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?

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Oxford Odditites

Those Times When There’s … A Donkey?

You know you’ve lived in Oxford too long when… when you’ve followed a procession with a donkey all the way up High Street and only as Carfax Tower comes into view do you think to yourself; ‘Huh. That’s werid. We don’t normally have a donkey, do we?’

Donkey
With thanks once again to Parker Foye who was *way* more on the ball with their camera than me this morning! In my defense, there had not yet been tea, and that is kinda essential if you want me to function… You can (and should!) check out their writing here: (http://parkerfoye.com/)

Yes, friends, in Oxford we do this thing every Palm Sunday wherein we trudge a donkey through the streets of Oxford to hold a outdoor service remembering the moment when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem by riding in on a donkey.

The things I love about these traditions is how they have been going for so long that absolutely no one thinks twice about it! You can see here that if you’re not specifically in the procession, you barely even look! And I very much include myself in this group there!

This goes great with the announcements they blast through the Clarendon Shopping Centre much too frequently declaring “If you see something odd, please report it to the authorities.” Like, sure Ma’am, but … what kind of odd? Because in Oxford, it turns out, the blatant donkey procession did not make the cut there!

Makes you wonder what *else* you could march happily down the street on a Sunday in Oxford before someone questions it… Anyone else feel like the Harry Potter Wizarding World’s Statute of Secrecy was completely superfluous? Just a little?

Anyway, just a random little snippet for today, but it tickled me! One week left of Lent for those who observe that, and then it is Time for The Easter Dragon’s visit! Who’s excited? Just me?

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

So You Want To Draw A Map? – Part 3

A Kingdom for the Oak King

Right! Now on to the actual map-drawing!

(Note: If you’ve just stumbled into this post and are wondering what’s going on, please check out the series Masterpost for some form of context)

Norwich-Cathedaral-Green-Man-1So waaay back before Easter I did a little series talking about turning some big figures of folkloric legend into real, believable characters, and one of those was Jack O’Green, or The Oak King. So I know what he’s like, but what of his kingdom?

Now, with a character like Jack, who’s effectively the God of Nature and Green Stuff, it would be really easy to just picture and reference a huge forest and call it a day, but try drawing a map of that place and I worry that it could get boring for readers (and writers!) really easily. There’s only so much to be said and inferred from trees, after all.

First Things First…

So, why do I need to draw this map?

Well, one of the reasons why I needed to start tackling The Oak and Holly Kingdoms first was because I am working off a blank sheet here.

See, when I sit down to do Tir na Nog for the Fairy Queen, with her Seelie and the Erlking’s Unseelie courts, I’ll have something to work from. There are stories that tell me something about what can be found in that kingdom, people travel there (more or less willingly) and items originate there. I have clues I can start to piece together into something I like.

Green_Man_ceiling_boss_at_St_Helen_Witton_Church,_Northwich,_CheshireThe Green Man, on the other hand… He just doesn’t have anything like that.

The Green Man is quite literally a ‘Figure of Folklore’ in that he is a lone person, a character, an image… and nothing else. I said before that there aren’t really stories about him, he’s not a major feature in any legends; he’s a bit like Tom Bombadil in that he shows up, dances and sings and feeds everyone good things and then waltzes right out of your life with nary a ripple.

He has no named castle or palace to live in, no one goes on a quest to bargain or steal a MacGuffin from him, he doesn’t kidnap a fair maiden away to his lands. He’s a figure in green who dances at May Day celebrations and he shows up in church carvings.

That’s not a lot to work from…

Ch.5 The Power of Names -smallNow, there are some wonderful people out there who can work really well from a blank page, but I am definitely not one of them! I need some form of structure to hang my ideas off of, and so, to the drawing board we go!

The map doesn’t need to be especially detailed, or even close to what the kingdom will eventually look like.

When I don’t know what a place looks like, I just draw any and all options I can think of until I find one I like. It’s like a sped up form of evolution, where any ideas I think are especially good make it over from one draft to the next, and the weaker ones drop off until I have something I think works really well.

This map is not going to end up as a finished or final draft. It’s a first draft and all writers know what happens to first drafts! Mwahahahahaha!

Stage One – Ideas!

So before I started drawing, I sat down and thought about what I could include in a kingdom dedicated to a Nature God. I thought to myself, ‘Well, hey, obviously plants, but there are plenty of plant-environments out there, let’s include as many as possible.’

Top Tip Time: When setting off on world-building missions, I watch a lot of David Attenborough. Nature came up with cool ideas long before we got hold of them, and seeing the huge scale and complexity of the world we live in helps me think of options I had simply not considered. Look at the themed shows; they’re different environments, areas that can support life which you might not have thought of, how specialised life has to be to survive in certain climates, and areas that will support a lot of lifeforms together.

So here’s a short list of the one’s I thought would go together well:

  • Coniferous Forest
  • Deciduous Forest
  • Grass lands/Plains
  • Heath-land/Moorland
  • Swamps
  • Marshes
  • Arctic Tundra
  • Desert

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 3Those last two may seem a bit weird to include to you, but my rational was that there is still plant-life in both of these environments, and they are both fascinating and really tough. For a fairy-tale world rooted deeply in a sense of dark pragmatism, it seemed appropriate to include some of the toughest vegetation on the planet.

Also, I did think about including such things as rain-forests and mangrove swamps, but I wasn’t sure I could get everything onto one landmass and I just can’t quite see Jack O’Green, famously English folkloric figure hanging out in a rain-forest.

