Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Getting to Know My Characters

Characterization is pretty important to me as a writer. If I have a good understanding of my characters and their natures it makes it a lot easier for the words to flow. For me, to a certain extent, the plot flows directly out of the characters. Who they are and what choices they would make determines what happens in the story. So I need to know my characters. I need to know how they think and what they would do.

For this reason I often do characterization writing where I'll just sit and write stream of consciousness style from a particular character's point of view to try to get them to reveal themselves to me. I generally do this until I can hear their voice, and I mean that literally. When I can actually hear the sound of their voice in my head as I'm writing their words (it usually takes the form of a voice I've heard from an actor or actress) then I know I'm ready to write them in the story.

Right now I'm gearing up to finally make a fresh start on my novel which I'm planning as the first in a saga. (I like the sound of "saga" better than "series".) So I've been doing some characterization writing and I thought I'd share some of it here. What I'm sharing today is from the point of view of the character Menes, who is one of the two characters that speak from the future in the saga's framing device. Menes is a priest who is the curator of the great library in the city of temples. I hear his voice as the voice of the character of the technomage Elric in the sci fi show Babylon 5...


I remember.

When the summit of holy Tatenan breached the surface of the primordial waters I was there to remember. When Seppo the Architect broke ground at the feet of that mountain to make the foundation for the first of the four great cities I was there to remember. And when the rumblings of the earth caused the seas to boil and overwhelm the land I was there to remember. All things I remember. This is my role within Mayet.

For a thousand thousand years I have watched and remembered. I have lived among the mortal children of Re through countless cataclysms and catastrophes. I have seen them in their darkest hours and known the depth of their potential for honor and glory, as well as for betrayal. In the unending struggle between the Bas of Order and the Sheut of Chaos, I believe it is the Akh power of these mortal Men that will tip the balance for Mayet or Isfet.

I live among Men, when most of my brethren have retreated beyond the living world, to help guide their steps along the path of Mayet and prepare them for the task they must take up if Order is to triumph.

What others have forgotten, I preserve. What they have forsaken, I will restore.

This is my participation in Mayet.

So what do you think? Does Menes seem like an interesting character? Does Elric have the best voice ever or what? Do you do any similar exercises to get to know your characters?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thoughts about Love on Valentine's Day

Eleven years ago I had one really perfect Valentine's Day with my future husband. 5 months later we were married and we've never worried about Valentine's Day since then. We've never worried about "romance" and we've also never for a moment not known with absolute certainty that our marriage will last until death do us part.

Over the last few years my husband and I have watched helplessly as the marriages of my brother and his sister (both of whom have one child) fell apart suddenly and ended in divorce. In one case we know why it happened. One of the spouses turned out to be a crazy, lying piece of excrement. In the other case, the divorce is so ridiculously amicable that I cannot fathom why the marriage had to end at all. It's heartbreaking to see how it is affecting the children caught in the middle. It is also heartbreaking to have to occasionally assure my oldest child, who can see what is going on and is unsettled by it to say the least, that divorce is something she never, ever, ever has to worry about in her family.

Some weeks ago when the subject of divorce entered a conversation with my mother, I had occasion to comment to her that divorce is something my children will never have to go through. My mother, who went through 2 divorces before finding happiness with her third husband, looked at me seriously and said, "I hope so." I was shocked by that response, though in hindsight I know I shouldn't have been. Mostly because the tone of her voice clearly said "that's a nice thought, dear, but you'd better be prepared for the possibility". She didn't really believe me, in other words. Divorce is too much a part of her reality (going through 2 herself, seeing other family members around her going through it and now helping my brother through his) for her to ever believe that it's not always lurking around the corner.

And it seems like that's true of most people. Most people seem to view relationships of any kind with the built in assumption that there's always the chance that the relationship will change and come to an end. And the world is filled with people trying to figure out how to keep that from happening. Married couple discuss their tips and tricks for having a healthy relationship. Gurus and experts and counselors tell people all sorts of things they need to do to keep a relationship going. But the assumption is always that there's a limit. There's some point where you've done all you can do and you just have to let a bad relationship die. That it's a natural part of the process.

Well, I've only been married for 10 years. And God knows we have our ups and downs like everyone else. But there is one huge difference between our relationship and every other relationship that I see around me. It's very simple and I truly believe that it is the one and only thing that will guarantee the life of a relationship.

We do not, under any circumstances, admit the possibility of separation or divorce. It is simply not conceivable in our view of marriage.

So we argue and disagree. We fight. (I once threw a hard cover book at my husband's head and gave him a concussion.) We're normal people who have tempers and don't always feel mushy and loving toward each other. But we always know in our hearts that none of that stuff matters. Because we are married and we are always going to be married and that is that. Ending the relationship in any way is simply not an option.

That's what love is. I'm the most fortunate person in the world to have it and to have had it from the beginning and to know without a shadow of a doubt that I will have it until death tears us apart.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What is an Epic?

