Transitioning Perspectives

minor-characters1-e1342304827186A few years ago I had the distinct pleasure of finding one of my favorite authors on Facebook and friending him. Not following him, not joining his page, but friending the actual man himself. As I was working on my first novel at the time, after I thanked him for his contributions to the written word, and explained how his work had impacted me (I imagine that I must have gushed at the time… most of the people who know me will tell you that I don’t gush…), I asked if he had any advice for new writers. I’ve know plenty of people who would give some pat, simple sounding answer like ‘don’t give up’ or ‘just do your best’ etc. However, this man didn’t. Instead, he gave me a simple piece of advice that has saved my stories time and again. Today, I hope to pass that on to you.

Succinctly stated, what this man told me was that, when he got stuck at some point in his writing, he generally found that the solution to the dilemma lay in his minor characters. Sometimes the block could be removed by simply doing something different with one of the main characters, but often the problem was that a minor character needed to be more fully developed. In developing his minor characters he gave himself pieces to work with that removed the block, and created a deeper, more complete story. I might add that this particular man’s character development is some of the best I’ve ever seen, up there with Marron Shed in Glen Cook’s Shadow’s Linger or Karsa Orlong in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. So, keeping this in mind, how do you actually do that?

Developing minor characters isn’t actually that hard, and there are a few ways to do it, depending on the kind of story your writing. For instance, at the moment I am working on a story that is written from multiple perspectives. For three days now I’ve been stuck on a single scene: writing, deleting, rewriting, deleting, etc because I couldn’t find a perspective that worked. I couldn’t find the right character to tell the story of that scene. Then I did. The key to writing the scene was to keep trying it from the perspective of different characters until I found one that worked.

00311Of course, if the story your writing only has one perspective (say a first person story), this is much more difficult. However, you can still do something similar. When writing a single perspective story you obviously can’t write from the perspective of a minor character. You can’t delve into the character’s thoughts, but you can delve into their motivations through their words and deeds. If you’re having trouble with a scene, try focusing on a different element of that scene, and then building it outwards from there. For instance, if your writing a scene in which two detectives find are examining a crime scene, and you can’t seem to get their dialogue quite right, try beginning with a third party in the conversation. Perhaps the detectives stop to chat with one of the uniformed officers, or with the doorman. Bringing in a minor character adds a new element to the scene that can make it work and can push through a stubborn section of the story that just doesn’t want to work.

If you don’t believe me, try it. The next time you find a scene that you’re struggling with, instead of getting frustrated, shift the focus to a previously minor character, and let the scene develop from there. It might take a few tries to find the right minor character, but once you do you’ll be surprised how quickly and easily the scene develops.

Living vs. Still Description in Prose

ethical-lgOne of the most important, and one of the easiest to overlook, aspects of writing is description. Whether this is description of a character, a prop (you can see my theater work starting to come through), a setting, or whatever else how we decide to describe something tells our readers a lot about what is actually important in the story, and helps them to build the imaginary world that any story creates.

There are as many approaches to description as there are authors, but Glenn Cook’s Black Company series and David Liss’ The Ethical Assassin provide two easy outer markers. Cook has always been a no-nonsense writer and in The Black Company (possibly even more in the Dread Empire series) Cook has a habit of leaving the reader wondering what his characters actually look like. Liss on the other hand provides a very detailed description of the waste lagoon of a pig farm in The Ethical Assassin. Both are excellent writers, but the two have very different approaches to writing in general, and to description in particular. Cook likes action, he likes movement, he likes to get on with the story, while Liss likes you to know what every character, item, and location looks, sounds, smells, and sometimes tastes like. Personally, I like to be reminded what color a character’s hair is every now and then (I tend to forget), but I’d rather avoid the two sentence description of what pig excrement tastes like (a little exaggeration here… not as much as you’d think, but a little).

Not quite blonde, but who had a bigger nose than Cyrano
Not quite blonde, but who had a bigger nose than Cyrano

In general, there are two forms of description that an author can use to bring his character’s and world to life. The first, and most common, is a still description that simply lists qualities. This can be done poorly: Liam was tall, with long blond hair, red cheeks, a wide mouth, and a pointy nose. Or it can be done well: Liam was a tall man. His long blond hair bounced around his red cheeks, framing his wide, thin-lipped mouth. His most notable, and to some his most cumbersome, quality was his nose however, which stuck out of his face like a spear.

The goal in still description is to give a quick once over of the item being described so that the reader can form a simple picture in his head. The key to a good still description is to provide necessary details in a quick, but interesting fashion. For instance, breaking a still description into multiple sentences and adding a little minor action (like the bouncing hair) can make a still description much more vivid. Adding in visual metaphors can also help, though you need to be careful with this. While some hyperbole is effective in this kind of metaphor, it is fairly easy to go to far, and the wrong metaphor can ruin your scene. Consider, if I’ve just described Liam’s nose as spear-like, and then the first thing he does in the scene is passionately kiss someone, all of my readers are suddenly imaging this poor girl being run-through by his nose.

