A different story

Hello, internet!

So over the course of the week I’ve been talking about how you can draw inspiration from video games, and how to use your in-game experiences as the beginning of writing your own stories. And I’ve been talking about the process that I sometimes go through of adapting my video game adventures into prose.

I promised you that’d I’d post a story today, to show you the results of that creative process. And I’ve been working on the story all week. But you know what? It isn’t finished. And I could rush to finish it, filling in the blanks and rounding off the conclusion in time to get it up for tomorrow morning. But what I’ve written so far is good, and I don’t want to rush the rest. I want to take my time with it and produce a story that I’m happy with from start to finish, with a conclusion that’s well thought-through. Even if it is too late to post it here, I’ll know that I’ve done it right, and that it’s the best story it could have been.

So today’s post is going to have to be something different. This week’s posts were supposed to be a trilogy, but now I’m going to have to imitate Pat Rothfuss and leave you all hanging after two instalments, without a satisfying narrative conclusion: only the vague promise of more to come, some time in the future.  I hope you can forgive me for that! I’m struggling to forgive myself. But sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves, as writers. Sometimes it’s okay to take a little bit longer on a project, to play around with it until it really feels finished. Because ultimately we shouldn’t be writing for money or acclaim or to meet deadlines. We should be writing because we enjoy it.

With that in mind, here’s a short piece that I enjoyed writing a few weeks ago. It was written for a Star Trek roleplaying game that I’m part of, and it’s only ever been seen by a small group of other players. It’s short, and simple – just an old man sitting at a bar, quietly contemplating – but I hope that you enjoy it all the same.


“Friends in low places”

Igreb's Taverna Non-Corporeal

The Romulan Neutral Zone, for all its sins, had been the basis of a lot of livelihoods. Xon had spent the last four decades of his life flying out of neutral ports on Nimbus III and other worlds where certain undesirable elements of galactic society could conduct their business without interference. In that time he had seen petty criminal empires rise and fall, he had dined at gunpoint with pirate warlords who ruled over failed colonies like feudal barons over their fiefdoms, and he had seen more greed and desperation than he could easily stomach, the kind of naked poverty and avarice that wasn’t conceivable to most Starfleet officers or ordinary citizens of the Federation. The black market economy of the Neutral Zone had been brutal and unforgiving to the people at the bottom of the ladder, but it had been stable enough in its own way.

The Treaty of Tarod had obliterated that stability. Spaceports that had operated for centuries as havens for malcontents were now no longer beyond the reach of Starfleet or the Romulan navy. For the first time in Xon’s long life, Romulan ale was no longer contraband in the Federation, and Starfleet was delivering Federation medical supplies freely in the other direction. The smuggling industry, with its proud heritage, was at its end. Whole criminal dynasties had been built upon the presumption that the Federation and the Star Empire would always be at each other’s throats, and now the rug had been pulled out from beneath their feet. The rock had been lifted, and the roaches had scattered.

So when Xon accepted a commission to work in the former Neutral Zone, he had been expecting to run into some old acquaintances. He hadn’t been expecting to run into Igreb.

Igreb was a sort of huge luminous quantum octopus who existed laterally in four dimensions at the same time, but he was also a very fine bartender, whose infamous taverna on Nimbus III had been as old as the colony itself. Xon had never been able to figure out if Igreb was a singular entity or part of a species that had evolved beyond corporeal form, but he had certainly never encountered any other sentient beings who remotely resembled him. If ‘resembled’ was the right word. Even after forty years, it was very hard for Xon to wrap his brain around what Igreb actually looked like. You could stare at him for hours and try to build a coherent mental picture of his appearance, but your thoughts seemed to slip away like water off a stone. Besides which, if you stared for long enough, Igreb would eventually remind you that staring was rude, and that you were sitting on a barstool that could be occupied by a paying customer.

Igreb didn’t talk, or even communicate telepathically, in the conventional sense. He just floated behind his circular bar, served you drinks that you didn’t know you wanted, and embedded vague concepts inside your head. Without exchanging words or specific thoughts, Xon had learnt everything about why Igreb finally packed up and left Nimbus. With the Neutral Zone gone, the power dynamics on the Planet of Galactic Peace had shifted overnight, and a full-scale civil war had broken out, with different pirate clans fighting in the desert for control of Paradise City. Igreb’s bar had been bombed during the opening hostilities. He had heard about Starfleet’s new outpost in the region and correctly presumed that it would need bartenders.

The new taverna seemed like an exact replica of the old one. It had the same pervading emerald light, the same pointless mechanical cooling fixtures spinning slowly overhead, the same garish entertainment consoles, the same NO PROJECTILE WEAPONS sign behind the bar. It was half bar, half cargo bay, or it would be when freighter captains started using the shelves and industrial transporters to auction their wares. Igreb had even brought his famous pool tables, where the balls floated repellently over an actual liquid pool instead of the traditional green baize, either a bad joke or the result of an unfortunate mistranslation. The only things missing were the grime, the dancers, and the scent of death, but Xon was confident that the grime at least would quickly accumulate as soon as Igreb started attracting more of his usual patrons.

Xon had the very real privilege of being Igreb’s first new customer. He was only drinking Altair water, but they had still toasted the new premises, and Xon had entertained some optimistic thoughts that the taverna might grow into Eden’s premier dive bar. Igreb had projected his gratitude. They had been sitting silently for almost an hour, having a lively and convivial exchange of ideas, when Xon heard someone parting the screen of chains that hung over the bar’s entrance. He turned on his barstool, and he was surprised by who he saw…

Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 2)

Hello internet!

In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how video games can be fertile ground for inspiring your own writing. Today I’m going to talk about how you can adapt your in-game experiences into unique stories which can stand on their own legs outside of the context of the game world.

My motivation for wanting to talk about this is that I feel like there might be a lot of imaginative gamers and writers out there who love coming up with their own complex internal narratives while they’re playing through video games, and then get frustrated because they feel like they can’t turn those narratives into written story material without it being fan fiction, set in a pre-existing universe. If that’s the case, then I hope I can prove otherwise, by taking you through the sort of process that I go through when a video game inspires me to write something original.

So I’m going to give you an example of an in-game event that inspired me to write something, and then describe how I might go through the process of removing it from the game world and adapting it into a story. I’m going to stick with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for the sake of continuity.

