Tag Archives: fantasy

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.)

—–

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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No Middle Ages

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

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

This is the longer answer.

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

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

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

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

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

However, there’s more to the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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