Friday, May 30, 2008

Creating fantastic animals

A new world often needs new animals. I like playing Diablo II partly because of the creatures that populate its landscapes – giant scarabs, goatmen, pulsating maggot eggs half-buried in the ground, foul crows emerging with a fluid pop from their great organic nests, like yeast cells budding off. Such animals make a land both recognizable and strange, and are fun to come up with as well. Here are some of the methods I use to do this.

1. Evolve existing animals

I recommend Dougal Dixon’s books for ideas on how modern animals can develop into extremely bizarre and yet believable creatures. Check out After Man : A Zoology of the Future and The New Dinosaurs. Evolving existing animals is easy to do – just imagine altered conditions, put your animal in them, and change the animal to enable it to survive and breed.

For instance, let’s put an eagle in the desert. Eagles would find it difficult to hunt there – the heat during the day would be intense, especially if they were flying for long periods of time, and prey would be scarce, meaning that they would be expending a lot of energy for little reward. You could change that by allowing the eagles to see in the dark. Or if you wanted to go even further, give the eagles the ability to teleport at high altitude, meaning they could cover vast amounts of land to search for prey. And they grow silver feathers along the backs of their wings and spines to reflect sunlight (rather than absorbing it). Of course, this means that they’re hunted by desert tribes… and when the eagles descend to grab prey, they can’t teleport.

2. Splice existing animals

There are a lot of these in role-playing games. Fighting Fantasy has skunkbears, Dungeons and Dragons has owlbears. Mate the two and you could get a skunkowl. I haven’t done that (yet), but I’ve had winged serpents. As long as this isn’t the method used to create every animal in the story, and as long as the creatures aren’t too bizarre – I’ve come across cat-dogs in published novels, and I wouldn’t buy them – this can work adequately.

3. Make ordinary animals sentient or magically skilled

Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass has armored polar bears, which sound fascinating even before he gets into the details of their culture and their behavior. The same thing could be done with any animal. What if herds of wild mustangs occasionally produced a blue horse, which had the power to open portals into another dimension? What if snakes had the ability to see the future and communicate it to people – if they wished to do so? If the story was set in ancient Greece, you could have a Python at Delphi.

4. Turn ordinary objects or phenomena into animals

Harry Harrison’s novels of the Yilane - West of Eden, Winter in Eden and Return to Eden - used animals to substitute for whatever technology the Yilane required. Need a depilatory to remove hair from the face? A sluglike creature crawls over the skin and digests keratin. Need a blowpipe? A long-bodied animal with a hollow interior produces a gas that could propel a dart – sort of a modified bombardier beetle. This is a lot of fun because whatever you come up with is very likely to be original.

5. Think outside the box

Fantasy animals don’t need to have eyes or limbs or skin or brains in the conventional sense. Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition is a great example of this – none of the animals of Darwin IV have eyes or jaws, and most of them look very different from anything on Earth. What if there was a creature that looked like an amorphous slimy mass, but which could change its appearance to mirror whomever it encountered, on the principle that people are less likely to attack something which looks exactly like them? Or a gestalt entity that was made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller organisms? Its overall shape would depend on its component creatures, and could change depending on where they/it was.

Have fun with zoology!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

1% inspiration

Thomas Edison said that genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and that applies to any great accomplishment. Here's another quote and a couple of stories along those lines, and although they're about the performing arts, they've inspired me when I've been in the middle of the hard work. The quote is from George Balanchine:

“I don't want people who want to dance; I want people who have to dance."

And if you have such a need to express a talent, nothing will stop you.

A boy learning the violin plays a piece for a famous violinist. At the end, the violinist tells him, "You will not be good at this. You lack the fire."

Crushed, the boy goes away. A couple of decades later, he is a successful businessman and he meets the violinist again. "Well, I went into business," he says to the violinist. "And I've done well. So I guess you knew what you were talking about when you told me I wouldn't be good at music after you listened to me play."

"I didn't listen," the old violinist says. "A lot of people play for me. I tell them all the same thing - that they lack the fire."

"What?" The businessman is outraged. "But I might have been a great musician if not for you telling me that I lacked the fire!"

The violinist smiles. "You don't understand," he says. "If you had the fire, you would never have listened to me."

To paraphrase another saying I heard: those who can be talked out of it should be talked out of it. Not many people see just how much struggle goes into a successful writer's career. Here's another violinist story that shows just how much you might give up for your dreams.

After a wonderful performance by a famous violinist, a member of the audience said to him, "I would give my life to play like that!"

The violinist replied, "I did."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Author : the Role-Playing Game

How PublishAmerica fosters the illusion of publication

Last month I blogged about an author’s realization that being printed by PublishAmerica (PA) wouldn’t sell her books. This month I’m going to give a more general overview of why PublishAmerica is a bad, bad choice for anyone wanting a serious career in writing.

For those who don’t, PA is fine. If writers don’t pay PA for copies of their own books to peddle, and if they’re honest with other aspiring writers about PA, then I applaud them and wish them only the best.

Unfortunately, once people are sucked into scams, it’s human nature to hang in there and try to make the best of it (i.e. buy more copies of book 1 from PA so that book 2 will receive an acceptance letter, or spend more on promotional material). It’s also normal to justify one’s decision, which means praising PA and refusing to consider any negatives about what has to be one of the most deceptive vanity presses in the industry.

