The theme of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

I was recently discussing the theme of Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast on Twitter and, after disagreeing with another’s interpretation (or maybe just misunderstanding due to Twitter’s inherent limitations), was challenged to back up my claims. As pondering and analyzing stories, especially films, is one of my favorite things to do in general, I thought it would make a worthy subject for a blog post, affording me more space to elaborate.

The statement I am disagreeing with can be found in this Twitter thread, which is overall an insightful and interesting thread.

The specific statement I disagree with is this interpretation of the film’s theme or message:

(Note, I am not talking about the fairy tale or its “theme” at all, I am strictly talking about the film, and Disney’s original 1991 animated film at that.)

So what I try saying in my quote tweet is that “look beyond appearances, love can turn a beast into a prince” is not the theme / message of the animated film, nor does it at all try to be.

First, some foundational premises for my thoughts: I consider themes or morals derived from stories to be subjective. Different people will naturally interpret or infer different things from the same story. The interpretation of the theme being “the power of love to change someone” is certainly a fair and valid one. So, in and of itself, I don’t think it’s “wrong” in any objective sense. (But the original tweeter says “the message is no longer such and such”. So… you agree that it’s not the message? Because that’s my point, that it’s definitely not the message.)

Anyway, furthermore, the very idea of a “theme” or “moral” of a story can be an ambiguous concept, and it’s likely that every writer thinks about the idea of “theme” in a different way. I’ve actually been meaning to elaborate on how I understand the concept in a blog post for years now, and I don’t think I ever have, so I’ll go ahead and do that, but only after I talk about Beauty and the Beast. For now, a quick Google definition of “moral” will do fine:

a lesson, especially one concerning what is right or prudent, that can be derived from a story, a piece of information, or an experience.

A theme that doesn’t really work, does it?

Now to the meat of this blog post. The first is why “love can turn a beast into a prince”, or some variation of that, doesn’t work as the theme of the film. Then I’ll move on to what I consider the theme of the film.

“Love can turn a beast into a prince” doesn’t work as the theme because there’s no substantial exploration of it in the film. That is, there’s no real testing of this message. Being overly judgmental based on looks happens once in the prologue, and that’s it. Belle, the protagonist, is never challenged by it. Nor is she ever challenged to fall in love; it’s not as though she’s asked to and at first refuses. The Beast doesn’t tell her anything about the curse he’s under. Her love for him comes about entirely from the Beast’s own nature, most notably when he rescues her from wolves when she tries to escape, and then we get the Something There That Wasn’t There Before montage, which shows the Beast being animatedly charming. Granted, we’re only given a few examples of the Beast’s positive side, and one could argue they’d need more examples to fall in love with such a character, but films have a limited time to tell their story, and I think most viewers accept the quick relationship development. The point is, falling in love with the Beast is never her goal. She is never told to give it a try, nor does she decide of her own volition to give him a chance. It just happens naturally through their time together. Thus, she never learns anything. So it makes no sense for the theme to be “love can change a person from a beast to a prince”. Yes, that’s what happens, so it’s conceivable that one could extract that as a theme. But if that’s the theme, as the original the tweeter noted, there’s no reason why Belle couldn’t have changed the “beast” that was Gaston by just giving him a chance. So while it’s a valid theme to infer, it doesn’t “work” in respect to what actually happens (or doesn’t happen) in the film.

Another theme makes more sense

There’s a simple theme more in line with what actually happens in the narrative, but it’s less obvious. It’s subtle, because it’s not the protagonist, Belle, that learns it. It’s the Beast. He’s the one who needs to change, and does by the film’s end. In the beginning, he is “spoiled” and “unkind” with “no love in his heart” (as the prologue points out). In post-prologue beast form, he is short-tempered, full of despair, and vain, more concerned about his likely fate of staying a hideous beast than about genuinely caring about others. But, unlike Gaston, his bad qualities are tempered with good qualities; he’s still willing to rescue Belle from wolves, to try to eat soup correctly, to have a fun snowball fight, etc.

And it’s when Belle looks through the magic mirror and sees that her father is sick or something that the Beast makes his real transformation, the one that shows that he has learned the theme: He lets Belle go, knowing full well that doing so will doom him to remain a Beast forever. Of course, his transformation doesn’t really end there, because he regresses into a depressive despair until Belle returns, but making that sacrifice of letting Belle go was the thematic lesson he needed to learn: that when you truly love someone, you’re not just thinking of yourself. His temper and vanity fall to the wayside as he puts Belle’s concerns above his own. So that’s the real theme. Or, to put another way, that theme is much more consistent with the events of the film. Belle is the protagonist, the one we follow as the audience. But thematically, it’s the Beast’s story.

In so far as all that goes, the original fairy tale really doesn’t matter. Disney just told a story based on it. They weren’t subverting anything or teaching a misguided lesson, they used the fairy tale as a foundation and built their own story on top of it, as they often do.

What’s a theme anyway?

Hopefully all the above makes sense without any more elaboration on the idea of “theme”, and will continue to make sense even if one disagrees with my further elaboration below.

(Also, I continually ponder these things, so my viewpoint may change or expand or become more nuanced years later, who knows.)

First, I think stories can have a number of small “themes”. Perhaps one could call them quasi-themes? Or themelets? These are just issues or types of conflicts that occur multiple times throughout a story. One can think of them like musical themes; they pop up again and again. For example, a character having to choose between family and work, or a character constantly trying not to reminisce about a lost love and move on. Such conflicts arise, but they’re not necessarily central to the plot’s main conflict. (In Beauty and the Beast, the dichotomy between outside appearances and inner beauty could perhaps be considered one of these types of themes.)

Then there’s the central theme or moral (most stories only have one), and here’s how I would define it: It’s the change needed in a mode of thinking to solve the story’s central conflict.

For example, in Beauty in the Beast, it’s the Beast needing to, of his own volition, put Belle first, as he does when he lets her go.

Sometimes the modes of thinking are on more of a spectrum, and a balance has to be found. For example, in Jurassic Park, the theme is respect for chaos vs enforcing order. Sometimes different characters argue for different sides of the spectrum, as in Jurassic Park’s Malcolm vs Hammond, and sometimes a character just goes too far in one direction then another, as in Bill Murray’s exploration of various “wrong” modes of being in Groundhog’s Day.

“This” vs “that”, where “this” and “that” are modes of thought, is usually a concise way to represent a thematic conflict, but sometimes it’s hard to think of concise words to fit them. For example, I’m not sure how Lord of the Rings’ theme would fit that format; almost any words you choose would feel too narrow.

That’s all I have to say for now.

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Making the protagonist interesting

Haven’t updated this blog in a while! Haven’t written any significant amount of fiction in a while either, for that matter.

