Aug 08

The Well-Presented Manuscript, 2022 Edition

I’ve just released the third edition of The Well-Presented Manuscript: Just What You Need to Know to Make Your Fiction Look Professional (link is to the book’s website, which also functions as a draft/taster for it).

I originally wrote The Well-Presented Manuscript because I could tell, based on the number of authors I saw making simple errors in their prose mechanics, that there was a need for a straightforward guide to give them the instruction that their schools had clearly not provided, or at least not provided effectively. (I recently read a book by an English teacher with an MFA in creative writing who made a number of very basic mistakes in punctuation and vocabulary, so what chance do his students have?) As I’ve continued to read and review books from a wide range of authors and publishers, I’ve gained a clearer view of exactly which issues are the most common, and found a few more that I’d not seen before or hadn’t thought through completely. Hence the new (third) edition.

Compared with the 2020 edition, the 2022 edition is 40% longer, and the popular Commonly Confused Words section has grown by more than a third. (Not sure if you mean diffuse or defuse, crevasse or crevice, gambit, gamut, or gauntlet? We have you covered.)

It’s now based on an analysis of more than 25,000 errors in close to a thousand books from publishers of all sizes: self, small, medium and large. It includes new sections on American versus British English, whether “alright” is all right, “lay” versus “lie,” and the use of singular “they”.

Other sections have been thoroughly revised and expanded, and there’s yet more advice on improving your comma usage in specific circumstances.

Everything is still directed at improving the working fiction writer’s grasp of mechanics and usage, so that your prose reads smoothly and your readers can immerse themselves in your story.

The Well-Presented Manuscript featured in Kevin J. Anderson’s NaNoWriMo bundle for 2020, which is why I brought out the second edition that year, and if you got it in that bundle, you will not get an automatic update with the new edition. If you’ve previously bought it somewhere else, you may well get the update for free – synch your device and see. It will depend on the outlet’s specific policies.

If you don’t get the update automatically, it’s only $3.49 USD, and I think well worth it. If it helps you discover even one thing you’re getting wrong and correct it, my job is done.

Jul 28

What if I respected this character?

Concluding (I think) my blog posts reflecting on my recently completed Auckland Allies series (see earlier entries here and here), I want to discuss something I learned about writing characters who aren’t my usual.

I don’t know why a portion of my brain is dedicated to emulating a competent, capable, pragmatic mid-twenties woman, but those are the protagonists I tend to default to writing (despite being a man in my mid-fifties). They’re also the protagonists I most enjoy reading about, by no coincidence. Still, if you can only write one way, it’s probably time to do a writing exercise, unless you’re selling a ton of books by writing that one way. Maybe even then.

I didn’t straight-up set out to do a writing exercise when I introduced some non-typical (for me) characters into Auckland Allies, though. They just kind of turned up, and then I asked myself a key question about them, which made all the difference: What if I respected this character?

I’m thinking specifically of two characters: Kat, the middle-aged owner of the New Age shop, and Chelsea, the non-genre-savvy young woman (mid-twenties, yes) who finds herself in an urban fantasy she is poorly equipped to navigate when she’s bitten by a werewolf.

Kat has been around since the first book. I believe she’s in the first chapter, though without a speaking part at that point. The New Age shop she owns has offices over it, which two of the characters rent from her. It’s based on an organic shop in the suburb of Grey Lynn where I sublet offices briefly when I practiced hypnotherapy; there was a group of natural-health practitioners who worked out of the space above the shop. Initially, Kat was a bit of a caricature, or rather a highly recognisable type if you’ve spent much time around New Agey people. Somewhat vague, relentlessly positive, always speaking in a specific jargon that reinforces her own view of the world and excludes any other, and (as one of the characters puts it) capable of believing anything, as long as there’s no evidence.

In the final book, though, Kat – or rather, the way the characters see Kat – undergoes a transformation. Avoiding spoilers: she stands up to someone, in her own calm, sweet way, but firmly defining her boundaries, and it also becomes clear that her many years of New Age practice were developing something powerful in her all along.

Chelsea appears, unnamed and with no lines, in the fourth book, and in the fifth and final book becomes an initially unlikely addition to the cast. Her parents are doctors, they live in Remuera (one of Auckland’s more expensive suburbs, which has a lot of doctors in it), she went to a private school, and she works in nearby Newmarket, where she sells clothes to other “Remuera girls” (her words). She reads little beyond magazines, preferring to spend her leisure time watching the kind of reality shows that are optimized for interpersonal drama; she has never watched even the most popular science fiction and fantasy franchises (LOTR, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, the Marvel movies, Star Trek, Star Wars). Tara, always ready with the snark, observes that she spends too much time on hair, clothes, and makeup to try to distract attention from the fact that she has an ordinary face. She isn’t particularly quick on the uptake, either.

It would be all too easy to drop in a character like Chelsea and make her the butt of jokes, or dismiss her as superficial and worthless. Instead, I wondered: what if I respected her? And what if a couple of my characters – the brilliant Lynn and the uber-geeky Mark – respected her too, against the odds?

Well, as it turns out, what happens is that Chelsea turns out to be brave, good-hearted, loyal, and emotionally intelligent, and discovers that her lifelong goal of fitting in somewhere may be fulfilled by a highly unlikely crew of people with whom you’d think she had nothing in common. Because characters have layers.

I enjoy putting a bit of comedy into my writing, so I’ve made a bit of a project lately of reading “classic” comic novels. A lot of them show us shallow, self-important people with small lives and invite us to laugh at them. But one of my great role models for comic writing (and writing in general), Terry Pratchett, didn’t do that, at least not after his early books. He showed us people with small lives who longed for them to be larger, and who we loved watching as they fought and struggled and often pratfell their way towards that goal, and the goal of making the world a better place for everyone.

“Diversity” has become trendy in SFF lately, to the point that more than a few books seem to be giving lip service to it by throwing in a few protagonists who aren’t the old default (white, straight, male) and then carrying on to tell the same story they would have told in any case. Which is one way to assert that “normal” and “unremarkable” include a lot more identities than they used to, for sure. But in a world where Twitter and Facebook try to sort us into islands for the convenience of their advertisers, and then encourage us to fight with the people on the other islands, what I think is that we need a few more books in which we see characters who are not like us – the authors or the readers – in many different ways. Not just the usual identity labels, but other ways too. Characters who we nevertheless begin by treating with respect, and see where that gets us.

I think it will get us to some interesting and worthwhile places.

Jul 22

Writing a First-Person Ensemble Cast: What I Learned

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve just finished my Auckland Allies urban fantasy series. One of the more unusual decisions I made with that series was to have an ensemble cast, but give them a rotating first-person point of view. I thought I’d take the opportunity of finishing the series to reflect on why I did that, how it worked, and what I learned.


First of all, why would I do such a nonstandard thing?

