Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Fantastically Disturbing Implications

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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Naming Villains

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

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


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


1) What Does It Mean?

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

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

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

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

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


2) How Did They Get That Name?

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

“…Tom, you’re drunk, go home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


3) Why So Complicated?

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

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


4) Why Is It ALWAYS Dark Lord?

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

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

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


5) What Else Can It Mean?

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

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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in On Writing


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Slytherins Aren’t Ambitious

With definitions from

[am-bishuh n]

noun earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment

2. the object, state, or result desired or sought after

3. desire for work or activity; energy

verb (used with object)

4. to seek after earnestly; aspire to.


Although Ambition has a somewhat tainted original meaning (that is: a negative meaning back in the 14th century) there is nothing technically negative about the modern definition. Originally to be ambitious was to be “going around to canvass for office,” – from 14th century Latin, ambitiosus. It was only in early use that Ambition was grouped with Pride and Vainglory. (For the record, the latter of those two is a 12th century word and is now practically archaic.)

Whatever its origins, ambition now means an earnest desire for achievement or distinction and willingness to strive for it or to aspire to something. In other words: ambitious people know what they want to achieve in life and go after it. Which, when you stop and think about it, actually means that most characters labelled as ambitious are nothing of the sort.

House Slytherin of the Harry Potter Franchise is a very good example of a group of characters who are labelled as “ambitious” but never actually are. All of those old, noble houses (Malfoy, Black, etc)? They cannot be ambitious because they already have what the ambitious person seeks: they already are (in)famous, powerful, and wealthy. True, “honour” – the other major ambition the dictionary lists – is something they might lack, but they aren’t shown seeking honour either. As for most of the Slytherin students shown in the books? They seem quite sure they already have everything, that they don’t need to better themselves, and that they are just going to keep doing what their family does. In other words: unless the Sorting Hat was sorting one-fourth of the students on opposite-day rules, Salazar Slytherin (and JKR) did not actually understand what ambition is. Wanting to follow in the family business is a very rare ambition. Most truly ambitious people would rather strike out on their own and make a name for themselves. See, “achievements” and “distinctions” – the two things which ambition is to desire – are personal goals. They are not group or family oriented. Ambitious people do not want to be “hey, aren’t you part of the X family?” they want to be “OMG YOU’RE [AMBITIOUS PERSON’S NAME]!”

Okay, so what about Voldemort? Obviously he’s ambitious, right? He wants to take over the world? Yeah, but does he? Sure that’s what he says he wants, but throughout the main story his only dedicated goal is “Kill Harry Potter”. If he was truly ambitious and his goal was “take over the world” he wouldn’t waste so much time and so many convoluted plots on something which should have been secondary. You might argue that it was because he was trying to stay alive. However, either his goal was take over the world or it was become immortal, but not both. Ambitious people, when the cards are down, have their desires ranked. This means that something they’d also like will, if they have to make the choice, be put aside if getting it means making their main goal harder to reach. Thus “piss a lot of people off by taking over the world” and “live forever” should be diametrically opposite goals. Oh, and here’s the other thing: goals aren’t the same as ambitions. “Lose weight” is a goal, but it’s not an ambition. “Be a movie star” is more an ambition than a goal (goals are also more specific).

Lastly, not everyone who tries to take over the world is ambitious. This goes back to what I said earlier about how ambition is a personal goal. Some people who try to take over the world – or just a country – are not doing it for themselves. In fact, most of the people who give enough shits to actually bother trying for any sort of conquest are doing it because they care about other people. Unless they’re like Alexander the Great – glory-hounds who run from place to place conquering, leave other people to run things, and whose conquests fall from their grasp almost as soon as they leave because they have no long term plans (which, again, would rule out their being ambitious because ambitious is all about having long term plans) – chances are they’re taking over because they think the state of things must be fixed “for the greater good”. Augustus Caesar is often viewed negatively for abolishing democracy and starting the Roman Empire (untrue, he did place his autocracy over – veto right – the senate, but he never disbanded them) but he took power from the senate and took control because the senate was a completely corrupt career-politician hotbed of wasted taxpayer money, vice, petty squabbles and aristocratic arrogance that couldn’t figure out how to lead a horse, let alone get it to water. Augustus took over because the people who were supposed to be ruling weren’t. They were enjoying the wealth and power that came from having the ruler-ship position, but they weren’t actually ruling. Caesar Augustus did not take power for himself, and thus was not ambitious, and was a good ruler – while the emperors who followed him, and who inherited the position rather than having to strive for it (again, thus not ambitious) thought about their own pleasures and couldn’t rule for shit (with a few exceptions *cough*Marcus Aurelius*cough*).  So even if “Take over the world” was Voldemort’s primary goal, it is not by definition an ambition. Of course, Voldemort is not like Augustus Caesar. Voldemort has more in common with Hitler and his fictional analogue Grindelwald – who believed in his slogan “For The Greater Good” and who was therefore not ambitious. Which makes the question “Did Voldemort believe his blood-purity hype?” because if he did: he wasn’t ambitious.


