Jun 29

Genre Through the Lens of Agency

At the end of my previous post, I recommended Jack M. Bickham's book Scene and Structure to anyone who wants to write in what we might call the "heroic protagonist" mode. In my review of that book on Goodreads, I mention that the closer your story is to being an action thriller, the more applicable his advice will be.

I say this because different modes and genres of fiction deal differently with character agency. I think it's worthwhile taking a post to think that over, since if you're not writing the kind of story where your main character shows a lot of agency - a "heroic protagonist" story - a lot of the failure modes I talked about in the previous post are not as applicable. Also, this is a lead-in to the next post, in which I'll consider how a diversity of voices changes how agency is represented in fiction.

First, let's talk "literary" vs "genre". This is a pairing that has some problems, not least that there is a genre often referred to as "literary" as well as a style that is "literary", and it can also be an evaluative term. When I think of literary-as-genre, I think of a set of expectations and conventions, like the ones we have in other genres, and one of the characteristics that stands out to me is a difference in typical levels of protagonism between a literary-genre story and a heroic-protagonist story.

To generalise wildly, most literary-genre stories I have read - even the ones with fantastical elements - feature main characters who are not protagonists (that is, they are not struggling towards a goal, which is what "protagonist" means). Instead, their typical arc is through helplessness to hopelessness. Their relationships fall apart, their careers are revealed as hollow, they become alienated from society and its expectations, and they do little or nothing to remedy any of this. It's as if, in Literary World, the truth is that everyone in the world is rather pathetic and doomed to unhappiness, and the story that gets told over and over is of someone realising that truth, or (if they never consciously acknowledge it) at least becoming victims of that truth.

The literary genre is a genre often seen as belonging to the elites, and other genres are seen as "popular", of the masses. I invite you to reflect on the implications of the literature of the elites being about the hollowness of all striving, while the literature of the masses perpetuates a narrative of personal choice and agency.

Having been, no doubt, grossly unfair to many writers who I haven't read (since I avoid the literary genre exactly because so much of it is so passive and hopeless), let's move on to genres where I can speak from a much wider sample of texts: science fiction and fantasy (SFF). First, though, let's take a detour into romance.

There was a brief period when I thought about writing romance; I still need to write the post about why I decided not to, but part of it involved the very strong genre conventions, some of which I didn't think I could bind myself to. Although romance, like any genre of its vast size and popularity, has a good deal of diversity in it these days, there are still some powerful expectations. One is the Happily Ever After (so expected that it's been abbreviated as HEA); whatever the couple's struggles along the way, you can be confident going into a romance that they are going to end up together, basically from the moment of the Meet Cute, however unattractive either or both may seem as people and however poorly suited they appear. (And however much our real-life experience may suggest that many relationships do not, in fact, work out; though there is a nod to this in the HFN ending, Happy For Now.)

This fatedness reminds me of the Hero's Journey. Going into any heroic story that we have no reason to suspect is a tragedy, we carry the expectation that right will triumph, that the apparently unworthy, unskilled, and unsuitable person we're introduced to early on will somehow become an epic hero, and the seemingly powerful villain will be defeated. These strong expectations impose certain limits on agency. No matter how much the romance hero/heroine or the heroic protagonist screws up, refuses to learn, treats people around them badly, falls back into old habits, or is just unpleasant and unworthy in general, the result is still inevitable: HEA in the romance, victory in the heroic story. In unskillful hands, it becomes a flaw.

In historical romance, we get an extra level of constraints. Consider the Regency romance, for example. The woman is generally expected to be innocent and virginal, and her powerful imperative is to marry well, because her economic security depends on her ability to attract a wealthy and powerful man, however repellant. The man is generally expected, with some exceptions, to be sexually experienced, and to have the wealth and power that the woman needs her mate to have, and the arrogance that goes along with it; but he, too, is constrained, if to a much lesser extent, by the powerful expectations and conventions of society. At worst, these conventions become a cattle-chute directing them to their fate; at best, they kick against them a little, but somehow manage to end up in a happy situation within their society. Their choices are severely constrained, and part of the joy of a good Regency romance for me is seeing how the characters still look for and find agency within, or even outside, those constraints.

Turning, then, to SFF, where I am much more widely read in both classic and contemporary texts than in the genres I've just been discussing with an assumed air of authority: within this sprawling and diverse landscape, we inevitably find differences in agency. Some SFF stories show us people with enhanced levels of agency - wizards, for example, or supers - and must then give them challenges that are equally heightened to prevent their victory from being too easy. But there are parts of SFF that don't give their main characters much agency at all. Many (not all) hard SF stories, for example, give us characters who are little more than cameras, witnessing wonders that they are too small and insignificant to affect. Much of Arthur C. Clarke's work falls into this category.

I haven't read much Mythos, and hardly any horror, but my impression is that Mythos, like hard SF, often (not always) confronts the characters with something so vast and implacable that the idea that they might have agency is almost ridiculous. The smallness and insignificance of humanity is part of the point. Mythos is one of the ancestors of modern horror, and (again, this is an impression, since I don't enjoy horror and have read very little), often in horror the characters struggle futilely against the monster that will inevitably kill them. Again, the helplessness is part of what the author is going for.

One aspect of agency, which I've touched on when discussing the Regency romance, is: how powerful is the system? How much intertia does society have against change? And are the characters on the side of change, or the side of preservation of the status quo?

In many traditional heroic or "high" fantasy stories, the preservation or restoration of the status quo is a key, and unexamined, goal: the return of the king, the defeat of the Dark Lord who would bring change to everything, the defence of the empire (with all its faults) against the barbarians. Many military space operas share this stance. It's one we also see in a lot of thrillers, where the protagonists are fighting against international criminals or terrorists who are out to destroy the stability of the system. And - unfortunately, in my view - it seems to be an unexamined assumption in a lot of steampunk, despite that genre's vast and usually untapped potential to show us the kind of social change that technology brought about in the real 19th century, and is still bringing about today.

In sword-and-sorcery and its SF equivalent, which doesn't have a name that I'm aware of but tends to feature a ragtag spaceship crew on the outskirts of society and the law, we see the opposite. The ultimate triumph of the system is seen as a negative, though usually still inevitable. The crew win what victories they can on the fringes, while the overall system mostly remains intact. The crew, indeed, are rarely even trying to change the system; that's too large a goal for the level of agency they possess. Instead, they work around it or outside it as best they can. But there's a sub-sub-genre in which this ragtag band, or perhaps an individual thief, used to having almost no agency and barely getting by, obtains something that puts them into an unaccustomed position of power and responsibility, and they must cope with the challenge of doing the right thing (and figuring out what that is). This is the opposite of the also popular "riches to rags to riches" structure, where someone who is used to a life of privilege and power has a fall - which sometimes is their fault, but usually is not - and their struggle is to regain control over their life.

There are stories about revolution and rebellion from the point of view of the rebels, too, scattered through the SFF landscape. Star Wars is an obvious example. In many technothrillers, most cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk stories, and a few fantasy and steampunk works, the protagonists struggle against The Man, the corrupt and cruel system that's keeping people down, or trying to suppress the spread of some technology that could benefit society, or to prevent knowledge of something that could challenge the status quo from getting out. The ultimate example here is, of course, dystopian fiction such as The Hunger Games (which, I might add, does a better job than most of showing how the rebellion itself can be corrupted by the ambition of the powerful). Early dystopias like Brave New World and 1984 are tragedies of a sort, in which the failure of the protagonists is not a consequence of their personal tragic flaw but of the enormous power and momentum of the system; recent dystopias, particularly YA dystopias, more often feature a successful revolution. There are even a few elements of dystopia in Harry Potter, where Harry and his friends, low-status by reason of their age, are right when the Ministry is wrong, although the resolution to that is that they eventually end up in power within the system, not that the system is overthrown.

I don't usually read "antihero" stories, but I should say something about them. The antihero is still a protagonist, still struggling for a goal, and this is what makes us want to follow them and even see them succeed, despite the fact that they are not, in many ways, admirable people, and their goals may not be admirable goals.

Taking this to a further extreme, grimdark fantasy (and SF) shows us unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to other unpleasant people in pursuit of mostly selfish and destructive goals. In grimdark, however much agency they may possess, nobody can escape the grim darkness of the world - and few even attempt to. It's not so much the system itself, but the corrupt and hopeless nature of the system and indeed reality, that acts as a binding constraint. Interestingly, given that this is similar (at least in my eyes) to the nihilistic worldview of a lot of literary-genre stories, grimdark is often written in beautiful prose.

