The Big Picture, Part 4: The World of Tomorrow

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.

The World of Today

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I see Gods Among Men as being set on earth in the very distant future.  At some point where Arthur C. Clarke’s adage, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has finally come true.  

In my last post, I explained how in my mythology the faerie world exists, but broke off most contact with humans in our early pre-history.

Adopting this mythology lets me both claim that supernatural entities—and hence supernatural or magical powers—exist, and explain why mankind at our current moment in history would be largely unaware of that fact.

It also, however, begs the following question: From this point, meaning our present, how does our modern society twist and turn to become my fantasy world of the future?  A world that draws heavily on Medieval and Renaissance imagery with Gothic overtones.  A place where Greek mythology and Shakespearean tragedies are plot elements in a battle of wills between the protagonist, Damon Roth, and the antagonist Demiurge.  The kind of world where spacecraft coexist with spellcraft.

Where Do We Go From Here

It is my belief that certain trends in mankind’s past will continue into the future.  First and foremost, there will be scientific and technological progress.  Mankind will learn more about biology, genetics, physics, and a host of other subjects.  Computer technology will advance, as will space travel, engineering, and the like.

Take these assumptions forward an indefinite period of time; a thousand years or more, tens of thousands if need be.  What might be possible at the furthest reaches of these broad trends?

In my mythology, in the far future there will be practical space travel within the solar system.  There will be many colonies on asteroids, moons, and planets that are functionally self-sustaining. 

Nanotechnology is perfected and able to operate down at the atomic and possibly sub-atomic level. 

Genetic engineering has reached the point where building custom life forms from scratch is possible if one has the right tools. 

The differences between quantum mechanics and relativity theory have been resolved, and we have discovered how to draw vast amounts of energy from the universe itself.  (Or from alternate universes or parallel dimensions or the space between universes or some other techno-babble explanation.  The details here are not important. What matters is that there is nearly unlimited energy that can be tapped and converted to a myriad of uses.)

The Daemons in these Details

But I do not have a utopian view of the future.  There are now, and will continue to be, those who oppose progress of the nature I describe.  We have terrorist and dictators now who seek to disrupt the stability and peace of our world.  Who, if given a chance, would cast us into a dark age. 

I doubt the current batch of thugs have much chance of success, but suppose that desire continues to burn in one form or another for generation after generation.  Suppose evil itself has a form, perhaps intangible, that will return over and over, searching for a way to break the foundations of civilization. 

In my mythology, at the very height of our technological prowess, those who would do great harm found a way to do so.  A way beyond their imaginations or ability to control.  These evil men and women destroyed themselves, and unleashed forces that sent earth spiraling into a new dark age. One which isolates people on earth from their brethren in the space colonies. 

In the process, the destroyers of civilization unleashed Daemons on the world of tomorrow.

Daemons are hybrid humans whose descendants will be called Wizards because of the powers they command which appear to be magical.  Powers rooted in the merger of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, computer science, nanotechnology, biology, and genetic engineering.

I shall go into further details about daemons in a later post.  One point worth noting is that my antagonist, Demiurge, is the last and most powerful of the original daemons.  At the height of his power his name became synonymous with the honorific people hailed him by: God Among Men.

What Is Important To Damon Roth?

The events leading up to the fall of the scientific and technological civilization give rise to the magic that permeates my story.  In a later post I will detail the scientific nature of magic in my mythology, and how its creation resulted in the new dark age.  The key point right now is that Damon Roth and Demiurge are the only characters who have knowledge about the true nature of magic.  This knowledge allows both of them to control people and events in ways impossible for anyone else.

Damon also has detailed information about how the societies on earth and in the space colonies developed.  He knows the strengths and weaknesses in both, understands their history and goals, and is prepared to bend both to his will.

Damon’s plan to confront the future threat he knows of requires those on earth and those in space to unite with elves and other races.  Both humans on earth and those in space must agree to abandon their existing governments and social structures and adopt new ones of his creation.  Damon gives each side the chance to do so willingly, knowing their leaders will refuse.  After their refusal, Damon violently destroys those who oppose him, saving those who are more amendable to his plans.

The details of what happened to those on earth and those in space are important, and beyond the scope of this post.  Later posts in this series will explain what happened to each and how their respective experiences are needed for the survival of humanity and the rest of life on earth.

And On Another Note…

I am approaching the complex hub of my mythology.  The events that foreshadow the tale I am trying to tell in Gods Among Men. Many times in this article I have had to use a phrase like, “In a later post I will explain…”  This is because there is much information that I developed in fits and starts over many long years.  Details which I have never formally expressed in spoken or written words. 

