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About lcmorgenstern

L.C. Morgenstern writes things. This is proof Morgenstern is not secretly a cat.

The Internal Conflict Games

No person is truly static. No matter how much we try, we still change. The person you were yesterday is different from the person you are today. The person of tomorrow may become someone yesterday’s self would never approve of. That which mattered more than anything a year ago may be utterly pointless next Tuesday.

Time, however, is not our only form of movement. We care – in an abstract sort of way – about the state of the world and what is best for everyone. We care – in a far more definite way – about the state of our loved ones and what is best for us. We do these things simultaneously. We expect the heroic character to, of course, sacrifice their comforts or take a third option for the sake of “the people” – that is; for US. It could be argued that human virtue – in the form of the desire to help others – is an entirely selfish construct.

This is supposed to be a post on writing. Somehow, it has become philosophy. Perhaps, that is, because philosophy (of ethics, of politics, even of metaphysics) is the nebulous ghost of theory, which is then put to the test in the thought experiment we call fiction. After all, “right” and “wrong” sounds all well and good in theory, but the entire concept tends to crash and burn when we attempt to put it into practise.

If there was a true answer out there, we wouldn’t have spent the entire history of the human species fighting over it.

Justice, right, wrong, good, evil, duty, worth, bacon, necktie, these are all social constructs. They are not universal truths. The general agreement in society is that good people try to help as many other people as possible – that the Good Guys are there to help the masses – and the general population will always support stories of this fashion, because it encourages others to protect them in times of crisis. In other words: the common view of right and wrong is inherently biased in favour of personal gain.

Apart from not upsetting your readers, there is no reason you have to hold to this point of view in your writing. If you write a protagonist who believes that people aren’t worth saving, but who saves them anyway, you are complying with this social construct. If you do not comply with this heavily enforced and entirely arbitrary ruling on what “Right” is, your character will be labelled as a villain and you yourself may gain a similar label.

So, what do you do? Do you do what is easy or do you do what is … well, it isn’t “right” is it? It’s just what you believe is right. Do you take the path of least resistance or do you do what you believe in?

Here’s the funny thing about that: it doesn’t matter.

Oh, it’ll certainly matter to you – if you even view the above dilemma as a dilemma at all. What matters in reality is: what you can live with (most people wouldn’t call it a dilemma because they stand to gain from the status quo of what “heroic” means, while I don’t view it as a dilemma because I’m fed up with the status quo telling me to sacrifice myself for others who will never return the favour – and often view it as something I owe them, not that I’ve ever done any hero-ing, but from the philosophical standpoint).

What matters in fiction is the existence of the dilemma itself.

We call this internal conflict. The backbone of character-focused works. The bloody, beating heart of a deep and rounded character. The thing that inevitably spawns dozens of alternative character interpretations and fan arguments about who was “right” – even if the work explicitly says that no such thing as “right” exists.

Internal conflict can be very subtle. What we believe about one thing may clash with what we believe about another – and we may go on believing both until something, from outside or inside, puts them visibly at loggerheads.

It does not have to be as showy as “who do I save” (maybe quit and go have pizza, instead? They’ll both be goners by the time you’ve decided anyway) or “who do I side with?” (again, maybe just go have pizza). It does not exist when a Hero is clearly The Good Guy and the Temptation by The Bad Guy is painfully obvious and the Hero would never do that anyway because he’s on the side of Good.

Internal conflict is subtle. It is murky. It is that grey area where right and wrong are entirely arbitrary ideals which the protagonist is creating, altering, and eventually judging all on their own. If which choice is “the right thing to do” is obvious, there can be no conflict because the answer is, again, OBVIOUS.

What is right? What is wrong? Is there right? Is there wrong? What do I want to do? What do I think I should do? Is what society thinks I should do right? What the heck would society know about it anyway?

