29 January 2017

A Question of Quests

A little more than a year ago, I set out on a quest, pushed by fellow writers who encouraged me to try my hand at writing an epic fantasy. Well, good folks, I did that. I typed every day of the year with a story firmly in mind. On good days in the summer I wrote for a full eight hours. I actually wrote a novel following a hero's quest. Then I wrote a novella about a little princess in another part of the realm. Then I merged the two stories. The result is a 235,000 word tale of daring-do chocked full of all the epic wisdom I could stuff into it--which, I am learning, may be relevant in our heated political season.*

By "quest" I mean a journey of some kind--a hero's journey, in Joseph Campbell parlance. However, in writing an epic fantasy, a quest could be a hero going in search of something of value, or a hero simply trying to travel home from far away, perhaps from a place of tribulation. A quest could mean a bubbly travelogue, much like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Or, a quest could be a hero going to a particular place where he intends to do something important. This last option is the pattern I adopted for my epic fantasy. (e.g., A man with a plan, out getting a tan, and learning to pan the jokes of his sidekick Tam.) My model for a quest was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, although I bent over backwards to avoid borrowing anything from it. Likewise, I started reading George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, but I deliberately avoided any dragon references which my readers might tease were similar to Martin's use of dragons.

Then, much to my chagrin, I discovered a problem. A fatal flaw. An underlying faux pas. A fundamental error. So...what to do with a 235,000-word tale of rousing adventure that falls short of being an epic fantasy? Maybe call it epic sci-fi? That just might be crazy enough to work! You see, there are some rules....

Rule #1. The setting of the epic fantasy must be a world of non-existence to the world of both author and reader; hence, a totally fabricated landscape. If we dare suggest it is here on Earth, we lose. 

The "present" of my epic fantasy is about A.D. 8000.
I beg a waiver. Initially, I invented a world, true, but as I laid out the plot, the series of happenings our hero would experience, I marked them out on a map of a known location here on Earth. By then I had decided this epic would be a behemoth comprising five separate interweaving story lines and one of them would be from a novel I had started long ago in my youth. That early novel idea was set in a futuristic America. As I started writing my epic fantasy, that futuristic America was slated to be the mythological history underlying the present story. As the manuscript grew tremendously, I scaled back that "backstory" to only the mentions my cast of characters would speak once in a while. However, I kept the setting of a future America.

My waiver is because the setting is so different from the world we know today that it might as well be some other place purely of my imagination.

Rule #2. An epic fantasy must have a large cast of characters which includes certain ones in stereotype roles. 

I deliberately tried to achieve that large cast but, going on a quest, our hero and his sidekick are not likely to come upon very many people. In fact, after a couple chapters of just traveling down the valley, I thought I better introduce some new quirky character to liven up the story. Hence, the magus appears. More people to talk. And the magus, being old, can impart some of the backstory. Also, a trek down a valley can only entertain for so long. At some point they would come upon a city, and what would they find there? More people.

My eyes fell upon an infographic, not long after I started writing my epic fantasy, which stated that an epic fantasy needed I needed 20 characters. Besides my hero and sidekick, there would be others playing important roles: the evil prince, the jealous rivals, ordinary townsfolk with devious agendas, warrior tribes in the wilderness, corrupt judges, executioners, crowds of biased citizens, trinket dealers, stable boys, and so on. There would be a love interest for our hero, of course, and maybe temptations down the road. The one character I did not have was a clear antagonist. 

In English teacher lingo, the protagonist is the character that moves the story forward, no matter if that person is good or evil. Usually, moving the story is what causes us to set the story on that character's shoulders, as narrator or our main focus. The antagonist is not necessarily the villain, though he/she may be. Rather, the antagonist is that character (or force of nature) which seeks to thwart the advance of the protagonist, preventing the achievement of his/her goals. In the case of my epic fantasy, the antagonist is chiefly all the dragons of the world and assorted rogues along the way.

So, in the end, I have 20 characters that play some significant role in the plot--not just walk-on roles for color but say or do something that pushes the plot forward, regardless how much "screen" time they get. I'm particularly fond of the hunchback and the river pilots.