It was mainly a philosophical decision. Urban fantasy, at least the kind I write, has noir in its ancestry – very visibly in a series like the Dresden Files, where the main character starts out as a down-on-his-luck private investigator/wizard for hire. Part of the feel of noir is conveyed by the strong, often slangy or bantering, wry first-person voice of the protagonist, and that’s more or less the case in a lot of UF as well, not just Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, but Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson, Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville, and a number of others less well known.

I didn’t want to lose the immediacy, the voice, and the immersion in the situation that the first-person point of view provides. But I also wanted to have an ensemble cast.

All of the urban fantasies I’ve just referenced have a strong team backing the protagonist, but it’s always a case of a lead and a supporting cast. That’s in part, I think, an American thing. I wanted Auckland Allies to have a very New Zealand feel: a bit underpowered (in contrast to, say, the raw, unsubtle power of a Harry Dresden, always blowing things up and setting them on fire), a bit improvised, making up for lack of resources through ingenuity, and with a more egalitarian approach to teamwork.

I remember a manager I had a few years back whose approach to team meetings was to set up a roster for who would lead each meeting and rotate it around all of us equally (including himself). That always struck me as a particularly Kiwi way of approaching leadership, and I wanted to reflect it in the way the Auckland Allies worked. Their American member, Lynn, is occasionally sarcastic about how they have no clear leadership structure, but it works because each of them brings something to the team, knows what they bring and how to work with the others’ strengths, and defers to whoever has the best idea at the time.

Because that left me without a single protagonist, but with a cast of multiple protagonists (eventually five, though I started out with three), I chose to rotate through their first-person viewpoints, based on whoever had the highest stakes or was doing the most important stuff at the time.

How Did It Work?

Any nonstandard approach to point of view is not going to work for everyone, and a complaint I had from an early reader of the first book was that because I was rotating point-of-view characters pretty much every chapter, it didn’t give her time to immerse properly in one character before she was dropped into the next. I addressed that in later books by keeping the same POV for a while, unless there was a strong reason to switch quickly (such as when the climax was approaching and I wanted to build tension).

I did also have at least one complaint that the voices weren’t distinct enough, even though I took some pains to make them distinct. Perhaps I was too subtle, at least for that person. My approach was to give free rein (or, at least, freer than normal rein) to my natural tendency to write sentences that are too long using words that are too fancy when writing Sally, who the others think talks too much; to deliberately write shorter sentences for snarky, aggressive Tara; and to put in a lot more slang when writing Sparx. Later, when Dan and Lynn joined the cast, I gave Dan an unmarked, mostly factual tone matching his bland persona, and was careful to use American phrasing and spelling for the Boston-born Lynn.

I also, early on, decided that Tara’s characteristic emotion was anger, Sparx’s was fear, and Sally’s was sadness, though that third one didn’t end up coming through much. That also helped to distinguish them by their reactions to the same situation.

The real strength of the first-person ensemble, though, I discovered, was when the cast were thinking about each other.

When you have an ensemble cast, and you’re in their various viewpoints (whether first-person or close third), one of the obvious fun things you can do is look at the same events from different perspectives. I do that a couple of times, carefully phrasing the dialog slightly differently in each iteration to emphasize that no narrator is truly reliable. But another less obvious fun thing is to contrast how they see themselves with how others see them.

To the others, Tara is just rude. But when you see into her viewpoint, you see how angry she is, and why, and you also start to see her gain at-first-grudging respect for the other members of her team. The snark is still there, but it’s more often kept inside.

To Tara, Sparx is an annoying nerd. But in Sparx’s viewpoint, you see how anxious he is all the time, and how he tries to offset that by joking around and pretending not to take things seriously, and referencing his beloved pop culture touchstones.

To Tara, again, Sally initially seems like a “cupcake,” a bit of a princess, attention-seeking and shallow. To Dan, she seems flighty and unreliable. But from the inside, you see her struggles, and how seriously she takes them, and how genuinely she wants to help other people.

Dan – ah, Dan. Everyone else sees his white-knight persona, his bland accountant hairstyle and clothes, his insistence on following the rules, and thinks of him as a bit of a dry stick. But from the inside, you can see his bad choices, and how he regrets them, and how he keeps making some of them anyway.

To most of the team, Lynn is the smart one, with advanced degrees in mathematics and physics. But in her viewpoint, you see her, too, making choices she regrets because she didn’t think things through. And to Dan, her ex-boyfriend, she’s someone to be protected, a role she rejects thoroughly – sometimes too thoroughly for her own good.

Part of what a first-person (or very tight third-person) ensemble cast gives you is this ability to contrast the surface presentation of your characters with their deeper layers. And sometimes the other characters will notice when someone changes, or will come to see below the surface, and sometimes they won’t.

The other thing that an ensemble cast gives you is the opportunity for push and pull, for conflict and disagreement, for reciprocated and unreciprocated attraction, in multiple combinations. Each member of my five-member cast has a different relationship with each of the other four; that’s a total of ten relationships, each of which can have its own dynamic and its own arc and cycle, intersecting with the arcs of the individual characters. And it’s a total of 20 perceptions of other people, each of which can be more or less accurate. Because that wasn’t what my books were mainly about – they had powerful external threats to deal with, after all – I only scratched the surface of the possibilities, but it was enough to alert me to how rich a setup like this can potentially be. I do have a long-parked idea for another ill-assorted group, assigned to do important research in my Gryphon Clerks setting, and that would offer all kinds of opportunities to drive the story out of the dynamics of the group itself as well as the external pressures on them.

I enjoy ensemble casts. Auckland Allies isn’t my only use of them; Beastheads and Illustrated Gnome News, from the Gryphon Clerks series, both have multiple protagonists. They’re definitely more work to wrangle than a single protagonist and their supporting cast, but there’s a good reward in there for the author who’s prepared to take it on and make the most of the opportunities an ensemble cast affords.

Jul 20

Auckland Allies series is complete!

With the publication of Book 5, Memorial Museum*, I’ve now completed my Auckland Allies series. I’m not promising anything one way or the other about a sequel series; all I’ll say is that, for now, the story is complete.

Time, then, to reflect back on what I enjoyed about writing it, the decisions I made, and what I’ve learned.

*Links to the books in this post are Amazon affiliate links.

From Plan to Execution

When I first started the Auckland Allies series, I wrote a post about urban fantasy worldbuilding reflecting on the choices I was making. I asked myself five questions, and the answers I chose shaped the series in, I think, satisfactory ways.

1. Out, or Maskerade?

In other words, do people in general know that magic exists, or not? I decided for this one that, initially at least, they did not, since that gave me a significant change I could make if I wanted to, whereas deciding that the existence of magic was publicly known from the start left me no room to go from there to a world where it wasn’t. (Barring memory modification on a massive scale.)

This was a good decision in several ways. Most notably, it led me to create the Guardians, a group whose entire mission was keeping the Secret of magic’s existence from the mundanes. This made them into secondary antagonists (particularly in the last book), as the Allies had to navigate around, or outright oppose, their agenda. To up the ante, I made the main representatives of the Guardians that the Allies encounter Australian, adding the sibling-like rivalry between New Zealand and Australia into the mix. And the Guardians formed part of the backstory of one of my main characters, Dan, who had trained to become one, but left disillusioned.

