The Dangers of Fan-casting

On Sunday after the Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final the BBC will reveal the identity of the next Dr Who. In many respects, it would make more sense to write this afterwards but the final decision is not really what I want to address – it is fan-casting. For any who are unfamiliar with the term ‘fan-casting’ it’s etymology seems a little shaky. As I understand it the original idea was ‘fantasy casting’; the idea like with fantasy football that you could pick your dream cast for a film or TV show regardless of financial restrictions, contracts, scheduling etc. This idea has been very popular for a while now particularly in the field of adaptations from books and comics. Fans say who they want for roles and the favoured choices then become talked about over and again. In this way fan-casting has evolved from ‘fantasy casting’ into actual ‘fan casting’ where fans of a series, franchise or book try to influence the casting through the internet.

This is where things get problematic. It is completely understandable that fans can have an actor in mind who they think is perfect for a particular role and in some cases these actors have ended up getting the part. Everyone is happy, right? After all, it is arguable that many fans are more invested in and have a better appreciation of the object of their 1319033604d96695b390c6049da4186d--the-simpsons-beautiful-ladiesfandom than the TV or studio execs trying to turn it into a film. You can bet that the fans are more invested in a ‘faithful’ rendition than the show runners and sometimes than the creators. An example of this would be the ‘Jack Reacher’ series. Tom Cruise is physically completely unlike the character in the books (a foot shorter for a start) and pretty much everyone I know who is a fan of the books can’t bear to see Tom Cruise represent him. The author, who is clearly aware of the lack of resemblance, is reportedly less concerned. Although it is tempting to think of the McBane/Wolfcastle defence here.

In general, I have a certain amount of sympathy for fans trying to defend the purity of the source material. My only problem with it is when it becomes dogmatic and ignores what an actor can bring to a role. Like Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman is completely the wrong height for a role. It’s not talked about much now but when Jackman was first cast many fans of the comics were enraged that a guy who was 6’3 was given the part when Wolverine is meant to be shorter-than-average stature. If fan-casting had had it’s way Jackman would still be on Broadway and the cinematic Wolverine we know would never have existed.

The trouble with fan-casting becoming too rigid really comes to the fore when a fanhood starts to consider their casting as somehow canon. What happens if that actor is unavailable? Now, instead of whoever is chosen being revealed and given a chance to prove themselves on merit, they begin their tenure with a sense of disappointment hanging over them. That may not stop a good actor making the role their own but there are some who will never forgive them for not being someone else.

This becomes more problematic still when the fandom’s canon is actually not faithful.Pedro_Pascal_in_The_Miracle_at_Naples,_2009 Most people I’ve talked to think Elijah Wood looks exactly like Frodo and are surprised when I say I think he was miscast. In this case the fandom has edited out the fact he is too young for the role. This is easy enough to live with because this is more people being happy with the result than trying to influence casting in the first place. For Pedro Pascal the process was quite different. Many who read ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ seemed to have misread or ignored the description of Oberon Martell from the books and enthusiastically fan-cast Naveen Andrews in the role. When Pedro Pascal was cast these fans were left horrified and accompanied their disappointment with cries of ‘racism’ and ‘whitewashing’.

I’ve no wish to trivialise either of those issues but those accusations were inappropriate in this case. Expecting sympathy from George Martin, some of these fans were then horrified when Martin explained that this was what the Martell’s were supposed to look like. By any estimation, the source material suggests someone far more like Pedro Pascal than Naveen Andrews. At which point, this vocal part of the fandom then switched approach and claimed they’d fan-cast Andrews because it was an opportunity for greater racial diversity on the show. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that but demanding show-makers follow a particular political agenda opens up a whole multi-pack of worm-containers.

For the most part, TV and film-makers want to be seen as liberal and progressive. There is a good case for this too. If you are holding up a mirror to life then it should be a mirror that reflects in technicolor and not in monochrome. Likewise, values are promoted through our culture and there is a case for ensuring those values are consistent with the kind of society you want to embrace.

