*****Tropes, Trends, and Stories*****
I’d like to start by thanking NerdGirl for letting me guest blog for the day, and for the wonderful reviews they did of my books. I’m happy to be asked to write a post, and thankful to you all for reading.
When I blog, I usually try to think about parts of storytelling and society that matter to me. In that vein (and since I’m writing to a new audience), I’ll look into one of the issues that matters most to me in writing: tropes, subversion, and what they mean in fiction today.
My wife and I love the Game of Thrones series on HBO. I’ve read all the books and she hasn’t, so I know ahead of time when characters are going to die, and I’ve taken special delight in the parts where she didn’t believe that someone so important could be violently written off. If news reports and internet memes are to be believed, most of America is continually shocked by the sudden loss of supposed “main” characters. A warning – this post discusses some of the events of the novels, so if you aren’t at least up to date with the TV show as of May 2014, there are SPOILERS ahead. I don’t apologize, because seriously, it’s been a while.
In interviews, George R.R. Martin (hereafter abbreviated GRRM, because typing the damn periods after both R’s is annoying as hell) has talked about how he always wrote to turn the old tropes on their heads. I love this. He hated the fantasy tropes of a good and wise king always meaning peace and prosperity of the land, a loving marriage, and a good life for one and all. In plenty of books, the only thing ruining people’s lives is a plot by evil forces for the throne.
GRRM rightly mocks that idea, as there are plenty of good people who don’t understand how to set taxes to maximize economic activity, plenty of rich people who can’t manage money as well as you’d expect, and ruthless rulers who preside over peaceful and prosperous populations. There are also times when being honorable and doing the right thing is the absolute worst way to go. Hi there, Ned Stark.
I love that we see Tyrion as being pretty good at making the kingdom run when given his chance at ruling, despite being a drunkard and a whoremonger. His father was even better at it, despite being nothing short of a despot. And King Robert the Fat, who was great at war and even better at throwing parties, wasn’t much of a ruler.
Another trope GRRM likes to subvert is the “invisible forcefield” that ensures the main characters always find a way to get out of whatever mess they’re in. I’ve spoken to many who, when reading the books, spent the last paragraph before Ned is beheaded wondering how he was going to avoid execution. (Remember: spoilers.) In Westeros, nobody is safe. Do you think Rob is going to take up his father’s mantle and find a way to make the Lannisters pay for his father’s death? He certainly had a good shot at it, and you start to believe that he’s going to find a way to win the day. Then, Red Wedding. Suck it, all characters who are “lawful good.”
The fact that there is no safety for the important, likable characters does give every situation in The Song of Ice and Fire universe that much more intensity. I don’t doubt for a second that Littlefinger could kill Sansa, or that Tyrion’s razor wit could fail him when he needs it most.
When pressed about what this means for his books, and how readers react, GRRM trumpets the tension and the upending of the trope, and acknowledges that it does break some readers’ hearts, and he doesn’t blame them for hating that. I feel like he’s missing the real drawback of the character bloodbath strategy, and that it’s only going to lead to dozens upon dozens of character-murdering copycats. I love the subversion of a trope, but there’s a reason that GRRM can kill off anyone and everyone in Ice & Fire without a worry, whereas I would have a much harder time of doing the same in my stories, as would most authors in sci fi and fantasy today.
GRRM and I are writing different types of stories. When you pick the “star” of your story, you’re not placing an invisible force field on him or her and guaranteeing their safety. The order of operations is reversed, at least as GRRM tells it. I don’t give my character a way out because she’s the MC; she’s the MC because she finds a way out. The real trope that GRRM subverted isn’t that seemingly main characters can die, it’s that you might be mistaken as to whom the star of the story is.
When Ser Illyn’s blade severs Ned’s neck, what GRRM is saying is that this is not Ned’s story, even though you might reasonably have believed that it was. There is a natural tendency to latch onto Ned’s family and believe the real struggle is about the Starks versus the Lannisters, and of course the reader routs for the righteous Starks. But then Winterfell is burned to the ground and the Red Wedding happens. Guess what: this isn’t the Starks’ story.
