Tag Archives: Characters

Lord Jericho

There was a story in the news last week that got me thinking: the author Terry Pratchett, who passed away not too long ago, had left instructions that the hard drive containing his unfinished work was to be crushed by a steamroller, and his agent was finally able to have that carried out. The drive was crushed by a vintage machine named Lord Jericho, and then fed into a stone crusher, which is pretty badass all by itself.

There was a reasonable amount of reaction from Pratchett’s fans, expressing sadness about the stories they’d never get to read, which is more than understandable. When we love an artist, we hate the thought of never getting any more of their work. We want it to keep coming forever, and the idea that there was more to be had sounds appallingly sad. This (and of course the ever-present ‘money’ explanation) has led to a long list of ‘completed’ and ‘from the notes of’ works that generally do pretty well and scratch that itch.

So I understand that reaction, but as a writer my first impulse was that I totally understand what he wanted done. Some writers I know said ‘oh god yes, I don’t want anyone seeing my first drafts’, but for me that’s not it. People look at my early drafts all the time. I tell them what they’re in for and presumably they understand the flaws they’re about to encounter. Usually, that’s the point of me showing the drafts to them.

No, my first reaction, and my objection to having anyone do anything with my unfinished work (should the situation every arise) is simply this: My stories are mine. I know my characters and I know where I want my stories to go. I know what I want to do with the parts I haven’t written yet. I know what I want them to say and how I want them to feel. I don’t always achieve those things perfectly, but the goal and the attempt are mine.

I would not be at all content with the idea of having someone else play with my imaginary people and places. I love reading the work of other writers, but I think I’d much prefer it if they did their own thing. This is probably a thoroughly narrow-minded and territorial reaction – and I’ve read enough collaborative fiction to know that artists combining their work can go very well – but it’s genuinely where I am right now.

Second reaction, though, is to think about those imaginary people and places I’ve called into being. It seems very sad to me, even wrong, to think of them not ever having their stories told and never having people know about them. Maybe that would be a greater injustice than having another artist tell part of their story.

(I write all this fully aware that there wouldn’t exactly be a long queue of people wanting to complete my works if I were to pass away, by the way.)

I guess it’s a pretty difficult question, in the end. I love the idea of people reading my stories (I imagine all writers are the same) so, yeah, I kind of want people to be able to read all the ideas I’ve had. I still really don’t like the idea of the stories being only partly mine, though. It’s probably just as well this isn’t a problem I need a solution for any time soon, and I think ultimately what any writer decides is right for them needs to be respected.

Viva Lord Jericho.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.

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Orphan Black

Back to more pleasant topics today, at least to the extent that saying farewell to a wonderful TV program is pleasant. This past weekend we said goodbye to Orphan Black, which ended its story after a 5 season run.

The first two seasons of the show I would put up against any other TV show in terms of the quality of the story being told as well as the level of the performance. I thought the plot wobbled a bit in this last season, which maybe shows the difficulty of maintaining a level of quality throughout the run of any serialized story, and it’s true that in the finale, the ‘plot’ part of the show was finished before the halfway mark.

But it didn’t matter. The reason it didn’t was that we got to indulge in a nice long wrap-up with the characters we’ve followed around for the past seasons, and as much as I did enjoy Orphan Black‘s plotlines and the issues of autonomy and identity that it raised, I think it was characters that I will remember most about the show. This is perhaps particularly remarkable because so many of the main characters are all played by the same actor, the remarkable Tatiana Maslany.

I could not be more impressed with how she made each of the Leda clones entirely unique in terms of their mannerisms and speech patterns (the writers obviously their share of the credit here too), so that you could easily forget that they really were all the same person. Even when one ‘sestra’ would try to disguise herself as one of the others, instead of just slipping into that character, we got an entirely new thing of ‘this person pretending to be another person’ where watchers of the show could easily still recognize the ‘real’ personality of the clone peeking through the act they were putting on.

I’m not doing justice to how amazing it was to watch. You’ve kind of got to see it.

Even leaving Maslany’s performance aside (although please give her all the awards), Orphan Black had amazing characters. I was so impressed, both as a fan and a writer, at how they took a character who we first met as (apparently) a vicious, genuinely disturbing antagonist and gradually showed you more of her story, and more parts of her personality, taking us through having sympathy for her, and then by the end of the show we (or at least I) were very much on her side. Helena was easily my favourite of all the Ledas, and if you had told me that would be the case early in Season 1 I would not have believed you. (I could not have been happier that we got one final sting of the ‘Helena kills things’ theme in that last episode. Kudos to the music composer, by the way, in creating such a distinctive theme that is basically two sounds and that’s it, but if I hear them 15 years from now I’ll still know exactly what they are)

That’s immensely hard to do as a writer; to create a character that has enough genuine depth that it’s possible for your audience to completely reassess them in the course of the story and not feel cheated either by how they first reacted to them, or at where you asked them to be at the end. The writers of Orphan Black did it just right, and I like to think I learned something from watching them do it.