Rule #3. The average "bestselling" novel (at least in the fantasy and sci-fi genre) have 15 obstacles to achieving the goals of the quest. 

No problem, I thought. I had a map and I knew how to use it. Something would happen about every half-inch on the trail I had drawn on the map. I pretty much kept to that plan. Later in the story, as new ideas developed from the current writing, I switched out some of the events happening. However, making sure our hero had to deal with 15 (or more) episodes, each a danger, distraction, or detour to overcome, was the reason this epic fantasy reached 235,000 words.

Rule #4. The epic fantasy requires lavish description, flowery language, quirks of speech (including made-up words for things), to better envelope the reader in a strange world far from our own here on Earth. 

Well, I did write a science fiction trilogy involving interdimensional travel to another world, so I did invent other languages for that world. However, in our present day and time, when my college students have such aversion to reading even the shortest, simplest texts, I find myself skipping over large paragraphs of description. All right, it's a room in a castle, and there are pieces of furniture. I don't see how the colors or textures matter unless it somehow influences the plot. Becoming jaded, I suppose; I have read some of the longest novels ever written (e.g., War and Peace, Shogun, The Well at the World's End) and did not skip any portions of them--but that was then.

Therefore, I swore to keep it lean, to concentrate on action, dialog, and offer enough description to paint the scene. I swore to keep scenes manageable in length and chapters at the size to read in an hour or less. I promised myself to get to the core of the action or present information or backstory in colorful ways (usually through dialog) that were fun to read in themselves. I was aiming for an epic fantasy length story, of course, so the leanness of the initial writing was not a concern. I knew I could flesh in a scene where needed after I'd finished the draft. And I did. 

Rule #5. Things happen in fantasy places, both impossibly wonderful and just as likely amazingly cruel. Unconstrained by modern law or sensibilities, an epic fantasy can be quite open with regard to the particular incidents that occur.

I also had in mind to keep this book clean; that is, morally sound, suitable for at least the New Adult category. I accepted that I could not keep it at a Young Adult level because there would be dragon slaying about every chapter. There got to be more violence, and some sexual episodes downstream but I had the camera turn to the window so we could watch the sunset. I feel good about keeping it less graphic than my other novels. As it turned out, I would even let my mother read it. My father, however, is a different case.

I think I can save my book by calling it an epic science fiction fantasy adventure and leave it at that. Hard to put all that on a title page, of course, but then I have maps this time--maps of a place not quite our own landscape. After all, our hero was born only 4800 years from now, give or take a few days. A lot happens between now and then.

NEXT: I shall further explicate the amazing episodes that comprise the greatest epic fantasy (or similar genre) that I have ever written on a computer! 

*"political season": I started to believe from my "inhabiting" wise characters that I could be a fair alternative to the presidential candidate options and so I began the Bunny Party. Unfortunately, we only achieved 12 votes, half of them from my relatives.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

22 January 2017

The Protagonist as Social Justice Warrior

This month may be a dangerous time to blog, but I feel I must rev up the blog once more for a new year or it will never get started. However, given the stormy season we have passed through, this blast from the past may be sufficiently mind-boggling as to be entertaining, or worse thought-provoking. In this political season, who are our protagonists?

The following was originally posted on 4 October 2015, edited to update the context.

Do you write what you preach? Are fiction authors supposed to promote their personal values? Or is the story supposed to be a self-contained entity with its own political views and separate from the author's? Must (or should) the author reveal personal positions on every social and political issues undergoing discussion in the public arena? Or is the story just a story and everything political is thrown to the wind for the sake of the story? 

The writer is supposedly imbued with a welter of imagination, able to leap tall plots in a single bound, about to stop dastardly antagonists with bare hands (obviously, on a keyboard). So it should go beyond the "write what you know"--shouldn't it? It is the mark of an author that he/she can make you believe he/she knows what he/she is writing about. 

