Do you find it unsettling when people vanish from your life?
“Depends on the person,” you say.
But in general, when people who formerly played some semi-notable or even regular role in your life leave it, you usually have a sense of why.
I find it interesting that media does not always abide by these rules.
Books seem to do this less, because they work as more of a cohesive whole, and the entire plot can be affected if a significant minor character falls through the cracks. Movie series can get a bit dicey. And TV series… well…
We’ve all heard the complaint about a favorite character getting killed off in a show. But getting killed off at least accounts for the disappearance. Classic examples: Matthew’s death in Downton Abbey, Lord Melbourne’s death in Victoria, Elizabeth’s death in Poldark, and so on. If you’re familiar with any of these, then you’ll know what I mean when I ask the following:
Julian Fellowes generally provides a clean break for any exiting characters, but this one could have used some more follow-up. The last we see of Charles, he is going on a six-month trip after helping Mary ditch Tony Gillingham.
Although the final episode of season 2 ends with her getting engaged to Alfred, she never makes a single appearance or receives a single reference throughout the entirety of season 3! Meanwhile, Alfred carries on years later at the palace, chipper and single as ever.
Not that he vanishes, but the fact that he’s still there by the time Geoffrey Charles grows up. That dog has to be at least eighteen years old, considering he entered the show with Demelza in the first episode. Now I’m all for dogs lasting a long time, but you’d think he’d show some age at least by now. My dog certainly does! But, on the other hand, considering his owners haven’t aged in eighteen years, why should he?
Don’t know these shows?
The trend of characters inexplicably vanishing goes way back! I have to admit, I didn’t recognize most of these shows, but here’s an interesting article that tallies the invisible corpses from various shows.
The fact that there are a number of such articles identifying lost characters suggests it’s not just the OCD audience members out there who find this unsettling. I think it bothers us because we crave a sense of continuity and a certain degree of predictability, both in media and in real life—which is understandable.
At least in the case of film series, each character’s reprisal requires the renewal of a contract, so it can’t be because the writers simply “forgot” to write him/her in. So why don’t they make up an excuse for their absence and weave that into the story somehow?
I don’t really have an answer to this, other than they must not consider the lost character important enough to require an explanation. Or perhaps this leaves the door open for the character to return?
One thing’s for sure, though: it’s a sign of sloppy writing. If a character is given enough screen time to develop a memorable impression on the audience, then that character deserves a coherent exit. Otherwise someone out there is going to notice it– and it’s bound to end up in an article someday! 😉
You know, when you finish it and feel like the wind was just knocked out of you—and not in a good way. There’s a number of ways this can happen:
Scenario 1: You’re already feeling miserable and you want a distraction, so you pick up a book or watch a movie you know nothing about… and somehow the experience and the storyline pours salt into the wound, leaving you worse off than before.
Scenario 2: You’re kind of coasting along, feeling “ready for anything,” so you start a book or movie that you know has some heavy stuff… only to find out you’re not as invincible as you thought.
Scenario 3: You know the story has the capacity to depress you, and so you wait until you think you are emotionally stable enough to handle it… but it ends up tugging on heartstrings you didn’t know you had and sending you reeling.
My recent experience of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls somehow did more than all of these combined.
It depicted, more accurately than I have ever seen before, the critical pieces of slowly losing a parent.
The attempt to persuade yourself the treatments will work.
The attempt to keep functioning.
The underlying anger.
But most poignantly, the secret wish that it would all just end.
I think I went through about eleven tissues.
How does this happen?
It’s a strange tonic.
This is not to say that a story itself can single-handedly provide healing from any major loss. Of course it can’t. But inasmuch as it can emotionally re-break you, it can also re-heal you, if it is told a certain way and if you are ready for it.
A year ago, I could never have watched this movie, because everything was still too fresh. I would have been more sad, more depressed, and more angry than I was before. But now, for some reason, now—I was ready.
How do you know when you’re ready?
There is a lot of research out there about the grieving process, and the different stages of grief (if you want depressing content, just look there!), but it all varies depending our different personalities, circumstances, beliefs, and other factors. The thing is, we just can’t break it into a formula. So what one person finds therapeutic (though tear-jerking) at one year, another person may need seven years before they can derive anything beneficial. Or maybe never.
Some people are more naturally resilient to moving stories that would break other people’s hearts. Or some people can appreciate sadness in a story without feeling prodded toward depression. But for some of us, there’s a wound that needs to be kept in mind. I’m certainly not suggesting that we avoid anything that might make us cry—sometimes we need to cry. But there’s a difference between tears of release when something resonates with us, and tears of fresh pain when something digs deeper into an existent wound.
But if you are the kind of person who finds any comfort in stories, I highly, highly recommend this film. At some point during your journey of healing, when you are ready. It is much more than a realistic portrayal of terminal illness. It is a beautiful allegory of a much higher Truth, a much higher Being, that anyone experiencing grief is invited to call upon and, in doing so, receive healing.
Admittedly I was mostly interested in seeing Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones starring opposite one another again (after first seeing their acting chemistry in The Theory of Everything, I couldn’t pass this one by). But within the first few minutes, the inductive plot development, accompanied with character clues through flashbacks, brought together so many different concepts that I’ve spent time on recently, that I simply had to keep watching.
Who made the ascent with him, however, is where the story takes a major artistic turn. In the movie, Glaisher (Redmayne) takes his trip with the widow of a former French aeronaut—a sprightly young woman named Amelia Wren (Jones). This is where the story got a bit creative, to say the least.
It turns out that Glaisher was accompanied on this particular mission by another male scientist, Henry Tracy Coxwell. While I suspected that Amelia’s character may have been embellished, I was a bit surprised to learn that she never existed. Instead, she was drawn together by a number of real women in aeronautical science, and named after Amelia Earhart, whose adventures would not come for another 60 years.
Overall, the movie takes you on a riveting (and dizzying) journey above the clouds with these two, as they discover uncharted territory in the sky, each other, and themselves. Facts aside, it made an inspiring statement about going where no other has gone before, and pushing oneself to the highest achievements possible—all while recognizing one’s own limits.
In creating Amelia’s character, the writers portray a woman defying the limits imposed on her gender by an otherwise male-dominated field. And yet as Glaisher and Amelia climb higher into the atmosphere, they must both come to terms with their physical and mental fragility against the forces of nature. Well, actually, Amelia somehow stays conscious for almost half an hour after Glaisher faints from oxygen deprivation, so apparently she wasn’t as fragile as he was. But still, she eventually loses consciousness at 36,000 feet.
The warning here echoes of the Icarus myth. It’s all well and good to reach high (and we ought to), but we cannot forget our own weakness and frailty as humans. Not as women or men, but as humans.
A bit, in my opinion. I generally dislike politically charged movies, but in this case what stood out wasn’t the exultation of women over men, but the shared impediments and ingenuity of both genders.
While I was a bit disappointed to learn that Amelia Wren never existed or set the record alongside James Glaisher, I can appreciate the creative choice to invent her. Placing both a man and a woman in the balloon enabled the film makers to communicate a message about people as a whole:
Our unique gifts and callings ought to be pursued—but we must always remember that no matter how high we soar, we can never change our basic needs as humans.
The fact is, if you’re in my generation or younger, it’s a safe assumption that you have taken at least several. Okay, yeah, I just dated myself, but I’ve probably already done that in previous posts.
For those of you who precede my generation (millennials), I don’t mean a quiz that measures your knowledge of a character in a story—I mean a quiz that attempts to identify which character you are most like.
Think of it as a personality type quiz—except that the results are confined to the cast of characters in whatever book or movie in question.
As an eager victim of these quizzes (for better or worse), I never cease to find them simultaneously amusing and horrifying.
What about Star Wars?
Ever wondered which Mean Girl you secretly are? (I did once, and then it told me I was Karen…)
The point is, people find these quizzes fascinating—otherwise the internet wouldn’t be oozing with them. But why do we bother with them?
For a good laugh?
To pass the time in the waiting room?
Or are they really just another mind-numbing activity?
