Heroes, Villains, and the Narratives We Tell

Something has been bothering me lately. I’ve noticed an increase in the use of the word narrative outside of literary contexts, specifically to describe the stories people tell themselves, and others, to explain or justify their beliefs or actions. I find this gratifying, in a sense, because it supports what I’ve said in the past about the importance of storytelling to our species. I think storytelling is probably as old as human language and I’ve written about how it is the root of both the field of history, which is factual, and the imaginative art of fiction. What I’m coming to understand now, however, is that mental narratives may in fact be fundamentally important to how we make sense of our world.

Events can be complicated, subtle, or obscure, with conflicting facts that push our understanding in different, or even opposite, directions. Because we don’t like to be confused or uncertain, we try to establish a thread that winds around and connects the facts to form a coherent narrative. And then we tend to pull the thread straighter. We try to make the story clearer or simpler – or more pleasing. In the process we edit it, dropping facts that don’t fit the narrative, or embellish it by adding presumptions that fill in gaps, or even pseudo-facts that make it a better story – one that’s more impressive, more emotionally satisfying, or that presents us (or other people involved) in a better light. This process would be fundamentally dishonest if we did it consciously. But the fact is, we often aren’t very aware of what we’re doing. We’re not paying attention to the process.

There’s probably a purpose to the construction of edited mental narratives – an evolutionary function – as there is to most of the strange but commonplace features of our thought process. It may contribute to how we maintain a positive attitude and self-image, how we keep our hopes and dreams alive, how we find our purposes and rally each other to our causes when we tell our narratives to others. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this may not have been a problem: Life was short and there were no fact checkers. In the modern world, things get more complicated.

Basically, I think we all need to be more aware of our tendency to edit our perceptions of reality.

Being a fiction writer causes me to worry about the effect that fictional narratives may have on the thought processes of readers (or movie-goers). Creators of fiction construct their works in a very conscious way, of course. Assuming we’re not bent on probing the ambiguities of the human soul, this usually means we’re in the business of creating heroes and villains (among other things). To give our characters depth, we know it’s a good idea to give the hero a flaw or two and to give the villain a back-story that explains his or her motivations. But all of that aside, the nitty-gritty of character development mostly involves showing good guys being good and bad guys being bad. And our readers (or movie viewers) immerse themselves in our fictional narratives. They come prepared to buy into stories – at least for the duration – that are prime examples of “edited” narratives designed to be good stories, to be clear, dramatic, emotionally satisfying, etc.

And the thought keeps nagging me: Are fiction writers showing people how to edit their real-life narratives? Are we teaching people how to make storybook heroes and villains out of people in the real world? Further, are we giving people emotional practice in loving their heroes and hating their villains?

Looking for the good in people can be a positive thing, but seeing people as heroes of fictional stature is unrealistic. No one is that perfect, and we shouldn’t expect, much less demand, that people always be right or always be in the right. Hero worship can lead to getting conned, or following the wrong leader. The same thing goes for those – both individuals and groups – that we might seek to cast as villains. Vilification is easy to do, especially if you know the tropes and have become insulated from the facts. Hating people can be very emotionally satisfying, too, but it’s actually quite rare for people to be genuinely or completely evil. We need to be both critical, and forgiving, of ourselves and of our fellow human beings.

I’m not suggesting that writers are to blame for the polarization of our society. Our current poisonous political climate has many contributing causes. What I’m wondering is whether creators of fiction might inadvertently be feeding it when we take the easy path by setting up black-and-white moral situations or casually creating larger-than-life heroes or villains for readers to either love or hate. It’s worth considering whether writers – especially of the more popular genres – might actively work to make things better by humanizing their characters and creating conflicts that are morally more complex. Stories need protagonists, but does every story need a villain to be emotionally satisfying? Might it be just as powerful to watch an antagonist (or protagonist if there are no antagonists) come to understand his or her error and find redemption? What if more writers made a point of celebrating the act of realizing and admitting that one is wrong? Might that help to make a better world?

That’s it, basically. As always, tell me what you think. What about your own favorite fictional heroes and villains? Or ones that you have created?

I should take a moment to analyze the characters I created in my recently released first novel, Gift of Chance. These characters evolved over a long period of time and well before I started thinking about the content of this post. I’m guilty of creating, in Nagaro, a hero with a well-developed moral compass who rarely makes serious mistakes. He’s a bit of a paragon. In my defense, he is also a thinking man, one who critically examines and worries about his own actions and those of others. I perhaps did a little better on villains. There is no single villain whose actions create a central conflict that is resolved only upon his/her defeat. There are several minor characters who act as villains for a limited purpose and who I made no effort to humanize. There are more characters, however, who are mixed. They may begin by acting badly but come to a better place in the end, or their histories, once revealed, cast them in a more sympathetic light.

