How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Desert journey

Photo by Jeff Jewiss on Unsplash

Adventure fiction — defined broadly as any kind of fiction that focuses on the mounting physical challenges characters must face, usually in dangerous, exotic locales — allows the writer little room for characterization. How then is it possible to depict credible characters, especially when so much time is spent on riverboat chases and other stunts?

Given the breakneck pace of the adventure genre, depicting rounded characters can be a challenge. For an adventure hero or heroine to be fully credible, they must be more than competent. They must also be a three-dimensional, believable person.

This is complicated by how adventure fiction’s interest lies in action and suspense rather than characterization. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card remarks on how the Indiana Jones movies “spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving.” It is the same way with the archaeological thrillers of Andy McDermott, James Rollins, and Matthew Reilly, as well as in other adventure genres. The cutthroat pace of adventure makes nuanced characterization more difficult to achieve than in other types of fiction. In fact, some writers barely even seem to try.

Breaks devoted to characterization may spoil an adventure story’s forward momentum. Yet, if adventure fiction writers want to find a way to explore their protagonist’s hidden depths, either the pace must slow in certain places, or characterization must be presented on the fly. This is no mean feat.

Samuel R. Delany, author of the speculative fiction novels Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, addressed this issue back in 1969. “Often,” he writes in About Writing, “in the rush to keep the action going, writers who specialize in what are seen as adventure stories forget to confront their characters (especially the women) with enough objects/emotions/situations or give their characters space enough to react in a way both individual and within the limits of psychological veracity.”

Indeed, credible female characters were — and perhaps still are — even rarer in the genre than credible male characters. Although I plan to examine some of the reasons why this might be, for now, I will only point out that characters both male and female tend to lose their individuality in adventure stories.

One snowboarder buried in an avalanche will try to dig out of the snowdrift in much the same way as another. A character needs to be involved in a wider variety of situations to really emerge as an individual.

True, heroes like MacGyver might improvise impromptu gadgets, or approach problems in a unique way, but all the same: in this genre, many opportunities for individualization often get lost in the shuffle.

One solution to individualize your adventure story protagonist would be to develop a wider variety of situations to test her. But of what nature should these situations be?

Delany has the answer. There are “three types of actions,” he writes, “the purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” (my bolding). A credible character who performs several instances of each type of action, he states, “will probably seem more real.”

Why is this so? To answer this question, I’d like to draw attention to Delany’s observation that female characters in adventure fiction often only exhibit one type of action. Villainesses are usually all purpose, while heroines remain either exclusively habitual or gratuitous. Sexist stereotypes about cunning stepmothers, homely housewives, and male-fantasy fulfilling lovers spring to mind.

What this goes to show, aside from the sexism of many male authors, is that when a character only performs one type of action, it limits their agency to something less than what is believably human. Often, you end up with a stereotype of one sort or another, or perhaps an unoffensive character who serves as nothing more than a function in a story. If, however, a character performs the full range of purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions, then she becomes an individual rather than a type.

True, a secondary character with a walk-on role is still legitimate. They may be necessary for fulfilling a function. However, if the character is meant to generate sustained reader sympathy and interest — if the reader is meant to believe in the character as a fully individual human being — then the character must be able to perform purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions.

The adventure genre itself has no problems with purposeful or gratuitous actions. Gratuitous adventures such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are embarked upon for a simple reason: to see what’s out there. Purposeful adventures are often missions, such as the quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Even Robinson Crusoe acts with the stout purpose of a homo economicus as he transforms his island into a profitable colony.

Mixing purposeful and gratuitous actions can nuance an adventure story, if the story leans too heavily towards one type of action. However, I am hard-pressed to think of any adventure that is fundamentally based upon a habitual action.

Habitual actions seem inimical towards adventure. After all, readers pick up adventure novels to escape from their daily grind, and the genre itself is synonymous with the idea of risk — anything that interrupts the regular, habitual routine. There isn’t much that is habitual in explosions and hungry alligators, after all. At least not for most people.

And yet, habits define our daily lives and are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. This places characters in adventure fiction risk at seeming incomplete as people and as individuals. But this again raises the question: How can you find time in your fast-paced adventure story to demonstrate your character’s daily habits?

Character “quirks,” like smoking cigars or taking swigs from a hip flask, may be one unobtrusive solution. But truly meaningful habitual actions can be difficult to illustrate without breaking the story’s momentum.

To answer this question, it is worth realizing that plenty of habitual actions happen on adventures. On the road, characters must set up their tents, cook their food, and maintain their gear. Many adventure writers skip these boring, everyday travel details in order to “get to the action.” However, they might be missing out on important opportunities for characterization.

For example, Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness devotes considerable space to the mundane details of Renly Ai and Estraven’s trans-glacial sledge trek. She dwells upon their dwindling food supply, their sleeping habits, the way they set up their tent, and so forth. Information as simple as how they lay their sleeping bags down for the night adds compelling insights into their relationship.

By having them perform such habitual actions, Le Guin adds depth to their characterization, individualizing them and rendering them far more credible as people.

Adding details of your character’s habits during such moments may be the key to fleshing out their individuality. But what other opportunities for demonstrating your character’s habits are there in adventure fiction?

Adventure often involves characters attempting to secure the basic needs for survival. Think about food, sleep, money, and society. Chances are that your character has a unique way of acquiring their basic needs.

Indeed, Delany provides a list of questions based on these same points that you can ask yourself when writing characters. These questions are designed to explore what your characters “should be exposed to and allowed to have individual reactions to, to make them appear particularly vivid”:

“Food: How does the character behave when eating with a group? If possible, how does she or he react when supplying food for others?

