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By Faerie Light: One review and two ideas

As a child, I read incessantly. One of the series that caught my imagination featured “the Littles,” a family of tiny humans who lived in the walls of a typical family house. Their size created significant challenges, as well as a new and intriguing way to view the world.

This notion has stuck with me over the years, and it’s the basis for “The White Tunic,” a story in this anthology. A young farmer strikes a bargain with a tiny fey warrior, who promptly takes him up on it. Before you know it, he has been seriously downsized.

In this review, the writer suggests using this notion in RPG campaigns. Since many of the people who read my stories are also gamers, this was something I had in mind while writing.  Shrinking your player characters would give them an interesting way to experience the world and their place in it.

Another idea, and something I do frequently when I’m out hiking, is to envision yourself the size of a bird or chipmunk and imagine what the world would look like from that perspective. This draws your focus to the environment in a way that you generally don’t experience when you’re moving through it as a human. The forest floor becomes more detailed and nuanced and important, the canopy both closer and more vast.

I’m fond of “The White Tunic,” mostly because it so clearly defines one of my primary storytelling values: Stories are all about possibilities, experiences, and seeing life–and perhaps yourself–a little differently than you did before.

March writing update

One of the new habits I’m working to establish is spending some time on the last day of the month to evaluate that month’s progress and to plan for the month ahead. For those who might be interested, here’s a summary of what happened in March.

Publications:  1

  • “Lorelei,” a previously published short story, was released in March as part of the Digital Fantasy Short Fiction line.

Projects completed: 3

  • Two short stories that were solicited for themed anthologies.
  • The first draft of a non-fiction ebook I’m writing on spec.

Submissions:  3

  • The two themed anthology short stories mentioned above
  • “Synthetic Sanctity,” an odd little tale I wrote a couple of years back, went to market #3. (Persistence!)

Accepted: 1

  • Heard back from the editor of one of the solicited stories via a form letter that said all the submitted stories were strong and none needed rewrites, only revisions. Close enough. So, yay!

Rejections:  1

  • “Synthetic Sanctity” made it to the final round of consideration for a women-in-sf anthology to which I submitted in December, but was declined with a very cordial note. I promptly resubmitted it to publisher #3. As one does.

Projects out in the wild: 6

  • Awaiting revision notes on the accepted story.
  • Awaiting editor’s response on the other solicited story.
  • “Synthetic Sanctity” is in the second round of consideration for its current submission.
  • Awaiting response on a story submitted in January to a reprint anthology.
  • No word yet on two essays, both submitted in December, both long shots.

Work in progress:

  • Finally working on a new novel!  I’m in the world-building, planning, and outlining stage.
  • Revising two solicited short stories.
  • Expanding and revising a non-fiction ebook on habit formation

Master of Spies Kickstarter!

The guys at Move Rate 20 Games have launched a new Kickstarter for their card game. I’ve played this game in a demo. It’s easy to learn and the game mechanics are solid. It’s a good social game or family game, but it would also be a good filler at a hardcore gaming session. Recommended!


Conflict and desire

This weekend we watched the first episode of Dexter, season 1, and I was struck anew by how good the writing was in the early part of that series. Intriguing characters, unusual premise, colorful setting, and the volume is turned way up on two crucial aspects of storytelling: conflict and desire.

Starting with the latter, these are people who want things, and want them in a big way. Dexter is compelled to kill. His sister Deborah is desperate to solve a case, not only because she wants out of vice and into homicide, but also to protect “her” hookers. An amorous lieutenant has her eye on Dexter. One of the homicide detectives is disgruntled about working on Friday night because that’s date night in Miami and he “has needs.” Not all desires are straightforward. Rita, Dexter’s radiant but damaged girlfriend, is afraid she’s losing him, and because she wants this nice, kind, “normal” guy in her life, she is prepared to start a sexual relationship she really isn’t ready for.

That last bit is also a source of conflict. Dexter is wary of this new development, which would change their relationship and take it into unfamiliar and possibly risky ground. But where conflict is concerned, he has a lot bigger fish to fry.

The primary conflict, of course, is the tension between Dexter’s need to kill and the fact that he’s surrounded by people who are trained to catch killers. One of the detectives senses that there’s something “off” about Dexter and is very open about his distrust. The friendly woman in the records room risks her job to give Dexter cold case files. We’re not sure why, but we’re pretty sure she’s starting to wonder what’s going on.  There’s the implied conflict of Dexter’s back story, and the hidden reason why he is what he is. Then there’s the new serial killer, who is “inviting Dexter to play” with friendly overtures such as tossing a decapitated head at his car and leaving a dismembered Barbie doll in his apartment’s fridge. As one does. Seriously, who just picks up the phone anymore?