This enthusiasm leads newer writers in, and the cycle perpetuates itself. The heavily censored PublishAmerica Message Board (PAMB) is a good example of this.

Exposure for books

What’s interesting about the PAMB is how it attempts to mimic actual publication for PA authors – usually by providing imitations of whatever commercially published writers get. For instance, if you’re published by Baen Books, your books will be available on the shelves of bookstores nationwide.

If you’re printed by PA, this will not be the case. Bookstores expect a significant discount from publishers – PA does not give such a discount. Bookstores also expect to be able to return unsold copies to the publisher or to be compensated for these. PA-printed books are nonreturnable. Recently, PA attempted damage control by making some books returnable… as long as the author emails PA to request it and as long as the bookstore pays a restocking fee. Enough said.

What can PA authors do? Many of them try to get around this problem by buying their own books (which is exactly what PA wants them to do) and selling them to stores on consignment, or persuading the stores to order them, which some stores will do for local authors. Unfortunately, this doesn’t get the books on shelves nationwide, or even in other cities.

So the most popular substitute for this, on the PAMB, is having a book cover or a blurb or a link to one’s webpage on someone else’s webpage. The books are already advertised on PA’s online bookstore, but PA authors frequently host pictures of each others’ books or add links to each other’s websites. Some set up display sites for this purpose.

This is fine when it’s done to network. It’s not so good when it’s mistaken for book sales or for the publisher-driven publicity that puts books in stores and libraries.


Reviews are another area where PA needs a substitute. Reviewers like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly don’t review books printed by a vanity press. Even if they did, they require copies well in advance of the release date. PA rushes books into print so fast that sometimes the author doesn’t get copies before the release date. PA’s contract also states that PA will send out review copies “at our discretion”. I have not yet read of this discretion extending so far.

Nature abhors a vacuum, though – even on the PAMB. So to fill the gap where legitimate, honest reviewers would be (if PA was a legitimate, honest venture), there are several websites which offer free reviews but also charge for “fast track service”.

Some authors might even pay for this. PA accustoms them to a fast-food level of speed that’s unheard of in commercial publishing (and couldn’t be done in commercial publishing, where books are actually read and edited). Some sites cut to the chase and simply charge. All of them provide uncritical praise or have other ways to soothe egos – as a PA author admits,

Some bad reviews are removed at the author's request.

There are online review sites I frequent, like All About Romance, but I trust them because they’re specific about what works and what doesn’t work for a book. They also don’t remove negative reviews.

Reviews that are flattery, book covers on friends’ websites and a one-dollar advance – all these contribute (cheaply for PA, in the case of the $1 advance) to the illusion of publication. Just as gamers might have a sword or cloak to wear when they roll the d20s, PA and its message board offer writers the trappings of publication when they indulge in Author : the Role-Playing Game.

Ultimately, getting printed by PA if you’re hoping to have an actual career in writing is like trying to build a future in real estate by playing Monopoly. Sure, it’s quick and easy and cheap to buy the game, and you can have fun with your friends. But it’s not and never will be the real thing. Just like PublishAmerica.

Friday, May 23, 2008

How I became a fantasy writer

I was going to be a bacteriologist, but a funny thing happened on the way to the laboratory. I became a fantasy writer instead.

Maybe it should have been obvious from the beginning. When I was a little kid in Sri Lanka, I used to pull the big dusty volumes from my uncle’s bookshelf and do my best to read them. My favorite was The Lord of the Rings because of the cover, which showed a landscape spread out as if from an eagle’s point of view – trees and fields and mist-wrapped mountain peaks, but if you looked very closely, you could see a group of tiny dark figures making their way down a path. One of them had a pointy hat on.

I didn’t ever think of being a writer, though. The firstborn child in an Asian family becomes a doctor (MD or PhD) or an engineer. Maybe a lawyer, at worst. So I went off to college to study microbiology, though I read a lot of Star Trek novels while I was there and even wrote a few short stories. One of them was a fantasy, and since I was tired of farmboys and magicians, I wrote about a family of spies. Espionage in medieval times was fascinating. Still, none of the stories went anywhere – they were just a hobby.

I graduated, worked in a protein purification laboratory for a year, wrote a story about a unicorn and threw it away when every fantasy magazine declined it. Marion Zimmer Bradley gave it such a blistering rejection that I never dared to query her again. I got into graduate school and started working on chemotaxis (movement influenced by chemicals) in the bacterium Salmonella typhimurium.

Research was tough. My friend Adam had worked for three years without getting any publishable results, which explained the bottle of Scotch he kept in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. I soon found myself working late at night while taking classes and not having much of a social life beyond the people in the same lab. I needed some way to destress from that, and I thought of writing again. But the short stories hadn’t worked. All right, why not a more ambitious project, like a fantasy novel?

So I started on my fantasy novel, outlining it during my lunch hour, while my electrophoresis gels ran, while my Luria broth was in the autoclave. I wrote at night and on the weekends. It was fun. At the same time, I was working towards my qualifying exam, where I would have to present and defend a new project. I remember it had to do with the bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio harveyi and Vibrio fischeri, but I don’t recall much else, because not only was it not fun, but the cross-examination just about killed me. Since I’d focused so intensely on my project, I went blank when the professors started asking about other topics. One of them asked about the lac operon, and let’s just say I lac-ked the necessary information at the moment.

