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Descriptive Specificity

I’m pretty sure I didn’t properly cover this last time. Also, I’m going to be taking a hiatus – yes, even though I was late getting this out – until the start of October, for medical reasons. Sorry?

 

One of the biggest problems I see in a lot of writing is the meaninglessness of the descriptions given. Now, there are plenty of common descriptions which are evocative – or at least meaningful – and conjure an image on their own; everyone, for instance, will be able to picture roughly the same thing when the prose tells them that “Lord Doomdoom laughed maniacally and pulled the lever”. But what about “Princess Prettypink smiled. She had a charming smile”? Different people find different things charming. Saying that a smile is charming, but nothing else, doesn’t actually tell the reader anything (except that the author wants them to root for this character). A wide grin, with all teeth showing, can be charming – but so can a bashful little lift of a corner of the mouth, while biting the bottom lip. Which did Prettypink do? Or perhaps her smile was neither of those. There’s no way to tell, and no way to clearly conjure an image.

Meaningless, vague and cliché, descriptions do not describe the people, places, and things in a specific story. They – at best – conjure up a generic and hazy form. The charming smile on Princess Prettypink is not Prettypink’s smile. It is the same, generic smile that every badly written heroine wears at some point or another. There is nothing of her in it and, thus, nothing of it connects to her.

When you’re telling the readers about the people in your story (i.e. prose) you want them to imagine the people in your story. Not generic people. Now, obviously, I’m not saying you should never use descriptions like these – if every action was described in depth then every short story would be longer than A Song of Ice and Fire (and if you described a thing the same, unique, way every time the thing is mentioned; the reader will eventually tear their own hair out in frustration). The point is that it’s not good to only use generic descriptions. Real people all do similar things very differently. Ask yourself, for example, how your character smiles, not what is considered to be a charming smile.

Specificity, when correctly used, tells the readers far more about who a character is – and grounds the character in a realistic-feeling world – far more than generic or vague descriptions do. For example, there is technically nothing wrong with “Martha put a hand beneath her chin”, but it also doesn’t really describe anything. Palm down will indicate a different mood than palm up, and different again from the thinker-esque position of the chin on the fist and the palm inward – and that’s not even getting into the different ways finger position can be indicative.

If “Martha put her hand beneath her chin, which tilted her head sideways slightly as she listened,” it tells the reader that she’s got her hand slightly to the side – which is a more comfortable position, and the image it evokes (the tilted head and hand beneath the chin) is one of someone getting comfortable to listen to something they’re only half interested in.

But, if “Martha put her hand beneath her chin and tapped her fingernails against her lower lip”, the readers know that she’s thinking about something – perhaps dramatically to make a point – and that she has no intention of remaining in that position for long, because it’s uncomfortable.

Either way; the reader gets a far clearer picture of Martha than the generic description gives. Here’s another example – which version tells you more about the character?

Peony Prettypink lay in the grass, her long auburn hair around her like a fall of autumn leaves; sometimes brushing against her cheek, and her chest rose and fell gently as she slept.

Peony Prettypink lay haphazardly in the grass. Sunlight glinted off her nibbled toenails whenever she flexed her feet – as though she was walking in her dreams. Her nose twitched when the wind dragged strands of her tangled auburn hair across her face.

The first might be the prettier picture, but it’s a description which could apply to any redhead asleep in some grass. It’s not Prettypink specifically who is sleeping there. The second one is clearly a distinct person.

But it goes beyond just how you describe something. Choosing meaningful descriptions can also be about movements themselves. Why, for instance, automatically have someone settling in to listen put their chin in their hand? Why not say “Martha dropped an elbow to the table and made a loose fist behind her ear as she listened”? Then it becomes Martha, not a vague generic, who is sitting there listening. It grounds the character in the reality of their specific behaviour.

There is so much variety in even the tiniest of human behaviours. It’s a shame that so many authors prefer to stick with generic descriptions that they don’t have to think about to come up with.

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Posted by on September 8, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Has Its Own Worth

Welcome to Fantasy IS Fantastic, part three. Better known as what happens when you yammer on too long about what you want to say, instead of saying it, or why part two should never be allowed to take steroids.

Okay, so last time I talked about how and why fantasy is disparaged by fans of other genres and society in general – and I failed to get around to what I actually intended to talk about. To avoid a similar mishap this time, I shall get straight on to the two issues which need to be discussed. To save you having to go back and check what I said last time, I will quote myself: “This disparagement of fantasy comes from two basic errors. The first is the fallacy that because fantasy can include things which could not be in reality that anything goes – and therefore that it is the “easy” genre. The second is a fundamental failure to understand what fantasy actually is.”
Huh. Pretentious much? Well, I never claimed to be perfect. In fact, in hindsight I now realise that I should have listed those two fallacies in the order they would have to be discussed rather than the order which sounded best. Oh well.

 What is fantasy? There is a common misconception that fantasy is about dragons and medievalism and magic, although not all fantasy has those aspects and not all stories with those aspects are fantasy. Likewise, science fiction is not merely space tits and death rays fiction, nor is horror merely jump scares and vampires. This is how they are commonly viewed, due to a typical error of assuming the thing is the same as what is often used to wrap it, but it is highly inaccurate. At its core, each genre pulls at a different emotional or psychological (or even physical) aspect of the reader. In most non-speculative genres it is very easy to see this:

  • The core of Erotica is arousal.
  • The core of Romance is attraction.
  • The core of Comedy is humour.
  • The core of Mystery is puzzlement (and the solving of puzzles).
  • The core of Adventure is curiosity.
  • The core of Action is aggression.
  • The core of Historical Fiction is nostalgia.
  • The core of Tragedy is grief.
  • The core of Drama is grief (this is because drama and tragedy were – to the Ancient Athenians responsible for their invention – the same thing; there was no differentiation in genre between the possibility of terrible things happening and their actually having happened).

These make sense. After all, to use the most straight forward example, no one reads Erotica for puzzlement (save, perhaps, baffled teenage Asexuals trying to understand why everyone their age has suddenly gone insane).

However, if you try to apply this to Speculative Fiction while only looking at the trappings of it, is simply doesn’t work.

  • The core of Science Fiction is NOT spaceships.
  • The core of Fantasy is NOT wizards.
  • The core of Horror is NOT things going bump in the night.

So what is?

We often talk about Hard and Soft, or Technical and Social, Science Fiction – an idea started by Isaac Asimov in his 1953 article “Social Science Fiction” (in Modern Science Fiction) when he suggested that all Science Fiction plots fell into one of three categories: Gadget (“Look, I’ve invented a car: this is how it works”), Adventure (“Oh no, the bad guys stole my newly invented car, we must rescue it!”), and Social (“Some idiot invented cars, now we’re all stuck in traffic”). But those are distinctions within the genre, not the core of the genre itself. Nevertheless, it does illustrate quite well what the core of Sci-Fic actually is. Every plot type, you see, hinges on scientific knowledge being extrapolated into something new.

The core of Science Fiction is comprehension. It is knowledge – both current (science fiction being based on current scientific fact) and future (what possible advances in knowledge can be theorised from current scientific fact)

  • The core of Science Fiction is THE KNOWABLE.
  • The core of Horror is, of course, THE FRIGHTENING.
  • The core of Fantasy is THE UNKNOWABLE.

And that is why I spent so much time, last time, talking about how the arrogance of humans – in their belief that they will one day understand everything in the universe – results in distain for fantasy.

Now, this might sound totally crazy, given how strongly how strongly fantasy is tied to magic, but answer me this: what is magic? Not; what kind of magic are you playing with? What is magic? Magic is a term for things that exist but which science cannot explain. Not “hasn’t explained yet”: cannot explain. Science is a system of making sense of the universe which doesn’t work on magic. And this is precisely the point. Magic is the most common term for this, but it doesn’t have to be “magic” to be the incomprehensible-unknowable that is present in all fantasy (because it is, in fact, the core of fantasy). Magic is, also, easily confused with the knowable – even though it is not actually comprehensible. This is because people often conflate coping with something (learning to do spells, for example) with the ability to understand something (there is not a single work of fantasy out there which can explain why magic can break the laws of physics which otherwise govern the universe it is in – and no work which did give and explanation could truly be fantasy). A way of coping and the ability to recognise a specific phenomenon is NOT the same as being able to understand it.