However, there are plenty of instances where readers get in the way. I mean that in a wholly innocent sense. If writing for a particular category of reader, the writer may shape the story in certain ways to appeal to those readers. Part of that may be, say, to use initials instead of a name or to use a pen name completely to hide the gender of the author. Because a Romance author cannot be a man...in theory. And a hardcore sci-fi author cannot be female...traditionally.
I don't intend to focus on, say, gender issues, but today we seem surrounded by issues of all kinds, political and social, which make me wonder. Do authors include their personal values and views in their fiction writing? For example, if you are opposed to same-sex marriage, do you write stories in which the traditional opposite-sex marriage is the only option? Granted, the world of the story may demand such, but if the author feels strongly about the issue, might there not be some occurrence in the story of a same-sex marriage?

If an author is against guns...would the story be gun-free? If the author believes in a nation having a strong military and the government protecting its citizens by militarizing city police forces, would that idea be reflected in the author's latest book? If the author is a card-carrying conservative opposed to abortion, would the character in the story who gets pregnant have an abortion or, more likely, have the baby and offer it for adoption? It starts to get complicated. Or perhaps it's very easy. Do your characters act as you would act?
I have to say here that the examples in the preceding paragraphs were cherry-picked and do not reflect my own personal positions on those issues--or perhaps they do. You can never know for sure, because we like to keep our beliefs private. Or do we? Plenty of us speak up and speak out on whatever we believe is right or should be right, and we either find those who agree with us speaking with us or those who disagree trying to shout us down. The third column, which I suspect is the largest one, remains mostly silent--or dabbles in subtle sarcasm just to be able to vent something when necessary to maintain personal mental health.

And then there is the marketing question. If an author writes books in which the characters act as he/she would, hold views the author holds, act as the author would act with regard to a whole host of political and social issues, views, and positions, where does that leave the reader? Could that reader like a story enough to buy it and read it even though that reader and the book's author may have different views on, say, immigration reform? Or do we authors censor ourselves so as to be as mild-mannered as possible and not offend anyone who just might be tempted to buy our book? Do we act so as to not alienate half the potential readership, or do we go forth boldly proclaiming where we stand on this or that issue, and hope or expect that we will be praised for our stance(s)? Tough questions--or non-issues?

Perhaps many writers, authors, dabblers in words, whatever the label, just don't care about such matters because just writing an interesting story is hard enough and we don't have time to be concerned about things outside the story. Or are we politely disingenuous, hiding our true nature and our true beliefs and values for the sake of that interesting story, afraid to speak out about something we feel strongly about because we worry about offending fellow authors and potential readers. Compare the statistics of recent voting and decide which half of the book-buying population you will market to.

I don't believe fiction writers, as a clan, deal much with pontification; that is, we do not write a work of fiction solely to push a view of how the world should be. Or do we? Or should we? Or...why shouldn't we? When I've written sci-fi and fantasy, I've invented political systems which run the spectrum from left to right, not as a reflection of my own view of "how things should me" but only for the sake of plausibility in the story and influence on the plot. (One might consider the Sekuatean Empire, for which this blog was originally named, as an example.)

Sure, the literary canon is full of authors who pushed agendas, who wrote dogmatic tales, who gave us strongly-worded suggestions of how we should behave, what we should think, what we should do or stop doing--woven more or less subtly through a fictional narrative that served to entertain us long enough to get the message across. And others wrote to warn us of possible future scenarios we may not wish to experience. The world of literary imagination is both a safe space and a war zone. Reader beware. Or are they simply stories which only in hindsight do we see a message or a warning? And if the warning may be too strong, too upsetting, too triggering, then such a book might be moved into the banned book pile. Fearing the ban, authors may self-censor, keep it clean, water it down, set it all in a land of make-believe where nothing is actually meant to be real or serious, certainly not as a commentary on the present political climate, oh no!

And yet, in this present day world of saying the right thing, being politically correct or decidedly not, what is the author's responsibility...or compulsion? Must a novel follow a political agenda? May a work of fiction illustrate differing views on particular social issues? Should our protagonists be social justice warriors? 

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.