Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Characters, Still

Yet again I struggled to know what to write for this week’s blog. The last while I have been tired and ill and feeling generally uninspired. I don’t write this fishing for sympathy, but more as a reminder for myself that these things happen. Everyone goes through down periods where they’re not their best and don’t accomplish all that they might like to. Some people are just better at concealing that shit than others.

However that may be – what I decided to write a little about was that I created a new character this week. I always have a lot of fun doing that, and this time it is a little different because this one is for a role-playing game. I wrote a bit a while back about the Star Wars game I’ve been running, and that’s still going. Now, one of my friends is starting up a D&D game and I get to be a player (something I haven’t done in a long long while) this time, so instead of creating the whole setting, I get to concentrate on one imaginary person.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, although the process of making an RPG character is a little different than my usual writing process, because my natural impulse is to start making this new person the star of the story. However, with an RPG, they really won’t be. My character won’t be any more (or less) important than any of the other players’ imaginary people, so what I have to do is create more of a supporting cast member – someone who can fit easily in with a bunch of other narratives and the overall tale our DM has for us.

I think it’s going ok.

Of course I’ve written some bits and pieces of story to go along with this character – because, honestly, what else would I do? – and this also got me thinking about all the characters I’ve created in and for unfinished stories that float around the nooks and crannies of my hard drive, their worlds partially created and their tales only somewhat told. I am just odd enough to feel a little bad about these stranded creations of mine, and also to wonder what it must be like to live in a partly-written world.

There’s probably a story in that, as well, and if Neil Gaiman hasn’t already done it, maybe I’ll write it one of these days.


There was a bit of a kerfuffle on Writing Twitter yesterday when an almost-certainly-well-meaning literary agent offered up a fairly broad brush piece of Writing Advice that drew a digital hailstorm of criticism. I was going to write about that a little, but I don’t really have anything to say that I haven’t already – I don’t put a lot of stock in Writing Advice, and certainly not in there being one or more Rules that are the path to Good Writing.

Good writing is, fortunately or unfortunately, something that isn’t about what rules you did or didn’t follow, it’s about whether or not you can write your ideas down and make it work. Different things will work for different people, and for different applications. Ultimately, the wonderful and terrifying truth is that you just gotta write well, and there’s no magic trick and no step-by-step for that.

That’s it for this week. Next week I hope to be a bit more out of my doldrums.

(But Brandon, these entries are getting shorter, huh?)

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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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Geese and Things

So I have finally gotten a chance to start reading Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning short story collection (and what a treat) and in his Introduction he kicks around the idea of whether or not fiction should be ‘safe’ – whether we should be able to read stories without taking any risk that we will be frightened, upset, or disturbed by what we encounter in them. This is a pretty interesting question and also dovetails so nicely with what I wrote last week about the anti ‘my story made a swear’ app that for a minute I thought about writing this week’s blog entry about it.

Then I remembered Writing Crisis #2 (see previous entry if you’re interested) and that Doing the Same Thing as Neil Gaiman does not end well.

So I won’t do that, but will suggest you go read the Introduction to Trigger Warning, and while you’re at it you may as well read the rest of it too.


I did think about that question and another book I finished recently, Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With the Devil. If you’re not familiar with it, it describes General Dallaire’s experiences as the commander of the UN mission to Rwanda that was originally tasked with facilitating the implementatin of the Arusha peace agreement and ended up bearing witness to an unspeakable genocide.

This was not an enjoyable read, in any conventional sense of the word. A lot of it was deeply distressing and frustrating and enraging to read, in part because of how saturated the work is with Dallaire’s own pain about what happened in Rwanda. So this was not a ‘safe’ book to consume. I am very glad I read it, though, because I think the issues Dallaire raises about the global community’s collective failure in Rwanda, and the fundamental mistakes in the world’s approach to the crisis in Rwanda, deserve to be heard and are clearly (it seems to me) immediately relevant to problems we grapple with today.