To illustrate: In Science Fiction the characters come across, or create, a phenomenon and proceed to understand it. In Horror the characters come across a phenomenon and proceed to be scared shitless by it. In Fantasy the characters come across a phenomenon and fail to understand it, forcing them to accept and cope with its status as incomprehensible. Now, this does not need to be overt – both because the presence of the unknowable, or incomprehensible, will inevitably subtly touch upon itself in the background of coping with it, and because the incomprehensible lends itself to themes such as good versus evil (the paradox of right and wrong) and the question of death.

Fantasy is a liminal genre. But the threshold upon which it stands is that between what can be comprehended and what cannot. Sci-Fi, on the other hand, stands on the threshold of what is currently understood and what is going to be understood. This is why all Sci-Fi stories which end with the “some things man’s not meant to know” cliché fall flat. The audience is not reading or watching Sci-Fi to experience coping with the unknowable. They are reading or watching Sci-Fi to cope with what is known and the process of coming to know more. Fantasy is the genre readers and viewers go to when they want to cope with, or experience others coping with, that which cannot be explained or comprehended. Horror is about being scared by either the known or the unknown.

Or, to put it in simpler – yet far more laden – terms: Science Fiction is about the expansion of the Self, whereas Fantasy is about coping with the Archetypal Other. WAIT! Don’t panic. I’m not going to start quoting Sartre at you. Instead I will direct your attention to the fact that, after variations on “Dark Lord”, variations on “the Other/s” is one of the most common and recognisable terms for big bads in fantasy.

The importance of Fantasy as a means for coping with the incomprehensible and unknowable cannot be understated. The Archetypal Other can be incomprehensibly huge – when the Other is not our universe or other than life (cosmic horrors, existential dread as related to the question of death, etc) – and it can be painfully close to home; not only in Us vs Them and the Othering of those we reject socially, but also in that we can never truly understand another person. Other people, other races, other species, phenomena which follow other rules than the norm of the universe, other states of being or not being; these are all things which ultimately we can never truly comprehend – which frightens us – and which, at the same time, we dread because our nagging doubts make us wonder if we could become like that or might already be that way. Ultimately, we fear the Archetypal Other because we fear that we may become something which we are incapable of understanding. And that’s why Fantasy is so important. Because without Fantasy as a coping method, all we have is fear – Horror.

This key difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, between knowledge and the impossibility of knowledge, is best expressed by considering the third major genre in the umbrella of Speculative Fiction and why, perhaps subconsciously, it has been placed with the other two. This is because fear is a reaction to both the known and the unknown and thus Horror cannot exist without one of the other two. Thus Horror, roughly speaking, comes in two forms: that dealing with real or soon-to-be real dangers and fears, like serial killers wielding Jigsaws and Aliens, and that dealing with incomprehensible or inexplicable dangers and fears, such as the House of Leaves, Stephen King’s IT, and most things written by H.P. Lovecraft. Or, in other words, the two main forms of Horror are that which falls under the genre of realistic extrapolation (Sci-Fi) and that which falls under the genre of trying to cope with the incomprehensible (Fantasy). Fantasy is looking at Eldritch things humans cannot comprehend (like magic: laws of physics which do not follow physics and appear to be utterly lawless) and finding it within oneself to see beauty as well as Cosmic Horror.

“We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp.” – Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

But this, precisely, is what Fantasy allows us to do. We no longer view magical creatures as a terrifyingly incomprehensible reality, as our ancestors did, but we still find the archetypal Other frightening and difficult to perceive as something which is not terrifying. This is also, perhaps, why Fantasy lends itself so strongly to the notion of Good Vs Evil. This notion allows for both the fear of the Other and the acceptance that some things cannot be understood to be expressed. And that’s a hell of a lot for one genre to (inherently) have to handle. There is no easy way to handle Fantasy because the core of the genre is our deepest unease.

But this is, once again, getting a bit long and I don’t want to rush my last point. So I’ll see, or not see depending on how you liked this, you next time in the (hopefully) final part four: Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Is Bloody Difficult to Pull Off.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Doesn’t Deserve Scorn

Last, um, week? …We’ll go with week. Last week I talked about why it is completely inappropriate and fallacious to use the language of facts when talking about interpretations of a work (the only facts about a work are what the work literally says and what the author says about it, and thus those are the only things which should be discussed in the language of fact). I went on to describe how it is completely unacceptable that so many people try to hold their position of pissing on the genre of Fantasy by insisting that A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones “isn’t” a fantasy (that’s factual/objective language used inappropriately, it’s also wrong). I believe that I sufficiently covered why that is such utter bullshit last time.

This time I want to talk about what makes fantasy fantasy and why that makes fantasy a genre worthy of praise, rather than the scorn currently directed at it. At the moment, all speculative fiction (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror, and all subsets and combinations thereof) are looked down upon by the more “Realistic” genres of “proper literature. However, as time – and computer science – has gone on, Sci-Fi has started to make its way out of the pit the literary genres have shoved speculative fiction into – but it’s doing it by climbing over fantasy, accepting the push fantasy gave it, and then refusing to return the favour; choosing, instead, to kick fantasy back into the pit and spit on it for being naïve enough to hope that basic human (genre?) decency was a thing. There is a general feeling at the moment (as shown by all those who refuse to admit that A Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy, because it is high quality writing, amongst other things) that fantasy is an easy, simplistic genre which is incapable of being quality literature.  Dear people who believe this: while I am impressed by your flexibility, I must point out that your cranium does not belong inside your rectum and that it would be exceedingly preferable if you were to extract it forthwith, as I suspect the grey matter held therein is slowly being replaced by brown matter.

Although I have argued in the past that using deities as a metaphor for writers (creating entire universes on purpose) is not a case of human arrogance, I must emphasise that humans – at the moment – do hold one particularly arrogant notion which is directly related to their inclination to dismiss fantasy as lesser and try to deny quality fantasy’s status as fantasy. I am talking, of course, about how humanity – having been on a high of scientific progress for the last few decades or century – is, generally, convinced that there is nothing human progress will not eventually make sense of. There is a feeling that humans are unconquerable – save by their own folly – and will eventually, through scientific progress, know everything. That the human mind is capable, given sufficient time, of understanding everything about the universe. Now, I could go on at length about why it is absurd to think the human mind is actually capable of that level of comprehension, but I know that I don’t have any of the degrees in hard sciences which would make those people, who believe in humanity’s supposedly infinite capacity for understand, listen to me. So instead allow me to present you with a quote from someone who does have that scientific background – and, although the quote was originally in reference to the debate between the Big Bang and religious explanations, it really does sum up my point.

The universe is not obligated to make sense to you [humans] – Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Now, he followed that up by saying that human senses are not the measure of truth in the universe; experiments are. However, no matter how advanced or clever humans get – there will simply be some things which we cannot experiment with and therefore, some things which will forever be beyond human comprehension. But the point I’m making isn’t about whether or not humans will eventually manage to understand a little more or a lot more of the universe, the point – as so eruditely stated by DeGrasse Tyson – is that the universe isn’t obliged to make sense to humanity, just because humanity thinks it’s clever. At the moment, humanity is inclined to think that the universe should exist in such a form that makes the most sense to human reasoning, instead of being – you know – reasonable by the standards of universes. This is the same arrogance-induced fallacy as that found in all religions that presume humanity is the most important thing in the universe and that everything else is there to serve and please them.

And that arrogance is at the heart of why humanity is currently opening its arms to the idea that Sci-Fi can be more than green skinned space babes and death rays, but still insistently refuses to acknowledge that fantasy is not merely dragons, princesses, and pretty pink talking ponies. There’s also a rather doubly-insulting attitude that Sci-Fi is “for boys” because it’s about science, while fantasy – viewed as inferior, naïve, silly, and easier because “you can do whatever you want” – is “for girls” because “obviously” girls can’t handle science.  (If you need proof of how inherent that sexist assumption is: go look at the advertising and packaging for children’s toys; science based toys are typically blue and aimed at boys, whereas magic associated toys are pink and aimed at girls. It’s extremely offensive. At the very least, in the interest of fairness, the manufacturers should introduce green-based marketing for both genders or yellow-based marketing for those children who do not fit, physically or psychologically, into the oppressive gender-binary society forces upon people. It would be a step toward admitting that people’s interests are not defined by their genitals.)

But I digress. One of the most notable ways in which Science Fiction and Fantasy are treated with an unfair bias toward science fiction is in how they are defined when works of their genre which are viewed as “good”, “serious”, or “quality literature” are discussed. Science fiction will be called science fiction, with the open admission that the genre is capable of quality works. But when the same discussions happen in regard to fantasy, everyone is quick to put another name to it – either in the form that has been plaguing ASOIAF (“oh, it’s really drama/historical fiction/sci-fi” etc) or in the form of slapping a new genre label on it. The moment the idea that fantasy might be a serious genre with its own worth is brought up, new genre labels are brought out in order to snub it: Magical Realism, Paranormal Detective, Paranormal Romance – and you know you’re being snubbed when Twilight thinks it’s too good for your genre!