I'm part of the noblebright fantasy movement, formed as an explicit reaction to grimdark, so I'm hardly a neutral observer. In noblebright, the world is often dark, but we can and must struggle against it, and bring at least some light in the darkness. Noblebright celebrates everyone's agency to oppose evil, which is probably why I like it, and why I'm sitting here writing a blog series about agency.

Let's bring this to a conclusion. In our tour of various genres, we've seen different levels and types of agency. The kinds of questions to ask, when going into these genres, are:

  • Do the main characters have a lot of agency, or only a little?
  • Is there an expectation in the genre that they will (ultimately) be worthy and admirable people?
  • What kind of goals are available to them in this genre?
  • How much do they struggle for their goals, and how successful are they?
  • How likely/expected is it that they will achieve those goals?
  • What constraints are placed on them by the system in which they find themselves?
  • What's the disparity between their level of agency and the system's inertia, and has the story been precipitated by a big change in that disparity (in either direction)?
  • Are they fighting for the system, against the system, within the system, or around the system? Or is the system very much in the background?
  • Is the system good, bad, or a mixture?
  • Is the system expected or likely to change? Is that part of the characters' goals?
  • How much do you want to mess with the usual expectations of the genre?

I'll go a little further into the idea of the system as constraint in my next post, the last in this series, where I look at diverse voices and what they're doing to shift expectations about agency in fiction.

Jun 24

Failure Modes of Fiction Through the Lens of Agency

In my introductory post to this series, I talked about the common Western template for a heroic story: a motivated protagonist faces a dynamic situation that will turn for the worse unless they struggle against fit opposition to bring about their preferred resolution, bringing all their resources and courage to bear on the problem, and paying a high price for victory.

As someone who reads and reviews a lot of books, I've come across a few failure modes of this popular template.

The Spoiled Protagonist

The Spoiled Protagonist has too much agency, and those around her too little. I say "her," because although spoiled protagonists can certainly be men, the majority I've encountered have been women. To be fair, this is quite likely to be sample bias, since I prefer to read books with female protagonists and avoid the ones that are most likely to have male spoiled protagonists.

The term "Mary Sue" gets bandied about a lot these days, often merely indicating a woman who has agency among people who disapprove of that. The original Mary Sue, though, was the author-insert character in a piece of Star Trek fanfiction, who was better at everything than anyone else and who everyone, despite this, instantly loved and wanted to help in every way they could. This is more or less what I mean by the Spoiled Protagonist, but the emphasis isn't necessarily on her ability so much as on the fact that everyone treats her as the promised Chosen One, even when she isn't actually explicitly a promised Chosen One in the world of the story.

Characters who ought to make her follow the rules and wait her turn and prove herself like anyone else seem to lose all ability to do so; they become her obedient lackeys, sometimes at the risk of their jobs or their lives, or shower her with gifts, for no real reason except that the Spoiled Protagonist is the author's darling and every other character exists only to serve her (except the villain, who exists so she'll have someone to defeat quite easily). This is generally dull to read, and also annoying.

The Spoiled Protagonist is such a wish-fulfillment fantasy of agency that she distorts the entire plot and the behaviour of everyone around her, making her also a form of the Plot Black Hole.

The Plot Black Hole

A plot hole is a logical issue with the plot, something that wouldn't really happen, but has been stuck in and glossed over so that the plot will unfold according to the author's desires.

A plot black hole is my term for when a plot hole grows so large that everyone's behaviour is gravitationally distorted around it. All the characters are puppets of the author's predetermined plot, and will behave in the most ridiculous fashion to bring it about. As an example, in a book I read which I am contractually prevented from naming, someone who eventually turns out to be the villain's minion releases the protagonist from prison, which she could not otherwise have escaped, and where she was waiting to be probably executed; reunites her with the only weapons that can stop the villain; and takes her to where the villain is, all (apparently) so that the villain can have a good gloat and a shock reveal, and then escape. (To be pursued, of course, by the protagonist and soundly defeated.)

The Plot Back Hole not only distorts the actions of the characters; it distorts the laws of probability, and sometimes physics. Hence the next failure mode: the Convenient Coincidence.

The Convenient Coincidence

Something has been concealed in an obscure location for a century. Just as the villain is about to finally retrieve it (with no particular obvious reason for having waited so long), the protagonists happen by and discover it - just a few hours ahead of his arrival. The timing is a complete, convenient, and thoroughly unlikely coincidence.

This actual example from a book I read recently is one of the more glaring uses of the Convenient Coincidence (and not the only one in that book, either). The Convenient Coincidence is the opposite of character agency. It's a forcing of fate, which drops the characters into a situation, or helps them resolve it, with no effort or even intent on their part.

Sometimes, as with my opening example above, we don't find out until later that the Convenient Coincidence was a Convenient Coincidence; perhaps the author is hoping we won't notice. I notice.

There are a couple of sub-categories of Convenient Coincidence as a failure of agency, which I call the Convenient Eavesdrop and the Cavalry Rescue.

The Convenient Eavesdrop

The Convenient Eavesdrop is a plot device, a way to work around limitations of point of view and character knowledge. It's generally a clumsy way, and a failure of character agency. If you've ever seen the British spoof of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, Five Go Mad in Dorset, you may remember how the writers mocked the frequent use of the Convenient Eavesdrop in not only Blyton's books, but books for young people in general. The villains are overheard saying, "Rhubarb, rhubarb, secret plans, rhubarb, rhubarb..."

The thing about being young is that nobody tells you anything. If you're to find out much about what's going on among the adults, you pretty much have to overhear them talking, unless they're very modern adults who believe in discussing things with kids. But the thing about the Convenient Eavesdrop is that it happens, not because the character has set out deliberately to find out the information, but by complete accident. The protagonist is in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to overhear the precise conversation that will advance the plot, however unlikely that may be. J.K. Rowling is guilty of the Convenient Eavesdrop, for example, when Harry and his friends are teleporting randomly around Britain during Deathly Hallows, and just happen to be exactly where they can overhear some people they know talking about events in the wizarding world that they have no other way of finding out about, but that they must know in order for the plot to progress. They weren't trying to find this out; they were just handed the information as a gift from above.

This, authors, is why I will never not call you out for a Convenient Eavesdrop. It's deprotagonizing. If you absolutely must have the characters find out some information through eavesdropping, make them work for it. Make them go looking for the information; have them hide in wait for the villain to have a conversation they know or hope is coming, at risk of being discovered. Make the information they get ambiguous, so they have to keep working to confirm it, or act on less-than-adequate knowledge. Or flip the trope, and have the villain maneuver them into something that seems like it's a Convenient Eavesdrop, but the villain is fully aware of their presence and takes the opportunity to misinform or mislead them. Don't just give them the information on a plate with parsley round it because they happened to take a walk one night.

The Cavalry Rescue

The Cavalry Rescue is, of course, a staple of fiction. All seems lost, and then the other character(s) who went off to do something else - possibly abandoning the main characters in a fit of pique (looking at you, Ron Weasley), possibly with another assignment, possibly having been feared lost - suddenly turn up in the nick of time and rescue Our Heroes. There are ways to make it work, and there are ways to have it be a failure of protagonism.

When Gandalf turns up at the Battle of Helm's Deep, it's a Cavalry Rescue that's been set up in advance. He's told the other characters to expect him at a certain time. The challenge in this kind of scenario is for the main group to hold out long enough to be relieved, and you can get some good tension out of the question of whether they will manage this.

But when a Cavalry Rescue comes thundering in at the exact right time and there's been no pre-planning, and the rescuers just happened to turn up at this moment for no particular reason except that it saved the author's plot, that's a failure in my eyes. A failure of agency, specifically, like any fortunate coincidence.

The Penelope Pitstop

Speaking of rescues, there's another failure mode of agency that I call the Penelope Pitstop, which dates me. The original Hanna Barbera Wacky Races cartoon from the 1960s, which I watched as a child in the 70s, featured exactly one woman, who was thrown in at the last minute and constructed entirely out of stereotypes (as was the style at the time). Penelope Pitstop, while clever and resourceful in many ways, as soon as she fell into the clutches of the villain (which happened with monotonous regularity) would go completely passive, cry "Hayulp! Hayulp!" in her southern belle accent, and wait to be rescued, which she inevitably would be. I understand things are not as dire in the more recent remake.

The Penelope Pitstop is a pattern I see over and over in fiction, particularly, for some reason, fiction set in the 19th century - whether it's the more adventurous type of Regency romance; steampunk; or gaslight fantasy. The typical way it plays out is that we're told the heroine is brilliant and self-reliant, but what we're shown is that she makes one stupid, reckless decision after another, from each of which she has to be rescued by a man. In particular, she falls into the clutches of the villain, almost always because she's gone off by herself with no backup and without telling anyone where she's going, and he threatens her with author's choice of terrible fate, only to have the hero burst in at the critical moment and prevent his dastardly plan.

