Theory of Villains

I have a theory about villains. It’s not exactly my theory in the sense of something I invented; I either read it or heard it somewhere (and my rapidly-aging brain has genuinely forgotten where) and instantly felt that it was true. So I did what (I am told) all good writers do and stole it. To whoever I stole it from, both thank you and my apologies.

In any case, the Theory of Villains is basically this. A compelling villain, the kind you remember and the kind that really works as a character, is one that believes they are completely justified in everything they do. They don’t think of themselves as doing anything bad at all. If you sat them down and talked to them, they would explain with complete sincerity that everyone else has it wrong, and that they are in fact the good guy. Now, this isn’t true of all or even necessarily most fictional villains, but when I think of the ones that I have really liked as characters, that I have enjoyed reading about (even while rooting against them) and really believed as creations, it is almost always true.

Lex Luthor thinks Superman is an alien menace.  Tom Zarek from the BSG reboot was a wonderful example of the Theory – he’s always, always got apparently selfless, altruistic motives for everything he does.  Heck, some of the time the show’s protagonists even believe him.  One of Jim Butcher’s better villain creations was the faerie lady Aurora, who is willing to dump the world into endless winter – to bring an end to millennia of Summer vs Winter war and all the suffering this has caused.

Another writer friend of mine pointed out that this is basically the inverse of her Theory of Heroes, which is essentially that everyone thinks that they’re the hero of the story. Nobody thinks of themselves as a side character in someone else’s story; the story is about them and (among other things) therefore their needs are likely to be paramount, their goals the most significant ones. I think this is a) broadly true and also b) important for thinking about how to write believable characters, because even if, as writers, we do decide who the Main Character is and who the Minor Characters are, those Minor Characters probably wouldn’t or shouldn’t agree, if we could ask them. They’re the star of their own story, and that’s how they would see their (pretend) world and interpret what goes on in it. It makes things more complicated for writing them, but I think it does also lead to characters that readers will believe.

Back to the villains, though. It’s easy (easy-ish) to write a character that just Does Bad Stuff and cackles maniacally and have your hero try to Do Something About it, but I’m not really going to buy it as a reader unless there’s a reason why. Why does this person (or whatever) want to kill a bunch of people, or blow something up, or whatever dastardly plot they have in mind? The characters that I tend to remember long after the story is over are the ones who would not only have a reason, but would also explain that what they were doing wasn’t dastardly at all. It had, needed to be done.

I recently came across a good example of this being (in my view) violated on a TV show that I ordinarily think is pretty good – basically we have our bad guy and he has a huge spaceship and it’s name the Malevolence. Which is a nicely menacing name, except that no-one actually names their ships that. No-one really (I argue) sits there and thinks ‘I am an intensely Evil Person and thus this Evil Name for my stuff is appropriate’. They think, instead, that they’re doing the right thing, perhaps via ‘tough love’ or ‘harsh medicine’, or perhaps they’re the only person with the courage to realize what the problems are and do what is necessary. They give their ship a name like Justifier or Conviction or something.

I’m writing about this this week because recent events gave me some pause about the Theory of Villains. I was confronted with people who genuinely made the argument that it was ok to stop funding food for the elderly, the sick, and underprivileged children, on the grounds that there was nothing in it for them and that they weren’t seeing enough of a return. As though a ‘return’ beyond ‘feeding hungry people’ should be necessary. If I read that in a book I’d think ‘no dude, that’s a bit over the top and you need to dial this back a bit if I’m going to believe it’.

And yet here we are. And then another friend of mine pointed out that the people who make these kind of decisions genuinely think the poor are in poverty because of their own wastefulness and failures and deserve punishment, and so the Theory of Villains got another unwelcome bit of supporting evidence.

There really is a way to make nearly any vile character into one who believes that they’re the hero. While it’s unfortunate (to put it lightly) that we’ve got these real life examples to contend with, as a writer I keep the Theory of Villains in mind whenever I’m creating one of my imaginary bad people. I’ve always tried to make my antagonists the kind of people who would vehemently argue that they’re not villains at all, and I think it’s turned out ok.

This is all perilously close to Advice.

Thanks for reading.

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Gotham

Last night I was watching the most recent episode of Gotham. If you don’t know the show, the basic pitch is ‘Gotham City before Batman’ which is a bit of a curious idea (although we do seem to love a prequel, these days) but since I am (you will no doubt be aware) a sucker for superhero stuff, I started watching. I will be honest and say I don’t love the show, but there are some interesting things about it.

One of the things that intrigued me during its first season was the very visible and thorough change of tack the show went through. For the first few episodes, we were given something trying to be a gritty cop drama with a few hints of the weirdness that would later plague the city. We had Detective James Gordon trying to deal with IA cops, we had organized crime, we had Donal Logue doing a fantastic Harvey Bullock. It was thoroughly unremarkable.

Then the show pivoted quite swiftly, embracing the over-the-top nature of the Batman setting, so that by now we have the Joker and the Penguin, we’ve had Mr. Freeze and Hugo Strange, we have the Riddler in all but name, and we’ve basically had Clayface. Det. Gordon’s fiance Barbara has turned from an entirely cliche, auxiliary and disposable character into a lunatic crimelord. I am honestly not sure how well any of these characters, and this super-villain plagued Gotham really work without Batman. I’ll get back to that.