Sleep: What particularizes his/her going to sleep, his/her waking up?

Money: How does he or she get his/her shelter, food, and how does she or he feel about how she or he gets it?[and] 

Society: How does he or she react to somebody who makes substantially more money than he or she does, and how is this different from the way he or she acts to an economic peer (and believe me, it is different, however admirable)?”

While by no means an exhaustive list of possible questions, Delany’s questions can be a prompt for exploring the unique ways your adventure story protagonist engages with the fundamental elements of life: food, sleep, money, and society.

In conclusion, all three types of action that Delany describes— the purposeful, the habitual, and the gratuitous — can be used to flesh out your characters in adventure fiction, even if habitual actions are under-used in the genre. You can thus individualize and nuance your adventure story protagonist without sacrificing suspense and momentum.

Thinking about how your hero or heroine would react towards certain situations that all human beings have experienced before can help you understand what makes your adventure protagonist a distinct, particularized individual.

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Course Offered: Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing

specfic

Are you an aspiring fantasy and science fiction writer? If so, I have good news!

I am teaching a speculative fiction writing workshop at the Thomas More Institute (3405 Atwater Avenue, Montreal) called “Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing.”

You will read selections from speculative fiction authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Charles de Lint, and China Miéville, while working on your own short story to be workshopped in class.

The 12-week course begins January 7th. Register for the course through the Thomas More Institute website. Questions may be directed to me at matthew.rettino@gmail.com.

If you liked this post, you’ll love:

My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction

“The Pilgrim’s Yoke”

Professional Proofreading and Editing

My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction

Ever since I became serious as a freelance editor/proofreader and a participant on Critters.org, the oldest online writer’s critique group, I have encountered the same weakness in fiction over and over again. Partly, I think this is because people send early drafts to critiques and forego revision until they receive their first round of feedback.

In my opinion, writers could benefit from self-revision before submitting to critique groups because many weaknesses that make a story unreadable can be fixed by the writers themselves. Beta readers and critique groups are useful resources, but writers can improve their craft more reliably through deep practice.

As a tool to help writers improve their own work, I have provided the following list of common weaknesses in fiction.

1. Too little exposition, especially at the beginning.

Young or inexperienced writers are often advised to avoid exposition at all costs. It’s an info dump, boring, and uninteresting to read. But given the volume of fiction I have read where I did not feel grounded in the story, I am no longer convinced that this advice is unimpeachable.

Writers are told by creative writing teachers to begin in media res, but often, they begin their stories before they establish the res. In other words, they begin in ‘the middle of things‘ without establishing what those ‘things’ are, or where they are, or when they are. The characters are already running around doing things, but there is a certain level of knowledge the reader is presumed to have before they come to the text.

Unfortunately, there is no way for readers to access this information if it is not on the page! This is a problem especially frequent with speculative fiction openings, where a common reality between the reader and the fictional world is not necessarily assumed.

“Once upon a time, there was a young princess who loved to play with her toy ball.”  This establishes a time, a character, and a setting. It is a perfect window into the “before” state prior to the main action. Every word is exposition: “telling” instead of “showing.” Yet, the words have a solidity and sense of narrative confidence that grounds the reader.

Writers often forget to use the narrator’s voice to convey important details of the story. This likely has to do with how most writers are raised on the visual formats of TV and movies instead of the nineteenth-century novels of yore. Since writers think they can see their characters in the movie of their mind’s eye, they think the reader will have no problem seeing that movie. But in these cases, this movie does not exist on the page.

Simply showing events does not ground the reader automatically. A certain  amount of telling is often necessary. Keep exposition minimal in the middle of your story and at the end, but do not forget that exposition at the beginning may be necessary.

In modern literature, stream-of-consciousness and multiple viewpoints give a greater sense of the fragmentation of experience. But even if the narrator’s  perspective no longer carries the authority it enjoyed in the nineteenth century, it must still anchor itself in those very limits. From that base, that creative center, the story expands outwards, growing steadily more complex, like coral.

N.B.: I would highly recommend writers, especially speculative fiction writers, to consult How to Improve Your Speculative Fiction Openings by Robert Qualkinbrush, which I have read. It goes into more detail about this issue.

2. Opening at the wrong time.

On occasion, a story might begin too early or late in the action.  Introducing your story in media res can sometimes feel like filling a reader in about what happened when they were asleep during the first half of a movie. If you find that this is true for you, you might have begun the story too late.

On the other hand, when you write a character traveling or walking towards a fateful destination, chances are you have begun the story too early. This is called “walking to the story” and is a crutch writers fall back on. This is fine to do in rough drafts as a way to connect with your characters. But in subsequent drafts, it is usually a good idea to cut these moments out.

Sometimes the story begins with the right scene, but the wrong thing is being described. For example, there might be a few sentences of purposeless description done in the interest of painting a picture. Perhaps the colour of the sky is described or the colour of the protagonist’s hair. Often, this information is uninteresting to the reader who does not yet have a reason to care what the world looks like. They want to know what’s happening or at least have some unusual, privileged insight into a character presented to them.

Sometimes a story begins at the wrong moment simply because the reader tries to express an emotional reaction that has been given no context. In About Writing, Samuel Delaney provides a model for the three units of narrative that build on one another like blocks. Setting/location must be established firstly, followed by situation and conflict. As a result of this conflict, the reader lastly experiences affect, or emotional reaction (payoff). This model can be applied on any fractal level of narrative structure: paragraphs, beats, scenes, acts.

In cases where an emotional reaction begins a story but falls flat, the writer may have used the three units of narrative in reverse, beginning with affect without describing setting or situation. Unless the emotion is primal and/or the context swiftly provided, the reader may feel disconnected from the events.