Screen shot 2012-07-09 at 12.17.44Living description is a little harder to master. A living description involves working your description seamlessly into the action of a scene. For instance: The door to the ballroom slammed open and Liam strode in. His blonde hair seemed to float around his face as he took the stairs two at a time, raising one black-gloved hand to point menacingly at Duke Clairmonte. Liam’s thin lips twisted into a snarl as he yelled, “There! It is the Duke who’s done it!” Duke Clairmonte stumbled back a few steps, gesturing confusedly as Liam thrust his spear-like nose into the Duke’s face and growled, “You killed the king.”

The advantage of a living description is that it both gives your readers a visual image and keeps the action flowing at the same time. However, the disadvantage is that it can sometimes be too much to follow at one time. The living description above is fairly crowded with imagery, and some of it is perhaps a little bit of a stretch, and this is a problem that you will often run into when writing a living description. It can be very difficult to seamlessly fit in the imagery that you want your readers to see.

Surely there must be a grassy mountain lakeside field somewhere down there... right...?
Surely there must be a grassy mountain lakeside field somewhere down there… right…?

Also, remember that description isn’t always a good thing. Something that my writing group tells me fairly often is that I’ve got too much description, and I felt the same way about Liss in The Ethical Assassin. However, this is something that is inevitably up to the relationship between the author and the reader. Some authors thrive on detailed descriptions of everything, and do it very well *cough*Frank Herbert*cough*, while other authors leave most of the details up to the reader’s imagination. As long as your readers aren’t getting board, you don’t have too much description, and as long as they can follow the story, you don’t have too little.

On the other hand, if you spend three pages tediously describing a sand dune *cough*George Lucas*cough*, or your readers aren’t exactly sure if the characters are supposed to be on a grassy plain, in the mountains, or beside a lake… possibly all three… or none of the above… you’ve got some problems and need to work on either cutting your description down, or filling it in respectively.

Using Timelines in Background Writing

Many fantasy authors pay more attention to developing cultures than geography, and while the geography of a fictional world is often more important than we give credit, this is not entirely a bad thing. After all, relatively few people are going to notice if your rivers are going in the wrong directions, or if the land to water ratio of your world wouldn’t actually support life. On the other hand, shotguns in a culture that has barely mastered the making of glass are going to be fairly noticeable. When working on your world remember that creating the illusion of reality is more important than mirroring reality itself. There are a lot of things that you could do wrong (for instance putting a jungle plant in the desert) that won’t break most people out of the story. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention, do your research, or trust people’s ignorance to cover your egregious errors, but it does mean that a rich, believable culture is going to be more important to most readers than accurate geography.

What can I say? Korean is fun.
What can I say? Korean is fun.

That being said, timelines can be a useful tool for the development of your world. However, this doesn’t mean that a detailed timeline is necessary. Tolkien’s timeline, The Silmarillion, is massively extensive (it’s a book after-all). On the other hand, some authors (Glen Cook for example), seem to have only a general idea of the history of their world that develops as they write. Let me say here that Tolkien and Cook are two of my favorite authors, and (while I’m not privy to Cook’s writing notes) appear to have two completely different approaches to background writing.

Whenever you’re writing a new world a basic timeline is a must. However, a basic timeline only requires a general idea of what’s happened. For instance, a basic timeline might be as simple as:

1-2500: Origins of the World

2501-4300: The Age of Fire

4301-5250: The Martian Rule

5251-9000: The Age of Chaos

9001-14000: The Rise of Man

14001-14653: The Rule of Empires

I have no idea who this picture belongs to. If it's yours please let me know. I'd love to give you credit.
I have no idea who this picture belongs to. If it’s yours please let me know. I’d love to give you credit.

This basic timeline gives you a basic record of what has happened and how the history of the world has progressed. Each broad span of time is tagged with a title that will remind you of the general idea you had for that era. These eras can be filled in as necessary. For instance, if the first 60,000,000 years of your world is the collapse of gasses into a planetoid and the development of an atmosphere… well, you probably don’t need to fill in that era. Similarly, if for the next 30,000 years the world was ruled by jello people who built everything out of gelatin and left no discernible trace of their existence, you probably don’t need to fill in that era either. However, remember that worlds develop over time. The foundations of one culture can often affect the development of the next, and all those strange ruins you’re heroes love to explore had to come from somewhere.

