Since the fairly cringe-worthy Hugo Awards ceremony a few days back, there’s been a big argument in the SFF world going on about the Science Fiction Canon, such as it is. What is it? How much is it worth? Do you have to read it? So on, so forth.
I waded into this debate and, admittedly, stepped in it a bit when I was having a discussion with a friend of mine regarding whether writers need to read the classics of the genre in order to write good work today. My response was this:
“Yup! My thing about the classics is that you should read them if you want to, but they aren’t strictly relevant to what is happening now. In fact, I would ascribe *zero* relevance to anything published before 1980/1982 or so. Then it incrementally increases as you go.”
Now, this was interpreted (and understandably so, if taken out of context) to mean that no work prior to 1980 has relevance for readers or worth as literature prior to 1980, which is not my point at all. My point is, rather, that the current milieu of science fiction and fantasy as it exists in the market today begins in the early 1980s and if your intention is to publish inside of that milieu, reading stuff published prior to that time is not essential. You, as a writer, need to know what is going on now in the field, not what was going on in the field in 1965.
I had a number of productive discussions about this online with a couple intelligent people. I had a lot of retweets accusing me of ignoring history or suggesting works like 1984 and Brave New World aren’t relevant for modern readers.
Now, I would insist that many (in fact the majority) of pre-contemporary works (defined broadly as the early 1980s, where we moved away from cold war paranoia and into a more cyberpunk/environmental catastrophe/corporate capitalist villain era) do not really resonate as well with a modern audience. The sexism of Bester and Asimov and Niven and Pournelle really shows their works’ age. The writers from the 30s and 40s still hope to find canals on Mars and wonder about the jungles of Venus. Everybody thinks atomic power is the cat’s pajamas. The amount of racism and Orientalism and colonialist underpinnings is overwhelming when examined with a modern sensibility. We can learn a lot about what people thought then about the world, but how it affects our world now is less clear.
Furthermore, much of what was done back in those days had begun a trend that has carried along to this very day! If somebody asked me whether they should read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigades, it’s a no-brainer that I’d suggest Hurley. Why? Well, because it’s still military scifi and it’s still got the first person perspective and thrilling fights and cool tech, but Hurley’s book is about now and Heinlein’s book is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century Cold War (and this is above and beyond the latent fascism contained in that specific book, but that’s a topic I’ve explored before and don’t care to repeat here). You don’t have to read 1984 to understand dystopia – the modern authors who have written about it, at length and with great skill, are numerous. Can you read it? Can a modern reader still glean important and interesting lessons from reading it? Yes, of course. Go ahead and read both!
That, though, not the question I’m seeking to answer. The question I’m trying to tackle is to what extent do modern authors owe fealty to the writers of the distant past to the point where those distant works are essential for their ability to tell compelling stories in the present day. I would argue that once you go past 40 years ago, there really isn’t any requirement because the publishing universe of that era bears no similarity to the one today. They were not writing to the same kind of audience, they were not dealing with the same kind of editors, and they were not facing the same kind of marketplace. Even the ideas they pioneered have been re-imagined and re-imagined again, so that you are entering a dialogue among authors that is a half-century old by now. You don’t need to read that original foray to join that conversation, but you must read the latest entry or you won’t make any sense.
The thing about lionizing the traditional canon (in any genre) is that you are centering the voices of people who lived in worlds alien to our own and then demanding that they be paid homage, when really what they have to say can be taken or left depending on our own interests. None of it is required. It can certainly have value for the right person at the right time, but we ought not ascribe these works more importance than the ones that have followed and, most especially, by those being produced today.
Now, as is the case with all list-building and hard lines in the sand, there are plenty of works from the 70s and earlier that still stand up just as well today as they did then – people like Le Guin and Philip K Dick and so on. But those folks are the exception, not the rule.
In short, if you intend to study the field of science fiction or are just a huge fan of classic books, by all means read the classic fiction of the mid to early 20th century – you will enjoy a lot of it, for sure. However, if you plan to write science fiction or fantasy novels, you don’t owe those old novels your time if you don’t want to give it. You can do it without them, just by reading on your own without any pre-set requirements. The canon is not a law, it’s simply a recommendation list. Feel free to ignore it. Read something else. There are a lot of good books out there, and you’ll never have time to read all of them, anyway.
But hey, that’s just one white dude’s opinion.