I’ve played a lot of different characters on Skyrim, including a stealthy assassin and an erudite Argonian fire-mage who liked to try and find diplomatic solutions to his problems. But I wanted my latest character to be more of a classical warrior hero, drawing on headstrong figures from epic poetry, like Beowulf and Odysseus. So I created Throdnar, a full-blooded Nord with a strong sword-arm and very few motivations beyond the acquisition of treasure and personal glory…

Throdnar 1

…who got spotted by a hungry dragon while I was trying to get a decent screenshot of him…

Throdnar 2

…and ended up getting the flesh charred from his bones.

Throdnar 4

I won’t be adapting that particular episode into prose any time soon. Throdnar probably wouldn’t want his embarrassing defeat to be remembered in song and stories. He’d probably prefer to be memorialised in tales of his cunning and warrior prowess.

Usually, the kind of incidents that inspire me to want to write stories are a lot less exciting than being burned to death by a dragon. While I was playing a few days ago, I accepted a fairly simple bounty contract to kill a giant who’d been eating local livestock. I stole a horse, rode out to the giant’s camp, and used a technique that I like to call “giant-baiting” to wear down the giant’s health with a bow and arrow, riding away from him on horseback and leading him on a merry chase, until he was dead and I could ride back to collect my bounty.

For those interested, it works a little like this:

Throdnar 5

Step 1) Shoot a giant and incur his wrath.

Throdnar 6

Step 2) Gallop away, pursued by a giant.

Throdnar 7

Step 3) Stop, turn, and shoot the giant, enraging him further, but slightly lowering his health

Throdnar 8

Step 4) Gallop away, pursued by a giant…

And so on until the giant is dead, never allowing the giant to catch up and hit you with his club, however tempting it might be to linger and get off two or three arrows each time you stop.

Already here I’ve invented something that isn’t actually an inherent part of the game, which I can then use in one of my own stories.  I have no idea if other players use the same technique (but if you’re a regular Skyrim player and you hadn’t tried this yet, it’s a great way of getting your hands on a lot of mammoth tusks). Giant-baiting is just something that I’ve come up with while playing in Skyrim’s sandbox, so I can insert the term, and the technique, into a fantasy world of my own creation. If my fantasy world has giants who prey off the land and steal livestock, then I can imagine that giant-baiting is a practiced rural way of life, like poaching or deer-stalking. I can extrapolate that it’s an art with seasoned practitioners who know all of the best ways of doing it without getting themselves killed. An old giant-baiter is necessarily a good giant-baiter because he’s avoided being squashed into jelly by an angry giant. That’s quite a good basis for a character, and I certainly enjoy imbuing Throdnar with those characteristics when I’m baiting giants in the game. I can imagine the thoughts going through his head, the calculations of a veteran giant-baiter doing what he does best.

But it wasn’t actually the giant-baiting that inspired me to write a story. Believe it or not, it was the part before the giant-baiting, where I had to steal a horse.

I could have bought a horse, but that didn’t seem like the sort of thing that Throdnar would do. He seemed like the sort of cunning adventurer who would prefer to steal a horse and pay off his bounty later. But more than that, I’d have preferred to have the option to try and work out a deal with the groom at the stable – I’d have liked it if Throdnar could use his wits and his sharp tongue to steal a horse without just crudely making off with it in broad daylight. I wanted him to be able to say “I’m doing the Jarl’s work and going to hunt down that giant that’s been eating livestock – can I borrow a horse and leave 500 gold with you as insurance that I’ll bring it back?”  Whether or not I brought it back would have been another question. But it was one of those instances where my options were limited by the game’s programming, because that wasn’t a dialogue option I could choose. There’s almost certainly a mod that I could download if I wanted to have that kind of option in game, but that’s not the point. My frustration with the game’s limited options didn’t make me want to alter the game world, it made me want to write a story where a character could have that kind of conversation. So I started writing.

I didn’t want to write a piece of Skyrim fan-fiction, so I needed to strip the world away and create a new setting for this scenario to happen in. That meant changing things like place names, environmental conditions, the general aesthetic of the world, and anything else I could think of to distance myself from Skyrim and make me feel as though this story was happening inside a world that I’d created.

One thing that I decided to change right away – simply because it was easy to do so – was the animal involved. Why have my character steal a horse when they could be stealing something more interesting?

My first thought was some sort of unicorn, and a brief internet research session revealed that historical legends about the unicorn might have been based on a real-life extinct species of megafauna called the elasmotherium.

Elasmotherium
I speculate that ‘elasmotherium’ means ‘hairy rhino of death’ in latin

I thought that it looked pretty cool – I can definitely imagine it domesticated, saddled up, and turned into a formidable beast-of-war, especially with that horn – but I didn’t think “elasmotherium” was the kind of name that would be used in everyday conversation by hardy Northern giant-baiters in a medieval fantasy setting, so I dug deeper and found out that the elasmotherium might also have been the inspiration for a mythical Russian beast called the indrik.  “Indrik” has a nice ring to it, and a brief Google revealed that it hasn’t been widely used in any other popular fantasy media – only for one card in Magic: The Gathering. So I felt safe using it.

So now I was writing a story about Throdnar using his wits to trick a groom into giving him an indrik for half of what it was worth. But what else could I change, to really make it feel like I was creating my own story, set in a world of my own creation?

I decided that my story was going to take place in a bleaker Dark Age fantasy world rather than a generic medieval setting. That meant downgrading technology: replacing brick-built houses with mud bricks and drystone walls. Remembering to make sure that Throdnar only used weapons and tools that had been invented by the time of the 8th or 9th century. The landscape that I’d been riding over in Skyrim was a craggy plateau of rocks and hot springs. I decided to set my story in a forbidding moorland, with rolling hills covered in bracken and goarse. And to fit the bleaker setting, I decided to change the weather. Here, I drew on another encounter that I’d had in Skyrim – I rode out to clear an abandoned fort that had been occupied by bandits, and rain had started falling in sheets by the time I found them. I remembered fighting them in the driving rain and ending up standing my ground in a deep pool, whirling my horse around in the water and hacking down at the bandits as they tried to attack me. That had been a dramatic fight, and I decided to steal the weather, applying it to my fight with the giant, which had happened while the in-game weather was bright and sunny.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that I depicted giants in an original way. Giants in Skyrim are dull creatures who don’t seem to have human levels of intelligence, and they spend a lot of their time herding mammoths. One easy way of differentiating my giants was to cut the mammoth-herding aspect, and I also decided to make my giant a little more cunning. I’d already decided that Throdnar is a warrior who likes to rely on his brains as well as his brawn, so I wanted to give him a more challenging opponent who could match his wits.