How detailed your timeline is depends on a few of factors. 1) How much affect the era has on the history of your world: if your looking at an era that happened in the ancient history, you probably don’t need a year by year timeline, perhaps not even a century by century timeline. 2) How long the history of your world is: if your world is six billion years old your probably going to be looking at a lot of empty space in your time-line. On the other hand, if you world is only forty-five days old, you probably don’t want any blank spaced. 3) How serious your world is: the style of writing you do can have a large effect on the need for a detailed timeline. Stories that are intended to be comedic or tongue in cheek in nature generally have a lot more leeway for mistakes than stories that are very serious. This doesn’t mean that a detailed timeline won’t help your story (it always will), but you can get away with a lot more in comedy than in tragedy.

This certainly isn’t the last thing I’ll write about background writing, and probably not the last thing I’ll write about timelines, but I’ve learned better than to make promises about what’s coming next week. For now, work on your basic timeline, and then fill things in as needed.

 

From Here to There: The Space In Between

Shadaan’s conception of Karsa Orlong

Alright, Cassandra’s busy so we’re trading days again.  She’ll be posting on Saturday.  Sorry about all the switching around, but unfortunately that’s what happens when lives become hectic.  Hopefully things will calm down and the schedule will get back to normal eventually.

So, last Saturday I discussed the most basic element of character development: knowing where your characters are going.  However, as another author once told me, ‘knowing the beginning and the end doesn’t make for a story, the story comes in getting from one to the other.’  The same is true in character development.  You have to know where your character starts, and where the character is going, but if that’s all you know, then you don’t have a developing character.  You have a character that makes sudden, massive jumps in emotion, and your readers are going to notice that.

The character of Marron Shed in Glen Cook’s Shadow’s Linger is one of the best examples of character development that I’ve ever seen.  Shed develops subtlely over the course of the novel, so subtlely sometimes that you don’t even realize he’s changing until he does something that is completely congruous with his character, but would have been absolutely antithetical to his character a few chapters before.  Shed does not leap from one point of maturity to another, but develops into a completely different person over the course of the novel.  A couple other great examples of character development, that I’ve probably mentioned before, are Karsa Orlong in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Father Aillil in Lars Walker’s Year of the Warrior.  All of these are characters that develop slowly, realistically, and wind up becoming completely different people from who they started as.

Father Aillil

So, how does your character get from here to there? That is the million dollar question (sometimes literally), and it’s not an easy question to answer simply because it’s different for every character.  For instance, Marron Shed’s character begins as a coward and develops into a noble man.  However, he does so by first finding his courage in doing some very wicked things, and then finding his virtue.  Karsa Orlong, however, is never a coward.  He begins as a rash, brazen, foolish warrior who develops wisdom, strength, and true confidence through being forced into slavery and servitude.  Where Shed learns courage, Orlong learns loyalty and submission to a greater cause.  Only once he has learned these lessons does he become the man who can lead.

You are the only one who can decide how your characters should and will develop, and what they will develop into.  However, there are some things you can avoid:

Remember that your characters need to develop like real people. That’s usually not a straight path.

1) Don’t force your character.  Remember that characters need to behave like real people.  Your job is to gently guide your character towards the goal you want him to achieve through the course of your novel.  Not to force him into the box you want him to fit in.  Fifty Shades of Grey made exactly this mistake.  In the first chapter of the book the main character, Anastasia, is a virgin who’s never had a boyfriend.  She meets Christian Grey and suddenly she must have him.  By the third chapter of the book, still a virgin, she is willing to let him chain her up and beat her, and willing to discuss even more extreme activities.  Somehow, I don’t buy the leaps that are made to achieve this.

2) Don’t rush.  Remember that people develop at their own rate, and the same is true of characters.  You can’t force a 17 year old to act like a 25 year old.  You can’t force an emotionally immature, cowardly guy to man-up and take the initiative.  You can’t force a woman who isn’t ready for a serious relationship to be ready.  You can’t force fool to be wise.  The same is true of your characters.  They need to develop and mature at their own rate, and you have to let them.  In many ways being an author is like being a parent.  You don’t get to tell your characters, “This is what you should be doing, now shape up and do it!” You have to work with them to make them into the characters you want them to be.  Some are going to be more ornery than others.

If you want to write realistic character development, it wouldn’t hurt to study some psychology and examine how people actually develop.

3) Don’t fake it! This is probably the biggest thing to pay attention to.  Be real with your characters.  Don’t tell your characters what you want them to do, instead get inside their heads and figure out what they would do.  Instead of trying to model the character’s reactions to the events of your story, model the events of your story around the reactions you need your characters to have (to a degree, remember it all has to be realistic).  Also remember that not all of your characters will develop.  We all know someone who’s been a selfish sixteen year old for the past twenty years.  They just never matured, never grew up, and they make everyone’s lives miserable.  Those characters will exist in your story as well.  This doesn’t mean that you have to write characters like this, but remember that your characters have to be real, and that means that some of them might not change, even if you want them to.