An associated trope is Reeves-McMillan's Shiv, which I've taken the liberty of naming after myself (in imitation of Chekov's Gun). This is where the captured heroine does something, such as fashioning a shiv from a bit of broken glass, that promises us that she's going to take some kind of decisive and effective action - but she signally fails to shank the villain with it, and it's all a bit of a let-down.

I'd love to see the Penelope Pitstop (and Reeves-McMillan's Shiv) retired, and replaced with heroines who, if they are captured (through no fault of their own), are quite capable of facing down the villain and engineering their own escape - or, better yet, rescuing the hero. Things can certainly be a bit scary while they're working towards that end, of course, as long as it doesn't just become a Gunboat.

The Gunboat

The Gunboat is what I call the pattern of bombarding the character with adversity, and then allowing them a relatively easy, linear win. It is not the same as showing them struggling against fit opposition, certainly not through the lens of agency; they're helpless for a while, and then get offered an easy escape that they don't have to work for much.

I understand where it comes from: the adversity bombardment, with no apparent options, is a common real-life experience, and if that’s the end of the story it’s unsatisfying. There must be an escape if the ending is not to be simply depressing. I'm also a tender-hearted author, and a professional problem-solver, and I've been known to give in to the period of suffering followed by an escape - "earned" not by the character's efforts, but by their simple endurance - rather than put in the extra effort to turn it into a conflict. 

And I do suspect that there's a way to do the Gunboat right, because endurance of suffering is something that deserves a more important place in fiction. I'll discuss this more in my final post in this series, when I talk about diverse experiences of agency. I'm not sure what the Gunboat done right exactly looks like, though. Is it "I'm not going to take this anymore", a change from passive to active? Perhaps. Is it looking for escape over and over, not finding it, giving up, and then being offered one risky opportunity and deciding to take it? Perhaps. I'm reasonably sure, though, that "character suffers... suffers... suffers... suffers... suffers... escapes by being handed a solution" isn't how to do it right.

What all of these failure modes of agency in fiction have in common is that the character gets a result that they didn't work for; the author just gave it to them in order to move things along. If you're going to follow the Western template of an active protagonist, in my view the protagonism needs to be constant. The protagonist definitely shouldn't succeed all the time, but they should strive all the time, and any progress they make should be through striving - not through an unlikely coincidence arranged by the author, or another character offering them help for no reason, or getting rescued while helpless and passive. There are other modes of fiction, of course, and in my next post I'll discuss the different approaches to agency in different genres and subgenres; but if your chosen mode is the motivated character in a dynamic situation striving for a goal against fit opposition, write that, and not the story of a series of lucky accidents.

If you struggle to do so, by the way, I found Jack M. Bickham's book Scene and Structure enormously useful in helping me write stories that flowed naturally from a character's pursuit of a goal.

Not every story, of course, needs to be written that way. In the next post, we'll look at genre expectations about agency.

Jun 15

Fiction Through the Lens of Agency

We’re in a time (again) where we’re asking questions of agency - does our vote count? Are we, and our fellow citizens, really exercising our own wills when voting? Will our voice be heard? Can we do anything?

Climate change; major powers making bad collective decisions that will impact us all; Russia setting out to turn the whole thing over so it can be more powerful; technology changing around us at a rapid pace and putting giant, almost uninfluencable corporations in charge of key elements of our daily lives... agency is something a lot of us are worried about. 

Colonized people, people of colour, and women will be familiar with the feeling; but now we all get to share it, even straight cis middle-aged white guys like me. To have any more hegemony, I'd have to be rich or dead, and yet there are still times when I look at the world and feel a lack of agency.

Since fiction is a thing I think about a lot, as both a writer and a reviewer, this therefore seems to me like an appropriate time to look at fiction through the lens of agency.

I'm not setting out to be Joseph Campbell here. Please don't take it that way. This is not “the way everything works all the time”. It’s a lens, one of many we can look through, that might show us things that are not as visible through other lenses.

Having mentioned Joseph Campbell, let's briefly discuss the Hero’s Journey, which (whatever Hollywood and its writers may have suggested to you) is only one possible story structure among many. The Hero's Journey is both a celebration of agency (typically of young white men), and an imposed shape that bends the hero on his inevitable, predictable arc. The “fated hero” can neither be kept from his triumph, nor can he avoid his journey and its predetermined steps - and his companions, having less agency, usually bear the cost.

(My short story "Gatekeeper, What Toll?" takes the idea of the fated hero and examines it through the eyes of an outsider, who has seen many such heroes come and go and knows what disruptive forces they represent. I didn't set out to write a story that did that, and only realized afterwards that I had done so; perhaps it was my fate.)

Anyway: Agency in contemporary Western fiction is typically expressed through protagonism, and the impact of the characters on the world, but also elements of coincidence, the help or hindrance of other characters, obstacles, and complications. (For the difference between an obstacle and a complication, see the Writing Excuses podcast, season 14, episode 13; but briefly, an obstacle is a challenge that the character encounters and either overcomes, or doesn't, on the way to their goal; a complication turns the plot into a new direction.)

A typical template for a Western protagonist is: Circumstances are such that they must attempt to change the situation, or terrible consequences will ensue; but in making this attempt, they encounter opposition. In overcoming this opposition, they will have many defeats as well as victories, which will both shape and reveal their character. Ultimately, they will either triumph through their inherent abilities, the skills and knowledge they have gained in the course of their adventures, and the help of allies they have won through their right conduct or special identity; or they will fail through an inherent flaw, in which case the story is a tragedy.

That's a story about agency. The character is (unless it's a tragedy) ultimately able to change their situation for the better. But they don't have unlimited agency; the opposition they face reminds us that they, too, like us, are human and subject to limitations, and it's their struggle that makes the story interesting, just as their motivation to act makes it relatable, and their triumph makes it cathartic and inspirational.

We love this story because we want to be that person: the one who will fight for what we care about, the one who will make right choices (or, if we make wrong choices, will learn from it and change and become a better person), the one who will draw others to our cause, the one who can change the way things are (or put them back how they should be, according to taste), and the one who, as a reward for all of this, will achieve our goals and receive the admiration of people who are important to us. That's not, of course, how life always goes; that's one reason the story is so appealing. It's a wish-fulfilment fantasy, about being better people than we often are, and about the world being fairer than it often is. It's a fantasy of agency.

There are some inherent failure modes associated with this story format, and I'll discuss them in another post. A third post will deal with different attitudes to agency, and different degrees of character agency, in different genres and subgenres (mostly SFF - science fiction and fantasy - since that’s what I mainly read). And a final post (unless I think of another one as I go along) will discuss how admitting new, diverse voices and different life experiences to the conversation of literature can change how agency works in fiction.

Stay tuned. Or not; you get to choose.

Aug 04

Settings and Stories

I've worked on books in three different series, with three different settings, in the past few months. This post is a reflection on how the writing experience differed between them, and how the settings contributed to the stories I told in them.

The three series are Auckland Allies (contemporary urban fantasy, set in the city where I live); Hand of the Trickster (sword-and-sorcery heists); and the Gryphon Clerks (secondary-world lightly steampunked fantasy). Yes, I know my last post said I probably wouldn't be working on any more Gryphon Clerks stories in the foreseeable future. The future is a lot less foreseeable than I thought, as it turns out.

Part of the reason for having different series going is that a change is, in fact, as good as a rest. Because they feel different to work on, I can work on one when I don't feel like working on another, and switching from one to another can be refreshing. In fact, the reason I got out my abandoned manuscript of Mister Bucket for Assembly, the Gryphon Clerks novel (which turned out to be about 75% complete), was that I was making slow, difficult progress on the second Hand of the Trickster book. I was soon happily logging 3000 to 5000-word days on Mister Bucket, where I'd struggled to reach 1500 words some days on the other book.

Let's see if I can identify what it is about each of these series that feels different, what attracts me to write in the settings, and what those settings contribute to the fiction.

Auckland Allies

The fun thing about Auckland Allies is that it takes place in a setting I know well: the real-world city of Auckland, New Zealand, where I was born and, where, apart from an eight-month period in Brisbane many years ago, I've lived ever since. That means that I can celebrate the things I enjoy about the city; work in a few complaints about it; and research my books just by walking around (or using Google Maps and Street View, in a pinch).

It also provides its own inspiration. For the first book, I strapped a GoPro camera to my head and walked through places where I'd set chase scenes, and that gave me additional ideas for those scenes and how they could go. I also used the extinct volcanoes which are a unique aspect of Auckland to make it a story that couldn't be set anywhere else.

