Monday, May 28, 2012

The Players on the Other Side: Some Thoughts on Villainy in Fiction

Please welcome this month's special guest blogger, Debra Doyle! Debra Doyle was born in Florida and educated in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania -- the last at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her doctorate in English literature, concentrating on Old English poetry.  While living and studying in Philadelphia, she met and married James D. Macdonald, who was then serving in the US Navy, and subsequently traveled with him to Virginia, California, and the Republic of Panamá, accumulating various children, cats, and computers along the way.

Doyle and Macdonald left the Navy and Panamá in 1988 in order to pursue writing full-time. Since then they have lived in a big, and increasingly run-down, 19th-century house in Colebrook, New Hampshire, where they write science fiction and fantasy for children, teenagers, and adults.  Their most recent joint works include Lincoln's Sword, an alternate-historical fantasy set during and just after the Civil War, and the short story "Philologos: or, A Murder in Bistrita" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2008.)  Their Mageworlds series of space opera novels are now available from Tor as e-books at Amazon, Barnesand Noble, and other electronic outlets.  For the morbidly curious, a full bibliography is available on their web page:

In addition to writing, Debra Doyle also does freelance editorial and critique work at Dr.  Doyle's Editorial Services, and is a regular instructor at the Viable Paradise Writer's Workshop (for which registrations are still open until June 15th.)

I have a philosophical objection to Capital-E Evil in villains. Very few people -- even the ones who really ought to be removed from society in some permanent fashion for the sake of the greater good -- wake up in the morning and say to themselves, "I'm going to go out and be Evil today." Some of them justify what they're doing in one fashion or another, some of them simply consider that they're doing their jobs, and some of them—frequently the most appalling of them -- think that they're doing good.

No, really.  Most people have a heroic self-image that they aspire to, or fantasize about, or attempt to live up to.  If you're a writer, one of the ways to make your villains three-dimensional is to pay attention to what kind of heroic self-images they have -- the predatory businessman may regard himself as a Prosperity-Creating Captain of Industry, for example, just as the smothering, over-controlling parent or guardian may look in the mirror and see a Protector Against All Harm  And entirely too many political villains, both fictional and real, cherish a heroic self-image as The One Who Can Make Hard Choices for the Greater Good.  These people don't think they're villains.  They think they're heroes.

(And sometimes, they actually are.  The conflict of good versus evil is a steady, reliable story-engine; but if you want some real fictional horsepower, there's nothing like the conflict of good versus good.  This is what makes Magneto, of the X-Men comics and movies, into such an effective and memorable villain: He's got serious, even sympathetic, reasons for setting out on his course of villainy, and his long-term goals are not all that far from the goals of the good guys in that universe. It's his methods that they cannot accept, and that they have to fight.)

A lot of writers suffer from a failure of nerve when it comes to writing their villains.  They resort to making their stories' antagonists into two-dimensional mustache-twirlers, or cardboard bigots, or power-mad psychos, because to do the hard thing, and write the villain as though he had an honest belief in his own (however evil) actions, would require them -- for the span of time necessary to write the guy properly -- to live inside the villain's head, and to (however temporarily) become him, to do his deeds and to believe his beliefs.  Or her beliefs, since equality of fictional opportunity should allow female characters the choice to become villainous as well.

The reader doesn't need to feel sorry for the villain. But if the story is going to go into the villain's point of view at some point, then the reader is going to have to be the villain during that time, and is going to have to look at the world through the villain's eyes; and for that to happen, the writer is going to have to go there first. A lot of writers wimp out on that one -- they have their despicable antagonist's internal musings be the equivalent of gloating and twirling his mustache, as opposed to, say, worrying about whether or not his good black cloak is going to last another winter and if not, whether the current wages of sin are going to stretch far enough to buy him a new one.

In short, the villain and his allies have no fictional life outside of their villainy, which is a failure of imagination that results in flat characters and flatter scenery. If (to invent a quick-and-dirty social milieu to avoid invidious specifics) the writer's heroic and virtuous band of generalized goodness-and-light worshipers (insert deity or principle of choice here for best personal resonance) are being persecuted by the dark votaries of the dreaded Spider God . . . then the writer has to spend some time worshiping the Spider God as well, in order to know, on a gut level, why it is that an otherwise harmless bunch of Fantasyland Unitarians (or whatever) constitute an affront to the moral order of the universe as perceived by the Great Spider.