I think the wrap-up of the show, and why it felt so good to me (and, judging by the bulk of the comments I’ve seen online, to a lot of others) is that we got a satisfying ending to all the stories of the women we’ve followed around for 5 years. None of it was plot-necessary, but the show asks you to get invested in these imaginary people, so I think having something that felt like a proper farewell was also warranted. Whenever I see people’s reactions to characters in books, movies, or TV shows, or feel my own, I’m reminded of how much writers can affect people with the things we create. Every time, I am also reminded that that influence isn’t something we can or should use lightly. We ask audiences to give us a lot, we need to be careful with that trust. Orphan Black did right by its audience.

So it was a wonderful farewell to Orphan Black, even if it was inevitably slightly bittersweet because we’re not going to see these characters again. I felt that the writers have told all the story that they really have to tell, though, so it’s a good place to stop. Especially for a show that I only really checked out on a whim (I really didn’t know what the heck it was about), Orphan Black is one of my very favourite TV shows of all time. If you’re reading this blog, I would suggest checking it out if you haven’t. It was really good SF and really good entertainment, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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La Machine

There were monsters in my city last weekend. Seriously.

Ottawa just finished playing host to La Machine, a street performance collective from France, and they brought a 3 day long battle between a Horse Dragon and a a giant spider to the streets. The monsters were enormous robotic creations, with (fascinatingly to me) wood making up a significant part of the construction. Long Ma (the dragon) and Kumo (the spider) were both tremendously impressive to see, whether in pictures or video or (more impactfully to me) glimpsed rather more imperfectly looming over the huge crowds that turned out to watch. Maybe my favorite image of the whole weekend was when I looked up Sussex, packed with people, and towering above it all, in the middle of the street (just like in a monster movie) was this huge creature.

LongMA

Ok, so the monsters were amazing. Long Ma roared and breathed smoke and flames. It also snored charmingly when ‘asleep’ between shows. Kumo climbed down the front of a building and shot presumably venomous water. Just seeing these things tool around the city was pretty incredible, and kind of right in my wheelhouse as someone who writes stories in which the supernatural intersects with the world with which we’re familiar. This was that idea, done on a huge scale, and so it was very fun to watch.

There was also a story to it all. Long Ma is supposed to be a cosmic force from the ninth level of heaven, watching over all humanity. Its wings are stolen and its temple robbed by a sinister force in the form of a giant spider. Long Ma tracked the spider down in Ottawa (amusingly described as ‘the mother-city of all spiders, which will resonate with anyone cynical about Canadian politics) and here they had their confrontation. Long Ma (of course?) ends up retrieving the wings and restoring things to rights.

Kumo.jpg

Pretty good, legendary-style story. I only found out about it by doing some research on the internet, though. I’m not sure it would be possible to come up with all that just watching the monsters and what they did. Obviously the two creatures were not friends – the roaring, flames and water jets when they crossed paths would tell you that – but the rest is certainly not immediately obvious.

I started to think about that from a storytelling perspective, and whether it was a problem. On one level, clearly not, because you could enjoy the spectacle of the city’s titanic visitors without knowing any of it. They were just fun to watch. It’s also possible that La Machine expected you to do the (fairly minimal) amount of research that I engaged in before going down to see the show, if you cared about the story. That’s quite possibly fair enough.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that maybe you weren’t exactly expected to have the whole story down. Watching the show and figuring out what you thought was going on may have been the plan. There were probably parts of the ‘official’ narrative a lot of the audience would pick up on: Long Ma is clearly designed to be charming. It has big expressive eyes with long lashes, a sort of pleasantly deep rumbling voice, and an elegant stride. The giant spider – given our usual associations with spiders – seems more obviously an antagonist. When Long Ma was snoring cheerily in front of City Hall, Kumo loomed ominously from the top of a building. All of which to say, identifying the ‘good monster’ and the ‘bad monster’ from the pairing is probably fairly easy.

Fight.jpg

From there, most people could probably write their own story. One of my friends, in posting their La Machine photos, also presented their own narrative, which I really enjoyed. Their theory was that Kumo was angry with Long Ma because the dragon woke it up (which it did, on Friday afternoon), the fight and the day’s long chase through the ByWard Market proceeding from there. Suddenly, there’s a version of events where I have a lot more sympathy for the spider.

This strikes me as – potentially – a really cool way of telling a story, or causing a story to be told. Most people who saw La Machine didn’t see the whole thing; they went to one or two encounters with the creatures (although some did apparently follow them throughout), saw part of the weekend’s events, and came away with their own part of the story, their own interpretation of what it all meant, whether cosmic battle between good and evil, grumpy, sleep-deprived spider, or something entirely different.

This is, of course, the mode in which most of us learn about the real world. We almost never have all the facts and the full story about anything, at least not when events are in motion. We encounter what we encounter, experience what we experience, and construct our narratives about what it all signifies about the world, society, other people, and ourselves, from there. There are piles of studies with witness testimony to show that basically no two people are likely to come away from even the same experience with the same story about what happened, never mind each person with their own unique experiences to build from. We all write our own stories, all the time.

