Wednesday 14 September 2016

Protagonists and Observers

If I was an energetic sort, I would make a tongue in cheek "Writer Advice bingo card". Everyone who haunts a forum with an active writing community will probably be able to think of five good truisms for this within a second. One of the candidates for this card would be "Everyone is a protagonist in their own story", a piece of advice that has been on my mind since reading Jo Zebedee's wonderful blog post about the subject.

For those not familiar with the term, it boils down to the fact that all the secondary characters in a story aren't just bits of scenery for the main character, but characters with their own motivation, goals and outlook. Its a regularly repeated piece of advice because its very easy for authors to treat them as the former and a lot better to treat them as the latter. Its also often remarked upon that secondary characters often have more fun and charm that the main character; outstanding secondary characters are often the hook that really drags readers in.

Then Juliana Spink-Mills posted a riff on the subject, linking the concept to personal experience and my brain went into overdrive. I started thinking about how often we get to be the protagonists in our own lives, how people perceive the idea of themselves being a protagonist. I think most people have episodes in their life where they are not the protagonist* - but if we are not the protagonist, what are we? Me, myself, I would say when that happens, I often find myself an observer of someone else's story. But it is still my story. I am simultaneously protagonist and observer.

So what happens when your story's protagonist becomes an observer? What happens when they venture into someone else's story?

Temporarily, the story becomes about the protagonist's reactions, not their actions. This is something of a high-risk high-reward move. The risk is that the protagonist is seen as boring and passive because they're being inactive. People don't want to read about how the protagonist watched all these amazing people solve the problem of the world's imminent end. Its why all those farmboys level up very quickly.

Your protagonist don't get to say that shit if they're always an observer
However, to paraphrase Jim Butcher, reactions are how you get readers to give a flying frack about your characters. Watching them love, hate, get confused, wonder why their significant other hates cheese - that's where readers form bonds. Reactions are what makes characters. That and the choices they make, and we need their reactions for their choices to make sense. 

Having a protagonist react to other people's issues rather than their own allows them to demonstrate their character more fully. You can't see empathy if they're thinking mainly about themselves. You can't hug yourself either, or stand there looking awkward with a hand half-raised as a bad substitute. A protagonist that's not always reacting about their own issues is a lot harder to label as a whiner too.

How people observe tends to reveal a lot about them too. Do they notice the way people fiddle or the slight variation in intonation? Do they have a febrile imagination, filling out people's lives for them with the slightest glance? Do they need beating with the clue stick before they spot things? Another way of putting this would be saying that when the protagonist stumbles into someone else's story, they become the narrator. A short glance at any forum would tell you how much readers think they can work out authors based on how the story is told. When a protagonist tells a story, the author can make it far more explicit how the protagonist is affecting the story they're telling.

The protagonist is always the protagonist. But sometimes we get more of them when they're in someone else's story other than their own.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

The Fionavar Tapestry review

Since it seems people enjoyed the Pawn of Prophecy review nearly as much as I enjoyed writing it, I thought I'd do some more old school fantasy stuff. I had meant to continue through the rest of the Belgariad, but it occurred to me that this wasn't the most efficient way to do things. No, the best way to do it would be to review whole series at a go. Since I've queered that pitch with the Belgariad, I need a new victim.

Enter Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry.

I'm assuming most people reading this know who GGK is; if you don't, you're probably missing out. He's never been one of the genre's rock stars, possibly because of some unconventional choices, but he's consistently been one of the best. He's famous for his literary style and strong focus on very human characters. Tigana is often heralded as his magnum opus but it all started in 1984 with The Summer Tree, first book of the The Fionavar Tapestry, and the five poor sods sent away from our reality to the world of Fionavar

The realistic response to finding yourself on a different world
Needless to say, our five intrepid heroes land in a bad situation, which quickly gets worse, and by the time things wrap up in the not at all forebodingly named The Darkest Road, they're just one unlikely hero away from the Dark Lord roflstomping everything. The Fionavar Tapestry has a lot of things going for it but originality is not one of them. This is High Fantasy writ large. Indeed, Kay's on the record as saying:

"At one significant level I wrote the Fionavar Tapestry with the metaphor in mind of throwing down a gauntlet to all of the people who are perceived as having diminished and degraded the genre of high fantasy in the post- Tolkien period by writing derivative, mercenary, lazy fantasies. I saw myself to some degree as trying to say: I'm going to use as many of the central motifs and themes of high fantasy as I can, and I shall try to give the lie to those who have debased it, by showing that there's still a great deal of life in the genre, that it's infinitely larger than twenty years' of hack work. We're not capable of debasing it, ultimately."