I think it’s an important book, even if it isn’t a safe one. Sometimes it’s fun to read something that isn’t very safe (think Neil Gaiman’s stories), and sometimes it may be good for you. Sometimes the unsafe has something to tell you. Obviously safety is a good thing, but I don’t think it can be the only thing we ever look for. So read something unsafe, I think.

I don’t have much else to say about it, though, so that’s not really going to make a blog entry either.


So still flailing about for something to write about this week, that is kind of uniquely mine, I latched on to something I said on Twitter. About geese.

What? No really.

It is the time of year here when the Canada Geese are doing their big spring migration northwards, so the skies over my house are periodically, but consistently, filled with these immense formations of birds, on their way to various destinations. From time to time you will glance at the sky, and see something there that seems impossibly huge, to be up there, and it is moving and what can this be, and then you will realize that it is not one Big Thing, but just That Many birds, travelling together. If you step outside you can hear them calling to each other as make their pilgrimage; to me it is a pleasant wilderness kind of sound in the middle of my urban world, although obviously your taste may vary.

There has always been something about this that has stirred something in me. When I was small(er), I would run outside the house when the geese were going over, just to hear the sound of it. The birds are quite large (if you haven’t seen them) and they travel in real armadas of the air (which is not at all the right term) and the sight and sound of them rushing overhead, twangs something deep inside me with a sense of Going Somewhere. Time to go, let’s go together. It’s very compelling. If I could fly I’m sure I would have followed along, and ended up in some marshy spot or other, deeply disappointed.

At times it is even reassuring – sometimes there will be only a scattered few geese, perhaps broken off from one of the really big squadrons of birds, still travelling on. It especially strikes me when it is getting dark, and these three or four birds are still going, and still calling to each other. It’s ok. I’m still here, you’re still there. We’ll get there.

(There’s a comparison to be made here, maybe, between this and social media, which I am not up to this morning)

I don’t know how they choose which ‘there’ to head for, how they choose who goes where in their great ragged Vs, or even really how they know and agree that it is Time to Go. I do know that there are great untold adventures in these journeys, stories that we will never know, and just guess at as we watch the sky.

Whatever you were expecting when you came to read the blog today, I bet it wasn’t that. My apologies.


I feel like I should say something about the Hugo Awards ruckus, since I am arguably ‘in the field’ (albeit in the brambly, fence-posty periphery part of it) although I also know I don’t have much standing therein. I am also not deeply familiar with the process whereby the Hugo Awards happen, nor the recent history that has (apparently) brought us to the controversy around this year’s nominations.

So perhaps best to say nothing.

However, to say nothing seems cowardly at best and at worst might appear to endorse a particularly hateful agenda, so I decided in the end not to do that.

All I’m going to say, in the end, is that I firmly believe that the people who oppose diversity in writing, in characters in fiction, and in the world in general, are on the wrong side of history. I suspect that in the roots of their souls they know this, and that is why they lash out in the ways with which many people are familiar. This doesn’t excuse it; no-one should receive death threats for writing a story while being a woman, or having a particular sexual orientation, or belonging to a particular ethnic or cultural group. Trying to silence these voices is flat out wrong and it diminishes us as a people. However, I believe that love really is stronger than hate, that this old world keeps changing, and that history will eventually tell the story of the triumph of diversity.

And yet, if my years as a history student have taught me anything, it is that history is nothing but the actions of people. It is, really, just what people do. So what to do. I don’t have any ideas about what could or should change about the Hugos or the industry or anything along those lines. But, what to do as people who love amazing stories – read works by all kinds of different and diverse authors. When you find ones you like, tell people about them. Give someone the gift of a wonderful story, which is to me one of the best gifts you can ever receive. Give an audience to writers who deserve one and help them find a bigger one. That’s how we, as fans of speculative fiction, can best foster a plurality of voices in the field. To me that might be more important than who wins an award, anyway.