It’s possible all this was planned from the outset, but with the way characters that were introduced just abruptly stopped appearing, and plotlines vanished into the aether, it doesn’t feel that way. It seemed to me very much like the creators of a show realizing that Idea #1 wasn’t working and hastily changing course to Idea #2 that, whatever else you can say about it, is definitely not boring. (It doesn’t always make sense, but it’s not boring) If that’s the case, it worked out for them because it got the show renewed and they’re on Season 3 now.

Anyway, it was interesting to me to watch the rewriting and reworking happen. It seems to me that this may be one of the advantages of a serialized piece of work; you can gauge the reaction of your audience and rejig things to give them more of what they want, or less of what they don’t like. When I write a whole book (“when”, he says optimistically) I don’t know whether people like what I’m doing or not until they see the whole thing, or at least not most of the people. This is one more reason to be grateful to the Eager Volunteers, who haven’t seen a rewrite on the scale of Gotham yet but may one day, I guess.

So that’s the first thing.

The second gets back to the idea of Gotham, full of its villains, without Batman, and whether that works. (And by this, I mean ‘works for me’, but it’s my blog after all) I don’t think that it does, terribly well, because you end up with this tornado of increasingly violent awfulness without the figure who can, on some level, deal with it all, and without the symbol of hope that suggests that all of this mess can be overcome. That’s a big part of why I don’t love Gotham; what we’ve seen so far has been really bleak, if a sort of darkly entertaining bleak.

But then this last episode, for the first time we saw young Bruce Wayne (played by David Mazouz, who is absolutely believable in the role) stand up to the proto-Joker, and in a couple scenes, start to be the Batman. (Gotham writers having never in their lives heard of subtlety, of course they threw a music sting suggesting the Hans Zimmer Batman theme all over these moments.) They were just moments, but they were there, and for those brief spaces of time Gotham, and Gotham, had its hero.

Despite not loving the show, those moments still got me. Naturally (well, for me), I immediately Got To Thinking about why. Part of it is fairly straightforward: Batman is one of my favourite comic characters* and so whenever the story (and it’s really almost any story) starts to meander in the direction where Batman is about to appear, I’m going to like it. However, it’s not just that. It’s also that the hero, at least briefly, arrived. It was probably more effective because the hero is a character I like, but just the idea that out of mayhem and death a figure was going to appear to Fix Things is one that I know I like, and I think (if you look at stories that have been popular over the years) it’s one that we like in general.

I do slightly wonder why, although on some level wondering why a story has a good guy may seem a little stupid. But, we really seem to like these characters who can show up in the nick of time and rescue us when we’re in danger, to round up all the bad guys, and to fix what has been broken. Part of it is, undeniably, good storytelling. But why does it appeal to us, especially when most people’s experience with the real world tells them this is not a thing that actually happens? Problems do get solved, but it’s almost always by ordinary people taking ordinary actions.

And yet we like the thoroughly unrealistic alternative. We like made-up stories in general, so no doubt part of this is just enjoying imaginary things as we always do. I wonder, though, if part of it is some sense that we have (or, at a minimum, that I have) that there should be such figures, who can arrive when they’re needed and save us, save us from ourselves if need be. Who know what needs to be done and can just appear and do it.

(This was, as I try desperately to avoid a long tangent, one of my favourite bits of the pilot for Person of Interest, a show you may recall I liked a lot. The main action-y character, Reese, gets hooked into this crazy plan to use a super-intelligent AI to stop crimes before they happen more or less entirely through the promise of being able to show up in time. The chance to be that hero that we all think really should exist, even as we know they don’t. Reese (who starts the series a seriously broken person) has felt the frustration of the absence of that hero and it’s more or less what sells him on signing up for a project run by a crazy rich guy living in an abandoned library. (Seriously. Go watch Person of Interest))

Stories like Batman stories, most superhero stories, many of the movies we like, and (maybe, now) Gotham, satisfy that feeling, at least briefly. They give us the hero that we feel, on some instinctive level, should be out there.

It is both a sad reality, but also a liberating one, that this isn’t true. We solve our own problems.

Thanks for reading.

*-there are legitimate criticisms about the character and the ideas underpinning it that I acknowledge, especially the ‘Batman is a rich guy beating up poor people’ one. It is not a great look. I guess I deflect it by focusing on the fact that Batman doesn’t really spend that much time fighting ordinary criminals, he’s pretty much 24/7 on the supervillain beat now. I also think there’s a lot genuinely good and inspirational about the character that I’m not ready to throw in the trash. It’s problematic, though, and I’m not done thinking about it. Maybe you get a blog on that down the road. (Attach your ‘please, no’ comments below)

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The Vigil

The only idea I had for a blog this week was a pretty hacky entry on how I see similarities between writing and making stew (I made a big ol’ pot of stew last week) and that was both extremely uninspired and also dangerously close to advice. Instead, I present the following, which is an expansion of my reaction to a picture one of my friends shared on Facebook. Yes, I went with the cat picture idea instead. I hope you’ll like it better than the stew thing.

