The Problem with an “Evil” Character

A few times, I’ve heard an author say something along the lines of “A villain is the hero of his own story.” More than not, I believe this truism in that it reflects life and the people around us. Not everyone, but most people. There are self-loathing people and self-loathing characters, but this is not the case generally.

But what does the truism really mean? It means that everyone has motivations and goals. Heroes always have goals: save a kitten, stop a runaway train etc. But so do villains: steal the art from the museum’s wall, kidnap my child from the custodial parent etc. The real point is that people, good or bad, justify their actions.

There is one justification that villains do not use: evil. Nobody says “What can I do that would be evil today?” Nobody. Except Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, Gru from Despicable Me, Megamind . . . characters that are sympathized with. Hardly the case for evil for evil’s sake.

Nevertheless, fantasy and urban fantasy writers sometimes lean into EVIL as a reason, or as a justification. The book I’m reading now describes a character as “evil personified.” This does not tell me anything concrete. Nor do I believe it. To a certain extent, evil is in the eye of the beholder, especially those that are wronged, appalled, victimized, or made vulnerable. The monster could be acting out of territorialism, hungry, greed, rage, self-preservation, ignorance, or directed malice. This is more specific and less dismissive. Claiming something, or someone as evil avoids the issue of trying to understand the actions. This is a mistake.

Maybe the character is a fictionalized Hitler, Dahmer, or even 911 terrorist–all have been called evil. But that description averts the issue of facing the actions and motivations. Hitler did unspeakably horrible things, or ordered them, but he did not do it to “be evil.” He was driven by hatred, racial ideology, megalomania and ignorance among many things. The result was evil. But not the motivation. The 911 terrorists were driven by religious fanaticism and a sense of purpose. The result was evil. But not the motivation.

In writing, leaning on “evil” is a crutch. The aliens in Alien are not evil no matter what they do to the humans. They are ghastly creatures the feed and breed in ways that do not bode well for humans. That’s what predators do. I’m sure rabbits and chickens and pigs are not always pleased with human ways. Passenger pigeons and dodos went extinct, buffalo and many whales nearly so. But humans didn’t do this out of evil. We had screwy, myopic motivations that deserve to be properly addressed.

Hollywood How-To: Making Great Books Into Not-So-Great Movies

A couple days back, I finished reading and reviewing The Martian by Andy Weir–in a nutshell, it’s pretty darned good. 5 stars. Now the movie will be hitting Oct 2nd starring a stellar cast [both pun and compliment intended], I hope it does the book justice.

But, I’ve been let down before.

Part of the problem of a movie not living up to a promising book’s expectations lies with the readers. We envision a character or house or scene or accent a certain way. But a movie is never the same on screen as in your head. Never. Sometimes that’s okay because the movie manages to overwhelms us with exactly how over-the-top and all-consuming they create an ambiance in ways a reader would be hard pressed to. Think Hogwarts, or Diagon Alley from Harry Potter movies, or nearly every scene in Lord of the Rings. These movies were so immersive they left little room for nit-picking on the epic scale.

Sometimes, the problem is that a writer’s style of writing doesn’t translate well to the screen. Voice-over narration in movies never feels as intimate as internal dialogue from first person narrators in books.

When I think back at my disappointment with the cinematic Golden Compass, I don’t know that I can even put my finger on the disconnect. But it was there. Probably, in dozens of little ways. Since I really enjoyed the source trilogy, it was especially disappointing to realize that the rest of the series would never get made since the first installment didn’t work. I felt that way about Avatar: the Last Airbender, too. It wasn’t a book, but the source material failed to translate to the live action big screen as planned.

Certainly, sometimes Hollywood makes the necessary changes to compensate for what is lost from the book. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is great. So, is the movie. And not necessarily in the same way. And that’s ok. A little Oprah and the little Whoopie Goldberg can go a long way . . .

Have you been disappointed by an movie adaptation? And what book would you like to see make it to the big screen?

My answer to the latter question is Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series. Someone even bought the rights. But I worry. The first book is compared to The Hunger Games but the comparison doesn’t hold for the sequel, Golden Son, so I hope whoever makes it, does so with only the series at hand on their mind and not some formula that worked for a different series. I guess I’ll find out.

GenCon and Hoosier Hospitality

Next week, GenCon will be all the rage in Indianapolis. While it has the LARPing of other Cons, this is the largest American game convention: board games and video games. The fine people of Catan will be trying to set a new world record for simultaneous Catan players [to beat their last record from 2 years ago at 800+] I do love and collect board games and will be stalking the demo tables most of Friday. [Maybe joining the Catan-a-thon.]

