Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Unnecessary conceits

I roleplayed in Yahoo chat rooms for several years, from the time I was 13 or so. It was certainly long enough to have seen every fantasy cliche ever. I stumbled across a picture of a boy with dog ears and a dog tail on a random Google image search (which had nothing to do with wolves or boys or random animal parts, in case you were wondering), and it reminded me of the bajillion nekos and kitsunes and anthros and what the hell evers that wandered around in chat. Naturally, I thought too much about it and had to write it down. My thoughts are not fully formed on this, so pardon me while I ramble.

I've never understood the appeal of having a character with animal parts or a ten-foot-long sword or blood-red eyes or bat wings or whatever, other than looking/seeming badass, which I guess is the whole point. To me, they're unnecessary conceits. They never contribute anything to the character or the story, so why have them?

Granted, you don't often see stupid extremes in published UF or fantasy novels, but there are still some unnecessary conceits that get under my skin. The Badass Chick Who Can Fight in Heels and Still Look Fabulous is one of the more recent and infuriating ones, but that's a rant for another time. I'm talking things like the supernatural + pop culture. Zombies, vampires and werewolves occupying "cool" positions like radio jockeys or fashionistas or celebrities. I blame fucking Anne Rice for the rockstar vampire thing, and True Blood for bringing about the popularization of this conceit. I'm sure there's some parodic message about society and the supernatural to be found in the trend, but frankly, it annoys me too much to think hard about it. I'm not sure why, except that I have pretty much zero interest in Top-40 pop culture. I find it shallow and annoying, and adding the supernatural to it doesn't suddenly make it interesting.

There seems to be a long-running trend of doing things just because you can, especially in UF. Example: the hero collects unusual, never-before-seen powers until s/he becomes a Sue, and then the author throws in some equally weird "consequences" or "flaws" from being superpowered. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Anita Blake. I'm sure needing to have sex a lot is a real burden. Or the world contains every creature to ever appear in the D&D monster manual, and they dogpile on the protagonist nonstop. As much as I enjoy The Dresden Files, that drives me nuts.

And because I can apply pretty much every one of my UF pet peeves to this series, I'm going to pick on Rachel Vincent's Werecat books. First: the protagonist's name is Faythe. Good God, seriously? Second: At the beginning of the first book, Faythe is an English literature grad student. This never appears again. This is fairly minor compared to the third point, which is the scarcity of female werecats as it applies to Faythe. Apparently, because females are rare, they Must Be Sheltered And Protected and are Obligated to settle down, marry and have babies. Vincent tries to create a really bizarre pseudo-feminist conceit in creating this aspect of the world, and in my view, it succeeds in doing nothing more than being only halfway relevant. Its purpose, I suppose, is to make Faythe seem like A Rebel Against Her Oppressive Society like early feminists. What it makes her seem like is a stupid bitch. Yup, I went there. Faythe's education and Oppressive Society serve as little more than either place settings or convenient complications, with no real purpose other than to seem like something hip and progressive.

Before I get too far into that rant, because I could go on all day, I'll turn to the real tragedy of a lot of amateur fantasy: when magic itself becomes a conceit. It happens. It's flashy. People are cool if they can do it. But it's the worst kind of gratuitous literary special effect. It has zero bearing on the world itself. It might serve as a plot point (mostly for the protagonist, who is usually the one with the magical powers and is either ostracized or heroized because of it), but it doesn't affect anyone else. It doesn't exist as part of the world. If you have something that can be as pervasive as magic, why not have it affect societies, environments, governments--people's daily lives? Not everyone has to be conscious of it (in UF, for example, a line is often drawn between People Who Know About Magic, which are usually supernatural people and those who happen to hang around supernaturals, and those who aren't, who are the ignorant mundanes), but a sensitive, subtle narrative should take pains to show how it affects people in general. How could something like magic not affect the world it exists in? How could super-powered magical/supernatural beings not affect, intentionally or unintentionally, the environments they interact with? I guess this is something the annoying pop culture supernatural stuff is trying to get at--making supernaturals pervasive rather than isolated.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that if magic doesn't affect your world and everything in it, there's no point in having it. Yeah, it would be cool to have your character pull out some badass trick like calling lightning, but honestly, who cares if he does when there's no bearing on anything? And really, personal consequences or benefits of using magic, while a step in the right direction, are not the be-all end-all, and they can end up a conceit as well. Don't look for a reason for your character to be persecuted or adored. It's patronizing.