Sometimes the story begins at the wrong chronological moment. Other times, it begins with the wrong details being described. Sometimes the fix is as simple as rearranging the order of a few sentences in a paragraph; other times, the story’s initial event must itself be rethought. Ideally, a story begins at a moment of dramatic interest where the relevant details can be shown and/or told in exposition that appears relevant to the action.

3. Unclear, unfelt stakes.

The next biggest weakness is a lack of clear, emotional stakes. By stakes I mean the question, “Why is this character performing this action?” Stakes have to do with risk and all the things the character has to lose or gain. The clearer the stakes, the more reasons to read on to see whether the protagonist gains or loses what they most value and love.

Unclear stakes often occur because readers have forgotten to make them explicit.  Too much subtlety can sometimes result in a vagueness with regard to a character’s goal. But there is nothing wrong with a line that puts all the cards on the table for everyone to see: “Velma couldn’t let Clarice beat her at Bingo, or she’d never be able to look her knitting circle in the eye again.” The circumstances may appear trivial to a reader, but given the above example, no one can deny that Velma needs to win the Bingo tournament at Shady Maple Retirement Home to earn the regard of her peers.

Exposition can go a long way to making stakes clear, especially at the beginning of a story. Later in the story, stakes can be shown instead of told. For example, there might be a scene where Velma loses the Bingo game and the knitting group has a meeting without inviting her. Now the stakes are bigger: will she confront her knitting group and stand up for herself or wallow in self-pity about her loss? This is an escalation.

These stakes must not only be clear, but carry an emotional impact. The stakes of a story might be world-ending–a nuclear war scenario, for instance–but if the protagonist remains unaffected, the reader does too. Thus, the urgency of a stake has nothing to do with the volume of people affected but by the specificity of the emotions associated with it.

Velma’s need to earn the respect in her knitting circle might engage readers, while scavengers surviving in a post-nuclear Toronto might elicit no sympathy whatsoever. If the scavengers’ stakes have no emotional context, they will simply not matter to the reader.

Think of all the things George Bailey loses in It’s A Wonderful Life when he sees what Bedford Falls looks like in a world where he has never been born. He loses the Building & Loan, his family, and the optimism of the town itself, which has nowhere to turn to escape Mr. Potter’s exploitation. George stands to lose everything he cares about and the audience feels it.

The more particularized the stakes, the better. If the fate of the world is literally at stake in your story, a bland emotional reaction on your protagonist’s part, even if noble (“We have to save it!”), will not give an especially compelling reason to be interested in the character per se. If, however, the scavenger’s grandmother is alone at Shady Maple Retirement Home on Bingo Night and unaware of the danger of the incoming nuclear apocalypse, the stakes for the scavenger are more particularized–that is, specific for him. We might also feel a little sorry that grandma was never able to resolve the drama with her knitting circle.

Think of the reader’s attention as a tent on a windy mountaintop. You need many specific and poignant stakes to pin that tent down, keep your reader’s attention tethered to your story, and hold it there.

4. A lack of frontwork to prepare readers for revelations.

A revelation in your story that does not ‘land’ often confuses the reader instead of delivering the emotional or intellectual impact you desire. Fixing revelations involves hard work. In order to reveal information in your story in an impactful way, you have to do some frontwork.

For instance, in one story I read, a character was working on a mystery surrounding a crime, but before they could establish a baseline of assumptions about the case, the writer threw a curve ball: a surprise revelation revealed that the crime the character was investigating was itself a deception. The suspects, who were only vaguely described, were actually a cover-up for other criminals, who were even more vaguely described.

This was ineffective because I did not have a baseline of assumptions about the criminals already. This came from a lack of exposition. But the main issue was that the clues to the deception were not planted in advance. I was not engaging with this revelation on an intellectual level. I was just seeing it happen. One set of criminals were as good as the other.

At Odyssey, I learned the distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘answer’ revelations. The distinction between these types of revelations lies in how they each generate a different kind of expectation in the reader. An answer revelation comes as the answer to a specific, limited question posed by the story. An example would be the classic whodunit. A surprise revelation comes out of the blue, but still creates the anticipation in the reader that the information revealed will cast a new light on what came before. For example, the characters might reinterpret specific clues, correcting an illusion or a misdirection.

To these two types of revelation, I would like to add the type of ironic revelation. In an ironic revelation, the reader or audience is aware of the content of the revelation, but specific characters in the story may not be. This is particularly common in comedy (Ex: “Nina’s been lying to you about being a Hollywood starlet ever since you first met.”).

Surprise revelations work because clues interpreted one way can become reinterpreted in another. But if these clues are unclearly indicated, or even absent, the revelation can fall flat or confuse the reader.

In another story I read, a character’s father was a supernatural being, but clues that could have served as subtle hints of this were skimmed over. This is where illusion or misdirection can help. For instance, if the father was trying to hide that he was a vampire, perhaps the son could be suspicious that he is a cocaine addict and find evidence to reinforce this idea–at least until the surprise revelation tells him otherwise.

The surprise revelation casts the specific clues placed earlier in the story in a new light. But it is fundamentally important to ensure those clues are doing the right work. Choose a specific, convincing way for the viewpoint character to misinterpret the clues. This misdirects the reader. Then, after the surprise revelation, those same clues are reinterpreted.

5. Stock or manipulated gestures.

This is probably one of the hardest issues to fix, but it is certainly one of the most common to find in fiction, especially in scenes with a lot of dialogue. “She smiled”, “he walked”, “he nodded”, “she raised her eyebrow”: If any of these short phrases sound familiar, you probably know that these expressions are overused. These body language beats are clichés and so often repeated, especially in early drafts, that it reduces writing to a boring sameness and repetitiousness.