I also changed the outcome of the fight. But to find out more about that, you’ll have to come back on Sunday, when I’m planning to post at least part of the story.

I hope this post has given you an insight into what I do when I’m inspired to adapt my video-game experiences into prose. And my assignment for you today is go and try it yourself! I wish you happy gaming, full of moments that you can harvest and insert into your stories.

Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 1)

Hello, internet!

Cards on the table: I completely forgot that this week was my week here on The Art of Writing. As such, I’ve prepared absolutely no material for you, and I’m going to be making it up pretty much as I go along. I feel a little like Gromit, the anthropomorphic dog in the treasured British clay-animation film Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers, speeding along on an electric train and laying track hurriedly in front of me as I go, as illustrated in this helpful gif.

giphy

Hopefully it will be a fun experiment for both of us.

One thing I have been doing a lot of in the last week is playing video games, so let’s riff off that to start with, and talk about how video games can inspire really good writing.

Before I delve into what I’ve been playing, and how it’s been influencing my writing, I want to quickly discard any stigma surrounding video games. Some people might scoff at the suggestion that writers of literature have anything to learn from the story-telling, worldbuilding, or characterisation of interactive entertainment like video games, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think there’s a general scepticism towards video games among the same demographic who are sceptical of genre literature (the industry term, sometimes used unkindly, for sci-fi, and fantasy, and anything which isn’t ‘serious’ literature).  I know I’m in friendly territory here, among my fellow nerds. None of you are likely to think less of any piece of media just because it contains dragons and challenges your imagination by taking place in a fantasy world. But some people baulk at video games just the same way they baulk at Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, and that saddens me a little. Art doesn’t implicitly lose value because it relies on fantastical tropes instead of the tropes and hallmarks of ‘mainstream’ literary fiction. Stories aren’t inherently less complex or robust because they’re being told through the medium of an interactive video game. Writing doesn’t inherently lose value if it draws inspiration from video games or shares a lot of stylistic elements. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there are some people who still don’t see video games as a valid medium for artful storytelling. And I am sad for them, because they’re missing out. Not just on some great art, but on some lush material which can be mined for inspiration.

Writers can choose how much they want their gaming life to influence their writing, and whether they want to disguise their influences or make them explicitly obvious. If you love a video game world enough to want to write stories within that universe, there’s nothing stopping you, and your stories don’t lose any value just because they’re set in a pre-existing universe. A close friend of mine has been writing some excellent fiction set in the Mass Effect universe and posting it online for fans of the series to enjoy, and I’ve been reading it with relish, even though I wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect when I started. (Although, binge-gamer than I am, I have since played through the first two games of the series and enjoyed them both tremendously).

Nathaniel is unlikely to make any money from this particular story, but that’s not why he’s writing it. Not all art is intended for publication, and once again, it doesn’t necessarily lose any value as a story just because it’s available freely on the internet. But if you’re planning to publish your writing and adapt your gaming experiences into your own fantasy world, then it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from your influences: lest ye fall foul of the thin line between emulation and plagiarism.

That becomes a lot easier when you’re drawing inspiration from an open-world game. Recently, I’ve been playing my favourite video game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s now five years old, so I’m not going to bother with a belated review. Suffice to say I adore playing it, which I’ve been doing sporadically since 2013, but I have yet to complete it, so packed is it with excellent content. My fondness for Skyrim is perhaps best illustrated by measuring the slightly destructive influence that it has had on my life: it became my favourite form of procrastination during my third year of university, and was instrumental in the deterioration of at least one romantic relationship. I regret neither of these things. I spent my evenings reading books of magical lore in my study at the College of Winterhold when I should have been reading about seventeenth-century economics for an upcoming exam. By night, I crawled through ancient catacombs in the darkest bowels of Nirn, destroying undead wights and uholy Draugr with the righteous purity of cleansing fire. As the sun rose outside, I fought with fearsome Dragon Priests on storm-wrought mountaintops, because their aspect seemed less daunting than the hardships of writing my dissertation. When I play Skyrim, I have private little adventures, and then I’m often inspired to write about them.

If I adapted my adventures into prose word-for-word, using the same name for every character and location, depicting events in the very same order, then I would be committing plagarism. But that’s never what I’m inspired to do. The important thing with roleplaying games is that you can take away the role-playing element and leave the game itself behind. Role-playing games are designed to provide you with a bare skeleton that serves as a scaffold for your adventures: they give you the building blocks of a story, and you can assemble them however you want. As I’m playing through the story that the developers have created,  I’m imagining the thoughts and feelings of my character and the other characters that they encounter. I’m wondering what might be different if the events were happening outside the confines of a pre-programmed environment. Sometimes, even with a vast open-world game like Skyrim, I’m raging at the limited choices that the game allows. I’m thinking “if I had control of this story, my character wouldn’t be picking any of these options” – and at that point, my interpretation of the player character has become something separate from the game itself. It’s become something that I can extract from the game and insert into my own writing.

I’m sure that many gamers do the same thing when they’re playing a role-playing game, especially if they also happen to be writers. I can guarantee that your experience as a player – your interpretation of the game’s events – will vary dramatically from the experiences and interpretations of any other player. Your character’s progress through the game world, the story that you decided to create in the sandbox that the game provided, is unique, and it belongs to you. And that’s where you stop plagiarising and start creating your own content. You’re drawing your inspiration out of your gaming experiences like a sword being drawn out of a forge, which you can then temper over time, refolding and reheating until it’s become something that’s entirely yours.

I’m running out of room here, and I still haven’t got to my point – so I think I’m going to elaborate on this over the course of the week, and put it into action for you to watch. Come back on Thursday to see how I go about adapting my in-game experiences into prose. Then on Sunday I’ll actually post a short story that I’ve adapted from in-game events.

In the meantime, I suppose I’d better log into Steam and gather some more in-game experiences that I can adapt. Purely for research purposes, you understand…

 

How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.

Orc
Boo

My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.

 

I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!

The Siege of Gordul Nor, Part 1

Hello, internet!

I have a story for you today, but I’d like to begin my post by offering massive congratulations to Tobias, who – if you didn’t see his post yesterday – is expecting a baby! I wish his whole family several metric British tonnes of health and happiness.

