Building a Book

What the hell is worldbuilding?

That was a rhetorical question, because of course I’m about to tell you. Worldbuilding is something inherent to fantasy. Science fiction too, for that matter–really any genre which places its story in an alternate universe. That universe has to be built, and if I do say so myself, doing so is the most creative, exciting phase of writing a story. I go nuts for maps and fictional histories, and I quite like creating religions and mythologies for the made-up little people that inhabit my made-up little worlds. Those–all of those aspects–are all part of worldbuilding.

But worldbuilding has been for far too long the focus of lots of fantasy authors. Those of us who love roleplaying games and Lord of the Rings and all that nerdy stuff take joy in imagining these strange, foreign worlds, with their own laws of physics and magic, and their own unique kingdoms and cultures. Unfortunately, in the process we’ve ended up neglecting another construction project that should be just as important to the structure of our stories.

Listen up: you need to write characters, people. You need to write people, people! You need interesting, complex, realistic folks to inhabit your fantastic new world, which won’t seem all that fantastic when it’s filled with cardboard characters, such as the wise old wizard, the farmboy with the heroic destiny, and his friend, the horde of slavering orcs.

See there’s two types of realism. You can have a realistic world. I’ll call that Tolkien realism, though that phrase comes with some caveats, to be discussed in a bit. Then you have what I’ll call Abercrombie realism, that is a cast of realistic characters. This one is named after Joe Abercrombie, an author I urge you to read if you wish to see how complex characters painted in shades of gray can make a book fantastic, even without the inclusion of a map (gasp).

So. First, Tolkien realism. Now, Tolkien’s world isn’t entirely realistic. There is no religion, a feature of our actual world that Tolkien deliberately omitted. Additionally, the world isn’t constructed entirely realistically as far as climates and economies are concerned. Some of these things the professor considered after the fact, such as his explanation that the armies of Mordor were fed mostly on fish caught from Mordor’s inland sea–an explanation prompted by people’s questioning how the volcanic environment of Sauron’s kingdom could support any kind of population. Those and other negligible things aside, however, Tolkien paid great attention to the history, language, and culture of his world. The man devised entire languages, wrote whole mythologies, and had a clear origin defined for every race and nation in his Middle Earth. Hell, he even included a little bit of good old-fashioned racism.

The downside to Tolkien’s world? His characters aren’t all exactly relatable humans. The very best example of humanity in his entire book is Gandalf’s insistence that he mustn’t touch the ring, lest it make him more powerful and dangerous than Sauron himself. That is a moment of truly human temptation that I’m quite fond of. Ah, but then of course we have Faramir, the brother of Boromir, who casually ignores the temptations of the ring without a second thought. Immediately we readers think, Hmm… That seems strange. What power does Faramir have that he’s so easily able to resist the ring? But I guess he’s just… noble, or something? Not a shining moment of character realism, and one that the creators of the film adaptation wisely chose to change.

So that’s where Mr. Abercrombie’s brand of realism comes in. This is character realism at its finest. There’s Jezal, a pompous young nobleman who goes through a journey of self-discovery, only to return to his former shallow, selfish ways when given the opportunity to become king at the end of the series. He is somewhat changed by his experiences, and he thinks about things a little differently. But he’s still Jezal; the entire point of Abercrombie’s books is that people are all people, and that they don’t usually change much for the better. Another example: his character Logen, a subversion of the archetypal noble warrior, attempts to make himself a better man and escape his violent past, only to sink right back into his comfortable role when he returns to his homeland. One of my favorite lines comes in the final installment, when Logen is told by an enemy: “Do you know what’s worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he’s a hero. A man like that, there’s nothing he won’t do, and he’ll always find himself an excuse.” Bleak, yes, but superb in terms of realism.

Now let’s be clear. I think that both forms of realism are necessary for a good book. And both authors have their moments using each type. Tolkien has moments of relatable humanity, as mentioned above, and characters that stick with you despite their usually simple personalities; and Abercrombie’s world seems to be well-realized by the author himself–he merely doles out the information to the reader in small doses. But while I recognize that both character and world realism are important for our genre, I’m realizing more and more that character-driven stories mean more than stories driven only by the “Look at the neat stuff I thought up” factor. Characters stay with you–good ones forever–whereas we all outgrow the neat stuff category of fiction eventually.

