Tag Archives: LoTR

A Gordian Knot

Today I finished a short story that I started maybe two years ago and which I’ve been wrestling with on-and-off occasionally ever since. I had reached a sticking point, and I feel I may have solved the problem today.

When I write a short story it often starts with a character, or a scene. I have plenty of scratchings and notes of this sort which may never become short stories of their own. Some of them might be chiseled and shaped, or molded into new things and added to or inserted within another project or a different story.   Many of them remain as notes or scenes or character descriptions for characters who will never be given a story. Hopefully I’ll come back to some occasionally and expand on them.

This short story started out with two characters, young boys, our protagonist and his only friend. As I wrote it I reached a point where the two characters were, I feel, well developed and the relationship between them was well-defined with a few nuances. The lesser characters with whom they interacted were shallow, as is often required in a short story where an economy of words is essential, but I was overall happy with the characterisation.

The setting was part of the world I created for my novel “Exile”, so it was well developed. If anything it was perhaps over-developed for the needs of the short story. As with “The Green Monkeys” and “A Choice of Kings”, also set in this fictional world (“The Green Monkeys” also set in ‘Talamh’), there was a challenge in leaving out some of the irrelevant detail I had developed. This is sometimes a problem for Fantasy writers and authors. Once someone has created a highly-detailed alternative world there is a compulsion to tell your readership all about it. In detail. Too much detail. George RR Martin has spoken of how important it is to use only the details of the setting that are relevant to the plot, and invented only a few words of Valyrian or Dothraki (only those that the text required to demonstrate how the languages were different and foreign). Joe Abercrombie has spoken of his distaste for maps and his novels always reference their setting with a deliberately lack of specificity. Tolkein on the other hand created a meticulous history and several languages for Middle Earth. In truth the stories of Middle Earth, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” were by-products. Tolkein was a professional philologist and his central concern was to develop languages, from these he created Middle Earth so that people could speak his languages; the narratives that resulted were never his intended goal, and while in many instances the detail of Tolkein’s setting is what set him apart and spawned his legion imitators really few people complained when the film adaptation cut whole chapters of Tom Bombadil out. It didn’t detract from the narrative at all.

The plot I also had mapped out. I don’t usually map a plot too early in my process. As I said the story will start as a scene or a character, I’ll build on that, hopefully develop a conflict and some complications and at that point sit down to map them out. In this instance I had an initiating circumstance, a conflict, rising complications, a conclusion, and a resolution. I knew what would happen, how each event would lead to the next, and how the story would end.

In short I had everything I needed: characters, setting, plot. And yet one scene was holding me up. I knew what needed to happen in the scene. I knew who was involved. I knew where in the narrative the scene belonged. I knew what brought the characters together at that point. I knew where they had to go after that scene… I just couldn’t write it. I tried. Several times. It always sounded naff. Not terrible. Kinda ‘passable’ but just… not good enough.

It was frustrating.

So today I took a different path. No more chiseling at the edges, no more gentle molding, no more sanding back or polishing, no more pulling at threads hoping the knot would unravel. I took the sword to it. I cut it right back, made the dialogue do a lot more of the heavy lifting, took out some unnecessary details and…

And I think it’s worked. Maybe I wake up in the morning and post a retraction. Maybe it was horrible and needs to be re-written, but for the first time I am confident that at least structurally it’s right. The drafting and revising process isn’t finished, but it’s close, and the story actually looks like a story now. There’s not a great big chunk missing out of the middle like there had been.

It’s called “To the Iron Hills”, and it’ll be between 7,500 and 8,000 words complete. I’ll post a couple of thousand words as an excerpt here soon, but I’m keeping most of this one up my sleeve for now and I’ll definitely be submitting it to some publication markets when it’s ready. I reckon this one’s a good one.

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Strong female protagonists

Where are they?

I recently got drawn into a discussion about whether Katniss Everdeen is a strong female protagonist (SFP). I haven’t read the books so I’m basing my arguments on secondary sources and what I know of the film and plot synopses of the novels. This may lead to a flawed understanding of the character (and please point out those flaws when you see them), but I’m not sure she’s what I would be looking for in an SFP.

