Tag Archives: evil genius

Socrates & Apple Inc.: Censorship in publishing

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Warning: politics ahead!

Censorship by a governing body has always been a tense subject. On hearing the word ‘censorship’ people generally assume that this is a historical thing, or something that happens in dictatorships abroad. Censorship doesn’t really happen in modern democracies, right?

Yeah.

In the early 4th Century BCE Socrates was put to death by the Athenian government for heretical teachings that he refused to withdraw (detailed in Plato’s Phaedo). This is one of the earliest acts of censorship on record, and sets the tone for much of what followed.

Until the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1440s, relatively few texts were published in Britain and the Church had almost complete control of them. Movable type was a considerable threat to the Church’s authority – suddenly it was possible to produce large numbers of books on immoral or heretical subjects that far more people could afford. The Church fought back, with notable cases such as Francois Rabelais and Galileo, both of whom were placed under house-arrest and their books banned. In 1543 it was decreed that no book could be published without the Church’s approval. Any books that went against the Catholic creed were banned – added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books) in 1559 – and a number of Protestant printers went to the stake.

It was not only religious monopoly that drove censorship. In 1557 the Stationers’ Company was granted a royal charter to control printing in England. Only members of the Company were legally permitted to print, and censorship became a matter of corporate monopoly and anti-competitiveness. The Company was given powers by the Crown to seize and destroy dangerous and seditious material. This lasted (on and off) until 1694, when the Company charter was not renewed. But censorship on the basis of corporate interest hasn’t gone away. In an example so ridiculous it’s almost funny, Laytonville, CA banned The Lorax in 1989 because it ‘criminalized the foresting and logging industry’.

In the modern age, censorship is less explicit but very much present, for the most part on the basis of security or immoral/obscene content (although who defines that is an interesting point).

‘98.6% of UK internet traffic consume a service called the child abuse image content list which uses data provided by the Internet Watch Foundation to identify pages judged to contain indecent photographs of children. When such a page is found, the system creates a ‘URL not found page’ error rather than deliver the actual page or a warning page.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_the_United_Kingdom)

Since 2013, any internet sites containing pornographic, violent, suicidal or addictive content are automatically blocked from every UK household (unless specifically requested). Also in 2013, the book Pandaleaks: The Dark Side of the WWF – a book accusing the WWF of eco-tourism and eco-vandalism – was banned from Britain for a year when the WWF threatened lawsuits.

Which, finally, brings me onto the US All Writs Act of 1789. The FBI are proposing to use this Act to enforce IT companies to put a backdoor into their operating systems, so the FBI can access any device to look for dangerous content. You might have seen Apple’s open letter about this recently. That’s not censorship on a book basis – that’s censorship on an individual basis. And if you think it only affects Americans, think again. Anyone with an iPhone will be affected, regardless of where you live, because Apple is an American company. More than that, though, any device company operating in America is being subjected to the same pressure, and their devices worldwide would also be affected.

So, all of them, then.

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Censorship is no longer an explicit legal matter in Britain. There are no trade bodies or authorised personnel (such as the position of Master of the Revels, or Examiner of the Stage, a government appointed official that lasted from 1600 – 1968). Freedom of the press, and the explosion of self-publishing, make it almost impossible to restrict content. Nonetheless, it still happens. We just don’t see it.

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The Voice of the Villain

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Anyone who’s ever watched The Incredibles knows that monologuing is a bad idea. But I have finally found the voice of Animus, the third in my 2-book series, and it’s the bad guy’s. Well, nominally bad. A series of interviews with a high-ranking prisoner of war, where the reader only gets his answers. I’m not sure such a conceit can be comfortably stretched to a full novel but it’s certainly fun to play with for a novella.

By making the protagonist a prisoner of war, I have also found a way for the inner monologue to come wholly external. This guy has nothing left to lose except his life, which he isn’t overly fussed about, so he’s got no compunction about saying aloud whatever crosses his mind. He’s arrogant, rude, flippant, crippled by regret and grief, filled with hate towards his captors, and fantastic fun to write. Also sarcastic, which I’ve discovered is quite hard to do with a character who is physically incapable of lying.

The style does pose some unique challenges though. How do you include dialogue in what is essentially already speech? How do you imply the other unheard half of the conversation without making it very clunky? And how do you build in a character arc for someone who starts at the end of his story and is recounting it to another person? This has been done before – Moby Dick springs immediately to mind and I’m sure there’s more contemporary examples – but it’s new to me. Still, I like a challenge.

Boss Fights & Paper Tigers

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Having used Extra Credits yesterday to seamlessly segue into gaming parallels, I now want to look at boss fights. This is a gaming term but entirely applicable to almost any form of storytelling. A ‘boss’ is a particularly tough opponent. In gaming it’s usually an end-of-level enemy; in writing, think of it as either the main bad guy or one of his named flunkies/allies. It’s basically just a handy term for a peak-tension conflict against a named antagonist.

