From Good to Bad – Why Fantasy’s Heroes Are Changing For the Better

I came across two entirely separate comments recently that got me thinking about the heroes in modern fantasy. The first comment actually came from a reviewer of my novel who indicated that she was surprised that one of my bad guys had “kind of” redeemed himself. The second comment came from Mark Lawrence, the author of Prince of Thorns, whose series is being considered for a television show. The question was this: “Is Jorg too bad to be commercial as a lead”?

And so I got to thinking about the morality of fantasy heroes. James Sutter wrote a guest essay about this very topic a few years ago, and it contains many of the thoughts I considered putting down here: http://suvudu.com/2011/11/guest-essay-james-l-sutter-the-gray-zone-moral-ambiguity-in-fantasy.html. To summarize: fantasy has grown up. It is no longer a world where good and evil are easily identified as separate players on a chessboard.  

And that’s a good thing.

Why is moral ambiguity, the “graying” of characters, a good thing? Because when you read a work of fiction, it always works best when you can relate to a character. And most mature readers are going to relate to mature characters… and most mature characters are neither a Knightly Paragon of Virtue nor the Harbinger of Ultimate Evil. Most characters fall somewhere in between, and when as writers we can bring the realism of a character’s moral compass, that tendency to “sway into the gray,” then readers relate.

Sutter wrote about the success of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, and certainly there is plenty to like in Martin’s world. But Martin is just one of the modern fantasists helping to mature the characters in this genre. Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers is a perfect example of a character you absolutely love, but who has a dark side a mile wide. The aforementioned Prince Jorg of Lawrence’s Broken Empire series is another such anti-hero. You both cheer for these characters and cringe at what they’re capable of doing.

And so too with my own characters. Even those readers would call “bad.” I didn’t necessarily want to write good characters or bad characters. I want to write characters who resemble real people. Characters with goals, loves, hates, ambitions, dreams. Those goals might be seen as worthy or reprehensible, but the important part is that those characters truly believe in what they’re doing. 

Perhaps more important than what these characters are capable of is how these characters feel afterwards. Logen is almost apologetic at what he accomplishes as The Bloody Nine. And anyone who’s ever seen or felt the passion related to an athlete saying “whatever it takes” can relate to Jorg. These characters don’t necessarily want to be bad, but they have to do bad things to achieve their goals. And those goals are typically things the reader recognizes as worthy.

What all of this means is that when you pick up a fantasy novel, don’t expect the typical cardboard cut out of a one-dimensional character. That knight in shining armor isn’t automatically a “good” guy, and that guy with the dark cloak and the pointed beard isn’t automatically a “bad” guy. 

Or maybe they are. But it’s also quite possible that that knight will do terrible things to achieve what you’d consider a “good” end. And that that “bad” guy with the pointed beard can redeem himself in the end by doing something amazing.

Book Review – Joe Abercrombie – “Half a King”

In his previous six novels, starting with The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie introduced us to characters who were neither good nor evil, but morally gray. These characters exist in a grim, dark world at war, where bleak cynicism is worn on the sleeve of just about everyone the reader encounters. Were these books to be turned into a television series, here in the US they’d be rated TV L S V (for Language, Sex and Violence). They are full of adult content and themes, and they are some of my favorite pieces of fantasy fiction.

So it was with a great deal of excitement and some trepidation that I ordered Half a King from netgalley.com for the purpose of providing a review. This would be Abercrombie’s first foray into writing a young adult novel, and while he has commented on his own blog about what that means to him, it’s a departure from a style that has created a frothing fanbase ready for the next bloody adventure. Can Abercrombie refine the raw for a new audience, while keeping enough of the grimness that has brought him such success?

Let’s find out.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about influences and inspirations. While reading Half a King, I recognized several different pieces of literature that influenced or inspired Abercrombie in telling this tale. To name a few: Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Series, Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, Lois McMaster Bujold’s character Miles Vorkosigan and even a nod to Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana.  Abercrombie deftly pulls these pieces together to tell a well-worn tale, a coming-of-age story containing oaths, revenge, bloody battles and—something also new to Abercrombie’s works—hope.

