A Time To Rethink

I have been delinquent in my duties to this site for the last week, and for that I apologize.  My intent is to post at least twice a week, but that has proven difficult to maintain with my current schedule.   Plus, I have been plagued by questions about my story of late.  Questions that have consumed much of what I laughingly call my “free time”.

One of the hardest choices a writer can face is deciding what good material must be done away with so that important material will shine.  You can write beautiful passages that slow a story down to a crawl, or have subplots that obscure the main ones, or so many characters that you can’t tell major ones from minor ones.  If this is done intentionally then it is a legitimate artistic choice, even if it turns out to be a bad one.    If any of these happen for no reason, and you make no attempt to correct the problems they cause, then you are guilty of bad writing.

Recently I was working on writing down a chapter-by-chapter outline of my whole story, Gods Among Men.  This became a major task that forced me to think, long and hard, about the order of scenes and what each scene must include.  I have long known my story was big with many interrelated parts, but I am beginning to realize that I have included much that simply needs to be removed. 

A Bit Of Math

I think in terms of books, chapters, and sections.  I have seven books in the series, thirteen chapters per book, three sections per chapter; each section can be as long as it needs to be, but must focus on one central scene or character.    I know at a high level what each book must contain, and where each book must begin and end.

This rigorous structure helps me plot what must be done, and how much space I have to do it in.  A quick calculation reveals that there will be 39 sections per book, 91 chapters in the whole series, and a grand total of 273 sections.  That is the space I have to fill with words; no less and no more.

At first glance that sounds like a whole lot of wiggle room, but it is far less than you might think.  A story has rhythms; a quickening of pace in some places and a slower mood for others.  You can’t mix these elements directly, but must transition from one to the other.  Too sharp of a transition and the story feels choppy, too slow and it becomes boring.  A single book packed with heart-stopping action from beginning to end can be exhausting to read, and can cause readers to not care why characters do what they do.  From there it is easy for the reader to not care about the character at all, and from there to stop caring about the work itself.  The same danger exists with books that meander aimlessly and where nothing important ever seems to happen.

Too Many Notes

At one point in the movie Amadeus, Mozart is told that one of his works has “too many notes” and that he should “cut a few”.  Mozart is rightly offended, and we agree with him that the advice is being given by fools.

But why do we agree with him?  Because we know Mozart is a genius whose works will grow more popular the more people listened to it.  There aren’t too many notes; there is a lack of appreciation from those who are listening.

The truth is that talents on the scale of Mozart are incredibly rare, and most artists think too highly of their own work.  Sometimes there are too many notes, and the best artists are the ones who know which ones to cut.

In my case, I hew too closely to plot and subplot with too little consideration for characterizations.  This is a consistent failure of mine.  Partially it is because I don’t practice characterization often enough, but I have come to believe there is a bigger problem at play here.

Know You Story

It is hard to write a story you don’t fully understand, and it is only in the last few months that my story fully crystalized in my thoughts.  As it did, I came to realize that I had characters that serve less purpose than I had first thought.  Keeping big scenes with less important characters means less space for characters that are crucial.  I have subplots that would be full plots in lesser works, subplots I crammed in because I thought I needed something to fill 273 sections.  I also kept adding characters to flesh out scenes, to provide depth to the work as a whole. 

I was right, and I was wrong.  Yes, a sprawling epic will have many characters and subplots; that is the nature of sprawling epics.  But a story that sacrifices quality for quantity is not worth the time it takes to write, nor will anyone likely read it to the end.

I need to make clear to the reader what are the important plots and subplots, and I need to develop them better.  Also I need to make clear which characters are important and which aren’t; who should be followed closely, and who should be forgotten.  Right now, I have more characters than I can reasonably include and do full justice too, and trying means there is less room to develop important characters.   The work is a maze for me, and someone else has little reason to attempt navigating that maze.

Where To Now?

Gods Among Men is about Damon Roth, and he is not a nice character.  He is not easy to relate to, easy to understand, nor should he be.  But the reader needs someone to focus on that will draw them further into the work.  Someone they care about, positively or negatively, and hope either succeeds or fails.  Damon is ambiguous, and it is important he stay so. 

By the same token, while I like the character of Artemis Arrowsmith, and while she is a crucially important character, she also is not easy to relate to or understand.  She is also not a nice person, nor should she be.  She is the lens though which the reader comes to see and understand Damon.  She is important, but it is impossible for her to be someone the readers latch onto emotionally.  I have written much of the first book as if she was the central character, and that was a mistake.