I think a lot of these conceits stem from concern with making characters Cool. Want to add some Coolness? Add some badass powers, magical or otherwise. Don't, like, give them an interesting personality or anything. Who cares about that? Just add some dog ears and a tail. People will either think he's adorable or they'll think he's a freak, and either can work in your favor.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Doing" magic

I can't seem to write a novel without some element of the paranormal. Even the little bit of a plot bunny I had yesterday while watching a show on female mobster Virginia Hill involved a touch of the paranormal (Mafia UF, anyone?). Oddly, although I define UF as being magic-focused to differentiate it from magical realism, I don't often think much about how I "do" magic. But writing two different UF series has got me thinking a little.

In my first series, Shadow Embers, which is co-written, magic is very organic. It's not something you see or something that's really flashy--it's just something that is. It's woven into the fabric of the world, and when it appears, characters are is very matter-of-fact about it. This is in part because there are no major human characters in Shadow Embers; it's completely focused on supernatural people. Magic is an effect: either people have an effect on their environment through magic, or magic directly affects people. It's framed in terms of action, sometimes cause and effect. Here's an example from my as yet unfinished novel Touched, which is part of the Shadow Embers series. The point of view character is a Seer with psychometry, meaning he gets visions from touching things.
Vasily gave up the argument--arguments between them never lasted long--and shrugged, tugging off one glove. There was only one way to find out. He closed his eyes and reached out to touch the rail. His skin prickled as it always did before he touched something that would give him a vision, the last-minute sensation that came too late to pull his hand away.
Vasily, especially, is focused on sensation. Other characters use a little more or a little less description, but it's almost always in terms of action (Korian forms a word, Grace makes an Illusion). Here's another example from Touched:
He didn't notice, at first, when Vasily began to move the air away from his face. It was safer than drawing the air out of his lungs, which risked lung collapse. Creating one pocket of air without oxygen was harder; air moved all the time, naturally, and didn't like to be confined, but he had no desire to kill the man—it would attract too much attention. 
There's just enough explanation so the reader understands what's going on. The description overall is pretty minimal.

On a Twisted Tree, my current project unrelated to Shadow Embers, is a lot different, though I didn't realize exactly how different until someone pointed out my treatment of magic in the story. The two protagonists experience it differently: Lindsay feels it and Cary sees it unless they're touching, when they can do both. But either way, it's a lot flashier. An example:

The world went black again for a second, with even the dim lights of the green magical web disappearing, but then the entire world flared into life, bright as day. He could see the rivers of magic flowing into the pools of the nodes, but he could see every tiny trickle that branched out from the rivers, every tree and blade of grass and into the horses' legs. He could see the glimmers of red shifting in the trees and the brush, maybe little animals. He could feel them, too, like bugs crawling over his skin. Of course, he could see and feel Cary, out-shining them all.
All except one.
The figure stood in the middle of one of the rivers of magic they'd tapped to make the circle, overlapping it. Lindsay's magic-sense felt the interruption like a hand stuck into the flow of water; except the water didn't keep flowing around it. The magic flowed through the figure, like a sieve. The figure itself looked like something Lindsay had seen in a book once, something from mythology, half-man and half-horse. It had all the colors of fire, from white to red to indigo. And it was looking at them.
The character of magic is completely different. This is in large part because while Lindsay and Cary are supernatural, they're new to the supernatural world and so are more conscious of it. Part of it is because I wanted to do the flashy magic thing--it's so outside what I normally do.

Another difference is the presence of the supernatural in these two worlds. In Shadow Embers, magic is very organic to characters. They're born to do it. But it's foreign to the world. All supernatural people are imports--they're descended from a group of people who took refuge our world a few millenia ago. Only those people with magical blood can use magic, and it has a direct effect on the world and its elements.

In Tree, magic is literally the fabric of the world. It's completely natural, although it can be corrupted to have negative effects on the world. (Yeah, that may or may not be a statement on my part.) Even those not inclined to be able to control magic can still have an effect on it--all it takes is intent. And not even intent to do magic, just intent to do something. If you get a group of people who want the same thing, they can make it so. This idea will be developed more in future books.