Concept vs Execution in Fiction

Any productive creative effort consists of concept and execution. Concept is, of course, the idea behind the thing, the description of it, or the mental image that we have of what the thing is meant to be. Execution is what happens when we try to actually produce the thing, as in: “His execution of the dive was flawless”. Or it is the final fleshed-out form of the thing, as in: “While the architect’s vision for the building was sound, the execution is marred by awkward flaws.”

And my point, of course, is that concept and execution can be either good or bad (or so-so) independently of each other. The overall value or quality of any creation derives from the interplay between concept and execution, in ways that vary depending on the field or medium involved. Some creative fields are more concept-driven, some less, and different crafts and art-forms may be more or less tolerant of inexpert execution depending in part on the audience.

So, how does this relate to fiction writing?

Fiction covers a lot of territory and so does the relative importance of concept and execution in fiction. If you’re writing literary fiction, you’d better have top-notch execution. For genre fiction, this can be less important. Some genre fiction readers are very forgiving as long as the story contains the genre-specific tropes and elements they’ve come to enjoy. The importance of concept to readers also varies. Science fiction readers may demand something truly new in the concept department, whereas readers of mystery or romance – or even literary fiction – may not really care about that. How much readers of any stripe care about concept versus execution depends basically on the extent to which they read to get new thoughts and ideas versus reading for the experience of reading. And of course, they may be after both. But the one place where concept really trumps execution is in getting agents and publishers to look at a manuscript from an unknown author, which is something I find a bit problematic.

It can be a little hard to say exactly where a fiction manuscript’s concept leaves off and its execution begins. The core of the concept consists pretty much of what can be fitted into the infamous “elevator speech” – the nutshell-sized description that’s used to “sell” the manuscript to an agent or a publisher. One might extend concept to include the set of plot points that go into a synopsis or outline of the story, although this begins to grade into execution. Any sample pages or chapters that may be allowed as part of a submission clearly speak to execution, but they really provide only a glimpse of it. The truth is that execution consists not only of the quality of the writing, and things like “voice” that one might see in a sample chapter, but actually includes all the word choices and phrasing, and all of the details of how the writer has chosen to unfold the story – from beginning to end. Basically, execution is the whole thing, and the only way an agent or acquisition editor can fully assess the execution of a work is to read the entire manuscript – which isn’t going to happen unless they’re “sold” on the concept. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a lot of agents don’t even look at the synopsis, let alone the writing sample, if the first paragraph of the query letter doesn’t “grab” them.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this is so: there are just too many manuscripts. Agents are inundated, and they just don’t have time to read everything that comes their way. Plus, they really shouldn’t take on manuscripts they don’t think they can sell to equally busy and concept-oriented acquisitions editors. Still, it means there’s a possibility of works being passed up that are well-executed but have ordinary-sounding or hard-to-pin-down concepts. This is clearly a loss for those readers who value the experience of reading a rich, nuanced, and well-crafted tale, over the whiz-bang of nutshell novelty. (You can guess where my preferences lie.)

There are people – agents and others – who argue that the essence of any novel ought to be reducible to one or two brief sentences. I simply disagree. Consider these two familiar works in the fantasy genre: Alice in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Both works have essentially the same core concept: A young girl is transported to a magical land where she has a series of adventures before managing to get home again. Yet these two works are in no sense the same story, and in fact could hardly be more different in execution.  I could easily add a few choice details to the nutshell description that would tell you instantly which book it represented, but that’s not the point. To begin with, the plot of Alice in Wonderland is scarcely important in capturing the work. How could I convey the cleverness of Lewis Carroll’s wordplay, or the book’s wild non-sequiturs? The Wizard of Oz is more conventional in its plot-reliance, but simply stating the elements of that plot hardly captures the charm and nuance of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale.

To be honest, I first became aware of how much traditional publishing is biased towards concept years ago when I tried querying book one of The Nagaro Chronicle. That discovery is one reason why I’ve opted for independent publication. My work’s strength lies in its execution. Producing a short, plot-based, nutshell description of the first book that made it sound in any way unique or special proved challenging to the point of exasperation.

So what are your thoughts? As a reader, where do you come down with respect to concept and execution? If you’re a writer, where does your own work fall?

