A Journey through the world of The Witcher (part two)

the_witcher_3_v6_by_harrybana-d8a4bxlHaving ploughed (maybe not the best word in context) through Witcher 2 I went straight on to Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. First of all, I have to say I am in awe of the work done on this game. Witcher 2 is in some ways quite a confined game. With this game they broke down the walls and made instead the game that any RPG fan would want.

In some ways this era could turn out to be a golden age of RPGs. Not necessarily, as for me story and a sense of place are the alpha and omega of an RPG. It’s not a given that these will improve. On the other hand, there seems to be a real sense of learning. I’m sure games developers play the output of other studios more extensively than me. I tend to find a game and play it to death. One a year can sometimes be enough. Nonetheless, I can still see cross-pollination for the good.

Elder Scrolls and particularly Skyrim reimagined the scope and beauty of a single-player open world RPG. This clearly had an effect in the development of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Horses become a standard feature (also through Red Dead Redemption) and the possibility of exploring a vaster landscape unfolds. But gamers aren’t satisfied they want to fight from horseback and this mechanic appears in the Skyrim DLC. It’s not quite there yet. Now Witcher 3 comes along and (at least on keyboard and mouse) it now works and, most importantly, is fun.

There are many points in Witcher 3 that I felt that the designers were responding to something that fans of RPGs wanted and it is then delivered. None of this is to say the RPG form has been perfected. Far from it. There is so much more that can be done and some things that should be dropped but this is for another post. The point here is that CDPR with Witcher 3 gave me a real sense of responding to what people want.

Personally, I immediately felt that my issues with the previous games had been addressed. It was no longer aimless, rather it gave clear opportunities to progress the storyline as and when suited. The graphics were once again improved (beardy Geralt is a huge improvement over previous versions). The combat was enjoyable, the interface more intuitive and gameplay was more logical (e.g. taking potions before a big fight actually possible).  After the trio of barren locations I had endured in Witcher 2 a more verdant and varied vista opened up before me

Last but not least, the VA was a step up from previous games. There was a bit more variety there (helped by more expressive animations), although there are a number of times when Geralt acts needlessly put upon, sighing when exiting a shop screen for no apparent reason and saying a begrudging ‘fine’ more times than I can count. The greater length of the game and opportunities for interactions also mean Geralt is able to show more of his character than before.

I knew I was going to choose Yennefer based on the fact that she was who he was with before he lost his memory. It seemed a bit odd to sideline Triss after spending the game before trying to save her but Geralt lets on several times that easy-going sweetness is not his bag and when previously in possession of all his faculties he had chosen Yennefer. If in doubt, do what you think the character would do.

The game moves on to Skellige and once again I was in awe. This viking-celtic mishmash setting (perhaps meant to be Orkney or the Shetlands) could have been the whole world for many a game and here it is just one place to visit. I think on this in more depth. Skyrim has myriad locations but actually how extensive are they? Even Riverun is only a few screens, probably only a part of the size of Oxenfurt let alone Novigrad.

I have probably only played a tiny fraction of RPGs out there. Still, some things stick in your mind. There’s a game called Summoner on the Playstation 2, horrible controls/gameplay, mediocre graphics, good story and a fabulous setting. Reasonably early in the game you get to the main city, Lenelle. You first enter the market on the outside then and interior market region. From there you can progress to the old town, the upmarket district and the temple area. I don’t think I’d ever seen so much space given to an urban environment before in an RPG. Now I expect nothing less.

Initially, I ignore Gwent. Once I get a feel for the shape of the game I restart in completionist mode. This time I learn Gwent. Who are all these characters on the cards? Oh look, there’s Phillipa Eilhart again. She’s referred to again but first time round I missed ‘Redania’s Most Wanted’. There are others, Milva, Cahir, Regis. Menno Coehoorn I recognise from the back story of the Dun Banner. I still want to know more about Brenna and Sodden.

I complete the main quest and move on to Toussaint. Riding out of Beauclaire I often have to stop and spin around the panaroma. Once again, I am in awe. Ah hello, here’s Regis from the Gwent card.

Something is nagging me at this stage. All this interaction with people Geralt knows but are strangers to me. I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of references and back history. I feel a bit like an outsider when I should be right in the midst. This was fine when in the previous game Geralt was recovering from amnesia but now I need to know the full story. I feel like I’m coming in late on this and I hate coming in late. I want to start from as close to the beginning as possible.

There is only one solution…I have to now read the books.