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In our village there is a church, old and stone, worn and weathered in a fashion that lends it an aura of imperishability. When the church was first built, no-one is certain; people from the schools have come, sketched, measured, studied, and disagreed. But it has been here a very long time. You cannot find a description of the village without it.

In the church lives a cat with long, thick, grey hair. The cat belongs to nobody, although it sleeps in the rectory on cold nights, prowls the churchyard, and sits by the lych-gate each Sunday. Each day at noon it climbs to the roof, and out onto the back of a particular old gargoyle, spotted with lichen and smoothed by time. There the cat sits, and watches the horizon, all afternoon.

It watches in every season.

It watches in all weathers.

The cat’s watch has never failed.

The cat seems as though it has always sat on its perch on the church-roof, and the church looks as though it has always been here to serve as the cat’s watch-place, and perhaps both things are true. What the cat watches for, no-one can say. No-one can remember, exactly, when the cat came and took up its vigil. I cannot recall a time before the cat’s watch began, nor can any of my friends. The cat has watched a long time.

Of course we discuss this, in the village, from time to time. All cats like to climb high, and look out across their kingdoms, this is well known. But most cats do not go to the very same spot at the very same time each day, and most cats do not gaze out into the distance quite so long. Most of us have our memories of cats: marvellous, cherished, and gone, but no-one has a story to match this one.

So we talk, and imagine, and create our own reasons, sometimes believing they are true but never truly feeling we understand. It is a puzzlement joined by each person who visits the village, for there is not a great deal to see, and in time every visitor comes to the church, and sees its sentry. What the cat watches for, no-one can say, but every person who comes to our church-yard, and sees the small grey cat on his lofty perch always ends by agreeing that they are somehow glad the cat is there, and glad it keeps its vigil.

The sun is high in the sky, clear and bright today, and it is nearly noon. I stand outside my house and know that the cat will soon be watching. I look out to the horizon and wonder what it watches for. Does it look to see that something is there, or perhaps to be sure that something does not approach? I wonder, if I had the answer to that question, would I be comforted or afraid? I wonder what will happen on the day when the cat looks out and sees a difference in its world. The cat, apparently, knows to watch. Does it also know what must be done next?

Will we be shown, or told, or is that secret, and the vigil, for only a cat to know?

A vague uncertainty squirms in my guts now, and I walk to the corner, where I can look down the street, and see the church-roof.

The cat watches still.

(Thank you to my friend Victoria for sending me the picture that led to me writing whatever this is. I wrote this pretty much straight through so it is, I am sure, more than a little rough. If you have any comments, as always I’d love to hear them.)

(The church in the picture is in Knightshayes, Devon. I’ve never been but if I ever visit I hope the cat will still be there. If you own the picture and would like credit, or me to take it down, please let me know.)

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Bill Paxton

On the weekend, Bill Paxton died. I never met him and don’t know much about him as a person but he was in a lot of things I took pleasure from and I always enjoyed his performances. He got eaten by xenomorphs in Aliens, wiped out by a Predator in Predator 2, and terminated in The Terminator. He was in Tombstone and Twister and both of those were stories I liked a lot, and of course he did a lot more work than that. By all accounts he was a lovely human being and he’ll be missed for a lot of different reasons.

I’m not sure, then, that it says anything good about me that my first reaction upon seeing the news of his passing was to think of his line as Private Hudson in Aliens: ‘Oh, that’s just fucking great. Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?’ Then again apparently he had a sense of humour so maybe he would have laughed.

While I liked a lot of the characters he portrayed, in some ways Hudson is the one I think of most (maybe because I’ve seen Aliens a few too many times) and almost everyone who has watched any SF at all at least knows the ‘Game over man, game over’ meltdown. In some ways he seems to be a very straightforward character, but (as usual) I’ve Gotten To Thinking about him over the years and there’s some issues attached to Hudson after all.

When you see the movie the first time, almost everyone reacts to Hudson and his tearful collapse the same way: he’s a coward, he’s all talk and can’t back it up, he’s almost the stereotypical ‘bully’ character who’s supposed to collapse in the face of adversity. We admire Ripley and Hicks for keeping their shit together (and Ripley is a character who does deserve all the praise written for her) and it seems pretty clear, going forward, who’s really a hero, and who’s pretending.

When you think about it a little more, though, things get a touch more complicated. Yes, Hudson has a big messy meltdown. But it’s not in the moment of danger. When the Aliens are actually attacking, Hudson gets down to business. Every time. He doesn’t actually run away or freeze, he fights. When he’s given a non-combat task to do, he gets it done. His bad moment(s) are those in-between moments when there’s nothing to do but think about the predicament he’s in. One sympathises, and in the end, he goes down screaming defiance at a threat he probably can’t even really wrap his mind around and takes a lot of chitinous horrors with him.

Again, those ‘weak’ moments (as we might view them)are always in pauses in the action, and there’s honestly pretty good reasons for him. By the time of the ‘Game Over’ scene, he’s just seen most of his friends and squadmates devoured by aliens, his sergeant is dead, his lieutenant is clearly good for nothing at all (now there’s someone who does freeze when the chips are down) and the vehicle they were counting on to get them off this deathtrap of a planet has just crashed in flames. Not only is Hudson’s reaction not really exceptionally bad, it’s really completely understandable.

