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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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Grounding Fantasy

Recently I was asked – by a long-time fan of one of my fanfics, which I am re-writing to be published as original fiction, as it was 97% original everything to begin with – how I manage to make the magic in my fantasy so realistic, subtle, and grounded. This had two results.

The first was that I had a moment of panic because the story they had been referring to is gaining some more …obvious and explosive magic in the re-write.

The second was the realisation that I didn’t actually know how I did it. So, I thought about it for a while and I realised the answer was goldfish. (No, I have not gone mad.)

You see, when I watch or read other works, I cannot turn off that part of be that acts like a belligerent toddler or a particularly sarcastic goldfish. Although I suppose I should specify that I mean a pop-cultural hypothetical goldfish, rather than a real one, as science has disproved the ‘fact’ that they only have three second memories. But I digress. Imagine that this stereotypical toddler is forever asking “Why?” and the stereotypical but snarky goldfish is always asking “How?” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what goes through my head when I’m observing other fictions.

For example, back when the Lord of the Rings came out in film, I was watching the scenes in Moria and idly noticed that the characters must have superb balance to avoid falling off because there were no handrails in sight. That set the Sarky Goldfish off. Why are there no handrails? What kind of idiots make giants cities over ravines without handrails? Were they made of wood and simply disintegrated? NO dwarves wouldnt have used wood and if they were stone some of them should have remained. Do dwarves just have perfect balance? No elves are stated to have better balance and THE ELVEN CITIES HAVE FREAKING HANDRAILS. Besides, even if adult dwarves had epic balance skills and never, ever fell, dwarven children (you know, the ones who are always portrayed as rare and precious because ever since Tolkien did it dwarves do not reproduce quickly has been part of the Standard Fantasy Setting) would, because all children, in all species, are reckless idiots. Could it be a point of honour? Honour VS Practicality, City Planning Edition, Round One: TOTAL KNOCKOUT, PRACTICALITY WINS.

And on and on it goes. For every “it is this way” that does not match reality, the Sarky Goldfish in my head wants to know How and Why and won’t rest until it has a solid answer. For every “that can’t happen/be done” the Belligerent Toddler wants to know Why Not and will find a way if a suitably reasonable answer is not produced …or even if it is, because if it took too long the Belligerent Toddler will want to prove the answer-giver wrong. “It’s traditional”, by the way, is not a solid or reasonable answer. Nor are “Because” and “Just don’t think about it”. “Why Not”, on the other hand, is – so long as the question was “Why” and not “Why Not” or “How”.

So, you could say – if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like goldfish – that the answer is really just to think about it. Now, I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads and saying “But it’s fiction! It doesn’t have to be realistic! I shouldn’t have to think about it!” and I have one thing to say to that:

When you played with your blocks as a child you had to think about where to put them or they’d all come tumbling down on your head.  When you paint a picture you need to think about what you’re doing or you end up with a mess of squiggles and badly mixed brown. When you create new music – even if it’s jazz and improvised – you need to think about what you are doing so that you don’t make noises only deaf cicadas would love. And when you write fiction you have to think about the way the world you are creating works or it falls apart on you – but whereas child!You got a bruise when their blocks fell and some adult came to kiss it better, no one is going to tell you it’s okay and not your fault if your fiction falls apart because you didn’t construct it properly. Why? Because if you’re old enough to put it out in public, you’re old enough to take the heat for it.

Writing is hard, guys. Writing is WORK.

 

But I digress.

The reason fantasy authors like George R.R. Martin and Glen Cook (if you don’t know who that is LOOK HIM UP) can produce such high-quality writing, writing which is praised for being top-notch fantasy, is that the ground their fantasy in realism.

“Great,” you may say, “but not all of us have a goldfish living in their heads. What do we do?”.

Well, there are two things that work to ground fantasy – and all fiction, to be honest – in realism. The first is to treat the world you are writing as if it was real. But it’s just fiction? Not to the characters who live in it, I assure you. Not to the readers who want to be immersed in it, I assure you. It’s just fiction is an excuse that those who are too lazy, or too entitled, to put in effort hide behind when their half-assed attempts are not immediately hailed as the greatest thing ever. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort: you shouldn’t be writing. There’s enough crap on the market without you joining in.

