Sunday, November 15, 2009

Musings on Heroes

The "hero" is the underpinning of genre fiction. Fantasy can't live without the heroic guy or gal thrust into the soup and forced to rise to the occasion. The type of hero doesn't matter: the noble prince, the humble farmboy, the good witch, the barbarian warrior princess. We want to identify with the good guys (usually) so we can cheer their success. We like it when they attain glory and bask in the reflected glow. But pursuit of glory wasn't what hooked us. Just the opposite.

What makes a hero a hero? It can't just be about stepping in and saving the world. It can't just be about having the right gifts to apply at the right time, be they courage or awesome magic. I've been mulling this since critting a friend's manuscript, and I finally put my finger on something that's perhaps blindingly obvious to everyone else but nevertheless something I am finally arriving at consciously, after applying it subconsciously to every book I've ever written. The heroes we remember are the ones who had something to lose beyond just their lives.

I begin to see why some of my short stories, especially some of the more hurried SSIAW ones, don't stick even in my own mind. In them, the hero has nothing much to lose. In my books, the hero always has something to lose. Something huge. Something underpinning his or her whole life. Without that most basic requirement, heroism is just another act in a normal day. Otherwise society would give medals to every firefighter who ever set foot in a burning building. Sure, they all have life and limb at risk. But what defines a heroic act over the commonplace?

Cops, firefighters, and soldiers risk their lives daily in the course of the jobs they get paid to do. They volunteered for this; nobody pressed them into service. We mourn when they die, but not everybody gets a medal for doing the job they agreed to do. The extraordinary act comes when "maybe I'll get hurt" turns to "it's almost certain I'll get hurt." This is why I take such vehement exception to the media trend since 9/11 to overuse the word "hero," cheapening it to just another valueless bit of hype. Everybody's a hero to our bored and increasingly facile and shallow crop of journalists, from the guy who catches a stray dog to the man who throws himself in front of a train to save a stranger.

The acceptance of risk above and beyond what is expected is the essence of heroism, but it doesn't need to be life or death. Heroes can risk other things of equal value: personal reputation, relationships, social standing, wealth, honor, children--the list is infinite. I loved the ending of The Crucible, when honor and a good name became more important than life. Living with a falsehood was more intolerable than death. Thus is a hero born. Better yet, a memorable hero.

My point is that when writing, make sure your hero, even if thrust into the action like Frodo being chased by Black Riders, has a painful and powerful choice to make in pursuit of the quest. Frodo has his peaceful, contented life in the Shire--and the Shire itself--to lose. He saves one but loses the other as he is irrevocably changed by the quest. Yet he does not turn aside from struggling toward the aptly-named Mt. Doom.

A character acting heroically without something potentially life-changing hovering over his head is pretty blah. Answer yourself these questions when pondering the whys and wherefores of your plot:
  • Who or what is left behind to follow the quest?
  • What will happen to the character's life, moral character, or outlook if these things are lost?
  • Why is the quest more important than these other things?
  • What gives your character the strength to turn his/her back on them? Is it strength or cowardice?
  • Is the quest an escape or a dreaded duty?
All of these things will define the emotional impact of that all-important decision to leave those precious things behind, and with it, the level of impact on the reader. We want to cry fully as much as we want to cheer. Whatever your character stands to gain must be equally balanced by whatever it is he or she has to lose.

Just sayin'.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Report from World Fantasy Con

Oh, dear, it's been way too long since I had time to blog. Partly that comes from earning a living; partly I was trying to get ready to go to the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, which was held over this past Halloween weekend.

I had no idea what to expect from WFC, having only been to two small conventions previously. They were the dress-up-in-costume type; WFC is all business. The very first thing that was different was the swag. Oh, my gosh. There I was worrying about what to read on the plane home, and the first thing they did when I checked in at registration was hand me this enormous tote bag full of books! Boy am I glad I took the suitcase I did, because otherwise I would have had to leave most of them behind. I now have about a year's worth of reading, including a bunch of magazines I want to submit to and many collections of short stories that will help me assess what's getting published. I need to boost my writing up a notch and seeing the competition helps me do that. So right on, WFC! That membership got me more than some new friends.

