Meet the main cast

Sometimes I forget, after years of working with my characters and nattering about them to any friends who are willing to stand still, that all everybody else has by way of introduction to them is the cover blurb and jacket copy. So here is a brief introduction to the five characters who serve as our eyes for the story of Ryswyck.

Stephanie Speir

Speir was the first character to develop a viewpoint in the embryonic story, and she is our ‘in’ to the world of Ryswyck Academy. By necessity she’s capable of reflecting on what she encounters, but given a choice, she really wants something to do. She has the fighter’s addiction to total abandon — in whatever arena she finds herself in. Her greatest strength (and greatest weakness) is her drive to set things right for people she cares about. Her motivating force is velocity.

(Disclaimer: The person in this picture is a real swordfighter and not an actor, and though I’ve been fascinated by this image ever since I first encountered it, I don’t know how much she’d appreciate being made the avatar of some rando’s original character. So I use it with cautious respect. Forgiveness, permission, &c.)

Walter Douglas

My first outline notes for “the Academy story,” to my amusement, contain the parenthetical aside: Is any of this in Douglas’s POV? It takes a while to draw him out, but once his presence unfolds, the pull of his gravity is irresistible. Continuously aware of the big picture, Douglas is not hasty to act, but when he does, it’s decisive. He loves deeply, and so can be hurt deeply. He’s not a visionary by nature, but he is a determined idealist. His motivating force is integrity.

(The image: Luigi Lucioni, Paul Cadmus, from the Brooklyn Museum.)

General Thaddeys Barklay

Ah, Barklay. In this story, everybody has an Opinion about Barklay. And nearly all of them are right. Like many visionaries, he is wilfully blind to his own compromises, and skates over the discrepancies between his visions and reality. Is he a good man who does terrible things, or a bad man who does some good things? My advice: don’t get hung up on the question. I write from his point of view because I wanted to evoke what it feels like from the inside to want to be justified, even when you know you shouldn’t be. His primary grace? He knows it’s not about him.

(The image: Hugh Bonneville, looking appropriately seedy.)

Emmerich du Rau, Lord Bernhelm

One of these days I’ll write a post about the collapsing option trees of choosing a structure. And du Rau will be at the center of it. An elusive man, du Rau is the Lord Executive of the country of Berenia, the antagonist of Ilona, the island country of my other characters. I wanted to write from his POV because I was tired of stories in which the enemy is the Other whose perspective is either given no place or depicted as evil. Forget that. Du Rau knows intimately the desperation of his water-starved people, and has leveraged all his leadership behind his plans to make Berenia stable and safe. He has more than one secret weakness, which he guards from view with the help of his wife, Lady Ingrid. In his youth he was friends with Barklay, before the war. Now he is an implacable enemy. Like every other member of the main extended cast, he is indispensable: without him, the ultimate situation would utterly deteriorate.

(The image: just imagine Diego Luna here aged up a little.)

General Eamon Inslee

In this landscape of idealists and antagonists, Inslee is just a practical man trying to run a military installation on an inhospitable rock. He views the Ryswyckian culture of courtesy with an ironic skepticism tempered by suspended judgment. Wise and (mostly) patient, he has a sneaking admiration for passionate skill, but that’s not going to stop him from doing what he has to do. His POV is there to remind us that there’s more than one valid approach to the grind of military duty, even if those approaches come into conflict. Plus, I really enjoyed writing his dry sense of humor.

(The image: it’s hard to find a good type of what my idea of Inslee looks like, but here’s Kevin McKidd doing his level best.)

So there you have it: the people whose perspectives open the world of Ryswyck to our eyes.

Blogback: Courtesy as a weapon

If it’s not costly, it’s not courtesy.

This is definitely one of the things I hope Ryswyck brings to the table: a way of defining courtesy that isn’t just “having a well-policed tone” or “using good breeding.” As one character (actually, more than one) asks: “How can there be courtesy if one side thinks they’re the only humans?”

There’s a very real sense in which Ryswyckians can afford to exercise courtesy — they’re being trained to be formidable fighters, most of them have a comfortable class status, and all of them are intelligent enough to clear the entrance exam. When they leave the school they will be qualified for at least a lieutenant’s position, or the equivalent thereof, in the army or the navy.

And there’s also a real sense in which Ryswyck Academy creates artificial conditions for courtesy to flourish — as Scalzi mentions, places where people are understood to be social equals are places where courtesy actually isn’t very costly. On the other hand, Ryswyckians are inculcated 24/7 with the community’s ideal of what courtesy looks like, so if someone were to accuse them of discourtesy outside Ryswyck, they’d quickly suss out whether the accusation is being made in good faith.

Courtesy, unlike civility in a lot of contexts, does not equal “never showing anger.” You can respect someone’s humanity and still make it bitingly clear that you are furious with them. At Ryswyck, you can hit them — within certain rules of combat, of course. But what courtesy and civility have in common is that sense of cost. It is a heroic thing to show courtesy when it costs you. When someone who finds it much less costly, who styles themselves the arbiters of who and who is not a true member of a community, demands your heroism as a right — well, that is a vast insult.

