Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Writing: Expectation Vs Reality…

I was having a sort out in my room the other day, in the aftermath of nanowrimo and all, and I found something I wanted to share with you all. I don’t … I don’t really know what the lesson is here, but I suppose if we go through it all together, maybe we can figure it out?

So I found my first notebook from way back in the very beginning, at the point when I decided I’d quite like to write the series. Wow, that was a long time ago now…

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Anyway, I dug it out and I sort of wanted to share it with you? As you can see, it’s a bit battered and it’s definitely stuffed to bursting! I carried it around with me on the ride to and from work, which I bring up because the writing’s weirdly neat for me and my bus-writing!

It wasn’t anything ground-breakingly original, nor anything very complex in it’s conception either. It was essentially just a collection of pictures I’d found online (me having no artistic talent whatsoever and thus being incapable of drawing my own) that vaguely fitted either the general vibe of the stories I was looking for, or an effort to try and get a fix on what I thought various characters looked like, how they acted, what their backstories were, all that jazz…

I started work on it initially, if I remember rightly, because I had some many images and ideas and little fragments and flashes of inspiration floating around in my head and I wanted to tie some of it down in one place. I wanted to see what the common threads where, what my imagination was driving at, and having it all down in hard copy in front of me was very useful in that regard.

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At first it was all pretty well-organised; just a few notes, some snatches of Old English and translations, the odd place-name I’d decided on…

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But after a while, things got a little out of hand! Even the notes were trying to escape the confines of the notebook!

One of the more interesting things about having a ratch through this old thing, after several years of it being tucked away safely in a box, has been seeing what ideas I have kept largely unchanged since the very start of this whole endeavour and what has changed, sometimes quite radically!

Whole character arches have been completely altered and swept away, whole others have only had small additions or subtractions made. Sometimes I’ve even stumbled over characters I came up with way back when which I’d since forgotten about entirely, only to realise I’d been trying to recreate them from scratch because my stories still needed them! Talk about inadvertently reinventing the wheel!

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I suppose the big question is: Was all this cutting and sticking worth it? Well…

I feel that it would be dishonest to say that this has been a practice I’ve continued into my writing endeavours today. Just as an example, this is what my current notebook looks like!

I know, glamorous, isn’t it?

And you might be thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, but surely that’s just the outside, right? It’ll be full of pretty pictures on the inside, naturally!’

Nope! ‘Fraid not!

(Sorry Mam, I know my handwriting’s … distinctive!)

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It’s not pretty, but it works!

But that doesn’t mean that all that work on the old notebook was wasted effort.

For some people, I understand that world-building is quite literally the process of building a whole world from the ground up and then populating it with characters to explore it. For others it’s a case of having a bunch of characters and needing to build a world for them to fit inside of. For yet others (and I realise this might not be how most people think of world-building, but I reckon it still counts) the whole thing starts with the story and they build the world and the characters as necessary for the story to take place.

But none of those broad models works for me at all…

The beginning of my writing journey was a mess of origin stories for people I didn’t know would be main characters (and indeed rather suspected would not!), a single clear crystalline image of three wildly different castles, some flashes of scenes in no particular order, and a smattering of world-mechanics for travel and magic and culture. And through of of this, the certainty that it would all fit together perfectly if I could only find a way to fill in the blank bits!

Filling up a notebook like this was a helpful first step towards filling in those gaps. Getting down everything I knew I knew, not worrying about what order I knew things, not worrying about whether I was being wildly different to everyone else, just pushing all that swirling mess inside my head out onto paper and making space for carrying new ideas… It helped me feel like I was getting somewhere, even if – in the strictest of writing senses – I was doing no such thing!

Come the New Year, I think I’ll be dipping into the old notebook a bit more and sharing some choice chunks with you all! Some ideas that sounded good in principle but just didn’t quite stick the landing, some characters I realised I hated already and they hadn’t even made it through the story yet, and one huge integral feature of world-building that made it through several drafts before I realised I’d almost created a monster I couldn’t make myself stand behind.

After all, if we don’t share out mistakes, other people have to go and make them for themselves, don’t they?

Have any of you found old notebooks lurking long after you’d finished with them? Did you find buried treasure or ghouls best left forgotten?

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation, Nanowrimo

Nano-Wrangle: Week 3

Well, folks, we began Week 3 with me thoroughly paying for running myself into the ground last week. Seriously kids, don’t push yourselves so hard, it never works out in the long run, and one day I shall learn to practice this instead of constantly ending up as the demonstration model in why we keep teaching it…

So yes, writing while battling through the migraine brought on by exhaustion and far too many far too late nights? Not fun. Don’t be like me, kids.