Graves under Grafton Bridge (my photo)

The second book, Ghost Bridge, is almost entirely inspired by real aspects of the city, in fact. There really is an early-20th-century bridge which sits partially over a 19th-century graveyard, close to the downtown area. There really is a hospital at one end of the bridge and a luxury hotel at the other. Four thousand graves really were dug up when the nearby motorway went through in the 1960s, and the bodies really were cremated and reburied in a mass grave next to the bridge. And there really is a statue of Zealandia, the personified spirit of New Zealand, a short distance down the road. All of these are key elements of the story in Ghost Bridge; in fact, if you took them away, there wouldn't be much story left. And I didn't have to make up a single one of them, only take what was there already and combine them imaginatively.

The other fun thing about Auckland Allies is that I can write in my own dialect. A lot of the time, I'm writing with an eye to the American market, since that's the largest market for fiction in English, and I have to be aware of phrasing things in a way that will be clear to American readers, not using turns of phrase or slang that come naturally to me but would sound strange to them. In Auckland Allies, I'm writing characters who are explicitly New Zealanders, and they speak accordingly--not only in their dialogue, but in their narration, since I use first person points of view. I'm still aware of the language, and still careful to phrase things so that someone who isn't familiar with the slang will nevertheless understand it from context--something that, as a science fiction and fantasy author, I have practice at doing--but I enjoy being able to write in a full-on Kiwi voice, rather than in intentionally bland international English.

Hand of the Trickster

Hand of the Trickster is my newest series, so new that I've only just published the first book. So far, I have a 34,000-word novella (the one that just went up), and 26,000 words of what looks like being a shortish novel. Accordingly, the setting is less developed so far than in the other two series.

It's sword-and-sorcery, set in a world of many gods. The High Gods have become distant and uninvolved since the War of Gods, leaving their followers to (mis)manage the Empire, but the Middle Gods are still at large in the world, especially the Trickster.

One thing I enjoy about this setting is that not much is really nailed down yet. I'm making it up as I go along, rather than planning it out in advance (like the Gryphon Clerks) or conforming it to the real world (like Auckland Allies). I haven't even drawn a map yet. While that results in a setting that isn't as rich and complex, the focus is more on character and plot; the setting, apart from the situation with the gods, doesn't drive the story as much as in the other two series.

Having a main character who's a thief in the service of the Trickster also enables me to let my chaotic side out to play. I've met a couple of real-life fraudsters, and they were extremely annoying; but I love fictional heists, capers, and shenanigans, and this is my chance to write some. I identify as neutral good with strong lawful leanings, but writing a chaotic good character like Now You Don't (the protagonist and narrator of Hand of the Trickster), or like Sparx, the hacker technomage in Auckland Allies, is tremendous fun and gives the mischievous part of me a safe outlet. My father always enjoyed playing villain roles in light opera, for similar reasons.

The Gryphon Clerks

The Gryphon Clerks setting was originally intended as a game setting, but I never finished the game, and the story seeds I kept planting became too tempting. I mapped out a geographically large and culturally detailed and diverse world, with room for a great many stories, and in fact I find that the stories multiply as I write them.

This is partly because lots of minor characters tend to be needed for the kind of large-scale stories I tell there, and they turn up and become unexpectedly interesting, and then I want to write more about them. In the book I've just finished drafting, for example (Mister Bucket for Assembly), near the end of the book three young gnomes are running a small newspaper and what amounts to a radio station. They're secondary to the main action, but now I want to write a novel all about them as they build their media empire, bicker, fall in love, break stories, witness history and struggle against the odds. This is how the world tends to expand, one story at a time, and there's a whole huge area beyond the mountains that I haven't even visited yet.

I said above that I worked out the setting in advance. I didn't work out everything, though. As I write each book, I add to a wiki which holds all of the established facts about the world, so that I don't end up contradicting myself. Sometimes, this sparks further ideas; occasionally, it means I can't do something because of something I've already said, and I have to rewrite. This generally ends up being a useful creative constraint more than an annoyance, though.

What is a bit of an annoyance, in retrospect, is that I've made the setting almost science-fictional, and used some different terms for things that we already have names for, like marriage (which I call oathbinding), in order to underline the differences from our world. I've also used an approach to character names that not everybody loves. I'm kind of stuck with those things now, even though they can feel awkward at times. People who love the setting and the characters seem willing to forgive me, though.

Setting and Story

When you're writing fantasy and science fiction, in particular, setting is very important as a story driver. Not only does it determine what stories are possible, but it suggests what stories might be interesting.

My first published novel, City of Masks, was stalled for about 10 years because, having got the protagonist to the setting, I couldn't figure out what happened next. My creative block was freed when I made a large diagram of conflicting factions in the city and tied characters to them. Each group, and therefore each character, had its own agenda, and this set the story in motion. I've not, so far, thought of another story in that setting, but if I ever do it might well be driven by a similar spring. Certainly, clashing interests in the respective settings drive the plots of Auckland Allies, Hand of the Trickster and the Gryphon Clerks, in different ways that I've attempted to explore above.

While immersing deeply into just one world and writing a series, or multiple series, set there has proved a productive and lucrative approach for many writers, I find that variety helps me to stay fresh, and that my different settings have unique elements that make each of them fun in its own way. I hope that my readers find the same.

Jun 16


I thought you might enjoy the latest chapter from the nonfiction book I'm working on, Writing Short: The Craft and Commerce of Short Story Writing. It's one of those ones that turns up at four in the morning and takes over your brain. I blame the Writing Excuses podcast I listened to yesterday.

You’ll often hear the expression “raising the stakes” in relation to storytelling. It’s a term that can be easily misunderstood, as I was reminded by listening to an excellent podcast on stakes by the Writing Excuses team (season 11, episode 24).

Stakes are the motivations that prevent a character from just giving up and walking away in the face of opposition, danger, difficulty or challenge. That means that the most powerful stakes are personal. There’s a reason for the cliché “this time it’s personal” in movie sequel taglines.

“Raising the stakes,” then, isn’t just about “before, the city was under threat, now it’s the whole country! Next, the world!” Obviously, in the abstract, a threat to the whole country is more important than a threat to a single city. But we’re not in the abstract. We’re telling stories, which means we’re looking at issues through the eyes of characters—people—and people respond to what is important to them.

A tragedy touches us much more if we know someone involved. A personal example: a few years ago, in the city where I live, some engineers and tradespeople were inspecting a new water pipeline. Somehow, gas had leaked into the pipeline, and it exploded and killed one person, severely injured a second, and injured several others (one employee and some contractors).

As it happened, I was working for the city water authority at the time, training people on the new computer system they were putting in. I heard about the tragedy, and wondered if it had impacted anyone I knew.

And then the media published the name of the woman who was killed, and I realised that it was someone who had been in my classroom two days before, who I’d spoken with and helped. The man who was badly injured (losing several limbs) had been in the same classroom. And I’d also trained the other employee who was injured.

That made the tragedy much more tragic to me. I know that in an ideal world, whether someone has a face and a name that you know, whether you’ve met them and spoken to them, whether you know their story, shouldn’t affect how much you care about their fate; but the reality is that it does.

Knowing this can easily lead you down a bad path with your writing, as well as a good one.

If you know that stakes are personal, that motivations with a lot of emotion attached to them are ones that will drive characters powerfully through great trials and also engage the audience, the temptation is to use cheap, thoughtless tragedy to make your story more powerful—just as fast-food companies use salt, sugar and fat to make their food more attractive to consumers without spending much money.

A classic example of this is the trope of the Woman in a Refrigerator.

Woman in refrigerator

The trope gets its name from an incident in a Green Lantern comic, in which Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) finds that an assassin has broken into his apartment while he’s out, killed his girlfriend, and stuffed her into the refrigerator for him to find. The thing that is wrong with the trope is that it is treating a character, and specifically a female character, solely as a source of emotion and motivation for another, more “important” character—not as a person with significance for their own sake, with their own story and character arc. The same thing can be done with male characters, of course, but because women are more often denied their own stories anyway, using a woman in this way is particularly pernicious.

It’s also setting up for the “man alone” trope. This is where the damaged loner goes out on the road seeking vengeance/peace/redemption/escape from his past, and all of that hovers in the background as he encounters various adventures, both driving his wandering from setting to setting and also making sure he never develops ties or settles down anywhere. If he does start to develop ties, either they will be tragically and brutally taken away from him, or he will leave rather than risk that happening. The problem with this trope is that it feeds the fantasies of actual damaged loners, discourages them from seeking help or support, and can help place them in a position where they end up creating real tragedies for other people.

