Tag Archives: evil genius

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.

Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9

Know Your Enemy

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Every story is about a conflict of some kind, be it against nature, an individual or an internal struggle. I’ve talked about this in the past, and it’s extensively covered in various books, blogs and podcasts so I won’t reiterate that. What I want to explore is the ‘man vs man’ approach in a bit more detail because it’s a fairly encompassing term. It includes bad guys, invading aliens and evil corporations. The Matrix in the eponymous film would count as ‘man’, for example.

Who wouldn't want to punch that face?

Who wouldn’t want to punch that face?

But can you have a decent conflict story if the ‘man’ that is the enemy doesn’t have an individual representation to focus on? Agent Smith, if you like, symbolizing the whole entity of the Matrix but able to be punched in the face. It does make it much easier for the reader to be able to focus their dislike on one person, and much easier to demonstrate the bad guy’s downfall if he’s a person rather than something bigger and more nebulous. Star Wars had Darth Vader and the Emperor representing the Empire, Les Mis had Javert representing France, Chocolat had Father Reynaud representing the Church, and so on.

My question is, is it necessary? I’ve been trying to come up with examples where there isn’t this individual representation, and the only one I can think of is Dr. Who and the Cybermen (even the Daleks have Davros, Khan and the Cult of Skarro). And the point with both the Cybermen and the Daleks is that individuality is something to be stamped out.

The reason I’m asking is because the enemy in Corpus – Mercy’s book – is the Temple. I can put an individual face on the Temple if storytelling convention and the readers require it, but I’d actually rather not. There’s conflict enough between the two central characters, even if they end up on the same side, and adding another character just to represent the Temple as the bad guy seems almost like it would weaken that focus. But the fact that I can’t think of any strong examples where not having a face to punch has worked makes me a bit nervous.

Tragedy!

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When you lose control
And you got no soul , it’s
Tragedy…

No, I’m not having 70s flashbacks. I have instead been asked to look at the components of tragedy in terms of story-telling technique. What are the basic building blocks? Given my penchant for writing tragic endings – or rather, my complete inability to write happy ones – plus my admittedly fading qualifications as a classicist, this is a subject I’m interested to address.

1. He’s A Nice Guy Really

The protagonist has a redeeming feature that lets the audience really identify with them. Orestes is quite a good example of this – his doom was guaranteed when he killed his mother. Not a prime candidate for sympathy, one might think, until you learn that the reason he killed his mother was because she’d murdered his father in cold blood and taken a lover. And because Apollo told him to. So you might conceivably see yourself having the same reaction (especially in the days of Ancient Greece). Which means that everything that follows could have happened to you. This is absolutely key – above all else, tragedy is founded on empathy.

2. It’s His Choice

The protagonist is given a chance to avoid his fate. Pentheus could have freed Dionysus, Orpheus could have not looked back, etc etc. The trick to the heart-wrench is that, in the end, they brought their doom upon themselves despite the lifebelt that was available. Quite often the audience, with the benefit of omniscience, knows that the chance is being offered and discarded even if the character doesn’t, and can therefore feel all the worse because the character is heading blindly towards a bad end.

3. So Close

Victory is in sight, the audience starts to believe that there could be a happy ending after all, and then it all goes horribly wrong at the last minute. Theseus is a good one for this – he defeats the minotaur, escapes the guards, and manages to sail home. But in all the excitement he forgets to change the colour of the ship’s sails to let his father know in advance that he’s alive and Aegeas, seeing the black cloth from a cliff top and stricken with grief, throws himself into the sea. This is a tricky element to play with as getting the timing right is crucial, but it can work beautifully.

4. It All Goes Horribly Wrong

Obviously. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a tragedy. There’s a couple of options with this, though – either it’s the fate long feared, or it’s something completely left-field which the audience didn’t expect. The Ancient Greeks weren’t big fans of the latter option, preferring to signpost everything along the way. The only example I can really think of is Antigone – the protagonist’s impending death is the expected tragedy, which King Creon is finally persuaded to avert. He does it too late so she’s already dead (tragic, but not a shock), but his son has killed himself as a result because he was in love with her. Which drives Creon’s wife to commit suicide too. More tragic – it could have been guarded against but wasn’t because Creon didn’t think it was an issue. As a result, he has lost everyone. That’s another aspect for ‘It All Goes Horribly Wrong’, of course. All. Keep piling up the disasters – why stop at one?! You can take this too far, and shouldn’t do it often, but it’s a good way to drive the character – and thus the audience – past the point of endurance.

5. Nothing Can Be Done

The nail in the coffin, so to speak. The audience is utterly helpless. They can’t warn or prevent, despite having greater knowledge than the character. The important thing is to make them want to – to have them clutching at the arms of the chair, or shouting at the TV screen, but they are completely without power. Provided the author has got the first key part right and made them care about the protagonist, this is the real kick in the teeth.

Obviously the above points are all written from the perspective of ancient Greek theatre, but it’s very simple to transfer them across to a written story. It does need a subtle hand, though. Greek Tragedy was fairly formulaic and no audience wants to feel like they’re just watching boxes being ticked.

This Doesn’t End Well

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Having decided that I would keep my style and approach for Corpus, and tell the same story from the perspective of the ‘bad’/other guys, I am left with another problem. How do you keep an audience interested in a tale to which they already know the ending? It’s been done – Titanic is the most obvious example – but it does necessarily change the approach. You are no longer building up to a big finale in the same way, because there is no surprise reveal (or at least, not in terms of events). To use a rather trite cliche, the story is no longer about the destination but about the journey. Crucially, to continue with the Titanic example, it’s about the unknown characters and how they react to known events.

This does bring up another challenge. The characters in Titanic had a chance of living or dying (SPOILERS! They did one of each…) so the mystery and the reveal on a character level was still there. How do you write a character that your audience already knows is doomed? They saw the bad guy fall at the end of Book 1, there’s no way he can survive the end of Book 2. At that point, then, all the focus of the story has to be on how he ended up in such an impossible position and the choices that brought him to that end.

It is a different emphasis on story-telling, though, and something I will need to bear in mind. This is the point where events and actions don’t really matter any more, because they are inevitable and known. This is a story not about something that happened, but who it happened to.