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Category: Heroes

Storytelling – as Old as Humanity

Posted in Characters, Heroes, and Villains

Given language, what do you use it for? Teaching moral tales…

I've often contended that storytelling is as old as humanity, and as fundamental a tool as opposable thumbs. Not only do we tell each other useful things about physical reality as we understand it, and make plans for actions, but we also talk about social reality — how humans behave, and why, and what the best strategies are for getting along with other humans. This is how we learn proper behavior. We use stories to illustrate these strategies, to explore what can happen or has happened in the past, and why.

It's no surprise that many of our stories are moral tales. How could it be otherwise, when we need to understand other people, and seek a model for our own choices?

There is often a “modern” complaint about black-and-white characters, that people are really more complicated than that. And modern literature is often fascinated by more “realistic” characters who act in, shall we say, morally complicated ways.

But the older stories: the religious tales, the ancient epics, the traditional ballads, the fairytales — all of these tell their tales using more archetypal characters — the young, the good, the well-meaning, the helper, the evil, the ill-wishing, and so forth. It's not so much that these are unrealistic characters. It's more that they are stripped down to their essentials of character and motivation, always recognizable.

Periodically, the evolutionary psych crowd rediscovers the persistence of this way of telling stories.

Grimdark vs noblebright

Posted in Heroes

stgeorgeThe words grimdark and noblebright arose as technical terms in the gaming world. There's a certain amount of dispute about the exact definitions there, with a tendency to paint them in black and white terms (such as the slur that noblebright is all about rainbows and unicorns and flawless heroes).

In fiction, by contrast, especially adventure fiction (in which I class things like Westerns and Fantasy) they have come to be used to reflect two different and opposed styles of story. Since there is some dispute about the definitions, it behooves me to offer my own.

GRIMDARK

The notion that the actions of one person can do little to improve this world in decline, that the forces of evil and inertia and temptation will ensure that all of us are doomed. The best we can hope for is a little struggle with morally ambiguous heroes to oppose danger and maybe rescue for a brief time a few others.

NOBLEBRIGHT

The notion that the actions of one person can make a difference, that even if the person is flawed and opposed by strong forces, he can (and wants to) rise to heroic actions that, even if they may cost him his life, improve the lives of others.

Let me explain why I am firmly in the noblebright camp.

An observation

Posted in Broken Devices, Heroes, Plot, and The Chained Adept

Put your hero in danger and keep them there
Put your heroes in danger and keep them there

So here I am nearing the middle of Broken Devices, and I'm itching to broaden the scope. I mean, we're in Yenit Ping, the biggest city in the world, but it's just not… enough.

Ever notice that if you put your hero in a spot of danger, just a little bit, it has a way of greatly increasing your story options?

We enter the scene with everything all hunky-dory, and we exit… rather differently, as if a wind had blown down all the jackstraws.  Let's see what our heroes (and villains) are going to do about it.

Valar Morghulis

Posted in Characters, Heroes, Plot, The Chained Adept, and The Chained Adept

ValarMorghulis
“All Men Must Die” — The motto of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones

We're part way through a multi-day marathon of the entire 5 or 6-season run of Game of Thrones on cable, and it's been on non-stop for the last couple of days, downstairs in this small cabin. Periodically I go and get some lunch or dinner, and make sure my husband is still breathing, in front of the TV.

No doubt about it — this is quality programming, and I've seen all the episodes (and read the books). Upstairs at my writing desk, where I can hear snatches of the dialogue, much of the music, and all of the screaming, I'm having no trouble following along with the episodes as they go by.

This is having two effects on my writing…

I am oh-so-glad that George R R Martin is not the god of my personal universe

When novels first became popular in the 16th/17th century, readers felt that they held up a mirror to life. My opinion is: yes, and no.

Yes, in that the characters must emulate real people, or the story they tell has no foundation, no reality, and is nothing but fable, with puppets moved at whim by the author.

No, in that the author is the god of his created world, and it is only a pretense to abdicate that responsibility. It is not fate that kills his characters, or accident, or evil — it is the author's pen, disclaim it how he may. Even when writing a novelized version of historical events, the author cannot help but take sides, offer explanations, create a reality where the events make some sort of fictional sense. It's his story, and he has shaped it as he wants it.

Re-reading old favorites

Posted in Characters, and Heroes

Leisure Hours, (oil on panel) by Croegaert, Georges (1848-1923); 23.5x33 cm; Private Collection; (add.info.: Leisure Hours. Georges Croegaert (1848-1923). Oil on panel. 23.5 x 33cm.); Photo © Christie's Images; Belgian,  out of copyright
Leisure Hours, (oil on panel) by Croegaert, Georges (1848-1923); Belgian

It's a common bit of advice to write the books you want to read, and I think that makes good sense. Of course, if you're going to do that, it helps to understand why you like the books you like, so that you can put more of that into your own stories.

I enjoy many different sorts of books, and I read hundreds each year (no, really) and like lots of them. However, my re-read list of favorites that reliably engage me over and over is actually quite short. It's thoroughly idiosyncratic and includes a few guilty pleasures (like everyone's list).

My frequently re-read favorites

Now don't laugh…

Tomboys

Posted in Characters, and Heroes

Jo March (left) & Family (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)
Jo March (right) & family (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

What is a tomboy, exactly?

I participated in a discussion recently about the tomboy character in literature. We discovered that we all had very different opinions of what constituted a tomboy. If you search online these days, you'll find definitions associating tomboys with lesbians and transgenders, which I think is wrongheaded and anachronistic.

I know what I mean when I say tomboy, and I think of it it as an example of a story character archetype which, like all archetypes, reflects something in real life.

Let's try this definition:

A tomboy is a girl or young woman, typically pre-pubescent or at least virginal, who values highly the same male virtues that appeal to boys of her own age, and values less the virtues that appeal to girls of her own age.

Preconceived notions about the weapons that heroes carry

Posted in Characters, and Heroes

Iron – Utility or Rarity?

Golden dagger & sheath of Pharoah Tutenkhamun (d. 1327 BC)
Golden dagger of Pharoah Tutenkhamun (d. 1327 BC)

Ceremonial weapons are all very well. They look splendid when you ascend the throne. The goldsmith was probably the best in the land — look at all those animals on the sheath (click on the image to enlarge it).

What insights can we draw from this dagger from Tut's tomb? The blade is gold alloyed with copper to harden it, but it can't have been a practical weapon. So the boy Pharoah who carried this never had to defend himself (or didn't expect to need to after death) — that's what he had guards for.  Judging from his physical remains, he may have been unfit and walked with a cane. The cause of his death at 19 is disputed.

So, this dagger defended his reign, the right of his dynasty to rule (but he had no issue, so the 18th Dynasty ended with him). It was a beautiful, treasured, symbolic weapon.

The pair of daggers from Tut's tomb - gold and iron.
The pair of daggers from Tut's tomb – gold and iron.

But before we jump to conclusions, there was a second dagger found in his tomb, this one with a meteoric iron blade. (Notice that the haft for the iron blade can't be the original, since it's shorter than the tang of the blade requires.) Given the similar haft and sheath treatment in gold, there is speculation that the iron blade was valued as highly as the gold one.  Certainly it's more practical as a weapon, being able to take an edge.