Internal conflict – or, as Martin paraphrasing Faulkner put it “the human heart in conflict with itself” – is philosophy. Specifically, it is all those bright, clear theories mercilessly taken away from their loving academics and dropped into a giant, gruesome test simulator by the world’s authors. Because academic philosophy is all nice in theory, but it really doesn’t understand or know how to cope with humanity and reality.

Or, if you want to think of it that way, internal conflict is The Hunger Games for ideologies. Which, let’s be honest, makes it pretty bloody interesting.

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Posted by on October 18, 2017 in On Writing

 

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The Zero Was Important, And Aces Are Too

When I talk about being an Asexual Aromantic, one of the questions I get asked most (right after “Do you, not aces in general but you specifically you can tell I mean it’s you specifically because I’m leering and emphasising YOU in the question with a distinctive change in pitch, masturbate?”) is “why bother to talk about it if you just want to not-do something?”

The general expectation of these people being, of course, that the only thing which makes Asexual and Aromantic life different from that of sexual and romantic persons is that you just “don’t do” certain things. While some of this stems from genuine confusion over how a lack (for very deep want of a better word) of something can be such an issue. The humorous part of me just wants to reply to that by bringing up how difficult maths with Roman numerals was in comparison to the Arabic numbering system with their impressive invention of the ZERO (a mark to represent a number that was literally nothing), or how vacuums work and changed the world. I would love to leave it at that.

But I can’t. I can’t because for every person who genuinely doesn’t get it, there’s another two who ask the same question aggressively. Not asking because they don’t understand the fuss, asking because they – on some, most likely subconscious, level – blame the Aces and Aros for coming out and making a point of their existence. Asking because they think that we’re making something out of nothing and that if we all just kept our non-interest to ourselves we wouldn’t be discriminated against, or harassed, or – y’know – raped and told to be grateful that our attackers tried to “fix” us.

But that’s not how it works. The modern, global, society is in love with love. It is hypersexualised. It is not a place in which an Ace or an Aro (not the same thing, guys!) can slide under the radar.

What radar? You know which radar. The family gathering “Have you found someone yet?” radar. The girl/guy talk “Did you think X or Z was hotter?” radar. The causal chit-chat “Oh you’re single-that’s-the-same-as-available-don’t-worry-you’ll-find-someone-oneday” radar. The “Are you sexually active? Please don’t lie I’m your doctor I need to know” radar. The “Why didn’t you think it was sad that they didn’t get together in [fiction]? Do you WANT to be a crazy cat lady?!?” radar.

And if you’re thinking “But those are all just every day normal conversations”: yeah. That’s the point. Colleagues chit chat about their family lives. Family members and friends want to know when you’ve found someone and how it’s going because they “Just want you to be happy” – a happiness which fits very snugly into their own desires but is completely inappropriate for yours and which they will force you into whether you like it or not. Friends talk about their love lives, and their sex lives, and make “friendly” jabs about you if you don’t join in.

If you’re an Ace or Aro you can get away with dodging these questions …for a little while. But these are people you see regularly. They notice if you’ve never “found the time/the right person/aren’t ready for that right now”. They can count. And they can remember. And then they get PUSHY. I know this guy/girl whod be perfect for you! Im just trying to help! Do you WANT to end up a crazy cat lady? Thats [your name], theyre a prude. Or maybe a sociopath. Or something.  But whyyyyyy. I just want to fix you! WHY WONT YOU LET ME FIX YOU!?!?” 

…On and on and on.

No one should have to spend their life dodging questions like that. No one should have to suffer from anxiety or start conversations already planning escape routes. No one should have to feel dread at a gathering because they know that That Question is coming for them, sooner or later.

We live in a society where Romantic (which is generally conflated with Sexual) love is considered the highest good, the most important relationship, and the only thing that really makes life worth living. If you admit to not being into that, you’re told you’re broken. Or a serial killer.