It’s just not, perhaps, what we expect from a ‘hero’, especially in the action-y genre that Aliens inhabits.

This reminds me, in turn, of an ongoing debate I have with one of my Eager Volunteers. (Which, I want to make clear, I completely appreciate.) A lot of times he questions the reactions of my protagonist in bad situations and basically asks ‘hey, shouldn’t this guy be at least a bit afraid?’. It’s a good point, because most people, put in those kinds of situations, would probably be more than a little afraid and probably would freak out something along the lines of Private Hudson.

So, sometimes I punch up the reaction, but sometimes I reason that fictional heroes are allowed to be more than a little exceptional and don’t punch it up very much. Because we expect our heroes to be that way, fearless, at least a lot of the time, even if we know that most people would be afraid and would show their fear in that kind of situation, and certainly that we would, put in some kind of perilous jam.

We believe this to the point that a character displaying a perfectly human reaction to unimaginable terror becomes a joke because of it. Some of this, I’m sure, is that we want our fictional heroes to be more than ordinary, in all kinds of ways. It’s troublesome and discouraging when our fears keep us from doing the things that we need to do or want to do, and so it’s nice to at least imagine times when that absolutely does not happen.

I guess thinking about Private Hudson makes me think that at least sometimes, that’s also a little unfair. It may set a bar for ‘heroic’ behaviour that’s so high that no real person can possibly reach it, and it may also, if we let it, rob us of what I think are actually the much more compelling moments, when we see a person who is afraid and does what they have to anyway because nothing else will serve. That’s among the many reasons why I think Ripley is such a good character; she never goes to pieces like Hudson, but she’s clearly terrified a lot of the time in Alien and Aliens and she still gets stuff handled. And I think Hudson, in the end, is arguably just as heroic, because he does go to pieces but pulls it back together and gets back in the fight.

Maybe it’s a question of degrees. Perhaps there’s some kind of ideal balance out there between ‘shows genuine emotional reactions’ and ‘behaves heroically’ out there for me to chase.

Maybe it’s a question of unfair expectations.

But, perhaps at least in part in salute to Private Hudson, who I would put on my squad any time, and Bill Paxton, who brought the character to life along with all the others we enjoyed, I’ll let my imaginary heroes show a little more of their very human fears of the horrible places I make them go.

The story will probably be better, and it’ll make that one Eager Volunteer happy.

Thanks for reading.


Remember that I am still donating all my royalties from sales of either The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures to the Canadian Council for Refugees up until March 3rd.  You can help people in desperate trouble and reward yourself with a story I think you’ll like at the same time.

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In Praise of Readers

Late last week I sent out another (by which I really mean ‘the second’) chunk of the current WIP to some Eager Volunteers to see what they thought. I’ve been finding the writing hard going of late and I hoped this might help.

It did.

The Volunteers emailed back almost right away, one having read the piece while plagued by insomnia (which is a decision that’s possible to read in a couple ways, but never mind) and sent back their usual thoughtful response, which included some useful criticism, some questions, and some compliments.

On some level the praise is most obviously useful to me in my current situation. Everyone likes a pat on the head and having someone whose opinion I respect say that they’re enjoying what I’m working on will probably always feel good. So that’s a nice shot of positivity to encourage me to keep working away. It also helps to hear that someone wants to learn more about a particular character, or to know what’s going to happen; I guess obviously a writer is always hoping to generate interest and it’s both pleasing and a relief to know that in at least a couple of cases, I’m setting the hook okay.

The criticism is very nearly as useful, though, because concrete areas where the story needs work are better than a sense of generalized unease where I know there are things that aren’t right but not exactly what they are, much less how to fix them. It’s always easier to have something like a bullet list (har) of things that need to be taken care of than a vague idea that Stuff needs to be Fixed. Having people where there’s a strong enough trust that they tell me what they really think, and they know that I really do want to know what they really think, and not just get a pat on the head, is (as I am discovering) both rare and incredibly valuable.

The questions never cease to fascinate me, because the things readers are intrigued by and want to know more about seem always to include things that I never anticipated. I wrote a while ago about how a character in The King in Darkness that I didn’t think anyone would have any particular interest in ended up getting a scene added to the final draft to finish their story, because readers kept asking about it. So it already is with this piece, and what it mostly does is make me happy that what I’m writing can be interpreted and understood in a variety of ways (because if a reader understood it exactly the same way as I do, writing it, they wouldn’t have some of these questions), which is something I always enjoy when I’m reading and very much want to create when I’m writing. It also gives me ideas for things to do next, which is also very valuable.

All of which to say that the responses I get from my Eager Volunteers is a treasure to me as a writer, and makes my task in creating the story so much easier and the final project immeasurably better. I have had a good number of genuinely well-meaning people offer to take on the task and had it not work out (which I completely understand – if nothing else, it’s not easy to devote some of one’s precious store of free time to reading something they may not even like), so that makes the people who are willing to put in the time struggling through a rough-hewn story and then also take the time to share their responses and reactions to it with me a very special breed.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank them once again, because I appreciate what they do more than I can say. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day. Thank you very much indeed.

