I’ve written before about the potential danger of handling controversial topics poorly and ham-handedly as a writer. An example from real life raised this issue to me again today, and provides a good example of how to use character diversity and similarity to carefully and sensitively make potentially controversial points. To set the scene, I am (when not writing fiction) a graduate student at a large university, where I teach undergraduate classes and do academic research. Today, a Pakistani coworker of mine who is newer to the university approached me with a question. Knowing that I am religious and American, both of which he is not, he presented me with a teaching predicament: a student in a class of his turned in a religious opinion piece instead of the assigned research paper, and he didn’t know how to react. If he failed the student, he worried that the student might think he was being persecuted because of the religious content of the paper he had turned in, rather than because he had not completed the work as it was assigned.
This raised an interesting point that is very applicable to writers. As a non-religious non-American professor, any action that my coworker took against a religious American student, no matter how justified, could be interpreted by some as an attack against the “other” demographic group rather than as an appropriate response based on a given individual’s action. As I considered the issue, I thought about how I would respond. I would have absolutely no qualms about failing the student – if he complained, I could tell him that I agreed with his beliefs and understood where he came from, and that the reason he earned the failing grade was because he had not completed the assignment as specified. The student would likely not be happy, but would likely connect the reason for the failing grade accurately to his own failure to do the work. If my coworker did exactly the same thing, however, the student could still maintain in his head the fiction that he was being persecuted for his faith, no matter what the reality was.
This situation has clear implications for writers. We, as creators of characters and cultures and worlds, have the luxury of creating individuals who can have fundamental disagreements and fight with each other. We can choose their demographics and their personal background for maximal narrative effect. Even more powerfully, we can choose whose perspective to tell a story from. With this power, however, comes the responsibility of using it well.
If you are going to raise issues that are tied deeply to characteristics that reflect important group identities – whether issues of religion, politics, race, culture, or something similar – then you need to consider the group identities of everyone you involve in your conflict. If you have characters who are different from each other on an important characteristic and you only give one character’s point of view, you could easily find readers assigning group stereotypes to the other character’s actions. An easy way to solve this problem, of course, is to present the situation from both opposing characters’ viewpoints. This will ensure that readers see the reality of the situation, as well as the misconceptions, that are going through all your characters’ heads, and keep them from judging you as an author for your supposed biases regarding certain demographic groups.
If you only want to tell your story from one character’s point of view, however, you are more limited in the type of conflict you can accurately portray without the threat of misunderstanding. If you want to give a nuanced presentation of what is right or wrong in a given situation, then make your conflicting characters similar to each other in all ways that could lead to misinterpretations of motivations. In the case of the example above, if I wrote the scene with a religious professor, I could then incorporate the religious student who blatantly did the assignment incorrectly without my readers thinking that I was saying as an author that all religious individuals are bad academics. The same would not hold true if I wrote it from only the student’s point of view and the professor did not share their belief system.
What issues have you seen raised in novels that have either been handled well or in a biased fashion by their creators? If they were handled badly, how might the author have done it better?
Last weekend, I had an amazing opportunity to see a live production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is a fascinating play that in many ways is a study of authorship, of power, and of writing itself. The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote before setting down his pen and retiring. Its protagonist, the magician Prospero, is often seen as an author-insertion character – Shakespeare’s writing a play about himself, in some ways. Like Shakespeare, like any novelist, Prospero creates stories that magically come to life to make others’ lives happier, and has to choose to use that power for good or for evil. The fact that Prospero uses magic in the context of a play to actually influence other characters’ lives is a narrative metaphor for the role of the novelist or playwright in creating stories about fictional characters, molding and shaping their lives, and in so doing, shaping and influencing the lives of readers.
As a fantasy novelist, it was great fun to see Prospero-as-storyteller, and Prospero-as-magician, shaping a story with his creative mind and narrative sense that would be fitting and would turn out “right” for all involved (him restored to his lost dukedom, his daughter blissfully wed to a prince, and mercy for those who have done wrong), and using his magic and mind to make it all happen as he willed. We, as novelists, have to have both creativity and a narrative sense to identify what kind of story to tell, and also a kind of magic – a storytelling magic – to create events and characters in such a way that they are believable, that they interact believably, and that they through their interactions with the plot ultimately create a story that will hold readers’ attention. Good stories aren’t just narratives, they’re living, breathing souls that speak to readers deeply, bringing with them glimpses of truth about real life. Good plays, similarly, aren’t just words spoken by actors; they are corporeal dreams that are inhabited for a time by real people, giving insight into life even as they entertain.
Shakespeare, through Prospero, shows novelists the power and the importance of our art and craft. We must carefully think through the consequences of our narrative decisions. We cannot treat all characters alike – while some characters need to be brought up short by a flaming, terrifying vision of a fire spirit to drive them mad with guilt, others may need to be physically restrained lest they hurt themselves and others, and some characters may just be able to be warned and guided to do the right thing by sharing with them words of truth. While some characters are driven by the promise of true love, others are driven by the desire for freedom, for power, or for pleasure. Some characters are stubborn and do not take kindly to instruction, preferring to go their own way though they harm themselves over and over in the process. Others are more tractable, preferring to listen to instruction and advice (whether good or bad) and change their behavior with the hopes of improving their lives and situations.
And we as authors give them life and purpose and move them into tense situations, pull the rugs out from under their feet, tantalize them with offers of fulfilling their goals, and then make it difficult for them to reach those goals. We as authors pull the strings, weave the tapestries, tell the stories. And sometimes, like Prospero, in telling the stories, we find ourselves being changed. Sometimes, in telling the stories, we realize new things about ourselves. And sometimes, those things we realize can then be put back into the stories we write to help others. The dreams we envision shape our waking lives, and can be used to create dreams for others that, when they wake, make them “cry to dream again.”
