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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » pacifism in writing

   
Author Topic: pacifism in writing
Denevius
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so i've started kobo abe "The Box Man". it's interesting but difficult reading, as i expected. i read his other book, "Woman in the Dunes", about four years ago. what i remember most about that book is how hard kobo abe was on his main character. it's a bit of a magic realist story, but the main character going about his job of collecting bugs gets stuck in a dune with a disfigured woman (hence the title) that he simply can't get out of. and because kobo abe writes so close to the character's thoughts, the reader can't help but feel his frustration, anger, and desperation as he tries for days, months, and into years just trying to get out of this hole with this disfigured woman.

one of the criticisms i've gotten over the years, which i'm always watching out for in my own writing, is being too nice to my characters. this came to mind the other day, as i'm writing a new story. i had a scene planned out in my head where the main character goes to see a friend, but the friend isn't someone she particularly likes. she didn't choose the person as a friend, it was chosen for her, and she doesn't enjoy being in the person's presence, but she's often directed to by higher-ups.

so anyway, this is what i was going for in the spirit of trying to make things difficult for my character, and after i wrote the scene, i had two thoughts: one, i thought the interaction and dialogue came out pretty well, but then two, from the dialogue i'd think the conclusion readers would draw is that the two individuals not only genuinely like each other, but could be seen as kinda flirting in a friendly way. which is exactly what i wasn't going for.

ultimately, when i think about a lot of the best writing, it's character conflict on some level that really engages the reader, and the more difficult it is for the character, the more interesting the story. i also think that being hard on your characters is more of a challenge to write. when your characters have genuine complicated problems they're attempting to solve, whether it's with other characters, with themselves, with the events going on around them, etc, i feel it makes the writer think more in figuring out who the character is and how the character will eventually solve their many dilemmas.

william gibson does a good job of this in "Neuromancer". we know case is desperate from the outset, life for him sucks, and then he's drawn into this cyber mystery that requires him to use all his resources to finally resolve. one of the problems with fantasy, urban fantasy, speculative fantasy, is that too often the writer falls back upon deux ex machina to finally resolve the character's problems. it won't be so much a character's ingenuity that allows them to overcome their obstacles, ultimately it'll be a hidden, untapped source of power, if not a god itself, that reaches its hand in to save the day. the "Reality Dysfunction" is a great example of this, where literally, there is an all powerful machine that resolves the book. "Fire Upon the Deep" is a bit guilty of this also, though it was a really good book. you see a bit of the same technique in "The Hobbit" and the "Lord of the Rings". i think the phrasing tolkein uses runs along the lines of bilbo reaching down to his tookish side to find the mettle necessary to finally prevail in a fight. and gandalf inexplicably becomes stronger and stronger, finding higher levels of power through ways that are never quite explained.

i think these all boil down to weaknesses in the writing, however, so i try to avoid them. it becomes harder to do, though, if in your real life you are someone who attempts to avoid conflict. because then, your natural inclination is to find the path of least resistance to your goal, and you end up subconsciously writing that into your fiction.

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enigmaticuser
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I think that's a true and hard ideal to reach, making things genuinely difficult for the character by complication rather than simple insurmountable odds like (She's an orc princess, I'm a paladin knight, this will never work). Often the greatest struggles are things that really should work but they just don't like. How do you get a loved one to stop being an alcoholic, you can supply all the resources but can you actually solve the problem simply by doing so? What if you do and it still doesn't work?

That leads to a slightly different perspective. The idea of Deus Ex, I can see what you're saying about Gandalf just finding more power when he needs it, but at the same time the story is based on the premise that there is a higher "will of good" also in affect so Deus Ex makes sense.

Further complicating things is that Deus Ex is always an element in any story. The writer is consciously working towards a 'solution' and it is both the character and the author who achieves the solution. Despite all engenuity, how is that the character has the tool on hand that they need? How is it that there weren't six baddies in the room and they only had 4 bullets?

I think it's a balancing act, all deus ex and the character becomes ornamental. All character engenuity and their problems became (well, it's not a struggle because they're that clever) weak. "Well, it would have been a struggle, but I happen to have my bat-anti-orc-gas pellet in my utility belt for just this occasion."

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LDWriter2
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I think you have a point about character conflict but I don't find being hard on my character as being that hard. Not usually.

There's been a couple of scenes when I though this event or action would be a good place for a hard on my MC scene. But as I actually write it I find it wasn't that hard a situation for my MC to deal with after all So I upped the danger. It went from a moderate painful experience to life and death with a few short strokes of the brush... um, pen... keyboard.

I've read most of "Neuromancer", I need to find it and finish it but I have a feeling I know what happens at the end. Right now it looks kinda obvious but sometimes writers surprise me. Anyway, you are probably right about Gibson's writing.