The person the reader must care about is Tara Rihtwis.  She is the one whose success everyone must root for, whose failures everyone must cry over.  Damon is the brain of the story, it is his quest for redemption that is the central-most plot line.  Tara is the heart of the story, whose hardships make the reader want to turn the page and find out what happens next.  Artemis is the character that joins them together, that is friend and ally to both.

This is my core insight in the last few weeks, and now I must begin trimming my notes to turn this insight into action.  Anything that does not directly affect either Damon or Tara, that does not move their stories forward, must be eliminated.  Any character that does not directly interact with them or influence them must be eliminated, or at least reduced to their most essential moments.  Essential being defined by how it impacts Damon or Tara.

It is a harsh insight that carries with it drastic implications.  I now have a scale to weigh what must be kept versus what must go.  The hard part is actually forcing myself to live with what that insight tells me I must do.  Major portions of Gods Among Men must be rethought, whole chapters rewritten.  The plot remains as it was, but many subplots will be sacrificed so that the most important subplots can be adequately developed.

I must admit, I am not looking forward to this task I have set myself.  But I think it is the right direction for me to take the story.  The right choice to turn Gods Among Men into something people will want to read.

The Big Picture, Part 3: The World That Never Was

Foreword:

This post is part of an ongoing series laying out essential elements for understanding both the complex plot of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the byzantine plans of its protagonist, the wizard Damon Roth.

Here are links to earlier posts in this series.

Starting With the Threat and Working Backwards

In a previous post, I summarized the major plot of Gods Among Men as follows:

Damon Roth sees a threat so far in the future that for him to even talk of it makes people think him insane.  He takes it upon himself to save the world, even if it means destroying a civilization to do so.   The price of failure is his soul.

I will explain the threat Damon perceives in a later post.  For now, accept that the threat is real and that his solution to it will work.  Implementing his solution, however, requires a concerted effort that must be maintained for eons. 

This fact exposes the fundamental problem I faced in Gods Among Men.  I don’t believe any short-lived species (such as humanity) could implement, on their own, a complex plan requiring constant effort for perhaps millions of years. 

It is unreasonable to expect a reader to suspend more disbelief than the writer can.  For me to “believe” that Damon could create a society capable of confronting an eons long task, I had to include an immortal race, or one so long lived they can be considered immortal.  One whose fate is tied to that of the earth’s. 

A Choice of Races

In fantasy and science fiction literature there are numerous ways to create immortal or nearly immortal races.  For a while I toyed with the idea of using robots or some other kind of automated machines to address my story’s needs.  I opted against this approach because it felt hokey, I disliked the symbolism, and because it led to a dénouement that felt false and boring to me.

I decided I wanted an immortal race that has existed since the earliest periods in earth’s history.  A race that once interacted with man frequently, but then retreated behind some mystic veil.   A race which we today either know nothing of, or believe to be the product of fairy tales.

And thus J.R.R. Tolkien inspired a simple solution: Elves, though Faerie Folk might be a better description. 

In The Lord of The Rings, and Tolkien’s other tales, elves were immortal, powerful creatures that left middle-earth at the dawn of the age of man.  The elves he described, and the manner in which they retreated from the world of men, were not perfect for my situation.  But my thoughts on Tolkien’s ideas combined with my knowledge of other mythological concepts surrounding elves and faerie folk until I arrived at my eventual solution.

The Unrecorded Past

In my mythology, elves (and other faerie folk) exist on more dimensions than we can perceive.   They interact with us by “projecting” part of their essence into the dimensions we inhabit, à la Flatland.  This lets them appear to change shape, sometimes appearing much like beautiful humans, and other times looking like animals such as white stags or black cats. 

It is possible for humans to “crossover” into the elven dimensions and interact with them in their native environment.  But the limitations of human perceptions hamper our ability to understand or clearly remember what happened.  And time does not flow at the same rate in these other dimensions as it does in ours.  A person who spends a few weeks living among the elves may return to our world only to discover decades have passed, while they have not aged.

In our pre-history, men interacted with elves regularly.  The graceful–and at times terrible–elves, with knowledge and powers no human possessed, inspired stories that in later generations became the foundations for mythologies and religions. 

Elves are immortal, but are highly susceptible to metal, especially iron and steel.  Weaker elves can die by touching something made of iron or steel. As mankind learned to make items out of metal, elves retreated from the dimensions they shared with us to protect themselves.  Near the dawn of our written history, elves cut off almost all contact with humanity and became just legendary creatures inhabiting fairy tales

How Elves Fit Into Damon Roth’s Plans

There are other faerie creatures, such as unicorns and the like.  But Elves are the ones important to what Damon Roth is planning.   Being immortal they can provide the stable core for the new society he plans to build.  Elves can guarantee that efforts to thwart the long term threat to the planet do not falter. 