There has to be a balance between where you want your story to go, and where you want you characters to go.  Sometimes you’ll run into a situation where an event that is necessary for your story drives one of your characters in the wrong direction.  That happens, so let it happen.  Don’t force the character to be what you want, even when he’s not.  Watch who the character becomes, and if you can guide him back in the direction you want him to go.  If not, then you might have to either change the direction of your character, or change the direction of your story (the former is easier than the latter).

From Here to There: On the Basics of the Development of Character in Fiction

Who your character’s become is up to you.

I love character driven fiction, and good character development is, therefore, a must.  However, there are a lot of books on the market that have poor, or no character development.  For instance, The Dresden Files provides less character development over the course of five novels as I can find in one novel by Lars Walker (The Year of the Warrior) or Glen Cook (Shadows Linger).  One of the greatest costs of the current focus on serial novels is the strong development of character.  When a single character has to last a writer for ten or twelve novels, then he just can’t develop much in any particular novel.  On the other hand, when a character is only needed for a few novels (one to three perhaps), then much more focused character development is possible.  The same is true when a writer has a large number of character.  Stephen Erikson is a good example of this.  His Malazan Book of the Fallen series has thousands of characters, and hundreds of major characters.  Now some of these characters are obviously not the focus of a great deal of character growth and development.  However, when there are hundreds of major characters over the course of ten novels, the author is not relying so much on one character to carry the series.  He can develop each of these characters well consistently, and show their growth, knowing that he doesn’t need them later on.  Some of my favorite characters in the series only appear in one or two books, are strongly developed, and then die or move on.*

The most basic aspect of developing your character is to have a goal.  We’ve given you a number of good posts on how to create a character, but you should also have a goal in mind for every major character you create.  You can start with something as simple as a theme for the character:

Heroes is a show with some truly phenomenal character development.

At the beginning of the story John is childish and naive, but by the end of the story he is capable of making his way in the world (Coming of Age story)

At the beginning of the story Sathra is a selfish, evil person, but by the end of the story he is a noble character (Redemption story)

At the beginning of the story Melchior is single and hopeless, but by the end of the story he has found his true love (Romance story)

There are any number of themes that you can choose for your character, but the key is to know where you want the character to start, and where you want the character to end.  Ideally, you will develop a character profile for what your character is like at the beginning of your book (who he is) and what you want the character to look like at the end of your book (where he is going), but you can probably get away with general themes.

Overall, the first goal of character development has to be know where each character is going, and who each character is going to be by the end of the novel.  For instance, over the last couple of weeks I posted a two part introduction to a new book I’m working on (here and here).  Right now I know who Alanoc is, and I have a fairly good idea of who Drevor is.  I also know who Alanoc is going to be by the end of the novel, but I’m not completely sure who Drevor is going to be (I have an idea, but it’s something I’m still working on).  Knowing who Alanoc is and where he is going as a character is important (he is the main character), but if I don’t figure out where Drevor is going, then I could easily leave him as a flat character who doesn’t develop over the course of the book.  Obviously, this would be bad.  We’ve all ready flat characters, and they aren’t fun. The best authors are those who provide depth and development even in their minor characters.  J.K. Rowling is a good example of this.  While I don’t like how some of her characters develop in the Harry Potter series, she provides strong character development in each of her characters, even the relatively unimportant ones.

No one really stays the same over time.

So, here is your task: choose one of your stories and make a list of the major characters in that story.  Then write out basic tropes for who the character is now, and who you want the character to be by the end of the story.  This could be as simple as ‘An SOB’ to ‘The White Knight’.  If you want to go the extra mile then take two or three of your main characters and write out full character profiles for who they are at the beginning of the story, and who you want them to be by the end of the story.

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*Erikson writes Russian novels, and so it is not uncommon for major characters to die and be replaced by other characters.

World Building: What About the Multiverse?

The endless multiverse has also caused a lot of problems in the world of DC Comics. See the Infinite Crisis series, the Ultimate Crisis series, and the 52 series for some examples.

Well… as a lot of you have probably noticed my systematic series of educational world building articles have been somewhat co-opted by me talking about issues that arise in the new world that I’m currently building.  Which, if you know me at all, really isn’t surprising.  I would promise to get back to the system eventually, but I have no idea if that will ever happen.  At this point, I’m not sure I even remember what my system looked like.  However, I do hope that you enjoy/learn from my discussion of various issues that I’m currently encountering.  So… multiverse.

