Serious Fantasy Revisited

A few weeks ago I put up a post wondering whether people are inclined to treat science fiction more seriously than fantasy – that is, more likely to capably deal with “big” issues – to the point that it shades peoples’ perceptions of what is and isn’t fantasy. The very same day I posted that I came across another head-scratching example that I wanted to share.

Over at Tor, James Davis Nicoll posted an article about six books that “defy easy categorization” and straddle the sci-fi fantasy divide. I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with most of these (several went on my “to read” list). The one I was familiar with, however, left me shaking my head. That was Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

As Nicoll explains, Kindred is about a black woman from modern American (it was written in ??) who, inexplicably, is ripped back in time to before the Civil War where she is exposed, brutally and graphically, to the horrors of slavery. It’s a tough read, to be sure, but it’s brilliant. As for its classification, Nicoll writes:

But is it science fiction or fantasy? While I will grant that the physical mechanism is never explained, Dana is caught up in a stable time loop whose logic dictates much of what happens to her. . . .. Butler thought Kindred was fantasy, but it also seems perfectly reasonable to call it science fiction.

It really doesn’t, any more that it seems perfectly reasonable to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt on any factual dispute at this point. As Nicoll says, there’s no explanation or mechanism given for the main character’s time travel. It just happens. It’s certainly not the result of some kind of deep tech or scientific advancement. It’s more one of those Twilight Zone setups you just accept as existing, without wondering why. That, to me, is the defining feature of fantasy – here’s a world that’s different than ours, accept it (or don’t) and move on.

So why try and turn Kindred into science fiction? Could it be that it deals with deeply serious and traumatic topics that most people don’t associate with fantasy? I don’t buy the “it’s magic, but it’s magic that follow rules, therefore it’s sci-fi” logic. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (to pick an example) has a very regimented, logical, magic system (it sometimes feel like video game controls), but nobody would call it sci-fi, would they? Fun as those are, they don’t deal with the kind of issues that Kindred does, however.

I shared my original post with a group of sci-fi and fantasy writers on Facebook and got some interesting answers (and some amusing ones – to the question of “is sci-fi more ‘serious’ than fantasy,” one person just answered “yes”). The one that really caught me was this one:

Now, being a prog fan, I should have come up with this one myself. Nonetheless, I think bringing musical genres into this might help shed some light on the question. I think this is something that happens to new fans of all musical genres, but I’ve seen it repeatedly with prog fans (I may have even gone through it a bit myself): Fan of a particular bands discovers they’re generally classified as “progressive rock,” finds out that there’s more groups out there with similar characteristics, falls madly in love with “prog” as a thing and . . . starts to expand its boundaries exponentially. In other words, they go from “prog = good” to “good = prog” and try to define every band they like into their new favorite genre. No matter how great XTC are (and they are great!), they aren’t a progressive rock band – nor do they need to be categorized as such!

Is the same thing going on here? Are people who are normally drawn to sci-fi reading fantasy novels and feeling the need to reclassify them accordingly? I know sometimes there’s a rift between fans who only dig one or the other (I still remember the howls when the then-Sci-Fi Channel dares to show something that might actually be fantasy!), so maybe there’s some desire to cleave off the stuff at the margins and claim it one way or the other.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing. As I said in the original post, my beef is less about erecting boundaries around genres erasing grey areas and more the desire to see people treat fantasy (or crime fiction or romance or . . .) as just as able to raise serious issues as other genres. But maybe, in the end, it’s a lot of sound a fury and all that.

Is Sci-Fi More “Serious” Than Fantasy?

Fantasy has a reputation for taking itself pretty seriously. Outside of some outliers like Terry Pratchet’s Discworld books, the prevailing image of fantasy is that it’s about big deal themes of good against evil, fulfilling destinies, and such like that. The Lord of the Rings is not a “day in the life” story with no big stakes, after all. Indeed, in a lot of ways fantasy can seem – to use an epithet thrown at progressive rock all the time – “pretentious.” But for all that, when it comes to dealing with the big questions, the ones that probe the nature of reality and humanity, do people take science fiction more seriously than fantasy? Even to the point of letting that reflect how they categorize a story?

