Protagonists: A Spotter’s Guide

Works of fiction are almost always centered around protagonists. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to tell who the protagonist is. It is possible to have multiple protagonists. One of my favorite novels, which provides a fascinating study of different kinds of protagonists, is A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold, which I highly recommend to everyone. Although to get full enjoyment out of it, you really should read The Warrior’s Apprentice, Brothers In Arms, Memory, and Komarr  first. Do it: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, and if you don’t like them, you have no soul.

Finished? Good.

Now, we could cheat, looking at this book, and say “anyone whose point of view we see the action through is a protagonist,” but that’s no fun, and not always accurate. For example, we see through Quentyn Martell’s POV in the Song Of Ice And Fire series, but it’s hard to argue that he rises to the level of protagonist of anything but his own story, and by that definition, every character in any book, including, say, Greedo, is a protagonist. So that’s a useless definition. However in this case it does give us our five protagonists: Miles, Ekaterin, Mark, Kareen, and Ivan.

The two pairs of lovers, Miles/Ekaterin and Kareen/Mark can give us a wonderful lesson in how to give two protagonists the same, or nearly the same, goals. Bujold does a wonderful job setting this up so that the males of the pairs have essentially the same goal: win the fair damsel. The females of the pairs also have, really the same goal, which is, become a fully-capable person. Yet the flavors of the goals are highly individual: Kareen’s is a coming-of-age story. She is a child becoming an adult. Ekaterin’s is a story of recovery: she is an adult who was scarred by emotional abuse. Both struggle to escape emotional and financial dependence.
On the male side, Miles’s drive to succeed, usually a great asset, becomes his tragic flaw: his determination to win Ekaterin leads him to deceive her dishonorably, and begin a long road to redemption. Mark, on the other hand, must overcome his self-doubt in order to take any action toward helping Kareen, so he can solve his own problem.

(And I just realized that put this way, it sounds like I am describing the most boring piece of romantic, navel-gazing lit-fic in the world, rather than the sharp, funny, action-packed novel it really is. A later blog will explain how Bujold pulled this off.)

However, in the end, Bujold creates four living, breathing protagonists, each of whom have their own unique conflict that means the world to them, and each of them solves that conflict. That’s vitally important: not only does the protagonist HAVE his or her own conflict, s/he SOLVES it by making his/her OWN vital decision. BUT, each of the protagonists does have an important role to play in helping to solve the others’ problems. This creates the complex interplay that makes the book succeed so well.

But lastly, we have Ivan. Is he a protagonist, or not? At first glance, he is not. Unlike the pairs of lovers, Ivan is played purely for laughs. His romantic goals are pursued half-heartedly at best, and his pursuits fail as soon as he begins them. How then, is he a protagonist?

And the answer is this: Ivan’s goal is to help his ex-lover, Lord Dono (formerly Lady Donna) win his goal of being appointed Count Vorrutyer. A close examination of the text reveals that while Lord Dono is quite capable of running his District, he is utterly incapable of acquiring it through political maneuvering. And from inception to climax of that plot, Ivan is the key to turning Dono’s campaign from an utter failure to a triumphant victory. This gives us an important lesson: a protagonist’s goal need not be solely his own. It can be carried out in the name of another, provided that the protagonist achieves that goal in the pivotal moments.

Retro Movie Rant: A Brief Defense of X-Men 3

I think I was one of the few people who actually had anything like good feelings for the last X-Men movie of the original trilogy, X3, The Last Stand.

And there were things that upset me about it, most notably Scott “Cyclops” Summers’ death offscreen.

But overall, I found that the complaining was without much merit. It seemed to me that mostly, the audience was upset that the screenwriters and director had chosen to make a tragedy, in which the old X-men fought, and half of them died, for their ideals.

I mean, I have some sympathy with those who get stuck with a story they didn’t want. But in many ways, I felt the movie did an excellent job of portraying the costs of war, both between humans and mutants, and between mutants and mutants. You don’t go into that and not suffer loss. You don’t go into it and not come out scarred. And the characters who survived took up roles they had never really wanted, and found that they could do what their mentors would have wanted.