Fan-casting to an agenda, however, is a no-win situation. Either the agenda is appeased and or it is denied. Both outcomes will piss people off. Current thinking is that the most likely choice of Doctor will be either Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Kris Marshall. Sunday may prove these predictions completely wrong but whatever happens there will be grumbling and that is because pushing for a female Doctor has become an agenda. If those pushing for it get what they want, others will feel it was forced and will feel alienated from the show. Not only is this bad for the show it’s really unfair of Waller-Bridge or any other female actor who might get the part. Rather than embracing the qualities she will bring to the part, she will have a cloud of ‘political correctness’ hanging over her.

The alternative is that Kris Marshall (or another man) gets the role and the people pushing for a female Doctor feel let down or even that their wishes have been explicitly rebutted. Marshall (or whoever) will also start the role with an unwanted cloud, as if now they are the representative of the patriarchy, reinforcing the glass ceiling. None of this would happen if not for fan-casting. Of course, whoever is chosen may still have been a disappointment to someone but at least it would be on the basis of their acting and not something over which they have no control.

Now, you might argue it is still worth all these problems because the agenda is important. That may be true and works very well as long as TV and film-makers are on board with your agenda. What happens if and when a fandom with a different agenda gets what they want? You might think this is fine as long as their is a range enough of art for everyone and herein lies the rub. Fan-cast in your head all you like but remember what is canon for you isn’t for someone else even if other people on the internet seem to agree with you. In the end, it is better that these decisions are made on an artistic basis.

Finally, whoever is cast as Dr Who, good luck to you. That baton is going to feel especially heavy this time round. tardis

You would never write it that way – How history and fiction differs.

Some of the greatest stories of all time come from history. Real events can at times eclipse fiction for scale, drama and narrative. Other times – for which read  most of the time – history is a bit more inconvenient. Sure, WWII is a (debateably) great good vs evil battle with a satisfying (and horrific) ending but it is a real aberration. On the whole, real events are messy and rarely neatly resolved. Essentially, if you were writing it you’d never make those choices. That doesn’t mean some writers don’t write it this way; some do so deliberately precisely because it feels more like authentic history but they do so with the awareness that it is a departure from a traditional narrative. Before I get into the ways in which stories and history diverge I should point out that there are many, many more things that could be added to this list. Here are just a few, off the top of the head, examples.roses battle

Repetitive Naming

If you ever study the War of the Roses era you’ll notice that lots of the protagonists are chiefly referred to by their title. You might think this is because that title is a measure of their involvement ‘Ah yes, it’s relevant that the Duke of Gloucester was that because his forces were from Gloucester’ but quite often you’d be wrong. Richard of Gloucester- which one? – the one who became Richard III – had a lot of support in Leicestershire, which doesn’t even fit the Lancashire vs Yorkshire paradigm. You wouldn’t write it this way. It would be far more satisfying to have their be something distinctive about the people of Gloucestershire, unique warriors with an unusual set of skills, that informed the following campaign.

Even so, this is not the major flaw. The reason titles are used is because everyone had the same bloody name. Or rather, they had a very narrow set of names. Richards, Henrys and Edwards made up a significant fraction of the male nobility of the time. Similar problems occur on the female side with Elizabeths and Marys. This is by no means restricted to this period. Romans gave multiple names precisely to avoid the chaos that would be caused simply by referring to someone as Gaius. Gaius? You know, Gaius? The one who was stabbed by the senators. Fine, let’s just use his other names  ‘Julius Caesar’. In fiction, writers tend to avoid this kind of confusion as much as possible, for which readers are generally grateful.

Dying quietly in exile

Napoleon_sainthelene

Imagine this for a story…the final battle has been won and the evil (or good, depending on which side you’re on) King has been forced to surrender. Now comes the justice, now comes the reckoning, this tyrant shall pay by…going away somewhere else. Ahh, I see where this is going. The evil King will now plot from exile and this is the set up for the sequel, got you. What? He’s just going to live out his life and do nothing? But he’s assassinated, yeah? Or the guilt causes him to commit suicide? No? You mean this big baddie we’ve been building up just goes away and lives a normal life for the rest of his years before dying of natural causes? Who writes this crap?

