St. Ursula

A lot of tributes are going to be coming out today, to which I cannot hope to be as eloquent, nor as thoughtful.

I started referring to Ursula Le Guin as St. Ursula a few years ago, perhaps as a nod to her gentle humor and subtle surrealism – a surrealism which wasn’t ‘strange’ or ‘abstracting’ but, in her own words:

“Fantasy is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe.”

It also felt right to me, to think of Ursula as a guiding, motherly sort of figure. “She was probably the archetypally perfect grandmother for people like us,” writes Gordon White of Rune Soup, which I think captures it well. Not only that, but Ursula set an example of what courageous, insightful, humane, and writing with integrity looks like. Her writing is bursting with humanity. She refused to restrict her characters or settings into western, patriarchal stereotypes. She remained resolutely critical of trends, celebrity, and the corporate/market take-over of art. There have been many times when despairing over my own paltry output, caught between the fangs of commerce and poverty, it has been Ursula’s words that have helped set my course true again.

But more important than all of these things is the fact that her worlds have been a constant in my life. I first discovered Earthsea through a battered 1984 Puffin copy of A Wizard… (stolen from my older brother’s bookshelves). I wanted an Otak familiar. I had a fantasy rpg character named Ged. I cried over The Farthest Shore.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

It is a sad day today, and I find that I am saddened by the fact that we won’t have the gift of her wit and words. A selfish sort of sadness, maybe – and a mistaken one – because we already do. Her fictional worlds as well as her essays, articles and speeches live on, and will be remembered.

Let’s make her proud, friends.

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Indy Fantasy Authors: Sever Bronny!

indyfantasywritersAnother week, and we have another victim Indy Author arriving at the hallowed steps of the Guild to talk on the subject of covers; the ever thought-provoking, danger-writing, industrial-music-making Sever Bronny, author of The Arinthian Line and Fury of a Rising Dragon.

nb. Navigate to the Categories menu for previous interviews!

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Sever Bronny, Legend (The Arinthian Line, book 5)

Latest Work: Burden’s Edge (Fury of a Rising Dragon, book 1)

Legend: Book IV of The Arinthian Line by Sever Bronny

Tell us about your cover. What does it show? Why is this one your favorite?

I chose Legend (The Arinthian Line, book 5) as my favorite of the first series because it’s the one I put most time in, and the one I applied all my best tricks to. It shows a hooded figure coming upon a castle, and there is an abundance of color and subtle blending.

My initial cover concept for the whole series (Arcane, The Arinthian Line, book 1) was a brute force approach (see comparison of all five books and note the evolution). I’d craft a cover concept, screenshot a google images search of the best covers in my genre, and drag and drop my latest cover draft onto the screenshot. I only went forward when I thought I had a cover idea that could compete with the big boys. Mind, that took well over fifty variations, annd the initial published version was still way too dark.

Interestingly, I hired a professional cover designer for my latest work, Burden’s Edge (Fury of a Rising Dragon, book 1) and truly wish I had had the courage to hire someone like that in the first place. I can crank something out using the brute force method, but that’s no substitution for someone who loves what they do full time. I learned that the hard way, but won’t be making that mistake again. You can see the difference between an amateur and a professional when you compare my first series covers with Burden’s Edge (Fury of a Rising Dragon, book 1). I got lucky in that my first series took off, but it could have easily ended in disaster. In fact, had I hired a professional, I strongly suspect I would have done that much better. Fellow indies take note.

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The adventures of Sever (the author or the musician) can be followed here: https://severbronny.com/

Legend, Book IV of The Arinthian Line can be brought here.

The Arinthian Line, fantasy ebook series by Sever Bronny.

WordPress Spambots?

Just out of interest… Is anyone else out there in the WordPress blogosphere seeing a sudden rise in the amount of spam-email accounts starting to follow them (strings of letters and an email account)?

*Grrr*

The Role of the Villain in Fiction

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Let’s face it, the villains of our books and media often get short shrift. Quite rightly so, perhaps, when we consider what they do for a living. But while reading and researching for my own stories I started to notice a glaring lack – to my mind at least – on the other side of the dramatic coin: the role of the bad guy.

There are lots of writing guides and manuals out there devoted to the intricacies of plotting, scene-setting, or the character-arc, which is all necessary – but these guides deal overwhelmingly with the Hero’s Journey and the role of the protagonist, not the antagonist.

Protagonist.

