Monday, January 26, 2015

What Kind of Characters Do You Write About?

One of the questions an author is sometimes asked (not as often as "Where do you get your ideas from?" or "What's your book about?" *, but sometimes) is "What kind of characters do you like writing about?"

The short answer is whatever characters the story needs, but that's something of a cop-out. Much as we all like to vary our characters, most authors have a tendency to gravitate to some particular kind of character, whether that's a matter of gender, age, personality or lifestyle. So what kind of characters do I like writing about?

One thing I have noticed is that I seem to like writing about teenagers. Not in a YA sort of way, since the perspective tends to be standing a little apart and making gentle fun of the naivety and silliness of adolescence. It's not really a new thing, though. From what I can remember of the stories I was creating at about ten or eleven (none of which have survived) the important characters were always between about sixteen and eighteen — which, of course, was very grown up then, although perhaps young enough to be relatable.

When I started writing The Winter Legend, in my later teens, most of the main characters were still of a similar age, and this has largely survived innumerable rewritings through the decades. And I still use characters of that age a good deal. Estent, the protagonist of The Treason of Memory, is around eighteen, although his age isn't given in the story. Zadith and Musu, in The Lone and Level Sands, are a little older, but not much over twenty, while my recurring characters Kari and Fai (Steal Away, The Temple of Taak-Resh) are around sixteen or seventeen.

Not everyone's that young. The Traveller measures his age in millennia, and the age he "stuck" at is around thirty, but he's in his teens during a number of the chapters in At An Uncertain Hour.

On the other hand, I do like watching characters grow up. The Winter Legend covers about twenty-five years, and the central characters go from teens to early forties, turning from the struggling young heroes to the wise guides, in much the same way that Obi-Wan grows through the Star Wars films.

Perhaps my favourite example of this is Eltava, MC of seven published stories as well as having a cameo in At An Uncertain Hour. In the earliest story I've written about Eltava, Witch, she's fourteen (though I do have flashbacks in a couple of stories to her as a little child), but I've shown her through her twenties, thirties and forties, right through to Storm-Blown where she's in her late sixties. It's been a fascinating ride to watch her growing and developing while still remaining essentially the same person.

In gender terms, although I haven't done a statistical count-up, I suspect I have a roughly 50-50 split, although if anything my first instinct is more often to focus on a female. That's something which has certainly changed through the years. When I was first writing, almost all my POV characters were male, and I deliberately set myself the aim of using more females, but that seems to have become a matter of instinct now.

I'm not sure why this is, but perhaps it has something to do with otherness. Unlike some authors, I don't create characters to explore myself. I prefer to explore what it's like to be someone completely unlike myself and, though I can certainly do that with male characters **, being a female for a story gives the otherness an extra kick.

As for lifestyle, I tend to write about characters who are pretty much footloose wanderers. Perhaps that's an element of wish-fulfilment, since part of me has always been attracted to the idea of being a rootless traveller, although that's balanced by the other part that wonders how I'd lug a thousand-odd books around with me. Perhaps having a very large ship all to myself would help.

The Traveller and Eltava are both wanderers for life, although the Traveller might spend a decade, or even a few centuries, in one place sometimes. Kari and Fai, in their inimitable adolescent style, are homeless, outlaw sorcerers and love every moment of it. Even people with more roots and responsibilities tend to be wanderers, like Ferriji, the protagonist of Present Historic, a middle-aged international diplomat who travels constantly across the world trying to save it from itself.

Other people have wandering thrust upon them, like Estent, who begins The Treason of Memory with a place in his society (quite a high place, too) and finishes it as a homeless exile. In the final part of The Winter Legend (currently finished but by no means finished with) someone from a primitive mountain tribe refers to the difference between those who "stand above the valley and make sure everything [they] can see is as [they] want it" and those who want " to travel to the distance, as I do, and see what’s beyond it." She adds that it's important to have both kinds of people, and I can see her point, but travelling to the distance is more interesting to write about. For me, at least.

So there are a few of the character types I like to write about. I've created all kinds who are utterly different, but, if I switch off and just write by instinct, the chances are I'll be writing about a teenaged wanderer who wants nothing more from life than to discover what's beyond the distance.

* Answers: "From the ideas shop round the corner" and "It's about 400 pages".

** I've never been three thousand years old, I've never sailed the world on an enchanted ship, and I've never led an army. Just thought I'd mention that, in case you were wondering.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

So we've finally got to the end of Peter Jackson's epic reimagining of Tolkien — unless, of course, he gets the film rights to The Silmarillion, but that seems unlikely. It's been a varied experience. I generally loved the three Lord of the Rings films, although some of the omissions and changes niggled a bit. I felt the same about the first of the Hobbit films, but the second felt too much of a change for no very good reason. I was very unsure what to expect, going to see the final instalment.

