/15 and is the absolute best place to start if you’ve yet to dive into the Saga of the Redeemed yet. Go check it out!