  1. The leading character or one of the major characters in a play, film, novel, etc.
  2. An advocate or champion of a particular cause or idea.

Antagonist.

  1. A person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.

That was when I realized that half the story was missing; the conflict, the complications, the blood, guts and gore of the antagonist’s journey. The usual protagonist’s journey looks something like this:

The Hero's Journey

This is the fairly standard picture, although there are tons of variations. Essentially, we have:

  1. The Hero in a place of dissatisfaction, when-
  2. A catalysing incident knocks them out of their usual routine, and causes them to-
  3. Seek help, usually from a mysterious guide or mentor.
  4. Their next step is to journey into the mystery/follow the clues/wade through problems, until
  5. They discover a key to their problem, by challenging what they were.
  6. Using this information, they are able to confront, or at least see, the true nature of their problem (with varying allies, clues, switchbacks and deeper layers of conflict).
  7. At which time, they return to their ‘normal’ situation, having changed.

 

What we see here, is that the Hero’s Journey is primarily focussed on internal change – which are often masked as external ones. Even a classic murder-mystery is usually about the Detective, Investigator, or Unlucky Journalist discovering the strength that they have in order to solve the crime, save the day, and return the world to rights.

The Hero’s Journey is a valuable, and some might say essential lens through which to structure the role of your plot. This guide in your hands doesn’t seek to dispute that, but it does seek to add a new dimension to that structure, by asking: What about the Antagonist?

Is the antagonist, bad guy, evil mafia boss, crazed millionaire playboy just a foil for your Hero’s own psychodrama? In some stories this might be the case – and can be done very well. A lot of horror stories feature nemesis which are intractable agents of chaos, existing solely to stuff-up the plans of your protagonist. Look at the zombies in The Walking Dead, or perhaps Pennywise in Stephen King’s It. There are macabre merits to having this sort of ‘unstoppable problem’ as an antagonist – it forces the story back onto Detective Rick Grimes, or Bill Denbrough, to see if they’ve got the emotional chops to live through it.

But let’s compare that type of plot with another, Greek Tragedy (I know, I promised no degrees in Narratology, but please bear with me if just for a moment):

  1. The Hero is usually from a high or comfortable station – they do not recognize the problems going on under the surface.
  2. A series of dramatic events force them to have to make a choice (usually ethical), which they generally fail.
  3. There are signposts along the way from other characters (the Antagonists) who have also failed to make ‘the right’ choice, and stand as object lessons.
  4. The gods, or the citizens, or some feature of the world finds that they have been unworthy, and punishes them. In the case of Oedipus Rex, he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother (eww!) and the ensuing shame led him to gouge his own eyes out. In Medea, we have the ‘hero’ Jason (of the Argonauts fame) being punished by his wife Medea for being unfaithful and taking on another family. In Electra, we have siblings Electra and Orestes punishing their mother and step-father for killing their real father, Agamemnon.

 

Why all this waffle about Greek Tragedy? Because so much of Greek Tragedy inverts the usual Hero’s journey, and is all about who we would call the bad guy. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know Dionysus in The Bacchae teaches a whole city what’s-what. Jealous and furious Medea schools handsome-chops Jason on family values. Cold-blooded Electra and Orestes plot and execute a murder. These are clearly our villains.

These villains are characters who want things. They desire, often insanely, to get something done to the state of the world – be it blowing it up, teaching someone a lesson, writing their name on the moon, or stealing all the gold from Fort Knoxx. You have to admire their get-up and go, at least.

The villain’s desires directly put them into conflict with the hero, either because the hero is the one staffed to stop that kind of thing from happening, or perhaps the hero (like John Maclean so often is in Die Hard) is in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

But, bad guys being bad guys – they overreach themselves. They end up trying to bite off more than they can chew (Jaws), or they are so confidant of their galaxy-spanning importance (Darth Vader) that they don’t bother to put an extra ring of laser canons around that thermal exhaust port on his baby Death Star. This essential flaw, arrogance, or inability to estimate the hero correctly is actually fundamental to the antagonist’s role in your story, and brings us right back around to the discussion of the Hero’s Journey and Greek Tragedy.

In both plots, the Hero is tested, in order to discover something about themselves. In the Hero’s Journey they do so, the protagonist manages to correct a weakness or a failing in themselves and comes back bigger and stronger. In the Tragedy – not so much.

For the antagonist, however, they fail to correct that same weakness in themselves.