I’m not sure if that was really the intent of La Machine, but I think it’s both an inevitable consequence of a big, publicly performed, lengthy spectacle like their story was, and a pretty cool idea. Everyone who saw Long Ma and Kumo (and who didn’t then go and look up the ‘real story’ like I did) came away with their own version of what had happened, what was important, and what (if anything) it meant.

Fight2

This isn’t (I think) a form of storytelling that translates very well to books, although I guess some of the collected interview and diary style books along the lines of World War Z nudge somewhat into the territory. They still take all those different points of view and weave them into a ‘big picture’ for the reader, though. I’m not sure you could really recreate the La Machine experience with a written story unless maybe electronically, with the reader being presented with selected scenes from an overall whole and then having to put them together into a narrative, or not.

It probably doesn’t matter if you could do it in writing, though. One of the great things about storytelling is that it’s possible to do it in all sorts of different ways, with different techniques and technologies, and each has special possibilities. La Machine was the oft-cited “rule” of ‘show, don’t tell’ taken to its extreme extent, where you were told nothing and had to interpret the experience yourself, and (depending on how much time you wanted to spend navigating crowds on Ottawa’s streets, where summer had finally arrived) probably from a partial sample of the whole experience.

It was pretty great.

I really enjoyed the little sliver of La Machine that I got to see in person, and it’s been almost as much fun to see all the different pictures of the monsters taken by other people and to hear about what their experiences were like in different places and at different points of the weekend.

I’m really pleased that for a weekend, a fantastic, amazing story took over the city, and I hope maybe we’ll see something like it again.

This entry now includes some wonderful photos taken by my friend, Rohit Saxena.  Check out other examples of his work here and the rest of his La Machine shots here.

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Ramblings in the Halfway House

I struggled a bit to find a topic for this week. I’m somewhere past the half-way point – somewhat behind my notional ‘schedule’ of where I wanted to be at this time, but not bad – of the WIP (now tentatively titled Heretic Blood) and I’ve sent a chunk of it out to the Eager Volunteers for a check through, but ‘still writing’ doesn’t do much for a blog topic. Overall I think it’s going fine, although I’ve already done a couple of reasonably major rewrites as I come to understand the story a bit better.

One of the rewrites was deciding/discovering that a character who I had originally planned on surviving the book should probably get killed. This really wasn’t a fit of bloodthirstiness (well, not only), it was sort of the most logical or plausible conclusion to an accumulation of actions in the story that all seemed reasonably incidental at the time. Then, all of a sudden they added up to the character being quite different than I originally thought they would be, and their death became the most natural conclusion to their art.

It was one of those times when I feel like I’m discovering things about my plot and my characters rather than creating them, although I know on some level that that isn’t true. However, I’m convinced that there are subconscious processes at work and as much as I find it mildly frustrating at times – it would be wonderful to not have to make these ‘discoveries’ which require significant rewrites and just write the damn story

Maybe that’s what you get from more extensive planning than I do. I know some writers have really detailed and extensive plans of their work before they ever begin to write, either in electronic form or big charts with strings and things going on. I have honestly tried it, but there are two problems. One is that (I guess because I’m somewhat disorganized by nature) my plans tend to be kind of a disaster area, and thus more confusing than helpful about 48 hours after I’m done making them.

The other is that I find making plans boring. Writing is interesting, especially at the start of the project when I think everything about the idea is super rad. If I’m excited, I basically want to stop making the plan and start getting some of the ideas on the page. Maybe this a moment where a more professional writer would be disciplined and do the damn plan and then not have to do as much major surgery on their work once they start writing it.

I kind of suspect, though, that this is one of those cases where everyone has to find whatever process they need to Get Stuff Written and then do that. The more I learn about my own writing, talk to other writers about their writing, and read different people’s ideas about how writing works, the more convinced I become that there is no one correct and proper way to do it. There are basically no rules. There may not even be guidelines. There’s just what works for an individual artist, and you gotta figure out what that is and then do it unapologetically.

Which leaves me with my rather arcane and confusing process where I sometimes feel like I’m in a somewhat uneasy state of detente with my own brain, but it works, or at least works better than anything I’ve yet tried, and thus I continue. I do feel ever so slightly bad for my imaginary person who got flipped from survivor to horribly mangled corpse in the course of a morning writing session, though.

Hmmm. I honestly thought this was just going to be a preamble to another topic, but I should probably get back to Heretic Blood and this feels like enough to call an entry now.

I am looking forward to sharing Heretic Blood with you, since it’s really quite different from either of the books I’ve done so far, and even at this point where I’ve been working on it for quite some time, I’m not hearing too much from Statler and Waldorf yet. Which tells me that yes, somewhat incomprehensible process or not, I should keep at it while that continues to be the case.

Thanks for reading.

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Doctor 13

I was going to try to take a bit of a break from Doctor Who posts, and then they went and revealed who the Thirteenth Doctor is going to be, and it’s enough of a big deal that I felt like I should probably write a bit about it.

If you haven’t seen the news (an unlikely happenstance), with the departure of Peter Capaldi from the lead role, the BBC has cast a woman to play the Doctor for the first time, and selected Jodie Whittaker for the role. There was, I suppose predictably, A Fuss.