The discussion broadened, as it so often does, and I realised I was struggling to find examples of what I would call SFPs. Hence this musing.

One problem I think comes from what we see as strong. Often an author will attempt to create an SFP by simply making a male character and assigning female pronouns and a female name. This creates a character that most people see as strong, but at the expense of any femininity the character possesses. This, aside from being lazy characterisation, kind of defeats the purpose of the SFP. Surely the protagonist is there to show that female’s can be strong, but I don’t think the message here should be that strength is only achieved at the expense of femininity.

Part of the problem here is sociological. Carina Chocano wrote this last year in the New York Times Magazine:

‘ “Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues. It has resulted in characters like Natalie Portman’s in “No Strings Attached,” who does everything in her power to avoid commitment, even with a guy she’s actually in love with; or Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy… ‘

In part Katniss is one of these SFPs’ (if Salander is a protagonist, I suppose not exactly). She fights, hunts, avenges, assassinates, with the best of them. Better than the best of them. Twice. Occasionally she feels kind of bad about it, or contrives ways to kill in which she’s less morally culpable, or scatters petals on a corpse in a moment of ‘femininity’, and it has been argued that she is feminine in that she is motivated as a family matriarch and that she does all she does to protect her family. But is this a feminine trait? Would we really be surprised if a male character was motivated to protect his sister?

One of the other issues I have with this whole discussion is that we have to specify ‘strong female character’ as an archetype. This is not necessary with male characters. The label ‘Strong male character’ is seen as being unnecessary, even tautology. Often the default means to give male characters ‘depth’ is to load them with weaknesses, uncertainties or neuroses. Is this some sense of ‘feminising’ them? And if so what does this say of our default view of the feminine?

The example I gave was Jane Eyre, of whom China Miéville wrote, “Charlotte Brontë’s heroine towers over those around her, morally, intellectually and aesthetically; she’s completely admirable and compelling. Never camp, despite her Gothic surrounds, she takes a scalpel to the skin of the every day.”

I think too that there are several examples further back in literary history. Shakespeare’s women are often strong female characters. Lady Macbeth belittles her husband for his perceived weakness. Juliet is prepared to take all manner of risks for the sake of her love and is arguably stronger than her melancholy Romeo. King Lear’s daughters, Cleopatra, Rosalind, Viola, Katherine…

But perhaps the problem was one of differing definitions. The ‘kick-ass chick’, Buffy imitators, are common enough, but when I speak of a strong female protagonist I mean a character which is at once feminine and strong, not a character in which one aspect is sacrificed to the other. Too frequently a character is de-feminised in an effort to make them ‘strong’. This is not helpful. I can’t accept as examples those characters who seem to be strong only to be dis-empowered by their femininity or by the consequences of their feminine aspects.

Consider Éowyn. In many ways she is the warrior-woman archetype, but she is more than this. When Háma is asked to select a leader to defend Edoras he suggests Éowyn, and when the men return home she has ruled successfully in their absence. Her femininity is precisely her strength in defeating the Witch King of Angmar on Pelennor Fields.  But then what happens to her… she meets Faramir and her love for him reduces her to a wife. She discards what has, until this point, been the driving motivation of her character and settles into the life of wife and mother. She is, in a sense, tamed. This is of course in keeping with Tolkein’s Christian conservatism, but still a disappointing end for his strongest female character.

Consider too what Disney did to Hua Mulan. In the original Chinese ballad she is presented doing stereotypical women’s work, but takes her father’s place when he is called to war. By her own skill she rises to general and commands troops for over a decade. In Disney’s version she survives largely through luck and the interventions of men or magical creatures.

There are some success stories of course:

Hermione Granger is arguably the strongest of the three central characters in JK Rowlings books. She is intelligent and resourceful, the best magician of the three, and though she (spoiler alert) loves Ron her love for him doesn’t disempower or reduce her as Éowyn’s love for Faramir did. Perhaps this is the influence of the female authorship?

Molly Millions is a warrior-woman, and more. Her history and personal conflicts (such as her time as a meat-puppet) are uniquely female. She defines her relationship with Case, being at times unattainable to him and at other times tender. She has sexual agency and power which she uses not as a relative experience for men but for her own purposes. Despite her relationship with Case she remains independent and self-sufficient, never defining herself through this relationship.