GenCon also has a huge fantasy and sci-fi writers symposium. I will be sitting in on many discussions: anatomy of a fight scene, eliciting emotional responses, atmospheric writing, common people in epic conflicts, action scenes, killing off characters, researching stories, dialogue and dialogue tags, description through dialogue, character voice, heroic pairs, magic and the modern world, worthy opponents, and supporting cast [real people vs. plot devices]. Yes, that’s a lot of lectures, but I have 3 days and plenty of time to watch games.

I’ll also be hearing a few authors speak that I reviewed this past year. Firstly, Patrick Rothfuss [The Lightning Tree and The Slow Regard of Silent Things] will talk for 2 hours my first night. There will also be a panel of writers from the anthology Writers of the Future Volume 31 on my final night. Nothing beats listening to an author speak that you’ve just read and enjoyed.

I imagine I’ll pick up a book or two while I’m there also. Drop a line if you’re heading Indiana-way. This year I’ll try to remember the change in time zone and not show up late . . .

World-Building in Successive Layers of History

History is often written by the winners and conquerors. But real life is messy, and properly built fantasy worlds are, too. Given enough time, successive layers of histories and cultures evolve and borrow and rewrite and redefine. It’s true for Earth, but many fantasies opt out of using Earth despite including human[-oid] characters. In such cases, centuries and millennia-worth of histories have been created by authors to nuance and explain their worlds.

Tolkien likely inspired much of the trend with Lord of the Rings‘ Middle Earth. His interest in linguistics and culture largely drove his world-building which filled many volumes and appendices, though some ruins are also explained within the context of the sagas. As fans of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice know, he has also mapped out centuries of history quite explicitly.

Three series that I am reading have been less explicit, but no less nuanced. In Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle series, the centuries of history are laid out quietly in subtle differences in folklore, songs, and regional histories of the present era. The more the reader sees of the world, the more one understands what likely happened in the past. The emphasis on the contemporary expression of the arts and beliefs is quite exacting.

In Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard series [The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies] there are ancient structures and technologies scattered everywhere that nobody understands. Clearly the golden era is so far gone that it’s not culturally remembered. This same type of post-Golden, Dark Ages in seen in Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea series [Half a King and Half the World]. In the second book, a pirate captain has a device of ancient technology that by all accounts, sounds like a gun. And the ancient ruins, sound like ruins. It’s possible that this series actually plays out on a post-apocalyptic Earth, unlike Lynch’s series in which the ruins are very un-Earthly. It will be interesting to see how the ancient is further revealed in the third book.

For an interesting view into the world-building process of a whole un-Earthly planet, one can look to Dakota Lopez’s Tales from Atelinor. This blog consists of a series of short stories all taking place on the same planet but spanning thousands of years. An event from one story may turn up mythologized in another with time-frames separated by centuries.

Many fantasies opt for a different world. But without the care in creating long histories of cultural change and evolution, the stories come across as flat, and less than. There’s no need to include examples of those here. Rather, let’s celebrate these fine examples of authors making this world richer by deeply envisioning other worlds.

What are your favorite non-Earth worlds?

Review: “The Wild and Hungry Times” by Patricia Russo

3 of 5 stars.

This short story imagines and attempts to chronicle the layers of history of a richly introduced world not unlike Tales from Atelinor by Lopez or The King Killer Chronicle by Rothfuss or Gentlemen Bastard by Lynch. Unlike these other series, this lone short story doesn’t give much space to fill in the historic chasms. It also opts to have the story told from a temporally removed vantage.

After the fall of a great society [Resenna] and before the age of the scarred conquerors lies the wild and hungry times of folklore. The tale within this tale emerges from that darkened time as chronicled by the scarred scribes of the later period. Those scrolls were then lost for centuries to be found by an historian [Nietta the Younger] of yet a later age–the current age. The speaker notes all these layers and the scholarly opinions surrounding them in the last 80 years since Nietta found the scrolls. A novel or novel series could more fully embrace this rich layering of scholarship.

The tale within is of a time when magic was believed, and every child was given a token at birth to bestow a precise magical skill to the child. Peero was given a stone for strength [physical and moral]. His unnamed sister was given a drop of pure water for clear sight, which turns into a Cassandra’s gift and a weariness from always knowing. After many stillborns, the youngest son Bairen is given breath for long life. Like the sister’s gift, the tokens give something often unintended . . .