I should clarify, at this point, that I’m not advocating any form of censorship, or saying that these stories should be forbidden and never told at all. What I’m advocating is that you, my reader, who wants to learn to write good stories, think about the stories that you are going to write, and whether they play into unhealthy societal patterns and reinforce them.

Along with the “man alone” is the “one woman” trope, where there is only one female character of any significance in the story, and so she never talks to another woman or forms one of those strong female friendships that are such a source of power for real women. Remember, stakes are personal, which means that having more, and more significant, relationships increases the scope and possibilities of your story. And loss is not the only motivator, as the last chapter, I hope, abundantly demonstrates. [Note: this is part of a book, as I mentioned, and the previous chapter sets out various kinds of motivation.]

While I’m talking about overused and toxic tropes: it’s true (unfortunately) that many women have experienced sexual assault. It’s also true that this is an experience that often impacts them for many years, even for the rest of their lives. But it’s not the only experience that can motivate a female character, and it shouldn’t be tossed casually into a female character’s backstory as a shortcut that doesn’t require much thought or follow-up.

I’ve said above that loss is not the only motivator. One reason, I think, that it’s overused as a motivator is that in epic stories, often we begin with the potential hero growing up in a remote, rural setting, in a life that they must be motivated to leave in order for the adventure to kick off. This is the cliché beginning for an epic fantasy: the Chosen One, a humble farm boy, survives the destruction of his whole village and the death of his parents or parental figures, which launches him on the adventure that he previously refused to embark on. Now, to the credit of the cliché epic fantasy, he will usually start gathering companions immediately, rather than being the “man alone,” but when you’re writing a short story instead of an epic, that’s tricky to pull off. Perhaps don’t start by motivating your protagonist with loss, and see if that leads to a better story?

Let’s think about Star Wars (the original trilogy) for a bit to see how this works. We open with the rebel ship boarded, the planet Alderaan destroyed; this is what movie makers, in particular, sometimes think of as “high stakes”. The fate of the galaxy! Destruction of planets! The problem is, at this point we really don’t care much, because it isn’t particularly personal. It’s gone too big too quickly. But it’s effectively a prologue anyway, letting us know that there will be Big Space Stuff coming up; we need to know that, because the next thing we see is a gawky kid called Luke growing up on a farm. He talks about getting involved in the war, like his friends, but he’s not really going to do it; he’s tied down by his family (his uncle and aunt) and small, local obligations.

When he sees the message from the attractive space princess, though, which conveniently falls into his hands, he’s motivated enough to go looking for the old hermit to find out more about her. The old hermit wants him to get involved, but he’s not that keen.

Until! They go back to his home, and it’s destroyed, his uncle and aunt (foster parents) dead, and it’s the fault of the Empire. Now it’s personal! Not only does he have nothing to keep him at home anymore, but he has a motivation to go out and get involved in the Big Space Stuff that has taken away his comfortable provincial life. Out there, he’ll meet companions, and come to have more and more reasons to fight and persevere.

As will his companions, though. Think about Han Solo for a minute. We meet him as almost a “man alone,” although he does have a sidekick. He’s out for himself, very much for hire, worried about his debt, skeptical about the old hermit’s mysticism, contemptuous of this kid with dust behind his ears. But as his ties to the others grow, as they risk their lives to rescue him, his stake in the conflict increases, and he becomes heroic, rather than self-absorbed and uncaring. He becomes the guy who turns up with a rescue when things seem hopeless.

He becomes, in fact, more admirable. Remember I talked about the admirable character, who is willing to bear personal cost for the sake of others? [Note: in another earlier chapter.] There’s an interesting sidelight here on the question of stakes, and it comes to me via Terry Pratchett. His characters Granny Weatherwax and Carrot Ironfoundersson, in Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms respectively, both say, at key moments: “Personal isn’t the same as important.”

In the Writing Excuses podcast episode I referenced at the start of this chapter, several of the podcasters discuss how villains often act out of motivations that are to do with preserving order or doing “good” for the community as a whole, while heroes will be driven by stakes that are more personal. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that the great villains of the 20th century—to those in English-speaking countries, at least—were fascists and communists, who placed the state above the individual and committed atrocities in service of that philosophy. (Nor were they the first or the last to put abstract principles before humanity, with tragic consequences.) It’s also because someone who is personally motivated is easier to empathise with, and so less likely to be regarded as a villain. But there is also the admirable character to consider, the one who will, when the chips are down, set aside what’s best for them personally and do something for the good of others, or their people, or their community, or their nation. We naturally value and praise this quality as a society, since we like to have people around who will help us, even at cost to themselves.

So what’s going on when someone values the concerns of others, and the big picture, above their personal stakes in the situation? I’d suggest that they’re transcending that instinct we all have to focus in on our immediate, short-term, personal benefit, to see those who are close to us as more important than those who are distant from us; who can, metaphorically speaking, look at a row of power poles that look smaller the further away they are, and not just know, but believe and act as if, each of them is actually the same height.

This is a higher order of thinking than the instincts of fear and anger that protect our own interests at any cost, and it’s the kind of thinking that produces great and wonderful results in our society. Whether it’s Harriet Tubman returning again and again to rescue others from slavery, or Malala Yousafzai speaking out for the education of women after being shot for going to school, or a soldier carrying a wounded comrade to safety under fire, we recognise the courage and selflessness of these people as an admirable kind of humanity. And we take inspiration from their stories exactly because they put their lives at stake because something else, someone else, matters more to them. Villains, in contrast, are those who will often claim to be acting for some kind of greater good, but who prefer to see other people pay the cost.

Stakes are personal. They will drive and draw your characters through great opposition and inspire them to magnificent deeds. But they don’t have to be selfish, and, in fact, we respond even better when they’re not.

Mar 18

The Convenient Eavesdrop

The Convenient Eavesdrop is my name for a trope that's particularly common in fiction for younger readers. (There's probably a TV Tropes name for it, but I dare not risk my productivity by going to that site.) It's when someone just happens to be in a position to overhear someone else, usually the antagonist, discussing exactly the information they need to know to move the plot forward.

Enid Blyton's Famous Five had frequent Convenient Eavesdrops, to the point that the parody Five Go Mad in Dorset had the villain's minions muttering, "Rhubarb, rhubarb, secret plans, rhubarb, rhubarb." In their case, generally they'd overhear something that revealed Dastardly Doings Afoot, and either tried to tell the adults and weren't believed, or didn't tell the adults because they wouldn't be believed. The Convenient Eavesdrop functioned as an inciting incident, something that would get the adventure underway, because it was now up to the kids to resolve the situation.

Convenient Eavesdrops can also kick off the plot by being misinterpreted. This is often, though not inevitably, comic; Richmal Crompton's William books used it for great comic effect, as have many farces and sitcoms, but it can also lead to tragedy or near-tragedy when someone acts on misinterpreted information that suggests their lover is unfaithful, for example. The misinterpreted Convenient Eavesdrop is a sub-trope, rather than a trope flip or subversion, since it's been around for so long.

More of a flip, though it's also been around for a while, is having the antagonist conveniently eavesdrop on the protagonist. Because you'll probably (though not certainly) be in the protagonist's viewpoint, you then need the protagonist, or a companion, to notice the antagonist sneaking away and realize that they've overheard. But what have they overheard? How much do they know? Can we contain the situation? Will they blackmail us?

Another use of Convenient Eavesdrops is common in the Harry Potter books. Apart from the prologue to each book (it's called Chapter 1, but trust me, it's a prologue), the books stick tightly to Harry's point of view, so he has to find out any other relevant information that explains what's going on by either being told it, or overhearing it in a Convenient Eavesdrop. There's a particularly blatant example in Deathly Hallows, where Harry has been randomly teleporting around Britain, on the run, and doesn't know what's happening. Super-conveniently, one of his school friends, a goblin, and a third person I forget just now randomly happen to pass nearby while Harry's hidden in a bush, discussing exactly what he needs to know to get the stalled plot moving again.

The Speaker and Listeners
Kurok_Alex via Foter.com / CC BY

You'll have gathered that I'm not a fan of the Convenient Eavesdrop, which I consider a close cousin to Deus Ex Machina (the convenient event not triggered by the protagonist which saves his or her bacon at the critical moment, because the author has written themselves into a corner). But the problems it solves - knowing what the antagonist's plans are, or otherwise getting key information the viewpoint characters have no other access to - are genuine problems. Are there better ways to solve them?

I think so. I think the solution is the more general solution to other problems of protagonist agency versus coincidence: instead of having something happen by itself, have the characters cause it deliberately.