One of Shakespeare’s dreams was The Tempest, and I am glad to have inhabited it for a time.
I’m at an academic conference this weekend, so this week’s blog post will be a bit different. In it, I want to share something amazing that I recently discovered about the writing of one of my favorite modern fantasy authors, Brandon Sanderson.
Brandon Sanderon’s key differentiation feature – his personal brand, as we would say in marketing – is that he is an amazing worldbuilder. Yes, he tells good stories with realistic characters. Yes, he is funny and clean in his writing. But what really sets him apart is the logical, consistent, intricate way in which everything in a world fits together and makes sense, even when a world is entirely Other than the world we see around us. Good worldbuilders tend to incorporate worldbuilding at three levels.
First, authors can create a world for a single set of characters, tell a story about that world with those characters, and move on. A good example is Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean. The world of these stories is rich and complex, and focuses on one set of characters and their story. When the authors want to move on, then, they create an entirely different world with entirely different characters.
Second, authors can create a world for multiple, related sets of characters. This option allows an author to reuse settings, cultures, refer to events that have already taken place, and draw readers back into a familiar world with fresh characters and situations. A good example is Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, which takes place a few years after the events of her Alanna series in the same magical kingdom of Tortall. The events of the Alanna books set in motion the events of the next series, and the protagonist of the second series occasionally interacts with the protagonist of the first, but the stories themselves are about different events and characters. Similarly, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series follows this model, with over ten books set in the same Redwall Abbey and Mossflower Woods, though with very few overlapping characters.
Third, authors can create a world for multiple, unrelated sets of characters. This option allows for a larger meta-story to evolve, as one series about one set of characters in one kingdom then gives way to a different series set on the other side of the world that might be influenced by the events of the first series, or may have only heard about the other kingdom as a distant rumor of a far-off place. Future books might bring individuals from the kingdoms together, or drive them to war, or they might remain wholly separate, but the world remains constant. Also in this category are series that take place in the same world but spaced hundreds of years apart, where the events of one series might be seen as legend or myth in another and (with this being a crucial distinguisher), the way in which the world works – its society, its geography, its magic, etc. – are different enough so that the reader does not feel that it is taking place in the same location.
But, I recently found out, Sanderson has embarked on a fourth mode of worldbuilding. He has actually created separate worlds, separate series, with separate characters, that are all in the same universe, and linked by characters who can travel between worlds. This idea takes the possibility for a meta-story to the next level. Now, instead of worrying at most about how the plot of one series might affect the next series set in that world, bounded by the same rules of society, magic, religion, and history, readers can cross these boundaries and imagine how the events of one epic fantasy series with one set of magical rules might somehow affect another epic fantasy series with a different set of magical rules. For instance, in one of Sanderson’s worlds, magic works through the ingesting of metals and a corresponding ability of the mage to perform a particular activity by “burning” the metal – for instance, soothing another person’s emotions. What happens if a person from this world goes to another world where magic emanates from large, powerful storms and manifests as light trapped in crystals, where anyone can use devices powered by this magic, and mages can create and move physical objects via magic, but certainly cannot manipulate emotions? You get characters who do things that aren’t quite explained in-world, characters who are thought odd or prescient by other characters, characters who have some kind of authorial license to do things and say things that readers who don’t know better will shrug at and say, “I guess the character was lucky.”
For readers who do know better, on the other hand, this type of writing is mind-blowing. What does Sanderson have planned? (He has confirmed that he does have a plan.) How will the series eventually link up with each other? How can characters travel to different worlds? What do they want? Besides being an amazing marketing strategy to encourage readers to buy and finish entire series from the author they might not have otherwise been interested in, it is an amazingly large writing and worldbuilding strategy. Not only does Sanderson have to plan out how any given series will go, he has to plan out how this series fits into his universe’s meta-story.
As a worldbuilding writer myself, I am in awe.
As a reader, I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
The presents are unwrapped, the carols are sung, guests have said their farewells, and Christmas is over for another year. Now’s the time to sit back with a mug of cider or hot chocolate, watch the snow fall out the window, and enjoy a good book! (If you’re in the mood for something from Cadaeren, of course, you can take the Cadaerian Christmas Challenge to gain access to my new “Noble Memories” story…) What books or stories have you been reading this holiday season that you’re most excited about?
I just finished Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, and continue to be impressed with him as a fantasy novelist. This series is not quite as good so far as his later works (namely, The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, the first books of his new “Stormlight Archive”), but it’s definitely worth a read. It’s interesting seeing how different authors’ systems of magic, views of society, and character motivations are similar across their separate fantasy worlds. Because of this, reading Mistborn after the first two of the Stormlight Archive is almost like reading an early draft imagining of the later series.
For instance, the male main characters in Mistborn seems almost like a slightly less developed (though different) version of his main character in The Way of Kings: driven at his core by a sense of right and wrong and protection of those who are in his care, but also with a bitter hatred of the noble ruling class who have wronged him in some way. Similarly, both books include a magic power that involves gravitational manipulation that isn’t quite flying, but achieves much the same goal: characters can in one series “push” or “pull” against metal to direct themselves through space, while in another series they “lash” themselves to an object with magic, which makes that direction “down” gravitationally. It works well in both series, but it’s similar enough that you can tell that they were written by the same author who has certain ideas about how flying “should” work.
Honestly, it makes me wonder what types of similarities readers would find in my own work across my fantasy worlds. I think of them as being completely separate, with very different types of narratives, ways in which societies work, and rules of magic. However, I’m sure that there are similarities that I don’t see – aspects that are included because I think they’re neat, or because they make sense, or simply because I’m used to writing in that way. It would be interesting to see what readers think.