It can be hard not to add a Deus Ex solution at times but at the same time sometimes there are reasons someone has the right tool at the right moment or something that can be used as the right tool.

With Gandolf I think there are two or three explanations. One is who the wizards really are, second is how Gandolf took the place of- however you spell his name- the white wizard who turned evil. And another goes along with what enigmaticuser said. Even old experienced wizards can learn to dig deeper into themselves to get the power they need. I think it's part of the character conflict, they have to out do--push-- themselves to save the day.

Of course some writers do find conflict easier to do than others. I'm reading one series where most of the conflict seems to be intellectual, like a mystery. There are some life and death conflicts but they are rare compared to all the thinking and trumping along looking for clues. In other books a new danger pops up on almost every page.

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redux
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Deus ex machina, a god introduced through use of a crane, the sudden and unexpected introduction of a person or thing providing a contrived resolution to an insurmountable conflict, the heavy and visible hand of the author pushing the characters around like chess pieces. It should not be mistaken for neither foreshadowing which in turn should not be mistaken for Chekhov's gun. Giant eagles coming to the rescue, microbes thwarting space invaders, while both can be defined as deus ex machina, are not the result of weak writing, but a technique used to restore world order: good triumphs over evil and reaffirmation of 19th century germ theory.
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LDWriter2
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I think the giant eagles were set up ahead of time, they didn't just appear out of no where.

The flew out of nowhere. No, I mean they had been introduced earlier.


Not sure about those microbes though.

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redux
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The microbes are from WAR OF THE WORLDS by H.G. Wells.

Regarding the eagles, I don't remember them doing anything other than saving people. Didn't one save Gandalf from Saruman's tower? I suppose it was only a matter of time that they would airlift some hobbits [Smile]

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MAP
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I think the reverse of this can also be a problem. Watching a character just get beaten up over and over again can be depressing as hell.

I've read a few stories like that, and I personally didn't enjoy them.

But I do agree that characters should suffer. [Smile] I just think it is possible to over do it. Need to find a balance.

I'm not a fan of Deus ex machina, but I don't think that Gandolf finding more power or Bilbo finding strength in himself he didn't know he had is an example of Deus ex machina.

I think those examples feed into certain themes, that we are stronger than we think we are. That in our darkness moments we find our greatest strengths. I for one like those themes. They give me hope. So I kinda like those stories.

To each their own.

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Robert Nowall
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I've been told my characters tend to be passive---things happen to them rather than them making things happen. (Reflects my life, I think.) I've tried to overcome it, but they tend to revert to passivity along the way.

*****

I saw part of a Japanese movie that had the same story as the "Woman in the Dunes" book you mention...must be from the book, though I didn't realize it had a literary origin...

*****

Been meaning to ask...why no caps, Denevius? It makes your lengthy and otherwise-interesting posts hard to read...

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extrinsic
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Pacifism, I can see the term applying to writing, about resistance to violent confrontation from moral, psychological, or religious grounds. Though I'm partial to the term static character, meaning no appreciable change in or transformation of fortunes for an outcome.

Pacifist or static characters can work artfully or artlessly. Character resistance to change in the form of confrontation is a complication, as all drama is about complication. There must be three refusals, though, and progress addressing the complication, before engaging in change or success resisting change. Can't have things too easy. There's no drama without insuperable hardship. Once is a coincidence, Twice is a warning signal. What I tell you three times is true, Aristotle claimed.

Deus ex machina, paint a drama into a corner of impossibly unsoluble solutions. Drop in a divine coincidence, a cavalry charge, a savior hero's abrupt appearance. The Greek crane for dropping in a savior god was visible on the stage. The crane signaled the capricious whims of the gods' influences, their churlish interference, unknowable plans and motivations and machinations.

While abrupt, without prepositioning, H.G. Wells' germs laying low the Martians signals the hubris of presuming to be master overlords. Credible though. Even with their advanced technology, the Martians were vulnerable to the tiniest miscalculation. There's a message there the novel relates that the several film interpretations do not carry as artfully. Poetic justice in trumps and triumphs.

Tolkien painted Frodo and Samwise into a corner on Mt. Doom. However, the main dramatic complication had been finalized. The ring was destroyed. While coming to the rescue from above, the Eagles are prepositioned in the narrative of the book saga, a minor plot hole, though, in the film. A coincidence almost. The eagles had appeared before.

