Ok look, I'm going to jump straight in and say that today's showcase is Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Now before anyone jumps to any conclusions, let me just say this: I know that there's nothing left to
say about Twilight that hasn't been said before. Those of you who despise Twilight have probably read reams of articles about its problems already, and those of you who adore Twilight are probably
sick and tired of hearing these problems again and again.
The trouble is, I find that most of the arguments about Twilight gravitate around the messages it seems to put across: how it effectively seems to set back women and men's attitude towards women back towards women by about 100 years - such as Bella's utter reliance on Edward to the point where she ceases to function as a human being when he is not there.
Now, although I do indeed have my own personal issues with this aspect of Twilight, for this Showcase I'd like to take a different tack: let's just take the story at face value, of a girl falling in love
with a vampire, and nothing more. Let's focus purely on Twilight's story structure and characterisation.
The result? Yeah, well, it's still sorely lacking.
The thing is, when I first started reading Twilight, for the first fewopening chapters I was pleasantly surprised. The writing style is simple yet functional, the pacing feels smooth, and the introduction
of Forks is decent.
And then Edward walks in.
Now, at first, they hate each other. Edward seems physically repulsed by Bella, and Bella understandably takes this reaction to heart and is hateful back. At this point, I thought: "Great! So this is what the rest of this fairly weighty novel is going to be about, right? How these two eventually put aside their differences, forge a friendship and ultimately a well-earned romance."
Well...no. Very, very early on in the book, No less than a quarter of the way into the book, Edward and Bella have suddenly put aside their differences and declared their undying love for one another. Wait, what? Where did that come from? This sudden U-turn and declaration of love kills what promise Twilight had as a story on both major fronts: characterisation and plot.
From a characterisation point of view, it feels completely unearned. I have no problem with romance on the page - in fact it can be the great motivator's for characters - but for it to mean anything, it needs to drive the characters. To either fight to earn the hand of the one they love, or to protect the love they have built. Bella and Edward's sudden romance feels hollow because there has been no fight, no sacrifice to earn it. So it feels fake and lacks weight, two things a believable romance need to have. Beyond that, neither Bella nor Edward seem to have any other motivation, aspiration or drive in the story, so when this one and only character-building potential - of characters building from loathing to loving - is resolved far too easily and too quickly - it kills their character on the page.
Which leads me onto the second problem this causes: plot. Because up until that point of declaration, there was nothing else to care about. No other antagonistic force that keeps the reader turning the page. I mentioned early on in my Off The Shelf series that, in order to maintain a reader's interest and to keep the plot ticking, there needs to be at least one question unanswered, one thing that will keep the reader worried and keep moving ahead through the story to find the answer.
And up until that point, there was no other plot, no other issues that needed to be resolved or tackled. No villain, no school bully, no ticking time bomb or looming threat of any kind. So when the only plot development that the reader has to cling to - Bella and Edward's developing relationship - is basically resolved when there is still 300 pages out of a 400 page to go, you have to wonder what could possibly fill the next three quarters of the book. The answer is, unsurprisingly, nothing. This is where the cynic in me would say that Meyer never had an interest in plot really - that she wash itching to just get all of that icky character building or plot development out of the way - and just get on with indulging in a vacuous and tension-free romance. Only in the last handful of chapters does a threat appear, and it literally comes out of nowhere.
And I'm sorry, I disagree completely with anyone who would say "Oh, but Edward is fighting his inner demons! He could hurt or bite Bella at an moment!" This is clear from the get go that this is supposed to be a romance. Be honest; did you ever, honestly truly feel that Bella was in danger from Edward at any point? Meyer has already made it clear that she is not only disinterested in building tension, but she actively avoids it. I mean, she has a character whose special skill is to dispel tension among people!
This is why I feel that the movie adaptation, while still sorely lacking as a result of the weak source material, actually fares better than the novel because it addresses some of these points. The threat that appears so suddenly at the end of the book is threaded through the movie, albeit with ham-fisted "meanwhile..." cutaways. Bella actually has an emotional reaction to finding out Edward is a vampire, whereas in the book she literally shrugs the fact off - again, shunning any potential for narrative tension. And movie-version Edward actually has an edge of self-loathing to himself, declaring himself a "monster". Oh, it feels tacked on as hell, but at least it's something.