Now! Down to business: I am writing stories set in a new fantasy world at the moment, and I thought I’d try some of them out on you. So this week you’re getting three instalments of a short story which I’m provisionally calling ‘The Siege of Gordul Nor’. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Crimea Barricade Corpse

Bournclough had figured out that if he kept every muscle in his body clenched as tight as a drum, he could stop himself from shivering. And if he stopped himself from shivering, that stopped his teeth from chattering, which meant he could smoke his pipe without biting through it. Thus he sat, on an upturned crate stamped POWDER, DRY FOOT, INFANTRY, with his greatcloak draped backwards over his folded arms and his pipe clamped in his mouth, warming the crags of his face with a healthy glow whenever he took a draw from it. He was firmly ensconced in the blind end of a trench, with soggy wicker ramparts doing their best to keep back the mud on either side, and he wasn’t intending to let man, dwarf, elf or beast move him from the spot for the night’s duration. No. 4 Company would be turning out at dawn as their relief. After he’d had a quick word with Colour Purding and handed over possession of the upturned crate, Bournclough would make his way straight back to his billet, where he was looking forward to sleeping until lunchtime, if not later. Then when dusk came around again, he’d march right back out and plant his arse back down in the exact same spot.

This routine had been repeating itself for nigh-on three months, ever since the army reached Gordul Nor and started digging siege lines. Bournclough’s company always got the night watch, and he knew full well why. It got him riled up, sensing the lads around him in the dark every night, shivering from the cold. They squatted all the way down the length of the trench, muttering to themselves, boiling tea, trading smokables, coughing the damp out of their lungs, still on duty when they should by rights have been asleep on their bedrolls. Just because he’d the had the bad fortune to be born with a bit of Broonie blood in him, people thought that he could see in the dark, and these lads suffered. “Put Bimhead’s company on piquet,” the major had said. “He’s got that twerg sergeant, send him out. I’ll say this for twergs, they’re bloody useful for night excursions, if not much else.”

The arrangement suited their lieutenant very well. He turned up each evening to nod his head when they stood to, saying “Carry on, Colour Sergeant” with a very dignified bearing, then turning on his heel and making straight for the mess tent, to keep the sherry decanter company until the small hours. It suited Bournclough to a point, as well. He could deal with officers who were drunks and wasters. They didn’t stop him from running the company the way he liked. It was the interfering sorts that he couldn’t stand.  Or worse, the ones who tried to be heroes. The safest thing for that sort of officer was a bayonet in the back before they got anywhere near the enemy.

He got the sudden sensation that there was someone new in their trench. He couldn’t see in the dark, despite what the major thought, but he did have a bit of the old Broonie sense. Even when it was dark and when the company had fallen silent, he could still sense the lads around him. Still knew where they were, could still avoid stepping on them like everyone else did as they stumbled down the trench in the dark. But it also worked like a barometer. He got a pang in his chest, or a quirk in his eyebrow that drew his attention to something, as though he was being tugged on a fishing hook. Now his thoughts were being drawn towards the communications trench that led up from the rear lines. Someone was approaching. Bournclough watched the opening with patient focus.

His senses proved to be less than necessary. The new arrival nearly tripped over Private Burrows as they entered the trench, and Burrows drove them away with a torrent of abuse. Bournclough could see vague shapes in the dark, and could feel that there was somebody approaching him, getting closer.

“Hullo!” said the new arrival.

He sounded like a nob. Cut-glass accent. College boy, Bournclough thought. Nobs like this didn’t come strolling down to the siege lines just to say “hullo.” There was almost certainly something that he wanted. Bournclough, and the rest of the company, waited silently to see what it was.

When the answer wasn’t forthcoming, Bournclough reached up to twist the key on a naphtha lantern that was hanging above his head. He turned up the heat, casting the trench in a dull green glow and revealing the features of the men who were squatting nearby. Most of them had features which looked better in dim light, but not the nob. He was all cheekbones and wispy hair. Bright eyes and pale skin. He was young, but tall. He looked like he might be trouble.

The nob managed to figure out that Bournclough was in change, and smiled. He covered the last few steps towards him, walking confidently over the duckboard floor of the trench, and avoiding getting his boots any dirtier than they already were. He reached Bournclough and extended his hand.

“Gildersleigh,” said the nob.

Bournclough’s eyebrows crept up into his hat. He stared at the nob’s outstretched hand, then up into his face, and took his time doing it, sucking thoughtfully on his pipe. But the nob had that kind of friendliness that didn’t know when to give up and go home. Eventually Bournclough relented, and shifted himself forward off his perch, hitching his cloak over one shoulder and standing to his full height. Which was roughly half the full height of this Gildersleigh character.

He offered his own hand, far rougher than Gildersleigh’s and wrapped in sweatsoaked bandages for warmth.

“Colour Bournclough,” he grumbled.

“Well,” the nob smiled, “it’s a distinct pleasure to meet you, Colour Sergeant Bournclough.”

The nob reached down and shook Bournclough’s hand companionably. He didn’t seem to mind the bandages, and he actually seemed sincerely pleased. Corporal Mogget snorted under his breath.

“…and you, sir,” Bournclough said, then cleared his throat, feeling embarrassed on the nob’s behalf.

There was a long silence.

“Cold, isn’t it?” said the nob, trying civility once again.

“We hadn’t noticed,” said a scornful voice from somewhere further down the trench. It was probably Corporal Mogget once again. Bournclough chose not to reprimand him. The nob was wearing the uniform of a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, so unless he’d stolen the togs from somewhere, he’d probably just come from the rear lines of the siege camp, where the engineers had set up their tents around a nice warm steam engine that they’d brought ashore from one of the ships in the harbour. Mogget had a right to be jealous.

“We’re the Egremontshires,” said Bournclough. “Second battalion, number three company. If you want Lieutenant Bimhead, he’s, er, well…”

He nodded his head westward, to where the regimental mess tent was pitched behind the safety of the earthworks. The nob must have passed it on his way down, must have seen the glare of candles from inside and heard the clamour of the regiment’s subalterns banging the table, drinking their way through their private supplies of wine and brandy.

“Er, no, I don’t want Lieutenant Bimhead,” said Gildersleigh. “I shan’t think that I will need to bother him for any reason.”

“…oh,” said Bournclough, feeling confused. “Then, er…how can we help you, sir?”

“Oh!” Gildersleigh smiled, and looked up at the edge of the trench. “It’s very kind of you to offer, but I was just thinking of going out by myself and taking a look at the enemy’s positions.”

There was an even longer silence.

“…oh.”


 

Writing ethically about warfare and violence in science fiction and fantasy: Part 1

Hello, internet!

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence recently.