But Elves will not ally themselves to a society dominated by wizards, for reasons I will explain in a later post.  At the start of Gods Among Men, wizards control the upper reaches of a world spanning empire called The Guild.  These wizards do not believe elves exist.  They think elves are just  products of Damon’s madness.  Thus the wizards refuse his demands that they relinquish power.  This results in Damon’s decision to destroy The Guild and create a new society that elves will ally themselves with.

Tolkien wrote about a crisis that ends with elves retreating from the world.  I write about a crisis that ends with elves returning to the world in order to ally themselves with mankind.  This is not the totality of Gods Among Men, or even the primary plot thread, but it is a crucial fact that drives much of Damon’s motivations and machinations.

Summary

The following is a list of key points explaining the founding logic of my world, the importance of elves to Damon Roth’s plans, their relationship to mankind at the beginning of Gods Among Men, and how this relationship must change by the end of the story.

  1. The world is our earth in the distant future
  2. Elves have existed since before humanity evolved.
  3. Elves are effectively immortal.
  4. Elves have a well-developed, highly stable, culture and society.
  5. Elves and other faerie creatures cannot tolerate metal, especially iron and steel.
  6. Elves and other fairy creatures retreated from the “human” dimensions when mankind began using iron and steel.
  7. By the start of Gods Among Men, most people have forgotten even the tales and legends of the faerie folk.
  8. Damon Roth is one of the few who know that elves exist.  (I shall explain how he came by this knowledge in a later post.)
  9. The future threat that Damon is aware of is real.
  10. Elves are aware of this threat, and it endangers them as well.
  11. Damon’s solution to the threat will work, but requires a sustained effort for perhaps millions of years.
  12. Elves are aware of Damon’s proposed solution, and accept that it is the best answer to the future threat.
  13. Elves are incapable of addressing the threat by themselves.
  14. Damon believes, with cause, that the world’s only hope is for mankind and elves to form an alliance dedicated to enacting his solution to the threat.
  15. Elves, for good reasons, will not ally themselves with any society dominated by wizards.
  16. The Guild, the dominate power in the future is largely controlled by wizards who do not believe that elves exist.
  17. These wizards refuse to relinquish power and turn control of the government over to non-wizards.
  18. Damon decides to destroy the current society and create one where wizards play a lesser role in world affairs.
  19. Elves will neither interfere with nor aid Damon.  They shall wait to see the outcome of his actions and, if he succeeds, form an alliance with the society that forms after the fall of The Guild.

The final point is crucial.  The elves in my story feel they must remain neutral.  They want Damon to succeed, but they are afraid of interfering lest some factions of mankind come to see them as enemies and not allies.  In fact, part of Damon’s plan is to identify and eliminate any who might react violently to an alliance with elves.  Therefore, while elves are crucial to the finale of Gods Among Men, and are essential to Damon’s motivations, they are little more than spectators to the major events of the story. 

I would not go so far as to call the elves in Gods Among Men some type of MacGuffin.  Some of the elf characters are very important to the scope of the story.  But none of these characters are the primary focus of any central story arcs.  Rather the elves in my story are structural elements, secondary characters that provide depth and meaning to the main characters.  They fill this role because, to me, elves have much better symbolic value than robots, and the dénouement they provide is far more satisfying. 

The Big Picture, Part 1: The Point and Purpose

As I have mentioned previously, writing these posts helps me refine the ideas behind my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men.   They force me to express my nebulous thoughts in concrete sentences.    To take the vague and make it specific.

The protagonist of Gods Among Men is Damon Roth. Recently I had an epiphany where I saw behind Damon’s tactics, which I had instinctively settled on long ago, and grasped his strategy in a clear manner.  I glimpsed into the devious mind of a character I had created and truly understood him for perhaps the first time.  I saw how he treated the world as a chessboard, and people as pieces moving on that board.   The reasons behind his actions became clear to me, and I appreciated the elegant brutality of his solutions to problems. 

This knowledge allowed me to write a clear, concise summary of the fundamental story.  I tried to write down Damon’s strategy and tactics in a similar manner, but found myself balked by my mythology.  I discovered that to understand “why” Damon acts as he does requires understanding:

  1. The world he lives in
  2. The nature of the threat he is responding to
  3. His ideas for addressing that threat
  4. The reasons some oppose him and others support him.
  5. How he plans to eliminate those who oppose him
  6. How he plans to reward those who support him
  7. Why he sees himself as a threat to his own plans, and his solution to that problem.