Nano - buddy2Something I forgot to tell you all last week was that I now not only have one nano-buddy, but two! Yes, another mutual friend heard us chatting about it and has bravely undertaken Nano this year as well. To both of them go the full credit for encouraging me to stop beating myself up about my writing and actually make time to sleep, and for this I cannot thank them enough. We often talk about writing buddies as people who encourage us to keep writing and finding inspiration, but I feel that we must also give them the credit they deserve for encouraging us to take care of ourselves and stop undermining ourselves. Thank you both so much!

So writing progress this week has been… mixed.

Nano - week 3

Very mixed.

It’s fine, I managed to get at least a little bit of writing done every day, so that’s good, and at this point I’m just aiming for being comfortable in my writing rather than giving myself grief for not churning out a consistent amount every day.

Speaking of things which are different from last week – and indeed speaking of things that I’m not beating myself up for anymore! – I’ve also relaxed a bit on only having one Nano project on the go.

Some things you only learn about yourself the hard way, I suppose, and one thing I have most certainly learned over the course of this month is that I do not deal well with only having one writing project on hand. I’d previously assumed that my tendency to have upt o five stories running through my head at a time was some form of procrastiation, where I hid from difficult bits. And you know, maybe it is? But to steal one of my favourite character descriptions from John Le Carré for a second, I have “a mind like the back of an envelope” and I seem to be far more productive when I hop between stories whenever I have a brainwave or feel in the mood for a different tone of story, than I am when I force myself to keep staring at the same story every day and wind up hating the very idea of it. Or worse, the mental toll it takes on you when you do give in and work on a different story for a while, and then spend that time feeling bad because you’re working on ‘the wrong story’ all the time.

You shouldn’t hate your own stories while you’re writing them after all. That’s what editing is for…

(Thank you again to Icklespan and lsilverlock for helping me reach this realisation and showing me that it’s not a bad thing to have multiple stories to tell!)

If you are like me and need to have a few things on the go at once, and you want to do Nanowrimo and thus need to keep track of your word count, this is my Top Tip:

Nano Word Counting

Have a random unsaved and untitled document open and keep copying and pasting your words and paragraphs into it as you write. No order, no worrying about paragraph breaks if they don’t copy over, no nothing. You’re not keeping this, after all, all you’re going to do is delete it all at the end of the session. All you need is for all the words to be in there at the end of the session or day of writing. Then just note your number down and enter it in! It will save you the headache of needing to juggle a lot of different numbers and you’ll get that nice sense of accomplishment in seeing all your hard work in one place.

This also helps me when I’m back filling parts of a story too; if I’ve had several chapters or sections in a story and I’ve known the start of every one of them, then I can get all that down, then go back and work out how each section progressed from that flash of inspiration.

And I’m happy to say that the results have certainly paid off because instead of just sort of enduring Nano for the sake of feeling like a ‘real writer’, I’ve relaxed a lot and had a bit more fun and a sense of progress. With the additional reward of another badge!

Nano badge - 7 days update

Now, in terms of the main Nano project, i.e. The Book, we have hit a bit of a – what do they call these in workshops and things? Oh yes – a learning opportunity/experience. So I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been struggling so much with large chunks of the book, because it can’t all be due to the foolishness of trying to write the book 18 months after I wrote the plan. (Don’t do this to yourselves, kids! Don’t be like me and get scared of your own story…)

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 2Anyway, what I realised eventually was that for all that I knew how the story was going to go, I’d competely lost sight of my fairy characters. (If you’ve been here for a while, you might remember me talking about creating them back in the day, but if not, here’s Part 1 of 3) Like … I’ve completely lost them. All the stuff I need to know in order to write conversations: how do they talk, how do they address each other, what gestures do they make, which of them is a pacer and which of them sits perfectly still and barely blinks? All those things? Not a sodding clue!

Thankfully, that detailed plan continues to be useful, because I could sit down with it and highlight all of the scenes which are just the humans doign things and I’ve been concentrating on that. It’s avery disjointed way to write a book, I’m not entirely sure I like it the longer I do it, but at the very least it means that I am still writing something for the book rather than sitting there feeling lost and stranded in Chapter 2…

So yes, progress is being made, but not always in the way I was hoping for. But all progress in our creative endeavours is worth celebrating and cliched as it is, sometimes the most valuable thing really is the lessons you learn along the way!

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How’s everyone else’s Nano going? Does anyone have any tips, especially for conversations? But also just generally anything helpful you’ve discovered during Nano this year that you want to share, do leave them in the comments below!

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Ideas for Extras; Real-Life Shakespeare!