For that matter, if the dreaded Spider God is going to be all that important to the story, then the writer needs to spend some serious time thinking about Spiderian Theology (current state of, historical state of), and Spiderian Mysticism, and Spiderian Heresies.  Because the problem with one-sided axe-grinding is that it gives us all those fantasy worlds where the evil Church (always with a capital C) appears to have nothing else to do with its time except persecute innocent elves and magic-users and uppity women and anybody else the author thinks is Good and Nice.  This generic evil Church doesn't have any theology, it doesn't have any history, it doesn't have any scriptures (except possibly for a few texts on the proper oppression of elves, et cetera), it doesn't have any internal politics, it doesn't have any saints or mystics or martyrs or missionaries or ordinary hardworking clerics or even members of the Ladies' Altar Guild (all available character slots having been completely taken up by Patriarchs, Inquisitors, and Corrupt Members of the Priesthood) -- it does not, in short, function in any way like an actual, real-world religion as far as the lives of ordinary people in the created world are concerned.  It's a cardboard institution, an all-purpose demon-on-a-stick, and it makes for bad, shallow, unoriginal writing.

For good writing, respect your villains.  Let them win some of the arguments, instead of always being crushed underneath the weight of your protagonist's overwhelming righteousness.  Give them some virtues, the better to make their vices stand out in high relief.  Love them a little, even -- they're yours, and you made them, and you set their feet on the path of evil, so who else is going to care for them even as they inevitably go down?

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Time Never Lived

I had a feeling Terri was not going to do this for herself, so I'm going to take advantage of my spot to talk about the most exciting event this month for Heroines of Fantasy:  the release of Terri-Lynne DeFino's new novel A Time Never Lived.

Those of you who are familiar with Terri's work will be delighted to learn that A Time Never Lived takes us back to the same Mediterranean-style world as Finder, a diverse collection of countries and cultures that surround the aptly-named Bloodbane Sea. 

A Time Never Lived takes place several years after Finder, and includes some of the same characters.  It is, however, a stand-alone novel, so you do not need to have read Finder in order enjoy A Time Never Lived.  (Let me just say, however, that if you have not yet read Finder, you are missing out! This is a wonderful novel that should have an honored place on every fantasy reader's shelf.  If you don't have the budget to order a copy on line, try your luck at the Goodreads Giveaway that Hadley Rille Books is sponsoring; the link to register for your chance to win a free signed copy is on the right-hand column.  Or check your local library.  Many public libraries carry this and other Hadley Rille titles, for the free enjoyment of all readers.)

Without going into the specific plots and conflicts of Terri's novels (you can read the blurbs elsewhere), I want to tell you a little bit about what appeals to me about Terri's work.

First and foremost, I admire the authenticity of her world.  Cities such as Bosbana, and the regions of Greater Argoa and Therk are entirely imagined, yet come across as very real.  We can easily see ourselves having a cup of tea with her characters, or getting drunk with them (and suffering through the resulting hangover with them), or traveling through the hills, deserts and cities of their world.  We learn to recognize the cultural background of each character by their words and mannerisms, and we understand the challenges, conflicts and injustices they face because it all seems somehow very much a part of our own history. 

Layered over this, we have the trials and tribulations of protagonists who are thoroughly human: talented, creative, flawed, deceptive, proud, insecure, and most of all adventuresome.  In Finder we are given the love story of Ethen, hunter of slaves, and Zihariel, the slave who is hunted.  A Time Never Lived tackles a different kind of love through the devotion of Vic, who embarks on a perilous search for his lost father.  In both cases, the lives of the protagonists are embedded in a community of minor characters whose own desires and personal challenges are woven through the primary conflict, adding even more dimension, color and spice to the novels. 

A Time Never Lived will be launched this weekend at ConQuest, Kansas City's own science fiction and fantasy convention.  If you are in the Kansas City area, you will have multiple opportunities to meet Terri, purchase her books and get her signature.

On Thursday, May 24, Terri will be at Prospero's Bookstore for the event High Adventure with Hadley Rille Books, which will feature eleven authors of science fiction and fantasy from all over the United States. 

Friday, May 25, through Sunday, May 27, Terri will be attending ConQuest itself.  She will be in several panels, including a panel of Hadley Rille authors on Saturday, May 26, at 11am.  Also on May 26, there will be a mass signing with all the con authors at 3pm.  And right after that, at 4pm, we will have the official launch party for A Time Never Lived.

If you can't make it to Kansas City this weekend, there are ways you can join the fun on line.  Hadley Rille Books is sponsoring two giveaways through Goodreads, one for each of Terri's novels.  There are links on the right hand bar that can take you straight to the giveaway pages, where you can learn more about the novels and how to register to win. 

You can also join me, right here on Heroines of Fantasy, in congratulating Terri on the release of her second novel. 

Congratulations, Terri!  WOOT WOOT!  Let the party begin.

posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Monday, May 14, 2012

Homecoming and saying good-bye

My youngest daughter just returned from four months studying abroad. Her homecoming was full of squeals and hugs and tears and kisses. As it so happened, I was just returning from a week at the beach, a yearly retreat I take with nine other writing women. Her grand homecoming was my smaller one, and both all-around joyful.