Have you experienced this “author similarity” across worlds in the books you’ve read? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
The Holiday Season has now officially begun. With the Thanksgiving turkey eaten, our consumption habits turn to things that are equally savory, but that don’t go as well with cranberry sauce. So what are you putting on your Christmas list this year? Mine (as always) includes books. Preferably sci-fi or fantasy, with strong world-building and realistic characters. Unfortunately, these kinds of books can be hard to find. This past year, however, I’ve found a few worth reading – all three are the first in their respective series, and I’m hoping to get the rest from the library over the holidays. If you haven’t read these, you might be interested in checking them out – and maybe putting them on your Christmas list.
In reverse order of recommendation, the first book worth taking a look at is Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear, the first in her Eternal Sky trilogy. Set in a quasi-Mongolian fantasy world, the book’s most intriguing world-building feature is its use of Sky as a fantasy element. Different kingdoms have different skies, and the sky of a land (including constellations, sky color, etc.) changes when it is conquered. The sky is actually used as a plot point, as one of the lands’ skies displays a moon for every living prince of the royal house – which makes it easy to keep track of the success or failure of one’s royal assassination attempts.
As one might expect in a high fantasy trilogy, the book involves heroes from multiple cultures, (including tiger-ninja people!), a number of developed religions (including an evil death cult!), magical creatures (including giant roc-type birds and living stones!), and an epic journey across several kingdoms, which genre-savvy readers know (even if the main characters don’t) will ultimately shape the fate of the world.
This book is definitely not for young readers. It is written at a high reading level, and contains some explicit adult material. That said, it is very well written and engaging, and I look forward to continuing the story when I have a chance to pick up the sequels.
The second book with strong world-building and good characters that I would recommend is Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, the first book in her Grisha trilogy. Again, I haven’t read the second two books, but the first is both clever and plot-twisty in a YA fantasy romance adventure novel kind of way. In terms of world-building, this series is inspired by Russian culture and folklore, which makes for a beautiful and intriguing landscape. Her system of magic is also well-developed, interesting, and important to the politics of the world as well as to the main character’s narrative arc.
Written in first person present tense (as so many YA novels are nowadays), Shadow and Bone is conversational in tone, but crafted and paced well. Though a little gritty and dark in places, it also has its heroic, funny, and charming moments. It also kept me up too late several nights in a row reading, which is always a good sign. Fast-moving, featuring epic magic, betrayal, true love, and adventure, this series is another I’m looking forward to finishing.
Both of the books above were enjoyable, but I’ve saved the best for last. If you have to pick one epic fantasy full of great world-building and realistic characters to read this year, pick The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. The first in a…well…long and as yet unfinished series entitled The Stormlight Archive, the book is epically large in scope. It involves two main characters who have their own independent plotlines in different kingdoms, a sizable number of secondary characters who have chapters written from their point of view, and a host of tertiary characters who are as real and complex as many books’ sidekicks. All this said, The Way of Kings flows well, is easy to keep track of who is who, and its plots are enthralling.
More than that, however, The Way of Kings is a world-building masterpiece. The world Sanderson creates is wholly other, and yet wholly internally consistent. From a unique magic-based monetary system (gemstones that hold varying amounts of “stormlight,” which gets used in spell-work), to a completely different animal and plant kingdom than found on Earth (largely inspired by marine life, but transferred to a land-based habitat – for instance, flying eels, giant marauding crustaceans that live in cracks in the Earth, and grass that retracts into the ground to protect itself whenever a storm hits, as well as other sentient races besides humanity), the world and its multiple kingdoms are rich with history, legend, religion, culture, heroes, and magic.
The magic system that Sanderson invented is especially exquisite and creative. For instance, his world is inhabited by “spren” that live in everything, including emotions (e.g. visible “glory spren” hover around one’s head in a moment of victory, “pain spren” or “disease spren” can be seen around open wounds, and more obvious wind and fire spren live in those elements). Of course, individuals can work magic as well, and some of the more interesting elements of Sanderson’s world include the ways in which warriors and wizards use their powers to assassinate, heal, create, destroy, manipulate others, or fight for honor.
Though this book deals with some dark themes and violence, it is actually cleaner than the other two. This is also something that sets it apart from the popular Game of Thrones series: Sanderson is a far more hopeful and less bloody and graphic writer than is George R.R. Margin, and he doesn’t insist on killing off nearly every decent character he introduces. The Way of Kings is also very well-written, and the characters are nuanced and grounded in their realities and histories. Finally, and somewhat strangely, given its long page-count and attention to detail, the book is fast-paced and gripping. In short, if you haven’t read this book, put it on your Christmas list. You’ll be glad you did.
What other fantasy books with great world-building and characters have you read? I’d love to hear any recommendations you have!
The sky. What do we say about it as writers? Well, it’s normally blue. If you’re on the plains, maybe it stretches out to the distant green and gold horizon. If you’re on the sea, maybe you can’t tell where the waves end and the sky begins. At night, the sky can provide direction, opportunities for stories, an imposing darkness, or perhaps a sense of hope, as a character looks up to the stars.
But why do we care? There’s one huge reason: the sky is the most constantly changing visible part of our natural environment, and as such, it has a major impact on the setting of your story. Writers are often told that they need to describe setting in their stories, for good reason. Knowing what a place looks like, feels like, sounds like, and smells like can help readers feel like they’re “really there,” right next to your characters, as a story unfolds. Describing the sky, even very briefly, is one way to immediately give your readers a hook that helps them visualize the rest of your scene. The sky can also help you establish a mood, build a new world, or even further your plot along.