This disparagement of fantasy comes from two basic errors. The first is the fallacy that because fantasy can include things which could not be in reality that anything goes – and therefore that it is the “easy” genre. The second is a fundamental failure to understand what fantasy actually is.

 

But this is getting significantly longer than I had intended and I will require at least this many words again to discuss the true nature of fantasy and why anything does not, in fact, go therein, so for now I will leave you with these quotes (on Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories) from the blogger whose rants inspired my own blog: Limyaael of Limyaael’s Fantasy Rants.

Tolkien emphasises that through the use of fantasy, which he equates with imagination, the author can bring the reader to experience a world which is consistent and rational, under rules other than those of the normal world. He calls this “a rare achievement of Art,” and notes that it was important to him as a reader: “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”

Fantasy can say things about the Primary World (as Tolkien calls it) without preaching; that can be safely left up to pamphlets and fables. It can make beautiful things and present them as ends in themselves without having to use them for the sake of a tired story. And it can, as Tolkien says, “gratify primordial human desires” without lapsing into the shallow satisfaction of someone’s personal longing to be the center of a world.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Artists and Gods

The go to metaphor for explaining the position of a writer to their work is that they are that work’s god (or goddess, or – arguably – pantheon if it’s a co-written project). To someone who is not an artist by nature, this can seem arrogant. This, typically, is due to a critical lack of understanding on the part of the non-artistic person. Writers aren’t merely “telling stories”. Writers create entire universes. And sure, those universes aren’t real, but gods (probably) aren’t real either and it’s actually impossible to prove or disprove whether the universes artists create actually do exists in reality – given that there is no proof that what we call reality is actually real. For all we know the worlds we write do come into existence and we, oblivious, truly are as gods to them in reality. For all we know something that is as a god to us is, oblivious, writing us into reality.

But even without getting philosophical and triggering existential crisis in people, the metaphor remains a metaphor rather than some form of “proof” of human arrogance. Why? Well, here’s the thing; there are only three things in human comprehension which can create universes: artists (writers, directors/producers, computer game designers, etc), the Big Bang, and gods. Of the three, one is what we are trying to find a metaphor for (artists) and one is mindless – thus incapable of the deliberate creation we are trying to compare to – and that leaves only one option (gods).

So why am I gabbing about gods and artists at all, if I don’t think the metaphor is somehow arrogant? Well, because while the metaphor itself is basically the only available metaphor for writers (and associated artists) you could argue that there is some arrogance in the fact that artists almost never flip it.

You see, the standard argument against putting actual gods – or for having them mentioned as real but not really letting them do anything other than send prophetic visions and choose the one hero whose destined to save the world – in fantasy is that gods are “too powerful and would solve the plot too quickly”. …But would they? Really? Sure if you automatically think of gods as omnipresent, omnipotent, pure good beings who nevertheless somehow let evil get created and won’t lift a finger to save their precious mortals from it because it’s a learning experience or unfair or some such. But that’s just true if you assume all gods in fiction must conform, on some level, to the model set forth by the Abrahamic religions. That’s absurd. If you’re in a position where you can choose to nullify the existence of gravity you sure as hell can branch out beyond the traditional forms of deity found in fiction (Greco-Roman-esque pantheons and good-nature-goddess versus evil-technology-god being the second and third choices of most writers, respectively).

The thing about a good metaphor is that it can work both ways. If a writer can be a god, then a god can be a writer – and that opens up, for those who would otherwise have gone for stock options – a whole slew of options for made up divinities beyond Abrahamic!god with the serial numbers filed off, severely confused and oversimplified “pagan” god and goddess, and cardboard cut outs of stock gods from Greece and Rome without acknowledgement of how distinct the two were.

Think about it this way: writers care about their chosen protagonists, but put them through absolute hell for the entertainment value and only reach in to lend a hand when the chosen one is really, really stuck (because deus ex machina ruins the fun of it) and yet are definitely on the hero’s side because they guarantee a win for them in the end (usually). That sounds pretty much exactly like what the non-interference-with-minor-inexplicable-exceptions gods of most fantasy do, only it makes sense because the motive isn’t goodness or righteousness it’s entertainment. Now, of course, if everyone automatically used that model instead it wouldn’t be much use either, but it seems that writers have a far easier time of imagining writers as being varied in nature and personality – of imagining them each with their own quirks and interests – than they do gods. This is probably because even the most reclusive writer has the benefit of learning about all the bizarre truths of famous writers who came before them.

If you start off by saying that your elves worship an omnipresent, omniscient being who happens to like poetry, chances are that the poetry aspect is going to fall by wayside as the worship slides into the clichés of every other Abrahamic religion cut and paste out there. But if you start off saying that your elves worship a Homer-inspired deity who happens to be all knowing and all powerful you are more likely to get something truly unique. (“Gracious poet who watches over us all, listen to my prayer and heed my call, I need advice at this time, preferably in a very brief rhyme!”)

This trick, for getting a non-generic starting point for your deity, works for deities in the plural as well. If you want to avoid the typical Top God/Zeus-lite, Love Goddess/Aphrodite-but-sluttier, Moon Goddes/Artemis-without-anything-that-made-her-awesome, God of Evil/Satan-got-lost-on-the-way-to-Albuquerque, etc, imagining various authors into the pantheon and then working out how they relate to each other and what they represent can be a good method. If you have a writer friend (who can take a joke!) who typically micro-plans everything for their story and then fights with their characters when they try to run off and do something else, you could translate that into a Top God who Has A Plan, Damn It, and gets exceedingly frustrated by the lower ranks constantly not going along with it. If you yourself are the sort of writer who can’t plan worth a damn and adds and removes features at a whim, you can mitigate how bad that is for your story by putting into play a creator god in the story who is constantly making life difficult for their creations by adding and removing things (like, say, gravity) at random points because they aren’t sure they like the look of it. Or perhaps you might base a Top God on William Shakespeare – in which case there might be serious religious schism in the world over whether The Shaking Spear of The World actually created it, or if there was a faceless creator god before him and the Shaking Spear merely took over after the creation was done and breathed life into it.

That being said, in both of these cases there is a caveat: do not simply copy-paste a real person into your work as a god! Not you, not a friend, not a famous person. Use them as a starting point (Lord Byron was famously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” which could be a fascinating basis for a God of Love, but not if he’s Bireon the Club-Footed, whose daughter is the goddess of Mathematics and whose wife/favourite lover considers him to be the Mad God, and the god’s history is basically Byron’s life done paint-by-numbers).

 

When there exists something beyond artists and gods that creates entire universes intentionally, then, and only then, will it be arrogant to use divinity as a metaphor for artists. But just as writers can be gods – shaking off the restraints of reality to completely design universes of their own where even the laws of physics are not a requirement – so gods, in fiction, could do with being a bit more like writers. I’d much rather read about a divine war between the God of Politics (inspired by Plato) and the God of Wit (inspired by Oscar Wilde) and mediated by the Goddess of Fear (based on Edgar Allen Poe) than yet another God/ess of Good versus God of Evil fiasco.

Artists, creators, do not fear the omniscient, omnipotent nature you have taken upon yourselves when you began to create – shake off the norms of the (possibly not even real) reality you live in and get creative.

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Methods of Character Building

I apologise for how long it has taken for me to get this one written and up. I’ve been – and for about a month will continue to be – extremely busy with other things (such as editing the writing/characterisation advice book which I hope to publish soon).

 

This is not about fleshing out a character or building them up along the way as you write. Those are things you do when you already have created a character and need to make them more than they currently are. This is not that. This is also not about making yourself a better person.

This is about finding starting points for when you have a cool idea for something other than a character and don’t know where to start in creating a character for it. It is about different types of starting point. This is for when you, say, have a cool idea for a world where extrasensory advertising is a thing, but can’t turn it into a story because you can’t tell a story with no characters and you don’t know where to start because you have no ideas for them. For the natural storyteller, this can be a common occurrence – although whether the inspired idea which cannot tell a story on its own is an item or a gimmick (or image, or character, or map, etc) varies. Sometimes the best thing to do is to put the idea away – in a file, mental or physical – and come back to it a later point (such as when you’ve had a great idea for a character but no idea what to put around them). Sometimes it’s just a bad idea and the lack of auto-expanding inspiration stemming from it will indicate that. But sometimes it is worth going over the idea to figure out if you can create a character from it and, if so, then you can potentially write a very good story. The following are methods, as divided by starting point, of building a basic character (which will later need to be properly fleshed out) for those occasions when you’ve essentially painted a mental picture in detail and bright colours, but lack of inspiration left you with a vague character-shaped silhouette where you need a person (or, at least, a proper profile).