The world you are creating may technically be just fiction, but good writing – and good authors – transcend that. Writers are often referred to as the God of their stories’ universe. What kind of evil, stupid god would you be if you created a real world but treated it like it wasn’t real enough to matter? Treat your fictional world as if it was a real one. Imagine you really are a god and you are creating the world. That means that, beyond the scope of the Adventure or Romance or whatever the story you are writing is, your world needs to make sense. It shows when worlds are invented to suit the whims of the plot and add tension. It shows in a bad way. People notice when you, say, don’t add handrails to a place where handrails ought to be in order to add Tension. So, what do you have to do? You have to think about the mechanics.

That’s the first thing. The second thing, which you have to do at the same time as the first thing, is to apply Logic.

I know. I know. It’s a scary Maths thing and it doesn’t seem fair to drag it into the world of Arts where you ran to get away from it, but it does need to be here.

In order to build you own Sarky Head-Goldfish and start grounding your fantasy in realism, you’ll want to apply three specific types of logic: Induction, Deduction, and Abduction (no! Not that kind! Don’t run off with that!). If it makes you feel better about adding something as icky as logic to your creative endeavours, put on a deerstalker cap and try not to think about the fact that, no matter what the original illustrations implied, Sherlock Holmes did not wear one of those.

Got your cap on? Great, let’s go.

Deduction is the logic system in which you reason out the definite specific from the definite general – i.e. Dwarves never build handrails. Moria was built by dwarves. Therefore, Moria does not have any handrails. Deductive reasoning – when used correctly, which Holmes did not because he said deductive when he meant a different sort of logic – always comes to a logically valid conclusion. Use this type of logic to determine what parts of your world must be like (conclusions), based on your previous statements of fact (premises). If they don’t line up, you’ll need to change either the facts (“dwarves never build handrails”) or the result (remove the dwarvish handrails from wherever you had included them).

Induction is the logic system in which you reason out a hypothetical general from the definite specifics. The conclusion reached by properly applied induction is a probable, but not a fact and not a mere possible. The evidence given by the specifics supports the likelihood of the conclusion being correct – i.e. Handrails keep people from falling off high things. Dwarves think the risk of falling off high things is a matter of honour. Therefore, dwarven cities probably don’t include handrails in dangerous places. Again, if these things do not stack up when you look at your work, you need to change something. Or, given that induction is about probability, to show in detail what element logically accounts for the gap left by whatever components failed to pass this reasoning test.

Abduction is the logic system in which your reason out a hypothetical specific from the definite general. It’s basically deduction, but questionable. It is also known as “inference to the best explanation” and is the form of logic we are all most familiar with. Why? Because if it looks like a duck, and it waddles like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This, incidentally, is the kind of logic that Sherlock Holmes used – as the conclusions he reached were highly probable but not definite. The sheer complexity of human behaviour meant that Holmes was always speaking as certain (a lady of obviously middling means with callouses on her hands from typing is a professional typist) what was merely probable (she could also be a writer or a journalist, you know). This might not seem like a useful form of logic to apply to your fiction, but it’s actually one of the most important, because it allows you to play out the hypotheticals as you try to explain matters to a realistic conclusion – i.e. Dwarves do not build handrails. Dwarves are facing extinction because their children are few and often fail to survive. Therefore, dwarves are probably going extinct because their children keep falling to their deaths.

Then you apply the realism test to your conclusion. In this case: Would an intelligent species – which dwarves have to be if they’re building cities – really wait until they’re nearly extinct to add handrails? Probably not. All it would take would be one human child falling and, honour be damned, a human city council would be under immense pressure to add safety features. If dwarves are building cities they are probably sufficiently similar in psychology to assume that a similar reaction would occur (see that? That’s abduction again).