Reward and Punishment in Fiction Writing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStories need conflict. This generally means that things must go wrong for the protagonist before they go right. But how far wrong? Bad things must happen, but how many bad things must there be to earn something good? And just exactly how bad must the bad things get?

There is no single simple answer to this, basically because people – readers and writers, both – vary widely in their tolerance for punishment. The characters in stories similarly vary widely in how much they can take, depending on what attributes and resources they’ve been given. The context of any given adverse event varies as well. The death of a character’s mother, for example, might become anything from a life-shattering tragedy to a bittersweet farewell, or even a welcome relief – depending on the context and on the character.

Readers obviously get to know what to expect from different authors and can deal with the reward vs punishment issue by simply choosing what they read. I recently wrapped up the second of two linked fantasy trilogies by Robin Hobb – involving Fitz and the Fool, if you know her work – with a sigh of relief because I realized that Hobb’s punishment/reward ratio is really a bit out of my personal comfort zone. Robin Hobb is a superb writer. Anyone inclined to look down on genre fiction in general, or fantasy in particular, should try some of hers. But she’s awfully hard on poor Fitz in those six books. And it isn’t just physical pain and suffering, either, there are also the mistakes the character makes, the choices that lead predictably to bad consequences, the way other characters are forever being angry with him and blaming him for things. I did enjoy those two trilogies, but I would have enjoyed them more if they were a bit less harrowing – or if Hobb had put in a bit more reward to balance all the punishment.

And this is an important point: Punishment from a reader’s perspective can come in many different forms, as can reward. External events that are outside the character’s control are only the most obvious source of reward and punishment. The decisions a character makes are another source. Are they reasonably intelligent given what the character knows? And are they well-intentioned? Or are they manifestly unwise or self-serving? How the character responds to events is yet another source of punishment and reward that is equally as important as the events themselves. I can put up with a lot of beatings and setbacks if the character displays what I consider to be positive attributes. Is the character tolerant, honest, and altruistic? Or is he judgmental, deceitful, and selfish? Does he admit to and accept responsibility for his mistakes? Does he show kindness? Moral courage? Suffering can be ennobling if borne with grace and fortitude. In short, there are a lot of ways to give me rewards as a reader while still having the hero up to his neck in hot water.

What should one do as a writer, given the range of reader tolerance? Staying true to your own natural inclinations is one option, on the theory that there will be readers out there who will respond favorably. Of course, there will also be readers who don’t. Doubtless there are readers who think Robin Hobb is spot-on, and others who think her writing is too tame. Trying to shape one’s writing to fit the intended audience is another possibility, especially for beginning writers, and especially if you find that you are way out one extreme or the other of the tolerance curve.

So what’s your personal tolerance for punishment when you read? Are your criteria for judging punishment similar to mine, or different? If you’re a writer, how do you balance reward and punishment in your work – or do you just not think about it?

Lessons in the Past Perfect 6: Flexibility and Control

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople experience life as events in time – present, past, and hypothetical future. To me, being able to clearly define the temporal relationships of events in a story is essential for effective storytelling. And verb tenses are part of what we use to do that. That’s why you need to be skillful with verb tenses if you want to be a skilled writer. You want to master the full arsenal of verb tenses so you can use the best one for every situation. And you want to be able to shift tenses at will to reveal information in the most effective order. This is how to achieve control over your readers’ experience of the temporal aspects of your story.

English has a lot of verb tenses. Not all of the variants are time-related, either. Some indicate conditional or hypothetical situations, like the ones that use “would,” “could,” or “should.” Consider the following, which my linguistics prof in college said was about as complicated as it can get:

Well, he should have been being paid.

That’s five words that are part of the verb, everything after “he.” It’s complicated, but we understand it. We also understand that it’s different from all of the following:

He should be being paid.
He should have been paid.
He is being paid.
He was being paid.
He was paid.
He has been paid.
He had been paid.
He had been being paid.
He would have been paid.
He will be paid.
He will have been being paid.

That’s not even all the possibilities. The point is that a writer should be able to use whichever tense best serves his or her purpose. I think people are pretty clear that the addition of “being” makes the action “progressive” – that is, in this case more than one payment is involved, ongoing over some period of time. That period could be in the past, present, or future. Without “being,” the reader is justified in assuming that only one payment is involved. People understand that “is” means present, “was” means past, and “will be” means future. “Should” and “would” or “could” tell us that the payment didn’t actually happen, or hasn’t happened yet – that it is in some way hypothetical. The “perfect” tenses represent completed (perfected) action. “Has been paid” is present perfect: the action is completed, but recently enough to be viewed as part of present events. “Had been paid” is past perfect, the action having been completed in a time period preceding whatever might be considered present events. Past perfect is used specifically when that distinction is needed: an action was completed prior to whatever is happening now. “Will have been paid” is future perfect. There is some future time from the perspective of which the payment will be in the past. Example? “By the time we next meet, you will have been paid for your services.” Which is distinctly different from: “When next we meet, you will be paid for your services.” The temporal relationships between the meeting and the payment are different in those two cases, and you wouldn’t use one if you meant the other.