What we as readers and writers of fantasy need to avoid most are characters that seem shallow. Especially shallow villains. I can’t tell you how tiresome the “Dark Lord” category of villain has become. Dark Lord? What the hell kind of personality is that? How am I supposed to feel anything towards an antagonist whose only motivation is “enslave the earth.” You see, every character can be written sympathetically. I’m fond of saying that one could write a sympathetic story about Hitler. In fact, I’m sure some already have been written. Or you could write a sympathetic story about… Satan, perhaps. Actually, that’s got potential. Guy’s created as an angel, destined to tempt the first humans and be damned to rule over hell, but he doesn’t have the power of free will, so he can’t help but accomplish his awful destiny, even if he doesn’t want to. You could make a very sympathetic story out of that if you tried.

My point is summarized best by a maxim that I try to always keep in mind: “The villain is the hero of the other side.” Nobody’s evil. Nobody’s that black-and-white simple. Everyone’s got his motivations and temptations. Everyone’s got emotions that any reader can relate to.

And including those things is how you make your story stick with your readers. It’s how you keep them turning the pages, and begging you to write more books starring their same beloved characters, in turn bringing you ever closer to your goal of enslaving the earth.

What? I never said fantasy writers had to be sympathetic.

Why All Music that I Don’t Like is No Better than Elevator Music

Today I want to talk about something besides writing. I’ve got a few ideas for writing-related posts on the back-burner, but we’ll take a short break from that after the epic conclusion to my fight-scene trilogy two days ago.

Today, I’d like to talk about music–how it affects people; why it’s so important to me and some of my friends but not to other people; and why it can be so divisive a subject. Music is something that has meant a lot to me… since high school, I guess? It actually started before then. In middle school. (By the way, here’s an interesting tidbit–where I come from, the fact that I just used the words “middle school” would immediately tell you that I am most likely not Catholic, and attended a public school. Catholic private school kids say “grade school.” Now you know.) Anyway, yes. My love of music began in middle school.

I used to play in the school band. Clarinet was my thing, and I was the best player in the class, despite the fact that I never practiced outside of school. I’m not being a braggart. It’s merely the truth. I don’t know if it just clicked for me, or what. But I really enjoyed making music. I always had favorite parts of the songs we were currently learning, and I got the sense that most of the other kids weren’t even listening, just following along, waiting for lunchtime. But I listened to those songs. There were always details that stuck out to me. And me and my friends used to teach each other how to play Iron Man and Smoke on the Water and Crazy Train on our woodwind instruments. In the later years of middle school, the band teacher let three of us form our own band and play at the Christmas concert. I got to play the Star Spangled Banner Jimi Hendrix-style with a wah pedal, and then I and two other kids played some faux-metal nonsense that we had written over the course of a few weeks. I got to see a bunch of grandparents applaud music that they would have spanked their kids for listening to.

When I got to high school, music became an even bigger part of my existence. I wasn’t the type of kid who really connected to lyrics–I didn’t start really listening to lyrics with intent to understand until I got into hip hop a few years later–but I just connected to the sound, and the feel of music. I connected to the particular atmosphere that certain songs cultivated. And in high school, where clique and lifestyle are defined almost entirely by clothing and musical taste, my ideas about music became more and more clear, and more cemented.

I realized that music is not just background. Listening to music is an activity in itself. I once listened to a whole album in one sitting while looking out the window of my college dorm, sitting in the dark and just… listening. Just the sound of the music, and the way it made me feel. The melody and the rhythm. Other times, when I do listen intently to lyrics, I really appreciate when serious effort is put into making them mean something. It’s not a deal-breaker if lyrics are an afterthought, but good lyrics can make a mediocre sounding song interesting.

A brief aside: Some people are under the impression that you must agree with the lyrics of the music you listen to–this is the basis for uninspired Christian rock’s entire existence. But that’s bullshit. I’m not so dull that I need my music to think for me, or agree with what I already think. The lyrics are a snapshot of a moment in that artist’s life. When I listen to Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” I don’t suddenly think that relationships should be based around having someone to clean your house, fix your meals, and then leave. I think, Gee, that must have been a tough time in Neil’s life. I think of all the similar crazy thoughts that have jumped into my head over the years, and how those fleeting emotions are important because we can all connect to them.