This is a lot of desire and conflict for one episode, and it all propels the story forward. It’ a good reminder that compelling stories focus on characters who want something, but will have a very challenging time getting it.

Facebook giveaway: The Great Hunt

If you love the Forgotten Realms and are active on social media, you’re probably aware of two of the best fan sites on the web:  Candlekeep, and the Forgotten Realms Archives on Facebook. For the next few days, a post on the FR Archives site offers a copy of the comic book Worlds of Dungeons & Dragons Vol 7,  which has two stories:  an adaptation of “The Great Hunt,” a story about Arilyn Moonblade and Elaith Craulnober in the forest of Tethyr, and a Dragonlance story by Richard Knack.

This is my first and only attempt at writing a script for a graphic novel. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on this project, and, as usual, far more research than was probably necessary. The result condenses and deviates from the original story a little. The art is fun, even if the depiction of Elaith Craulnober does not fit his canon description.

Yeah, it’s a small thing, but as someone who has found many fictional “second homes” over the years, I understand the appeal of spending time in familiar places with old friends. And I appreciate the people who still visit the Realms, and who count Arilyn, Elaith, Danilo, and Liriel among their fictitious friends.

If you think you might enjoy this particular visit, stop by the Forgotten Realms Archives group on Facebook (if you’re not a member, you’ll need to join) and add a comment to the contest post. Winners will be chosen via a random number generator.


KILLING IT SOFTLY, now in hardcover

A book that’s considered worthy of hardcover treatment usually makes its debut in that format. The horror anthology Killing It Softly  is an exception. It has been out for three months in digital and paperback format, and recently became available in hardcover with new cover art.

This is a collection of dark fiction by women writers, and apparently we’re going at this publishing thing backwards and in high heels.

Here’s a link to its page on Amazon.

“Lorelei” returns

Quite a few years ago, I wrote a short story inspired by the Lorelei, a river nymph said to haunt the Rhein. It’s set in what is now Germany, before the coming of the Romans, and it explores the nature and the temptations of leadership.

The story has an complex publishing history. Originally sold to Troll magazine, which ceased publication before the story saw print, it was published in 1999 as “The River War” in the short-lived e-zine The Dragon’s Scroll, and reprinted in 2008 in Worlds of Their Own, by Planet Stories (Paizo) and more recently, in my ebook short fiction collection Just Keep Weaving.  “Lorelei” is currently available only through the Digital Fantasy Fiction Short Story program on the e-booksellers listed below:

iTunes     Amazon.com     Barnes&Noble     Google Play

Villains as protagonists

Creating great villains is always a challenge, but things get even more complicated when they’re the story’s protagonist. We’re not talking about anti-heroes here, but sociopathic killers and criminals, such as Dexter Morgan and Tony Soprano.

First, let’s establish which Dexter we’re talking about. The Dexter of the TV series was more human than the Dexter in Jeff Lindsay’s novels. The “original” Dexter was far more sociopathic, less introspective, and more violent. He didn’t just kill his victims, he engaged in joyful, creative vivisection. In the novels, the first person narrative is witty and glib, depicting a man who is utterly self-absorbed and so lacking in self-knowledge that he seems oblivious to the self-loathing bubbling just under the surface. In the TV series, Dexter was constantly examining his values, motives, and actions. He was capable of genuine love. He felt remorse. You often get the sense that he was created, not just by his early trauma, but by the perception and training of his adoptive father, and that with the right guidance and therapy, he could have lived a normal life. There’s not a hint of this in the novels. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan is a monster. But since he’s working with the “good guys” during the day and going it alone at night to stop criminals who slipped through the legal net, in the context of his story, he’s the lesser of two evils.

So is Tony Soprano. In the first episode, it’s hard to see how a philandering criminal and murderer could possibly be sympathetic. Then we meet his family. His mother is pure evil. She and his beloved Uncle Junior conspire to kill him. His nephew/protege is an idiot and an addict. His sister is batshit crazy and so incredibly selfish that when she decides to marry a recently widowed mobster, she terrifies his children with “messages from their dead mother” to convince her mark that it’s time for him to let go of his wife and move on, for the good of his children. And then there’s his other Family, which he accurately describes as a pack of jackals. Tony has to sustain, support, and survive two untenable social situations. He’s definitely a bad guy, but just about everywhere you look, he’s the lesser of two evils.

Every protagonist needs antagonists. If your protagonist is a bad guy, you have to put him up against people, or situations, that are even worse.