As I recently wrote on my other blog:

I haven’t done any significant writing in a good long while. I’ve completely plotted several stories, and I’ve written several opening chapters, but I keep getting bored and abandoning projects. One could easily chide, “You’re supposed to stick with it, even if it’s boring!” Pshaw, I say unto you! In my opinion, if writing something is boring, then it’s a good sign you shouldn’t be writing it in the first place. Being bored completely defeats the purpose of such a creative act. If you’re bored writing it, why should a reader have any interest in it?

I kept thinking my getting bored had something to do with finding the right personal balance between plotting and pantsing, but as I reflect on why writing SON OF A DARK WIZARD managed to work for me, I believe it has more to do with how interesting I find the characters. Sorren in SON OF A DARK WIZARD, who was an arrogant brat wizard, was just insanely fun to write. So with whatever I write next, I really need to focus on making the character as interesting (for me) as possible. Of course, it’s not necessarily easy to do that. It managed to fall into place quite well for Sorren, but it isn’t obvious to me how to make a more virtuous character deeper than cardboard. Anyway, it’s something I’ll have to think more about before beginning a new draft. I have several more story ideas that I’m eager to get working on, but I want to make sure the main character really comes alive for me before I dive in.

So I’ve been trying to think about what makes a character interesting, at least for me as a writer. There are probably multiple factors, but I realized that, for me, the most important factor is probably whatever it is that makes the character special. And what could that be? The three main types of character specialness that come to my mind are:

  1. Special ability – This could be a unique magical super power, or a unique talent. Examples would include almost any super hero. Talent-wise, perhaps Mozart in Amadeus or the chess prodigy in Searching for Bobby Fischer.
  2. Special social status – Perhaps the character is famous, or related to someone famous, or the leader of a lot of people, or is part of a royal family. The idea is merely that he holds some social status that is not widely shared among the rest of the population. Typically this will be a higher status, though it could be lower as well. Or it could be neither higher nor lower, just unique. For example, Frodo in Lord of the Rings becomes the Ringbearer, a position no one else can have. Also, I think a special status implies some sort of special ability along with it, an ability that comes from the status, such as the power to command an army in the case of a king. (And certainly the ability to make world-changing decisions in the case of Frodo.)
  3. Special circumstances – This is when it’s the circumstances surrounding the character, which aren’t in his direct control, that effectively make his decisions meaningful. For instance, Frodo’s special circumstance is his uncle Bilbo having the One Ring before he passes it on to Frodo. Had some other Hobbit in some other hole in the ground had the One Ring, Frodo would remain a nobody. Another example might be Emmet from The Lego Movie. His finding “the piece of resistance” is merely a happy accident, yet it’s what earns him his unique social status and makes his decisions matter. If Wyldstyle had managed to find it before him, he’d be a nobody. And just as a special social status often implies a special ability, special circumstances usually imply a special social status and/or a special ability that go along with it. (After all, why else would the circumstances be all that special?)

Of course, characters can be special in all three ways for a special trifecta. Take Harry Potter for instance. Special circumstances: Voldemort couldn’t kill him, and in fact inadvertently damaged himself in the process of trying. His parents also leave him a lot of money. Special social status: Because the most powerful evil wizard ever couldn’t kill him, Harry Potter becomes famous in the wizarding world. And he’s rich! Special ability: None, except flying on a broomstick and playing Quidditch, which was likely thrown in there so he’d have claim to something ability-wise.

Three things to keep in mind about implementing one or more “specialness” traits:

  1. The specialness should create unique conflicts that only this character can face. This is probably obvious. Why would being special be all that interesting if the conflicts one has to then face are not also special?
  2. The specialness should create unique suffering for the character. Although I’ve been guilty of it myself, one of my pet peeves is characters who lament that they “just want to be normal” or “just want to fit in”. I find it to be very cliche, and often not very realistic or interesting. (Who the heck wants to read a book to imagine being normal?) And something like “oh, being the king is sooo tiring!” is not likely to elicit much empathy either. Perhaps better examples would be Harry Potter having his scar hurt and missing his parents, or Frodo feeling the fire and lure of the One Ring, or the pressure of having everyone depend on you, or whatever… just as their conflicts are unique to their specialness, so is their suffering. This also makes their suffering more meaningful (assuming it fits the context of the story… Harry Potter feeling Voldemort’s toothaches, for example, probably wouldn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story).
  3. The character should know how and why he’s special, regardless of his feelings about it. Again, this is probably obvious. He will hardly be able to make interesting and important decisions if he has no comprehension of why he has a unique ability to make them in the first place. (The only counter-examples I can think of include The Man Who Knew Too Little, in which Bill Murray plays a man who gets wrapped up in some high-stakes international spy warfare or something and thinks it’s all fake the entire time; he thinks it’s all an elaborate party game. Another example might be Don Quixote, depending on how it’s interpreted, as his decisions are made in response to delusions. But even in these examples, the characters think they’re special, they’re just mistaken about how or why.)

So after thinking a bit about this issue of character specialness, I can look back on some of the stories I’ve plotted over the last year and see why have little interest in working them into novels; I haven’t given enough attention to making characters feel interesting and special to me. There’s something to be said about personality as well, but I hope thinking about specialness will at least help me get started on making some of my plot ideas come a little more alive through characters.

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Rogue One vs The Force Awakens

I wanted to respond to this video comparing Rogue One and The Force Awakens. It’s not a bad analysis in and of itself, but I thought Rogue One was far superior to The Force Awakens, so I have a different perspective on some of the things mentioned in the video. And I thought to myself, you know what? I’m going to blog about this. Yes, I will do it. Good. Yes. OK.

Here’s the video, or “vid” as we cool people say:

Show and tell

1:08 : “A common piece of advice in screenwriting is show, don’t tell.”

First of all, this is stupid advice by itself. The real advice is: know when to show, know when to tell, and know how to do both effectively. “Showing” is not always necessarily better than “telling”, and in any given story it’s impossible to show everything anyway. Sorry, I’m just always a bit wary when people tout this “advice” without any greater context.

1:43 : “She’s [Jyn from Rogue One] an adult now, a prisoner of the Empire, but we don’t know why. We don’t see the crimes she’s committed or any of the context surrounding them. Instead, we’re told a list of her criminal charges. Even as the list of her crimes is being read, she has no reaction. We don’t know if she’s remorseful or has no regrets. … And while hearing an emotional backstory can make us feel sympathy for a character, it doesn’t make us empathize with them.”

This is all true in and of itself, but I don’t think any of this necessarily weakens the film as a whole, or necessarily prevents us from empathizing with Jyn. Of course, whether or not you can empathize with a character is quite a subjective thing. But one of the reasons why Jyn worked for me even while beginning as a more mysterious character was that I could empathize with that mystery, if that makes any sense. That is, the situation she was in was interesting enough to me that the mysterious aspect didn’t matter so much, and perhaps was actually helpful because, like a politician who doesn’t actually say anything, I can better imagine my own personality fitting in that shell. Does that make sense?