Stage Two – Start Sketching (Badly)

Right, so having gathered up my various different areas to be included, I needed to sketch out where and how they would fit together. I started at the top and bottom, putting in the desert in the South where it could be expected to be warmer, and the tundra in the north, which is appallingly Northern-hemisphere of me, and I now that people in Australia or New Zealand have a different experience. Sometimes you just end up going with what you know, but I’d be really interested in seeing a different take on fantasy maps that play around with the notions of compass directions and whatnot.

Landmass 1

So currently my sketch looks like this:

(I know that I can’t spell Deciduous, I’m sorry…

I write because spelling is hard!)

Anyway, you can see that I basically just squished what started out as circles of environment together into this overlapping mass of different lands. The idea being that all of these places would have their own cultures and peoples living there, but it still feels very much like one kingdom ruled by one person who has a specific ascetic going on.

I experimented a lot in this early stage with where to put things, and how big certain areas would be, and I was still tinkering with it even while moving the drawing onto the next stage! You’ll probably note that all my maps start out with this big slightly ugly sketching stage where I just play around with vague ideas until things start to feel right.

I recommend making all your early sketches look a little bit messy and unattractive – it makes throwing away a bad idea much easier than it will be if you put time and effort into making it look all pretty and fantastical, only to decide that you don’t like the ideas it’s illustrating so much now you’ve slept on it for a week.

Stage Three – Insert Backbones

Right! No more disembodied shapes, now to make it look like a real map!

First to draw a coastline, it’s not a very imaginative one, but this is only a first draft after all. I need to get better at this whole ‘wiggly line’ thing, because fighting my urge to just draw straight from A to B is not what coastlines are all about!

Landmass 2

And to add in some mountain ranges to start dividing up the kingdom a bit. Not too much following of the old sketch-lines, but then again landscapes don’t tend to follow nice interlocking curves anyway.

A big mountain range to separate the desert part a bit, and a little off-shoot range to make the grass-lands look a bit more interesting. (No, I’m not avoiding drawing grass for ages, what are you talking about?)

Lots more mountains in the north, but I associate pine forests and heaths with mountains anyway, so I guess that makes sense. The marshland has been squished out a little, I may need to think about that a bit more…

Too much mountain? Possibly, but I like drawing mountain ranges, and I’m not all that great at trees on maps, so maybe that’s best for everyone! I need to put some serious practice into drawing forests at some point, but it is not this day.

Stage Four – Details!

Right, let’s turn all these elements into a proper map, shall we?

Landmass 3There’s rivers and lakes to be added, trees to put in and grass to draw. I put in some lighter lines on the mountains so they look prettier (I have priorities, you know, and mountains are all of them…)

Please excuse the terrible place-holder names! As everyone who’s read my Power of Names post knows, this is not an area I have a whole lot of imagination in at all!

Does anyone have any tips on how to draw swampland to look different from marshland? I had absolutely no idea, so it’s been left blank for a bit until I think of something! Any recommendations in the comments will be gratefully received!

I jotted in a couple of places I could imagine a city being positioned too, although taking a second look at this, none of them are near a good source of water, so the second attempt at this map is definitely going to be tackling this problem better!

What Next?

Well, I once wrote a post, In Defence of Doing Nothing, which I swear wasn’t totally an advert for idleness! Essentially I believe in letting ideas sit for a bit before going back to them. Like with editing, it gives me a bit of distance to decide if I’m attached to an idea or not.

So there’ll be some other maps and whatnot, I’ll have a bit of a play around and do a bit more research to see if there’s any folklore that I think I can make off with and apply.

Then I’ll redraw the map, probably a bit larger. There were a few places on this draft that got a bit squished as I ran out of space, so a bit of extra space will be a bonus. It will also allow me to put more detail in, and think about what kind of settlements Jack O’Green’s lands would need or want.

As always, I hope that this was helpful to some of you and interesting at least for others!

If you did like this post, do check out the Chronicles in Creation series here, and if you have any cool ideas for The Green Man’s kingdom, please do drop me a note in the comments – it’s great to hear what other people think after all!

See you next time, everyone!

 

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: The Tragedy of Backstory – Part 2

Welcome back from Part 1, everyone! For those who missed it, click the link to check out my theories on the two types of Backstory for redemption arcs. I’ll be using that theory a lot in here and it may not make much sense without reading Part 1 first…

Anyway.

Ch.19 - The Tragedy of Backstory - Part 2

Yay! Another case-study, you know you all love them so much…

So, I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but Disney’s been doing this thing recently where it remakes all its best animated films into ‘live-action’ versions?

Oh, you’ve heard already?

Anyway, I’ve taken to calling the whole trend ‘Disney’s Tragic Backstory Series’, because that seems to be the biggest addition they make to justify telling me the same story over again, though DVDs of the original films don’t exist and aren’t freely available. In every single film, there’s a new section dedicated to providing insight into someone’s tragic past, and I’ve never really found this addition to be very helpful, but rarely in ways I could easily identify before.

Then the 2017 Live-Action Beauty & The Beast came out and I finally had a good case study to talk about, so here we are!

Firstly, I wanted to look at the backstory as presented in the film, and then we’re going to roll up our sleeves and think about another way to add in a tragic backstory that’s better.

But before we start that…

The Lesson of Beauty & The Beast – A Very Brief History

This might seem a strange place to start, but the Beauty & The Beast started out as a morality tale, much like Cinderella, and as such any retelling of it inevitably comes with some form of lesson baked into it. I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s tried to erase this, but the fact that I haven’t heard of any such version suggests that it wasn’t a very successful attempt. In Beauty & The Beast, every single incarnation has someone learn the lesson that True Beauty is found within a person, not in their external features.

