Like a lot of writers, I’m really good at doing lots of work on projects that have nothing to do with the project I’m supposed to be working on. It’s a kind of constructive procrastination, I guess, and it has its uses. Lately, while my short story projects are a bit stalled and the novel I’m working on plods along at a moderate pace, I’ve been spending entirely too much time fleshing out the land of Nyxos, a setting for future stories, novels, etc..
The primary, operative element of information about Nyxos is that all the power in this world, all the sorcerous might and arcane ability, finds its genesis in dreams. Dreamstuff can be made into physical objects; dreams can be spied upon, invaded, and even taxed. Some species live more in dreams than they do in ‘reality’ and, indeed, the line between the two is often held into question. A lot of this is really rough, mind you, but that’s the gist of it.
The primary villain in the world is the Oneirarch, the Dream Tyrant, who ‘taxes’ the dreams of his subjects to both keep them in line and to build his own power. He is something out of a nightmare – not seen, but glimpsed in the corners of nightmares. He is a presence felt, but not known. His priests maintain a fleet of dreamships - powerful vessels of pure dreamstuff that sail the skies of Nyxos, imposing the Onierarch’s will through the terrifying violence of nightmares-made-real.
But as I develop these concepts, I’m left with the question: Of what shape should the dreamworld take? The closest analog in fantasy literature I know of is Tel’aran’rhiod, which is from Jordan’s Wheel of Time - a world of dreams that is unified into a coherent, if malleable, landscape that loosely mirrors the real world. This is a kind of ‘universalist’ approach to dreams (i.e. we all visit the same dreamworld while we dream, we just lack the skills to navigate it). On the other end of the spectrum we have the world of dreams as set out by Inception, wherein the dreamworld is not a universal landscape but rather an idiosyncratic construction of an individual’s subconscious. Each dreamer is unique, each dream has its own unique foibles, and each is a reflection of individual will rather than collective belief.
To some extent, this seems to find us floating between the poles of none other than Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. These two giants of psychoanalysis explored the importance of dreams in our psychological landscape, and while they share many of the same ideas, there are key differences. The most significant, perhaps, is the fact that Jung sees dreams as plugged into a kind of collective subconscious – an amalgam of myth and religious folklore that permeated the subconscious of all people and was shared between them. This, of course, is more in line with Tel’aran’rhiod than the dreamscapes of Inception. Freud, meanwhile, sees dreams as reflections of problems felt by the dreamer in the waking world (and these problems he saw as frequently sexual in nature). Jung agrees with his former teacher to a point (i.e. that dreams reflect waking problems), but takes it one step further to insist that the dream isn’t mere wish-fulfillment caused by some conscious issue in need of resolution, but is itself an entity worthy of independent consideration. To paraphrase this paper by Brlizg on the matter, whereas Freud might wonder what caused a dream and how to fix it, Jung wondered what the dream itself meant on its own terms.
This connection between dreams and the real world and the connection between one person’s dreams and another’s is something worthy of personal reflection as well as a direction for fantastic extrapolation. It’s something I’m going to need to study at greater length, at any rate, before Nyxos is ready to go.
Now, back to more pressing writing projects.
Is it just me, or are there a lot of magical educational institutions in the fantasy genre? I mean, it makes sense – if you have a world where there’s a wizard in every town, they all have to learn their trade somewhere, right? What I find odd, though, is the extent to which we, the readers, always find ourselves there, going to classes, worrying about tests, and the rest of it. Now, while I do enjoy a well-rendered magic school scene as much as the next guy, I feel like this particular trope of the genre is getting worn out. I mean, consider all the magic schools out there:
- Hogwarts (naturally)
- The Jedi Academy
- The University (Kingkiller Chronicles)
- Brakebills (The Magicians)
- The White Tower of Tar Valon (The Wheel of Time)
- Roke (Earthsea Trilogy)
There are more than this, too, and there are also those other fantastic schools we see that, while they don’t teach magic, they do teach rather off-beat things like mutant powers (Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) or high-tech strategy (the Battle School in Ender’s Game) and so on and so forth. My own world, Alandar, has a magical school, too (the Arcanostrum of Saldor), and I’d bet there are at least a thousand other first novels out there all brandishing their own version of how to learn to throw fire from your hands and tell the future with a dish of water. And, while I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to figure that stuff out in their fantasy world, I am getting a little tired of having to take the curriculum myself.