This occurred to me after I’d finished up The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North.

HarryAugust

The setup is this – the title character is one of a few select people in the world who live their lives over and over again. When they die, they basically go back to the beginning and are reborn, but with the collected memories of their prior lives still intact. Thus these are some seriously “ahead of their time” children roaming around, as you might guess. The story follows Harry as he lives a bunch of his lives and tries to stop another of his kind that is seeking a revelation will destroy the world. It’s pretty good, and has some really excellent bits. I recommend it.

When I finished the book I do what I usually do and seek out reviews to see what others thought about it. To my surprise, I saw a lot of people file The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August under “science fiction,” which made little sense to me. Sure, there’s some discussion of quantum mechanics and parallel worlds (at i09, Charlie Jane Anders lists all this as reasons why “it’s a real science fiction book,” so what do I know?), but what makes the story go is the completely fantastic bit where these people live their lives over and over again. It’s never explained, much less with some kind of semi-plausible scientific reason. For all we know a genie thousands of years ago granted somebody’s wish and it got out of hand.

The mechanics don’t matter much because North uses them to deal with issues of free will, destiny, and the price of the pursuit of ultimate knowledge. These are the kinds of big issues that science fiction sometimes tackles, but that doesn’t mean that every story that does that is science fiction. Could it just be that people expect sci-fi to be more thoughtful about this stuff than fantasy?

Regular readers know one of my pet peeves is when people who write “Literature,” rather than just tell stories, write something that’s unambiguously fantasy or sci-fi but refuse to label it as such because of genre snobbery. This feels kind of the same way. Sure, fantasy is fine for satisfying tales of good vanquishing evil or ass-kicking vampire slayers, but if you want to ponder the big questions, well, it’s not for that. But why not?

Any story can plumb the depths of the big questions that have plagued humanity since we started walking upright. Genre doesn’t limit the stories you can tell, only change the way that they’re told. Embrace the idea that deep thoughts can come from anywhere in the library.

Serious

I Have Returned

Hi, folks! Did you miss me?

As promised, my hiatus was pleasantly productive. I finished up the third draft of Widows of the Empire while I was away. I’m just about to dive into draft four, which will be the final one before it goes off to beta readers and an editor. What that means for you, dear reader, is that I should be able to get Widows out into the world sometime in early 2021!

I’ve already got another great cover from Deranged Doctor Design. Here’s a taste:

Title Only

More to come, maybe before the year is out!

Progress

Summer Hiatus

Holy hell, is it July already? I suppose pandemic time really has done a number on us. Anyway, I’ve been busy on Widows of the Empire, just about to finish the third draft. Just one more and . . . well, y’all get to read it. So, I’m giving myself a bit of a break and stepping away from the blog for the rest of the month. I’ll see you in August.

Until then, I’ll leave these two in charge.

BlogMonitorDogs

Zaria already looks very skeptical, doesn’t she?

On Writing For Posterity

One of the interesting things about life on an Internet forum is how cyclical it is. Since new people are always joining, and few of them think to do deep searches when they first arrive in the happy flush of finding the forum, some evergreen topics show up again and again. If you log in to the Progressive Ears forums tonight for the first time and think, “I’ll ask everybody what they really think ‘prog’ is!”, rest assured you’re not the first one. See also, “why are fantasy and science fiction lumped together” on any genre-related space.

Writers’ forums are no different. New writers are a combination of boundless enthusiams and depths of doubt that lead them to ask a lot of questions. Naturally, most of them have been asked and answered before. A favorite one of those, perhaps second only to worries about other writers stealing ideas, is a concern about writing something that feels “dated.” This tweet from Kyra Richardson earlier this year lays it out as good as any:

PosterityTweet

I’ve always thought that was an odd question to ask, but could never figure out why until just recently when it hit me like a two-by-four: it’s incredibly presumptuous.

Let’s be clear, when people talk about their writing feeling dated, they’re not talking about a current or modern audience. Few people worry that between the time they write the book and it’s published that the references will become dated. Instead, they’re talking about readers in the future, people who are going to turn to the book many years down the road, perhaps when the author is dead. They’re talking about writing for posterity, the kind of impact and success that every artist dreams about, but a vanishingly few actually obtain. It’s like a teenaged laptop musician working on his first track worrying about what he’s going to wear to the Grammys.