I don't know that I could have tolerated Frodo and Sam rescuing themselves. They were surrounded by lava, foodless, waterless, exhausted, and far from sanctuary. Sounds to me more like the opening of a new saga than an ending of an epic one. Another book, so to speak, with the main dramatic complication already finalized? I don't think so. So, okay, send in the eagles, who had rescued Gandalf from a similar predicament earlier in the saga. And Tolkien labeled the eagles rescuing the Hobbits a eucatastrophe, not a deus ex machina. Eucatastrophe is a Greek comedy equivalent to a Greek tragedy catastrophe in a denouement act that sets up a restoration of equilibrium.

[ January 31, 2012, 03:07 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Denevius
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i remember back in the late 90s, i was at a workshop retreat with the fabulous cornelius eady. at one of the workshop classes, one of the students, who was probably 15 or 16 at the time, turned in a poem with no capital letters. cornelius was quite intrigued and asked, "Why no caps?" and the girl replied, "Well, on my computer back home, the program automatically capitalizes my sentences for me, but the computer here (at the retreat) doesn't."

the look on cornelius' face was priceless as he said in total deadpan voice, "So it's come to this."

i'm not sure why no caps, robert, though over the years enough people have mentioned it. and i have been writing like this for a while, but only online. maybe i'm just too old (though i'm really not very old at all), but there's something overall casual, and in all honesty, slipshod, about online writing, and maybe this is my way of not taking it as seriously as my genuine writing. one thing i find funny about written communication today, like twitter and facebook status updates and comment threads, is how it's supposed to often be as few words as possible to make it as easy to read as quickly as possible.

but should the act of reading be easy (not to start channeling gertrude stein, who i hate)? and should reading be quite so easy as, say, twitter makes it, with its 140 characters? which is insanely popular and probably how many people express themselves in the written form. or texts, which is also the minimization of the written word. kind of like our very own Newspeak.

honestly, though, i probably don't use caps online because i haven't been using caps online for a decade or so, and old habits are hard to break.

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Pyre Dynasty
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Regardless of how long you've been doing it I find the lack of caps terribly annoying. I feel you don't respect your fellow writers enough to tap the shift key. If this were an anime chat board or a Chevy truck fan site it would be more acceptable, but this is a group of people who argue over gerunds and ellipses. The Hatrack has long been a refuge from the txt spk, and poor grammar that characterizes the rest of the internet. I'm not saying you have to change the practice, I'm just saying I think it would aid your pathos a little to consider your audience.

Anyway, I agree with you to a point about passivity, although I think your sensitivity to it is way too broad. Reaching into yourself for courage isn't the same as calling to the heavens for salvation, in fact it's the opposite. I often use Tolkein as an example of active characters. Frodo spends the entire trilogy fighting upstream against forces external and internal. Aragorn fresh off of a high cost victory rallies his forces to a suicide mission just to save Frodo some more time. (Yes, the ghosts come in and save the city, but they come only as a result of Aragorn facing the greatest test of his life. It may be that that was a Deux ex Machina for those defending the city, but in this case the Deux was Aragorn himself wielding the Machina.)

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extrinsic
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Written word's first principle, bar none, is facilitate reading ease. Capitalization, paragraph case, sentence case, noun case, it's all the same: facilitate reading ease. As punctuation and formating cases do. Unless there's an overriding and accessible persuasive purpose that appeals to ethos (credibility), logos (logic), or pathos (emotion). Decorum: suiting one's writing to the subject matter, to each other, to the circumstances, and the audience (kairos).
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babooher
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How is it that there weren't six baddies in the room and [the protagonist] only had 4 bullets?

Now that's a story!

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by redux:
Regarding the eagles, I don't remember them doing anything other than saving people. Didn't one save Gandalf from Saruman's tower? I suppose it was only a matter of time that they would airlift some hobbits [Smile]

Two things here.

First, Gandalf had run into Radagast the Brown (another wizard) on his way to Saruman and told him to send eagles to help with communications. So when they came, Gandalf was able to have them help him escape.

Second, the eagles were also fighting against Sauron, so using them to help rescue Sam and Frodo was a no-brainer. They were there, already, for that last battle--just not mentioned, particularly, until needed.

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Robert Nowall
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Probably the Eagles had an active, but off-camera, role against Sauron...I regret that one of the things the movie dropped was the character of and dialog from Gwahir the Windlord...

*****

On lack-of-caps again...as I recall, I knew a couple of people in high school who wrote their stuff and spelled their names without capitalization...the rest of us thought it a pretentious habit...and I've continued to think so when I've run into it since.