2. New, or Always There?

This decision was between magic that’s always been around versus magic that’s newly emerged through some apocalyptic event. I decided on “always been around,” in part because I wanted to introduce some elements of secret history and reference traditional magic systems like Goetia and Enochian. I always had the idea, though, that magic was not fully understood, that traditional magic was trial-and-error like traditional medicine, and that the application of science to magic would potentially enable my characters to gain an edge. This led to the invention of a secret manuscript by Sir Isaac Newton (who, historically, spent about as much effort on alchemy and speculative theology as he did on physics) that gave key clues to how magic worked, and with the addition of the character of Lynn, a mathematician and physicist, I had the edge I was looking for. My characters were always planned to be relatively low-powered, a metaphor of sorts for New Zealand itself, and in order to make it plausible that they kept winning against more powerful and better-resourced enemies, I had to give them an advantage through the application of ingenuity that their enemies (old-fashioned and blinkered in their thinking) couldn’t replicate.

This also, as I noted in my original post, enabled me to develop how magic worked in the course of the series, rather than be stuck with a static magic system, and to use previous failures or challenges as a stimulus to develop new solutions. I love a clever, innovative solution, and this approach gave me plenty of scope for them.

3. What Supernaturals Exist?

Rather than populate my books with more flavours of fae, vampires, shifters, undead and what not than Ben & Jerry’s has ice cream, I initially set out to just have human magic-users. I did note in my original post that I wanted to explore the idea of angels and demons, that I wanted to have a character–Dan, as it turned out–who had a particular theory about what they were (complex spells with an AI-like interface, rather than actual beings), which might or might not be correct. This enabled me to set up a situation in which several characters disagreed about how magic worked, which I think is realistic, and enabled me to explore the theme of working together even though you disagree.

I also noted that I wasn’t ruling out lycanthropes–who wouldn’t be shapeshifters; the transformation would be mental, because a physical transformation was more magic than I was planning on. I did, indeed, introduce such lycanthropes in Book 4, Wolf Park.

What I didn’t initially plan on was ghosts, which come into Book 2, Ghost Bridge. I put a bit of sciencebabble around what they were, but they’re basically what you think of when you think of ghosts (though Dan, fussy as always, insists that that’s a reductive way of looking at them).

4. Training or Genetics?

Whenever you put magic in your book, you need to think about (or, at least, I think you ought to think about) whether it is inherent or learned. The inherited ability to do magic creates a haves-and-have-nots scenario, as in Harry Potter, and an inherent elitism. This is a dynamic with a lot of potential for storytelling and conflict, so I went with it.

Genetics (at least, for anything complex) also tends to work on a power law, where a few people have a lot of the feature, a larger number of people have a little, and there’s a steep drop-off. I wanted to feature people on the lower part of the power curve, using their limited power creatively.

In the last couple of books, I did something to subvert the “magic is something you’re born with or without” setup, which I won’t go into in depth because it’s a spoiler. But I couldn’t have done that without creating the setup in the first place.

5. How Does Magic Work?

This is a question I continued to explore throughout the series, but I started out with “human minds mesh with something quantum [waves hands vaguely] and produce physical effects” and built from there. One of my main characters was an electromancer, who could use his very minimal level of power to move electrons and his training as an electronics engineer to make that extremely useful, in a fun alternative to the Dresden Files setup where magic and technology don’t play well together. I kept things mostly vague, meaning I could bring in new possibilities if they would be cool for the plot, but also kept the power low-level unless the characters were willing to pay a cost. At a couple of points, I have Steampunk Sally use her deep connection to the city to produce effects that she couldn’t produce alone (that’s her in giant illusory form on the cover of Unsafe Harbour).

I tried to make sure that the characters weren’t using magic to solve their problems; they were using intelligence and courage and teamwork to solve their problems, and that involved magical effects.

The Role of the City

I did mention, early in my planning post, that part of the reason I wanted to write an urban fantasy was that it would be enjoyably different to use real-world settings instead of ones I made up from scratch. What I didn’t anticipate was how much that would influence the story.

I’ve reflected elseblog on how the real-world locations gave me ideas for blocking and action that I wouldn’t have otherwise come up with. What I hadn’t anticipated, though, was how much of a celebration of Auckland the books would become, and how the story would unfold in a way that couldn’t have been done in any other city in the world.

The first book, Auckland Allies, kicked this off when the antagonists decided to anchor a magical summoning pentacle to five of the city’s extinct volcanoes. Not many world cities have 50 or so volcanic sites scattered about, so right there this was a distinctly Auckland story.

Book 2, Ghost Bridge, is even more so. The bridge of the title, Grafton Bridge, is a city landmark, but the important part is that it has the hospital near one end, a luxury hotel at the other, and a cemetery right next to (and in fact partly under) it. There’s also a statue of Zealandia, the personified spirit of New Zealand, nearby. The cemetery includes a mass grave, right next to the bridge, for Catholics whose original graves were removed as part of putting through a motorway in the 1960s, and buses run regularly on a loop that includes the bridge. All of these real-world facts play into the story, which wouldn’t be possible without them.

Book 3, Unsafe Harbour, celebrates the beautiful Auckland Harbour; it could have worked in other harbour cities, I suppose, but the details would have been different. Likewise, Book 4, Wolf Park, features several iconic locations which would have broad parallels in other cities, but the exact details are distinctively Auckland. Book 5, Memorial Museum, pulls it all together and incidentally celebrates the city’s excellent museum.

Jim Butcher famously set the Dresden Files in Chicago because there was already an urban fantasy series set in the other city he was considering (Cleveland, from memory), not because he had any connection to Chicago at all. He didn’t even visit it until he was well into writing the series, and notoriously gets some details wrong. I wanted to use Auckland in a much more intentional way.

People sometimes talk about cities almost being characters in fantasy novels, and I did that very nearly literally at one point, with Sally embodying Auckland in the form of Zealandia. Even apart from that, though, Auckland as a setting is definitely front and centre in the series.

What I Learned

First of all, I learned that I really enjoy writing fiction set in the city where I’ve lived all my life, and featuring people who share my culture. I sometimes roll my eyes a bit at people who get all overly excited about books that, while lacking in important features like plot, characterization, storytelling, and basic writing mechanics, are full of “representation”. But reflecting on my experience of writing Auckland Allies, I think I get a hint of why they’re excited (though I still think they’re too excited, and that the books are lacking in those other ways).

I learned that using a pre-existing setting, rather than building one from scratch, can add to a story in ways that are unpredictable, because it’s an externally imposed constraint. Constraints make good art. Not that I’m going to stop making up settings from scratch, but I might consider using more pre-existing things as inspiration that I have to work around. I also learned quite a bit about my city and its history (and other bits of history, too) in the course of researching for the books.

