Have you ever been able to say exactly what you were trying to say, and later realized that it was exactly the wrong thing to say? I’ve had this experience a few times. It’s not entirely enjoyable. This has nothing to do with today’s post, which will be somewhat random. It’s just something that has come up a few times in the past couple of months and is thus on my mind, which tends to be equally random. The Fragged Empirekickstarter went into its final countdown today, it has less than three days left and at this point has reached almost double it’s initial goal, which is cool. I would love to see it actually reach double, but we’ll see if that happens. Oh, and if you haven’t been following the news, Donald Trump is now the only candidate left in the primary race for the Republican party, though Bernie Sanders has vowed to see his campaign through to the end.
All of these are rather small bits of trivia. The kind of thing that you find in the real world: little bits of news, hearsay, or facts that people care about, even if they aren’t always of significant importance to the overarching story of our lives. This is a sign that the world goes on without us. Even if you die tomorrow, people will continue to hurt each other by saying exactly what they think, Wade Dyer’s kickstarter campaign will successfully fund the next book in his role playing game, and Donald Trump will win the Republican Primary. So, how often does this kind of thing appear in your stories? One of the things that I love about a lot of recent video games is that they create an immersive world. That is, a world exists beyond what you see in the story. Kings die, regents are elected, businesses thrive or shut down, and reality television continues to make everyone’s lives miserable far into the future. None of these things matter to the story itself, but they do matter in creating a believable and immersive world that provides a foundation for the story.
Steven Erikson does this in many ways, but one of my favorites is by introducing his readers to the arts of his world. In his novels he regularly begins chapters with poems from famous writers or scholars from his fantasy world. Many of these you meet briefing at some point in the novels. So, I thought that I’d share a couple of these with you so you can have a sense of what I mean. For the record, all of these poems are present in Erikson’s novels, but were retrieved from the Malazan Wiki:
“The man who never smiles
Drags his nets through the deep
And we are gathered
To gape in the drowning air
Beneath the buffeting sound
Of his dreaded voice
Speaking of salvation
In the repast of justice done
And fed well on the laden table
Heaped with noble desires
He tells us all this to hone the edge
Of his eternal mercy
Slicing our bellies open
One by one.“―In the Kingdom of Meaning Well
Fisher kel Tath
“Down past the wind-groomed grasses
In the sultry curl of the stream
There was a pool set aside
In calm interlude away from the rushes
Where not even the reeds waver
Nature takes no time to harbour our needs
For depthless contemplation
Every shelter is a shallow thing
The sly sand grips hard no manner
Of anchor or even footfall
Past the bend the currents run thin In wet chuckle where a faded tunic
Drapes the shoulders of a broken branch
These are the dangers I might see
Leaning forward if the effort did not prove
So taxing but that ragged collar
Covers no pale breast with tapping pulse
This shirt wears the river in birth foam
And languid streaming tatters
Soon I gave up the difficult rest
And floated down in search of boots
Filled with pebbles as every man needs
Somewhere to stand.“―Clothes Remain
Attributed to Fisher kel Tath
“Coltaine rattles slow
across the burning land.
The wind howls through the bones
of his hate-ridden command.
Coltaine leads a chain of dogs
ever snapping at his hand.
Coltaine’s fist bleeds the journey home
along rivers of red-soaked sand.
His train howls through his bones
in spiteful reprimand.
Coltaine leads a chain of dogs
ever snapping at his hand.“―Coltaine
A marching song of the Bonehunters
So, Selanya has a beast of a schedule at the moment, and I’m sorry to say that you all will have to put up with another week of posts from me. Alayna and I finally made a decision about Ph.D. programs yesterday. It’s something that we put a lot of thought and prayer into, and the program we decided on is one that we’ve been thinking about for quite a while. We had plans about how to handle the program itself, paying for life, moving, etc… Those plans have been entirely upended. At the moment, it looks like we’ll be moving in early-mid August regardless of whether Alayna has found a job where we are moving to (my job travels, but it would be a struggle to support the family as a whole on my income). Most of the things that we thought we would be able to make work won’t work, and we’ve been put back to square one.
Amazingly, I actually have not just one, but two points to make about writing from this situation. First, in your own plotting, writing, and publishing, expect the unexpected. What you expect to happen probably won’t, and things you never could have imagined probably will happen. You might send the manuscript that you’re so proud of to a reviewer, only to get it back ripped to shreds. Alternatively, you might hand a manuscript that you’re not happy with to a friend, and a week or two later get an email from a publisher who wants it (not likely, but possible). Heck, there’ve been a few people who made better than a living wage off of the profit from one self-published novel selling on Kindle for $0.99 (again, it’s not likely, but it’s possible). The point is that you never know what is going to happen. The thing is, the saying ‘expect the unexpected’ doesn’t really make sense. How can I expect something that I can’t imagine? How can I plan when I have do idea what to plan for?