It’s not that these gestures are an absolute evil. Plenty of published works throw in the odd eyebrow raise. It’s just that these expressions are rarely ideal. They often misrepresent the particularity of your characters’ personality and stifle their fullest expression. Having a startlingly unique character raise an eyebrow, nod, and walk around is almost like placing such a character in a straitjacket. Instead, they should express themselves using telling gestures authentic to themselves, their own setting, and their own situation.

Write stock gestures to get past the first draft. But after you have gained a better vision of your character and their personality, specify. Particularize. Instead of saying they smiled at someone, you can say they smiled at someone while looking the other way across the room. This implies inner conflict, that their attention lies elsewhere. Gestures demonstrating inner conflict can go a long way towards representing a character’s particularity.

Gestures can also seem like they are manipulated by the author. For example, a character who is usually depressed and/or self-critical would likely not smile to express happiness. Depending on their personality, they might not even smile to express sarcasm. Every character comes with an emotional range. You must ask yourself how this character would express happiness, or how that character might react to jealousy, and so on.

To recap, my advice comes down to two major themes: making sure the reader has all the information they need to enjoy the story and ensuring that characters are depicted in their particularity to generate deeper interest in those characters.

Your first draft will always be rough, but once you train yourself to spot these weaknesses in your own writing, you will be that much closer to developing better second drafts and becoming a more self-reliant writer.

How T.E. Lawrence Came to Many-Pillared Iram

Today’s post is another YouTube video, in which you will get to listen to my own reading of a piece of short fiction I wrote for the Mythgard Institute “Almost an Inkling” creative writing contest. The contest is still going on, but now that the current week’s voting is over, I was really enthusiastic to share this piece with the public.

The story is a brief historical fantasy that I originally conceived as a cross between Lord Dunsany’s wonder tales and T.E. Lawrence’s account of the Arab Revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Check it out.

Lawrence

You can check out my short story on YouTube.

All photos are my own photos of photos in the Penguin edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

5 Reasons Why Christopher Marlowe is an Elizabethan Hipster Poet

Bonus: Reason #6 is he already has the requisite mustache. All he needs are the glasses.
Bonus: He grew hipster moustaches literally centuries before they were trendy.

Elizabethan England’s most celebrated poet and playwright, in underground kind of way, was Christopher Marlowe, although he was soon eclipsed by Mr. Will Shakespeare, whose popular plays would define the mainstream for centuries to come. It was the 90s. The 1590s to be precise. Marlowe was at the height of his powers, writing the politically subversive and experimental poetry that would come to define his generation. Doctor Faustus, for instance, would stand the test of centuries as a profound representation of Renaissance humanism.

Many have tried to label Marlowe. Attaining his MA at Cambridge, he was a member of a generation of college wits. The civil service was not large enough to accommodate the young poets of London, so they turned to more edgy professions, like poetry.

Poet, playwright, spy, homosexual, Catholic, atheist: even if the labels didn’t make any sense, they stuck. Marlowe’s response? Haters gonna hate.

Here are five reasons why Marlowe was basically a hipster:

1. He avoided all labels.

Although Edward II depicts the homosexual relationship between a king and his favourite courtier (fun fact: Edward II is Longshanks’ son in Braveheart), Marlowe cannot be outed of the closet based on textual evidence alone. In a similar way, scholars have argued about whether Doctor Faustus celebrates or a condemns Renaissance humanism and the pursuit of scientific knowledge–they have to settle on seeing the play as expressing a paradox. Neither can they determine with absolute certainty whether he was an atheist, or for that matter, a closet Catholic. You can’t pin Marlowe down or place him in any particular intellectual camp–being classified would make him way too mainstream.

2. He was over-educated and underemployed.

Sound familiar? Like a certain generation of young, college- and university-aged people today (such as yours truly), he had no money unless he sought patronage. Furthermore, his education in classical literature went nowhere towards finding him a job. He couldn’t just be a cobbler like his father, Mr. John Marlowe. Way too mainstream. Instead, the only way Marlowe was able to get his MA was by serving in Her Majesty’s Secret Service–such as it existed back then. Marlowe was sent to France to spy on Catholics for Elizabeth I, or at least that’s what scholars have argued. If only that was all you had to do today: become James Bond for a while and then bang! your degree is conferred, your tuition paid. (I’ll stop dreaming about it now.)

3. He was into retro.

Marlowe painstakingly tried to bring back the first-century Roman poet Ovid. Although he was not alone in reviving interest in Ovid’s poetry, most people came to know Ovid only in grammar school textbooks. Marlowe remixed a collection of Ovid’s poems, the Elegies, by translating them into English verse. Then he brought Ovid to popular audiences by writing highly pretentious  allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses into his plays. I don’t suppose you’d understand the reference, but…

4. He was unappreciated as an artist for centuries.

Marlowe’s art was so ahead of his time that his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers devalued him as only a necessary precursor to the Bard–John the Baptist to Shakespeare’s Christ. Well, the Romantics reappraised him after almost 200 years and his works, which explore tyranny and the dark side of politics, had new resonance in the twentieth century. Like Vincent Van Gogh, the archetypical unappreciated artist, the genius in Marlowe only became relevant after his death.

5. He wrote in blank verse before it was cool.

Rhymes were way too fashionable. Not to mention, they were just distasteful. I mean really. His contemporaries were infatuated with couplets, Spenserian stanzas, and rime royal. Marlowe was one of the first to realize that rhymes were overrated. Iambic pentameter blank verse in English, so characteristic of Shakespeare’s great dramatic speeches, was actually pioneered by his more underground predecessor. Unfortunately, Shakespeare is given all the cred for this. What everyone should come to realize is that Marlowe was not some kind of mindless trend follower; he started one of the greatest poetic trends in English literature, thank you very much.