Freddy Kreuger
Muaahahahaha

I promise that it’s not as creepy as it sounds.

I’m endeavoring to write a book series that features – among other things – a goodly amount of shooting, stabbing, explosions, death, and organised warfare. Characters engage in battle, participate in acts of bloody violence, and deprive each other quite liberally of life and limb. I am trying to write about war at its ugliest, but I am trying to depict it thoughtfully, and in a way that doesn’t disguise my opinion that there’s no such thing as a good or necessary war.

Some of you might be thinking “great, pass the popcorn.” But if you’re anything like me, and you have a propensity for overthinking things, you might be wondering why I’d choose to write about something so violent in the first place – especially if I don’t believe in the idea of a necessary war. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

Fantasy, of course, has its origins in violence. The earliest fantastic stories are of the warrior fighting the beast: Beowulf and Grendel, St. George and the dragon, or Rostam and the White Demon. Here we have three examples of human heroes who embody all of the heroic masculine virtues of the cultures who created them, pitted against supernatural creatures of unknown origin which are depicted as vile, murderous and often entirely unsympathetic. We do not, generally, want the monsters to win…although we might briefly come around to the monster’s side in the moments where classical heroes throw tantrums about treasure or honour or shouting their name at cyclopeses that they’ve recently blinded. Despite their occasional idiocy, we still support the hero, and we still cheer when the monster is brought to ruin.

Dragon Slayed
Hurraaay!

This has its problems, as I’ll discuss below. Stories of organised warfare have also featured in folklore and fantasy since the earliest oral storytellers, the earliest example I can think of being Homer’s Illiad. The Illiad actually does a decent job of depicting neither side in the Trojan War as being ultimately evil, which is more than can be said for a lot of fantasy that has been written in the centuries since. I’m going to start this series on violence and warfare by taking a few shots at a relatively easy, low-hanging target: the Tolkien legendarium.

Tolkien offers us a fairly clear-cut, simplistic idea of good and evil. When Tolkien’s audience is presented with a choice between the desperate armies of men and the dark hordes of Mordor, few of us would suggest that the Fellowship of the Ring were unjustified in lopping off all of those greasy orc limbs or blithely counting off their kills atop the walls of Helm’s Deep. Anyone who’s seen the movies will remember Frodo’s vision of what the future would look like under the reign of Sauron: the Shire despoiled and the Hobbits impressed into slavery.

Visit New Zealand!
Visit New Zealand!

Faced with such a foe, the fellowship never seem to doubt the morality of their crusade against the orcs, and neither do we as the audience.

And therein lies the problem.

Warfare in the real world is never as clear-cut as it is in the War of the Ring, and I think fantasy authors are under a very important moral obligation to avoid depicting violence or warfare in ways that simplify war into a battle between good and evil. I’d hope that this is obvious to many writers, and it is true that very few contemporary fantasy authors are guilty of writing about war in these terms. Even if they did, publishers would be unlikely to take them on, and politically engaged modern readers would probably be very critical of their books. But it can happen, and it’s worth remaining vigilant against it and analysing why it’s a bad thing when it does happen.

The problem with creating a race like the orcs – or a villain like Sauron – is that it encourages attitudes deep in the western cultural subconscious that are leftover from the time of colonialism, or from earlier medieval attitudes towards the Islamic world, which probably have their basis in the rivalry between prehistoric tribes. The attitude of ‘otherness,’ which morphed into Orientalism during the 18th and 19th centuries, has been written about at length by cultural historians like Edward Said. It is essentially a racist attitude which allows negative characteristics to be ascribed to groups who aren’t “us,” vindicating ourselves in the process and making us feel as though “we” are somehow morally superior, and ultimately strengthening the divide between “us” and “them,” whoever us and them happen to be. Encouraging the idea of the racial “other” as different, physically repulsive, and morally inferior is a strategy that has been used for centuries to make westerners feel morally justified in engaging in various kinds of colonial exploitation and domestic warfare.

Destroy this mad brute
An example of “otherness” mobilised to encourage British men to enlist as soldiers during the First World War

We can see ghosts of this divisive kind of “otherness” when we see the way that the orcs are depicted in the Lord of the Rings film adaptations – they are physically repulsive, greasy and black-skinned, and they seem to be universally morally bankrupt, delighting in violence, theft, cannibalism, and tormenting their captives. They are literally birthed from holes in the ground, which is a stereotype that used to be applied to people of Asian ethnicity during the European middle ages. We don’t see any sympathetic orc characters throughout the entire trilogy, and so, at the end of The Return of the King, we cheer when we see the surviving orcs being swallowed up by the ground outside the gates of Mordor. In short, the idea of a genocide against orcs seems entirely justified.

Whenever fiction leads us to believe that a genocide of any race, even a fictional one, seems entirely justified, I think we have to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the fiction we’re reading, or watching on the screen.

The greatest risk is that our attitude towards orcs bleeds over into our attitudes towards other nationalities or ethnic groups in the real world, allowing us to ascribe negative characteristics to them and make sweeping generalisations about them in the same way that we felt comfortable making sweeping generalisations about the orcs. Even on a very small scale, orcs can be used as a way of insulting subcultures that we don’t like. In the UK, I’ve heard fans of Manchester United Football Club refer to fans of Liverpool FC, and people from Liverpool generally, as ‘orcs’. If humans can draw those kinds of comparisons with the supporters of rival football teams, it stands to reason that we can draw similar comparisons with disadvantaged ethnic minorities, or members of other cultures.

Peter Jackon’s casting decisions for the orcs and Uruk-Hai in the Lord of the Rings films stray uncomfortably far into this territory. Amazingly, orcs were the only speaking parts given to actors of colour in the entire trilogy. If you don’t believe me you can watch this fairly depressing video by Dylan Marron on Youtube:

We should be very worried that Peter Jackson didn’t see fit to cast any black actors as hobbits, Rohirrim, or soldiers of Gondor – especially when people of colour were very much present in all of their real-world analogues, such as the Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies of the late first millennium. What was it that subconsciously led to black actors only being cast as orcs? What was it that made Peter Jackson think, “If I need actors to play characters who look disgusting, act immorally, make guttural chanting noises, and terrify my main characters, I should definitely hire some black actors”?

There are also the Haradrim and Easterlings, who are mute throughout the films – but if anything, they represent an even bigger example of divisive orientalism. Within the universe of Middle Earth, we’re forced to wonder why any humans would realistically ally themselves with Sauron, who appears to be a manifestation of pure evil. The disturbing implication is that the men of the east somehow have more in common with the orcs than they do with the men of the west.