The easiest way of using sky is to follow the established tropes about different types of weather “matching” different types of mood. Consider this as the “Level 1” use of sky. For instance: sunny days with clear skies tend to establish a cheerful tone for a scene, or provide explicit contrast if things are going wrong. For instance: Thomas gave a longing glance out the window at the cloudless azure sky and cheerful sun beaming down on all it touched. Just five more minutes, then class would be over…just four minutes and thirty seconds… Cloudy or rainy days, however, are naturally suited to pensive, thoughtful, or somber scenes. Storms without can parallel storms or danger within, black clouds can match black moods, colorful sunsets make for beautiful romantic dinners, and so forth.
That’s all well and good. Sky use levels 2, 3, and 4, however, are where the sky really gets interesting and helps you build your story. In Level 2, celestial objects or events tell you something important about a story or setting rather than just imparting a mood. For instance, I recently learned that one can never see the stars in Singapore, because the light pollution across the entire tiny island city-state is too bad. This fact can provide a telling bit of detail for any story set there, or a similar location. For instance, let’s picture a character who leaves her job at midnight, looks up at the sky to see the dim moon in a wash of pale gray, and wonders briefly if the stars really look the way they do in Hollywood movies or if it’s just another visual effect. This brief description tells us a lot about the world in which this person lives. Alternatively, if a character sees the Northern Lights rippling in the darkness in brilliant greens and blues, we immediately know that she is somewhere up north, likely away from a city, and we might imagine the air to be crisp and cold.
Level 3 takes the sky a step further, and uses it as a fantasy or science fiction world building tool. Since we all know that the Earth has a blue sky and one yellow sun, simply asserting that something is different immediately tells the reader that the characters aren’t located on Earth. Many planets have two suns simply because the author wants to show that the world is different than the one we’re familiar with. Similarly, one of the charming world-building aspects of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is the constellations he puts in the night sky of his fantasy realm. They don’t further the plot in and of themselves, but by showing that the sky somehow strange, the author reminds the readers that they aren’t on Earth, and makes them wonder what else in this world is different too.
The last level, Level 4, incorporates Levels 2 and 3 to create a new fantasy or science fiction world where the sky is actually an important component of the plot. This use of sky takes the most prior planning and thought, but can result in fascinating, powerful stories. The recent Eternal Sky fantasy series by Elizabeth Bear, for instance, paints a world where different realms have different skies, so when a person steps over the border from one to the next, the sun, moon, and stars change. Further, in the steppe where one of her main characters lives, the moons literally represent the current princes of the realm. They come into existence when a new prince is born, and are snuffed out when he dies. This gives everyone vital information about the status of allies and enemies, including intelligence about the effectiveness of assassination attempts, which is a key plot point in the books.
Another interesting example is the fantasy novel Werenight by Harry Turtledove (writing as Eric Iverson). *SPOILER ALERT* Throughout the book, the author describes the positions and phases of the world’s four moons, seemingly as mere Level 3 description. However, at the climax of the story – a large battle scene before two opposed forces – all four moons come out and are full. This leads to any character with even a faint trace of were-blood (a condition established throughout the book) turning into a vicious animal, which leads to mass chaos and the need for emergency action on the part of the book’s heroes.
A strangely similar classic science fiction example, though with a very different tone and basic plot, is the fantastic dark short story Nightfall by Isaac Asimov. It follows an astronomer who lives on a planet that is constantly illuminated by six suns. Their world’s scientists have just recently uncovered the truth about their planet’s history: that once every two thousand years, the suns eclipse, and the world is exposed to darkness, which drives the planet’s inhabitants mad. The story tells about the day of the eclipse. This is another story that got me interested in world-building as a child – seeing how Asimov took something so obvious as “night” and “stars” and created a world based on the premise that people were unaware of them, was definitely a mind-expanding experience.
Personally, it’s been great fun for me recently to write a world that follows Level 4 use of sky. In my novella set in the fantasy world of Alepago, the stars are living, sentient beings who ride on celestial steeds back and forth across the night sky, and occasionally visit those who live on the face of Mother Earth. Further, it is well known that shooting stars – the messengers of the star spirits – bring luck to anyone who sees them. The setting of the novella, then, is a three-night meteor shower of historic proportions, which influences both the main narrative of the story, as well as the characters’ individual decisions of how to react to the obstacles they face.
Thinking about these four levels of sky description, then…
Writers: how are you going to incorporate the sky into your next work of fiction?
Readers: what type of stories (Levels 1 through 4) do you most enjoy reading?
The Giver by Lois Lowry is one of the few books from my childhood that still has an honored place on my post-college bookshelf. I don’t remember the first time that I read it; all I remember is re-reading, over and over, thrilling in both the realness and otherness of the world that Lowry created. Before the existence of The Hunger Games or the Divergent trilogy, (which were both made into better movies than The Giver, honestly), Lowry introduced me to the idea of world-building, YA dystopia, and sociological imagination. What would the world look like if it were different in such-and-such a way? What would daily life look like? How would it impact people’s goals, dreams for the future, and reactions to events? How would people be the same – or different? These are questions that The Giver excels at answering, albeit briefly, as appropriate for a book aimed at young YA readers.
Watching the movie adaptation this past week reminded me of a few things that Lowry did exceptionally well that fantasy and science fiction authors can still learn from.
Establish a world with both real good and bad aspects.
The community in which Jonas (the main character of The Giver) lives is quite tame as far as dystopian worlds go. The founders’ master plan of creating a peaceful haven for their citizens actually worked. War and hunger no longer exist, people are content with their lives and jobs, and citizens affirm each other, treat each other with respect, and have a high standard of living. (Katniss from The Hunger Games would be jealous.)
