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Heroes and Villains

There’s a tendency when writing stories to put characters into the role of hero or villain, so that they objectively fill that role within the story world’s logic. Even in an era of flawed heroes and sympathetic villains we often put central characters into one of these roles. But there is a more satisfying option.

I’ll illustrate with a real life example. I had a teacher in primary school who had a huge impact on both me and my sister’s lives. For me, he was the hero. He recognised both my potential and the difficulties I was having with learning. This led to a referral to an educational psychologist that helped turn my life around. From day to day, this teacher encouraged my academic interests and nurtured me at a difficult point in my life.

For my sister, this teacher was the villain. He didn’t like pupils who were very lively or chatty. He struggled to relate to girls. And so his treatment of this bubbly, vivacious young lady drove her to tears and made every day at school a struggle. This teacher’s role in the narrative of our lives depended upon which angle you looked at him from. Years later, he’s one of the few teachers I think about and discuss, and there’s a reason why.

A good example of a writer tapping into this is Brian Azzarello in he and Lee Bermejo’s ‘Lex Luthor: Man of Steel‘. Azzarello adds depth to Lex Luthor, the classic Superman villain, by showing why Luthor sees Superman as a villain. This perspective also makes the all-American good boy a more interesting hero. It not only shows that other characters view him in different ways but gives the reader another way to think about him.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, to just see the character from one perspective. I do it myself, sometimes unthinkingly, sometimes due to the constraints of a short story. But breaking from that model, showing characters who are both heroes and villains, can make a far deeper character, and a far more interesting story.

Let’s Get Down to Business

Today I’ve provided a guest blog for the ever-eloquent everwalker. In return, she’s been good enough to write a guest blog for me. I definitely get the better of this deal, as do you if you’re reading this. So sit back and enjoy her words of wisdom…

 

To defeat the Huns… no, wait, that’s Mulan. What’s I’ve actually been invited to talk about is the biggest lesson that I have learned from completing my first full-length writing project (and by that, I don’t just mean finishing the novel, but several rounds of editing and then submission for publication as well). Well, it’s probably not going to be a popular lesson, and you are very welcome to ignore everything I’m about to say and go on about your business in your own way. This is just what I learned works for me.

Writing is work. If you really want to get to the end with the best book you can write, you need to approach it with a fairly rigorous mindset. Plan it in advance, with chapter outlines and character arcs, and all that jazz. Use spreadsheets for cross-referencing and graphs for plotting tension progression. Compile research notes and read up on weird things (my latest included the original names for various German cities, the outward symptoms of criminal child neglect, and medieval medicines for an arrow to the knee). And then, when all the prep is done – or at least has a solid foundation – you keep strict working hours. That takes discipline, whether it’s self-inflicted or imposed by other factors. Write for at least an hour every day, and try to make it the same time so it becomes part of your routine. When you hit editing stage, do the same (that part’s harder). Try not to jump around within the story too much – writing linearly is actually easier in the long run, no matter what your unreliable mind might tell you. Be business-like about it.

I know, it was a shock and disappointment to me too. Writing used to be a hobby, of sorts, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the more impulsive approach. But I don’t think it’ll get the project finished.

There’s one other important lesson I want to mention, and it’s a word of warning. I found that, by approaching it in this way, I got more done. But I also thought about it more, to the point of obsession. There’s only so many hours in the day, after all, and you have to work and eat and sleep in some of them. Now, I’ll be honest – I’ve never been that great at keeping a good work-life balance, and when you’re juggling work and writing and life, one of them is bound to lose out. Just be careful you don’t ignore one completely.

 

You can read everwalker’s blog here.

Canadian Commandos

I’ve recently been watching The Border, a Canadian TV show about people policing the hundreds of miles connecting Canada and the USA. I’ve enjoyed its mix of police procedural and commentary on contemporary issues, and now approve of 100% of the Canadian TV I’ve ever watched (which is to say, this show). However, there was one thing I had to get over to take The Border seriously. It’s something that says far more about my attitudes than the competence of the show’s producers, but it also highlights a potential writing pitfall. That thing is best exemplified by the phrase ‘Canadian Commandos’.