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Denevius
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i apologize for the no caps, and i totally understand anyone who doesn't want to deal with it.

though i know you were just throwing out the example, the question one has to ask as a writer is, in the framework of the story, should there have been six bad guys in the room instead of, say, three, that makes it easier for your character(s) to could handle? facing overwheling odds isn't an insurmontable challenge, but going back to tolkein; though i loved his work, there were some things about his writing that irked me, and one was how his main characters would literally face hordes and yet always win when the plot called for them to win.

which kinda seugeways into your second point. i'm not so sure that a counter-argument of "Deus Es is awlays an element in any story" works so well, as fiction is artifice. its artifically crafted by its very definition. it's simply that, as artifice, are we doing things to make life easier for our characters, which ultimately makes life easier for the writer?

i know you were just throwing it out there, but i feel that trying to make a love story between an orc princess and a paladin knight would be more a challenge to write (to write well), though at the same time it kinda reminds me of Shrek. in Shrek, if i remember, the princess is simply turned into an orc, which is an easier write. i won't give away the ending, but the situation in "Woman in the Dunes", which is akin to the whole beauty and the beast tale, is a bit more of a writing stretch as the main characters relationship develops with this disfigured woman. it's a bit of magic realsim, as i stated earlier, as people don't get stuck in dunes every day for years. but the relationship that develops between them is all human, totally imperfect, yet not resolved by a more sleight-of-hand writing trick, such as a hidden power, or a magic potion.

the practice of making life too easy for your character can take many forms. one of the many things that drove me crazy about "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was how great of a hacker Salader was. hacking has become the magic potion of the modern era because it's almost never explained what the characters are doing, but generally the hack itself resolves an awful lot of issues the characters have.

which comes back to the eagles. i hadn't really thought about them too much in tolkein. sure, they were mentioned in "The Hobbit", so i guess it can be a Chekhov's gun, but it seems like they have little agency in the tolkein universe besides resolving crucial moments in the plot.

imagine tolkein's world without them. you can almost take them out of the novels altogether in a way you can't take out the shire, or gollum, or even the ents. but for the eagles, you can basically remove them entirely, except that if you did, gandalf would have never gotten off that tower, and frodo and sam would have died on the mountain. gandlaf not getting off the tower would have probably doomed the companions, and frodo and sam dying would have been quite the depressing ending; though probably more realistic considering the corner he wrote them into.

i do agree you can take being mean to your characters too far, and that beating up your characters too much is definitely, more than anything, depressing. but then again, there are stories that totally get away with it. i was trying to think of an author that did so, and what popped to mind was Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles". i loved the book while feeling awful for tess the whole time. or "Wide Sargasso Sea", where the main character is driven mad over the course of the novel. in speculative fiction, there's the famous short story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", which was absolutely chilling in how Harlan Ellison treated his characters.

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enigmaticuser
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I see your point, I guess we're really discussing the obviousness of author intervention. That Woman in the Dunes sounds like an interesting tale.

As to the obviousness, isn't that perhaps the point? We don't stop to question why a hero has just enough bullets to finish off the right number of baddies (unless it's Rambo) because the feat seems small. The leap between potential and possible, whereas you point out a few holding off hordes.

The Crane of the gods is still there, but it's hidden, you don't notice it. For example, the eagles showing up 'out of nowhere' seems DEM, but if you explain that Gandalf met Radghast on the road and relaying instructions, then we go "oh, well it's like that gun over the mantle in the first act." We don't stop to wonder "why was Radghast on that specific road?"

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redux
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I suppose I am not entirely clear on your position, Denevius. Are you suggesting that it is always a sign of weak writing to use some form of deus ex machina in order to save the main characters?
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Denevius
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i'm not really all that big on the word *always*, as it's kind of loaded. all fiction is going to have moments of weakness, but that doesn't make it altogether bad writing. would i have loved if "The Reality Dysfunction" had ended entirely different? yes, but the series started having serious problems after the first three books, and by book six, my expectations were really, really low, so i guess in that way, the deus ex machina kinda met expectations.

anyway, i think my point became splintered. 1) watch out for being nice (or too nice) to your characters. 2) a way of being too nice to your characters are easy fixes in plot, or easy character relationships, etc. 3) writing in such a way that there aren't easier resolutions to problems is probably a more difficult way to write.

you know, i would compare gandalf's horse, shadowfox, more to the gun over the mantle. shadowfox was a tool gandalf used to get to point A to B really, really fast, but that's kinda it. if gandalf had another horse, maybe he would have moved slower, but there's nothing i remember in the novels which would suggest he wouldn't have made it at all.

the eagles, on the other hand, are extremely important to the plot. one can make a serious argument that, without them, the novel could not have gone forward at all.

"Eucatastrophe is a Greek comedy equivalent to a Greek tragedy catastrophe in a denouement act that sets up a restoration of equilibrium."

this is interesting, and if the eagles purpose are just to set up equilibrium by having the good guys triumph in the end, well, okay. the fact that we never get any thoughts from the eagles of what they think one way or the other for me makes it seems that they were only tools, but if only tools, why give them any thought or personality at all? why not just make them the equivalent of trained carrier pigeons that perfectly carry out their missions when the plot requires them to?

even the ring had agency as it attempted to make its way back to its dark lord. the ring struggled and ultimately failed. we learn nothing of the eagles, who were so important to the story.