I've never believed in magic for magic's sake. It has to be an integral part of the setting. I think the major difference between these two projects is that in Shadow Embers, the magic isn't the primary part of the plot. It's always a big part of part of the plot, but the primary aspect is character interaction and conflict. Magic doesn't affect the plot as much as people do. Tree is also very character-based, but magic--the discovery and use of it--has a primary effect on the plot.

So there's my analysis for the day.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What We Leave Behind

When I was a kid, I hoarded paper, especially loose leaf paper. Should I for some reason be able to get paper Ever Again, like if the apocalypse arrived as predicted on Y2K (yeah, that worried me), I'd at least be able to have a stocked supply of paper to write on. To this day I often can't get rid of notebooks. I keep hard copies of my writing even if I have digital copies galore. When I moved several hundred miles a few months ago with only my compact car, I had to part with several notebooks filled with my most recent novel, and it was a wrench to do so, even if I had a bajillion copies elsewhere. Ignoring the fact that this probably indicates some underlying obsessive anxiety issue, which I feel qualified to make fun of, this gives you an idea of what writing has meant to me since I first discovered it.

My first semester of grad school, I took a research methods course with a rather eccentric genius professor who fully believed that research isn't research unless you're looking at primary sources--and he showed us exactly what that meant. He took us to the university archives and pulled out eight or ten boxes of yellow legal pads, coffee-stained pages filled with handwriting. They belonged to a poet-turned-author from University of Arkansas who had passed away fairly recently, leaving an unwritten novel and a half. He thought he was doing us a favor by making is dig through these boxes of legal pads, trying to put together this novel and a half into a publishable manuscript. In a way, I guess he was--not many first-semester grad students have ever gotten to do that, I'm sure. But a fair number of us were creative writers, and rather than inspiring us, it scared us. We did not want to die this way, leaving behind these boxes of randomly-ordered legal pads for someone else to put together.

I was oddly fascinated seeing those pads, not that I would have admitted it at the time. The idea that someone could leave behind what was essentially an impenetrable mess of handwriting was deeply unsettling. No one was ever meant to see these pads, I'm sure--they were pieces of a newborn novel, still bloody and kind of blue and covered in mucus. Just like a newborn baby, a newborn novel is not in any way aesthetically appealing. (Sorry. It's the truth.) It's a miracle of life, sure, but could you really call it pretty?

Before I run the risk of driving this metaphor into the ground, I'll explain what I mean. This guy died before his novel ever made it past infancy. His first novel was not what I would term a success; it was bizarre and not much more accessible than the hand-written pages my classmates and I sorted through, which, in my mind, made it even harder to put it together into any kind of manuscript. To be honest, I felt like I was violating the author's privacy, in a way. He must have had a vision for this novel, and surely this ugly, newborn draft wasn't it. He wanted to raise it into a Big Boy Novel, but it wasn't there yet. But my professor wanted us to revive it and shove it out into the world anyway.

I don't really have an end to this story. I don't know that I learned any lessons from the experience aside from the obvious "Oh God please don't let me die with a bunch of unfinished manuscripts lying in boxes around my house so people can root through them and publish the awful literary skeletons that need to stay in the closet." Maybe it's just that I don't want to remain a mystery like this guy. Sitting in the archives, flipping through 30-year-old handwritten pages, is not a memory I will ever forget, and I think it was a valuable experience, but I never knew the man. I should not have been the one doing this. It should have been friends, family, colleagues. But it sounds like upon his death, he was really a mystery to everyone. He kept his writing hidden, pecked away at it in secret. Even his wife didn't know what was on those legal pads.

I don't want that for myself. I want people to know me and know what I'm doing. I don't want to keep it a secret for a bunch of reluctant grad students to try to unravel after I die, if for no other reason than the idea of being unable to control what people see of my writing (and therefore of me) is really pretty horrifying. I don't know, maybe I keep those filled notebooks around so people can have a more complete image of my writing (and therefore of me). Maybe that's why I've kept a LiveJournal for nine years, and I've never actually gotten rid of the horrifying teenage posts I made back then, despite much temptation. Maybe that's why I keep blogging in various places. I want to be understood.

Doesn't everyone?