Posts Tagged ‘Glamourist Histories’

Sometimes picking the protagonist for a story is easy. Your whole idea is built around a particular character, so you just go ahead and write them. Sometimes though it’s harder. You have an idea you want to explore, or a world, or you have part of what you want the character to be like, but not the whole package. So how do you pick the person at the centre of your story?

Mary Robinette Kowal offered some great guidance on this in an episode of Writing Excuses, my favourite source of writing guidance. She said that she thinks about the setting she’s created and who can be most hurt by the things that are different about it, then uses that as the starting point for the protagonist. It means that there’s instantly something at stake for the character and a sense of conflict inherent to the situation, ready to drive a story.

I was thinking about this as I read Glamour in Glass, the second book in Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series. You might think that in a magical Regency era there are more vulnerable characters than an upper class lady like Jane, the protagonist. But the setting isn’t just Regency England – it’s the upper class society of Regency England, and specifically the world of people using glamour magic within that. Once you view that as the setting, she’s the perfect choice. Her family’s well being and standing in their community is very dependent on who Jane and her sister marry, and Jane’s character and attachments put her at a marital disadvantage in the first book, Shades of Milk & Honey. Being a woman in an incredibly patriarchal society makes her vulnerable to the decisions and manipulations of others. And the exhausting price of using glamour sometimes puts her health at risk.

In the second book there’s even more at stake. Jane is a foreigner in a country in turmoil, someone seen as an enemy by the army threatening to descend on Belgium. Her husband is entangled in local events in ways she doesn’t know about, and not being trusted with information for essentially sexist reasons puts her at risk. The nature of glamour means that pregnant women cannot use this magic without risking the unborn child, meaning that she is heading towards a choice between losing the craft that gives her happiness and losing the chance to have a family. From this beginning the stakes are raised in a way that builds around Jane’s character, and eventually forces heartbreaking choices on her.

Like any advice, this way of picking a protagonist isn’t an absolute. When I wrote ‘Sunflowers in the Snow‘, last Friday’s story on this blog, I didn’t pick the people most hurt by the events I was portraying – the cloned Neanderthal community being excluded from human society. This was partly because I didn’t feel I had time within a very short story to build up their unique perspective. But it was also because a story needs a character who can have a transformative arc, and the Neanderthals were already in the place emotionally where I wanted the story to end. So I took someone who appears to be in a position of privilege, but whose values, power and principles are about to be put into conflict, and used him. It was someone who was being badly hurt by the situation, but not the most hurt.

And there are cases where I ignore this entirely. Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the adventurer heroes of my Epiphany Club stories, definitely don’t start out from a place of peril. Similarly the stars of this coming Friday’s flash story were chosen out of necessity for that plot, not an approach I’d take for a longer work. As Terry Pratchett wrote, rules are there so that we think before we break them.

Have a think about your favourite protagonists. Are they inherently vulnerable or at odds with the world they live in? How so? And if you’re a writer, how do you pick your central characters? Share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’d like to see some other examples of how I put this into practice, please consider buying one of my ebook anthologies.

It’s the weekend and I’m home alone, so as soon as I catch up on work I’ll be getting down to some reading. And in case you’re also looking for something to read, here are a few recommendations of things I’m enjoying:

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

After spending half this week talking about the first of Kowal’s Glamourist Histories books, of course I’ve started on the second. Straight away it’s setting a different tone, with the protagonist having moved from a provincial Jane Austen style story to the Prince Regent’s court, and with talk of Napoleon and hints at adventure on the continent. While I was a little disappointed by the change in tone near the end of the first book, simply because it felt out of place, a whole book with that tone is something I’m looking forward to, and I love the portrayal of magic in the glamourist world.

Plus I’m a sucker for books that combine fantasy with issues of art and power.

Ultimate Comics Spider-man Volume 5 by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez

I’m not one of these guys who’ll read anything with Spider-man in it, but Bendis writes a fantastic Spidey. I like the way he shook up the Ultimate version of the character by replacing Peter Parker with Miles Morales. Miles is a very likeable character, and Bendis’s always smart dialogue is particularly great for these characters. This volume is a take on the classic story of a superhero trying to leave that life behind, only to get drawn back into heroism. It’s particularly poignant to see a teenager face the dilemma of how to handle that. I wasn’t familiar with Marquez before this book, but his art is clear and dynamic and well suited to Ultimate Spider-man. This is tonight’s light reading, but it’ll still have depth, and that’s why I love it.