I’m very fortunate in my work, as I don’t just scribble away randomly on my own, I have a lot of friends who write in various genres and mediums too. And one of the things that we all agree is a lot harder to do than you expect is the writing of interesting and entertaining ‘extras.’

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 1You know, the tiny bit characters that may or may not even have a speaking line in your story, but need to be there so that your story doesn’t give the impression of taking place in massive empty halls? They might not ever do anything especially vital to the plot, but they help flesh out the world you’ve created and give a bit of colour and life to your story’s surroundings.

Of course, they can certainly do more than that. Shakespeare’s plays always have a little recurring cast of extras in the background, and while they serve the practical purpose of giving the principal actors a bit of breathing space to chance costumes or allow the stage hands to move scenery around a bit, they can also serve more thematic purposes. They can bring comic relief, yes, or deliver small but important messages, sure, but they can also reflect or satirise the actions of the principal cast and bring out extra nuances too.

They may even give a sense of stakes to whatever your crisis is too; when everything goes to hell in Harry Potter and Diagon Alley is affected, the best way J.K. Rowling could illustrate that was to say that Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour has closed because Fortescue has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. As readers, we knew exactly who Florean Forescue was, how he let Harry sit in his shop for hours and do his homework, how he would help him out with the answers. He wasn’t a major character, and he never affected the plot in any large or small way, but we knew him and were fond of him and his loss is real and tangible because of this.

The downside of these characters: they can be surprisingly hard to create!Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 3

I mean, it could just be me, but whenever I sit down to make some up I either put too much thought into them or too little. Too much effort and they end up trying to become main characters in places which have absolutely no need for them; ending up like the awkward creepers at a party constantly trying to slide into conversations no one wants them in and blissfully unaware that they have nothing interesting to say, and refusing to just go away. Too little effort and they never look the same twice and they just hover around not really doing anything; ending up like very badly written NPCs in a video game, standing stock-still in the back of the shot and very occasionally blurting out an odd out-of-context sentence or two.

Well, sometimes – gloriously – real life comes to the rescue with a bit of inspiration and just as I will doubtless benefit from this in future when having something for my background characters to do, so too did I want to share this with everyone.

So, on top of all the usual chaos that summer brings my workplace every year, we’ve been having building work done to the building I work in. It’s been … delightful. I’ve loved every crash and bang and clatter, and the days where I don’t have any windows in my office and there’s up to three men all standing on my window sill.

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It’s the plants’ scaffolding now, sorry. No take-backs allowed here!

And to give you an idea of how long we’ve had building work going on, this is their scaffolding right now (left).

Side Note: I’m kind of looking forward to the moment when they’re all done with replacing all the window frames, and they want their scaffolding back. Is it just me, and my slightly pagan concerns, or does anyone else think that they’re going to need to make some kind of bargain with the nature god that has gone and claimed the scaffolding frames as their rightful territory?

Anyway, for all the dust and the noise and the fact that my plants have all taken sick in protest to being showered with debris constantly, one thing has at least 70% made up for it all: The workmen!

These fine gentlemen could absolute be their very own BBC sitcom, and I mean that entirely seriously. Obviously, I can give you no details about them; no names, photos, not the name of their firm. But let’s be honest, the complete lack of context here is only going to add to the charm!

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The ideal stage for our brave performers, no?

Here are some of the highlights that have come through my window from the past few months:

[During the initial building process] “Look, whatever ‘appens, those balls have gotta come off, remember.” Also, same day: “There’s no hat-wearing on d*cks!”(At the time, I was halfway through a Very Serious phonecall, and I think I actually bruised a rib while trying not to laugh down the phone, sure that I could never explain any of this…)

I was working and couldn’t transcribe, but at one stage one of the senior builders literally stood on one of the upper-levels of the scaffolding, while all the others stood on the ground looking up at him while he delivered a whole TED Talk the socialising involved in building up a pliant workforce, combining themes of supply-and-demand, wage-fixing and the allotment of free-time/holiday hours. I was in no doubt that he knew exactly what he was talking about, but for a spur-of-the-moment topic of conversation, he was extremely eloquent and prepared to share his wisdom. I definitely felt as if I was in one of those supporting/illustrating scenes from the film, in which the side-characters provide on the nose commentary on the actions of the villains/anti-heroes. Like, this was meant to show how the plot affects the world-building or something…

Ch.22 - So You Want To Draw A Map - Part 2[Accompanied by the sounds of frantic rummaging around inside a van] “I’m not 100% sure what I’m looking for, but when I see it I’ll know.” Honestly? Same, mate. Same. Not sure it’s what I wanted to hear while they built scaffolding, mind…