That’s not to say many an exiled King or Queen hasn’t plotted in exile. This was standard behaviour for ousted monarchs of the middle ages but quite often throughout time they just stay in exile. For every Napolean of Elba, a short time away from a comeback, there’s a Napolean of St Helena, banished then, somewhat prosaically,  dying of stomach cancer or a Kaiser Wilhelm dying at the age of 82 after over twenty years absence. In his case the sequel happened without him.

Absence of a central hero

Great historical events are usually ensemble affairs. It’s generally quite rare that a single personality sees them through from beginning to the end. History is a perpetual relay event where one stops and another continues, only much, much messier than that. This is true even with fairly straightforward things like inventions. Who invented the whatnot? Often as not the person who is credited with it was only adapting someone else’s existing ideas or, if they genuinely are the progenitor, it wasn’t until some time later that their ideas were put into effect. That miracle drug didn’t save a single life until the next person in the line tinkered with it so that it was usable.

That’s not how a story tends to go. The protagonist dying fifty years before their work pays off would be in the territory of a downer ending. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be worth writing that story it’s just those kind of stories tend to become the stuff of prologues and back stories. Consider that if instead of being the story of Frodo, Lord of the Rings was the story of Isildur and ends with the ambush of the Gladden Fields and a little post-script with ‘2,000 or so years later Isildur’s work was finished by a hobbit’.

Inconvenient siblings

This often comes into play when people try to make adaptations of history. It would be so much simpler if after event 1, the protagonist became King or Queen and this led to event 2. Instead, what often happens is event 1 is followed by the sibling being King or Queen for two years where important event 2 happens that in turn leads to important event 3, which really was the protagonist’s moment.

In times of high infant mortality multiple siblings were common and, of course, so were early deaths. This both led to more frequent changes of leadership and tasks being divided amongst the family. As with the point before, a single hero can’t be everywhere and siblings were very often the ones who starred at an important moment only to die ingloriously so soon afterwards their role falls somewhere between cameo and supporting and leaves them in prime territory for ‘editing for content’.

Inconclusive battles

Not all battles produce a clear result on the day where the hero or villain is slain and one side emerges victorious. Sometimes it is a stalemate and both sides go away frustrated and feeling defeated. Other times, even decisive victories don’t feel like decisive victories at the time. It is only later and in concurrence with events happening elsewhere that the true result becomes apparent.

Look at the battle of Jutland. It was a bad day for the British Navy and one much better than expected for the German one. On the other hand, it was the beginning of the end for the German navy’s involvement in the war. They would end up retreating and eventually being scuttled. In retrospect, they would have needed to do much, much better than expected to claim a victory. Given the eventual result, if that were a story the German Navy would have been all but destroyed that day.

In a similar vein, for all the many battles with hideously high casualty rates there are many battles where less than 10% of those who took part were killed on either side -for point of reference, the Battle of the Boyne, generally considered a decisive and significant encounter, is thought to have had a casualty rate of under 4%. Certainly tragic for that small percentage but unlikely to be how it goes in the feature film.

Should it matter?

Ultimately, concluding that fiction isn’t life real life is hardly a revelation but what can we take from this? From a reader’s perspective there is always a balance to be had between being surprised and feeling unsatisfied. Stories need endings one way or another even if they are but a small part of a much wider picture.

From a writer’s perspective, I think there are lessons to be learnt. We should be prepared to acknowledge the ensemble nature of the world and that the events of our stories and the deeds of our protagonists happen within a context where a great many others will play their part. Likewise, we should be prepared to embrace a bit of messiness sometimes. There is conflict between the chaos of real history against the order of a fixed narrative. As with life, these two sides must be reconciled.

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.

 

 

New pages on fire magic coming soon

After a quiet summer on the Nexus front we are now settling down to a new run of activity. A new book is coming this season – Mars Fallen – where we will be taken into the classical world of the Senatian Empire where the element of fire is dominant. To tell us more we have the author JW Whitmarsh dragged back from exile by a pair of obedient centaurs.

Nexus Fiction: First of all, welcome back. It’s been a while. What have you been up to?