Anyway, my innate sense of pacing tells me that this introduction has gone on far too long, so let me get to the point. What makes music important to us? For the vast majority of people, it seems to be the desire to dance. I hate to sound like my high school self, but much of it also seems to stem from the desire to belong–to any group, be it clique, religion, or just the masses of average, unassuming people.

For me, music is important. It speaks to me. And that’s why I have, ever since I discovered music’s power, sought it out. I emphasize this because I am struck by the fact that the majority of people don’t seem to find music. They don’t go out in search of the next little bit of sound that will really move them. They just let the music come to them. And this is whence (third time I’ve used that word on this blog–boy am I proud) much of my hatred of popular music stems. Pop music is just too easy. It’s right there. Yes, everyone’s eyes–ears, rather–are first opened by something they heard on the radio. But then you should go and discover more. It’s out there. There is so much good, underappreciated music out there, in literally every genre.

So why the hell don’t people look for it? When I tell people what kind of music I like, I usually start by saying “I listen to just about everything.” Which is broadly accurate. I like my fair share of metal (screaming and singing alike), bluegrass, folk, indie (which isn’t much of a genre description, but whatever), classic rock, hip hop–you get the idea. It’s a mix of whatever I like. But then I realize that that’s the answer people give when they don’t give a shit about good music. When most people claim that they listen to “everything,” what they really mean is “I listen to the top 40 on the way to work.” See, that’s not everything. It’s not even remotely close. And I don’t want this person to think that I don’t give a shit about music. So I’ll add to my statement. “Well, I listen to a lot of music. You know, metal, rock, some underground-type rap…” Hm, I’ll think, how do I clarify this jumble of words? I know: “I listen to basically anything that isn’t on the radio.”

That usually clears things up. Now they at least know that the music I like they won’t have heard of, so they’ll leave me alone. Time to pop the headphones back on. But recently someone picked that little statement apart. “So,” they said, which much snark and self-satisfaction, “You just don’t listen to it because it’s on the radio?”

“No, no,” I replied, not wanting to look like an obnoxious hipster. I covered my tracks with some lame explanation, but I was left thinking about the remark. And I realized: yes. I do avoid things that are popular. And I recognize that that’s stupid. The fact that something is well-known does not guarantee that it is of poor quality. But I’ve associated pop music with a lack of creativity for so long, that I can’t help but make the distinction. My wiring has officially changed, and my brain now designates just about everything I hear on the radio as sub-par. I know I’m like the kid who eats liver and onions and loves it until dad tells him what it is, but I can’t help it.

Because music is important to me, and it truly irks me that it’s not just as important to other people.

How to Write Blood, Gore, and Violent Death – Part the Third

This might be a long one. So if you don’t feel like hearing some asshole tell you what he thinks about writing over the course of several paragraphs–well, you’re probably on the wrong blog altogether. If you missed the first two parts, you can find them over here: Part One and Part Two.

Now let’s get to the killing!

There are lots of ways to write a fight scene. How you choose to do it really depends on the way you want the fight to impact your audience. Do you want your reader marveling at the epic scale of your conflict? Counting the columns of soldiers crawling across the hills of your battlefield? Or do you want the reader wiping blood out of their eyes, crawling through the mud, worming their way through the tangled legs of your frenzied combatants? Or do you want some blend of both, or some other effect entirely? Cold, distant, calculating? Or visceral, emotional, horrifying? It’s up to you, and the way you write.

Today we’ll talk about battles in particular, as the style of the piece really has a great effect on the way the reader perceives something as meaningful and important as a pitched battle. You see, writing style is very reminiscent of camera work in a movie. I’ll explain.

The way I see it, there are two main styles in which to write a battle: cable rig and shaky cam.