Originally this lesson was learned by Belle. Since the story was originally penned to be read by young women in an age of arranged marriages, Belle stands in for a lot of young women who were married to men they didn’t really know, and who would have seemed very intimidating and potentially undesirable. The lesson she must learn is that when she gets to know the Beast, she finds him to be very learned, intelligent and gentle, and in learning to love him for what he is on the inside, his outward appearance changes to match this, like a reward for her.

I bring this up because, as a result of this lesson, the Beast is usually shown to have been cursed because of something his parents have done wrong, not him. In the 1946 Jean Cocteau version, the Beast explains to Belle that he was cursed because his parents had angered the local fairies. The fault for his curse belongs to others, not him, although he must suffer for it and hope for release by another as well. It’s all very tragic and pitiable, and we yearn for Belle to learn to love him so he can be freed. 2017’s version seems to have really liked a lot of elements of Jean Cocteau’s version, and I think this is reflected not only in the visuals but in the message too.

However.

The 1997 Animated Disney version took a different route, which was definitely a good idea in a modern world with different societal norms. Now the person who must learn a lesson about the importance of looking inside for true beauty and the importance of character over outward features in falling in love is the Beast. As a result, he’s the one who must learn to become someone with an inside worthy of being loved by Belle. Therefore the Beast’s backstory, as told in the opening scene, is that he was a selfish prince who was cursed by the Enchantress after she tested his kindness in the form of an old hag. The fault and the lesson are both his, making it far more the Beast’s film than Belle’s if you think about it.

Victor Hugo-Style Deviation on European Folklore

(Sorry, I swear this won’t be a regular thing, but I just have to…)

As a quick side-note, I just want to clarify something that has been oft-repeated on the internet without its proper context.

There’s this established belief that the prince should not have been cursed because letting strangers into your home is Bad. Especially if those strangers are magical in some way. Therefore the prince was only doing what was right by turning away an old lady into the stormy night, rather than just asking for her to be given food and shelter at least until morning or the storm passes.

If you are of a mind to agree with this, I’m not going to judge you, but I will say that you would not make it past the first five minutes of Supernatural: Fairy Tale Edition.

For those who don’t know much about European customs and folklore, Hospitality was, and is, fantastically important. Like, sacred duty, etched into your soul, Do Not Mess With important. If you had a house, especially if you were a lord or I-don’t-know a prince, then you were honour bound to provide those who begged at your door with food and shelter. Failure to do so, at least in stories meant to underline the importance of such duties, is absolutely always met with disaster in some form.

In folklore, providing fairies or spirits with food and shelter meant that they were indebted to you and therefore could not trick you, or harm you in some way, so it was always a good idea. There’s a reason that so many plucky heroines in old stories will offer strange old ladies in the woods whatever of their food they have, even if it is their very last crumbs; it shows that they are good and generous people, yes, but it also establishes that they understand the importance of sharing whatever they have. Kindness in folklore is a tactical advantage as well as a morally-upright character trait.

There are plenty of other examples of the importance of guest-rights outside of children’s fairy stories too. Grace O’Malley, the Irish Pirate Queen, straight-up kidnapped the Earl of Howth’s heir and held him hostage when they refused her shelter in a storm, refusing to ransom him back for gold until she had an apology. The family took this lesson so much to heart that to this day always set an extra place at Howth Castle in case they get unexpected visitors. Even the Bible has examples, my favourite being the tale of Sodom and Gamora where God sends the angels in disguise to see how they are treated as strangers, and then utterly destroys the place when they are not received well.

All I’m saying here is that a temporary curse with an established release clause is the absolute best-case scenario the prince was facing for this utter dereliction of duty, while he sat there in his big-ass palace with his hordes of servants and whatnot. When instant and painful death is among your options, suddenly a cursed form seems like a weird bright-side, no?

The 2017 Live-Action Version

For those playing the home game, the quotes I’ll be looking at here are from the screenplay for the film, which can be found here.

The 2017 Disney Beauty and the Beast was clearly made by a lot of really creative people; although largely based on the 1991 animated version, it also pulled from other sources such as the 1946 Jean Cocteau La Belle et La Bête, and they came up with plenty of cool new ideas I hadn’t seen before.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have such a good team of heartless editors, because none of the cool new ideas really have any space to breathe and get explored properly.

I really liked the idea that not only do all the villagers get forced by magic to forget about the palace and its inhabitants, but the town, like the castle, is trapped in time for all these years. That’s a fun expansion on Belle’s first lines in the film; “Little town, it’s a quiet village/ Every day like the one before.”

But this never really comes up enough – Le Fou and Gaston have been away in the war – did they not notice that everything’s exactly the same? There’s this bit in the screenplay:

Belle looks at the clock on the church counting to 8am. Wait for it. 3. 2. 1.

EXT. VILLAGE OF VILLENEUVE – MORNING

On cue, the villagers begin their day. A HOUSEWIFE opens a window, nods to a WOMAN shaking out a rug nearby. A BUTCHER opens his shop, waves to a COBBLER moving past with his cart.

VILLAGERS

Bonjour. Bonjour. Bonjour. Bonjour.

So is this more like a Groundhog Day thing, and every day is literally the same to the point of knowing what comes next? No one gets older all these years, we see that, so does anyone die, if they can’t get old? Or sick? Since they also added in the thing with Belle’s mother dying of the plague, does that actually save the village itself, if no one gets sick?

I have so many questions!

Anyway.

There’s another angle that gets added into the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast and that’s a much expanded backstory. Or more accurately, it adds in what feels like little snippets of at least three backstories: Belle’s mother dying of the plague and her father not wanting to talk about his wife anymore; the Beast’s mother dying and his father abusing him until he becomes a cruel and vain a**hole; and the staff feeling that they deserve to be cursed because they didn’t help the Beast when he was a child.