Lots of people write books. Even though lots of people also read them, the chances of any particular book being read by more than a handful of people is pretty slim. As a result, unless you already have an audience and think they might carry on for a while, worrying about posterity while writing a book is super presumptuous.

Write the best book you can. Tell the story you want to tell. Is it full of sly jokes about things that are popular right now? Don’t worry. Make it compelling. Give readers characters to care about. If you do all that, they’ll handle the references. If they care about the people involved, they’ll learn. It’s why I’ve learned a lot of very particular British references over the years – to fully understand Marillion (and others) lyrics.

Don’t worry about posterity. If you connect with readers in the here and now, you’re ahead of the game. Posterity will take care of itself.

Posterity

Which Details Matter?

World building is typically something we think is the concern of sci-fi and fantasy writers. If you’re going to tell a story set in a world that is either not ours or significantly different from it, you need to define those differences. But the truth is that all writers should be concerned with world building. Writers of all kinds of fiction need to flesh out the world in which their characters exist. Even if it’s the real world, it’s likely a part of it that the reader isn’t familiar with. Even non-fiction writers need to do the same – to build a place for their story to take place in order for it to make sense.

Of course, not everything about the world you’re working in is important for a reader to know. Finding the right level of detail can be hard, since you might send signals to readers that you never intend and actually mess up the world building you’re trying to do.

If you’ve read Gods of the Empire you know that Lady Belwyn has a music room. In an early draft I mentioned in one scene, as Hagan entered the room, that she was playing a “Colebeck etude.” I could have just said “etude” or even just named the instrument she was playing, but I thought throwing a composer’s name in would make it feel more like something from a lived-in world. Plus, it let me give a shoutout to the progressive rock world and name check Julian Colebeck, longtime keyboard player with Steve Hackett. To my knowledge, he’s never written an etude.

“But wait,” you’re saying. “I’ve read Gods of the Empire and I don’t remember anything about Colebeck in it.” You’re right, because I wound up taking it out. To a person, everyone in my writers group seized on the fact that there was a new name thrown at them when they read that scene. They wondered if this Colebeck person was important to the story. Would he come up again? Is this something important to remember for later down the road? Since the answer to all of those questions was “no,” I just decided to take it out. It’s at the point of the book where readers are still finding their feet on Oiwa and in the Unari Empire, so it was more important to remove a distraction.

My mistake, I think, was in introducing a variable that’s completely unknown without definition. If I was writing something in the real world – say, a sequel to Moore Hollow – and I had a similar character, I might have her playing a piece by Mozart or Liszt or Stravinsky. That would provide a nice little detail, but only because those names aren’t variables – they’re real composers who exist in this world. So long as the name is familiar enough for a reader to nod at it, that’s all you need. If you know those three names you can figure out what it’s saying about the character that she plays Stravinsky instead of Mozart.

But sometimes you need a reference to be just as fictional as your characters, even if your story takes place in the real world. In my opinion, it’s more distracting to try and avoid this than it is to take a sentence or two and define your fictional reference. This jumped out at me listening to The Getaway, an Audible Original by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.

Giveaway

It’s about a woman, a press secretary in the wake of a losing campaign, who goes on a yoga retreat where bad things happen. She does so partly because of how this retreat was praised by an unnamed actress she follows on social media.

The first time this person came up the main character just called her “an actress she follows,” which I thought was weird. It’s important enough to mention that this influencer’s praise was part of the reason to go on the retreat, but she doesn’t have a name? All right, it’s a throw away. But the second time it came up it really annoyed me. And the third. And the fourth. This really does seem to be an important detail – nay, it’s critical to the fairly dubious setup! (needless to say I’m not recommending The Getaway) – yet the story doesn’t define it. It could be as simple as a name and that she’s the star of some TV series or movie. No need for more than that, but just something to suggest that this actress is a real person in this world.