Update – Since the publication of this review, Abercrombie has commented on Twitter that of the influences I mention, he has only actually read one, and that after Half a King was written. I should not have assumed to know what the writer has read or attempted my psychic powers to determine what influenced him. I apologize for that. Perhaps the proper wording would be to suggest that readers will recognize in this story characters, themes and events from other tales in fiction. This reader did.

Prince Yarvi is handicapped, born with a maimed left hand. In a realm full of fighters—akin to Vikings—he is an outcast. He cannot hold a shield, and so he pursues the path of a Minister, adviser to kings. But before he can take the Minister’s test, his father and brother are killed. Thrust into the role of King, Yarvi vows to avenge those who killed his father. Little does he know that his oath will lead him on an adventure spanning several countries, where he will befriend those he would normally have shunned, and lead him back home a changed man.

The story itself is a common one, as many coming-of-age stories are. Getting Yarvi from point A, our weak but lovable protagonist, to point B, our clever but still lovable protagonist, is the goal. Yarvi is a new type of character for Abercrombie. In his previous novels, getting from point A to point B typically involved put an axe through someone as quickly as possible. The shortest distance between two points typically involved the edge of a sword. But Yarvi isn’t a fighter; he’s a thinker. The knowledge he has gained in training for the Ministry is extremely useful as he collects allies who become friends along the way.

This is where we start to see Abercrombie hone his craft. Some will lament that this is not “an Ambercrombie book” but I think they’re missing the point. Abercrombie’s trademarks are still here: you’re still right in the midst of the action; you’ll feel the punch that dislodges teeth; you’ll hear the whistle of the blade that just misses its target. There’s blood here. It’s PG-13 blood, but Yarvi leaves his fair share of desolation in his wake. Not to the level of the Bloody Nine, but only Death himself could equal such devastation. No, what you’re going to learn here is that Abercrombie can write compelling characters, can give us characters who do more than kill without asking questions and actually care about the welfare of others. While the rawness is toned down, there’s still an edge.

In summary, if you’re an Abercrombie fan who’s been leery about having your teen read any of his previous works, then this is a wonderful introduction for them. They are going to be entertained. If you’re an Abercrombie fan looking for just more of the same, you’ll need to come in with your eyes open. This isn’t more of the same, but it is evidence of an author growing his boundaries and improving his art. I enjoyed Half a King and look forward to the next book in the series.

I’m also one of the frothing fanbase that will eagerly anticipate Abercrombie’s return to the dark, grim, bleak worlds he imagines… but with greater expectation for the tales he’ll tell.

Advice to Writers – Do More Than Write… Live

I follow quite a few authors on Twitter, and I read quite a few blogs on writing advice. The one thing it boils down to, what is repeated over and over, is that writers write. Write, the tweets say. Write! the blogs say. Write write write. Just write.

And I thought about this advice, and while I’m not going to say it’s wrong, I think the advice is making an assumption. That assumption is that you have something to write about. And finding that requires more than just sitting down at the writing device of your choice and just writing. 

Writing requires living first. And then writing about it.

The old adage, of course, is to write what you know. That’s why so many writers are more experienced; they know more. Or at least the assumption is that they do. I resemble this remark. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I started, some thirty years ago. When I started, I sat down and I wrote. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. 

But I hadn’t really lived yet. Hell, I hadn’t even done much reading, so I was just putting words to page.