“The Wild and Hungry Times” appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015 edited by Rich Norton and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Not One of Us, September 2014.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Care of Magical Creatures

Zombies are hot right now. Vampires are still enjoying a resurgence. And many other creatures that lurk and skulk still get plenty of ink: werewolves, dragons, ghouls, fae and more. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that a zombie is a zombie is a zombie. There are Obeah [voodoo] zombies, Walking Dead zombies , rage zombies [ie 28 Days Later], and even insomnia zombies [such as in Black Moon]. One brilliant anthology I read, Extreme Zombies, had a little bit of all of these and more. But, each short story had a consistent vision of their zombie, which I think is important.

There is much lore to pick from, one need only let us know what one is using. And yes, one can even invent new attributes, such as Twilight’s sparkly vampires. That was new to me–not that I’ve read those books. But I do think it’s important to define the creatures one is using. Sure, some categories are very broad, such as demon and fae, and a story may include a broad range within its scope.

I recently read a book, Revelations, that used the terms ghouls and vampires interchangeably. I’ve also heard the term ghouls used for zombies such as in Night of the Living Dead which does just that. In the novel I read, the ghouls ate people–the entire person. To me, that makes it not a vampire. The book went on to say that vampires, ghouls, zombies, mummies etc. were all the same thing. But I disagree. The mythos is different. By likening them all, rather than define the creatures it was using, it muddied the definitions.

Maybe I’m the only one bothered by this. I still think elves should be generally humanoid, but more ideal and eternal [ie Lord of the Rings]. Santa and Keebler have been making “elves” of gnomes in my opinion.

We cannot always consult Newt Scamander’s Care of and Guides to Magical Creatures, but we can demand definition, culture, and attributes of the species writers employ.

What say you, the fantasy readers out there?

Character Research: The Epileptic and the Musician

In the past couple of weeks, I have editorialized on creating a diverse cast of characters for science fiction and urban fantasy that transcends bias based on race and/or gender. Part of that diversity also means creating characters that have world-experience that goes beyond the limits of my own resume and relationship history. But, to do this requires: curiosity and research.

I can imagine what a certain situation or job would be like, but that doesn’t mean I’m correct. I like to run micro-scenes by people that have a better know-how into a scenario. My partner’s brother was a military lifer, he is my go-to for questions of rank and organization as my series delves more deeply into a dystopian US under martial law.

Jared, the primary narrator of the first book talked about here, here, and here, has a seizure [Oh, spoiler alert. <–back there. Skip that part.] Having not experienced a seizure first hand, I've given the appropriate scenes to an epileptic and the mother of an epileptic for critique from those who've intimately experienced it.

Kate, looking the sickly yellowish-green of bad limes, wipes my forehead with a cool cloth. “Bryson!” she yells, “He’s stopped seizing. He’s back with us, I think.” I feel very achy, but the headache and buzzing noises are gone. Kate’s look softens, “Jared? Are you okay, Jared? You’ve had a seizure. But you’re going to be alright.”

I’ve pissed on myself. The warm wetness has soaked through the chair. I’ve never felt shame and embarrassment this thoroughly. I wish they had not found me like this. “Thank God, you’re okay,” Kate adds while brushing my hair from my forehead. Bryson is in the doorway behind Kate. He listens to his phone but watches me intently.

“How are you feeling, Jare?” Bry asks with louder than normal volume. How am I feeling? Wet, embarrassed, achy, ashamed, thirsty. Thirsty? Yes, just a little bit. “I don’t know,” he snaps at the phone, “He hasn’t answered me yet.” Kate looks up at Bry, her eyes begging him to not get snippy on the phone. “The ambulance is on its way,” he assures her. She accepts this answer and turns back to me.

Another character, Walsh, teaches piano and voice at a local university. While I am a singer involved in multiple choirs, I still went to a profession singer-pianist to scan his scenes for accuracy.

. . . we’ve settled on the emotive “Danny Boy.” That is what we are running currently. My fingers lilt into the old Irish tune by memory, finding jazz hidden between the lines and notes on the page. My mind, though, drifts over to the window and out into the garden. Eric’s voice and pitch waft gently away from the key my piano playing offers.

I stop playing mid-phrase, letting my final chord ring. Eric winces and corrects his note. “Shit,” he concedes allowing his stance to slump. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. And, I was really into it that time.” I move to advise, but he beats me to the lesson. “I know,” Eric whines, “I stopped listening. It’s just that same phrase where the piano part doesn’t have my note—“

It’s a Man’s World

Superheroes still trend toward being male. Especially in a Hollywood lead role. Why is this? Recent series such as Divergent and Hunger Games have shown that there is an audience for strong female lead characters. Comic book fans are supporting the female Thor, even. So, why is there still a lag in depicted equity of the genders?