I think the answer is fairly simply: learn to be flexible. If you’re serious about writing then you’re going to get hit, probably repeatedly (emotionally speaking at least, though you might be assaulted by an angry fan… again, it’s happened). You’ll need to learn to roll with the punches. If you feel like you need to be in control of every step of the publishing process then it won’t go well for you (though you should absolutely be in control of your writing process).
The second point is this: you’re characters can’t be in control of their world any more than you’re in control of your world. Even the best laid plans will be upset by a stripped screw or a random bystander. You can use this when you’re plotting out your story. We tend to feel like stories should flow, and in many ways this is true. However, the world is a random place, and your story should reflect this randomness. It can’t be entirely random or you will lose your audience, and the randomness of the world needs to be shown in ways that 1) fit the story, and 2) advance the story. However, your story should still reflect the randomness of the world. If you’ve ever seen the Ocean’s movies, this is something that they do very well. The story flows clearly, and it is engaging and entertaining. However, the number of ‘well… I didn’t expect that’ moments in these movies are an integral part of their humor. They give the viewer a sense of meaningful randomness. These moments of randomness aren’t random simply for the sake of being random (which is a mistake that many young authors make), but instead are random in a way that effectively advances the story and entertains the audience. This is how you want to use these moments in life.
So, graduate school kind of snuck up on me a bit, so I’m afraid I don’t have a long, drawn-out post planned for today. I do, however, have a nice writing exercise from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft for those of you who are interested:
In the movie Wait Until Dark, Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman being pursued by a killer through a darkened house. Audiences usually jump out of their seats during the film’s climactic final scene because they identify so thoroughly with her character. Write a scene where your character is deprived of one of his five senses. Then, set the character in a situation where missing that particular sense would have an especially significant impact. The situation might put him at an advantage or disadvantage, but in any case, he will have to compensate, wringing every bit of useful information he can out of his other senses. Make the situation dramatic, one in which he is driven by a pressing need or desire. (Burroway & Stuckey-French 71)
I can’t speak to the quality of the movie (I haven’t seen it, but if Audrey Hepburn is involved, my roommate would probably insist that it has to be amazing), but I did find this prompt particularly interesting given that a lot of the description in my own writing seems to focus on just one of the senses (usually sight), rather than using all five senses to help describe the setting and action.
As always, feel free to share your work in the comments section! 🙂
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.
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!
Glenn Cook isn’t much of a fan of organized religion. Did you know that? I honestly can’t say that for certain. I don’t know him personally. However, that is the very, very strong feeling that I get from his novels. He seems to have it in for priests, religious fanatics, etc. Similarly, Steven Erikson dislikes (though perhaps despises is too strong a word) the idea of salvation by grace or by the sacrifice of another. Man must redeem himself because man is the only one who can redeem himself. Again, I can’t say this from personal knowledge, but the theme that man must redeem himself is certainly very strong in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Similarly, Lars Walker believes that even truly evil men can be redeemed (Year of the Warrior) while C. S. Lewis believes that good guys can make mistakes and be redeemed, but truly even people cannot be redeemed but must be destroyed (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; Voyage of the Dawntreader; The Last Battle; etc). You might be surprised how much of your conscious and unconscious beliefs come through in your fiction. It’s possible to simply allow your ideas to be spread, unfiltered, through the stories that you write, and to some degree this probably happens with all of us. However, it’s also possible to be intentional about the messages that come through in the stories you tell. In his Poetics Aristotle argued that everything we write should have two goals: 1) to entertain, and 2) to educate. A work of non-fiction that isn’t entertaining is unlikely to do much to inspire the reader and stick in his mind, but a work of fiction that is trite and superficial has little, if anything, in the way of actual value–in fact it may even inspire vice (…Charlaine Harris, I’m looking at you…).