That’s a lot of backstories, and I feel like the writers didn’t think too hard about what purpose any of these backstories were serving in the main story. It’s not that the ideas themselves were bad (although I feel like the servants’ story was the weakest by far.) It’s that they are never tied into the main story’s thesis to feel like they needed to be there.

The 1991 Beauty and the Beast uses its backstory purely as Context. I’ve put the text at the end of the post, because it’s so tightly written, giving only the relevant information, and yet still sounds so poetic, like a real legend-of-old. Literally called ‘The Prologue’ in the soundtrack, it’s only there to introduce the setting, one of the main characters, and the lesson that he must learn. The question at the end of the Prologue is “For who could ever learn to love… A Beast?” and the answer by the end of the film is ‘No one, so stop being a beastly person and become a better one. Only then will anyone love you.’

Judging by the amount of time given over to backstories in the 2017 version, the way that backstory is revealed in snippets and chunks all the way through the film right up to the third act, I think it’s safe to say that this was something Disney really wanted to get creative with, just as they did in the live-action Cinderella and Maleficent. But it falls into the Mutton/Lamb trap in which it’s not Contextual Backstory being expanded and reused to be Constructive Backstory, it’s just Contextual Backstory taking up more than its fair-share of space!

Rather than get all miffed about that though, I propose that we have a good look at all the bits of backstory and make ourselves a Constructive Backstory for the film, OK? The rules are that we can’t add in new things, we can only expand on what’s already there and we can cut things out, OK?

Reshaping And Reusing

As already mentioned, there are a lot of ideas in Beauty and the Beast to pick from, so I’ve nabbed three that I think can go together really well. Lemme know in the comments if you had ideas from the film you think would add up into their own story in a cool way?

1. The Servants’ Role

The castle servants being tied in with the Beast’s life more closely, resulting in their being cursed, is a good idea.

Their role gets expanded on in the 2017 version, even more than in the 1991 film when they became actual characters for the first time. However, they do start sapping the Beast’s contributions to the plot: things like Lumiere offering Belle a room instead of the Beast, Cogsworth banning her from the West Wing, and the pair even making the decision to ask her to dinner, which the Beast refuses to consider even before Belle does!

This runs the risk of reducing the connection between Beast and Belle, as Belle is spending so much time interacting with the servants, even singing a verse in ‘Days in the Sun’ which is all about the servants wanting to be, if you will, ‘Human Again’.

But if we tied the servants’ in much more to the Beast’s character then this isn’t so much of an issue because the servants will start to feel more like an extension of the Beast’s character and struggles instead of a separate group.

2. That Enchanted Book

I know that the Enchanted Book being added into the 2017 film has got a lot of flack, but I think that’s mostly because the poor thing had nothing to do! It’s premise in the film makes no sense at all, at least the way the Beast explains it:

The beast unlocks a desk cabinet. In it, resting on velvet, its gold-leaf cover faintly glimmering with magic, is a LEATHER BOUND BOOK covered in a thick layer of dust.

THE BEAST

Another little “gift” from the Enchantress…

The beast cracks open the book to reveal AN ANTIQUE WORLD ATLAS. No  countries. Just land and sea.

THE BEAST (CONT’D)

A book that truly allows you to escape… It was her cruellest trick of all. The outside world has no place for a creature like me. But it can for you.

Like, did the Enchantress have to be the one to give it to him? He couldn’t just have a magic book in his centuries old library already? Also if being able to travel the whole world instantly is the price for being turned into the Beast, I’m not sure if this is the terrible fate that’s being suggested.

I enjoyed one critic’s idea that this was the Enchantress trying to give him the means to go out into the world and find someone who’ll teach him kindness and love him for himself or something, and that the Beast was too pathetic to understand and he hid himself away and didn’t use it at all.

It was rendered even more pointless than expected because it’s a teleporting book that takes you anywhere, yet Belle doesn’t use it to get to her father the quick-way, instead taking the scenic route via horseback. We’ve established that Belle can use this too, so why doesn’t she go home by magic, like she does in the Jean Cocteau version (with a glove) or the original fairy tale (with a magic ring).

But.

I have a better idea. Since the book was only really used to give Belle’s tragic backstory of her mother’s death, let’s repurpose this thing. Belle doesn’t need to know how her mother died for this story in any sense, and clearly the story as being told doesn’t want teleportation to be established for plot reasons. So.

What if the Enchantress gave the Beast a book that would only show him his own past? It can’t take him anywhere, it isn’t keyed into someone else’s life, it’s just his own past. And she gives it to him so that he can understand his own mistakes, like the Ghost of Christmas Past does:

“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

3. The Beast’s Upbringing Creating the Reason for the Curse

This one’s a hard one; the way it is presented in the film, the concept that the Beast is the way he is because of his parents is … unconvincing. For one thing, the Beast himself doesn’t mention his parents, either of them once. Not even when they share the revelation that Belle’s mother is dead (of the plague, I’m not letting this go, why did they need this?) does the Beast mention his mother dying when he was young. His father is mentioned once in the story too, and that’s by Mrs Potts:

BELLE

Why do you care so much about him?

MRS. POTTS

We’ve looked after him all his life.

BELLE

But he has cursed you somehow.

(off their silence)

Why? You did nothing.

MRS. POTTS

You’re quite right there, dear. You see, when the master lost his mother, and his cruel father took that sweet innocent lad and twisted him up to be just like him… we did nothing.