Well, Graphic Audio keeps rolling along, releasing further books in The Saga of the Redeemed! Right now you can get your hands on both No Good Deed and Dead But Once (books 2 and 3) and I have on good authority that the final book in the series – The Far Far Better Thing – will be releasing soon (in two parts).
Zombies Need Brains has asked me to be an “anchor author” for their new and upcoming anthology, When Worlds Collide. Here’s the skinny on that one:
Throughout history, different cultures have collided in different ways, whether it be the peaceful contact between Rome and Han China in the second century that established the Silk Road, or the more violent interactions between Europe and the Americas thirteen hundred years later. Such first contact stories have long been a staple of speculative fiction. The stories featured in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will continue this long tradition as the authors explore the myriad ways in which two cultures—alien or fae, machine or human—can clash. Will the colliding societies manage to peacefully coexist after they finally meet? Or will they embark instead on a path of mutual self-destruction? Find out—WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.
Edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors include:
- S.C. Butler,
- Esther Friesner,
- Auston Habershaw,
- Steven Harper,
- Nancy Holzner,
- Howard Andrew Jones,
- Stephen Leigh,
- Violette Malan, and
- Alan Smale
They will be running a Kickstarter soon to fund the project – I’ll of course be promoting it here. In the meantime, you writers out there should start sharpening your short fiction game and submit to this and the other anthologies that ZNB has coming up. I’d love to share a table of contents with you all!
Thanks, and I’ll be posting again soon!
People have wondered how my writing is going. So, here it is:
I’ve been stuck inside my house since mid-March.
I’ve got three kids, two cats, and a dog, all trapped in said house with me.
I’ve been teaching a 7yo to read, potty training a 2yo, soothing a 10yo’s anxieties about missing a Zoom meeting and getting in trouble. There has been a lot of crying.
I’ve been making lunch for everybody, especially for my wife, who has spent about 9-10 hours a day, every day trying to make sure my state’s transportation systems are safe, funded, and provided with all the PPE necessary to save lives.
The president is a fascist traitor. No, that’s not a political opinion.
Cops are tear-gassing and beating people protesting police violence all over my homeland.
The fireworks – always prevalent – have been going off all night, every night since early May.
A global pandemic has killed 115,000 of my countrymen at this point, with only more on the way.
And during all of this, I have managed to write two short stories, a rough draft of a novel, and a textbook chapter.
So, the question is: HOW?
Let’s first recognize my privilege: I am still employed and I don’t need to worry about food or paying my mortgage or anything. My family is supportive of my writing – especially my wife. My 10yo daughter has been crucially helpful in wrangling my toddler, allowing me to spend about 4 hours any given day (in 2-hour spurts) at “work” up in my office. Oh, yeah – I live in a house large enough to have a room to myself I can call an office. I also do not suffer from any particular mental illness I am aware of – I do not battle depression or anxiety, I am not a victim of trauma. I am extremely fortunate.
Beyond this, though, I find that the global catastrophes are motivating me to write rather than preventing it. For one thing, writing is an escape for me – I crawl inside my book or my stories and live there for a while and forget about everything in the world. It isn’t that I’m not worried about the world outside, but I have found that pretty much the only thing I can do is to sit down and write through it all. I sort of need to, in order to feel normal.
I say all this not as a kind of humblebrag, mind you. If anything, doing this has made me feel strange and almost disconnected. The vast majority of people I know are having trouble staying motivated, distracted too much by the outside world to focus. It sort of makes me wonder if my capacity for empathy is broken or if I’m being unusually selfish by locking myself away as I am (to the extent that I am). But…I can’t help it. I have to write to feel normal. I have to tell stories.
And furthermore: remember that this isn’t a race. I am writing well right now, fine, but soon enough you’ll be writing better than I am. And what does better/worse even mean in this context? We are all doing what we can. Me? I’m huddled up with my laptop in my office writing as much as I can – that’s how I’m coping. You? You might be coping some other way. Regardless of how, though, we are going to make it through this. We are all going to have stories to tell. And we are all going to have the time to tell them one day.
So, don’t measure how you’re writing against how anybody else is. As somebody who can’t write at any other time than the summer months (because of my day job), I keenly feel that sensation of falling behind, of not being able to keep up, of losing your focus. That’s me, eight months of the year. How do I deal with it then? I do a little work here, a little work there. I plug along at a snail’s pace. I focus on short fiction and editing and keep my expectations low. It’s frustrating, but I get there. You will too.