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A Journey through the world of The Witcher (Part One)

the_witcher_2_enhanced_ed_for_windows_8_oblytile_by_masakari666-d5n4cngThis is not a review. I am not making a recommendation or judging whether anyone else should like the Witcher books or games. This is simply my meandering journey through the series of games and books and my thoughts along the way.

For a long time I didn’t like the Witcher and it was such a shame because I really wanted to like it. Friends, whose opinions on games I trusted, told me it was great. Reviewers told me it was great. I even liked the concept. Yet still I didn’t get on with and to explain this I have to go back to the beginning of my journey.

As previously stated, friends had told me the Witcher was great, specifically that the Witcher 2 was a great game. Long time fans of Andrzej Sapkowski’s writing might well be horrified at coming into the series from this angle but that’s how it was for me. So what was wrong with the Witcher 2? The answer is nothing, initially, as I didn’t start there. I hate coming in late on any series so I started with The Witcher.

There were things to like about the first game. I was keen on the setting and the mythology. The procedural nature of Witcher work seemed like a good tool for telling self-contained quests within a larger story. Ropey graphics (at least by the time I started playing it) notwithstanding the Grimdark aesthetic was one I could buy into.

My stumbling blocks were threefold. Firstly, by the time I got into the Vizima investigation there seemed to be a lot of going back and forth and waiting for things to happen and it all became a bit aimless. Secondly, the combat gameplay was not particularly enjoyable and this exacerbated the first problem. If you’re going to have to do some trudging it needs to be fun. Thridly, and this is the major one, I didn’t like Geralt.

That’s not to say I thought he was a bad character I just didn’t like him because of how he was presented.  This may enrage fans but I hated the voice acting. I’m not going to call it bad acting as I feel that is an accusation made far too liberally. Time and again I’ve heard people label a performance in a film or TV ‘bad acting’ when in fact it was a terrible script. The actor gets the blame for the bad line as if they were the one who wrote it. Another way in which actors get blamed unfairly is that it is sometimes the director’s fault. The actor gave the performance that was asked of them; they were merely asked for something that was bad.

As a consequence, I’m not sure the VA performance in the Witcher isn’t what the creators wanted. It seems as if there was a line about Witchers being purged of emotion and the whole performance stemmed from that. The trouble with this is that one, there is little evidence that aspect of Witchers is anything more than one of the many slanders aimed at them and two, no other Witcher in the game speaks that way. This leaves Geralt as being the sole deadened performer in the piece and comes across more as a poor-man’s Wolverine who’s been given an overdose of sedatives.

A further problem arises from this performance when it comes to the ‘Geralt as a horndog’ parts of the first game. Amorous lines delivered like that come across as skincrawlingly creepy and all the more immersion-breaking when the female characters respond favourable to it.

And so I left Geralt just as he entered the trade quarter thinking I might come back at some point but with no real enthusiasm. I could have left my journey into the world of the Witcher here but, after all, it was The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings that people were raving about not the first game. Perhaps the faults with the first game would be fixed?

The Witcher 2 is widely reckoned to be a pretty good game. There’s a story that when President Obama visited Poland he was given a copy of it as a gift. I can’t help but try to imagine him trying to play it. It’s not easy. I assume he stayed away from the brothel.

On to the second game. Some things were indeed fixed. The combat was much improved, as were the graphics. Unfortunately, the voice acting was the same and the sense of aimlessness had not been eliminated. It was not an amazing place to hang out like Skyrim and the world and relationships were not as engaging as in the Dragon Age series, a fact I found curious as by this time I was aware there were years of book lore behind it.

Once again I left Geralt, this time in the drizzle of Flotsam thinking that one day I might go back. Here my journey seemed to end and had the Witcher series only been games it may have ended indeed. During my time away, however, another Witcher game came out, Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Once again, people raved but I was cautious. However good it was I still didn’t like Geralt. In the other ear, so to speak, came tales of how the books were actually really good and the kind of thing I would enjoy. Here the seeds were sown for I really thought that I ought to like the Witcher.

Time passed and I had a period where I was minded to start gaming again. The nagging thoughts about giving the Witcher series another chance bore fruit and I determined that this time I would play Witcher 2 through to the end (gameplay of Witcher 1 was still a bit offputting).

I started again rather than trying to pick up where I left off. I do this often when coming back to an RPG, I don’t like coming in late. This time the Kayran was defeated and I followed the story (beware spoilers ahead). I took Roche’s path as he seemed the more natural ally and it took me to the bleak surroundings of the Kaedweni camp. After the damp drabness of Flotsam I had hoped for a bit of light and shade but at least the story was moving now. I found out the reasons behind the curse and probably at some point around here I had become immersed. The VA was grating less, I had deliberately hung out with Zoltan and Dandelion more and Geralt had started to seem less one-note than before.