If you’re not familiar with the concept a multiverse is the idea of multiple universes (sometimes called plains, realities, or dimensions – fiction writers are not generally know for using technical jargon correctly) that are parallel with one another, and between which a certain amount of crossover can be obtained.  To my understanding the concept originates from a philosophical notion (I don’t know whose) that every choice creates two or more possible consequences, both of which could and therefore must exist.  However, more than one direct consequence of the choice cannot exist in any given universe, so another universe must be created for the other choice to exist (for instance, I had the choice to either wear socks or not wear socks, only one option is possible in this universe, but in some other universe I chose to wear socks).  There is a lot of variety when it comes to multiple universe theories, and this is only one (the most prevalent with which I am familiar).  The concept of parallel realities has been supported by a good amount of scientific work (here’s an article from Scientific American that explains it much better than I can).

A map of the D&D 2.0-3.5 Outer Planes

However, it is a concept that has existed in the realm of fantasy and science fiction for a long time, and in many ways.  If you want to look at some great examples of the science side of multiverse in fiction read Stephen Ames Berry’s Biofab Series (Biofab War, The Battle for Terra Two, The AI War, and Final Assault), or watch Sliders or the anime Noein.  However, if you want to look at the less sciency side of fictional multiverses, the world of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game (and the thousands of associated novels) has one of the best developed multiverses in fiction.  I certainly wouldn’t argue that it is the best writing in fiction, but the background writing behind D&D’s (especially editions 2.0-3.5) multiverse is excellent.

A map of the multiverse from D&D 4.0

So, how does one go about creating a multiverse? Well, the first question to ask is why you want a multiverse in the first place.  For example, Noein centers around the science and philosophy of parallel universes, as does Sliders.  Both shows exist to explore the concept of the multiverse (though I think Noein does this more effectively than Sliders).  Berry’s Biofab series appears to include a multiverse because it’s a cool notion to play with, but his story doesn’t strictly require a multiverse (in that a very, very similar story could effectively be told in a single universe).  D&D, on the other hand, avoids the science behind the multiverse entirely and creates its multiverse based around religious and ethical conceptions of existence.  Thus, in the former (science fiction) series the multiverse is essentially infinite (a universe exists for every choice ever made… you try doing the math), while the D&D multiverse (while there is some notion of potential infinity) has a finite number of realities (though some of those realities are self-contained infinities).  Some of Glen Cook’s writing (I’m avoiding spoilers here) contains a multiverse concept that bridges the gap between these two.  While Cook’s multiverse is certainly not a scientifically accurate multiverse, it is not based on strict religious or ethical considerations either.  It is simply a group of realities that intersect one another.

Noein makes dimensional science, philosophy, and conflict the absolute center of it’s story. It is very interesting, to say the least.

So, ask yourself: why do I want to include multiple realities? Do you just want to have fun with the idea? Do you want to explore the science behind it? Is there a specific point for your multiverse, or a specific need that it has to fill?  These basic questions will help you decide if you should create a multiverse (seriously… your probably starting to get an idea of how much work goes into making one world… do you really want to make a dozen?), and if you do, what kind of multiverse you want to create.  For instance, in the world of Kalagrosh I am including a limited multiverse (it’s not intended to be infinite, and perhaps not even potentially infinite).  I have a specific reason for doing so (I’m not sharing yet… spoilers), and that reason requires at least two realities.  At the moment I’m not sure how many worlds will be in my multiverse (three or four I think… maybe more), but that will come in time.  I’m also not going to try to create all of the different worlds in advance.  I know of three worlds that I have to have at the moment, others will come as they are needed until the multiverse is complete.  And of course, this begs the question: how do I know when it’s complete? That… is something I will talk about in another blog post.

World Building Part… I forgot… Anyway, it’s about Magic

I don’t think anything else needs to be said.

So, it’s been a while since I did my last world building post, and since my Thursday writer flaked out and didn’t write a post for today, and since I’ve put up four picture posts in the past week, I figured I’d write a new one for today.  I honestly don’t know which part this is (5 maybe?), but I’m too tired right now to go back and figure it out (I’ll do that for the next one I promise).  We’ve been talking about people groups (races) in fantasy and science fiction, and one of the defining aspects of the fantasy genre is magic (this actually appears with reasonable frequency in science fiction as well, though usually under different names).  There are definitely going to be a couple of posts about this (i.e. how magic affects your people groups, your cultures, your nations, etc), but before any of that I want to talk a little bit about how to write magic.

Many authors will tell you that you have to know how the magic in your world works, and to some degree this is always true.  Star Wars is an excellent example of doing this poorly, largely because so many authors write about Jedi.  In the EU novels there is a wide variety of force use, and none of it really follows a standard set of rules.  In one novel Luke can use the force to pull a Star Destroyer out of orbit, but in another he has trouble getting his lightsaber off of his belt.  Some authors impose their own rules on the force (Michael A. Stackpole does an excellent job of explaining and standardizing force use in I, Jedi… not that anyone follows him), and others take their rules from other sources (Drew Karpyshyn’s novels read as though all he knows about the force came from the Knights of the Old Republic video games… which admittedly he helped write, but it leaves him very limited).  However, throughout the novels (and the movies) the idea of the force is written and rewritten (midichlorians? really?), and then rewritten again (what is this thing in KOR2 about someone ‘eating’ the force and destroying it?) to the point that there is no clearly recognizable standard.  Obviously, this is a bad thing.