But it’s not enough to be the lesser of two evils. Villainous protagonists also need to have positive traits, qualities that readers and viewers admire and value.

Dexter represents vigilante justice, which is a powerful theme in the American psyche. In many ways, he’s an updated, grittier version of an American folk hero. He personifies rugged individualism and distrust of established authority. When “the system” falls short, Dexter is there to move in and balance the scales. He’s physically powerful, a fit and disciplined fighter. He’s ruggedly handsome. He even follows a code. Replace the Hawaiian shirts with a Stetson, and what you have here is a classic outlaw hero.

Tony Soprano fits another American archetype. He’s a tough guy who has power and money, and there’s a lot of people who find those things more valuable than character. Those same people don’t just shrug off the fact that he objectifies women and has no sexual boundaries, they applaud it. He’s a Real Man, and that’s what Real Men do!  He’s incredibly vulgar, but also capable of a certain charm. He routinely screws over people, but hey, that’s business. He’s a family man with a pretty wife and kids who will probably enter the family business, so he’s got to be doing something good, amiright?  Tony Soprano is a horrible human being, but he’s successful by his own definition of success. We’re fascinated by people who rise to the top, even if–perhaps especially if–what they’re climbing is a toxic dungheap.

Also, Tony has a soft spot for ducks, so there’s that.

When your protagonist is a villain, he still needs to be a human being, with all the messy, complex issues that any hero or anti-hero will be expected to face.

Being a villain does not exempt you from moral dilemmas. TV Dexter was horrified to learn that he’d killed an innocent man, which broke Harry’s Code. Tony Soprano agonized over whether or not to kill his cousin, a decision that forced him to choose between family and Family.  Villains are going to do bad things, and most of the time it’s not going to weigh all that heavily on them. But they do have limits. When your protagonist is a villain, you’ll spend a lot of time finding and testing those limits.

Being a villain does not exempt you from heartache.  TV Dexter came to genuinely love his wife Rita, and he mourned her death deeply. He loved his son and feared that he might have passed along his “Dark Passenger” curse to little Harrison. Most of all, he loved his sister Deborah, and what finally broke him was confronting his part in her fate.  Tony Soprano, worn down by Uncle Junior’s perseveration-level repetition of his youthful failings, burst out with an agonized, “Don’t you love me?” For some villains, the ability to love is a source of pain. For other, it’s the lack of love.

Being powerful does not exempt you from weakness. We want the bad-guy protagonist to win, but they need flaws that will make those victories more difficult and less certain. Dexter is compelled by the urge to kill, and this compulsion can be…inconvenient. He sometimes feels that his Dark Passenger might actually be in the driver’s seat. Tony Soprano’s world is a shark tank, and he knows that his tendency to faint during times of stress is like throwing blood in the water. He needs to appear in control, but being seriously overweight and out of shape tells a very different story.

Bad-guy protagonists can be compelling and even likable, but they come with a built-in dilemma for the storyteller. Given the long-established assumption that Good Will Win, how the heck are you going to END these stories?  Does the protagonist find redemption?  Survive insurmountable odds and come out on top?  Is he brought to justice?  Do you kill him off?

None of these solutions are completely satisfying. We want the villain to succeed and thrive, but we also feel that his karmic debt should be paid. We’d like to see him find redemption, but we also like him as a bad guy.  We want a sense that his story will continue, but we also want closure. We really don’t want to see him in a jail cell, but we know he belongs there. We don’t want him to be killed, even though we know the world would be better off without him. So what’s a storyteller to do?

There’s a reason why Tony’s story ended with an ambiguous Fade To Black. No single choice would have made everyone happy, so the writers let people choose their own ending.  The ending of TV Dexter’s story was almost as ambiguous as Tony’s. (The novels had a very different ending, and I think Jeff Lindsay made the better choice.)

Ambiguity is a fairly common storytelling decision, and in many ways it’s effective. It spawns online debate and water cooler conversations, but it also violates the unspoken contract between storyteller and audience. A story promises several things: Character, Conflict, Resolution. When you deny your audience any real closure, they’re going to feel cheated.

Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the meta-story message is that nothing good can come of being bad, and the storyteller is saying, “Listen, if you make bad choices, you’ll face undesirable consequences. You chose to become invested in an unrepentant villain, so what did you expect?”  This might be valid and maybe even profound, but it’s hard to pull off.