I am also aware that I owe a similar debt to each and every one of my readers, without whom my stories would be silent words on the page and none of my characters, who I love very much, would ever have a chance to live. If you’ve read one of my stories, and thereby given some of my made-up people a home in your imagination, at least for a while, I thank you as well.

It is, of course, a truism that without readers there are really no writers in a meaningful sense, but sometimes it’s the obviously true facts that need to be acknowledged. I’m grateful to everyone who has ever taken the time to read one of my stories; I can think of few better compliments for a writer than ‘I would like to spend some time with your imagination’. I am especially grateful to the readers who let me know what they thought about what they read. A lot of it makes me better, and all of it helps me want to write more. Without writers, people have nothing to read, and without readers, it would be the next thing to impossible to call oneself a writer.

So once again, I thank my readers.

Now to try to do some more of my half of the bargain.

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Hawkeye

In my continuing quest to prove that I have my finger firmly on the pulse of five years ago, I thought that this week I’d write about a comic series I really enjoyed: Matt Fraction and (mostly) David Aja’s run on Hawkeye. Hawkeye had never been one of my favourite superheroes growing up (among other things, his classic costume is pretty goofy) but I heard a lot of very good things about this series and so when it started coming out in trade paperbacks I picked it up.

I’m really glad I did. Although the title is Hawkeye, it’s really about two characters, Clint Barton (classic Hawkeye of the formerly-goofy costumer) and Kate Bishop, who (in a classically comic-booky situation) picked up the Hawkeye identity when everyone thought Clint was dead. One of the things I liked about it right away is that the book isn’t about Hawkeye and his sidekick. They’re both Hawkeye. They both have their moments of brilliance and moments of disaster. It works really well. After reading Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye, now Clint and Kate are two of my favourite superheroes, to the point that I kind of don’t want to read more of the series in case it’s not as good. That’s the good part about reading comics late and selectively – I can just pretend the series didn’t continue if I want to.

Most of the time the stories are reasonably light-hearted street-level superhero-y action, although it’s probably fair to say they get a little grittier as they go along, which ends up hitting harder than a lot of straight-up grim stuff does because it kind of crept up on you from behind a fun facade, if that makes sense. Even in the early issues, though, every so often a little bit of seriousness peeks through, as when Clint wonders what it says about him that every time he goes into a room he starts looking around for things he could use as a weapon. Fraction really emphasizes the idea that while Clint is a really good archer (although Kate is probably better, or at least will be), that’s just one of the very many ways he knows how to inflict damage.

The usual backstory is that this is something Clint learned from a mentor during his time with the circus (really) but Fraction starts it off much earlier, when Clint and his brother Barney were still living with their parents, and in particular their abusive father. After one especially bad night, Barney gives his little brother some advice. “Make everything something to hit with. Then we outlast him.”

Which is a pretty bleak thing for a kid to be saying to his little brother, but when I was re-reading the books lately, that one line really resonated with me. I seem to be thinking (and writing a lot of these blogs) a lot about perseverance, these days, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I’m struggling to write. Maybe it’s because my workload these days feels a little heavy. Maybe there’s some other reason.

Anyway, even though I don’t get in actual fights, the idea behind Barney’s advice seems solid. Whatever the battle is, even if it doesn’t necessarily seem like you’ve got the weapons you want or need, you keep trying with whatever you’ve got. With my writing problems, even if the words aren’t gushing out of me, if I get a couple sentences out that’s at least moving the ball forward a little. It’s not following any ideal plans for how to write a novel, but as long as it’s moving the word count upwards, even slightly, it’s something. I can keep reading things that inspire me. I can keep at least outlining out the stuff that I’m having difficulty turning into prose on the page, so that when I’m ready to pound out the text I’ll know right where to go. I can send out some of the stuff I have done to the Eager Volunteers so that their feedback can give me some ideas for how to proceed. Every day, I can find some way to continue working on this project and refusing to quit on it until it’s done. Keep fighting, and outlast whatever the problem is.

Barney Barton’s other piece of advice on fighting (offered in the same issue, and also to small children, which is slightly distressing, although he goes on to explain that anyone can get into a fight but that doing good is difficult) is that sometimes the winner of a fight is the person who is willing to get hurt the longest. I guess I feel that way about a great many challenges in life, these days. Sometimes you just have to stand in there, say absolutely no I will not quit, and keep plugging away with whatever tools and assets you can find, whatever you can lay your hands on and make into something to hit with. Keep at it long enough and eventually you’ll find a way through, or around, or maybe under, the problem you’ve got in front of you.

It even occurs to me, as I write this, that this isn’t the worst philosophy to keep in mind given certain, uh, current events. A lot of people have an enormous battle in front of them that looks pretty difficult to win, and if you look at it quickly it may seem like we don’t have any weapons. But the battle is everywhere, and so are the tools we can use to fight it. Everything we do, every choice we make, can be part of continuing the struggle and continuing the resistance. The things we buy, or don’t buy. The voices we listen to. The people we choose to help. We can make everything within our grasp something to hit out at the enemy with. It won’t all be super effective. But it probably all adds up, and if nothing else it shows that we aren’t down yet. We’re still fighting.

Make everything something to hit with.

Then we outlast him.