I mean, you’re not going to figure out who you should marry or what you should do for a living based off a quiz on Buzzfeed. But what these quizzes do give us is a license to do what we already subconsciously do no matter what:
The truth is, no matter the genre, the time period, the actors, or any of that, we always look for ourselves in the story. We try to find a character with whom we can identify to at least some degree, in whose welfare we become invested. (See my article on La La Land.) If we never find this character, chances are we find the entire book or movie pretty boring. Sound familiar?
As a rhetorical concept, identification receives a good deal of attention in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives and Walter Fisher’s writings on the narrative paradigm. In sum, Burke argues that the degree to which Person A identifies with Person B affects how much influence that Person B has over Person A. Building on this, Fisher proposed in his narrative paradigm that if an audience identifies with a character in a story, then their emotions and opinions about the story will be shaped by whatever happens to that character.
So in short, any time we see a movie or read a book, we are looking for a character who we think represents us.
Does this mean we’re all narcissistic? Maybe a little. But think about it—how would we ever learn or glean anything meaningful from a story if we never “placed ourselves in the characters’ shoes?”
We do this already any time we open a book or put on a movie, without even realizing it. But the popularity of character quizzes is a testament to this.
No matter how silly the questions or ridiculous the results (okay, my Disney villain was Jafar, which is convictingly accurate), we derive some pleasure out of whatever shallow self-examination and comparison the quiz offers. We enjoy walking through the mental paces of the questions, trying to figure out what we would do if placed in the world of the story, and who our friends would be in that world.
And even if we end up being compared to a ditzy snowman (yes, my overall Disney character was Olaf), we can at least laugh and see our quirks in a new, humorous light.
I mean, let’s be honest: any time you read a great book or finish a great movie, somewhere in the back of your mind you wonder if there will be more –unless, of course, the author is dead (and no, fanfiction does not count).
Why is it we want more? Is it because the story left things open-ended? Is it because it was a cliff-hanger? Or is it simply our voyeuristic curiosity to know what the characters do with the rest of their lives?
Whatever it is, it has led hundreds—nay, thousands—of writers into plotline pandemonium (or frankly, lameness) and character catastrophes (or frankly, contradictions).
With each new installment the writers attempt to perform CPR on a corpse, failing to realize that they are the ones who killed it in the first place.
It might feel incomplete, but if it has no life on its own, then adding Part II or even Part VIII isn’t going to breathe life into it.
At this point, I tread dangerously near the edge of controversy. I would avoid naming names, but alas, it’s impossible.
Take for instance Andrew Lloyd Weber: the man is a brilliant composer and storyteller through music. But I cannot bring myself to watch The Phantom of the Opera’s sequel, Love Never Dies (even though I sang the title song in my junior recital). Although *some* of the music in the sequel is comparably beautiful to that in the second, as a continuation of the story, it destroys the characters—not to mention, it robs any meaning from the original’s iconic “All I Ask of You.” Where is the beauty in the commitment Christine and Raoul make in Phantom if they throw it all away in Love Never Dies?
Okay, maybe I’m plunging off the edge of controversy now.
But Pirates of the Caribbean… I’ll defend the choice to make the trilogy, but I think everyone can agree that the first was capable as a stand-alone. It had a complete plot arc, a somewhat complete character arc (at least for Will), and a signature swashbuckling finish that left ends just open enough for a sequel or two. But even without the sequel, it would still have been a good film.
The hole they dug themselves into with this one was the introduction of a fourth. Not only did it have an inferior plotline, but the new characters it introduced were one-dimensional tropes pulled off the front-row shelf—even if they have the faces of Penelope Cruz and Sam Claflin. That being said, the fifth was a slight improvement from the fourth, but I don’t think they can ever match the glory of the trilogy. Basically, in making the fourth, the directors opened a can of worms they seem reluctant to close back up again… even if it would be best for the world of cinema.
And then there’s Star Wars… I won’t say much here, because I never saw the prequels and stopped watching after the seventh and Rogue One, so I’m utterly unqualified to give any assessment. But I do know the creation of the latest two trilogies has caused simultaneous enthusiasm and eye-rolling.
It makes me wonder, as do these other cases, what exactly is it that makes a story ripe for a sequel? Aside from those cases where it’s obvious that the story will be a saga (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.), what components set up a stand-alone for a second installment?
What are some stories out there that could have done fine without a sequel?
Which ones could have used a part II? And which ones absolutely should never have received a follow-up?
The first time I saw the film, I struggled simply to keep up with the plot twists—as any normal human probably would. But what I could follow quite lucidly was the development of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, as the movie inevitably swerved deeper and deeper into the layers of his subconscious. The thing is, for all his cleverness in infiltrating the minds of other people, Cobb remains a fugitive from his own mind—or more specifically, what (appears to be) his memories.
As the plot of Inception progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb is running from something in his past (or what he believes is the past) while simultaneously trying to carry out his mission of planting an idea in someone else’s mind. Eventually we learn that this dreaded memory is the death of his wife Mal, which he attributes to the “fact” that he suggested to her that the life they created together was in a world of sham. While we never really figure out (at least, I still haven’t) whether Mal actually committed suicide, the part that haunts Cobb throughout the entire movie is the simple idea that he is responsible.
There is a lot to dissect in this movie, what with all the layers of reality and unreality, which I obviously don’t have the space to do here—and also just don’t have the mental elasticity to do!
Basically, if we have strong enough feelings tied to our perception of an event, that event becomes real to us and we begin to treat its memory as such. And because we derive so much of our identity from our memories, these events (whether real or unreal) feed into our view of ourselves.
We see this fact illustrated all the time in movies and books. Think about it—how many flashback scenes or reflection scenes have you seen where the character’s memories are used to show you something important about who he is? And it’s really only the emotional memories that do this, isn’t it?
That’s part of what Inception is telling us.
And while this blurring of lines could lead to all sorts of philosophical theories and discussions (postmodernism, subjectivism, and surrealism, to name a few), at the very least it encourages us to consider how much of our personal identity is based off of our emotional impressions of the past—or what our minds have construed as the past.
How has our acceptance or denial of responsibility for past events shaped our personal identity?
And what are the implications if our assessments are actually wrong? Does this mean our identity is built on a lie?
See, I thought that writing this might help make some sense of the movie—which to some degree it has—but now I’m realizing that I really ought to watch it again. Which, if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. But you better strap yourself in, or you might get lost! Actually, just be prepared to get lost, because I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to. 🙂
If not, do NOT read any further or you will forever rue the day that you let me spoil it for you.
I briefly explained the two types of recalling that stories use in order to either reveal information or to reiterate it in the minds of the audience. If you didn’t read last week’s article, it might be helpful to get the background, because I’m going to dive right into this week’s topic:
In this type of reflection, the story takes a moment to immerse the viewer/reader in the recollection of past events/characters that we as the audience have witnessed. It is reminding us of an event or person that we actually saw or met in the story, and inviting us to remember that experience along with the character currently engaged in reflection.
But what does this accomplish?
Nostalgia, grief, regret, anger, fondness, satisfaction… the list goes on. But usually we are supposed to be experiencing whichever emotion the character is also experiencing. (I mean, how often do we see a flashback in the character’s life and think “Wow, I can’t believe he’s not over that yet”?).
Most moments of reflection only happen with characters we can identify with, because they are the only ones whose memories we consider significant. And consequently, they are the ones whose emotions we will empathize with! So basically, the more we relate to a character, the more easily the storytellers can make us experience that character’s emotions. To put it mathematically,
More relatable character = More power over our emotions.
“Okay, but where are you going with this?” you ask.
Valid question. A question it took me 82 pages to answer in my senior thesis.
Here’s where La La Land comes in.
You know that flashback sequence where Mia and Sebastian see each other in Sebastian’s new club after five years of going their separate ways? If you go back and watch the movie again, you’ll see that scene after scene leading up to this moment, we have been given intimate glimpses into their inner thoughts, feelings, and desires (especially Mia’s). These glimpses enable us to perceive the moments of fear, embarrassment, awkwardness, disappointment, and excitement that make them human. This 2-hour long process prepares us for the wild ride at the end.
It’s simply the last, most powerful moment of recollection we experience through their eyes, and it leaves us as dizzy as they are. Because after all, isn’t that life?