I don't despise Twilight. 'Despise' is such an intense feeling, and I struggle to feel any kind of strong feeling with a novel that is just so empty and devoid of any feeling itself. When I finish a book, even ones I hate, at least it occupies my mind for a little while longer. But with Twilight, nothing stuck. Nothing mattered. Just...nothing.
We all know that one of the most important components of an engaging story is having a quality antagonist. In fact, in many of the finest pieces of fiction out there, the villain can be just as famous as the protagonist. Characters such as Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort, Darth Vader…these characters as much of the DNA of their stories as the protagonists, if not more so.
But what separates the believable, complex villains from the cardboard cutout bad guys? Over the next few weeks we’re going to be focusing on the dark side of the story, and looking at what goes into an impactful and believable antagonist. Starting with Part 1, today’s topic: The Three Antagonistic Forces.
Let’s start at the very beginning, then. So what is an antagonist anyway? It comes from the Greek word ‘Antagonizesthai’ which means ‘struggle against’. And that’s interesting, because when we look at the majority of definitions for an antagonist, it’s phrases like “a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.” Can you see that something has been lost in translation between the Greek meaning and the modern English definition? Well, when I say lost, I mean added. The English definition assumes that the antagonist needs to be a person.
It doesn’t have to be. In fact, I think the Biochemistry sub-definition of antagonist is more accurate for our purposes here: that is, an antagonist is ‘a substance which interferes with or inhibits the physiological action of another.’
This is what we mean when we talk about antagonistic forces. Because, as the Greeks said, an antagonist is anything that your protagonist would struggle against. It is the foil to your good guy succeeding in whatever they are trying to do. So now we have this wider scope, we begin to realize that your antagonist doesn’t have to be another person. Forces can work against our heroes from any number of places, however antagonistic forces break down into three broad categories: External forces, Environmental forces, and Internal forces.
External forces are your living, breathing bad-guys: the very real and tangible villains of the piece with whom the protagonist can interact with and have a relationship with. The benefits of an external villain are immediately clear, partly because it’s the most widely used and recognizable antagonistic force we know. Interactions between our good guys and bad guys provide depth to both sides of the argument if done well, and can make our protagonists doubt themselves, feel as though overcoming their external antagonistic force impossible, and they can see themselves reflected in the antagonist’s actions and fear how close they are to becoming the same – all making their triumph more satisfying when it happens.
That being said, external forces don’t always need to be person-shaped. Jaws is perfect example of a non-human antagonist, as well as aliens. This removes the layer of direct communication, making any attempts at reasoning and rationale nearly impossible. This provides a sense of futility and hopelessness to the protagonist’s actions, and works well in horror or thriller genres.
Environmental forces go one step further from animals, because there is absolutely no discourse to be had with the environment. These are things like disaster movies such as Twister, or apocalyptic movies such as Armageddon or The Day After Tomorrow. There is no mercy, rhyme or reason to environmental antagonistic forces. In most cases, the protagonists’ motivation is to simply survive, or to at least take control of what he or she can so that the damage is minimized (for example, Atreyu in the Neverending Story and his struggle against The Nothing). In these cases, you will notice that many stories utilize a ‘secondary’ villain of sorts, who will be a tangible external force that gives the audience a ‘face to hate’ (In Lord of the Rings, as Sauron is physically absent to the point that he can almost be considered an environmental antagonistic force, we have a number of these secondary foils that the protagonists can face off against, such as Gollum).