The primary external horror of this world comes from the main character’s discovery that the community euthanizes any individuals who do not conform or who have reached a certain age. Even this process, however, is carried out in a humane, respectful manner that causes the subject as little pain as possible. The internal horror of the world of The Giver is its lack of emotions and diversity of any sort, which is shown to have stripped away the beauty of human existence. The decision that Jonas comes to (to run away from the community to restore its humanity to it) is not an easy one to make: with humanity comes the ugliness, hardship, and conflict that the founders of the community sought so desperately to avoid. Whereas other YA dystopian literature presents a corrupt government that obviously must be brought down, the world of The Giver is more subtle.
Show how the specific world impacts everyday life in realistic but surprising ways.
In the world of The Giver, “precision of language” is an important virtue. Words have power, so using the right word in the right instance is vital. This facet of society is established through several small encounters: one character saying that she is “starving,” and being sharply reproved (starvation is a terrible thing that no longer exists), and another young boy saying that he wants a “smack” instead of a “snack” – and being given one! Having established the importance of this concept, Lowry is able to use it to show a key problem in her society: its lack of love. In a key scene, Jonas asks his parents if they love him, which puzzles them greatly. The word love is too imprecise, they tell him. They take pride in his achievements, and they enjoy who he is as a person, but “love” as a word is meaningless. This exchange sets the stage for Jonas’s decision to run away.
Create strong characters whose strength is not physical
Jonas is not an action hero. He has morals, courage, intelligence, and determination, but his success stems from his decisions to do what is right rather than from his physical or mental abilities. He hates war and violence; instead, he values love, family, music, beauty, and life – so much that he would risk leaving everything he has known and everyone he cares about for the chance to give these treasures back to a world that has forgotten them. He is tender with baby Gabriel, and risks everything, including his own future, to save the child from being euthanized. He survives in the wilderness because of memories that are not his own and borrowed courage, not from any physical training or special talents in survival that he has. And yet, Jonas is uniquely able to press on because of his moral vision. He believes in what he is doing, the rightness of it, and the need to save lives – both Gabriel’s, and those of everyone in his community who have never had the chance to truly live.
While The Giver is not an action adventure story, and thus did not translate as well to the silver screen as did later-written-but-previously-filmed novels, it is a well-crafted novel based on a well-crafted world. I have previously discussed the sociological problems with Divergent; the world of The Giver is similar in some ways, yet (albeit in a simpler form) it holds together more coherently. It is an exploration of a completely different world that is still similar enough to our own to give us pause. While The Hunger Games and Divergent show us the power of hope and courage as a single individual leads a struggle for freedom in an oppressive society, The Giver makes us think about the dangers of valuing safety and peace above all else, the value and danger of free will, knowledge, and diversity, and the things that make life truly worth living.
It’s relatively easy to write Perfect Heroes and Dastardly Villains. It’s much harder to write villains who are a bit more ambiguous, and yet clearly in the wrong. I’ve written before on why it’s important to write complex characters, even in children’s stories. But how does this play out in the “real world” of storytelling? Since it’s summer, and the perfect time to kick back and relax with a good story, this post will give you five enjoyable “research opportunities” to explore more in depth what it looks like to write a good villain. Specifically, they will all be antagonists from plays/musicals.
I know, it seems at first like a bit of a stretch. How does watching a play help you write a better novel? Three words: action and dialogue. One problem that novelists often have is telling instead of showing. “He was the sort of person you could never trust” is telling. Watching a villain tell a bold-faced lie or stab someone in the back (perhaps literally) is showing. Theater excels at the latter. Even in soliloquys or musical solos, a theatrical character is still talking in character. By watching plays, then, novelists can learn a great deal about how to show rather than tell about sympathetic (or at least ambiguous) villains.
With that introduction, let’s begin!
5. Richard II (Shakespeare)
Starting with the least evil villain on this list is the main character in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, Richard II. I first saw this play last week, as part of a DVD boxed set (“The Hollow Crown” – very much worth it!), and found myself quite unsure who I was supposed to be rooting for, and against, for about the first half of the story. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story’s plot, Richard II is the rightful king of Britain. However, the play follows one of his young lords who returns illegally from banishment and overthrows Richard, becoming Henry IV. Henry is presented as the play’s protagonist, but it is only as the play progresses that we see just why Richard is such a bad king, though not really an evil man. First, fueling an audience’s contempt for him, Richard refuses to listen to good advice, and instead threatens his dying kinsman who gives it:
Second, immediately following this clip (and showing that it is accurate), Richard steals Henry’s inheritance to fund his costly wars, since the young man is banished and “cannot” come back to reclaim it. Henry does, however, and the rest of the country follows him to overthrow the king.
As the play continues, the audience gets more and more fed up with Richard. He is very much put upon, or thinks he is, the entire time. He is spoiled, convinced of his divine right to rule, has a mercurial temperament, and (most aggravating), he truly believes that he is deep and profound. It ends up being simply melodramatic and pathetic.
To give you an idea, take a look at this clip. He has previously agreed to give up the throne to Henry, to save his life, and now must do so:
In my opinion, this clip ends too soon. Immediately afterward, Lord Northumberland tells Richard to read out loud the charges against him, so that public record will show that he was deposed for reason. Here’s his eye-roll-inducing response:
KING RICHARD II
No lord of thine, thou haught insulting man,
Nor no man’s lord; I have no name, no title,
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But ’tis usurp’d: alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out,
And know not now what name to call myself!
O that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water-drops!
Good king, great king, and yet not greatly good,
An if my word be sterling yet in England,
Let it command a mirror hither straight,
That it may show me what a face I have,
Since it is bankrupt of his majesty.
Go some of you and fetch a looking-glass.
Exit an attendant
Read o’er this paper while the glass doth come.
KING RICHARD II
Fiend, thou torment’st me ere I come to hell!
Urge it no more, my Lord Northumberland.
The commons will not then be satisfied.
