Comments on Craft: Awe & Otherworldliness

The Last Unicorn 40th Anniversary CoverI’ve decided to stop reviewing novels on this blog—the reviews aren’t necessarily helpful for writers. Instead, as I read well-crafted and artful fiction, I’ll excerpt passages or highlight techniques I find particularly skillful, beautiful, or useful.

I’ll start this new series, Comments on Craft, with a book my son recently asked me to read to him, even though he’s two years old and it doesn’t have many illustrations. He even sat still through two thirds of the first chapter!

I mention The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle a lot, but I refuse to apologize for the repetition. It has many facets worth emulating, but today I’ll highlight a paragraph from page 1, when Beagle is introducing his unicorn and setting her up as an awe-inspiring and otherworldly entity.

She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. […] She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight. She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs.

After I read that last line, my son said, “That so nice!” He zeroed in on the part he understood: giving food to baby animals. This final line in the paragraph does more than list things the unicorn does: it both elevates caring for less-capable creatures to the same level as dragon slaying and gives a fairytale texture to the novel. New writers sometimes have a hard time making things feel epic or awe-inspiring and try to accomplish that goal by using grandiose, overly extravagant descriptions. Beagle gives his unicorn’s story an awe-filled tone in many ways, but one is right here. He gives her depth and breadth. By showing grand events like a mythical healing next to an everyday one, it keeps the description from becoming overblown, cliché, or monotonous (a grand tone gets boring if it encounters no variety). Also the fact that, for a unicorn, these three tasks all belong together makes the unicorn seem other-than-human, which she is!

Comments on Craft is a growing collection of examples of artful and well-constructed writing and storytelling and a discussion of why they work.

Villainous Characterization Techniques

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about humanizing your book’s villains. Today I’m going to analyze some humanized villains and talk about the specific traits and techniques that make those villains more human and interesting—I’ll even show a humanizing element that can save your villain from being completely flat. Because a villain’s characterization spans entire books and series, let me preface this post by saying it’s probably full of spoilers. I’ll keep them as mild as I can, but if you want any of these books to remain completely unspoiled, avoid reading that book’s section and skip to the technique summary at the end.

Lord of the Rings: Gollum

Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. TolkeinI’ll start with the book most of you won’t mind having spoiled. Gollum from Lord of the Rings is the most humanized villain in the trilogy (some might even argue that he’s not much of an antagonist because he helps so much). J.R.R. Tolkein humanizes Gollum by making him utterly pitiful. The heroes of not only Lord of the Rings, but also of The Hobbit, pity Gollum, and the reader does too. He’s a lonely, mostly deranged creature that is driven by something other than his own rational thoughts. His addiction to the ring has made him less than his own man. Because the reader can feel sorry for Gollum, it’s hard to hate him completely, and his villainous actions are more impactful. When he falls back into actions driven by his addiction, the reader aches a bit because he couldn’t resist it forever.

Villainous technique: Make your reader pity the villain.

The Last Unicorn: King Haggard

The Last Unicorn 40th Anniversary CoverThrough much of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn there is no physical antagonist impeding the unicorn’s quest to find the rest of the unicorns. Once King Haggard arrives on the scene, he fills that role. Haggard lacks the human ability to be happy, which you might think would make him less than human, but he lacks this ability because of a common human failing: he doesn’t know what would make him happy. This selective ignorance drives Haggard’s deepest flaw, and it’s also something many people in the world share. Lots of people don’t know what will make them happy. Many of them spend years in pursuit of something they think will make them happy, but because they didn’t know what would make them happy, they end up unhappy, just like Haggard. Haggard’s ignorance is his most endearing factor (and it makes you pity him a bit, just like Gollum).

Villainous technique: Give your villain some ignorance your audience shares or sympathizes with.