Without going into the ins and outs of every quest, I arrived in Loc Muine. This was something of a disappointment. After two cesspits I had hoped for somewhere more like some of the crags I had visited on the way to Vergen. Instead, I was in an infested ruins. Oh well, I’m invested now. Clearly I had missed a number of things along the way and this would not be my best ever play-through. Might as well see this thing out. A dragon appears controlled by Phillipa Eilhart (who is this person? I mean a sorceress, obviously, but I feel like I meant to know who she is.) Everything is a mess. Sorcerers are butchered and now Nilfgaard is coming. Bloody hell.

I’ve got a bit of time on my hands, obviously the next logical step is to immediately download The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt…

 

 

Mars Fallen Released!

FallenstraightenedAfter what has been a number of months of frustration both for Nexus and JW Whitmarsh, Mars Fallen is finally here. It is available in ebook format from Amazon.

Click here for US.

Click here for UK 

As is traditional we had a chat with the author, JW Whitmarsh about the new release and how it fits into the Elemental Cycle.

Nexus: Many might see this book and assume it is a piece of historical fiction. Notwithstanding the fact that it is set in a parallel world, how historically accurate is it?

JW Whitmarsh: Well, the fact it is in a parallel world is a huge factor. So in one sense, it’s not historically accurate at all. None of the events of the story happened in our world. In another sense, there is some mirroring of genuine history. The Senatian Empire developed in a similar fashion to the Roman Empire for example, the expansion across Europe and beyond followed by a split between West and East is more or less the same with a few of the details altered along the way.

Nexus: What is the main point of difference then?

JW Whitmarsh: The main divergence is around religion and mythology. In a world where people can do magic, favour of the Gods or God is seen in a much more literal sense. This changes things. Where miracles are often seen the role of prophets and saints becomes much diminished. People will probably see a link between Patriarchism and Christianity but Patriarchism is not built upon the personality of Jesus. The similarity is in the structure and organisation of a monotheistic religion born out of a later Roman period.

NX: The Senatian Empire feels a bit more like the Empire period rather than the post Empire Kingdoms of Italy that were around in the Dark Ages.

JW: Yes. I’ve said before there is an ahistorical element to the series. In many ways the Senatian Empire is about a century behind the Lands of the West, which in turn are about a century behind the Northern Kingdoms.

NX: Is this an effect of magic?

JW: Partly, I like to think that the more demonstrable power of magic has kept the old pantheon clinging on a bit longer than it did in our world. With that goes the gladiatorial games, which are more closely aligned to celebration of the old gods than they were here. Likewise, the Empire in the West has lingered intact a bit longer thanks to the interventions of the Patriarchists.

The other part to it is that on another level the whole Elemental Cycle is a celebration of world mythology and legends. You can’t visit the Mediterranean world and not feature classical mythology and gladiators any more than it would make sense to remove castles and wizards from Arthurian legend.

NX: Is there a limit on that historical flexibility?

JW: Yes. The technology and understanding of the world should be consistent. You won’t see plate armour alongside bronze weaponry or discussions about the theory of evolution. As I’ve said before, there are some technologies that would likely have come much earlier to cultures that could wield magic, such as the use of glass. You could argue there might be others that would come later because people use magic instead but I tend to think there aren’t enough mages for people to become too dependent on them. In any case, I try to pitch everything at an early Dark Ages time.

NX: Just to remind people who may not have read previous interviews, what are the entry and exit points to Mars Fallen, with regard to the series.

JW: Mars Fallen takes place after the end The Book of Water (Enchantress Awakening, Enchantress Apprentice & Enchantress Destiny) although it does recap events that happened concurrently. It’s not necessary to have read The Book of Water but it helps. There is a slight overlap with Valkyrie Rising but it mostly takes place in the months following. There is no need to have read Valkyrie Rising to understand Mars Fallen as they don’t cross over in any way.

As for the exit point, the book ends a couple of months into the beginning of A Clash of Gods (Book 6) and a couple of weeks before Venus Ascending (Book 7) resumes the tale.

NX: What would you say to fans of the Book of Water hoping to see more of the characters from those volumes. Is the story of the West over now?

JW: The initial quest is over but the story continues for the characters. The Book of Water and Valkyrie Rising are quite self-contained tales. Mars Fallen is where the various strands start to leak into each other. In Books 6 and 7 their is full scale blending. The West and its cast will be seen again and their stories will converge with the overall story.