I don’t want to go to class with these kids. I don’t want to meet their teachers. I don’t want to see their tests or worry with them over their tuition or any of that. It’s becoming exhausting for me – I feel like I never get the chance to graduate from these places. Once I’m out of one, I’m enrolled in another. It’s starting to drive me crazy. I have now forsworn ever writing any further magic school scenes that deal with the troubles of students learning the mystical arts (I have done it in the past, but no more). Why? It’s done now. Beat to death.
Now, there are some very good reasons why this trope has infiltrated so much of the genre and, honestly, one of the reasons it bothers me is that I, myself, am a teacher and reading this stuff just makes me feel like I’m at work to some extent. Most simply, though, the primary reason we keep seeing magical schools is that so much of this genre is targeted at kids who are still in high school or college. Hell, the Young Adult Fantasy genre is almost exclusively concerned with an audience for whom a major (if not the major) source of conflict in their lives is their experiences in school. I would bet that adults like these things because they, themselves, enjoy the nostalgia that comes with being obsessed with the troubles that come with school (which, kids, if I may pull my Old Man Card here, are wonderfully simple problems compared to the Real World). Even beyond audience appeal, they also serve as excellent ways to introduce a reader to the magical scheme of the fantasy world in question – as they learn, so do you.
In all those senses, I get it; I understand why we keep going back to these places. Can we shake it up, though? Can we tell the story of a teacher instead of a student? Can we follow a student who finds school easy but their personal life hard (though I suppose Grossman does this in The Magicians to some extent)? Can we follow a student who is so terrible at school that he isn’t any good and he drops out and then finds something else to do with his life? What about not having a school, but just a master and apprentice? This has been done, yes, but hardly as often and not with as much detail. What about somebody who’s just plain old self-taught? What about somebody founding a school? What about a school that gets dissolved?
There’s a lot of stuff to be done here, but I feel like we keep running in the same circles. We got the same talented kid who has some trouble in school but overall does impressive stuff who has a teacher s/he likes, a teacher s/he hates, a group of plucky friends, and a headmaster who makes a good mentor. They go through their adventures, get their degree, and there the story stops. This I find deeply ironic to some extent since, as all adults know, that’s the point where the story really starts.
This is probably going to turn into a rant, but before it does, let me first and foremost say that I recommend Patrick Rothfuss’s novels, In the Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. The main character, Kvothe, is brilliantly drawn. It’s been a while since I’ve been so attached to a protagonist that I literally cheer on his accomplishments while reading. I still haven’t finished Wise Man’s Fear yet (life has gotten in the way, as has writing), but I expect to soon, and I am still enjoying the series a good deal.
I do, however, have one incredibly annoying problem with the book: Denna, the love interest.
Denna is not attractive to me. Denna is worse than unattractive, I find Denna actively repulsive. I would flee from this woman like she had cholera. I honestly cannot stand her; she drives me bonkers. And yet Kvothe, whom I adore, is madly in love with her. I find myself screaming at the text “Kvothe you moron! THE GIRL IS BAD NEWS! MOVE ON!” It’s like witnessing a good friend of yours going out with a complete zero and you knowing you have no real control over it (it’s their life, etc.), but it also seems to occupy your every thought during every conversation you have with them. It’s an eyelash in your eye, an eggshell in your omelette.
For those of you who haven’t read the book, Denna is, essentially, the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope from modern film. If you don’t know who I mean, think Natalie Portman from Garden State, Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, of even Catherine from the classic French flick, Jules et Jim. The MPDG was defined by film critic Nathan Rabin when he said:
“[The MPDG is] that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
The MPDG is flighty, free-spirited, and playful. She is in need of a man to give her stability in life, but refuses to submit to a man’s authority. The man, conversely, needs the MPDG to teach him to love and laugh and grow. They feed off one another, they banter and they play, and ultimately complete each other in a kind of perfect love.
This sounds nice on paper, I suppose, but only if you assume the MPDG is some kind of puzzle piece and not an actual human being. MPDGs would be, in reality, emotionally damaged people. They cannot trust and are afraid to love due to deep-seeded psychological issues that only they (and perhaps a licensed therapist) can repair. They are not relationship material, no matter how quirky or fun they appear. This is not to say, of course, that quirky and fun women are automatically bad news in real life (far from it!), but when that quirkiness is really just a shield for self-destructively low self-esteem and emotional unavailability, well, it’s not good.