At this stage you’d do one of three things. Firstly, you could add handrails to nullify the Plot’s Hole’s cousin: Setting Hole (the adventures just happened to pass through the one place where the handrails have been destroyed and note that in text). Secondly you could make it a point that the dwarves cannot add handrails (or do but they keep being mysteriously destroyed) and are trying to keep their children safely away but they tragically keep slipping away and, er, slipping away anyway – in which case you’ve suddenly developed a new and interesting plot which you can write a story around. Lastly, you can nullify the premise which you find most problematic (for example: dwarves are actually facing an overpopulation crisis and breed like rabbits, so the lack of handrails is a deliberate population curbing method).

 

 

And after all of this you are probably wondering “But what about MAGIC? You said you were going to talk about MAGIC!”.

I did, and I did. Whatever rules you give your system of magic – if it even has a system the characters can understand, given that magic is a liminal force that exists in fiction to make us question what we are incapable of understanding and how to cope with the unknowable – you need to treat magic as if it is just as real in your world as practical things like handrails.

Ultimately, the way to ground magic – the way to make it seem like it actually exists – is to treat it like it actually exists.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in On Writing

 

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On Constructing Folklore

One of the things which bothers me the most in speculative fiction is how the folklore and mythologies are constructed. I love mythopoeia (constructing mythology) and I love folklore, but there’s one thing I see a lot of which drives me so far up the wall that I make friends with the ceiling.

That’s the assumption, by writers, that anything folklore that they write in – fairy tales, myths, legends, ancient prophecies, tall tales, jokes, etc – are basically like little stories in the main story which all work on the same rules. Yes, a focus on the numbers three and seven will appear – along with a few other ‘staples’ of the fairy tale – and the language will take on a more pretentious ‘old fashioned’ air, but other than that they are written as if they are working on the same rules as modern fiction writing. That they have the same sense and polish.

They arent polished. The ‘rules’ of writing a story are rules for polished, planned, stories written at once by one person for the purpose of telling that story. Folklore isnt. Myths, legends, folk tales, fairy tales, etc are the mish-mashed amalgams of many generations telling what they can remember of incidents, jokes, and stories, to each other and themselves, and twisting with each new teller – none of whom save the last (the one who writes it down in what comes to be the ‘final’ or ‘popular’ form) will be professional story-tellers and none of whom will know the craft.

No one who created folklore (as opposed to setting down on the record) set out to write a story. If you want your fictional folklore – your fairy tales, or mythopoeia, or legends for your heroes to go in search of – to ring true, to actually sound like they are folklore and not the author slamming a massive infodump down on a culture it doesn’t mesh with, you have to do one thing:

Take everything you ever learned about how to write a story or write correctly and THROW IT OUT.

Myths, fairy tales, and other folklore do not obey the rules of fiction writing. It’s not just a stylistic tone change. You know the phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’? Doesn’t apply here. Truth is stranger than fiction because truth involves the actions of humanity as a group. Fiction, in the modern sense, is not written by humanity as a group – it is written by one or two individual humans. Folklore, like truth, comes from humanity as a group. And humanity as a group is batshit crazy.

Folklore is not neat and tidy. Fiction is expected to be neat and tidy (tie up loose ends, not have plot holes, have characters who aren’t acting like they’ve been slapped half to death with a stupid stick, have a message or theme, etc). Most folklore, for all that there are some very ‘logical’ things within it (like how most vampire’s weaknesses are anti-septics), makes no sense. Consider the modern meme. No one can explain why certain things suddenly become hugely popular and get quoted and remixed to death, but they do and they are – for the most part – nonsensical. Nevertheless, they become a common theme amongst large swathes of the population – and while most fade from existence as rapidly as they occur, others linger …despite there being no rhyme or reason to which or why. The same is true of folklore. The myths and fairy tales which we have had passed down to us are the ones which lasted best – the funniest, or the least confusing – but if you actually read them (not their many retellings and adaptations) you find that they make no sense and that all of the ‘rules’ of fiction writing appear to have been ignored.

