Good guys, bad guys: what’s the real difference?

Do you ever stop and think about what exactly it is that makes one character a hero and another a villain?

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.

 But this week I want to draw attention to another masterfully developed foil relationship: the relationship between Uhtred and Aethelwold, the claimant to the throne of Wessex.

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.

In comparing Uhtred and Aethelwold, their differences are more immediately obvious than their similarities:

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.

Au contraire.

While Uhtred and Aethelwold both share a similar circumstantial position, we see over time that they have vastly different internal dispositions.

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.

Thoughts?

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?

Saints and Prudes: what do they show us?

You probably don’t sit down to watch a show with the intent of analyzing and breaking down its elements.

Most people don’t.

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.

So what’s a foil?

Here are a couple of basic definitions:

  1. “Another character in a story who contrasts with the main character, usually to highlight one of their attributes.”
  2. “A character who is presented as a contrast to a second character so as to point to or show to advantage some aspect of the second character.”

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.

I’ll start with two of the most significant women: Aelswith and Hild.

We meet Lady Aelswith early on, as the wife of the newly crowned King Alfred.

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.

On the other hand, we have Hild: a nun Uhtred and his companions rescue during a Danish raid on a Saxon town.

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.

This is what makes for great writing.

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?

Wait… What did I just see?

Do you ever finish watching a series and then just need some time to mentally process everything?

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.

From the very beginning, I was struck by the tight writing and plot development.

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.

This is what kept me going as the show became darker and gorier.

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?

What Makes the Cut?

We’ve all had that experience of watching one of our favorite books turned into a movie, and finding the movie version vastly disappointing.

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:

What if the book just isn’t movie material?

Here’s a distinction I’d like to make: I do not think that a book’s “filmability” is a fair measure of its value.

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?

Literary Osmosis

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:

When simultaneously writing a story and working through someone else’s novel, do you find yourself picking up habits from what you’re reading?

That might sound like a nebulous question, but let me break it down into a couple of categories.

First there’s the form category.

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.

Then you have the character category.

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?

I’m not convinced that the subconscious influence of either another book’s form or characters is unethical—but I think it does mean that we as writers ought to be careful.

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?

Can You Hear the Story?

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.

As a writer, I find the impact of music on an author’s work fascinating.

This is an especially relevant issue for authors of period dramas or historical fiction.

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.

At times (very often, in fact) the most essential thing for me to connect with wasn’t the world surrounding the characters, but the complex landscape of thoughts and tensions inside the characters.

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.

The other “exception” to the rule of music relevance is the use of soundtracks from other movies/shows when writing your own material.

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?

Verbal Flab: when can a novel afford to lose weight?

I tend to think of a novel as a cut of meat.

A lean novel is one whose words center on the storythe 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.

However, I couldn’t help feeling that the character and plot development would have been more poignant if it weren’t framed by so much physical description.

This is where things get subjective.

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?