 

Elegant Eliminations

An elimination is a poetic form where you don’t write the words. You erase them.

Take any stanza or paragraph with a rich, evocative vocabulary. I for example chose a few pages from James Frazer’s classic work of anthropology The Golden Bough. Any other kind of text can fit just as well as any other–the crazier or more meaningful, the better. Take something written by your favourite author or poet, or even an ad, if the text is to your liking. Any well-textured bit of literature you can find.

Either mentally or with a writing stylus–pen or pencil–underline individual words and punctuation marks. In order, write each underlined word down on a separate paper or another document file. You may also–if you so wish–take the via negativa: scratch out the words you don’t need.

See, you are now constructing a parallel text that has been buried within the original. You are using the author’s own words to construct your expression. This is called an elimination.

An elimination is a great way to break your inertia if you have writer’s block. It is also a fascinating exercise in how you can wittily reshape what someone else has said to fit your own agenda. Maybe this is as close a poet ever comes to becoming a politician.

Here you can find my own elimination of the first page of The Golden Bough, an epic of classical anthropology. I have reproduced the first two paragraphs of text of Frazer’s work for the purposes of demonstration:

WHO does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is[in] a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi—“Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. The two characteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palace whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break  the stillness and even the solitariness of the scene. Diana herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.
.
In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. On the northern shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on which the modern village of Nemi is perched, stood the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Wood. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. But the town of Aricia (the modern La Riccia) was situated about three miles off, at the foot of the Alban Mount, and separated by a steep descent from the lake, which lies in a small crater-like hollow on the mountain side. In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried[s] a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at
every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.”
Notice that I occasionally fix the tense of some verbs and make adjustments to minor words like ‘in.’ This is all I’ve allowed myself. Aside from a few added commas, every word and punctuation mark is in the same order as Frazer wrote it:
 .
.
Golden Bough Elimination: King of the Wood”
.

Know the scene. The golden imagination

steeped in a dream-like woodland lake.

Ancients in a green hollow forget characteristic

terraced gardens, break solitariness, linger, still haunt

this sylvan landscape. Tragedy on the lake

under the cliffs, perched. Sacred Diana of the town,

at the foot of the lake. On a certain time of day,

a grim figure carries a sword, and, warily,

a priest and a murderer

hold office till slain.

.

I have been a bit cowardly in my use of the form; I have transplanted many of Frazer’s original phrases into my own poem. The best eliminations carry the spirit of the primary text to an extent, but spin the author’s own words into entirely new, unlikely directions. The result is an uncanny effect where the author speaks vicariously through you. You can can link words together that the author has thought best to keep apart, in order to find mysterious hidden meanings; manipulate language to make the author’s words disagree with him- or herself; or, take the words of a prophet and spin them into something wild.

A poet may choose to hide their source text from the reader, although in my case, I chose not to, since I wanted readers to feel the significance that The Golden Bough might have for them.

I find that this technique is most visible in its effects when the text itself is well-known, like the first page of Moby-Dick or Hamlet’s soliloquy. Try eliminating a famous text such as these as an exercise.

Eliminations are like the excavation of a hidden message in the sands of language. They’re especially uncanny when you eliminate the words of a well-known historical figure, written during a particular, defining historical moment. What happens when you cut out words from Herodotus? From Martin Luther’s Theses? From Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? The past can speak with a new voice to us, even though, paradoxically, it uses the same words as it has always used. In a way, eliminations have the potential to construct strange ‘historical fantasies,’ alternate realities where the words of history and literature stand in the same order but are changed in their very substance into new meanings and forms–with a few simple nicks of a pen.

J.M.W. Turner's depiction of the Golden Bough incident in the Aeneid
J.M.W. Turner’s depiction of the Golden Bough incident in the Aeneid

Photo Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Golden_bough.jpg

Poetry Launch at the Veg!

The semester is just about over and it’s time for some poetry! The Veg, one of McGill’s student literary magazines, is holding a launch later tonight at 8:00pm at Le Cagibi, where I will be reading a selection of poems including my haiku. I will be running a fuller post next week describing the event in detail, along with yesterday’s launch of Scrivener Creative Review’s Fall 2014 online edition.

In the meanwhile, for this week, I leave you with this session of the program Radio is Dead on CKUT 90.3 FM, a Montreal/McGill campus community radio station. I gave a reading on air and was interviewed by Clara Lagacé. Another interviewee, Julia Isler, is in my seminar on Canadian Modernism with Professor Brian Trehearne.

You can click here in order to download the show. Simply click the Monday November 24, 2014 airing of Radio is Dead. You can stream in online, or download it, if you have iTunes.

CKUT
The CKUT desk. (I’m on the right.)

 

 

Rawi Hage and What his Work Means to Me

Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads
Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads.

I counted it a significant turn of good fortune that I had just finished reading Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach when it almost won this year’s Canada Reads competition (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda took first prize). It took me 5 years to get around to reading it.

Nonetheless, this author—whose book I am reviewing Friday—has had a mythic impact on me, a presence in my life that grew during those 5 years. Allow me to explain.

In 2009, there was an event at Concordia University called “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage.” I was still halfway though the Liberal Arts program at Dawson College and I received a ticket from my mother, who is an alumnus. I had only read DeNiro’s Game, Hage’s electrifying first novel, but I still relished the opportunity to hear him interviewed. It was there I received a signed copy of Cockroach for my mother.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage
Cockroach by Rawi Hage

To the editor mom, Hage scrawled on the title page, after I told him she had been reading over my unpublished novel Battles of Rofp. I was there with my dad, and we got the book as a gift of thanks to her, since she couldn’t attend the evening event. I placed DeNiro’s Game, which he also signed, on my bookshelf as a talisman, my hope to aspire to become a better writer.