They weren’t ignored. They just aren’t applicable. And this is what modern writers creating folklore for their works need to understand. Fiction is orderly, but folklore is chaotic. If you are trying to neatly categorise your gods by what they are god of and your myths follow modern writing structures …well, then, you’ve failed to understand what real mythology is like.

Folklore – myths, fairy tales, the like – should feel alive. The clear, plot-relevant, modern-structured ‘myths’ and ‘fairy tales’ seen in modern speculative fiction don’t. The heart is missing from them. The myths and fairy tales – all the folklore, in fact – that writers create for the world’s they build work very well as little modern stories, but not as myths and fairy tales.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Descriptive Specificity

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Dense Descriptions and Descriptive Density

I’m really overworked right now (and it’s not as people are desperately waiting for me to publish these) so I’m switching to putting up new posts fortnightly.

 

We all know the phrase purple prose. (If you aren’t included in “all” it means prose descriptions so convoluted and ornate that they intrude upon the story, render comprehension difficult, and often actually mean nothing or involve malapropisms and contradictory descriptions. In other words: it’s too complicated and fluffy for utility of writing.) Many of us have heard the phrase beige prose. (It’s overly simple prose. In other words: it’s too barren and brief for utility of writing.)  While both of those extremes of descriptive quantity are undesirable in writing, quality writing can be filled with or sparse with descriptions without being either of those unwelcome colours. It’s all about density.

No, not as in: being stupid. Nor as in: being difficult to follow due to being closely packed with ideas or complexities of style. Well, a little like the latter. But mostly as in: mass per unit volume.  Mass here meaning, well; meaning, and unit volume being: per word.

This is because, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, not all descriptive text is created equal. It’s possible to write pages and pages of description which are utterly worthless because they, ultimately, signify nothing, and it’s possible to write one word of description which is so evocative that it gives the readers one hell of a punch in the gut.

For example, which of these descriptions works the best?

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said. She was guilty. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she bewailed dejectedly. There were no words for the crushing anguish of guilt which filled her heart like frozen water sinking a broken ship. (Description word count: 24)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. She blinked rapidly, holding back tears, but held her head high – as if that would prevent drowning in grief. (Description word count: 24)

Okay, so none of them are particularly brilliant, given that I came up with them in under a minute, but they illustrate the point.

Option one is Beige Prose; there is no indication of the feelings until they are bluntly, and emotionlessly, stated.

Option two is Purple Prose; not only does trying to invoke the Titanic and its friends detract from the emotional resonance of the scene, the sentence also mixes its metaphors (something that fills as it crushes), and – worst of all – it tells the readers absolutely nothing about how that particular character feels and acts.

Option three isn’t the greatest sentence in the world, but it avoids both the others’ pitfalls, showing rather than telling and, although it has the same amount of words as option one, the description of action and the inference of pain from it tells the reader more.

Option four, meanwhile, has the same amount of words as option two, but they don’t just sit there looking pretty – each word tells the reader something. The emotional situation option two takes a confused metaphor or two and more than twenty words to explain, option four gives in eight (and adds to it characterisation – she’s drowning in guilt but trying not to and holding her emotions in) which leaves plenty of other words for more information and descriptions.

Both options three and four are reasonable types of description, depending on whether you prefer to write minimalist (the least amount of description necessary to get the story across) or with immersive and lavish description (the most amount of description to paint the world and characters without clouding the story). This is because three and four give the reader more information and emotion per word than options one and two. It is also because, all importantly, options one and two – by their under and over stated natures – don’t actually make sense.

And this is what I’m getting at: it’s not enough to have descriptions – large or small – in a work. You also have to understand why they’re there, what they do, and which ones actually function properly.