Of course, anyone can misread what you write. In fact, I just had a student who submitted a paper confidently explaining that Augustine believed that man was completely free of God and that he had no need of a deity for goodness, morality, happiness, or fulfillment. If you’ve every read Augustine you will recognize that this is literally the exact opposite of what he argued (I’m pretty sure that my student read all of half a chapter from Confessions). However, the fact that some people will probably misunderstand what you write through their own ignorance and carelessness is no excuse for you not to consider the messages that you are presenting. In fact, the best of fiction (whether modern fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc) has always had something meaningful to say about the world. This is true of the Greek poets, of Plato, of Lucretius, of Thomas More, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Miguel Cervantes, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin, Gustave Flaubert, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Steven Erikson. This is not to say that there are not good authors who aren’t trying to say something specific or solve some problem. For instance, I enjoy Kim Harrison’s books, but I don’t find much in the way of educational value in them. However, I also wouldn’t put Kim Harrison in the same league as any of the above authors and I don’t know anyone who would. So, just as we can use our own writing to figure out what we believe, we can and should use our writing to point others towards truth and goodness. Now, as any philosopher or psychologist will tell you, what Person A believes are true and good may not be the same as what Person B believes are true and good, and thus we wind up with a variety of opinion, presented in a variety of ways, both in fiction and in non-fiction.*
However, this doesn’t mean the the message should overwhelm the story. This is one of the mistakes that Heinlein has been accused of (though I think it is only true in some of his novels), and in my opinion it is one of the problems that tends to plague the Christian fiction genre. Remember that what you write should be educational and entertaining. If your message comes at the expense of meaningful and individual characters who as in consistently believable ways (like those Christian novels where everyone miraculously changes their minds and get saved at the end), or long philosophical diatribes overwhelm the flow of your story and action (Heinlein and Hugo both do this in places), then you wind up sacrificing entertainment for education and you wind up with a boring door-stop of a book. Similarly, if you cut out your philosophy for the sake of keeping the story ‘action-packed’ and ‘titillating’ then you wind up sacrificing education for the sake of entertainment and you wind up with a trite, meaningless, and mindless work. So, the key here is to balance entertainment and education in your novels. That is, to develop a world, characters, and a story that can convey the viewpoints, beliefs, and ideas that you wish to spread in a way that effectively engages the mind of the reader while simultaneously making him/her think deeply about the fundamental nature of truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.**
*This is not to say that there is no moral reality. I will and have argued stringently that the idea of a world lacking moral reality is not only terrifying, but also meaningless. If there is no moral reality than all of the concepts upon which we base society (i.e. truth, goodness, beauty, justice, etc) are entirely meaningless and there is absolutely no reason to prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany. However, it is very obvious that the vast majority of people from the vast majority of widely divergent cultures do prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany (though they may not be fond of either), and this should tell us that perhaps there actually is a reason to do so. Moral relativism, in all of its varieties, while popular on the street and with a few discrete groups of philosophers today has never been particularly popular among the majority of philosophers from a wide variety of different traditions throughout history. …In fact, did you know that relativism, in some form, has been presented in virtually every philosophical tradition (i.e. Chinese, Indian, Continental European, British, Greek, American, etc) and in virtually all of them it has been soundly rejected (I will argue that we are in the midst of seeing this happen in the American tradition). Looking at the history of relativism is actually kind of like watching a very long game a wack-a-mole.
**I refer here to three of the four fundamentals of classical metaphysics: the true–or the form of truth (i.e. reality), the beautiful–or the form of beauty (i.e. the truly pleasing), the good–or the form of goodness (i.e. the truly desirable). The fourth is the one–or the form of unity (i.e. the truly simple or that which has no parts).
It’s interesting how little we often understand about ourselves. Everyone believes that they know themselves, know what they believe, know what they feel, know what they need, etc. And yet, when we are put to the test, we often find ourselves incapable of putting our beliefs into words. I see this with students all the time. A student will state a firmly held belief, and I will respond with ‘What do you mean by X?’ The almost inevitable response is ‘Umm… I don’t know,’ or ‘I’ve never thought about that,’ or ‘Well, I think what I mean is…’ followed by an often convoluted and/or contradictory explanation, or perhaps the more defensive and hostile, ‘It’s obvious, any normal person could understand what I mean! Why can’t you? Are you some kind of idiot?’ I’ve heard all of these countless times in response to very simple questions such as ‘what do you mean by good?’ Or ‘what do you mean by duty?’ Or ‘what do you mean by faith?’ The truth is that all of us have significant blind-spots in which we fundamentally don’t understand ourselves. Generally speaking, the more confident we are that we know ourselves very well, the less we actually know of ourselves, and the more likely we are to lash out at anyone who risks exposing that fact.
As authors, we should avoid that risk. One of the purposes of writing (whether fiction or non-fiction) is to explore our own inner worlds, discover what is there, and determine to change the things that need to be changed. I can easily give you a very personal example. In my own novel, Rise of the Neshelim, one of the issues that I dealt with was the nature of a god. This began as a minor side-notion in the book, something that was meaningful to the main character, but as a matter of idle curiosity. However, in attempting to present his own answer to the question, I realized that I wasn’t actually sure myself. I could give my own specific conception of what I meant by The God, or the triune Christian God. I could explain, as well as possible, the nature of the trinity, the attributes of Yahweh, and the roles of each person of the trinity. However, the main character of the book wasn’t a Christian. In fact, Christians don’t exist as such in his world. Thus, what I meant when I spoke of The God couldn’t be the character’s answer to what a god was, and further, I didn’t actually know how to answer that question myself. I believed in powerful spiritual forces other than Yahweh, in fact scripture speaks of a number of such entities, but simply saying that a god was a powerful spiritual force seemed insufficient. Thus, this question captured my mind, and in capturing my mind it captured the main character’s mind as well, and together we worked our way to a solution. In so doing, this question became more central to the plot of the novel than I had originally intended, but it also enhanced the major aspects of the novel with a deeper degree of meaning and understanding. It also helped me to understand how to answer my own question: what is a god?