This topic reminds me of something Brandon Sanderson said in a writing lecture here about main characters being the most bland of their little group. I’m not sure if his example of Harry Potter quite applies here, though, because I think Jyn is supposed to have a more mysterious and dark past, not really a bland one, but I suppose whether or not it comes across as bland will depend on the viewer. Like I said, for me it worked, or at least it worked well enough for story purposes.

Also, overall, I feel Rogue One is purposefully NOT a character-driven story with a dynamic character arc. Instead, it’s much more of a plot-driven story. Maybe the writers didn’t feel like investing a lot of time and emotion into a character who’s very obviously never going to have any more adventures. How many Jyn action figures did they want to try to sell knowing she’ll never be in any other films? That’s not to say it had to be more plot-driven than character-driven; it may have worked wonderfully as a more character-oriented story precisely because the character-arc would have to be contained in one film. It’s just a creative decision. It’s perhaps the execution that didn’t work for everybody, not necessarily that it was more plot-driven in and of itself, or that Jyn was more mysterious.

For contrast, think Indiana Jones. He also never develops much as a character, nor are we shown any rich past. “He’s shown trying to steal an ancient idol, but why? We’re never shown so there’s never empathy!” Who cares? He still works as a character because the plot is fun, and his responses to situations are fun. He doesn’t need a big emotional arc or some deep emotional motivation for his interest in archaeology.

All that said, the criticism that Jyn could’ve been more interesting and well-rounded is certainly a valid one I would agree with. But that has more to do with the details of how she’s written, rather than the lack of dramatized backstory or emotional motivations. Not that writing her like Indiana Jones would’ve worked; that would’ve been even worse, in my opinion. A needlessly more rebellious attitude would’ve made her more unlikable considering her situation. But she certainly could’ve had more personality.

2:40 : “Compare this with how The Force Awakens dedicates six minutes … to showing us Rey’s life. We watch her scavenging for parts in the hot sun, which she exchanges for small amounts of food. As she cleans the parts, we see her gaze at an old woman performing the same job, suggesting that Rey worries she’ll end up the same way. … We see her watch a shuttle leave the planet and head toward the stars as she puts on a pilot’s helmet. Rey dreams of flying away. Being shown the sequence allows us to experience this with her, which lets us understand her life much better than just being told about it.”

Again, all true, but whether or not this makes you empathize with Rey still comes down to the actual details. For me, it came across as cliche. The writer’s hand was just too obvious for me, the lie too easy to see. There still wasn’t any real character behind all these romantic-loner actions. It was too… constructed? Manufactured? I suppose the idea of being a loner scavenger just didn’t do much for me by itself.

3:41 : “In his book Screenplay, Syd Field writes…”

I just found it annoying how often this guy quotes from books. Any moron can write a book on writing, and indeed many have. Quoting a book is not defense for a subjective interpretation. Not that that’s the guy’s motivation, but these book quotes are simply unneeded.

Proactive characters

4:00 : “By spending time with Rey, we get to see her make choices…”

This is accompanied by a clip of Rey begrudgingly inviting a small droid along with her. This scene actually made me dislike Rey. Her facial expression of irritation and annoyance over a cute little innocent robot… like she’s so put-upon. It makes her look like a jerk to me, not someone I’d want to follow home.

The video goes on to describe various ways in which Rey is proactive in the opening act of The Force Awakens. Again, none of these worked very well for me, because, again, they were pretty cliche and predictable, I could see the writer’s hand too easily. Also, as far as I remember (it’s been a while since I saw the film), she doesn’t suffer greatly for her good deeds. There are no big or risky repercussions for these deeds, so there’s no real price, so they don’t feel like they matter all that much.

I’ll admit, watching these clips, I think one reason The Force Awakens might not work for me, beyond the trouble I have with the cliche writing, is that I think Daisy Ridley may have been a big miscast. I’m not sure if it’s the actress or the writing or the director’s editing choices, but when she speaks and emotes, I just see a performance, I don’t see a character. The timing and emotions just don’t feel genuine. So maybe that’s clouding my judgment of other aspects of the film. Maybe it would’ve worked better for me with another actress. I’m not sure.

Maybe it’s that she comes across as a well-mannered English woman, and the rugged dirty action-packed machine world just doesn’t gel with her body language. For example, look how she holds out her hand at the 4:50 clip. That hand just does not look like the hand of a woman who’s worked with machines and dirt for years upon years. It looks like a polite woman’s hand. It just doesn’t look right to me. I need to find some other clips of people helping each other up to compare, I guess.

(On a side note, Harrison Ford also came across as an old actor and not Han Solo. He lost his rogue-ish smirk and just recited lines. Is that his fault, the script’s fault, the director’s fault? I don’t know, but I thought he was awful in the film.)

4:55 : “Jyn, on the other hand, is a passive protagonist.”

True, but again, whether or not this works is based more on your interest in the overall story. That is, in what she’s experiencing in her passivity. Look at Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for example. Charlie makes perhaps two interesting proactive decisions in the entire film. First to buy the candy bar that gets him the ticket, and then giving Wonka back his everlasting gobstopper near the end. That’s pretty much it. He’s pretty much led along through the rest.

Heck, what proactive decisions does Luke Skywalker himself make in the original Star Wars? He whines about power converters and uses the force near the end, and that’s pretty much it. The delight of that film is in the plot and the world he’s introduced to.

Same with Harry Potter, at least in the opening half of his first film. Everything just happens to him as he’s led into a new wondrous world of wizards and magic.

Same with Emmet of The LEGO Movie.

Same with Little Lord Fauntleroy, a hero for all of us.

In these examples, the protagonist is sort of a proxy or a stand-in for the audience as we are introduced to other eccentric characters and a new amazing world (which is usually at stake itself). Brandon Sanderson also mentioned this sort of thing here.

So a passive protagonist is, in my opinion, not automatically weaker. It depends on execution, which this video didn’t really touch on.

Character flaws

Firstly, I’ll mention that I don’t think characters necessarily need flaws or even a developmental arc. Stories featuring them are generally more popular at the moment, but they’re not a requirement. Look at a lot of mystery or adventure fiction. When the plot is more driven by outside events (typical of a movie like Star Wars), a character “flaw” for the sake of inner development is not always necessary, and you especially don’t want one to feel forced.

And by “flaw” I don’t mean weaknesses or fears. Indiana Jones hating snakes or losing a particular fight is not a character “flaw”. Failures, whether induced by a flaw or by circumstance or both, create interesting conflicts.

Anyway, the video points out that Rey’s flaw wasn’t very meaningful, which is true. In fact, I mostly forgot about it.

Meaningful consequences

8:12 : “I find that when I watch Rogue One, the second half is much more engaging than the first half. In the second half, the characters have a clear objective, and the actions they take move the plot forward.”