The story doesn’t have to belong to one person or one family, and that’s the real mystery of Ice & Fire. Personally, I don’t think that it’s Tyrion’s story, or Arya’s, or Jon Snow’s, or Daenaerys’s. This is the story of the kingdom of Westeros, and no single character matters, compared to that. Westeros is the star of the story. The Starks, Lannisters, Boltons, and Baratheons are character traits.
The inclusion of so much beyond the Wall and the damn Greyjoys (whose story I’ve never been particularly interested in) convinces me of this more than ever. And it defines the type of story, and how you can make a story about a kingdom where everybody’s life is at risk.
Contrast that with another wonderful series, The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher. Less drastic spoiler: Harry Dresden always survives. Well, except when he doesn’t, but then we follow him into the afterlife for a bit. Are Butcher’s novels less interesting because Harry always finds a way to make it out at the end? I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s not because I like the comfort of the MC-force-field. It’s because these are the Dresden Files. Harry Dresden is worth reading about because he finds a way to win when he’s outgunned and outmanned. Harry doesn’t survive because we love him and need him to live to make us feel better, he survives because we’re reading the story of a survivor.
If Harry Dresden died in one of the many situations it seems like he shouldn’t make it out of, I wouldn’t particularly want to go on reading about one of the other characters, and that is absolutely crucial. The Dresden Files aren’t Chicago’s story, and I’m not that interested in reading too far into what’s happening with Molly, Karen, Butters, Michael, and crew when Harry’s not there. Readers know and love Harry Dresden like they never could know and love any Westerosi—even Tyrion, the best character in Ice & Fire. Conversely, I’ve grown more attached to the surrounding characters in Westeros than I have Dresden’s circle of friends, and so it hurts more when Rob Stark is murdered than it does when Harry has to kill the mother of his daughter (to save the daughter & the world). I hurt for Harry, but I didn’t weep too much for Sara.
GRRM can murder his characters because Ice & Fire isn’t about them. Jim Dresden can’t murder Harry, because without Harry there is no story. I don’t think either way is better than the other, but I do worry that the death of MCs is in danger of being worshipped and cloned without thinking about what you need in a story to do that the right way. I also take umbrage at the idea that the MC Force Field (which I really should have abbreviated as MCFF much earlier) is truly a trope. It’s just a different kind of story, and no lesser for it.
In my stories, there are characters who are expendable (and some who are expended). There are also characters who survive, and I’m not worried that I’m following a trope by so doing. They don’t always survive the way you’d expect them to, and sometimes an escape is what permanently alters the core of who they are. Sometimes it permanently alters the world in which they live, for themselves and for everyone else. I’m not likely to ever take the GRRM route and just slaughter a major group of characters unless I write a completely different story than the ones I’ve been writing. That’s not to say that it’s wrong to be a character murderer. If you want to be shocking, go be shocking. Slaughter on. Just remember whose story you’re writing, and what you’re really doing when those bodies hit the floor.
Michael McDuffee lives in the frantic cluster of civilization known as the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is a software engineer by day and a writer by night. He works out his stories and his frustrations by slowly running marathons, and wastes time watching football and playing video games. He’s fortunate enough to live with a wonderful, supportive wife, and an energetic, demanding corgi.
His works include the classic fantasy serial, Those Who Die Young, and an industrial fantasy, spies-knights-and-magic novel, City of Magi.
City of Magi — Buy Link: http://amzn.com/B00M51VZ1U
Nerd Girl Review: http://bit.ly/cityofmagi_nerdgirlreview
Those Who Die Young — Buy Link: http://amzn.com/B00EEJNS84
Nerd Girl Review: http://bit.ly/nerdgirltwdyreview
Michael on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/michaelrmcduffee
Michael on Twitter: https://twitter.com/writemcd
*****Q&A with the Author*****
Q. When and why did you begin writing? What inspired you to write your first book?
I first began dabbling in writing when I was in high school. I put together some short stories that I’m sure would embarrass me tremendously if they ever saw the light of day now. In college I worked in online student media and wrote quite a bit for a now-defunct paper called Americana, where I was EIC.