 

Character from Image: If you have a visually-attuned imagination, you may find yourself in the position of having the image of a cool character – like a drawing or a snapshot – but no idea how to turn that into a story because you have no context (you know what they look like, but not who they are, or when or what the heck is going on). Now, if you are a painter or other type of visual artist, this isn’t a problem, but primarily visual imaginations are not limited to those who work in visual mediums. Many natural storytellers who have primarily visual imaginations and no ability to translate what they see in their minds eye into physical images (i.e. can’t draw for shit) will write extremely evocative descriptions into their work or go into film (especially directing) and theatre (where scripts must have some visual elements).

But I digress. Trying to create a basis for a character – and thus story, setting, and plot – is essentially the art of analysing the implications of everything your mind’s eye shows you and extrapolating upon it.  Some images are easy to analysis and extrapolate on – if you see someone locked in battle you can quickly start making suppositions on who they are fighting and why, and if you’re imagining someone say, with distinctly elfin features you can quickly narrow down the situation to some form of fantasy. In other situations there are no obvious tells and the author may have a great deal more difficulty figuring out who this “person” their mind is showing them is. In both cases, however, the key to creating a character from an image is to analyse all the data the image gives you first and then to extrapolate from it. You want, after all, to create a coherent character, rather than a character that has traits (left over from the original image) which do not fit the rest of their stated nature and their setting. This method of character building is pretty straightforward. First you analyse your mental image and write down everything you can see (facts only – that someone’s stance gives them the appearance of being prideful is a fact, whereas that they are prideful is a supposition from that fact, likewise you can say from an image that someone is wearing well-to-do clothing, but not that they are well-to-do). This list should contain everything from what they’re wearing, to what environment they’re in, as well as what their physical position is like, what expression they have, and what they look like. Next go over each item on the list and check out when, where, and why that would exist (clothes belong to specific eras and places or are inspired by them and would have to come from similar cultures in similar eras, different patterns of calluses on hands mean different things and subtle dents on either side of the bridge of the nose indicate that the nose’s owner habitually wears glasses, etc). Use this list to narrow down what sort of era and location, as well as lifestyle, the person could conceivably have – that is: what fits all of the data and the constraints the facts of that data (could only have lived in a time after glasses were invented, clearly does a great deal of work with their hands, etc) reveal. Now there should be a strong frame of what is possible, and from there the writer can extrapolate – deciding which of the options made available by the data’s constraints is the one which suits the character they are building, and so on. Eventually this leads to questions like “Why” – as in “why does this imaginary person have callused hands if they are wearing well-to-do clothing and have obviously expensive glasses?”. Perhaps they are rich and have a hobby which involves a lot of hands on work, or perhaps they are poor and have stolen the outfit in order to pull off a con. At this point it becomes a question of what answers please the author – one is likely to speak to them more than the others –and from there they merely need to keep analysing and extrapolating based on the new information and restraints that are brought with each answered question.

Character from Item: This is what you get when you have a really cool idea for a thing (say, for instance, a longsword that allows the user to fly or a phone which allows the user to time travel) only to discover afterward that, without a character or plot, that cool thing alone does not a story make. From this starting point (a cool thing) you can start to build a character by asking a simple series of questions, they are as follows. Who would make something like that? (Someone capable of making it.) Who would want something like that? (Someone whose motives it would suit to use above other similar items.) Are they the same person? If not, which is more inspiring to write about? Now, these might seem like impossible questions to answer, but they aren’t about who the person is as a whole, but rather what their motivation was. In other words: the potential uses of the object and what would be required to make it must be analysed and from there you can begin to figure out what sort of person would make it, want it, or both.

Let’s take the flying sword as an example. Who would want to have or make a flying sword? Someone who wants to use a sword and be able to fly, possibly at the same time, and doesn’t want to carry around two separate items – this means they must be in need of as much mobility as possible (doesn’t want to carry extras), expects to do close-range battle (what use is a sword, even if it can make you fly, against: arrows, bullets, and bombs?), and who expects to need to get off the ground during combat. So we’re probably looking at someone who lives in a pre-gun world, who travels a lot, and who is expecting to fight something which is much taller than they are (such as a three storey high monster). From this we can reasonably say that we’re looking at some form of knight errant in a world with lots of monsters (possibly dragons, given the whole flying aspect) to slay. If we also decide that they are the same person who made the sword that allows the wielder to fly, we can also argue that they are (given comparisons to how similar historical societies worked) probably a younger son of some gentry or minor lord who has the education to create enchantments on a weapon (an unusually learned man, thus, as many historical lords and noblemen would not have bothered to learn about the sciences and studies of monks, here replaced by apparently workable magic). Now, this is by no means a complete character and much still remains to be worked out, but from the example and analysis it would be a reasonable basis to say that the world is one with magic that can be studied scientifically, and thus is not uncommon, and that the character is a well-educated – and probably with an interest in the practical applications of intellectual pursuits – knight errant from an upper class background or lower nobility who is out to travel the world and slay dragons in aerial hand to claw combat. It’s not a complete or well fleshed out character by any means, but it is a workable starting point.

Character from Location: I differentiate this from setting for one key reason; setting is not by definition a location description as it can also include things like worlds with strange physics as their gimmick. Such worlds will be discussed later. Character from location is the best method for creating basic characters (to later be fleshed out) when you are starting from either a world map you’ve invented or you have, say, a beautiful city or an awesome jungle with a hidden temple in your imagination. Now, depending on the type of location (structure/settlement in use, structure/settlement abandoned, natural location unsettled, etc) you have to start with different questions. When you are starting from a structure or settlement which is in use you have to start by asking yourself why someone would want to live, or work, there – as well as who is in charge there. Now different places will get different answers (if the location is a creepy curio shop with an apartment over it: the answer is probably that they own a curio shop and therefore they are in charge, if the location is a beautiful seaside city: the answers are likely lots of fishermen and someone dedicated to the upkeep of their city, etc). But the key is to answer each question, often with multiple options, and then follow that on to its own question (and in the case of options to choose the one that is most inspiring: that gives you the most next-step questions – in the fishing city example that’s more likely the ruler than the fishermen).

In the curio shop example we can actually build out fairly easily: a shop of curiosities is not going to be found in a town or village; so it is owned by a city-dweller and in an era and location of enough prosperity to support such a business. What’s more: curio is a word from the 1850s, and while there is no reason to believe it couldn’t be found earlier in an alternate world, it is reasonable to assume that curiosities would not have been an overly profitable business before that era’s technological level made middle classes with spare money and longer distance travel common, into normal things. Now being a curio shop owner suggests a middling social class, with some literacy and a curious – likely intellectual – mind given the fact that the shop sells (and thus probably buys and evaluates) curiosities. It is possible that the owner has inherited the shop, but if they were not inclined to curiosities or minded the creepy atmosphere it is likely that they would have switched products or sold the location to pursue a different career at the first opportunity. Further, we can reasonably presume that the owner of the shop is either unable to travel themselves due to financial or medical reasons or simply prefers to learn about the strange things in the world from the comfort of home. The curio shop may be creepy due to the content or due to the upkeep of the actual building and that will determine whether the character has a very macabre set of curiosities or if they merely are not diligent in (or, less likely, unconcerned by) the maintenance of their store. That’s a lot of potential explanations for a character, so for the end of this example I’ll pick those traits I’m most interested by, and conclude from the starting point of “creepy curio shop” that the character is an intellectual, middle class shop owner in a prosperous and post-industrial revolution city, who has macabre interests and is prevented from caring for their storefront and travelling by poor health. That’s not a fully fledged character, but it’s pretty good for building off a three word starting point.