This is an astute observation. I’ve actually been meaning to write a blog post about story midpoints, at least for films, because I’ve observed two main features of midpoints. These aren’t necessarily found in every midpoint, but you’ll find them in a lot:

1 – The goal becomes clearly defined, or more concretely defined.
2 – The environment changes. It may be a new environment, or something important about the environment changes (e.g. a character dies, a new character is introduced).

In films, this can happen like clockwork right in the smack-dab center with amazing precision. Look at when the T-Rex escapes and thrusts the heroes of Jurassic Park into the wilderness. Look at when the genie shows up in Aladdin. And… lots of other examples, do your homework.

8:27 : “But the first half of Rogue One is unnecessarily complicated…”

Meh… I didn’t find it that complicated. It was more focused on exposition and setting up the second act, so I can see why some might find it less engaging, and it’s true, the conflicts could’ve been more meaningful. It just didn’t ruin it for me. Like I mentioned, there are a lot of films that feature more… “introductory” openings which by their nature feature less meaningful conflicts and less proactive protagonists in the first half because they’re focused on setting up the world. I think Rogue One was just this sort of film. So I think its effectiveness really depends more on how interesting the exposition and world-building are for you, not how consequential the conflicts are in and of themselves. Though, again, it’s certainly a valid criticism, no argument there.

The End

OK, I’ve now somehow spent like three hours writing this post, and I need to go eat dinner. Whether or not I finish commenting on this video will depend on whether or not I feel like it later, and whether or not anybody’s interested.

Thanks for reading!

Buy my book, which features amazing ingenius wondrous character development!

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Character development and rooting for characters

Quick update on my writing

I haven’t written much in a long while. I’ve been composing music and programming my “symphony generator” instead. Hopefully I’ll get back to writing something soon though. I still have parts 2, 3, and 4 of Insane Fantasy plotted and ready to write. Part 1 only sold like… 2 or 3 copies so far, which is terrible, so I wasn’t all that motivated to continue right away. I was hoping to write a standalone novel between parts. But I just can’t seem to finish plotting anything. I’ve started plotting several, but I keep getting stuck. I also tried writing some stories without outlining, but that didn’t work either. So I’ll probably just go ahead and start writing part 2 of Insane Fantasy while I try to finish plotting something else…

So that’s where I am with writing. Now onward to some random thoughts on character development and audience empathy.

Random thoughts on character development and audience empathy

I was thinking about this last week because of an interesting blog post about the “pulp revolution”: “No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

In the post, the author writes:

But consider this: how much more poignant, how much more depth, how much more interesting would the whole Barsoom cycle be if John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child, or (worse!) a young, pregnant wife on Earth?

That would make his attraction to Thoris a conflict. That would make his return to earth after asphyxiation a mixed blessing. That would add emotion to his every success on Mars: it all came at the expense of an innocent woman and child back on Earth…and yet, it wasn’t of his own choosing, he is powerless to go back (so why shouldn’t he make their loss mean something good for Barsoom?)…and since his complete disappearance means she is also moving on with her life back on Earth…?

I commented on the post with the following:

I read A Princess of Mars a month or so ago and, overall, really enjoyed it. (It was slow to start. Lots of pages with no dialog was boring me, but the pace eventually picked up.) One thing I really liked about it was that there were no big moral conflicts or conundrums, John Carter doesn’t have to struggle to figure out the morally right thing, so he’s able to have a pure straight-up adventure.

If John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child on Earth, for instance, that would not be a very interesting conflict to me in the moral sense because I would already have a strong attitude about what his moral obligation would be, which is that he should be faithful to his wife on Earth. Conflict solved.

Now if the character of John Carter agrees with me and is not tempted to sway, there’s no conflict (in the moral sense).

If he agrees with me, but struggles with the willpower to stay true, that inner conflict would bore me, and, if anything, make me like him less.

If he doesn’t agree with me in the first place, then his character would annoy me, and if he comes to change his mind, his “character development” would feel very forced to me.

I couldn’t help but think about the issue a bit more. I still feel the same way about John Carter; the fact that he doesn’t do much in the way of character development in the moral sense works nicely for me, because he doesn’t have to. He starts out as a good honest respectable man, so there’s not much development needed in those regards. (I’d argue there’s still character development in his relationships with other characters and his understanding of Mars’s “Barsoom” culture.) Since he’s an honest man, I can root for him the whole time, in a way I would not be able to if he had a wife he was tempted to cheat on, for example.

(Digression: This is precisely why I thought Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance was ultimately weaker than The Way of Kings; I went into the second book considering the character Kaladin to be a pretty honorable man, as the first book seemed to establish. Instead, he’s still stupidly racist (there’s eye-color racism in his world, “eye-ism” I suppose), and at one point in the story he’s tempted to assassinate a powerful figure because the ends seems to justify the means, but he snaps out of it later. These character flaws felt completely out of character, and felt very forced by the author.)

That said, there are stories that I love in which the character is faced with moral conflicts and develops through them. Examples include The Lion King, Les Miserables… um… what else? A Christmas Carol perhaps? Come to think of it, I can’t even think of that many. Usually character development deals with one or two particular flaws, and they’re usually not moral ones. They’re usually about relationships or the acceptance or understanding of something, which I wouldn’t necessarily equate with a moral conflict. Likewise, I wouldn’t equate a moral ambiguity with a moral conflict. “You can save the king from assassination, as is your duty as a guard, or your wife! Choose one! Haha!” That would certainly an interesting conflict, but not really a moral one.

In Les Miserables (the musical, I haven’t read the book), the moral development happens right at the beginning, when the priest gives Jean Valjean the silver and “buys” his freedom and his “soul for God”. Jean Valjean then swears to turn his life around in “What Have I Done?”. “What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go? … Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin!” No more moral conflicts, and we can root for him for the rest of the musical. The character development takes precisely one story beat. He doesn’t brood over it, or go back and forth, which would be agonizing for the audience. A priest treats him with kindness, and boom, his heart changes. (On a side note, I think these sorts of heart-changing beats work especially well in musicals, as you get all the energy of the music to help stir the emotions. Sometimes these sorts of moments can be difficult to write in novels and screenplays.) (Jean Valjean makes another moral decision with the song “Who Am I?”, but it’s not really much of a struggle and takes less than three minutes to decide to do the right thing.)

Similarly, in The Lion King, the “moral development” all happen in contained story beats. Simba’s never brooding in constant moral conflict. “Should I go back and claim the throne? Should I stay? I’m not really sure…” No, or at least we don’t see it. He embraces “hakuna matata” in the scope of one catchy song, and changes his mind pretty instantly when a patriarchal cloud tells him to “remember who you are!” And in the moral sense, we’re only rooting for Simba after the moment. Before that, why do we root for him? Probably because we know he’s been manipulated and lied to by his scheming uncle (injustice almost always creates empathy). Plus he’s cute furry royalty, I guess, and not really too much of a jerk.