I apologise right now to anyone from Canada who’s reading this. I’ve never been to your country, I hear that it’s awesome. However, I have a particular impression of Canada, rightly or wrongly, as a gentle, friendly, slightly quirky, slightly liberal nation smiling in exasperation at the antics of their neighbours to the south. This is not a place I associate with hardened special forces agents, deadly manipulative spies or anything else you might call bad-ass. Yes, this attitude is a sweeping generalisation. Yes, it’s not grounded in meaningful fact. But still, the first time somebody on The Border made reference to Canadian Commandoes I was hit by such a jolt of cultural dissonance that I burst out laughing. I pictured Fraser from Due South abseiling with a machine gun while wearing his mounty outfit. It just didn’t work. This dissonance happened again over several episodes, as I got used to the fact that Canada has all the serious, deadly institutions common to most functional first-world nations, from secret service agents to violent biker gangs. I wasn’t laughing at a flaw with the show, I was getting over my own preconceptions.

As a writer, you can’t bet on getting over the preconceptions of your audience. If your fantasy story involves a hobbit lynch mob then you’re going to have to go a long way to make anyone take it seriously, maybe so far that you’d be better off not including that scene. People have an impression of hobbits, and even if you see them as fickle, xenophobic midgets prone to outbursts of unexpected and deadly violence, others may not. You need to think about who your audience is and how the elements you’re combining will ressonate with them. Otherwise they may give up in bemusement during your touching love scene between an alien and a kangaroo on page fifteen, and then you’ve lost readers.

Readers And Writers – The Black Dossier

This weekend, I finally read Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Black Dossier, their third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book. I’m a huge fan of the first two books, but had a much more mixed response to this, a response that relates to the different reasons writers write and readers read.

The Black Dossier is an incredible piece of work. Smartly written and structured, cleverly playful in its use of formats and references. The writing is good no matter what genre Moore is pastiching on any given page. The art is detailed, fascinating and varied. This is a comic book as contemporary art, culture reflecting on culture and using it to experiment with story structure and reader experience. Even when I didn’t recognise the references or forms at play, I could sense their presence, a breadth and depth of meaning that burst from every page.

However, what this lacked for me, and what the previous League books were so good at, was engagement. The first two volumes of the League’s adventures were just that, adventures. They were tightly plotted and focussed, with the emphasis as much on the story as the cleverness. They drew me in, made me care about the characters and events. Recognising when the creators were being extra smart was an added bonus. And the Black Dossier didn’t draw me in in that way.

Writers write for the satisfaction of their craft, for the thrill of flexing their creative muscles. And writing something like the Black Dossier, where you’re packing every moment with so much cleverness and meaning, must be extremely rewarding. But while, as readers, we can enjoy and admire that craft, most of us want to be sucked in, to be dragged along by story and character, to feel the thrill of their lives. What makes a piece amazing to write won’t necessarily make it amazing to read.

None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy The Black Dossier. I did. But I think Alan Moore enjoyed it a whole lot more.

 

Using scrivener

In my post on writing tools, I mentioned the scrivener word processing program. And everwalker said that she’d tried it but just found she used it to prevaricate. I can see how that would happen – part of scrivener’s usefulness is in giving you a place to store ideas and research, and organising that can be a great distraction from actually writing. But if you can get past that, I think there are some ways in which it can be really useful.

For me, the main thing is breaking the story down into manageable chunks. There are other ways to do this, but for me scrivener’s one of the best. I can click on a scene in the side bar and I’m straight there – no scrolling through a huge document or opening separate documents for each scene. And those blocks are easy to rearrange – if I realise that an incident should happen earlier in the story I don’t have to mess about with cutting and pasting, I can just drag it to the right place.