I waited outside the examining room for an hour until they informed me that I hadn’t passed, but could could retake the exam six months from then. My mentor was very unhappy and called me in for a little chat about how I could improve. “You need to be thinking about science constantly,” she said. “In the shower, when you’re eating and before you fall asleep.”

I couldn’t say anything. It was a lightbulb comment, illuminating everything for me. That’s not how I think about science, I realized. That’s how I think about my novel.

(Digression : when I first started writing fantasy, I wondered why I enjoyed it so much, then decided that it was because I didn’t have to think about science and research when I sat down to write. This is hilarious in retrospect, since nearly everything I’ve written has included some science – chemistry, psychology, physics, evolutionary biology – and I’ve done as much research for my books as I did for my project. The difference is that I’ve enjoyed it more.)

I never got that PhD. I took a Masters’ degree, weathered everyone’s disappointment, graduated and kept writing fantasy. I took the road less traveled, and I’ve never regretted it. Oh, and Adam? After the third year, he got results. His work appeared on the cover of the Journal of Bacteriology, he graduated with a PhD and he works for a company called Ambion now. He’s an inspiration to me. From him, I learned to pursue my dream, keep trying even when nothing seems to work, and always have a pick-me-up of some kind in the bottom drawer.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Action vs. conflict, the sequel

Another reason not to start with a tense scene where the characters are fighting for their lives is because the action will have to stop sooner or later for the story to explain who the characters are and to expand on the plot. Unless the author can weave information seamlessly into the narrative and make it interesting, this can be a letdown compared to the action. It’s not easy to stop the fight, deccelerate the story and still expect to hold the reader’s attention.

Starting with action can also backfire because it’s melodramatic to watch two strangers interact in too intimate a way, whether that way is fighting to the death or making love. Rather than being pulled into the story, the readers feel left out, because they haven’t been given time to get into the characters’ minds. Rebecca Brandewyne’s Desire in Disguise begins with a long, explicit scene where the hero and heroine have sex. Now this would have been wonderful if I’d read it at the climax of the novel, after I’d become interested in their relationship and wanted them to get together. To read it at the start… well, that’s the closest I’ll ever come to voyeurism. Since I didn’t know who these people were, I couldn’t be involved on an emotional level.

Starting with action can work - as long as it’s wedded to conflict or has a lot of suspense. One of the most startling openings I’ve ever read was in J. V. Jones’s The Baker’s Boy, where the wizard Baralis murders someone in the first paragraph and rapes a queen before the end of the first chapter. I was hooked, because the start made it very clear that Baralis was a thoroughly vile, creepy and manipulative person who wasn’t going to get what he deserved. You probably didn’t get the same impression from the John scene. In fact, it may have been all too clear that since John was the hero, of course he wasn’t going to be killed by two nobodies. A character getting what he or she deserves, at the start, doesn’t exactly make the reader’s pulse beat faster. It kills the suspense instead, and the reader has no reason to continue.

When authors receive critiques on these scenes, they often focus on honing the action, making it as explosive and realistic and exciting as possible. But it may also be necessary to look at the bigger picture and to see if there’s any other opening which could accomplish more.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Action vs. conflict

I’ve read a certain opening in some works-in-progress posted for critique. It’s written along these lines.

John wheeled, just in time to parry a slash from the taller of the two attackers. The force of the block knocked the man’s blade aside for a moment. Ignoring the pain that sang along his arms, John stabbed forward at the man’s belly, fast and hard. From the corner of his eye, he saw the shorter man dart at him and he pivoted, lashing out with one heel.

Is it gripping? To some extent, yes. It’s certainly better than, say, John watching butterflies in a sunny meadow. But it’s got certain problems, and if an author doesn’t take these into consideration, the opening of the story will look as though action has been mistaken for conflict.

Conflict occurs when a character is prevented from having something he or she wants very much. It’s the backbone of fiction; there aren’t many stories without conflict, except perhaps in ultra-literary works where the style and characterization take center stage instead. It can do very well without action, but the reverse rarely applies. If action is the sizzle, conflict is the steak.

Is there conflict in the paragraph I wrote? Well, I’m guessing that John wants to protect himself from the two attackers, who want to kill him. But I have no idea who he is, why he’s fighting these men, who they are, and what’s at stake if he loses (the only clue I have that John is the protagonist is that he’s named and the story is from his point of view). The potential for conflict is lost, because the story opts for action instead. This can be very vivid in a movie, but it leaves something to be desired in a novel.

Another reason I wouldn’t start with a scene like this in a short story is because the reader will never be in any doubt that the viewpoint character will survive the fight. Towards the end, the reader might be more concerned; after all, some authors do kill off their main characters or have otherwise bad things happen to them. Towards the end, especially when you’ve shown the forces confronting the protagonist, the reader will have a you-never-can-tell feeling that allows him to be genuinely afraid for the main character.

But at the start? Unless this is the prologue to a fantasy, where viewpoint characters often do get killed off, the reader isn’t going to worry.