And if that makes you think that coming out or not is irrelevant, let me make one thing clear: there is a huge difference, for Aces and Aros, between coming out by force – having to stumble through an explanation that you’re not really into something but not having the right words, which everyone around you will treat as a negotiation or a challenge – and coming out by choice.

Being able to just say “I’m asexual” or “I’m aromantic”, or “I’m an asexual aromantic” is a HUGE deal. It’s not a stumbled, confused attempt to explain something the other person has no concept of and no reason to consider it a concept. It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s a fact. It’s not a challenge. It’s not an apology. It’s not a mistake. And it’s NOT UP FOR NEGOTIATION.

It’s the difference between having to say “Um, well, Team A has not scored yet so, um, their score is well it doesn’t exist. Not like they aren’t playing but they haven’t got any points. Not necessarily in the minuses but less than one. Is less than one a thing? Um, no, not a half. Like …neither half?” or just holding up a scorecard with a 0 on it.

 

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Posted by on August 25, 2017 in On Reality

 

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Author Status 5 – This Is Going To Take A While

So… once again I have missed most of a month (again due to back problems) and my last few posts haven’t exactly been up to the standard I used to hold myself to.

There have been so many things this year that I started but never managed to finish (I have a half-made patreon account and a microphone sitting in the cupboard waiting for me to get on with youtube), and so many other things I have to do (like my day job, which has upped the number of responsibilities I have, and this blog which I am starting to hate). I’m not getting anything done.

This hasn’t been a good year for my writing. My writing advice book is barely selling and I have c.40 copies sitting in a box – quietly mocking me for having hope. I haven’t been able to get any of my other projects to work. Sometimes I feel like my muse has died from grief. Somewhere between me and my next publication – be it a book or just a good blog post – are the spectres of my greatest fears Mdm. Mediocrity and General Failure. I can’t see them and I reach out to work and then there they are, staring at me. To get past them to my muse I have to look them in the eyes, have to believe they won’t – can’t – touch me and walk past, but I can’t. I can’t stand to look at them, because I’m afraid of what I’ll see. I’m afraid that if I look up, the monsters staring back at me will be the monster in my bathroom mirror. A reflection of truth – and truth is a monster. No one wants to have to face what they really are.

All that being said, this was meant to be an update on how my next project is going.  It’s not. It SHOULD have been a fairly simple project, as it was a re-write of a fanfic I once wrote – which was 99.99% original material and characters as it focused on the mostly glossed over part of a character’s backstory, some sixty years before the canon, and only had four canon characters in a cast of thirty+ OCs (of whom three were bit-parts or one-off names in canon and only one canon character was important in the canon). It’s being difficult. I’m not sure if that’s because I feel like I’ve already told this story or because I’m terrified that my next book will go down as unnoticed as my first. I keep telling myself that it’s stupid to be afraid it will go unnoticed, because two of my fanfics were recommended on their respective canon’s TVTropes fanfic recs pages, and I’m cannibalising (you’ll get the joke later) parts of Schaduw Wereld (the bits which aren’t canon, the other canon, or Norse Mythology – the bits I invented) to patch the holes left in Little Differences by the removal of the 0.01% canon that it contained in fanfic form.

I took down my fanfics before publishing Help! My Story Has the Mary-Sue Disease because I wanted to be as legally in the clear as possible and I didn’t want to leave any plot twists open for discovery for those who hadn’t already read Little Differences and/or Schaduw Wereld. When I took them down I contacted all their fans I could and offered to send them a copy, provided they did not put the stories up or share them around (private use only). I also said I hoped to publish the re-write (or Ascended Fanfic as TVTropes calls it) in late 2017. That isn’t going to happen. It’ll be something like mid-2018 at the earliest (and, in my defence, Differences was 200K words long).

But if you were looking forward to a rewrite, don’t despair, eventually I’ll blindfold myself long enough to get past the monsters in the mirror.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2017 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

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Fantastically Disturbing Implications

This is more musing on my part than an educational – or ranting – essay.