We blunder and soar through experience after experience and decision after decision, collecting these memories that all have different emotional associations, and the minute we stop to look back on them as a whole, we realize how tangled up everything is. This doesn’t make it meaningless, it simply makes it mixed.
So how do Mia and Sebastian feel at the end of their reflection? Well, it’s hard to say—by design.
Don’t take my word for it, read the script! The directions in the script are actually written so as to make it unclear exactly what sentiments these two people have at the end, after strolling down memory and imagination lane.
I used to think I missed something, and that was why I couldn’t decide how I felt about the ending. It was this confusion that motivated me to study the film for my senior Rhetoric and Public Address thesis. But after doing the research, after dissecting the film scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, line-by-line, I realized my confusion wasn’t because I’d missed something. It was because the flashback sequence did its job.
There is a huge stack of research that I don’t have space to include organically in this article, but if you are even remotely interested in the overlap between film theory and psychology, I highly recommend you peruse the sources below. The kind of exciting news is that Hillsdale College is working towards publishing my thesis, so a more thorough discussion of this topic and its implications will be available before too long!
But for those of you who have already seen the movie, please let me know your thoughts!
Did you leave the film feeling satisfied with the ending, or like you’d just taken a punch to the gut? Do you think the film makers achieved their goal? What effect did the reflection sequence have on you?
And if you read to the end without watching the movie, well, shame on you. Still watch the movie though. 🙂
Carroll, Noèl. “The Power of Movies.” Daedalus, 114, no. 4 (1985): 89-92.
Dannenberg, H.P. Coincidence and counterfactuality: Plotting time and space in narrative fiction. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
Lambrou, Marina. Rethinking Language, Text, and Context. New York: Routledge, 2019.
Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
Roese, J.N. and J.M. Olson. “Counterfactuals, causal attributions, and the hindsight bias: A conceptual integration.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 32 (1996): 197-227.
Russell, James A. The Psychology of Facial Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Soules, Marshall. Media, Persuasion, and Propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
I don’t mean staring into a mirror. And I don’t necessarily mean long, soul-searching contemplations on our inner being. I simply mean pausing to acknowledge or recall the past and its events. This could lead to a deeper thought process of comparing the past with our present, or even tracing the development of the present from the past—but it all starts with a simple pause triggered by something.
Perhaps it’s a visual object, like a family photo.
A smell that takes you back to childhood.
A song that reminds you of someone or some season of life.
Whatever it is, it temporarily immunizes you to the bombardments of the present and transports you backwards in time—for better or worse.
Maybe it’s something you don’t want to remember, but there it is, all the same. Or maybe it’s the kind of memory that makes you wish you could literally, and not just mentally, relive the experience.
I find it interesting that many stories (in fact, some of the best) do this.
We as the readers or viewers are invited to participate in that to whatever degree we have shared the experience.
This “sharing” of experience pans out in one of two ways.
In a sense, it’s a flashback whose purpose is to reveal information to us, not to recall it with us. A classic example is the flashback in Once Upon A Time in the West, where we see what Henry Fonda’s character did to Charles Bronson’s character long ago in order to explain why Bronson has been seeking revenge the entire movie. Or even It’s A Wonderful Life, in which the entire first hour and a half are, technically speaking, a flashback on George Bailey’s life in order to explain what has brought him to his present situation.
In this type of “reflection,” the reader or viewer does not actually engage in the act of recollection—we only perceive that the character is reflecting.
Take the film Up. At the beginning, we see a very brief but powerful montage of Carl Fredricksen’s married life with Ellie, before he is widowed and goes on to live out the main adventure portrayed in the story. When he rediscovers the old photo album near the end of the movie, we feel that we have lived those memories with him as he pages through. We can not only appreciate his nostalgia sympathetically, but empathetically, because we were “there” when he had those experiences. Ellie is not only a part of Carl’s memory—she is also a part of ours.
There is more to be said on this, which is why I’ve decided to make this topic a short series of posts. But for now, I want to open the discussion and see what you think about these two types of reflection that occur in storytelling.
Are certain kinds of stories prone to using one of these forms of reflection?
Are there some examples of books or movies that do just fine without any such pauses of reflection?
In either case, I think it’s noteworthy that so many stories play to our sense of memory in order to draw us in. Perhaps it’s a testament to the universally human nature of reflection, whether or not you consider yourself a sentimental person.
I don’t mean simply multiple appearances of said person in a variety of different hist-fic books, shows, or movies. I mean different works both devoted to that person, whose portrayals clash in some significant way.
Take for example the legendary King Arthur and Guinevere. Countless versions of their story have been told, many of them giving vastly different depictions of the main characters. I mean, the 2004 film stars a strapping young Clive Owen alongside Keira Knightley—as opposed to The First Knight, which embodies Arthur in a majestic-but-aged Sean Connery whose marriage to Guinevere is nothing short of cradle robbery. Oh yeah, and then there’s Camelot…
This really is no surprise, though, considering how longstanding of a legend King Arthur and his knights are.
Having first seen the movie The Young Victoria, written by Julian Fellowes (the same guy who wrote Downton Abbey!) and starring Emily Blunt, I got a very different impression of the woman whose story was later adapted in the BBC series Victoria by Daisy Goodwin. Of course, there would be some variations, as one is a standalone movie that only presents the beginning of her marriage and reign, whereas the other follows her life for three seasons (and counting).
There were definitely some points of overlap, probably due to known historical facts. In both, she is portrayed as a very independent, determined woman who spoke her mind freely. We also see her reluctance towards motherhood and her strong temper—two documented facts. But the thing that did not seem consistent between the two—in fact, was disturbingly inconsistent—was the nature of her marriage to Prince Albert.
Julian Fellowes captured one or two quarrels between the couple in his feature film, which suggested Victoria’s capacity for overreaction and irrational behavior—but it seems this is the norm in the world of BBC. It’s a rare moment when Victoria and Albert aren’t in a tiff over something.
I guess this confused me because I had never thought of their marriage being particularly tumultuous. After doing some research of my own, it seems like there might actually be something to this portrayal of constant conflict. Granted, some of these articles give only cursory (and potentially sensationalized) glances at the facts, but it made me wonder. Either the movie glosses over reality, or the show over-dramatizes reality, because the two depictions of Victoria are not entirely compatible.
Obviously historical fiction/elaboration is not inherently unethical, but it holds the power to either baptize or demonize a figure of the past.
Of course some figures have nobler legacies than others, but even the best and the worst of them were still human. When you’re telling stories about real people, the goal shouldn’t be to glamorize them beyond reason, and it shouldn’t be to simply state the cold, hard facts—that’s what documentaries are for. If you’re going to get creative with someone’s biography, it’s best to do so in a way that brings them down to earth or speculatively fleshes out their personality. Because no matter what other information might be missing, we know they were humans… and so is your audience.
This is probably an odd question, but it occurred to me the other day after finishing a journal entry. I haven’t journaled regularly in a long time. But when I paged through the spiral-bound, indigo-bluish notebook that has pencil-scrawlings from ten-year-old Shiloh and on, I noticed that almost every significant life event was in there. Not only that, but also what I thought or felt about it at the time it happened.
In a way, I can visibly trace the development of my internal character over the years.
Good heavens, at least I hope so. But why is that unnerving?
I guess because I think in terms of stories. Narratives.
In any story you read or write, you have a window of insight into each character. You may not have each character’s full biography or autobiography, but you usually have enough information to make some intelligent assessment about him.
You might know why the misfortunes befall him in the first place, while he’s left wondering.
You might see how his behavior changes as he grows older.
You might even be there when he dies.
But unless the story is told as a first-person narrative (literally documenting the character’s thoughts) or from an omniscient perspective we never know exactly what’s going on in his head.
Let’s consider historical fiction for a moment. In any fiction based on a real person, we are usually given the actual deeds of the person… explained by whatever motives the writer attributes to him/her. The writer has enough factual information to describe what the historical figure did—but, unless the person left behind detailed memoirs, the writer must infer the why. And the why that the writer comes up with is what frames the person as either good or bad within the story.
We see what other people do. They may even give reasons for their actions. But at the end of the day, we only have what they say and what they do. Nowhere are we given an objective window into their mind that shows us their real motives. We may not even observe them long enough to form a consistent impression of them. We may always be left speculating about their motives.