Magic should be something that seems to make the impossible real.

However, an author should also be careful to leave himself some freedom when it comes to magic.  Magic is magic, it shouldn’t feel like science.  Karpyshyn is a great example of this, another great example is Brandon Sanderson.  Sanderson is a good author (hit and miss for me though, I love The Way of Kings but hate the Mistborn series), but his ‘magic’ systems feel like scientific formulas, everything is exactly known, and it all has to be explained.  Patrick Rothfuss (Name of the Wind) does a good job of making rules for his magic (sympathy), but also leaving a lot of real magic (naming) in his world.  On the far end of the spectrum is Glen Cook (The Black Company) who’s magic is delightfully surprising, and (to the reader) feels ‘real’ without being remotely formulaic.  I honestly can’t say whether this is a product of Cook having a solid core of what can and can’t happen somewhere in the background (the reader never gets much of it explained), or if he’s simply a good enough writer that he can pull it off without one, but the magic in his books makes it feel like anything is possible, while it is clear that not everything is possible.  It is always surprising, without ever feeling ridiculous, which is exactly what magic should be (in my opinion).

It should be dangerous.

Magic does not exactly have ‘rules’ in Avnul, but it does have guidelines.  For instance, there are the Hatarim and the Sannur, two different sets of god like beings, one more powerful than the other.  Both have the ability to grant their power to mortals, but obviously Hatarim can grant more power to more mortals than Sannur.  Magic is limited both by a character’s knowledge/creativity, and by a sources willingness to give up the power necessary for the spell.  There are, of course, other sources of power (such as blood), but these are very limited, and certainly can’t take the place of a Hatarim or Sannur.  I’m not going to go anymore into detail about magic in Avnul right now, suffice it to say that I have an idea of what is possible, and what is not, and this is the core of what you need.  Magic can be as powerful as you want in your world, but don’t write about how Arktosh the sorcerer can call down the sun from the heavens and sink continents, and then limit your sorcerers to petty tricks… at least, not without a good reason (i.e. Arktosh was so powerful that he all but destroyed magic and now everyone else has to make due with what’s left).  George R.R. Martin handles this well in Game of Thrones as he shows how magic in his world is connected to dragons.  When the last dragon died, magic all but disappeared (a few vestiges), but as dragons come back into the world through the course of the books, magic becomes more powerful, and other magical creatures begin to awaken.  The key is to be consistent, and if you appear to break consistency, both have a good reason for doing so (i.e. the plot line requires it) and provide the reader with a strong explanation for doing so.  Cook did this well in the later books of The Black Company.  I’m not going to try to explain all of it (it would require a second whole post) but the series is worth reading anyway, this is just one more reason for you to do so.

And it should be haunting.

Alright, that’s enough of my prattling for now.  Remember, with your magic: have an idea of the possible/impossible, be consistent, don’t turn it into science.  These are the three core rules of writing good magic.

Must Reads

Enter here to tales of yore,

Everyone has their list of books that they think are amazing.  We tend to tell people that they must read these books, thus the title, must reads.  However, while there are a lot of great books out there, and a lot of books that are beneficial to read, there are relatively few books or authors that one ‘must read’.  Books/authors that one ‘must read’ are books/authors that have become foundational to a particular genre, or that have significantly changed that genre in some way.  So, I have compiled a list of ‘must reads’ for Science Fiction and Fantasy fans.  You will not that this list is relatively short (comparatively speaking) and at least a few books that you think should be on it, aren’t.  Again, these are books/authors that founded or significantly altered the genre.

Isaac Asimov: Asimov wrote numerous short stories and a number of novels.  However, he is best known for his Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov effectively founded the Science Fiction genre, and thus is definitely a must read.

J.R.R. Tolkien:  Tolkien was a prolific author, so prolific that books of his short stories and still be found and newly published by his descendants.  Best know for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is to fantasy what Asimov is to Science Fiction.

C.S. Lewis: While not as prolific a fiction author, nor as influential to the genre as Tolkien, Lewis’s work and relationship with Tolkien are both significant to the genre.

Edgar Allan Poe: Poe is not the first person to come to mind when one thinks of sci-fi/fantasy.  His work primarily belongs to the genres of horror and mystery, but the influence of Poe’s writing is felt throughout the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres and thus he is a must read for any fan.

H.P. Lovecraft: Like Poe, Lovecraft’s writing belongs primarily in the realm of horror.  However, Lovecraft’s influence is also felt throughout all three genres, and to truly understand any of them, one must be familiar with his work.