Now the term cable rig is interchangeable with any number of long-distance camera techniques. Shots from a helicopter, a crane shot–it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is what this conveys to the audience. It’s far-reaching and huge in scope. There is a sense of order implied. A general surveying the battlefield does not feel the same that the soldier on the front line does. That’s the effect of distant, sweeping camera work. The corresponding technique in writing is not merely in the description, but the style of the description. Long, flowing sentences that focus on large movements rather than tiny details give the reader the same sense of order and understanding. This is an expository, descriptive writing style rather than a character-driven, immersive style. Of course those things can be written in, but they are less emphasized. So it sounds like this:

General Markham brought the looking-glass to his eye and surveyed his men. The field was theirs, or his rather, and he cast his eye on their progress with pride and confidence. But something was wrong…Was that smoke?

Thick black plumes coiled above Captain Berthol’s column, twisting their way skyward with a patient ease that was quite at odds with the chaos beneath them; angry red tongues of flame could be seen at intervals among the Captain’s troops, who were roiling about in evident panic. General Markham swept his magnified gaze across his battlefield to determine the source of the conflagration–and found it. A small troupe of enemy horsemen carved their way into a nearby field of barley–returning whence they came, Markham guessed–only to come careening out of the grain at a different location. They hurled projectiles at Berthol’s column, and though General Markham could not hear the noise of the battlefield, he was certain by their expressions that they raised quite a din as their missiles exploded into gouts of searing flame, the black smoke from which was now beginning to crawl up the hillside toward the general’s position.

“Shit,” he said.

So there’s your cable rig/chopper/crane shot. The length of the sentences, the measured diction, and the overall tone–they give the passage a sense of control. The general is still a personal part of this story. But his experience and confidence is felt in the style of the writing. I (the author) don’t want you (the reader) to feel panic, because the general, despite the unfortunate turn of events, has not begun to panic. Yet.

The next passage will illustrate the other style. For fluidity’s sake I’ll get right into it, and then I’ll break down the stylistic choices.

The smoke was seething over the crest of the hill, and in an instant it had swallowed General Markham’s camp. His fellow officers hacked and coughed as the gritty cloud enveloped them. Markham tried to maintain his steadfast composure. But something distracted him. A noise… What was that God-awful noise? Over the whooping and wheezing of his associates, a thunderous growl was growing. Markham knew that sound. It had been a long time since he’d heard it so clear. But he knew that sound for sure. His bowels twisted in his gut.

He knew that sound.

He amended his previous statement. “Fuck,” he said. And then the riders were upon them.

Awful, tortured screaming replaced the pounding of hooves in his ears. He had to move; his legs were frozen in place. It had been too long. This wasn’t supposed to happen. What the hell did he do? With an inhuman wail one of the riders appeared  out of the smoke. And began riding toward Markham. He brandished a sword in his free hand. His eyes were wide. Wild. They found a mark. A horrible sound then, like a rotten cabbage being kicked, and the horseman’s blade buried itself in the face of a nearby officer. The body fell, rolled over with the rider’s momentum as he jerked his weapon free.

Markham’s legs suddenly decided to move. But in the wrong direction. He buckled to his knees on the turf. He couldn’t stop staring at the dead man. Ander. That had been his name. Markham had met him at a ball once. His face… Not a face anymore. Almost unrecognizable. Blood and splintered bone. Markham felt the bile churning in his throat. But he didn’t get any time to be sick.

Because the horseman had come back. The cries of Markham’s cohorts were dying out as they themselves surely did. The horseman sat his horse and stared at Markham. The wildness was gone from his eyes. The bloodlust was gone. Instead there was a cold joy. An expression Markham had worn himself many times. The look of a man who had planned everything perfectly. The look of a leader, victorious. General Markham swallowed.

The rider spurred his horse.

So that’s shaky cam. You see the difference? Though the passage was longer, it reads more quickly. Choppy. Erratic. Lots of. Interruptions.Very annoying when. Used inappropriately.

Erhem. Sorry.

You see, shaky cam in movies is of questionable value. A movie is different from a book. Sometimes it’s best to just see what he hell is happening onscreen, and shaky cam gets in the way of that. But in a book, the equivalent effect–that of disorder, confusion, and mayhem–can be very desirable. The difference is in point of view. I’ll call it PoV because I’m lazy.