I don’t have an answer to this, merely conjecture. I think our cultural default is still male [and white as I brought up last week in talking about racial equity]. We assume a captain, a general, an admiral, a hero, a cop, a detective, a coroner is male unless proven otherwise. Seriously, as you read the list in the prior sentence what gender did you imagine?

At C2E2 [Chicago’s ComicCon], there was a panel discussing this very subject. One author said that they purposely start every character as female unless they had a reason to switch it to male. That seems rather extreme, but I can see alternating the genders and correcting for situation as necessary. The idea being, naturally, to write beyond stereotype.

This is an important subject in my own writing. As a male, I don’t want default male. This is particularly challenging in the series I’m writing because at the core is four main characters, a straight couple and a gay couple. That’s 3 males and 1 female if one overlooks the gender distortion that the gay men bring to the mix. It gets further complicated by Kate [the lead female] being separated from the rest. Her story will emerge, but that leaves the three main male characters. So, I find myself packing in female characters to balance the testosterone out: Walsh’s sister and niece move in, the neighbors are lesbians. The cop, the police chief and the army general for the district: all women.

Am I making mountains out of molehills?

The Multi-Racial Conundrum

Many fantasies and sci-fis like to imagine a post-racial world, or even a world where race was never the great divider as it plays out on modern Earth. Subtlety does not always work, as one is potentially handing a post-racial world to a racialized society. However, making a big thing of being non-racial, contradicts the point of showing a non-racial society.

On camera that is far easier done than in print. Especially since, in American culture, there is an assumption that characters are Caucasian unless proven otherwise. In the Hunger Games, the characters from District 7 were subtly described as darker skinned, ie black. But the skin pigment references were too subtle. When the movie cast actors that matched the literary descriptions, some ignorant people expressed outrage over making the characters black. They called it pandering.

Sure, the screaming and vitriol is louder and more heated when a character once depicted as Caucasian is re-imagined as non-Caucasian. But considering that these superheroes WERE NEVER REAL, I do not give the counterargument any more credence. Somehow, Rowling did it right with Harry Potter. Nobody seemed surprised that Angelina Johnson and Dean Thomas were black.

One sci-fi FAIL that I read made a big point of saying that race was no big deal in this world. Then it went on to blatantly describe the race, and only the race of every character in a platoon. It was another 50 pages before I found out beliefs and likes and anything personal about any single character from that grouping. Awkward.

So, what is the formula for successfully imagining a post-racial society? Coming from a state that is over 90% white and a school that was 99% white and 1% hispanic/asian/black combined, this topic matters to me. The world is richer for its diversity and that makes its stories richer for it, too.

I make an effort to include names that come from multiple cultures and traditions. I also try to show subtle cultural markers: one person may do a sign of the cross when an ambulance passes, another might speak Tagalog to her father and English with everyone else. That’s the world I see around me now.

World-building Tools

Fantasy and Science Fiction [and all manner of sub-genre therein] rely on world-building to immerse the reader. This creative endeavor can also be great fun for the writer. This past week, in a panel for fantasy and sci-fi writers at Chicago’s C2E2, the question arose about what tools the various writers used in their world-building. Many sketched maps, others used extensive flow charts.

For my urban fantasy, I use many tools. At the center, I use a five-year calendar that encompasses the time-span for my series. I also have an extensive outline that includes an alphabetized list of every character that even gets a nominal mention along with any information released about that character. That list now has 12 major characters, 112 lesser characters, and 9 animals. I also just added 30+ names to be used next to make sure that I am balancing out the alphabet and keeping names randomized. Since my story involves humans living in America, the names do not get sci-fi level creative, but I do try to incorporate an ethnically diverse array. By noting family connections, I also try to include family-style naming. Some families name their kids starting with a single letter, others name kids after the parents. In my world, the McClory kids include twins Kevin and Kellan, and younger sibs Kaley and Kyle. While George and Cat Shipley have daughters Kate and Georgia. The latter breaks ranks and names her daughters alliteratively: Jillian and Lily.

The outline also includes: a historical chronology, a birthday and anniversary chronology, list of places and events that take place there, a glossary of coined words for the series, an encyclopedia of superpowers and their associated colors as some characters can see others’ powers as colored auras, and an index of chapters and events. The outline now covers 21 pages and 4K words. And. Growing.

I also use maps of real places. I have not sketched out any homes, buildings or places yet.

If you are a writer, tell me what tools you use. [Or even as a reader. I created a similar outline when I was reading the Harry Potter series to figure out what Rowling must have been doing in her world-building. That outline grew to 30+ pages and noted over 400 characters. And then I lost it. Haha.]