I know what people are saying when, for example, they complain about Michelle Obama’s maxim, “When they go low, we go high,” but it does have one effect that I don’t think is often considered. Coming from her, this is a seizure of the moral high ground before the fact. White supremacist haters lose their chance to demand her heroism as their rightful due, because she has already framed it as a gracious gift. It’s a nonviolence tactic that drives them crazy.

Still, it’s a tactic, not the whole strategy, and it’s not available always and everywhere. It’s very useful in direct action, and less useful in, say, a situation where someone has applied the letter of the law of civility but made it manifestly clear that they don’t respect your humanity at all.

An actual sense of courtesy seeks, where possible, to liquidate unfair advantages, which requires a person to be aware of the situation outside the boundaries of one’s self. That’s the other sense in which courtesy is costly. Scalzi is perfectly right to suggest that the people who usually call for “civility” would never do so if it turned out to actually cost them something. For a lot of them, there’s little to choose between “respect my humanity” and “never tell me I’m wrong about something.” But for all courtesy’s costs, shielding someone from narcissistic wounding isn’t one of them.

It really sucks, though, to have the responsibility of issuing a gentle and courteous criticism, only to be met with a Category 5 uncivil backlash. I guess that’s why I got such pleasure out of having my Ryswyckians turn courtesy into a weapon.

Smile. Bow. Hit them. What could be more gratifying?

Admiring other writers, and other invitations

Writers, what mad skills of other writers make you stand back and admire?

I’m not talking about the obvious stuff; I’m talking about the kinds of things you know are tricky from trying to do them, and leave you dumbstruck when you see them done well.

This question occurred to me by way of plotting for The Lantern Tower. Now that I’ve got down three opening chapters, I have a better handle on the problem that was holding me up while storyboarding. The emerging answer was one I had already gestured at in the outline, but I had been rather timid about raising the stakes in order to do it. As soon as I thought that, Sensible Me said, “Well, why?” Indeed, Sensible Me. I should listen to you more often. So I opened a chat window to a friend and nattered at her for half an hour, and found myself remarking: “This is the part where I really envy Julia Spencer Fleming her seemingly limitless capacity for orchestrating the psychological movements of a large cast.”

It’s been a while since I thought about JSF and her books, but damn. Yeah. The more characters you constellate in a situation, the more complex the emotional movements and realities grow, reflecting in counterpoint and building toward either disaster — or eucatastrophe. Keeping track of that many internal realities, timing climactic urges, making sure every beat strikes a realistic emotional note: this is not freaking easy. Rocket science is easier, sometimes. This is especially true when, as JSF often does, you’re writing a story with multiple POVs.

Now, this skill can’t carry a book all by itself. One of this series — I think it was To Darkness and to Death — focused on psychological orchestration to the exclusion of all else, and I got bored and asked S to spoil me so I could read the next one. But if a story needs this skill, and it isn’t there…well. The fact that JSF can create, maintain, and drive stories with a community full of breathing internal realities makes the series as a whole one of my benchmarks for writing a large cast.

So if you stand in awe of a mad skill of some fellow writer, I want to hear about it. I need some new recs anyway.

(And speaking of recs, have you read Ryswyck? Did you like it? By all means hit it up with a review! Let the good folks at Amazon know what they’ve got.)

Meanwhile, I am still basking in the afterness of a good day of goodness, having done my first (small) fencing tournament last weekend. I fenced to my standard, which is to get on the board in any bout and win as many winnable ones as I can, learned a lot about procedure, fenced some new and very interesting fencers, and picked up some new music from the fencing buddy I rode up to Des Moines with. All in all, a good time was had by me, 10/10 would fence a tournament again.

And that is all the news that’s fit to print.

The state of the state

Honestly, as weekends in November go, this one wasn’t bad.

I got a scene finished in Chapter 3 of The Lantern Tower and started another. I’m introducing two new POV characters in this book, one of whom had a throwaway mention in Ryswyck which interested me enough to pull his thread, so now he’s in the story. I haven’t got round to the other one yet, but I’ve got lots of dialogue sketches socked away for when he appears.

This is not, as I may have mentioned, my optimum time of year, either creatively or mood-wise, so having produced two and a half chapters so far is rather a cause for cheer. Also, we’re off Daylight Saving Time, so getting into the last trough of time toward winter solstice is progress, of a sort.

Meanwhile, the new season has opened at the symphony, and I went on Saturday night with the usual suspects — three of us are coincidentally former senior wardens of our church, and perhaps less coincidentally, we have dinner beforehand at some place where we can drink well. I had a house Manhattan that was chalked up on their blackboard as “ABV = a lot” — so I only needed one.

And on the program this weekend was Bruckner’s Seventh. After Erica’s friend mentioned it as the background to her enjoyment of Ryswyck, I was curious to be in the same room with the piece. I think my main takeaways are: 1) yes, it’s long 2) if I am going to be hearing an extended restatement of several themes, I’m not sorry it’s these ones 3) Bruckner may have adulated Wagner but I know who I like better 4) it’s all still Very German, which is confusing to my Very Yorkshire genes 5) the program notes said that the third movement was based on the laendler and I was like, I don’t remember the Captain and Maria dancing to anything like this, are you sure? 6) I kind of like Wagner tubas however 7) the piece afforded some awesome opportunities for sections to play in a rich unison, showing off how well they blend, which means that 8) the KCS played it very well indeed. Someone yelled “BRA-VO” before the reverb of the last note cleared, and one of the violas bounced in her chair at the end, obviously having fun.