Comparatively, when you’re dealing with an abandoned or unsettled location, you have to ask yourself why someone would go there (and in the case of abandonment: why was it abandoned). Someone who lives somewhere may simply have been born there and never moved away – it takes far more effort and motivation for someone to choose to go travelling (implied in this form of location to character building) than to simply stay where they are. Motivation is a key player here: someone who goes to an abandoned temple in a jungle because they got lost probably isn’t going to be sticking around out of curiosity – but they also must have been trying to get somewhere else – and someone who is out adventuring or exploring (curiosity, excitement, funding from somewhere) is going to be a very different person than the one who comes to that place because they are looking for somewhere to settle (and different again from someone returning to a location they had abandoned!). To give brief examples: the person who got lost and found the temple city may have been travelling through the jungle after being forced off course from some other adventure (this could be anything) and may be on a time limit, whereas the explorer might be an archaeologist or a merchant trying to find a better trade route. Likewise, the settler may well be the leader of an exiled group who pushed into deep jungle territory after recently losing a war, and the person returning to the place they abandoned might have realised that in their rush to leave they forgot something important or be seeking closure. Now, after the slightly divergent first questions (why would someone want to live there versus why would someone want to travel/explore/return there) the process is essentially the same, and I won’t bore you by building out more characters when you’ve already seen it done a paragraph ago. But the main difference to keep in mind is that if you are building a character from a location they are already at it is the location which is the shaping force upon the character, whereas if you are building a character from a location they are travelling through it is the motivation of the character to travel which is the deciding force.  Character from location they’re already in is straightforward, but character from location they’re travelling to is much more a case of character from plot …which leads us to…

Character from Plot: Right off the bat, different genres and plot lines call for different kinds of characters. A detective has to have an inquiring mind or they just aren’t going to bother trying to solve the mystery, let alone actually solve it. Erotica just isn’t going to feature an asexual main character having loads of sex (unless it is purely sexualist discrimination in the form of corrective rape fantasies which objectify and misrepresent an entire orientation). An action hero needs to be a physically inclined sort of person, else they’d be a guile hero and in a very different sort of story. For a story to hinge on a big misunderstanding, one person has to be really bad at talking about anything and the other has to be mildly paranoid, stubborn, and inclined to jump to conclusions – with two straightforward or practical people, it just wouldn’t work.

When people have a great idea for a plot or incident within the plot and have no ideas for characters to run that plot, the most common mistake in attempting to build those characters from that starting point is to ask what sort of person would do that. Yes, I know, it seems counter-intuitive to say that’s not a good plan, but it’s not a good plan. Trying to define a person by asking what sort of person would be in a sort of plot is just setting yourself up for an endless stream of tautologies and clichés. What sort of person would go on an adventure? An adventurous one.  What sort of person would be the hero on the quest to save the world? The reluctant hero. Who are the protagonists in the grand romance? People seeking romance. What kind of person would try to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse? Someone who wants to live. These descriptions ultimately tell you nothing of use.

What you actually need to ask yourself is what each action (each moment in the plot) actually is. What word describes the action of going to investigate a mysterious happening? Inquisitive. Active. Curious. Probably not satisfied with whatever answer everyone else has accepted. What does going on a quest to save the world mean? It means a genuine belief that the world is in danger, degree of self-confidence that they alone can fix the problem – arguably arrogance, active inclination. Party goer at a grand gala meets a beautiful stranger and asks them out? Impulsive. Arguably, they’re more interested in external beauty than internal beauty – lust driven, not love. Also: wealth and possible enjoyment of the festivities. The thing here is that you have to ask yourself to describe the specifics in the plot – rather than just genre – and work from there. From every point in the plot – even if it’s just a vague idea of a plot with some genre attached – you should be able to pull one or two, minimum, adverbs (descriptions of what that action is: cautious, reckless, etc) and from there apply those to the beginnings of a person. These then can be interconnected so that they all make sense together and expanded upon until a basic character has been built.

Character from Setting: Given that I’ve already done location separately, this one might seem a little strange, but it is a distinct starting point. Setting is not merely a location, but also how that particular universe works. One could arguably call this character from gimmick instead, but that has a negative connotation. The best way to find character from setting is to start by asking yourself what the normal of that universe is and then extrapolating on that to figure out what ways a person could differ from the norm. A person who is slightly out of the ordinary is often a good primary character – although, writer beware: most of the first conclusions of who would be out of the ordinary are nothing more than clichés (such as the princess who doesn’t want to wear dresses, the reluctant hero, and the person from a society with some norm we would find alien or repulsive who just so happen to be exactly like us, despite how unlikely that would be). However, you do not have to choose to build a character who does not match their society’s norms if you do not wish to – just so long as you actually have the normal by their standards character behave normally by their standards and are willing to portray them as an ordinary person.

To give you an example or two: let’s say we have a world with two distinct differences from our own – the first is that air and water are essentially bound by the same rules, so all fish fly, and the second is that everyone, upon reaching sexual maturity, is magically bound by a red string of fate which connects them to their soulmate (offensive premise much?). If we accept these as the norm in that world we have to ask what the results of such things would be. Drowning wouldn’t be a thing, obviously, so it’s likely that lifeguards wouldn’t exist. Likewise, fishing might well involve standing on top of hills and shooting arrows with nets attached into the open sky. Arranged marriages probably never became a thing, politically speaking, and the obsessive search for love and romance which suffocates the modern world probably doesn’t exist either. Meanwhile, you have to ask if this red string affects people who aren’t romantically or sexually inclined (given that it comes upon reaching the age when you can start procreating) and how people who are string-free are treated by society. And just like that we have moved from asking what normal in that world is to asking what abnormal in that world is, because defining the one automatically means you have to start defining the other. In such a world, if you wanted a normal person as your character, you could ask what milestones and niches would appear (that is, extrapolate off the first question: what is normal). You might find that given all fish can fly, that sharks can also fly and that your normal protagonist is a shark-falconer: a person whose profession it is to shoot sharks out of the sky before they can swim in and swoop down on populated areas. You might write about the everyday struggle of a young person who just got their red string and was deeply perturbed to find they must go on a long journey to find the other end – or that they know and dislike the person they’re tied to. Meanwhile, if you wanted abnormal people, you might find yourself writing about a fisherman who has started using aeroboats to do his fishing, in defiance of all traditional methods, or explore the ramifications of being asexual in a world where everyone is expected to find their true love the moment they become adults. This means, ultimately, that you start defining the character by comparing them to what normal is.

 

…I think that’s everything? Comment if you think I should have mentioned another method or starting point to begin building characters from, or if you’d like me to extrapolate on something I’ve said – I’d love to hear from you.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in On Writing

 

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What is Quality?

I suppose I need to apologise again for disappearing for so long. I seem to be doing little else but that on this blog of late. But now that the helping with someone moving house situation is over, I ought to have a bit more time for this. This post is more of a thought-piece than an opinion-piece.

 

Most people who want to be writers seek to be either successful (in finance and fame) writers or writers known for making quality writing. The word literature used to hold a connotation of being high-quality writing, as opposed to all other “lesser” writing, but now it just is pretty much synonymous with fiction and is applied to anything moderately successful. According to dictionaries, quality is many things, but the definition of it which is applicable to writing is “character with respect to fineness or excellence” – and that’s character as in “the aggregate features and traits that form the individual nature of a person or thing”, not as in “fictional person the author puts through hell for the readers’ amusement”. But the thing is: that’s a completely useless definition.

So what actually makes quality writing? Well, obviously not success because (this is the go to example, given the sheer amount of criticism it has received) Twilight and also the majority of the miszpellld fanfiction ob deh internetz!!!1! which get frighteningly large amounts of positive reviews in comparison to the well-crafted and properly spelled, in character fanfics. It’s also not a question, despite what many “serious” writers of tedious real-world-setting dramas may think, of genre because – while I am going on hearsay rather than personal experience here because I’ve never been inclined to read those genres (I haven’t read Twilight either, despite how often I take jabs at it) – there are plenty of quality romance and erotic works out there. They might not have the most philosophical of content, but if seriously questioning ethics, the universe and everything is the key to defining quality then no one’s written anything but trash since Kierkegaard. (Show of hands: who managed to not fall asleep while reading Kierkegaard? Has anyone here actually read Kierkegaard? Did you think, the first time you heard it, that Captain Kirk was guarding something?)

It could be argued that having deep characters or a lot of world building is what’s required for a work to be quality, but many of the great names in Science Fiction basically had cardboard tour-guide characters to show off their cool science ideas for chapter after chapter of math and baffling terminology, while world building is just as unfair a point in definition as genre as world building is the foundation of Speculative Fiction but mostly unnecessary in, say, real world drama or crime novels. Even grammar and spelling being used accurately is not a brilliant gage of quality, although the better the grammar and spelling the more likely a work is to be good quality, because grammar and spelling change over time (you may have been taught in school that starting a sentence with “And” is wrong, but many of the major quality authors out there who have begins with “And” sentences in their works – like George R. R. Martin, who is held up almost universally as an example of quality writing, the way Twilight is almost universally regarded as being very poorly written). Grammar and spelling is certainly a factor, but it isn’t the complete definition.