 

1) Description has to Orient the Reader: Despite what many people think, description is not an optional garnish for the story. Description serves a very vital purpose. This is because it is impossible to show the setting or characterise the characters without describing them. Without sufficient description – without description serving its most basic purpose – you get meaningless, feeling-less, blather by talking heads in white space. The reason that beige prose is bad prose is that it is insufficiently descriptive prose. Minimalist descriptive prose, on the other hand, still has enough description to orient the readers in both the space and the people. Despite the term “Scrip fic” in fanfiction, even real scripts require description of character and setting. Not as much as prose, admittedly, but still a sufficient amount to allow the set and actors to be made and perform appropriately and orient the audience. If a writer fails to put enough description into a scene, the readers will be quite justified in wondering why these toneless, un-embodied, people are floating around in the middle of nowhere. Tacking a quick description onto the end of the scene won’t help, either, because it either is too late to convince the reader that the character’s aren’t in blank space, or – if the reader has done the writer’s job for them and invented characters and a setting for the conversation – it will destroy the mental image and understanding which the reader has built up. Similarly, shoving a quick description at the start will only serve to make the readers wonder where the setting and feelings went. Without sufficient description to orient the reader, they are left dizzy, confused, and failed by the author who did not take the time to ground them in this new reality.

2) Description has to Suit the Setting: Have you ever had the misfortune of enjoying a typically Medieval-esque fantasy only to have your suspension of disbelief brutally slaughtered when something very loud or very fast was compared to a sonic boom? What about a story focused around aliens which describes the villain as inhumane? Or a story set in Victorian London where the prose (which should match the point of view character) described an airship as “cool” or a love interest’s “cute butt”? If you’ve ever encountered anything like that, you probably already get what I’m going on about here. The ONLY excuse for description to be mismatched with the setting is if the point of view character (or omniscient third-person narrator) is explicitly and deliberately being juxtaposed with a setting to which they themselves do not belong. (A book about a time traveller written in tight-third person or first person smartarse might well use descriptions that reference things which have not yet been invented, while an omniscient third person narrator has the pleasure of being able to tell you exactly how many nostril hairs a dog on the other side of the universe, ten million years after the story, has – if they should choose to wander away from the main narrative like that with regularity – or to discuss why a character’s opinion of something being described is inaccurate. Stories which are told from any other point of view than those do not have this pleasure.) Now, this does not mean that every single word has to be from the time and place in which the story is set – else every Medieval-esque fantasy would be written in Middle English – but the author does have to choose their words with care, and avoid those blatantly inappropriate for the setting but normal for the author’s life, so that they do not disturb the setting.

3) Description has to Suit the Character: The funny thing about prose is that, while it is not as directly form a character as their speech, it is still inevitably the story as told by someone. That’s what point of view is, and there is no way to write fiction without a point of view. It could be the protagonist, or a revolving set of characters, or an omniscient being standing firmly outside of the story (i.e. the author’s voice), but it’s still someone’s take on events. This means that the descriptions should be in tune with the character whose point of view the story is written in. An omniscient narrator, who describes every character’s appearance in a sort of oddball way, focuses on the less common features rather than the obvious, and always starts with each character’s worst features should not begin describing a love interest with a loving and traditional run down of their hair, eyes, and skin. A tight-third person story following a taciturn, plainspoken character who is focused on getting to the cells to rescue their comrade should not veer off to gush over the beauteous architecture and how the castle’s high towers touch the sky like little silver needles attempting to pin blue silk. You might think that’s the best description in the world, but if the character whose point of view the story, even in the third person, is told through wouldn’t even be looking at the sky – let alone considering it in poetic burbling – the prose shouldn’t be describing it. If you absolutely need to include a mention of the tall towers for plot and foreshadowing reasons: make it match the character (he might notice the pattern of shadows the towers cause and think about if that will help or hinder the upcoming escape, for instance).

Likewise, an extremely visual or poetic character – such as a painter or, you know, a poet – would be inclined to more lavish physical descriptions, so blunt and minimalist descriptions would not be appropriate. For instance: a painter or tailor confronted with a “green dress” probably would automatically categorise it by the appropriate shade of green, and possibly the fabric, “dress of jade silk” – but if the generic is always used, it starts to feel like the “expert” doesn’t know jack shit about their profession and trade. And that is also important: a character’s profession – and mood – will decide what they will notice (and thus what the prose will describe) as much as their personality will. Thieves will notice escape routes and the expense (and fence-ability) of items before they notice how beautiful something is. Visual artists will give more vivid descriptions of appearances, but chefs and perfumers will take note of how things taste and smell first. A detective will be more inclined to catalogue things factually, while a writer will be more inclined to describe things with indefinite language (it might be this, it could be used for that, why does that person have that, etc).