And this begs the question: If Slytherins – the pop-cultural go-to example for ambitious people – aren’t ambitious, then who is?


Disney Princesses.

I kid you not. Let’s take a look at that definition again.

[am-bish-uh n]


  1. an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment
  2. the object, state, or result desired or sought after
  3. desire for work or activity; energy

verb (used with object)

  1. to seek after earnestly; aspire to.

“As power, honor, fame, or wealth” is just a list of examples, not a complete list of forms ambition can take. Wanting to be loved and wanting to be happy are also ambitions. Ambition can be “the desire for work or activity” – which sounds distinctly Hufflepuff – and have you ever heard of a Disney Princess who wasn’t painfully “earnest”? Moreover, as ambition can thus be “to aspire to honour” have you ever heard of a non-heroic character who strove for that? Honour (however you want to spell it) is a hero-trait in fiction.

So why Disney Princesses? Let’s go over them one by one, shall we?


Snow White: Main songs? I’m Wishing and Someday My Prince Will Come. Snow’s been treated like a servant all her life and no one – not even the nobility who ought to be up in arms about it, nor the royalty of whichever kingdom her mother’s family rule – has done anything about it. But does Snow just sing about finding someone to love? No. She sings about waiting for her Prince. Snow is in rags and has no reason to believe her born social status counts for shit anymore, she’s been run out of her kingdom and being recognised is a death sentence, but she damn well refuses to give up on the “Prince” part of her life-plans. Furthermore, before she meets her prince she isn’t shown doing much to achieve her ambitions, except singing into a wishing well – which is a silly and childish thing to do. Except for two things: as a fourteen year old she was totally still a child and she clearly believed that it would really work. Which, given that her true love immediately appeared, which is way too much of a coincidence to have been an accident (seriously, foreign prince rides right by local capital castle, which the royal family is currently inhabiting, and no one fucking notices?) it’s entirely possible that Snow was 100% right about that wishing well, in which case she was going after her desires. That’s Ambition.

Cinderella: Here’s an interesting line from Cinderella’s song So This is Love “The key to all heaven is mine”. Ambitious people about themselves firstly – I want, I have, etc – which makes this line rather telling. She’s not in heaven, the key to heaven is hers. Now, you might argue this can’t be true because Cinderella is not selfish – she is kind and giving and helpful – but selfishness and kindness are not mutually exclusive. Likewise, ruthlessness and selfishness are not mutually inclusive. Ambition is a selfish thing, in that it puts the self first, but ambitious people are not automatically unkind, or unhelpful. In fact, people who are determined to achieve their dreams (ahem, “Whatever you wish for, you keep/Have faith in your dreams and someday/Your rainbow will come smiling through”) are more likely to help others to achieve theirs because they know how much that would mean to them. And because most of the time ambitious people aren’t idiots. Ever heard the term “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”? Well, apart from the fact that real vinegar catches more flies than real honey, what the metaphor means is that – generally speaking – stomping all over people doesn’t get you as far as being nice to them. Furthermore, wanting and going after nice things or achievements for yourself in no way obliges you to turn on everyone else. Ambitious people only view others as a problem when those others are standing between them and their goal. Cinderella, who has grown up in an abusive household and likely doesn’t have the emotional ability to save herself by walking out the door, is kind to those around her and it works in her benefit. Sure, she goes to tears after her dress and dreams are torn to shreds, but that doesn’t indicate a lack of ambition. Someone who didn’t have goals or ambition wouldn’t have been anywhere near as distressed to have their dream crushed right when they thought they were going to make it. Cinderella could not have achieved her happy ending on her own, but nowhere in the definition of ambition is that a requirement. She tried, earnestly, to go after her dreams. That’s ambition.