One entire morning of music-less karaoke. The greatest hits of Britney Spears, Beyoncé and the Spice Girls particularly stand out in my memory. Eventually I gave into the inevitable and played whatever was being sung out through my computer speakers to join in. If you can’t shut out the noise, own the noise, right? (In the on-going play that is my working life, I guess we were singing to drown out the noise of the scenery being changed? I assume so anyway…)

One day there was a concert going on in a neighbouring music hall and the sound is wafting straight across to us, though primarily only the more bass-like notes. It sounds like it’s something big and classically epic. What promptly ensued was amazing to behold: Picture, if you will, five grown men in hi-vis vests, shorts and hard hats – and basically nothing else because it was so hot! – engaged in a massive and extremely heated argument about what film’s soundtrack they recognise the music from. As is to be expected, the lack of clarity in hearing the music only adds to the confusion and also the vigour of the … debate. Insults to parentage, cultural education and film-viewing are thrown around in the midst of all the arm-waving and foot-stomping. A particularly choice quote that I will never forget remains: “It were from f*cking Amadeus, you tw*t!” The last time I saw people get this involved in a film-debate, they certainly weren’t scaling scaffolding like Les Mis actors at the time! Once again, I have to take the minutes of a meeting and pretend I can’t hear this happening right outside the window, and there’s a terrifying moment when I think that the academics I’m minuting will actually abandon their Very Serious meeting to join in through the windows. What even is real life anymore?Ch.21 Hide and Seek MacGuffins

On another, much calmer day, there was a Very Serious Indeed conference centring around Our Dave’s garden design choices. Apparently there was to be a pond and everyone’s thoughts needed to be contributed regarding it ideal placement and surroundings for full aesthetic appeal. The debate between ‘Natural Feature’ verses ‘More Modern, Like’ raged long into the day (with interruptions from work) and swayed frequently over into “What are you thinking of for the patio?! ‘Ave you not seen that rubbish they tried makin’ Mike’s out of?! Nah, mate, you need {unintelligible as I was printing at the time and therefore only vaguely listening.}” Dave’s brother was swayed in the end, I think. Certainly natural features was eventually judged to be the superior choice, as it will require less upkeep; a plus in the busy life of a working professional. I’m mildly convinced that the gardens at Kew had less planning and consultation involved in their making… Special highlight award going to the line “I ‘ate bloody topiary, if he sticks any of that in there, I’m setting it on fire!”

And finally, the day I all but screamed the place down as I carried my (full, naturally) mug of tea back to my desk while filing and listening to a favourite podcast, and then a body suddenly popped through my window to ask me what I was listening to and could he make a note of the link. I mean, I was happy to supply him with it, once I’d calmed down, but normally in order to appear through my window (unless you have feathers) you’d need a good ten feet of ladder, so this was not a Thing I’d prepared for at all!

Anyway, that’s enough random nonsense for today! Let me know if you’ve had a band of players in your life that would make excellent side-characters in the adventure novel of your life? I don’t know what story these fine gentlemen will be staring in yet, but they can only benefit whatever tale they do appear in, no?

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Redemption Arcs: Balancing the Books

BLACK WIDOW: It’s really not that complicated. I’ve got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.

LOKI: Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Drakoff’s daughter? Sao Paulo? The hospital fire? Barton told me everything.

The concept of ‘Redemption’ has always been tied in with the imagery of a debt being paid off. In the days of the Roman Empire, when the Christian Church was just starting to figure out what it believed in, the term was usually used in relation to the release of prisoners of war, or when securing the liberty of those who sold themselves into slavery, often to pay off a family debt.

Ch.18 - Balancing the Books

I should note at this point that the Christian Church’s message (or parts of it at least) around this time was all about how mankind no longer needed to pay its way out of damnation because Christ had paid that debt through his sacrifice. Saint Paul, when writing his letters to the Corinthians, argued at length that the death of Christ effectively freed all Christians from slavery to the laws of the Old Testament or to death, and into the freedom of Heaven, thus redeeming everyone in one fell swoop.

You were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Corinthians 6:20)

Also reiterated here: 

You were bought with a price; be ye not the servants of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23)

(To say that Saint Paul wrote some important letters is like saying that Alexander Hamilton had one or two things he wanted to get off his chest.)

Anyway, the idea’s still around that redemption for crimes should involve an element of cost, and I think that as a model of storytelling in particular, the model of someone earning their forgiveness is a really powerful and useful one. Partly because I think you can set yourself up for such a hard-sell if a character is forgiven their crimes without earning it in some way.