My journal contains my motives. If someone were to read it, they would see exactly why I made those hard decisions that marked turning points in my life. But they won’t. All they will see is the course of action I took—and the results.
People can’t read our minds, nor do they usually read our diaries. The “character” you are in life is, for practical purposes, determined by what you do. Those around us are left to deal with the consequences.
This is all another way of saying, from a literary perspective, that what we do with our time here matters. It matters because it shapes reality. And it matters because it defines the quality of our character in the narrative of life.
Imagine you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, engrossed in a movie or show. The characters are unique, the plot is gripping, the tension is building, and then suddenly your worst subconscious fear comes true—
Where did the originality go? The fresh energy?
No matter how interesting the first half-hour or so was, much of what follows grows stale, because you already know exactly what is going to happen 90% of the time.
Enter the princess… you know she’s going to fall in love with either the most eligible prince or the least-eligible-but-most-attractive outlaw.
Enter a member of the opposite sex that annoys the protagonist… you might as well save the date for their wedding.
Enter a wise old man… you know he’s going to give the protagonist the answer to all his problems, but it will just take the entire movie for the protagonist to follow the advice.
Well, you get the idea. Introducing a cookie-cutter scenario can take the wind of an otherwise unique story.
I ask this because, as both a reader and writer, I find it hard to draw the line between necessary tropes, or conventions, that establish the genre of a story and the tropes that feel like a sheet of recycled paper. One set helps raise some general expectations for the story, while the other makes the plot painfully predictable.
For instance, a windswept town with about 27 tumbleweeds rolling by gives “Once Upon a Time in the West” the familiar feeling of a Western. And yes, it ends with a gunfight, so it’s definitely a Western. But the mysterious and gradual development of the plot and characters almost feels like a Charles Dickens novel. While you have your typical handful of outlaws and gray-hats, you have no idea what they’re all going to do to each other and who’s going to get the girl in the end. And then, about halfway through, you think you know what’s going to happen based on how the trope pattern goes—only to find out you were wrong.
Then you have the cult film “The Princess Bride” (which, by the way, is equally hysterical in its novel form!). This story commits just about every fairy tale trope you can think of, and delivers you the ending you expect all along… but it intentionally delivers all this in an unexpected manner. As a satire, it never ceases to surprise you with its cheeky dialogue and self-aware humor, making it anything but your run-of-the-mill princess story.
I think this is a hard question to answer, but I suspect it has something to do with defying the expectations that a trope raises. In other words, if you introduce a scenario or a set of characters that triggers the audience’s anticipation of a predictable pattern, you have to surprise them in some way. Whether that means making the star-crossed couple realize they’re actually related (ahem, Star Wars) or having both the heroes ride off into the sunset without the girl (okay, I just spoiled Once Upon a Time in the West for you, but you should still watch it!), there has to be something that the audience doesn’t see coming. Otherwise, why should they bother continuing?
Some tropes are definitely more overused than others, but I think even the most recycled ones can be redeemed by an unexpected resolution or twist in the story’s plot.
Do you agree?
What are some tropes that make you yawn as soon as you see them? What books/shows/movies fall into predictable patterns too often?
Are there any stories that you think maintain their originality, even with a couple of tropes?
I’ve spent the past three weeks unpacking the character foils found in the TV series The Last Kingdom, and I promise next week we’ll move on to something else. 🙂 But I couldn’t help spending one more post on perhaps the most central foil relationship in the whole series: the relationship between Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Alfred the Great.
In fact, I think their constant fluctuation between friendship and rivalry makes up the main drama of the first three seasons.
Uhtred is pagan, Alfred is a devout Christian.
Uhtred is torn between loyalties, Alfred has a single-minded drive to unite England.
Uhtred is physically robust, Alfred suffers constant physical ailments.
Uhtred is passionate and often wrathful, Alfred remains cool and cunning.
Even after leading Alfred’s men into battle and fighting alongside the king himself, Uhtred struggles to maintain a stable relationship with Wessex and its ruler. As I watched them oscillate between loyalty and suspicion, I couldn’t help wishing they’d just get along. Why couldn’t they just respect each other?
Alfred recognizes Uhtred’s merit as a warrior early on, but soon Uhtred finds himself behind bars for not following the Saxon rules within Saxon territory. This becomes a point of leverage for Alfred—in fact, it marks the beginning of the cycle that keeps Uhtred coming back to Wessex again and again, despite his wish to leave. Alfred repeatedly solicits Uhtred’s sword through manipulation, even going so far as to arrange a marriage for Uhtred that will steep him in debt. Each time Uhtred gets himself into trouble with Wessex, Alfred’s “clemency” consists of making him swear service to him for yet another duration. But why does he do this?
First of all, he knows he needs Uhtred. But, as a Christian king whose authority is new, Alfred fears having to rely on a pagan whose military prowess outstrips his own. So in order for Alfred to feel comfortable keeping Uhtred close, he must keep him in the more dependent position.
Uhtred, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be the free lord of Bebbanburg, independent of any other ruler or kingdom. Naturally, he chafes under the constant state of dependency in which he finds himself with Alfred. Eventually he begins to fear he will never be released from Saxon hold—a fate his Danish friends Ragnar and Brida frequently warn him against. And yet even after Alfred’s death, Uhtred once again promises service to Wessex: this time to see Alfred’s son Edward secured as king.
So much that they fear one another’s hold.
It’s tempting to say that they might have been good friends if they didn’t need each other—and yet they never would have willingly entered each other’s lives if they had no such need. Two such opposite men would never seek out one another’s company and confidence. They were forced to out of necessity.
And so it seems that same necessity and co-dependence is both the cause and the bane of their ever-turbulent, yet ever-present relationship.
Less than friends, more than rivals… this tension alone was interesting enough to make me keep watching.
Do you find that complicated relationships between characters make a story inherently more interesting?
What are some other books/shows/movies where you’ve seen an unending dance of tension between two main characters? Do you think this dynamic makes the story more true-to-life?
It’s easy to chock it up to a good vs. evil conrast, but it seems that the more complex and realistic the characters are, the less purely good or bad they are.
Last week we talked about how good writing in the TV series The Last Kingdom avoids typecasting characters as one-dimensional reflections of ideologies. Lady Aelswith and the nun Hild are both devout Christians, yet one of them serves as an antagonist and the other as a support to the lead protagonist—the pagan Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Although the two women hold firmly to their faith, their dispositions and roles in the story are nearly polar opposites, making their characters foils to each other.
We first meet Aethelwold as the profligate son of King Aethelred, Alfred’s brother, in the second episode of the first season. We quickly learn that, although the son of the king, Aethelwold has approximately zero chance of inheriting the throne upon his father’s death because of the consistently irresponsible life he leads. Even when he protests the legitimacy of Alfred’s kingship and promises to reform his own ways, it’s obvious that he has no intention of doing so—as he repeatedly winds up hung-over in a haystack.
Essentially, his behavior undermines his claim to the throne so that we understand perfectly why no one listens to him. As a result, he begins to look for support beyond Wessex’s borders where his wayward reputation is unknown, while using his knowledge of the kingdom’s internal politics to subvert Alfred’s military efforts.
Uhtred, having grown up as a Dane, had to earn his keep from a young age—whereas Aethelwold has used his protection as the king’s son as a safeguard for his licentious behavior. But as I looked at the two characters more closely over time, I realized they had some notable points of overlap:
A strong sense of pride.
Irreverence toward the Christian religion.
Difficulty (deserved or undeserved) overcoming others’ suspicions against them.
I could go into more depth explaining these, but I think there’s one commonality that deserves special attention because of its implications for the entire narrative: the fact that both of them have been denied their “rightful” titles.
This may seem like a superficial trait—it’s definitely a circumstantial one—but it sets the stage for every other contrast drawn between Uhtred and Aethelwold. Looking at their position as disinherited lords, we might initially expect them to see some of the same behavior as they go about trying to secure their rights.
The fact is, even though they overlap in the other areas I mentioned (pride, irreverence, etc.), the way they handle these issues and govern themselves is almost always opposite.
Aethelwold’s pride leads enables him to betray others when expedient, whereas Uhtred’s pride forces him to remain loyal.
