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.

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Dear Critics…(part II – Bright)

Bright. According to the critics, the worst film of 2017. By any rational measure it was not even the worst film the week it came out. What’s going on here? On Rotten Tomatoes the critics give an absolutely stinking 26%. That’s bad. That’s really bad. That’s a film so bad that it leaves you feeling dirty, like you’ve soiled yourself. With the disappointment there’s a measure of anger. Why? Why was I tricked into wasting my precious life on this? Just as well the audiences were forewarned.

And yet, and yet. Apparently a number of people went ahead and watched it anyway and…well, they seemed to like it giving it 85%. Hang on, 85%? That’s not a stinker; that’s a genuinely good film. People are saying they not just thought it was ok or short of being awful; they thought it was really enjoyable. A 60% difference seems to require some kind of explanation.

I’ve read a number of the bad reviews and well…there’s nothing particularly insightful about them. It’s a series of cliche’s. It doesn’t work. I didn’t like it because whatever. That’s not to say any of these critiques are necessarily untrue or unfair (albeit uninspired) but they could be levelled at any number of films that don’t lead critics to declare them the worst film of the year (some of these same critics were probably the ones who listed ‘Mother’ as one of the best films of the year so…yeah). Something else is at play here.

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Theory#1 – We are afraid of Netflix.

This theory is also pertinent when it comes to the discussion of Altered Carbon. It goes that Netflix has become hugely successful and is changing how people view films and TV. In the case of the latter, the critics don’t appear to be so worried because, let’s face it, most of them don’t want to have to sit down and watch hours of live TV. They are used to being given viewings in advance, binging four episodes on the trot. They might be a little bit worried about how traditional TV channels are going to cope (and maybe they should be) but it’s not impinging on how they’d choose to consume the product.

Films are a different matter. Many film critics truly love cinemas. For them, their first visit to the picture house was a seminal experience. The smell of popcorn and worn out seat coverings still causes their stomach to clench with excitement like remembering the first kiss of a favourite lover or a first professional level goal, try, century or crossing the winning line as number one. Cinema is at the core of their being, an integral part of their personal history and sense of self. That’s why films about films and cinemas always feature so highly in critics’ lists. It speak to something very real within them. It’s how they can give the Best film Oscar to ‘The Artist’ without a trace of self-awareness.

And there is nothing wrong with any of that until it gets in the way of the day job, namely making fair recommendations for the general public. Netflix represents an existential threat to the cinema-going experience (or so some believe) and they must be stopped. Bright was a big investment for Netflix, a chance to show they can do films as well as series. So, naturally, any true lover of cinema must use their power to stop this juggernaut regardless of whether the film deserves their disdain or not.

Personally, I’m not totally convinced I buy into this theory. There may be an element of that in play but whether it is uniform is debatable. In fairness, there is a argument to say Netflix should release these things in the cinema first. Why not? If they back a film that much let people see it on the big screen. People are going to use Netflix anyway. Anecdotally, I binge on Netflix a fair bit but I’m also going to the cinema as much as I ever have in my life.

Theory #2 – The ‘buy in’.

Another theory as to why ‘Bright’ received such a mauling is that the concept itself just alienated the critics from the get-go and they failed to appreciate the buy-in factor that many fans of sci-fi and fantasy bring to what they enjoy. Here’s a concept; buddy cops but it’s in a world where there are orcs and elves and one of the cops is an orc. You may well read that and go, ‘oh come on, that’s stupid’. Apparently this was the standard critical response.

On the other hand, lots of viewers were given that concept and thought, ‘yeah, I’ll go with this’. Second generalisation alert: fans care about world-building, critics care about performances. Ok, this may be a generalisation too far but there’s something in it. When futuristic and fantastical worlds are unveiled before our eyes a lot of people are just on-board with it. For them, this suggestion of another world to explore is the thing that enthrals them. It’s why they can look at the maps of Middle Earth or even Treasure Island and feel a sense of excitement just at the thought of going to these places, even if they are never really touched by the story. That feeling of immediate investment is something I got watching the title sequence of Game of Thrones and also the sense of instant familiarity when they visit the ‘Oasis’ for the first time in ‘Ready Player One’. Certain things tick certain boxes for certain fandoms and that should not be dismissed.

When you are gazing at the horizon whether the facial expression or vocal inflection of the person in the foreground is 100% convincing is less of a concern. For many critics, by contrast, the acting performance is the alpha and the omega. It’s why the accusation of 2-D characters is so often used and why some critics can feel fulfilled watching an actor’s face as he stares off into the distance while nothing happens. The interior world of the performer is where they want to explore.

From this perspective it’s easy to see why the critics love films like ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’ (ok, I really enjoyed it too). It’s all about performances and it is stacked with them. If on the other hand, you went to that film hoping to see a world you’d never seen before where your mind can go off on adventures of its own, you’d be disappointed. The point here is thus, internal and external worlds are both valid forms of entertainment. There’s no rule saying that the former is worth more than the latter.

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Dear Critics Part 3 – Altered Carbon. Coming next…

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.

 

 

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

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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