And we as an audience see nothing for ourselves. The only time we see the parents, the mother lies dying and the father leads the child away from her death bed. I know the music tried to make this feel sinister, but parents are not supposed to leave small children to clutch at the cold dead hands of the lately deceased, so for all we get told that the Beast’s father was a cruel man, all the film shows us is responsible parenting. Good job.

Still, there is something like potential here, I believe. If the point of the film is that the Beast must learn to throw away the poor behaviour and values he learned in his youth and grow and change as a person to be a good man worth loving, then focussing on his upbringing isn’t a bad idea.

A Recipe For Learning From the Past

Right, putting all of these elements together with the rest of the story, I give you: A Suggested Backstory Integration.

Let us consider, for a moment that, rather than dying as is traditional for Disney’s parental figures, the King and Queen were utterly emotionally distant from the Beast as a child, leaving him to be raised entirely by the servants (as would have been more time-appropriate). When they do interact with him, it is largely to be critical, and we can reuse some of that dialogue for criticisms from the Beast over Belle as well. Nice tie-in and illustration of how the Beast has internalised the lessons of his parents.

Let us suggest that the servants were perhaps not very good at raising a prince. That very much like Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden, he was given whatever he wanted in an effort not to get the servants into trouble and to keep him out of the way and quiet. Therefore, the Beast grows up to be spoiled and with no real sense of consequences or empathy. The servants are the only people really in his life and they are subservient to him, so his understand of interpersonal relations will be a bit warped.

(Much of this can be explained overtly via the cinematic miracle of voice-over, as is traditional with Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast)

Then we have the curse from the Enchantress, yada yada, and she leaves him with the book and instructions that he must use it to learn the lessons he needs to.

Then Belle shows up, we’ve had the exchange for her father scene, and the Beast and Belle argue a lot and he keeps offending her with criticisms of her etiquette and dress and whatnot (in place of his thing of calling her father a thief?)

In the 2017 film, Belle asks the servants about the curse several times, getting details on why the servants are cursed and what will happen to them if the curse is not broken:

BELLE

What happens when the last petal falls?

LUMIÈRE

The master remains a beast forever. And the rest of us become…

MRS. POTTS

Antiques.

LUMIÈRE

Knickknacks.

PLUMETTE

Lightly used houseware.

COGSWORTH

Rubbish. We become rubbish.

Instead, why not have Belle asking the Beast these questions as soon as they start getting to know each other. The Beast takes her to the library (since in this version he’s not giving her the library, it’s just the location of something he wants to show her) and hands her the Enchanted Book. He could say something like “I was given this by the Enchantress so that I could learn where I went wrong in my life. I have looked at its contents many times, but you are far wiser than I ever was, and I think that you need only look at it once.” He makes to leave, but Belle catches his arm and suggests that they look at it together instead.

They watch the Beast’s childhood in snippets, but this time the focus could be angled more towards the young man the Beast started to grow into and on the rising concerns of the servants. Perhaps you could have multiple little silent moment of the worried looks from the main servants (Mrs Potts, Cogsworth and Lumiere) as the Beast treats the people he meets rudely and with casual cruelty. You could even go so far as to Belle and the Beast overhearing a conversation in which Lumiere is trying to tell Cogsworth that they need to do something about the Beast before he truly grows to be a man, worried about the kind of king he will be, and Cogsworth reiterating what is clearly an old argument about how it is not their place to interfere, it is not for them to tell the prince how to behave. Have Lumiere throw all subtlety out of the window and intone that the prince will “soon be more beast than man!”

The point is that Beauty and the Beast is not a subtle story – a man literally reforms his beastly nature and therefore turns physically from a beast into a man! – there’s no reason not to go all the way with it and have a Beast of Christmas Past moment, if you’ve invented the Enchanted Book to do it with!

It also means that the film is showing us more, instead of telling us what’s happened, and Belle and the Beast have to spend more time together and Belle genuinely has to get to know the Beast through watching his life. Perhaps you could give the pair all these fun snippets of conversation while they watch his past life? Like, when the Beast first comes ‘on-stage’ as a small child, and Belle cooing over “how cute you were!” and the Beast getting all bashful at the praise. And Belle would get the context of all those mean things he’s said to her in the first act and understand that no one taught him not to be awful and rude to people.

They could find common ground in games they both played as children, or songs they both learned to sing. You could have little moments of fun too, like the Beast’s first dancing lessons as a child, and grown-up Beast taking Belle through the same steps in the background of the room, so they’re having fun together as well as learning important backstory.

I’m not saying that this is the only way to do it, but if Disney is so interested in fleshing out it’s old stories with ‘humanising’ backstories, then I’d like to see them use it more inventively. Lots of people have been saying recently that Disney is out of ideas, but the sheer amount of unexplored-yet-deeply-interesting ideas in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast alone could have filled a few films!

Ideas are not in short supply – but having fun with only a few at a time makes for a much more satisfying ride.

So that’s my ideas on having fun with the Beauty and the Beast 2017’s backstory. Did you like it? Do you have cool ideas that you think would work in the same way? Were there ideas thrown up in the film you wish were explored more? Let me know in the comments and see you next time!