4) Description has to Suit the Plot: The balance between keeping prose true to the person (that is point of view) from which it is told and keeping your audience from strangling you for seemingly pulling details from nowhere, or constantly dragging their attention away from what is important to focus on décor, is a difficult one. Generally speaking, you need to introduce all the details – that is, describe the things – that are vital to the plot before they become vital to the plot. Or, to reverse Chekhov’s famous point, if you want to take a gun off the wall and shoot it in act three, you had damn well better mention that it’s there in act one. Likewise, if you want to take a gun off the wall and fire it in act three, you have to make sure – back in act one – that the wall is not so cluttered as to render the gun un-findable. To put that in plain English: any detail relevant to the plot must be described sufficiently for its relevance(minimum: a passing note that it exists, so that it does not seem to have been pulled out of the writer’s arse thin air when needed).

In beige prose the problem is that a thing will not be mentioned at all until it is suddenly needed – whether this is a gun on the wall, the fact that the characters are human, or even the location something is taking place in. This is how some, badly written, pieces have characters suddenly and dramatically falling down the stairs and dying, when so far the prose has given no indication that they are embodied and in a building, let alone near sufficiently fatal stairs!

In purple prose, meanwhile, the problem is that the author misbalances the amount of attention each thing described is given – thereby still managing to make the readers feel that they have pulled plot convenient things from their rectums. In these cases the author will give long and complex descriptions about just about everything – except those things which actually matter (location, things that are going to affect the plot, etc). This is how some stories (which will remain nameless) end up with a vague mention that the character is walking down the street, then give paragraph upon paragraph on what they are wearing, only to suddenly have the character nearly run over by a carriage – leaving the readers to wonder why the hell it was not earlier mentioned that there was a carriage racing down the street or, at the very least, that the setting was pre-automotive! (For the record, if a carriage were racing down the street so wildly that someone could be hit, the character should at least notice the sound of hooves and the yelling of people trying to get out of the way that would accompany it.) Likewise, if a character – especially if it is the introduction to them – is described performing some action that is not usually performed while armed (renovating a house, for example) and then when other characters sneak up on them, they suddenly pull out a pair of guns from nowhere; the prose damn well should have mentioned that they were armed before that point.

5) Description has to Suit the Pace: The wonderful thing about prose is that it does not – for all that the overarching feel of a piece should be consistent – have to stay at the same level of description the whole way through. The downside of this is that you have to match the amount of description to how fast the story should be moving at any given point …and many, many authors fall into the trap of assuming that the more important and climactic a scene, the more description it requires. This is how some epic, “fast paced” battles wind up with a paragraph’s description of the light shining off the swords, or the fighters’ clothes and faces, or the picturesque surroundings between every slash and parry. Descriptive prose is not a video camera, dear authors; what the camera tells us in a millisecond takes a page in the prose. Slow and steady, or interaction focused, scenes can bear the load of large descriptions because they have the time and breadth to do so. Fast, or action focused, scenes cannot because they are thin, wiry things and the weight will crush and halt them. This, for the record, is why it’s so damned important to describe what exists before you get to those fast scenes. If the prose describes the winding alleyways, slippery rooftops, and secret escape routes while the thief is on their way to steal the crown jewels, it saves the readers from being rightly pissed off when – later – the thief is apparently chased through white space which morphs into convenient escape routes as needed.