This, right here, is the gold-plated magic pixie faerie-dust that drives your story. The Hero becomes a bigger personality, while the antagonist becomes narrower. You can look at it as a sort of two approaches to the same problem: when faced with a challenge, the Hero goes internal and digs deep, while the antagonist goes external, showy, and thermonuclear.

Think of Detective David Mills in the film Seven. We see him facing a series of gruesome and grotesque serial murders based around the Seven Deadly Sins, but the last one, (“what’s in the box? What’s in the box, man!!?”) is the real climax point for the hero and the antagonist. For the psychopathic serial killer, he wishes to deliver his version of judgement upon his hapless victims, and does so with ever-increasing showmanship. All he has to do at the end of the film is to serve up one perfect plate of just deserts. For Brad Pitt’s character however, he has already caught the killer by the time that the final five minutes rolls up, his success should be ensured, right? But in order to reach the end credits, and restore the word to balance (…) he has to deal with one last, horrifying discovery. Does Detective Mills become a bigger person? Less psychopathic, less like the antagonist? Less full of righteous anger?

In this way, we’re starting to see a disturbing similarity between the villains and the heroes, aren’t we? It’s almost like they are two halves of the same person… Two halves of the same problem.

But for now, here are the key points:

  • The antagonist desires change to happen.
  • It’s these desires which directly create the conflict for the hero.
  • But when tested; the antagonist fails the character test and only becomes MORE cruel, MORE evil, MORE of what they already are.

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Crafting Evil ebook on writing better villains

The above is an extract from a new guide: Crafting Evil: A Guide to Writing Better Villains that I am hoping to get out in the next month or two (while we’re waiting for Storm’s Gambit to go through the final shaping and editing):

Indy Fantasy Writers: Richard Billing!

indyfantasywritersWelcome back, Gentle Readers. I trust that the New Year saw you all drowning in books, and to that TBR pile I would love to add the latest addition to the Guild; the erudite and truly-nice-chap, Richard Billing, author of The General.

nb. Every week, here at the erstwhile home of the Guild (not really a home as such, more of a drinking spot for the itinerant adventurers that indy writers so often are) this blog is lucky enough to host a discussion on different aspects of the indy writing obsession occupation with some fantastic names. We hope that you enjoy, and that it inspires you to put pen to paper yourself!

This series of interviews is on the subject of covers.

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Richard Billing, The General

Latest Work: Magpie

Series Title: The Last Magpie

The General, by R. Billing

Tell us about your cover. What does it show? Why is this one your favorite?

This cover means a lot to me. It was hand drawn by my friend and soon-to-be brother-in-law, Mark Vernall. Mark prepared this cover for a collection of two short stories written by myself and my best friend Mark Brooks. We decided to self-publish these tales of ours to raise money for my grandmother’s care home, and I’m delighted to say we managed to hit our fundraising goal!

While my story falls under the high fantasy genre, Mark Brooks’s is an existentialist tale, both very different, but one Mark Vernall managed to capture thematically in one image.

The focal point of this image—the giant tree—is taken from my story, The General. It follows the tale of a military leader sent on a mission about which he has mixed feelings. The discoveries he makes causes him to call into question aspects of his life he otherwise accepted unconditionally.

Both of our stories look at the fragility of life and the corruption of morality and that’s why we agreed that the daffodils, which feature in both of our stories, would work well. For us, the daffodil symbolises hope, the prospect of change, and the delicate nature of life. The colour yellow reflects how life can become corrupted and tainted, poisoned almost. Those creepy leering eyes in the top corners represent death itself, ever watching and waiting.

It’s the little details that I love most about this image. How you can see every leaf on the tree, almost imagine bees buzzing about the daffodils, and how the fonts manage to reflect the two very different types of story. The font for The General features a sword in the letter ‘G’ and is done in a style which sits comfortably in the fantasy realm. The font for The Visitor on the other hand, is clean and simple, though the story itself is one of complex emotion. Mark included another detail too: can you spot the frog? It took me a while.

This cover will always remain one of my favourites, not only for the beautiful images crafted by hand but for what it means to me—working with some of the best people I know to raise money to better the lives of others.

We’ll continue to donate all proceeds to charity, so if you’re feeling generous why not buy a copy!

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The online adventures of Richie Billing can be found here.

The General can be purchased here (with proceeds being donated to a good cause, y’all).