Yes, forgiveness is something we all want really badly at some point in our lives, but it’s really easy for your story to give the impression that you were just done with this plot-thread and had your character be simply forgiven as an excuse to never need to talk about those events again. Having a character undertake actions to earn forgiveness is just more powerful for a story and gives a better sense of there being a character arc, rather than simply an abrupt Thing happens, Forgiveness given, Done. Move On to Next Plot-Point.

The Wages of Sin

Ages and ages ago I found this thought on Tumblr and now that I have the perfect use for it, naturally, for the life of me I cannot find the name of the person who wrote it. Sorry, it’s another one of those quotes, guys…

Sin is expensive. Incredibly expensive. But the price isn’t paid in cash, it’s paid in mental, emotional, and spiritual pain… [God’s] anger towards lying, stealing, cheating, coveting, murder, jealousy, and pride is because all of these behaviours destroy relationships.

I don’t know why, but I found this quote to be really helpful in my writing. It’s a great way to crystallise, at least for me, what it is that a character is being redeemed for. Like, what is it that he’s making up for? He’s atoning for the pain and misery his actions have caused people, himself included maybe.

This harkens back to an earlier post in this series, because the actions of characters simply aren’t real in the way that emotions can be. I can care about a character’s tears and pain far more than I can ever bring myself to care that he’s lost his car, even if these two events are linked.

When plotting out any arc, but especially something like a redemption arc, or a hero’s fall, the first thing I do is make notes on the consequences of my character’s actions on his relationships with other characters. Not ‘and then he lost all his money’, or ‘and then he was lost in the woods’ sort of consequences. Rather, I think about things like ‘and then his mother realised that he’d been lying to her for months’ or ‘and then his benefactor had to suffer being arrested for fraud which he didn’t commit.’

Chances are that I won’t ever show those moments in the story at all. But the echoes of those scenes will be felt in the rest of the story, either when the character has to confront those relationships later on, or when a third character’s impressions of the main character are coloured already with the effects of his previous actions. I like to think it adds a sense of depth to the story, because things have clearly happened ‘off-stage’ as it were…

False Equivalency

ELIZABETH: Commodore, I really must protest. Pirate or not, this man saved my life.

NORRINGTON: One good deed is not enough to redeem a man of a lifetime of wickedness.

JACK SPARROW: Though it seems enough to condemn him.

NORRINGTON: Indeed.

So… So sometimes, we write things because of plot reasons and they could be taken as having unfortunate real-world applications. I feel like plotting out redemptions arcs has forced me to confront something that I’d sort-of known in the back of my mind for ages, but now have to actually acknowledge out loud.

Basically, if we’re thinking about redemption arcs in broad terms of: Guy does Bad Thing, Then He’s Sorry, Then He does Good Thing to make up for it; there’s a problem in here somewhere. Like, there’s this inherent idea that one good act cancels out a bad act or something.

And I don’t think that’s really true in real life so much, but I do have to acknowledge as a writer that, again Fiction isn’t Real Life, and that this is an inevitable feature of story structure and I’m not sure how easy it is to avoid all together.

Like, I have a friend who, when we talk about X-Men and the respective world-views and histories or Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, keeps equating the two men’s awful childhoods. And the thing is, I will argue until the sun goes down that Charles’s experiences of his father dying in a lab accident when he was young, and his mother losing herself inside her depression and addictions, and his step-father being a prat and his step-brother beating him up – those are all terrible and all. But Erik literally lost his entire family and his own identity in the actual Nazi Holocaust, and then lost his daughter to a French mob because she was the child of a Jewish-Romani marriage.

These things are not the same, is what I am saying.

But I do have to acknowledge that they do perform the same function within the story. They both show two men’s different reactions to learning early in life about the cruelty inherent in mankind and build them into the strong but very different men that they are in the X-Men stories.

I don’t really have anything else meaningful to add to this point; I just wanted to raise the matter and point out its inherent problems if not managed carefully.

In really bad amateur writing this can manifest somewhat hilariously as ‘I wasn’t hugged enough as a child and thus I shall burn the world down and kill all who stand in my way.’ Naturally that’s the kind of thing editing and beta-readers will tell you about (when they stop laughing at you) but it’s worth thinking about as you sit down and draft out a plot. Some things don’t really balance each other out.

Forced Restitution

SHYLOCK          I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak: 1720

I’ll have my bond; and therefore speak no more.

I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool,

To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield

To Christian intercessors. Follow not;

I’ll have no speaking: I will have my bond.

(Act III, 3, 1720-1726)

OK, so this was a major feature of redemption arcs in early Victorian novels, and we don’t do this anymore. I bring it up only because it really was a trend, and I believe all writers should be aware of what has gone before us. OK?