I also find the pinboard overview handy. It’s a place where I can look at what scenes I have planned, and in what order, with brief notes on each one. Again, it’s a place for rearranging, and for planning, without getting sucked into the details. But when I want the details, I open the file and my notes off the pinboard are there.

And that’s the last useful bit for me – the notes. When writing in word I used to keep my plan further down the document I was writing, and skip up and down to check what I’d meant to include. With scrivener it’s there automatically in the sidebar, visible in the document but not in the way.

I’m starting to sound like a salesman now, and not necessarily a very interesting one, so I’ll stop there. For me, scrivener’s not so much about the research files as the writing ones, and I’ve found it worth having just for that. But it’s only a tool, among many available. Some people will find it handy, and for some it’s a distraction.

Action and meaning

Last weekend Mrs K and I accidentally stumbled upon the Mintfest street arts festival. This made for a wonderful weekend, wandering around Kendal, seeing strange little acts of dancing, juggling, machine building and all sorts of other madness. But while none of this was writing related, my writing brain was still ticking away. Lets face it, if you can’t find inspiration in a mad puppet circus then you can’t find it anywhere.

The best example of this was a trampoline performance by the remarkable Cirque Inextremiste. How does trampolining get to be remarkable? That’s a little hard to explain, but to give you an idea, it involved a comedy terrorist, a five foot red rubber ball, and a stack of calor gas cannisters, all of which spent time bouncing on the trampoline. Off the trampoline there was a spud gun, a blowtorch and some alarmed audience participation. To cap it all off there were some haunting clarinet solos. It was exciting, funny, and at times almost sad.

So what did my writing brain make of this? A story of martyrdom and bouncing explosives, with a musical ending? Well, maybe. But my main take aways were about structuring story.

Firstly, Inextremiste did a great job of setting up plot elements, and using them efficiently. Throw away gags used to warm up the crowd were also set-up for later moves. Objects played multiple roles in the story. The finale was a great pay-off for the hectic action that had come before, and finished with a calmer moment to let it sink in.

The other thing it made me think about was the use of action. The whole performance was visual, with no spoken words. The story was clearly designed as a vehicle for a series of increasingly impressive trampolining stunts. Yet every one of those stunts progressed the story. Unlike the action in poorly plotted thrillers, every act, however spectacular, moved the plot along, adding complications to the central character’s quest for martyrdom.

Looking back over some of my stories, I can see places where a set-piece is there because I like the action, but it changes nothing. And what I was reminded of by Cirque Inextremiste is just how lazy that is. If they, without words, could show how every ridiculous bounce on a trampoline contributed to a story, then I, with the whole English language at my disposal, have no excuse not to do the same.

Writing resources

A friend was asking me recently about submitting stories for publication. I pointed him towards one of the resources I use most, but it occured to me afterwards that I could have been a whole lot more helpful. So for the Northman, and for anybody else who might want them, here are some of the resources that I’ve found most useful as a writer:

Writing excuses – A podcast discussing tools and techniques for writers. Four published authors share their skills and experience, and provide writing prompts in case you need some inspiration. Only fifteen minutes a week, but I’ve learned a heck of a lot from it.

Duotrope – An online database of short story markets that you can also use to keep track of your submissions. Vital for me in identifying appropriate places to send stories and judging when to chase up responses.

Write or Die – The program for anyone who has trouble pushing themselves to stop prevaricating and keep writing. Basically a word processor that tells you off if you pause to long. Cheap to buy, and a great motivator. Nothing drives me on like that glowing red screen.

Scrivener – A program that helps you organise your story notes, plans, research and chunks of writing. It makes it easy to link the plan and the story together, to find the part of your manuscript you’re working on, and to rearrange scenes when you realise you’ve gone wrong. It’s the only thing I’m recommending here that has a substantial cost, and I think it’s well worth it. I use it for pretty much anything I write now, not just stories. I plan in Scrivener, draft chunks of text in Write or Die and then copying them into Scrivener to compile and edit.