I have a lot more to say on the subject, but I doubt that Tobias would thank me for turning this post into a 5,000 word essay. I’ll talk more about this topic in future posts. Until then, think hard about how you’re presenting the bad guys in your own writing. And write well!

How to not react like a petulant loser when you’re reminded that your writing is less original than you thought it was

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. For someone who’s writing an epic fantasy series, I’m not especially well-read in my field. I tend to read the dusty old work of long-dead authors, along with Star Trek apocrypha, popular history books, and anything by Neil Gaiman. I have a fairly embarrassing ignorance of what’s currently being written by successful fantasy authors, or enjoyed by fantasy readers, or  – perhaps crucially – picked up by fantasy publishers. I’m aware that these are the sort of things that are vital knowledge for anyone who is hoping to court commercial success as an author, so recently I’ve been taking steps to combat my ignorance.

This began with following up on a recommendation from a friend to read Temeraire by Naomi Novik. My friend clearly knows me very well. I’m a little late to the ball with this one, given that 2016 will mark the ninth book in the series, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it.

Temeraire

Novik was an easy choice of companion for an exploratory foray into contemporary fantasy because she has essentially taken my favourite historical novels – the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, which inspired the film Master and Commander – and followed the time-honoured fantasist’s tradition of adding dragons. Temeraire portrays the Age of Sail with the same sublime sophistication as O’Brien (I suspect Novik might adore him as much as I do) and her integration of fantasy elements into real world history is absolutely seamless. I have ordered the second book in the series before even finishing the first.

So that went rather well. I’m hoping that reading a series like Temeraire will benefit my understanding of what publishers expect from a long book series, as well as improving my style through osmosis. To find more authors, I’ve also been trawling through the epic fantasy lists on Goodreads. But this has lead me to an unpleasant realisation.

I think I can safely enjoy Temeraire because it is sufficiently similar-but-different from the stuff I’m writing, and the same might be true of a lot of other epic fantasy. But when I saw that people are enjoying books that are a little more similar to my own work, my reactions were different. Specifically, if you must know, I had a small temper-tantrum and then felt embarrassed and confused about why. So, being a millenial, I thought I’d blog about it.

I won’t waste further space with a comprehensive description of what I’m currently writing. What I will say is that it falls into a niche which is growing in popularity and (as I was initially dismayed to discover) is already sufficiently populated with books to constitute a subgenre, which has been given the moniker of ‘flintlock fantasy’. There are two series in particular which filled me with no small panic when I discovered their existence. Here they are, the rotten blighters:

  Promise of Blood  Shadow Throne

The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan and the Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler. They are doing precisely what I’m trying to do: taking the tropes and hallmarks of sword-and-sorcery fantasy and moving the context forward by several centuries into a world of gunsmoke, brass buttons, square-rigged tall ships, centralised bureaucracy, natural philosophy, revolution, colonialism, and even sillier hats.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that anyone writing a series about gunpowder colonialism in a fantasy setting (like me) would enjoy reading books about gunpowder and colonialism in a fantasy setting (like these). Which is why I was so frustrated with my own first reaction to the existence of these books: mostly irritation about their existence, and dread that I’d been hopelessly left behind on the starting blocks.

Do all aspiring authors feel the same way, I wonder? Are we so personally invested in our writing that our first reaction is one of childish jealousy, rather than a feeling of kinship, when we encounter other authors writing similar material?

I’m aware of how I should feel. I see authors talk on Twitter about how anyone who aspires to join their number should view other authors as comrades and helping hands, never competitors. There is room enough in the publishing world that two books may be similar without one of them displacing the other, and when readers have a taste for a particular subgenre they are usually hungry for more books to be written in the same vein by different authors. I should feel encouraged, not disheartened, that there is similar material being written. People in the industry are willing to publish it, audiences enjoy reading it, and it sells well enough for writers to be able to write trilogies and pentologies. Even nonologies, in Naomi Novik’s case!

Temeraire in Flight
Dragons and tall ships: flintlock fantasy at it’s finest

This is good, because I envision my series as being quite long. I’ve heard that trilogies are in vogue at the moment, and I was starting to worry that the number of books in the Discworld (41) and Aubrey/Maturin (20½) series had given me unrealistic expectations of the extent to which publishers and readers would be willing to indulge me. At least now I know that a longer series is feasible, if it’s well-written.

Having spent time thinking about it, I’m now mostly just looking forward to reading these books. My bookseller sister is working on acquiring them for me at a discount price, and when they arrive I will devour them and tell you about my impressions. But I’d be lying if I said that I’m not feeling apprehensive. I hope I can simply enjoy them and appreciate their fine qualities, but I’m worried that they might leave me gnashing my teeth or feeling like I need to make drastic alterations to my first draft, lest I’m accused of being a copycat.

There’s a certain irritation that I’m not the one treading boldly into virgin territory, going where no author has gone before and writing something truly original. But of course, nothing is truly original. We are all, to an extent, copying Tolkein, and recycling the same ideas that have formed the building blocks of fantastic storytelling since Homer’s first recitation of the Iliad. If there are already footprints in the snow of flintlock fantasy then maybe I should be glad I’m not the first one pressing out into the snow with no path to follow. Perhaps that’s appropriate for someone writing about colonialism: Columbus wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas. Nor will I be the first person to write flintlock fantasy. Others went before me. I can see what worked for them and what didn’t, emulate their successes, and try to navigate around any shoals that they might have got caught up on.

And now if I’m at a party and someone asks me what kind of stuff I’m writing, at least I have a better answer than “it’s sort of like Game of Thrones with muskets in it…”

A Wedding Gone Wrong

Hello, internet!

I have another story excerpt for you. First, though, congratulations are in order: our patron Tobias is now a married man. I hope matrimony brings him infinite joys and doesn’t distract him too much from his writing ;).  As writers we hope to find understanding partners who will tolerate our erratic behaviour and our unique strain of artistic madness, but I have always found that my writing is at it’s most prolific when my romantic life is at it’s least eventful. I am sure, however, that Tobias and Alayna will be able to find a suitable compromise – and I wish them all the happiness in the world.

To celebrate the occasion, this week’s story is actually a response to the scene challenge that Selayna set for you earlier in the week. Read on for my own personal take on the theme of “a wedding gone wrong”…


Tent

Farashak, the-fulfiller-of-wishes, was an understanding god. This was written in the Tasperad, the sacred book, and everything in the Tasperad was true, so Esfad believed it without question.