JW Whitmarsh: Yes. I’d love to say I’ve been working hard in my writing retreat reeling out chapter after chapter of new stories but alas the truth is more prosaic.Humdrum realities such as earning money and moving house have got in the way of creative endeavours of late.

NX: Normal life can be so inconsiderate. So what can we expect from the fire magic of the Imperium?

JW: As I think I might have said in a previous interview, magic is handled very differently in the Imperium. There it is believed that all magic comes from the Gods of the Pantheon and the magically-gifted are, on the whole, absorbed into the clergy.

NX: The classical world had many deities.How do you fit that into the way you have broken down magic before by the elements?

JW: I have restricted myself to 12 Gods (arguably the more prominent ones from classical mythology) and grouped them into four groups of three, four triads, if you will; Heliomantic, which includes Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva, Geomantic – Vesta, Vulcan and Ceres, Astromantic – Mars, Mercury and Neptune, and Lunarmantic for Diana, Juno and Venus.

NX: You’ve decided to go with the Roman names rather than the Greek.

JW: Initially, the story starts in the equivalent of the Western Empire so that made sense. Also Vesta has a role not mirrored by Hestia and the Vestal Virgins are a pretty important element to the novel.

NX: Going back to the groupings, are the priesthoods of each triad linked in the same way that the three disciplines of Enchantment are?

JW: No. The devotion of different Gods is kept entirely separate. The traitor Empyrean who was the architect of how fire magic would be learned gave thought to what might follow if one who was magically gifted could learn all that he had learned and so deliberately propagated the idea that one could only be blessed by a single deity at a time.

NX: So the Imperium has no great wizards like Caerddyn?

JW: No. Indeed the concept of a wizard who was in control of their own magic is a foreign one. The clergy of the Imperium are taught that magic only goes through them by the will of the Gods.

NX: Moving sideways slightly and with due care for spoilers, can you tell us why the contemporary wizards can’t learn all spells from their element in the way that the traitors did? Does that mean the past can never be matched?

JW: It’s a mixture. You have to remember that the traitors were the greatest wizards of their day in an age where magic was at its zenith. They were the guys who were left standing from the fight with Xyraxis and his arch demons where all others mages (bar Loreliath) perished. So all things being equal they would be hard to emulate anyway. There’s also the matter of what happens when you specialise. To go deeper into certain Arts you need a way of thinking that may be mutually exclusive with learning others. The expert specialists of the world contemporary to the stories would definitely be able to do magic within their Arts that had never occurred to their originators.

NX: So in a sense the magic of the contemporary world is more advanced than that used by the traitors?

JW: I’m not sure about advanced because that implies improvement. It’s more involved. An analogy might be something like in classical times Latin was widely spoken across western Europe. Now instead we have Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. If you pulled someone from the ancient world and compared them, speakers of each of those languages would be better at them than the Latin-speaker but if those speakers had never had any training in each others’ languages it is quite possible that the Latin-speaker would have the best cross language understanding because his/her language is the basis for all of them. Does that make sense?

NX: Actually yes. Does it follow that the priests and priestesses of the Imperium would be better at their disciplines than their Western Lands counterparts because of their focus?

JW: No, because they have been beset by false limitations. I think overall if you were to look at the world of the Elemental Cycle the places with the most impressive mages, the ones who most fit our idea of wizards, would most likely be found either in the Western Lands or in one of the mage cultures of ancient world.

NX: By which you mean the pre-classical civilisations?

JW: Yes, the equivalents of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Persia.

NX: When will we get to see them?

JW: Not for a while yet. Not this year certainly.

NX: On which subject, can you share your progress with us?

JW: Mars Fallen is nearly finished. There’s maybe one or two chapters to go. After that it will have to go through editing. We will see it this season, I expect. I intend to write Venus Ascending and A Clash of Gods in parallel so there may be a long wait before we see anything more. This time next year we could be talking about what’s to come in book 6 or book 9, who knows? As I said at the beginning of this, for authors as much as anyone life sometimes takes us in unexpected directions.