There's a lot of good, in fact.  Overall, it sticks somewhat closer to the book than the second film, even though several episodes are vastly inflated from the largely summarised accounts in the original. Smaug's attack on Lake-town (with a too-short reappearance by the great dragon and Benedict Cumberbatch as his voice), the gathering of the refugees and the elves before the Mountain, and very much the battle itself were all filled out.

There's also the attack on Dol Guldur, the climax of the White Council thread. Tolkien never gave a detailed account of what actually happens, though it wasn't at all how I imagined it. Still, it works well, and gives us another glimpse of the mighty Galadriel who was briefly unleashed when Frodo offered her the Ring.

As might be expected, there's plenty of foreshadowing of LOTR, from Saruman's suave assurance that the others should "leave Sauron to me" to Bilbo's growing obsession with the Ring.

This is the stage of the plot where Bilbo really comes of age morally, and Martin Freeman handles his inner struggles excellently, both over the Ring and the Arkenstone (which, like Bard's black arrow, has a lot more significance than in the book). This is contrasted with a thorough exploration of Thorin's descent into near-madness and his return, which is equally well portrayed by Richard Armitage.

The Battle of the Five Armies is the film's centrepiece, as it should be, but arguably it was overdone, as most of the action set-pieces have tended to be. It's perfectly reasonable, of course, that we should see the action itself, and what's happening to people we care about in the midst of it, but I feel it goes on for a little too long.

Possibly the highlight of the battle is the arrival of Dain, Dwarf-Lord of the Iron Hills. Most of the dwarves have Scottish accents, which fits, but it was a joy to hear Dain's greeting in broad Glaswegian and realise it was Billy Connolly. This was no noble, questing dwarf, but a brawler from the Gorbals.

Eventually, though, the whole focus shifts to a personal showdown with the orc-lord Azog and his "spawn" Bolg (the book simply calls Bolg Azog's son) featuring Thorin, Fili, Kili, Dwalin and Bilbo, with Legolas and Tauriel pitching in (giving Orlando Bloom plenty of opportunity for acrobatics). I do think this goes on too long, though its culmination is moving.

And then home to Bag End, shown much as in the book (with a brief cameo of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins) and a final scene with the old Bilbo (ignoring the fact that he shouldn't have grown old) welcoming Gandalf before the Party. And a final nice touch — the song over the credits is sung by Billy Boyd, aka Pippin.

Altogether, I don't find the Hobbit trilogy as successful as Lord of the Rings. The action scenes are overblown throughout, and some changes seem to have been made for change's sake. Perhaps Tauriel irks me most. Not that there's anything wrong with either her character as it stands or Evangeline Lilly's performance, but the romance between her and Kili just doesn't convince me. Why should a dwarf find an elf-woman attractive (she doesn't even have a beard, after all)?

More than that, though, is that she's introduced specifically for a romantic subplot. I can perfectly well understand why Jackson wanted a strong female character in the films (besides Galadriel's brief appearances) but it seems rather tokenistic that the one female character should be introduced purely as love interest, however kick-ass she might be. On the plus side, her presence helps Legolas's development and turns Thranduil into a genuine character, but that could have been done in a less stereotyped way.

Still, there's a lot to like, and I can see myself rewatching the films often enough on DVD. Perhaps I'll even watch the entire hexalogy straight through — if I ever have the odd eighteen hours to spare.

Fantasy and Archaeology on the Musa Publishing Blog

I feature today on Musa Publishing's blog, discussing links between fantasy and archaeology, especially in my new Musa ebook The Lone and Level Sands:

Fantasy and archaeology — they seem made for one another, don't they? After all, one of the most common ideas in fantasy is someone discovering ruins or a lost artefact from an ancient civilisation, yet real archaeology is very underused.

As an approximate concept, of course, it's always been there. The spectacular discoveries of the 19th century, when entire civilisations were being uncovered — what's been called the heroic age of archaeology — inspired authors like H. Rider Haggard and many others to write stories in which explorers found such civilisations not just as ruins to be dug up, but actually still surviving...
read the whole piece here

Saturday, January 3, 2015

An interview on Carol Browne's blog

I'm interviewed today by author Carol Browne on her blog about The Lone and Level Sands and other aspects of her writing. Many thanks to Carol, and please do check out her books.

2014 and 2015

Another new year already. Traditionally (by which I mean for the last two years, which seems to qualify as a tradition these days) I start the year by reviewing my writing achievements over the year that's finished and looking ahead to the year to come.

During 2014, my writing has been somewhat disrupted by… well, by writing. Since March, my official day-job has been as a freelance copywriter, and the work I've needed to put into building that up — which seems to be paying off — has severely cut into my creative writing time. Still, among all that, I seem to have got through a fair amount.