There's always a but, isn't there? Coming home meant leaving something behind. In her case, it was France and traveling Europe, and friends she will likely never see again; in mine, it was beloved friends I see only once a year, the turbulent tranquility of the sea, and a week of autonomy a wife and mother of four gets only very rarely. Coming home means saying good-bye.

One of my favorite homecomings occurs in Return of the King (movie.) The Hobbits return to the Shire riding fine ponies and wearing their finery; returning heroes even if no one actually knew what it was they did. In the movie version, Saruman and Wormtongue hadn't gotten to the Shire. Life continued on almost as if Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin never left.

Our four heroes sit in the pub where they once sang and drank as obliviously as those all around them, they look at one another with a glance that says, "We will never be the same." There is a sweetness to it, and there is sorrow. Once out in the world, after seeing and experiencing all they had and saying good-bye to those friends made along the way, there really was no coming home again.

Homecomings can be poignant, joyous, disastrous, sorrowful, frustrating, hilarious or all of the above. Sometimes coming home is how the story starts, and sometimes it's how it ends. Wherever it appears, it is a transitional moment, a pivot in time, and always important. In my novel, A Time Never Lived, releasing at the end of this month, the story revolves around homecomings of all sorts. One character returns home from exile to face consequences she thought she would never have to. Another character's homecoming brings unexpected joy, and yet another pair returns only to find a new adventure awaiting them. In each case, it meant saying good-bye to family, friends, and experiences that, once had, made going home to what once was impossible.

Have you ever thought of homecomings this way? I don't know that I ever have; and if I have, it was only subconsciously. It got me thinking about other homecomings, and why they touched me, and how they connected to the necessary good-byes. I keep thinking of the end scene in The Hunger Games (movie)--I won't put any spoilers here in the body of this post. It was magnificently done, the joy and the sorrow, that sense of never being able to truly come home again. It touched me on many levels, and sticks with me even after several weeks.

And then there's the homecomings that never happen, but are striven for throughout the story. Again, I won't put spoilers here, but I do welcome them in comments, because I can think of a few of these--and I'm getting chills doing so.

So now that I've got you thinking, I want to hear about the homecomings and good-byes that really stick with you, whether in movies or books, plays or operas, your own work or by someone else.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Value of Tradition

May, the turning of the season, is a time for rituals, traditions, and celebrations.  When I was a young girl in Arizona, my schoolmates and I would step outside the monotony of the classroom every May 1st to twirl colorful ribbons around the maypole.  On Cinco de Mayo a few days later, we would don sombreros and learn traditional Mexican dances.  Other, lesser rituals followed later in the month: annual band concerts and talent shows, report cards, scrubbing down desks and packing up classrooms for the summer.

While I didn’t always understand the cultural significance of May Day or Cinco de Mayo at the time, the importance of ritual itself—the sameness, the excitement, the knowledge that so many before had walked these same steps and so many after me would follow—made me feel a part of something greater and more significant than myself.  I, the annoying geek, last chosen for sports and happier with a book than a ball, was no less special than those around me.  I was a small cog in a bigger wheel.  Despite my idiosyncrasies and inadequacies, I belonged.

As I grew older, the importance of these and many other rituals, as well as the history behind them, gave depth and meaning to the cultures I studied, the movies I watched, and, most importantly, the books I read.  Rituals, whether they are to celebrate fertility or praise the turning of a season, to mourn the death of a loved one or honor a life well-lived, define cultural boundaries and expectations.  They also define character (or lack thereof).  Whether or not a character chooses to pray or how one follows or defies societal norms and expectations can reveal a great deal in very few words.  

Currently, I’m working my way through Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second in his Game of Thrones series.  The characters often refer to “the old gods and the new,” giving some weight to the world, but it wasn’t until I read the scene in which Catelyn Stark seeks out a sept and prays to the Seven that I really understood who these gods were and appreciated the depth of her beliefs.  The scene gave a gravity to the world that made it so much more real for me.  Say what you will of Martin; he does a bang-up job of worldbuilding.  Similarly, Lord of the Rings, the gold standard of fantasy, also features well-worn worlds steeped in rituals and time-honored traditions, and one of my favorite, lesser-known series, Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori fully develops a Japanese-inspired world defined by tradition.  Ken Scholes’ Psalms of Isaak explores the darker side of rituals with religions steeped in torture and blood sacrifice; the conflicts that arise from the impending spread of this religion drive his series toward its conclusion.

Whether the author borrows heavily from past cultures or creates its own rituals and traditions, whether the acts and emotions of those involved are private or public, highly personal or shared by a nation, one thing is for certain: as in real life, rituals and traditions give the characters—and the readers—a greater sense of belonging.  They give weight to a fictional world; like the layer of dirt on Aragorn’s cloak, they make a world feel less new, less tidy. 

I’d love to hear how rituals and traditions play a role in what you’re reading (or writing)!  How do they impact the fiction we love, or love to hate? 

Sound off!

posted by Kim Vandervort