With few exceptions, movies are very loose in terms of PoV. The audience is free to see things that the character cannot. Books, on the other hand, are made and unmade by their authors’ effective (or ineffective) use of PoV.The most common PoV is limited third, and it’s a doozy. The writing is not directly from the character’s point of view. The author has some freedom to explain things about the character that said character wouldn’t notice by him or herself. But the author also explores the character’s thoughts. Observations and descriptions are colored by the character’s personality and understanding of the world. So when the character panics–you guessed it. The writing reflects that.

Short. Choppy. Sentences. Hard, sharp consonants. “The jagged blade twisted into his guts” has a lot more immediacy and violence to it than “the knife slid smoothly between his ribs.” Both styles have their place, but they both tell the reader different things.

And that’s how you write blood, gore, and violent death. I’m by no means an expert on writing, but I read a lot of books about people who stab other people with sharp things, or get stabbed themselves. And I hope my experience with the subject can shed some light on your future reading and writing endeavors–at least those that involve some amount of stabbing. So next time you want a character to fall gurgling to the ground with an arrow in his throat, think of me, dear reader.

And, as always, go in peace. That means keep the murder on the page.

Bye, now.

Motivation in a Vacuum

So if you’ve read any of my other rambling posts, you’ve realized by now that this blog will have a lot to do with writing. In truth, that’s what I want to do with my life. Just like a child imagining himself as his favorite pro wrestler, or baseball player, or… I don’t know, what’s a third dream occupation? Celebrity glass-blower? Well, just like that little boy, I often imagine myself as a successful, well-loved writer of fantasy fiction. It’s not about the fame, of course. I simply love to write. But if the jolt of joy I felt when I saw that this amateur hour weblog had six views in one day is any indication, having George R. R. Martin-level success feels amazing. So that would be nice, too.

Today, however, I don’t want to talk about my future aspirations. I won’t even talk about the story I’m working on currently, although I’ll probably shed some light on my pet project later. Please, please. Return to the softer, more spacious parts of your seats. No, today I would like to talk about what it takes to write–at least, what it takes for me to write.

I think that every story–screenplays, books, and short stories alike–comes from some source of inspiration somewhere. I don’t think any writer has a problem with inspiration, at least not in their glorious creative youth, before they become jaded and angry and alcoholic. Inspiration is that little spark that sets off the story. It’s the question that must be answered, or the character that won’t stop pacing around in your head, or the world that must exist in more imaginations than your own. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, but there’s on aspect of inspiration that you don’t realize when you first aspire to write: it’s very, very rare.

Inspiration can happen at any moment. Aha! Eureka! That sort of thing. It’s like a bolt of sexy, creative lightning. But how often can you expect to get struck by lightning? Even writers. I guess if inspiration is like lightning then writers are like lightning rods; they’re more prone to the phenomenon than other people, who… I guess are like people lying in a ditch? That metaphor seems to have wandered away from me. Anyway, my point is that even writers don’t get to experience the privileged presence of inspiration that often.

Therein lies the rub, my friends. Because, no matter how much you think you enjoy writing, you’re going to have to hate it sometimes to get any work done. You’ll get that delicious taste of a truly inspired idea, and you’ll be raring to go. Then, if you’re like me, you’ll make a map, or maybe write up some character descriptions. Maybe you’ll jump in and try to start writing right from Chapter One. If you’ve got a little more juice in the tank, you might even outline most of the story–enough so that you have a vague idea of where you’re going.

And then you’ll drop the project for months at a time. Not entirely–you’ll still think of it. A lot, most likely. But thinking of cool new things and awesome future scenes is easier than actually writing. So you’ll just leave it. Either that, or you’ll suck it up and do the hard work.

For me? It was the first option. For two years the story I’m currently working on milled around on my hard drive wishing someone would talk to it. I still thought about the story. A few times I’d open up the document. But I rarely touched a key after doing so. Because motivation and inspiration are not necessarily the same thing. And motivating oneself in the absence of inspiration is a truly difficult task.

That’s the shitty part of being a would-be writer. You think you like writing. But you won’t enjoy it a lot of the time. Getting those first words down on the paper is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Finishing a first draft–not worrying about making it sound pretty, but just getting the damn thoughts out of your head and onto the page–that is a nightmare of a challenge. It sure as hell is for me.