Despite that early dabbling, I never thought about actually writing an entire book. I’m usually reticent to admit it, but it was the first Harry Potter movie that got me wanting to actually write my own full-length novel. For that reason, I still have never read the first book in the series (I read all the rest of them on the day they came out). I don’t want it to spoil the way I remember the story.
After that, I started with a perfectly awful story that I only barely avoided writing myself into, which was trashed when I didn’t feel connected to the ending I was coming to. Then I began another novel that was something of a metaphysical planet-hopping New Adult storyline that I might revisit one day, but again I ditched it when the story lost momentum. After that, another novel was started and abandoned. I thought that would be the arc of my writing career, and indeed, when I started a novel partly inspired by a single character from Suikoden 3, I assumed it would get consigned to the electronic wastebin as well.
A strange thing happened two years after I started and abandoned that one–I started a piecemeal, episodic, high-fantasy story that I published online, Those Who Die Young. Cranking out story after story in that series inspired me to go back to the one that had never quite died in my mind, and I ended up finishing City of Magi. Then began the three-year-quest to publish it, where I eventually ended up cutting the book in half to make it more palatable to agents. One nice benefit of making that sacrifice is that book 2 is already written.
Q. What book(s) / author(s) have influenced your life and writing?
Influence on my life is too hard to say, other than being driven to science fiction by Asimov’s Foundation series. Influence on my writing primarily came from Orson Scott Card and Scott Lynch, both of whom influenced me more after I started writing than before. I read Ender’s Game when I was young, but I reread it in college, and had the good fortune to attend OSC’s (mostly) annual writing seminar/camp in Greensboro, NC.
Though I’d read one of his books on writing in the past, which mostly said the same thing, while I was there I finally “got” what the beginning of a book, a short story, an essay, anything, really is. It’s far more than just a hook. It’s a promise about what is to come. In those first lines (usually 13 lines according to various exercises), you’re telling the reader everything she’ll need to know to decide whether or not your story is worth reading. It’s not all the details about your book, but it’s the things that make people decide for or against books.
In Those Who Die Young, you know from the first page of Issue 1 that this story is about a hard-luck girl in a rural, low-tech society, who’s a determined, fatalistic loner who refuses to accept the crummy hand life has dealt her. Also, she’s delivering a very important letter. That’s the promise of the story, and if I hadn’t delivered on any of those points, you would have felt cheated.
In City of Magi, you know there’s a murder mystery, and that a rogue master spy is watching the puppet strings get pulled, tracing them to their roots. You know you’re in a quasi-modern city infused with magic, but also with celebrities, the trappings of modern bureaucracy, and something like tabloids and newsies.
As for Lynch: well after I had started writing about Grayson Kearney, my master spy from City of Magi, I read (over and over again) the Lies of Locke Lamora. Kearney and Lamora are wildly different characters (despite both being unnaturally talented confidence men), but the idea I ran with, that building the spy was almost as fun as watching him operate, was inspired by Lynch’s tales of Lamora’s childhood. I never intended for Grayson’s childhood to be part of City of Magi. Writing it, though, made me finish the book, and also made me realize that this was a place the reader needed to be to really get into the story, to really love this character.
Q. Tell us about your characters and how they came to be? Have they been in your head for a long time?
Zia, the heroine of City of Magi, has always looked (in my head, despite that not being how I describe her looking) like Lady Chris from the Suikoden series. When I first played that game, I was intrigued by the idea of a lady knight. How would a woman rise up in the military in a medieval world? What would society look like if women could do that, way back then? Why didn’t they in our world, and what would it take to rewrite history and make it happen?
All of these questions inspired me to write of a world where magic was plentiful, but random, where women and men competed equally on that field, making a woman with a talent for magic easily as valuable as a man back in cave men times, where physical strength was the only important factor for our society. In this world, the balance of genders would be far more equal from the beginning, as magic would be more important than brute strength. From there I had to carry it on: how would society be different? How would progress have changed with women involved (well, welcomed and involved) from the beginning of technology?