And lastly, we have Internal forces. This is the trickiest one to pull off as it is by nature difficult to define and manifest on the page or screen, but when it is done well can be the most effective antagonistic force of all. Put simply, it is the protagonist’s own personal antagonist, their nagging doubt that psychologically impedes them from succeeding. That’s why I like the Biochemistry definition of ‘interfering with or inhibiting the physiological action of another’, because it fits the idea of Internal antagonistic force perfectly. In Spiderman 2, who was the real villain? Doctor Octavius? No, he was definitely secondary in that film. The real antagonistic force was Peter Parker’s own self-doubt, his increasing belief that he was no longer worthy or wanting of the Spiderman role. Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom would have felt empty and meaningless if he had never doubted he’d make it or have the strength to let go of the ring.
Protagonist’s fighting their own personal demons can be extremely difficult to pull off, because you will need to have a flawed protagonist in the first place, a chink in the armor which will be exploited. Furthermore, showing the development of this inner conflict can be tricky, so that the development feels natural and smooth up until the crisis point where the protagonist effectively has a showdown with themselves. But if you can pull it off, this creates a dramatic tension that the other two types of antagonist force cannot rival.
Not that you are hemmed in by just one type, mind you. You can one of each in your story. The Matrix, for example, has Agent Smith as an external force, yet he is arguably the face of the environmental force that is the Matrix itself. At the same time you have Neo’s self-doubt that he is the one.
There’s actually a lot of leg room and freedom of interpretation, when you think about the different types of these antagonistic forces. As long as it serves as an obstacle to your protagonist that pushes them outside of their comfort zone and forces them to act in order to succeed, rather than simply coast, then that results in a satisfying and meaningful conflict. But more on that in part Two!
Today's Showcase is a perfect example of the fact that novels don't exist in a bubble: they can be informed, inspired and complement one another.
Not that this author needs it, mind you. This author has an avid fanbase that will follow him wherever he goes, be it writing for TV, For movies, comic books...and yes, books! This is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.
So here's an interesting story for you: Un Lun Dun, last week's showcase, was written over 10 years after Neverwhere came to be (Neverwhere was actually a TV show at first, but this novelization went on to have much more success). So I read Neverwhere back in 2008, followed a few years later by Un Lun Dun. But it was pure coincidence I ended up reading both: when I picked up China Mieville's novel I had no idea that Un Lun Dun had been heavily inspired by Neverwhere. Both of them center around this idea of an 'other' London, a warped mirror image of the English capital city. And just like Un Lun Dun, Neverwhere constructs it's dark tale with expertise, perhaps even more so.
So here's the story: Richard Mayhew, having recently moved to London, is as normal as normal gets. He works, he lives, he loves. But after helping out a girl on the street, he finds that his simple act of kindness turns his life upside down. Mysteriously, he seems to be invisible: nobody at work responds to him, and strangers are moving into his apartment. The girl, called Door, and a host of other wild, weird and sinister characters seep into Richard's life, plunging him into London Below - a place between the cracks of reality where Angels and monks roam, Knight's bridge is an actual bridge guarded by Knights, and folk worship rats.
While I love Un Lun Dun just as much as Neverwhere, I must concede that Neverwhere is the more accomplished and impactful of the two. For one, while I would dock Un Lun Dun points for being a bit of a rollercoaster that doesn't stop and take a breath more than it should, Neverwhere also hurtles along at breakneck speed. However, that fast pace works in Neverwhere's favor because it really makes you empathize with Richard who is as bewildered by it all, along with the reader. This make's Richard's growth throughout the story and his growing confidence in the world of London Below that much more satisfying because of it.
Which brings me nearly onto the second reason: characters. Whereas I felt the characters in Un Lun Dun were a bit flat and served mainly as a vehicle to push through the plot (a most excellent plot, mind you), Neverwhere's characters really carry the story. As eccentric as Door and the Marquis may be at first, there's a real sense of history and meaningful motives to these people, and whenever I recall my time Neverwhere it is usually the characters that first jump to my mind.
But again, Neverwhere's greatest strength is the same as Un Lun Dun: the atmosphere. You can almost smell this dark, grungy London Below, such is Gaiman's skill at evoking a mood. And Gaiman some times swings for the very dark indeed. It never feels cheap though: the grotesque feels in place, appropriate and well earned.
Neverwhere is a fantastic book, remarkable really considering it was still early in Gaiman's career at that point. His enthusiastic fanbase is absolutely justified.