Good luck, my writing friends. It’s nuts out there. Keep dealing as best you can. You have my admiration and my support, always.
I come downstairs to find a stranger in my house. He is uninvited. He stands in the kitchen, poking through my cabinets.
“Information wants to be free, you know,” he says. He picks up my wallet, weighs it in one hand.
“This is a service,” he says, slipping a crisp dollar bill from inside and sliding it in his pocket. “For the poor. You understand.”
He takes another dollar. And then one more. But only that much. “What’s unfortunate,” he says, opening the fridge, “is that we have a system that makes this necessary.”
He selects a beer. I, of course, do not drink, but I say, “that’s for guests.”
“So you’re going to take their side?” He says. “You’re only helping the corporations.” He opens my beer. He drinks it.
“Who are you?”
“You know what your problem is,” he says. “You’re selfish. Greedy, even.” He opens a box of cereal from the cabinet, pours some in a mug.
“Do you ever ask for things?” I say. It’s all I can muster at the moment. I’m confused. Angry.
“Oh, you’re angry now?” He dumps the cereal in the trash. “I’ve been doing this for years, and you’re angry only now, when you’ve noticed? Typical.”
“Get out!” I open the door for him.
He shakes his head. “This could have been a revolution. Now see what you’ve done.”
As he leaves, he slides his hand into my pocket and pulls out a fresh, new ballpoint pen. “Thanks for nothing, asshole.”
Yes, yes – I’m still alive. Been over a month since I posted on this blog, but that’s been because life has a way of keeping me busy. I hope you haven’t missed me.
No, that’s not true – I hope you’ve missed me terribly and this blog post comes and an enormous relief.
I’ve only got a spare few minutes, so naturally what I want to talk about is something larger than can be contained in so short a post, because that’s how I roll.
I want to talk about character.
The other day, I was being interviewed by a grad student who asked me, essentially, how do I create characters in my stories/novels. This is a good question – a significantly better question than the usual “where do you get your ideas” thing – and part of what made it good is that I hadn’t really thought through it in any kind of concrete way and this question forced me to, all at once.
My answer went like this: at the start, every character is built around a core concept (or high concept, if you like). This is the central, fundamental trait that defines most of their behavior. So, by way of example, I used Fred Rodgers (who is a real person, not a character, but bear with me). Mr. Rodgers’s core concept is that he wishes to see the best in all people and wishes to be kind and understanding to all, and so create a more compassionate and loving world. This desire to be compassionate and kind drove every aspect of what he did – it is central and indispensable. To use another example, Tyvian Reldamar is fundamentally selfish and cynical – he does not believe that true “goodness” exists, and therefore he sees no reason to aspire to it.
The core concept is important, but it is only the starting point. You must then layer a character’s experiences around that concept. What happened to them to make them that way? Once that way, what actions did they take in accordance with their core concept and how did that shape them further. If the core concept is the mold (or the outline), the experiences give that outline depth and contour. Fred Rodgers created his show; Tyvian abandoned his family to become a pirate. Because Mr. Rodgers created his show, he became a beloved personage and found himself an essential part of millions of children’s lives; because Tyvian became a pirate, he became part of a criminal underworld which he later mastered.
But of course we are not done. The next thing – and this is possible the strangest step of all – is to ask yourself under what circumstances will that character violate their core concept. Because, you see, none of us wholly live up to who we think we are. Smart people do dumb things, angry people can be kind, and the cruel and hateful can still love. Mr. Rodgers, for instance, sued the KKK when they aired ads using his his image. It actually made him – him – mad. You can watch the interview where he talks about this: there he is, the King of Kind, his lips pressed tightly together and his syllables clipped, because nothing (nothing) makes Fred Rodgers angry except hatred. Likewise, there is Tyvian, the world exploding around him at the start of The Oldest Trick, and what does he do? Takes a second to save the life of a worthless street kid. Why? Even he doesn’t know. In fact, it take the guy a full four books to figure out the answer to that question.
This moments – what I will term the character’s moral limitations – are super important to making a character that people love and one that resonates with readers. These moments are immensely illuminating as character building moments, since all the best and most interesting characters must be capable of change, and we crave that particular quality in every character we encounter.