 

Fantasy, as a genre, has become a tree of many different sub-genres and trends – all sprouting, according to most, from Tolkien’s magnum opus. Tolkien, however, based his work heavily on myths, epics, and sagas of real world cultures. In this way, it was inevitable that the genre would have a long history and a deep fascination with heroes and royals and, eventually, knights.

The strange thing, however, is that while most of fantasy has adapted to new, modern, ideas – which has given us all sorts of modern settings – fantasy in general has not parted with the morality to which that focus on heroes, royalty and knights belongs. In this way, we have “modern” stories set in medieval worlds where the female protagonists display cliché, shallow, and period inappropriate feminist ideas, but she almost always turns out to be a princess. That, however, is just one of many, many, examples of residual classism and racism in fantasy.

But the funny thing is, it’s more often the fans than the authors whose ideas display a backwards, classist, belief – one which, I suspect, they don’t even realise they are favouring. Here’re some examples.

In the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fandom, the most popular type of theory is the Character X is secretly a House/Noble Character Z. And that’s the thing, it’s always that they have secret noble (or nobler, in terms of going from one house to another) blood.

The High Sparrow – commoner leading a commoner anti-nobility religious movement? Must secretly be Lord Howland Reed advancing his liege lord’s family’s political goals. He can’t possibly be a lower-class person taking up arms because he’s sick of the nobility butchering the lower classes while they fight over a stupid pointy chair. No way.

The King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder: a wildling raised as a soldier by his people’s enemies, returned to his people to lead them to give said enemies a massive headache? Nah, he can’t possibly really be a savage/Pict wilding. He has to secretly be a white Westerosi nobleman. It can’t just be that he is one of many characters who parallel each other – which is a grand literary tradition – because that would mean the northern savages managed to get their act together and pose a real threat without a Mighty Whitey Westerosi to carry the white Westerosi man’s burden and help them. Oh, he is an almost perfect copy-paste-from-history of King Alaric of the Goths – who was once a Roman soldier – and the German national hero Arminius (who also was raised by Romans and proceeded to kick Roman arse)? And in a setting which is basically The War of the Roses + Magic + Sex? Nah, he’s still got to secretly be Prince Rhaegar or Ser Arthur of House Dayne. Otherwise the savages wildlings might not only be competent, but have elected a competent leader where all the noble blooded characters who inherit their power just keep fucking things up.

Likewise, Heroic Bastard Jon Snow can’t possibly really be a bastard. He must secretly have been legitimate (despite the legal impossibility of his father taking a second wife) or legitimised (but preferably legitimate). It’s not like real history has bastards becoming king. It’s not like people call William the Conqueror “William the Bastard” for a reason. Or like King Arthur Pendragon was the bastard of King Ulthor’s rape-by-deception of a foreign queen. Or like Martin’s own fictional history has bastard kings like the one who founded House Justman or bastards of kings who manage to incite half the realm into trying to crown them despite being bastards with legitimate half-brothers like Daemon Blackfyre. After all, he absolutely has to become king in the end, because it’s not like his entire plot line is about how the fight for the spikey chair is irrelevant or how bastards can be just as good as other people…

I think I need to turn the sarcasm off now, before we all drown in it, but I think you get the point.

And sure, you could argue that ASOIAF/GOT is focused on the nobility and has a major character revealed as secretly royalty (or, more correctly, a royal bastard) so it’s only natural that the fans would assume that everyone who has anything important to do – any real effect on the plot – must secretly have noble blood, but it’s not just ASOIAF/GOT fans.

After romance/porn, the second most common plot in Harry Potter fanfics was that Harry/Hermione/other discovers s/he’s secretly the heir of [Ancient Powerful Wizard/Family] or his mother was secretly not muggleborn/she’s adopted and that s/he’s therefore a pureblood… This, I might remind you, was a canon story where the pureblood elitists were the bad guys.