I hope I am clear in my explanations, and the world I describe understandable.  I believe this exercise helps me order my thoughts and answers my own questions about my own work. 

It does take a long time to write these posts, however.  Much longer than it took to write most of my earlier posts.  The amount of time I spend actually writing and editing on Gods Among Men has decreased dramatically in recent weeks. 

I may need to intersperse some smaller, less complicated topics amidst this exploration of my mythology.  But I don’t want to stop writing on this subject out of fear that the clarity I have been blessed with recently will fade if I do.  I am uncertain how to resolve this quandary, so I will have to wait and see where inspiration leads me next.

Until next time, have fun.

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 Unreliable Narrator

Most of the time, the reader can safely assume that the writer tells the truth.  That what appears on the page is an accurate version of events in a story.  This is not meant to suggest that characters do not tell lies to each other, or that the events themselves are plausible, merely that what is written on the page did in fact happen in the story. 

There are, however, exceptions to this rule.  The author can deliberately lie to the reader by relating events on the page, only to reveal that those events never actually happened in the story.  The narrator of the story becomes unreliable.

As an example, consider the movie, A Beautiful Mind, in which the principle character suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has constant delusional episodes.  His delusions are presented to the viewer as if they are really happening.  It is not until much later in the movie that we discover that much of what we have witnessed on the screen never happened.  We are required to search our memories and decipher what was real and what was false.  What actually happened during those delusional moments is left to our imaginations.  The narrator of the story, in this case the director, has lied to us and is therefore unreliable.

This technique of storytelling dates back over a thousand years and is used for many different effects.  In A Beautiful Mind it is used to both explain the nature of paranoid schizophrenia and to make the central character more sympathetic than he would be without that understanding. In other works it is used to set up a surprise ending, or to make the reader/viewer think about something in a new or different way.

I make use of the unreliable narrator technique in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, as a means to:

  • Describe a major event
  • Build a mystery around that event
  • Lay out the social order
  • Explain the military structure
  • Establish the limits on the powers of normal wizards
  • Show how the protagonist, Damon Roth, exceeds those limits. 

In an earlier post, I wrote about how my late wife, Ellen inspired me to change three places where characters describe a major event and make those tales into flashbacks told from their point of view. 

Making this change was problematic  because the tale the characters were telling was not entirely true.  Their minds had been altered and parts of what they related were fictions placed in their consciousness.   They were unreliable witnesses to the event, which is not quite the same thing as being an unreliable narrator.   They believed what they said was true, and clues that their recollections were false were given to the reader even as they spoke.

Once I wrote those scenes as flashbacks, and turned their delusions into events that would appear to be true to the reader, I became the unreliable narrator.  I started lying to the reader by describing events that did not happen the way I wrote them on the page.

This opened up possibilities and gave me great advantages as a storyteller. The flashbacks became exciting, action filled scenes, each one building on the last.  In each telling I added details–private thoughts, worries, desires, and observations–that the character wouldn’t include when telling their version of events to others, but which gave important information and insights to the reader.  The downside was the reader was forced to think about what was real and what was imaginary.  To sort through the clues and decipher what really happened, and what were parts of a magically induced delusion.  These were problems I could live with.

Since then, I have thought much about the unreliable narrator technique.  Were I to use it too much, then the story would become unreadable.  If nothing can be believed then the essential suspension of disbelief  is forfeited and the reader loses interest. 

Therefore I decided upon a simple rule: I will only use the unreliable narrator in flashback scenes, and those scenes will only be told from one point of view.   In non-flashback scenes, what the reader sees on the page will be true and reliable.

For example, I have an extended flashback where Artemis Arrowsmith relates the events that led to the death of her lover Marcus.   This scene will be told solely from her point of view, albeit in third person fashion.  Her actions, thoughts, feelings, and memories will be told to the reader directly.  For other characters the reader will only be told what Artemis sees them do or hears them say or has related to her by another character.  Artemis might misremember certain details, or lie, or misinterpret events because of her own biases or preconceptions.  Thus she becomes an unreliable narrator of her own tale. 

But what she and others say and do both before her flashback starts and after it ends will be accurate and factual descriptions to the best of my abilities.  The reader can rely upon the scenes set in the present as containing only the truth.

The unreliable narrator is a powerful technique that allows authors to explore ideas, emotions, and experiences in ways that would be impossible otherwise.   In some cases, such as mine, it provides easy routes for including details that would otherwise be awkward or impossible to introduce.  It is an approach that puts unique demands upon the writer’s skill, and challenges the reader to think about what they read in new ways.  It is not the right choice for most works of fiction, but it is an option that should never be dismissed lightly.

Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 3

This post is part of an ongoing series about the central characters in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. 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
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 2

Today I continue with reviewing the character of Artemis Arrowsmith, the woman who fills the role of antihero in Gods Among Men .

In my previous two posts on Artemis I established the journey she took from being a stock, male, character with no well defined role to a female character central to the story. Last time I focused upon the elements that would become seeds for her back story, about how on the surface she would appear to be completely different from the story’s protagonist, Damon Roth, but underneath would have a history and personality that made her his natural ally. I described how Artemis became the lens through which the reader sees Damon Roth.

Within that framework were details that had to be filled in. Details that took years for me to determine and which were inspired and influenced by a motley collection of sources including, but not limited to, Greek mythology, Dungeons & Dragons, Dances With Wolves, Babylon 5, cheesy science fiction heroines, and the seven deadly sins.

First came Dungeons & Dragons, which is where Artemis first began. She was inspired originally by the ranger character class. Rangers in D&D are fighters with specialized knowledge of certain types of creatures that heps them become experts at fighting and killing those creatures. I incorporated this feature of rangers into Artemis’s personality by making her exceptionally knowledgeable of, and focused upon killing, Gogs; humanoid creatures that have a wolf-like appearance along with some characteristics of wolves.

I couldn’t have Artemis intent upon killing Gogs unless she had a good reason for hating them. Killing for no reason is the act of a villain, and I was determined that Artemis would not be a villainous character. Finding a reason for her to hate Gogs drove me to flesh out these creatures as something more than big nasty wolf-like monster. At the same time, I also needed a way for Artemis to gain her special knowledge about them.

Around this time I watched the movie Dances With Wolves, in which Mary McDonnell plays the character Stands With A Fist. Her parents were killed by Indians when she was a young girl, and then she was raised by a different tribe of Indians.

There on the screen were answers for why Artemis hated Gogs and where her expertise of them came from. Artemis hates Gogs because they were responsible for someone she loved dying, and her knowledge came from a period where she was taken captive and lived among a Gog tribe.

This solution raised other problems. I had already decided that Artemis was an orphan raised by the Guild, a world-spanning empire. This part of her history was important because it paralleled Damon’s own childhood and was integral to using Artemis as a way to explain Damon to the reader. i.e. Artemis could not be raised by the Gogs, nor could it be her parents that were killed by the Gogs.

The solution to this quandary came from a merging of ideas from the science-fiction television series Babylon 5 and the story from Greek mythology of Artemis and Actaeon.

In an episode of Babylon 5 there was a tender, romantic moment in which the character Marcus Cole sacrifices his life to save the life of the woman he loves, military officer Susan Ivanova. This prompted me to add a love interest for Artemis, someone she grew up knowing and fell in love with. I named him Marcus, a homage to the character who inspired him. I decided that Marcus and Artemis would have served in the military together and that he died fighting Gogs.

In Greek mythology, the goddess of the hunt, Artemis, catches the mortal Actaeon spying upon her. As punishment she has him torn apart by his own hounds. I already thought of the Gogs as related to wolves, which in turn are related to hounds. Once I thought of Actaeon being torn apart by hounds because of Artemis, it was easy to conceive of Marcus being killed by Gogs because of something Artemis did.

I combined these ideas and decided that Marcus and Artemis were, at some point in the past, sent to a remote fort. Because of something Artemis did, Gogs overran the fort, Marcus died, and Artemis was taken prisoner. There she would learn about Gogs in great detail before she managed to escape and make her way back to civilization. As a plot twist, I decided the Gog who captures her and holds her prisoner would be Widukind, the Gog I created based on the work I did while developing Morel Rihtwis’s character arc. In developing his relationship with Artemis, Widukind in turn became an antivillain.

Over time, Artemis’s grief over what happened to Marcus became transformed into bitterness, which in turn became a wrathful need for vengeance against those she believes have wronged her. In particular Gogs suffer her wrath, but as Gods Among Men unfolds others become the focus of her burning rage.

Wrath, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins. Rage became the character flaw that made Artemis violent, even bloodthirsty where Gogs are concerned. Her excessively violent nature makes her cross the line between hero and antihero. It also means that at some point she must pay a heavy personal price for committing the sin of wrath.

There were other influences that drove Artemis towards the character she is now. Germanic and Celtic mythology offered ways to resolve problems with the timeline of events in her life. Movies such The Deer Hunter made me ponder the psychological effects the violent events in Artemis’s life would have upon her, which led me to consider the affects upon her relationships with those closest to her. Songs such as the Moody Blue’s Gypsy (Of a Strange and Distant Time) and Bill Whelan’s Highstep inspired particular scenes that, in turn, made me tweak her character so I could eventually include those scenes.