I know I harp a lot on the past perfect. It’s because it’s frequently given the cold shoulder these days and I’m always disappointed when I stumble over a spot where a writer should have used it but didn’t. Past perfect is important in fiction because past-tense narration is the most common approach to storytelling. If your current storyline is told in past tense, you need the past perfect to distinguish events that occurred prior to the current storyline. Apparently it throws some aspiring writers for a loop, though: they’re used to using the simple past tense for past events, or they hear some editors say the past perfect should be avoided because too many had’s are cumbersome and repetitious. So they think they can do without it. The result sometimes is temporal mush.

Consider this simple thought:

Jake was paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits.

In a past-tense narrated story, we can assume that Jake’s preference for Galactic Credits is an ongoing state of affairs – at least in the absence of any more specific information. He does prefer, has preferred, and probably always will prefer to be paid in Galactic Credits. (Preferences tend to be like that.) But the first sentence could mean at least four different things depending on the context:

1) In the course of the unfolding story, a point has been reached where Jake gets paid once for something and the payment is in local currency.
2) Jake gets paid in local currency on a regular basis during the time period of the story. (He’s on a salary.)
3) There was a single instance in the past when Jake was paid for something in local currency.
4) There was some period of time in the past when Jake was regularly paid in local currency.

Of course there would normally be context, and context can go a long way:

Three weeks crawled by and Jake finally got paid for the job. He was paid in local currency. Jake preferred Galactic Credits, but here on Chalcion you took what you could get. (case 1)

Or:
Back on Regulus, Jake worked in the shipyards. He was paid in local currency then. Jake preferred Galactic Credits. Life here on Chalcion was good. (case 4)

In these two examples I deliberately didn’t use verb tense for clarification. I stuck to the simple past tense. The result is a bit “flat,” temporally speaking, but you can figure out the meaning from the time tags and other clues that I’ve added. (Note that it’s only “here on Chalcion” that pins the first example down as being current ongoing action. Otherwise it’s just an assumption that this is the case, since simple past is the default for current action in past-tense narration.) In the second example, “back” and “then” tell you that the local currency payments were in the past relative to the current action. “Here on Chalcion” implies that he is now being paid in Galactic Credits.

If you’re not afraid to use other verb tenses, you can get away without time tags altogether:

When he’d been working in the shipyards on Regulus Jake had been paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits. Life on Chalcion was good.

The point isn’t that using time tags is bad. In fact, you can use a mixture of time tags and verb tenses in a paragraph for clarity and variety. And that’s my point. With the other verb tenses at your disposal, you have more alternatives for achieving clarity – or grace, or emotional impact, or whatever. That’s flexibility. After all, having to constantly repeat your time tags can get just as cumbersome and repetitious as too many had’s.

The past perfect tense also gives you more flexibility in how you reveal things. You can slip back and forth between present and past effortlessly without confusing your reader. You’re not tied to telling events in the order they occur:

She walked from room to room, treading evenly and taking inventory of the spaces and furnishings until she came to the last bedroom at end of the hall, at the top of the stairs. She stepped over the threshold and instantly she knew. She had not realized what she’d been missing until that moment. The room was alive; she could feel it. The living room and parlor, kitchen and dining room, below, the other bedrooms along the upstairs hall; all were perfect, tidy, pristine. But they had felt dust-dry, hollow, as she passed through them. Empty as husks. Only here in this room, with its worn oak furniture and faded curtains and ancient writing desk, was there a fullness, something still green, a sense of her husband’s spirit.

Try doing that passage justice without the past perfect tense. The past perfect lets me wait until after she’s entered the last room to tell you what was different about her experience of the other rooms, then shift back, and back again, in a blink. And I can do this with perfect clarity (I hope) within a paragraph where my focus is on emotional impact.

And that is enough about the past perfect. (Collective sigh of relief, I’m sure.)