But I’m not letting my lack of motivation halt me anymore. Sitting around always telling yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow, and just letting the fun ideas run the show is not the way to go. I won’t be a slave to the whims of inspiration, and if you’ve ever yearned to be a writer, published or otherwise, you shouldn’t either. Have your idea, and then kick that bastard book’s ass.

More on my stuff later, friends.

Pro-tip: Listen to Neil Young’s Harvest. Shit is the mood music of the gods.

Why History is just like Fantasy, and I’m Sorry but You’re Wrong if You Disagree: an Essay

Alright, folks. I would like to talk about my third major interest. So far I’ve divulged to you my love for both fantasy fiction, and good old ass-kicking. Now I’d like to discuss history. Specifically, I’d like to talk about how a good history and a good fantasy story are valuable and enjoyable for the same damn reasons.

I’ll preface my argument by recognizing that a lot of people have no interest in history. Well, you’re all wrong. Rather, you’ve been misled. I’m convinced that this distaste is the fault of poor teachers. You see, I’ve been blessed with good ones, and it’s likely the reason I enjoy the subject so much. History teachers (and teachers in general, for that matter) are best served by being weirdos. I’ve been taught by plenty of strange, eccentric instructors, and those are of course the ones that I remember. They’re also the ones whose material I remember best. One collected hand-painted figures of knights and castles. One had us reloading mock muzzle-loaders in a Revolutionary War reenactment. Another had us mummify one another in toilet paper, placing paper versions of our most treasured guts in jars. And the rest have been a bunch of clever, funny, and all-around different people.

That’s the thing about history. Just like its teachers, history is best when it’s different. It’s best because it’s different. It is the strangeness of history that makes it appealing to me, and to other people, I should think. Taught well, there is no subject that can fascinate like history. Shit’s crazy.

And that’s exactly why fantasy is the best of all genres. This is fact, of course. Ever since Howard and Tolkien decided the future of the genre by creating its two main branches–Sword & Sorcery and High Epic Fantasy, respectively–fantasy has been tied inseparably to the history of our own world. Both Howard and Tolkien wrote in worlds that were actually intended to be prehistoric versions of our own. Since then, we’ve moved towards the model of totally separate worlds for our characters to inhabit. But they’re all a lot like ours. The people and cultures that inhabit them are often straight out of our history, too.

George R. R. Martin’s Dothraki are obviously Mongols. His Seven Kingdoms? An admitted imitation of War of the Roses-era England. Joe Abercrombie’s Gurkhul is clearly based on the historical kingdoms of the Middle East. His Midderland is an island version of the Netherlands. Patrick Rothfuss’ Edema Ruh are gypsies. Tolkien and Howard both obviously drew from Celtic and Norse mythology and culture.

So does this make us writers of fantastic fiction unoriginal assholes? Yes. But it also gives us an opportunity to make our genre of choice sound really important and meaningful. You see, fantasy can let us look at our own world in a new light. In Lord of the Rings, we have the obvious anti-industrialization message that comes with Saruman’s destruction of the Isen valley. But it doesn’t seem too broad. You don’t read that and get pissed off because Tolkien is trying to push a message on you. Because you’re just as annoyed as the professor wants you to be. This isn’t Earth Saruman’s destroying–it’s Middle Earth, a place filled with creatures and people and plants that rely on us to protect them! Now that I think of it, Earth is like that too!

See what I mean? If you want, and you don’t have to, you can use fantasy fiction, especially alternate world fiction, to sell a message that would come across as heavy-handed in normal fiction.

But back to that thing about fantasy being different. I was always fascinated by medieval history, because Europe in the Middle Ages was a place that was just so different from our own time. Not in a pretty princesses and brave knights way, either. It was a rough, unforgiving time. The majority of people were poor peasants, often exploited by their noble lords. Men didn’t fight dispassionately with rifles, but with cold steel, face to face. And I’m not so naïve as to think that that’s a good thing, either. Battle was common, and it was awful. Kings ruled, and society was ordered by military prowess as much as by money and land.

