This week I’m the curator on @WritersRotation on Twitter, if you fancy giving it a follow. Every week there’s a different curator (from anywhere in the world) who tweets about writing and books. This week it’s me, as I said. I’m on until Sunday, so you’ve got a few days.
I’m having a bit of writer’s block at the moment. That block partly composed of all the other useful stuff I’m meant to be doing and am guiltily avoiding. There are still boxes to unpack, and if Ivory stubs her toe on my kitchen stuff one more time I think I’m in serious trouble. I have also been reading. I read Herald of the Storm by Richard Ford pretty much in one lump. It was fantasy, again, but he asked so nicely, and there was a sword on the cover, so what was I meant to do? That put a dint in my sewing schedule because I needed my eyes for both things, and reading generally takes precedence.
Right, so, Inside the Box. We’re always told to think outside said cube, but I don’t think we should get carried away. In terms of character development at least. Fantasy can be a big problem for this, because a lot of weird stuff or ignorance of the laws of physics can be explained away by yelling MAGIC and running away. But I don’t think that’s good enough. Say you have a character who has all these powers. Why isn’t he ruling the world? If he’s genuinely that powerful, how do you justify him not being supreme dude of the universe? Obviously, it’s because in your head that’s not how the story goes. But the reader doesn’t know that. Anyone who knows me or my opinions on writing will know I hate an excess of exposition, but we have to know something! You’ve got the plot all mapped out (possibly) so we need something a little more concrete than “well, he just isn’t, because he goes to X, and he has to do Y!” Does he? Really? If you were in his shoes, what would you do? According to your world and story, there’s no real reason why he can’t blitz everything.
So why is Lord High Sorceror Guy not king of the hill? I was thinking about this last night instead of sleeping, and I came up with a fair few reasons:
1. He doesn’t know he has all this power (useless apprentice trope, Harry Potter pre-age-11…) and just accidentally leaks the stuff. Broken stuff magically fixes itself as he passes, his parents don’t age because subconsciously he doesn’t want them to die…
2. Other magic users put firewalls in his brain to prevent him accessing the most powerful stuff (Jean Grey syndrome) because they were afraid of what he’d do.
3. Using magic causes crippling pain or blood loss for the caster. Has to be really worth it to weaken yourself. If you attempt a world-take-over, do you really want to immediately be so weak anyone could just kill/capture you and undo it?
4. Using magic needs energy, and every casting will kill a random stranger somewhere to get that energy. Like in The Box/Button, Button. The magic user can’t live with that blood on his hands and refuses to cast magic.
5. He promised a dying relative/mentor that he’d use his power responsibly and doesn’t want to let them down.
Now, there are doubtless others, but those five seemed quite general and workable into different scenarios. I don’t believe a character should be a construct. They need to be a person with good and bad qualities and complexity. But they also need to have a visible thread to follow. I don’t like being patronised or talked down to when I read (or anywhere, really) but even I get annoyed at characters who are Mysterious for seemingly no reason. Totally random acts with no explanation will not make me want to keep reading your book.
A character that gets to me in that way is Melisandre from A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s a good job there are so many other good characters for me to read about, because if Melisandre was the main feature I think I would have given up long ago. What exactly is her end game? Where does she really come from? Westeros is pretty magic-free, really, apart from her and Thoros doing R’hllor-y things. And the dragons. If it wasn’t for all the other characters speculating about her, plotting against her, and generally interacting with her, we’d know practically nothing. I know that’s the point, I guess, but I don’t like it.
Take River, from Herald of the Storm (it’s fresh in my mind). He’s an assassin. When we meet him, he’s mid-mission. He kills the people he’s told to, without question. But immediately, he differentiates. He tries not to kill bystanders if he can help it. Unless they attack him. He is an assassin, not a murderer. Not much of a distinction, but we know he has a code. We follow him home. Aha! I wasn’t altogether surprised to find he was somewhat indoctrinated and part of a larger system. His master is mysterious, but I don’t mind the mystery at one step removed. River is the one we care about. We learn about his training and his ‘brothers’ and his secrets. He’s insular, but not closed off. It’s a good balance.
And then towards the end we find out a little more about the chain of command, the power struggle and how it’s filtered down to him, which is nice. Well played, Ford.
It makes me realise that I really do need to be more organised about my writing if I’m ever going to get anywhere with it. Maybe I never will. I will always write. I have to. But I have so many unfinished things… If only real life didn’t get in the way, eh?