I’d also, as a brief gaming aside, that the same exact thing goes for Alignments in D&D and other such character-building tools in other RPGs. People aren’t robots – they can and do violate their core beliefs all the time. It’s the circumstances under which they do so and why that make them human and, therefore, relatable and interesting.
Anyway, that’s my .02. Keep watching the Mandalorian everyone. I’m sure I’ll get Disney+ soon enough and then I’ll see what all the fuss is about.
One of my kids is in a youth soccer league. She…isn’t good. She doesn’t pay attention, she rarely bothers kicking the ball, and while she can run with the best of them, she doesn’t really have any plan regarding what she should do when she gets to where she’s running. She is six years old, though, so none of this should really be a surprise. Her “skills” put her on par with about two-thirds of her teammates, most of whom run around the field in a loose pack and look for an opportunity to kick the ball in a direction (any direction), but don’t really want to get to close to anybody else or do anything too aggressive. Because of course they don’t – they’re little children.
This season, her coach is a guy who takes all this a bit too seriously. I mean, he isn’t hurling abuse at his players or anything truly unsportsmanlike, but you can tell he is genuinely distressed at the “level of play” (and I use that term well aware of how absurd it is) he’s seeing out there on the field. The other day, he gave me advice for improving my daughter’s “skills” for “home practice.”
“She needs to talk less and hustle more,” he said to me. “She needs to pay better attention.”
My answer was something along the lines of “my daughter is a bit of a daydreamer, so she doesn’t always pay attention.” I said it with a shrug and a chuckle, trying to make clear that I was unconcerned with the fact my kid sucks at soccer and that my interest in arranging “home practice” was effectively zero. I mean, if my six year old expressed any interest in practicing soccer at home, sure, sure – but she does not. Honestly, my wife and I were mystified that she wanted to play at all this season.
Picking up on my implications, the soccer coach grimaced and said, “Yeah, well, it’s all just fun at this age.”
That has stuck with me the last few weeks. Particularly the last part: at this age. I wanted to ask him at what age does soccer cease to be fun. When does this game stop being about enjoying yourself with friends and rivals as you kick a ball around a field on a sunny day and start being about something else? And what else is that? Money? Prestige? Fame? And even supposing soccer begins being about those things at some point, why should it ever stop being fun?
There are things in this world that are not necessarily enjoyable but are worthwhile in and of themselves. Nobody likes much of the work they need to do on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean you should stop grocery shopping or going to the doctor or bathing your kids. I don’t think there’s anybody out there saying you absolutely have to enjoy working out or dieting, but those things have results that we find satisfactory regardless of what we had to do achieve them.
But games? Games aren’t like that. There is nothing (nothing) so important about any sport or game that would mean you should continue to pursue it despite hating every second of it. I’d even go so far as to include art in this category. If you don’t enjoy some kind of art? Don’t consume it. If you hate a particular kind of story? Don’t write it. Unlike eating and sleeping and earning your daily wage, you don’t have do this.
The arts and entertainment world (of which sports are part) are important to our lives, but we get to choose how and when and in what proportion we consume them. We also get to choose how and when and if we participate in or create them. The experience itself should be enriching, not some ancillary benefit that comes after the fact. The proportion of people who make a full living off of the arts is approximately the same as those who make a living playing sports: the merest fraction of those who do it. You shouldn’t write stories because you think you will be rich or respected one day. Nor should you attend grueling double basketball practices because you think someday you’ll be in the Hall of Fame and it will all be worth it then. No. It has to be worth it now.
If you hate playing baseball, you should quit. If you despise painting, stop. If you are bored by poetry, find something else to read. Don’t let somebody (anybody) brow-beat you into believing your skill at this particular form of art/entertainment is essential for your self-worth or identity, because it isn’t. And anyway, the annals of people who hate playing a sport who then go on to become champions of that sport is a vanishingly small list – even smaller than that sliver of a percentage that go pro. You can’t hate-write a novel (or at least not a good one) because writing requires a kind of self-authenticity that weeds out the posers. When someone says to you “do what you love,” it’s not some kind of aspirational mantra, it’s practical advice.
So, no, my kid isn’t any good at soccer, but as long as she says she has fun doing it, I’ll keep signing her up for this little no-try-out local league. Likewise, so long as I like writing stories and novels, I’ll keep doing that too, no matter how much I suck.