6) Description has to have the Correct Meaning: Vermillion is a kind of red. It is not green. Although livid can mean reddish, when someone is livid with strong emotion it means that they look strangled by it (discoloured and blanched – that is, pale – with a bluish tinge). Tenebrous is dark, gloomy, or obscure – it has nothing to do with being tentative. Greaves means lower leg armour. If your character is wearing their greaves on their arms, they should be both uncomfortable and looking for a new squire. I don’t know if there’s any more to say about this than: don’t just assume you know what a word means. Check and make sure that your description does not describe something different than what you thought you were describing. Very few words have exact synonyms. More often they mean something very similar, but not precisely the same – be that slightly different shades of colour, or intertwined but distinct feelings, or other gradients. Don’t just look up synonyms in the thesaurus: check the dictionary to see if the words the thesaurus gave you actually describe what you want to describe.

7) Description has to have the Correct Implications: Serviette and napkin both mean napkin. However, in Victorian London (and even, to a far lesser degree, today) which you chose to use would reveal whether you were upper (napkin) or middle (serviette) class. (Long story short: the new middle class tended to use fancier words to sound more posh, while the upper class – secure in their pedigrees – used plain English.) Now, that sort of distinction is going to be more important in dialogue than in prose, but it is important in matching the prose to the point of view the story is narrated from. This fun game, however, is not limited to class-distinctions. Two words with the same meaning can have different implications. Laid off and fired both mean fired, but the general understanding is that laid off wasn’t personal and fired was, not because they have an official difference in meaning, but because people generally use them that way. Fired is evocative of swiftness, anger, and the personal touch. Laid off brings up feelings of mass action, inevitability, and depression. And this, this, is why you can’t just decide to be a writer one day – why not everyone can be one – and why it is actually very difficult. Writing is about knowing the value – the implications, the mass density – of every single word, and knowing how to evoke the deepest and most accurate feeling from them. Implication is to writing as the affects of atomic weight is to science: it is not enough to know what the mean or weigh; you have to know exactly what they can and will do.

8) Description has to be Understandable: Despite what the writers of beige prose think, minimalism does not mean the smallest number of words. It means the smallest number of words necessary to clearly convey the meaning and story. Likewise, writers of purple prose tend to assume that vivid writing is cramming in as much description as possible and highlighting the descriptions, when it is – in fact –using more description in order to give more clarity, realism, and oomph to the story.

 

Don’t be described as dense, know the critical density of your descriptions.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Commonly Misused Words

Allergy: Physical reaction of “cannot cope” from the body, in response to some object contact. Not “I don’t like this”.  Having an allergy means having an abnormal (and often serious) medical reaction to a certain stimulus (an allergen). If you tell the people employed in a restaurant that you are allergic to something, you are asking them to clean everything an extra time to make sure you don’t die. If you’re saying that you’re allergic just because you don’t like something, you are physically not allergic and are metaphorically being a dick. Try just asking politely if they could serve whatever it is you’re ordering without the thing you don’t like.

Anarchy: Without government. Rejecting hierarchy. Without leaders. Leaderless. None of that, you’ll note, includes “chaotic hellhole of violent rampaging survivalists who immediately turned on each other once there were no richer, higher ranking people to tell them what to do” which is how anarchy is typically viewed. See, that second definition – the inaccurate one – is entirely from Hobbes’ view of human nature. Namely, that class systems (yes, Hobbes was what we would call Classist) were necessary because human nature was a cruel animalistic sort of thing. Now, that’s a gross generalisation, but you get the point. Yes, some people calling themselves anarchists have caused political chaos and yes some people who have been called anarchists by others have caused political chaos (such as Guy Fawkes who explicitly wanted to replace the government with a theocracy – a desire which absolutely excludes anarchy as they are completely incompatible!). But most anarchists, despite the word being usurped to refer to militant groups in political wars who just happen to want a different government than the one American news stations support, are not in agreement with Hobbes on human nature. Anarchists think that society without government – without leaders – could work. As in: it could be a functioning society. In fact, that it could be a better functioning society than any governed society. Why? Because genuine anarchists take the opposite view to Hobbes: they think that without class systems and leaders (and countries) to divide us humans would actually be better to each other. As in: anarchists – especially anarcho-pacifists, which is one of the bigger sub-divisions of anarchists – are probably more optimistic and peaceful people than most others. Because in order to genuinely believe that people would work together in a functional society if there were no laws (and thus no threats) to keep them behaving, you have to be able to look at all the horrible injustice and evil that humans do to each other and still be able to truly, truly, believe that humanity is, by nature, better than that. So next time you’re about to write that “the battlefield was anarchy”, stop and ask yourself: Is the battlefield really a society without government? Or is it just a bloody, chaotic, mess full of screaming people who aren’t actually sure what’s going on right not and are just out to save themselves? For that matter, which one of those options actually evokes the image you’re going for? I’m betting it’s the latter.