Sleeping Beauty: Okay, I got nothing. But in fairness, she does spend most of the movie named after her ASLEEP.

Ariel: Do I really need to spell this one out? Mer-girl wants to achieve being human (she met Eric AFTER becoming obsessed with humanity, remember?).  Mer-girl sings entire song about how damn much she wants to be human – to be Part of Your World – and Mer-girl signs deal with first person to make that an option for her, after being explicitly forbidden to keep thinking about humans by the autocratic ruler of her country. That’s ambition. Sure, mer-girl absolutely fails at guile, but guile and ambition are not mutually inclusive.

Belle: Ambition and the desire for adventure (or bravery or courage or whatever you want to call it) are not mutually exclusive, no matter what Harry Potter might have implied. Belle’s introductory song – which is also the first time we see her – is about how she wants to get out of this “poor, provincial town” (and how the townsfolk think she’s weird). Allow me to repeat that with clarity: within moments of being introduced to her, Belle complains that the town she lives in is “poor” (ambition for wealth) and “provincial” (ambition for social standing). And if you need further proof of that, here’s a bit from the reprise of That Belle: “Not me, no way/I guarantee it/ I want much more than this provincial life! I want adventure in the great wide somewhere! I want it more than I can tell. And for once it might be grand/To have someone understand/ I want so much more than they’ve got planned…” Ambition is all about “I want”. And sure, you might say that Belle gives up her ambitions for her father – but Belle’s an avid reader: she, of all people, would know that being offered the chance to switch places with a prisoner in an enchanted castle is a standard beginning for adventures. You know, the thing she wants? That’s ambition.

Jasmine: Well, she wants to see the world beyond the palace and sneaks out in order to do it, but that’s not really all that ambitious. Of course, that’s because Jasmine – like Sleeping Beauty – isn’t really the main character of Aladdin. Aladdin himself though? Well, the whole wishing to become a prince thing really says it all. Why? Because it would have been far easier – no need to pretend to not be a street rat – if Aladdin had wished for the Genie to change the laws so that he could win the princess’ hand as himself. Aladdin immediately viewed his social status as what needed to be changed. Not to mention the cut song Proud of Your Boy, which was all about how he wanted to make his mother proud – her pride was the achievement he earnestly sought.

Mulan: Although it becomes secondary to the goal of keeping her father from going to war and dying, Mulan starts off with the ambition to meet the social standards of her era so that she can make her family proud. Or, rather, she starts with the ambition to make her family proud and goes about it by trying – and failing – to meet social standards, which turns out to have been the wrong way to go about it. The distinction she earnestly seeks – and then sings about being unable to fulfil – is to be “the perfect daughter”. That’s ambitious. Also, ambitious people are not, by definition, only ambitious if they go about seeking their aspirations the right way. Sometimes they think they’re doing it right and aren’t.

Pocahontas: Has a whole song about not being sure what she wants out of life. Pass. Not ambitious. Sure, there’s “prevent a war” but that’s more a goal than an ambition. Ambitions – desire to achieve – are by definition construction (make something new, attain something new) not destructive or neutralising (prevent war – which preserves an existent status quo).