My ‘boss’ in Corpus is, for most of the book, described to the protagonist as the queen of the gods who’s going to wake up and enslave the populace. I’m currently at the point where I’m writing the first draft of that final boss fight, and I’ve posed myself a question – does there actually have to be a fight with the queen? Is it okay to build up the tension and fear of this antagonist and then have their known weakness exploited pre-emptively, or does that leave the reader feeling either frustrated or let-down?

The final boss fight is such a staple of stories that to not have one feels a bit risky. It’s been done, of course. There’s no actual showdown with Sauron in Lord of the Rings, for example, and the fight against Loki in Avengers Assemble is basically a walkover. In both cases there is a battle but it’s against minions rather than the boss – you still get the climactic build and release of tension, but the boss isn’t really a part of that hands-on conflict.

Puny god

Puny god

Obviously you need to pay attention to the tension pacing, and not wuss out entirely from a big finale. But if the Big Bad Boss turns out to be a paper tiger – if their bark is much worse than their bite – how much of an anticlimax does the reader consider that to be?

A lot depends on how it’s done, of course. If they have a known weakness to exploit it makes things easier, although it can be much harder to maintain tension and mystery in the story if everyone knows from page 12 onwards that Baldr will get shot with mistletoe, the Wicked Witch of the West will be given a bath and the One Ring will end up in Mount Doom. At that point the whole nature of the story changes from a focus on the end result to a focus on the journey, and much of the climactic impact is lost. So I guess you need to make at least one of several options clear – but not too clear – to the reader in order to set the right expectations for where tension should be:

  1. There is an Achilles’ Heel. It’s important not to over-telegraph this. (See TV Tropes’ wise words on Chekhov’s Gun and Epileptic Trees).
  2. The Boss is known to be less of a threat in certain situations or within a certain time-frame.
  3. The Boss is a leader rather than a fighter, so the challenge will be to get past their minions.
  4. The ending is inevitable and it’s the journey that counts. To be honest I feel that this is generally a weak approach unless you’re deliberately intending to subvert the finale.

What do you guys think? Am I wrong? Have I missed some obvious examples or points? It’s something I’m trying to figure out for myself so any thoughts would be gratefully received.

Creating Memorable Characters

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When it comes to writing – novels, short stories, scripts – you first have to come up with believable characters. So how do authors and scriptwriters go about creating an unforgettable character, and what are the tricks of turning them into a series or franchise?
PANELLISTS: Stephen Gallagher, Robin Hobb, Jasper Kent, Fiona McIntosh, Suzanne McLeod, Thomas F. MonteleoneWorld Fantasy Convention, Brighton 2013

The panel discussion on character development could have gone on all day and still had plenty of things to say, but there was only an hour allocated on the programme so obviously they were limited in how much they could cover. The discussion was roughly divided into two parts – what makes a good character, and what makes a good series character.

Good Characters

Emotional investment is vital. It doesn’t matter if your protagonist is Persil-clean, a bit dodgy or downright evil – if they are charismatic and able to engage the reader on an emotional level, then your audience will invest and root for them. Hannibal Lecter was given as the classic example here, which led to one of the panellists saying ‘when we’re at our worst, we’re at our most interesting’. Consistently upright characters are usually quite dull (Pratchett’s Captain Carrot being a notable exception); we want to see the dark underbelly. It gives the character depth and, crucially, conflict. Conflict is the key to any story and character. One of the first steps to character development is to work out what their drive and conflict is – what do they want and what’s in the way?

There was some discussion over what happens when writers are dictated to by their characters (i.e. when characters seem to disobey what the writer originally had planned for the plot). The panellists disagreed over whether this was an indication of a lack of professionalism or not. One (Thomas F. Monteleone?) quoted Nabokov, saying ‘Really good writers are always in control of their characters’, whereas Robin Hobb said ‘When your character takes control, unpredictable and wonderful things happen, and that’s when the magic happens’. It seemed to come down to whatever approach works best for you. They all agreed, however, that you can’t blame your characters’ minds for the dark and horrible things they do – you have to accept that this is all coming from your head.

On the subject of villains, this is something I think I’ve covered before but I’m going to repeat what the panel said anyway. Villains should be heroes in their own minds, doing something they absolutely believe in. It makes them more realistic and far more interesting. Stephen Gallagher said that every story needs ‘flawed good versus complex evil’ – without both, it becomes uninteresting.

Series Characters

Doing it wrong since 1963?

Doing it wrong since 1963?

A series character is different from a one-novel ‘solo’ character. They’re long distance runners, needing to save up certain reveals and developments for further down the line. There has to be a pact between the reader and writer that what’s seen in the first story will be developed over time, and to give it a chance to do so. Don’t give it all away at once. Every story has to challenge the character in a new way. If the end of the story puts everything back the way it was, what’s the point in telling the story at all? (The James Bond franchise seems to have done okay out of it, but I didn’t feel brave enough to challenge the panel on that one.)

That said, you can’t end up with too much happening to one person, or it becomes unbelievable (Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden was cited here). The series character must have enough depth to experience multiple ‘defining’ stories, without becoming some kind of disproportionately traumatised/experienced monster. 