So, clearly I owe N. a Belfry Manhattan (ABV = a lot), not just for adding enjoyment to my musical calendar, but also for reccing Ryswyck in multiple venues. She’s responsible for more of my recent sales than I am, I’d judge!

Tune in next time for…I don’t know what. Probably I should wrap up the Alter series before the year ends. We’ll see how many brain cells I can scare up before solstice.

Well, I’m back (from ABQ)

And I come bearing pictures.

Now that the conference is in the rearview and work has calmed down a little, I should be back to posting Genuwyne Quality Content on the regular. Starting with a small gallery of my Albuquerque trip.

I took 250+ shots of the Balloon Fiesta ascension, culled those for FB posts, and then drew a tiny representative sample for this post. In the midst of working the conference, my fencing buddy S, who introduced me to Beth in the first place, flew in to ABQ, rented a car, and picked me up for a side trip to Santa Fe for Beth’s gallery opening reception, which was amazing, of course. You can see why I was so honored for Beth to make room for Ryswyck on her easel! (And obviously I need to get on the stick and read more Ray Bradbury.)

Speaking of Ryswyck, somewhere in the midst of prep work and travel and long hours, I’ve managed to finish two chapters of The Lantern Tower. This is not at all my prolific time of year, but I’ll eke out whatever I can in the fall months. The themes so far appear to be secrets and shock tests, and unsurprisingly du Rau is responsible for a lot of that. I suppose it’s his revenge for my not using his POV this go-round.

And so it goes, &c. &c.

An agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list

I haven’t played a video game since 1991, but I’m tickled by the concept of a horrible goose with a to-do list.

So my weekend was fairly productive on the housework and acquiring-new-shoes-for-the-conference fronts, but not so much on writing or blogging. Or changing the cat litter, but one can’t do everything. But one thing I have done recently is start going through Pat Wrede’s blog on writing; there’s some really good stuff there, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

For one thing, Wrede put me on to Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, a writer’s guide which she updated for the 21st century — ULG was lively-minded right to the end. I want to be Pat Cadigan when I grow up, and I want to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow old. Anyway, Steering the Craft is (naturally!) full of sensible advice and actual writing exercises that look salutary for a writer to do. (I mean, I haven’t done any of them yet, but they do look useful.)

For another thing, reading a blog that has a long archive is like leafing through a time capsule of the changing zeitgeist. I found a post where everyone on a panel (including Pat) was shocked when someone said brazenly that a novel should have an agenda, at least so much as to say a moral point of view. Seanan McGuire, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor: these authors have since then articulated even more firmly that if your very existence as a writer is itself a political act, then of course you should embrace writing stories with a specific moral point of view. After all, any story that appears to be agenda-less actually has an invisible agenda that is congruent with the predominant cultural point of view. It has plausible deniability, or at least an unthreatening premise.

I think that argument is true in the specific sense in which the new writers are using it. And I think they’ve been successful enough in changing the conversation that it’s now about whether new speculative fiction can be called “high concept” if it is not challenging to the predominant cultural point of view. And that’s a good thing, in my view. I’ve read some great books in the last five years thanks to those efforts.

But that’s not what I want to get at today. I want to talk about what writing with an “agenda” is like from the writer’s point of view. Like, how does a writer actually pursue a moral point of view in a story they are writing?

In my experience, the first question is what kind of story you want to tell yourself. You have to want to tell yourself this story, or it’s no fun. I can see where writers can become sad and bitter, if the stories they want to tell themselves are stories that other people are indifferent to, or disapprove of. When I find myself sinking into a mood like that, my self-prescription is to read other people’s books, preferably ones I haven’t read already. If it lightens my mood, that’s enough; if it enriches my perspective, that’s even better. Whatever gets me back — or onward — to a place where my story is fun.

Mind you, no matter how viral your story turns out to be, any story with a specific moral point of view isn’t going to be for everyone — like Hendrick’s Gin, which puts that legend in scrolling script on every bottle: It Is Not For Everyone. (Then they came up with another infusion that’s even more Not For Everyone than the original, which might be a bridge too far, but I haven’t tasted it yet, so I withhold judgment. And anyway I doubt Hendrick’s is complaining about their sales volume. But I digress.)

Example: back in the day when I was a floating library assistant (insofar as a Geo Storm hatchback could be said to float around Tulsa County library to library), I had a conversation with a branch librarian that appalled me to my core. We were talking about displaying favorite books, and she started gushing about Thomas Hardy. “I mean, the way he writes, it’s just the way life is!” she said. Now, I had had to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for my Victorian survey class, and to me it was the epitome of everything I hated in a story: a hapless protagonist whose every effort to get out of a tar pit only mires them in further, a dim view of human capacity, a cynical view of God and/or spiritual enrichment, and a narrating voice that can well afford to stand afar off, aloof if not sneering altogether.

I can’t remember if I actually bit my tongue or if I answered her out loud: “God, I hope not!”