Even so, Esfad had feared that Farashak would not be very understanding about his daughter’s wedding. A boy named Jawed from the city – an underfed scribe, apprenticed to a rug merchant – had made Sasra very sensible of his affections for her, and she had accepted his suit. Which was all fine and good, as far as Esfad was concerned, apart from the fact that Jawed was one of the sun worshippers, and his family expected a wedding which their Sun God would smile upon.

Sasra had said that she didn’t mind what kind of wedding she had as long as it still meant that she could live in the city afterwards without being called a loose woman. Esfad had protested, knowing that his own parents would have forbidden such a thing. But Nira, his wife, had reminded him that he was not his parents. He knew that he lived in changing times. The sun worshippers didn’t burn copies of the Tasperad anymore. They let simple herdsmen like him worship Farashak in peace. Why shouldn’t Sasra marry one of them? He had finally relented, and now there they were. In the desert, near on oasis. Perched on benches beneath a huge red tent, with Sasra’s tribe sitting on one side and Jawad’s family on the other. There was no ill-feeling between them. Earlier that day, Esfad himself had joined all the men from both families in the sun worshippers’ ritual of hammering the tent-posts into the sand, and they had all bathed happily together afterwards.  All was smiles. Sasra and Jawed stood in the centre, with the sun cleric towering over them and speaking of doom. Despite the strange ceremony, Esfad was gripping Nira’s hand tightly in his, and welling up with pride. Sasra looked more beautiful than even he could have imagined.

The dowry, of course, had helped to ease his conscience. Esfad was sure that Farashak himself – lord of tricks – would be shrewd enough to let his own daughter marry an unbeliever, if he stood a chance of gaining sixty cows from it. Esfad was so happy for his daughter that he feared he might weep, but part of him was itching for the ceremony to end, so that he might go and check the hooves of his new heifers without causing offense. Thankfully the cleric was coming to the end of his long diatribe against worldly sin, and reaching the part of the ritual where the lovers would proclaim their vows. Esfad settled his thoughts and began listening again to what the cleric was saying.

“Sasra and Jawed stand here clothed in the trappings of wife and husband, but they stand naked in judgement before the all-pervading gaze of the Sun God! Who can see through all vestments! All disguises! All untruths!”

Esfad pursed his lips. From all that he had heard the cleric say, he did not much like the sound of this severe, all-knowing Sun God. Esfad much preferred Farashak, who enjoyed wine, played cunning tricks, and couldn’t see through Sasra’s vestments. Or if he could, it did not say so in the Tasperad.

“This so being,” the cleric continued, with fire in his voice, “if there is deceit or hesitation in their hearts when they speak their vows, the Sun God will see it clearly, and in his ire will strike them down instantly with righteous fury!”

Esfad could not help but see that his daughter’s choice of husband seemed suddenly quite frightened by the cleric’s words. Sasra reached oud to hold the man’s hand.

“But before this, if any of the Sun God’s children have reason that Sasra and Jawed should not be bound in union, let them speak. And if there is malice in their heart, let the Sun God strike them down with even greater fury!”

“I have reason,” said a voice.

Gasps filled the tent, and all heads turned towards the back of the crowd. Esfad flew to his feet and stared back over the rows of guests, scouring them to find the voice’s owner. Nira tugged at his arm to pull him back down, but he stood as firm as a tree.

The man who had spoken was old and frail, wearing dirty rags, and hunched over a staff that was a foot too small for him. At any other time Esfad would not have wished any harm upon a crippled old stranger, but this crippled old stranger had a mocking smile on his face that made coals of anger glower in Esfad’s belly. He felt the strong urge to bury his fist in that face.

“What reason?” Esfad spat.

“Don’t get angry, Esfad,” Nira said.

“Sasra is one of mine,” the old man said, calmly.

Esfad looked to his daughter. She looked back at him from beneath her veil with baffled amusement in her eyes, as if she thought this was a bad joke and she was waiting for it to become funny. Jawed stood beside her looking feeble, like a startled lamb. It was clear to Esfad that neither of them knew the old man.

“How, one of yours?” Esfand replied, struggling against Nira’s iron grasp.

“It is simple,” said the man, calmly. “Sasra was beholden to me in her birth rites. She cannot be given away without my blessing.”

At this fresh outrage Esfad tore himself free of his wife’s grip and strode over to the old stranger. “Sasra was beholden to Farashak in her birth rites, and Farashak alone!” he yelled, “No-one else!”

“Esfad, please!” Nira pleaded, leaving her seat.

Esfad talked over her. “She was never beholden to some mad old hermit,” he growled, coming close to the old man. He wanted to shove the frail stranger to the ground, and break his staff over his knee, but he feared that the shock might kill the man. “Be gone,” he said, instead. “She is not beholden to you. Unless you want to tell me that you are Farashak?”

The old man renewed his thin smile, and the anger drained from Esfad’s face. He noticed with dawning horror that the old man had different-coloured eyes, one fiery green and one deepest indigo. Just as was described in the Tasperad.

Esfad threw himself down in the sand, kissed the old man’s sandals, and begged for forgiveness. Farashak, the-fulfiller-of-wishes, laughed with delight, and mused over whether he should grant this particular request…

Gastor and Pharnazbius

Good Morning, Art of Writing fans!

I loved the reaction that I got to my début post last week. I was planning to post a short thought-piece this week about the depiction of violence in fantasy, but then the British summer snuck up on me I came down with allergic conjunctivitis.

I can’t say I recommend it.

I’ve now recovered enough to write you this short story, as part of a larger project I’m working on. I hope you enjoy!


Blarney CastleGastor struggled down the perilous shale path towards the Lime Keep, carrying a slaughtered hog over one shoulder and grumbling to himself about the way of things. In other countries – decent countries, Gastor thought – a village like his would have lords and barons to turn to when there was trouble. The villagers could go to the nearest castle – a respectable castle with a moat and drawbridge and all the other things that castles should have – and beseech their lord and master to alieve their woes. If their lord and master wasn’t too busy with the important lordly affairs that took up most of his day, he might be persuaded to help. And in gratitude, the villagers would work in his fields for the rest of the year, and give him food for feasts. That was the proper way of things. Gastor paused in the road to pout, suck in his paunch, and nod to himself, satisfied by the thought. Then he hitched the hog forward on his broad shoulder and trudged onwards, careful not to slip on the loose shingle. He tried not to be perturbed by the growing smell of eggs.