Aetheulwold feigns piety, while Uhtred can’t even pretend to be Christian.
Aethelwold has to trick people into trusting him, while Uhtred lets his integrity speak for itself.
At one point, Aethelwold attempts to lure Uhtred into a joint scheme to recover their claims, arguing that their similar status binds them together as equals. Uhtred responds that no equality of external circumstance can make up for such an enormous discrepancy of internal character.
Although the two do not clash swords until the end of the third season, I think the development of their characters as foils throughout the series drives home this very point. Uhtred’s courage and Aethelwold’s cowardice, Uhtred’s loyalty and Aethelwold’s treachery, Uhtred’s integrity and Aethelwold’s deceit—all of these contrasts consistently prove that no man’s conduct can be dismissed as an inevitable result of the hand he was dealt.
In a sense, Aethelwold is right: he and Uhtred were dealt the same hand. But it is how they play their cards that makes one of them a villain and the other a hero.
Do you find this way of juxtaposing a hero against a villain to be compelling?
What are some other ways you’ve seen writers develop meaningful contrasts between heroes and villains?
And to be honest, I didn’t plan to when I first started The Last Kingdom, but by the time I finished season 3, I couldn’t help looking back and asking what it was about the connections between characters that made the story so rich. I’ve already mentioned that it didn’t take long to become personally invested in the characters, but all the while there was another subtle, artful web being spun: the web of foils.
Here are a couple of basic definitions:
I prefer the second definition here, because it widens the scope to include contrasts between more characters than the protagonist. This is helpful when looking at a series where so many characters are well-developed— like the Last Kingdom, where I could draw almost countless comparisons and contrasts between major and minor characters alike. There are three though that I’d like to focus on, because of their salience to the themes of the story.
After the death of his brother, King Aethelred of Wessex, Alfred receives the throne in place of the former king’s profligate son Aethelwuld—a turn that provokes Aethelwuld to constant scheming and eventual treachery (stay tuned for next week!).
From the beginning, Lady Aelswith knows that her husband’s reign is precarious, threatened both internally by dissenters in Wessex and externally by the Danes occupying large parts of pre-England. She also knows that Christianity is still young in the land, and that the military enemies of Wessex and its sister kingdoms face are steeped in pagan religion. Thus, when the Danish-adopted Uhtred of Bebbanburg enters the scene, Aelswith immediately senses a threat to both Wessex’s political and religious stability.
While we as the audience know Uhtred to be a man of his word (though a little on the violent side), all Aelswith can see is a godless heathen whom her husband should not trust. And I have to say, the writers did a good job making her character solely obnoxious for the first several episodes, as she constantly seeks to pull Alfred away from any alliance with Uhtred. It wasn’t until much later that I actually started to feel any sympathy for her.
But here we have her: a woman devoted to her husband and her God, who, for all her consdescension and narrow-mindedness, tries to do what she thinks is best. And for her, that means removing Uhtred’s influence from Wessex.
She quickly becomes a member of his party and, in time, one of his most trusted friends.
Though we know little of Hild’s back story, we do learn that she was once a mother and that she suffered abused at the hands of Danes. Like Aelswith, she is devout and wishes to see the Christian faith advance. In fact, these two are the most deeply religious women we ever meet in the show—which is why I think it’s noteworthy how vastly different their characters are.
What Aelswith lacks in exposure to the heathens she fears, Hild possesses in spades. And yet Hild, having experienced genuine hardship from the Danes, is still able to recognize the good in “Uhtred the godless.” Time and again, she defends him against the prejudice of Saxons like Aelswith who, in their religious zeal, can only see Uhtred as the devil’s henchman. Although Hild disagrees with his paganism and would like to see him accept Christianity, she acknowledges his integrity and the value of his loyal service to Alfred.
What’s interesting to me is that both Aelswith and Hild are primarily dedicated to the faith they share in common—yet the way their beliefs affect their choices is nearly always opposite.
Most times I see any religion portrayed in film, its followers are either depicted as all good or all bad: one-dimensional, single-minded characters completely defined by their faith—or rather, by what the writer thinks of that faith. If the writer disagrees with that religion, he makes all its adherents in the story diabolical and hypocritical. Or if he likes the religion, all its adherents are impeccable. And regardless of whether you find the writer’s depiction of that religion offensive, it honestly just makes the characters boring and predictable.
But by setting Aelswith and Hild alongside one another as religious equals, but opposite one another as agents in the story, it makes them both stand out as unique components in the web of characters. Not only that, but I think it drives home some central themes throughout the whole series:
Trust must be earned by actions, not assumed based on shared beliefs.
Refusing to see the good in someone because of disagreements is short-sighted.
I’m sure there are many more points to be made here, which is why I so highly recommend the series—if you like finding this sort of hidden connection. And if you either don’t mind the MA rating, or just avoid watching the unseemly parts (like me!).
So with that, I’d like to know what you think.
If you’ve seen The Last Kingdom, what other parallels/contrasts do you see between characters?
What other examples of character foils in literature or film stand out to you? How do those foils ultimately serve the themes of the story?
Also, what are your thoughts on the depiction of religion in film? What are some movies/shows that bring the writer’s bias into the characters too much? Which ones do a good job avoiding this?
Four weeks after finishing Season 3 of “The Last Kingdom,” I am still formulating my opinions on the series as a whole. I will say that as the show progressed, it became clear that the intended audience is primarily male, which is maybe why I have to say I kept watching in spite of some aspects. But obviously I found it interesting enough to persevere through all three seasons, so I’ve made an effort to break down what exactly kept me hooked.
For those who aren’t familiar with The Last Kingdom, it is based off of a series of novels The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, tracing the unification of England circa 850-900 A.D. through the eyes of a Saxon-Danish warrior, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. While the protagonist is loosely derived from a real Saxon eaolderman of Northumbria (Uhtred the Bold), his adventures precede those of the historical figure, and thus a large amount of liberty is taken with his character. This makes for a fascinating angle on history, as we follow the fictional Uhtred through the labyrinth of politics and battles that surrounded the reign of Alfred the Great.
After the first 58-minute episode, it was too soon for me to be overly invested in the characters, but I had to know what happened next! By about the third episode, however, I’d begun to form an attachment to the protagonist and a couple of minor characters. With time, as I finished the first season and moved on to the second, I realized that my interest in the story was no longer just intellectual curiosity in the plot, but a personal investment in what would happen to the characters.
I’ll say it—I’m not a fan of blood and gore! In fact, I spend a good deal of time during the battle scenes focusing on my cherry juice and dark chocolate (a great combo for late night snacking, for your information!).
So the show is probably geared toward men, but who cares? Some of the best-developed characters are women (the nun Hild and Lady Aelswith, to name a couple), which also proves that male writers really are capable of portraying complex, believable female characters. In fact, one of the most masterfully depicted elements was how both of these women came to different convictions on how they as Christians should relate to the “heathen,” but valiant, Uhtred. (More on this next week!)
Needless to say, the series illustrated a number of qualities crucial to good historical fiction, and gave me plenty of food for thought… which is why I’ll spend the next few weeks delving into some of those themes and asking for your feedback!
So for now… What do you think are some key elements to a good historical fiction book/show?
What is most likely to make it worth your time?
When you pick up a hist-fic book or show, are you more interested in meeting compelling characters or in the events surrounding those characters?
Hopefully you’ve also had the satisfaction of seeing a good film rendition of a favorite book, but it seems that experience is less common.
Why is that?
I’ve often wondered why it is some movies based on books flop while others don’t. Sometimes it’s the director, the actors, or the screenplay’s deviation from core elements of the book. But it seems there is another factor at work, which can be harder to pinpoint:
For one thing, a book has the freedom to elaborate on the characters, their thoughts, and their backstories in a way that is difficult to visually depict. While the events of the story are usually capable of being portrayed physically, this is harder to achieve with abstract elements or thought processes within a character.
Take Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (yes, if you read last week’s post, you can tell I’m a Dostoevsky fan): while the novella has enough action that could be visually portrayed, the richness of the story comes from the internal dialogue of the narrator. In fact, if you were to watch everything the main character says and does without hearing his motives, you would completely misinterpret his actions.