In summary, if you’re contemplating writing a story with a villainous protagonist, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Pick an ending that makes sense to you and is true to the character.
  • Prepare that ending. People are much more willing to accept an ending that doesn’t fit their preferences if they can say, “Yeah, I guess I should have seen this coming because of X and Y and Z.”
  • Sell that ending. Don’t skimp, don’t rush. Whatever happens should happen in a big way.
  • Don’t expect your decision to be universally loved. There is no way to resolve all the conflicting desires and expectations that attend villain protagonists.

Villains we love to hate, and hate to love

I like the TV show “The Blacklist.” Sort of.  The writing is uneven and some of the longer story arcs strain credulity, but there’s something about the show that draws me back. The other day, I figured out what that was.

The  relationship between crime lord Raymond “Red” Reddington and FBI agent Elizabeth Keen is, in a number of ways, very similar to the dynamics between my Forgotten Realms characters Elaith Craulnober, a moon elf crime lord, and Arilyn Moonblade, a Harper agent.

Story is conflict. When you have any sort of relationship with a villain, conflict is guaranteed. This gets more complicated when the hero and the villain are attempting to work together.

There’s the obvious conflict between lawful and criminal. Yes, these crime lords have valuable information, contacts, and skills, but where’s the line? At what point does ignoring illegal activity cross over into condoning it? When does condoning become enabling? When you’ve got friends in low places, you’re constantly waging a war for your own soul. Or at least your D&D alignment.

In D&D terms, Liz and Arilyn are both Chaotic Good. Orphaned at a young age, they were raised by deeply flawed surrogate fathers. Liz had Sam, who was a career criminal, Arilyn was trained by Kymil Nimesin, who gave her a solid education in classic fighting techniques but also made sure she was trained in “lower skills” such as lock-picking, street fighting, and second story work. Perhaps to compensate for their upbringing, both women joined law enforcement agencies. Both believe in the rule of law, but they’re willing to bend the law for what they perceive to be a greater good. So they already have a high level of moral complexity, and the internal and external conflict that comes with it, before you factor in a helpful crime lord.

These women are high achievers who value skill in others. Because Red and Elaith are undeniably good at what they do, Liz and Arilyn regard them with a considerable amount of admiration. Grudging admiration, sure, but since they “shouldn’t” like and admire crime lords who do horrible things, any positive feelings the women have  set off the jangling alarms of cognitive dissonance. And because they do have positive feelings, whenever the criminals do yet another horrible thing, cognitive dissonance is triggered from another angle. This gets very noisy.

There are many other similarities between Liz and Arilyn. Both are observers, better at assessing people than interacting with them.  They are serious, self-reliant, inclined to be loners but capable of friendship and a fiercely devoted love. And they both feel the lack of roots and the need for answers about their family heritage.

The crime lords view these younger women, at least on some level, as the daughters they should have had. There’s a strong paternal bond. This is more reciprocal in the Red/Liz relationship; Liz is far more inclined to view Red as a father figure, and there was never any question that Elaith might actually be Arilyn’s father. But there is a close connection, known to the reader but not to either Elaith or Arilyn:  He’s the father of Arilyn’s half-brother.

Red and Elaith are both fallen heroes. Something happened to shatter their worldview and change the trajectory of their lives. (We don’t yet know Red’s back story, which is one of the reasons I keep returning to the show.)  These young women are a reminder of their younger, better selves. Neither of these criminals has any illusions about themselves nor any expectation of redemption, but I think they see Liz and Arilyn as evidence that there is still something good and pure in their lives.

The criminals will do anything for the young women they’ve “adopted”….except leave them alone. While both Red and Elaith probably realize, on some level, that their involvement in Liz and Arilyn’s lives endangers and compromises them, they can’t seem to break away.  At heart, Red and Elaith are deeply self-absorbed, even when they’re at their most altruistic.

So what makes these two hero/villain pairings so appealing to me?  There’s a lot of power in the notion that there’s someone who will do anything for you, without reservation. There’s the  possibility of redemption for the fallen heroes. The level of trust that, despite everything, exists between them. The tragedy of lost love, and the futile attempt at some sort of a second chance. And frankly, I like conflicted heroes and unpredictable villains. You’re never sure whether Red or Elaith will do something incredibly noble or shockingly venal.

Relationships are messy and mysterious. One of the main attractions of fiction is being able to experience other people’s relationships and perhaps gaining a little insight from how things work out.  Fiction makes us hopeful, because in fiction, a happily-ever-after is possible. Even when the situation is hopelessly complex, when any possibility of resolution and redemption seems remote, we still hope. Perhaps old wrongs can be righted. Perhaps an understanding between father and daughter is possible. If not this episode, not this story, then perhaps the next. If not, perhaps someday.