Assault: Not actually the same thing as battery. Assault is an attempt or threat of harmful or offensive contact with a person. Battery is actually managing it. If someone charges at you with a sock full of batteries: it’s assault. If they actually manage to hit you with the sock full of batteries: it’s battery.

Ichor: Not actually the infallible touchstone of the seventh rate. Nor, however, a generic garnish for gelatinous oozes and other slimy horrors. Ichor has two very specific meanings and two alone. It is either an acrid and watery discharge from wounds or ulcers, or it is the blood of the gods in Ancient Greek Mythology – in which case it is golden in colour and poisonous to mortals.

Interpret: To construe, understand, construct or render in a particular way. To make a hypothesis about what something could be, rather than to give a fact about what it was meant to be. It’s fine for a literary critic or English teacher to say “the author didn’t mean X but a reader can apply X meaning to it” just so long as they don’t do what they all currently do, while bellowing about why the author is dead, which is to say “the author meant X” when the author has said they did not. It’s also perfectly fine to say “the author said they meant Y, not X, but they did a really shitty job of incorporating that into the text and so a reader can easily interpret it to mean X”, just not “the author, who has said they did not mean X, meant X”. The only person who can know what someone meant is the person who meant something. Or, to clarify the difference between what someone meant and what can be interpreted from their words or actions: “I didn’t mean to stand on your foot” “Yeah, but you’re still on my foot and it hurts so get the fuck off”.

Literally:  Despite what the internet may have implied at you, “literally” does not mean “metaphorically very much”. It means “really” as in actually in real life happening really. For example, if someone says “I am just venting about this topic and do not want any responses because it literally gives me blood pressure problems to just think about it for a second, and it triggers my anxiety problems” they are not saying that it like metaphorically riles them a bit. They are saying that bringing it up at them, after a direct plea that you not do that, is going to cause them real life medical issues and, thus having been warned, that if you choose to do so anyway you are knowingly and wilfully causing them medical problems. Similarly, Jon Oliver metaphorically destroys social issues on his show, but literally destroys a piñata (not multiple piñatas). No, seriously. Go look that up on youtube.

 Meant: In all its forms, meaning is an intention. A thing can mean something different to many different people, but no one can “unintentionally” mean something. Something can have other potential meanings than the one you meant (that is: can be interpreted differently) but you can’t unintentionally mean something. Meaning is by definition an intention. So when your English teacher or friendly local literary critic tells you that “the author meant X” when the author has explicitly said “I did NOT mean X”, they are a liar. They also think they know better than the original creator and yet, at the same time, they don’t understand the definitions of basic English words. What these people are trying to say, I presume, is; “The author meant X but it’s not explicit in the text and therefore it can also be interpreted by other people in way X”.  But they really need to actually say that.

Poisonous: Not the same as venomous. No, really. In the former case you die if you bite it, in the latter case you die if it bites you. Poisonous can also refer to gasses and liquids, but neither of those is going bite you. Typically the mix up here is writers describing snakes or arachnids as poisonous (which they technically could be, but in which case you need to show your character eating them) rather than, say, super-intelligent clouds of carbon monoxide swooping around and nipping at people.

Reign/Rein/Rain: If you “reign” in your horse, you are the ruling power inside your horse. If you “rain” in your horse you are a cloud precipitating in a most disturbing location. If, however, you “rein” in your horse, you’re just exerting pressure on the bridle in order to control the animal you are riding.

 

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2016 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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