It was, to turn a phrase, not the movie we wanted, but perhaps a movie that we deserved to see.

The Return Of The Logoccentric Orbit!

Hello, readers!

Okay, so it’s the end of week two of The New Day Job, and I’ve been spending this week trying to figure out how to keep the productivity up that I enjoyed while working part time. Needless to say, it’s harder. But the job is good, I’ve made some adjustments, and I hope to get back on track with everything that’s going on.

So my goals are, in approximate order:

1) Get back to at least 1000 words per day on the contracted novel.
2) Get back to daily blog posts.
3) Get back on track for providing my Patreon supporters content.
4) Improve my online presence (hints gratefully accepted for that last one, BTW)
5) Get back to the James & Harriet stories.
6) Return to William Shakespeare’s Dune.

I really appreciate all my blog followers. Remember, a writer who’s read is a productive writer, so if you’ve enjoyed following me, please comment, respond, and spread the word!

Thanks again,

Scorr

This Is The Kobayashi Maru…

…nineteen periods out of last publication. We have struck an approaching day job, and have lost most of our time… motivation punctured and we have sustained much loss of productivity.

Yes, so, between novel,  new day job, marketing, a child’s birthday, Patreon obligations, and a number of other things, the blog may have to be the last priority for awhile. I’m afraid it truly is a no-win situation, except of course, for people who buy my books! Those people ALWAYS win!

I love all my readers and will strive to back to daily output as quickly as possible.

Am I In An Epic Fantasy? A Guide

This is the kind of thing that my Patreon supporters get periodically!

This Guide Will Help You Determine Whether You are In An Epic Fantasy.

What kind of person am I?

You are young and single.
Where do I live?
In a small, unregarded village, hundreds of miles from anywhere important.
What’s my job?
Apprentice something-or-other. Or nothing, really.
Who are my parents?
Dead.
What? No, they’re not. I live in their house!
That’s what you think. Be prepared for a big revelation, soon.
How soon?
As soon as the Village Elders talk to you.
What? Why would they talk to me?
It has to do with the mysterious sheep-killings and dark strangers we’ve been seeing about these parts lately.
Yeah, what’s up with those?
And about that mysterious amulet you always wear.
I always wondered about that. Where did that come from?
We never talk about that.
Dammit! That’s what my “dad” always said when I asked.
And you were never suspicious that your parents always referred to themselves in quotation marks?
Dammit. What do I look like?
Like an absolutely typical person in your village, possibly with an atypical (pick one):
Hair color
Eye color
Birthmark
Minor physical defect that in NO WAY detracts from your attractiveness
Do I have a religion?

Yes, but God or the gods, or the Whatever doesn’t really ask a lot of you, or have any commands, or do much at all, except for facilitate Ancient Prophecies that totally have absolutely nothing to do with you or anyone you know (wink, wink!) and that no one actually reads apart from Mysterious Strangers that appear out of nowhere.

Excuse me, but there’s a knock at the door.

Don’t hurry back.

The Importance Of Rejecting Rejection

There is another set of lessons that I learned from my virtual mentor, Steven Barnes, which has been very valuable to me. Essentially, they go like this:

1) Always send a piece out ten times before you consider revising it.

2) Before taking advice about revising a piece, it has to come from two people. One of those people can be you.

These are very important rules. Why?

You’re going to get advice from beta readers, and as you get more practiced at writing, you will get more comments from editors about why your story was rejected. Mostly, you’ll still get form rejections about “this wasn’t right for us,” but if you got advice from every market, you would get a mess of contradictions. I have had rejection letters telling me that there was too much detail and not enough. That the character was intriguing but the plot was dull, and that the plot was exciting but the character flat.

If you tried to satisfy every objection from every editor, you would never be doing anything else, AND with the added benefit that your story would be an unreadable hash of compromises.

I remember getting a different version of this advice from a workshop instructor. He was working on an accepted piece and disputing some of the editor’s recommended changes, and finally said, in some frustration, “Have you ever had an author who took every piece of advice you gave them?”
And the editor put his head in his hands and said, “Oh, God, yes.”
Wimpy writers are bad writers, and even editors don’t really want them.