I think you could say Mars Fallen is the last book which stays true to its element and setting. Book 2 of Earth spends a lot of time in the Senatian Empire as well as the Northern Kingdoms. Book 2 of Fire includes sections from the West and the Southern Expanses, where Spirit is the ruling element.

NX: Cheeky final question. Valkyrie Rising came out in 2016. Can we expect another volume of the Elemental Cycle in 2020?

JW: Who knows? Novels take as long as they take. It might take longer than two years it might take less. What I will say is that I don’t expect there to be much of a gap between 6 and 7 being finished. But again, that’s just a guess at this stage. In some senses it is easier writing the second and third books of each element as there is less world-building to be done. On the other hand, the time taken between books isn’t just about writing it’s about the writing plus everything else that is happening in your life.

NX: Then we wish you a very settled and uneventful year to come.

JW: Err, thanks.

The Elemental Cycle: An Update

vrperFor those paying attention, it has been a while since anything was released from the Elemental Cycle. The reasons for this are myriad (marketing and editing issues, whole-scale relocation etc) but the good news is JW Whitmarsh is still writing and book five ‘Mars Fallen’ is in its final stages. Therefore this seems like a good point to look at what is to come in the next few months for the Elemental Cycle.

The first thing on the horizon is a second edition of ‘Valkyrie Rising’ with all new artwork consistent with the spellbound editions of the Books of Water. Hot on the heels of that we expect to be able to release the first edition of ‘Mars Fallen’. As for what lies in stall after that, we thought it best to ask the author….

Nexus Fiction: We’ve had three books from Water, one book from Earth and one book coming from Fire. How can we expect the story to continue from here? Are we going to start again from Air and Spirit or are the stories unfolding going to continue before that?

JW Whitmarsh: It’s always a difficulty when writing a story that develops across continents keeping hold of what is concurrent and what is consecutive. That said, the further the story goes on the more linear it will become. So far book 3 of water finishes before then end of book 1 of Earth, while book 1 of Earth finishes a couple of months before the end of book 1 of Fire.Fallenstraightened

NX: Will that staggering of events continue through the next volumes?

JW: We shall see. Nominally, I consider book 2 of Earth to be book 6 overall and book 2 of Fire to be book 7 but they will happen in tandem.

NX: Do you intend to write them in tandem?

JW: Provisionally, but the writing process is never simple. You have to allow yourself to be carried along. Some chapters are also easier than others. In many ways the prospect of writing two stories simultaneously is quite appealing. It’s harder to get writers block when you have two outlets.

NX: Is writer’s block a constant issue for any writer?

JW: I can’t speak for all writers. What I would say is that for me it’s never a case of running out of ideas; it’s more how to organise them and bring them to life. But more than that it’s about having the time to sit down and work through whatever is giving you difficulty. I prefer to write in long blocks of hours. Unfortunately, life doesn’t give you those all that often.

NX: What has been the biggest problem with ‘Mars Fallen’?

JW: I would say pacing and balance more than anything else. With previous volumes the story has primarily revolves around a singular protagonist. ‘Mars Fallen’ has three. Finding the right way to give each their voice is a new challenge.

NX: There are many characters in the Elemental Cycle. Are there any that you find easier to write than others?

JW: Yes. [Spoiler alert]. Tovrik is generally quite easy to write because he comes from a perspective of knowledge. He has spend so long in study that there is no need to show a road of discovery. He has his history already, he is fully formed. Whenever I write Tovrik there is a sense of confidence that I know what he is going to say or how he is going to react because nothing surprises him.

NX: By the same token then, who is the hardest to write?

JW: Probably Caleigh. She has the burden of carrying the story quite often and doing that while asserting your identity is not easy.  Coupled with the fact that her identity is not yet fully formed. She is being asked to do things that are utterly unreasonable for someone of her age and experience. So often she is in the role of learning by doing that it’s difficult to know until something is in process how she’s going to feel about it.

NX: Will we ever get to see more into the lives of the support characters?

JW: Well, yes. In the main story there are many who have a great role yet to play. In terms of stand alone stories though, there are a few. We’ve talked about it before and the more I think about it the more I’m sure there will be some side tales for Owain, Ysabelle and Eleric. I can definitely see a prequel trilogy there.

NX: It may be far too early to ask but have you thought about what is to come for the world of the Elemental Cycle after the Elemental Cycle is finished?

JW: Yeah, there are several thoughts in motion. I don’t see there being direct sequels as by the time the Elemental Cycle is done there will be plenty enough but I have ideas for the world some hundreds of years after.