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Brendan
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I really find the oft repeated point about "not being nice" or "torturing" your characters to be misdirected advice, and from experience useless advice. Similar to Robert above, I can torture them until I break them, all for no avail regarding the story. Who wants to read about broken characters with no options available? And why limit conflict to something that is "not nice" to the characters? Some conflicts are around the good getting in the way of the better.

I'd rather think in terms of a game-changing event - what will make my character change his/her understanding of how the world works? How does he respond to this? Later, how can he adapt his response to get on the front foot? And then the rest of the story becomes an interplay of adaption and counter-adaption around the point of conflict.

A case in point, Mr. Collins proposal to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. Here was a conflict where a "good" resolution to several problems was proposed. Of course, Elizabeth couldn't stand him, and thus was in conflict. But at this time she couldn't stand Darcy either, so who was to know that her change in character couldn't have been to dramatically change her understanding and demeanor towards Mr Collins as it did to Darcy? But in the end, she believed the Darcy solution was better than the Mr. Collins solution. And the second half of that story was largely trips taken by Elizabeth which, although they had their dramatic moments, were perhaps more about the flowering of relationships, rather than torturing them. If the focus is always on the torture, then it can miss the contrast of triumph and/or the essence of the journey.

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extrinsic
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In other words, a protagonist must make progress addressing a dramatic complication, while all the cosmos opposes the effort, so that the final outcome remains in doubt until the bitter end?

I use "bitter end" there in the sense of the loose end of a rope, where the other end is fixed to a cleat, the working end, a couple of blocks (pulleys) in between for turning the rope different directions, like the minor and major turns of a plot.

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Denevius
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i read "Pride and Prejudice" a couple of years ago. it's definitely not the type of writing that gives its characters a rough time of it. i think someone in class described it as a society novel.

you know, it's definitely a way to go. i don't think of jane austen as an especially passionate writer, though i guess her writing is about passion. dispassionate passion, but passion nevertheless.

"And the second half of that story was largely trips taken by Elizabeth which, although they had their dramatic moments, were perhaps more about the flowering of relationships, rather than torturing them."

this really reminds me of why it felt like it took me so long to finish the novel.

i do think to say that to torture the character until they're broken is a litte exaggerated of the point. what book/story do you have in mind that did this?

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redux
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You sir must not be aware of the horrors of an entailed property!
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babooher
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Getting back to my jest, when you have a protagonist who always has the right amount of bullets (or worse, more than enough) it isn't as compelling as forcing the character to figure out how to kill 6 baddies when he (the protag) only has 4 bullets. If you make the challenge too easy, it isn't exciting (usually) for the reader.

That's why I cheer the idea of killing characters. When no one is safe, it puts the reader more on edge. When you know the character is going to succeed, the tension isn't as high.

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Pyre Dynasty
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So long story short, to steal a phrase from XDM: Natural selection should apply to characters.
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redux
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quote:
Originally posted by babooher:
When no one is safe, it puts the reader more on edge. When you know the character is going to succeed, the tension isn't as high.

To me it depends on the genre. I wouldn't have appreciated Miss Jane Bennet dying from pneumonia when she was forced to go on horseback to Netherfield Park or her sister Lizzie killed by gypsies on one of her unescorted walks through the countryside. I might be in the minority, but I want heroes in stories to succeed, I want to root for them, and I get angry when evil and selfish characters get in their way. Knowing that the hero will inevitably succeed doesn't lessen my enjoyment of a story. I get my thrills from the how. To me it is the journey, not the destination. That's why I can re-read books or re-watch movies and still have a cathartic experience despite knowing how they end.
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Denevius
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you know, not being nice to your characters doesn't mean being violent or physically torturing them. gibson's way of being cruel to case in "Neuromancer" was making it so that his character couldn't do the thing that he loved, and really, obsessed over. getting this back became the motivation for the character to begin the cyber mystery he went on.

and making life difficult for your heroes doesn't mean they have to fail in the end. i think your characters having the ability to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" instead of having a narrative convenience resolve the plot would make for better writing, more difficult writing, but it doesn't mean that they have to fail.

i also don't mind the idea of knowing heroes will succeed in the end, but i guess i don't think they have to triumph. i just finished re-reading dragonlance's "Test of the Twins" trilogy, which is really, really terrible writing, but engaging on some level. i actually think they nailed the ending in book three, with caramon succeeding but not triumphing. he saved the world, so to speak, but one has to wonder if he, himself, actually won.

funny, i read that trilogy back in high school, but i waded through all that terrible writing all these years later just to get to that poignant ending.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Death is only one thing characters may not be safe from, and in some cases, there really are things that could be worse than death.