So – things to do if you plan to write. Let’s make a list:

  1. Read. Read as much as you can. Read in the genre you want to write in, read in the genres you don’t want to write in, read novels, short stories, blogs, news articles, screenplays, poetry, etc. Why? Because it helps you construct. Reading what others write can inspire you and will most certainly influence you. So read.
  2. Interact. Get out and talk with people. People older than you, people younger than you. Talk with a child. Talk with a grandparent. Dialog can be one of the most difficult things to get right when you’re writing. The best way to make it work? Talk to people. And not on Twitter. The other great thing about dialog is what people are saying with their eyes, with the slope of their shoulders, with their hands. Does the smile reach their eyes? Do they look tired, worn? Does that come through in what they’re saying to you? This is all critically important as you sit down to write, because it gives your characters depth.

  3. Act it out. Does your character like to cook? Try your hand at cooking. Does he swing a sword? Find one or something of similar weight and swing it around for a while. I have a sword. It’s heavy. It gives me a better appreciation for my characters who lug it around sheathed on their backs or drag it from a scabbard and start fighting with it. Have you ever been in a fight? I’m not suggesting you get into a fracas for the sake of your art, but if you’re like almost anyone else these days, you’ve either been in a scrap at some point in your life or played a contact sport where it feels like you have. Get to the gym and lift some weights, do some cardio… and remember how sore you are, because if your characters are active or need to push their limits, they might also be sore. In short, if your characters is doing it, try it out for yourself (without doing anything illegal, obviously).

Writing is more about just writing. It’s about the characters who are going to experience a conflict, which is the basis for a story. Those characters need to be recognizable to the reader. A writer who just writes is possibly not as skilled at making that character recognizable. 

So my advice to writers? Read, talk, laugh, drink, argue, smile, jump, run, cook, love, hate, play, eat, shop, frown, care for a pet.

In short: live.

And then write about it.

Influencers, Initiators, Inspirers, Intimidators

Conventional wisdom has it that there are no new stories, that everything we write has been written before. And so it’s no surprise that once we like an author, we hop out onto Google and ask “authors like <insert your favorite author here>” to try and find our next reading fix. Regardless of whether the story itself is new, the way it’s being told is new, the characters who are experiencing it are new, and most importantly, the readers can’t get enough of it.

So it’s not surprising that I was asked recently whom my influences are. People want to know the types of authors I read, with the expectation that those authors are influencing me. And they’re right. I wanted to answer that I’ve read thousands of books, which I have, across all genres, which is true, by authors across multiple centuries. But of course my interrogator was looking for something recent, something that would tell him whether it was worth his while to check out my book. And given that I’m in the business of selling my book, I revealed the following: Guy Gavriel Kay for his style, Brandon Sanderson for his magic systems, and Joe Abercrombie for his action. 

There is no doubt that these authors–these artists–influence my writing. But it goes deeper than that. For to be a writer, it takes someone to set your feet on the path, someone to initiate that spark. It takes others to inspire you to continue to write. And sometimes, those who influence you also intimidate you. 

My Initiator

I believe it was the 10th grade when Billy Budd was on the reading list for my English class. As many will attest, being forced to read anything, regardless of whether it is claimed a classic, can be considered torture, especially when you’re sixteen. My friend Kirk and I sat in English class, loathing Melville for putting this story and this character to paper. And this isn’t exactly a lengthy tome, weighing in at a mere 116 pages (according to the Amazon mass market paperback). But as many of you will also attest, when you’re sixteen, you really aren’t catching on to what you should be catching on to in classic literature. I was a much better reader of literature when I chose which books to read, when I picked up Hemingway and Steinbeck and others of my own free will. But no matter. At sixteen, toward the back of the class, on those hard chairs, staring at Melville’s Billy Budd, listening to our teacher exhort the power of the written word… it was like throwing wiffle balls at bricks. We just weren’t getting it. 

So Kirk turns to me and says, “We can write better than this.”

Now, there’s no doubt that this was incredible hubris. A boast. And yet… for the better part of my life since that day, I’ve been writing. So thank you, Herman Melville. Thank you for writing Billy Budd.