I learned that I love making overt pop-culture references and jokes, something else I miss when writing in a secondary world. Sparx the electromancer was my main vehicle for these, though Sally and Lynn also contributed. I made sure that Sparx’s fell a bit flat sometimes with the other characters, as part of his characterization.

I learned a few things about working with an ensemble cast, too, which I plan to share in a separate post.

What’s Next?

As I said at the start of this post, I’m not going to promise anything about what’s next. I’m notoriously bad at following through on such plans, for one thing. Also, like many writers since the start of the pandemic, I’m feeling stuck, not sure how to write anymore now that global events have knocked our mental model of the world spinning off its axis.

During the same period, I’ve had several family events that discombobulated me further. I feel like I need to write something tremendously fun, as relief from the existential angst we’re all feeling, or else tremendously important, but I don’t know how to start on either one. The projects I’ve tried to start all feel a bit flat.

The good news is that I did have tremendous fun finishing the Auckland Allies series, and I think you’ll have fun reading it. The last two books are, I feel, among my best work. Whatever comes next, I’m happy with that.

Apr 11

A Cozy Manifesto

I recently attended a virtual panel about “cozy fiction” at Flights of Foundry, an online SFFH (science fiction, fantasy and horror) conference. (I’m going to use the American spelling “cozy” here, even though I usually spell it “cosy”.)

Cozy isn’t just for mysteries anymore. The same kind of gentle, positive tone, and the same focus on characters and relationships, are starting to become a thing in other genres, including SFFH. (Yes, apparently you can have cozy horror.)

The session provoked a number of thoughts for me, and since I call this category of my blog “manifesto-esque rantings” I thought I would, somewhat tongue in cheek, propose a “cozy manifesto,” as follows.

1. Comedy is as worthy as tragedy

I typed that phrase into the panel’s chat at one point, when one of the panelists was talking about how cozy fiction isn’t taken as seriously as, say, grimdark, and it seemed to resonate with other attendees.

My thought as I made that point was of Shakespeare, whose comedies are comedies in the traditional dramatic sense (they end with lovers united, rather than with widespread death and destruction driven by the faults of the protagonist(s)), though they are also funny; nobody that I’m aware of argues that they’re not worth studying or performing, even though he was also a master of tragedy. I was also thinking, though, of writers like Terry Pratchett or P.G. Wodehouse, whose work is comedic but extraordinarily well written. And, in Pratchett’s case, also with some depth and dramatic heft to it, especially in his middle period.

Death definitely can be present in a cozy story; after all, cozy mysteries are almost always murder mysteries, and Pratchett’s character Death appears in every one of his Discworld books. But a cozy story is not primarily about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to other unpleasant people, even if that does occur as an element sometimes. They can be funny, or charming, and they can be about relationships (good, stable, positive relationships, even, that work out well in the end), and that shouldn’t be grounds to look down on them.

2. The lives of ordinary people are a fit subject for fiction

Cozy mysteries generally take place in small towns or out in the country, among middle-class or even working-class people of no particular distinction, rather than in the courts of kings or the boardrooms of great corporations. Cozy fiction is OK with being small-scale, with its characters having limited power in the world, with the setting being their ordinary lives where they just try to get on with keeping things running. I bang on about this constantly on this blog, so I won’t say any more here, except to quote Middlemarch:

…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

3. Objectively small stakes can still be subjectively compelling

Going along with the previous point: cozy stories can be about stakes significantly smaller than saving the world. That doesn’t mean they’re not compelling. Compelling stakes are stakes that are compelling for a character we identify with.

Wodehouse is the all-time master of making objectively small stakes (like social embarrassment) completely compelling for the reader.

World-saving can be going on in the background, maybe even close to the foreground, of a cozy story, but it doesn’t have to be what the story is about. Consider T. Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Grace. A god has died, and severed heads keep turning up, and there’s a nasty cult looking for excuses to burn people as witches, but what the story is about is a romance between a paladin of the dead god and a master perfumer. The other elements are mainly there to drive the romance.

4. There’s a place for a literature of hope, joy, and kindness

As a minor exponent of the noblebright fantasy subgenre, I’ve believed this for a long time. Noblebright isn’t the only hopeful subgenre; there’s hopepunk (which is different from noblebright, but I believe the two can get along together, because of course I do), solarpunk, and a few others. They have a clear overlap with the cozy approach to writing. (Cozy is more of a manner than a genre.)

Part of what makes a story cozy is what could be loosely described as a “happy ending,” or at least an ending that satisfies our sense of things being how they ought to be: lovers are united, villains are punished, justice is done. It doesn’t need to be set in a just, peaceful, kind or happy society for this to be the case, though it can be. The contrast of localized justice or kindness, at the level of the story, against a darker background can work well, in fact. Hope can have different scales: personal, interpersonal, societal.

The work of Becky Chambers, for example, is often mentioned as “positive SF,” and would qualify as cozy, but the background of her stories is often a large-scale tragedy that has overtaken the earth and driven people forth as refugees, or stranded them in space with nowhere to go home to. She’s very much what I think of as a “zeitgeist writer,” and the zeitgeist she’s working in tends to have not much hope for society in the large, but allows for islands of hope among “found families” of people of goodwill. This is, broadly speaking, hopepunk; noblebright, by contrast, can believe in the possibility of societal improvement to a greater degree.

Anyway, that’s a digression; the point is that having characters who have ideals, who have hope, who strive for the good of others at their own cost, who are kind, who believe in a better future, is a feasible way to write today; that cynicism and darkness don’t need to be the defining qualities of good literature, or important literature, or serious literature. And you can write funny books, and books with everyday characters who live small lives on a limited stage, and whose stakes are objectively small, and who care for each other and do their best, and this can be good and worthy and important.

And honestly, right now (or at any moment in history, really), don’t we need more hope and joy and kindness in the world?

Mar 10

Nuffin’s Tougher than a Hufflepuffer

Hufflepuffs can be hard to write.

Witness what happened to Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which, though not written by J.K. Rowling, did involve her. While not going into spoilers, let’s say that he ends up acting very out of character with how he’s portrayed in Goblet of Fire, for what seemed to me inadequate cause.

Let’s take a step back, though, and ask: what do the four Hogwarts houses represent, anyway? People who take the online Sorting Hat test often seem to think that they are human archetypes, like Myers-Briggs types, the Ennead, the Four Humours (and its variations), star signs, or any other made-up way of describing human difference. None of those things have much psychological rigour, if any at all, though they do correspond to some realities of the way human characteristics clump together.

I’d maintain that, although there’s an aspect of truth to the “human archetypes” idea, the houses are also story archetypes. Very broadly, Slitherin is the antagonist (scheming and ambitious); Ravenclaw the advisor (eccentric and knowledgeable); Griffindor of course the hero (courageous and of good intent); and Hufflepuff the sidekick (reliable and honest).

Hufflepuffs can be hard to write, or at least, hard to write interestingly. They’re even harder to write as the protagonist, because we’ve been conditioned to think of our protagonists as flashy, dramatic, angsty. It’s as if you tried to write Lord of the Rings with Sam in the Frodo role.