The trend, especially in Victorian women’s Gothic novels went as follows: a female character makes some terrible mistake; she elopes with a dreadful man, she jumps the gun on a relationship, she disobeys her parents, she distrusts a faithful lover, that sort of thing. Then she is punished for most of the rest of the story for this act by basically suffering, just all of the suffering, until the universe has extracted a toll, a figurative pound-of-flesh from her in recompense. Then when her character has been redeemed by all of this suffering, she is rewarded either with a good man to marry her and take her away from her terrible existence, or death. I mean, she goes to heaven and all, but she’s still dead.

Victor Hugo’s character from Les Miserables, Fantine, stands on these women’s shoulders. Her having a child outside of wedlock is indeed punished by her miserable life including dying as a prostitute, before becoming an angel-figure after death, but she is at least distinguished by Hugo’s Humanist approach to her. Yes, she suffers for a mistake, but Hugo’s writing of her does not frame this as justice, as the world working as it should do. Rather she is used to shown the suffering endured by the helpless, and the unfair way the world was working and why it has to be changed.

The difference is all in the attitude of the writer, and I suspect that his audience at the time would probably have been struck more by that than readers of today, who automatically assume that this is a terrible fate rather than her just desserts.

And this is why I thought it was important to write my post on why we are leaving morality out of this series first. Because I could talk to you about the moral implications of a view that bad things only happen to bad people and that anyone who is suffering must have done something to deserve it.

But I think as writers we need to focus instead on the fact that this is terrible writing right here!

Why?

Because it means that the character, who is presumably the protagonist, isn’t making any choices.

She hasn’t chosen a single thing about her plot-line, she’s just being taken along by the story and deposited at the end. And that’s just not compelling. It’s never compelling to watch characters get pulled around by the plot, it’s compelling when characters push the plot forwards through their actions and the choices behind them.

Like I said before, the trend died a well-deserved death as writing trends moved on, and I don’t think it will ever come back (please, let it never come back). But it’s still worth thinking about, if only to make sure to avoid this in your own writing.

Paying Your Debts

“A Lannister always pays his debts”

So, we’ve now established the model of redemption as a payment of debt, and that a character should really make a deliberate choice to repay that debt in some way. So: How should a character go about doing that?

Well, you will doubtless be utterly thrilled to read that answering this question is all on you, as a writer. Yep, no easy answers here.

I mean, a lot of how your character pays off the debt his has incurred through his actions will depend on what those actions were and what effect they had.

Did your character’s actions get a whole bunch of people killed? Then I’m not sure how he can make it up to those people, per se, but he could go on this long quest in which he tries really hard to save lots of other people, and maybe go out of his way to teach other rage-filled lost young men about the importance of peace? That would be interesting to play around with.

Did he ruin people’s lives financially, like Ebenezer Scrooge is implied to do, not for personal reasons, but as a matter of business? In which case a life of philanthropy is a pretty good answer to earning redemption. This one’s a bit of a favourite, as you’ll see next time, but that’s mostly because the crime isn’t financial greed, but a callus lack of care for others, which is solved by taking an interest in the world and people around you. The issue is one of attitude, not actions specifically.

What you’ve doubtless noticed is something of a theme. I like all the elements of my stories to join up and connect to each other in some way, and I feel that redemption arcs are much more compelling when the manner in which forgiveness is sought and earned is directly connected to the reason redemption is required.

This sort of brings us back to that point before about a false equivalency, because it’s much easier for readers to feel unconvinced by a redemption arc when the Bad Thing the character did is wiped out by a totally unconnected Good Thing. Like, um, if a character causes the death of the hero’s entire family, but it’s totally ok by the end because he went off to volunteer at a hospital for sick cats. Like, volunteering to help heal animals is nice and all, but what does that have to do with the crime of getting people killed?

Having said that, I should note that there’s a more tragic take on that issue that you can try out if you are feeling sufficiently sadistic as a writer.

Because sometimes you can set up a character’s actions in such a way there’s just no coming back from it. Maybe they let a small number of enemies into their fortified and besieged city, and then those few enemies let in a whole army and now the whole city is dead except for our main character. So if everyone’s dead, then there’s no one left to earn forgiveness from. There’s no one left alive to sit our character down and say ‘Enough. You’ve done enough. It’s OK now.’ Right?

So our character spends his whole life potentially trying to redeem himself for his crimes against people who are too dead to appreciate his actions, and it eats away at him, over and over. What he’s done and what the consequences were and how he feels that he can never make up for it, but he must keep trying anyway. That it must have all meant something in the end.