Denna fulfills this trope well – she is mistrustful, flighty, and the rest of it. Rothfuss (through Kvothe’s narration) portrays this as wonderful and enchanting and intoxicating, which drives me bonkers. No, Kvothe, it is not charming when Denna gives you a little wink while on the arm of another man. It is hurtful to you, to her, and dishonest to everyone (especially the guy whose arm she is on). It’s emotionally destructive behavior. Denna keeps secrets and dislikes inquiry into her past (WARNING FLAG, Kvothe!), she refuses to pursue Kvothe or be pursued by him for fear of being hurt. She can’t take criticism. She is unreliable.
As if this wasn’t aggravating enough, Rothfuss parades a variety of far more attractive women (at least to me) under Kvothe’s nose. There is Fela, the intelligent, well-spoken, honest, courageous, generous classmate at the University. There is Devi, the confident, talented, street-smart, and curious loan-shark. Hell, there’s even Felurian, a faerie princess and the most beautiful woman in the world. Granted, she isn’t human and would eventually devour Kvothe with her affections, but at least the woman would supply some degree of emotional satisfaction to the poor man before his heart gave out.
Now, it may well be that Rothfuss is perfectly aware of what bad news this Denna girl is. He is making the series out to be somehow tragic, anyway – maybe Denna is part of it. All I know is that it’s been two books now of Kvothe mooning over a girl who, were he a real guy and my friend, I would do my best to dissuade his interest. Denna is bad news, man. For Tehlu’s sake, ASK OUT FELA!
Dusk born and dawn dead,
Crown of Stars about their head.
Young as dewdrops, old as Stone.
Clad in Whispers, Speak in Silk,
Seek them not, nor all their ilk.
Wand’ring Kyklos, where no man tread,
With the shades and restless dead.
Dancing they on darkest moon
to ancient words and madman’s tune,
Carry silver, holly, purest lye
and Skie revels shall pass you by.
I’ve begun developing a new fantasy world, inspired by a story I wrote called “Dreamflight of the Katatha”, which will be published in Deepwood Publishing’s Ways of Magic Anthology. The place is called Nyxos, and it is inspired by a mixture of Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Celtic cultures. Unlike Alandar, which is more gritty and realistic (and more ‘modern’), the idea of Nyxos is to be mythic, ancient, and dreamlike. It’s in the very early planning stages, but the above is a verse description of one of the ‘creatures’ roaming the lands beyond the ‘civilizing’ influence of the Oneirarch. Of note, most of what people know in Nyxos is based off verse and song – almost no one can read or write. Anyway, thought I’d share it, and I hope you like it.
My relationship with Stephen King’s writing is a complicated one. On the one hand, his body of work demands respect and his gift for plot and pacing is legendary. Those books of his I’ve read (which are rather few–Carrie, a variety of his novellas, a few short stories, and about half the Dark Tower Series), I have enjoyed. None of them, though, have managed to grab me. None, except perhaps The Gunslinger.
Say what you will about the Dark Tower series, but it is different. King creates a world that’s full of pointy edges and odd curves – you can’t quite get a handle on it. Roland journeys through a sort of dark, decaying Wonderland, with a new crumbling edifice around each corner. It is a world steeped in a kind of melancholy mystery which is enchanting. The Gunslinger encapsulates that beautiful doom perfectly, in a short little book stuffed full of strange. This is no wonder, though, as the Robert Browning poem that inspired King’s work is, itself, a work of incredible imagination (greater, I would argue, than King’s work itself).
It has been years since I stopped reading the Dark Tower series. I made it as far as The Waste Lands and left it behind me. I tell myself I really ought to go and finish the thing, but I don’t and probably never will. I think the problem (insofar as it is a problem at all) is that the Dark Tower, for me, is something that need not be reached. I am not left with any wish to see Roland’s quest completed, nor am I engaged in the character arcs of any of the characters. For me, the Dark Tower series is more poem than novel, anyway. Beautiful imagery, wonderful ideas, peculiar mood…but narratively compelling? I don’t really think so.
See, Roland and the Man in Black and the strange parallel world they inhabit aren’t really people to me. The Dark Tower doesn’t really seem to be a place. The whole thing echoes with metaphor, striking thematic parallels with every hero’s journey from Sir Gawain to the Torturer Severian. The picture is complete for me, without the need for plot or narrative motion. Honestly, I feel like the kid and the addict and the crazy lady interfere with what I like about the first book. They inject ‘real’ into the cloudy ephemera of Roland’s world, and I resent it.