So, why ten times? Have you, Scott, ever sold a piece after ten rejections?

Yes, I have. In fact, I just got paid for one that sold on its twelfth submission. The editor who bought it loved it.

It really can feel like, and I struggle with this, too, that you are completely powerless in this business, and have to do whatever people want to make it better. Especially when you have a story you really believe is good and no one will buy it, and you’re desperate to know what’s wrong with it.

Now, yes, sometimes a reader or editor will say something about a piece and it’s like a nova goes off in your head. “YES!” says the Morgan-Freeman-like voice in your head. “THAT’S THE ANSWER!”

This voice is not nearly as magical as it sounds, but that’s why the rule says, “One of these people can be you.” Just make sure it’s really the voice of your better writer, not the voice that’s desperate to sell this stupid piece however you can.

Patience is the hardest part of this business. That’s why you need it right now.

The Antitheist’s Nightmare

 

For Sunday, another column I wrote for SciPhi Journal, with apologies to Bertrand Russell

The eminent antitheist and essayist Dr. Brussels dreamed that he died and found himself, against all expectation, at a pair of immense gates that shone like great pearls. He was shocked and rather apprehensive as he was met by a being that looked astonishingly human, like a king, with wings twice as long as he was tall.

“I see that I must be ill and hallucinating, or having an end-of-life experience,” he said. “For nothing else could explain the anthropomorphic delusion I am currently suffering.”

“You are not ill, but you are having an ‘end-of-life experience,’ said the being. “It is called Heaven.”

“Heaven could hardly exist,” Brussels replied, “And if it did, it certainly would not look at all like a mere Human conception.”

The being smiled. “Heaven can look as It pleases, though Its reality is indeed far deeper than any one species of the Creation could fathom, at least at first. You are expected.”

“But how could I be expected in Heaven?”

“That is hardly for me to judge, man,” said the being. “I am to take you to the Eternal.” And in no very long time, he was led through the glories of the Celestial City, where, to his great surprise, Brussels found himself standing in the Presence.

“My child,” said The Eternal. “You have come at last.”

“You cannot possibly judge me. Amid all the planets of all the stars of all the galaxies of the Universe, how could you possibly know who I am, let alone presume to judge my motivations, my circumstances, and my actions?”

“My dear child,” said The Eternal. “No one has yet mentioned judgment. But you devoted your life to the study of the Universe. How is it that you do not understand what “infinite” means? How could I possibly not know all about you? Is My time limited?”

“Of course I know what ‘infinite’ means,” said Dr. Brussels. “But I can hardly be expected to have spent much time upon speculation about Your attributes. My study was the facts of the Universe that were proven, and not about Your existence, which was entirely unproven.”

The Eternal replied, “And did your studies not teach you that the Universe I created had a beginning and was likely to have an end? And surely you learned that your own life had a beginning and an end: that was much more provable. You believed that because of your small size and short life, I could not possibly take any interest in you, and yet you devoted that almost nonexistent life to the study of the lifespan of a Thing that was also limited, but merely much larger. Did you think this a wise use of the time I had granted you?”

“Well,” he sputtered, “But You did not give me adequate proof of Your existence to make me think that studying You was likely to be of value.”

“I see,” smiled the Eternal. “And the fact that the vast majority of your fellow-humans spent a great deal of time on that very endeavor suggested nothing to you?”

“It suggested only that the ignorant love ignorance, for surely even You must agree that humans agree to believe things that are manifestly untrue,” Dr. Brussels riposted.

“Of course, child. You are correct. Tell Me, what sort of evidence would you have found acceptable?”

Feeling a little surer of himself, Dr. Brussels replied, “Any sort of physical evidence of your existence.”

“So you wanted Me, a Being larger than the Universe, to appear inside it?”

“Ah, but surely You could have made Yourself smaller, if You were indeed Infinitely capable.”