This aspect of fiction writing is, I suspect, more important than I am able to express here. In every novel, and especially in every early novel from any particular author, I believe that it is likely that we see them working out in many ways their own understanding of themselves and their beliefs. This is especially true of theological and spiritual beliefs in the writing of fantasy, as gods, magical forces, and spiritual powers are important aspects of any work of fantasy. This does not mean that everything we learn about ourselves should be published. This is what editing is for: if you self-edit you will need to have a keen eye for areas where you have learned about yourself that do or don’t enhance the main story of your work (I suspect that I may have been poor at this myself), and often it will be better to have many other sets of eyes on your work, willing to point out areas where you should excise things that are personally important, but are not important to the story that you are telling.
Yesterday I started reading John Frame’s A Theology of Lordship Volume 3: Doctrine of the Christian Life. I bring this up because Frame makes the claim in his introduction that life is theology and theology is ethics, thus life is ethics. Now, he explains that by this he does not mean that there God is desperately interested in whether I have pancakes or waffles for breakfast in the morning, and thus my decision between pancakes and waffles is both a theologically significant and morally important decision. However, if I am to understand the purpose of my existence as being to glorify God (consider that Colossians 1:16 tells us that everything exists 1) because God made it, and 2) for God’s purposes) then the way I approach my decision about having pancakes or waffles (or perhaps sausage and eggs or a bowl of fruit) fundamentally changes. No longer am I considering this decision simply as a matter of preference, but I am considering how to best glorify God–which inevitably involves my own enjoyment of his creation, my health as a human being, the example that I am setting for others, the habits that I am forming as an individual, etc. Suddenly my decision about what to have for breakfast is no longer merely a choice of which tastes I prefer this morning, but it is a matter of 1) who I am as an individual and who I want to become as an individual, 2) what the likely results of my actions are, 3) what the intrinsic nature of my actions is, and 4) how my actions express the image of God that I bear. Now, all of this may sound unbearably and unnecessarily complex for those non-Christians reading this post. However, I might point out that this is not wholly dissimilar to Aristotle’s perspective, though with an eye towards the Christian God. More importantly, I might point that that any belief system requires a focus. For me this focus is God, for a Muslim it may be Allah, for an Atheist it may be their own good or some abstracted concept of the common good. Now, as a Christian I will argue that some of these foci are more intrinsically valuable than others, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a focus to each of them. Every action is performed for an end–even when that end isn’t consciously considered.
Some of you may also be wondering what in the world any of this has to do with writing fiction, and I’m getting to that, though this is only the first of three posts. Reading Frame’s argument got me thinking: is writing a theological practice? If life is theology and theology is ethics, then it must necessarily include that fiction writing is a practice of theology which is in turn an application of ethics. Thus, all fiction writing would be the practice of theology. How might this be so? Does this mean that Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a work of practical theology? Well, when practical theology is considered as a discipline, not so much. However, when practical theology is defined as the application of one’s beliefs about god, gods, or the lack thereof to some particular aspect of life in this world, then yes, in a sense it is. I must stress this in a sense because Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, while certainly a work of political philosophy, says little, if anything, about God. However, consider that everything we write is set on the basis of our fundamental notions*. A friend recently described Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series to me as ‘very clearly a Mormon fantasy,’ and he was exactly correct. Sanderson is a Mormon and this particular series is very clearly a fantasy (well-written and well-plotted) that is heavily influenced by a Mormon conception of god, life, and the universe. What we believe often has a much greater influence on what we write than we realize. Often, even when we go out of our way to write something that is fundamentally not what we believe, it still clearly communicates to others what we believe.
So, what do we do with this knowledge? What does this mean for Christian, Atheist, Mormon, Hindu, Agnostic, Wiccan, or generally confused writers? First, I will point out that it is fundamentally impossible to not have beliefs. As soon as we are exposed to something we begin to form beliefs and opinions about it. These may be more or less informed, more or less accurate, more or less consistent with other beliefs, etc. However, the only way to have no beliefs at all is to not exist, and the only way to have no beliefs about some particular idea or thing is to never be exposed to it. So, in my next two posts I’m going to focus on two questions: 1) how can my writing help me to explore my own beliefs and discover inconsistencies in them? 2) how can my writing help me to communicate my beliefs effectively to others?