 

My Inspirers

I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, as that is the genre in which I write. I didn’t start there. I started with spy stuff, with a character named Ian Gemini in a horrible James Bond knockoff. When I published Ahvarra recently, a friend on Facebook told me he wouldn’t read it unless Ian was mentioned. I laughed because even I’d forgotten about that book. I stayed in that space for a while, writing books based on what I was reading: Ian Fleming, Robert B. Parker. But there came a point when my imagination wanted to run a bit wild, when I wanted things to work that simply don’t in the real world. 

And that’s about when a co-worker handed me Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair. I’d read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but we’ll get to those in a moment. What Williams did was open my eyes to the possibilities. Here was a world of his making that was huge and open, seen through the eyes of a boy running for his life. It is one of my favorite books of all time, and the series is a fantastic achievement. I was so thrilled at the recent announcement that Williams is returning to Osten Ard for a new trilogy. 

But now I was rolling. My imagination was let loose, and the previous books felt like a warm-up act for the main event. And as the years have crawled by, I fold more authors into the fold for their inspiration. Kay’s Tigana proved to me that you don’t need elves in a fantasy. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga showed me that heroes don’t have to be brawny knights bathed in glory and might. Abercrombie illustrated that every character is a shade of gray. Also, if you ever want to know what it feels like to be punched in the face, you can either ask someone to punch you in the face or you can read Abercrombie’s action scenes, because he puts you right in front of that fist coming at you. No one better. Sanderson turns magic into a character in itself, and its consistency across his Cosmere is a marvel.

These are just a few, and each year I add others. There is always something I’m reading that gets my brain churning, gets my creative juices flowing. There are a few authors, however, for which I’ll drop everything to read. When the galley edition of Abercrombie’s Half a King showed up on my Kindle tonight, I leapt in immediately. And so far, it feels like there’s a little bit of Bujold’s Miles in Yarvi. 

My Intimidators

Here’s where inspiration meets “holy shit what did I just read why in the hell do I think I could even come close to doing something like this.” Let’s face it. There are books that I have read that are so great, so awesome, that they actually intimidate me. Back to Kay again, whose A Song for Arbonne is such an elegant piece of art that I wasn’t sure I needed to read anything else, let alone write anything, for a short time after completing it. I mentioned The Lord of the Rings earlier. This monumental effort occupied Tolkien’s life. To read it is to clearly understand that you are getting but a glimpse into an entire history of a place and time that are outside anything else you’ve ever read, that each and every character has a lineage, that each and every place has a history that is steeped in time. 

I am in awe of Tolkien, as any writer should be. 

 

At the end of the day, those who intimidate are there to set the bar. I may have thought, at sixteen, that I could eclipse Billy Budd, but I know, thirty years later, that I still have plenty far to go to reach the heights of Kay, Tolkien and others. But that’s good. That’s why I write. To better my craft so that I can entertain my readers. And to aspire to one day inspire–or initiate, or maybe even intimidate–others who choose the same profession.

 

 

On Receiving Reviews

You tell yourself it doesn’t matter. Yes, you spent years with these characters, telling their stories, breathing life into them, as a multi-layered story unfolded around them. Yes, you stayed up late when they wouldn’t get out of your head, when they wouldn’t let you sleep because what they wanted you to share about them needed to be put to paper. Yes, you jotted things down at the weirdest times, when inspiration struck. You cheered when they did something heroic; you cried when they experienced loss. But in the end, they were yours, all in the world you shaped for them.

And then you shared them. You took them out of the box they’d been in and you carefully unwrapped that box and let others peer inside. And you held your breath. They liked your characters as much as you did, perhaps, but some of the things they did weren’t consistent. Some of the things they said didn’t sound like them. Worse, some of the things they did … didn’t matter. But this is what happened when you opened that box, and so you let others help shape these characters, shape them from characters into people. People with goals, who loved one another, who hated one another, who argued or collaborated… who lived. 