KING RICHARD II
They shall be satisfied: I’ll read enough,
When I do see the very book indeed
Where all my sins are writ, and that’s myself.
Re-enter Attendant, with a glass
Give me the glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine,
And made no deeper wounds? O flattering glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me! Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? was this the face
That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that faced so many follies,
And was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face:
As brittle as the glory is the face;
Dashes the glass against the ground
For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers.
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,
How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.
All together now: “FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!”
Shakespeare is the master of characterization. Even though his language is a bit archaic today, we can still see how Richard runs on (and on and on) in narcissistic self-pity. This is NOT a good king, and even though we feel bad for him, we see the need for him to be deposed.
4. The Wizard of Oz (Wicked)
Like Richard II, the Wizard of Oz in the musical Wicked is initially thought of as the good and beneficent ruler of the country. He’s the “rightful” overseer of Oz due to the powers that everyone thinks he has – and it’s only as the story progresses that we find that he’s actually a fraud. As Elphaba travels from putting her trust in the Wizard to fighting to bring him down, the audience too loses respect for this man. But even so, we see where he’s coming from. The wizard truly does care for his people, just as Richard II did. He just has a fuzzy/misguided conception of what’s right and wrong.
This ambiguous characterization is especially shown in the songs “Sentimental Man” and “Wonderful,” which are compiled here (not a great quality, but here nonetheless):
Whereas Richard II is aggravating, the Wizard of Oz is charming. He isn’t good, and in fact, he does things that are quite bad. He’s a temptation that Elphaba must face and defeat. But even so, we really don’t want to see harm come to him.
3. The Phantom (Phantom of the Opera)
The Phantom of the Opera is the Wizard of Oz taken a step further. He runs the Opera Populaire from the background, with a steel fist and an icy soul, ready to kill any who oppose him. He’s insane, brilliant, and incredibly dangerous. The Phantom is vindictive and irrationally possessive, he lies and manipulates those around him, and he openly prefers the darkness to the light – metaphorically as well as literally.
However, though he is clearly evil, the Phantom is also fascinating and pitiable. First, he is intelligent, passionate, and talented. We observe these traits in his single-minded pursuit of Christine, his setting up elaborate plots to gain revenge on those who he believes have wronged him, and his musical performances. (Showing, not telling!) Further, we see that though he has an incredible voice and talent for musical composition, he can never pursue his dreams openly because his face is horribly disfigured – causing everyone around him to react in horror whenever they see him. (Again, showing, driving the plot forward.) Third, the Phantom truly loves (or thinks he loves) Christine, which he shows through training her to sing and through seeking revenge on both her and her new fiancée when she abandons him.
The Phantom, like Richard II, is in pain for much of the second half of the play. But instead of whining about it, he outwits and kills his opponents until the end. While we don’t agree with what he does, the Phantom is a fascinating character – who we’re just glad that we’re never going to run into on a dark night down in the theater.
2. Javert (Les Miserables)
The musical Les Miserables is an amazing piece of writing. Given different circumstances and scenarios, Javert, a policeman whose sense of duty and justice drives him to hunt down fugitive Jean Valjean no matter what, could have been the hero of a play. Instead, his actions and their repercussions show him to be the play’s antagonist – though one with whom audiences can almost sympathize. While Richard II, the Wizard of Oz, and the Phantom of the Opera are villains because they have done things that are wrong or illegal, Javert is a villain until he breaks the law. It is in keeping the law, not breaking it, that he demonstrates that he is the antagonist of the play.
We see this in him wanting to arrest Fantine rather than let her go to the hospital, despite the fact that her daughter will die if she’s arrested (“I have heard such protestations every day for twenty years – let’s have no more explanations. Save your breath, and save your tears. Honest work. Just reward. That’s the way to please the Lord!”) We see this in him “joining” the noble revolutionaries as a governmental spy to nip the rebellion in the bud. We see this in him refusing to trade his life for Valjean’s: “Shoot me now, for all I care. If you let me go, beware; you’ll still answer to Javert!”
It’s when Jean Valjean, a supposed criminal, still refuses to kill Javert, letting him go and turning his conceptions of the world upside down, that Javert for the first time breaks the law. The audience sees Javert give in to mercy, then destroy himself because he cannot reconcile his new realization that mercy triumphs over justice with the life he has lived until this point.
As the play is written, no audience member sympathizes with Javert. And yet, he is the most moral of all the five villains of this list. Thus showing that good, when twisted just ever so slightly, can be just as villainous as murder.
1. Richard III (Shakespeare)
Speaking of murder, we finally get to the most villainous of villains who still counts as an ambiguous character – Shakespeare’s Richard III. Not only is King Richard a full-out villain, he rejoices in it. But he is the play’s main character, and gets the audience on his side by judicious breaking of the fourth wall, that is, inviting the audience to come and join him. In his opening monologue, he flatly states that he is deformed and therefore “cannot” be merry as is everyone else…
“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other.”
Is this “telling” rather than “showing”? Why yes, it is – and here, it works beautifully well. The audience is stunned, beguiled, and enchanted. We know secret knowledge that none of the other characters of the play are privy to. As we then watch Richard lie and manipulate everyone around him, we are fascinated and feel complicit in his crimes.
However, this complicity wears off. By the beginning of Act 2, Richard’s crimes have grown more brutal and he begins to go insane. The audience watches him order children to be murdered, refuse to carry out his promises, try to woo his niece, and become increasingly paranoid. Through this, the audience is able to separate itself from him, and since it knows him and his thoughts, truly wish him dead. Richard alone of all five of the villains presented here leads the audience in such a 180 degree turn of opinion. It is an amazing piece of writing craftsmanship that the audience feels no sympathy for the main character, even when he is abandoned by his allies and killed in battle.