Fallenstraightened

Writing: Fiction vs Reality

Writer_JohnThink of a writer at work, go on…What’s the first image that comes to mind? It might be a man or woman, more probably a man because on film and TV (contrary to reality) writers are almost always male – female writers are usually journalists or diarists, and they will be huddled over a typewriter furiously tearing away unwanted pages and throwing them in the bin until the manuscript arrives as a neat stack.

On their desk there may be the odd note and a bottle of whisky (or a hip flask stashed into the top drawer if drinking is meant to be their issue) and as their eyes look up they may alight upon a strategically placed framed picture alluding to some past (possibly tragic) event, a hunting or mountaineering photo or group shot with army buddies or maybe a long-lost love. Hank Moody meets Ernest Hemmingway.

Or if your point of reference isn’t TV and film – a strange thought I do concede – you might imagine someone younger and well-dressed tapping away at an expensive laptop in a trendy cafe, an enigmatic smile threatening to break out over their face as the inspiration starts to flow in between sips of their impeccably prepared (insert name of fancy type of) coffee.

Now I can’t and wouldn’t wish to speak for all writers but that doesn’t ring true of my experience. For one, as the previous paragraph no doubt revealed, I don’t even drink coffee. My workspace isn’t a lodge or a beachside retreat or the great outdoors where I pen things into my extensive journal; it’s my bedroom. When I look up from my screen, I see another screen because sometimes I need two and there is nothing neat about the arrangement of my notes because sometimes I need to look at several pages at once. My desk doesn’t so much scream ‘writer’ as ‘potential fire hazard’.

So here follows a few things that I have heard or seen about writing that simply don’t match my experience. That’s not to say they won’t for you, perhaps you’ve reached that magical place, but I suspect that many writers would have similar variations.

Typewriters

I, like most people, haven’t used a typewriter since the 1980s and then only as a novelty. They are not ‘more authentic’ they are hard work and, given that we can now word process on a computer, needlessly so. Quite literally, I don’t know any writers who insist on using a typewriter because why would you? I know lost and stolen manuscripts make for convenient drama; in the real world a lost manuscript would be utterly and completely heartbreaking for a writer and for very good reasons you try to avoid that being a possibility. When most writers lose work it doesn’t involve chasing dogs or tracking down your jilted lover, it is comprised of clicking on a file then letting out a long and very repetitive litany of swear words, possibly followed by tears.

Cafe culture

workplace-480222_960_720This may be a controversial one because I’m sure writers do frequent cafes and do write things down there. In my experience, however, cafes are far too busy, noisy and distracting to get deeply into a novel in those surroundings. Making notes? Doable. Writing a blog? Sure. Putting in the hard grind? I’m less convinced but I accept that others may be better at blocking out the distractions than me. Likewise, they may not be bothered by paying for all those drinks and eating out twice a day. For me that’s an unnecessary expense.

Most of all though, what cafes lack for me is easy access to my notes, which as I’ve stated I like to spread out quite a bit, and the opportunity to roam. I find sitting down for long stretches a challenge. Pacing around, gesticulating and acting out action scenes are pretty good ways to get yourself sectioned when performed in the tight spaces between tables of your local coffee joint. At home it only gets noticed by your family or housemates and that’s fine; they probably already know you’re crazy.

The Retreat

Don’t have one because 1) I’m not enormously rich already and 2) I live in Britain. In a sense these two reasons are almost the same thing given what property prices are like here. Anywhere affordable that’s truly away from other people is probably not a property suitable for writing. Not unless you can get broadband in your tent or feel comfortable working in a derelict factory for the two weeks before it becomes a luxury apartment or chain store.

Maybe that’s how the whole writers-in-cafes thing got started. There they were minding their own business in a nice, quiet slum and suddenly cappuccinos sprung up around them, consuming them in gentrification too pleasing to escape.

The writer’s lifestyle

If there is something in common where all depictions of the writing lifestyle all feel false is that they show writing as a lifestyle. In my experience, writing isn’t a lifestyle it is part of your life and you try to fit it into your existing life any way you can. If you wanted to show the reality of a writer’s life, quite often you would show them at work, possibly doing something that has almost nothing to do with writing.