Peux ce que veux. Allons-y.

Anyway, that’s it. I know this week’s entry is a bit of a mess. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Neil Gaiman and Writing Crisis #2

The Project forges ahead.  This past Friday was a tough one – I had a long day at work and seriously did not feel the least bit like writing by the time I got home, but fortunately the spectre of horrible public failure was not something I was prepared to confront quite this early in the effort.  So the public accountability part of this thing is working!  I think this might already be the largest piece of fiction writing I have ever done.  In order to check, I’d have to be able to open some of those arcane lost files, so I can’t be sure – but I think so.  I guess the good news is that I still feel like I know where I’m going and I don’t even hate this thing too much yet.

Anyway, by way of content, some thoughts on another of my favorite authors.



I don’t really remember how I got into Neil Gaiman, although I think Commander Rick of the much-lamented Prisoners of Gravity SF/fantasy/comics show is to blame.  That show definitely introduced me to Clive Barker and his cigar, the revelation that Tate and Velasco in The Difference Engine are self-inserts of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, to Gotham by Gaslight and other evidence that comics writing was not necessarily seeing how many terrible cliches you could cram into the dialogue, and may have infected me with Neil Gaiman.  Man, I miss that show.

Anyway Neil Gaiman, however I got the contagion, was like the sudden arrival of a new planet.  Holy crap, where was this before and wow it’s astounding.  I read Neverwhere about a billion times.  While I was in England I bought the entire run of Sandman in trades and read the heck out of that.  I liked it to the point that I paid ridiculous rates to ship it all back across the Atlantic.  I still think Stardust is about the most charming book I have read, and that’s without getting into American Gods or his short stories which never fail to amaze on some level or other.  I’ll confess to not having tracked down his stuff on Hellblazer or Swamp Thing but since Gaiman is also on the short list of authors whose work I just assume is good … well, I just assume it’s real good also.  Even stuff I haven’t liked quite as much, like Anansi Boys, it was like watching your favorite pitcher throw a mere two-hit shutout instead of a no-no.  It’s still pretty darn good by any standard.

However much all of the above is true, Neil Gaiman also led directly to Writing Crisis #2, which was essentially this – Gaiman writes exactly the kind of stories I would like to write.  His stories of the bizarre, the magical and the horrible interspersed and intersecting with the ordinary are more or less exactly the kind of thing I am interested in creating myself.  So given that he already writes this stuff, and does it at such a high level of sheer badassery, is there any reason at all why I should write stuff which is basically the same, but not nearly as good?  My answer was, again, ‘no’, although how I explained it at the time to at least one person was that I didn’t need to write because Gaiman was writing exactly what I wanted to write but better than I could.  What I really meant, though, was that I didn’t see any point in writing things that were basically in Gaiman’s demense except far crappier.  Essentially, if not as good as Gaiman, Surrender Dorothy.

Writing Crisis #2 has only recently been overcome, I have to say, and in part because of the Stephen King intro I started the blog with.  Basically I now think that not writing because my writing is not as good as Neil Gaiman (or whoever) is like not playing the guitar because you’re not as good as Jimi Hendrix or whichever Guitar Hero you want to substitute in.  Presumably one should write because they enjoy the process of creation and they feel like the end product may be enjoyable for whatever reader(s) there end up being, wherever they are on the scale of relative quality.  I’ve been a bit reluctant to put this theory into practice (for reasons which will probably make another update post) but part of the thinking driving The Project, here, is that even if (if?  Fuck it, it’s my blog, we’re going with if) the work is not as good as Gaiman or whoever would produce, someone may still enjoy it.

So writing this thing is vaguely (although here again I set sail boldly into territory I know nothing about, hurrah!) like taking your guitar down to open mic night and seeing if people have a good time or throw vegetables.  And if Neil Gaiman doesn’t like it, well, I bet I’d kick his ass at Ultimate.


Word Count: 15, 309.  So there.

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