Why it matters

I put up a post earlier in the week about inspiration. What I didn’t really cover in that post was why this matters. And, inspired by a comment from qbik4, I wanted to expand upon that.

On one timescale it doesn’t matter whether inspiration comes from hard work, bolts from the blue, or a gift from the candy fairy. As long as you’re getting the ideas that’s what counts. The scale where that’s the case is the immediate moment of inspiration.

On another timescale, it really does matter. If inspiration is something that just happens to you then you don’t need to work towards it. In fact, you can’t work towards it. This leaves you disempowered, unable to affect your process of generating ideas, and gives you an excuse for inaction – if I can’t make myself have ideas then I should just wait for them. This leaves you with no reason to practise coming up with ideas, or to explore new ways of generating them. If you think that inspiration just happens you won’t work at encouraging it, and so won’t exercise the mental muscles that are really working when inspiration strikes.

Even if there’s part of inspiration that we don’t understand, that microscale moment where two ideas crash together to form something beautiful and new, it’s important not to mystify that process. If you want to have more inspiration then you need to look at the entirely comprehensible macro scale, where your hard work and practice makes a difference, the scale on which you create a space in which ideas can’t help but collide. By doing this you take control of your process and become better at it. You get rid of your excuse – ‘I’m waiting for an idea’ – and get down to work.

Even this post comes off the back of that process. I’ve been listening to a lot of Writing Excuses, which has taught me to think critically about all the writing processes, including generating ideas. I’ve been going through counselling, which has taught me to examine my own thought processes and the connection between instinctive and rational thinking. And I’ve been applying both sets of learning, practising using those processes to generate ideas about how I think and about how I write. That inspired my post, and meant qbik4’s response slammed into other thoughts in my head and led to this follow up.

What I’m trying to get you to do, if you’re reading this, isn’t necessarily to agree with me. I don’t mind whether you think of inspiration as something magical and external. What matters is that you act like you agree with me, that you focus on the way you can affect your inspiration. Because if you don’t, you’re already half way to giving up, and you’re better than that. Everyone is.

 

Oh, and go listen to Writing Excuses, especially if you write sf+f. Seriously, it’s great.

Working at inspiration

There’s a tendency to talk about inspiration as something mystical, some flash-from-nowhere power. I think that’s nonsense. Inspiration is like any act of imagination, it’s something you work at.

Partly, this is a long term project. The more time you spend thinking about how you can apply your experiences to stories the more effortless that will become. When I first started writing I’d occassionally notice something interesting. The way light streamed from a porch on a spring evening. The curve of a statue in a gallery. A concept from sociology that explained why people listen to others. I’d note that thing down, I’d think about its ramifications or how it could be used to add colour to a story. I’d mould it into a shape that I could use.

As time went by that got easier. I’d see that fall of light and I’d know straight away how to use it in my current scene. Or I’d hear that sociological concept and see immediately how it could motivate a character. And that was when those moments of inspiration really started to fly. Those flashing insights, the realisation that, hey, that bird would be a good model for monster A, a great metaphor for Lord B’s character, or maybe a hobby for character C, like ornithology or taxidermy, and that’s why her and B don’t get on, and…

Those moments were coming because I’d worked at building a better creative engine, a set of thought processes that were better than ever at creating the ideas I wanted.

But working at it is a short term thing too. This week I’ve been reading Eileen Power’s Medieval Women, because I’m planning a story that involves several medieval women*. For the first few pages I didn’t get much from the book. It was interesting enough, but nothing was really sparking. Then I took one concept, about the deeply divided attitudes to women in medieval Christianity (praise the Virgin Mary, bemoan Eve’s part in the fall, compare all women to both, develop feelings of confusion normally restricted to teenagers). I thought about the ramifications of that for my story and wrote it down. Half a page later, with that idea already in my head, I read something else that fitted with it, so I noted that down. And again. And again. Ten minutes later I was spending more time making notes than actually reading. That engine I mentioned earlier had got warmed up, and now it was really rolling. One of the most important fuels for creativity is more creativity.