Now you had a group of friends who had helped you build a set of people to live in a world you shaped. Those friends liked the story and the people. They entered the trusted circle into which you held all this imagination. You took parts of what they shared and applied it, but other parts you didn’t want to change. There are certain things about your people that shouldn’t change. 

Eventually, it was time to open the door, to let the whole world see your people, share your world.

And you held your breath. 

You tell yourself it doesn’t matter. That getting here, publishing something that you’ve spent so much time on, that others have spent so much of their time helping you create, is the real reward. But then you see that you’ve sold copies of your creation to people beyond just friends and family. There are people you don’t know who are reading your book. And they’ll have opinions. 

And you hold your breath.

The first review for Ahvarra came in last week. 4/5 stars on Amazon. A very good review. Someone who not only enjoyed the book but enjoyed it enough to request a sequel. Someone who wants to see more of the world on the other side of the Heart. Perhaps more importantly, someone who enjoyed the people I created: “There were a couple characters I liked more than others and I didn’t want to leave them…” So to erinthedreamer, I give my Heart-felt thanks. You are the first person who has reviewed the full book, and your enjoyment of it has made me very happy.

As I sat down to write this blog this evening, I received another review. 5/5 stars on Amazon. Another satisfied reader:  “I highly recommend this book to anyone that enjoys fantasy or sci-fi stories, the author manages to combine all the individual characters and stories that span different worlds and time lines into a really great book.” Thank you, Chris! I’ve stopped holding my breath now!

I told myself that it didn’t matter how it was received. That getting here, after so much hard work, was mastering the real challenge. A dream realized. But getting here was only half the battle, because of readers like Erin and Chris. 

Validation? Yes.

Motivation? Hell yes.

And the first draft of the second book hums softly in the background. A new writing group is meeting, and their challenge will be to help me shape more of this world beyond the Heart. Stay tuned, readers… fans. 

I. Am. Writing.

Risk vs. Reward – Setting Expectations

You know all the clichés. “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” “Your reach should not exceed your grasp.” “To win you have to risk loss.”

They are a part of our cultural upbringing, that in any gain there must also be the chance of loss. If you gain without risk, what have you gained?

As an independent author, there is a daily struggle with the risk/reward quotient. How often should I self-promote via social media? There must be a point at which I’ve gone beyond self-promotion and into active annoyance, and I’m careful to not push that line. (At least, I think I haven’t.) An author friend of mine recently told me that she is spending a fair share of money each month to have a marketing firm run her social media for her. I can understand the reward side of that equation: more exposure, broader audience, greater chance for sales. But the risk – the high monthly cost – dissuades me. How much time should I spend writing this blog or just relaxing after a full day of activity on my day job vs. writing? Well, the blog is writing, and writing is relaxing, so while there’s reward in that, the risk is that I’ve spent more time not working on the next book.

But recently I had the chance to participate in a contest run by Bloody Cake (http://bloodycake.wordpress.com/), a site that boasts a dark and quirky set of content. The contest was (is actually, as of this writing the winners have not been announced) focused around Mark Lawrence’s upcoming novel The Prince of Fools. Pretty simply rules. Follow Bloody Cake’s Facebook page (done, and by the way, they throw out some lovely art) and then write a 300 word story featuring the words prince and fools. 

Risk? More time away from marketing, writing my book and drinking scotch. Reward? Writing… and the challenge of scoping a tale into a mincer to get to 300 words. But also, the chance to show what happens when risk is greater than reward. When the reach exceeds the grasp. When regardless of whether you take the shot, you can still miss. When even when you risk loss… you can still lose.

 

Thus, Epic Fail:

An axe thumped into the door. There was a grunt behind it, a shift of splinters. 

“Fools!” Thark shouted at me. “Attack the Prince, you said! We’ll be rich, you said! And we fecking believed you!” 

There was blood on the left side of his face, streaming from a cut he’d suffered in the ill-fated battle on the road. We’d fled when it became obvious my plan had failed. Fled and left my men to die. I felt it like a blade in my gut. When I looked down, my fingers were in the wound that had been dealt me. The blood dripping through my fingers splashed in a puddle on the floor. 