Thanks for reading.

————

In case you missed me ballyhooing this earlier, I did an interview for Black Gate Magazine with Brandon Crilly. If you’d like to read even more of me jabbering on about stuff I write, you can check it out here. Black Gate publishes a lot of great fantasy-related content so you really should be reading them anyway.

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No Middle Ages

This is a topic I’ve been saving up for a week when I didn’t have a good idea to write about – and this is one of those weeks. Here we go.

You may (or may very well not!) know that I have a degree in medieval history. As a result, when a lot of people find out that I write fiction, they assume that I therefore write either historical fiction or classic fantasy (by which I mean fantasy set in some imagined society that takes medieval European society as its foundation, with castles and knights and so on). As of yet, I do not – both of my books are what I guess we could call contemporary fantasy, or fantasies set in some close analog of the modern world, rather than some version of the past societies that I study and love. My current project is set in the past, but not in the medieval past, or any version of it; this story takes place in an imaginary version of the 19th century (there is a whole question to be asked about how good an idea this is that I am cheerfully ignoring for now). I can’t argue with the idea that this seems to playing against what you might assume to be my strengths. Very often, people then ask why. I usually just say, “It’s complicated.”

This is the longer answer.

I want to make clear from the outset that I love to read both historical fiction and classic fantasy. Some of my favourite books are from those genres and some of my favourite authors work in them. There are reasons why these are enduring and popular forms of story with audiences spanning impressive distances of time and space. And yet, I’ve never seriously tried to write either kind.

I think there are two main reasons, and they kind of flow into each other. One is that I know, from talking to writers who do write historical fiction, how very hard it is to do well. An immense amount of work goes into figuring out the right vocabulary to put in the mouths of your characters, the appropriate technology to have available, the right sort of names to give them and populating the setting with the buildings, foods, animals, instruments, and a thousand other things that meet the demands of the story but also fit with the time being described. As an example, I did once try a short piece set in the Middle Ages, and ran into problems with what to call the hired muscle. Can’t use ‘thug’ (19th century). Can’t use ‘goon’ (20th century). Even ‘bully’ appears to be 16th century and thus too late. As I check now, I see I used ‘ruffian’, which also seems to be too late, although maybe I thought its Latin etymology let me get away with it.

And that’s one word. What would the food be like? Animals and their associated equipment are devilishly complicated. Ask any medieval historian about inns and prepare for a difficult answer.

So it’s very hard to do right, and I would be keenly aware, as a scholar of the past, of a need to do it right, and any mistakes (like ‘ruffian’) would bother me. I would also be concerned that people would read the thing, expecting all the pieces, large and small, to be just right, and be most displeased when they weren’t. I don’t exactly expect a thesis examination panel response to a history-based story that I might write, but I don’t exactly not expect one either. Now, it’s true that writing fantasy rather than historical fiction somewhat exempts you from all these problems – if you want your pseudo-medieval society to have had potatoes, it can just have potatoes – but I would still feel the need to portray a society that was credible based on what I know about the real past, which would be very nearly as hard.

So, part of why I don’t do it is that although it seems like it should be easy, I feel instead that there’s a great deal of pressure (most of it internally-generated) in writing about the medieval world (or something resembling the medieval world) that I don’t currently feel like tackling, or at least not until I have an idea that’s so exciting that I can’t avoid it. It’s true that I probably have more to build on than many other writers might, but I guess what I’m saying is that that also makes me aware of a great many more pitfalls that I worry about how to avoid.

However, there’s more to the problem.

Because I think I could, if I put in the spadework, produce stories set in the past, or something like it, that would be a reasonable approximation of what we think it was really like. The other trouble is that I’m not sure it’s what people really want to read. I think sometimes we (and I include myself in this) prefer our imaginary version of things to reality. It can be ever so much more fun that way, perhaps also more uplifting or comforting. I guess, on some level, I worry that if I wrote a story that closely represented medieval society the way I understand it, people would read it and think something like ‘well that’s just not very cool’.

I’m not really sure why I think that, because I think the real Middle Ages were amazingly cool, and I don’t think it was necessarily an awful grim joyless time to be alive, and I think when I teach courses on the subject I communicate that reasonably well. But stories are not lectures (or at least, I don’t think they should be), and my guess is that people may prefer the imagined past to the real one. As an example I’ve used here before: yes, it would probably be possible to write the story of the ‘real’ King Arthur, of whatever historical personage inspired some or all of the legend, but I don’t think people would like it very much because it wouldn’t have Lancelot and it wouldn’t have the quest for the Grail and so many other parts of the story that we love today. We don’t want the real story, we want the imaginary one. Which is wonderful, but then I think that if I’m not going to write something rooted in reality, then there’s no real advantage to me writing a medieval story at all, and I may as well just write another of the contemporary-rooted ones that I have rattling around my rickety brain.

(Yes, this all sits more than a little uneasily with my previously-expressed love for historical fiction and the fact that I know it is very popular. I know you can do this really well. I have never pretended that all my thoughts fit together terribly well and won’t start now. I suppose in the end what I doubt is my ability to do it really well.)