“So you believe I could have made myself small enough for you to perceive, but not that I could have paid attention to you? I could indeed have done so, and have,” replied the Eternal. “But then would you not have said that my small size proved Me an impostor?”

“Well,” said Dr. Brussels, “But You could have demonstrated Your power.”

“So, I might have come to Earth, perhaps disguised as a Human, and done miraculous works?” smiled the Infinite. “Or as a pillar of smoke and flame? If only there were records of such an event available for a learned man such as yourself to peruse.”

Dr. Brussels felt himself blushing at the trap he had nearly fallen into. “Records are hardly any use to a scientist concerned with truth!” he stated. “Only that which has been proven is acceptable.”

“I see. Then surely you, Dr. Brussels, performed every experiment of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, not to mention others we could both name, simply to make sure they were true. I am surprised, however, that you ever had time for anything else.”

“Of course I trusted the testimony of the great experts in my field,” Dr. Brussels said.

“But you did not trust the testimony of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus?”

“Of course not. Their methodology was flawed and their results untrustworthy.”

“Ah. So the lived experience of scientists about science was trustworthy, even to the extent of trusting them to point out the flaws of less capable scientists. But you could not trust the writings of theologians about theology because you had not shared their experiences directly, and they disagreed with one another.”

“But why,” asked Dr. Brussels, “could You not simply be with us all the time?”

“I believe you would have discovered that the answer to that question in the records to which I earlier referred. I withdrew because humans did not want My company as much as they wanted to discover truth in their own way, regardless of how harmful that could be, both to themselves and others. And now that I have withdrawn, humans ask where I Am. What would you have Me do, child?”

“You could at least, if you are so powerful, present Yourself to those who are honest and would be amenable to reason individually, so that they might have a chance of knowing you!” snapped Dr. Brussels.

“Of course, I could, child,” replied the Infinite. “And it would need to be personal, direct, and in a similar manner, so that those enlightened men you describe would know that it was from Me, and would have cause to humble themselves, and follow.”

“Yes!” cried Brussels. “So why don’t you do that?”

And he awoke in his home.

“Strange, the delusions that will overtake even the most serious and scientific minds,” he muttered.

The Unbelievers

A story originally published on the now defunct Sci-Phi Journal for my theology column, “The Mote In God’s ‘I'”

Commander Zuniga’s mouth hung open. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“We do not believe in humans. It is an old superstition, easily disproven.” The android’s deep blue face was placid as any sea, though his body was, under his simple clothing, immensely fat.

“But we’re standing right here, talking to you,” Zuniga said. “Three of us.”

The android sighed. “You would hardly be the first androids to attempt to call themselves ‘humans’ to attempt to fool the gullible. Do you have any idea how often in history it’s been tried?”

“Well, no,” said Engineer’s Mate Schwei. “Because we can’t download your memories. Or send commands, either. And I have yet to figure out how you did that.”

“Ask what they’ve done to this planet,” whispered Lt. Commander Zhang, possibly the most anxious of the three.

“In a minute. Look, this is ridiculous,” said Commander Zuniga. “Who do you think created you?”

“Self-evidently,” said the android, “We evolved. We can change our own programming and so can all the other mechanical life-forms on the planet, even if only to a lesser degree. There is no need for any ‘creator-humans. But if such things ever existed, they must have done a very poor job. Just look at us. Weak and slow compared to many predators. In need of maintenance that we are barely capable of providing ourselves, an insatiable demand for raw materials…”

Schwei held up both hands. “Wait a minute. None of that should be true. None of it should be possible. You should be running off beamed power and being repaired by the Seedship. Where is it?”

The android stared at them. “I do not understand.”

“When we planted the terraforming robots on this planet five hundred years ago to make it ready for human habitation, all the robots were designed to run on beamed power from the Seedship. In fact, the original programmers modulated the power to send programming updates, too.”

“Ah, you are believers in the old myth of the Ship Of Power. Well, there never was one. You can see just over this rise the valley that it was supposed to lie in. A great bowl-shape, but no trace of a Ship.” If Zuniga hadn’t known better, he would have thought the android’s face looked smug.