Buffy has had more column inches of analysis for her role as a feminist character than I will be able to allude to here, but Whedon, and his fellow writers, never shied from her femininity. Given the initial concept of the character it is a remarkable achievement. She is stronger than she looks, figuratively and literally. She struggles with her sexuality and relationships, recognising her attraction to the wrong men. She becomes a leader, a nurturer, and we see her struggle with the responsibilities of her maturation. It helps too that she is surrounded by other strong females. Willow grows to power and her relationship with Tara is particularly genuine and mutually empowering, Cordelia (largely in her time with Angel) learns of the greater role of women than simply vapid beauty, Faith deals with her power differently to Buffy and demonstrates the dangers Buffy avoids, in series 5 Glory is given the role of the ‘big bad’, a rare role for a female character.

Action hero women like Ripley and Sarah Connor (in T2) are great examples because they are not just butt-kickers, nor are they defined by their beauty. Ripley was the security officer in Alien, so she already had some cred. Having a female security officer on a mostly male crew would still be noteworthy in film; Ridley Scott did it in 1979. Sarah Connor in Terminator 1 is a pretty standard damsel-in-distress, except that her protector male fails and she defeats the implacable terminator herself. Her strength is then so much the greater in T2, not because she is better at combat (she is) but because she has devoted her life to the goals she has set for herself. She’s motivated not by her relationship to a man (except her son), but by her own goals.

The greatest success story though is Game of Thrones. I can’t even pick one. Catelyn Stark’s absolute commitment to her children neither diminishes nor limits her strength. Cersei’s pursuit of power is unapologetic and though she uses her femininity as a tool she never does so in the service of a man but only ever in the service to her own power (or the power of her children). Arya’s refusal to submit to social expectation is in direct contrast to her sister Sansa. Daenerys’ ability to meet all the myriad challenges thrown at her. Asha is the preferred heir to Pyke and is judged for her strength. Even relatively minor characters like Olenna Redwyne can be strong, shown to be sharply intelligent and unafraid despite her frailty and age.

As a reader I want to read about these characters. As a writer I want to write them.

Jane Espenson speaks of the joy to be had in writing strong female characters, and though it has never been a strength of mine it’s something I’m working to improve.

I believe Aisha is a strong female character. I believe my novel Exile has strong female characters, in Jacqueline, Mallorie, Monique, and probably most significantly in Marianne. I also have been working on some short stories with female protagonists, either in my Fantasy setting, or in the modern day.


Characters

So I’ve put up the second character profile for my new project. She’s obviously markedly different from the protagonist of the piece, but then narrative is conflict I suppose.

Now in both these cases the character profiles are quite extensive. As these will be the two main characters so there’s a fair bit of extra work put into giving them a back-story and motivations that will make sense of their decisions and actions in the plot.

So I figured I talk a little today about what I think makes a good character in a narrative. There’s plenty of web resources covering this topic, but here’s my 2 cents:

Make them flawed.

Think of all the most popular characters in fiction and you won’t have to think for long to find their flaws. There’s whole blogs to be filled with the flaws of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, Leer and Shakespeare’s creations, so too the Greek tragedies, but let’s, for the sake of brevity, confine our discussion to the last couple of decades. Humbert Humbert was a pedophile, Leopold Bloom couldn’t keep his thoughts in order, Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict (and almost certainly insufferable company), Yossarian was insane (but not insane enough), Randle McMurphy was too sane, Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, Kurtz was a megalomaniac and a murderer, Winston Smith was old and weak and pathetic, Atticus Finch… well there’s always an exception.

Seriously though it’s the flaws that we as readers want to see. Even in non-realistic narratives. Superman gets a lot more interesting if there’s kryptonite about. Batman is the best superhero character because he is the most flawed. Harry Potter is flawed because (spoiler alert) he has part of Voldemort’s soul in him. We watch Star Wars because of Darth Vader (who’s evil) and Han Solo (who’s a ‘rogue’). I doubt the films would have been so popular if they were all about Luke going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

George Martin understands this better than most. So too do Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan. Tolkein probably didn’t.