All this may just mean that I don’t have the right ideas yet, and when I do I will sit down to write about the Middle Ages, or my imagined version of them, with confidence and energy. It may be that I will never do it. I honestly don’t know, except that when I think about all the stories that I would currently like to get to writing at some time in the not too distant future, there still isn’t a medieval, or medieval-ish, one among them.

Just as honestly, I think that’s fine. There are, after all, so many people already doing it well. As ever, this is Not Advice, but I think the best thing most artists can do is do whatever work excites them and inspires them, rather than worrying about what makes sense for them to do or what they of course should be doing. Or such are the thoughts that I use to comfort myself, anyway.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. I appreciate your reading.


In case you missed the announcements on social media, Can-Con, Ottawa’s Speculative Arts and Literature conference, has booked its dates for 2017.  As part of the programming team I’m already getting excited.  The con will run from October 13-15 and returns to the Sheraton Hotel in the city’s downtown.  Details and registration here.

Also in case you missed it: I will be donating all of my royalties from sales of The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures to the Canadian Council for Refugees from now until March 3rd.  It’s a modest gesture, but it’s something that I can do to help people who truly need the world to be just a little kind to them.  If you’d like to help people looking for safety and reward yourself with a story I think you’ll enjoy at the same time, I would be very grateful.

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The Strangers’ Case

There is much in the news and elsewhere currently about refugees and how we should respond to them and treat them.  If you follow me on social media (or if you know me) you probably know where I stand already, but I’ve decided it’s important to take action as well as say nice things.

So here is a thing that I can do.

For the next month (actually up until March 3rd) I am donating all of my royalties from sales of Bonhomme Sept-Heures and The King in Darkness to the Canadian Council for Refugees.

You can support people who are in desperate need of help and somewhere safe to go and also reward yourself with a story I think and hope you’ll enjoy at the same time.

I would be delighted if you would join me in offering a welcoming hand to some people who could not need it more, and a kinder response than they are getting from many quarters currently.

edit to add:  You might remember I did this last year for Fort McMurray relief and I was really pleased by the response.  I hope we’ll do as well again.

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Last Jedi

If you follow the news at all, you’ll of course have noticed that a lot of powerful and momentous events have happened since I wrote here last. On the one hand I feel like I should write about them, because they’re important and I feel strongly about them, but I also feel strongly that this is not a political blog and that most of you don’t come here to read about my political thoughts and ideas. So I’ll leave that commentary off for now; if you happen to want to know what I think you can probably figure it out from my Twitter feed anyway.

Instead I thought I would join the multitude scrabbling for every scrap of meaning that can be wrenched from the poster for the next Star Wars movie. There isn’t much. It’s just a black field of stars, with the familiar ‘Star Wars’ logo in unfamiliar red, and the movie’s title: The Last Jedi. Not a lot of meat on that bone, but still we gnaw away.

I guess arguably some of this might count as spoilers, but it’s all my speculation (I have no inside source of information, alas) so I think it’s fine, but consider yourself warned.

The obvious thing the title suggests to me (and suggested to many others) is that Luke Skywalker will die in this movie, leaving Rey as the last of the Jedi. I suppose the safe bet is that he’ll perish at the hands of Kylo Ren, his former apprentice. Broadly this would fit with the middle movie of a trilogy, where things are often left in a fairly dark and nasty place to set up the eventual resolution in the final act. This is, of course, what happened in Empire Strikes Back where we were left with Han Solo captured by Boba Fett, Luke defeated and demoralized by Vader, and the best that could be said was that our heroes – mostly – got away. So from that, and the red logo (‘red’ in Star Wars usually denotes the bad-guy Sith, and in a more general sense means emergencies and blood), it’s a reasonably safe bet that this movie is going to have some Bad Things happen.

The death of Luke is the obvious one. From a narrative perspective, the story just doesn’t work very well if Rey goes off to find Luke in the hopes that he’ll fix all the problems, and then he comes back and actually does fix them. It’s a much better story if everyone expects that Luke will (once again) save the day, but then he either fails or succeeds imperfectly, dying in the attempt, and leaving a younger, relatively untried student to try to put things back together. That’s not a bad setup for a third movie where Rey – who is still really just a kid from a junkyard no-one has heard of – will have to shoulder a much heavier burden than anyone anticipated.

Now, lots of people have criticized that as following the arc of the first Star Wars trilogy too closely, and if Last Jedi does unfold according to expectations then it will be running from a fairly familiar playbook. (I mean, broad strokes: Vader kills Obi-Wan, his former teacher, Luke gets his act together to eventually defeat Vader) However, as very many people have also pointed out, the Star Wars story has always been kind of doing that anyway, with its ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ structure and elements plucked from other sources like The Hidden Fortress. In other words, it seems a little late to start getting down on Star Wars for telling a familiar tale; that’s kind of what it has always done. The charm has been that it told that familiar tale well, with heart and humour and flair. As much as writers (and I guess readers) sometimes idolize Original Fresh Plot Ideas, sometimes I think the important part really is that you do a good job of storytelling.