Ultimately, even if the characters at first have some moral lesson to learn, they don’t really struggle with it. They’re either sure that they’re right, or they don’t even think about it at all. They don’t go back and forth, they’re not wishy washy or indecisive. And when they develop, it takes place within a solid story beat (or, perhaps, a pair of beats; action and reaction (scene and sequel)).

What about anti-heroes?

But why might we root for an anti-hero or a tragic figure?

Some of my favorite films are about despicable characters. In Amadeus, Salieri is hardly a model of virtue. He’s a scheming envious petty egotistical God-hating maniac. In Sweeney Tood, the title barber murders a number of innocent people in cold blood. In Once Upon a Time In America, Noodles is a gangster.

Since these stories all end in tragedy, I wouldn’t say we’re really rooting for these characters at all, or at least not in the same sense. Our interest in their journeys lies somewhere else. They all feature some injustice, real or perceived, to which the character responds to in a clearly immoral way. In Amadeus, Salieri accuses God of being unjust, as he believes he deserves the talent given to Mozart. In Sweeney Todd, the barber was framed by an evil judge who wanted to steal away his wife while he rots in prison. In Once Upon a Time In America, Noodles is battling even worse gangs.

In a sense, it’s not really the character we root for, but the settling of the injustice through the character. And, ultimately, often despite him, as he usually gets his comeuppance in the end. Salieri ends a mad house after a suicide attempt, Sweeney Todd dies by his own knife, and Noodles loses the love of his life and all his friends.

I suppose there are some movies in which an evil character gets away. Especially in horror films, but those films are meant to be unsettling. I can’t think of a movie in which an evil character gets everything he wanted and the audience is meant to feel good about it…

Anyway, those were just some random thoughts. It’s something I’ll probably keep thinking about…

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Thoughts on The Hero’s Journey

Earlier this week I read a very interesting blog post by Rick Stump about Conan the Barbarian that definitely makes me want to read some Robert E. Howard. (I hope to anyway, since he’s on ‘Appendix N’.)

This is a complete digression of what that blog post is really about, but I find “The Hero’s Journey” and Joseph Campbell’s work in general to be quite fascinating, so I shall digress… the blogger writes:

Howard died well over a decade before The Hero With A Thousand Faces was published and I think that he would have sneered at it. As many more people before me have pointed out, Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey is malarky. It is so very broad that it can’t be defended in a scholarly sense and yet it is so confining and predictable that when writers use it it hits everything with a Power Word: Bland spell effect. It fails to describe a number of rather seriously important myth cycles and attempts to shoehorn all of heroic narrative into a single pattern.

What?! Malarky?! Noooo… but… but… I love it…

I think there are two issues here. First, what exactly is “The Hero’s Journey” anyway? And then, second, how a writer (screenwriter or novelist or whatever) might use (or misuse) it.

What is “The Hero’s Journey” anyway?

Granted, it’s been more than a decade since I read Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and I would not consider myself an expert on Campbell’s own views anyway, but my understanding of Campbell’s “monomyth” is Campbell saying this: Hey, I’ve studied a bunch of myths from around the world, and I’ve found some interesting patterns that many of them share; they tend to follow a particular model. As we find these similarities in the otherwise diverse myths from multiple cultures, what might this telling about being human?

Now, maybe that’s not at all what Campbell was saying. Like I said, it’s been a while since I read the book, and I don’t always find Campbell to be a particularly accessible writer anyway. (He seems to ramble and sometimes seems so interested in sharing the details of some myth that you forget what point he is trying to make, which he may not have even bothered to make clear in the first place.)

Also, note that “The Hero’s Journey” is about myths, not stories and narratives in general. There is some overlap, but whereas stories and narratives can be written by single authors for purposes of entertainment, myths emerge from groups of people and are generally shared in some sort of religious context. That is, the one who has learned the myth is meant to make a spiritual connection with it, not treat it as merely a fictional product. That is not to say one cannot make a spiritual connection with a modern-day novel. But that is icing on the cake for the author. You wouldn’t make up your own myth, much less try to sell a myth on Amazon for money. Not the sort of myths Campbell is considering, anyway. Hopefully that distinction makes sense.

Anyway, what makes the monomyth interesting (and a valid model rather than mere malarky) is that it describes similarities between myths. The idea is that, by virtue of finding these patterns across multiple cultures, the myths contain symbols that point to something bigger than themselves, something about humans and our relation to the universe. That is, hey look, there are spiritual truths in these myths!

Now of course one may argue about the particularities of the model Campbell proposes, such as whether it should or shouldn’t include the “stages” Campbell describes, or whether the patterns Campbell finds truly point to something bigger or are just coincidence. There is some subjective interpretation going on, an analysis of a myth is more art than science. (I’m not sure how one would make story analysis into a science?) Whether or not the model is considered to be “too broad” depends on what exactly one is trying to do with it. It is not meant to, for example, explain all myths ever. And surely it is not meant to generalize myths or trivialize their differences, any more than explaining sonata form or analyzing patterns in functional harmony generalizes or trivializes the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Campbell himself writes:

There is no final system for the interpretation of myths, and there never will be any such thing.

So I think “The Hero’s Journey” sometimes gets unfair criticism for not being what it never claimed to be in the first place. It is, simply put, a set of patterns found in a number of myths, with the underlying idea that these patterns are thus meaningful to the human experience beyond the specific myths they may be found in.

I’m not sure where in any of his books Campbell ever “attempts to shoehorn all of heroic narrative into a single pattern” or even advocate it. But, again, it’s been a while since I read the book. Maybe whether or not he’s “shoehorning” is itself a subjective matter?

The (mis?)use of the “monomyth” in Hollywood

So the story goes that George Lucas was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth while writing Star Wars. Star Wars was a big success. Screenwriters thought the monomyth was thus a “secret formula” for producing hits, or at least serviceable stories, and then a bunch of cliche predictable soulless awful stuff started coming out (and still comes out today).

Of course dull soulless films are really nothing new. When any art becomes commercial, “formulaic” artists emerge. The “formula” may change depending on the latest success, but the crime is the same: the writer depends on a “formula” (consciously or unconsciously) to the detriment of the final product. Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat!” beats also get a lot of unfair criticism for this sort of thing. (The form he proposes is really another form of “The Hero’s Journey” but from a screenwriter’s perspective, which necessarily includes such things as pacing considerations, a side plot, and the statement of theme). Writers look at the “formula” and come up with the same cliche manifestations of the story beats and the resulting story is soulless, monotonous, and predictable.