Sometimes the story or novel begins with a practise fight or training sequence, but this has the same problem. There may be plenty of action, but unless there’s real tension, it won’t be fun to read. That’s one reason the Pai Mei scene in Kill Bill was delightful – Pai Mei hated women, Americans and Japanese, but he had to train an American woman who spoke Japanese and who thought she was good enough to defeat him. Most training-the-protagonist scenes don’t go this far. Instead, the protagonist gets a mentor who likes him and doesn’t really want to hurt him, so there goes any fear the reader might have felt on his behalf.

To be continued…

Friday, May 16, 2008

Scar Night

Warning : spoilers abound

What worked

Scar Night takes place in the city of Deepgate, which is suspended in chains over an abyss.

In one sentence, that sums up why I wanted to read this book and just how imaginative a background it is. A city suspended in a web of chains like a great mechanical spider… what’s not to love? It reminded me of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon, except that New Crobuzon is a combination of technology and every bodily fluid known to man (plus a few man wasn’t aware of), whereas Deepgate is steeped in a culture of war and death, and comes off as chaotic to the core.

When the gates of Heaven were barred to humans, the god Ulcis descended into the abyss and is waiting there, gathering an army of souls which he will some day lead to storm the gates of Heaven. Deepgate was built as part of the worship of Ulcis, so corpses could be dropped into the abyss for future use in the army. But Deepgate’s enemies are on earth as well as in Heaven, and some of those are nomadic tribes living in the desert called the Deadsands. As a result, Deepgate indulges in chemical and biological warfare, with the Department of Military Science and the laboratories known as the Poison Kitchens (can you tell that I love this?). Airships provide transport for both soldiers and weapons.

Deepgate has problems from within as well. Carnival, one of the last angels, is partly insane and hides out in the city, but she emerges once each month to kill someone and drink their blood (basically, PMS to the nth degree). Draining someone of their blood is a fate worse than death to the Deepgaters, since people’s souls are in their blood. The Church assassins regularly hunt Carnival, who just as regularly slaughters them and escapes. But the head of the Church, Presbyter Sypes, hopes to find a way to restore Carnival’s sanity and then make her descend into the abyss to battle Ulcis. Only Sypes knows that rather than gathering an army to storm Heaven, Ulcis is raising his army to conquer Earth.

To heal Carnival, Sypes engages Alexander Devon, the chief scientist in the city, to make a compound called angelwine, which is sort of a Universal Panacea/Elixir of Immortality. Angelwine just happens to be derived from blood drained from living people, but any dessicated corpses will be put down to Carnival’s misdeeds.

What didn’t work

While Deepgate as a city is unique and well-realized, the characters came off as ciphers. The male protagonist (I can’t really call him a hero) is Dill, the last surviving descendant of the angels who once protected the humans. To keep him unharmed, the Church has kept him penned up and docile, to the point where he’s afraid to fly in case he gets a beating. The best that can be said about him is that he’s nice. He rescues snails and doesn’t believe the cook who tells him there’s a nice warm place waiting for said snails. Unfortunately he doesn’t do much else, and his name made me think of the character from To Kill a Mockingbird. The heroine, Rachel, is one of the kickass females who are a staple of fantasy these days. She’s one of the few Church assassins who are still capable of feeling emotion, though that emotion was too often focused on “my poor Dill”.

The antagonists were much more colorful. Carnival is a bit too random and insane and impersonal to be frightening – she’s like lightning striking, and it’s difficult to really fear lightning. Alexander Devon, also known as the Poisoner, is something else entirely – he’s grotesquely injured as a result of his work in chemistry and microbiology, and he hates the city’s culture of death because his wife also died from research-related conditions. So his plan is to heal himself with the angelwine and then lead the desert tribes against Deepgate. He's amoral, ruthless, intelligent and superb as an antagonist. I love the scene where he captures two guards, immobilizes them and tells them he’s going to drain one of them to finish the angelwine. They can decide which of them lives and which one dies. If Dill had been half as vivid or ambitious or competent, I’d have enjoyed reading his scenes.

The author, Alan Campbell, is a video game designer whose successes include Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps that’s why the city and the background are so much better drawn than the people. If you want heroes to cheer for, or realistically depicted relationships growing between characters, you won’t find them here. The book’s tone is grim and nihilistic throughout, and events at the end are somewhat implausible. I find it difficult to believe that a glass syringe can fall into an abyss and be unbroken when it hits the bottom. And if a person can do the same (which he does), maybe Sypes could have sent an army down there to take on Ulcis, rather than setting up a convoluted, doomed plan where Carnival did it? When she does, by the way, she whips a length of her shackle-chain over the neck of the immensely fat god, and I immediately thought of Princess Leia fighting Jabba the Hutt.

But in the end the city itself, swaying in its net of rusted chains over an abyss, dark and bloody and scientific, full of great details (like a scrounger’s daughter painting scenes in red and yellow because those are the only colors she can afford), was reason enough for me to read this book.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Maps in fantasy

Since most of my posts haven’t dealt specifically with fantasy, here’s something for that genre. Maps are part of the fun of fantasy, and I always look at the ones at the start of a book. They’re also a good starting point for stories, since after drawing them, you can come up with reasons for any unique points or quirks in the map. And here are some ideas for those.