The Rebel by Albert Camus

I’m not exactly going to rush through this one. Unless you’re looking for some heavy politically-oriented philosophy then it’s not for you, and I’m re-reading it just a few pages at a time as an aid to self-reflection. But for all their image as cigarette-smoking posers, and for all the potential bleakness of their insistence on discarding old sources of meaning, I find the French existentialists uplifting. Whether right or wrong, the idea that the only true value is the one we create seems particularly important when considering art, which as a writer I do on a daily basis. And in an era when we’re bombarded with meaningless choices, Camus reminds us that people have had to fight for that freedom, and that choice can be meaningful.

It helps that the guy looks so cool on the cover. Once again proving that the existentialists were posers as well as thinkers.

And if you’re looking for something else…

I won’t be reading my own books – I know how they all end – but if you’re looking for short stories then please check them out. There’s science fiction, fantasy, steampunk and even alternate history. You can read all about them here.

What are you lot reading this weekend? Any recommendations you’d like to share?

The ending is one of the most important parts of any story. Sure, the beginning is what hooks readers, but the ending is what shapes their thoughts and feelings after they finish your work, and so colours their memories of the rest. It determines whether a story is satisfying through the payoff it provides, and makes a huge difference to whether readers, viewers and listeners come back for more.

The ending was the closest to a bum note for me in reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. Without spoiling it, I think it’s safe to say that all the pieces are put in place properly, and in that sense the ending is earned. But there’s a huge shift of tone for the climactic sequence that’s at odds with the rest of the book. It’s like the author changed genres slightly to get the results, rather than sticking with the Austen-style social drama that had dominated to that point, and that disappointed me. I like genre mash-ups, but I also like endings that fit the books, and this one didn’t quite. It wasn’t so awful I won’t read more, in fact I enjoyed the book so much I’m already reading the sequel, but still, it was a shame.

I’m also aware that the ending of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother really divided people. I thought it was great, fitted the story and said some things about love and life that I don’t expect from a mainstream sitcom. Others thought it took an easy option. If you don’t mind the spoilers, this video from the excellent PBS Idea Channel looks at it in more depth:

 

My current freelance ghost writing is also raising some questions for me about endings. I’m working on a series of books, and the plot I’ve been given involves each book setting up questions for the next. But there’s a delicate balance to be struck between making readers want more and leaving them feeling like they got closure. How I pace the final story beats of each book is shaped a lot by that.

Which stories do you think got the endings right, and why? Which got them wrong? Share your thoughts below, help me refine my own thinking.

And as ever, if you’d like to read more from me, you can find out about my ebooks here, including some of the glowing things people have said about them in reviews.

We start today’s sermon with a reading from the Book of Kowal, volume 1, page 71, where we join two characters mid-conversation:

‘…Would you enjoy a play where you saw the mechanicals exposed? For me, it is much the same. I want the illusion to remain whole. If someone thinks about how it is done, then I have failed in my art.’

At last Jane understood his complaint and how she had transgressed at the ball and then again here, but her own principles were different. ‘I have always thought that an educated audience could more fully appreciate the effort which went into creating a piece of art.’

‘The effort, yes, but I want to transport the audience to another place; I do not want them to think of effort or technique.’

Jane was silent. She did not agree with him, but knowing now his feelings on the matter, she resolved to avoid offending him in the future. ‘I can enjoy both, Mr Vincent. I assure you, your art is affecting…’

Shades of Milk & Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I read that conversation I almost leapt out of my chair in delight. It’s an echo of a conversation that Laura and I have had a number of times, though we weren’t weaving strands of glamour at the time, and we very seldom attend Regency era balls, on account of being born 200 years too late.

I enjoy picking apart the arts, examining and understanding how an effect is achieved. Whether it’s a book, a film, a painting, a computer game, whatever the medium, looking at how it ticks adds to my enjoyment. It creates extra layers of pleasure to understand how it is affecting me, how the creators achieved their goals.