When this happens, the blame really goes to the uncreative boring writers, not to Joseph Campbell or Blake Snyder, who merely shared patterns they had found. (Well, perhaps the ultimate blame goes to the audiences that keep buying such formulaic stories, but what does that say?) The story patterns they share are no substitute for soul or theme. From my perspective, they’re a bit like talking about methods for calculating vanishing points on a canvas to help you draw with perspective. They might give your painting some depth, but they won’t make it beautiful. That is, from a storytelling perspective, they can serve as insightful tools. They are not “formulas”… perhaps they may serve as “foundations” or “forms”, but they are not instructions on what must happen next. “The Hero’s Journey” is spiritual, not a plot template. It’s not about what the hero does physically, it’s about his (or the audience’s) spiritual experience.

So, in conclusion, I don’t think “The Hero’s Journey” is malarky at all, though I certainly agree that it can be misused when storytellers treat it as merely a “formula.”

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Rediscovering the foundations of fantasy and sci-fi…

I’ve recently come across two interesting developments in the world of fantasy and sci-fi books.

First, I discovered a somewhat new “genre” or “category” of fantasy and sci-fi, what readers call LitRPG. These are, from what I can tell, basically books that are inspired by video game playing, to such an extent that the main characters have stats that “level up” and gain rewards as they would in video games. They seem to have become quite popular in Russia and are beginning to spread. A small publisher that specializes in translations of popular LitRPG works states on their site:

LitRPG is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy which describes the hero’s adventures within an online computer game. LitRPG books merge traditional book-style narration with elements of a gaming experience, describing various quests, achievements and other events typical of a video game.

These aren’t just stories that take place in online worlds, like Ready Player One. These books actually have game-like status updates in their scenes. You might see something like:

Damage taken. Hit Points reduced by 5: 11 (weapon damage + strength) – 6 (armor). Total: 35 of 40.


You’ve been hit by Messenger Gnoll! Damage sustained: 12 points. Life 32/60

So, to me, these seem a bit like book-form fictional Let’s Plays. I don’t think I play enough video games to appreciate this sort of style, but I find it interesting nonetheless. It’s certainly something that only this age of self-pubbing makes possible; I highly doubt these sorts of books would have ever come to fruition through traditional publishing alone.

Second, and more interesting to me (and perhaps more recent?), is what’s being called the pulp revolution. This is mainly an effort to rediscover and celebrate the early fantasy and science fiction, the old masters like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett, E. E. “Doc” Smith, etc.. I’m just kind of guessing these names, because I must admit that I haven’t read them. But, hey, that’s what the pulp revolution is for! See “What is the Pulp Revolution?” Of course, the idea is not only to rediscover these classics, but, if you’re a writer, to be inspired by them. There’s sometimes a notion that these early works were less “mature”, full of shallow writing and tropes and loved only by the uncool nerds, and that their absence from modern bookstore shelves is not a great loss. “Not so!” sayeth the pulp revolution. “They are actually awesome! Read them!”

So in the manual for that old 1970’s table-top game, Dungeons and Dragons (obscure, I know) included an “Appendix N”, a reading list of the stories the game creator had taken inspiration from. Fast-forward to present day, blogger Jeffro Johnson reads all the books in the list and writes about them, ultimately compiling his articles in the recently released Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons and Dragons. He also does a pretty nice job of selling the book about other books on a recent episode of “Geek Gab”:

Sold! I definitely look forward to reading some (all?) of the books on this list. I don’t need any extra inspiration for my writing endeavors, but I’ll take it.

Granted, collecting and reading the books from “Appendix N” is not necessarily a new thing in and of itself, especially among fans of D&D. Still, I suppose this “revolution” is bigger than just this particular list. I’ll be interested to see where it leads, especially in terms of modern day indie authors…

(On a side note, I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons (I need more nerdy friends), but its influence on fantasy and sci-fi is certainly palpable, so I certainly find it interesting anyway. I have recently been reading another book called Playing at the World by Jon Peterson which spends a fair amount of time talking about the literary influences of the game, so these older works have been on my radar.)

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Is my work superversive?

There’s a literary movement afoot! Although its name among the angels and higher beings can never be expressed through mere words, it is known to humans versed in the common tongue as Superversive Fiction.

Superversive fiction is of course the opposite of subversive fiction. Writer Russell Newquist writes:

The last half century or so has seen quite a bit of subversive literature – literature designed not for building up civilization but for tearing it down. It has many features to it: heroes who aren’t heroic, the world is portrayed as a terrible, evil place, beauty is nowhere to be found, good always loses in the end, etc.

Superversive work, on the other hand, is meant to inspire. Write L. Jagi Lamplighter writes:

The goal of the Superversive is to bring hope, where there is no hope; to bring courage, where without courage, hope would never be manifested. The goal of the Superversive is to be light to a benighted world. The goal of the Superversive is: To tell the truth.

In another post, she identifies three elements of a superversive work:

First and foremost, a Superversive story has to have good storytelling. … What I mean by good storytelling is that the story follows the principles of a good story. That, by the end, the good prosper, the bad stumble, that there is action, motion to the plot, and a reasonable about of sense to the overall structure.

Second, the characters must be heroic. …

Third, Superversive literature must have an element of wonder. … Specifically, the kind of wonder that comes from suddenly realizing that there is something greater than yourself in the universe, that the world is a grander place than you had previously envisioned. The kind of wonder that comes from a sudden hint of a Higher Power, a more solid truth. There might be another word for that kind of wonder: awe.

The movement even has a manifesto, found here on a blog dedicated to “Superversive SF”.

So… is my work superversive?


Son of a Dark Wizard is admittedly not very superversive. The main character is a powerful wizard whose evil father was just assassinated, so even trying to be heroic is not really on his mind. While he’s not quite as evil as his father, he’s certainly not a role-model. Nor does the book include much in the way of wonder, at least no more wonder than the genre of fantasy itself brings to the table (as I personally find wonder in the very idea of wizards at all, hence why I am drawn to fantasy in the first place). I do hope that the book has good storytelling though.

That said, it’s certainly not pessimistic, and I wouldn’t consider it subversive. While the main conflict is not as black-and-white as hero-vs-bad-guy, there’s never an argument that good is actually evil or vice versa, or that good people don’t exist, or any other nihilist nonsense.


What about Insane Fantasy: The Crater Lands? This is just the first part of a serialized novel, but I actually plotted it with superversiveness in mind (not necessarily as a goal, but I was aware of its ideas). So I would say yes, at least yes to the novel’s overall story. Both the owl Moonwing and the boy Coptivon do things that I would hope readers would consider heroic, and I hope the world and its magic will hold some wonder. And of course I strive for good storytelling anyway.


What about my three short stories in Maker of the Twenty-first Moon? Meh, these probably wouldn’t be considered superversive either. They’re all tragedies, and only the title story features a character who might arguably do something heroic. No One Was Abendsen features a weak character whose cowardice leads to someone’s death (spoiler alert), and The Final Dream of Samuel Shadows is more of a comedy, in which the tragedy is dramatically akin to someone slipping on a banana peel… and dying. Well, OK, the comedy’s a bit more subtle than that, but the point is that the tragedy (if its ending can even be considered one) is not necessarily a moral consequence of anything serious.