1. Unusual physical features

In an article on maps for her world Matrin, Holly Lisle describes how she sketched a map and drew small circles within the land with a compass. Then she drew a ring of mountains around each circle and decided they would have water in their midst – and that they would have been formed by magic.

A detail like that makes any map stand out. I once drew a map of a continent that looked fairly uninteresting; it was more or less round in shape and had no strange geography. So I put a landlocked sea in the middle of it.

Suddenly the continent’s possibilities opened up. What if all life on it had come from that particular sea? And what if the Sea that Spawned was now considered dangerous, because the life it continued to produce had slowly devolved from people to monsters? There are many other physical features that can be added to maps – land bridges connecting two or more continents, for instance, or a dry sea, a series of paternoster lakes dividing a continent at a crucial point.

With a fantasy, you don’t have to be entirely true to natural processes to create these. I don’t recommend resorting too much to the old faithful “a wizard did it”, but as long as it’s not unbelievable – a river running through a vast desert, for instance – it can work.

2. Unusual shapes

Jack Chalker’s Well World, first described in Midnight at the Well of Souls, is a world divided into segments called hexes, with each inhabited by a different species. The map is therefore a collection of hexagons. Few fantasies will be able to go this far, but an interestingly shaped world often inspires ideas. I drew one large continent in the rough shape of a chalice and then named it, well, Chalice. Although this didn’t lead to anything new regarding the geography, it prompted a few nice figures of speech – for instance, conquering the northmost land is referred to as “drinking from the top of the chalice”. Perhaps the southmost land could be the dregs of the cup.

In a Civilization III game called “Dance of the Feathered Serpent”, the entire landmass was shaped like a loosely coiled serpent. It caused some problems with transportation and trade routes for the players. And problems are what the best fantasies are about.

3. Unusual circumstances

I once read about a Civilization III scenario where the four civilizations in the game each began on a different landmass, which were not connected. Also, while they were able to contact each other, they couldn’t cross the ocean. This is a little trickier to try on a fantasy map, because labelling a large body of water “the Uncrossable Ocean” can come off as corny, but it’s something to consider.

Circumstances are harder to depict on a map with a few pencil lines – for instance, if an asteroid crasted into your world a million years ago, there isn’t still going to be a neat crater in it, even though the iron deposits might heavily influence the economy. Or if it’s believed that there’s a hidden, moving abyss in the desert (like a miniature black hole) depicting it on a map is going to be much less scary than leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. But these are still fun to think about and plan.

Monday, May 12, 2008

About antagonists

Imagine you’re watching a chess game.

White starts moving pawns forward to control the central squares. Black does nothing.

White has opened enough space for his bishops and knights to emerge. He castles, protecting his king, and gets his rooks out as well. Black moves a pawn or two forward, but there seems to be no coherent plan behind this and they are captured.

White launches a full-scale attack. Black tries to mount a defense, but his pieces are trapped behind their pawns and his queen doesn’t have room to maneuver. He is quickly checkmated.

Was that fun to watch? No? Then why does it happen in so many epic fantasies?

One answer is that at the start of the book, the heroes are often naïve and inexperienced. If the antagonist descended on them like Caesar on the Gauls, the story would end there, so the author gives the heroes a breathing space and some time to grow up. The climactic confrontation with the Dark Lord is saved for the end, but unfortunately, if the Dark Lord hasn’t been doing much until then, he’s not going to be the worthiest adversary. There’s not much fun in watching a chess game where White overruns the board while Black sits there and waits to be beaten. There’s even less fun in watching when White has only a bishop and a pawn (the wise mentor and the orphan boy with the great destiny) and they win the game anyway.

1. Give the antagonist a good reason not to kill the hero at the start.

If your antagonist has limited abilities, or no magic, then this may not be a problem. But what if the antagonist is so powerful she can defeat the gods themselves? Why wouldn’t she just reach out across the land, pick the hero up between thumb and forefinger and squash him like a bug? Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope takes this into consideration – Queen Beauty leaves Palicrovol alive because she wants to torture him, and she does that for years. She even lets him go free in her land, because when he raises armies and brings them to her city gates, she defeats them without any effort. So why shouldn’t she let him live?

This is one reason Sauron in The Lord of the Rings works well as an antagonist. He is confined to his stronghold in Mordor for a very good reason – without the Ring, he doesn’t have a physical body and so he can’t go out hunting for the Ring himself. But that’s why Tolkien gave him the Nazgul.

2. Give the antagonist competent henchmen.

Morgoth has a lot of these – Sauron, Carcharoth, Ungoliant. Voldemort has Bellatrix. Tywin Lannister has Ser Gregor the Mountain. Competent means they do their job well and loyally. Competent also means they don’t drop weapons and trousers as they try to rape the heroine, thereby allowing her to kill them.

3. Give the antagonist good plans, and the intelligence to come up with them.

This can be tricky. In one of my manuscripts, the antagonist was Cade, who commanded thousands of fanatical followers who could not be harmed by magic. He also had a stronghold in Malleus, the most powerful, most well-defended city in the land. His enemies were magicians, but they numbered about fifty, and most of them died in the first few chapters, leaving a few survivors (the protagonists) to be dragged to Malleus in chains.