To Gastor’s embarrassment, his village never did things in the proper way. His country was not well-furnished with lords or barons. It had a prince of sorts named Francis the Meek, but no self-respecting figure in the village community could be expected to take their problems to someone called Francis the Meek. So whenever Gastor’s village had problems, there was only one thing Gastor could do. Though it wounded his pride to do so, he had to slaughter a hog, carry it down to the Lime Keep, and demand an audience with the keep’s only tenant.

Gastor was cloaked in a muggy sweat by the time he reached the keep. The path dropped into a stone valley with high overhangs on both sides, which was the worst possible place that anybody could have thought to build a castle. Yet somebody had, and there it stood.

Or, rather, slouched.

The Lime Keep couldn’t be mistaken for anything but a ruin. The only part that was still fully standing was a single tower with only half a roof, on what might once have been the eastern wall. Gastor made an uncertain descent into the valley, losing his footing once and sliding the rest of the way in a small landslide of shingle and loose rock. He picked himself up, dusted any obvious dirt off the slaughtered hog, and then strode across the valley towards the tower, trying very hard to look less timid than he felt.

The tower had only a small wooden door, with a ring hanging next to it on a chain. Once he’d reached the door, Gastor took a moment to muster up his courage, and then pulled on the ring. An infernal device made a gong sound deep inside the keep. Gastor tried to cross his arms and place his outstretched fingers on his shoulders, apologising to the Gods for his use of a such a machine, but the slaughtered hog got in the way. He glanced up at the heavens, fearing retribution for his blasphemy. Then there were noises from the top of the Lime Keep, and any fear of divine wrath was superseded by a fear that was far more immediate.

There were thumps of movement high above. Glass objects clanging together. Soft things being hastily relocated. A rustle, as if someone had unfurled a sail. And then, to Gastor’s surprise, something popped out of one of the tower’s windows. It was a wooden arm, like the jib of a crane. There were faint squeaking noises, and a large basket appeared out of the window, without any sign a hand pushing it out. Another infernal device. The basket was lowered from the crane by a rope, inch by inch, until it hung at about the height of Gastor’s head. There it hung, swinging slightly. Waiting for him to deposit his gift.

But Gastor had not come to the Lime Keep to leave a gift and walk away again. He had come for an audience, and he would have one. In an indignant rage, his fear left him. He scowled at the basket, and then raised his free hand to shout up at the tower.

“Pharnazbius!” he bellowed, “You disrespect me! I haven’t come to leave you your dinner like a tavern potboy!”

His own voice roared ‘potboy’ back at him several times, echoing off the walls of the valley, and suddenly Gastor remembered himself. His heart dropped into his boots, and he narrowed his eyes fearfully at the top of the tower, hoping perhaps that Pharnazbius hadn’t heard.

But one of the many interesting things about dragons is that they have very good hearing.

Four black talons appeared in the window, grasping the stone and nearly cracking it. Then Pharnazbius’ head snaked out, extending on its long neck. Looking straight up, Gastor saw a huge pair of green nostrils, with a minute pair of reading glasses balanced on top of them. Above those were a pair of wild golden eyes, pinning him to the spot with a glare of intense disapproval. And finally, above the dragon’s eyes, was a purple smoking cap with a yellow tassel, balanced between two twisted horns.

“Ahh,” said Gastor, forcing himself to grin through his renewed terror. “Hello, Pharnazbius! How, er…how goes your day?”

“It was going quite well,” Pharnazbius replied, in his low voice, so low that Gastor always felt the pressure change in his ears when the dragon spoke. “Until very recently…”

Consistent Villains: Developing Individual Ethics

KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN. One of my favorite villains.
KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN. One of my favorite villains.

If you’re like me, villains are the most fun characters to write, and the majority of the writing time for a short story is spent on developing them. Some people, on the other hand, really hate writing bad guys – they minimize them and work with general archetypes to create a sense of evilness. However you prefer to depict your purveyors of villainy, you need to make sure that they’re consistent in their evil deeds of derring-do. It’s relatively easy to keep the ethics of your heroes, Prince Charmings, and lovable rogues consistent – figuring out their motivations and deciding how they would act in any given situation based on those motivations doesn’t take too much work. Villains, on the other hand, can be more difficult. Too often, it’s easy to fall into the habit of making them do all sorts of outrageous things just because “they’re evil.” Not all villains are Antichrists, Davros, or Morgoth (of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion); they’re not all going to commit every possible horrible crime. Most villains have their own ethical code of sorts that dictates what actions they will and will not take. The demonic hitch-hiker in my short story Odd One Out, for example, would have no qualms in killing a young couple in love, but he wouldn’t go anywhere near a hooker, because that kind of person doesn’t interest or bother him. Star Trek‘s Khan would torture and destroy the crew of the Enterprise to get revenge on Kirk, but he wouldn’t harm his own crew. Villains should and do have complex motivations for their actions, and it’s your duty as a writer to figure out those motivations and make sure the character stays true to them.

Concept art of Morgoth from tolkiengateway.net. Fantastic villain, but not all of them should be like him.
Concept art of Morgoth from tolkiengateway.net. Fantastic villain, but not all of them should be like him.

I spend a lot of time developing a consistent internal ethic for each of my villains, probably because I enjoy writing them so much. The way I make it work is that I conduct an interview of sorts with them. I have a list of questions that I mentally go through at the beginning of a story to figure out the level of “evilness” with my bad guy or gal. I start by discovering the character’s motivation for what they do: what events in their personal history led them to seek the goals they’re pursuing in the story or novel? What acts do they accomplish to achieve those goals? Then I ask the character (yes, they actually talk to me – that’s how my creative process manifests) if there were any “evil” acts they chose to not commit during their rise to villainy, or any specifically “good” acts they did commit, and I try to figure out exactly why they acted the way they did. Aelin murdered his father, but why did he nearly sacrifice his own life to save the child drowning in the lake? Rita stole a diamond from the local jeweler, so what made her drive back to the Food Lion to return the extra $2 in change the cashier gave her? These are the kinds of questions I grapple with when developing my designated villains. Once I have the answers, I know what makes them tick, so to speak, and it will help me develop a course of action for each of them in their stories. Sometimes, I still need to ask them if they actually would take a certain action in the course of the story, but I usually know what’s going on without having to take too much time to work on it. Yes, it takes a lot of work, but it keeps my characters consistent and helps me as the writer stay true to their motivations. It also helps me avoid the stereotypical megalomaniac villain problem. What works for you?