I hope that you’re looking forward to them. I’m looking forward to writing them, that’s for sure.
* This is true whether one holds to a historicist, empirical, constructivist, etc theory of knowledge. Regardless of what knowledge inherently is or how beliefs are initially acquired, once we have established a set of consistent beliefs or biases the rest of our interaction with the world (both input and output) tends to be defined around these beliefs and to reference them regularly.
If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m on a quest to move away from the books that I’m familiar with and branch out to other writers, to see if it has a positive effect on my own writing.
So far, I’m sort of cheating. The first book that I’ve delved into since Tuesday isn’t actually another fantasy novel. I want to write fantasy but for whatever reason I’m bad at actually getting myself to read fantasy novels by other authors, and so I have a wide variety of award-winning fantasy books lying around my bedroom in unread heaps. It would have been easy to pick up one of these and get stuck into it, allowing the author to transport me into the world that they’d created. But instead, I prized open the covers of a book so heavy that it could be used for construction purposes.
The Honourable Company is a 475-page narrative history of the East India Company, written by the journalist and historian John Keay. It’s a comprehensive, entertaining history of the early expeditions that led to the establishment of the trading company which eventually bought control over most of India and Southeast Asia.
I’m ‘cheating’ by reading it because I’ve already read the first few chapters, and because I love reading books like this. I studied history at the University of Manchester, and when I was in a productive frame of mind – rather than procrastinating or panicking under the weight of imminent deadlines – there was nothing I loved more than selecting a weighty academic tome off my course reading list, checking it out of the library, and plunging head-first into history. (I enjoy learning new things, but only when I’m not expected to write an essay on the subject.) There’s something wonderful about reading the culmination of somebody else’s painstaking research, knowing how much effort they put into scouring through history and recording it, with the honest intentions of simply producing a book that would improve other people’s understanding of the past. I also find history very entertaining. Perhaps this makes me a huge dork, but history isn’t necessarily dry and boring, particularly when it’s written by an author who has a sense for the ridiculous, which John Keay certainly does.
I’m of the opinion that everyone ought to read as many history books as they can. Defeating your own ignorance about the complex history of the human race is always a good thing, and studying the efforts of the generations that came before ours can lead to a renewed appreciation of the world we live in. History also has a habit of repeating itself, and forewarned is forearmed. But history is especially valuable to aspiring authors, no matter what genre you’re writing in.
Firstly, history provides us with exquisite morsels which can be shamelessly plundered and inserted directly into books. John Keay’s book has provided me with several of these which I’m almost reluctant to share with you, lest you steal them. For example, in the early days of the East India Company, when poorly-coordinated expeditions often led to ships sinking, sailing to the wrong parts of the world, losing most of their crew to scurvy, or bringing back merchandise which had gone down in price on the London markets, the company decided to improve their internal communications by leaving a single man on an island off the coast of South Africa, for several years, with only penguins for company.
Keay writes that ‘Whenever a ship anchored in the Bay he quickly donned jacket and hose and pushed past the penguins with whatever messages had been left in his care’ by ships passing in either direction. If you’re in the business of writing humorous fantasy novels, or historical fiction, or even contemporary fiction – perhaps you want a quirky back-story for one of your character’s ancestors – you could have a character marooned for years on an island full of penguins. Or if you’re writing grimmer, more hard-hitting stories, you could create an impactful story about the loneliness or depression of someone struggling to stay alive in a similar situation. And that’s just one story from one history book.
Isolated incidents aren’t the only realm from which we can draw historical inspiration, however. If you’re struggling to add a sense of background realism to your fantasy, you can go and read up on real-world history and see if you find anything that fits your setting. Towns and settlements often spring up for odd reasons. The first British trading post in India was built in a harbour exposed to typhoons and blocked by a huge sandbar, which made it a terrible location for trade ships to land. It was built there because the leader of that particular expedition had managed to acquire a mistress in a nearby Dutch settlement, and he wanted to make his visits easier. Despite it’s poor qualifications for a trading port, this little settlement eventually grew to become the city of Madras, now known as Chennai, with a population of 6,000,000. Perhaps a city in your world could have similarly unlikely origins. Or if you want a story that’s slightly less absurd, history books are filled with geopolitical intrigues and details of the birth of nations, many of which might fit the story that you’re trying to write.