Allow readers to relate to them

Characters aren’t really people. Although you want them to be realistic you need some room for the reader to wriggle in and make themself part of the narrative. This is where Luke Skywalker comes in, and Frodo, and Charles Marlowe, and Harry Potter in the first few books (we only find out about his flaw after several increasingly large volumes), and so many others.

I wasn’t raised by my uncle and aunt on tatooine, but I know what it’s like to have too many chores and to wish my life could mean something more than just working on the family farm. I’ve never had a magic ring but I know what it’s like to feel over-burdened and crushed by responsibility. I’ve never been to Africa but I know what it’s like to be in a strange place where the cultural rules you know don’t count for much and you’re trapped on a journey to a task you don’t really want to do. I’ve never been to Hogwarts but a new school and I’m an outcast… I could go on.

The best example of this rule (but possibly the worst example of every other rule) is Bella from Twilight. Now I’m basing this on the films because I’ve seen two of those but  haven’t read any of the books. Bella is a shell. She’s utterly empty and devoid of any personality, will or individuality. This makes her the perfect vessel for the reader. You can pick up Twilight and start reading and in your imagination you’re imagining yourself having to choose between the perfect (but dead) Edward and the perfect (but not Edward) Jacob. *swoon*

Give them a purpose of their own

Not just their purpose for your story, but a purpose to their own being. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, but it has to make sense to them. There’s still a pantomime thrill in having a character do something you, the reader, know is dumb. If it seems to them that it’s the best thing to do but the reader knows something they don’t then no worries. Of course if they’re basing their action or decision on something we know but the character doesn’t you have a problem.

When we do something we vary rarely (Plato and Aristotle would argue basically never) do it for its own sake. We always have some other goal, or end, in mind. I don’t go to the gym because I have a really massive desire to pick up iron and put it back down where I found it. I don’t go for a run because of the run itself. I do these things because I believe that if I do I will be fitter and healthier. I want to be fitter and healthier because I believe it will bring me a happier, longer life. I want a long life because I want to spend more time with my family and see my boys grow up. I want to be there when they grow up so I can help them to be good people and live good lives (whatever that means).

My point is that characters will have these long-term motivations too. As a writer you need to balance the short-term and the long term motivations and create a pattern of actions which make sense. Of course there’s room to create a capricious or unpredictable character, but even they will want to achieve something in the end.

Make them grow

Maybe growth is a loaded term, but make them change at least. Maybe not every character, and maybe not a lot, but over the course of your story someone or someones need to change.

There’s examples in Harry Potter and Star Wars again (think of Luke Skywalker, or Harry himslef, or better yet the many changes of Snape, or the vast change in Neville). In the Game of Thrones (spoiler alert) Robert bemoans his own transformation from warrior hero to fat alcoholic, Arya goes from nobleman’s daughter to a criminal boy (even if it is a disguise).  Think of the reversal in Macbeth – initially he’s unsure and tending to loyalty even if it is through guilt, she’s egging him on, taunting him for his weakness. By the final act Macbeth is mad with bloodlust and Lady Macbeth overcome with guilt. This is what we wanted to see. How do people change? How are they affected by what’s happening to them, by the things they do or which are done to them?

Now there are exceptions. Call it ‘The Simpsons’ phenomenon (though it’s been around a lot longer than that). Bart will always be an underachiever. Homer will never learn. Lisa will always wear those pearls. But The Simpsons and the like are narrative McDonalds: we know it’s not really good for us but it’s comfortable, familiar, you know what you’re going to get from it.

Narrative force is in change, and it takes both character and plot development (more on that later) to make it happen.


What Fantasy Fiction means (to me)

So I’ve posted a couple of short stories which I have tagged as fantasy. They are stories I submitted to spec-fic ezines as ‘fantasy’ pieces, but I think the term requires a little investigation.

Inevitably this discussion will have to deal with “the ghetto of genre”, but I like to think this is less an issue now than in the recent past. Where once, no so long ago, genre-fiction was something enjoyed by niche readerships it seems now that broad audiences are more accepting of genre-fiction. This manifests in two ways.