The point is, I like fantasy and history for the same reasons. And history’s been letting me down. These days, it seems to be all about theory. Let’s theorize why Taft was imperialistic. Let’s talk about the social implications of Orientalism. We only seem to be asking questions about things that we already know, anymore. And I want something fantastic. I want the smell of five hundred year-old parchment. I want to see the scrawled words of someone who’s been dead for centuries–words that no-one has read for nearly that long. I want to discover the stories of the human past. And I want to create stories that ring true to those experiences, foreign, but oh so familiar.

So there’s my long-winded rant. I’ll try to think of something more exciting to talk about next time, after I finish my little action-writing series. But seriously folks. Read history. Read fantasy. You’ll live longer.

How to Write Blood, Gore, and Violent Death – Part Two

Let’s continue, shall we? If you missed part one–well, don’t look now, but it’s right over there.

Fighting has a pretty big role in lots of genres. Who doesn’t like a good Indiana Jones style fist-fight? If it’s not that, it’s a gun fight. But those don’t take much attention to detail to write. You point the gun. You feel a little nervous. You pull the trigger. Applause.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is home to the more complicated type of fight. There are fist fights and the like, and those are good. But then there are armed battles. Fights to the death with cold steel and red blood. Tension! Excitement! A sharp blade carries so much more consequence than a balled fist. It sometimes seems to carry more consequence even than a gun. You’re used to hearing the stray bullets whiz by, never seeming to connect. When’s the last time a main character in a book or movie took a bullet anywhere but the shoulder or leg? And, according to Hollywood, those are least lethal places to be shot! Everyone gets shot in the shoulder at least once. You’ll be fine!

But see, a blade is different. Yeah, the guy with the knife might miss, but what if he doesn’t? He’s right there, in the character’s face. You, the reader, are forced to imagine the sensation of steel biting into flesh. No bang, thud, “I’ve been hit”–but a slow, searing pain as the weapon is twisted in the wound. Now that’s grit. That’s realism.

So why are so many fictional sword fights flawlessly choreographed displays of superb fencing? I’m certain that the reality is different. And reality is what I like in my fantasy. Here’s how it should go: the combatants square up. Sudden movement, and two strokes of the opponent’s blade are parried. Our hero counters, and his sword finds its mark. The enemy screams as the blood pours from his wound.

That’s how a fight goes. That quickly, and it’s over. It’s a scary thing. So I ask again–why all the smooth choreography and flash? It’s not  a dance, friends. It’s a fight to to the death. Where is the tension, and the risk? Where is the sweat and the blood and the dirt? Like I said, a blade should carry consequence.

Hm. Actually, there is a good example of a sudden, bloody battle that does involve guns. So it can be done. In the western film Appaloosa, the two main characters approach a bank in which four foul criminals are holed-up. Their approach is noticed, and their enemies are ready for them. In reality, this should not end well. And it doesn’t. The heroes draw their guns and immediately shoot down the two men by the bank door. One of them takes a bullet himself, but they switch targets all the same, continuing the fight. A bullet doesn’t kill you right away, you know. So they aim their pistols again. Before they can kill the two men in the bank’s second story windows, however, they are both shot down. The remaining bad guys ride away, and the good guys are left lying in the dirt. They’re leg and shoulder wounds, yeah… but one of them has a limp later, so the consequences are real. And most importantly, the fight is over in an instant, and that’s the way fights are.

Okay. Now, before you finish that thought, I do understand that a scene can’t always be written like that. I get it. A drawn out duel can even be more exciting than a quick one. Books and movies need drama. But the threat of that sudden, unforeseen final blow has to be there. I’ll provide an example in the realm of books. Roger Zelazny’s Amber series contains plenty of well-written action. In the first novel, the main character engages in a duel with his brother, a pretender to the throne. Both men are expert swordsmen, so we don’t exactly expect a quick kill. But the tension is there. Their blades meet, and they begin to fight back and forth across the room. There is fear in the main character’s thoughts as he duels. Trying something unexpected, he catches his brother on the arm and then mocks him, literally adding insult to injury. Suddenly his fear begins to dissipate, and he sees the same emotion growing on his brother’s face. The other man starts to tire. His wound is nagging at him and the main character knows it. He presses the attack. And then the duel is interrupted.