Hage is a photographer and graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program. DeNiro’s Game was his thesis. I have spent 5 years of my life yearning to study in that same program, to write my own thesis, have it published, and then maybe participate in my own little “Up Close and Personal with Matthew Rettino.”

I tried once in 2010, but failed, and entered McGill’s English literature program. After I graduated from the Honours program, I tried again in 2013 and by March 2014, this month, I have received the committee’s response. I was rejected for the second time from this program. Though this rejection makes me bitterly disappointed, it is a sign that my path to success will simply not be identical to Rawi Hage’s route. We are, after all, vastly different writers.

Concordia’s creative writing professors, for one, are in the “literary fiction” stream of writing style, rather than “literary fantasy,” which is what I was aspiring to learn to write. ‘Tis the age-old difference between literary fiction and genre, a distinction that really comes down to why people write what they write.

Literary writers write for themselves, for their characters, in an attempt to learn more about human nature and themselves. Genre writers, while they might explore character and the human condtion, write chiefly because an idea for a plot seizes them, or a situation fascinates them. Naturally, literary fiction tends to be dominated by characters, subjectivism, and interiority, whereas genre tends to rely on plot and story.

I write because a crazy or fascinating idea or situation grabs my attention and compels me to write the story. This tends to set me on the path towards genre fiction. Generally, I do not see a person on a bus and think that this or that character would be fascinating to write about, as some literary fiction writers do.

Partly, I suspect this tendency is related to my high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, which sets up a wall in front of my ability to relate to other people easily. Since character is less of a natural thing for me to think about than plot ideas, I have this tendency towards genre, and a weakness in my writing towards character, voice and dialogue. Description and plot remain my strong points.

One way to overcome the negative effects of my Asperger’s is to introduce literary modes into my fantasy writing, to pay more attention to character and personality. Bridging the genre divide can thus be tied to my own attempts to break out socially with others—and therefore the very existence of this blog.

Rawi Hage’s literary fiction would appear at first to be as vastly different from my own, as the moon is from the sun. However, here is where Hage gets interesting.

His novels, Cockroach and DeNiro’s Game, are remarkable precisely because they fuse the plot of a thriller with the wit and reflection of a literary novel. Perhaps it is no mistake that DeNiro’s Game was the first novel of literary fiction I ever read for pleasure outside of school, and a model I looked up to afterwards. Cockroach even has elements of fantasy to smooth it all over!

If literary fiction can get away with a strong plot in a capable writer’s hands, then there is no reason a fantasy writer cannot write a work of “literary fantasy” fiction. Rawi Hage confirms this hypothesis from the literary fiction perspective just as much as a writer like Guy Gavriel Kay or Charles de Lint can.

What, then, is this fantasy that is at work in Cockroach?

Rawi Hage’s Middle-Eastern immigrant protagonist has a complex around women, which causes him to imagine himself becoming a cockroach. The metamorphosis is Kafkasque, but as Hage mentioned during his interview, it would be eurocentric to ignore the symbolism of cockroaches in other sources, such as Arabic fable books.

Cockroach is the radical story of an uncompromising thief who roots out the hypocrisies in Montreal immigrant society. His work is as literary as Dostoyevsky and as suspenseful as the most page-turning thriller—and it bears the occasional resemblance to the movie Taxi Driver staring—of course—Robert DeNiro.

Continuing on Friday, I shall tell you more about this brilliant book.

deniro
Robert DeNiro: an inspiration for Rawi Hage?

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Photo Credits:

Canada Reads: http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2013/12/samantha-bee-and-rawi-hage-talk-canada-reads.html

DeNiro: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxi_Driver

“Anticlimax”

My most recent poem to be published was printed in Read this Dammit!‘s January edition: “Janus: God of the Gateways.” You can pick up a copy on McGill campus in the news racks in the Leacock Building or at the MacLennan Library. I am quite happy that I was able to read it at the Paper’s Edge Coffee House at Burritoville last Friday. I was also able to read scene 1 of my novel,  in which I feel quite confident. For your reading pleasure, here it my poem. Sorry if it’s a bit of a let down. It should speak to everyone who has ever raised his or her hopes too far for nothing, whether for a material pleasure or a relationship.

Remember my previous poem “I See You Too?” This one takes a similar but different angle.

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Anticlimax”

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I feel

there should be greater

harmony in the spheres

now that I have you.

Or that my neurons would

have spilled endorphins

to swell me with pleasures

now inexplicable.

           But you sit there an object

           idle and gilt, shallow

           as a French courtier. Well.

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French courtier 2
A French courtier dressed in the latest Parisian fashion of his time. Can’t you just sense the depth of this guy’s soul? Probably goes about his deep as his pantyhose.

French courtier 1
Another eighteenth-century French courtier. Ta-daa! Cricket cricket.

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Picture Credits:

Courtier 1: http://www.art.com/products/p4091119739-sa-i4723321/french-courtier.htm

Courtier 2: http://blog.ut.ee/tartu-student-fashion-through-time/

13 Things I Learned Writing My First Novel: Battles of Rofp

I hope you all had a merry Christmas. Now, while you’re still warm with Christmas feeling (perhaps you are snug by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, or a drink of rum and eggnog, experiencing a similar but not altogether identical feeling of warmth) let me take you down to Memory Lane to see the Ghost of Matthew Rettino Past. I have finished my undergraduate degree now, sporting a valiant BA in Honours English, and have become an expert on Guy Gavriel Kay. Suffice it so say, I have grown as a writer since I finished my first serious novel in Summer 2010.  How much you say? Well, lad, let me tell you.