NX: Can you give any clues about what that might be?

JW: Pirate wizards. That’s all I’m saying for now. We’re a number of years away from that.

NX: Suppose a new reader sees ‘Mars Fallen’, can they join the Elemental Cycle at that point?

JW: There’s no strict order so far from element to element. It’s possible to start from Book 1 of fire if you like. A lot of things will make more sense for readers who start on the Book of Water but that’s not to say there isn’t as good a journey working from Fire first. As an author you are kind of omnipotent in your world so you can never predict exactly what experience a reader will have when they don’t know what is going to happen.

NX: Going back to the previous point about intersection of storylines, do you have a notion of where the books of Air and Spirit are going to fit in?

JW: First of all, there’s not necessarily going to be distinct trilogies as with the Book of Water. That may well be the only time that three stories of one element conveniently flow into each other. It’s also quite likely that the other elements will not have 3 distinct parts. Earth and Fire are on a definite collision course and I think that is something we can expect a lot from here on with all the elements.

There you have it. Look out for more pages being added to this website along the way and for links to the new books as they are released.

New Horizons: Choosing your time travel destination

Imagine time travel was a real possibility. Where would you go? Presumably you’d hear recommendations from friends ‘we had an amazing time in neolithic Europe’, ‘you simply must go to 15th Century India’. Magazines and websites would be full of adverts for favoured destinations. Soon enough, there would be lists of ‘time periods to visit before you die’. This is all fine and good but the problem is some places and times would quickly become overdone and ruined by all the time travellers materialising at their now overcrowded beaches and bars.

TV, film and books (let’s call it fiction) has had the use of time travel for some time now and, predictably, created a number of tourist traps as successive writers take cues from what has gone before and been popular. It’s about time (and space) that we started looking further abroad and away from the well-beaten track. Thusly, here follows a short list of tourist traps to avoid and a few suggestions of new places I’d like to see explored. Feel free to add your own ideas (comments accepted here, on facebook or on twitter).

Tourist Traps

The Old West

westernThere’s an amusing David Mitchell (the comedian not the equally brilliant writer) piece questioning why a mere 30 year period in history should constitute an entire genre when other more historically significant 30-year periods don’t. You never hear people say ‘oh, I like fiction about the 30-years war mostly’. Perhaps they should; there’s a hell of a lot more to explore there. In any case, westerns are well-established and that’s fine and if people want to make a western I’ve no problem with that. What I tire of is seeing people from many centuries later ending up there and unfailingly having at least one party member who is au fait with the period through their love of old movies. Seems unlikely given the current popularity trend of old classic westerns.

This obsession reeks of writers of a certain generation repackaging their youth and expecting all who follow to buy into the experience. Likely, if the time travel holiday were available tomorrow the old west would quickly become a new Florida riddled with ageing gunslingers distinguishable from the locals by the whiteness of their replacement gnashers.

The Late Republic/Early Roman Empire

I’m not knocking ancient Rome as a setting but when there’s so much to explore why keep going back to the same bit? As there’s more to Italy than Rome, there’s more to the Roman Empire than the section from Julius Caesar to Nero. Why not try the delights of the early Republican period as the Italian peninsular is united or witness the drama of the Punic wars? They’ve got elephants and everything! Or, if you are of a different taste, witness Constantine’s rise to power and the division of the empire between east and west. Want to see the Colosseum in it’s heyday? For that you need to travel on from Nero to get to Vespasian’s time. colusseum

When dealing with a period of hundreds of years it’s a shame to get stuck around a single lifetime.

Victorian England

English_School,_19th_Century,_Snow_Hill,_Holburn,_LondonI’ll admit a touch of bias here. I studied the Victorians early on at school and I found them to be quite an unappealing group of people. Ethically and aesthetically it seems to me to be one of the less enjoyable bits of history. That’s not to say many great things didn’t happen but does your journey through time have to mean bumping into Charles Dickens or passing under the shadow of Jack the Ripper?

Likewise, Victoria seems to be one of the least fun monarchs of the lot. If you want to dine with a King or Queen, I daresay most others would be more entertaining company. Oh, and if you are desperate to wander through a foggy London, remember the ‘pea-souper’ was called that for a reason. That pearly cloud you picture yourself bisecting in your greatcoat will actually be green and probably smell horrific.