Tiana: Do I really have to explain this one? Miss Works-Herself-To-The-Bone-Even-When-Turned-Into-A-Frog-To-Get-The-Restaurant-She’s-Wanted-Since-She-Was-a-Toddler basically oozes ambition. (Especially if you look at what she imagines for her restaurant – it’s at least five-star – that girl doesn’t just want to have a restaurant, she wants a rich restaurant for fashionable people. She wants to move up in social class/wealth and fame and she wants to prove to the world how good she is at what she does.) Here’s where Potter fans tend to confuse truly ambitious people with the idea that ambition (Slytherin) and hard work (Hufflepuff) are mutually exclusive. But here’s the thing: by definition ambitious people are willing to EARNESTLY GO AFTER WHAT THEY WANT. Earnest, incidentally, means “serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous” as well as “showing depth and sincerity of feeling” and “seriously important; demanding or receiving serious attention”. If you are ambitious you are BY DEFINITION hard working …in order to get what you want. This means, by the way, that all the “ambitious” characters in fiction who will ruthlessly cheat, steal, and lie to get to the top? …Aren’t really ambitious. Why? Because they aren’t earnestly going after their aspirations. Hufflepuffs are more ambitious than Slytherins.

Rapunzel: Is probably more goal-oriented than ambition-oriented, given that “see the lights” is more of a one-time information gathering quest than a self-improvement-based aspiration. Unless her ambition is “happiness” in which case she might count. Nevertheless, the girls songs are primarily about feeling unfulfilled that she hasn’t achieved anything (When Will My Life Begin) and what she wants out of life (I Have A Dream). So while she’s not as ambitious as some in this list, she still counts.

Merida: Wants the power to make her own life choices. She also wants her mother to understand her, but that’s not an ambition, it’s a desire or goal.

Elsa and Anna: Elsa’s not an ambitious character. Her desire to get her powers under control is motivated by fear and necessity. Anna’s ambitions, on the other hand, drive much of the story. The love of her sister is the achievement she mostly seeks – which might not seem like much of an achievement, until you realise that she spent her childhood talking to a closed door out of the desire to be noticed by the one she loved. She also spent much of her time completely isolated, which makes her aim a sort of narrow form of ambition for fame – the desire for fame, after all, is the desire to be notices and acknowledged as special …which is exactly what Anna is trying to get out of the people whose opinions she actually cares about. To be loved is, in a way, to be famous to a single person. Fame is the love – in a shallower form – of the distant people.


In closing: Ambition is not mutually exclusive with kindness, hard work, generosity, and honesty. Ambitious people do not have to be, by definition, guileful, liars, ruthless, or selfish to the detriment of others. The desire to take over the world is only ambition if done for the sake of the self rather than in order to make the world a better place – which is the more common reason people try, whether or not their beliefs ultimately prove destructive when viewed from outside. The only things ambition is mutually exclusive with are aimlessness and laziness. People who cheat their way to the top are not ambitious because they do not go after their aspirations earnestly. There is nothing inherently evil about knowing what you want out of life and going for it.

So. There you have it. Disney Princesses are more ambitious than Slytherins.

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Posted by on December 25, 2016 in On Writing


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Less is More

The advice, especially to writers, is so common that it has been reduced to a meaningless cliché. Nevertheless it is, in certain cases, good advice – the key is to know when having less is more for your story and when having more is less (work) for your story. This time we’re going to focus on the first of those (I’ll explain the second another time).


1. When you use the right word, not its second cousin. The funny thing about writings is that, oddly enough, you have to love words as well as stories. All words carry connotations with them – subtle things that are used and noticed subconsciously by most people, but which can totally alter the way something is viewed. It also has a huge effect on how smooth or clunky a work is, as a writer who chooses wisely can drastically reduce the amount of words they need to say something – which in turn allows them to include far more information (depth, characterisation, plot, setting, etc) in a work of the same size. Writing is about making every word count. It might seem like a good idea to describe the universe as being a light, creamy, white-brown, but it is much easier for readers to know what you mean (and for your word count) to just to admit you’re not describing a particularly exciting colour and just use beige. If you’re willing to expand your vocabulary a little – and trust that your readers are not gibbering idiots who cannot understand if they ever have to look up a word or two, provided that its place in the text makes its approximate meaning clear – you will find that just about everything does have a word to describe it in English (and other languages). Why waste time and reader patience with a cliché like brightly coloured flowers when you can say zinnias? The key here is that using the right word rather than a less accurate word (why say someone is very irritated when they are actually wroth?) and specificity together allow an author to use very few words to create a deep and complex image for the reader, rather than something which is generic.