I'm not as far as I'd hoped through my current novel (working title The Empire of Nandesh) but I'm more than 50,000 words into it. I'd been hoping to be nearly finished by now, but both the copywriting and other projects have cut into it. I revised the novella The Dweller in the Crack, and wrote three shorter pieces, Finder's Fee, Turning the Tables and Gerda and the Darkness, but the biggest distraction was my very unexpected diversion into children's fantasy.

A few years ago, I wrote a very short piece called The Biggest Dragon in the World, which featured a sorceress called Cariana. I really wrote it for my own amusement, but it turned out as a children's story. During the summer, I attended a workshop of mainly children's authors and took the story along as my one qualifying piece. They loved it and encouraged me to expand it into a series.

I've now written half a dozen other connected stories, but the series took an unexpected turn when, in the second story, I introduced Cariana's nearly-eleven-year-old apprentice Flea, who's taken over as the central character. I'm having huge fun writing about her — in the most recent, she has an encounter with pirates — and the aim is to add perhaps three or four further stories and then, after revision, try to pitch it as a book.

I've begun self-publishing some of my out-of-print work, which has been an interesting process. I have mixed feelings about self-publishing, but it's a valuable option for an author with the experience and willingness to put in the work it needs. So far, I've republished At An Uncertain Hour, the novel previously issued by StoneGarden, and Steal Away, the first story about Karaghr and Failiu, which first appeared in the late, lamented Golden Visions. I'm also hoping to bring out the sequel, Rainy Season, also a Golden Visions story, and perhaps others.

As far as professional publication is concerned, December saw the publication of my second ebook from Musa Publishing, The Lone and Level Sands. A contemporary (or nearly contemporary) fantasy but set in a secondary world, this is archaeological fantasy somewhat in the Indiana Jones tradition. It came out just before Christmas, so I'm gearing up again to restart promotion.

Besides these, I've had stories in The Colored Lens (Damned) and Plasma Frequency (The Lady of the House and The PetrologicEngine, the latter my "flintpunk" story) as well as in three anthologies, two of which I was involved in producing. Light of the Last Day was the somewhat overdue anthology from, which I co-edited and contributed Lari's People and Dayglow, while the equally long-in-making The Tale Trove is the first production from my live writers' group, the East Herts Fantasy Writers. My contributions are Return Switch, Hanuut's Stand, I See a Voice and three poems. I've also appeared in Unburied Treasure, a follow-up to last year's Trespass, with the custom-written Finder's Fee.

So what of 2015? I'll probably continue to have less time to devote to writing than I did before last year, but I have The Lone and Level Sands to promote, and I hope to reissue Rainy Season this year. On a slightly longer-term basis, I've been considering self-publishing a collection of stories about Eltava. All but two have been published in various markets, and all rights have now reverted to me, so it might be a practical option. But a lot more work than putting out single stories.

I'll continue with both The Empire of Nandesh and the Flea stories, and hopefully I'll finish the draft of the former and have the latter ready for submission during the year. That's assuming I don't get diverted again. We'll see.

I'd like to wish you all a very Happy New Year.

The Tale Trove

The Tale Trove
East Herts Fantasy Writers Group Anthology
Cover by URCO Sara Moro
Available in paperback or on Kindle from and (also on other versions of Amazon)
The Tale Trove is the first anthology of the East Herts Fantasy Writers Group. Enter a world of magic and wonder, as you explore the Trove's stories. There, the elusive Treasure Goblin has hoarded the best tales to keep him amused.
Featuring twenty three stories and poems, all themed around fantasy, sci-fi, horror and general fiction.
Sean Patrick Giblin: The Festival of Nets. A long grimdark tale in three parts about a shapeshifting thief.
Lynette Bishop: The Miracle, The Battle and the Dragon, My Enemy's Hands, The Celebration of Seven. A fairy tale as related by its protagonist, an unlikely Christmas fable, and a disturbing magical dystopia.
David Trebus: The Night Mist. The Giant, The Void, Flame Dance, Song, Story. A tale of a haunted village, a pair of surreal fables, an epic battle between lovers representing light and dark, and two poems.
Sandra Norval: Tsukiko, Half a House, Turmoil, EstampielDiary of a No Mark. A Japanese fable, two haunting ghost stories, a comic tale of angelic bureaucracy, and... well, you'll just have to read Diary of a No Mark.
Nyki Blatchley: Return Switch, Hanuut's Stand, I See a Voice, On a Nameless Shore, The Heat-Death of the Ocean, Willows on a Dark Mere. A magicpunk tale, a warrior's last stand, the gossip of the dead, and three poems.
And introducing the Treasure Troll, who kindly wrote the introduction.