As always, it’s a question of balance and where to draw the line. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to building your world, except maybe one: Does this detail serve the story? Does it deepen the reader’s understanding of the world or the characters? Okay, so that’s two questions, but you get the point.

Details

New Short Story – “Puffery”

Remember last month when I said I was doing the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest? My first story, “The Nickel Tour,” was good enough to get me through to the second round. Now the results are in for that one and, well, I won’t make it to the third round. “Puffery” garnered an honorable mention, but didn’t place in the top 5 (out of 25 in the group). Given that it was outside my usual genre and style, I’m still pretty pleased with it.

For this round, my group was assigned to write a political satire on the subject of medical tourism, with a warlord character in it. After a false start I slipped into the right mode and wrote something that is definitely influenced by the time and place in which I wrote it. It also allowed me to create a character that I think I want do more with in the future.

Until then, enjoy!

Puffery

Milo slipped into the Trapezoidal Office just as the Generalissimo said, “what’s in the bay?”

Advisors were arrayed around the room, each clutching papers and trying to hide behind one another. Milo didn’t even recognize some of the faces. He’d made the right decision not bothering to learn names. What was the point? They’d be gone soon enough.

“A plague ship, sir,” the Minister of Defense said.

“From America,” threw in Kevefe, the Generalissimo’s son-in-law. Educated in America, married to the Generalissimo’s beloved eldest daughter, he was the one the man always tasked with doing anything important, from managing the Generalissimo’s properties to trying to negotiate treaties. His title should have been Minister of Everything. “They’re having a plague. It’s whipping through the south right now, like Sherman a generation ago.”

The American south was the closest large land mass to Oflana, the small island the Generalissimo had made his stronghold. It wasn’t even at large as Charleston, the nearest American city.

“And why are they here?” the Generalissimo asked, putting his elbows on his desk. It was enormous, made of dark walnut with ornate carvings of mythical sea creatures on each leg. He  told people it was made from the beams of the British frigate that Sadont, the national hero of Oflana, boarded and captured when the island won its independence. He would take any opportunity to tie himself to that legend. The truth of the desk, so far as anybody could tell all, is that the Generalissimo had found it in an estate sale in Savannah during one of his “diplomatic” missions.

“Because we are a day’s steamship voyage from Charleston,” Defense said. “Perhaps two, depending on weather.”

The Generalissimo looked as confused as ever. “But why now?”

Milo knew how this dance worked. The Generalissimo worked through the problem in his own time and in his own peculiar way. Everyone would have their say, but he had to make the final decision, even if everyone else knew it was the wrong one. Milo decided he had to goose the process along.

“Sir?” He raised his hand like a grade school child.

“Yes, Minister of Information?” the Generalissimo said, slightly slurring his words.

“Sir, that ship is here because of what you said on the radio last week.” Every week the Generalissimo took over the island’s five radio stations for his Voice of Oflana broadcasts. Ranging from five minutes to five hours, depending on his mood that particular day, it was his chance to talk to his people, who had little choice but to listen.

“Last week?” The Generalissimo looked at Kevefe, squinting, like he was trying to dredge the memory from the depths of his mind.

“You talked about the plague in America, how their hospitals and doctors couldn’t cope,” Kevefe said. “Things of that nature.”

“Due respect, sir,” Milo said before the Generalissimo could move on, “it was much more than that.”

The Generalissimo looked at him, slumped in his seat, hands outstretched. “How much more?”

Milo took a deep breath. “You also discussed the medical system here on Oflana. You called it the best in the world.”

“Of course,” the Generalissimo said. “We only have the best things here in Oflana.”

Milo knew that might be true for the Generalissimo and his family, but that for the rest of them modern medical treatment was more hope than reality. He pushed on anyway, leaving truth bloodied in a ditch yet again. “You also said the plague would not strike Oflana,” Milo closed his eyes and quoted verbatim, “because it knows in its heart that we have the medicine to kill it.” It was times like this that Milo cursed his eidetic memory.

“So?”

The Minister of Health sheepishly raised his hand. “Sir, that pronouncement may have been premature.”

“Are you suggesting I lied?” the Generalissimo said, slowly rising from his chair, his ever expanding girth straining the medal-covered white uniform he was wearing.