The 1991 Prologue

Behold the wonder of this writing! It’s beautiful…

Once upon a time, in a faraway land,
A young Prince lived in a shining castle.
Although he had everything his heart desired,
The Prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind.
But then, one winter’s night,
An old beggar woman came to the castle
And offered him a single rose In return for shelter from the bitter cold.
Repulsed by her haggard appearance,
The Prince sneered at the gift,
And turned the old woman away.
But she warned him not to be deceived by appearances,
For Beauty is found within.
And when he dismissed her again,
The old woman’s ugliness melted away
To reveal a beautiful Enchantress.
The Prince tried to apologize, but it was too late,
For she had seen that there was no love in his heart.
And as punishment,
She transformed him into a hideous beast,
And placed a powerful spell on the castle,
And all who lived there.
Ashamed of his monstrous form,
The beast concealed himself inside his castle,
With a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world.
The Rose she had offered,
Was truly an enchanted rose,
Which would bloom until his twenty-first year.
If he could learn to love another,
And earn her love in return
By the time the last petal fell,
Then the spell would be broken.
If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast
For all time.
As the years passed,
He fell into despair, and lost all hope,
For who could ever learn to love… A Beast?

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: 5 Basic Rules for Building Your Own Moral System

This post was intended to only be a quick off-shoot from Sailing Without a Moral Compass, but just like the beanstalk of legend, it has rather grown and grown and grown!

Last time, we talked a lot about why I wasn’t going to be talking morals through the rest of this series, but of course we all incorporate some sort of moral code into our works, even if we do it unintentionally!

So I thought it might be useful to come up with a few really basic ‘rules’ to keep in mind when building the societal mores against which your characters will be called upon to make moral choices. Which let’s face it, they sort of have to be if you want to have any kind of conflict in your story.

Ch.17 Redemption Arcs, 5 Rules to Build Your Own Morals

On 10th December 1950, in his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, William Faulkner famously said this:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

I often think about this speech, and you should absolutely look up the full transcript if you haven’t already.

I think that fantasy writers can easily fall into the same traps that Faulkner was worried about. It’s really easy to write a story in which your big concern is ‘Will the Dragon eat me?’ And if your story is resting on those kinds of questions then there’s a big risk that any appeal it could have will be fleeting.

It’s not speaking to any universal human concerns and, as I said in the last post, there’s only so concerned you can get about the fate of someone who doesn’t exist, who may be eaten by the dragon that also doesn’t exist. And all the pretty scenery and finely-crafted languages in the world isn’t going to make that more interesting.

George R.R. Martin’s books are so interesting because although the world of Westeros is fascinating and the cultures of its peoples are intricate and fun, the actual struggles of the characters are deeply human and relatable. Do you put your family ahead of everything else? Do you sacrifice a golden opportunity for gain or love? How do you prioritise several major tasks, with failure not really being an option?

We may not be facing ice zombies and dragons, but we all have to ask ourselves some of these questions.

So it’s well-worth any writer’s time to sit down and really think about what web of rights and wrongs your characters are manoeuvring in.

#1 – Consistency is Key

This is one of those universal first rules of any element of world-building, and here it is cropping up again. Whatever you decide, you need to keep it consistent. If you establish something, and then you change it, you need to acknowledge that too.

I should mention that this is especially hard to keep track of and stick to if you are writing a series, so please, please, please give extra thought to establishing rules you can stick to as early as possible, if you can. It’s so tempting to make the rules into whatever you need for the plot to be advanced, but that’s the absolute worst thing you can do in a series.

If you are establishing that the Bad Guys are bad because they use certain methods, or do certain things (killing and/or torturing others would be the easy example here), maybe don’t have the Good Guys use those same methods later on, but now try to frame those actions in a totally different light because this time it’s The Good Guys.

Inconsistencies ruin reader’s trust in writers. (Note: Unreliable Narrators are a different matter.) If you keep changing the goal-posts to suit yourself then no one can take anything you say seriously.

There’s a reason why, for most of the Second Wizarding War, in Harry Potter, Harry’s signature move is to disarm his opponents, rather than kill them. All Harry needs to do is make sure they can’t hurt people, he doesn’t need them dead, so he uses the pre-established spell to make this happen. If Harry from Book Five onwards was killing people right and left, but the Death Eaters were condemned for killing their opponents, well… We’d all be a bit less inclined to root for Harry and his cause, wouldn’t we? (Note: This is also why Harry actively torturing a man, before being complimented for it, in the last book is tricky for me to get past, for the record.)

Something that always bothered me in the Harry Potter series, by contrast, was the attitudes on child-safety. I mean, it’s hard to argue with Mrs Weasley in The Order of the Phoenix when she’s desperate to keep her children out of the war effort for their own safety. This is a totally reasonable thing for any mother (or responsible adult) to strive to do. The kids may not be happy about it, but there’s probably names for adults who use child-soldiers, and I doubt they are polite ones.

However.

This is a little bit rich when Harry and his friends have been endangered by the wizarding world every single year Harry’s been in school, and none of the adults have been overly concerned about it until now. Heck, in The Chamber of Secrets, the whole school had a murderous threat attacking students roaming the school freely and neither the school staff, nor the parents, thought that perhaps the school needed to be closed until this thing was caught? Really?

1 cat, 1 ghost and 4 students were petrified, before another student was straight-up kidnapped, and the school still wasn’t closed and the parents didn’t withdraw their children?

Not to mention the very next year, in which soul-sucking demons were considered a perfectly good choice to provide security for this same school of children, despite boarding the train there, and invading twice, posing a massive health risk at all times?

And this is the society that now thinks children should be protected at all costs?

Do you see how these kind of inconsistencies can end up making perfectly normal and understandable beliefs suddenly seem totally weird and out of place? And yes, I know that if any adults in those books had done the sane thing then there would have been no stories, but that isn’t the issue here.

There should be absolutely nothing wrong with Mrs Weasley wanting her children to be safe. This should not feel weird. And yet I was sat there completely siding with Harry the emotionally unstable teenager over the responsible adults because child-safety has never once before seemed even remotely on anyone’s list of concerns.