I’m hoping that the story I’m plotting now will be superversive. I suppose the most subjective aspect may be that “sense of wonder”. As I said, I find the idea of fantasy and magic and wizardry to be awe-inspiring in and of itself. Just as C. S. Lewis wrote that “only giants will do“, I might say that “only wizards will do” for the simple reason that many more exciting things seem possible in a world of magic and wizards — there’s something deeper and more mysterious than simple physics ruling the universe, yet its more palpable than the spiritual “love and hope and oneness with all things” already in our world. And the idea of seeing a castle on a hillside is more uplifting to me than seeing a city street, or a modern house, or a row of power lines. Though I’d prefer air conditioning and running water to living in a cave on a beautiful mountain, the modern world with its bland buildings and rivers of asphalt and parking lots is just ugly. And fresh mountain air certainly smells better than random wafts of gasoline and fast food.

But I digress. What was I talking about again?

Oh yeah. So I write fantasy in the first place because I think a sense of wonder is inherit in the very genre. Even Game of Thrones with all its pointless dirty nudity and ridiculous violence-to-shock! gives me wonder because of the castles and the magic and the swords and the dragons.

Also, I very much agree with Josh Young when he writes (in this excellent post titled ‘Why does the tone of our fiction matter?’):

… a rant about message fiction is probably a little bit of rabbit trail, except in so far as that I think message fiction has a distasteful tone to it that’s probably (but not definitely) in conflict with a sense of wonder and heroism and all that other stuff. Lecturing comes from a place of superiority and superiority is usually off-putting. No one wants to be lectured unless they’re legitimately attending a lecture.

I guess it depends on the “message” and whether or not one agrees with it. Certainly a movie about Christ telling people “he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life” is far more awe-inspiring to one who does in fact believe. In recent years there’s been a quest among some authors in the science-fiction and fantasy genre (and people in “geek culture” in general I suppose) to worry about “diversity” and “representation”, concerned about what “message” a story that lacks the proper amount of “diversity” may be spreading. I’m tempted to claim that some of these authors really do find “wonder” in these things, as they imagine that they are inspiring a better world. But that sort of “wonder” isn’t really contained in the story itself, is it?

Anyway, that’s another digression. Suffice it to say that if a book’s (or a movie’s) selling points include something to do with the characters “representing” some group of people rather than trying to sell me on the actual conflicts made possible by the world and the characters, I probably won’t be so interested. (But others will! I guess.)

In conclusion, the best way to find out just how superversive my books are (or aren’t) is to… buy them and see! 😛

(Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by my own self.)

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Elements of an ending

I’ve been plotting some new stuff lately, and trying to think up some interesting endings. Endings always seem to be the most challenging part for me; you want something that will both surprise the audience, yet feel completely acceptable, and resolve the conflict satisfactorily. And it’s not just a matter of what happens (the good guy kills the villain) but how it happens. How specifically does the good guy kill the bad guy? Especially since the story preceding the climax needs to convince the reader that the hero’s task is impossible.

So I’ve been thinking about endings, and I’ve come up with three elements endings (or climaxes, at least) are typically composed of:

(Beware: since I’m talking about endings, any examples are give are by their nature spoilers.)

1. The Secret Weapon

It may not necessarily be a “secret”, but the hero utilizes a “weapon” of some sort that he was not planning on using at first, or that the audience was not expecting. This is typically employed when the climax is physical in nature, such as the hero needing to destroy someone or something.

Examples: In Star Wars, Luke uses the Force rather than his ship’s auto-target system to blow up the Death Star. In Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, T-Rex saves the day, once by sheer luck, and once by a character’s decision.


2. The Trick

Typical in heist movies. The trick is when the hero comes up with some clever “trick” to defeat the villain or get what he wants. He may “trick” the villain into basically destroying himself. Typically if the trick works flawlessly, the audience doesn’t know about it until after it succeeds. If the audience does know about it, then it will likely fail, and the hero will have to improvise and utilize some new trick or secret weapon. Otherwise, if the audience knows about it and it works flawlessly, there’s completely no tension for the audience (even if the audience already knows the story and knows the trick).

A common example is the creation of a “diversion” … heroes pull the enemy’s attention away from something important, giving them just enough time to deliver a fatal blow.

Examples: In Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen. Well, I’m not going to explain the elaborate tricks of those endings, but of course they’re tricks. After all, they’re classic heist movies. In Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Aragorn and his motley crew draw Sauron’s forces out of Mordor so that Frodo and Sam can reach the fires of the Mount Doom. “A diversion!” as Legolas so proudly acclaims for the slow audience members. Yes, thank you elf man. In Fun with Dick and Jane, Jim Carrey tricks Alec Baldwin into signing a check so that his wife can forge his signature onto some other documents (after their original “trick” is destroyed by a lawn mower). In Inception… well, that’s another heist movie, so of course the climax is the trick being successfully pulled off. “I was disappointed that you tried” and all that.


3. Rebirth (realization) and sheer force

In drama films, where the main conflict tends to be more thematic or internal, the ending may consist simply of the hero realizing something new about himself or someone he admires, which gives him the inner strength to solve the conflict through sheer force. He doesn’t need secret weapons or tricks. He just needs to face his foes head on.

Examples: In Shrek, which is basically a male-POV romantic comedy, Shrek only needs to learn that Fiona wasn’t talking about him earlier and that he loves her, and he’s off to stop her from getting married. Granted, the dragon is a sort of secret weapon as well, but Shrek’s “rebirth” and newfound strength are the main drivers of the ending, along with Fiona’s revelation that she is also an ogre. In Inception, after the successful “trick” of the heist, Leo’s character also confronts his dream-version of his dead wife and finally lets go of her. (Which is why it doesn’t matter whether or not his totem stops spinning in the film’s final shot; the point is that he doesn’t care about it anymore.) In The Truman Show, Truman tricks the cameras into thinking he was asleep, but then braves the sea through sheer force, forcing himself onward even as Ed Harris threatens to drown him. (Always a definite rebirth when characters are submerged in water at moments like that; it’s baptism!)


Of course, these examples may overlap quite a bit; an ending could include all three. A character realizes something, which gives them the strength to use a trick as a secret weapon. Sometimes one character will be utilizing a trick to get the enemy where they want him while another character deploys a secret weapon.

Also, these tricks, weapons, and realizations are often not completely new elements to the story. What makes them convincing is that they tend to be hiding in plain sight all along. The storyteller has to find a way of making them not too obvious, yet there all along. If they come out of nowhere, we risk getting a deus ex machina ending which can feel very weak and arbitrary. I particularly loathe time travel solutions in stories that are not about time travel, such as in Signs, Interstellar, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (and Hodor’s revelation in Game of Thrones, for that matter).