Ok, I'll let this one go.
The word "epic" gets bandied around a lot on the internet these days and I admit that it makes me very sad to see the meaning of the word watered down and used in ridiculous ways. The truth is that the word epic comes from the Greek meaning "word, story, poem" and was traditionally used to refer to a lengthy narrative poem. Homer wrote epics. The word does not refer to something you think is neat or impressive. It is not an adjective to be shoved willy nilly in front of the words "win" or "fail" as if they weren't opposites.

Of course, we've appropriated the term for things other than narrative poetry that aren't so stupid. I'm a pretty big fan of Epic Fantasy. But then, I think we've been defining Epic Fantasy too loosely. If we're going to use the term "epic" for prose rather than poetry, that's understandable. Long narrative poems just aren't really a viable method for storytelling these days. But I do think that our prose version of the epic should at least participate in some of the other characteristics that set the epic poem apart.

This definition of the epic is from A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman:

Epic: a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.

Let's look at some of these elements. 

An Elevated Style 

Within the context of poetry, that's pretty self explanatory. Poetry is an elevated style. But what would this mean in the context of a prose tale? The idea brings to mind passages from certain works that express ideas and emotions so strong, so grand, so glorious that you want to shout them into a thunderstorm or while swinging a sword above your head. Words that stir you. For instance, it used to be that whenever we had a storm around here my husband would feel the need to go outside and proclaim into the gale:

And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Which is, of course, a line from Shakespeare's King Lear. Just the other night I read some lines from the classic fantasy novel The Worm Ouroboros which gave me distinct chills:

And now, let the earth be afraid, and Cynthia obscure her shrine: no more words but mum. Thunder and blood and night must usurp our parts, to complete and make up the catastrophe of this great piece.

Or this from Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany:

Far over the waters, and on the wings of the prayers beats the light of an inaccessible star. No hand hath touched it, none hath journeyed to it, it hath no substance, it is only a light, it is the star of Hope, and it shines far over the sea and brightens the world.
An elevated style, I think, is using the power and the sound and rhythm of words to conjure up in our hearts things of grandeur and beauty. Things greater than anything we are likely to experience in our day to day lives. 

Central Heroic Figure and Characters of High Position

Achilles. Beowulf. Odysseus. Gilgamesh. Rama. Siegfried. 

The great epics feature huge casts of characters, but the nexus of the story is the Hero. The character whose words and actions can move mountains and ultimately drive the story. The Hero of an epic is a larger than life character and usually embodies the values of the culture from which the epic is born.

The Hero is not, of course, the only character of importance. Given the vast scope of most epics there will be many other actors in the drama having their own adventures and escapades either with the Hero or on the side. But all the parts of the tale come together through their relation to the Hero. He is, in other words, the glue that holds the epic together.

But why, one might ask, should an epic specifically be concerned with "characters of high position".

Well, keep in mind that the art form of the epic goes back thousands of years to times and places where it was only those of high position who would have participated in adventures on a scale grand enough to influence the history of a nation and justify an epic. Everyone else was too busy wondering where their next meal would come from. Also, which type of tale would you rather be entertained with at the end of a long day toiling in the fields? A story about Joe who lives in the next village and has the exact same cares and faces the exact same conflicts as you? Or the tale of mighty Achilles overcoming the great Hector outside the walls of Troy? I know which I'd prefer.

Still, we live in a different world now. People of "high position" who can change the course of a nation or influence a culture can come from anywhere. To incorporate this idea into a modern prose epic one can choose to focus on the individuals in a story that have the most at stake and the most influence over their world. The characters whose actions and words have powerful ramifications within their culture are the characters of "high position".

Episodes Important to the History of a Nation

My husband suggests that a better choice of wording in this part of the definition would be "episodes important to the identity of a nation or race". In other words, epics are born out of a culture as well as helping to shape the culture. Reading the ancient epics gives us insight into the mind and heart of the cultures of the ancient world. These epic poems developed from the tales told by the people as part of their cultural identity. They reflect what was sacred to the people, what made them Greeks or Romans or Anglo-Saxons, etc.

Stories don't have quite the same relationship with culture these days. Not only because there are hundreds of thousands of books published every year allowing us to be really picky about which ones we readers turn into successes, but also because culture just doesn't mean the same thing these days. The world has become, at the same time, a much bigger and much smaller place. Bigger because we're not confined to villages anymore. Smaller because the unknown and unexplored has all but vanished. Which is why, I believe, a lot of us have turned to the realms of fantasy and science fiction for those things which once would have been part of the cultural epic.

To achieve the same kind of importance and meaning in a prose epic today an author almost has no choice but to create their own setting. An epic should involve circumstances and events that have far reaching consequences and it should be played out across a vast and lofty canvas. 

Artist's rendition of mythological Ireland, where the sagas of the Age of Heroes happened.

I'll be honest. I think there's too much "epic fantasy" out there that doesn't count as epic in any way. I think we need more truly epic works of fiction. And the reason I am exploring this topic is because it is my goal to write some. Toward that end, I'll probably spend some time talking about particular epics and examining some of the other common elements of the ancient epic here in future posts. Wish me good fortune!