There would be no retreat; their workspace would be wherever they could put their computer and their notes in one place. Instead of crazy adventures, a lot of the time the writer would be opting to stay in glad of a rare space of hours when they can get down to doing what they love.

wblockOn that subject, fiction has a lot to answer for too. In popular culture writers have two modes: inspired and blocked. The truth is that the majority of the time they will be somewhere between the two. This is inevitable. Writing 100,000 words plus takes time and if you only wrote when inspired you’d never get to the end.

By the same token, writers block is rarely anything like what it is shown to be, namely the writer staring at a blank page for hours on end. Not writing looks much the same as procrastination does for anyone else – doing anything other than the thing you are supposed to be doing. If you are actually able to force yourself to stay at the keyboard for a long period and not get distracted then you almost certainly will write something.

At the end of reading this you might conclude that a writer’s (or at least my) life is quite mundane. There is a certain amount of truth in this, the observable process of writing is often not that exciting. It is hard work that requires a commitment of many hours sitting in front of a screen.

That is not to say it not rewarding. The beauty of writing is the words and the stories that come out; the product is what transcends the ordinary and hum drum. Most writers don’t have hugely exciting external lives because it is on the inside that all the action is happening. When you read our tales you’re reading about places we’ve been, dangers we’ve endured, struggles we’ve overcome and loves we’ve won and lost all within the confines of our heads. Frankly, real life can have a hard time living up to that.

The moral of this particular story is this: you don’t have to surround yourself with the artifice of being an interesting person to be an interesting person. If you are a writer (probably if you’re a reader too) you already are an interesting person with far more compelling things going on in your head than any amount of lifestyle trappings can conjure. While the idea might have some appeal, don’t worry about not being Hank Moody or Ernest Hemmingway. After all, their writing lifestyles are also works of fiction.

landscape-mountains-nature-mountain

Interview with JW Whitmarsh – Author of The Book of Water

Book of watereditNexus Fiction: Here we are again in the interrogation chamber of the Nexus castle. As we write our author JW Whitmarsh is being chained down by a team of obedient fomorii and told no food will be brought until all our enquiries are satisfied. So, with no further ado let us begin.

NX: How are you doing?

JW: Fine. I’m not sure how secure these manacles are though.

NX: We got them on the cheap.

JW: You mean you went to the adult store instead of the hardware store?

NX: It’s so much closer. Anyway, trilogy edition is out next week and since we haven’t interviewed you about Enchantress Destiny it seems a good point to talk about the final part of Caleigh’s journey.

JW: Won’t that be spoiling for those who were waiting for the trilogy edition?

NX: Be circumspect. Let’s discuss the books generally. Do you see the story as three parts or as one long tale?

JW: When I wrote it I definitely wrote it as one tale. I have or had a certain blindness slash ignorance of how long it was until it came to publishing. I thought I’d written something like a 600 page book. Long yes but not so long it needed to be partitioned.

NX: And then we told it’s 1,000 pages. A trilogy seemed like the obvious thing.

JW: Knowing what I know now I would have written it differently. Nonetheless there are distinct phases and tones throughout the story. Awakening is a coming-of-age journey. Apprentice is a quest. By the time we get to Destiny it is more of an all-out war.

NX: Less discovery and more resolution.

Destiny serpent2JW: Yes. I spent a long time gathering all the pieces and putting them into place. In the last volume we see how that unfolds. I noticed this in particular writing the dramatis personae for each part. By Destiny there aren’t so many people to introduce any more and so it is subsequently much briefer than the others.

NX: We’ve talked before about how some characters are ‘meta’ and some are ‘organic’. Can you expand upon that?

JW: Meta characters in storytelling terms are the ones who are required to be there by the plot and at certain points they will do certain things that are necessary to advance the narrative. In Dr Who terms they are fixed points that cannot be altered.

Organic characters, by contrast, do not need to be anywhere or do anything in particular but are grown out of the logic of the story or setting and evolve and act according to their personality.

NX: Can an organic character end up changing these fixed events?