That is a tall order.  A single post, or even a single day’s work, is insufficient to write something that covers all of that.  To explain Damon’s strategy and tactics I must first explain the big picture in a way I have never done before.  It requires spelling out information that hitherto resides solely in my mind.  Plot points which I intend to incorporate into my story as needed. 

The finished story is the ultimate, and definitive, explanation for all of this.  But a summary of what I intend the story to contain, written so it is clear to the average person, is a reasonable goal.  In fact, such a summary is necessary if I hope to someday be published. 

Which brings us to the point and purpose of this series of posts, which I am calling The Big Picture.  In this series I will explore the history and mythology that forms the setting for Gods Among Men. I shall explain how the world transitioned from the way it once was to how it is now; and why that is important.  I will reveal enough of the back-story of central characters, along with their motivations, so that their goals are put into context.  I will explain the threat that Damon is responding to, along with his solution to the threat. Finally I will reveal Damon’s byzantine plot and what he hopes to achieve.   I shall reveal the cost he must pay for his plans succeed.

This is not to suggest I am going to post on this subject exclusively.  Merely that I will return to it regularly for some time to come.  It is, after all, a subject dear to my heart.  Plus, I don’t want the vagaries of memory and the demon of time to steal my current clarity of thought. 

The Moment Of Epiphany

I am late with the posts this week  for two reasons.  First because of issues with my back, but more importantly I had and epiphany about my story, Gods Among Men.

It was strange for a plotter like me to admit this, but I had until recently put precious little thought into the machinations at the end of the story.   Which is not to say I did not know the ending, merely I hadn’t figured out how to get there.  The distinction is important.  Knowing the endpoint is a matter of plot, getting there is a matter of character and story.

I had all the characters, I knew I needed all of them, but I was uncertain why I needed all of them.  I knew many things I needed Damon to do, but it was all tactical maneuvers; I was missing a strategy to  tie the details together.

When insight strikes, you notice.   It is like when a puzzle makes sense, or a math proof becomes obvious.  Archimedes may well have yelled, “Eureka” at such a moment.  I, on the other hand, whispered something a trace more vulgar and gaped at mid-air.

I now know why Damon is doing certain things.  And I can explain, simply, the importance of each action to his plan. I understand the twisted plot now in a way I could not before.

And so, for perhaps the first time, I shall jot down what my story is about in a way anyone can understand.

This story is about Damon Roth. 

Its tag line is: One man’s quest to change himself starts with his attempts to change the world. 

The plot is about the fall of one empire and the founding of the greater empire that shall follow it. 

Damon Roth sees a threat so far in the future that for him to even talk of it makes people think him insane.  He takes it upon himself to save the world, even if it means destroying whole civilizations to do so.   The price of failure is his soul.

Damon will destroy the old empire and create a new one dedicated to confronting the future threat.  He will not rest, nor falter, nor turn aside in his quest to become the god of a new age.  To become known as Demiurge, God Among Men. 

But first he must  defeat the old Demiurge and steal his power.   Then he must identify the enemies and traitors who might move against him or  Tara Rihtwis, the woman he has chosen to rule the new empire.  He will empower these enemies until he is ready to destroy them, and in the process slay the old empire.

Damon is the hero of the story.  And he may well be a power-hungry madman.

The Nature of the Villain

This post is part of an ongoing series about the central characters in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the role each character fills.  Here are links to the earlier posts in this series.

Protagonist, Antagonist, Hero, Villain, Antihero, and AntiVillain
Protagonist: A Closer Look at Damon Roth
Antagonist: A Closer Look At Demiurge
The Nature of the Hero
Hero, Part 1: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis
Hero, Part 2: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis, Part 2
Hero, Part 3: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis
Hero, Part 4: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis, Part 2
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 2
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 3

Today I will discuss the nature of villainy in general terms, much the same way I wrote about heroism in The Nature of the Hero.  In later posts I will go into specific examples using characters from my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men.


The word villain can be traced back through the Anglo-French and Old French vilein.  This word traces back to the  Latin word villanus, which means “farmhand.” Specifically someone who works the soil at a villa.  Thus it became associated with those of less than knightly status and, over time, came to represent someone who is not chivalrous. Unchivalrous acts, such as treachery, murder, rape, theft and so froth; became associated with being a vilein, and over time evolved into the modern sense of the word villain.