Often quality is associated with clever language use and choosing the best word, but not every work needs to be packed with juxtaposed antithesis and anaphora (ten points if you know which famous piece of literature opens with that particular pair of techniques) and other extravagantly named techniques or gratuitous amounts of exceedingly sophisticated terminology and units of language in order to facilitate that dubious and non-corporeal status of fineness and excellence. In fact, trying too hard to be clever with language and choosy with word use can, like in that last sentence, actually damage the quality and readers’ ability to comprehend what the hell the writer is trying to say. Likewise, it would be tempting to say that quality is about not using clichés, but what counts as cliché changes with time – in an almost cyclic fashion, akin to how water droplets become part of the giant masses called oceans, then rise to become clouds, rain down on everyone to make them miserable and the plants very happy, and then steadily grows in strength as it goes from stream to river and eventually back into the oceans. But, more importantly, clichés become so ubiquitous because when they are used well they don’t come across as trite (unless you’re stubbornly determined to find something wrong with everything or are suffering from some form of Mary-Sue Paranoia because the idea that female characters can be just as vivid, special, and powerful as the typical main male character without being “badly written” or “unrealistic” because the idea that women are people and capable of being competent scares you – in which case I’d like to suggest you try the perfectly cliché cliff to the left of the stage for you to go clichély jump off). To use my go-to example of good writing: A Song of Ice and Fire contains many things which could be considered cliché – the mad boy king who is a sadist, the heroic bastard, the purple-eyed princess with the pet magical beasts, and the ten million prophecies – but Martin makes them work. The mad boy king is from a far more violent society than we are and so less likely to view what he does as wrong or repulsive, while also essentially being a stupid teenage boy on a power-high, the heroic bastard has to live with the actual social ramifications and restrictions of being a bastard in that sort of society and is by no means viewed as a hero by everyone, the princess avoids being a Mary-Sue (despite having many of the traits often associated with them) because they are played out in ways that makes sense (the eyes are a racial trait, the pet magical beasts are far more beast than pet, being a princess only gets her assassination attempts, etc) and the ten million prophecies are both suitably confusing and free from any guarantees of accuracy or genuine fortune-telling.

I could burble for hours about how excellent his choice of words is (although I, who has repeatedly read entire dictionaries for fun, do keep a dictionary tab open on my computer when I read ASOIAF for when I run into the occasion rare or no longer used word like niello). I could talk about how he’s genuinely built a complete world and all the literary techniques I spotted while reading. I could talk about how deep and well developed his characters are and how he manages to give the readers all the pertinent information without breaking from the third person limited. But while all of those things are factors in what makes a work quality, I think Martin’s magnum opus is a good example of what makes something quality for a very different reason.

The story is king. Not the characters, no matter how much the author might like one better than another. Not the whims of the readers (trying to please readers is an almost universal guarantee that the quality of a work will fall), not the rules grammar and spelling, not what is or isn’t cliché, not the conventions of the genre, not any meaning or message carried within the work, not clever literary and rhetoric techniques, not even what the author might prefer to happen. The STORY is king.

Obviously, correctly used grammar and spelling, well chosen words and techniques, deep characters, significant world building, realism, the ability to dig the bones of a concept out of a dead cliché and make them work again, are all important factors in what makes Martin’s writing such an excellent example of, well, literary excellence, but it is the fact that the story is treated as the most important factor – that which everything else is part of and bends to, rather than which is part of or bent to some other factor – that makes quality.

Quality can never be defined clearly by one factor or another, because it is about how everything works together for the story. Quality is about how everything makes logical sense based on the rules of reality as presented in that story, about how everything that is (not just that happens) has consequences and causes, about how everything remains consistent to itself and coheres with the rest of the reality the story creates. Quality is about choosing to have, or not have, rhetoric techniques and this word or that based on how it works for the story rather than how fancy, plain, accurate, or cliché it may or may not be. Quality is about knowing your grammar and spelling so well that you can know how and when to deviate from it if the story so requires. Quality is about exploring or not exploring the depths of a character based on what the story needs.

At least, that’s my best guess. Quality is one of those annoyingly non-corporeal things which cannot be measured easily and just about everyone has a different opinion on what makes a work quality. What do you think?

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in On Writing

 

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The Neat-Complex Axis

So despite having called this blog Inspector Faerie I seem to be doing very little actual inspecting of faerie and folklore. Yet again I find myself too bored of or too tired to write another bestiary type post – to either continue on by examining more traditional vampires (Strigoi, Mullo, etc) or to keep the bestiary posts going with other folkloric creatures (Nuckelavee, Djinn, etc) until I can find the energy to get back to finishing the traditional vampire series – even though that is what I intended to do. Does anyone actually care whether or not I keep going with that? Either way; have another decidedly not folklore-focused post:

The Neat-Complex Axis

I had a conversation a while back wherein I tried to articulate this and – much to my frustration – the person I was conversing with assumed I was talking about quality and could not be made to understand that this was not about quality, not about depth, and not about genre. It’s about form. So maybe I should get around to actually saying what it is I’m talking about…

In my experience people tend to define stories as falling into certain categories which are made by two conditions: they are separated as binaries (it is one or it the other) and whichever categorical divide is made it is always the only category division used (a book is either judged as Deep Vs Shallow OR Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, but never both). Furthermore, while genre is divided into more than two categories, books are typically divided as Humorous Vs Serious if such a division is made outside of genre description (which it should be, given that a humorous sci-fi would require very different framework than a serious one and even horror can split into humorous and serious). I found, as I struggled to articulate what it was that made me like one book but not another, that these binary categories (Deep Vs Shallow, Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, Humorous Vs Serious) were both insufficient to describe the difference I was trying to express and, worse, many carried baggage (Deep Vs Shallow is often wrongly equated with quality – a book doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful to be good quality writing) which made it impossible to use them to express what I was trying to say and which made it hopeless to attempt to repurpose them. Consequently, I had to come up with new terms to describe what I was trying to say.

Now, I assume that people who academically study fiction have already got terms for this – but I’m “just” a writer: that makes me a layman when it comes to writing, as far as academia is concerned and as I tend to talk to other writers rather than those who’ve made an academic study of writing I needed terms for laymen. (If anyone reading this does professionally – whether as a teacher in schools or an academic making a study – make a living off telling people that authors of other works meant/was inspired by/was using as a metaphor [X] in their work when the author themselves has explicitly stated that their works meant/were inspired by/was using as a metaphor [Y] kindly quit lying to your students/readers by insisting that you as the academic or teacher know better what the author meant than the fucking author! Also, if the author hasn’t stated what something meant/etc, don’t put words in their mouth by saying “the author meant” or “this represents” say “the author meant [y] but it also works as a representation of [X]” or “to me it represents” or “it is generally thought to…” Tolkien, for instance, stated emphatically that The Lord of the Rings was not about World War 1 – or 2 – but people still teach in schools that it was! Dear people who claim that “The death of the author” excuses claiming that the author meant something they never said they meant: you are not fucking telepaths; you don’t know what the author meant and you sure as hell don’t know what they meant better than they did – stop talking in fucking absolutes and telling authors they don’t know what their own work represents!) But I digress. Mostly because it pisses me off that some people in this world make a living off claiming to know better than the author of a work what the author meant or intended, but I still digress.

All genres – no matter how tightly they cling to reality – are essentially not reality. Drama set in as real as possible reality still ultimately create something which is not real and must do a tiny, tiny, bit of worldbuilding – even if it merely a town or a house on a street and the people who live in it. The choices the author makes build how that barely-alternate Earth works. Meanwhile, all the Speculative Fiction genres take worldbuilding to the other extreme and sometimes create entire galaxies and new laws of physics. No matter what genre, though, they all bound by several axis of form: Humorous Vs Serious, Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, Deep Vs Shallow, and – as I’ve come to call it – Neat Vs Complex. It occurs to me, as I write this, that I ought to explain precisely what I mean with the earlier terms (and why I call them separate axes) before I move on to explaining that concept which I had no words for until I came up with Neat Vs Complex.

