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Knowing Where You’re Headed: Harry Potter, Star Wars and BSG

I’ve been patently neglectful of this blog for the last few months; didn’t even realize until I logged in a few days ago that my last post was from mid-October. However, there are a few posts I’ve been meaning to get to for some weeks now, so I’m cautiously resolving to undertake a blogging revival in the New Year (we’ll see how long that sticks :)) To jump-start the process, I figured I’d talk about the creative pursuit that’s been consuming my time for the last 3 months: outlining.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you know that I’ve been working on the first book in a long series for the last 3 1/2 years (give or take). Last summer, I was still bold enough to say aloud that I was hoping to have my book in a state to be shopped around by the end of 2015 (haha. Ha.); even by the beginning of October, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about getting through a draft by year’s end. And then I hit a block. A scene that I’d thought was plotted solidly enough to write itself completely fell apart. All the plot building blocks that were balanced on the outcome of that scene started to tremble; I saw in a flash that I wasn’t quite sure why those bits of plot were important to my protagonist’s story, or how they were going to play out in the next book and the one after that. Warily, I took a step back and forced myself to take a hard look at the rest of 2015: two lengthy out-of-state trips, three major holidays, and quite a bit of Life Stuff that needed to be cleaned up and organized before the new year. And I decided it was time to shift gears.

So since the end of October, I’ve not added a word to my novel-in-progress. Instead, I’ve been sitting down with the fragments of loosely-plotted notions that gave this series its genesis starting almost a decade ago, and the very vague outline I drafted 3 or 4 years back, and going through the arduous process of trying to make it all fit together in a way that feels right.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve enjoyed every minute of it; in fact, I’m writing this post after a morning banging my head against a map and culture that I’m only now realizing needs a lot more development if I’m actually expecting to set a book in that place. But overall, the process has been extraordinarily rewarding. I’ve always thought of this series as comprising three sequential trilogies; the first two are now plotted and framed in a way that really makes me happy. Each individual book has an arc, framed by a few strong story questions; each trilogy has an overarching question and issue that needs to be resolved; and each piece contributes to the larger journey I want the protagonist to take. After almost 2 years grubbing in the trenches of scene-by-scene minutiae, it’s been a breath of fresh air to step back and look at everything from 10,000 feet up. When I encounter a sticky piece of plot, it’s refreshing beyond words to be able to step back from it and say “hmm… would this work better if I changed something all the way back in Book 4?” Which I can do, without consequence, because Book 4 has not passed under anyone else’s eyes at this point; there are no legions of fans devoted to things having played out in a particular way.

As opposed to, for instance, the fans who heard Leia Organa’s claim to remember her real mother, as “very beautiful, kind, but sad,” despite (as the prequels later established) Padme Amidala’s having died when her children were literally minutes old.

Of course, the media-analysis sites that I entertain myself with have had maybe more than an average amount of conversation around Star Wars continuity in the last few months (on that subject, yes, I’ve seen The Force Awakens; yes, I plan to say something about it here, probably in another couple days). I’ve followed that discussion with particular interest given my own project of the moment, but this isn’t a new issue for me. I think about it every time I consume a new series, as I try to figure out how much the creator(s) planned ahead of time and how much is invented on the road. And thus we come to my examination of the three series mentioned in the title of this post: Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica  (potential spoilers for all three series follow, though not for The Force Awakens).

First things first: I’ve consumed and enjoyed all 3 of these stories, and I fully admit that all of them have their problems. But I also think they serve as an interesting trio to look at when considering the relative virtues of outlining, retconning, and free-floating storytelling.

To all appearances, Harry Potter is on one end of the spectrum as far as planning goes. While not all of the ideas from JK Rowling’s original sketch for the series ended up in the books (see this interview, where she talks about doing a “hostage swap” in deciding which characters wouldn’t survive the series), she does a masterful job of laying out small details that become consequential later. Many people remember the first mention of Sirius Black on Page 14 of Sorcerer’s Stone; for me, the moment that brought home Rowling’s finesse with details was when I went rummaging back through Half-Blood Prince descriptions of the clutter in the Room of Requirement searching for something that might be the Sword of Gryffindor. There are swords, of course, but none of them are Gryffindor’s: however, there’s also this.

Seizing the chipped bust of an ugly old warlock… he stood it on top of the cupboard… [and] perched a dusty old wig and a tarnished tiara on the statue’s head… (P527)

That tiara, of course, is Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, and one of Voldemort’s horcruxes. Just tossed casually into the mix. The only other series easily brought to my mind that shows this level of forethought is Babylon 5, and that show was explicitly conceived by its creator as a novel for television with a clear beginning, middle and end.