Let me offer an example from Auckland Allies, the first novel in my urban fantasy series. (I'm writing this blog post as a way of warming up to tackle revisions on the second book.) Mysterious occurrences are occurring; hostile black-clad men keep turning up and trying to harm the protagonists. The protagonists want to know why.

The lazy way would be to have them in the right place at the right time to find out by Convenient Eavesdrop. But the other way to do it - which ends up driving the plot for several chapters, because it gives plenty for the characters to strive for - is for them to set out to find out deliberately.

During one of the pursuits, Sparx, the technomage, used a cellphone to shoot video of the SUV pursuing him and Steampunk Sally. He's able to read the license plate.

They're not official law enforcement, so they have to find a way to trace the plate to an address. He and Sally run a scam on a used-car dealer to get access to the website where they can do this.

They go to the address and observe. Sparx finds an active wifi node, and attempts to hack it. Not much success, but he gets some information they can use.

Using the partial penetration he achieved of the antagonists' network, Sparx then manages to get into their webcam using a combination of magic and technology. This reveals a clue pointing to the antagonists' plans, which the Allies now set out to foil.

All of this is, I think, much more satisfying - and certainly gives a lot more plot - than happening to be in the right place at the right time. This example uses technology, which opens up more options (particularly since I have a character who's very good with it), but you can still take this approach in a non-technological setting, or with less skilled characters. Build tension as the protagonist sneaks into the antagonist's lair, past dangerous defences, and conceals herself where she can overhear the secret meeting - somewhere cramped, perhaps smelly, where she'll be vulnerable if discovered.

This is the Difficult Eavesdrop.

Aug 25

Treble and Bass: A Metaphor

I woke up at two o'clock this morning and started thinking about fiction. (This is normal behaviour for a writer.) In the nonlinear way that brains work at 2am, my brain came up with a metaphor that I'd like to explore here.

Of the several ways in which fiction can be satisfying, here are two:

A. Events have an impact on characters.

B. Characters have an impact on events.

Those aren't at opposite ends of a spectrum. They're like sliders on a mixing board, which can be moved up and down independently. Let's call them treble and bass, respectively.

underwhelmer / Foter / CC BY

Here's a theory. The "sad puppies" (if you don't know who they are, rejoice, and bail out now, because this post won't make a lot of sense to you) are all about that bass, 'bout that bass, no treble. (I'm generalising and exaggerating for the sake of a point; fair warning, I'll be doing a lot of that, so take what I have to say with salt to taste.)

My speculation is that in the brief interval before they decided to engage in a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics, and then got hijacked by the king of the haters, the puppies may have thought, "We, and everyone we know whose opinion we respect, like fiction with lots of bass, and don't care much about treble. These Hugo-winning stories have too much treble, and not enough bass. Since no right-thinking person would actually like them, there must be a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics! That's so wrong! We should do it too!"

Incidentally, in my view the short stories--not so much the novels--that have won Hugos in recent years do tend to emphasise treble a lot more than bass, reflecting a wider trend in the pro magazines and anthologies. The novels have more of a balance between the two--at least, the ones I've read.

I personally prefer a balance: both treble and bass. I find bass-only stories as unsatisfying as treble-only stories. But let's think about why people might write stories that are strongly one or the other. Wild speculation, OK? I could be completely wrong here.

Let's say you're a member of a historically disadvantaged and disempowered group (for our current purposes, any such group will do). What's your experience going to be? Might it possibly be that you experience being impacted by events more than you experience impacting events? And might your fiction reflect that experience?

And if, by contrast, you're a member of a historically advantaged and empowered group, won't you tend to experience, and think in terms of, your actions impacting events? And (here the speculation goes completely wild) might there be reasons that you don't want to think too hard about how events impact people? Why you might want to live in a universe where everyone is stoic and unmoved, and nobody's life is defined by things that happen to them without their consent? Particularly if your group's experience of unquestioned power is waning, and is now being constantly challenged, with questions being raised about whether your advantage over others is a good thing, even whether it will continue to exist?

Now, I want to live in a world where everyone can experience both bass and treble. I think that world is coming, but it isn't here yet. During such a transition, fiction becomes a zone of conflict, because fiction is inherently political, because it's a cultural product produced by people, who can't help being political even if they think they aren't.

And that is all I have to say about puppies.

Mar 14

Spec Fic and Comedy

Like millions of other fans, I'm saddened to hear of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors. It seems like a good occasion to reflect on humour in SFF (science fiction and fantasy), a topic I've been thinking about lately in any case.

I recently read, or at least started to read, a single-author collection of supposedly humourous SFF. The humour didn't work for me, as sometimes happens, and what that revealed, like mudflats at low tide, was that the stories weren't particularly good stories, and the SFF consisted mainly of cliches (while the humour consisted mainly of silly names). I didn't make it past halfway through the second story, a limp Lord of the Rings parody, neither funny, nor well-written, nor interesting.

I see this a lot in would-be comedic writing. I have to admit, as a reviewer I do often grant an author a pass for a dubious bit of worldbuilding, plotting, characterisation or what-have-you if the writing makes me laugh. The risk you run when you rely on this, though, is that if the writing doesn't make the reader laugh, there's nothing left to fall back on.

I maintain that a big part of the reason that Pratchett was the preeminent comic novelist since P.G. Wodehouse, responsible at one time for almost 4% of the entire British publishing industry's sales, was that he wrote books that worked as stories. His characters in the early books may have been cliches and stereotypes, but by his long and productive middle period he was writing characters with depth, complexity, growth and development.

There's a subtle, but detectable, gradient from cliche to stereotype to parody to character trapped in an unfortunate pattern of behaviour by habit and social expectation, and Pratchett showed us the full spectrum in the course of his career. He was an insightful observer of humanity, as all the best comedians are, but he was also a compassionate one - not just holding people up to mockery but reminding us that, whatever their failings, however small-minded and ridiculous they might be, they deserved consideration as human beings. (Even when they weren't, strictly speaking, human beings, but dwarves, trolls, golems, vampires, Igors or goblins.)

He's often compared to other writers, most frequently Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse, but his stories have more depth than either. In Adams, there are cosmic stakes, but they're minimised by the absurdity. In Wodehouse, the stakes are seldom higher than social embarrassment. In Pratchett, the stakes are high, and we care about them, and yet we're laughing.

Sir Terry PratchettRaeAllen / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

I'll make a comparison myself. There's a fairly obscure American humourist called Damon Runyon. Most people who've heard of him know him through the musical Guys and Dolls, or perhaps the Shirley Temple movie Little Miss Marker, both of which were based on his work, but he wrote a great many short stories in the 1930s set in the more dubious parts of contemporary New York. They're stories of revenge, lost love, family tragedy, violence and, occasionally, good triumphant with the help of rough, hard-bitten characters who have a sentimental side. Yet, mainly through the voice of the unnamed narrator (who observes much more than he participates; he's never unambiguously the protagonist), they're funny, both because of their wry, ironic observations and because of the distinctive language. They are, at the same time, slangy and poetic, and characterised by a total avoidance of the past tense.

My parents had an omnibus of the Runyon stories, and I read them a couple of times growing up. A while ago, frustrated by another would-be comic fantasy that I didn't find funny or otherwise enjoyable, I set out to write my own version of the same premise, and for reasons connected with that premise I picked the Runyonese dialect to tell it in. To make sure I was getting the voice right, I re-read some of the Runyon tales, and I was struck by the fact that there's often a dark, or at least heartwrenching, story going on behind all the humour. So I strove to make that, too, a part of the story I wrote, which you can read here.

I might never have thought of attempting that, though, if it hadn't been for the example of Terry Pratchett. Death (the phenomenon) isn't funny. Death (the character, who makes at least a cameo appearance in every Discworld book and is a main character in several), while usually serious himself, is a cause of comedy in other people.

Let's reflect on that for a moment. At least one person dies in every Discworld novel. Often, it's a minor character, but usually it's someone with a name, though sometimes we don't learn the name until Death says it in all caps. And these are primarily thought of as comic novels.

That, too, was part of Pratchett's genius. Nothing in life, not even death, was outside his warm, human, comedic insightfulness. Now that he has made the transition himself, it's up to us who are left to try to carry on his legacy, not only of funny fantasy, but of kindness, good storytelling, and reflection on the human condition.

Jan 16

Worldbuilding for Urban Fantasy

I've been writing the Gryphon Clerks series, which is secondary-world fantasy, for a while now. I did a lot of worldbuilding for it upfront (originally, I planned it as a game setting, but it kept generating stories, and games are hard). It's very much a distinct world, with a lot of specific differences from our world that I have to keep in mind when I write. For example, there are no pigs, and no New World plants or animals. The calendar is completely different. The counting system is different. The way society is structured, the names for common things (even marriage)... I have to keep constantly alert to avoid breaking my own canon by writing sentences like "She got married last month".