On the other hand, some books with complex character motives are compatible with the medium of film. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are both rich with three-dimensional characters whose visible actions do not always reveal their intentions—and yet both books have received successful film adaptations more than once. So it must not be solely the complexity of a book’s characters that determines its suitability as a film…
But then what is it?
There are so many possible answers to this question, and I’d really like to know what you think. I certainly don’t have a definite answer. But there is one thing I suspect might play more of a role in our assessment of movie adaptations than we realize: the story’s setting. If you’re any kind of historical fiction or fantasy fan, you probably know what I’m talking about. How many times do we give a movie a chance because it’s set in a different era or place? Isn’t there something about the mystery of another time period or world that piques our curiosity?
I for one admit that I have sat through a number of movies or tried shows whose writing and acting were sub-par, but whose costumes, music, sets, and scenery were elaborate and convincing. And so I wonder: regardless of whether a book is actually well-suited to the screen, isn’t there some part of us that just wants to see the story’s world brought to life? And if the costume and set designers and cinematographers can immerse our senses in that world, are we less likely to mind the cheesy acting and choppy script?
Please let me know your thoughts on this.
Which movie adaptations of books do you think work, and which don’t?
What other factors do you think play a role in whether a book can be translated into film?
When you hang around people, you usually start to adopt their mannerisms, turns of phrase, and attitudes. Or at least, theirs begin to influence your own. I’ll let the social scientists give us the details on how that works, but it seems this principle holds true in a number of areas—not just in real life.
This post is more geared toward the authors out there, as the central question is one you can only answer if you have some level of experience of writing:
That might sound like a nebulous question, but let me break it down into a couple of categories.
Let’s call that everything that you, as the author, fill the pages with. It’s the paragraphs of description, narration, and explication that does not occur through dialogue. Different authors (and different works by the same author) will vary in the style, flow, and nature of the text’s form—and there’s a number of factors that can explain that. For instance, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia move at a very different pace, emphasize different kinds of details, and each has a distinct tone in their narration. (This is partly, of course, due to the different audiences for which each work is intended.)
That being said, do you ever notice the form of a book you’re reading has begun to influence the form of whatever you’re writing? You might feel compelled to spend more time explaining a character’s thoughts to the reader, insert flashback sequences, or speed the action along according to the patterns of the book you have been reading. Although I have seen this effect in my own writing process, it has not happened to me as much as the second category of influence.
This is everything the characters say and how they say it. Of course, if you are writing from the first-person perspective, this will overlap with the story’s form. It seems that, between the two, this is the influence that can more significantly shape the story—depending on what parts of another books’ character are rubbing off on yours. If the only change you notice in your characters is that they start picking up similar speech patterns, then probably not too much of your content will be affected. But if they start catching the attitudes or mindset of another book’s character, then you might have some issues on your hands.
For me, I happened to read both The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (both first-person narratives) while writing The Exile, and there is no doubt that the voices of both Holden Caulfield and Huck made their mark on Delta. This is not to say, however, that her character or mindset changed—in fact, I had already known her quite well before picking up either book. Rather, the way she expressed herself to the reader was what evolved as I learned from both Salinger and Twain’s narrative style.
Moushmi Radhanpara at The Aesthetic Miradh wrote an article not too long ago on the question of originality: Is it ethical to borrow some ideas/elements from other authors? This got me thinking. Obviously there is a deliberate choice you can make to use or not use elements from another story… but what if some of those elements simply rub off on you without your noticing right away?
First we ought to watch that we are not conforming our plot and characters to another author’s, and second we ought to be deliberate about what kinds of books we read during the process of our own work. For example, there is a humorous picaresque novel that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for years now, but I’m currently working through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which everyone kind of acts and talks like a psycho. Unless I want my novel to catch neurotic and dark undertones, I don’t dare do more than background research at this point!
So what are your thoughts on this?
Do you, as a writer, catch the characters of other books infiltrating or informing your own? If so, do you find this problematic or helpful?
Let’s face it: whether you’re a reader, writer, or both, having the right background music can work wonders to get you and your imagination in the mood. A number of scientists, bloggers, and authors have studied the connection between what you listen to and what happens in your brain—and let me say, there is more research out there than I can fit in this little article.
I recently read a great article by Amy Evans at Kobo Writing Life that discusses the importance of listening to music set in whatever era/culture a story takes place. This makes perfect sense, and I can personally attest to the effectiveness of era-specific music in mentally immersing myself in the story’s world.
But there are a couple of exceptions to the rule that I found, especially while writing The Exile. Perhaps you can identify.
Regarding the historical era of my music choice at these moments, all bets are off! I chronically found myself listening to “Desperado” by The Eagles while unraveling Delta’s inner conflict and deciding how much of that struggle she would actually share with the reader. Weird, I know. But I think it connects to the questions raised earlier about time period and narrative voice. Just as using some modern language can help readers relate to a character, listening to music that expresses the basic, most human elements of a character’s inner state can help the author relate to his/her own narrator.
While James Horner, Hans Zimmer, and Patrick Doyle have a plethora of music capable of both transporting listeners to a time period and stirring up emotion, it can be challenging if you have already formed mental associations with their melodies. In fact, I find my ability to distance myself mentally from the soundtrack’s original context inversely proportional to my love for the movie/show. For instance, it is because I have every line and scene of “Braveheart” memorized and engraved on my soul that I cannot easily write while listening to Horner’s bagpipes.
On the other hand, as much as I’ve come to enjoy “The Last Kingdom,” the haunting tones of John Lunn’s “Lívstræðrir” are not impossible for me to separate from the show. (Side note: maybe this is because, as a musical theme in a TV series, the occurrence of “Lívstræðrir” is not tied to any one particular scene.)
Do you ever find that listening to a soundtrack from a movie you have already seen makes the creative process more difficult? In other words, does the association of the music with another story hinder your own storytelling?
And if so, does the same go for soundtracks from TV series? Or does the recurring nature of a show’s music make it easier to distance yourself from the context?
Or similarly, do you listen to certain types of music while reading in order to help stimulate your imagination?
A lean novel is one whose words center on the story— the muscle, if you will, composed of characters and their actions. The details that do not directly impact the muscle (if excessive) add “verbal flab”—something that could be trimmed off without detracting from the essential plot and character development. For instance, if you find yourself able to skip large sections of description without missing crucial details or a hidden layer of symbolic meaning, the value of those sections becomes questionable.
I remember slogging through the 300+ pages of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and thinking that at least 100 of them must be dedicated to the description of food: the planting, slaughtering, harvesting, cooking, and consumption thereof. In fact, by the end of the novel I felt that the subject matter I grasped best from the book’s time period was the food.
To be fair, I have to credit Frazier with his diligence of detail—clearly he has a mastery of knowledge regarding the way of life during the late 1800s, as well as the military mechanics and events of the Civil War. If nothing else, the book presents a thorough depiction of the geographical, political, and physical environment surrounding the main characters as it would have been.
All readers have varying attention spans and patience for dense detail, because on one hand we need description in order to establish the story’s world and augment the plot/characters… but on the other hand, a novel is at its heart a story, and the story occurs through the actions and words of its characters.
One way this principle impacted my writing of The Exile was that it caused me to focus on details that evoked some sort of reaction in Delta, the narrator. As such, the description of her world remained secondary to her opinion of it:
“Upon entering the town, I realized I would have a great deal to adjust to. If I had found the streets and walls of Dramin constraining, Levna drew me near to the point of suffocation. The buildings, primarily made of wood, pressed tightly on either side of the squalor that served as a road, offering but a narrow channel of passage through which people flowed like a human current…
I barely heard the voice from the story overhead above the general ruckus cry, “Look out below!” before a cascade of sludge sluiced past my face, missing me by a hair’s length. It was then that I understood with a shock of revulsion the source of the air’s odor.
Raising my eyes in search of relief, however, I saw there was little to be found, for the buildings on either side of the street rose lopsided, each story protruding outward over the one beneath it. The two sides grew like a tunnel, shrouding the town from above and choking any view of the sky. I was beginning to question the wisdom of civilization.”The Exile, p. 119-120
One novel whose description stood out to me was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. This was because the description, although at times extensive, either directly enhanced a character/his lifestyle or resonated with the deeper themes that transcend the story. The details were intimately connected with the telling of the story, not simply with painting a vivid (although historically accurate) picture.