If JK Rowling started out with a destination in mind and stayed more or less on the same path to get herself there, George Lucas seems to have taken a different tack. It’s generally accepted by Star Wars fans that when A New Hope was released in 1977, Lucas had not yet decided that Luke and Leia were siblings or even that Vader was Luke’s father (thus the clumsy ret-conning that has to happen in Return of the Jedi when Obi-Wan explains that his account of Anakin’s fate “was true… from a certain point of view.”) Then, of course, there is the disconnect between the prequels and the original trilogy. While the quote from Leia about remembering her mother is probably the most-often cited example, the one that caught me was in this review by Tor.com’s Ava Jarvis recounting her experience of watching A New Hope for the first time after having seen the prequels:

I definitely believe that the prequels did more damage than not to the original trilogy—and that damage isn’t limited to the sudden appearance of the idea of a mitochondria midi-chlorian driven Force, the wrong most often cited by fans. The cracks go deeper than that—including making the final confrontation between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan feel stilted, in a way it wouldn’t have had there been actual passion and concern and, yes, chemistry between the two.

After watching A New Hope for the first time in a long time, and doing so for the first time with Revenge of the Sith fresh in my brain, I can’t help but agree with her point. Even in their stilted interactions in the prequels, Obi-Wan and Anakin can be believed to have genuine affection for one another, and as far as the audience knows, the last time they saw one another was on Mustafar, after Obi-Wan had cut Anakin down and left him to die. With that reality in mind, seeing them calmly circle each other in the corridor on the Death Star, fighting without so much as a flicker of emotion, feels… well, it feels funny, to say the least.

Obviously, Lucas’s story has been presented to the world over a much longer time frame than Rowling’s (38 years, so far, compared to 8), and serialized stories’ changing their details from one installment to the next is nothing new. But even so, it still seems to me like the better storytelling choice is not to change course mid-stream; once you’ve set a piece of your history in place and shaped other aspects of the tale around it, and gotten readers and viewers invested in that history, that piece ought to stay put. Even if it proves inconvenient for you later.

Of course, there’s another way of dealing with inconvenient plot details, and that’s the strategy employed by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore when he realized he’d misnumbered the humanoid Cylons (with one of the “many copies” models being identified #8, presumably leaving the “final five” as 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12). Moore wrote a few lines into one episode mentioning a 13th model, “Daniel,” that had been scrapped early on in mass production (and thus, viewers were led to assume, was not counted as part of the set), and then was startled when fans leapt on this new character as a source of potential answers to the show’s many unanswered questions. Desperate for some damage control, Moore released an official statement through his podcast saying that “[Daniel] is not part of the plan for the end of the show.”

In the first interview linked above, Moore also notes that he didn’t really start thinking about how he wanted the show to end until he was developing the fourth season. Given that the show introduces its first mysteries in its miniseries, and nearly every over-arching plot (Kara Thrace’s uniqueness, the identity of the “final five” Cylon models, the destiny of Hera Agathon) is embedded in some sort of mystery, this style of plotting seems like a risk, to put it mildly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many fans rated this ending among the worst in science fiction TV history.

I know that many writers don’t like outlines, and I know that serialized fiction has succeeded for a long time and in many media with writers not worrying too much about an overarching plan for their stories. However, when I write, I try to tell stories that I would enjoy as a reader; and comparing my experience of these three series just leaves me more convinced than ever that I’m taking the right approach. So I may not get back to writing for another couple weeks — but when I do, I will know where my protagonist ends, and how he gets there. And I think I’ll tell a better story because of it.

Believing Impossible Things: Magic and Fantasy, Part I

Quick, now: what makes a fantasy story a fantasy story?

When I’m asked the well-meaning-but-terrifying question “what is your book about,” my shortest and most general answer tends to take a shape kind of like this: “Oh, it’s a big fat fantasy novel. You know, with swords and monsters and magic.”

With these three elements, I like to think I can narrow my story’s scope enough that potential readers will know if they want to hear more. The “swords” part probably suggests that my book’s got some things in common with historical or quasi-historical stories (like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books); the “monsters” part probably indicates that there will be invented creatures of one kind or another (though it’s certainly not only invented settings that can depict monstrous things). But the part that I suspect most clearly marks the kind of story I’m telling – that I know from experience is most likely to make someone lean in or turn away – is the word “magic.” Because I’m increasingly convinced that magic is the marker of fantasy stories.

But what are we talking about when we talk about magic?

The first definition to come to many people’s minds is the kind of magic showcased in the Harry Potter books and in your average sword-and-sorcery novel or MMORPG. This is the wizard in the D&D party casting Magic Missile: very showy, often involving formal words and gestures, most frequently (though not always) formally taught, and common in the culture it’s a part of. But it’s not the only model out there.

About 6 weeks ago, author Kazuo Ishiguro went on record in an interview with The New York Times expressing his concern that readers of his new novel, The Buried Giant, “are… going to say this is fantasy.” Setting aside the ideological debate that sprung up in the wake of his comments, consider the content of the book in question: according to Goodreads, it follows an elderly couple as they wander around the ruins of their not-quite-British homeland, shrouded in a mist that makes people forget their pasts. Is this magic?

Both Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Carey’s Kushiel books are the product of an enormous amount of historical research, although neither is set in the “real world” that readers know. Both series also have elements that are generally accepted not to exist in the real world (in no particular order and without differentiation: dragons, murderous shadows, precognition, and shapeshifting). These elements are seen as generally remarkable by the characters living in the setting, and their existence is not well-understood or explained; but they’re there, and they’ve always been there. Is this magic?