At the same time, the more I see of the world, the more I’m convinced that without Hufflepuffs we’d be in a lot more trouble than we are. They’re the people who just turn up and do their job right, whether anyone’s watching and applauding or not (and usually they’re not).

Again: hard to write that interestingly. But it can be done, and I’m committed to doing it.

One of the ways in which it can most easily be done is in a romance. There are a number of different types of romantic hero, but one of them is the Reliable Guy. Romance is largely (certainly not entirely) written by and for women, and the Reliable Guy appeals to many women who’ve been disappointed by men–often men of other romance hero types, like the Ambitious Bastard (Slytherin), the Impractical Self-Absorbed Loser (Ravenclaw), or the Flashy, Angsty Dude Who Thinks It’s All About Him (Griffindor). The only downside to the Reliable Guy is that he’s not very exciting, and if you can overcome that issue, he’s romance dynamite.

One good way to overcome the not-exciting issue is to make the Reliable Guy a competent protector against an external threat. I’ve just been reading a couple of books by T. Kingfisher, Swordheart and Paladin’s Grace, both of which feature romance heroes who are Reliable Guys with a military background who can, and do, physically protect the heroines (women who have previously had unsatisfactory relationships with a Vague Loser and an Ambitious Bastard respectively). Both books are primarily romance, with a sword-and-sorcery B plot providing the complications so necessary to a good romance. But also, both go beneath the surface of the Reliable Guy to show that he does, in fact, have a good deal of angst and trauma going on, he just doesn’t let it keep him from doing his job. This is a remarkably effective approach to the Reliable Guy.

I’ve written a couple of Reliable Guys myself. Patient, the romance hero in Hope and the Patient Man, is a craftsman who takes pride in his work, and just the kind of gentle, kind, persevering Reliable Guy the brilliant and capable, but haunted, heroine Hope needs to get her through her issues. Perse (short for Perseverance; people in my setting are largely named for admirable qualities, and the naming is often, though not always, accurate) in Underground War is also a craftsman of a sort, a baker, and is, again, just the kind of solid anchor that the brilliant and capable Precision needs in order to overcome her trauma. Both of them have their own issues: Patient has a simmering anger that, in a later book, bursts out unexpectedly, and Perse has experienced rejection within his family and his culture over his choices, something that Precision can also relate to. They’re not simple beasts of burden (as the Rolling Stones might put it). There’s conflict and struggle going on under the placid exterior.

And this, I think, is a significant part of the secret to pulling off a Hufflepuff hero. He has layers. He’s no longer just a sidekick, uncomplainingly backing up the hero like the bass player in a band that’s named after the lead singer. He’s now in the centre of the narrative, and as such, he needs–and can easily have–a backstory and some struggles and losses. What makes him the Hufflepuff is that he’s never going to give you up, never going to let you down, never going to run around and desert you. What makes him the hero, though, is that the author is going to pound on that quiet determination as hard as they can, taking special care to hit the spot where he was wounded.

I’ve been talking as if women can’t be Hufflepuffs, which is obviously not true. I personally gravitate to both reading and writing about competent, pragmatic women who will just get on with things with a minimum of outward drama; I can’t be having with princesses. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have plenty of internal drama, imposter syndrome, worry that the Reliable Guy won’t respect you if you show him your vulnerable side, doubt that he could possibly like you (especially if he finds out the ways in which previous men have told you you’re inadequate and don’t matter and you somehow believe them despite knowing that they’re lying bastards…) A question that seems to come up a lot for Hufflepuff women is “What if I disappoint people? That will be terrible!”

It also comes up for men, though in a slightly different formulation. The hero of Paladin’s Grace says at one point: “She can’t rely on me, all right? And being reliable is all I’m good for.”

The big fear for a Hufflepuff is falling apart, failing to do your duty because of your issues. This makes them emotionally guarded. They come across as unemotional, because if they let themselves show emotion they might not be able to stop, and then who would keep the important wheels turning?

But if they’re a protagonist, if you get inside their heads, you see that vulnerability alongside the toughness. And it’s this play back and forth between the inward chaos and the outward order, along with that order being slowly imposed on external threats, that makes a Hufflepuff interesting.

Griffindors are easy to make interesting, because they’re interesting on the outside. You don’t even need to go below the surface. They’re the kind of people that everyone looks at when they walk into the room, and they expect to be looked at. That can be a trap for authors, who think that casting a Griffindor (handsome, athletic, courageous, charming, and probably wealthy) as the hero is as much work as they need to do, that character development is unnecessary because they’re pretty to look at, and that readers will easily forgive them being self-absorbed, high-handed and willing to let the costs of their bad decisions fall on other people. Or that casting a Griffindor princess (beautiful, intelligent–or so we’re told, though very seldom shown–dramatic, and special) is likewise adequate, without giving the reader any other reason to like or respect her, such as having her make good decisions or treat other people with consideration. For me, as a reader, seeing characters like this in the lead roles of a romance is a guaranteed fail.

But give me a good pair of Hufflepuffs mortally afraid of disappointing each other, and we’re off to the races. Lindsay Buroker is good at them, too (particularly in the Emperor’s Edge novels, but really in all her work); so is Lois McMaster Bujold, on occasion. For me, it’s a winning formula, and one I want to explore more in my own work.

Mar 03

Characters are like onions

According to Shrek, ogres are like onions. They have layers.

But that’s not just true of ogres. Characters in general have layers, and how many layers we get to see is correlated–or rather, should be correlated–with how important the character is in the story.

Let’s dive down through the layers and see what we find.

0 – Background Characters

In a movie, these would be extras, hired cheaply for the day to stand or move around in the background, doing completely predictable things that don’t influence the plot at all, simply in order to make the world seem populated. In a Peter Jackson movie, many of them might be procedurally generated by a computer to perform the same function. They don’t say anything (unless they are a mob chanting in unison); they have no individuality; they are essentially human (or human-adjacent) scenery. In a book, they’re likely to be mentioned briefly with a collective noun, or even implied by a phrase like “the crowded streets”.

1 – Incidental Characters

These are the people who, in a movie, might be credited (if they’re lucky) as “Thug #2” or “Woman in Hat”. They have just enough individuality to mention in one or two sentences in a book, but they don’t have names, lines, or much in the way of plot function except as a brief hindrance or help to the more important characters, if that. Like the background characters, they do things that are predictable, completely in line with their type of character. Thug #2 will loom menacingly, draw a weapon, and get taken out by the hero in a second. Woman in Hat will go to cross the street just when the runaway bus is bearing down and provide a moment of extra tension as the hero snatches her out of danger. Or similar levels of interaction, depending on your genre and story needs.

2 – Speaking Incidental Characters

The movie makers will have to pay these characters union scale, because they have a line or two. They’re still fully predictable, with nothing to them that isn’t from either their character archetype or their role in the plot. Their lines will be unremarkable, conventional, and serve no more purpose than to move things along, giving the main characters a minor bit of information or a brief hindrance to their pursuit of their goals. They probably don’t get a name, just a brief description that assigns them to a type, and they would be interchangeable with any other character of the same type.