Edited to add: and there are some characters who are too stupid to live.

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Denevius
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the story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is a great example of death being more preferable than what the author gives the main character in the end. h.p. lovecraft leaves a lot of his characters with horror instead of death or physical pain, like in "The Other Gods" or "Nyarlathotep". same goes for dainelewski's "House of Leaves", who leaves his main male character crippled, but i suppose ultimately gives him a happy ending.

i've had several teachers say that the worst ending for any story/novel is to kill off the characters. it's an easy way out, and it's also a cheap way to manipulate the readers to *feel* something at the end.

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Merlion-Emrys
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But those are all, essentially, "horror" stories. As redux says, in many story-types, people expect the good guys, overall to "win" and generally not to die, be mangled too badly, or driven insane. As with everything else, it all depends on the story.


Also, I'm not sure where you get the idea that Gandalf repeatedly "becomes stronger and stronger." He receives one "power boost" in the course of the story, after defeating the Balrog of Moria...and that isn't even a power boost, it's simply that he's permitted to use a slightly larger portion of the power he already has. And it is in no way inexplicable...it is made quite clear, in the books, that it is due to his assuming the role of "the White" from the fallen Saruman...and for those familiar with other parts of Tolkien's work, knowledge of who and what the Wizards actually are makes the situation even clearer. I also have no idea how anyone can say Gandalf acts as a Deus Ex Machina, since he is not involved in any remotely direct way with resolving the plot...it's Gollum that does that. His little slip and fall accident could, I suppose, be interpreted as a Deus Ex Machina, but given that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, the idea that he'd metaphorically leave the destruction of the One Ring, which many consider a metaphor for "sin" or evil, up to an "Act of God" is really quite appropriate.

Bilbo does exactly what you're saying characters should do...he reaches into himself to find strength, he just happens to think of it in terms of his "Tookishness."

A "hidden, untapped source of power" is not the same as a Deus Ex Machina.

A supernatural, super-scientific, magical or otherwise "speculative" force, item, or ability being used to resolve things is not necessarily a Deus Ex Machina.

"Difficult" is not a synonym for "better", nor is "simple" or "straightforward" one for "inferior."


Denevius, it seems to me that you have some sort of underlying "artistic guilt" about enjoying and wanting to write "guilty pleasures" like science fiction and fantasy and so feel compelled to make sure everyone knows you realize how "terrible" the writing is and what awful "flaws" are inherent in those genres. But since most people here love such art, and consider it no better or worse than other forms...indeed, I'd say a majority of people here, these days, also realize that "good" and "bad" exist only in the eye of the beholder, at the end of the day...you really have nothing to worry about or prove.

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Denevius
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it's true that the examples i listed in the last post can be categorized as horror. in previous posts, though, i pointed out hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles". not horror, but i think it'd be a bit of a stretch if anyone says the good guy wins. or jean rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea", which has quite the depressing ending in which, again, the protagonist doesn't die, but she certainly doesn't win. cormier's "The Chocolate War" can make someone give up their faith in humankind altogether, and that's considered YA fiction. the young boy doesn't win, though he is severely beaten up; however, to say the good guy triumphs would be subject to debate.

we can look at kafka's "The Trial", or "Metamorphosis", in which i wonder if the protagonist wins. we can also look at orwell's "1984", or "Animal Farm". in these books, the protagonists don't die, though in the former, he's definitely tortured. yet even though he lives, i'd think he'd have preferred he hadn't and had stayed true to his ideals. maybe it's debatable.

i do think, though, in scifi and fantasy, there is a general desire for the good guys to eventually win. tolkein could have allowed frodo and sam to die after destroying the ring, but that would have been a more realistic ending instead of keeping with the fantastical universe all the other books had built. sure, Middle Earth would have been saved, but readers would have still been depressed that the heroes, who struggled so long and so hard, had to die because there was no rational way to save them, except by having the eagles, who were waiting in the wings, to swoop in and bring them to safety.

if we look at it, it is rare when the good guy doesn't win in this type of genre fiction, whether it's "The Golden Compass", or "Harry Potter" (only read the first book), or "Star Wars". in genre fiction, it's usually not so much of a matter how the heroes win, but when. which would seem to be easier to conceive as an author, and easier to digest as a reader.

but then, i also think that, ultimately, this is why genre fiction is seen in a lower light than literary fiction. the rules of genre fiction are a bit more predictable, and the characters are a bit more non-dimensional. this makes it a bit of an easier write, a bit of an easier read, and so a bit less superior to literary fiction.