So far, so good, but I found it difficult to continue after this point. Not wanting to write is usually a sign that what I’ve got so far isn’t working, and my subconscious is trying to tell me this. I thought about it and realized what was wrong. Cade wasn’t doing anything.

Did he need to do anything, though? He was so powerful compared to his surviving enemies, and his forces vastly outnumbered theirs. The answer was yes, he still needed to act, rather than sitting in Malleus waiting for the plot to come to him. Sure, he sent his army out to crush the magicians, but that was common sense. It wasn’t a clever plan that would impress on the reader just how dangerous he was. It wasn’t an added layer of depth and intricacy to the story. George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasies are brilliant that way; everyone schemes and plots, and some of those conspiracies are so clever and cruel that I’m left stunned by them. So I gave Cade a plan – and a good reason to have one – and the writer’s block was over.

When you write, you’re playing both sides of the chessboard. Play them well.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The heroine's profession

This applies to protagonists in general, but very often in fantasy, women don’t get professions as interesting as those of the men. This is sometimes unavoidable, since a fantasy that stays true to historical or medieval standards is unlikely to have female engineers or military advisors. But even when the women do work outside their homes, they frequently end up being soldiers or fighters. If they’re mages, they often use their power to control and dominate people. The kickass factor is very strong, in other words. It’s as though women can be lambs or lionesses, with not a whole lot of grey areas in between.

I’d like to see a fantasy heroine who was into business. Maybe she’s a fossil dealer – sort of a more entreprenurial Mary Anning. The fossils themselves pass through a complicated chain of middlemen to prevent anyone finding out exactly where her fossil beds are. But now it looks as though someone has learned their location and is picking them over. That person may be the hero, or she might hire him to stop the thief. Or perhaps she’s found one fossil that just seems wrong, and at night she dreams of it coming back to life. An interesting enough profession can jump-start the idea machine, and give you something that lifts a story out of the common circuits. I picked up Holly Lisle's Diplomacy of Wolves specifically because the heroine was a diplomat and negotiator.

Women in fantasy worlds might be exposed to too much danger if they worked on the road, as couriers or traders, but what about if they stayed in one location and were scribes or librarians? Or even scientists? A female alchemist or physicist would be unusual and intriguing, and would also not be out of place in a medieval fantasy; siege engines work on physical principles, after all, and if she applied her talents in this direction, an army might benefit from them. I haven’t yet figured out how to put a microbiologist into a medieval fantasy, but I’ll keep working on it. :)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Six flaws in combat scenes

1. The characters simply slash and hack at each other

If they have the same weapons and fight in the same way, this can be repetitive and won't bring out the full potential of such a scene. Different weapons have different advantages – a spear has a longer reach, but is useless at close quarters, unless the shaft breaks so that the character can use it to stab an opponent. Different weapons also mean different fighting styles, and that might mean the difference between life and death for a physically weaker opponent.

2. The characters have no psychological tactics

They fight in grim silence. Unless this is what they would normally do, let them taunt or bait an opponent, or fake an opponent out by pretending to attack. If they’re injured, even if ‘tis but a flesh wound, they could act as though it’s far worse so they can lure an opponent closer.

I once read a great short story about a love triangle in a primitive tribe, which was finally resolved when the two men involved went into a darkened room to fight it out with knives. One of them had won each such battle he’d fought, killing every one of his opponents (it was later revealed that he had a hidden flashlight built into the hilt of his knife). He was naturally so confident that he gave the woman an expensive perfume and told her to wear it for him when she gave him the victor’s reward.

She wore it when she came to wish them both luck before the fight, and she embraced Flashlight Guy warmly before they went into the room. The smell of the perfume clinging to him was enough for the other man to track him in the dark. Turned out she was in love with the other man all along.

3. The characters don’t use their surroundings to the best advantage

When the Bride confronts a knife-wielding Vernita Green in Kill Bill, and the fight goes to the kitchen, she grabs a frying pan to use as a makeshift shield. I love that detail. Similarly, if characters are fighting on sandy ground, one could pretend to fall, grab a handful of sand and fling it in an opponent’s eyes. Combat near a campfire? Use burning branches. Throw a blanket over the fire to disconcert an opponent with the sudden darkness. A fight in ankle-deep water, at night? Toss a stone to distract an opponent with the splash.

4. The characters show no real effects of wounds

I could buy that massive amounts of adrenaline will override pain, but at some point, blood loss will weaken characters. Wounds in the limbs will make it difficult for them to move and to use their own weapons as effectively. Blood will slicken the hilts of weapons and whatever hard surface the characters are standing on.

Finally, I’ve seen mortally injured or dying characters speak in complete, grammatically accurate sentences. That’s impressive, and also unrealistic.

5. Such wounds are unrealistically inflicted

A strike that lops off someone’s hand looks cool on Kill Bill. Leave it there. A strike that impales someone, driving the weapon through the victim’s body? If the attacker had previously been established as extremely strong, I might buy this. If not, it’s not just unrealistic, it’s foolish. The attacker has now lost his weapon, since it’s lodged in his shish-kebabed victim, and while he’s trying to retrieve it, someone else can attack.