3 – Minor Characters

Here we reach the point where a skilled writer can start to shine. Someone like P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens or Roger Zelazny can, sometimes in the space of a sentence or two, give us a minor character who is both a recognizable type and also an individual. You get the sense that they have opinions, a point of view, things that they want and care about; these might or might not have some direct impact on events, but they will drive the character’s behaviour. These aspects of their character are usually still entirely conventional–they’re like Tolkien’s description of the Bagginses at the start of The Hobbit: you can know what their opinion will be on any subject without going to the trouble of asking them. But in the best case, that’s a tribute to the skill of the writer in summoning up a character who is much less like a plot point and more like a person, rather than a reflection of the fact that the writer has just written a stereotype.

This level of characterization, then, is where you can start to tell the skill level of the writer. Some writers won’t show the ability to go any deeper than this; even their main characters won’t have anything to them that isn’t part of their archetype or necessary for the plot, and that makes the characters feel flat and predictable.

I’ve been reading a lot of early Wodehouse lately, and honestly most of his main characters don’t get a whole lot more depth than his minor characters, but his minor characters get more distinctiveness than most other people’s minor characters achieve; they’re instantly memorable. Usually, they have something particular about them, something that individualizes them within their type, whether it’s an oddity of their appearance, a mannerism, a skill, a preoccupation, or even a thematic association. For example, in Sam in the Suburbs (link is to Project Gutenberg, where you can read it for free), Mr Cornelius, the house rental agent, is introduced as follows: “He was a venerable old man with a white beard and bushy eyebrows, and he spoke with something of the intonation of a druid priest chanting at the altar previous to sticking the knife into the human sacrifice.” This druid imagery recurs each time Mr Cornelius appears. It has no relevance to his role in the story, which is to let Sam a house and also be the occasional backgammon partner of Sam’s neighbour and boss, and a secondary witness to some events, but it enriches his character and makes him memorable.

Giving minor characters something, anything, that isn’t directly relevant to the story goes a long way to flesh them out and make them feel like people with their own stories that just don’t happen to be at the centre of this story being told right now. I’m thinking of the medical examiner in the TV show The Mysteries of Laura, or for that matter the medical examiner in Elementary; either one could have just been a functionary, a mouthpiece for forensic information that the main characters needed in order to pursue their investigations, but both were enriched with hints that they had a life outside of work, personal peculiarities that didn’t bear in any way on the plot. It only takes a sentence or two of dialog to establish this kind of thing, and you’ll get a lot of payback from those couple of sentences in your reader’s engagement with the character.

Matthew Mercer of the streaming D&D show Critical Role is a master of the minor character. At one point, one of the player characters, who has a magical necklace that lets her speak to plants, addresses a clump of crabgrass in a location where events have occurred that the party wants to know more about. Apparently out of nowhere, Matt improvises Henry Crabgrass, and in no more than three minutes of interaction (starting here; spoilers for earlier in Campaign 2), creates a beloved fan-favourite character. One of the cast even dressed as Henry for the same year’s Halloween episode, when all the cast members dressed as characters other than the ones they played. Part of the secret is Matt’s voice-acting talent; he creates a distinctive voice for Henry. But he also creates a personality, a being who insists on the importance of consent before touching and who has a sense of wonder about his own awakening consciousness. It’s a masterclass in how to make a minor character interesting and memorable.

4 – Secondary Characters

Secondary characters are not protagonists, but they often show a degree of agency that shapes events, hindering or helping the main characters. The story is not usually narrated from their viewpoint, even if the viewpoint shifts around; but it can be, especially if they do something or experience something important in a scene that the main characters are not present in.

Because they typically play an important role in the resolution of the plot, and because of their clearly defined relationship with the main character–sidekick, foil, minor antagonist, or whatever it may be–a danger with secondary characters is that they will, once again, be nothing more than their archetype plus their plot role. Giving secondary characters their own arc of development, change, or pursuit of what they desire takes comparatively little extra work; it doesn’t require whole chapters, just a paragraph here and there. If you give them a viewpoint moment, you can include some interiority, some reflection on who they are, what they want, what they care about, why they are helping or hindering the main character. You can also do that in dialog, of course.

The skills you develop in creating memorable minor characters are also applicable to secondary characters, but what is a quirk or a fun fact about a minor character should be more than that in a secondary character; it should get a bit of development, even if it’s just two or three extra mentions that add context.

Secondary characters can even have contradictions within themselves, something that minor characters usually can’t sustain. We see enough of the secondary character that we can perceive the underlying unity that lies beneath the apparent contradiction, and believe that Ron Weasley can be both an intensely loyal sidekick and someone who can abandon his friends at a key point in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or that Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities can be unable to improve himself for his own sake and yet will sacrifice himself for someone else. We see enough of the mechanism, the development and drive, the forces acting on the secondary character that we can tell why they would do two things that, in a minor character, would seem completely incompatible, and that gives us the sense, in turn, that this is a person and not just a cardboard cutout. Because people act in contradictory ways all the time; we see it in others and, if we have any self-insight at all, in ourselves.

That’s not to say that a secondary character can’t be completely consistent. Samwise Gamgee is only ever loyal; that’s his role (which makes it all the more powerful when Frodo, under the influence of the Ring, believes Gollum’s allegations that Sam has his own sinister agenda). Sam’s development is in what he is willing to do because of his loyalty, and what he believes himself capable of doing; from listening under the window of Bag End to fighting orcs and a giant spider and carrying his master through Mordor.

5 – Main Characters

Typically, we see main characters from the inside, at least to a degree; they have a viewpoint, either first or close third person, or (mainly in older books) the omniscient narrator shows us their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. That’s not possible in film, so main characters in movies have to have actions and dialog that clearly conveys who they are and why they do what they do, if the movie is not to break down into incoherence.

A main character wants something. They have opinions and preferences. Not every story will show them acting on those desires, opinions, and preferences in an effective manner that makes a difference to how things turn out (see my post on Genre Through the Lens of Agency), but if we’re to believe in them as if they were real people, we should see them making choices based on the interior forces that drive them, as well as the external events of the plot.

It’s perfectly possible, and in some genres (such as action-adventure) even expected, to write a main character without a lot of interiority. That’s not to say that characters from every genre are not enriched by gaining some interiority, and even some contradictions. I’m often disappointed when I read a book where the main characters have no more depth than a minor character, and less individuality than better authors’ minor characters; they’re barely described, any description is entirely conventional, and nothing about them departs from their basic character template. I sometimes dismiss highly conventional, completely expected books as “made from box mix,” and these characters are not only made from box mix but cut out with cookie cutters. They don’t have enough layers, to return to my original metaphor. They’re completely superficial, unexplored.