JW: Organic characters can certainly influence how things play out and can create story-lines that would not have existed otherwise. That said, some fixed points are hard to get around.

NX: Can an organic character become meta and vice versa?

JW: Short answer, yes. The overarching story has a number of fixed events; the rest is fluid. Some characters started off as organic in Enchantress Awakening and have later become meta.

NX: So someone who started off as incidental can later have an important fate?

JW: Exactly. And the reverse can be true. Once all their fixed events have passed a meta character becomes organic. Almost everyone who was meta in The Book of Water is now organic.

NX: What would be the breakdown generally? Do you start with a set number of meta characters and let the rest grow around them?

JW: It’s hard to remember exactly what I was thinking ten years ago. I would say a handful of characters began their life as meta characters and others became so in the writing process.

NX: And all those who survived The Book of Water are now organic?

JW: No. A few remain or have become important to much later events. Without giving too much away I will say as an illustration one character who started off life as an organic character now has a key role in the end of the entire series.

NX: That’s quite a meta leap. Can you give an example of someone who is an organic character and how they came into life?

JW: I think the most non-spoilery example I can give is Ellie. She was not part of the overriding narrative but as soon as I created Caleigh it was natural for her to have a friend of the same age. I don’t think I intended for her to be as involved as she was in the end but her relationship to Caleigh kept bringing her back into the narrative. It kind of mirrors how she feels about her role in these great events. She’s surrounded by all these wizards and heroes yet time and again she finds herself being useful to them. Now I think about it there’s an argument to say she’s the real hero. Maybe one day I’ll write the story from her perspective.

NX: She’s quite popular with the readers so we’d be happy for you to write it. Do you ever find you have different reactions to things than your readers?

JW: Haha. Yes actually. One reader reached out to me to tell me they found the story really funny. It was not the reaction I was expecting.

NX: There’s a lot of irreverent humour in the books though. You must have realised that writing it.

JW: Yes, absolutely. It’s just it’s not something I made a point of inserting. Humour between friends seems like a natural form of interaction and life’s absurdities are impossible to avoid altogether, even if it were desirable to do so.

NX: Have you encountered any drastically different interpretations from readers so far?

JW: Not as yet. Obviously, everyone has their preferences. Some say there’s too much sex others say they want more. Some don’t like fantasy generally but like the characters, others would like it to be more fantastical.

NX: In what way?

JW: I think one reader asked if I would do a human-centaur relationship.

NX: I almost dread to ask but will we see that?

JW: You’ll get to see centaurs.

NX: Now, you’ve written The Book of Water as volumes 1,2,3. Will the rest of the elements follow suit?

VlakyriegoldJW: No. I always intended for the narratives to shift and merge. The Book of Earth and The Book of Fire run more or less parallel to each other and intersect at points.

NX: How do you decide which bits go where?

JW: It’s a matter of narrator mostly. If we are reading Valeria’s story it will be Earth, if it is Marcus and Junia’s it will be fire.

NX: Are there any characters who will intersect across the all the Elements?

JW: Two for definite, and I don’t think this is giving much away; Loreliath and the Beast.

NX: Of course. The Book of Water is now finished. What sort of timeline can we expect for the books to come?

JW: In terms of in-story events or release dates?

NX: Let’s start with the latter.

JW: Book 4 – Valkyrie Rising (Part One of The Book of Earth) is written. Book 5 – Mars Fallen (Part One of The Book of Fire) is maybe 85-90% finished. I expect Valkyrie Rising to come out in the summer and Mars Fallen somewhere between late summer to early autumn.

FallenstraightenedLike with 4 & 5, Books 6 & 7 (A Clash of Gods/Venus Ascending) take place more or less concurrently and I expect I’ll write them as such. I hope to bring both out next year.

NX: And beyond that?

JW: Let’s see. I don’t want to get into soothsaying or making unfulfillable promises. When is ‘Winds of Winter’ coming out, by the way?

NX: Nobody knows, least of all George RR Martin. You’ll just have to keep us well read in the meantime.

JW: A heavy responsibility. Just don’t expect too much twincest from me.

NX: Dragons?

JW: There is always a dragon eventually.