Finally, I also find history to be a source of insights into the kind of complex characters who I want to create in my fiction. Studying the history of real nations, real organisations or sub-cultures, is a good way of ensuring that we don’t fall foul to the crimes of stereotyping or creating unrealistic, monolithic portrayals of large groups of people. Even in a group of people like the merchants who worked for the East India Company – men who wanted to make money at other people’s expense and weren’t afraid to sail halfway around the world to do so – there is a surprising range of motivations and a surprising amount of moral integrity. It might be tempting to paint all historical figures with the same brush, and assume that even the most highly-celebrated figures from history held ideas that we would deem to be morally reprehensible in the modern age. This is the kind of assumption that fuels the current trend of ‘grimdark’ fantasy, where fantasy worlds are depicted as brutally indifferent to the fate of their protagonists, and most characters encountered by the protagonist are shown to be intolerant and unprincipled. Grimdark is, of course, a backlash against earlier tropes in fantasy, where fantasy authors brushed over historically-accurate unpleasantness such as plague, slavery, skin tumours, and open sewers. But it’s equally disingenuous to present history – or fantasy worlds based on real-world history – as wholly dark and unpleasant. Reading history shows us that even insides the most insidious organisations and maritime empires in history, most people were complex characters, and there were still isolated individuals who were acting commendably by our own moral standards as well as their own.
I’m not an apologist for the misdeeds of colonial empires, and it’s important to record the dark side of history – but it’s also important to make sure that we don’t make our fantasy settings into wholly bleak worlds, bereft of the kind of characters who act with good intentions. By reading history, we can learn about how real people acted in difficult situations, and we can use their struggles to enrich our own stories.
Let me start today’s post by telling you about a man called Dagobert D. Runes.
He had a delightful name, like something out of an urban fantasy novel, but he was every bit as real as you and me.
He was born in a part of Austro-Hungary that is now a part of Ukraine. He was a philosopher, and a writer, and he spent most of his life writing dictionaries of philosophy full of radical opinions about the art of thinking and the history of thought. In 1941 he founded a publishing company called The Philosophical Library, which exists to this day, and has published more than 2,000 titles.
There’s some controversy about Runes. In 1959, he published the first English translation of a text by Karl Marx, entitled “On the Jewish Question”, which was either a defence of the rights of Jews in Prussia or an early piece of anti-Semitism, depending upon which historians you listen to. Runes’ translation was published under the title of “A World without Jews”, and this choice of title did not bode well for him. Although he’d only translated the book, the title sounded distinctly anti-Semitic, and Runes’ reputation suffered extremely. Runes wrote an introduction to the translation that gives historians reason to believe that he was not himself an extreme Marxist, nor an anti-Semite – but this doesn’t seem to have saved his reputation.
I’m a little cynical of Runes and his opinions, but this post isn’t really about him.
I only mention him because, in 1955, he published a book called The Treasury of Thought, a kind of dictionary containing subversive definitions of many common words. One of the entries was for the word CRITIC.
His definition reads:
“A eunuch judging a man’s lovemaking. A skydreaming Eagle without wings. Pygmies with poison darts in the valley of the sleeping giants”
Even if we disregard everything else that Runes ever wrote, these definitions seem to ring true today. And perhaps it proves that people with objectionable opinions can still sometimes give us valuable insights into the human condition.
Let me get to my point. I don’t know how many of you are fans of the late, great, Sir Terry Pratchett, but I certainly count myself among their number.
A week or two ago, shortly after the publication of Pratchett’s posthumous final novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, a literary critic called Jonathan Jones wrote an article that even he himself has now described as “a snort of contempt”, calling Terry Pratchett an “ordinary potboiler”, accusing him of “mental laziness” and “robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.”
Jones’ logic seems to have been that the kind of people who spend their free time reading Pratchett – and, by implication, all fantasy novels in general – are wasting their time. Jones feels that people should instead be dedicating their time to reading great works of literature by the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Bukowski. Jones openly admitted at the beginning of his derisive review that he’d never condescended to even reading a single Discworld novel before he formed such a negative opinion of their author. In his own words, “life is too short.”
I have to dispute this.
In the week that Mister Pratchett shuffled off his mortal coil, I was cooped up in a little room in Bristol where I was doing a residential internship at a publishing company. I’d bought a couple of books from a stall down by the harbourside and I was reading them in the evenings. One of them was A Farewell to Arms by Ernst Hemingway. The other was Post Office by none other than Charles Bukowski, the profane and gutter-mouthed and utterly brilliant American everyman who Jonathan Jones thinks that we ought to be reading instead of Mister Pratchett. I was halfway through Post Office when somebody else in the office looked up from their computer and said, “oh, Terry Pratchett’s dead”, in the kind of tones that one would use to remark upon the death of a minor television personality or a B-List Olympian. I was crushed. When I returned to my room that evening, I wrote a tearful blog post, then downloaded an e-book of my favourite Discworld book (Guards! Guards!) and read it in one sitting whilst enjoying some Bristol cider apple brandy that I’d bought during one of my excursions.