Blackdog: Tamghat

Blackdog by K.V. JohansenTamghat in K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog isn’t exactly a poster boy for a humanized villain (although I loved the book, I didn’t think he was even that memorable). However, one thing that kept him from being completely flat was Johansen’s use of a foil character. Tamghat is the villain, but he shares a lot of backstory with Moth, a character who the reader is supposed to like and sympathize with. Because readers learn Tamghat’s backstory (and thus, much of his motivation) from a foil character they like, it’s easier to understand his motivations and follow his goals.

Villainous technique: Introduce a sympathetic foil character that shares some of your villain’s traits.

I Am Not a Serial Killer: Dan Wells

I Am Not a Serial Killer, Dan Wells(Heads up: This is probably the most spoiler-filled section.) Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer has a very humanized villain, Mr. Crowley. As the book’s antagonist, Crowley is behind a series of killings in the main character’s home town. However, his motivation is what makes him incredibly human. He kills because he needs to steal body parts so he can stay with his elderly human wife, who he fell in love with even though he’s a demon. He gets caught for his killings because he doesn’t want to have to go far from his wife to harvest body parts. Crowley displays traits that most people would consider admirable: love, fidelity, and consideration for someone he’s been with for a very long time. The fact that these traits drive him to a horrible outcome makes that outcome more powerful.

Villainous technique: Give the villain morally admirable traits (which can sometimes lead to morally reprehensible results).

These are really just a few ways you can make your villain more dynamic. How have your favorite authors humanized some of their villains?

Yearly Book Traditions

Now that it’s after Christmas, I am going to indulge in one of my yearly book traditions. In addition to reading whatever books my family have been so kind as to give me, I’m also going to read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. I’m going to read it before January. Why?

The Dark Is Rising by Susan CooperWell, primarily because it is traditional. Secondarily, I read The Dark Is Rising every year because it is a book I love dearly. The book, and the whole Dark Is Rising sequence, is something I can easily fall into an immerse myself in. It’s an enveloping kind of book that completely transports me into the realm between its pages. I like to increase that feeling of immersion by reading this book during the time in which it takes place. The majority of the action in The Dark Is Rising occurs in the twelve days following Christmas. Being surrounded by snow while the English countryside of the story descends into winter makes the book that much more powerful. (This tradition isn’t hurt by the fact that my grandma, who has since passed away, was the one who gave me my copies of Susan Cooper’s sequence.)

The Dark Is Rising isn’t the only book I reread every year. I tend to reread The Last Unicorn (I explain that in this post about Peter S. Beagle), The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, and Night Watch by Terry Pratchett.

Collage of Favorites' Covers

Ella Enchanted is pure delight, a smooth read, and it only takes me about one sitting to read it cover to cover. It’s easy to come back to as a comfort read. It’s like good macaroni and cheese.

All the other books have a certain way of enveloping me, of making me feel things deeply. They all wound, enlighten, and enlarge me in powerful ways. Along the way, yes, Pratchett makes me laugh; yes, Beagle charms me with his descriptions; yes, O’Brien systematically questions my trust in narrative truth. But the thing they share in common is that these books have heart to them, and I compulsively return to that living heart year after year.

Are there any books you read yearly, or are there just a few books you keep around for rereading? Or do you eschew rereads?

Using Unique Prose Techniques

Unique ProseEvery writer has hundreds of techniques available when he or she sets out to tell a story. There are different flavors of viewpoint, descriptions, dialogue, setting—there are different styles of pretty much every element of writing out there.

Most writing elements have a default or “normal” technique: for example, the present day’s default viewpoint is usually third-person limited. As a writer, you probably want to get creative, flout a few standards, and push the boundaries of these defaults. However, you often hear that you can’t do XYZ innovative technique unless you’re ABC big name author. (Ex. Don’t transcribe heavy accents in your dialogue unless you’re Mark Twain, etc.)