Here are 13 things I learned while writing Battles of Rofp. I’m sure many fantasy authors have a Battles of Rofp somewhere in their past. For me, it was a 470-page secondary-world epic fantasy that took a rough understanding of J.R.R.Tolkien as my starting point, though I borrowed liberally from Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance series, which I devoured in High School, and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (you’ll remember Eragon).

I had not written all the short stories that authors advise you should write before tackling a massive-sized novel. I just dove straight in, not knowing where I was going. It was the equivalent of learning wilderness survival without a guide, learning how to hunt the beasts and build shelter helter-skelter, by instinct. I began in Sec 1 when I was 13 and I ended just about three years ago now. My literary influences have diversified since then and I have simply become a better writer. I look back upon these years as an example of the primal literature of angst-ridden adolescence, a somewhat “barbaric” age in my career. Nevertheless, I believe I have derived a series of lessons from the experience, which I believe I can offer my devoted followers.

These are not rules. They are not even guidelines. They are simply lessons learned the hard way. If you find them helpful, do not feel constrained by them.

The front cover to my self-published novel Battles of Rofp. I drew the dragon and the swords, but not the horse and rider.
The front cover to my novel Battles of Rofp. The novel was not self-published exactly, simply printed and sent to family and friends. I drew the dragon and the swords, but not the horse and rider. My father helped with the colouration and layout.

1. Choose names that people can pronounce.

Yes, include a pronunciation guide as back matter to your self-published novel. But that still won’t help your relatives from mispronouncing the title of your book. Do you think you know how to pronounce “Rofp?” Think again. You wouldn’t be able move your tongue the right way. It’s the “fp” that gets everyone. Somehow, people tend to roll it out into an “l”: “Rolfph.” This is not even the worse example of complicated pronunciation in fantasy. For example, anything that looks Welsh or has apostrophes is bound to be hard to read. But these challenges can be overcome.

2. Keep mechanics simple

I’m talking about your usual fantasy fare: secret keys, prophecies, hidden manuscripts, sacred stones, holy swords and the like–whatever clues or unique talismans your hero needs to defeat the archvillain. I had a prophecy, a clay tablet, four sacred swords, and a curse in my story, which took a rather long time to sort through. Oh yeah, and my villain Volkon, who is an immortal skeleton demon with his rib cage on fire, could only be harmed by one sword, owned by an undead king. This sword could only be used by that king’s present-day heir, and only if he collected the four aforementioned swords in a holy shrine to summon the dead to life. But if I had kept only the one sword, things might have been simpler.

The Grand Library of Aledria: the location of the clay tablet that reveals the destiny of the Heir
The Grand Library of Aledria: the location of the clay tablet that reveals the destiny of the Heir.

3. A band of companions must have good reasons to stick together.

Three men, two dwarves, and an elf formed my group of companions. Roy is a squire aspiring to the knighthood when Gramrige, saves him from a goblin massacre in his hometown of Ebrook. On the way to Thull, the underground dwarven city, they encounter the homesick stonemason Gourd. The other members were Prince Adrugun, the angst-ridden heir to a great kingdom, Vileros, the Grand Master of the knightly order of the Riders of Rofp, and Guillonius, a dwarven fireball bent on revenge.

How are they connected? Somehow.

It is a hard trick to keep a diverse group motivated to risk their lives fighting dragons. If your characters were friends from an earlier time in the book, however, you have rapport and history between your characters. The companions will care about each other. That can serve as glue.

4. Do not be afraid to rewrite scenes.

We rarely get it right the first time. Are you a writer or not? If so, then you cannot be afraid to rebuild. On the novel I’m working on now, I have a rough draft, but I’m going over each scene, sometimes rewriting whole scenes (though not necessarily re-imagining them entirely). Rewrites let you add depth, to hit all the notes you wanted to hit on your first pass.

5. Do not jump straight into line editing.

NEVER waste time line editing after a first draft. That stuff’s raw and straight out of your unconscious. Chances are the story itself needs work, if not a complete overhaul. Line editing comes at least after draft #2. When the story itself is as it should be and all the scenes are in place, consistencies smoothed out, then you can get out the red pen and go line-by-line. For example, I will aim to cut 10-15% of my word count for my present novel.

Do not make your manuscript a battle on a wall battlement with a troll. Do not line edit your initial draft!
Would you jump straight into a fray with a troll on a battlement catwalk? No? Then don’t line edit your initial draft either!

6. Exposition is used best when the hero is in conflict.

I realized this early on. When writing fantasy, it’s probably one of the first things you learn. Roy initially thought goblins and shapeshifters were myths, despite Gramrige’s warning that they were going to attack his city. Then he had to fight through mobs of the creatures during a wholesale massacre of his city’ inhabitants. Between the physical conflict of the attack and the personal conflict between Roy’s disbelief and Gramrige’s urgency, I managed to slip it quite a bit of backstory. Lace all exposition with tension and you can smooth it right over.

Gramrige and Roy at the Horsehead Tavern at Ebrook
Gramrige and Roy at the Horsehead Tavern at Ebrook. Image has been colourized from b+w original.

7. Ensure your protagonist has a distinct personality.

It’s easy to make protagonists have slight flaws, but be heroic enough to conquer his or her foes. It’s probably because we would like to be our protagonists. But flaws should be harder, sharper. They are really what makes character. I thought Roy had a distinct personality, but it was difficult for me to bring out his own idiosyncratic reactions to events in the book, to see that personality on the page. I always vouched for him to perform the “heroic” feat, if given a moral dilemma. He was not really flesh to me, more like an ideal.