#2 – Why is pushing boundaries okay (or not)?

As discussed last time, every single rule that society runs on has an ‘Unless’ Clause buried in there somewhere, although what can be included in that clause tends to change over time. Examples of ‘Unless’ Clauses may include; unless it was in self-defence, unless they deserved it, unless they believe in something different to you, unless they look different in some way.

Everyone’s lines are in different places, but pretty much everyone has some form of ‘Unless’ written into their ideas of what is ‘wrong’. Therefore it makes sense that every single one of your characters has an ingrained code of ethics, and some form of ‘Unless’ Clause to go with it (See #5).

I should note here that this is not the same as the concerns of #1, detailed above. The difference between allowing yourself to slide into inconsistencies, and building in ‘Unless’ clauses is that the latter is done both on purpose and for a purpose. It needs to be addressed within the narrative, and preferably justified either by the narrator, or between two characters. It should be making a point about the personal morality of the characters and potential short-comings of the beliefs they may hold. Changing your rules half-way through to better suit the plot is jarring for the reader, but the hesitance of a character to follow their own rules is interesting character development.

Some writers have been especially creative in establishing societal mores and when they can be pushed or broken, and my favourite example of this is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. In his world, all humans have dæmons, physical manifestations of their souls, walking around with them. So far so good. And no one, no one, is allowed to touch someone else’s dæmon ever. There are physical reactions to this being broken, and emotional and mental damage can be done as well. As readers, we read about the effects of someone touching another’s dæmon, and it’s absolutely sickening.

So the rule is: Never Touch Another’s Dæmon.

As readers, we instantly feel like there’s a logical reason for this, because why would you want random people touching your soul? We may not have dæmons ourselves, but we certainly don’t think the idea of someone getting handsy with something like our souls, do we?

Unless…

Of course there is an established exception. People touching other people’s dæmons without that level of trust is immediately understood to be intrinsically wrong, and Pullman doesn’t need to keep hammering that in to his readers every time it happens. But if we were to see two people touching dæmons without any negative repercussions, then we immediately understand that we’re being told something important too.

Unless You Are Especially Intimate With Them and Trust Them That Much.

And there it is! Because we’ve had this rule so firmly established, when we first understand that people could touch each other’s dæmons without anything awful happening, the implications feel enormous, without Pullman needing to belabour the point. He can trust his readers to make the jump and because the impact of the gesture in the world is so huge, it feels huge to us too.

This is a great example of really efficient story-telling, where by establishing something nice and early, an author no longer needs to tell the audience how to feel about something that happens, or what it means. We can figure that out for ourselves, and react as is appropriate. No I’m not trying to find ways to not write things and still have a story, honest!

#3 – Costs and Consequences

So, I know I’m far from the first person to say this, and this certainly won’t be the last time it’s brought up in this series, but: All Actions Should Have Consequences.

In too many stories, especially children’s, there’s a pervasive idea that ‘good’ actions are easily identifiable, and have no downsides, thus making them easy to pursue. And only bad actions cost people, because ‘crime doesn’t pay’ or something.

I respectfully disagree with this idea, not just because I find it unrealistic and unhelpful to children who may believe us when we sell them this idea.

No I dislike it because it automatically ruins half the drama inherent in every single decision a character makes, and renders them dull. A writer has to find other ways to make a character interesting, but seems unaware that a much better solution was frantically waving from the cutting room floor where it’s been tossed.

Let’s take a moment to talk about my favourite version of this in action: George Bailey’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life. Now lots of people have this rosy image of this story; they remember the angel, Clarence; they remember George running down the street in the snow at the end shouting Merry Christmas! to everyone; and if they want to pick it apart a bit, they’ll sneer at the idea that being a spinster librarian is the worst thing that could happen to Mary, because being alone in life with a job no one will thank you for is absolutely marvellous, as I can personally attest.

But taking a second, more adult look at this story reveals the interesting idea that George Bailey has done all these good acts through his life, and been soundly punished by the universe for his troubles. He saves his brother from drowning and in doing so he loses the hearing in his left ear. He stops his boss from accidentally putting poison into a child’s prescription, and has his ears boxed. He gives his tuition savings to his brother so he can ‘temporarily’ run the family business, giving up his own plans to see the world in the process, but Harry gets a better offer when the time comes to repay George the favour, and George just has to keep smiling throughout all of it.

And what fascinates me when I watch this procession of good deeds going punished, is how much George doesn’t like performing them. He’s aware at every point of what he’s giving up, what he’s suffering, for the sake of doing the right thing. He’s not happy because of his choices. And he does it anyway. Not because he’s selfless, but because it’s the right thing to do.

The other thing I love about this story is the subversive way that the film represents evil. Not in the form of Mr Potter, the face of capitalism (I think? That’s what Mr Potter represents, right? I didn’t do film theory). No, the wrong or ‘evil’ choice to juxtapose with the good is the decision to simply do nothing.

In the world where George isn’t born, we get to see what happens, not of people making the wrong choices, but in no one making any choice at all. The world where George doesn’t save his brother, doesn’t prevent his boss poisoning a child, doesn’t save the Building and Loan.

We too often see the descent into evil in stories as a series of ‘bad choices’, like it’s something one has to actively chose. But the choice to do nothing can be just as bad.

It’s a Wonderful Life teaches us that the point of doing the right thing isn’t to be rewarded, George doesn’t get a grand reward at the end so much as he isn’t punished for another’s mistakes. The point of doing good is simply that it must be done, no matter what the cost.