So, messy engine metaphors aside, what’s the point of this? It’s that ideas and creativity don’t just happen, and realising that, working on mine over time and in each moment, has really helped me. Inspiration doesn’t just happen. You make it happen.

*And also because I’m something of a history nerd – there’s a reason I studied it solidly for six years.

Striking Black Silence

Striking Black Silence crouched in the dusty shadows, clothed from head to toe in the slate-grey folds of her shinobu. Only the twinkling pits of her eyes showed through the surrounding darkness. The Emerald Dragon Palace towered above her, a gleaming bastion amid the markets and slums, its green walls rising to curved roofs of yellow timber.

A civil servant paused in the street, tidying himself before approaching the high barred gate. His long crimson robes cast a tapered shadow in front of Striking Black Silence’s hiding place. She pulled a pale, thin ninjaken from her belt, a blade as sharp as a jilted lover’s hate and light as moonbeams. Leaning forwards she slashed through the base of the man’s shadow. Snatching the patch of darkness away with long, thin fingers, she stepped nimbly into its place. The civil servant never even looked around as she willed herself to become insubstantial, a dark layer draped across the world, and when he walked past the guards and through the high obsidian gates he did so with a darker shadow, one that did not wear his robes.

#

Inside the Palace, the civil servant crossed a mosaic floor and ascended a wide staircase with a handrail of carved mahogany. His footsteps joined those of other red-robed figures shuffling wordlessly from room to room, their way lit by delicately scented candles that cast flickering patches of light across tiled walls. At the top of the stairs he entered a tall antechamber, lined with darkened niches and shelves full of scrolls. As he paused, reaching for one of the high shelves, he felt a moment of distraction, like a thread tugging at the corner of his mind. In a flash it passed and, lighter of heart, he plucked a wide leather-bound tome down from its place and passed on into the next room.

Striking Black Silence crouched in the darkness between the shelves, watching the shadowless man depart. A lowly clerk of tepid spirit, it had been easy to break away from him. She waited motionless as four more of his grade came and went, never even glancing into her dark niche. Then came a man in purple robes with silver trim. As he stood with his back to her, Striking Black Silence drew her blade and cut away his shadow, stepping lightly into its place, her toes brushing his heals as she joined to him and willed her body into shreds of gloom. Oblivious, the mandarin selected a scroll from the shelf and left the room, leading them both upwards into the refined halls of the Highest Tower.

Traversing the corridor to the Third Expectant Chamber they passed a guard. He bowed his head to the mandarin, the brass plates of his armour clicking together. His close features broke into a frown as he gazed at the floor beneath the mandarin’s feet and the short, trouser-clad shadow behind the tall robed man.

Before the guard could part his lips to speak, Striking Black Silence was pulling free, trying to become solid. But the mandarin’s spirit was stronger than that of her last carrier, unwilling to relinquish its dark partner. For a long moment she was caught in place, unable to break loose, her will straining against his. Then the bond of shadow to shadowed broke and she was free, a veil of darkness coalescing into the coiled body of a killer. She lunged forward, one arm wrapping around the mandarin’s neck. It twisted with a snap that echoed through the silent room. Then she was past, her blade darting up beneath the guard’s arm. It slipped between armoured plates, piercing muscle and sliding past ribs into his heart. Hot blood spurted across the marble as he fell to the floor.

Eyes peeled for signs of movement, Striking Black Silence rushed down twisting corridors and up a stairwell. Seeing the backs of two guards ahead she sprang into the air, grabbing a roof beam and swinging herself into the rafters. She stepped carefully from beam to beam, arms outstretched, hunched in the low roof space. The guards turned and marched down the stairway beneath her, their helmets close enough to touch, shadows crumpled across the steps.