What about the feruchemy and allomancy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books? These powers are openly stated to have a genetic basis, and they’re fairly common in their respective populations, if not completely taken-for-granted. The time travel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series seems to follow similar rules: successful time travel has a genetic component, it’s linked to particular places and times, and there are other factors that make it easier to travel safely. Magic? Or science?

What about Star Wars’ the Force? Magic? Does your answer change if you’re considering only the three original movies versus all six extant movies (which offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for it)?

When we hear the word “magic,” what do we expect to see?

This question’s been at the forefront of my mind lately, as the first “really magicky” parts of my novel have come under the knife for revision, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Last April, I read a Locus interview with author Daryl Gregory where he said:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

At the time, this really resonated with me – perhaps because my fantasy-worldbuilding kept being disrupted by sci-fi-loving Husband asking questions like “but where does the magic come from?” – but as I get a little more distance from it, I find myself wondering. I’ve encountered fantasy stories where people attempt to figure out where their magic comes from. It seems to me like the final climax of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is all about taking control of the fundamental processes of magic (and basically inserting sharp objects into rocks). If a character in Harry Potter attempted to ascertain where their magic came from, would that make the story into science fiction? Or would it only be science fiction if it was discovered that the cause was genetic manipulation or radiation?

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Is the only difference the way that the story frames the unbelievable elements, that “magic” is unbelievable things that come from outside of people, where “technology” is people-derived? When Hermione Granger develops a new spell, is she using magic or technology or both?

A few months ago, I attended a Google Hangout interview with NK Jemisin through the Dive Into Worldbuilding series where she talked both about the new novel she has coming out later this year and about her philosophy on world-building. The two things that struck me most from this conversation were her points about assumptions she tries to avoid in her readers. First, she noted that people generally assume that science and magic don’t coexist, that the practice of science in a fantasy setting (or even the use of scientific language) is a rare commodity. But the thing that really resonated with me was her explanation for why she doesn’t use “magic” as a term in her books. The reason, she explained, was because “magic implies… differentiating between magic and mundanity.”

I think that might be my new favorite explanation: that when people use the word “magic,” they’re drawing a line between what is normal and what is uncanny. This can be different for your setting than for the real world – in fantasy, that’s often the case – and it can change over the course of the story. But “magic” as a concept carries undertones of something rare and precious and bizarre. By that definition, the mysterious stuff of Carey and Martin’s books is undeniably magic. The everyday conveniences of Harry Potter’s world, on the other hand, start to lose their rights to the title. Something that’s common – that’s just part of how the world works – wouldn’t quite be magic, not to the characters. Even if it’s never been seen before by the readers.

Of course, all this musing hasn’t done much to tidy up the definition of magic, or of fantasy — but as I tell the students in my sociology courses, definitions are always problematic, and people get uncomfortable with edge cases (like the Force in Star Wars, or Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, which are always identified as “technically science fiction”). For most readers, I suspect that Harry Potter-style wizardry falls neatly into a different category than the more pseudo-scientific approach to weird powers taken in Mistborn or Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. But are there other distinctions? Does the purported source of uncanny powers matter? George RR Martin offers up both religious and secular magic, some clearly magical creatures and some human mages and some whose nature isn’t entirely clear. Is a dragon always magical? An elf? A dwarf?

I suspect I’ll be thinking about this for a while longer. What do you think? What puts Ishiguro’s allegory about societies recovering from atrocity in the Literature section of Barnes & Noble, while Tolkien’s goes in the Fantasy section?

Say Goodbye to All of This: The End of a Good Character

We had a house party this past weekend for Husband’s birthday (happy birthday, Husband! :-D) and at the end of the night, I got into a pretty nuts-and-bolts writing conversation with my neighbors about important questions like how to write fight scenes (conclusion: don’t let your characters think about anything besides the guy or gal who’s trying to kill them) and how to get past the fear that what you’re writing is garbage (conclusion: write it anyway. Garbage is easier to revise than a blank page). But I think the most thought-provoking piece of the conversation had to do with killing characters.

I’ve never had a problem killing off my characters: my bad writing always tends toward the angstiest of angst, and the earliest piece of writing in my childhood scribbles file has the main character dying at the end. In fact, my never-finished “first novel,” a quasi-reboot of Black Beauty written when I was 11, had my narrator shunting from disaster to disaster because the only reason I could think of for her to move to a new home (which was the main plot thread of the story) was to bring violence and death to all the other horses in her barn. As my writing’s gotten better, though, I’ve started to realize that just like everything else, there are good ways to kill a character, and there are bad ways (of course, as with all my writing rants, these are open to debate).

As I’ve said before, in my own writing, because of my crazy levels of outlining, I tend to know a character’s fate right from the beginning of the book, even in early drafts. What that means is that for the most part, my job is to make my redshirts lovable — because in my mind, if you kill off a character whose death will have an emotional effect on your protagonist, it’d better be designed to have an effect on your reader, too.

A few of my favorite strategies from “real books” (including A Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series, and Star Wars) after the jump (in case there’s anyone out there in my universe who doesn’t know those yet… in which case, you’ve got some reading and watching to do… also talk about Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Black House, but I do that in a more anonymized way…)