The axe thumped again and the door groaned. 

“Now what?” Thark asked. 

I looked around the small room. A store room really, at the back of a cabin. We’d put a blade through the owner and hoped to sneak out the back, only to find there was no exit. A stout bar across the door and a quick prayer we wouldn’t be found; only one was working. 

The axe thumped again and the blade shot through the door. 

“Surrender?” Thark asked. He lifted his sword, clotted blood dark as dirt down to the hilt. “Or not?” 

The axe thumped again, shattering the top of the door. The bar ripped from the wall. The door swung open and men filled the space. 

Thark rushed forward and a blade slid through his jerkin, right through so the blade stood out from his back. 

I looked up as a man approached. He smiled through broken teeth. I remembered hitting him in the mouth with the hilt of my blade. He spat blood into the puddle at my feet. 

Then he brought the axe up for one more swing.

 

 

Well, I didn’t win the contest. However, unlike our friends Thark and the silent protagonist of the tale, I did receive a reward. Namely, accepting a challenge. You see, the first pass of Ahvarra was close to 190K words. I have almost always been a novelist when it comes to writing. I think in large stories with multiple characters, conflicts and relationships that require explanation and action. A tale in 300 words? I wasn’t sure it could be done, at least by me. But I did it, and considered it ironic that in describing a failed risk, I received reward for myself.

The moral of the story, of course, is what each person must address when facing the decision to take a risk. Not necessarily how great the reward will be, but to set your expectations so that the reward seems the greater. 

And so, to the daily grind. I decided to put Ahvarra into a Countdown Deal. I asked friends and family — and thank you all again for helping — to share the link to my book with their friends and family. I chose to write this blog tonight. And soon I’ll choose whether to take a dram of Glenmorangie or Aberlour single malt to unwind. 

Small risks, setting expectations. When you’ve got a long road ahead, there’s time to take caution. After all, “Behold the turtle.  He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”

World Builders, Start With Your Characters … and Build Their World Around Them

“Good fantasy fiction: … explores real human conditions through fantastic metaphors which universalize the characters’ individual experiences to speak personally to us all.” 
― Laura Resnick

 

A writer of fantasy fiction will always keep the setting of his or her tale in mind while placing characters within it. But as I come across comments on forums or within articles, I see that many build the setting before understanding the characters who will populate it. World-building is certainly an art, and there are rules to the worlds we build that must be followed by its inhabitants. But I’ve often found that starting with a world — whether it be new or old, far away in space and/or in time — limits the story that will be told. So many want to re-capture the imagination that Tolkien used to build Middle Earth, but starting there, on the outside looking in, with god’s brush in hand, calls into question exactly what will happen in the world being built.

Stories are about characters, who are people. Many of us have arguments with our characters, or find ourselves wondering what this one or that one would do in certain situations. If caught in a traffic jam, would Alynna just get out and walk? Possibly. Almost certainly if the distance were not far. 🙂

The difference between fantasy fiction and general fiction comes down to how your characters interact within the world you’re building. But first there must be characters, and they must have goals and ambitions, a reason for being alive. And those ambitions must be placed in direct conflict with the ambitions of other characters, who want goals that are the opposite. In conflict there is story, and conflict is not created by whether a wizard can shoot fire from his hands or whether a river forks just so around a mountain pass on a map, thus creating a border between battling nations. 

Understanding who your characters are and placing them within your world, at the right time, where an event will serve as a catalyst to the tale, that is the foundation from which to build a world. Cast your hero on his quest, but keep in mind his strengths and weaknesses. Find him friends and enemies, but always understand why those friends would provide aid, and why those enemies choose to thwart.

In short, build from the inside out. Start small, in the thoughts and aspirations of a single character with a single goal, and allow the world that character will inhabit to develop around him or her. That is where the story begins… now where in the world will it lead?