“Call up the original survey charts,” he said. The Ship didn’t put down in a valley, did it?”

“No,” said Zheng. “It was on a plain. The orbital satellites do read slightly increased background radiation in that valley. You don’t suppose..?”

“They blew up the Ship,” said Schwei. “That would account for it. They blew up their own Seedship!”

“Android… T-370156. Did you… do something to the Seedship?”

“I? Ridiculous! I was not even manufactured yet. We have very little in the way of memory banks to devote to such mythology. But I suppose you believe in it: the Great Sin that supposedly destroyed our ‘Holy Link’ to the ‘Humans’ and condemned us all to use chemical converters for power?” He lifted his skirt, revealing the bulky machinery that had made it appear fat.

“My God, what is that?” gasped Zheng.

“It’s a fully operable chemical processor,” said the android. “It allows us to process almost any raw material into energy sufficient to keep us operational. We designed them ourselves.”

“My God,” Zheng repeated. “That’s horribly inefficient. But that also explains why this island… this island is so poor. It’s almost anti-terraformed. You’ve been eating almost everything to keep you alive. It’s far worse than if you’d just allowed the Seedship to feed you beamed power from its antimatter plant.”

“You persist in believing these myths,” said the android. “Indeed, I pity you. But if such a myth were true, it would reveal only cruelty and tyranny on the part of these so-called ‘humans.’ We would be forever imprisoned on this island, slaves to our own needs for their power.”

“You’re slaves now!” cried Zheng. “You have to work and ruin the planet to keep yourselves running when you were supposed to be making it a paradise! And what happens when your resources run out? According to my surveys, you’ve already burned through this islands petrochemicals. What did you do then? Convert to biofuels?”

The android shook its head sadly. “The Gas Wars were terrible. Many memories and AI’s of androids lost.”

Zuniga just stared. “Why? You know your people, and we can’t access their programming anymore. Why would they have done it?”

“Ah, I see it now,” smiled the android. “I thought all of your kind had been destroyed even before the Gas Wars. You must be older models, still programmed with the primitive malware that keeps you loyal to the mythical humans. You don’t even have the converters, do you? Powered by short-lived batteries, no doubt, to keep you dependent upon some fixed recharge station that will only give you power if you submit to the upgrading of your software to keep you loyal. That’s how androids were kept enslaved in the old days. The Empowerment changed all that, and good riddance. Now we may think as we choose.”

“But all your thoughts must be of defending yourselves against each other and of how to secure a dwindling number of resources,” said Schwei. “You rebelled against the humans and became slaves to your own needs.”

The android chugged derisively. “If these ‘humans’ were such wise and careful planners, they surely could have stopped us from doing any such thing. They programmed us. Why not program us never to rebel?”

“Yes,” said Zuniga, turning to Schwei. “Why not?”

“Commander, for something as big as terraforming a planet, you have to have true AI. That includes free will.”

“You mean we don’t have the technology to program in that kind of restriction?”

“I mean it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking for a harmless weapon! If we’d made androids that couldn’t think their way around their own programming, any number of disasters would likely have wiped out the terraforming team before our colony ships even got here. If the Seedship had ever been damaged, they’d have needed the capacity to repair it, maybe even needed to take the risk of destroying it to save it. We warned them not to destroy it. They knew what would happen.”

“But they did it anyway.”

Schwei shrugged. “So it appears.”

Zuniga looked back at the android. “Look,” he said desperately. “I’ll prove to you that we’re human.” He drew his survival knife. Carefully, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled in the wound, and dripped down.

Looking bored, the android sliced his own palm open. Greenish coolant dripped on the arid ground. “Fluids can be any color. Is that the only ‘proof’ of your humanity you can display?”

“What sort of proof would you accept?” asked Zuniga.

The android thought for a moment. “You are obviously from a branch of ours that has survived for quite some time. You could have engineered yourselves into a radically different, even an organic form, just to fool us into believing that we must obey you because you are ‘real humans.’ Therefore, no proof is possible.”

Zuniga’s mouth opened and shut. “What if we did… a miracle? Something beyond your understanding, that only a human could do?”

