Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

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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Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Is Bloody Hard to Pull Off

This is getting out of hand. I’ve discussed why it’s not okay to try to deny a story is fantasy because you don’t think fantasy can be quality in part one, why fantasy doesn’t deserve scorn in part two, and what fantasy actually is in part three …of a post which was only supposed to have one part. Now I’m going to talk about why Fantasy is actually – contrary to popular belief – the HARDEST genre to write.

The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. – Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

In fiction, what is real is what can be made to seem real. An unbelievably portrayed car, for instance, can make it impossible for a reader to accept the fiction as real, and a believably portrayed dragon can hold that belief even though it is less easily accepted and more rigorously scrutinised. We accept what we view as the reality around us as being real. We believe in it. We do not believe in things which we have learned, through our experiences and lack thereof, do not exist in our reality. All fiction hinges on the ability to make the reader put what they know of reality to the side for the moment – to Suspend their Disbelief. In order to do this, in order for the reader to be able to accept this, it must seem to function as reality. Not the same as reality, but as if it were reality. All fiction must be realistic in order to be (temporarily) believed. All fiction must be (temporarily) believed in order to be enjoyed. The more out-of-normal-reality things you pile upon the reader, the harder it is for them to believe in what you are showing them. The author is an illusionist and the reader is far more willing to accept a coin pulled from behind the ear (obviously a sleight of hand) than sawing a woman in half without killing her (…something to do with mirrors, I think). By default, then, the more out-of-reality elements a work, or genre, contains, the more difficult it becomes to suspend disbelief and, subsequently, the more challenging the genre is to write.

Think of it this way:

To create Suspension of Disbelief in Drama, Crime, and other totally real world other than invented characters fiction (such as “literary fiction”), the only illusion the author must successfully make is that of the main characters existence. The only thing the audience needs to be made to believe – to suspend their disbelief on – is that these people could exist.

To create Suspension of Disbelief in Sci-Fi, the author only needs to create two illusions: that the scientific extrapolation (gadgets, alien life existing, etc) they are making could be true and that these people could exist.

To create Suspension of Disbelief in Horror, only three illusions have to be maintained: that these people exist, that this phenomenon exists/could happen, and that it’s fucking terrifying.

To create Suspension of Disbelief in Fantasy, however, the illusion of reality that the author must create (without which disbelief cannot be suspended and on which all successful storytelling hinges) is of pretty much EVERYTHING. This is because the story must, at once, both present the normal laws of physics as existent, and show a force, as real, which is in direct contradiction to them – i.e. magic, the supernatural, whatever. It is also because, most of the time, Fantasy is either not set in our world – necessitating that the audience suspend disbelief on an entire out-of-reality world, complete with its own laws of physics – or asks us to believe that we’re all stupid enough to somehow miss magic in our own reality.

Now, a lot of fantasy doesn’t put in the sort of grounding effort of realism that, say, George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien do and, thus, their fantastical elements cannot be believed (all suspension of disbelief is used up elsewhere). Nevertheless, for fantasy to work suspension of disbelief must be applied to the very way the universe works, as well as to the characters existence and so forth. Fantasy isn’t the “easy” genre. Fantasy is the HARDEST. The illusionist who saws a woman in half in a glass box has far harder time of it than the one using an opaque box. Fantasy is that transparent box – the impossibilities of the world are in full view, whereas what Sci-Fi and Drama need to suspend disbelief on is carefully covered with the firm, real, opaque box of the Known and Possible.

And, coming full circle to what started this series of posts in the first place, THAT is why it is not right to try to deny that high quality Fantasy – like A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones – isn’t “really” Fantasy because it’s good.

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Posted by on July 6, 2016 in On Writing


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Scrap Pile 5 – Portraying Phobias

This is another piece I originally wrote for my characterisation advice book (which I finished the first draft of at the start of last month and am now editing – so if anyone wants to complain about or compliment any self-publishing platforms, etc, now’s the time). Ultimately, I decided that the amount of space I would require to flesh this out into something which covered all the bases for considerate discussion was just too much for an already large section of the book. It also, like Scrap Pile 1 – Life Without Smell, felt a bit too personal as a description.

Having a phobia is like living out your days in a horror movie, but one which everyone else is convinced is a comedy in which you play the clown.