For writers, this poses a similar question as the one mentioned a few weeks ago regarding time-period language: how do we bring our readers into the story’s world without bogging them down?
For those of you who are writers, how do you decide the appropriate level of detail for your descriptions?
I’ve shared with you my thoughts, but how do you, as a reader, assess the value of description in a novel?
I noticed when we arrived at the longhouse kitchen that there were some men tarrying around, eyeing the women at work. I happened to glance and see Clare stirring a pot that hung over a rod in the nearest fireplace. A tall young warrior was standing against the wall, his eyes fixed on Clare. I caught the look in his eyes as he gazed silently at her, rubbing a blade of grass between his fingers. I’d seen that look before.
The woman closest to Clare approached me and my companion, receiving the water we brought, but I saw something that made me tense. That young lad took a couple steps closer until he stood beside Clare. She didn’t seem to notice him there—she simply kept stirring the pot like she was told. Uncertainty gnawed at me like dogs on a bone. I knew what was coming, but something made me stay and watch.
The warrior lifted his hand to Clare’s shoulder and slid it slowly down her back. Clare’s head turned sharply and her eyes widened on him, but she did not cringe. Instead she tried to talk.
If you read last week’s post about female warriors, you’ll remember that the entire concept of the shieldmaiden has always been shrouded in lore—to the point that historians can’t decisively prove or disprove whether or not these women fought alongside men. This gave me the freedom to speculate what life might have looked like for The Exile’s narrator, Delta, if such a woman could have existed in early medieval Scandinavia.
Let me pause here to clarify a couple of things.
First, the exact time during which the novel takes place is intentionally obscure. The prologue mentions that the kingdoms and wars precede the Viking era, but beyond that no details are given. Essentially this sets the stage for the story without pretending to give a factual account tied to real civilizations and places.
That being said, the description of clan life and warfare is inspired by the known details of Norse clans and culture. I intentionally did not include any of the religious traditions that would have likely been present—mainly because it didn’t serve the purpose of the story—but instead focused heavily on the aspects of slave life. In that regard, I can assure you that the struggle for survival Delta faces is one that any slave (“thrall,” in Old Norse) in a real Norse clan would have faced.
Andrew Lawler from National Geographic draws attention to recent archaeological findings that suggest thralls were housed and even disposed of alongside animals. The same article describes evidence of slave killings, suspected to result either from a master’s death or as a form of human sacrifice. As for a female slave like Delta, she would have in fact been viewed as a piece of property to be used for both sex and manual labor.
To be honest, this element of the novel was one of the hardest parts to write. Because her past is such an integral part of Delta’s character, I didn’t feel I could skimp on it—but at the same time I found myself struggling with the question of how much was too much. This is still a question I’m grappling.
So I ask you: when it comes to the unsavory stuff in history, how much detail should a writer incorporate?
Is it worse to under-elaborate or to over-elaborate? How does one decide this?
What are some books/movies that would benefit from a more thorough depiction of the era’s brutality? Which ones go too far?
Dodging past some battle-ready men, I glided into one of the lodges and threw the door shut behind me. Fairly ripping off my dress, I pulled on the men’s leggings and tunic that warriors wore, strapping the leather belt about my waist. For a moment I was stricken dumb with the familiar pleasure of being in warriors’ clothes once again. But the cries that sounded outside the hut reminded me of the need for haste.
Quickly I slipped my feet into the sturdy but light-weight leather boots and strung them tight against my leg, snatching up the knife that lay on the floor near the other garments. The last thing I took was the bow and quiver of arrows leaned against the wall, and then I left the lodge to go find Clare.
The Exile, p. 34
The camp was in an uproar now; Falker and Blakkrthorn swords clashed, and arrows hissed, while slaves scurried to and fro, trying to hide somewhere safe. Having not witnessed a camp raid in seven years, I’d forgotten how bloody they are. Members of the attacking clan lose themselves in the lust that overtakes and drives them to kill, to burn, to sack, and to destroy everything in their path. Homes go up in flames, wells get polluted, animals end up slaughtered, children end up dead. If I had ever been on a raid, I imagine I would have done the same.
But that question wasn’t enough to stop me—a sentiment that countless other writers apparently share. I mean, have you seen the sheer volume of warrior princess stories out there?
Number 1, because Delta is not a princess; and number 2, because she spends very little of the novel actually being a warrior. Because of this, it wasn’t terribly problematic to think that the female warrior phenomenon might be a myth.
That being said, I couldn’t help noticing during my background research a lack of solid facts in early Scandinavian history regarding women. Some archaeological findings suggest Viking women may have fought, but historians and scientists seem unable to agree decisively.
Even so, it seemed odd to me that contemporary culture would have such a fascination with the medieval female warrior if no such women ever existed. Even in shows such as “The Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom” whose main protagonists are men, you still have women like Lagertha and Brida who charge into battle alongside them.
If you want a simple yes or no, you’ll be disappointed. On one hand, it is entirely possible that the female warrior is the product of imagination. But on the other hand, we were not the first to imagine it.
The most commonly known female warriors date back to ancient Greece: the Amazons. You’d think that once you go back far enough, you’d find some hard and indisputable facts. But as Amanda Foreman points out, even the earliest references to the Amazons are shrouded in legend. Even closer to home, I found that the Norse did in fact have accounts of shieldmaidens—but their status as legends has made it difficult for historians to separate fact from fiction (see also Valkyries). Professor Joshua J. Mark sums it up, “It seems clear that the Norse culture valued women enough to not only include female deities in their pantheon but also attribute to them the same martial skills and ability to determine their own fate as men were allowed.”
What becomes clear is that, even if the female warrior is a creative invention, it is not a new invention—and so the sharp criticism of contemporary stories about female warriors (yes, even the “warrior princess” stories) is not warranted. If the Vikings fantasized about women fighting in battle, so can we. The value of a story in this genre shouldn’t be based on whether the genre has a right to exist or not. It does have a right to exist—unless you want to argue with the Greeks and the Vikings. The real measure of value lies in the story itself—the vivacity of its characters, the originality of the plot, the quality of the writing.
Is there a problem with today’s depiction of female warriors?
Is the subject simply too cliché at this point? Or are modern portrayals just too unrealistic?
“You don’t look like the rest,” Clare said, her eyes traveling over the scars on my skin.
“I was a warrior,” I told her. “But I can tell you’re not from any clan at all.”
She lowered her eyes and glanced at her sister briefly. “It’s true,” she admitted. “We did not come from these parts.”
I knew it. “Then where did you come from?”
She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then bent her knees in a strange gesture royal folk call a curtsy. “My name is Clare; how do you do?”
“I’m all right,” I answered, struggling with surprise. It was rather uncommon that someone should take interest in my personal well-being.
“This is my sister, Runa.”
I sensed it was my turn to say something about myself, but I never had to, because at that moment I heard someone calling me from outside in a most foreboding tone.The Exile, p. 3
Part of the reason I knew Delta had to narrate The Exile was because hers was the voice I could hear most clearly—her tones, attitudes, and editorials all demanded expression. Not only that, but it seemed a large part of the story’s substance hinged on her commentary and interpretation of other characters and events. That being said, however, the main challenge of writing in her voice became apparent:
The thing is, it’s not hard to identify a character’s voice as formal or informal. What is hard is knowing how to give a historical character a colloquial voice. This is especially true when little is known about the culture’s dialect.
I did my share of research regarding early medieval life and Scandinavian clans—so while the names of characters, clans, and places are fictional, their descriptions and hierarchies adhere closely to the historical reality. But when it comes to the actual languages, finding a way to make medieval Scandinavian vernacular sound laid-back and familiar would take a kind of linguistic wizardry I’m not sure exists. So the question becomes, “How do you strike a balance between sounding simultaneously historical and relatable?”
Some writers lean more modern than others, going so far as to insert a number of anachronisms or phrases that, while you’d never hear them in the story’s time period, make the characters and scenarios feel less foreign to us contemporary folk.