Because where we end up should matter less than how fulfilling we find the journey. It should never stop being something we fundamentally love. If it does, then we are truly lost.
So, another summer draws to a close. Another fall – my least favorite time of year – looms. Sigh.
There’s a lot of stuff I don’t like about the fall (I’m deathly allergic to most of it, for one thing), but chief among these is the fact that I basically see an end to my dedicated writing time. As a college professor who teaches a lot of freshman composition courses, I have a pretty gigantic workload of student papers to grade and classes to teach and lectures to prep for and so on. I just don’t have the mental real estate to write very much on top of that (though I do a little, it amounts to one writing day a week, and even that is often compromised by my responsibilities). Frankly, reading and grading literally thousands of pages of student work every semester turns my brain to goop and there’s nothing I can do about it.
(and please, SPARE ME the whole “you can just assign less work for them!” comment. Just assume I take my job seriously and what I assign I consider actually instructive. I also don’t find the “throw the papers down the stairs to grade them” thing particularly clever, either.)
Now, if I sound a little salty about this, it’s because I kind of am. Not because I don’t like my job (I actually do, most of the time), but because I always finish every single summer feeling as though I’ve failed as a writer somehow. I look around at all my writing associates who have different work lives than me and a different writing process and know that for the next six or seven months or so they’ll be cheerily writing away and submitting stories and finishing novel drafts and I’ll feel like I’m stuck on the sidelines, unable to compete. And yeah, it’s not a competition – I know this intellectually – but it often feels like a race. A race I’m losing. People are out there living that authorial lifestyle and I just…can’t. I’m watching my friends go on without me.
But that’s all bullshit.
Each summer for the past several years, I have completed a novel draft and revised a separate novel. Each summer I tend to finish a handful of short stories that I then set about submitting for publication. Each summer I seem to publish about 2-3 stories, usually in professional markets. Each year for the past several, I have published a novel. Ordinarily that should (and often is) enough for me to hold at bay the persistent brain weasels that tell me I’m not doing enough or working hard enough.
This summer has been, by my own admittedly unreasonable expectations, not a terribly successful one. Why? Well, I did not finish a complete draft of any particular novel and the revisions I made to another novel have been sent back for more revisions and so I feel like I haven’t completed that, either. Basically, I’ve been beating myself up all month; I feel like a failure. And, just to show you how unreasonable that is, let me list out what I actually wrote and/or published this summer:
- A failed draft (meaning I need to start over again) of a scifi novel (working title The Iterating Assassin): 55,000 words
- An incomplete draft of a humorous urban fantasy novel (working title One Dollar Wishes): 25,000 words
- 1 complete revision of The Day It All Went Sideways (time travel novel): 88,000 words and a second incomplete second revision of same.
- 1 novelette (“Season to Taste”) at 8500 words
- 1 novelette (“Stanley Armageddon”) at 8200 words
- “What the Plague Did to Us” in the July/August Galaxy’s Edge
- “The Masochist’s Assistant” in PodCastle (episode 586) – this a reprint from the story of the same name in F&SF a few years back
- Short story “Three Gowns for Clara” to F&SF
So, okay, that works out to 103,000 new words written, about 100,000 words edited (not counting the number of little rewrites I’ve done of those stories and other things), two things published, and one top-shelf pro sale.
Yeah, and what am I complaining about, exactly?
That’s just it, though – this way I feel, this sinking feeling in my guts that makes me feel like I’m never going to manage to publish something again and nobody in the world is ever going to care – is flagrantly irrational. All writers, no matter where they are in their career, feel this incredible weight of self-doubt each and every day they aren’t writing. And also when they are writing. That’s because this is an uncertain business, one that refuses to conform to regimented schedules and predictable outcomes. It sucks that way.
But, honestly, that’s also what makes it magical. If this shit were easy, everybody would do it. Right?
Anyway, that’s what I tell myself sometimes. I’ll let you know if it ever works.
Hey, everyone! I’ve got a new short story out (well, a flash story – it’s very short) out in this July 2019 issue of Galaxy’s Edge. I’m in a great issue, too, alongside such brilliant writers as Robert J Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Kevin J Anderson, Gregory Benford, and more! The best part is this: for this month only, you can read my story and others for free online! Just go to the website and check it out!
My story is my take on the zombie apocalypse and it is like, maybe, 1500 words, so you have no excuse not to read it. Go and check it out now!