I do also think the writers have left themselves enough room to manoeuvre that even if Rey’s story seems likely to follow a well-traced path, there will be fresh stuff in there. Most prominently, Finn is a character we really haven’t seen yet, and exactly where his path is likely to lead is far less clear. Presumably he’s going to confront his First Order past a little more thoroughly, and he’ll need to figure out what it is he wants to be now that he’s decided not to be a stormtrooper – up to quite recently, his only identity. Through Force Awakens he was more or less carried along by the current of events; at some point (perhaps while recovering from his injuries) he’ll have to decide what he will be now. That’s interesting, to me at least. Who is Finn when it’s not a crisis, when there isn’t a battle to fight? I want to see the answer to that.

I’m less sure what the plan may be for Kylo Ren; the general Star Wars arc would call for some form of redemption, but I think they’ve made that a fairly difficult road this time. Darth Vader killed Obi-Wan in the first movie and was, eventually, redeemed, but Obi-Wan wasn’t his father and wasn’t a character with the resonance of Han Solo. If Kylo kills Luke as well as Han it’s going to be pretty hard for a lot of the audience to buy him as redeemable, but if he’s not redeemed by the end of the trilogy it would be a surprisingly dark direction for Star Wars. Generally, the movies say that if you want to come back from a dark place, you always can. Maybe they’ll tell us the story of why Kylo Ren doesn’t want to, but that would be a bleaker story than the franchise usually gives us. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words about an image that had only 5 words on it to begin with, so I’ll stop here. Perhaps needless to say, I’m looking forward to the next installment quite a bit.

——–

I can’t quite leave it without saying something about the horrible shootings in St. Foy, Quebec, when innocent people were murdered while they were at prayer. There was horror, there was a great deal of confusion. Authorities called it an act of terror, which it was, and eventually it emerged that the perpetrator was a white man with hard right-wing views. We don’t know everything about what led him to act exactly how and when he did, but the broad strokes of the story are all too evident.

This is what happens when people promote ideas of division and intolerance. When we say that this or that group shouldn’t be here, or that this particular religion is a danger, or that people who live their lives a certain way cause some kind of hazard, we naturally create a climate of fear and crisis. Given time, eventually some distressed, frightened and hateful soul will lash out against these enemies we have created. You can only tell people they’re in danger for so long before they’re going to react, and all to often people react with violence. We know this. I like to tell myself this isn’t a deliberate orchestration, but we should know well enough not to do this any more.

You can’t preach hate and division and then wash your hands of the consequences. Think very carefully about the ideas you spread and the ones you fail to denounce. The end point of intolerance is what happened in St. Foy. No political agenda you may have can possibly be worth the slaughter of people who have done nothing to anyone. If Sunday night’s massacre horrified you, then stand firm against the ideologies that led to it.

We can’t have it. I believe we won’t stand it. I believe the tide runs very firmly in the opposite direction, that society will become more and more diverse and that we will have more and more different kinds of people, and it will be wonderful. Of course, it only happens if we make it happen.

We do that through resistance to what is not right, to calling what is wrong what it is, and through being the kinder, more tolerant, welcoming people we all want to live with. The future is ours. Let’s go get it.

Thanks for reading.

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Not Today

Last week a friend of mine posted on Facebook looking for advice about their child’s fears about death. I have no particular insight into children and no advice suitable for them, but I instantly thought of what has become my usual response to worries of mortality: ‘What do we say to the God of Death? Not today.’ This is, of course, from George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series and thus may be a poor reflection on my philosophical depths, or (less cynically) a statement on the power that fantasy stories can have for us. It still really isn’t an idea to soothe a child.

It is, however, a way of thinking that has been very useful to me, even before I ever read Game of Thrones. In my struggles with addiction, I have often been faced with the idea of giving up something forever, of never doing it again, and that seems a daunting commitment. It seems impossible to say that one will never, ever waver. So, especially in the early days, I went with something simpler. I won’t give in to my addiction, today. And then the sun will set, and the sun will rise, and I will fight tomorrow’s battle tomorrow. Not today. It has been enough.

As I thought about that, about Syrio Forel’s maxim, and some of the other things there are out there to grapple with, and I really think it’s not a terrible way to confront a lot of them. For example – as you’ll know if you’ve read very much of this blog, I am deeply critical of my own writing and probably the single biggest obstacle to my productivity is my own doubt about whether or not my work is any good. I suppose a really optimistic reaction would be to say that I will never stop working and that I will have a steady upwards trajectory towards my goals from here on. The trouble is, it’s hard to make myself believe that. On the other hand: ‘When will I give up on writing? Not today’ works pretty well.

When will I give in to some of my other issues that make me want to quit on the world entirely? Not today, at least.

When will we listen to all those voices that tell us we can’t do it, don’t deserve it, shouldn’t try and aren’t worthy?

Not today.

There are a lot of problems and opposition out there that might tempt us to give up the struggle and surrender, especially if we know that we might have to put up with them for a long time: say, at least four years. If it’s too hard, don’t try to tackle the whole four years. When will we stop the fight? Not today. And the sun will set, and the sun will rise, and we’ll fight tomorrow’s battle tomorrow.

In the end I’m not sure if this is a deeply pessimistic way of looking at things, or an optimistic one. I know that for me it works, and although this is now veering dangerously close to advice, perhaps it may serve some of you as well.

When is it time to quit?

Not today.

In the end, I think it’s hopeful.

Thanks for reading.

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