The Dark Tower - hell, all Dark Towers – are places to dream about. They are points of inspiration, ideas fashioned from unknowable black stone. To get there, to achieve the Dark Tower is to touch your own dreams; to find out, in a supreme moment of catharsis, if your hand will pass through and you realize your delusion, or if your hand will land firm and your dream will be pulled back down into filthy, complicated reality. It’s lose-lose. I, myself, prefer to leave it there, atop its field of blood-red roses, it’s riddle unanswered. I feel, ultimately, that the answer is inherent in the question, anyway.
As it happens, that quarterfinalist is me. From what I can gather from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest rules (and they do their best in avoiding lucidity there, let me tell you), the internet, by which I mean all of you people, may visit Amazon and download excerpts of the novels (for free, of course) and review them. If I get lots of good reviews, the likelihood of me making the next round increases.
Here is the link. Go there. LIKE it, damn you all. LIE if you must (well, no–don’t do that), but review. REVIEW AS YOU HAVE NEVER REVIEWED BEFORE!
In the meantime, I will keep writing like a good glacier and spending the rest of my time cooing over my brand new baby daughter, born this past Sunday.
And maybe, just maybe I’ll grade a student paper or two.
There’s that moment when you’re watching Empire Strikes Back, right near the beginning, when you hear the hum and roar of the Echo Base hangar and watch Han cuss out Chewie for taking something apart he just tried to fix, when you realize: I love these guys. And you do. You want to live with them; you want to sling up a hammock in the Falcon and ride along for their adventures, no matter where they lead, because Han is awesome and Chewie is like the best friend you never had and you want to know what the inside of that ship smells like or how the air on Hoth feels against your cheeks. It is at that moment that, against all reason, the world of Star Wars has you. Your heart is in your throat for the rest of it, come what may, because Han and Chewie and Luke and Leia are your friends.
It happens again, at least for me, in Willow. There is Mad Martigan, still partially in drag, still loopy from the brownie’s true-love dust, getting screamed at by Willow (again), being charged by Nokmar soldiers…
…and then he gets a sword. Magic happens.
It happens with Indiana Jones running through the South American jungles in Raiders, it happens with Tyrion when he walks out of the Eyrie with a smile on his face, it happens with Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver, with Mal Reynolds and Buffy, with Kirk and McCoy – that single, almost unquantifiable thing that happens when you discover that you really do love these people. You could read stories about them forever, or so you think.
Yet, it isn’t really true.
How we fall in love and out of love with characters (or how we never manage to) is the sort of bottled lightning that probably every author seeks to capture. You try to make your characters relatable, flawed, but also idealized and perfect (somehow). You give them senses of humor, you have them complain about stuff just like a regular person, and then, once you’ve tied the audience to them as tightly as a ship to its anchor, you heave those characters overboard and watch the people squirm. When you watch Han let Lando borrow the Falcon to fly in the Battle of Endor, your heart is in your throat. You can scarcely look as the flames burn up around the cockpit as the ship is trying to make it out of the Death Star and then, for that brief fleeting moment that you think Lando is gone, your breathing stops. You’re frozen, almost as in grief for a real person, but before you can figure it out the ship shoots out into space, the music rises, and you’re there cheering.
Then, wierdly, you can find yourself down the road a bit and looking over the latest atrocious Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and find you no longer care. They lost you. You couldn’t care less if (Captain) Jack Sparrow is tossed over the side with cannonballs around his ankles ten minutes into the movie. Whatever. He’s just some fictional character now; you don’t know him from Adam.
What is the magic formula, then? How can you whip yourself up a batch of loveable characters and keep them that way? The fact is that the answer isn’t an easily quantifiable one. If it were, movies like GI Joe: Rise of Cobra or Cutthroat Island, which try so very hard, wouldn’t fail so miserably. If once you made it you kept it by default, I wouldn’t find myself reading A Dance with Dragons and deciding I don’t really care what happens to Tyrion anymore. There’s a kind of storytelling alchemy at work here, a theoretical paradigm we are all trying to achieve, and there seems to be no sure way to pull it off. Like the perfect game or the hole in one, it only happens once a career if you’re lucky.
But we all keep trying, don’t we? We want that moment where the audience cares for our characters as much as we do, but, like any loving parent, it is sometimes so very hard to see the flaws in those you love with all your heart.