The next thing that happened was that I got snagged to dinner by the one person I knew, and ended up with 18 more bodies at a great Italian restaurant. Andrea Howe of Blue Falcon Editing and Josh Langston, co-author of "Druids," sat at the end of the table and had a very merry conversation about researching historical novels, the perils of trying to find publishers, the difficulties of long-distance collaboration (Josh's writing partner lives in Edmondton, Alberta; he lives in Atlanta, GA), and many other things. Andrea is always fun to talk to because she works on the other side of the sheet, editing what we writers produce. She sees all sorts of books in all stages of readiness, and she's really good at what she does. Josh introduced me to his editor at Edge Books and I will be following up with him.

Friday I sat in on some good panel discussions and got to be part of one myself, a chance for which I was really grateful. Every panel was well attended; the ones with the big name authors were standing-room only. Since those were big meeting rooms, it was a little bit intimidating, knowing that if you put your foot in your mouth many, many people are going to witness it. My panel was about "The Last Resort," exploring the use of violence as a plot device and what makes it realistic when authors do use it. My fellow panelists included Joan Saberhagen, wife of Fred Saberhagen, Mark Van Name, Peter Brett, and Alan DeNiro. Mark has a personal history of violence from both the giving and receiving ends so he had some great insights and, as the moderator, he asked some really good and thought-provoking questions. I assume I did not stumble too badly over my answers since several people sought me out afterward over the next couple of days to tell me what a great panel that was.

And it was. The discussion ranged from Joan's reminder that most societies create people who will do violence for them: police, soldiers, and the like to Mark's "threshold moment": the one where a person decides to take violent action for whatever reason, and his take on what is happening in your head while the action is going on (not much but focusing on getting through it). Someone in the audience wanted to know the bad guys' motivations, and someone else wanted to know how we make different characters react to the use of violence. It was a thoroughly interesting discussion and I'm glad I got to be part of it.

Since WFC is all about books, it is only fitting that the dealers' room is mostly booksellers, with the biggest array of new and used genre fiction ever. I was browsing a table, minding my own business, only to discover I was standing next to David Drake, who was busy signing some books for the dealer. I held a signed copy of one of Lovecraft's books (worth $9000 dollars) and a signed copy of "A Canticle for Liebowitz" (worth $4000) and made very sure to set them down gently. On Sunday morning the pool directly over the ballrooms cracked and poured water down into the hall, but fortunately missed the dealers' room. What a disaster that would have been.

The small presses were well represented. Edge Books shared a table with Dragon Moon and a couple of others, and their books are just as interesting and varied as the big publishers' lists. So many books--so little time. I wish I had time to read for about 2 years straight just to catch up on all the wonderful-looking titles. But that would avail me nothing, as there would just be two more years' worth of wonderful titles to catch up on. I feel like even if I get any or all of my books into print, it will be like casting pearls into the sea.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, was terrific, from the two old guys from San Jose who escorted me on the public transportation system from the airport to my hotel, to my fellow writers and the attending agents and editors. Everyone is there to meet everyone else, so even the big names who have seen it all before a hundred times are very gracious, very patient with the people running around gawking at them. You are really not allowed to sit and vegetate alone. Someone will sit down at the next table or chair and strike up a conversation. And that's all good. Anyone who is shy or hesitant to go out and mingle will find plenty of people willing and eager to sit down with strangers.

I have to say that Locus throws a great party. Tor's was more staid. I can't remember who had the balloon cake, but it was great. The hotel overflowed with chocolate. How much better does it get than that?

Congratulations to Kij Johnson, who won the World Fantasy Award for her story "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss." I didn’t get to stay for the banquet but I saw her announcement on Facebook. Congrats to Kij and all the other winners. The full list is here.

That’s about it, except that I am so glad I went.