Health’s eyes went wide, but before he could defend himself the hammer came down.

“You’re fired!” the Generalissimo boomed, pointing to the door with great emphasis. “Get out!”

“Sir, I,” Health began to say.

“Do I need to call for Boze?” the Generalissimo said, invoking the name of his security chief, a massive islander who could snap Health, or anyone else in the room, in two.

Faced with a fate worse than termination, Health scurried out the door.

“If I even said that, about having a cure for the plague,” the Generalissimo said, returning to his seat. “I don’t think I said that.”

The advisors all exchanged wary glances. Milo just managed to avoid rolling his eyes. Not only had he heard the Generalissimo say those exact words, now the man had gone and fired the person who should be put in charge of dealing with that plague ship slipping into the dock.

“Rest assured, sir,” the Minister of the Interior jumped in, “our physicians will deal with this pestilence with care, skill, and strength.”

“We’re about to find out,” Milo said. There was a clock tick-tocking in his brain, knowing that the American ship was going to reach the dock in any moment. “Sir, that’s why they’ve come. They think there’s a cure here, and they’ve come to get it.”

Milo could tell that the Generalissimo was still missing some links in the chain. “Your broadcasts sometimes reach the American mainland. It depends on weather conditions, if I’m correct.”

Across the room the Minister of Technology nodded vigorously.

“In addition, although you expelled a number of American journalists last month, there are still a few foreign reporters here. I’m sure they heard your broadcast.”

The Generalissimo shook his head. “Deadbeat losers. Why do I let them come here and cause trouble?”

“They’ll be gone by morning,” Kevefe said with a wave of his hand.

“Er,” Milo said, lump in his throat, “that won’t solve the problem, sir.”

“Why not?” Kevefe glared at him.

Milo tugged at his collar. “They surely know that this plague ship is arriving. Anyone can see down into the bay from the city. And the ship is quite large.”

The Generalissimo leaned forward. “Larger than the Dominator?”

Dominator was the pride of the Oflan navy. For all intents and purposes it was the Oflan navy.

Milo chose his words carefully. “I’m no expert, sir, but I can say that it is not nearly as impressive as Dominator. Nonetheless, it’s carrying hundreds of people.”

“All infected?” At least something was getting through to him.

Milo shrugged. “It could be healthy people trying to escape from the plague. Or it could be sick people looking for a cure. We’ll only know for certain once they dock.”

The Generalissimo furled his brow. “Don’t we have radios? To talk to the ship?”

Milo wasn’t in the mood to handle this question, so he did what he had to do. “I believe that the Minister of Technology could best answer that question, sir.”

Technology shot Milo a look that said he would pay for this in the coming days. “Recall, sir, that the land-to-sea radios were damaged in the storm two years ago.”

“Ah, yes,” the Generalissimo said, “the great hurricane I turned away from the island.”

Hurricane Robert took dead aim on Oflana, turning off to the east and out to sea at the last moment. While it spared the island and the city the worst of the winds, the bay at the bottom of the hill had still been swamped by the storm surge. Hundreds lost their lives.

“Yes,” Technology continued, “well, sir, those systems have never been repaired.”

“Why not?” The Generalissimo said.

The truth was that the money went to rebuilding the swimming pool in the Generalissimo’s palace, but Milo certainly wasn’t going to say that.

“It went,” Technology started. He apparently thought better of it, too, the firing of Health still fresh in everyone’s memory. “I don’t recall specifically, sir. Regardless, there’s no way to contact that ship until it docks.”

Milo checked his watch. They had, at most, five more minutes to make a decision.

“Then how do we deal with this?” the Generalissimo asked, relaxing again. “Why not just send them back? I’ll defend my people against any threat. Keep that infected ship off our land.”

“That would look very bad,” Milo said. “This plague is fast acting. If there are sick people on that ship and they don’t get any kind of treatment they may die before they get back to Charleston. The press would have a field day.”

“The press hate me,” the Generalissimo said. “Even if we don’t send the ship back, they’ll say bad things. Lies and slander over and over again.”

Milo wasn’t about to get into this now, so he dodged the barb. “Is there another option?”