Keeping the reader guessing

stack of booksIt’s usually considered a good idea not to have your story be too predictable. Some genres, such as mysteries and thrillers, really require this. Others, like fantasy, not so much. Personally I think that striking writing can trump plot – that a work with a fairly conventional story line can be so poetic or poignant or hilariously funny as to be thoroughly engaging because of the way it’s written. Most of the time, though, plot matters and if the reader thinks he can guess exactly where the story is going, he just might decide not to bother to read the rest of it.

I’ve noticed there are a number of things that writers do to keep readers guessing, some of which I like better than others. Basically they can be broken down into four categories. Of course several of these can be used at once, and some of them can grade into each other, but I see them as distinct enough for purposes of discussion.

1) Plot twists: There’s no doubt that plot twists are effective – when they’re well done. For me, one hallmark of a good story is that it can be unfolded in a completely natural, straightforward way – without any gimmicks – and hold my interest throughout because the events in it are simply interesting or in some cases surprising. Basically this uses whatever plot twists the story naturally has to keep the reader guessing. I think the only way to go wrong with plot twists is to work so hard at making them unexpected that they feel contrived. If everything in a story suggests it’s going in one direction and then it suddenly veers in another, there can be a problem if there’s been literally nothing to make the new direction feel remotely logical – even in hindsight. Obviously this criticism doesn’t apply to the “inciting event,” which comes at the beginning of the story and frequently comes out of left field. I’m especially annoyed when a writer pulls something out of a hat right at the end of a story that is in conflict with everything I thought I knew about what was going on – just so he or she can say, “gotcha!”

2) Withholding information: Actually, writers always withhold information because the writer knows everything at the beginning of the story but obviously can only give information to the reader one bit at a time. As long as the order and pace of information delivery feels natural and logical, this is perfectly fine. A well-written mystery story told from the point of view of the sleuth is a good example. The reader gains information in a very natural way as the character uncovers clues. I start to have a problem, though, when a writer clearly is picking and choosing what to tell me just to keep me in the dark – for example, when the story is being told in retrospect and the narrator simply neglects to mention things to keep the end in doubt. That makes me feel manipulated. The same is true when the writer conveniently doesn’t show a character thinking about something he obviously would have been thinking about at the time simply because the writer is trying to protect some planned surprise. Writers have essentially complete power over what they reveal to readers and when, and I think there is an art to using that power in way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed.

3) Misdirection: This is the preeminent tool of the stage magician but I usually find it annoying when it’s obviously being used in storytelling. A lot comes down again to naturalness and finesse versus heavy-handedness. Mystery readers are generally forgiving of the use of red herrings – it’s a trope of the genre – but even a red herring shouldn’t be clumsily pasted in. There should be cross-connections to the plot that make it seem to naturally belong in the story. Outside of the mystery genre I personally feel that deliberately putting in a red herring is just a mistake. There’s a more subtle kind of misdirection that occurs when a writer abuses his power to influence the readers’ attention or perceptions. Readers judge the importance of things by how much the writer dwells on them. I get thoroughly annoyed when a writer expends a lot of words making some object, event, or action seem important and it turns out to have been merely a distraction. Similarly, if that blue-and-white vase is going to turn out to be vitally important five chapters later, barely mentioning it along with half a dozen other unimportant objects in the room is going to have me crying foul. The writer should at least have had the character notice it because his mother had one like it, or something like that.

4) Deliberate obscurity or ambiguity: I say “deliberate” because unintentional obscurity is always a problem. I’m sure there are readers who don’t mind this technique in fiction nearly as much as I do. It probably comes from my having been a scientist, and a text editor, where clarity is really at a premium. There are, however, some writers who simply like to keep things purposefully vague or ambiguous or unexplained. Any story can naturally have specific points of uncertainty because the characters’ knowledge is incomplete. That’s fine. So is having a character whose nature is to be deceitful, cagey, or hard to pin down. What I personally object to is feeling like I’m constantly moving in a fog of hints and subtle suggestions or standing on a shifting surface that never settles down. It keeps me guessing, yes, but at what cost? If I’m never sure about anything, how much of a surprise can anything really be? The best thing for me is to simply avoid writers like that, but there are other writers whose stories are mostly quite clearly told but who resort to obscurity at some specific point in an obvious attempt to prevent me from guessing where they’re going. I tend to lose respect for writers who do that.

That’s the end of my rant. As always, comments are welcome. Do you have similar pet peeves? Am I completely full of it? Or is it all just a matter of taste? Are there other approaches to keeping readers guessing that I haven’t thought of?

Writing Relationship: on loving your story (and other things)

Let me ask you a very pointed question: Are you in love with your story?