And this is very high fantasy indeed. Good vs Evil! Hatred of the light for it is not the dark! The Fate of Kings and Desperate Men! Elves, Dwarves, Orcs Svart Alfar, Mages, and Dragons! GGK runs the entire high fantasy playbook here and he does it without a single twist.

So in an age where high fantasy is usually served with grit strewn all over it like they were sprinkles on a donut, and people complain vociferously about the well-worn tropes of high fantasy, why is anyone going to want to read this?

Its not fair to categorise all of modern fantasy as this. Just a fair amount.

Its only fair to point out that for someone completely burnt out on High Fantasy, The Fionavar Tapestry is not a great book choice. You have been warned now. However, if you've room for more books with Elves and Everything - even if its just one more - and you're not willing to wait for me to do it (I keed) - then consider this one. The reason for this can be summed up with one word: Passion.

For one thing, GGK is passionate about High Fantasy in a way that I don't think most authors in the genre are. Oh, they're passionate about their story, and the stories that inspired it, but not the whole damn shooting match itself. He's writing about this because he thinks it matters, because there's some literary worth rather than just "Hey, I have a neat story". And it shows. He writes all the old familiar cliches with such unabashed sincerity that they feel fresh again. By and large, he does so with thoughtfulness too. Yes, he doesn't really question why the Svart Alfar so loyally serve the Dark Lord, but most of the time he thinks a little about why things work the way they do. The result is a rich, compelling world with real mythic resonance. 

The passion also extends to the characters. These are people that love, hate, mourn and most crucially of all, act. As such, its very easy to love and/or hate them in turn. Its also very easy to roll the eyes like they're Vegas dice at times. Sometimes the melodrama takes that step too far and becomes 'wait did you actually just say that'. Sometimes the prose can get a little purple - okay, scratch that. GGK is fantasy's king of purple prose, especially at this stage in his career. It is totally worth putting up the odd spot of shark-jumping when he gets it wrong because most of the time he gets it right and its glorious. I don't generally find books to be that emotional but there were times when my heart ached for the characters of The Fionavar Tapestry and that simply doesn't happen without feeling they really care about what's happening.

Not only am I actually Donkey Kong, but I did make this face a three times, particularly when at the end *REDACTED FOR SPOILERS*
So it elves and shit with an admirably straight face and feels turned up to 11. What else?

Well its a rather fine story with some rather interesting thematic parts. For example, a number of characters face choices over what to do with their power. Some cling on to it at any cost; some relinquish it. No spoilers, but each and every choice comes with a price. There is a great deal too on the destructive side of love and how we react to heartbreak and abandonment. Maybe I should do a spoiler heavy article on this (maybe one day I'll get round to my article comparing Dumbledore and Granny Weatherwax with an emphasis on love and power).

The interweaving of Arthurian mythology is also rather interesting. Fantasies bridging two distinct worlds are not commonplace these days (although you could argue Urban Fantasy has a lot of it) and as such we get pieces inspired by myth, or pieces based on myth. The Fionavar Tapestry is both at the same time. 

It also features a number of great characters, great arcs and straight up awesome moments. A lot of the moments go to Diarmuid, the generous and scene stealing prince of Brennin, but there's plenty to go round. Dave's arc as he goes from someone who renounces friendship easily to member of a tight bromance is also very touching, but Kim and the dwarf Matt Soren both get pretty awesome storylines too, which coincide neatly with a rather cool scene involving a dragon. Lancelot's big fight is amazing too. 

There's quite a few moments like this too.

I'm starting to lose the track of myself so its time to wrap up. The Fionavar Tapestry is not without its flaws. Many of the flaws are of the type the modern age, if we can judge it as a whole, seems rather impatient with. But unless the flaws are of the kind that make apples taste like ash in your mouth, we should judge a book by its strengths. These are books that do High Fantasy right. They focus on the characters, both on their grand mythical dramas and their little human quirks.

Many authors have set to write out with Tolkien weighing on their mind. The majority of them  (or at least the majority with Tolkien as a positive influence) would have clearly done better for a little distance. In fact, Kay might be the only one where this isn't so, largely because rather than leaning on Tolkien's work, he leaned on Tolkien's influences. An easy and obvious thing to do perhaps, yet few seem to be doing it.

This is why if you read only two High Fantasy series in your whole life, one should be The Lord of the Rings - the other The Fionavar Tapestry.