8. Be careful that secondary characters do not steal the show.

Adrugun, the angst-ridden Prince of Theomina,  becomes engaged in a romantic partnership with a elven woman named Virida. This happened at that soggy point in the middle of the book, where the plot starts to run out of steam. Brilliant move in one respect: adding interest at the low point of the novel. However, I was leaving Roy abandoned by the reader’s interest. The story became more and more about Virida and Adrugun and less about Roy. If your tale revolves heavily around one character, it is best to keep readers primarily interested in that character, instead of upstaging them. Other characters can have their time in the spotlight, but for Battles of Rofp, I felt as though Roy needed to be more central.

9. Diction may be the most important part of writing “epic fantasy.”

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a wonderful essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which explains this point amply enough. Tolkien’s characters speak nobly, like Shakespeare without the Elizabethan conceits. Bad epic fantasy sounds like CSI:Miami or even The West Wing: whether you believe these are good or bad American TV shows, elves do not talk like twenty-first century Americans! Keep the diction measured and formal–but don’t overdo it, otherwise you have impenetrable over-stylized prose, another whole problem. (Oh, and neither do elves speak like twenty-first century Canadians–eh?)

Crice the Diviner, a seeress who lives in Shife. She is immortal and performed the prophecy of the Heir long ago.
Crice the Diviner, a seeress who lives in Shife. She is immortal and performed the prophecy of the Heir long ago.

10. In writing any story, there comes a point where you can’t go back.

If I could go back and rewrite Battles of Rofp, I would not. This is not because I am overconfident in my abilities as a writer–perhaps you can tell from all this self-criticism that I am not–but because I want to move on. At a certain point with every story, you put in a certain number of hours and pass the “never return” point. The story is what it is and all the labour in the world can’t fix it without you having to completely rewrite it. And if you do that, why not just write a new story instead of trying to reformulate a story that’s already failed? Some story ideas are so simple that they cannot sustain even a short story. Battles of Rofp was more complicated, but it was conceived by a thirteen-year-old me, so when I turned 20, I knew it had to end. There were other worlds to explore.

11. You will have a hard time framing a cliched pitch even if, in the book, you take great strides to evade it.

Battles of Rofp‘s plot was the cliche of epic fantasy, although I will maintain it to the death that it was more original than The Sword of Shannara. A squire’s hometown is attacked by goblins. Then he discovers he is the heir to an ancient warrior of a famous knightly order, destined one day to fight the greatest evil of the age. So he goes hunting dragons across the land, collecting the four sacred swords that will be able to summon a power to defeat this evil. It had Legend of Zelda, Eragon, and The Lord of the Rings written all over it.

Yet, on the micro-level, I tried to be unconventional. Dwarves had names inspired by the Russian language. The kingdom of Theomina was divided into names that sounded Roman and names that sounded Semitic. The Phoenix Tribe, lone defenders of Theomina, were the only civilization in Rofp to use gunpowder. The Tongues of Shadow stretched from the sky like darkened tentacles wherever evil strikes, scooping up the souls of the dead in order to devour them.

Wow! Too bad the plot of my story overall still read like THE cliche of all epic fantasy! I should have demonstrated my creativity by coming up with unique plot points first. Then my synopsis would have simply sounded better. Even if you want to rebel against the post-Tolkien epic fantasy genre, you cannot do so while working within a frame that replicates that cliche. At any rate, it is usually best to have one true idea that is yours and build a world around that.

12. Model yourself after authors that you think you can imitate, using them as springboards to pursue the higher laurels.

The poet Petrarch uses the laurel branch, sacred to Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, as a symbol for his poetic aspirations. He was referring with reverence to Ovid, who in his Metamorphoses describes how Apollo chases Daphne his beloved, who the gods turn into the laurel tree. Apollo then appropriates the laurel as his symbol. For centuries, new poets aspire to the laurels of old poets, new writers to the reputation of their forefathers.

One of the reasons I aspired to the laurels of Eragon was that it was imminently accessible: it was written by someone who was my age when he wrote it! I took Paolini as my model. Alas, there are many Paolini-haters on the web. I will defend him this far: he had to finish a series he started when he was quite young, his powers as an author limited by lack of experience. (The ending of Inheritance did not impress me, however.)

I claim it was important to take Paolini as a guide through the first primitive years of my writing career. It was important to have something to aspire to, someone accessible. If he could do this at his age, I thought, then I can do it at mine! I now take Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman, and the great poets of the Canadian tradition–all mature, accomplished and duly lauded authors–as my new models.

These new models are sublime, to inspire me to reach the highest boughs of Apollo’s laurel tree. And if I miss, I shall land upon the stars!

13. If you set your mind to something, anything is possible.

At base, I am still proud of Battles of Rofp. Not because it will win me the Giller Prize, or a Hugo. It’s because I wrote a 470-page epic fantasy novel by the time I left high school. Who else can claim to have done that? If you set your mind on something, then it doesn’t matter what, or who, gets in your way. Social life, family time, breathing, sleeping: none of it matters, if you have the heart to pursue your dreams. But seriously folks, balance in life is crucial. If you can play the trick, stick to your dreams while supporting our livelihood, you will have battled a fierce dragon indeed.

Now because balance in life is important and I’m afraid I’ve written another monster post, I must retire. Fare thee well! See thee in the New Year MMXIV!

My map. Home drawn, taken Paolini's map of Alegaesia as technical inspiration. Actually, I first drew the land long before I read that book, back in 2003.
My map. Home drawn. For inspiration as to pencil technique, I looked closely at Paolini’s map from Eragon. I actually first drew the land in 2003, long before I read that book. Feel free to explore this secondary world!