So, what if you answered yes? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, I wouldn’t want you to hate your story. That’s probably a bad thing. But a head-over-heals, my-love-can-do-no-wrong kind of love is definitely too much of a good thing. Which is true in human relationships as well. Take it from a veteran (and beneficiary) of thirty-five years (and counting) of successful marriage: a lasting positive relationship with a fellow human being requires maturity and commitment. You have to get past that starry-eyed stage, because let’s face it, nobody is that perfect! And the same goes for you, and for your manuscript.

You’ve heard about being willing to kill your darlings? Yes, you have to do that sometimes – and whatever else it takes to make the manuscript work well enough to achieve what you decide you want it to achieve. That’s where maturity comes in. You have to be able to see things clearly and you have to be willing to make adjustments – revise your wording or your plans – in order to balance conflicting needs. It’s taken me years to get there with respect to my fantasy series, but I’m finally at a point where I can be quite calm and matter-of-fact about doing significant surgery on the manuscripts. The glamor of first love has worn off. The combined weight of all the advice I’ve read, and heard, and personally been given has certainly contributed to this change. That, and time: As I ready the manuscript of book 1, Gift of Chance, for publication, I’m working with passages that I originally wrote literally years ago. I find that over time I’ve gained the benefit of perspective.

Now for the bit about commitment. You see, one thing that hasn’t changed is my determination to put my work before readers. I still love my story, just with a more mature kind of love. Commitment to me means having a deep sense of the value of what you’re doing, from which springs the determination to follow through with what you’ve started. The love that sparks commitment has an element of vision in it that both acknowledges and transcends the level-headed logic of maturity. When it comes to a marriage, this is the slow-burning fire that starry-eyed love hopefully turns into – that causes you to deliberately put what you feel ahead of what is most expedient in solving some issue that has arisen in your lives. Because you can see, clearly and maturely, that what you feel is what is really important. When it comes to your manuscript, it’s what leads you to reject some suggested change that would have made your project more “commercial” at the cost of it ceasing to be the story you want to tell. It’s not that your vision can’t undergo some adjustments in the cold light of mature analysis; it’s just that there are limits beyond which it would be wrong to go.

There’s a limit to how far you can stretch any analogy, and this one feels about to snap. I don’t know, maybe you think it already did a while ago. As always, please feel free to tell me what you think.

Does Genre Fiction Need a Theme?

I’ve read and heard a lot of advice to writers over the years, and the word “theme” has cropped up a number of times. It was listed, for example, among the things that should be found in the first two pages of your story. Really? I mean, I’ve always associate the idea of having a theme with fiction of the more literary sort, but I write genre fiction. I kept wondering; does genre fiction need to have a theme?

I think the short answer is no. All genre fiction has to do to be successful with readers is to meet the expectations of the sub-group of readers who read books of that particular genre. And if those readers don’t expect a theme, then you don’t need to have one. A mystery is a story-puzzle wrapped around some hopefully interesting characters. Theme needed? No. A romance doesn’t need any other theme besides the obvious one of romantic love that defines the genre. Fantasy readers expect to be transported beyond the boundaries of their mundane existence, and science fiction readers are looking for a provocative “what if” to bend their minds. Conclusion? Genre stories don’t need no stinkin’ theme!

So why am I writing this? Because I’m a natural-born worry-wart and my brain wouldn’t put the idea down. And the thing is, when I took a hard look at my seven-book fantasy series, The Nagaro Chronicle, with the theme-idea in mind, darned if I didn’t find some! This, even though I hadn’t set out to put one in. The Chronicle follows its main character, Nagaro, across ten years of his life, and he’s a man with a destiny who doesn’t know it. Something had to drive the character, so I made sure there were things that mattered to him – things like honor and using his gifts to do good in the world – and these concepts became threads that are now integral to the character and his story. They run throughout the entire series. And I think the series is the better for it.

I’m not saying that having a theme turns my work into great literature, but it does provide a cohesiveness, perhaps a little more depth, and a feeling of enhanced meaning. It also contributes to the work’s unique flavor and finally gives me a nut-shell description that could help potential target readers identify with my work. When I tell them the series has themes of honor and altruism, I know it will resonate with some readers and I hope they’ll be more likely to buy that first book. Readers who don’t care for heroes who are too “nice” may also be motivated to steer clear – which reduces my risk of getting unenthusiastic reviews from folks who just aren’t part of my target audience.