My first reaction, I have to admit, was to be a bit perplexed, only because I had only seen her in Broadchurch and her character there was not what I would have thought of being particularly Doctor-y. But my brain gradually lurched into action, realized that they didn’t cast Beth Latimer as the Doctor, they cast the actor, and her performance was (to the extent that I’m really qualified to judge) was really good. I’m given to understand that she’s similarly good in the other things that she’s done, so at that point I figured they’d done a good job and started trying to figure out when we’d get new episodes.

Then I started to see the reactions people were having, and I don’t mean the people having meltdowns for various reasons. I mean the reactions from people (primarily, but not only, girls and women) for whom having a woman as the Doctor clearly meant so much. People were moved to tears. People were overwhelmed with joy. It was like a tidal wave of happiness that you didn’t have to look very hard to find. I read people (former Doctor Colin Baker among them) writing about how much this meant to their daughters.

It’s not always easy to realize how significant something may be to another person who has a far different perspective on the world than you do. We can say a lot of bad things about the internet, but it was great to have this easy insight into what the casting meant to others, and I got progressively more excited about it as the reaction became clearer. It seems pretty inarguable to me that the show has done a very good thing by casting Whittaker in the role if only for the sheer amount of joy that one act created. Hopefully this will be followed up on by a really strong series of stories that can reinforce all the positives that came just from seeing a woman in the role – seeing a woman actively be the Doctor, saving worlds and thwarting Daleks and generally doing the impossible.

I do hope the stories are good. I mean, selfishly I do, because I love the show and I love good stories. I also think that the writers are under an unfair kind of pressure here, one that I don’t envy them at all. Because if the reaction to the new series is not good, there will be all too many people who will quickly say that it is because of having a female lead, just as movies with female leads have tended to carry some extra pressure with them – if it bombs, we’ll never get to make another one. (Hopefully this is a situation that is starting to change) Never mind the number of projects with male leads that get made and are terrible, with a zillion similar projects still getting greenlit. Mostly I hope that Jodie Whittaker is able to enjoy her time in the role and the writers are just able to do what they do and that it all goes very well.

I guess I have one other thought. I’ve seen several people say that they hope that the issue of the Doctor being female isn’t part of the stories, and I can kind of see what they mean. Certainly, a bunch of lame jokes about the situation won’t help anything. However, thinking about this from a writing perspective, this is a character who has been alive for centuries, and – in most interpretations of things – this is the first time they’ve ever been female. It feels like there’s got to be really good stories to tell about that.

In any case, I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with. It’s always fun seeing a new actor’s take on the Doctor, and the more I think about the idea of a female Doctor, the more I think that there are really exciting stories to be told, and I’m very enthusiastic to see what ideas they’ve got. Hopefully by the time the series is ready to go, most of the Fuss will have died down and people will just be ready to enjoy what they’ve done.

Part of the interesting question here is why people care so much. Part of it, no doubt, is simply that Doctor Who is one of the most famous SF franchises of all time, and so people would like to see it continue to embrace more diversity in the characters it creates, actors it employs, and stories it tells. It’s also true that because of the in-built ‘regeneration’ mechanic, it was (or arguably, should have been) really easy to diversify the lead role. The Doctor completely redoes their body on a reasonably regular basis to begin with.*

Personally, the reason I spend as much time as I do thinking about Doctor Who is that it is one of the foundation stones of my love of SFF. I’ve spent a lot of time with all these characters and stories and so, yeah, I probably think a bit more about what it all means than is probably necessary, and I want the series to continue to do awesome stuff in the same way I want my favourite sports teams to pile up winning seasons.

That’s it. Thanks for reading. Something other than Doctor Who next week, I promise.

*-In my private version of things, the other Time Lords look on the Doctor with a kind of horror at the number of bodies they’ve run through, due to the crazy lifestyle they’ve chosen to follow. So the Doctor has regenerated a lot more than most Time Lords ever do. Except the Master, of course.

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Companions

I have a couple not-really-related things for this week. It’s inelegant, but I’m sure we’ll cope.

First, although things have been a little Doctor Who heavy of late, I’m going there again; Orphan Black hasn’t thrilled me so far and I am not the right person to write about Handmaid’s Tale. The series just wrapped up giving us our next-to-last Capaldi story and (one assumes) the last to feature a companion who we really just met, Bill Potts.

The story with Bill’s exit was, I thought, pretty darned well done. The original flavour Cybermen were back and were genuinely disturbing. (Vastly superior to their newer reimaginings, but maybe that’s a whole ‘nother blog) We finally had a story with more than one incarnation of the Master in it, and it went exactly as it should, with the Masters stabbing each other in the back. I’m not sure the resolution really made a great deal of sense if you really think about it, but it’s not hard SF and you probably just shouldn’t.

Bill herself, though, went through quite the ordeal. First shot through the chest, then isolated from the Doctor for like ten years in a creepy alien hospital, then betrayed by the one friend she thought she had and horrifically transformed into a Cyberman. Oh, and then she died. There’s been some criticism of this (probably not unjustifiably so) because we had a lesbian POC character and she meets a grisly end; this seems to fit into the ‘Kill Your Gays’ trope that many writers are criticized for.