Laura, like Mr Vincent, prefers the illusion to be maintained. Her most common complaint about proof-reading for me, apart from misused commas, is that it has made her more critical in her reading. Thanks to critiquing me she can now see some of the tricks other authors are using, as well as the weaknesses in their work, and that detracts from her engagement in their stories. Her eyes glaze over when I get excited about camera angles, story arcs or panel layouts. It’s just not her thing.

I loved seeing these contrasting views of art explored in Shades of Milk & Honey, and the way that it became a driver for character conflict. It was a great moment of seeing my own relationship there on the page. Though I am somewhat less sensible than Jane, and Laura is far less brooding than Mr Vincent.

Intriguingly, the other work I mentioned in my previous ramblings about this book also explores perspectives on art. Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram shows the power of music as channelled by listeners and fans, whereas their more recent The Wicked + The Divine puts the power in the hands of the musicians. It’s a different angle, but a related one, in which they’ve shifted focus from the transported audience to the artists putting the pieces into place. The more I think about it, the more common strands I’m finding in these two very different stories, and in the novel ways they use fantasy to cast light on the real world.

How do you prefer to experience art? Do you like to know how it works, or prefer to leaves the mechanicals unexposed? And have you read any other stories that raise this question?

 

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Having got Lies We Will Tell Ourselves out there into the world I’m knuckling back down to concentrate on my freelance ghost writing. The other day I had to check whether a sword really can cut through someone’s arm during a fight. It turns out that the answer is yes, and that the internet is full of videos of people cutting up bones. Make of that what you will.

Science fiction writer W Lawrence, who I interviewed a while back, is running a giveaway in which you could win a free copy of his book Syncing Forward. I can’t get the embedded like to work in the preview of this post, but hopefully after this paragraph you will see a clickable link by which you can go and enter the draw. Because I’m all about the free sci-fi while I ramble about fantasy this week! Giveaway below:

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How authors reveal their fictional worlds can be very telling, both about their worlds, about their writing, and about the way we read genre fiction.

I’ve just started reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey, a fascinating book that combines the social whimsy of Jane Austen with magical fantasy. There’s a lot to be said about this book, and I may say more of it another day. There’s also a lot to be said about the author, who has repeatedly shown herself to be one of the most entertaining and insightful figures on the modern fantasy scene – if you want proof then go listen to a couple of episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast.

But one of the first things that struck me was a matter of geography. Early on, characters make reference to living in the vicinity of Dorchester. ‘Aha,’ I thought, ‘my mum lives in Dorchester, and she likes a bit of local interest, maybe this could be a way to get her reading fantasy?’ My mum found the first Lord of the Rings film boring, so getting her into fantasy is quite a challenge.

But then I stopped and thought for a minute about the way this book works. From the start the magic, called glamour, is worked into the story. This is done not through explanations and exposition, but by a steady trickle of references and a series of moments showing glamour in action. For me, as a regular fantasy reader, this is perfect. It’s done with subtlety and care, weaving an understanding of the world around me rather than dumping it down in thick expository slabs.

But that works for me because I’m a regular fantasy reader. One of the conventions of the genre is that new ideas and elements in the world are referenced from the start, but not directly explained unless that becomes necessary, letting the reader work it out for themselves. To someone who’s less used to the genre this could be frustrating. They might get annoyed at all these unexplained references, or not have the genre experience to piece the puzzle together and work it out. It could be baffling rather than pleasing.

Genre literacy is just like any other form of cultural literacy – it allows access to a heightened experience of the genre, but can lead to works that frustrate others. Just look at modern art – what’s meaningful to an aficionado is largely lost on me and downright ugly to my gran. Similarly, really well written fantasy can, by creeping steps, become less accessible to others.

I’ll probably lend Shades of Milk & Honey to Mum at some point. I’m curious to see how accessible it is to her, and if it sparks an interest in fantasy literature then that will give us something in common. In the meantime I get to enjoy a cleverly written book.

What do you think? Do you think well written fantasy is usually accessible fantasy? How do you like to see worlds revealed? And if you’ve read Mary’s Glamourist Histories what did you think of them?

 

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Quick reminder, my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is still free on the Kindle until the end of tomorrow, 22 November – go get some free reading, see how subtle or not my world building is.