Tone; Humorous VS Serious: I must repeat, at this point, that this is about form rather than genre. Every genre (except comedy and parody, of course) can be divided into those which take a humorous tone to the proceedings and those which take everything very seriously (which is not to say that either is of lesser quality or that to be humorous a work must be a comedy). This is a matter of how a story treats itself – does the work take itself seriously with everything being treated with a grim solemn attitude or is it able to laugh gently at what happens with in, giving the work a light and gentle touch even when it portrays tragedy? This, I must emphasise, is not the same as Deep Vs Shallow – both Humorous and Serious can be Deep or Shallow. A Deep and Humorous work is called a Satire, while a Shallow and Humorous work is Slapstick; a Deep and Serious work is filled with layers of meaning and musing which are held within a frame of gravitas because the story is treated with the same solemn weight as reality, while a Shallow and Serious work takes itself very sombrely – treating the events inside with the same weight as reality – but is a gentle adventure which does not drag one many layers into the world and does not focus on heavy topics. All four of these, of course, can be written well or written poorly. Humorous Vs Serious is, essentially, a question of whether or not the story (prose, if not characters) is able to admit that the stakes are not that high because ultimately nothing is serious as all is fiction (faintly amused even at its most grim moments), or if the story takes itself very seriously and treats everything with gravitas (unwilling to laugh even at its absurdities).

Quality; Good Writing Vs Bad Writing: Every genre, yes even porn, can be written well or written poorly. This axis is a technical one and has nothing to do with the tone, or meaning, or encapsulation of a story. This is the axis of Twilight VS Literacy. This is the axis of “is the plot full of holes?”, “what the fuck is that comma doing there‽”, “those characters are pure cardboard”, “nice word but not the right word”, “this prose needs tightening up”, and “that doesn’t make any sense, damn you, Mary-Sue”. Quality of writing cannot be judged on genre, on depth, on tone, or on encapsulation – it is purely a matter of the technical skill of writing. This axis is, therefore, entirely unrelated to the others. I mention it only because otherwise people misunderstand and assume that because they believe things must be deep and serious to be worthwhile that Deep Vs Shallow is about quality – which it is not.

Layering; Deep Vs Shallow: Imagine a pond. It’s in your backyard and it’s just big enough for a few little fish to live and for you to occasionally dip your feet in (no higher than your ankles else you hit the bottom and get mud between your toes) and cool down comfortably. This is Shallow writing – the world and characters created are not flat (like a slick of raindrops on stairs) but only gently immersive: you cannot dive into this world, nor can you be pulled out to sea and drowned. It is more than just a surface – it is not like the flat slipperiness of droplets on tiles and 2D writing – but there are not many levels of meanings. Characters on this level are 3D enough but the reader is not required to delve into their psyche – the reader can follow along next to, rather than in, the believable character without having to immerse themselves in the character’s thought patterns. The world is gently formed; it is not a cardboard cut-out but it is also not filled with a rich history and unending locations and cultures. The Shallow story is not one to forget the world in but it is safe and comfortable and good for relaxing. The midpoint of this axis is not a pond: it is a swimming pool. You can swim up and down, dive in and dunk your head completely under the surface of the story, but at all times you can see the edges and it does not take more than a slight kick to break the surface again and return yourself to reality. There is more history, but not an entire history, and characters can be followed within but gently so. It is big enough to play in, but ultimately it is still mostly safe. The other end of the axis is the ocean. This is Deep writing – the world is layers upon layers of histories and meanings. The reader is immersed in the character’s psyches. Although it is a wonderful and seemingly unending thought-world to explore it is also easy, very terrifyingly easy, to be sucked under, or to lose sight of shore completely, and drown in the world because it is all too much. This axis, I cannot repeat enough, is not about quality – it is about layers of world and about how immersed the reader wishes to be. A light read while in the airport or waiting for a meeting is a gently refreshing thing – a story which you can just dip your feet in, because it is Shallow. But if you want to completely lose yourself while you read and be immersed in a richly layered world you want a Deep (and typically fucking heavy) read, which may well leave you questioning your existence months later. Neither kind of work is less than the other: they both have their time and place.

 

So if that’s what I mean by Humorous VS Serious (tone), Good VS Bad (quality) and Deep Vs Shallow (layering), what – you may wonder – the heck was I struggling to explain when I came up with Neat Vs Complex? Well, I’d found that more than tone, layering or genre (but not quality, quality is the deciding factor in the “do I read this?” question) it was how, for lack of a better term, the story was or was not encapsulated that made it enjoyable for me.

Encapsulation; Neat Vs Complex: Imagine two little model villages. On model is standing loose on the table, but the other is encased in a snow globe. Apart from turning it upside-down to make the “snow” drift from point A to point B (like reading a book from start to finish) there is nothing I – or anything else outside – can do to affect that little village. Nothing comes in and nothing goes out because it is an encapsulated world all of its own: everything it needs and everything that has any effect is within the constraints of that little globe. It is, in a word, Neat. Nothing from outside can come in and make it messy or complicated. All the relevant characters are within the constraints of the globe, the nearby area of the world, all of the major plot events can be reached without leaving the village and everything – essentially – which is relevant or important to the plot is already secure within that globe. There are no random occurrences from outside; a cat could run through the other model village and knock things over, but inside the snow globe no cats can mess things up. There are no loose plot threads in such a Neat work – if there’s a prophecy you can be assured that it will refer to characters you already know and who all happen to live within the same country, or city, and who are conveniently both alive at the same time and aware of each other. Prophecies also make sense. Heroes fighting for the safety of their spaceship never need to worry about how the politics of something happening to their trading partners on the other side of the galaxy will affect them because if it was important those trading partners would be within the “village” of the hero. The romantic heroine seeking her true love never needs to go that far to find him or fails and the other potential love interest is conveniently shuffled to the side somehow (and there is no “he still has custody of the kids” or other such problems standing in the way of the plot). The murderer who the detective must track down is always someone in the area and on their suspects list. The villain is always defeated by the one who it most suits the audience’s sense of justice to do so. Good and Evil are politely separated into two teams and proceed to duke it out. It’s Neat. Some people like Neat – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Neat’s not the only way to write a story. The opposite, which I elected to avoid calling “messy” for fear of giving it a negative bent, is Complex. The opposite of Complex I have called Neat because (like “messy”) it would have come across negatively if I called it “uncomplicated”.

Complex fiction is what happens when Setting, rather than Plot, is king of the story. Neat stories may be Deep with layers and mention many historical facts of their world, but these facts ultimately are either only mentioned because they are the key to wherever plot point C is hidden or in order to give the reader a feeling that there is more to the world than the plot alone. Complex stories, on the other hand, don’t need to give the reader a feeling that there is more to the world than the plot because the plot-train with the characters will be happily chugging through the countryside when BAM it gets derailed by a passing herd of history.

…Okay, that might not have been the best metaphor. Consider it this way: in a Neat story the hero with the need to avenge a relative will be the one who kills the Dark Overperson, which is awfully convenient given that no matter how many people the Overperson must have pissed off it is the one we readers are following who takes up action and gets the satisfaction of just revenge. That is, as mentioned, awfully convenient – this convenience is what makes it Neat – but the audience gets to feel along with the hero and see him do exactly what they’ve been hoping he will do. In a Complex story, on the other hand, the hero with the need to avenge a relative may find that someone else the Dark Overperson’s pissed off – who the hero has possibly never heard of before this point – has already done the Overperson in, which removes the “isn’t that convenient for the plot” issue because it is more realistic (reality is messy and complicated) but also robs the audience of the chance to see the dramatic Hero VS Overperson fight they (and the hero) had been anticipating. Done badly the first is trite and cliché while the second is deus ex machina. But done well both are perfectly valid stories. It’s just that different people like different levels of complexity. It comes down to the question of whether one likes the satisfaction of a realistic plot or a tidy plot.

Okay, so let’s look at some examples (as if this post wasn’t long enough already). I’m only going to look at Good Quality Writing for this to make it extra clear that I am not saying any of these differing forms are lesser than the others, because they’re not. So, ta-da! Examples:

Humorous, Deep and Complex: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is unmistakeably humorous in tone, is made up of layer after layer of (not always relevant) worldbuilding and the cast is constantly being side-swiped by unexpected problems and solutions from all through the deep layers of worldbuilding which happen to have nothing else to do with the main characters’ plots than that they (sometimes literally) crashed into each other, making the setting very complex. It also sometimes has not so subtle philosophical and political points buried in there (“they have to vote for a [corrupt] lizard or the wrong lizard might win”, anyone?) but that’s a different definition of deep than is used here.