This trend – of justifying how awesome characters are by ‘revealing’ them as having some ancestry of rank and privilege – is disturbing. It’s also prevalent in just about every fantasy fandom (except the children’s fantasy of My Little Pony, where being a Princess is something you explicitly earn by being awesome at friendship).

 

Fantasy is the genre we run to when we want to escape from our world – where luck is a major factor in whether or not you succeed – and go to a place where the world values us based on what we think it ought to value. What does it say about us, as a society, that our escapist fantasy is not about succeeding because you are talented, or worked hard, or were kind, but where you succeed if you are born of the right – elite and wealthy – bloodline?

How is it that we, as fandoms – as a society – talk of equality and inner value, but our fantasies still support the idea that if you don’t have the right blood you aren’t really worth anything?

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2017 in On Folklore, On Writing

 

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Contrast, Foreshadowing, Mood, Ice and Fire

Something that’s been driving me nuts in the A Song of Ice and Fire fandom lately is all the jokes about how George R.R. Martin includes so many food descriptions because he is fat. Somehow, fans have convinced themselves that those two things go together – because “obviously” writers who aren’t stick figures can’t possibly have self-control or the capacity to tell when one of their interests does not belong in their story. /sarcasm.

Now, most fans aren’t doing this, but an annoyingly large amount of them are and it’s them that are driving me batty. But I digress.

During the first few books of ASOIAF there has been a long summer (so there is plenty of food), and only a few wars. Towns are sacked and burned – destroying valuable crops – but famine is a man-maid phenomenon (siege-warfare) and it is only in the very north, beyond the Wall, that lack of food is already an issue. The main characters are all rich and therefore, even in a siege or famine, will be fed first – with extravagent and lavishly described meals which give the readers the feeling of decadence and how much food is available (Arya, the one wealthy character running around outside of her aristocractic background, in comparison is eating worms).

By the end of the last few books (that are currently published) only three out of nine (really ten) areas in The Seven Kingdoms have not suffered lossed crops – due to burnings and armies scavenging, and a lack of workers to collect the crops, which then rot – and of them, Dorne does not produce much food (due to it’s water shortage) and the Vale and Reach cannot support the entire surviving population of the continent – even with all the deaths from the wars. Up at the Wall, there are far to many mouths to feed and not nearly enough food for even the Watch alone to survive a winter. At this point in the story, the rich are STILL described as eating lavishly – because, again, they are rich and have hired knives to take food from the poor – while the poor are mostly starving. Meanwhile, on the eastern continent, Dany’s war on slavery has destroyed the agricultural supplies of Slavers Bay – meaning that, regardless of who wins, three cities there are dangerously close to starving.

In the two unpublished books we can predict some things: mass starvation will become enough of a problem that it will affect the rich, the combination of war in the east crushing the (slave based) economy and the series of wars – causing debt and starvation – in the west WILL result in those between the west and east (The Free Cities) being able to sell food for a massive profit but being unable to keep up with demand, and their will be more war – with more crop burnings and other starvation inducing horrors (remember: armies march on their stomaches) – before the winter even has a chance to properly arrive.

We can guess that in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring the food descriptions are going to be very different. Because there isn’t going to be food anymore. Not even for the aristocrats who make up the main cast.

It’s not technically foreshadowing, but by lavishly describing food while it is available – and describing the lavish meals the rich enjoy while the poor starve, and while the rich fail to understand what starvation really means – Martin has prepped the readers’ mood. He’s prepared us to expect food to be there, to be plentiful (for the main cast), and to sound attractive. That’s going to be one hell of a sucker-punch for the readers when the true depth of winter and famine set in and the rest of the cast have to join Arya with her worms and Bran with his, ehm, “long pork”.

There is no better way to describe the lack of something – and make the readers feel it – than to first contrast it by describing that something in abundance.

I don’t live in his mind, so I can’t tell you for sure, but I’m pretty sure Martin is writing about food so much because he is writing about a world which is about to undergo a terrible winter and an even more terrible mass famine, not because his weight somehow makes him incapable of controlling what he puts into his work.