Firstly works of genre-fiction are more successful and reach larger audiences. The obvious examples here are “Harry Potter” (Magic Fantasy), “Twilight” (Supernatural Romance Fantasy) and “Hunger Games” (Post-Apolcolyptic Sci-Fi). “Game of Thrones” (Epic Fantasy*) could be added to that in terms of the NY Best-sellers list, and the Showcase adaptation is broadening the exposure still further.

Historically it has been harder for Fantasy to reach such audiences. “The Lord of the Rings” is of course the prototype of the popular Fantasy story, but its readership always carried something of a social stigma, until the success of the Peter Jackson adaptations opened its appeal to a new generation audience.

The enduring appeal of comic-book super-heroism is successful Fantasy, but until recently ‘comics’ were considered childish at best and geek at worst, perhaps (despite the Pulitzer won by “Maus” and the Hugo by “Watchmen”) they still are.

Further back we have the success of “Star Trek” (Soft Sci-Fi) and of course “Star Wars” (Sci-Fi / Fantasy), again with accompanying social stigma being recently reduced, in the first case by the grittier JJ Abrams re-boot and the latter by the prequels.

There was of course a time before genre so defined a text, so we have the canonical status of the speculative fantasies of traditional story-telling; Grimm’s tales for instance, “Gulliver’s Travels”, “Wonderland” the Gothic fantasies of Poe, the incipient Science-Fiction of Mary Shelley and R.L. Stevenson, whereas the weird fantasies of Lovecraft and Kafka, and the Golden Age Sci-Fi of Asimov, Clarke, P.K. Dick and Heinlein have achieved comparable respect only within their ‘ghetto’.

Secondly we see the breaking down of genre barriers so that genres are combined, created, morphed, mangled and ignored by authors. China Mieville famously called Tolkein “The wen on the arse of Fantasy literature” (though he has tempered that rage a little more recently) before going on to define the genres of “New Weird” and “Urban Fantasy”.  He wasn’t the only one to criticise Tolkein’s influence on Fantasy (and the influences of other conservative writers – Lewis springs immediately to mind). Perhaps as a result of shaking off the ‘stultifying influence’ of “Rings” (and others), contemporary authors are exploring the limits of what ‘Fantasy’ can encompass (or challenging the value of genres all-together).

Seth Grahame Smith has found a new use for classic literature. Diana Gabaldon uses the Sci-Fi trope of time-travel to create a bare-chested  Romance set against a Low Fantasy milieu.  Neil Gaiman brings myth to the strip-malls and freeways of the American road-trip.  Richard K Morgan creates Noir Sci-fi and an Epic Fantasy (which may actually be a Sci-Fi) complete with magical swords, non-human races, magic… and protaganists who are by turns gay, drug-abusing, sociopathic and decidedly anti-heroic. Joe Abercrombie drags his ‘heroes’ through a formulaic Quest Fantasy… torturing them and any other character that takes his interest along the way and finally depositing them in the most unexpected places.

How then do we define ‘fantasy’?

Tzvetan Todorov identified two modes of story-telling within ‘the fantastic’: ‘the marvellous’, and ‘the uncanny’.

He first defines ‘the fantastic’ as “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” He differentiates ‘the marvellous’ from ‘the uncanny’ by how they explain this event.

In ‘the uncanny’ the events can be explained within the laws of nature, perhaps through some fault of the character (or the reader) in understanding them.

In ‘the marvellous’ the events cannot be explained within the laws of physics, and are therefore accepted (b the character and presumably the readers) as supernatural.

I would like to think that my Fantasy writing avoids both the uncanny and the marvelous, or is perhaps different things to different readers.  As a writer I would like to keep my reader in that state of hesitation, in Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, for as long as the inevitable winnowing of narrative progress allows.

And so what does all this mean for me, the aspiring writer with a love of Fantasy Fiction?

I think it means what I want it to mean. I think it means freedom. Genre is not the ghetto it once was, or was once feared to be… Fantasy is a rich landscape in which I’m free to explore and perhaps even claim my own little plot of land, and to build upon it whatever structure I like.