“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,” Richard says as he prepares to face his foes,
“Devised at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
March on, join bravely, let us to’t pell-mell
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.”
Which of these plays and villains are your favorite? What other complex villains have you enjoyed reading about or watching in a play?
I am very impressed by people who write historical fiction. As much work as it is to write fantasy or sci-fi, you aren’t bound by the confines of reality when you write in these areas. If you want to write a story about a broadsword-wielding female knight who’s a heroine of the realm, you can go ahead and make up a world where that’s a perfectly normal (or at least socially accepted) thing to do – and if it isn’t socially acceptable, you can create ways in which your character can circumvent the rules and end up being a hero anyway. (The Alanna series by Tamora Pierce is an excellent example.)
Writing a fantasy story set in the modern real world is slightly more difficult, but still allows for a degree of creative license. While you have to be accurate in your descriptions of real settings, you still have free reign over the rest of your story. You want your characters to have grown up in fairyland and be able to read people’s minds? Go right on ahead. You want your protagonist to be able to travel from China to the United States and back in twenty-four hours? Give them a magical rod of teleportation.
I recently read an excellently written urban fantasy book by Katherine Kurtz that makes good use of both research and imagination. It’s titled The Adept, and follows the adventures of a nobleman in modern-day (1990s) Scotland who is also a sorcerer-detective. He tracks down users of the Dark Arts with his Powers of Light and brings them to Justice – with the help of the fey and the Loch Ness monster upon occasion. Kurtz’s research on her setting is detailed: place names and detailed routes abound, with descriptions that help the reader see Scotland as clearly as if he/she was watching a film. But the author’s system of magic allows for the creation of a unique plot that could never happen in real life. Seeing backward in time, magically discovering where a missing person (or object) is currently located, using a magical artifact to summon up fairies – all of these are crucial elements of The Adept that Kurtz created out of her own mind to advance the story that she wanted to tell.
Writing historical fiction, in contrast, leaves no margin for error. When done well, it teaches the heart as well as the mind, bringing a unique perspective on real events that help readers better understand humanity’s past. When done poorly, it is an embarrassment to the author at best – and at worst, can cause serious harm to readers and society by influencing their perceptions and beliefs in ways that are not reflective of reality. The dangers of writing poor historical fiction are compounded when an author attempts to write about a Historically Important Event – for instance, concentration camps in World War II.
It was for these above reason that I was initially reluctant to read Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. A sequel (kind of) to her critically acclaimed (besides gripping and heart-wrenching) Code Name Verity, the book is the first-person account of a fictional American female pilot who is captured and interred at Ravensbruck. In many ways, this book is a female young-adult version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. However, while Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner himself in a Soviet work camp, Wein had to do her research from scratch.
Though I was trepidatious at first, I soon discovered that the author had, indeed, done her homework. And the result is very, very impressive. Like Code Name Verity, the book is written as a series of diary entries, letters, and similar narrative pieces, including original poetry written by the fictional protagonist, which allow her to both describe and reflect upon her experiences. As a novel, Rose Under Fire is an example of how historical fiction can bring insight and understanding to historical events, as it crafts a tale full of foreshadowing, metaphors, and clean endings that are rarely (if ever) found in real life. The story all ties together, with the optimistic beginning leading smoothly and inexorably to a gritty, raw middle, and on to a pensive ending that wraps up all the story’s loose ends while offering hope and the promise of a future.
Not only is Wein an excellent story-crafter, she tells a story that is real even though it is fictional. In her afterward, she asserts that the myriad of details regarding Ravensbruck are based on historical fact – from precisely how German concentration camp officers would address prisoners by their assigned number, to the thickness of the sleeping mattresses. The amount of research that went into this book is evident, and incredible. It is the kind of book that includes not only acknowledgements at the back, but also a bibliography, a list of survivor accounts (including The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom), and internet sources for individuals who want to learn more. This is what it takes to write a good historical fiction novel, and I am duly impressed.
Rose Under Fire is not a pleasant work of fiction, but it is a powerful one. There is strong language in it, as well as the dark and gruesome subject matter itself, and so would be a book I would recommend with caution. While I don’t see myself ever writing in this genre, and rarely read it, Rose Under Fire was well worth the time it took to read its 340 pages.
The top movie in theaters this week was the film Divergent, based on the book of the same name by Veronica Roth. I can understand why this movie (and book trilogy) has made the headlines. Well-written, with deep, realistic characters, a thoughtful portrayal of loss, grief, sacrifice, and courage, and gripping action (told in the first person present tense to keep readers on the edge of their seats and inside the main characters’ heads), the Divergent series is an impressive series for anyone to have written, much less a college-aged novelist.
Like many fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian worlds created by people who haven’t studied sociology, the world of Divergent has a few severe flaws. To define terms, a severe flaw (in my dictionary) is one that portrays an importantly different and inconsistent reality than that which the author is purposefully trying to establish. Minor flaws are things like timeline believability problems – books where, for instance, a protagonist is supposed to go from being a clueless farm-boy to a daring knight in just a month. Those are the kinds of problems where readers can shrug their shoulders and say, “Yeah, whatever. It’s unbelievable, but not problematically so.” In contrast, severe flaws are unavoidable. They are problems so ingrained in the world that the author has built that they confront the reader throughout the book and undermine the author’s message. Unfortunately, this is a problem that the world of Divergent faces.
I’ll give the “first book only” version first, for those of you who want to remain relatively spoiler-free. (The end of the second book and the third book are supposed to “fix” the problems of book one, but in my opinion, raise more questions than they answer.) In Roth’s first book, Divergent, she reveals a society that has been built around five “factions.” These factions are created to be tightly knit social groups, almost castes, in which the members of the faction all revere a single moral virtue or ideal that shapes their actions and their beliefs. Different factions have different jobs in society, different lifestyles, and different value systems. All well and good thus far. One can look at the ancient Hindu caste system and see that separating otherwise-identical people into utterly separate groups can work.