Again, in some genres you can get away with this; your readers are not looking for deep characterization. But adding a few layers to your characters is not an especially difficult skill if you’re an observer of human nature, and it can enhance your writing out of proportion to the number of words it requires.

Characters who are restricted to their types are not always flat, and sometimes (for example, in literary fiction or some forms of comedy) their inability to step out of their type, to individualize, exert agency over their circumstances, and go their own way, is part of the point the author is making. It’s a tricky balance to write a type-bound character who isn’t flat and uninteresting, and the usual way to do it is either to go all in on the oddities (the usual comedy approach) or else convey the intensity of the emotion they feel about their situation (the usual literary approach). If the comic writer fails to amuse, or the literary writer fails to engage the reader’s imagination, the result is failure. In other genres, there’s a much greater expectation that the main character will be able to transcend their origins and go beyond their stereotype, though sometimes (the blacksmith’s boy who is the hidden Chosen One in epic fantasy, for example) that is itself a cliché.

My point is that there’s always the opportunity to add another layer to your characters, whether that be making your minor characters memorable as individuals, giving your secondary characters an arc of development and some interiority or contradiction, or sinking a little deeper into the minds and emotions of your main characters and showing them being more than just their archetype.

Feb 16

Some Decisions

My mother, who’s 94, is struggling with dementia, and I have been dealing with some practicalities around that. Inevitably, it’s got me thinking about my own mortality and posterity, and making some decisions.

Neither I nor any of my three siblings have children, and my wife’s nieces and nephews are in the USA. So decision number 1 is to work towards making it a lot easier for whoever has to deal with our estates and (if necessary) our affairs while we’re alive but not competent than it’s been for me and my wife dealing with my mother’s situation. So: clearing out unwanted junk (which will be difficult, since I’m not a tidy person and neither is my wife); getting enduring powers of attorney set up; leaving information and instructions about how to deal with things in general. I should be good at that; I’ve worked in IT for 25 years, I should know how to prepare for a handover.

Decision number 2 is what to do with my literary estate (if I can use such a high-flown term). My plan here is twofold. Firstly, I’m considering starting a digital archive of background material (notes, etc.) from New Zealand writers, to which they can release their data after their deaths for the use of future researchers. My alma mater, the University of Auckland, seems like a good place to hold this. I will need to have a discussion with someone or someones there about the possibilities.

Secondly, I’m currently planning to put a clause in my will that says if the material to which I hold the copyrights has not made more than $10,000 NZD in any one of the five years prior to my death, it all goes into the public domain. That’s my best hope of preserving it, rather than having it locked up for 70 years with nobody having any real interest in keeping it available, or even in existence. Public domain books are a treasure, and they’re more likely to be read and republished (and built upon by other writers – which inevitably will mean that my characters will be used in ways I wouldn’t approve of, but there’s a downside to everything).

Decision number 3 is about how to keep my mind active after I retire from work (hopefully more than 10 years away still). Rather than do the usual middle-class middle-aged guy thing and take up golf, which I have no interest in, I plan to take up Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve been watching Critical Role on YouTube, and 5th edition seems like a lot more fun than the modified 1st edition that I played with a bunch of wasters back in the 90s. It’s a reasonably complex game that involves mental arithmetic, planning, improvisation, and interacting with a group, which sounds like an ideal retirement activity. Of course, if I happen to find the right group in the meantime, I could probably carve out some time to start earlier, but for sure I want to make it a retirement activity, alongside gardening, cooking, and, of course, writing.

I’m still working on decisions about what I’ll do next in terms of writing. The immediate priority is to get the final two books of Auckland Allies out. I have my cover guy working on covers for them now, and once they’re ready to go I’m going to start rereading and annotating the earlier books so that the notes go on Goodreads. The hope is that that (along with some discounts) will drum up a bit of interest, translating to sales of books 4 and 5 when they come out. And then, probably, a box set.

I also recently reread my Hand of the Trickster books in the hope of completing that series. Meanwhile, I’m also reading some classics, many but not all of them comedic classics, to get my mind working in the direction of writing more comedy. There are enough grim and serious books. We all need a few laughs.

Jan 25

Do we still need villains?

My wife and I just watched the movie Cruella, and it struck me that it’s the latest of several retellings in which classic villains – all of them women – are retconned out of villainy. Maleficent was another; Wicked was perhaps the first, or the first well-known, example, and provided the template.

What also struck me, though, was that Cruella moved the villainy just one step back, giving us a different female villain, a new character, who was pretty similar to how Cruella was originally portrayed. Maleficent straightforwardly makes the male hero of the original story into the villain. Wicked (which, let’s remember, is not a Disney movie like the other two) relocates the villainy in a somewhat more complicated way, to the Wizard (who was, if not an outright villain, at least a dubious character and a fraud in the original Oz story) and, to a lesser extent, other collaborators in the Wizard’s dystopic rule, some of whom are women. All three movies still have villains; they’re just not the same people who were the villains in the original stories. Elphaba in Wicked is not simply a hero, either, though she is a protagonist.

We’re currently seeing a redefinition of heroes and villains in history as well as in classic children’s stories. Statues set up to celebrate people (usually men) of an earlier age are being targeted for removal, based on the actions and attitudes displayed by those men during their lifetime. Other people you haven’t heard of before (usually women) are being newly celebrated. To be clear, I’m not saying that this reassessment is a bad thing, though I do think it gets carried too far by some of its proponents in a few cases.

There’s a certain mindset that always looks for heroes and villains in life, as in art. It simplifies the moral landscape, and lets us know whether we should be supporting or opposing someone. The problem is, following this mindset makes it too easy for us to support actions by our heroes that, if they were done by someone else, would strike us as villainous, and vice versa.

And it’s easy (though similarly reductive) to blame art for this. If the fiction we consume is always divided clearly into black and white hats, how can we break out of that mindset when thinking about real people? But there’s also the argument that the reason this is so prevalent in art is that it’s so prevalent in how people think in real life; it’s how we want to believe the world works. Probably cause and effect go both ways. Limited plaudits go to the writers of the movies mentioned above for calling into question exactly who is a hero and who is a villain, though the plaudits are limited because they still retain the hero-villain divide clearly and strongly; they’re not breaking down the divide, just moving people from one side of it to the other.

But do we need to have villains at all? Tina Turner memorably told us that we don’t need another hero; do we need another villain?

Now, I’m as guilty as anyone of putting straightforward heroes and villains into my art, though I hope that in recent years, at least, I’ve started giving at least the heroes more nuance, showing more of their flaws. They still choose to do the right thing, or what they believe to be the right thing, most of the time, but sometimes they’re tempted not to, and sometimes they yield to that temptation in a moment of weakness, and sometimes along the way they make an honest mistake that they and other people end up paying for.

My villains are less nuanced, in part because they’re usually off screen and never (as far as I can recall) get to be viewpoint characters. It’s something I’m aware of as a weakness in my writing.

I’m put in mind here of the brilliant YouTube comedian Ryan George’s “Pitch Meeting” videos:

“And what’s this character’s deal?”