I’m not the right person to write about that either, and I’m not sure how much of a difference it makes that Bill’s consciousness survives, apparently off to explore the universe with the mind of her girlfriend from the series premiere. However that may be, the whole thing is in line with the exits of recent Doctor Who companions, who have of late ended their journeys in spectacular fashion. Clara died, or will, and the Doctor loses his memories of her. The Ponds are banished through time and stranded there. Donna gets her memories of her time with the Doctor wiped out. Rose gets sent to an alternate universe. Of revival-era companions, only Martha leaves on her own terms. Usually, the only way someone stops traveling with the Doctor is if there is some kind of traumatic, cataclysmic severing of the relationship.

It didn’t use to be this way. Ian and Barbara, the original companions, just decided they’d really like to go home. Liz Shaw got tired of being a sidekick and quit. Jo Grant decided to get married. Sarah Jane breaks the pattern a bit – the Doctor isn’t allowed to take her to Gallifrey – but then my favourite companion, Leela, starts it again. She leaves (also to get married, which is a bit ugh), and on Gallifrey, which is a great example of why you shouldn’t worry overmuch about Doctor Who continuity. On it goes: Nyssa leaves to help the sick on Terminus, Tegan just reaches a point where she can’t stand the terrors she has to face, Turlough just goes home.

Adric, of course, dies, but the point is this – it didn’t use to require a cataclysm for a companion to stop traveling with the Doctor. A lot of them just decided to do something else. As I thought about this, I wondered what the reason for the change could be, and I wonder if at least part of it has to do with how we, in the audience see things. We watch Doctor Who and think: ‘If I could travel with the Doctor, I’d never want to stop. Look how amazing!’ It’s fun and attractive to think about in the same way that a lot of fantastic scenarios are fun to think about: selling all your stuff and moving to a cabin in the woods, or an RV, joining the merchant marine, whatever. I wonder if, at least a little, the writers of the current show are putting that essentially fan-born mindset into the characters they’re creating, so that they also can’t imagine wanting to stop wandering around in the TARDIS.

I’m not sure if the older series did a better job conveying the down side of being, essentially, space vagrants, if this is a consequence of the revival show having a (generally? arguably?) lighter tone or (I think inarguably) deifying the Doctor more, or what the reason may be, but it interests me as a fan and it interests me as a writer.

As a writer, the main thing is that as much as we often need our characters to go on perilous, exciting adventures and do nerve-wracking things (that kind of thrilling, escapist experience being a big part of what fiction is for), I think it’s also important to show some of the difficulties with these things. It’s not all a fantastic adventure; it’s difficult to leave the comfortable and familiar to go do something dangerous, and most people can only take so much tension and alarm before they simply can’t do it anymore, as happened with Tegan. People also often just decide that they’re ready to Stop Doing A Thing now, no matter how much they loved the thing to begin with. Time to move on. I think that’s a useful lesson too.

Obviously different types of stories and genres will look at these issues to different extents and get into them more or less, but I think it makes things feel much more genuine if it’s at least a minor part of the story. Even The Hobbit, which is basically a lighthearted fantasy tale, has Bilbo fret about leaving home a little bit. We think as fans that if Gandalf showed up on our doorstep we’d be all ‘yes please’, but in practice if someone turned up and said it was time to Go and Do A Thing Immediately, my guess is that most of us would have at least some trepidations, and probably be glad when it was over, and we could go back to the world we understood just a little bit better.

This is not to say that I think the original series handled things better, exactly, although I think it’s less than ideal if the new series continues to have companions only leave for horrifying and/or spectacular reasons. I will also be interested to see what the writers do with the Doctor’s reaction to Bill’s departure, because (based on what we saw) as far as he knows, there was no happy ending for Bill and she’s either dead or stuck forever as a Cyberman. This, for me, is the main problem with always having companions leave mostly dead, kind of dead, or permanently damaged – the Doctor is fundamentally a decent person, and so you’d think after a good run of these he would simply say ‘no, not doing this any more. Can’t justify it.’

In any case, I await the Christmas special with interest and for what little it’s worth I’m sorry to see both Capaldi and Pearl Mackie leave. This season really worked well and I would have enjoyed more stories with the both of them. (Also, again, Michelle Gomez’ Missy.)

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Ok, other thing real quick. This is not (I swear) going to turn into a running analogy, but I really can’t escape the conclusion that similar to how you need to warm up before serious exercise if it’s going to go as well as it can, I sort of need to warm up to writing as well. When I first sit down to write it goes very slowly. I write, like, a sentence. Then I urgently need to go Do Another Thing. I come back. I probably erase the sentence. I try it again. Another Thing calls again. This goes on, sometimes, for some length of time.

Then, as I think I’ve mentioned before, there is very nearly an audible thunk from the mind-gears and abruptly, we are in Writing Mode and things flow much more easily. The whole process is a bit mysterious to me and vastly annoying if I have, say, two hours to get some writing in and the thunk doesn’t happen until an hour of Another Thing, but this is how it goes.