A lot of what I write is based on exploring an idea like that — How would this character come to pass?
Q. What motivates you to write?
Interesting characters or settings that I can’t get out of my head. I often write myself into good shows and movies, not in actual manuscripts, but I imagine myself there. That inevitably leads to me wondering what this small part of a fictional world would be like, and from there I wonder what the person I’d created would become in that small part of one world, warped into a new place. How would the excised part of one world meld into another?
It’s mostly just an overactive imagination and a desire to see things through.
Q. What is the hardest part of writing?
Deciding whether or not to finish. It took me a long time to get from someone who enthusiastically starts new stories to someone who actually finishes them. I have a handful of other novels waiting, some of which are closer to finished than others. If a manuscript loses my attention, I take it as a sign that it’ll lose the reader’s attention too.
But I’m also wary of the fact that City of Magi, my best work, lost me for over a year while I figured out what was missing. One of my near-finished works has been in hiatus for a while, largely because I realized 70,000 words in that I’m not sure how I want to get to the ending. I have a pretty good idea of the final chapter, but it doesn’t make enough sense any longer, and I don’t really know what my characters are fighting against. It’s actually a little bit of a victim of the answer to the next question…
Q. Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Just like a movie isn’t filmed in order, don’t worry about writing our book in order. If you know how it ends, write the ending. You can connect the dots later. Sometimes that can lead you to finishing, where you wouldn’t have the same urgency if you just had a good idea of the ending in your head. Sometimes it gives you new ideas about how to get there, even if you thought you had it all planned out.
Another side benefit of writing the ending as soon as you think about it is that it doesn’t let you get buried in “fluff.” If you can omit a chapter, then you should. If you don’t really need an explanatory few pages between where you are now and the awesome ending, then just ditch it. Sometimes you realize after writing the climax that you’re practically there already.
Q. Where do you get your ideas?
Books, shows, games. All of these play into my imagination. I rarely start out wanting to write a certain type of story. It usually begins with a character. In fairness, though, that may be changing in my writing as well.
There’s a lot of movement in the YA/NA world today, and I started thinking about my natural aversion to it, and what it would take for a book of that genre to really grip me. The Harry Potter novels did. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, did it even better. I thought about the parts of those books that I loved, the parts that I hated, and what really resonates with people today. What gets into the heads of sci-fi and fantasy readers? Why do they love Katniss, Harry, and Tyrion? With that in mind, I started a sci fi new adult novel about a brilliant young girl in a techno-distopian future struggling to find her future in a world where poverty is a never-ending obstacle for even the brightest.
Q. What does your family think of your writing?
They’ve been nothing but supportive. My mother, in particular, is a voracious reader of all things scifi/fantasy, and loves that she can look up my name on her Kindle.
Q. What is the best advice you would give to inspiring authors?
Write, even if it plainly sucks. Write until you can see why it sucks. Then scrap it and write again. Don’t worry; the next one will be better. Then scrap that one, and the next one, and the next one. One day, you’ll have a work-in-progress about half-done, and you’ll be reading some sample chapters or browsing in a bookstore and realize, “Holy crap, my writing is as good as/better than this book.” You won’t know when it made that transition, and in all likelihood it’ll be a long time after you’ve crossed that point before you know you’re in it, and that’s fine.
Also, don’t get attached to the old stories. Write it, be honest with yourself, get an honest review, and then let it go while you move on. You don’t make progress by editing.
Q. What book are you reading now?
Actually, Superfreakonomics. I love news and logic and trying to understand how the world works. The last fictional novel I read was Lock In by John Scalzi, and prior to that The Giver, because my wife was stunned that I hadn’t read it in high school. Of the two of them, I’d definitely recommend Lock In. The Giver’s not bad, but it does what a lot of classic YA sci fi does wrong, in that it makes it easy to guess exactly what comes next. I hate knowing the end of a chapter before I get to it, and I hope my writing never leaves my readers with that same taste.
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