I don’t think you can just slap a theme on top of an existing manuscript, or poke a few holes and try to insert one. Themes have to be organically part of the story. But if you see the seeds of a theme in your work as you’re writing it – or find one trying to emerge while doing revisions – I’m suggesting that you nurture it. And also that you find a way to work it into your cover blurb.

What do you think? Am I onto something, or off-base? Any genre works with themes that you can point to? Do they benefit from having one? How about your own work?

Can fiction change the world?

Ray Bradbury once said that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.

Everyone accepts that nonfiction books can be very influential, but does fiction ever change the world? Well, I think it can—by changing awareness or attitudes. Usually, when it happens, that was the author’s intent. I believe Charles Dickens hoped to improve the lot of London’s poor by presenting their plight to the readers of his Victorian tales—such familiar works as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly intended to influence attitudes towards slavery during the period leading up to the American Civil War. It’s generally credited with having some impact. (It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, although it’s now often derided for its sentimentality and its stereotypes.) Other influences were not intentional: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have probably influenced the development of forensic science, although Doyle had no such intention.

Even if a book doesn’t change the world, it may still change someone’s life. Most writers of fiction are working from a desire to entertain – or, in a mundane sense, to sell books to readers. Readers simply won’t buy books if they aren’t entertained by them. Writers may also be driven by an urge to create, the need to respond to their innate desire to tell a story. But what makes a book entertaining? What makes a story a good story? I think ultimately it is the human element. The writer takes a character and puts him or her in a situation, and then proceeds to describe the consequences of what the character does. The up-shot may not be earthshaking, but it must at least ring true. For any given person reading that story, the truth it contains may resonate in a special way – a meaningful or a helpful way. That may not be why writers write, or why readers read; it’s just an inescapable byproduct of the whole activity. And once in a while a work of fiction may just capture the mind of a generation and take it somewhere it otherwise would not have gone.

Well, maybe that’s going a little far. But I don’t think fiction writers should be put down for engaging in a “trivial” activity. I don’t think they should sell themselves short. After all, you just never know.

What do you think? Ever want to change the world? Can you think of a fiction work that has done that? Is there one that has changed you?

In defense of fantasy

As writers go, fantasy writers don’t get a lot of respect in this world. Genre fiction in general doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the circles of those who read it or write it—unless of course someone manages to write a bestseller and make a lot of money. That always seems to be okay with people.

I think fantasy in particular just seems frivolous to many people. There’s also the sense that it’s a form of escapism, which some people see as a weakness. I could defend the escapist aspect of fantasy on the grounds that it exercises the imagination. You may or may not think imagination is an important thing to exercise, but that’s not actually where I want to go with this post. (I already explained in a previous post that I believe storytelling developed in humans because it’s useful, and that exercising the imagination is part of that.)

I have a more fundamental point to make here: There’s an element of fantasy in all fiction. Otherwise, it would be nonfiction. In order to create a work of fiction, a writer has to reach beyond what exists or has existed in terms of characters and events. What fantasy writers—and also science fiction writers—do that sets them apart most from other fiction writers is they also venture beyond the known in terms of setting. Characters and events can also be fantastic, of course, but for writers in the fantasy and sci-fi genres setting is fair game and often a large part of the fun. (Fantasy and science fiction tend to grade into each other and are often lumped together, so I don’t particularly try to separate them here.)

Now, I’m sure a lot of the fantasy and sci-fi fans out there are saying, wait a minute! Just because our writers make up a lot of stuff doesn’t mean they don’t have to worry about making things be true to life. Characters still have to be believable in their reactions to those fantastic events. Outside the boundaries of any magic involved, the laws of physics still have to apply. And of course this is the other half of my point. There has to be something in the story that is congruent with the reader’s experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing for him or her to relate to and no reason to be interested in the story.

So, my point is: All types of fiction must contain both elements that are novel (that’s why it’s called a “novel”) and elements that are familiar. Fantasy is just one end of a continuum, one that allows the mind a particularly free rein—at least potentially. Fantasy, like any genre or class of fiction, has its own conventions and tropes. There are in fact sub-genres within fantasy, and within science fiction, each with its own conventions which may be unfamiliar or even distracting or annoying to other readers. But the best of fantasy, like the best of any type of fiction, is not blandly conventional. Rather, it stretches that envelope. It gives us visions either strange or wonderful, because it is fantasy, but it also provides us a glimpse of uncompromising truth.