Then the day afterwards, I went back to reading Bukowski. Then I read Hemingway. And I’d finished all three books by the end of the week.
So the first thing I have to say to Jonathan Jones is this: if he thinks that people don’t have time to read Terry Pratchett and read Charles Bukowski, clearly he isn’t spending enough of his time reading. As a full-time literary critic, I find it a little disturbing that he spends less of his time reading than an overworked, underpaid publishing intern.
I enjoyed Bukowski just as much as I enjoyed Hemingway, and I also enjoy Austen – but enjoyment can take many different forms. And whilst I appreciate Bukowski’s dirty everyman humour, and Hemingway’s frank “no-frills” depiction of war, and Austen’s achievements as the first writer to indulge the reader in letting us know what her characters were thinking at any given time, I can’t say that I enjoy reading their works any more than I enjoy reading a stokingly good Pratchett novel.
Of course, for critics like Jonathan Jones, enjoyment isn’t the end goal of reading. When he published his article a few weeks ago, my initial reaction was incandescent rage. I tweeted a rebuke which included a certain unsavoury four-letter word which is perhaps best kept to heated disputes between differently-opinionated Englishmen, and which perhaps ought not to be repeated on a respectable site like the Art of Writing. If he saw it, he didn’t see fit to reply.
Whatever your opinion of Mr. Pratchett, surely a literary critic is not doing their (blisteringly well-paid) job properly if they don’t even deign to read a book before they publish a condescending criticism of it. A lot of people pointed this out to Jonathan Jones, and he eventually relented, and agreed to read Small Gods, one of Pratchett’s books which has earned acclaim from fans and critics alike.
After reading it, it seems that Jones’ opinion has remained largely unchanged.
He writes “In the real world, as opposed to the Discworld, people have complexities, contradictions. A whole art form has evolved to explore them. It’s called the novel”. He says:
“…for some reason, the fantasy genre is a graveyard for the English language. Even Tolkien himself – and yes, I have read him thoroughly – wrote an ordinary, flat, Hobbitish prose.”
When I read this, I bristled. This was more than just a condescending invitation to be referred to with unsavoury four-letter words. This was a direct attack on the fantasy genre. It was an insult to everything I held dear. I’m sure a lot of followers of this blog will feel the same way. Insulting Terry Pratchett is bad enough. But insulting Tolkien? Insulting the genre spawned in Tolkien’s wide wake, and all of the authors who write books in that genre? That’s fighting talk.
Rather than picking up my axe, sounding my war horn, summoning my bannermen and marching forthwith upon Jonathan Jones’ house, I decided to take the Hobbit’s approach. I sat back and thought about his reviews for a while, sucking on my proverbial pipe weed and ruminating upon his opinions.
I think it’s interesting to note that when Terry Pratchett was awarded his knighthood in the 2005 New Years Honours list, the official justification was for “services to literature.” The newly knighted Sir Terry himself commented that ” “I suspect the ‘services to literature’ consisted of refraining from trying to write any,”
Even Mr. Pratchett seems to have conceded that he was not actually a writer of literature. He was a writer of amusing stories, of entertaining tales, supposed to be enjoyed with a wry smile, but not to be regarded as fine works of art. Jones agrees. After reading Small Gods, he writes “Why would anyone confuse this with the kind of literary prose it so emphatically does not want to be?”
That made me think. Perhaps fantasy authors should just accept that we’re not writers of great literature – and nor are we obligated to be. Perhaps we should accept that our work exists as entertainment, not as art. That our books are meant to be enjoyed, cherished, read by the kind of people who love a rip-roaring adventure story – not by the kind of people who read books because they want a unique, raw, tragic, multifaceted insight into the deepest unplumbed crevices of the human soul.
But then I remembered the sheer range of fantasy novels that have been written since Tolkien invented the genre. The sheer range of topics, experiences, insights, human emotions that have been explored in the wealth of fantasy writing that exists in the world. Because the very best fantasy and science fiction stories – whether it’s A Song of Ice and Fire or lesser-known novels loved by their small, dedicated audiences – always go beyond their fantasy setting. Their authors always strive to write about the whole broad spectrum of the human experience, whether the humans are fighting in a medieval crusade or sailing across vast oceans or travelling between the stars. There are wary soldiers and disenchanted princesses and unsung heroes struggling through adversity and finding out that their happily-ever-afters aren’t as as shining and golden as they thought they were. There is raw emotion there, and raw humanity, in all of it’s infinite diversity.