Let’s Move To Norway

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I’m about two years behind the times on this one, but I only just learned about it. Here is how novelist and scholar Lee Konstantinou outlined how the government of Norway helps writers:

Norway buys 1000 copies of every book a Norwegian author publishes. It provides a $19,000 annual subsidy to every author who is a member of the Authors’ Union. The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly on the sale of books—but is prohibited by law from engaging in price competition. It requires, by law, that bookstores keep books in stock for two years regardless of sales. And it exempts books from its very steep sales tax. “Norwegians everywhere read, and they read a lot; Norway has one of the world’s highest reading rates.”

Click here for Konstantinou’s blog on the subject.

Yeah – forget my previous post on what authors earn. Let’s all move to Norway and learn Norwegian. What could possibly go wrong?

Monster Cache

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The raptor recently pointed me to this blog by EsoterX, which is an incredibly detailed, well written and entertaining look at various monsters in folklore, literature, modern society and science. Seriously, start reading. It explains (amongst other things) why squirrels are evil, single dimensions are terrifying and catfish are power-hungry.

One of the recent blogs made a point which, whilst not new, got me thinking:

They are nocturnal, which bothers us as we are not.  In fact, we are so fond of the sun, that our monsters typically can only find gainful employment at night.

Creature in the DarknessYou can’t see it, so what you’re afraid of is the thing you can’t see rather than the thing itself. Your brain supplies fear through ignorance. When writing monsters, then, less is definitely more. It’s an understood thing in horror – Beowulf, Lovecraft, etc, etc – but modern fantasy writers tend to like putting in the details of their carefully built world, and detail kills the monster before the hero gets anywhere near it.

There’s lots more to say on this subject, but I’m going to come back to it later for two reasons. One – I hurt myself at the weekend and have spent most of today sitting in A&E, so I need to get on with some work, and two – there’s more than enough interesting content on EsoterX’s blog to keep you guys entertained for a few hours. Enjoy!

Rewriting the Bad Guys

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Andrew Knighton put me onto this article in a recent blog post of his. Overthrowing the stereotypes of fantasy – the beautiful elf, the evil orc, etc. – is a trend that’s been gathering steam for a while now. Whether it’s the race in general (Wilson lists a few examples in his article) or an individual archetype, such as the Wicked Witch of the West in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, there’s a general exploration of subtlety going on.

The most celebrated are the rehabilitated. – Wicked, the Musical

Wilson makes some very interesting points about the connection between this and our cultural stereotypes in the real world, which is an angle I’d not previously considered. Whilst I’d agree that we’ve certainly made progress – or had a progressive view of other cultures forced upon us by more open social communication – I’m not sure that we’ve made as much progress as all that. The cultural stereotype is still a prime source of fodder for both comedy and drama, they just tend to be a bit more subtle now. They aren’t gone. Plus there are one or two errors in Wilson’s statements which the comments are quick to point out.

But this isn’t a political blog, it’s a blog about writing. So, leaving the politics of it aside, let’s look at why stereotypes are changing. They do have their uses, after all – it gives the reader some solid ground to immediately identify things on. A short sentence can instantly build quite a detailed and complex scene because you are drawing on imagery that the reader is already familiar with. Why lose that?

Well, there’s a couple of reasons. Firstly, as Andrew pointed out, it forces you to up your game as a writer. To improve, find new words rather than relying on old ones that have had all the freshness and shine rubbed out of them through over-use. That can only be a good thing. It also means the reader has to engage brain a bit more, which means they are more invested in the story. Also worth a big thumbs-up.

Secondly, and building on that, it means the reader is more entertained because what you’re presenting them is something new. There are gazillions of stories out there that they could be reading – why should they pick yours? What makes it different? Everyone knows the tale of the Three Little Pigs. If you want someone to read it again, you need to give them a reason. For example, the Guardian’s award-winning advert for open press:

And thirdly, building on that, our tastes as readers have changed. We want a more complete picture, more sophisticated storytelling, with reasons for everything. ‘Because they’re evil’ just doesn’t cut it any more. Why are they evil? And is it a justified moral judgement, or just a cultural misunderstanding? I think this is where Wilson’s point about cultural perception comes more powerfully into play – stereotypes aside, we do generally have a far greater appreciation that ‘different’ =/= ‘bad’. Building cultures that inevitably clash gives you a much more nuanced and interesting story. Yes, it involves a lot more work on the world-building front but personally I’d put that in the plus column. Anything to make your setting richer and more immersive can only be good. Also, culture-building is fun and often leads to you learning more about other people’s rich history of fairytales. I’m sure I’ve mentioned them before, but Sarah Zettel’s Isavalta Trilogy does some fantastic things with Russian and Chinese mythology.

Finally, I’d like to point you in the direction of a brilliant piece of online fiction by Ursula Vernon, which consciously subverts the stereotypes of elf and orc for comic effect. The story is unfinished, which is a tragedy, but absolutely worth reading. I go back to it at least once a year.

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