Humorous, Shallow and Complex: Monty Python’s Flying Circus is also without a doubt a humorous work, and although it sometimes gets a touch political (again not the definition of deep herein used) it ultimately does not build layer upon layer of character’s psyches, of history, or of cultural worldbuilding. Meanwhile the surreal work is based on the principle of making it impossible to know what is coming next and each little sketch’s plot has no guarantee that it will be solved by the tidy inclusion of what has come before and not, say, interrupted by a general who insists that it must end because it is silly, or a cartoon foot, or the audience, or just wander off into another skit. It’s complex.

Humorous, Deep and Neat: The Discworld Series is unabashedly pun-filled and humour to its core – even the more serious later books – and is filled with layer upon layer of history, geography, cultures and character’s psyches (admittedly, the history is somewhat skewed on account of history having been broken in the past and the history monks having to patch it up, but in general…). The world, although Deep, is also a Neat world – despite how astonishingly bizarre it can seem because it turns many clichés on their heads. The Discworld runs on an element called Narrativium; meaning that plotting itself is a force of nature in that world and that the world will reshape itself to the plot at times over the plot being reshaped by the world. Although the Discworld can seem like an utterly mad place, the heroes who solve the problems are usually the same heroes who found out about the problems and, when not going to the moon or switching places with a kangaroo in what is definitely not Australia, the heroes typically do not get involved with things too far away …unless, of course, the majority of the plot takes place there. It’s a Neat world – Vimes solves the problems the Patrician tricked him into getting involved with, Granny Weatherwax uses the same tricks subtly shown earlier to defeat the most recent threat to Lancre, and calling an orang-utan a “monkey” results in pain; just as warned.

Humorous, Shallow and Neat: The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the best and longest amusing comedic plays in the modern English language. It is all about the wit and for all that the characters take things very seriously, the work itself does not and thus it is humorous. Although time has added extra layers to the work, as happens to all works set in what their authors viewed as the “now”, the play has very little in the way of depths – the characters are fairly straightforward (with uncomplicated inner thoughts), the culture is precisely as it was in reality with no layers added and no histories created, so the reader or playgoer does not have to do more than dunk their feet in a pond which reflects their reality. The play is also extremely Neat: the mysterious parentage of Earnest (who is not called Earnest) is revealed by Prism who (conveniently) works for him (rather than say, having left the country after misplacing him as an infant, which most people would have!) and (conveniently) he is revealed to be the brother of Earnest (who is also not called Earnest) who is his closest friend (how convenient) and (conveniently) makes him a suitable match for the woman he wants to marry. It wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t so convenient.

Serious, Deep and Complex: A Song of Ice and Fire is a work which takes itself seriously. There is nothing amusing about the fact that humanity is too busy being corrupt and at war for petty things while a potentially world-ending force goes near unchecked. The set up could have been played for laughs, but instead it focuses on the tragedy and the gravity of the situation. The world is unquestionably Deep: the history of the entire world is mapped out and has affects on the plot, characterisation and cultures. The map is not merely filled in at a few key points, but a complete world geography which interacts. The cultures are shown through stories, sayings, and a whole variety of behaviours – and each culture is fleshed out, with its own take on the history of the world. This world (Planatos?) is also unquestionably Complex: there is no deus ex machina to rescue the hero from being murdered, those who seem to be set up to have the big dramatic duel to the death so that the more heroic can vanquish the worse while the audience cheers for them never happens, characters long, cunning plans are thrown out the window (pardon the phrase) when their legendary fighter dies of circumstances brought about by a minor injury, and minor characters turn up all the time having been forgotten by or having never met the heroes (term used loosely) to pursue their own goals with no regard for the viewpoint characters’. Oh, yeah, and prophecies are obscure little buggers which sometimes outright fail to happen and the meaning of which no one can agree on. It’s entirely possible, give the sort of world it is, that the guy who thought he was the saviour and then thought his son was and then died IS going to turn out to be the saviour and the world will be even more screwed because he’s dead. It’s messy and it’s realistic – complex to the core.

Serious, Shallow and Complex: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes may seem to be the odd one out here, but as I have said before this is about form not genre. Doyle’s writings, presented as Watsons (and Holmes’, on occasion) do take themselves as seriously as any real criminal investigation would. The world, however, is a Shallow one – like with Wilde’s play, the setting is a mirror to reality in which the reader may comfortably soak their feet rather than risking diving in and being washed away as Martin’s readers are. The characterisation is deep enough, but still counts under Shallow because the people presented are not so different or deeply investigated that the reader risks losing themselves in the characters. The works are unmistakeably Complex, as Doyle wrote before Agatha Christie set the standard for mysteries as “logic puzzles for the reader to solve set in literary form” and so Holmes – unlike just about every detective after him – is free to run about the city looking for the connection between a lost Christmas fowl and a jewel theft, to solve cryptography issues without allowing the readers to see all of the symbols, to have his investigations crashed by someone he didn’t know about looking into the same (or another) mystery, and, yes, to get the answer totally and utterly wrong.

Serious, Deep and Neat: The Lord of the Rings is one of the great epic fantasies of the English language and although it purports to be in a fantastical setting it treats itself with seriousness befitting the grandeur of the events unfolding – and rightly so, as Tolkien was in favour of treating fantasy with dignity and depth. Depth is something which Tolkien’s world (both Arda and the Undying Lands) has in abundance – with culture in every phrase, saying, song and random burst of un-translated Quenya (or is it Sindarin? Maybe both). The history is rich and reaches literally back to the creation of the world, the geography nearly complete (the East, alone, was a little vague) and the characters are immersive in nature because they are so much part of their world. It is, ultimately, a Neat world, though, because (possibly because Eru was nudging things but given his deistic hands-off approach highly unlikely) it has an awful lot of convenient situations – Isildur’s heir happens to turn up at just the right time, the one ring happens to be found by the right sort of person at the right time and handed over to the next right sort of person to handle the mission of its destruction (conveniently) just before the bad guys can work out where their glittery weapon of mass destruction is and ultimately, every character who is important is one the main characters get introduced to at some point and who are of some high regard (there are no “random” murders by common people with a reason to fuck things up, for instance).

Serious, Shallow and Neat: The Harry Potter Series takes itself seriously (perhaps more than it needs to because, seriously, how is it up to the one British teenager to stop Voldemort else the world is doomed when he’s so far only been a threat to Britain, France and bits of eastern Europe? There’s plenty of other continents worth of wizards who could fight him once he became a threat to them – not to mention normal humans who would probably drop a few nukes if Britain came under control of a mad dictator and started attacking with unknown super weapons/magic, would horcruxes really survive that? But I’m getting ahead of myself). Although the Potterverse offers up a great deal of facts about the history of wizards, the majority of the history and culture is a reflection of the modern world and the world of a few hundred years before – Christmas is celebrated by people who learn at eleven how to perform what the bible counts as miracles, the people are essentially just modern people in robes and the historical facts, while interesting to a fan, have no connection or bearing to each other or the story …nor any affect on either. The geography is …splotchy. London and Scotland are where they belong and that’s about it. It is a slightly deeper pond, but at most you can put your legs in up to the mid-calves, rather than just the ankles. It is still Shallow and comfortable, there is no great effort involved as the world is not truly immersive (everything in the magical world is current real society with a few trappings – such as the four house school system, etc). This does not make the world any less fun, but it does make the world non-immersive and Shallow. The world is also, quite undeniably, Neat (both as in cool and as in tidy). The prophecy is fairly straightforward and all players in it, conveniently, know about each other, grew up in the same greater city area (Surrey and London) and went to the same school. All of the plot items needed are to be found in dramatically meaningful locations (conveniently so) and characters duel to the death against plot-appropriate enemies (even if some revenges are unexpected – what happened to Bellatrix, for instance, was Neat in a different way than expected but still Neat). No random victim the hero doesn’t know even tries to put a sniper’s bullet through the back of an enemy’s head, no external politics (that includes muggles) come into play and, as I said before, it’s awfully convenient that the only person who can defeat the Dark Lord is a local boy instead of, say, pissed off foreign governments. It’s Neat. The story, although set in Britain, is self-contained to the point that the magical world of Harry Potter might as well be alternate Britain in a snow globe for all that the rest of the world affects it.

 

Some people like Complex worlds and find Neat worlds to be too simplistic and convenient. Some people like Neat worlds and find Complex worlds to be too chaotic and messy. Some people like both. And some people don’t read fiction. Nevertheless, liking or disliking based on encapsulation (Complex or Neat) is very different than liking or disliking something because of its quality (Good or Bad), or layering (Deep or Shallow), or tone (Humorous or Serious), and is worth having words for, because it makes explaining why you like one but not the other of two well written works in the same genre.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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