Tag Archives: Characters

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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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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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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Last week I mentioned the BBC TV series Sherlock in amongst all my ramblings, and as I’ve mentioned Holmes several times prior to this I thought maybe I would write a little bit about them both today. Depending where you are in the Sherlock series, there may be some spoilers – as I write this I have just watched ‘The Final Problem’, which ended the most recent series. I suppose I’ve also been thinking of Holmes more than usual in the last little while because my latest WIP is set in Victorian London and so I guess obviously has a lot of connections to these stories that I’ve loved.

As I think I’ve said here before, I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a very long time. It began one summer when we were visiting my grandparents’ farm and, true to form, I ran out of things to read because I read everything I had brought too quickly. My grandmother lent me a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that I guess she had gotten from a book club she belonged to, and I read it the rest of that visit by the light of an oil lamp. It was a pretty good way to be introduced to Conan Doyle’s stories.

I loved them (I guess obviously) and read her copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes as well, and then went on to devour all the rest of the tales. I have a very battered collection of all the Conan Doyle stories that has travelled with me from place to place everywhere I have lived, and I read them through again fairly regularly (remember, I love to re-read). It’s safe to say that Holmes is one of my favorite characters, as I think I’ve said more than once before.

Part of this is because so many of the stories really do just work very well, narratively: they’re exciting and surprising and have genuine moments of horror and humour. So they are just good stories, even if (as I think I’ve mentioned before) they don’t all stand up so well when you really start picking away at them. I think also, although I wouldn’t have realized it at the time, Holmes was another character likely to resonate with me: more than a little strange, not really very good at relating to the society around him (I’m reasonably suspicious how much of his ‘disinterest’ in people is an act), probably spends more time thinking than he really should. However odd he is, Holmes is also always passionately (no really) devoted to the idea of doing the right thing and helping people who need to be helped. He’s prepared to go to prison for that, he’s prepared to die for that. So whatever else he may be, Conan Doyle’s detective is a probably implausibly heroic creation, and I think that’s part of why I like him, too, as I get older and less fond of ‘shades of grey’.

So much for the original. The Sherlock TV series was one I approached with a little bit of trepidation – the idea of a modernized Holmes seemed like something that could very easily be done wrong (I didn’t get past the first episode of the American Elementary series) but I heard good things and so I gave it a try. I liked the first series very much, and I think the writers for it did about as good a job as it would be possible to do of updating Holmes for this new century. I loved the little animations of clues flying around the screen showing Holmes’ deductive mind at work, in particular.

The show has continued, I think, to be generally good since then, although not always of exactly even quality, and I think it has gradually gotten less and less like the Conan Doyle stories as they’ve gone along, until ‘The Final Problem’, which just aired, really only has a very tenuous connection to the original source material at all. I will need to mull it over a bit more, but I think that even considered in isolation, the episode had some very real problems and it may be time to leave this version of the characters. Perhaps the writers have another surprise, although I think the fixation on surprises may be part of the problem.

No doubt some people would suggest this is the reaction of a Holmes purist, and a lot has been written about how fans of Conan Doyle can’t come to grips with the new version. I like to think that’s not true in my case. I think many of the changes made to the characters and settings were actually quite clever and appropriate (I love their version of Irene Adler), and if Cumberbatch’s Holmes is more extreme in basically all forms of his behaviour than Conan Doyle’s character, I think that’s probably necessary. I actually thought the same with Robert Downey Jr.’s movie version of the character; I think for a modern audience to get the impact of how socially inappropriate and transgressive Holmes’ actions in the stories were, the writers need to turn up the volume on them a fair bit. The handshakes he ignores, barbs he conceals in polite phrasing, and of course his general lifestyle, would have been a lot more shocking to a Victorian audience that we necessarily appreciate today, and so both newer version of the character got their eccentricities turned up a few notches. I think that works very well.

It must be an interesting challenge for a writer – not one I have yet taken on – to pick up a character that isn’t yours and try to write new stories for them. It might seem obvious that the right thing to do is to make no changes and follow the original author as closely as possible, but I think imitation is never as good as the original, and I suspect most artists kind of chafe under restrictions that keep them from expressing themselves. So the question presumably becomes how far one can alter a character and make them one’s one before you’ve changed things enough that you also lose the appeal and attraction of the original character, which is surely a big part of the reason for doing a new take on Holmes or another established fictional creation.