2. When you have people plotting. Real manipulators know better than to use many-stepped plots. (Also, caveat, not all manipulation is negative – we just tend to use other words for it or avoid admitting to what’s involved when we talk about keeping people away from surprise birthday parties, talking down the suicidal, etc.) If you’ve ever heard the quote “no plan survives contact with the enemy” you’ll know precisely why plots should be kept as simple as possible. Yes, readers might be able to follow something as complex as “To gain the throne [motive] I will: [plot] convince my lover to murder her husband so that we can be together [1] and to send a warning to her sister to make them suspicious of [other people] so that my lover’s family and [other party] will go to war [2], so that I can gain the rank needed to marry my lover [3] only to kill her because it was her sister who I got killed I really wanted and she’s delivered me her niece who’ll do [4], and who I’ll marry off to my (now late) lover-wife’s heir’s heir [5], and then have the heir killed so the heir’s heir and my lover-niece can inherit [6], and then take them to war [7] since the war I started exhausted everyone else’s armies, then – once that’s won – place heir’s heir and niece-lover on the throne [8], kill off heir’s heir once heir’s heir has an heir [9] and marry grieving niece-lover [10], then kill off heir’s heir’s heir [11] and inherit throne”. Each step there has, on average, twenty things that could go wrong, easily five potential witnesses who would need to be silenced, and enemies to come into contact with every step of the way because each manipulated person’s freewill and potential to do the unexpected is an extra enemy (and no true manipulator claims to be always able to know what someone will do, true manipulators just know to keep on their toes so that they can compensate when someone inevitably goes off the rails). A wiser plan than the above would be “Step one: sow political chaos in realm so advancement opportunities arise, Step Two: ???, Step Three: Profit”. This is because you really do need to re-evaluate every step of the way, so every plan should essentially be one step, because then people and coincidences and random pebbles that cripple horses (for want of a nail, etc, etc) alter everything and you need to start planning again.

The first of those plans is a theory someone gave for what Littlefinger is up to in A Song of Ice and Fire, but the second is likely a much more realistic version of his plans, because Littlefinger is canonically a good manipulator. See, here’s the thing: to an outsider, when a plot seems to have finished and reaped its rewards, it can seem like the manipulator planned it all out carefully from the start. But it just isn’t so – it looks like that because the non-manipulator only sees the final product, so if you’re going to write about a character explaining their plot it’s best that they have something very simple and then improvise and re-plot the rest of the way. Writers and tacticians often use chess metaphors to describe plotting, but here’s the thing writers tend to forget: your manipulator is not playing chess against themselves. Real chess players re-evaluate and often change strategies during play. This holds true whether you’re trying to win a political victory or ensure your prophesised child hero/sacrificial lamb permanently kills the Dark Lord you never managed to permanently kill (that Dumbledore’s plotting succeeded was sheer dumb luck; it’s an excellent example of a plot that shouldn’t have worked but somehow, due to author meddling and ignoring all the highly probable things that could have screwed it up from the beginning, it did – which is a BAD THING, by the way). It holds true regardless of whether you’re trying to talk down a suicidal person, trick a confession out of someone, take over the world, discredit an evil rival, or just about anything else where having to plot or manipulate can be involved. Oh yeah, and it also holds true if you’re planning to have a situation where something was made extremely convoluted so that people be unable to do something – for instance, the wisdom of people who lock things with fifteen special keys that all must be turned at once to open the door to the secret temple might seem like a cunning plan, but a wise manipulator would know that eventually someone’s going to come along who thinks the best solution to everything is TNT.

3. When you’re describing a person. Most people who go looking for writing advice already know better than to describe – especially as an introduction – someone’s physical appearance in lurid detail. Some people still do block-dump physical descriptions at the start of their work, for instance most of the Potter books give a block-dump description of what the titular character looks like (green eyes, glasses, messy black hair, knobby knees/small build, and plot-important scar) near the start, but they are typically wise enough to confine it to a line or two and then not really bring up appearances again for the rest of the work. This is the “give a clear indication of what they look like so readers can imagine it and then get on with the plot” method of describing characters. It’s hardly the only, or even the best, method – although it gets points for treating a physical description as an unfortunate necessity rather than an important event to be lavishly and time-consuming-ly covered from every angle.