Nowadays, if (God forbid) I should ever be forced to teach Tess to a class of unsuspecting undergraduates, I would pair it with T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Yes, double the misery, I know. But reading the Boyle book showed me something I hadn’t picked up about Tess, even in a university setting: which is that Hardy was doing all those things on purpose, not because he was a miserable man with a miserable point of view, but because he wanted to subject his readership to a scathing parable about their complacent condemnation of the marginalized people among them. I don’t know any Victorian middle-class snobs; but I do know plenty of white liberals. I get the value of these novels as parables — and there’s something to be said for a book’s power if it could make me react so strongly 100 years later.

But. I still don’t want to tell myself a story like this. Hardy and Boyle obviously found some fun in it; but I think in large part it’s because they could afford to. You have to be placed just so if you want to afflict the comfortable without also comforting the afflicted.

And that brings me to the point I wanted to make. So often when people take against the idea of writing with an “agenda,” the complaint is that the book is too “preachy.” But I say: show me a person who thinks a story can’t present a moral point of view without turning into (ugh) a sermon — and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t heard a good sermon. It’s not their fault; good preaching is hard to find, generally speaking. I’m lucky: I gained a lay preaching license because I had some truly gifted mentors. I learned that a sermon combines the art of academic argument with the art of storytelling. A good sermon does five things: 1) it is about one topic and has a beginning, a middle, and an end; 2) it does not read things into its text but draws them out; 3) it is relevant for the people it is addressed to; 4) it gives the listener something to chew on on more than one level — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, imaginative, or all of these; and finally 5) it’s given by someone who knows when to be confrontational and when not. It’s a delicate art.

Like writing a novel.

So what kind of story do I want to tell myself? What sermon do I need to hear? I want a story with eucatastrophe built into it, obviously; with characters who are innocent as doves or cunning as snakes or both together; where everyone is essential to the resolution of the crisis, or at least significant in it; where people get along with the others or find a way to work with those they don’t; where suffering isn’t a cheapskate play for meaning; where heroes don’t punch down; whose plot doesn’t take for granted the punishment of women for laying claim to significance; where friendship is a driving force; where agency rather than fate is the moral imperative; where redemption is earned and grace bestowed, instead of the other way around.

Now that sounds an awful lot like an arduous checklist, but when I’m making up a story, I don’t proceed by ticking boxes. It’s more like I’m hanging on the refrigerator door figuring out what to make for dinner. Ooh, I have an onion, I could make this; won’t make that till I buy some lemons. But of course I’m the one who stocked the fridge in the first place.

There’s a lot of work between that moment and the moment I have people over. But then there will be wine. Or gin.

All the news that’s fit to print

Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

It’s been rather busy chez moi, as my work has just concluded their fall conference here in town. A lot of rolling out of bed at Oh My God It’s Early, putting on actualfax makeup, and tooling downtown in my nice work clothes in the pre-dawn, then dragging back to trip over the kitty at sundown. It’s a lot of work, but it is fun to see our members at these things. One conference down, one more to go before the year’s end.

Meanwhile, I decided to move on from storyboarding to actual work on the sequel to Ryswyck, which I’m calling The Lantern Tower. I have the first chapter finished and the second chapter started. When I’m working on a project, there’s sort of a breathing rhythm between my efforts to nail down an outline of the plot with lists of scenes and sketches of dialogue, and points at which I have to just start writing to draw down the pressure and provoke more insight. I’ll probably write until I hit a sticking place, let it percolate, and turn back to editing Household Lights, which I hope to get out next spring. It’s not really multitasking; it’s sequence tasking. I loathe multitasking both as a concept and as a requirement: I mean, does anybody really thrive on doing five things at once with equal quality? Don’t tell me if you do.

Anyway, some things about The Lantern Tower. I’ll be introducing two new viewpoint characters and changing POVs on a couple of others. I’ve already got some scenes sketched, and have organized the movements into roughly five short acts. And boy am I glad I siphoned off the opening sequence for Household Lights — that first chapter was a hell of a lot easier to write without dragging that weight.

There’ll be fencing, both literal and metaphorical, court intrigue, spycraft, love, hate, kissing, fightin’ words, secrets, reluctant partnerships, a dash of hurt/comfort, and of course beloved enemies. I wouldn’t tell myself a story without that!

So that’s the state of the state. Now, I must sally forth to get some goodies for the concert my church is hosting. Carry on, as you were, &c.

More thoughts about character

In my last post I had to get my snark on about character as an ideological flashpoint. But there’s a lot more to say about character as a key to good writing, and how one actually goes about forming a fictional character.

Now, I’ve read my share of writing advice, books and articles either by writers I admire or by writers I know little about. Following Lois Bujold on Goodreads recently led me to a blog post by Patricia Wrede, which keyed into something that I’ve long thought about writing character — and that is that character, like any other element of writing, is a gestalt function.

I think writers are too often tempted to talk about characters as if they have the same kind of agency functionally as they do in the plot — or at least as if they should. But I think they’re two different things. In the plot, yes, we want our characters to do things and not always have things being done to them; we want our characters to want things rather than take on the coloring of the situation around them all the time.