For the next hour she roamed the rafters, creeping from room to room above oblivious guards and servants. She knew when the bodies were found. Gangs of armoured guards began roaming the corridors, staring fiercely through doorways, scouring every room. But few had the sense to look up, and the ceiling space was filled with concealing shadows.

At last she found herself emerging onto a balcony above the great gates, on which four figures stood with their backs to her. Most striking was a tall man in yellow robes. He held himself straight and still as he surveyed the sprawling shacks below. Beside him stood a scribe, stylus poised over a wax tablet, and flanking them were a pair of guards, their gaze fixed on the ground below, eyes prowling the sprawling streets for any sign of archers.

‘Write this down,’ the tall man said without looking at his scribe. ‘To the Daimyo of the Ninth Province, from Fierce Dragon Wind, Shogun of the Rising Sun…’

Beneath her mask, Striking Black Silence gave a tiny smile at the mention of her daimyo. Without even the faintest his of steel on silk, she drew her ninjaken and reached out of the doorway’s sheltering darkness, towards the shogun’s shadow.

‘…I am aware of your plans against me. Only today, I captured another of your ninjas trying to infiltrate my palace…’

Striking Black Silence stiffened, but no-one turned around. The guards continued their downward vigil, the scribe etched at his tablet and Fierce Dragon Wind stood contemplating his domain. She reached forward once more and, with the utmost care, severed the shogun’s shadow.

‘…As you know, the duties of government keep me here. I therefore leave it to you to ensure your own punishment, safe in the knowledge that any I am forced to inflict shall be as the death of paper cuts, gentle, slow and endlessly painful…’

Striking Black Silence pulled the shadow to her and hid it in the deeper dark of the doorway. Then she stepped forward, holding her breath so as not to breathe on the shogun’s neck.

‘…To this end, you will build yourself a prison, with a bare cell no wider than you are tall. You shall set your own men to guard it, and to feed you water and rice. Make sure they know that, should you escape, their corpses will be left for the vultures, never to find rest with their ancestors…’

Listening to his words strengthened Striking Black Silence’s resolve. She willed herself to become a shadow once more, thinner than air, lighter than fire.

‘…Write it out in your finest hand and bring it to me to sign…’

The scribe nodded and turned, heading into the palace. He paused for a moment, glancing at the ground behind his lord, and Striking Black Silence readied herself to pounce. But he stooped, picked up a button form the floor, and moved on.

‘…I shall be in my chambers,’ the Shogun said, passing in turn through the doorway, taking his shadow with him.

#

Fierce Dragon Wind strode into his private chamber. Outside, two guards pulled the ornately carved door closed, leaving their master alone. Paper lanterns cast a fierce orange glow, lighting the room like the heart of a bonfire. Everything in the room, from the ivory inlaid writing desk to the black-glazed sake cups, cast a multitude of fragmented shadows, faint patches of shade cast by the different lamps. Everything except the shogun himself. Behind him lay a deep pool of darkness.

Striking Black Silence’s time had come. She took a moment to plan the blow, the dance of the blade through the air, the surrender of his flesh to that fine, gleaming edge, the exact angle at which his head would fall. Then, remembering the fate planned for her daimyo, she focussed her spirit to a sharp point, one moment of swift certainty, and willed herself solid.

Nothing happened.

She tried again, straining to pull a foot away from the shogun. But she could not move, her leg refusing to leave his body. She reached for her ninjaken, realised her arm was held in place, posed as the shogun’s own limb.

Fierce Dragon Wind turned and looked down at the shadow. The corner of his mouth twitched as he raised his sake cup in a wry salute.

‘Well done, little ninja,’ he said. ‘You have come far. Your will is strong. But I rule a whole kingdom without leaving this tower. What sort of will must that take?’

He stared down at Striking Black Silence. She felt her thoughts flung down a dozen different paths, her body wrenched and shaken. The deep pool of darkness became a collection of faint, flickering shadows cast by the paper lanterns, scattered puddles of shade where once there had been a striking black silence.

 

First published in EMG-zine, October 2007