Everyone has multiple persona. The person you are at home isn’t the same person you are at work or at school or with friends or family. That’s because we’re inherently social creatures and those of us with a certain level of emotional intelligence understand that different situations call for different approaches to communication. Just by being here on the internet, you are acting as a different person to who you are in real life.
And the overriding persona of the net citizen (or netizen) is that of the know-it-all. Right here, right now, you have access to all of the human knowledge in all of our history, within a few taps of your fingers. However, somewhere down the line the internet as a whole decided that everyone must now be automatically correct on every single issue, and woe betide you if you don’t have your facts straight. This is why so many online conversations that could’ve been decent debate-fodder descend into the act of softening your statements with phrases like ‘most of the time’ and ‘in my opinion’.
How I’m not here to talk about the nature of discourse on the internet. But does lead me into today’s topic about writing with authority. You see, perhaps this is just me but I’ve noticed that this online must-know-it-all-persona is bleeding over into other parts of our life too. Think about it: as little as twenty years ago it would’ve been fine to simply put your hands up and say ‘I don’t know’. It was OK to admit a lack of knowledge or a lack of authority on a subject. But now, because so much of our time is spent online, and all of the knowledge of the world is accessible from a device in our pockets now, so many people are terrified of speaking or acting with any authority in real life. You’re not allowed to be a layman or an understudy in a topic. This paralyses so many people from getting involved in new fields of interest or speaking about anything with merely a basic understanding of something.
And this mindset cannot – CAN NOT – be taken into your writing.
What do I mean? Well, you’re reading an example right now. Those of you who read my musings on writing and my fiction will have surely found contradictions between blog posts, or even to my writing proper. Why am I giving advice and saying to NOT do something when I go ahead do the exact opposite in my own writing?
Well, the answer is simple: I am a human being. We human beings change over time, we forget, we form opinions that are contradictory to what we held as true the day before. Being seen as a hypocrite is apparently one of the harshest criticisms you could level at a person and yet in today’s modern society is impossible. And I’m not going to try: I’m not in the business of tying myself in knots to keep my opinions watertight and consistent. Heck, I am well aware that the topic of this post overlaps heavily with another post I wrote a few months ago, but I don’t care. That’s the point!
And neither should you. Write with authority. Believe in what your write. It’s your writing. When it comes down to it, you make the rules. Constantly second-guessing yourself and tearing your hair out to make sure that every single plot hole is explained and all of your facts are impeccable in a first draft that will at best be an exercise in mental gymnastics that meanders frantically to keep all of it’s proverbial ducks in a row and thus buries the story it was trying to tell. Or at worst, it will be first draft that never gets finished.
Oh sure, in second drafts and beyond, go for it! Pull out that magnifying glass! Second and third-guess yourself! At least then you will be editing around a solid narrative by a writer who sounds confident. Because then you can tweak to make sure that that confidence is justified, rather than scrambling for that level of accuracy in the first place.
Why do this? Because readers love few things more than a confident, capable writer. You know of whom I speak. Those books that you pick up and within the first paragraph you know straightaway that this is a writer who speaks with power. You know instantly that this writer will take you on a journey worth hearing. Those are the writers who will have readers follow them right through until the back cover – not because they were scrambling feverishly to bulletproof their writing against grammatical mistakes, character inconsistencies, or plot holes. But because they knew what came first: telling their story and telling it well, with authority.
So next time you’re telling ghost stories around a campfire or sharing anecdotes at the pub, listen well to those who make the biggest impact, where everyone falls silent to hear. Were they the ones stumbling over their words to make sure they recalled their facts correctly? Or where they the ones who told the unlikely tale with fervour and panache and charisma? The answer, I think, is obvious.
“There’s nothing original left out there.”
That’s a phrase I’m sure you’ve all heard, and boy do I hate it. What does that even mean? Of course there’s original ideas out there! I firmly believe that we’ve only just begun to explore the possibilities of storytelling: the people who proclaim that there’s no new ground to explore are the same people who are happy sticking to the same movie franchises and authors.