See, there is no death. There’s no brief, confused scuffle. But there is real tension because there is real danger. There’s also real, personal issues in the mix, and that’s always better for a story than a fight without meaning. The main character feels outclassed even when he is performing well. That is how a real fight feels. The confidence doesn’t come until you move in for the finish. The rest is only uncertainty and fear, and therein lies the tension. The realism of technique helps with that, too. In the second part of his series, two of Zelazny’s characters engage in hand-to-hand combat, and the author has clearly done his research. The main character wrestles with his opponent, and the techniques are there. He’s being outclassed again, this time by strength. He dives for a toehold, but can’t finish the move. He’s pinned. Yes, it’s another drawn out fight, but at no point does it seem silly or contrived.

So. Risk. Tension. Fear. Those are the keys to a good fictional fight. Being a bit of a practitioner myself, I think that some attention to technical detail goes a long way in establishing these things.

There’s a little more, but that’s all for today. Come back soon for Part Three, wherein we will talk about how writing style affects the feel of our realistic battle.

Until we meet again, gentle reader.

How to Write Blood, Gore, and Violent Death – Part One

What up suckas. It’s your good friend Discipulus again, and I’m here to make another hullabaloo. Last time I talked about fighting. Why I like fighting sports, why I desire to be an ass-kicking machine–you know, the good stuff. I thought it was about time I talked about writing on this blog, since that’s another passion of mine. But jumping straight from tapping bad guys to tapping keys seems like a big jump, so I figured I would segue.

So tonight I want to talk about fighting in books.

I’ll clear up a little first. I write fantasy. It’s mostly what I read, too. I always feel a little embarrassed when I say this, considering the state and reputation of much of modern fantasy–all Lord of the Rings rip-offs and stories about young farmer lads destined to defeat Not-Quite-Middle-Earth’s version of Satan. That’s not really my kind of fantasy. Not that I don’t like simple, predictable tales like that on occasion. But my true interest lies in the realm of gritty fantasy, a relatively new subgenre named in such a cliched fashion that, the term gritty having become a buzz-word as of late, you probably know instantly what kind of story I mean. And it’s not books filled with sand.

In fact, it’s likely you’ve seen Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on the book series that pretty much started this whole movement.

Ooh, I’d never thought of it like that. A movement. It feels good to be part of a movement. I’m suddenly empowered.

Anyway, that’s the sort of fantasy I like. The word fantasy sounds so wrong for this genre. What I really prefer is harsh medievalesque novels that flirt with the supernatural. But we’ll stick with fantasy for now, I guess. Easier to say, and I’m lazy.

Now, I don’t only like fantasy, but I do tend to read and watch things with a touch of realism to them. Some even go beyond realism into the realm of the downright pessimistic. Things like The Black Dahlia (which I just started reading–fantastic book so far), Joe Abercrombie’s novels, the Wire, Donnie Brasco. You get the idea. Things with a dark tone. Stories that don’t play around with idealized versions of the real thing, and often show the worst possible scenario instead. Tight focus on realistic characters that just live life the only way they know how.

Alright, that’s out of the way. Let’s talk more about people kicking ass.

You see, as a writer of fantasy, I have occasion to write an awful lot of fight scenes involving guys with swords wearing metal shirts. A good swording is great no matter how you color it, but as a lover of both medieval history and actual fighting, unrealistic fight scenes kind of irk me. They really irk me, in fact. Not only the action itself, even. I get annoyed at all manner of things that have to do with fighting and how it’s portrayed in books.

Things like wearing your sword on your back, whence it is literally impossible to draw it. Seriously, you’ve probably never thought of it, but it cannot be done. Same with giant, super-heavy swords. Why does Cloud from Final Fantasy need to use the almighty Buster Sword, a weapon so heavy that only he can lift it, not to mention wield it. It just doesn’t make sense. If you’re strong enough to lift a ton, you’ll be even more effective with only six to eight pounds, which is about how much a real sword of the same length as the Buster Sword would weigh.

So you see, as a writer, I understand visual appeal and all that, but I’m far more concerned with the real. I like things that feel like real life, even when they’re fantasy. Something else that people don’t seem to get. But that’s for another day. And so is the rest of this post! Soon, I shall talk about the actual writing of a fight scene, and why realism matters.