Here’s the thing: giving a physical description of a character as something separate from describing the way they make people feel and their own nature isn’t obligatory – or even a good idea in all situations. This doesn’t mean you should fall into the good looking = good fallacy of clichés, but you can say a hell of a lot more about a person by mixing them together. Here’s the other thing: you need to choose what is important to describe – that which is interesting or of note – rather than just describing the standard description items (hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, fitness level/body shape, occasionally face general shape and nose type). I mention them one after another because it’s easier to show them as they work together. Which of these gives you more of a feeling for the character?

“She had dark brown hair, which fell to her shoulders. Her brown eyes were set in a narrow face with high cheekbones. She was tall, thin, and beautiful. She was also cruel.” (32 words)


“The dark woman would have been beautiful if only her nature were not so obvious in the coldness of her sharp features.”(22 words)

The one tells you the typical things about what the character looks like. The later tells you something about who the person is and what they look like. Things like eye colour and hair colour can easily be slipped in at other points (“she brushed a stray lock of brown hair away from her face”, for instance). When giving description it always helps to make them do double duty – to make them give both appearance and personality, or backstory (or triple duty). Everyone has hair and eye colours. Not everyone has nibbled nails or lines from frowning regularly. A few less common descriptors can give a far better impression both of the appearance and nature of a character than a lot of common descriptors.

4. When you’re giving backstory. Backstory shapes behaviour. This means that the best place to show backstory is in behaviour. For example: if you have a character whose little sister died, you don’t need them (especially if they’re taciturn by nature) to go into a long spiel about how it happened; you can imply in the way they mention that they had a little sister who died. A character who smiles sadly, trying not to cry, when they bring up a late little sister and who seems irrationally concerned with car safety is already telling the readers the salient points of what happened without need for the character, or prose, to stop and talk about what a good relationship the characters had and the tragic vehicular accident which took the younger’s life (most likely recently). The character who bitterly brings up their dead sibling often and seems dissatisfied when they mention them is already telling the readers that they have unfinished business and bad blood with the sibling, but that they miss them and probably weren’t involved in the death. The character who surprises people by sympathetically giving their first mention ever of a dead little sister when pulling out a kept child’s toy, and who has a sort of grim satisfaction when they mention that it’s what got them into disease research, the character is already telling the readers that their little sibling was terminally ill and was probably given a mercy-kill. And so on. If you have an ex-slave character you don’t need halt a chapter to give a long explanation of the horrors they faced as a slave if you can convincingly have them rub their scarred wrists and mutter a lot number to themselves as they pass some auctioneers in a slaving city during the chapter. After all, most people in reality do not tell their life stories in detail to others – strangers would think they were creepy if they did and non-strangers already know or pick up the important bits as they go.

5. When you are showing how people feel. Show; don’t tell is a rule which is often correctly applied to the portrayal of emotion, but too much showing gives you melodrama. Unless you are deliberately writing a melodrama you do not want to be writing melodrama. This is because of escalation – every time you give an overly lavish description to how someone is feeling, then when you have to describe a stronger feeling you have to describe it even more lavishly. For example, if you write “HOW. DARE. YOU!!!!!!!” he exclaimed, roaring then the response or when you show that character more upset than that you have to add even more to make it clear. While if you write “How dare you?” he roared you don’t have to worry about starting to sound silly when the emotions run higher. Admittedly that’s a slightly exaggerated example, but it works.

VI. Wen u’r beeing kriateive wif speling nd naymes. Funnily enough, naturally occurring languages have shaped themselves to be easily understood – and are what the readers will understand easiest. This also means that you can only go so far with altering or creating names before your readers will no longer be able to pronounce them as you desire because the spelling and pronunciation rules are so alien from the readers’ language. Books like JKR’s Potter series work well with old but real names to give a feeling of a strange new world without tripping up readers terribly, while books like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series manages to get creative with naming without tripping anyone up by changing one letter in otherwise normal names – and by applying a standard rule of spelling of pronunciation, rather than changing things willy-nilly.


And on a final note, if you want further reason to view less is more as a good idea in general: consider how much more readable the later points in this post were than the earlier ones.

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Posted by on March 8, 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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