Now, I'm not saying that a secondary-world setting doesn't have advantages. It opens up possibilities that are closed off if you set a story in our world, just because our world has things that are true of it that you can't ignore. In a secondary world, I can outright make things up if it suits me, and I don't have to do much research (I do a little research occasionally to give me an idea of whether things are basically credible or reasonable, but I'm not bound by the results.)

At the same time, setting a story in a version of the real world means a lot of work is already done. I don't have to invent all the technology from scratch, all the history from scratch, all the sociology from scratch. I may need to research it a bit, but that isn't especially hard, thanks to Google. And I don't have to invent cultural references; I can make pop culture jokes, which is something I can only do indirectly in secondary-world fantasy. (My current WIP has a Bechdel Test joke embedded in it, but it would be easy to miss.)

One of my projects this year is an urban fantasy. I've written the first chapter and done some planning of things I'd like to include - one of them is an action set-piece that takes place along the route I walk to work, which will be great fun. But, while it seems like urban fantasy would require a minimum of worldbuilding, there are actually a number of questions that I have to ask myself about the world, and that any urban fantasy writer has to answer, even if only by implication.

I thought I'd work through them in a blog post, so that other people could see my process. I'll use some of my favourite (and one or two of my non-favourite) urban fantasy series as examples, and I'll make my decisions based, in part, on what opportunities it offers me for setting up conflicts and developing a series over time.

1. Out, or Masquerade?


The term "masquerade" (in this context) comes from the game Vampire: the Masquerade, in which it means the conspiracy by which the vampires conceal their existence from the world at large. One of the key questions of urban fantasy is whether people in general know that magic, the supernatural, and/or the various races (vampires, fae, werewolves) exist. In Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, so far at least, they don't know (though it's largely through natural human rationalisation, rather than any particular conspiracy, that they remain ignorant). In Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville books, they do know, as of early in the series, and Kitty was involved in the outing process (not by her choice). In Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series, we have a middle ground: werewolves are out, fae are out, but vampires remain unrevealed to the populace at large, and everyone wants to keep it that way to avoid a panic.

One of the consequences of this question is that if the existence of the supernatural isn't common knowledge in the world, preserving the secret - or, alternatively, the secret coming out - may become a plot driver. A series can even be partly driven by successive outings, as the Mercy Thompson series is.

If the supernatural is out, on the other hand, that's a difference from our world, and we need to think about the consequences. In the Kitty Norville books, for example, there are people (often religious) who see the supernaturals as inherently evil and to be destroyed. There will generally be a government response (this can exist even where the secret is hidden from the population at large, of course), and government agents from an agency that deals with the supernatural are likely to show up and do what government agents do. The main character may even be a part of such an agency.

Since scientists tend to write hard SF rather than urban fantasy, the scientific study of the supernatural tends not to be a huge emphasis, though in my opinion it would be a big consequence of open, undeniable supernatural phenomena. There are sometimes sinister labs which want to vivisect the characters, but there isn't a lot of in-depth "this is what it's like to be a scientist in a world where there's magic", probably because that's complicated to work through and risks the fragile suspension of disbelief that you're working hard to create in the audience. I'm noting that as a potential avenue for future exploration. I can imagine a scientist in a world where the supernatural exists, but isn't public knowledge, coming across unambiguous supernatural phenomena and being torn between wanting to study and understand this fascinating new thing, and the knowledge that attempting to publish any findings will probably end his or her career.

Because that seems like a cool idea, and because starting with the supernatural hidden gives more scope (after all, I can always have it come out later, whereas I can't start with it out and then later have it be hidden), I'm choosing to make my world one in which magic exists, but isn't generally known or acknowledged.

New, or Always There?

If magic, the supernatural, or whatever exists, has this always been the case? Or is it a recent emergence (or re-emergence)? And if it's always been there, why isn't it generally known?

In some series, like Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels, magic has started up relatively recently, as part of a more-or-less apocalyptic event. In most, though, magic has always been there. Kim Harrison has a dollar each way, and has her apocalypse kill off a lot of normals so that the magicals are now a substantial enough majority that they feel safe coming out (though they were there all along).

To me, if magic has always been around, you need to give at least some thought to a secret history of the world in which magic featured significantly in historical events, and also to historical practitioners of magic. Most urban fantasy magic is more or less made up wholesale, or based on modern "witchcraft" or New Age practices (but I repeat myself). There's a long and fascinating history of real-world attempts at magical practice, though, and it seems a pity to throw it all away (particularly since I know enough about it to fake my way through it in a manner that should convince most non-experts, which is as much expertise as I care to develop).

Here's my decision, then: magic has always been around, always been a human potential, but the ways in which it was done historically were flawed or simplistic in similar ways to how, say, chemistry was done in the same periods. People were able to achieve useful effects, but without really understanding why things worked, and sometimes they put things into the process that really made no difference, because of that lack of understanding. As of relatively recently, people started getting good at magic (ironically, because of a more scientific mindset, in which they set out to understand why things worked through an experimental process). However, there's still not a comprehensive theory. It's more like magic's early 19th century than its 21st, and it's more engineering than science.

One of the things that enables is that magic use itself, not just the characters' ability to use magic, can grow and develop in the course of a series. They can come up with new ways of doing things that nobody has ever thought of before (and that the author didn't think of earlier on, even if they would have been handy - in fact, the earlier problem that could have been solved by a particular bit of magic can be the stimulus to develop that solution). Most urban fantasy series have a static magic system, already as good as it's getting, so to introduce a new thing involves introducing a new (usually) antagonist who's a different kind of fae or whatever.

And speaking of fae:

What Supernaturals Exist?

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files spends the first few books setting up the many different supernatural beings in his world. Wizards, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, fae, the undead, and the Knights of the Cross/Order of the Blackened Denarius each get a book, and for a while they rotated, so we'd get a book in which the werewolves featured (but not the fae or the knights), and then one in which the knights featured (but not the werewolves), and so on. These days, he's mixing them up more.

This makes for a rich world, but it's a lot to manage. Some series just have a bunch of diverse fae. Others are all vampire, all the time. It's unusual to have werewolves (or other shifters) without vampires, but I'm sure it's been done.

Alternatively, you can have just one supernatural, like the djinn in Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series (arguably, the Wardens are a second kind of supernatural, in that they're humans who can work with the djinn).

My inclination at the moment is to go with just the magic, not the creatures. I'm tired of vampires and shifters, and they're pretty hard to justify if I'm going to have any science in the story, which I do plan to. (I have some university-level training in life sciences; high school chemistry; and as much physics as the average nerd picks up from reading a lot of SF and some nonfiction. That is, if anything, more than enough for writing urban fantasy, and I expect it to hinder more than it helps, to be honest with you.)

At the same time, I do have an idea (which probably won't go in the first book) about what the demons/angels are that medieval and renaissance European magicians were summoning and talking to. At least, I have an idea for a theory that a character has, a theory which may well turn out to be mistaken. And I don't guarantee that there won't be lycanthropy spells (that don't cause physical transformations, only mental ones), or entities that feed off others that are hosted by humans, give them superhuman abilities, and are transferred by feeding, but are totally not vampires. As for the fae, I tend to think of them as extradimensional aliens anyway, and while at the moment that's not an idea that I'm excited about for this setting, I'm not ruling it out.

Initially, though, it's just human magic-users. Which leads to the question:

Training or Genetics?

Can anyone, more or less, learn to do magic? Or is it something you're born with or without?

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is one in which the inherited ability to do magic is a significant plot driver, because it's a basis for discrimination. There are "muggles", who have no magic, can't see it, can't do it. There are wizards and witches, who have magic and can do it. But there are "muggle-borns", whose parents aren't magical, but they are; and there are "squibs", vice versa. I'm sure someone has worked out the genetics somewhere. (Yep, sure enough.) In Mendelian genetics, an offspring either does, or does not, have a simple heritable trait (there is no try), but most significant human abilities, like intelligence, involve multiple genes. Even eye colour does.

Most fantasy (urban or secondary-world) that involves magic, in fact, assumes that there are magical haves and have-nots, and vaguely indicates that this is somehow based on genetics. I like to use the parallel of musical ability. Some people have none at all (though they don't always know it, as American Idol auditions prove every year); some have enough to sing in tune in a choir; some are musical geniuses. It's heritable (nearly 50%, which is very high, according to this article), improves with certain kinds of training, and so forth. Because it's so heritable, it's presumably getting more common in the population over time, as well - any geneticists want to correct me on that one?