But functionally speaking, characters are affected by what surrounds them and who they interact with. As a color changes its perceived hue when framed by red and when framed by blue, any character’s personality is deeply affected by who they’re surrounded with. That’s the way it should be: after all, it’s how we are in real life. It’s one reason I’ve always been frustrated with personality tests. I could test myself out as an INFP, but throw me in a room with a bunch of other INFPs and ask us to choose a place to go out to dinner — and I’ll probably be one of the first people to go OH MY GOD JUST MAKE A DECISION. I tortured myself with the Enneagram one afternoon: “I’m not purely any of these types, and if I were, I wouldn’t interact with such-and-such type like that.”

As Wrede says, we want to discern the pattern, get it settled, and move on, whether testing for personality types or inventing fictional characters. But it’s never that simple and there is no order of operations for putting together a piece of fiction. Most of my stories start with a kernel of a scene, an incomplete interaction between two characters. Developing it involves asking myself questions: how do I justify this situation? Whose presence offstage is exerting influence on it? Who is that person and what would the situation be like if they were actually present? And as I ask more of these questions and begin to answer them, the kernel situation begins to change in its turn. I realize that no amount of world-manipulation will justify this or that aspect; or I decide that what I want out of the scene has mutated; or, inevitably, the character I invented for the purposes of the situation is not going to cooperate with my plans for them.

That’s always a gratifying moment. When a character begins to resist what I want to do to them and starts taking their cue from the situation I’ve developed them in, that’s when I know that I haven’t just constructed a lifeless figure. O mortal, prophesy to the breath. And then the breath prophesies back.

All the same, technical decisions do need to be made. A character of any significance in a story needs to have a trajectory of some kind. The situation isn’t staying the same; they shouldn’t either. After all, they’re going to be part of any reason the situation changes. A character is strong and unassailable: what kind of thing would make them not so? A character is inclined to hide: what would it take to force them out of avoidance mode? A character is a caretaker personality: what about this situation would complicate and mature their sense of compassion? Say all three of these characters are in the situation together: how would the situation change depending on which of them moves first? Do I like that, or would I like it better if another character is the one to move first?

I was talking with Erica about an edit she wanted to make to her current manuscript, and we noted that depending on where the new event falls in the existing series of events, it’s going to change certain scenes where particular characters interact; it would make those scenes about something else. Could be interesting, she remarked; but do I want to sacrifice the positive things in the scenes as they exist for that? For the time that these changes are contemplated, the story is a Schrodinger’s box, with all possible scenarios coexisting until the decision collapses them. Rather apropos for a time-travel story, but it works for other things too.

For me, that’s what it means to say that character is plot. In the gestalt that is a developing story, characters push and are pushed, they pull and are pulled. The “realer” they are, the more agile they will be in the situation, the more tensile. It’s not just that a character needs to act: it’s that they need to embody a justifiable response to the situation in which they find themselves. That’s an embodiment that transcends type, as we transcend the findings of a personality test.

From there, when it gets to the point of putting words on a page, it becomes a series of decisions about how to introduce, describe, and employ the perspective of the characters I’ve developed. Would this scene say the right thing about a character if it is written from their perspective, or should I use a different POV character to show what they’re doing/feeling? Do I want to play this trope to the hilt or push back on it? How much of the character’s inner thoughts should imbue the narrative of this scene?

And then there are the foundational scenes, scenes whose dialogue I’ve worked out almost from the beginning; when it comes time to actually write them down, it’s a perilous and exhilarating moment. Does it feel as right as it did in my head? We shall see.

And then there’s the fun of talking about one’s characters with beta readers. Post-structuralists be damned, it’s fun to discuss our characters as if they were real people. I’ll jump on any excuse. And I suppose that’s what I felt the need to add to my snarky blog of the other day. Characters, almost more than any other element of the art, make writing fun. And the more mimetic power you have and use, the funner it is.

And that, as Edith Ann says, is the truth.

Character and the fictional imagination: part four in a series

In the movie As Good As it Gets, a vapid receptionist asks Jack Nicholson’s novelist character gushingly, “How do you write women so well?” Nicholson replies: “I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability.” Given the earlier scene of him composing text, this is probably not how Melvin Udall actually conceives his characters; but the exchange does further confirm both Udall’s obnoxiousness in real life and what kind of books his novels are.

Regardless of the quality of literary art, it is character more than anything that attracts people to a book and compels them to keep reading it. This is my fourth blog post about Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, but the topic of character is only the second chapter of his book, preceded only by a discussion of the distinctions of literature itself. Of all the chapters, this is the one I am most tempted to quote in large chunks, and at the same time, it’s also the chapter I would most like to update for the 21st century, thirty years on from when he published the book.

A large part of Alter’s project is to push back against post-structuralist criticism that tends to view literary art as a closed system of arbitrarily exchangeable parts, driven in service of some ideology or other. Not only does late-20th-century criticism have no good critical tools for discussing character: it is actively hostile to the concept of character as an artistic endeavor that can be “representational” of anything like “reality.” Alter points out that to attack “character” as a naive delusion is to exhibit a different kind of naivete. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it in a different context: “The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”

No reader, Alter says, really thinks that a character in a book is “real” in a flesh-and-blood sense; else the world would be filled with Don Quixotes attacking puppet shows thinking they are fighting a real battle. But that is not to say that the representational art of drawing character is not a thing of great power. In our current times, I would point out, vast conflicts are being waged online and in public spaces about the nature of character in fictional media. Books and films overpeopled with women who have reason and accountability, oh my! Or, in another vein, showrunners killing off minority characters and depriving fans of viable representation in the stories they love. Critical discourse is no longer just the preserve of academics writing seminar papers; the conventions and habitual biases of people making fictional characters is daily fodder for public discussion.