6. The characters do not have normal physical reflexes

If something jabs at your eyes, reflexes will jerk your head back and close your eyelids without your having to think about it. If someone grabs the dagger from your belt, brings it up and tries to cut your throat with it, you’ll be instinctively flinching or blocking or grabbing the person’s hand first.

There are probably more that I haven’t thought of, so please share any other flaws you’ve seen!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Graham Masterton

Graham Masterton is a British author of over 40 horror novels, though these aren’t easy to find on this side of the water. If you like your horror served with a supernatural twist, a dash of mysticism and a lot of imagination, I recommend some of these books.

Masterton always starts out scary. The Hymn begins with a woman pouring gasoline over herself in a parking lot, striking a match and smiling. Master of Lies begins with something I hope never to read again – a description of a husband and wife finishing dinner at night while the narrative explicitly tells us that this is the last meal they will ever eat. They talk happily as the story counts down the last minutes of their lives. 3:05, the man takes a cup of coffee upstairs. 2:28, the woman finishes crimping the edge of an apple pie she will never bake. 1:19, even if they wanted to listen to their favorite song for the last time, they wouldn’t have enough time to do so. 0:03. 0:02. 0:01. By then I was sweating. Needless to say, what happened after that was much worse.

This is a great example of how a good enough author can break a rule and get away with it, by the way.

The supernatural elements in these stories are another plus. The horror in these books is slowly revealed through Native American rituals, Tarot cards and Celtic mythology, which lends it an ancient, elegant aura. The House That Jack Built goes into detail about the apocryphal story of Lilith, and Ritual does the same for voodoo. I always pick up a Masterton novel with the anticipation of encountering different beliefs and cultures, and that inspires me for my own work.

The horror is so visceral that these books would be a difficult read otherwise; don’t pick up a Masterton novel unless you’re prepared for people being dismembered, raped, tortured, burned and so on. Sometimes this is brutal but fascinating, as in The Doorkeepers, where the hero is tortured with a device called the Holy Harp. Throughout the novel, characters had referred to the Harp and how no one lasted longer than one hymn on it, so I couldn’t wait to see what it was like. Sometimes this is is just impossible to read. I could barely finish Ritual because of the description of the fanatics literally eating each other.

Imagination-wise, Masterton antagonists are memorable. They live under the floor, reaching their arms up like sharks’ fins to grab you on the surface and drag you down into the ground (Walkers). They have died in fire and come back to life, their skins grey, their touch immolating (The Hymn). They live in mirrors, in portraits, in alternate dimensions, in what is only glimpsed from the corner of your eye. They don’t have the Stephen King sense of “this could be your father, your drinking buddy, your number one fan”, but they’re always colorful. His heroes sometimes seem a little underpowered in comparison, but they succeed though sheer courage and goodness of heart. The only other caveat I’d add is that some Masterton novels feature explicit sex, and the caveat is that so far none of these sex scenes have worked for me – which is puzzling because Masterton also wrote over a dozen sex instruction books.

The horror novels do work, though. Read them and see.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Style and narrator disconnects

I’ve made this mistake in my own work, and I saw it again in a story I was critiquing. It’s not a difficult mistake to make, either.

Let’s say you have a simple, down-to-earth character. She’s not stupid, but she’s not very educated either. Her name is Jane and she’s looking for a local dignitary who’s gone missing.

“The Mayor stayed here? In such a place? I don’t believe it.”

Taking a pace back, Jane glanced up and let her gaze measure the crumbling façade of the inn. The image of Mayor Cariswell--foppish at the best of times--taking up residence in such a flophouse was incongruous. Yet the trail led there, and logic dictated that if he had indeed sojourned in the inn, it was for the purpose of avoiding anyone even near his own station in life. Ironic that she had tracked him down regardless.

Nothing about the excerpt jumps out as being technically wrong, and yet it doesn’t ring true to me either. If Jane is a plain-spoken, unpretentious character, she may well think logically, but her internal monologue shouldn’t resemble something written for Mr Spock. The sentence structure here is complex, with the polysyllabic words and comments on logic and irony, and that has two effects. First, it gives the narrative a cool, scholarly tone, and second, it prevents the reader from being completely immersed in Jane’s mind. Readers expect a viewpoint character who is a professor of philosophy to express herself in a different way from a viewpoint character who is a member of the Crips. And that goes for the narrative as well.

It’s a difficult habit to break, for me. I tend to be wary of absolutes and dogmatic statements, so my characters will think, There’s probably a hundred bandits in the hills, instead of thinking, There's likely a hundred bandits in the hills or even just, There’s a hundred bandits in the hills. I have to consider this when I edit, and decide whether the characters would qualify their statements – or whether they use the word “probably” as often as I do. Better that I wonder about this than the reader do the same, and detach from my story because of it.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ever Decreasing Circles

Martin lives a busy, bustling life in the suburbs. He organizes everything and runs everything in his community - charity dances, sports teams, the Neighborhood Watch, the newsletter - and he's frequently too occupied with these to spend time with his wife. Sometimes she doesn't mind. Martin may be conscientious and hard-working, but he's also obsessive, neurotic and conservative to the point of stuffiness. Still, he's generally regarded as a leader in his community, and he's happy with his life.