Frank Herbert: Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune are all profoundly influential novels that have helped to shape the sci-fi genre in its entirety.  It is difficult to find a good sci-fi author (or film maker) who has not been influenced by Herbert’s work.

Of many man and dragons score,

Robert Heinlein: Like Herbert, Heinlein is a name that should be familiar to all sci-fi fans.  While Herbert dealt more with the philosophical, Heinlein’s fiction deals with practical and political concerns.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are suggested.

George Orwell: While there are many great dystopian authors, Orwell is arguably the most prolific and influential (thought both Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley rank only slightly lower).  Animal Farm and 1984 are suggested.

Sir Thomas More:  More’s novel Utopia (1516) is responsible for the great flood of dystopian fiction of the 20th century.  While the novel itself is not a must read, familiarity with its ideas is important.

George Macdonald: Macdonald was a significant influence on the work of both Tolkien and Lewis, and many consider Macdonald’s writing to be the first true fantasy written for adults.  Phantastes is recommended (although my favorites have always been The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdy, though these are written for children).

Robert E. Howard: Best known for Conan The Barbarian, and his many short stories involving this character.  It is argued that Howard introduced the first protagonist with a significantly different moral structure in fantasy.

Ursula K. Leguin: The Earthsea series is almost as foundational to the development of modern fantasy as Tolkien’s work.

Terry Brooks: While his work is often as maligned as it is loved among fans of the fantasy genre, the Shannara series led a major change in the way that fantasy was published (if not the way that it was written) and opened doors for many other fantasy authors.

And of the living lands all covered in war.

Stephen R. Donaldson: Donaldson’s work in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever stood side by side with Brooks’ Shannara novels in reintroducing the fantasy genre to the American public.

Glen Cook:  While Brooks and Donaldson changed the way that fantasy was published, Cook changed the way that fantasy was written.  Before Cook the fantasy genre was dominated by stories about kings, princes, and maidens.  The tales tended to revolve around men and women of significant power and influence, who changed the world.  Cook’s The Black Company changed this focus.  Cook’s series looks at fantasy through the eyes of the soldier, the mercenary, and the peasant.  Instead of great heroes, Cook’s protagonists are men and women who’s primary goal is to stay alive, and to get home with all their parts intact.

A Review of The White Rose by Glen Cook

I have already reviewed the first two books in Glen Cook’s Black Company series, here and here.  This series is an excellent example of great down to earth fantasy.  You will not see dashing princes or beautiful princesses as main characters in this series.  Instead Cook focuses on the soldiers actually fighting the war.  The White Rose is the end of the first set of the Black Company series, known as the books of the north.  The reader can comfortably stop reading after this book, though there are several more in the series.  While The Black Company and Shadow’s Linger both focus on the movements of the company at large, White Rose features a company that has been mostly destroyed.  The book focuses on the few surviving members, though all of your favorites from the earlier books will be around.

Overall: 7/10

Honestly, while this is a good book, it is one of my least favorite of the Black Company novels.  I love the dynamic of the company, and the frequent reflections on the mercenary life.  This book, especially because of the very small size of the company,  destroys this dynamic.  While I understand that this is necessary for the story that Cook is telling, I also miss the company dynamic.  White Rose has very little to do with life as a mercenary, and a lot to do with ancient evils and rebel movements.  Again, while I love the overall story, I miss the mercenaries.

Writing: 10/10

Cook’s stark writing style hasn’t changed from the last two books.  He still focuses on character development, and utilizes a straight forward style to bring a depth and starkness to his storytelling that forces the reader to deal with the events of the story instead of getting distracted by beautiful but unnecessary words.

Characters: 10/10

Cook’s characters are as deep as ever.  However, this story focuses on the development of Croaker’s character and his long developing relationship with The Lady.  It also focuses on a new character Corbie – who will surprise you – and his efforts to prevent the Dominator from being resurrected.  However, other characters (Goblin, One-Eye, Silent, and especially Darling among others) all see significant development.

World: 7.0/10

While world development is usually one of Cook’s weaker traits, in White Rose he develops his world very well.  While the vast majority of the book takes place on the Plain of Fear and the Barrowland, both locations are thoroughly developed.

Plot: 9.5/10

As I said earlier White Rose is the last of the books of the north and so it ties up a lot of the loose ends and open plotlines form the last two books.  However, Cook masterfully weaves all of these plotlines together around the potential resurrection of the Dominator.  While this book might seem strange when compared with the previous two (especially considering that there is quite a time gap between them), however Cook’s attention to the details of his story is more than enough to make everything work well.

Pacing: 8.5/10

While Cook’s writing is not slow, this is not a fast-paced novel either.  There are a few points that are slower than others, however, overall his pacing is strong and consistent.