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2017 in On Writing

 

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Blog Hiatus Apology

I just realised that it’s probably ben about a month since I posted anything. I am so sorry about that. I’ve been running around like decapitated poultry trying to get ready for Armageddon this year. I – and another indie writer – will have a small stall at Armageddon Wellington (June 3-5, I think). I’m also still trying to get a youtube channel, zazzle store, and possibly a patreon started, trying to write my next book, and trying not to drown in my day job (it’s the end/start of a financial year, so I’m busy – that being said, I’m living proof that Yes Writers CAN Do Math and I really hate the “But I’m a writer, so I can’t do math and no one should point out the timeline flaws in my work” excuse some people use – but that’s beside the point).

The point is both that I’m sorry I suddenly went quiet, if there’s anyone who was disappointed by that, and also that I’m probably not going to be posting as often anymore, because I just don’t have enough time.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2017 in Administrative

 

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Naming Villains

If you didn’t grow up reading the Harry Potter books, you probably find the name (Lord) Voldemort to be less ominous and more laughable. It kind of is. It’s also the brain-child of a deranged teenager with ego issues, but that’s an in-universe explanation and this post is about how authors best choose names for their characters which induce dread, rather than why characters give themselves names which are dreadful.

A well chosen villain name can be the difference between the reader shivering every time they are mentioned and a reader coming up with cutesy pet names (like Voldie, Moldyshorts, and many others) …which generally means they aren’t taking your villain all that seriously. Personally, I was always more invested in what would happen when the prose – or characters – of Rowling’s books described the Big Bad as Riddle or Tom, because if nothing else his berserk button would be triggered and shit would get real. (The fact that he was a more effective villain – in carrying out plans – when he was still a somewhat saner child/teen also helped with that, but the point stands.)

 

So, what do you have to consider if you want to save your villain from being laughed out of the room the moment they introduce themselves? Well, that can be genre dependent. I might do a part two later about realistic genre villains (you know, people who should have normal human names for their culture), but for now this is geared to the various forms of Speculative Fiction, because that’s where most of this nonsense happens. But within that sphere, the best way to save your villain from being a laughingstock is to answer five simple questions.

 

1) What Does It Mean?

Between Lovecraft’s penchant for the unpronounceable and Tolkien’s fondness for invented language and names, there has been a long trend in speculative fiction genres of simply smashing a bunch of random letters or sounds together and calling it a suitably intimidating villain name. After all, if Cthulhu and Sauron sound terrifying, surely the heroic Eldric’s same-species nemesis Xecodontalzivrek is too, right?

What most rip-offs of Tolkien don’t realise is that his names actually had meanings. They weren’t made up mishmashes. Tolkien created complete languages for his world and every name had a meaning. So names like Sauron (“the Abhorred”, real name: Mairon “the admirable”) and Morgoth (“dark dread” or “black enemy”, real name Melkor “mighty one”) make sense. They have meaning in that world and they fit alongside names like Feänor (“spirit of fire”), Manwë (“Blessed One”), and Curumo (“Cunning”, also called Saruman). Those names sound like they belong together because linguistically they do. And readers will notice if the big bad has a name that not only sounds like it doesn’t belong in that culture but also doesn’t belong in that universe. That being said: most authors aren’t writing complete languages and do not have the time or energy to develop root words and variants and grammar rules. Nor do most readers count such things in when they are emotionally affected by a story. Which means that even though Tolkien’s characters’ names made sense, there was nothing truly dread inducing about them. Likewise, “Voldemort” is made of root words which, together, roughly mean “Flight of/from death” but the name itself sounds like nonsense.