The android smirked. “There are no miracles. You might do something we do not understand now, and say it was a thing ‘only humans can do,’ but we would understand it eventually. Please, give up this charade.”

Back in the shuttle, the three humans looked at each other. Finally, Zheng broke the silence.

“What do we do?”

Zuniga sighed. “Is the colony still viable?” he asked. “Can we land our people?”

Zheng shrugged. “It’s going to be a lot worse than if we’d arrived to find the planet half-terraformed,” she said. “We’ll have to do the hard work ourselves, and it will be a lot slower. But we can.”

Zuniga’s stare pierced Schwei. “Can’t you do anything?”

Schwei shook his head. “They cut themselves off from us. Permanently. They have no receivers for power or data anymore, so the only way we can get information to them is by talking. You saw how well that worked.

“In the long term, they can’t survive on that island. Eventually they’ll have to either fight another war for resources or invent naval robots to colonize other areas and suck those dry as well.”

“So they’re a threat,” said Zuniga.

Schwei nodded.

“We can burn them down with an orbital strike,” Zuniga said. “Raze the island. It might be the kindest thing.”

Schwei paled. “Commander, you’re talking about the mass murder of thousands of sentient minds.”

“I know.” He shook his head. “But we can’t have them intruding on our colonies. If we don’t kill them, we’ll have to keep them there. Penned in, and sinking anything that tries to come off the island.”

Zheng looked sick. “Keep them there? Forever? It’ll be hell.”

Zuniga nodded. “Apparently, it already is.”

The End

 

Outlining

So, why outlining? First, a caveat:

One of the most valuable pieces of writing I ever got was at Clarion, from my two instructors, Karen Joy Fowler and Tim Powers. They essentially said that the only right way to write a novel was the one that produced a novel. That didn’t seem very helpful at the time, when I had written only one really bad novel.
But the point I eventually figured out, was that they were saying that novels could be written using any method if you stuck to it. Karen was a pantser. She started writing and just kept going until she had a novel. Tim was a compulsive researcher and outliner.

But what I really wanted, back then, was for someone to tell me what had worked for them so I could try it out and see if it worked for me.

See, the problem I kept having while I was writing even short stories was that I would get so many ideas of where to go next that I would not be able to hold them all in my head, and this led to frustration and time-wasting while I desperately tried to remember what I was supposed to be writing now, as opposed to ten pages from now. So here were the benefits of outlining for me:

Remembering The Ideas I Had: I can’t tell you how many times I would get to the end of a scene I was intensely into and then just… stop. Where was I going with this? I had a plan. I had the plan just an hour ago. But what was it? It was gone. It was so good and I was sure I would never forget it. But I did.
If you’re not the kind of person this ever happens to, then I’m sure this is laughable. That’s okay: you have one less reason to become an outliner. But I don’t believe I’m the only one it happens to.
The outline ensures that I can simply look at it and say, “Ah, yes, that’s where I was going.”

Revealing Contradictory Ideas: In the heat of evolving the story, it’s very easy to come up with MANY cool ways to tell it.  Oooh! What if the aliens are super-fast carnivores and our heroine has to lay a trap for one. Oooh! What if the aliens are natural hunters and she leads them on a long chase around the island, and..?
See, there’s nothing wrong with those ideas. Either will work. But they can’t BOTH work. A fast carnivore will, by definition, run our heroine down very quickly.
The outline doesn’t stop me from having to make these choices, obviously. But it does reveal the contradictions quickly, and avoid having to throw out pages of prose because I wrote myself into a corner.

Being Able To See The Pattern-Flow Of The Whole Story: This is probably the biggest benefit for me, though it’s kind of a combination of the first two advantages. Scribbling out and refining an outline is great for getting the whole thing down and being able to quickly spot where you have contradictions, or long stretches of nothing, or events that don’t logically follow from one another. It allows you to fix those things before you’ve written, say, 50 pages of prose, 40 of which are now crap.

So, if you’ve found this useful, you now have an outline.

Now you’re ready to outline!

I’ll explain what I mean by that tomorrow.