Commentary: 7/10

The commentary in White Rose is interesting.  You will remember from my previous reviews (or noticed if you’ve read them already) that the Black Company series focuses it’s commentary on the nature or morality.  This focus is continued in White Rose, but more clearly examines the nature of good and evil.  Interestingly enough, Cook also spends a significant portion of this book examining the concepts of the lesser evil, and of the other.  There is also a sub-theme of redemption that runs throughout the book, though it is not as clear, or as significant to the story as it was in Shadows Linger.

Conclusion:

The Black Company series is an excellent series in it’s own right, and White Rose is a strong end to the first part of this series.  While there are some clear threads of story left unresolved at the end of this novel, it clearly ties up the story of the companies time in the north.  All in all, The White Rose is an excellent book, and a strong addition to this series.

A Review of Shadow’s Linger by Glen Cook

The Romanian cover of Shadow's Linger.

Shadow’s Linger is the second novel in Glen Cook’s Black Company series.  The story takes place in the empire and, again, has the Black Company in the employ of the nefarious and insane Soulcatcher.  The thing that I love most about this book is the development of Marron Shed.  Shadow’s Linger has one of the best portrayed redemption stories that I have ever read in fiction, along with Karsa Orlong in House of Chains/Bone Hunters, and a few others.  Strong character development is something that I hold in extremely high value, and Shadow’s Linger has it in droves.  However, this is completely a sequel and, in many ways, relies on the reader’s knowledge of the characters/story of the first book.  So, if you haven’t read The Black Company then go pick up both of these and sit down for a couple of fantastic reads.

Overall: 9/10

Shadow’s Linger is strong in all of the most important places.  The character development is amazing, and feels completely natural.  There is no point in the book at which a character feels forced into an unnatural course of action.  That being said, it is not a stand alone novel and relies heavily on The Black Company and The White Rose to begin and end it’s story.  However, being a middle novel is not a bad thing.  There is a lot of room for character growth, world development, and general progression of the story-line, and this is something that Shadow’s Linger does very well.

Writing: 9.5/10

Again, Glen Cook’s writing is very spartan.  This is something that I love about it.  While some authors feel like reading molasses, Cook is a bit more like a nice bowl of dry cereal.  He has a lot to say, but he does so in a very direct manner that inevitably leaves the read both satisfied, and ready for more.  The perfect place for an author to be.

Characters: 10/10

My favorite thing about Shadow’s Linger, as I’ve already said, is the character development.  While all of the characters see at least some development in this story, the star (at least in my mind) is Marron Shed.  Shed begins the story as a pathetic, whiny, cowardly excuse for a man who has few morals and no ability to stand on them.  Over the course of the novel Shed descends from this point into a truly wicked man, but in doing so learns how to be strong.  I won’t spoil the turning point for you, but suffice to say that by the end of the novel Shed is no longer cowardly, no longer craven, and no longer wicked, but has become a man of worth who earns the respect of the Black Company (not an easy thing to do).  For younger or sensitive readers it should be noted that Shed’s descent into wickedness is portrayed in realistic fashion (what makes it so powerful), and thus includes some scenes that, while not graphic, are certainly thematically difficult.

The US cover of Shadow's Linger

World: 8/10

As in the first novel, characters are Cook’s strongest area, while world development is his weakest.  While he fleshes out the city of Juniper fairly well (better than any of the cities in The Black Company), there are a great many unanswered questions.  The reader will have little idea of what the world is actually like, while he/she will understand the characters very well.

Plot: 10/10

The plot of Shadow’s Linger is twisted, and at first it is difficult to discern.  However, I believe that this was intentional because as the plot takes shape, it becomes clear that previously extraneous events were actually important.  The novels feels, in some ways, almost like a mystery unfolding before the reader.  Generally I dislike mysteries, usually because they are two easy to figure out.  However, Cook’s mystery is not a ‘whodunit’, but instead a ‘what is actually going on’, which is more difficult to discern, and therefore more tolerable.

Pacing: 9/10

In general the pacing in Shadow’s Linger is good, although there are a few sections of exposition and character development that slow down the overall pace of the story.  However, the story is not fast paced to begin with, so this is less noticeable, and well worth it.

Commentary: 10/10

As I said, the star of the book is Marron Shed, a perfect example of a redemption story, and so the majority of the commentary in the book revolves around him.  Like much of Cook’s writing Shadow’s Linger pits morality against necessity and tells a story that opens the reader’s eyes to ‘the way the world really is’.  He handles these subjects with great deftness, and this excellence leads the reader to deep thinking on the subject.  Whether you agree with Cook or not, he is valuable to read.

Conclusion:

My conclusion.  This is my favorite of the nine Black Company novels.  I do suggest reading The Black Company before hand and The White Rose afterwards, but even if you don’t, Shadow’s Linger  is worth reading just for the story of Marron Shed.