There was something else I wanted to say, but now I can’t remember…

Anyway, hope that’s helpful or interesting for someone out there. Are there any elements you think I may have missed?

Oh, now I remember what I wanted to say:

Endings often also include a martyr beat, a moment when the main character or a strong supporting character puts his own life itself on the line, often for the sake of someone else (a “stakes” character… saving the world means nothing if we don’t care about a specific person in it). If a supporting character gets the beat, especially an unnatural character (as in Netflix’s latest original series Stranger Things, or Hodor in Game of Thrones), the character may indeed die. The martyr beat may also be more metaphorical for dramas in which actual death is not a threat. In romantic comedies, for example, characters won’t die if they don’t get together, but they will die metaphorically, I guess? So the romantic lead throws away his business opportunities or something for the sake of stopping a wedding.

The point of the martyr beat is that idea of rebirth; by giving up fear or a piece of himself, the character is able to obtain a new self, which is capable of defeating the enemy. (A good Christian can see how stories reflect the story of the human spirit in Christ, and why the human spirit feeds on stories so much. God is a storyteller, after all, and we are the characters in his story of knowing Himself. So in Heaven will I get to meet and/or become the characters in my novel? I think I should… haha.)

OK, I think that’s all I have to say. Just writing this post gave me some new ideas for my novels ending, so I guess I will get back to plotting…

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Only giants will do

Of Other Worlds

I recently finished reading a small series of essays and stories by C.S. Lewis collected in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.

Of particular interest to me was the first essay, “On Stories”, in which Lewis defends the elements of fantasy and sci-fi, myth and fairy-tale, as not merely arbitrarily-chosen story entities, but innately unique and important, as they carry with them all their unique weight, connotations, feelings, etc., which bring about different “kinds of pleasure.”

He mentions talking with a friend about books they had enjoyed as boys. He writes of his friend:

His favourite had been Fenimore Cooper whom (as it happens) I have never read. My friend described one particular scene in which the hero was half-sleeping by his bivouac fire in the woods while a Redskin with a tomahawk was silently creeping on him from behind. He remembered the breathless excitement with which he had read the passage, the agonized suspense with which he wondered whether the hero would wake up in time or not. But I, remembering the great moments in my own early reading, felt quite sure that my friend was misrepresenting his experience, and indeed leaving out the real point. Surely, surely, I thought, the sheer excitement, the suspense, was not what had kept him going back and back to Fenimore Cooper. If that were what he wanted any other ‘boy’s blood’ would have done as well. … Dangers, of course, there must be: how else can you keep a story going? But they must (in the mood which led one to such a book) be Redskin dangers. The ‘Redskinnery’ was what really mattered. In such a scene as my friend had described, take away the feathers, the high cheek-bones, the whiskered trousers, substitute a pistol for the tomahawk, and what would be left? For I wanted not the momentary suspense but that whole world to which it belonged–the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, war-paths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names.

He goes on to write:

Jack the Giant-Killer is not, in essence, simply the story of a clever hero surmounting danger. It is in essence the story of such a hero surmounting danger from giants. It is quite easy to contrive a story in which, though the enemies are of normal size, the odds against Jack are equally great. But it will be quite a different story. The whole quality of the imaginative response is determined by the fact that the enemies are giants. That heaviness, that monstrosity, that uncouthness, hangs over the whole thing. Turn it into music and you will feel the difference at once. If your villain is a giant your orchestra will proclaim his entrance in one way: if he is any other kind of villain, in another. I have seen landscapes (notably in the Mourne Mountains) which, under a particular light, made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge. Nature has that in her which compels us to invent giants: and only giants will do. … The dangerousness of the giants is, though important, secondary. In some folk-tales we meet giants who are not dangerous. But they still affect us in much the same way. A good giant is legitimate: but he would be twenty tons of living, earth-shaking oxymoron. The intolerable pressure, the sense of something older, wilder, and more earthy than humanity, would still cleave to him.

Near the end of the essay he writes:

Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in the mere excitement when the journey has once begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas–homecoming, reunion with a beloved–similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so–well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more? … Art, indeed, may be expected to do what life cannot do: but so it has done. The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at last either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay. But I think it is sometimes done–or very, very nearly done–in stories. I believe the effort to be well worth making.

He almost makes storytelling seem a tragedy, but a necessary one, like a remnant from the Fall of Man, which perhaps it is. If I may be forgiven for playing with the metaphor, I wonder: are we bird-catching for the beauty of the bird, or for the wish to become the bird? Or to find at least glimpses of the bird we hope is lost within ourselves?

In any case, I loved the essay; it’s worth a read for any authors of fantasy or fairy-tales. And it seems to stir in me a desire to write, not so much fuel for the fire, but the breath that brings it to fury. (Or is that a metaphor too much?)

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Barnes and Nobles launches print-on-demand business

Someone on Twitter posted a link to this recent article about Barnes and Noble entering the print-on-demand business:

Barnes & Noble announced today the launch of a new print feature for its self-publishing platform, Nook Press, which will allow authors to turn their ebooks into print versions that can be sold in B&N stores and online at already sold print-on-demand books from Amazon’s Createspace, though perhaps your royalties will be greater if you go with their Nook Press? I haven’t checked out their prices yet. They do offer hardback, which Createspace does not, though I’m guessing prices won’t make it worth the cost for most books, unless you have a large audience or want to release a special edition of something.

As for indie books being stocked in their physical stores, the article says:

Through the program, authors who have sold 1,000 copies of a single ebook in the past year will be able to sell their print books on the local, regional or national level through B&N.

I can’t tell if they mean ebooks sold in total, or only ebooks sold through their Nook platform. Most ebook sales that happen at all happen through Amazon, so if you’re selling at least 1K books through Nook, you’re probably doing quite well. Otherwise, the limit does nothing for an author like me, who has nowhere near those sale levels, even on Amazon. Still, this bit of gate-keeping makes sense, as they wouldn’t want their store shelves to be filled with crappy-looking indie books that aren’t likely to sell.

Although I wonder if indie authors can’t already ask the managers of their local B&N stores to stock a book or two of theirs; I’ve seen at least one crappy-looking self-published paperback sitting on the shelf in our local B&N, prominently enough that I’m sure the author didn’t just sneak it in himself. Not sure what the deal with that was.

Anyway, it’s just one more opportunity for indie-authors, which is always a good thing; I still love browsing physical book stores, so it’s great that indie-authors may have an easier path to getting their books on physical shelves. It’s also another nail in the slowly-forming coffin of traditional publishers; when writers don’t even need them to get into physical bookstores, that’s one less incentive for a successful author to sign a deal with them. Although I suppose physical bookstores are battling their own slowly-forming coffins, so there’s really no telling what will happen…

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