This post appeared first on my WordPress blog, ConversationalWordsmith.wordpress.com

Lessons in the Past Perfect 5: Backstory

If you write fiction, sooner or later you,re going to have to deal with backstory. Backstory is all the past history of the characters, setting, and situation that happened before the story begins. While writers may imagine more backstory details they actually use, they’re going to have to convey enough of the details to allow the reader to understand the story, the character’s motivations, etc. Since backstory is in the past, by definition, relative to the story action, it’s pretty hard to deal with—correctly, at least—without using the past perfect tense. On the other hand, long explanatory paragraphs in past perfect are just the kind of thing that gives this verb tense a bad name, because of all those had’s.

Long paragraphs of backstory are often called “info-dumps,” and widely considered to be no-no’s. The truth, however, is that long paragraphs of any kind can be a problem, and an info-dump—to my way of thinking—is any delivery of backstory that is intrusive or awkward or badly-done. “Work it into the story” is a common suggestion for avoiding info-dumps, but I’ve seen that done badly, too, with bits of backstory inserted seemingly at random with too little continuity and very little relation to the specific context in the story where they are placed. Backstory delivery should be on a need-to-know basis.

If you’re setting up a fantasy world, an alien planet, a future setting, etc, your readers need to know a lot up front. You may need some fairly concentrated chunks of backstory and you shouldn’t shrink from the use of a few had’s. Don’t overload your readers with too much information, of course, but don’t starve them either.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to keep your need for “had” to a minimum. You should just try to do it legally. And if you bend the rules, never sacrifice clarity.

Here are some things to remember:

Habitual actions don’t require the past perfect tense, as long as they are continuing habits. The same applies to statements of the status quo. They cover the past and the present.

John always took a walk in the park on Sunday afternoons. (He did then, and still does.)

The anti-blasphemy laws infiltrated every aspect of people’s lives and were rigorously enforced. (This is the current state of affairs and has presumably been going on for some time.)

In a sentence with a compound past perfect verb, you only need to use “had” once:

The effects of the potion had confused her. She had lost her way and wandered into the magician’s trap. (Only two had’s, not three.)

Also, use of phrases in the progressive tense or the infinitive can dilute the past perfect:

The effects of the potion had confused her, causing her to lose her way and wander into the magician’s trap. (Only one had.)

Past events referred to in dialog use the simple past tense:

“Remember, I went all the way to the other end of the earth to get that thing.” “Yes, and you nearly got killed half a dozen times along the way. First there were the hostile natives who ambushed you. Then a leopard pounced out of a tree…” (etc.)

But beware of the “dialog info-dump.” You’ve all seen or heard these, where a character starts spewing details that would be common knowledge to all the other characters present and that no one would actually say. This feels completely unnatural and is very distracting.

If you really want to ditch the past perfect, do make liberal use of time tags to ensure clarity:

A century ago, that just wasn’t how things were done. Divorce carried a significant stigma at that time, which explained why Joshua remained in his loveless marriage to Anna and why the daughter Suzette bore to him grew up without knowing who her father was. (I would probably go to past perfect in the next sentence, unless I could work in another time tag.)

Breaking up a stretch of backstory by intercutting it with current action can work very well—if carefully done. Typically, a character is reminiscing about the past while passively watching some event or engaging in some simple, straightforward activity. The main pitfall comes from failing to be scrupulously clear about which bits are present and which bits are past. This is not the place to scrimp on past perfect or on time tags. Place and season and other diagnostic details can also help clue the reader as to what is ongoing action and what is backstory.

Rigo watched the muster of the troops from the balcony of the Winter Palace in Orman. There were too few of them and they moved stiffly, their uniforms inadequate against the cold. Many of them were also feeling the stiffness of old wounds. As he watched, Rigo couldn’t help remembering a different muster, in a different place and time. It had been spring then in Astergard, a hopeful season, and there had been many more men marching to the drums with a spring in their step. They had thought they were going out to put down a little rebellion—they’d be back in a week. That had been two years ago, before the death of the king, the fall of the capital city, and the overrunning of half the kingdom by “rebels” who had turned out to be the magically-conjured minions of the mysterious Mage-Lord. On the balcony, Rigo shivered as snow began to fall. Below him, the young prince—far too young, too green—rode out to review his troops. (You get the idea. I could go on, making up more details of the present situation and more details of its history, and alternating them.)

One thing not to do, is to put the first couple of sentences in past perfect and then lapse back into simple past without using clarifying time tags. You may know what you mean, but readers can easily be confused, especially early in the story when they don’t know enough to make accurate guesses. Ideally, readers should never have to guess at things you intend them to understand.

But, enough.

Has this been useful? Do you have tips of your own to offer? I’d be glad to hear them.