This excellent post on statistical patterns by Yonatan Zunger suggests that a biologically-based ability will usually form a power law: there will be a few people with a lot of it and a lot of people with a little of it, and a fairly steep drop-off between the two. Right there, you have a have/have-not situation, with a few powerful people and a lot of lesser talents, and this is a great setup for conflict (and you can use it as a political metaphor, which I happen to think is cool). And as part of the trope-aversion part of my project, I'm not choosing, as my main character, one of the super-powerful, exceptional people, but someone further down the slope of the curve, who has to work damned hard and apply a lot of intelligence to survive in a world where there are people a lot more powerful than she is.

So, How Does Magic Work?

There are several parts to the "how does magic work?" question. There's the sciency part, which at the moment for me is a vague and handwavey "human consciousness meshes with the quantum mumble mumble and look, over there, a squirrel!". This should be sufficient to get an urban fantasy going; most urban fantasy series never even address the question.

There's the "what can you do with it?" part, and here I'm thinking that you can affect:

  • movement of matter - so telekinesis, etc.
  • movement of energy - heating, cooling, slow or sudden
  • electromagnetic fields and patterns (this will be a big one - one of the characters I have in mind is an electromancer)
  • human minds - think pulp hypnosis, which is different from real hypnosis
  • biological systems - up to and including healing, but you can do various kinds of enhancement and, of course, harm

As it happens, those (plus time and space, which I haven't really played with yet) are more or less the categories of things that magic can affect in my Gryphon Clerks novels, so I'm clearly going to have to re-skin it. Which leads to the last version of "how does it work?": "what does it look like?"

Remember, we're at a kind of early-19th-century-science level of understanding and use of magic. There's a history and a tradition. And magic works by the human mind interacting with the structure of the universe, so magic tends to work best when you use your own system of symbology, whatever that may be. Some people use a very precise, structured, traditional set of symbols, though most magic users realise that the traditional methods are full of unnecessary flounces. Some draw only on one symbol set; others are more pick-and-mix. Essentially, magic consists of ordering your will and mental effort in such a way that it will produce the desired effect (and only that effect) in the world, by whatever means works for you. Some people's magic is sloppy, and has unintended side effects; that's also likely to happen if you cast on the fly and in a hurry. Some can produce a wide range of effects, while others can only do a couple of reliable spells. Some people make up their own spells (they're like cooks who create their own recipes), others can only work from an existing spell, or with a pattern that's been laid out for them in some object - I suppose that last one is like making a meal from a packet.

My Setup

So, what's the story going to look like? What characters fall out of that setting?

Tara is an artist who creates magic items for other people to use, working with Celtic design elements. Sometimes, the way that they use the items causes problems for her. This is the situation in Chapter 1: some more-powerful magic user is about to send her a goon-o-gram about how annoyed he is with one of her customers.

Tara's friend/sidekick/cotagonist/definitely-not-love-interest, Sparx the electromancer, does something similar to her in a completely different way. He has very little raw power, even less than she does, but has learned to use it precisely to create complex effects. Warned by one of his clients about the hit on Tara, he warns her in turn, and helps her to deal with the attacks.

The third in the trio, Steampunk Sally, has a minor talent for seeing a few seconds into the future (magic sometimes throws up these oddities) - and a reckless nature which tends to get them all in trouble, because, despite her ability, medium-term consequences tend to elude her in her decision-making process. She's the client who has caused the issues for Tara.

My current draft of Chapter 1 is here.

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(Update: the series is called Auckland Allies, and it has its own section of the site now.)

Jun 12

Lost Books

As I gear up to publish Beastheads, the next Gryphon Clerks novel, and my short story collection Good Neighbours and Other Stories, I've been reflecting on the books I haven't published.

It's sometimes pointed out that one of the problems with self-publishing is that there's nothing to stop people publishing novels that should never have seen the light of day, "practice" books that are useful for learning, but will only put your potential audience off your writing if anyone reads them. In the biz, these are known as "trunk" novels, because back in the pre-digital day they were kept in trunks.

Trunk Novels

I have two. The first I wrote in my mid-teens. It's SF in the vein of Harry Harrison (only serious) and Heinlein, two authors I was reading a lot at the time.

Earth has interstellar travel, but the only thing they've been using it for is to exile criminals to a planet of Alpha Centauri. The criminals have taken over this planet and named it Joli Rouge, after the original name of the pirate flag, because I loved that sort of trivia. They have a cruel, but effective society there, and are gearing up to invade Earth.

Earth is populated largely by pinko wussies (I think that bit was Heinlein), but there's a secret organisation that protects them without their knowledge, because someone has to. The hero, Jim Grey (named in honour of Slippery Jim diGriz, though he's a lot closer to James Bond) is sent to Joli Rouge to scout, and discovers the invasion plot. He goes back with a female agent to thwart it, and they're shot down, if I remember rightly. He goes forth in his armoured battle suit and shoots people and blows things up on a wholesale basis, assisted by his female sidekick. Partway through this, they hook up.

With the plot thwarted, their boss decides to blow this pinko popsicle stand and leave Earth to its fate, taking all the agents in a space ark along with as much Earth culture as they can carry, because that's the really valuable part of Earth: its past cultural productions, not its people.

I was, as you can tell, a cynical, arrogant and snobbish teenager, which is the main reason this book is staying trunked (quite apart from the pulpiness). A literary agent friend of my aunt's liked it enough to take on its representation, but never sold it, and that's probably a good thing. I wouldn't want it on my permanent record.

My second trunked novel is a Tolkienesque fantasy, involving members of a number of fantasy races in a quest for seven magical swords (made from unicorn horns) which render their wielders invulnerable and unaging. It developed out of a cyberpunk novel, never finished, in which the fantasy plot was a game the characters played, but I decided that the fantasy made a better story and dropped the cyberpunk frame.

Unfinished Novels

I have several unfinished novels, as well. I don't remember what their working titles were, or even if they had any. The first was my first attempt at fiction, when I was about 12. It involved a youth organisation for teaching survival skills and assisting in search-and-rescue. Several members were sailing a boat from New Zealand to Australia to train the Australians in their techniques, but I never figured out how to write a plot, and abandoned it.

Then there was the cyberpunk frame for the fantasy novel that I already mentioned. The characters were high achievers who had been given brain implants and were figuring out creative things to do with them, such as controlling a second set of (robot) hands.

I re-used one of the characters, a red-headed Welsh jazz musician named Miranda Llewellyn, in my unfinished post-cyberpunk novel Topia. The main character of that one has cerebral palsy, and speaks using a brain implant. He's grown up in a highly unusual faith community extrapolated from the one that I'm a part of, which emphasises creativity and innovative thinking, and he works as a greyware engineer, helping other people to go beyond their natural limitations through brain-implant technology. Miranda hires him to enable her to play the saxophone and sing at the same time, and they become friends and, later, a couple. I may finish that one someday.

The only unfinished novel I have that you can actually read is right here on the C-Side Media site. The Y People (the title is a nod both to the X-Men and the Tomorrow People) is a YA novel about a group of orphaned teenagers with powers who discover one another when a man calling himself Mr Brown comes after them. Mr Brown doesn't seem quite human, and they don't know why he wants them, but they do know they don't want to go with him. I got twelve thousand-word chapters in before losing momentum, between the press of other priorities and not knowing where the story was going. I do know this: the mysterious adversaries are either aliens, interdimensional beings, time travellers, or Fae, and which ones they are will not be clear to the kids for some time.

Again, I may start the book up again sometime, if the mood takes me.

Ideas Not in Active Development

As well as all the books I have planned in the Gryphon Clerks series (which you can read about on my Books page), I have several SF novels that I may eventually get round to. They are, I think, in the same general setting as Topia and/or Gu, and are relatively near-future, near-space or Earth-based. One is a sequel to Topia, State of Lunacy, and involves the moon declaring its independence. Canned Goods Inspector is about the last honest cop in the inspectorate which, under a successor to the UN, is in charge of making sure that massive human rights abuses are not occurring in the cheap orbital habitats being built from asteroids. It's a companion novel to Up the Line, about a kind of interdenominational chaplain working at the base of the Space Elevator as refugees from ethnic wars and climate change emigrate to those same habitats.

As the saying goes, ideas are easy, execution is hard. The thing I'm really pleased about in my writing life is that I've started to execute consistently. By next month, I should have seven titles out (four Gryphon Clerks novels, City of Masks, Gu and the short story collection), I'm about halfway through writing the stories for Makers of Magic, and depending on what else happens in the second half of the year it's likely that I'll finish another novel or two.

That puts all the unfinished stuff in perspective.