Then Paul moves into the house next door to his. Paul is everything Martin isn't - easygoing, witty, sophisticated and popular. He's also effortlessly competent; Martin has to work to accomplish what Paul can do by making a few phone calls. And since Paul is single, he's free to flirt with Martin's wife.

The British comedy Ever Decreasing Circles handled this excellently, by making Martin rather than Paul the main character in the show. I like Paul, but it's much easier to sympathize with Martin. Most people know what it's like to try and try, only to watch someone else with more talent or charm easily supersede their efforts. I can't help feeling for the underdog, especially when Martin constantly attempts to keep his dignity while still dealing with the threat (real or perceived) to his position.

Paul remains likable despite being what Martin refers to as a "Golden Boy", since he's always friendly and doesn't actually act on his attraction to Martin's wife. For his part, Martin openly dislikes Paul's relaxed, liberal lifestyle while secretly envying him. On a few occasions, though, he has to reluctantly thank Paul for his help, though he still disapproves of Paul's many girlfriends and equally plentiful jokes.

(Martin walks out of his house, carrying a long flexible rod)
Paul : Hello, Martin. Going fishing?
Martin : I can't walk past you carrying anything, can I? If it's a board, it's, 'Hello, Martin. Going to a board meeting?' If it's a pole, it's, 'Hello, Martin. Where's the Pole from, Warsaw?'"
Paul : And if you were carrying a whale, I'd say, 'Hello, Martin. Are you having a whale of a time?'"
Martin : Yes, you would. And as usual, you've gone straight down Silly Avenue! Where would I get a whale from?
Paul : Wales?

The title refers to Martin's usual runaround as he tries to take care of all his responsibilities. He reminds me of Max Fischer in Rushmore that way - he could be good at something if he wasn't trying so hard to do everything. The show is subtle, character-driven, and one of my favorite comedies.

Here's another review of the show, with spoilers for some episodes.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Characters and shiny facets

Your character can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Your character has a pet lion.
Your character can read minds (in a world where this is not a common ability).
Your character has long violet hair that looks blue where the sun strikes it.

Many main characters have unusual traits, skills or accessories like this, and some of my favorite fictional people have several. Take Sherlock Holmes, for instance. He’s a brilliant detective and a master of disguise who also does chemical experiments and plays the violin when he isn’t writing monographs. He's also real, intriguing and just plain fun to read about.

On the other hand, when I tried to critique a story featuring a hero with several such qualities, I didn’t find him as interesting. I wondered why this character didn’t work for me. Barra, Matthew Woodring Stover’s heroine in Iron Dawn, has several Cool Factors – she’s an axe-wielding mercenary with acrobatic skills, a mystic power and a wolf for a pet. She speaks six or seven languages and men find her very attractive despite her scars. Oh, and she’s also a princess. So how does she not set off Mary Sue alerts?

1. The character comes first.

Readers are more likely to identify with and sympathize with a character if the character’s unique traits aren’t pushed at them too quickly. Iron Dawn doesn’t begin with Barra chopping her enemies in half with her broadaxe; it starts with her writing a letter to her children back home, to let them know she’s sending them a few gifts. The gifts are actually the last valuables she owns, since she’s broke, but she doesn’t tell them that. I was intrigued and sympathetic, and if I care about a character, I’ll keep reading.

2. The cool skills and accessories are introduced gradually.

New writers sometimes think that the shiny facets are what’s most interesting, so they flash these in the reader’s face early, sometimes stopping the action to describe why the character is unique. Unfortunately this can make the character come across as a collection of special powers and special weapons, rather than as a person. If the character is a meal, the cool skills are glasses of wine. Drinking three or four glasses in quick succession will leave me dizzy and wanting to lie down, but spacing the glasses out through the meal is much more enjoyable.

This doesn’t apply to very minor characters. If a magician is only going to make two or three brief appearances in the story, describing him as "the man with a covered mirror and a price-list of spells" would work better than trying to develop him as a character.

3. The traits are made plausible.

In fantasy, it's often easier to believe the impossible than the improbable. If the story begins with the heroine having a magic sword, I'll accept that at face value and hope that the sword is an interesting one. But if the author mentions at the start of the story that the heroine was raised by bottlenose dolphins and speaks their language perfectly, this will have to be convincing and plausible before I can believe in her struggle to rally the local dolphin pods against the local pirates.

4. The character has significant flaws

I was shocked when I first read about Sherlock Holmes injecting himself with cocaine. Most authors won’t (and shouldn’t) go this far, but it’s great when characters have flaws which balance out their virtues. Scarlett O’Hara’s unscrupulous nature, Bigwig’s aggression, Jaime Lannister’s incestuous obsession with his sister… positives are good, but carefully chosen negatives humanize characters, round them off and lift them above the common herd of heroes. This was a problem with the story I critiqued – the hero didn’t have any serious flaws or weaknesses, so he came off as an author’s darling rather than as a powerful, three-dimensional personality.

5. The antagonists have their own special powers and intriguing traits

Holmes has Moriarty, Bigwig has Woundwort and Barra has God himself. Yes, you read that right. If the antagonists aren’t as souped up as the heroes, the story may not be too much fun – in fact, the heroes might even come off as bullies for picking on people who are evidently weaker than they are. Give them all bright facets – just not too many each – and then watch them strike even brighter sparks off each other.