 

Some alternatives

The Aztecs

The Aztecs were a very interesting people; fascinating architecture, a vivid pantheon with bloody rituals, and gold everywhere. For the most part they seem to have been ignored by fiction (I suppose Dr Who might struggle with the pre-watershed slot) both historical and sci-fi. Still, the story of the meeting between Montezuma and Cortez and how a great civilisation came to crumble so quickly would be interesting to observe from an outsider’s perspective.aztec

 

The Dark Ages

vikingSeeing as the ‘dark ages’ remain one of the most misrepresented periods of time, a visit here would be educational if nothing else. Most people’s notion of history seems to be that there was the Romans and then not much happened until 1066. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from anything else, there was still a Roman Empire in the east throughout the whole period. The rise of Charlemagne seems to be something unheard of to a lot of people who studied history only at school.

Oh, and there’s Vikings. Obviously Vikings are awesome in their own right (or horrific if you are on the other side) but more importantly, we need more depictions of them never bloody wearing horned helmets. We don’t use Wagner musicals to inform our history for anything else and it’s about time this annoying myth died a death.

 

A non-apocalyptic future

According to time-travel fiction, there’s only a couple of centuries at best left for human civilisation before we regress massively. That might be true, who can say for certain, and that’s one way to view the future. Does it have to be the only way? For once, can’t we see Earth a bit further on that isn’t dystopian? I appreciate this is harder to render because you can fall into the realm of futurology and having to make predictions which may turn out to be ludicrous. Equally, it’s harder to make political points about now if everything turns out all right (although there’s still room for this by showing the will to change was what made things better). That’s not to say our future has to be shown as utopian either. Maybe some of today’s problems will persist and be worse in some ways. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will all need to be hunkering down in burnt out shelters staring forlornly as the last of the water supply vanishes.

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There’s many more that can be added to both categories and I expect I will update as I go. For now, I will sign off with this. As people we like to see new things and visit new places: let’s do that as time-travellers too.

 

 

It’s all about the antagonists

Here’s a quick question for you; who is the most important character in the Harry Potter series? The answer is obvious, right? It’s the Harry Potter series; every book is called Harry Potter and the…It has to be Harry, surely? I would argue not: it’s Voldemort. That’s not to say Harry is some dully empty vessel who’s only purpose is to be he reader’s eyes into the world. On the contrary, Harry is a great character. He’s far from being a Luke Skywalker, true blue hero who is less interesting than the folk around him. Harry is wounded and sympathetic and occasionally flawed (although I’m not sure you’d get all this by just watching the films). Harry has many qualities but he is not the main mover of the narrative: that is Voldemort.

voldyThink about it. The book begins with the apparent first defeat of Voldemort. Harry is only famous because of the fame Voldemort bestowed on him by being unable to murder him. Likewise, the Harry potter series finishes with the final defeat of Voldemort. His absence is what tells us it is all over. Harry has a life after this but the series doesn’t continue to follow him in his life without Voldemort. Sure, there may be Cursed Childs and whatnots to come but they are addenda to the story of how Voldemort was defeated.

Speaking of Luke Skywalker. How interested are we in his life when there is no big bad around? The main story finishes with the death of Darth Vader. We don’t rejoin him until the reboots have another antagonist to throw at us. Likewise, it’s no surprise that we leave Middle Earth with the demise of Sauron.

I’ve been thinking about antagonists recently while reviewing the Defenders’ respective series. The broad consensus seems to be in terms of quality they go; Jessica Jones, Daredevil and then, someway behind, Luke Cage. Is it just merely a coincidence that while Jessica had David Tennant’s brilliance as Kilgrave and Daredevil had the grinding fury of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, Luke Cage had to contend with the short-lived and nonthreatening Cottonmouth and then the silliness of Diamondback?

I’m only halfway through Iron First but the major problem so far seems to be the lack of a good antagonist. All of which makes me think, maybe it’s all about the antagonist after all. At least when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy. Other genres have other considerations. Detective novels while benefiting from good antagonists are more about the protagonist.So what is it about sci-fi and fantasy that make antagonists so important? Partly, it is that a lot of sci-fi and fantasy is about conflict against an exceptional threat. If the threat is not sufficiently threatening then defeating it is less compelling.

Another reason is sci-fi and fantasy is often (though not always) less morally ambiguous. In a fight between good and evil the only way the evil is going to be defeated is through terminal justice. There will be no accommodation or settlement. The bastard needs to die and we need (for the most part) to be ok with the bastard dying. Therefore, their death must be both utterly necessary and morally and narratively satisfying.

joffYou might argue that some fantasy is not so black and white, A Song of Ice and Fire, for example. While there may be some truth in this, the series does also provide us with some genuine hate figures for whom we will endure all kinds of suffering to our heroes just to see them get what is coming, like Joffrey and Ramsay. Equally, the Ice and Fire overarching it all pretty unambiguous. Those white walkers/Others have to be defeated.