“We let them dock,” Interior said. “If they’re healthy refugees, we take them while stating this is a onetime situation. Any other ship will be turned back. If they’re sick, they go to the hospital and we’ll treat them the best we can.”

That was a bad option, too, Milo knew. It would lay bare the Generalissimo’s claims that the plague could be treated here. These people, if sick, would overwhelm the island’s small hospital and most likely die horrible deaths, but at least their ends might come with some dignity and care. “Sir, we really have to make a decision. That ship is about to dock.”

The room fell silent. Milo held his breath, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, waiting.

“Let them in,” the Generalissimo said, after what seemed like an eternity. “We are a generous people, are we not?”

“Yes, sir,” everyone else muttered without real conviction.

“Thank you, sir,” Milo said, bolting from the room. He couldn’t believe the man did the right thing, even if it was probably for the wrong reason. Milo ran to his office, rang the dock, and told them the news.

Shortly after he hung up, Kevefe knocked on his open door. “How are you going to sell this to the press? Before you’ve expelled the foreign reporters, of course.”

With the foreign press gone that would only leave the handful of Oflan reporters, none of whom were interested in doing anything but regurgitating whatever Milo told them.“I hadn’t thought of that yet,” he admitted.

Kevefe raised a finger and said, “I have one word for you.”

“One word?”

Kevefe nodded. “Puffery.”

Milo raised an eyebrow. “Puffery?”

“It’s a legal term,” Kevefe said, lapsing into his typical condescending explanation mode. “When someone makes a promise, say in a contract, and can’t keep it, that can be because they lied about the promise or they, let’s say, promised more than they could actually deliver. They puffed up their capabilities.”

“In other words, they lied to get the contract,” Milo said.

Kevefe stepped into his office and glowered down at him. “No, they innocently exaggerated their abilities. Are you suggesting that our physicians aren’t capable of dealing with this plague?”

“The best doctors in America aren’t,” Milo said, deciding not to answer directly.

Kevefe shifted forward, hands on Milo’s desk so that he was almost on top of him. “Are you calling my father-in-law, the Generalissimo of Oflana a liar?”

Milo wanted to, but knew he couldn’t. “Of course not,” he said, doing his best to back away from Kevefe. “Puffery. Yeah, I think I can sell that to the press.”

“You’ll prepare a statement?” Kevefe said, stepping back and composing himself.

Milo nodded. “And, of course, I’ll share it with you before it’s released.”

Kevefe stepped back into the hallway and smiled. “You’re a good man, Milo. Don’t know what we’d do without you.”

Milo took a moment once Kevefe disappeared to compose himself. He needed to prepare a statement for the press. And he needed to expel those foreign reporters. If he was lucky, maybe they would take him with them.

Cartman

My Characters Don’t Speak to Me

Creativity is a weird thing. A book is a book or a song is a song, but different writers can get to that finished product in lots of different ways. That’s made clear to me whenever writers talk about being pantsers instead of plotters. Pantsers, generally speaking, make it all up as they go along, without any great amount of planning, notes, and the like. Plotters, by contrast, do all that stuff before they start writing. I’ve learned, the hard way, than I’m more plotter than pantser. I admire pantsers for the way they write, but to me it’s as foreign an experience as it would be if I tried to write the last part of the Unari Empire trilogy in Tagalog.

There’s another group of authors of which I am not a part when it comes to the creative process. That’s the group who talk about the characters in their stories like they are independent, sentient beings. Some talk about how they don’t write dialog, they just transcribe conversations their characters have on their own. Others give their characters agency and talk about how they can’t control what they do. As at least one well-known writer put it:

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, reports negotiating a deal with his character Mrs. Coulter to get her to spend time in a cave in one of his books. Some authors have reported that their characters give them unsolicited advice about the writer’s own life!

I just don’t get this. One of the amazing things about writing fiction is that I, as the author, am God, in a big G omniscient and omnipotent sense. Characters only exist because I create them and they only do what I tell them to. Their words are my words. Does it means they always develop the way I first intend them to? No, but that’s me changing my mind, not them rebelling.