Jones concludes his second review by writing “I prefer writing that rubs up against the real world, that describes what it is to be alive in all its unpredictability, wild comedy, longing, grotesqueness, exhilaration – and shame.”
Jones thinks that fantasy readers don’t take the time to read enough ‘serious’ literature. But if Jones thinks that fantasy can’t ‘rub against the real world’, that fantasy can’t present all of the bizarre and wonderful extremes of what it is to be human…then I have to say, I don’t think he’s taking the time to reading enough fantasy.
I am, in general, a fan of dark, gritty fiction. This includes books like Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, television shows like the new Daredevil series, movies like Bladerunner, and video games like Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun Dragonfall. However, I recently came across a complaint that I think is somewhat fair when it comes to this kind of material. It is easy for writers to slip in more or less subtle prods towards their own moral opinions. Sometimes, as in Erikson’s series, this is consistently well done and the moral stances that the characters take generally fit with their overall beliefs and behaviors. However, Shadowrun Dragonfall, some players have complained, suffers from a case of dissonance.
For those of you who are not players, the Shadowrun world is a cyberpunk fantasy setting–that is to say that it is set in the relatively near future, includes some advanced technology (such as a living internet where hackers port their consciousness into the internet via avatars and, in bad circumstances, can even be killed by computer programs) along with elves, orcs, trolls, dragons, and various kinds of magic. The world of Shadowrun is not a nice place. Much of it is run by massive corporations that tend to view people as replaceable parts of a machine. Most people eek out a living totally beholden to such corporations, but there is some question as to whether the corporations are entirely evil or simply doing what it takes to take care of their own. Enter the shadowrunners, for whom the table-top game, book series, and video games are named. These are highly specialized experts in covert operations who sell their services to various governments, corporations, or private interests to perform a wide variety of black ops missions ranging from guarding valuable shipments, infiltration and espionage, assassination, etc. So, for all intents and purposes the shadowrunners are high-end criminals who steal and kill for a living. This raises the question: was that security guard you shot really a bad guy? Or was he just an everyday guy who was trying to earn enough money to feed his family? Maybe the corporation you stole that chemical formula from was going to use it for nefarious purposes, but are the employers for whom you stole it really going to do anything better with it?
However, in the storyline of Dragonfall the main characters are essentially presented as a group of do-gooders or something close. They may run the occasional mission that requires them to murder a few civilians, plant a bomb, or steal the plans for a new chemical weapon and hand it over to a terrorist group, but they are mostly interested in fighting the raging war against racism, poverty, and corporate greed. Now, it should be noted that in the game you do have the choice to avoid missions that will clearly involve acts like killing civilians or supporting terrorist groups, and even on those missions where there is some risk of this, you generally have the option of avoiding violence as much as possible. So, you can actually play as the Robin Hood of a small neighborhood of Berlin, investing your actions into making the neighborhood a safer, better place to live–which perhaps makes the criticism of this particular game less valid. However, this still raises the question: can we really believe that a bunch of professional criminals are devoting their time to protecting a small neighborhood and ending poverty, racism, etc? Would someone who wanted to pursue these goals become a professional criminal in the first place? Its kind of like saying that someone would join the mob to help drug addicts.
So, the background of your characters, their careers, skills, etc will inevitably influence their moral perspectives. A professional sniper is unlikely to be a pacifist, and a professional prostitute is unlikely to have strong sexual ethics. However, there are ways around this. For instance, a professional sniper who, after shooting a child, went through a significant moral conflict and decided that his former perspective was entirely wrong is a complicated, but realistic character. Similarly, a prostitute who works to support her mother and sisters, and has no other skills or opportunities, but still holds strongly to religious beliefs and thus considers herself morally defiled is also a complicated, but realistic character. The key is the character’s reasoning.
We generally don’t do things, especially not things like devoting ourselves to strong principled goals or acting against our firmly held beliefs, just because. So, we cannot simply say that a character who has been a career criminal can’t be devoted to ending poverty or racism. Instead, we must ask why the character is so committed and how the character reconciles his/her criminal acts with his/her humanitarian efforts. So, perhaps my team of career criminals in Dragonfall used to be in it for the money, but each of them had some epiphany that gave them cause to examine and reconsider the paths of their lives. Perhaps each then decided to find a way to use the skills nurtured by a life of crime to instead give something back to the community. I’m not going to make the argument that Dragonfall specifically does this well. Instead, I am simply making that argument that it can be done well, and that it is something that you should consider. As I tell my students, make sure to ask the ‘why’ questions. Why does your character say/thing/act in this particular way? What past events and line of reasoning explains this? Remember that complicated characters are a good thing. Characters that have made mistakes and learned from them are certainly a boon to a good story, but there needs to be a clear reasoning behind the complications.