I haven’t tried it yet, as I say, but I suspect it’s a very difficult balance to strike. For what it’s worth I think the Sherlock series has, on the whole, done remarkably well in coming up with a version of Holmes and Watson and their cases that’s something that has features that are entirely its own but is still recognizable as being drawn from the original material. I think perhaps in the last couple series they’ve gotten a bit too focused on more and more shocking revelations, and it is somewhat hard to see where they go from here. I can’t think of another unexpected bombshell they could throw in that wouldn’t be either a letdown from what’s gone before or seem (even more?) ludicrous that what they’ve just finished doing.

I hope I’m wrong and that they’ll yet surprise me. I would love some more Holmes stories, but if this series has run its race, I think they did very well.

And the originals are always there, in a little apartment on Baker Street, waiting for me to come visit again. One day I’ll get another oil lamp and do it properly.

Thanks for reading.

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I was on my way home from my retail job the other day wondering I was so tired. I mean, I hadn’t done much more than stand behind a counter the whole shift, so there really wasn’t any obvious reason why it would have exhausted me as much as it did, and often does. At some point I think I figured it out – the whole time I’m at that job, I’m putting on an act.

By nature, I don’t want to initiate conversations with people I don’t know, I don’t really want to have a cheery exchange and talk about very little at all for a few minutes. By nature I’m quiet and mostly comfortable talking with people I know well (yes obviously this makes it difficult to get to know people well) and I’m not inherently inclined to small talk. I have learned to put it on, but it’s an act and it takes effort. That’s what tires me out, wearing the mask. Masks are heavy, I guess.

To an extent I guess I do this at my teaching job as well, although I have come to really enjoy the interactions with students a lot of the time and so less of my teacher persona is an act than the retail persona. I have a social functions persona as well that I’m really not very good at deploying, and my ‘writer-at-a-convention’ persona is kind of a work in progress as well. It comes and goes. Of course this is nothing particular to me – I think most people have their various versions of themselves that they use in different settings and for different reasons. We all play different parts at different times. I think sometimes it protects us to be able to hide our true self from a world that might not like it or understand, and it’s maybe good to have a mask that isn’t bothered or doesn’t worry at times.

I thought about this some more watching the most recent episode of Sherlock (which in general I like very much, although I still prefer original-flavour Holmes) – without getting too spoilery for the benefit of people who might not have seen it quite yet, there’s a nice exchange where John Watson talks about the difference between what kind of person he really is, and what people believe him to be like, and how he would very much like to really be the person they think he is. In other words, Watson feels like he’s been successfully putting on an act much of the time, and wishes it wasn’t an act.

I suspect a lot of us have somewhat similar feelings – there are versions of ourselves that we’re expected to be, or think we should be, and for good or for ill we can spend a lot of energy trying to play that role. I think sometimes it really is a benefit if it makes us try to be better than we are (or think we are, which may also be relevant – the idea that we are the people who see ourselves clearly and that everyone else is wrong is frequently not right, I think) , but can just as easily be a form of self sabotage if we use it as a way to beat ourselves up for not being what we’re ‘supposed’ to be, which is what the John Watson character had been doing. Masks can help. Masks can hurt.

This in turn reminds me of advice given on a radio call-in show that I used to listen to late at night when I was in university. One of the hosts would often advise people to ‘pretend to be a decent person’. Like, if you know what the decent, acceptable thing to do in a given situation is, then just do that, even if it isn’t your natural impulse to do so. And what would really be the difference between a person who went through life ‘pretending’ to be decent in such a way and someone for whom the ‘decent’ thing was a natural impulse? How could you tell? Who would know?

To haul this blog somewhat back in the direction of writing, you can tell in a story because the author can show you all the other thoughts bubbling away under the mask and behind the pretense. I think that’s one of the things we get to do as authors: we can make it very clear to the audience where the ‘real’ character ends and their act begins – if we choose to. We can expose a character’s innermost thoughts and motivations and lay them out in the light of day, when ordinarily we are all only guessing at what may be happening inside the people we interact with every day.

Obviously it can also be fun to leave the ‘true’ nature of a character a bit of an unsolved question for the reader to puzzle over, just as I guess we sometimes do in real life. I think both scenarios can work well – it can be a lot of fun to see the difference between how a character is presenting themselves and their internal dialogue and thoughts, something we really ordinarily only get to do with ourselves. It can also be fun to be fooled by the mask, let characters hide their true selves from us (or at least, mostly hide them) – you can get some really amazing moments where the act suddenly stops and the real nature of a character comes blazing through.