For that reason I think Alter is right to wish for a really good critical apparatus for talking about character as an artistic function. The nexus between the multiple layers of our common reality and the characters we find compelling is something that we should be able to talk about, both with awareness of the ideological valences and with a practiced insight into how written representational art is produced and received.

But even academics, as Alter says, can suffer from a want of training in how to both frame and discuss the subject of character. And that’s where I think the insight of actual writers can be useful. I mean, writers talking about character is not guaranteed to be useful, especially if you have a couple of dogmatic voices dominating the conversation. You would need a fairly democratized situation where a large number of writers weigh in. And in the 21st century, we have something like that: we have communities of writers of fanfiction, who not only produce “transformative” works with existing characters, but also who are able to interact more and more freely with the original creators of those characters.

“Transformative” is the word chosen by the OTW to describe legally-defensible fanwork; in ground conditions, transformative fiction is so in large part because it is performative. Are characters from the modern drama White Collar still recognizably themselves when translated to a 1920s gangster scene? You decide! But the means by which such a fiction is produced depends on an imaginative act by the author to enter in to a character and work within what they feel to be essential to that character based on their life experience and literary skill. And in that sense, any writer of fanfiction is engaging in practical literary criticism.

The only thing about this that is truly new is the fact that it is all happening on an instantaneous basis in our age of global communication, where one can send an email on Tuesday afternoon to someone in Japan who will get it a nanosecond later where it’s already Wednesday. The Aeneid, meanwhile, uses the exact same critical and literary skillsets to address the Iliad and the Odyssey, by expanding the ‘verse of the original to accommodate new viewpoint characters in service of — a national story, to be sure, but one that has the same imaginative immediacy to its audience as the original Greek texts did to those who first heard them. This is, in fact, one of the ways in which literary continuity operates.

So it really is, as Alter says, useless to think of literary texts as closed systems made up of propagandistic symbology. The perduring (I’m grateful he introduced me to that word) elements of human nature, threaded through eons of change, make the high art of literary character worth studying as a real function rather than a delusion.

I would point out, meanwhile, that the current Discourse going on in certain circles (“In my day,” she said archly, “we were honest enough to call it Wank”) is centered on the contentious axiom that Depiction is Endorsement: some people see little to choose between, say, the pedophile Humbert Humbert and Vladimir Nabokov who conceived and wrote him. People have rightly pointed out that this is mostly motivated by a desire for censorship: “I don’t want to read a story with a character like this” becomes “Nobody should ever read or write a story with a character like this.” And this contention is being shamelessly applied to writers of fanworks as well, as a criticism with teeth of the way in which a writer performs a canon character. This would be an example of a willful delusion: that a character is indistinguishable from an author such that the author is exactly as despicable as the worst character they invent.

Worse, any attempt to push back on this argument often draws scathing references to out-of-touch academics who don’t understand anything about the predatory dangers of the Real World. Given that post-structuralists were so intent on deconstructing the existence of any such thing, it appears that modern academia has been hoist by its own petard. Sad! That’s rather unfortunate, as a voice with recognized authority could be useful in such a discussion, just as the multiplicity of writers’ voices could broaden the discussion’s horizons.

Here’s an extended example of Alter’s critical skill, springing from his example of Stendhal in his discussion of character:

There is surely nothing in the structural necessities or formal requirements of the novel that could bring the writer to this moment of subtle comic illumination….If we look beyond the formal configurations of the text to the [person] that produced them, we will find scant support for a mystique of the writer as a special repository of wisdom….Between the unpredictable pattern of illumination in the work and the touching human foibles of the life, one is compelled to conclude that when fictional invention is going well, it is an activity that ‘privileges’ the writer in some uncanny way: in the incandescence of the imagination that produces good fiction, elements of knowledge and bits of perception variously collected, many of them no doubt stored subliminally in the mind of the writer, coalesce, take on revelatory form in the speech and acts of imaginary personages. It is as if the very process of writing allowed the writer to tap unguessed levels of [their] own self, to achieve a kind of nonvolitional heightening of ordinary insight, as, analogously, the process of free association in psychoanalysis is supposed to do.
Fiction, then, involves above all an imaginative intercourse between the experience of the writer, beautifully focused as it would not be elsewhere, and the experience of the reader, which is both necessary to recognize adequately what the writer has produced and capable of being deepened by what the work of fiction offers.