The truth is that you don’t have to be a big name author to use a unique technique. Big name authors didn’t start as big names, and they used their signature techniques anyway. But caution against unique techniques serves a reasonable purpose. Innovation for innovation’s sake is unlikely to serve the main purpose of your writing: telling a great story. Unique prose can kick your reader out of your story. You can flout any standard, but you’d better have a good reason that serves the overall vision of your book, and even then you should pick only a few techniques so the reader still has something familiar to latch onto. I’m going to discuss a few instances in which authors used unique prose techniques to serve their stories and visions.

The Prestige CoverViewpoint: The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The first case study is The Prestige by Christopher Priest. I recently read and reviewed this book, and one thing that struck me was the viewpoint. The book is told primarily in first-person journal entries spread over decades. Each individual’s story is told from beginning to end without interruption, with the exception of Andy, whose story bookends the book. This means the reader goes through the same set of events, start to finish, twice. That’s repetitious and bizarre by “normal” standards.

This technique works here because each character is engaging enough to draw a reader into the story, and there are secrets enough to discover that repeated plot points aren’t redundant. Plot points aren’t retold to give you a different set of eyes—they’re retold to give you different stories. The technique also allows a reader to explore each individual separately, and the book is primarily about the ghosts and obsessions that haunt each character. By isolating each account, the reader can fully immerse in each character’s story, and placing the accounts in the same book allows the reader to come to a conclusion bigger than one individual.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna ClarkeDescriptions: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

The second case study is another recent read of mine, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. The book is set in an alternate England where magicians deal with fairies. Clarke’s descriptions of fairy things are full of synesthesia and mixed metaphors. Synesthesia descriptions describe something, like a color, using sensory details that don’t match how that thing is typically perceived. For example: “[The fairy box] was a beautiful shade of blue, but then again not exactly blue, it was more like lilac. … To be more precise, it was the color of heartache” (emphasis mine). Heartache is not experienced through visual senses, but Clarke uses it to describe a color.

Synesthesia and mixed metaphors are typically used sparingly, if at all, because they stand out so much. But Clarke uses these descriptions deliberately. She restricts them mostly to descriptions of fairy things and of magic, and it works because the fairies are not quite human and live just a sidestep shy of our reality. By using descriptions that are slightly unhinged from strict logic, she communicates and deepens the otherness of the fairies.

The Last Unicorn 40th Anniversary CoverDialogue & Setting: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Beagle does some interesting things with his dialogue and his setting. The Last Unicorn is set in a pseudo–medieval Europe (there are even explicit references to Anglo-Saxons). However, one character blithely offers another a taco; another casually reads a magazine while lounging outside; King Haggard’s men have armor made of bottle caps sewn to leather. If you’re going for verisimilitude, details like this will break your story.

In his dialogue, Beagle similarly chucks verisimilitude out the window and has a character or two who will spontaneously start rhyming. Although one character is an entertainer, he slips into rhyme even when he isn’t performing.

Why does Beagle’s disregard for factual representations work? Because verisimilitude is not a part of Beagle’s vision. By suspending the normal rules of logic, Beagle invites the reader to enter a timeless, liminal place. Many of the book’s themes center around the interplay between eternity and things bound in time. By disregarding time-bound restrictions (like those on magazines and bottle caps), Beagle enhances this theme. By putting singsong rhymes into his characters’ mouths, he deepens the otherworldliness of his setting.

Your Technique: Your Story

Next time you’re considering flouting a standard of literature, ponder why you’re doing it. Is it just to be different, or does it serve your story and theme? Is your unique technique balanced against normal ones? (The Prestige strives for verisimilitude, even though its story is fragmented; The Last Unicorn ditches verisimilitude but retains a linear storyline.) If you throw every standard out of your story, you might throw your reader out of the story at the same time. But if you select your technique carefully, you can invite the reader deeper.

Speaking about design, David Craib said, “Design should never say, ‘Look at me.’ It should always say, ‘Look at this.’” The same is true of your prose techniques. Your viewpoint, descriptions, dialogue, and setting should not say, “Look at me.” They should all say, “Look at this great story.” If your innovation isn’t doing that, it’s not very good innovation, is it?

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