Ah, that’s fantasy but sci-fi is different, you might argue. Sometimes there is an accommodation in sci-fi, like in the Matrix and Mass Effect. In the case of the Matrix films, they clearly cottoned on to the fact that we were more interested in an antagonist battle so they made it more about the recognisable Smith than the amorphous Matrix itself. While Mass Effect 3 has one of the worst endings ever, so let that be a lesson about deviation from the template.

Other examples? Look at Star Trek. What are considered to be the best Star Trek films? Generally, people say Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country and First Contact. For which we have Ricardo Molteban’s Khaaaaaaaan, Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare quoting Klingon and, arguably the greatest Star Trek villain of all, the Borg.

For that matter, look at the series. What turned around DS9? The introduction of proper antagonists in the form of the Dominion. What was often the difference between a good Babylon 5 episode and a cringe-worthy one? Did it have the Shadows in it? In the same vein, I never really had much interest in Star Gate but I bothered with Stargate: Atlantis because the creepy Wraiths seemed like a genuine threat. Oh and lest we forget, what’s the surefire way to up the stakes in any series of Dr Who?I give you everyone’s favourite demented space nazis wailing EXTERMINATE!

It’s a lesson to all of us when we write. While we all want to give the world the next brooding hero who will show us complexity, humour and virtuoso fighting skills so far uncontemplated, make sure there’s someone out there for them who is capable of killing them and and shaping the narrative of the world they wish to terrorise. As much as heroes, villains have a challenge to answer. Let us hope they rise to the occasion.

loki

 

 

 

 

The Sinister Conspiracy: Left-handedness in fiction.

A few weeks ago the internet announced it was left-hander’s day and, predictably, people came out with articles about how difficult it was being left-handed ‘Boo, scissors are wrong’ etc. There was very little about how left-handers are depicted (and not depicted) in fiction, which is a personal bugbear of mine. In a curious way, being left-handed gives you a glimpse into what being a minority is like and what being disabled is like. This is both trivial and non-trivial.

It is trivial in that being in the left-handed minority isn’t going to get you killed or arrested or treated to abuse or violence from strangers as is the case for many minorities in many parts of the world (although it wasn’t so long ago it lead to beatings in the British school system). Likewise, contrary to those articles being left-handed in a right-handed world is not a major adjustment – we do possess right hands as well and are often quite adept with them.

Where it is non-trivial is it gives a flavour of how the world reacts to difference and diversity. For many writers at the moment this is a big topic and writers of fantasy are by no means exempt from these concerns. The way difference is treated in fiction usually falls into three forms; representation, tokenism and diversity. Thus through the lens of left-handedness and the minor insights it gives, I shall attempt to approach the topic as a whole.

 

barack_obama_signs_emergency_declaration_for_arkansas_1-28-09Representation

At times, I’ve been sceptical about the notion of the need for representation. What is this narcissistic need readers and viewers are deemed to have that they need to see themselves in everything? American film producers are often the prime culprits of this and, I think, underestimate their audiences in doing so. They wanted to make Harry Potter American in the films. Fortunately, JK Rowling vetoed that and lo and behold American audiences still were able to enjoy it.

Similarly, I watch a lot of American TV and films and don’t spend the whole time waiting for a British person to turn up. When I read ‘The Famished Road’ I didn’t scour through the novel hoping that a white person would appear. I expect the people who populate a particular story to be consistent with that setting and don’t need to see ‘myself'(myself being someone who shares some identity position).

There’s an easy rejoinder to this point of view, however. That’s ok for you to say when you’re in the majority and have any number of representatives in fiction. There’s a measure of truth in that which only comes into focus when you’re not in the majority. Here’s where I return to left handers.

How many left-handed heroes are there in fantasy? Off the top of my head, Tolkien has one, Maedhros, who after having his right hand removed goes on to be better with a sword in his left hand. George RR Martin does a similar thing with Jaime Lannister only he is awful with his left hand. In fairness to Martin, I believe Ayra is mentioned as being left-handed making her the only example I can easily recall. I haven’t read the majority of fantasy fiction novels ever written so it is possible there are many others but I think my sample is large enough to be indicative.

Why so few? Here comes the explanation that is most often given for the absence of diversity – realism or, more properly, verisimilitude. Lets now create our fantasy world. I’m not going to say what is right and wrong for writers here (with one exception), rather pose the questions. And yes, left-handedness can obviously be substituted for other things.