Then there’s Lovecraft. There’s nothing wrong with making an unpronounceable mess of a name if the creature who plays the big bad is a Lovecraftian eldritch abomination – something which would not be obliged to have a comprehensible name because it is not comprehensible to humans. But there is a VERY big difference between naming an eldritch abomination Cthulhu and naming a human or similar species character Cthulhu. If the name supposedly came from a being whose species uses a language humans or human-like species can understand, the names have to follow from that: have to be sounds those species not only could but would make. And, again, no one is scared of Cthulhu for being named Cthulhu. If we didn’t have pop-culture to warn us that he’s an eldritch abomination, we would not be automatically disturbed by the name (bemused and curious if the author suffered a coughing fit while typing, but not disturbed).

And here’s the funny thing, the name doesn’t have to mean anything inherently scary itself. It just has to mean something. Take two classic villain/monster names, which is scarier? Voldemort? Or It? It is scarier, not only because your reader isn’t distracted trying to pronounce it. A creature or person merely known as “It” is disturbing because it implicitly tells the reader that no one is quite sure what It is and humans don’t like things that they can’t define.

If you want a name to be ominous it needs to be an omen of something. Think about it, if you had to choose on name alone and could only flee one, would you flee the one called Asenath or the one called Soulcatcher?

 

2) How Did They Get That Name?

“From this day forth, I shall be known as LORD VOLDEMORT!” 

“…Tom, you’re drunk, go home.

The failure of the above to happen is quite possibly the least realistic thing in the entire Potterverse.

Unless you’re dealing with a second-generation evil, the big bad’s parents probably did not hold their newborn babe in their arms and think “aww, so cute, this one’s going to grow up to be a genocidal maniac, we need a name that says that”. Sure, you might have a world where everyone has a meaningful name, but in that case you can’t use an overtly evil name – else your back at the “why the heck did their parents call them that?!?” problem. It would have to be something which could, and would, also have less ominous meanings and could be equally likely to be found on a hero, else it wouldn’t be a name in that culture. (Note: some cultures have commonly used names with unpleasant meanings, but in those cases the names are chosen to confuse and ward off evil spirits and the names are as every day and usual as Anne and John are in the Anglosphere, meaning that they don’t actually count as ominous or even unusual.) People name dogs Ripper and ships Dreadnought, but they don’t name their children that.

So when it comes to birth names, the long and the short of it is: villains should still have names you could believably find on regular people.

Now, for the fun bit: epithets, pseudonyms, sobriquets, and nicknames. This is the fun stuff. It’s also the stuff where a lot of people go painfully overboard *cough*Lord-Voldemort-He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-You-Know-Who*cough*.

Epithets can accompany or replace a name, but have entered into common usage – like a nickname which has become as common, if not more common, than the real name – which a Sobriquet has all but replaced the original name, and a Pseudonym is a disguise. But all of these beg the question: how did they get that name? Generally, if they just started calling themselves something wild other people aren’t going to start doing that and even if they can bully their minions into doing it, they aren’t going to be a very competent player if they spend all their energy trying to make people call them something specific.

If you want your villains to sound intimidating epithets and sobriquets which occurred naturally are probably the best way to go – that means that other people started calling them that and it took off. Like how the monster in IT is just called It. Why? Because no one knows what It is. Likewise, someone called The Impaler probably didn’t start out calling themselves that. They just impaled a lot of people and people came to associate that with them.

Now, you can get away with just using a sobriquet for a villainous character – provided you aren’t giving their detailed backstory or telling an origin story. It also helps to have a social norm relating to this. In real history kings often got epithets so that they could be recognised because the same family names were often used. In fantasy an excellent example of both sobriquet use and social norms is Glen Cook’s Black Company series. In that world true names have power, so wizards adopt pseudonyms which they come to be known by, while most members of the Black Company itself are given a nickname when they join and never after bother with their real names. That being said, the top tier bad guys in that series tend to have names which are more sobriquet than pseudonym – The Limper probably did not call himself that, but he was the one who limps (and Cook thus managed to associate his name with terror when members of the company hear the sound of someone walking with a limp). Likewise Soulcatcher and The Lady have real names and may – although we are never told if it is so – have started out with different pseudonyms, but they came to be known by those sobriquets because The Lady was the evil overlord’s wife (his Lady, the only Lady who needed no introduction) and Soulcatcher …catches souls. By the time the reader meets them these names are long established, but they probably came from frightened enemies trying to identify which of the major villains they were talking about. “Which of the Ten Who Were Taken?” “The limper”, fast forward a few years and that’s “The Limper” as a name.