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Robert Nowall
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quote:
...Middle Earth would have been saved, but readers would have still been depressed that the heroes, who struggled so long and so hard, had to die because there was no rational way to save them, except by having the eagles, who were waiting in the wings, to swoop in and bring them to safety.
Saving Frodo and Sam sets up the rest of the story---which, after all, doesn't end when the Ring is destroyed, as we might think it would. It sets up Frodo's guilt for having failed, to have claimed the Ring for his own, and his problem with living with himself afterwards. (The movie skimmed over this, omitting "The Scouring of the Shire" altogether---but which would've added at least an hour of running time to it.) Ultimately, the story isn't about destroying the Ring...

quote:
...or "Harry Potter" (only read the first book)
You too?
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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
it's true that the examples i listed in the last post can be categorized as horror. in previous posts, though, i pointed out hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles". not horror, but i think it'd be a bit of a stretch if anyone says the good guy wins. or jean rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea", which has quite the depressing ending in which, again, the protagonist doesn't die, but she certainly doesn't win. cormier's "The Chocolate War" can make someone give up their faith in humankind altogether, and that's considered YA fiction. the young boy doesn't win, though he is severely beaten up; however, to say the good guy triumphs would be subject to debate.

I said "certain story types." Sure there are plenty of non "horror" stories with "downer" endings and protagonists that get run through the ringer, including from other "fantastical" genres besides horror (such as China Mieville's more or less unclassifiable but definitely "fantastical" novels.) But the point of this thread seems to be that if you don't kick the crap out of your characters at every turn, if you don't make it seem as though your characters have no hope of surviving even remotely intact or achieving whatever it is they are trying to achieve, you've somehow failed to create tension or interest. Several of us are simply pointing out that for many people, in many types of stories, that isn't what they want; they go in with the assumption that the "good guys are going to win" and are more interested in how and why than spending most of the story concerned about whether or not.


quote:
allowed frodo and sam to die after destroying the ring, but that would have been a more realistic ending instead of keeping with the fantastical universe all the other books had built. sure, Middle Earth would have been saved, but readers would have still been depressed that the heroes, who struggled so long and so hard, had to die because there was no rational way to save them, except by having the eagles, who were waiting in the wings, to swoop in and bring them to safety.
You're confusing "realistic" and "rational" with "materialistic" and "secular." Within the context of the fictional world of Middle-Earth, it's entirely realistic, and indeed foreshadowed throughout the world...the Eagles had been saving people since the Hobbit (actually further back in the stories of the Silmarillion) and within Tolkien's universe are essentially servants of God (in fact it's implied the heck out of that the talking Eagles of the Misty Mountains are of the same order of spirit-beings as the Wizards, Sauron and the Balrogs.)

If a person wants fiction that stays, at all times, within the bounds of known scientifically proven physical reality, they typically don't read fantasy...or even many of the "literary" greats that are in fact fantasy, such as much of Kafka's stuff.


quote:
if we look at it, it is rare when the good guy doesn't win in this type of genre fiction, whether it's "The Golden Compass", or "Harry Potter" (only read the first book), or "Star Wars".
Oftentimes yes...although, there is often quite a price to pay. Frodo endures terrible hardships and is in the end left physically, mentally and spiritually damaged to the point where he can no longer be a part of the world he suffered to save, and within Tolkien's work overall there is a lingering sadness, as much of what is beautiful in the world is lost in the battles against evil. Luke Skywalker struggles with the temptations of the darkside and the emotional pain of having to fight and possibly kill his own father.

Also, many such stories are not just about who wins or looses, they are also about character journeys, maturation and finding oneself, and are told from the point of view of an inherently optimistic worldview in which perseverance and benevolence can overcome malice or indifference.


quote:
in genre fiction, it's usually not so much of a matter how the heroes win, but when. which would seem to be easier to conceive as an author, and easier to digest as a reader.
Once again, "easy" is not the same as "inferior" just as "difficult" is sure as heck not the same as "superior." Further I don't really see how this is accurate especially as far as being easier to conceive. It's very, very easy to confront a character with an insurmountable challenge and have them fail...it's far more difficult to present them with an insurmountable challenge and come up with a way for them to succeed...usually, at a high cost to themselves.


quote:
but then, i also think that, ultimately, this is why genre fiction is seen in a lower light than literary fiction. the rules of genre fiction are a bit more predictable, and the characters are a bit more non-dimensional. this makes it a bit of an easier write, a bit of an easier read, and so a bit less superior to literary fiction.
This is merely an opinion and one which you have yet, in all these various threads that basically just boil down to you putting down fantasy and science fiction writers and their work, to support with anything other than your own personal taste. It is an elitist and egoist opinion, based on a seemingly overwhelming need to place value judgements on everything...placing value judgements on everything, and then siding oneself with the positive ones being of course a quick and easy way to inflate ones own ego and place oneself intellectually above anyone who disagrees, even when they base their disagreement with the things used to justify the value judgement with valid arguments.