First question? Is left-handedness as common in your fantasy world as ours? If it is then something like one in ten of your characters should be naturally lefty. Are they wielding their weapon left-handed? If not, why not? In many historical cultures there had been prejudice against left-handedness and lefties were forced to do things right-handed. The Romans were possibly the worst offenders for this. Putting aside the general cultural aspect of this intolerance for a moment, what function does this prejudice have? The Romans were keen on close formation fighting and had square shields for much of their Empire. Holding a spear left-handed and shield on the right arm would create a weak point in the line exposing the man on the left and shielding the shield of the man on the right. Getting rid of the lefty seems like a sensible course in this context.

Is this the only solution? Some hoplite shields from a similar time in history were notched on either side so the spear could be thrust through left or right-handed. Another option would be to put the lefty on the end of line (or block if fighting in squares). Does your culture care enough about the exceptions to make these adjustments?

If, on the other hand, your fantasy culture doesn’t fight in close formation like the Romans, for example forest skirmishers, the imperative for everyone to fight from the same direction disappears. In general, in a world where the majority fight right-handed, being left-handed is an advantage. Therefore, if it doesn’t undermine a formation, it would disadvantageous to force your fighters to suppress their natural preference. You may still wish to insist on this but then you need to bring in issues of intolerance rather than practicality to explain it.

I suspect lack of representation of left-handedness in fantasy broadly stems from two sources. One, the writer is themselves right-handed and has never given it any thought and two, their fantasy cultures are largely reminiscent of historical Earth cultures and transplant their attitudes to left-handedness into the bargain. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this latter position but would it hurt to put in an occasional reference such as the character having a stronger shield hand than normal? Just as a note, if you do decide to make that reference don’t make it that the character is a liability or cack-handed. We get enough of that crap already (and it’s almost always untrue).

Tokenism

Tokenism is different from issues of representation in that in this example the writer/screenwriter has made an effort to include or make reference to the minority but has done so in a way that is shallow or unhelpful. If there’s one thing worse than being represented it’s being represented in a way that negatively stereotypes. Frankly, I’d rather there weren’t any more British characters on American TV than have another effete aristocrat speaking like they’ve walked out of the 1920s show up. Or football hooligans either. There are plenty (I dare say the overwhelming majority) of British people who are neither of these things.

Left-handers fare no better. When do we get a mention? In crime stories, of course. Left-handedness is used as a gimmick to help catch the killer, the killer almost always being left-handed in these cases. Dammit, my sinister plan ruined by my sinister hand. The only other example I can bring to mind is an episode of CSI where Grissom concludes that the victim’s work space has been interfered with because the mouse was on the right hand side. The episode then goes on to helpfully inform us of the many left-handed Amercians who die every year using equipment the wrong way round. Sorry, Grissom and your great detective skills but I don’t know any left-handed people who have the mouse on the left-hand side (see earlier point about being able to use our right hands). Another classic is which wrist the watch was on not matching handedness. It doesn’t? Maybe that’s because people don’t always follow that rule.

The problem with tokenism is that is rarely has a function beyond merely acknowledging the existence of a group. Little to no attempt is made to integrate that aspect of the person in a wider character or even to suggest they have a character beyond that particular aspect. In the case of lefties we are boiled down to murderers and being unable to adapt to a right-handed world, which ironically is actually something we’re generally pretty good at (the functioning not the murder although I’m sure we’d do a great job of that too if we put our lateral-thinking minds to it).

final_challenge_international_de_paris_2013-01-26_193155Diversity

How do you represent and get beyond tokenism? I think the major pointer here is about your motivation for including difference in your story. If you are including difference because you feel you ought to and it will make someone happy then it’s probably going to be a struggle to pass through tokenism because in essence that’s what you’re doing.

The most compelling reason I can think of to include difference and diversity in a story is that it is simply a better story and richer world for doing so. We don’t want to travel to a place that is the same as the one we left. We don’t want every new person to look and think exactly the same as the ones we already know. We wouldn’t survive as a species if everyone was attracted to one type of person.

In the case of left-handers, I think this works on an aesthetic and interest level. In sports, I always like the look of seeing a left-handed tennis player against a right-handed one or the field and tactics in cricket having to be readjusted for the left-handed batsman coming in. This can easily be transposed into fiction; the challenges of facing a left-hander in a duel or the particular advantage for a lefty fighting up a spiral staircase.

Left-handedness, like any difference, brings a new set of challenges and story-telling opportunities. As writers these are gifts that we should relish. Instead of contemplating how to bring diversity into our stories we should use diversity as a starting point and be grateful for the layers of complexity it provides.