This sort of character arc can really only end when the character dies. There’s just no way for him to reach the end of the arc alive and not have the thing feel really awkward afterwards, but it could be really compelling because there’s still the uncertainty in the minds of the reader and the characters involved themselves, about whether it will ever be enough. Especially if you leave it open-ended.

Like the Susan Pevensie character arc, it will likely never feel really complete, but in a good way. It hurts to read, because as empathetic readers we too get uncomfortable with the idea that we might never know if the good we’ve done in the world outweighs all the bad. And we will likely never get the answers in this life-time.

 If you aren’t a horrible, sadistic writer though, remember to balance those books by the end!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Susan Pevensie: The Redemption Arc That Never Happened (Part 2)

This is the second of a two-part post, and I don’t expect that it will make any sense without having read Part 1 first…

Susan Pevensie Part 2

Growing Up or Growing Apart?

I hope that by now, you will see how Susan is established firmly in the books as an integral part of her family unit? I say this, because now we are going to look at how Susan becomes distanced from her siblings.

It’s easy to say that Susan does not reach Narnia in The Last Battle because she forgot about it, and while that is broadly correct, to think that way effectively robs Susan of her own agency in her life, which is a bit distasteful. Susan’s fall, should you think of it like that, is not a passive process, but rather a series of choices, such as we all make every day of our lives.

In literal terms, Susan does not reach the True Narnia, or the True England, with her siblings simply because she was not on the train which crashed. The Pevensies’ parents are never told about Narnia, do not visit it, and therefore do not need to believe in it, yet there they are:

Suddenly they shifted their eyes to another spot, and then Peter and Edmund and Lucy gasped with amazement and shouted out and began waving: for there they saw their own father and mother, waving back at them across the great, deep valley.

It is Susan who shatters her bonds with her family, who refuses to attend the Friends of Narnia meeting. But why would she do such a thing? As a general rule, I believe that all proper tragic moments stem from a misunderstanding, and Susan’s separation is just such a one. Susan, we are told, wishes to be a Grown Up, but like many young people may not really understand what she is asking for.

Susan is called many complimentary things in the Narnia series, but she is only ever called Grown Up as a criticism. We’ve talked about Susan as being sensible, but this is almost always presented as a good thing. The only times when this differs is when she uses good sense as a way to talk down to her siblings, thereby distancing herself from them by assuming a position of authority over them. As can be expected in a children’s book, this is rarely taken well, either by Edmund and Lucy, or (from my memories) by a child reader. At least in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Susan’s clearly acting in Edmund’s best interest, even if no ten-year-old wants to be told to go to bed by a sister two years older then he.

“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan.
“Oh, come off it!” said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. “Don’t go on talking like that.”
“Like what?” said Susan; “and anyway, it’s time you were in bed.”
“Trying to talk like Mother,” said Edmund. “And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself.”

But a year later on, we see Susan using this assumed distance to question and undermine her sister’s story, and since we know that Lucy is right, it feels far more irritating to endure:

“Where did you think you saw him?” asked Susan.
“Don’t talk like a grown-up,” said Lucy, stamping her foot. “I didn’t think I saw him. I saw him.”

Susan’s attempts to be Grown Up are always shown in conflict with her familial bonds and, as those ideas and her character develop, in conflict with her beliefs in the unseen, and therefore with Narnia. As a result, we’ve had enough clues and foreshadowing that it feels a lot like the conclusion of a sad tale instead of last-second twist, when we learn in The Last Battle:

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

And it is this which makes Susan’s story at the end of the series so tragic, because unlike the events of Prince Caspian, this time there will be no chance for Susan to apologise to her family and make things up. By The Last Battle, Narnia’s time has run out, and so too has Susan’s time with her loved ones.

Valar Morghulis

The Chronicles of Narnia are very distinctly children’s books, but The Last Battle deals with an issue which we don’t tend to deal with until well into our adult lives (if at all): the notion of running out of time before one is ready or prepared. There might, narratively speaking, be a sense of completeness in a series which begins watching the construction of an entire new world, and ends with its total destruction, but as a child (and as an adult) the idea of everything ending unexpectedly is a difficult one to grasp.

Susan is a young woman when the series ends, in her early 20’s and with every reason to expect that she and her family will have many years together. That there will be plenty of time to reconcile and rebuild bridges.

Polly, an old lady by the seventh book, has a rather better idea about the value of time, and is scathing of a younger woman’s mistake of believing that time can and will stand still:

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

I don’t know if it was C.S. Lewis’s original intent, but the way he set up the idea of Narnia having a time all of its own is brilliant for driving home the fickle and shifting nature of time for all of us. But with magic, because that makes everything cooler.