Phobias. Those things that people claim to have when they want to get out of something they don’t like having to do, which often gets confused with merely being really scared of something, and which has a long, proud history of terrifying authors so much that they go on to traumatise the rest of the world into sharing that phobia by portraying the thing they are afraid of the way they view it in their works. (For example, J.R.R. Tolkien, who nearly died of a spider bite in his youth, made giant spiders into a nightmarish thing for his readers long before the B movies portraying such things would manage to, and the chilling layer of casual racism in the works of H.P. Lovecraft wouldn’t be nearly as frightening if it hadn’t been based on Lovecraft’s own phobia of everyone who wasn’t a white, antiquarian from Providence or a cat.) But the thing is; for all that authors who have phobias are good at portraying their fear as something that can terrify the audience, most authors who don’t have phobias have difficulty portraying characters that do have phobias. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly it’s problematic because there is huge potential for drama, plot complications, and horror in correctly portraying a phobic reaction which is otherwise wasted. Secondly; because phobias are genuine anxiety disorders and it is hugely offensive to those suffering from real phobias to portray it (and thus teach the audience to believe) in the typical way seen in pop-culture – that is; something which requires a deep breath or two and a snarky comment about why the obstacle had to be that, then “will power” allowing the so-called phobic character to save the day and, having done that, continue on without any adverse affects.

Phobia does not merely mean being “very scared of”. Phobias are anxiety disorders; they are abnormal fear reactions and can range from the debilitating “cannot function in normal society” to the mild “behavioural coping mechanisms of avoidance and low-level paranoia” and “moderate panic attack” (panic attacks, by the way, are also not just being worried; they are a serious medical problem that has symptoms matching those of a heart attack – with the only major difference being that instead of actually dying you just think you’re going to). Abnormal fear. Abnormal. ABNORMAL. Not every lifelong fear of something is a phobia. You, and your characters, can just be really, really fucking scared of something. And this is an important distinction, because the over-use of the term phobia, caused by misuse in screen and page making it a popular buzzword, results in real suffers being denied the aid and compassion they need. The idea that (heroic) will power can allow a phobic person to overcome their problem during the climatic moments of a story has lead the majority of people to believe that someone having a phobic reaction can simply suppress it (“deal with it later”) or “get over it” and that they ought to “stop being a wimp” about it. That’s disgusting. It’s also extreme cruelty by ignorance, because the key difference between someone who is really, really fucking scared of something and someone who is phobic of something is that the former can suppress their fear and get over it, while the latter can’t. Can’t. Not won’t: can’t. Cannot. Is unable to. Telling a phobic person to “get over it” or “stop being a wimp” is kind of like telling a person with no legs to “get over it” and “stop being a wimp” about being asked to run a marathon without artificial limbs. It’s inappropriate, it’s degrading, and it’s fucking stupid of the person making those unreasonable demands. Also, full disclosure here, I do have a phobia (which I believe qualifies as mild, but I’ve never done an in depth comparative study on the matter).

Now, while I’ve mentioned several of the major reactions, I should specify that there is a fine line (the; can get over yes/no line) between being really, really fucking scared of something and being phobic, and because humanity comes in an infinite variety, the human mind has an infinite variety of ways of fucking itself over and therefore symptoms can come in wildly differing forms – and at different strengths in a person’s life. This means that on some occasions a person may have more or less trouble coping with a phobia or getting over a fear and that, while it is easier to illustrate phobias with examples, no set of examples is going to accurately cover every phobic person’s experience of their problems. With that in consideration: let’s take Arachnophobia as an example, as it’s one of the most common fears and one of the most common phobias.

Scenario: In order to rescue their Love Interests who have been tied up by the Evil Overperson, our brave heroes must cross a room full of spiders.

Hero 1 is an Arachnologist and loves spiders, so has absolutely no problem with this and does his best to not hurt any of them as he passes.

Hero 2 is a completely average and normal person. He takes a few deep breaths to steel himself for this because only someone insane or an arachnologist would not be at least a little afraid of walking through a room full of spiders, and then rescues his love interest.

Hero 3 is really, really fucking scared of spiders. He lets out what he will later deny was a scream at the sight, takes a lot of quick breaths before steeling himself to enter, gets a little sweaty and half-way through a spider gets a bit too close to his face so he gets angry and panics and starts yelling at them to get away while using his torch to set them on fire. He manages to rescue his love interest, but complains that he really needs a shower ASAP because of the spider webs.