This is a consistent pattern to the point that I don’t think I can put it down to mood, state of mind, or the current project. It’s apparently just how my brain works (or fails to) and I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom this is true. No doubt there is, out there, a psychologist or similar brain science person who knows exactly what processes are going on, or failing to go on, in this situation.

I don’t mention this because I have any particular answer or method for improvement, or really any insight derived from it. I mention it because for a long while I definitely added to my stress by worrying over this whole warming-up process, and that it meant I was doing something wrong or not adequately prepared or motivated or whatever. I don’t think it does. I think it just means that your process is your process, and as much as possible you need to just not worry about whether it’s right or correct and just sort of do what works, do what gets words on the page in the end.

When I write, I gotta warm up to it. This is how it is.

This is also fearsomely close to advice, so I’ll call it here.

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Missy

I have been enjoying this latest season of Doctor Who quite a bit. I think they’ve finally given Peter Capaldi a good run of solidly-written episodes to really show off his take on the character, his companion Bill has been very well done, and as a fan of the classic series I’ve enjoyed the return of some of the classic antagonists.

(We’re going to get into spoilery territory here, if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who. Proceed on your own advice)

I’ve also been enjoying the storyline with Missy, and her (apparent) desire for atonement for their past crimes and (apparent) desire to be a better person now. I said on Twitter a couple week ago that I would very much like this apparent desire for redemption to be real, and although the latest episode (ending with Missy standing, apparently thoroughly content, next to her past incarnation and Bill who has been horribly converted into a Cyberman) makes it all look very doubtful. I still want it to be true, though.

In part this is because Michelle Gomez has, I think, given a really compelling performance throughout the storyline. I should take a moment to say that after a wee bit of initial scepticism I have adored her in the role overall. Gomez channels just enough of past Masters (she gets a certain facial expression that Anthony Ainley used to use exactly right) to remind you that this is the same character, but has till carved out something entirely unique with her casual contempt for the people around her and almost bored attitude towards death. It has, then, been interesting to see her playing this character apparently regretting all this villainy, and she’s sold it very, very well. The scene where she asks the Doctor if they can now be friends again was really touching, and for a moment at least you really believed Missy wants, very badly, to have her oldest (and probably only) friend back again. You can tell that the Doctor wants to believe her as much as I do in the audience, although he doesn’t quite trust it, and the audience knows that he is probably right.

I have always kind of been a sucker for villain-redemption stories in general, though. Done well, they can provide an entirely new life for a character; in this case, a redeemed (or at least kind-of-redeemed) Master would be an intriguing character to have around. In the X-Men comics I read growing up, Magneto became (to me) much more interesting once he moved from being a villain to (sometimes reluctant) ally.   Walter Skinner was a much better character once he was, somewhat exasperatedly, on Mulder and Scully’s side than when he was trying to shut them down.  Missy (or some version of the Master, as this is apparently Michelle Gomez’ last season in the role) as a similar figure for the Doctor would be interesting territory for writers to explore, I think.

Done well, the story of a villain’s redemption is immensely satisfying. To cherry-pick a really easy example, the eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi is a wonderful ending to the original Star Wars trilogy. Even the film’s most iconic villain can be brought back to the good side in the end. I think, personally, this is part of why I like villain-redemption stories; I think I probably would like to believe that even the very worst people can eventually be persuaded that they’ve been wrong and convinced to change their ways. I don’t think I’m alone in this; one of the most beloved Christmas stories is basically this happening to Ebenezer Scrooge.

However, there are problems. On Doctor Who, we know, if we know anything, that an appearance by the Master (Missy incarnation or not) isn’t an appearance by the Master until it ends with them cackling like a maniac and revealing their diabolical plot. This is, along with some kind of disguise, one of the essential elements of a Master story, and we’ve already had the disguise.

This is part of the wider problem with redeeming villains in general. For a writer, if you turn your villain away from being a baddie, you get one compelling story out of it, but if you’re continuing to write in that world, you’ve now deprived yourself of an engaging villain, and you’ve already got a hero. Missy the antagonist, the weaver of plots and architect of horrible schemes, is far more useful to the writer than a reformed ally is ever likely to be. This, I think, is why a lot of redemption stories in comics and ongoing series tend to be temporary: however good the reformation story was, in the end the character works better as a villain, and so back they go to the other side of the chess board.

I am reminded, as well, of one of the more ‘meta’ parts of Neil Gaiman’s 1602 comic, where an alternate-universe version of Reed Richards is musing on whether Ben Grimm can ever be cured of being the Thing. Reed concludes that they live in a universe of stories (very Gaiman there) and that this unfortunately means that any cure could only be temporary, because Ben is a much better story as the Thing. Likewise, Missy is probably a better story, or makes for better stories, as a villain, and so I’m fairly confident that she’ll end up there sooner rather than later.

There’s yet another problem with redeeming villains. There is a point at which it is reasonable to question whether or not they deserve to be redeemed, whether or not they can reasonably be forgiven, and whether we can ever see them as anything but monsters. In the case of Missy, this is a character who has done evil things on an immense scale. Never mind the sheer number of beings they’ve killed, either personally or through things they’ve done, this is a person who destroyed a significant chunk of the universe through one of their anti-Doctor schemes in Logopolis. Can you ever really say to such a person, ‘well, it’s ok, we’re all good?’