 

3) Why So Complicated?

The most common pratfall in naming villains is that authors tend to pile epithets and sobriquets, etc, on top of each other (Voldy again) instead of picking one really good one. What they don’t realise is that epithets and sobriquets are there to make people distinctive, not impressive. If you’re one of many King Peters and you happen to be very short, well guess what you’re going down in history as?

And if you’re thinking, “Well wait a second, if those terms are used to identify that one thing about a person which is most recognisable how is that scary?” You might want to reconsider what about your villain is so uniquely terrifying. Because that’s the point. Vlad the Impaler did a lot of other things in his life, but he’s remembered for impaling people. Lots of people. Soulcatcher is a cunning, manipulative, out of control, utterly mad, super-powerful, nigh-unkillable sorceress. What is Soulcatcher known for? Catching souls. Which becomes creepier when you realise that all the different voices Soulcatcher talks with are those captured souls (and some of them are children). The Joker is a killer and a lunatic, but he’s known for the form in which his kills come (jokes, as he views them). Slapping a dozen or so extra names onto a character (Fanged Deathstar The Magnificient Dark Lord of The Land Of Evil) takes away from the punch and the terror. They aren’t known for one specific stand out screamer, they have a whole list and so are less impressive. Why? Because if no one thing haunts people’s memories, which leads to the epithet or sorbriquet, then none of those things could have left much of an impression. None of them were scary enough to become what they were known for. Less, in this case, is very much more.

 

4) Why Is It ALWAYS Dark Lord?

Speaking of superfluous terms. Dark Lord (or Dark One, etc) is not just overused, it’s meaningless. Dark Lord – and, for that matter, The/Other/s – worked when Tolkien used it. The only person who is Tolkien was Tolkien. Yes, humans naturally fear the night – and the dark – because we are diurnal. We also are naturally terrified of spiders and disease, but we don’t automatically name our villains Web Lord or The Rot. Using Dark Lord is inherently problematic for a lot of reasons beyond how cliché the Dark Vs Light motif is. For one thing, Lord is a title belonging to a hierarchical system based in feudalism. Is Dark a place? Does this lord have administrative duties? If you’re dealing with a setting where such hierarchical systems are not part of the society (whether they are mere remnants or never existed) or where they are part of the society and in fact are very important, your villain can’t just go around calling themselves lord of something – in one case it is a meaningless addition that doesn’t even impress people around them (and wouldn’t mean enough to them for them to add it) and in the other it has a strictly defined meaning which their more decorative use would make into a point of ridicule (“he’s not a real lord”).

So what about Dark? Well what do you mean by Dark anyway? Please tell me it’s not their skin colour. Is there some metaphysical divide between good and evil that happens to have chosen to define itself by how much light things emit? If there is some knowable inherent difference between good and evil in your world, you’d better have an explanation for how any sane person would choose evil – and don’t just say “they’re mad”. Real mad people are more often victims of cruelty than themselves cruel and the insanity defence is “not guilty on grounds of insanity” specifically because being mad in that sense means being unable to understand what you are doing and why it is wrong.

…Dark Lord. Cliché term for “Wannabe noble who can’t afford a candle”.

 

5) What Else Can It Mean?

The thing about words is that sometimes they not only mean what you think they mean, they also mean something else. Something you really didn’t mean, but which people will notice. For example, there is only one reason fans of Tolkien remember the orc Shagrat.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in On Writing

 

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