“Oh, he’s evil.”

Hollywood (which is what George is satirizing) doesn’t need to dig any deeper than that. But what if we did?

It’s quite possible to have an antagonist without having a villain, especially if you show their point of view. I recently read an excellent book which goes some way towards this: The Mask of Mirrors, by M.A. Carrick. At least initially, the viewpoint characters all have agendas which are at cross purposes, and they are, at least partially, each other’s antagonists as a result, though none of them is unequivocally a villain; because we get their viewpoint, we see why they are doing things that we might not completely approve of. (At the same time, there are a couple of unequivocal villains in the book, and the viewpoint characters eventually unite to take them on.)

You don’t even necessarily need a personal antagonist to tell a good story, though it helps. We’re currently in the midst of collectively striving against a natural phenomenon, and that’s a powerful story, though somehow we manage to fight among ourselves about that as well.

The question I’m groping towards is: can we (can I) tell stories that show us a more three-dimensional set of characters, driven by personal flaws and incorrect beliefs as much as by their ideals, clashing in complicated ways? And can we (can I) do that without simply declaring morality illusory and writing an entire cast of grimdark alienated bastards?

While I’m at it, can it be funny? I’ve been reading a lot of early P.G. Wodehouse lately (not all of which was comedic), and appreciating his comic gift, and reflecting that I don’t necessarily want to write something dead serious just because we’ve always been told that serious books are more worthy. I don’t get paid much to write, so I ought to at least have fun doing it.

Wodehouse’s characters are often at odds, too, not because some of them are morally evil but because all of them are human. Also, in his later and better-known works, Wodehouse often pulled off the startling feat of making objectively very low social stakes among a privileged elite matter to the reader, but in at least some of his early work, there were characters who, by chance or even because of moral principle, found themselves in economically difficult straits and had to deal with that, and the unfair nature of the world, as best they were able.

I’m left wondering if I can create a fictional world where things matter, and where people clash, but nobody is unequivocally evilbadwrong and most people have a sense of humour about things, and maybe when the mix-up is sorted out we can all have a laugh together.

Nov 16

Letting Characters Be Themselves

My wife and I have been watching the ITV Sherlock Holmes adaptations that were made between 1984 and 1994. We’ve watched them slightly out of order, because a few of them are longer and we left those to the weekends, so the last one for us was the final episode of the 1993 series. They didn’t end up adapting all of the stories; Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes, unfortunately died in 1994. But towards the end, the “adaptations” became less and less faithful to the originals, with more and more interpolated new material created by the writers from whole cloth.

I’m not sure why writers do this. It seldom works, because apparently it’s extraordinarily difficult for a writer to add to another writer’s work without distorting it out of all recognition (looking at you, Peter Jackson). In the case of the episode we watched at the weekend, “The Eligible Bachelor,” it was based on two different (unrelated) Holmes stories, but more than half of it was completely new material. That new material gave Holmes mystical theories; actual premonitory dreams; a scene where he put his arms around a woman to comfort her with no evidence of awkwardness; and a mention by Watson that Holmes very much admired the same woman’s mental abilities. It also had Watson betraying his Hippocratic oath (leaving an injured man, albeit a villain who Watson himself had injured while rescuing a lady, to be killed by a leopard). And it gave the rescued lady a cliched too-stupid-to-live scene where she went alone to confront a man who she knew had killed at least one woman before, without having told anyone – including her highly capable husband – where she was going, for no good in-story reason.

Holmes fanfic is the oldest fanfic, or so I’ve heard, and there’s a lot of it. A surprising amount of it – and I include the often enjoyable but occasionally clunky series Elementary in this – gives us an out-of-character Holmes of one kind or another. He’s kinder, more empathetic, more humane, romantically involved (often with Watson, fanfic being what it is), emotionally vulnerable… all the things that classic Holmes, Conan Doyle’s Holmes, is not.

I recently read not quite half of Dave Eggers’ The Every. I stopped because the humour, while well done, was too dark for me, and the story both dystopian (which is never to my taste) and deeply pessimistic about both technology and humanity (which is very much not where I am philosophically). One minor scene in the book, which is set in a successor to the current tech giants which has implausibly gained a monopoly over social media, search, e-commerce, publishing, the making of smart devices and basically everything else, involves a project in which people rewrite (by committee) classic novels. Research has shown the instigator of this terrible idea that there are certain spots where a lot of people stop reading these novels, often because they don’t like something a character does. So the characters are rewritten to be more likeable, more in line with current social mores. Less problematic.

In an atmosphere where it sometimes seems that anybody not conforming exactly to whatever this week’s orthodoxy is will be torn apart by a mob on Twitter, I can see how an author would fear this as an outcome. But the impulse, as the Sherlock Holmes episode from 1993 shows, is not new. We’re always inclined to want to revise characters to either be less flawed or else flawed in a way that’s more congenial, or at least understandable, to us. The Holmes of Elementary, for example, is a recovering drug addict (picking up on mentions in the original Doyle stories of Holmes’ use of heroin and cocaine while bored from having no good cases), has superficial sexual relationships, doesn’t get on with his father or his brother, and occasionally screws over his friends because he thinks he knows better than them. Modern audiences, especially American audiences (the show is set mostly in present-day New York, though Holmes is still English) presumably find this more relatable than the emotionally distant, erratically brilliant, relentlessly analytical Holmes of Doyle. The British modernization, Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, is closer to that Holmes, giving us a Holmes who is, probably, non-neurotypical.

Elementary also gives us a Watson very different from the original, and I don’t mean because she’s an Asian woman; that’s a much less significant change than making Watson a competent detective, Holmes’ equal partner in most ways, rather than his loyal muscle and occasional conscience.

Now, far be it from me to speak against fanfiction of any kind, including the kind that people get paid for. These characters belong to humankind now, and what you choose to do with them is entirely your own affair. But I am raising the question about why we have the impulse to remake iconic characters in a more relatable mould, to make them easier to understand, to make their choices more like what we would choose, even if, because of these changes, there’s a strong sense in which they are no longer that character.

When I’m writing original characters, that same impulse is there, and I have to say I yield to it a lot (I’m criticizing myself here too). I think I’m most successful when I manage to resist it, at least to a degree. I’ve recently finished drafting the last of the Auckland Allies series. The character Tara, initially prickly, angry, and rude, has an arc through the series towards liking and respecting her colleagues more and acknowledging this to them, but her inner monologue doesn’t cease to include snarky digs at them. She just doesn’t let them come out of her mouth quite so much. Sparx still fails to land his pop-culture jokes most of the time, but he’s still trying (sometimes very trying). Dan, if anything, ends the series less admirable to the reader than he was when first introduced, because we get to see some of the compromises and flaws that lurk under his white-knight persona.

Iconic characters often become iconic because they’re out of the ordinary, not just in their abilities, but because they fail to fit with the world around them in some way. It’s worth considering why our impulse is to sand the rough edges off them, to make them more acceptable (whatever that may currently mean).