So, Readercon this past weekend was a lot of fun, even though I was only there for one day. I saw two very interesting and engaging talks, one by Graham Sleight about Instrumentality and Science Fiction (is SF useful as a predictive tool for the future) and one by Austin Grossman about the origin of genre. Both fascinating, both mixtures of things I didn’t know and things I did, and both of which I’ll be chewing over for a while.
I was on a panel about World’s Worst Jobs that was great, great fun and I heard a bunch of crazy stories (and got to tell one, too). I gave a reading from Dead But Once that had a small audience, but was well received. To wrap it all up, I went to the launch party for Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War, which just sounds like an amazing book you should all go out and buy right now.
So, overall a great experience at another great Readercon!
I continue working through the summer on not just one novel, but two. Well, in truth, the first draft of the first novel I wrote this summer crashed and burned last week and I need to let the wreckage settle while I consider how to make another attempt (probably not until after Christmas). So I’m working on a second one now, which I won’t have time to finish before the Fall Semester kicks in, but I’m hoping I can at least get a sizeable chunk done. What kinds of books are they? Well, the first is a gritty space opera full of bizarre aliens and no humans whatsoever and the second is a more humorous thing set in a modern mall involving mythical creatures. So, in other words, totally different things. Is this good? Bad? Unwise? I don’t know. My agent seems to think it will be fine, but one wonders nevertheless.
In any event, onward and upward! Talk to you folks soon!
Haven’t posted here in a little bit – been busy, starting new projects, editing old ones, and keeping up with the day job, etc.. I also had a little conversation with my agent recently that kinda knocked me on my ass, because I don’t really know how to respond to it.
Basically, in discussing my next novel, he made the comment that I’ve proven that I can write in a wide variety of styles and, furthermore, that I am able to write convincingly in all of these styles. But then he asked me this:
I’m just curious what an Auston Habershaw novel would sound like if it didn’t sound like something else.
What whooshing sound you hear is my self-esteem escaping through a crack in the door.
Now, my agent said he did not consider this a criticism, per se – merely an observation. See, the book he just read of mine has a wildly different style from the Saga of the Redeemed. Part of this is because it is a first person narration, part of this is because it’s a time-travel caper and not an adventure fantasy, and part of it is because, to be honest, yes, I am a bit of a style chameleon. I can write in just about any style convincingly.
But what I heard from him when he asked that question was that he isn’t sure I have my own voice and, instead, I’ve been doing “funny voices” to entertain people. Like an impressionist. That I don’t have a style of my own – there’s no way for you to see me inside the words – and it felt (a little) like being accused of having no soul. I’m some kind of doppelganger, cursed to mimic others without ever being authentic.
I don’t think my agent meant it that way, but I’ve been wondering about what he said and also wondering if that is what it means even if he didn’t mean it.
Of course, I feel like I do have a style (you’re reading it). Everybody does, honestly – style is like a fingerprint in your work and you sort of can’t avoid it. Except maybe that I can. But wait a minute, though – if I’m embodying the voice of a character, shouldn’t I be obscured? I think so. But of course, I suspect my agent thinks so, too, since he went out of his way to point out that this wasn’t a criticism, just a question. He wants to know if I have some kind of natural voice inside me. He’s pushing me to be better, and that’s a very valuable thing. All that said, though, I can’t escape the idea that I might be derivative, and that I very much don’t want.
Hence my defensiveness.
So okay, let’s accept for the moment that I have a malleable style that mirrors other work very ably but is not distinct to myself. How does one even go about changing that? I mean, I have no real idea what it means to “be myself” when I’m writing from the POV of others. Who am I, and why would you listen to me, anyway? I want to take you on grand adventures, not putter around my study with a mug of coffee and a faded sweatshirt (note: I don’t drink coffee, but you get the idea. Another example of me not being me, maybe?).
Anyway, I’m not sure what to do or even if I should worry about it. I’ve resolved, for the moment, to just let it ride, keep working, and see what develops. Ironically, my current WIP is about a shape-shifting alien with a variety of identity and self-esteem problems, so that seems weirdly appropriate. Perhaps, in Faceless, I’ve found myself after all.
Time will tell, I guess.
A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.
Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.
Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.
I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.
In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.
It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:
- What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
- What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
- What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?
By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!
All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.