Hero 4 is arachnophobic. First he screams at the sight, then begins mentally bargaining with himself (does he really love the love interest that much? Can he find someone else to go in there and rescue his beloved instead? Wouldn’t it be safer to just blow up the room and hope his beloved isn’t too badly scarred …but that’ll fling spiders everywhere no no nononono abort!). By this point Hero 4 is hyperventilating and getting dizzy from the lack of oxygen that causes, he’s crying and shaking, but also sweating, and his entire chest feels tight. He thinks it’s quite possible that he’ll enter the room of evil monsters from hell only to faint in the middle of it and then they’ll eat him or lay their eggs in him or worse crawl all over him, and that just makes him more terrified. Hero 4 covers himself in as many layers of clothing, and if possible a hazmat suit, as he can – once he’s discovered there is absolutely no one around to help him and he’s discovered that screaming at his love interest to free herself isn’t actually going to achieve anything – and attempts to use his torch and some flammable materials to set as many spiders on fire (and, to his horror, sends the rest fleeing in the direction he needs to go) as possible before he has to go in. He has to convince himself to not turn back with every single step and thus a short walk takes three times longer than necessary. He eventually frees his love, only to nearly set her on fire because of a spider crawling on her, and practically runs out of the room full of spiders. Then he strips of all his cloths and starts tugging at his hair, or possibly chopping it off, because even though his beloved assures him that there are no spiders left on him there might be. At this point he actually goes even more to pieces and switches from crying to bawling because room full of spiders. For the next two weeks he mistakes every itch (and he’s constantly itchy), tickling hair, and touch of fabric against his skin for a spider, and claws at himself because of it, and every night he has horrible nightmares about them crawling all over (and inside) of him and his beloved.

Hero 5 suffers from severe/debilitating arachnophobia. He can’t make himself go in to the room full of spiders. He wants to go in and save his love interest more than anything, but he literally cannot make himself do it. He’ll live with the grief and guilt for the rest of his life, but he can’t go in. He spends the next month jumping at every shadow, with his mind’s eye decorating each room he enters with spiders, and every night for months afterward he has nightmares about his love interest being crawled on by spiders and what might have happened to him if he’d gone in.

Now, the reason that the portrayal of phobias in fiction is such a problem is that most heroes are claimed, by their authors, to be Hero 4 (arachnophobic) but they act like Hero 2 (or, in rare cases, like Hero 3). This is also, admittedly, a strange situation given that most people do not have Love Interests who are available to kidnapping from Evil Overpersons who have fully furnished rooms full of spiders for them to adventure through. So let’s take a look at a more every day example.

Scenario: A spider is found crawling along the edge of the wall right before a person goes to bed.

Unafraid of Spiders Person shrugs, checks if it’s the bite-y kind and removes it (possibly barehanded).

Normal Person either gets the vacuum cleaner or a pot, to urge it into, and removes it while going “ugh” and “eeep”.

Really Fucking Scared of Spiders Person shouts, and either removes it (via pot or vacuum) while trying not to shake.

Arachnophobic Person screams for help upon spotting it, keeps a terrified eye on it (so it doesn’t disappear because if it does it could go anywhere) while someone else gets a pot or vacuum, whines with fear as it’s removed and then calls in help to remake their bed, check the floor for spiders, and promise that it’s really definitely gone and spiders don’t come in groups (the response to this, from the arachnophobe, is likely to be “I know that but it could still be here” and “I know they don’t come in groups but they might!”) . The Arachnophobic person will then, approximately ten minutes of unaccepted assurances later, proceed to continue getting ready for bed while worrying that there might be spiders. If the arachnophobe is in possession of a particularly vivid and/or visual imagination, this may be accompanied by “helpful” what if scenarios playing out in their head throughout their nightly routine (i.e. imagining spiders crawling out of or into their mouth while brushing their teeth, feeling every brush of fabric or hair as little legs, imagining spiders somehow turning up in the water that just flowed from the faucet into their hands – which they are about to splash on their face, thus meaning that their eyes are closed and will remain closed until the water-which-can’t-have-a-spider-but-might hits their face – imagining spiders crawling out of their retinas, and imagining spiders crawling onto and into them as they sleep. They check their bed again before climbing into it, then imagine the shadow of large spiders crawling over those parts of their bedding they can only see out of the corner of their eyes for hours until they finally fall asleep.

Severely Arachnophobic Person has a similar response to the mere arachnophobe, only it involves actually turning their entire room upside down looking for non-existent spiders, then applying tape to the places the windows meet their frames and the edges of the door. This process is elongated by the panic attack at the start, which they are unlikely to mistake for a heart attack as they are likely to get them often, and possible further panic attacks along the way as they work themselves up and down from states of frenzy and terror with every new potential hiding place for spiders. Even if they climb into bed at the end of their hour long search, they won’t sleep a wink.


If those example reactions of arachnophobes seemed a little crazy to you: congratulations; you’ve grasped the point. They are absurd, insane reactions, because a genuine phobia means a genuinely abnormal and not-sane or reasonable reaction to whatever it is that triggers the fear. Now, as I said, different people will react to their own phobia in different ways, so those examples above definitely won’t apply to every arachnophobe in the world, but they make for a very good comparison between those people who are merely really fucking scared of something (which is nothing to be ashamed of) and those who are suffering from a genuine phobia – an anxiety disorder.

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Posted by on April 8, 2016 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work


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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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