Maybe I look at it this way because I started writing seriously as a lawyer and in legal writing you’re at the whim of so many other things – the law, the facts, your clients. In fact, it’s my clients who behave the way some writers talk about their characters – with complete free will and a dazzling inability to control themselves.

I always figure that when writers talked about characters talking to them or doing things against the writer’s will it was a way for writers to deal with the vagaries of the creative act, with a heaping helping of metaphor baked in (we’re talking about writers, after all). But I’m apparently wrong and in the minority on this, according to recent research with authors from the Edinburgh book festival:

Researchers at Durham University teamed up with the Guardian and the Edinburgh international book festival to survey 181 authors appearing at the 2014 and 2018 festivals. Sixty-three per cent said they heard their characters speak while writing, with 61% reporting characters were capable of acting independently.

‘I hear them in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’,’ said one anonymous writer. ‘They sometimes tell me that what I have in mind for them isn’t right – that they would never behave or speak that way. I don’t usually answer back,’ said another.

Beyond that, 15% of writers surveyed say even talked back to their characters. So, what, are they crazy? Not so much:

Even though some authors reported that their characters had a life of their own, the researchers were keen to stress that there was no question of writers confusing fiction with reality. When the academics rated the writers on how prone they were to hallucinations, they did not score differently to other samples of the population. ‘Hearing voices and other unusual experiences are not in themselves a symptom of a mental health problem,’ they wrote. ‘This shows that vivid imaginative states – including losing control of one’s own imagination – [are] a healthy and safe thing which is important for how some people create fiction.’

Then what’s going on here? Researchers think that these writers aren’t sharing a singular experience, but it’s more that they’re describing a myriad of experiences that occur during the writing process. In other words, to say “they hear their characters talk to them” really flattens the nuance of the issue.

There’s part of me who thinks like this guy, like I’m missing out on something:

CharactersTalk

I get what he’s saying. There’s something transcendent and beyond the realm of grinding craft when characters talk to you. You’re not just writing, at that point, your communing with the muse, you’re tapping into the essential forces of the universe.

But I don’t think that can be right. Neither he nor I are missing out on anything – we just work differently. Truth is, while there may be a wrong way to write a book, there are probably an infinite number of “right” ways, because what works best for one writer might not work at all for others.

So, I guess I’m fine with the idea that my characters don’t talk to me. In place of the psychic connection that others have with their creations, I’ll happily sit back and make mine do whatever the hell I want while theirs are wreaking havoc!

Raplh

Sometimes Writing Is Just Filling In the Holes

I can only assume that no piece of art – novel, symphony, painting – comes out complete and perfect in one pass. Creators have to go back and fix things, right? If not I must be doing it very very wrong.

When I write a first draft it’s all about momentum. The goal is to keep putting one foot in front of the other moving the story forward. I’m not saying that I just slap words on the page with the intention to repair them later, but there is a sense of urgency to keep going. For my writing style, until I have an actual story I have a hard time nipping and tucking it into something that readers will (hopefully) enjoy.

As a result, sometimes there are times when I leave holes that need to be filled on a second pass.  A lot of times it’s a sentence or a paragraph, usually replaced with something in all caps like “WRITE SOMETHING EXCITING HERE.” That’s particularly true if I’m writing a chapter where characters get into danger and I know they’re going to get out, but haven’t figure out how yet.

What sucks about this strategy is that I usually forget I’ve done it until I come around for a second draft. For me a second draft is where I can make sure things that need to be connected and make sense. Wait, the bad guy in Chapter 5 was an expert marksman, but in Chapter 9 he can’t hit the broad side of a barn? That kind of thing gets fixed in a second draft, along with making sure characters develop like I want and such. And, of course, I fill in holes.

As I said, I usually forget about these holes, but it’s not a big deal to put down the virtual red pen, fire up the writing brain, and knock out a few sentences.

Sometimes, unfortunately, you get this:

Chapter34

That’s Chapter 34 of the first draft of Widows of the Empire. As you can see, when I came round on my second draft, there wasn’t anything there.

Did I panic? Just a little bit. It was one of those situations where I knew, generally, what had to happen in that chapter but at first pass I didn’t have a good idea of how it should happen. I don’t know what it was when I was in the first draft but the particular synapses I needed just weren’t firing at that point.