A prime example is Daisy Goodwin’s TV series “Victoria.” Although the costumes and accents are pretty convincing, I had to laugh when one of the dukes added, “Just saying” at the end of an otherwise elevated conversation. While most of the dialogue doesn’t drip so heavily with modern lingo, it’s still obvious that Goodwin gives her characters some current turns of phrase to make them more accessible.
Because, although some modern phraseology can lower the barrier between character and reader, it can also polarize those who want to see more historical accuracy. Because of the challenges surrounding The Exile’s setting (and because Delta’s relatability was so central), I chose to err on the more modern side—something not everyone would agree with.
And of course, if you have read/are reading The Exile, please let me know what you think about this particular aspect of the novel.
Her name was Clare. She came on a dark day when my body was still sore from its latest beating two nights ago. They brought her into camp with her sister, both of them quiet and skittish.
When I first saw her I could tell by her countenance that she was different. She carried herself in a dignified fashion, holding herself upright, but not so tall as to flaunt—not like the women of my clan. But I wasn’t with my clan when she came to me. I was with the Falkers.
As for me, I never bothered with posture or honor. I knew I wasn’t important, so I didn’t try to be.
Oh, I was dirty and base and soiled, but she tried to change me. I suppose I did change a little, if only so she wouldn’t pity me, but not as much as she would have liked. Besides, this was before all that began.The Exile, p. 1.
The truth is, when I first sat down to write The Exile, there was no question as to whose voice would narrate the novel. Even though the majority of the plot arises from Clare’s quest, the story would invariably lose some of its meaning if it were told from her perspective—or rather, the layers of meaning would change.
I think this is something that writers themselves are more likely to appreciate, as the beginning of each new story requires us to make a conscious choice: “Who is going to tell this thing?” It could be one character or several. Or it could be a voice removed from the story itself.
While there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, we can’t deny that the choice of narrator inherently affects the tenor, themes, and even content of the novel. Imagine if a classic like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were told by Jim! We would gain all of the perspective of a mature, African American man forced to suppress his own intelligence, but we would lose the naiveté of an otherwise savvy boy coming to see the world for what it is.
What if Fitzgerald chose Daisy, rather than Nick, to narrate The Great Gatsby?
Or what if both Twain and Fitzgerald used an omniscient third-person narrator, giving us unilateral knowledge of each character’s inner thoughts?
The question of narrative perspective isn’t particular to historical fiction, but it does connect to another topic I’ll address next week that every his-fic author has to wrangle. But no matter what genre we read or write, I think exploring the different possible narrative perspectives in a novel can give us insight into why the author chose the one he/she did—which in turn can help us better understand the meaning he/she wanted to communicate.
What stories can you think of whose substance would change radically if told from another perspective?
If you are a writer, do you find yourself writing more often in the first-person or third-person? How do you decide?
“When the Scandinavian princess Clare finds herself and her sisters sold into slavery to the ruthless clans inhabiting the unsettled mainland, she meets Delta—a hardened slave girl with a history of her own. Although their morals and perspectives clash initially, each recognizes the other as her chance to escape captivity: for Clare, to rescue her beloved sister; for Delta, to return to her own clan.
In their struggle against predators, prejudice, and their own secrets, each woman must question what is worth living for and what, if anything, is worth dying for.”
When I first sat down to write The Exile I didn’t have a particular setting in mind. In fact, only after completing the first two drafts did I settle on Scandinavia as the geographical stage for the novel.
Why was that?
Even prior to writing the first manuscript, it was evident that the characters themselves would constitute the primary energy source that drove the story forward. In that sense, Delta the slave and Clare the princess could have lived in any medieval civilization, provided that it allowed for clan warfare. All other circumstantial elements (political corruption, denigration of women, and a constant struggle for survival) could characterize almost any culture in medieval Europe.
Other than the Vikings, not much is commonly known about its history—and unless you’re writing alternate history, it’s precisely those gaps that give you room to create a story. That being said, once I delved into Scandinavian history, it inevitably began to reshape and inform elements of The Exile— and let me add, there is still plenty of room for exploration.
At the heart of this process, though, I realized there lies a central question regarding historical fiction.
The truth is, some plots/scenarios can be extracted from their original setting and placed in a different time period or culture. Some characters can receive circumstantial facelifts while still preserving the integrity of their voice and personality. I am often struck by how much of a story’s plot could have unfolded in a different context, whereas other stories draw heavily on the historical setting for their content.
Take Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: while Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert find themselves caught amidst the French Revolution, the game of chase and the core ethical dilemmas that define the story are not inherently tied to the time period.
On the other hand, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain tells the coming-of-age tale of a boy whose perspectives are largely shaped by the ideas surrounding the American Revolution. In that sense, the history is central to the themes of the story.
And yet both Les Misérables and Johnny Tremain manage to transcend their time periods in meaningful ways.
How does this happen?
From the author’s perspective, how do you know whether to choose the setting or to develop the plot first?
On the reader’s side, how can you tell when a plot was tailor-made for a particular setting?
What other stories could have taken place in a different time period? What are some whose plots/characters seem inextricable from their setting?
In any case, it seems this trend should impact our understanding of what it means to be “timeless.”
At this point, you might be wondering two things:
Chances are, if you landed on this site, you are also either a storyteller or a history geek—or better yet, both. Or maybe you’re just an avid reader of folklore, fantasy, or historical fiction. In any case, I’m glad you visited, because there’s a lot to talk about—hence the name.
By now, you’ve derived that the “inkpot” theme comes from past eras…
The fact is, no matter how documented and complete our history of a given time period, there will always be things we don’t know. People whose names were forgotten. Events that slipped through the cracks, or were deliberately left off the books. Historical purists find that problematic—I find it exhilarating, because where the known facts end is where the imagination begins.
There is a caveat to this, and it marks the line between fact-finding and storytelling. If a well-informed person reads Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl or watches Randall Wallace’s “Braveheart” expecting a 100% accuracy score, they will be disappointed—and rightfully so. Neither of these works presents itself as an authentic historical account. Instead, both invite the reader and viewer to explore a real time period and ask real questions faced by both real and imagined characters. This is the same adventure I invite my readers to join.
Each addition will open with a post related to one of the stories I have published, or genres/time periods I am currently researching—but that is just the beginning. The rest is yours. If you share the same curiosity in the past or in storytelling (either as a reader or an author), then you have something to contribute. Raise questions. Answer questions. Tell us about whatever you’re working on, or whatever fascinating gems you know about a particular era. Come join the adventure!
It seems that two vastly different types of writers have emerged over the centuries, and only one of them gets all the hype these days:
“Soundbite writers” and “sonnet writers.”
Yes, I just made these two terms up. One of them is infinitely more chic than the other, and much more likely to be measured in terms of dollar value as opposed to longevity.
You recognize them instantly.
It’s an art (or maybe more of a science), and it depends on effectiveness in order to achieve the end goal—often a reward in money or publicity. But what frequently disappoints me about this style is that sometimes the article, post, or book thins out as you get past the first paragraph or chapter. What promised originality and excitement turns out to be drab and trite after the first thrill. It’s sort of like slurping the whipped cream off the top of your coffee, and finding the drink black underneath. (Sorry, black-coffee fans. But seriously, you do have weird taste!)
What all soundbite writers ultimately have in common is that they’re selling something up front—and fast.
“What about sonnet writers?” you ask. “Is that even a thing anymore?”
They often take a more inductive, gradual approach, revealing bits of information here and there and giving their audience time to chew and digest as the story goes. Often it takes several chapters before you feel like you really have a handle on the story’s world and the major players.
Sonnet writers aren’t afraid to take their time, because what they’re selling isn’t a scenario or a situation—what they’re selling is a character. A lead.
The thing is, though, they’re still selling something. It’s simply a different object than what soundbite writers are selling, and consequently it takes a different strategy—many different strategies, actually.
Think classic literature for a second:
Gone with the Wind
The Great Gatsby
Pride and Prejudice
None of these books start with rapid-fire, on-the-spot action— in fact, many of them have a reputation as being a “slow read.” And yet each of them has earned the title of masterpiece, and has survived for at least a century. It’s not because they don’t sell something. They do. It’s because they sell their lead characters.
Next week I’ll cover some specific ways that master authors have sold their characters, and how you can apply that to your own writing.
Because a character, like a real person, is almost always going to be more memorable than a situation or event.