I know I sometimes worry when I’m writing about whether or not these kinds of situations are terribly contrived and unrealistic, and the kind of things that authors make up for purely dramatic purposes in fiction. Like most things, of course they can be done poorly, but I guess I need to remember my own daily masks as evidence that these things happen every day, and very likely with most of the people around us. I imagine most people, if they were honest, would say that at least part of the persona they show to the world is at least a little bit of an act, a lot of the time, so it’s fine if we exaggerate that for effect with our imaginary people.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week – I still haven’t been quite 100% and have been busy with the start of a new term, so hopefully I’ll have something a bit more focused for you next time.

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Another Character Moment

This is going to be a little bit of a process entry again, so, uh, consider yourself forewarned.

I’ve been getting a reasonable amount of work done on the WIP (not anything so mundane as coming up with a title, though, heh) and thinking about it a lot and I find myself in interesting territory again. I’ve written before about how, as I write about characters, a lot of times I feel as though they’re telling me about themselves as I create. Obviously this is an inversion of what’s actually happening, but – again, as I’ve said before – I feel as though these imaginary people are coming to me rather that me creating them. Perhaps when I call them into existence, I don’t know everything about them, or at least it feels like it.

My latest example is the protagonist of the current WIP, Easter Pinkerton. She’s a spy in 1880s England who is about to get into more trouble than she would have believed possible. When I first started writing the story, I wrote a scene where Pinkerton (I learned fairly early on that she’s not fond of people using her first name) kills a traitor, and in the process uncovers part of the mystery she’ll chase for the rest of the book. In that scene she’s disguised as a man, and originally I did that because a) it struck me as probable that a female spy would find it convenient to dress as a man at least some of the time, b) it seemed to me that it made this specific mission easier for her, c) it makes for a nice swerve at the end of the scene (which I have now spoiled, aheheh) and d) I am a massive Sherlock Holmes dork and so of course I couldn’t resist putting a little of Irene Adler in her.

So there it was and I think the scene works ok, and I hadn’t given much more thought to Pinkerton’s use of male clothing than that. Then I wrote some more, and wrote some more, and finally created the scene where she returns home after a full day of cloak-and-daggery. And the very first thing she did was change into mens’ clothing again. I wrote that bit through what felt like a reflex, I genuinely felt ‘well of course she does this’ without having any wider ideas about it than that. I wrote it and I knew it was true and felt like Pinkerton had told me something about herself. This part of the creative process fascinates me more the more I think about it (although again, no doubt there are psychologists somewhere going ‘yes, all very straightforward’) and why you’ll never convince me that there isn’t something at least a little beyond biological/electrochemical machinery going on in there somewhere.

Of course now I’ve had some time to think about it, and of course there are all kinds of wider issues connected to it. Wearing mens’ clothing would have been a much more deeply transgressive thing for a Victorian woman to do than it is today (and obviously there’s still lots of issues around it today), so why does Pinkerton do it? It’s not just to be comfortable, or at least, not physically comfortable. She’s at home, she can be herself, and this is what she chooses to do. Pinkerton told me something about her identity in that scene that I now know I have to do right by the rest of the book.

I went back over what I had written that precedes that scene, and I don’t think I need to change anything to reflect my new understanding of Easter Pinkerton, but it has changed a bunch of things that will come afterwards. On the whole, if I can do it right, I think it will make the book richer and I like the character even more now. (I mean, I like each and every one of my imaginary people, even the awful ones, but probably inevitably I have my favorites, and Pinkerton is rapidly becoming one.)

That ‘if I can do it right’ looms rather large for me as I attempt to continue writing, though. Easter has a part to her identity that is not my experience, and so I feel extremely cautious about proceeding. Appropriation is a real issue for many people, and even well-meaning misportrayals can be upsetting and hurtful. It would be easier, in some ways, to just Not Do This part of the story, and make Pinkerton back into a character whose cross-dressing is purely pragmatic, but I wouldn’t like it, and I wouldn’t feel I was doing right by the character. I would feel like I was silencing something in a potentially hurtful way, even if no-one would ever have known about it but me.

I really don’t want to sound ‘oh pity me’ here – this is a challenge but I like it. It is somewhat like being out for a run and coming the the bottom of a big hill. This is going to be difficult, but on some level difficult is why we’re out there. Writing something that’s going to be difficult (for me) is a good thing for me to do. It will (however it works out) make me a better writer and make me think about a whole ton of things I wouldn’t have otherwise. If I do really well, perhaps no-one who reads the finished product and hasn’t also read this blog will know that Pinkerton was a hard character for me to write – they’ll just enjoy her story. I could presumably write a bunch of perfectly acceptable stories with characters who won’t push me the way I think Pinkerton is going to, but among other things, then I wouldn’t have the feeling of being at the top of the hill, and knowing you’ve done it, where you feel (just for a moment) invincible.