Did they fire later? Thankfully, yes, although not without complication. I sketched out what I wanted to happen in that chapter, then went back to my red pen and the rest of the manuscript, planning to write that chapter when I was finished. A day or two, tops, and that would be that.

Then the COVID-19 lockdown happened. I’m fortunate in that my day job is both essential (the wheels of justice may slow the fuck down, but they don’t stop) and I can do it safely from home, so my life hasn’t been upended nearly as much as it has for some people. Nonetheless, the change in my daily life, along with the existential dread of the whole situation, sapped my creativity. Literary creativity, anyway.

It took a couple of weeks, but I finally found the spark again and, in a few days, pounded out a chapter that I think is exciting and a little tragic. It moves the pieces along in a way that should deepen the main character involved. It felt good.

All of which is a long way of saying there is now a complete second draft of Widows of the Empire. And it’s waiting for my virtual red pen. Patience, my sweet . . .

Selma

What Makes A Compelling Main Character?

Last week I started a book. The two main characters were from a different race and were essentially vampires, although they weren’t called that. It was kind of a romance, kind of coming of age, but it involved a lot of sex and murder, without any hint of conscience or consequence. Nor was there any other character trying to put a stop to it.

I didn’t finish the book.

I decided to bail because I couldn’t get into either of the main characters at all. It wasn’t that they were bad or did evil things – I don’t need the protagonist of every book to be a flawless hero (read The Water Road if you don’t believe me). But there has to be something there and it made me start to think about what we expect, as readers, from our main characters.

Stories are all about characters. Regardless of how inventive the world building or how labyrinthine the plot, if the people who are living in that world and doing those things don’t connect with readers than it’s kind of a wasted exercise.

Do main characters have to be good heroes who strive to do right and seem like really fun/nice people to be around? That’s certainly one way to go. Having your main character be someone who’s easy to root for makes it easy for readers to be swept away in their story. Those kinds of characters tend to be kind of dull, though, since they’re always doing the right things for the right reasons. Still, people generally want good to triumph over evil, so it’s one approach to take.

A more subtle approach would be to have a main character who has flaws and sometimes makes bad decisions, but who’s heart is basically in the right place. This is where most main characters fall, I think. Since I referenced The Water Road before I’d say that’s where Antrey belongs. She does a horrible thing, but spends the rest of the trilogy trying to make up for it and learn from it.

But what about bad guys? Anti-heroes? Can’t people identify with main characters who are generally doing wrong? Of course! It’s a much trickier situation.

One of my favorite main characters I’ve come across recently (and who I’ve mentioned recently) is Johannes Cabal, necromancer and start of the series that bears his name. Nobody would accuse Cabal of being a good guy – in fact, a lot of his troubles come from the fact that he’s fundamentally involved in wicked shit (when your first book involves making a second deal with the devil, you’re working overtime). Why do I like him? For one thing, he’s funny. He gives very few fucks about the people he comes across. That, I think, is key to having a main character who’s a bad guy – if they’re fun to watch do what they do, even if it’s evil, it’s easier to be on their side, so to speak. Also, deep down in Cabal’s core, he’s trying to do a good thing – cure the human race of the disease of death. It’s a laudable goal, even if the only way to get there is to slog through darkness.

Another way you can make a main character who does bad thing someone to root for is make their antagonist even worse. The wife and I stumbled across Freaks this weekend on Netflix. Neither a remake of the Tod Browning classic or an adaptation of the Marillion tune, it’s about a little girl with powers and a father trying to protect her. Not “evil,” particularly, but since the kid has no idea of her powers or personal boundaries she does some seriously bad things. That said, the government agency charged with hunting these people down was even worse. It’s easy to wish for a bad, but perhaps redeemable, character against someone who just wants to exterminate them.

I suppose the bottom line for any main character (or any character, really) is that readers have to be interested in them. Maybe not love them, but at least be curious about them and where they’re going. It’s easy to buy in with heroes and people trying to do good. But even people wandering around doing evil have to be interesting. If they’re not, why waste your time reading about them?

BondCat