Now that is a not only useful but usable insight into the representational art that is fiction, and as a writer I find it relatable as a description of process. If someone were to ask me, “Now which of your characters do you most relate to?” I’d have a hard time answering. I’m not a caretaker like Speir, or calm and decisive like Douglas. I don’t have du Rau’s elegant fighting skill or sympathize with his patriarchal worldview. Barklay, my most “problematic” character, is not a transcript of my own temptations or a way for me to fulfill some wish toward exploitation. But the nature of literary art is to enter in to a character, to create and enjoy simultaneously the quiddity of their presence in the world, to work the wool of one’s own self into the thread of them where needed; it’s like knitting a sweater around one’s self. I’m not Speir, but I inhabit her. I get the fun of that private, indeterminate process of inhabiting, and I also get the fun of sharing her with the world. A friend who read Ryswyck remarked in casual conversation, “So you’ve just had these characters running around in your head the whole time I’ve known you.” Well, yeah, and now they’re running around in his head, too.

I mean, if that’s not the essence of “high fun,” nothing is.

Perspective in fiction: part three in a series

So, some time back I started writing blog posts in response to themes in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Then — you know, life — I lost momentum on it. But the other day I found myself on a website devoted to helping writers of speculative fiction, and read a couple of articles on the teasing subject of POV choice, and it reminded me of this chapter of Alter’s book, which was the chapter I found the most insightful of all of them, and which has borne a lot of influence on how I think about the question of perspective.

In fact, I recommend Alter’s book on the strength of this chapter alone, because among other things he takes the trouble to sketch the history of narratology both as practiced by writers and examined by critics. I can’t do justice to the entirety of his argument, so for this post I’ll just tackle two of his points: 1) That “the proliferation of narrative theory has brought with it a sometimes bewildering proliferation of competing views and terminologies,” which tends to garble both how we evaluate what we read and how we advise people to write, and 2) that “there is no hierarchy of narrative perspectives” and that great writing flows from an author’s choices of innovating or nuancing the “fluctuating play” of perspective, which gives “experiential depth and conceptual complexity” to the reader’s experience of the text.

Though I have lasting memories of graduate seminars in which diagrams and boxes were drawn (in chalk, because I am An Old) of narratological frameworks, the most sustained discussion of perspective and authorial choice I’ve encountered is in the arena of fanfiction. One reason for this is pretty obvious: the source text, the “canon,” of a book or TV show or film, has already got an array of established perspectives which the fanwork creator can either hew closely toward, or diverge from. Part of the pleasure, or lack of it, in reading and writing fanworks is to weigh the comparison with the source: is the author trying to match the canon? are they taking a different viewpoint of the same events? does the invention of an original character add perspective to the ‘verse?

Naturally, in an environment where lots of fiction is being written and read, there are undulating trends, and discussions of craft to go with them. For a long time, there was a prevailing trend of writing fanworks in tight third-person POV using the present tense — a trend which may parallel similar trends in modern original fiction, but in both cases was influenced by a small number of very skilled writers who used this perspective to great effect. The trend was and is so strong that in one of the articles on the site I linked above, the author actually recommended sticking to a close third-person perspective, as it was easier to master and also more desirable than “distant” third-person in terms of vivid and immediate wordcraft.

I…don’t agree with either of those assertions, and never have. Where to start? I guess I should start with what I absorbed as a young writer imitating different styles. I don’t remember reading a lot of tight-third stories, or at least not ones I wanted to emulate. What I read were stories with an omniscient narrator (Watership Down) and first-person narrators (To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn). Though I wasn’t attracted to tight-third perspective per se, the principle behind it certainly had its influence: namely, that really good fiction drew the reader into an encompassing reality, a world with immediacy, in which author intrusion was minimal.

Now, Richard Adams is so good that it was years before I noticed he’d written my favorite book in omni. And in part that was because he conceived the narrator of that story as a voice and perspective just as present as the rabbits whose journey he was following. But for the twentieth century it was an old-fashioned approach. The real cutting edge then was experimental perspectives that completely filled the frame and excluded the author-as-narrator to the greatest extent possible — Virginia Woolf, maybe, or James Joyce. Good writing became synonymous with that particular kind of immediacy, even bewilderment, that the reader was meant to share with the focal perspective of the text.

(Here’s a reason to read this chapter of Alter’s book if nothing else. He examines a passage of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent — a book on the Edwardian Lit seminar syllabus that I did not enjoy, unlike The Man Who Was Thursday — and teases out the nuances of the perspective in a single pivotal paragraph, something that is not simply reportage or contextual storytelling or locked-in psychological sequence, but a threading of three needles at once. Alter reveals that one paragraph as a tour de force, and nails down his point that perspective is not a spreadsheet or a schematic. Gave me a better appreciation of Conrad’s abilities, too.)

I didn’t get much success with trying to write first-person narratives — an abandoned novel project and any number of first pages that never went anywhere. When I began to write fanfiction, however, I experimented with a perspective style I called “wide-angle” third (and which the Mythcreants author termed “distant” third — ye gods, the pejorative!) — and grew increasingly confident using it. I found it especially useful writing stories with an ensemble cast, using multiple POVs. Now, you can write ensemble casts in tight third POV, and a lot of people do. But for my purposes, I found it extremely useful for writing, say, Buffy Summers without having to present her thoughts as well as her dialogue in her inimitable voice. Especially if I was writing a story that also included the POV perspective of Giles, whose voice is, well, different. Too, I was writing stories with lots of angst, and there’s nothing worse for an angsty story than too much on-the-nose emoting. A wide-angle perspective, I reasoned, could give a reader the whole picture at any given time, without actually delving into omni.