The Pevensies originally ruled for many years before tumbling without warning out of Narnia and back to England, and when they get back literally everything they ever knew has crumbled and changed beyond recognition. Like, so much time has pasted that a small river has created a deep valley by now:

“I’m not sure the High King is lost,” said Trumpkin. “What’s to hinder this river being the Rush?”
“Because the Rush is not in a gorge,” said Peter, keeping his temper with some difficulty.
“Your Majesty says is,” replied the Dwarf, “but oughtn’t you to say was? You knew this country hundreds—it may be a thousand—years ago. Mayn’t it have changed? A landslide might have pulled off half the side of that hill, leaving bare rock, and there are your precipices beyond the gorge. Then the Rush might go on deepening its course year after year till you get the little precipices this side. Or there might have been an earthquake, or anything.”

That’s a long time.

Literally everyone the children knew in their first out-timing is dead, and I know everyone else talks about The Problem of Susan, but this is the thing I never got over as a child! I never got to say goodbye to Mr Tumnus, and neither did Lucy, and I’m nearly thirty and I’m still not past this!

In fact, every book has some version of this huge leap forward in time, save for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, possibly because even C.S. Lewis could break our hearts in every book by making us care about characters who will be dead the next time we see then (Caspian in The Silver Chair is an elderly man who dies at the end, it still counts!) Jill earlier on in The Last Battle speaks for us all, I feel:

“Ha!” cried Tirian, “are you then that Eustace and that Jill who rescued King Rilian from his long enchantment?”
“Yes, that’s us,” said Jill. “So he’s King Rilian now, is he? Oh of course he would be. I forgot——”
“Nay,” said Tirian, “I am the seventh in descent from him. He has been dead over two hundred years.”
Jill made a face. “Ugh!” she said. “That’s the horrid part about coming back to Narnia.”

My point is, that if the Narnia books taught us nothing except that climbing into wardrobes can only lead to good things, it’s that relationships can be cut short really abruptly and that the future is an uncertain place. That you may not see people when you think you will, and that you can’t bank on having tomorrow.

Others have written about the items C.S. Lewis chose to define Susan’s current life, dwelling on how utterly feminine they are:

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”

And they certainly are entirely womanly. But what interests me far more is how all three items are also completely ephemeral in nature. They are all items which exist in the moment and then are gone, discarded and worthless. Nylons (as any of us who have worn them can attest to!) tear and develop holes and runs, lip-stick is wiped off at the end of the day or the evening, and invitations are lovely to receive and anticipate, but are nothing but reminders at most when the party is over.

Nothing in Susan’s life, as we are presented with it, will last, certainly not like familial bonds can. Perhaps Susan knows this, and is merely enjoying them all while they are there, secure in the knowledge that her family will be waiting for her when she’s ready to talk.

But they aren’t.

Redemption Interruptus

It may be better to plan on begging forgiveness, but that only works when you can guarantee that it will come. And in real life there are no such guarantees. And as writers, perhaps we should ask ourselves more often if we should hand out such guarantees either.

I know setting up good characters takes time and effort, and it can feel completely counterproductive to abandon them without warning in the middle of a character arc. But if you do it right, it can be extremely effective; making your stories feel more real and making your readers feel uncomfortable as they confront harsh truths.

People remember what happened to Susan. You will probably know that Susan Pevensie did not return to Narnia long before you remember who King Tirian is, and he’s in the same book!

You remember King Tirian, right? The last King of Narnia, who wasn’t too proud to ask for help without any sign that he’d be heard. Who held true to his beliefs and watched his people and friends die and his world literally end, but not before it was torn apart from within and without. Who faced an unknown danger and possible death with as much dignity and grace as can be expected, while also getting a kick-ass moment of tackling his main enemy in an if-I’m-going-down-I’m-taking-you-with-me way.

In any other story, Tirian would be the star and yet in his story he is utterly upstaged in people’s memories by the horrible realisation that Susan hasn’t returned with everyone else, and that her relationship with her siblings was so painful that they literally can’t bear to talk about it except to tell us that she wasn’t with them when British Rail murdered them horribly.

This isn’t an insult to either C.S. Lewis or his readers, rather I think it’s a brilliant example of just how effective it can be to challenge readers expectations occasionally. Susan’s a main character we like, she’s got lots of good traits, but also relatable flaws which fittingly foreshadow her fate in a way that’s straight-up Shakespearean once you think about it. And the tragedy of her status at the end of The Last Battle so forces us all to face up to the uncomfortable truths of our own lives.

What The Problem of Susan teaches aspiring writers is that sometimes bravery pays off.