I kind of touched on this a while ago in the blog regarding the controversy over Marvel’s ‘Captain America as secret Nazi’ plotline. There are some things, I think, that your characters don’t get to come back from, or at least, that your audience isn’t required to accept villains coming back from. In my view, secret Nazi Cap is one of those. Michelle Gomez’ winning performance aside, it may be reasonable enough to say that the Master is another. And yet, Darth Vader, the brutal, terrorizing, torturing, arch-villain of Star Wars, for some reason I’m all right with. It is, for me, a difficult equation to try to balance. I’d like the villains to be redeemed in the end, but as an audience it’s probably not always possible to accept and as a writer you may be pushing your luck with what you’re asking of your readers.

I guess we ask ourselves this about real world people all the time. Can people who have committed terrible acts ever be forgiven for them? Are they condemned forever? I suppose in some ways it would be comforting to think that no matter what mis-steps we make, that we can always be forgiven if we’re truly sorry for what we’ve done (thus the selling point of at least one major religion), but can we practically believe it? Is society required to actually do it?

Now, Doctor Who hasn’t come out and explicitly addressed any of this territory, and nor did Star Wars, not really, but I think one final reason why villain-redemption stories are compelling is that, done well, they make you think of all these issues. Part of the power of fiction is to thrust these conundrums upon us and ask us to wrestle with them, and the question of Missy, whether she genuinely wants to atone or is just waiting to drop her latest bomb on the Doctor, and whether her atonement could ever be enough for us, are interesting puzzles for an audience to pick at.

I don’t really have answers for the sticky questions above. Except perhaps that yes, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed for everything he did as Darth Vader, but he gives his life to earn it.

—–

I also saw Wonder Woman. It was, I thought, a really good movie, for a variety of reasons. However, I’m not going to write blog post on it. After I got home from the film I made a Facebook post about how I had liked it and a very intelligent friend of mine posted back: “What did you like about it?” This took me me back to long-ago conversations when I was doing my MA. This friend is, I have to emphasize here, a thoroughly wonderful person and an amazing companion for both serious and light-hearted times, but every so often the conversation would wander around to scholarship, and sometimes even my research, and then they would ask something like ‘what did you think about it?’ or ‘and what did you conclude?’

In that moment I was (as I guess one is) intensely aware that this person is much cleverer than me and far more well read and that I mostly didn’t want to say something that was ignorant, ill-conceived, stupid, or all of the above. I also lack(ed) the conversational artistry to extract myself from such situations with clever nothingness. In my memory, I usually said something thick and waited for oblivion to come. (I should say, too, that I know my friend was either trying to be helpful, taking an interest, or both. I knew it then. I still never did well under those suddenly serious eyes.  Squirm squirm.)

All of which to say that there has already been a good deal written about why Wonder Woman is a good and probably important movie by people who have a better perspective on it than me and articulate the arguments better than I will. It’s not terribly important that the world has my perspective on Wonder Woman, beyond that I think it’s good and that you should go see it, and I don’t want to say anything ignorant, ill-conceived, or stupid.

I did answer my friend’s post though. I hope they didn’t think I was very thick.

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John Le Carré

When I started writing this blog one of the first things I did was talk about some of the writers I particularly admire or who I think have influenced me in my own writing. I haven’t done that in a while, but as I have just started reading The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s autobiography, I thought I would do it again.

I admire Le Carré’s work for a couple of reasons. One is that his stories are just really good stories. Most of what he writes are contemporary spy stories, and no doubt due in part to his background as an intelligence officer, Le Carré writes them very well. I guess obviously I’m not in a position to comment on how accurate or realistic the books are, but they are to me thoroughly convincing and plausible portrayal of how the secret world is likely to work. Le Carré’s perspective on this contrasts very strongly with the many more romantic versions we are given, most famously in the James Bond stories.

When I was younger I read a lot of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, due at least in part to a massive compendium volume of them being for sale at a church garage sale, a sale at which ‘fill a bag of books for a buck’ was advertised. It probably says nothing good about me that I spent a couple of extra dollars on a massive hockey bag, packed it with books (including the Fleming) and argued that there had been no limits placed on what constituted a ‘bag’. I left with my haul, my mother’s chagrin and, no doubt, my fate in the afterlife thoroughly imperilled.

Anyway I read the Bond stories and with the flashy spectacle of the movies it is easy to forget that Fleming’s books are actually pretty solid. There are a lot of problems; they are also racist, or at least portray a very racist society, and although there are reasons for Bond’s serial misogyny, it doesn’t really change the fact that women get an extremely raw deal both from the stories’ hero and their creator. Especially from a modern point of view, Bond is difficult to actually like, and I sometimes wonder how much we’re supposed to.

Nevertheless, they are well-crafted thriller tales and teenage me read them and enjoyed them and parts of them still stick with me. There is a part of Doctor No where a badly injured Bond is trying to climb up the inside of an air shaft (best not to think about why) and is trying not to think about how far it is, just focusing on each tiny step along the way. ‘Take the silver inches one by one, and conquer them’, is how Bond envisions his task, and from time to time when I am faced with some seemingly insurmountable and endless challenge, whether mental or physical, I will say that to myself as I try to get at it.