So Pinkerton is going to exist (in whatever form the story ends up existing in) as she ‘really’ is, or how she has started to explain herself to be. I’m going to do my best with it. I’m also waiting to see if she has more to reveal to me. I have a feeling there’s more that she’ll tell me about when the time is right. I don’t typically write romance, because I don’t feel I’m very good at it, but I also have the nagging feeling that Pinkerton isn’t going to let me off that easily. She and I will perhaps have to negotiate.

These imaginary people are a treasure, and a responsibility. I genuinely want to do right by them (in my admittedly-odd way of viewing them) but I want to do right by whoever it is that reads the story in the future. Ideally I’d like it if there’s something in my characters that might speak to them, that they might identify with, or at least that they’ll feel that my imaginary friends are worth spending some of their time with.

That was all very introspective, even by the standards of this here blog here, so thanks for your patience. I’ll go see if Pinkerton wants to talk about anything and let you know how it goes.

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On Barb, and Hugh

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you will have seen me gush about the Netflix series Stranger Things, which is one of my favourite things on TV (or whatever we’re calling it when stuff ‘airs’ on Netflix) in a very long while. Stranger Things is a wonderful, creative piece of SFF and I hope there’s more in its vein to come. If you poke around on social media you’ll see lots of people having passionate reactions to the show and its characters, and there’s one in particular that has stuck out at me and that I wanted to write about today.

[[ IMPORTANT NOTE: The rest of this entry contains spoilers for some parts of Stranger Things, so if you are the sort of person who is bothered by spoilers as well as not having seen the show yet, stop reading now and I’ll see you next week, or after you’ve watched the series. By the way, if you read this blog and you haven’t seen Stranger Things yet, I heartily recommend going and doing so. It’s very good. ]]

And we’re back.

Fans of the show have reacted very strongly to the performances of Winona Ryder (who I thought was very good), David Harbour (who I also thought was great), and both the character of Eleven and the actor who portrays her, Millie Bobbie Brown (who is amazing). None of that surprises me, but there is also a reasonably vocal discussion centring around a character that does surprise me a little: Nancy’s friend Barb.

Barb is pulled into the Upside Down by the monster towards the end of episode 2, and unlike Will Byers is unable to survive long enough to get rescued (she’s somewhat disadvantaged by starting off in an Upside Down echo of an empty pool), apparently dying in episode 3 with her fate confirmed by Eleven in episode 7. Although Nancy is deeply worried about her friend, we don’t see the same reaction to Barb’s disappearance as there was for Will Byers, and I think this is part of what has led to people being upset or unsatisfied with how the story treats her.

(It is true that there is some narrative justification for this; the Shadowy Government Lab fabricates a story that Barb has run away rather than mysteriously disappeared as Will did, with only Nancy and Hopper being aware of the truth for most of the series. It is still probably a fair point that we don’t then see a lot of concern about Barb having ‘run away’, although it’s also fair to say the relatively tight schedule the show is on didn’t leave it a lot of room to show this.)

In any case if you poke around online you’ll find a lot of affection for Barb’s character, as well as dissatisfaction (some perhaps tongue in cheek) with her story, that we didn’t get more of it, and that she doesn’t get the (relatively) happy ending that Will Byers did. Part of what’s going on is that the Duffer Brothers created a character that was interesting and engaging enough that a lot of their audience bought in to her during episodes 1 and 2, so that they wanted more of her story and perhaps a different ending to it. From a writer’s perspective, getting the audience hooked into a character who is going to be a victim is exactly what you want – you want that loss or death to hit home and not get shrugged off. The dissatisfaction, though, isn’t what you want, and the two things are shades-of-meaning apart.

I had a slightly similar experience with my own writing, during the editing process for King in Darkness. There’s one character, Hugh, who I called into being solely for one specific scene. (Yeah, I’m restricting the spoilers of my own story. It’s my blog and I’ll be inconsistent if I want to.) You meet him slightly earlier to establish that he exists, then he does his scene and (I thought) he disappears unproblematically from the stage thereafter. I didn’t, to be honest, expect that anyone would get particularly interested in or attached to Hugh (sorry, imaginary person) and that he’d basically vanish into Stage Left, his purpose served, and no-one would mind one way or the other. (really sorry, imaginary person)

Didn’t work out that way. All of the editors for King in Darkness gave me notes to the effect of ‘need closure about Hugh’, ‘what happens to Hugh?’, ‘we need to see how things work out with Hugh’. Basically as soon as more than one editor calls for something, I figure it Must Be Done, and so I wrote a new scene that ties up Hugh’s part of the story a little more completely for the final draft of the book. I think it made the story better in the end and I feel like I have now done better by one of my imaginary people.