It's also interesting to note that the third of the main "speculative" genres is one which very frequently has the qualities you laud in this thread...or lacks the ones you put down...as it frequently puts characters through the ringer and often has them loose/die/be mangled/driven insane...and yet, "horror" is generally the most dismissed of all genres by the "literary elite" (despite one of it's foremost authors also being one of...and for a time I believe THE best selling author in history and recipient of prestigious awards.)

I really have no concept of why you have any interest in speculative fiction, since you seem to have little but derision for it's nature or conventions or those who create it.

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redux
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quote:
but then, i also think that, ultimately, this is why genre fiction is seen in a lower light than literary fiction. the rules of genre fiction are a bit more predictable, and the characters are a bit more non-dimensional. this makes it a bit of an easier write, a bit of an easier read, and so a bit less superior to literary fiction.
Who sees it in a lower light? Are you talking about the Ivory Tower? I was in it. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash was on the syllabus.

So I am not sure how you reached that conclusion that genre fiction is "bit less superior" (convoluted way of saying inferior?) to literary fiction.

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Pyre Dynasty
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You wonder if the Protag wins in The Trial? In what way do you wonder if being stripped, strapped to a rock, and executed equals winning. Even with Charlie Sheen's definition of the word.

To me any writing advice exists to fix a specific problem, not to be a one size fits all solution. The advice "torture your characters" is for writers who are weak on conflict.

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Denevius
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funny, i play this game with my students, chinese whispers (though i think that name is probably culturally insensitive, so i've taken to calling it other things) in which you whisper something in one person's ear, have that person whisper it into another ear to see what the end result will be. i'm reminded of it now as i wondered, "Who's the first person to use the word 'torture' in this thread?" i think the prize goes to the individual in the 20th reply:

"I really find the oft repeated point about "not being nice" or "torturing" your characters to be misdirected advice, and from experience useless advice."

the word is a little strong and a little easy to misconstrue in the context of the conversation.

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redux
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That's an awfully glib reply, Denevius.

Just tell us what exactly is your stance regarding genre fiction.

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babooher
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We want names, Denevius. [Razz]
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MattLeo
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Look, what really matters is that you put in an honest day's work. Pulling the strings of coincidence to get your characters to a happy ending will be noticed by readers and seen as shoddy work.

On the other hand, it's very common to see the authors, fearful of the fault I just mentioned, overcompensate. Apparently they believe that if they gratuitously torture a character, readers will find that credible or dramatic. They won't, because illogical misfortune is *just as shoddy* as illogical good fortune. If you just negate the elements of a simplistic story, you end up with a *different* simplistic story.

It's a mistake trying to write well mainly by *avoiding errors*.If instead you pursue literary *virtues*, then you will naturally steer away from things that are considered literary vices.

Take deus ex machina. Absolutely nothing wrong with it, except you can't have that and a protagonist whose action determines the outcome of the story. You have to choose one or the other. That's your honest day's labor. The pursuit of protagonist with substantial responsibility for the story outcome will naturally tend to purge any instances of deus ex machina. If any remain, there's probably a good reason for them.

In Lord of the Rings Frodo ultimately succeeds because of the action of Gollum. While Frodo plays a part in enabling, or even causing Gollum's actions, Gollum's action is not *intended* by Frodo. So this unquestionably weakens Frodo's agency in the result. So do we shout "Aha, gotcha! Deus Ex Machina! This book is officially swill!"? Of course not, *because Lord of the Rings is about faith and salvation by Divine Grace*. Attempting to purge LotR of this "fault" would do irreparable damage to its meaning.

Or take character weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You can have a protagonist that is happy, virtuous and un-threatened from the start of the story to the end. Nothing wrong with that, except it's hard to have that and have a protagonist who grows through the course of the story, whose safety elicits concern from the reader. You have to choose whether you want a protagonist who is Pippi Longstocking or Dmitri Karamazov. You can't have both.

So don't write in fear of making a mistake, but write knowing that everything you put in comes at the cost of not being able to have something else.

And whatever you do, don't write to please critics of the "Aha! Gotcha!" school. These are one trick ponies who troll through stories looking for some pet peeve. Since you can't write well exclusively by avoiding faults, they have little useful advice to offer you. Finding faults is all they know how to do. In any case the "gotcha" critics are so anxious to slap their favorite criticism on a story that they tend not to read it very carefully.

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