But then one key component is added that makes the whole system break down. Every person is allowed to choose his or her own faction when he or she comes of age, and this choosing is aided by a test that determines where an individual would best fit. Once an individual has chosen a faction, that faction becomes his or her new family – “faction before blood” is a key line from the book – and individuals must leave their old faction’s worldview and ties behind.
We then find out that this system has supposedly been working for over a hundred years. This is the severe flaw. The system cannot work the way it is supposed to, if Roth is trying to describe human beings as they truly are. (And if she is trying to describe humans who live in this city as being in some way very different from humans in our world, then it undermines the entire message of her third book, Allegiant.)
There are three major reasons that the faction system is severely flawed: 1) the virtue-driven nature of the factions conflicts with the nature of man, 2) the allowance of choice of factions undermines the integrity of the faction system, and 3) the creation of factions should lead to violence rather than lead away from violence.
First, basing factions on non-conflicting virtues presents a problem for any individual who is given a basic moral education. As the character Four expresses, why should you be forced to choose between being strong, selfless, intelligent, honest, and kind? Why can’t you pursue all of them? Given that the characters of Divergent do seem to have a typical human moral compass, the faction system cannot work as written. ALLEGIANT SPOILER (mouse-over): Given that Four actually isn’t Divergent, and is in fact “genetically flawed” as are most other people in the world of Divergent, this makes this argument even stronger.
The nature of in-groups is to emphasize what makes people in your group good and special, while downplaying, minimizing, or shrugging off the strengths of other groups. This is relatively easy to do when the strengths of other groups cannot mutually coexist with your own. (For instance, a plumber can be glad that he isn’t an electrician or a university professor, because you can’t be all of them, and it isn’t expected that you be all of them.) It is practically impossible to do if the strengths of other groups can mutually coexist with yours, and – in fact – if universal morals in your world say that other groups’ strengths are, in fact, things to be emulated. No one in the world of Divergent says that honesty or bravery or kindness or even intelligence are inherently bad. In fact, the characters display a moral code that acknowledges the goodness and the strengths of the different factions. This is a sociological problem. If an individual is ever praised for being honest when he or she is in Abnegation, or ever praised for being brave when he or she is in Erudite, it will undermine the system that is so highly revered.
In short, a virtue-based faction system is not conducive to a stable society, and asking readers to believe that it has worked for hundreds of years is a severe flaw.
The only way it could work, in fact, is if there is no movement between factions. This brings us to our second point. Allowing individuals to choose their own faction is to say that every individual can choose one of five equally good worldviews to follow. However, this conflicts horribly with the entire idea of being raised in a faction that truly believes that its way is right.
Sociologically, individuals are raised by their parents to believe that a certain view of the world is correct and good. We are moral animals, as sociologist Christian Smith states. Every culture has a set of beliefs as to what is right and what is wrong, which form the rules that children internalize. In the world of Divergent, parents have one of two choices: tell their children that they must follow the rules of their faction and obey their faction’s worldview only as one choice among many that is no more good than any of the others until they come of age, or tell their children that their faction is right, that the others are wrong, and then have this view of the world challenged every year in the choosing ceremony. (This ceremony tells children that a test shows them what faction they truly belong in, and that faction may not be the one that their parents are from.)
If a child doesn’t want to obey his or her parents, then, a natural retort would be, “Well, maybe I don’t belong in this faction! Why should I follow your rules if I’m really ____ faction?” Parents in Divergent have no real grounding to answer this question – because their children would be right. If their child is actually meant to be in another faction, why should they be forced to follow the worldview and practices of their parents’ faction until they reach a certain age?
Now, if factions only governed one’s job, and if the society held a common moral grounding or set of common practices, the differences between factions wouldn’t be as large an issue. (This is where one might compare Divergent to Harry Potter and the houses of Hogwarts: all children at Hogwarts know that they’re all students at the same school, that they all take the same classes, follow the same rules, and answer to the same headmaster. They all know that they take the same tests and after they graduate, they will all be members of one wizarding society. This prevents the differences in beliefs and strengths of the houses from getting out of hand – though Rowling does show rivalries and conflicts between the houses that occur, as is believable.) In Divergent, however, there is no going beyond the factions. There is no deeper moral code or religious grounding that applies to everyone. No one is above or beyond the factions; there is no emperor with divine power who everyone obeys, or even a set of common rituals and beliefs that bind people in the society together. Instead, Divergent shows five different cultures, each of which believes that its way is the right way, and yet which allows its members to freely choose a different path if they are so led. It is internally inconsistent, and should not work.
Finally, and culminating from the above points, the existence of a faction system should increase, not decrease, violence in a society. Emphasizing differences between people, rather than similarities, always creates tension and keeps things from running smoothly. Every country, business, organization, and family knows that you have to emphasize what holds you together if you want to maintain peace among people who are different. Creating factions based on personality types and differing virtues is the ideal way to cause a war, not to prevent one. “Separate but equal” has always been a bad idea that leads to prejudice and violence. Integration and appreciation of differences through appreciation of deeper similarities, not segregation based on differences, is the way to keep the peace.
One would think that in the aftermath of war, the leaders of a city would recognize this.
On the other hand, it isn’t surprising that a college aged novelist wouldn’t. Again, Divergent is well-written, emotionally powerful, and speaks truths about psychology, morality, and the nature of man. But if Roth continues to write in new fantasy worlds, I hope she will take some time to learn more about the nature of societies as well as the nature of individuals. It will improve the quality of her work, and add to, rather than distract from, the points she wants to make in the stories she tells.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!