That’s pretty good. Overall, I mention all this because Fleming’s famous spy is I guess an idealized version of the British intelligence officer, larger than life and impressively heroic. Bond is smooth and cool and deadly. By contrast, most of Le Carré’s spies are not. His most famous creation, George Smiley, is short and pudgy and socially clumsy. It’s interesting – to me, anyway, that both Fleming and Le Carré had real world experience in the world of intelligence, yet portray it so differently. I’m not sure if that speaks to their backgrounds (Fleming from a wealthy family, Le Carré from a much more troubled one), their experiences with the espionage trade, or simply their aims as authors.

On the whole, though, I suspect Le Carré’s version of espionage, ‘delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom’ is rather nearer to the truth than Fleming’s, and his flawed characters rather more like most of the spymasters of the real world. Smiley is not a lethal weapon one-on-one, struggles with his personal relationships, but his mind is a machine of tremendous precision, and he is particularly acute at discerning people’s weaknesses and how to make use of them. Smiley is not really a hero in the conventional sense, I don’t think – he does his duty and does it well, but we don’t get a great sense of idealism out of him. We see his moral and ethical struggles through many of the books, eventually ending with his determination to do what is required to defeat his opposite number on the Soviet side; whether the personal cost that Smiley paid for all this is worth it or not is left for the reader to determine. A great deal of espionage in Le Carré’s books is at best uncomfortable, and often downright unpleasant manipulations of people who may or may not deserve their fates, in the interests of powerful men and nations who may or may not deserve their defeats, and their victories.

Le Carré’s fictional worlds are less clearly divided into the good and the bad than many other spy stories, and in many of them basically decent people (like George Smiley) end up doing inarguably ghastly things to achieve their aims, leaving both them and the audience wondering if it was worth it. To me, although the secret war of Le Carré’s agents and assets comes across as fairly thoroughly awful, making it difficult to really identify with any of the factions at work, his characters are intensely human, and it is extremely easy to identify with them, and to feel their triumphs, their struggles, and their failures.

Rather than monolithically heroic and villainous sides, Le Carré gives us a rather more murky picture where fighting the struggle in the shadows exacts a massive price on everyone who participates, and I wonder if that’s one of the points he is trying to make. It seems to me one of the consistent themes of Le Carré’s stories that he appears suspicious and cynical of large and powerful organizations and institutions (of whatever kind – his Constant Gardener takes a justifiably harsh view of drug companies) but he’s immensely sympathetic towards individual people, and the dilemmas they often find themselves in. That’s a point of view that I find myself increasingly identifying with.

So, I guess obviously, I like John Le Carre’s stories quite a lot. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful novel, and The Night Manager is another particular favourite, as is The Secret Pilgrim. In addition to just (?) enjoying the books, though, I also deeply admire Le Carré as a writer. He is a fantastically skilled craftsman with words, choosing each one with what seems to be unerring precision and creating prose that conveys intense feelings of mood and emotion. Because of this, I don’t find him an easy read by any standard; because each word means so much I find I have to pay very close attention to Le Carré as I read, and so late at night when I’m growing tired and my focus is slipping, I can’t quite keep up with him. Le Carré conveys important information in what seem to be fleeting phrases and word choices, so if you miss a ‘little thing’, you’ve missed a lot. It’s interesting (I think) that that attention to precise detail is also one of the skills that are most essential to his fictional spies.

I don’t really think of this as a flaw. Not all writing needs to be an easy, relaxed read, any more than everything we eat needs to taste the same. Le Carré’s stuff demands effort, demands your entire engagement (or at least it does from me), but if you’re able to give it you are richly rewarded. I suppose there is, for a writer, some sort of practical limit here – if you make your writing too difficult to engage with and appreciate, there will be too few readers willing to rise to the challenge. There is, perhaps, some ideal balance of artistry with words and ease of access for the reader, some perfect mastery of story there to be achieved.

In my view, John Le Carré is very close to it.

—–
Literally as I wrote this, I got a news alert that Roger Moore, probably most famous for his portrayal of James Bond, has died. Due to my age, Moore was the actor that I first knew as Bond, and I think his A View to a Kill was likely the first Bond movie that I watched in its entirety. As I’ve just written, I have a lot of problems with James Bond these days, but the Moore-era Bond with the Union Jack parachute and all the rest of it was undeniably fun and Mr. Moore’s performance gave me stories that I enjoyed.

For that I will always be grateful.

——-
We also draw very close to the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, which runs June 3-4 and will feature many fantastic discussions on how we create and consume fiction, as well as a chance to meet writers and people who love books. I will be there for the second time, and I’m looking forward to it very much. My publishers, Renaissance Press, will also be there with their growing range of titles, so you can get yourself a copy of The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures if you don’t have one, and I will be at the table at various times through the weekend if you would like to say hi or have me scrawl something in your book.

Limestone was a great weekend last year, and I’m really looking forward to it again. Hope to see many of you there. Details here.

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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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