In many respects, Artemis Arrowsmith has become my favorite character. Her flaws become entangled with her strengths, her failings color her successes. Her importance in Gods Among Men and her ever growing complexity as a character made me alter other characters, facts about the world, and even plot elements so that they better fit what I needed and wanted from her character. Without her I couldn’t begin to tell the story that I have worked on for so many years now.

Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 2

Today I shall continue reviewing the development of Artemis Arrowsmith, the character who has developed to fill the role of antihero in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. This is part of a larger series of posts about the roles of protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, antihero, and antivillain, and includes posts about the nature of the hero, protagonists and antagonists, and multiple posts about the more heroic characters Morel and Tara Rihtwiz. Those posts can be found by following the links to parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Last time I covered how I first included a male ranger-type character drawn from my Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing experiences, then evolved the character into being a female archer/hunter called Artemis Arrowsmith. Although I did discuss how the character underwent a sex-change and was renamed, I did not discuss the changes that occurred with her back story. That is because at this point in her evolution she had no back story to speak of.

To call Gods Among Men a large, complex tale is an understatement. It took a long time for me to understand what the story was, which made actually writing any of it rather difficult. For many years I was plagued by more problems than solutions and few of my vague thoughts made their way to written word.

Artemis was one of many characters included because I felt instinctively a need for certain archetypes common in fantasy and mythology. Over time, my thoughts on the plot began to coalesce and the real needs of the story became more clear. As that happened, some of the characters I first included were removed while others were altered, some quite dramatically.

The central character in Gods Among Men has always been Damon Roth. Part of my growth as a writer was understanding how making Damon Roth central to the story influences the development of other characters. To state this revelation in simple terms: all the other characters become defined by how they react and interact with Damon.

As originally conceived, Artemis was to be Damon’s ally. For many years I kept her personality defined based upon stereotypical notions of what she should be like, and that made her impossible to write effectively. Once I realized Artemis needed a personality and history that made her a natural ally of Damon then she came into focus.

Thus began a slow mixing and matching of traits so that, upon first glance, Artemis would appear to be the exact opposite of Damon. He was a wizard, she was almost immune to magic. Damon was wealthy and lived in a grand manor, Artemis carried all her belonging in a backpack and had no permanent home. Damon was subtle, while Artemis was blunt. Damon planned everything he did with infinite care, while Artemis lived entirely in the moment, reacting instinctively to all that happened.

Underneath all these surface differences were the similarities that would bind them together. Both were exceptionally skilled, unusually intelligent, individuals who loved leading dangerous lives. Both were orphans, raised by the Guild, and inducted into service at a young age. Both had hurt those who cared for them, and both suffered guilt and regret over their actions. They each want redemption for their past sins. They want to be heroes, but both are willing to cross the moral lines that a true hero never would.

Then came the insight that firmly moved Artemis from merely an ally to a central character once and for all: Artemis is the lens through which the reader sees Damon Roth.

Damon needed to be mysterious; the reader must wonder about his motives and history and plans. Ergo, Artemis must ponder those questions. The reader should not trust Damon right away, therefore Artemis must not trust him right away. The reader should come to understand Damon overtime, so Artemis must come to understand him. Every question, every concern, every reaction I wanted the reader to have concerning Damon became the theme that ran through all of the scenes involving Artemis.

It was in this process that Artemis transitioned from a traditional heroic model of character to an antihero. As I explained in my post about Damon as the protagonist :

Damon Roth cannot be the hero because he does not embody heroic ideals. In his past he committed horrible acts for his own benefit. Acts which harmed many,including people he cared deeply about, though he was unable at that time to acknowledge those feelings even to himself. The important point of his character is that he is still doing this. He will again commit and cause atrocities that will harm many including those he cares for. … The acts he commits in Gods Among Men, as terrible as they will be, are intended to save mankind, to save the world and everything on it. To avoid the death of every living thing on the planet he believes, truly believes, that he must follow a ruthless plan that leaves a path of death and destruction in his wake. Some must suffer so all may be saved.

If Damon is going to commit atrocities, and if Artemis is going to accept those acts as being required to achieve a greater good, then Artemis cannot be heroic in the classical sense. She must, on some level, be capable of rationalizing that certain amoral acts are required, and that is something a classical hero would never do. She is not a villain, because her acts do not spring from selfish desires, and she performs heroic deeds without thought of reward. She is flawed, and those flaws make her an antihero.