Ergo, to understand the root of villainy, you must first understand its defining opposite, chivalry.  A full exploration of chivalry is beyond the scope of this post, so I shall consign myself to the most common themes associated with the word, namely knightly virtues and honor.  Had I more space I would also delve into courtly love, another central element of chivalry.


The knightly virtues focus upon the cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude; and the beatitudes: Humility, Compassion, Courtesy, Devotion, Mercy, Purity, Peace and Endurance.  A chivalrous hero would strive to uphold all of these ideals and never break from them on purpose.  Ergo an unchivalrous villain would actively, willingly, violate one or more of these ideals.  


I had these ideas in mind when I created the villain of Gods Among Men, Maelgar Tregadie, also called The Y’Fel. I saw him from the beginning as the moral opposite of my heroic knight, Morel Rihtwis.  I created Morel to be the example of chivalry, the embodiment of honor and the knightly virtues.  Maelgar, as his opposite, became the worst sort of villain; the type that violates the concepts of chivalry not because they are inconvenient, but because that is what he wants to do.


There is danger in this choice for a character.  It is easy for them to slide into a mustache twirling caricature.  Normal people do not seek to do evil just to do evil.  For Maelgar to be this type of villain meant he had to be abnormal, someone damaged mentally and/or emotionally that believes his heinous acts are justified.  I will explore Maelgar’s motives in more detail in a post focusing upon him specifically.  For now, I will summarize by saying that he is unconsciously seeking revenge, and that his shameful acts are ways of emotionally hurting his father, Integras Tregadie


When discussing the concept of heroism in The Nature of the Hero I wrote.

A hero in later works is often defined by the lines they will not cross, the acts they will not commit, even when everyone else says the acts are necessary or even required. A hero in later mythology is the person who risks all, including the safety of those closest to them, because their moral center demands it of them.

By this measure a villain first  needs to be the type of person capable of crossing those moral lines the hero won’t.  This is not sufficient in itself to establish someone as a villain, but it is a necessary condition.  An antihero, for example, might well have villainous characteristics, but will still “save the day” at the crucial moment.  The crucial element that defines a villain is this: The hero acts for others, the villain acts for themselves.


The hero and antihero commonly face a moment of decision when they can turn aside from their quest and still save themselves or those they love.  But because they are heroes they instead choose to persevere through the hardships in the hope of a broader victory that benefits more people.  The hero runs the risk of sacrifice to help the larger community.


The villain can always turn aside, but refuses to do so because they have not gotten what they wanted, have not achieved the goal that benefits them personally.  The villain is fundamentally selfish and feels their needs trumps all other concerns.  Their goal is more important than the welfare of those around them.


The antivillain is distinct from the villain in that they have some redeeming characteristic.  The antivillain, like the hero and antihero, have moral lines they will not cross, but they differ on the reasons why.  The hero and antihero don’t cross the moral lines because it is wrong, the antivillain refuses because of a personal code of behavior.  It is again an act of selfishness, only now rather than a goal it is their code that is of primary importance.  As long as this code is not violated, the antivillain is quite comfortable with committing the most heinous of acts.


In Gods Among Men  I created the character Widukind as an antivillain.  His personal honor is of paramount importance to him.  He will not lie, nor break his word, and his religious beliefs are deep and sincere.  He is courageous, and prefers to face opponents in fair combat.  Outside those restraints, he is cold-blooded and quite willing to commit terrible atrocities for many different reasons.  Heinous acts do not trouble his conscience, unless they touch upon his personal honor.  I will go into more detail upon Widukind in a later post.


Villains (and antivillains) are, in may respects, stock characters that can often border on being cliché.   In most works, they are sketchily drawn, given a few nasty characteristics, and then pitted against the hero in an ad hoc manner.  The conclusion is known before the story starts: the villain will try to destroy the hero for some reason, the hero will suffer, and in the end will defeat (i.e. kill) the villain.  


I do no intend to give away my full story, but I do wish to make it clear that I intend to break from that mold.   I do not like sketchily drawn characters, especially ones important to the plot, and so my villains have rich histories in their own right.  I do not like struggles where the outcome is predictable, and so I am trying to weave in twists that are, I believe, unique to my story.  I do not like heroes that kill with the same lack of conscience that a villain would, so I address that point in my own way.


These attempts on my part may well fail.  In the end it is the quality of the writing that will determine if the characters are memorable or forgettable, whether they seem real or more like melodramatic caricatures.   The best I can do is try to write the villains well, and assure people I did put a lot of thought into their creation.