I liked this so much that I actually went back to my first-person novel project and started it over with a wide-angle third perspective. It worked enough to reveal to me the real problem with the story, which was that it required some heavy research I didn’t care enough to do. So the story is still mothballed, but I feel less bad about it.

So, having written five hundred thousand words of fic (in one fandom) using wide-angle third, and having bridled at all the fandom praise being lavished on the opposite approach — and then getting over it, as one does — I was more or less free to consider what I wanted for my original fiction, with less arbitrary inward constraint or pressure of outward trends. For Ryswyck, I felt for and found a set of filters that would accommodate five very different POVs, which allowed for a bit more unabashed narration, especially when I wasn’t opening a scene with dialogue. Almost one of my first decisions in framing early drafts was to take a cinematic approach — or, something that would correspond to a cinematic approach if the story were being filmed: jump cuts, Sorkinesque walk-and-talks, repeated motifs: Speir being served a cup of tea on an artillery platform followed in the next scene by Douglas reaching for his cup on the desk — things that don’t have to be noticed, and are less apt to be noticed in a text medium, but which keep the eyeline steady from scene to scene.

And here’s a thing I miss about the old fandom venues: fic memes like “DVD commentaries,” in which the author of a fic interpolates comments on the process of a particular scene or story, including POV choices. It’s nice to discover (or tell) just what kind of on-purpose things a writer has done to achieve their effects.

Which brings me to the principle that undergirds all that I’ve learned about writing in the last twenty years. As a teaching assistant and adjunct instructor I used to tell students, “You have to know the rules to break them successfully,” and along with that goes its corollary: You can break almost any rule so long as you do it on purpose. That is — as the result of a decision process you came to about what would work better than any other technique in a given situation. This serves Alter’s larger point about how literary art is both craft and art, which can provide a reader with challenge and enjoyment, can speak to and evoke recognizable reality. If I were teaching now, I’d want my students to know something about the wider goals of using perspective, even as I drilled them on the disciplines of different perspective choices: how a take-six feels in the fencer’s hand, on the way to knowing without discursive thought when to use it in a bout.

Once you’ve encompassed that, the piste is wherever you say it is.

Review: Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

I admit my reading is a bit peripatetic. So often do I clamber wearily through my weekly schedule without the energy to do anything more than open up, say, a Vorkosigan omnibus to some random place so I can have something to read while eating dinner, that it takes a critical mass of recs and/or an opportunity of mood to pick up something new.

This weekend, however, I haled my neurodivergent ass over to B&N and picked up A Memory Called Empire to read while consuming egg drop soup and dumplings. I read four chapters and let the remains of my dinner get cold — and the tea, too. Then I took the book home and read the rest of it in one gulp.

It’s not a short book by any means, but it does read very quickly, and the pacing is snappy without being frenetic or irrational. This is my second court-intrigue novel in a month — and strangely, like The Goblin Emperor, it involves a murder mystery, where the mystery is not really about who committed the murder as it is about why the murder was committed and the serious implications of the aftermath for the succession of the throne. Are a lot of court-intrigue stories like this? I’m not sure I’ve read enough of them to discern a pattern.

In any event, this is a particularly ambitious story. Apart from the court intrigue plot, Martine introduces us to a highly mannered and poetry-inflected world via a foreigner, the POV character who is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire’s central planet. Mahit was chosen as the hasty replacement of her murdered predecessor in no small part because she had fallen in love with the empire’s literary tradition and similarly struggles with the simultaneous insult of being branded a barbarian and desire not to be one. We find out all about the meaningful details of dress and mode of language and apparent alliance through her eyes. To add to this bewildering sensory onslaught, each chapter is headed by epigraphs from Teixcalaanli poetry, or history, or correspondence offstage and out of the POV character’s ken. It’s a lot to take in, and without the snappy pace of the plot itself, it might have been too much.

The characters, too, help carry the burden of introducing such a vivid and complex world. They are nearly all of them memorable individuals that have arcs of growth and nuance as the story unfolds. But if I want to be honest, the parts I want to reread — the parts I have gone back to reread, several times — are the parts where Mahit interacts with her imago memory implant, a technology of her home station whereby the experience and skill of previous generations is grafted onto the new people in their roles, with great psychological care taken to integrate them with their predecessors’ personalities. Not to spoil a major plot point, but Mahit’s relationship with Yskandr, the former ambassador whose murder she is investigating — hampered by sabotage early on in the conflict between her home and the Empire — became the heart of the story for me. I found the concept fascinating and exceptionally well-drawn, and I particularly loved the theme behind the idea, of being seen and understood and not alone, with all the intimacy and peril that implies. That, too, chimes somewhat with a theme in The Goblin Emperor, though the implications are not at all drawn out in the same way.

I gave this a solid four stars on Goodreads and would rec it unreservedly for people who like the kinds of things I’ve described. It was hard for me to not read it like a writer, which I’m not sure is a fault at all, but it did put a small remove in my own intimacy with the story, and in any case it was so well written that it didn’t suffer by that undercurrent of examination. Definitely worth the purchase.