#4 – Create Your Own Grey Areas

Now, you may read this one and think, But Cameron, isn’t this just #2 all over again And no, that’s not what I mean.

I mean that you need to think of areas which are developing in the world you are building which simply don’t have an established set of rules yet, or where those rules are starting to be questioned so much that they are actively breaking down.

For an example, think of our world today and the increasing rise of A.I. and robots and how human society is finally having to struggle with the same issues that Science Fiction always said we’d struggle with; humans becoming redundant, computers becoming more intelligent than ourselves, what is and isn’t acceptable from A.I., whether or not the robots will rebel. (Are we still worried about that? I think we’re still worried about that… Maybe only Hollywood thinks we’re still worried about that…)

Any day now I suspect we’ll all reach a stage when we have to start the discussion on A.I. Rights and whatnot. Somewhere out there, Issac Asimov is so proud of us.

Anyway every single era of history has had to confront some new oncoming storm of change, and had to change or evolve its ideas of right and wrong to accommodate it. Whether this might be Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death, in which women were able to achieve more independence in a diminished society and how this confronted established ideas about a woman’s place (this one comes up time and again; see also The Frist and Second World Wars), or the sixteenth century wherein the invention of the printing press allowed the rapid spread and discussion of ideas which shook the foundation of religion, science, and politics, or the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the rise of capitalism allowed for greater social mobility as trading families made enough money to stand shoulder to shoulder with Old Money.

There’s literally never been a point in history when Time stood still and there was some great internal struggle in society, so why write yourself a fantasy world in which everything is settled and has been for a long time?

Have a bit of fun with your world and think of some interesting ways to challenge its inhabitants and push them into confronting new areas of right and wrong which they may not be comfortable in. The easy way is to start a war of course, but I do urge fantasy writers to go and spend time with the sci-fi guys (What? I liked that rhyme.) and think of other things that can be invented or discovered to throw everything into question and turmoil. Did a new industry grow up to disturb traditional employment and wealth acquisition? Did new magic get developed to extend life-spans or preserve people’s minds forever?

#5 – A Sense of Scale or What is an acceptable loss?

So… So this one’s not a nice thing to think about, but I would also argue that it is the most important thing to define as a writer when world-building for any story whatsoever.

It’s tied into #2 to some extent and that is the question of what does your society at large, and then the individuals within it, consider to be an acceptable loss in any situation?

What can be tossed to the wayside, if necessary, to get through a situation? For your business to succeed, smaller businesses will go bust, is that an acceptable loss? If you are on a quest that gets difficult, would leaving your animal sidekick behind to an uncertain fate be an acceptable loss? How many people could die on this quest before it became an unacceptably high price for your mission?

In terms of crafting the climax of your story, this point is especially interesting, because it raises the issue of whether your characters may find their victory ‘Pyrrhic’ (when the victory is considered to have cost more than it was remotely worth.)

Now before going any further, it’s important to recognise that none of this will come out of nowhere. For society to consider something to be an acceptable level of loss, it needs to be tied into what that society prizes and thinks is important.

Consider a real-world example; if a bus were to crash and thirteen people were injured, but none were killed, it may be reasonable to call the thing a relief, despite the fact that those thirteen people are most certainly not going to agree with you. That’s because we tend to consider anything less than death to be a good outcome, regardless of the long-term effects on those who survive.

When building your own society, have a good dissect of our own values and the actions that these values inform and enforce, and see what you might change in your own world. Do you want a world to feel exactly like our own, or one that feels totally foreign to your reader and makes them uncomfortable?

For example, if there was a disaster in which people had to give up their lives to save others, in the West, we’d naturally save the children before anything else, because we value their innocence and the chance of a new beginning that they represent. If I were to build a culture that inherently feels totally alien to a Western world, therefore, I might build a society that prizes not innocence but experience, and have the same scenario play out but with the evacuation going from the oldest to the youngest, as those with more experience and knowledge would be considered more valuable than those who know comparatively little. If you just felt vaguely weird right there, then good. That’s what you should feel.

Putting It All Together…

And now we put all of these elements together! Aaaand then we start writing a story where all of these elements come into conflict with each other…

Yep, because let’s face it, no system of morality covers every scenario, that’s why humans are asked to be good at thinking for themselves. We can’t always do what the instruction manual tells us, because life gets in the way.

And this is where William Faulkner’s words from the start of this post come back for us, because the real drama in the best stories comes not from the fear of the bomb blowing up, or the dragon eating our hero. It’s because our hero believes two or more things to be true and right, and then finds that he can only follow one of those rules. And now he must decide which road to travel.

That’s where the conflict comes in.

There’s been a lot of emphasis, it seems to me, over the past five years or so, in writing grittier, more edgy fantasy. We seem to be getting away from the Swords & Sorcery style of stories, and heading towards a darker, ‘more realistic’ world. And the best way I can think of to do this is to give some real thought to different ways that societies can approach this complicated practical exam called Life. To establish in new and inventive ways all the aspects of life that would be affected by the values and costs of such beliefs. To get the audience reeeally comfortable in a certain way of thinking… and then heartlessly push them into all the uncomfortable quandaries those approaches leave our characters in.

Depth doesn’t come from a bigger dragon, it comes from the smaller moments when we face up to the hard questions and know that there aren’t any good or easy answers. And accept, deep down where it hurts us most, that someone is going to pay the price of those answers either way.

Next time we’re going to be thinking about redemption as the paying of debt. If this post was interesting to you, check out the rest of the series here. And if you’re interested in the potential to be found in experimenting with the structure of a redemption arc, check out my case study of Susan Pevensie: The Redemption Arc That Never Happened.