The more important part of the process, though, was realizing that people might latch on to characters that I didn’t expect them to, and didn’t intend them to. I’m still not sure exactly what it was that made people want to know how things worked out for Hugh in King in Darkness (I kind of wish I did, so that I could sprinkle that magic on future imaginary people) but obviously there was just enough there to get the people who read the manuscript to get bought into him, and his story, enough to want there to be more of it than I originally planned to give.

I suspect (and of course, it’s just a guess) that this is what has happened with Barb in Stranger Things. She’s not written as a major character, she appears to have been created as a way to get Nancy actively engaged in trying to solve the mystery of what is going on in Hawkins, and probably also to indicate to the audience in an impactful way that the monster that took Will is an ongoing threat. Lots of stories, horror stories and others, have these ‘victim’ characters in them that serve this kind of narrative purpose, as well as providing a moment of terror or pity when they meet their doom.

However, Barb’s fate, and the reaction of the world of Stranger Things to it, does touch on wider issues of female characters in fiction, and in SF/horror in particular, where they have all to often simply been used as recipients of violence and/or motivators for male characters. I believe I’ve touched on the Women in Refrigerators issue before, and people have made the argument that Barb fits into this pattern as well (despite not being a superhero, although the concept has I think been broadened to think about how female characters get treated in SFF in general). Looking at things from a plot perspective, the main thing Barb’s character does is to be a second (well, third) victim for the monster and thus provide Nancy (who is a main character) her motivation to get involved in trying to figure out what is happening in town, thus hooking her into the main stream of events leading up to the climax.  This does tick some problematic boxes, ‘female character as victim/motivator’ in particular.

It’s also true that Barb is not used to motivate a male character – in fact part of the issue people have with what happened to Barb is that some of our male characters don’t seem to particularly react to what happens to her. Her disappearance is a motivating factor for another female character, one who does not settle into a passive role and becomes an active part of driving the plot forward. I would argue that’s an important distinction. (I also think that although Hopper doesn’t really seem to react much to what happens to Barb, he’s already pretty fully engaged in trying to figure out what’s going on in Hawkins by the point, and Will’s disappearance probably has more personal impact for him because Will is closer in age to his deceased daughter) I don’t think the intention of pointing out the Women in Refrigerators issue was to say, either, that you can’t ever have a female character who is a victim in a story, just that it can be a lazy plot device and that it seemed to happen to female characters in comics disproportionately. For what it’s worth I think Barb’s role in the plot is both important and handled with relative care (we don’t see a lot of fallout from her disappearance, but it’s more than Benny gets!). I think, overall, Stranger Things presented some really strong and interesting female characters and so, overall, I think the Duffers deserve far more praise than criticism here.

I also wonder if, since Barb is not one of the ‘cool kids,’ and appears to fit kind of awkwardly into her social world, that since SFF tends to attract a reasonable proportion of the socially awkward, shy and introverted to its audience (definitely include me in that number), that audience saw ‘themselves’ in her a little bit, and that’s part of why her fate has attracted as much discussion as it has. Barb is kind of like many of us in the audience, so we want to root for her a bit and are extra disappointed when things end badly for her. Which gets us back to the idea of the audience getting attached to characters you maybe didn’t expect them to, as a writer. In the end, to me, it’s a really cool feeling when someone reads my stuff and feels a connection to it. One of my favourite things in the time that King in Darkness has been out has been hearing from people who read it and dug one or more of the characters; sometimes ones I expected people to like and sometimes ones I didn’t.

I think it’s a great gift as a writer to have your characters end up having an impact on people and mattering to them; it’s very hard to think of a better compliment from a reader. (Aside, perhaps, from ‘please write more’) I hope that’s how the Duffer Brothers are taking the reaction to Barb in Stranger Things. They created a whole cast of characters that their audience really bought into, and left many of them wanting a little more about one of them. I hope they continue to give us the same rich selection of imaginary people in their next project.

And perhaps I’ll write a little more of Hugh’s story one day.

Thanks for reading.

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