But there are creators out there fighting the good fight, striking out into territory unknown as well as pointing out the problems with the traditional approach to storytelling. And one of the finest examples out there is China Miéville, and his novel Un Lun Dun.
Un Lun Dun tells the story of Deeba and Zanna, two London girls who have noticed odd things happening around them lately. One day, they find a crack in reality (like you do) and they slip into a place called UnLondon – not exactly an alternate reality of London, but an abcity, a place where London’s throw away things seep into and are made use of. It’s brimming with strangeness and life, but it’s threatened by a living Smog that threatens to consume it all. And Zanna is the “Schwazzy”, the Chosen One.
Now, if you’re thinking “Hang on! Chosen One? An all-consuming threat? That’s sounds anything but original!” Well, this is how Un Lun Dun starts. It’s very deliberate. Miéville sets up your expectations for a fun but predictable tale before he gloriously pulls the rug from under your feet. I don’t want to spoil it, but the twists and turns are not just clever for clever’s sake, but also highlight important points that a young audience can truly take to heart and value.
If subverting expectations is one half of what makes Un Lun Dun so great, the other half is just how…different and inventive Miéville is. Miéville is brimming with ideas, so much so that great concepts that could sustain a whole novel fly by in a chapter. Ninja dustbins, zombie giraffes, a tree made up of the left over streams of fireworks, a forest in a house…it goes on and on. And true, while this wild experimentation doesn’t always hit its mark, it is definitely more hit than miss, and Miéville’s deft use of language is powerful enough that he can even endear readers to a pet milk carton. No, really.
If anything, I’d say that Miéville would have benefitted from slowing it down a bit. Un Lun Dun is a rollercoaster of a read for sure, and it works because of it, but allowing a few moments for the plot to breathe and let us get to know our characters a bit more would’ve helped with investing in their plights a bit more.
That said, there’s no doubting that the star of the show is the city of UnLondon. The abcity is so vividly painted, and I love the vibe of it – dirty, wild, surreal and with a delicious undercurrent of menace. Miéville set out to achieve something with Un Lun Dun (I can’t say what that was because of spoilers!) and he absolutely achieved it. Un Lun Dun is not just a rollicking good story but it’s also a bold statement within the world of fiction writing that different is not only possible, but good.
Seeing, Hearing, Tasting, Touching, Smelling. Barring exceptions, all humans have five senses with which they absorb the world around them with. Removing any sense would be sorely missed, seriously curtailing the experiences that life throws at you.
And yet this actually happens all the time: whenever we read a book or watch a movie. When we sit down to watch a film, the only two senses that will get stimulated are what you see and hear. Okay, sure: you can watch the actors tucking into a juicy hamburger and your stomach will rumble, but that's just tapping into the natural empathy we all carry.
With books, it's even less of a direct stimulation. All the reader sees is words, and from this it’s up to them to conjure the experience within their imagination.
It's a big ask, if you think about it. It puts a lot of the work on the reader. Well, work is the wrong word - if done right it’s a pleasurable experience - but do you know what doesn't help? When the author is limiting the description to only what one should be seeing.
Let me explain. The thing is, when we talk about the imagination and using the power of words to conjure an image within the reader's head, we automatically think of building a picture and a picture only. Perhaps, now and then, we’ll throw in the description of a sound. Now it’s true that these are perhaps the two most important senses required to be transported into a fictional world, but if we rely on using the sight of something or someone to the reader, it can quickly get flat and tedious.
Imagine if you introduced all of your characters by describing their hair colour, their clothes and their eyes. It makes the differences between your characters seem superficial. Now, imagine throwing in the fact that one of your characters reeks of the pungent stench of cheap aftershave, or has coarse, rough skin on the fingertips, then you start to build this much more vivid, powerful image in the reader’s mind as they imagine their own real senses feeling them in the same way.
That’s not to say that one should be bending over backwards to describe every single sight, sound, smell, feel and taste. No, the key thing is knowing when is the best time to evoke what sense, as each triggers certain emotions and taps into the readers subconscious in certain ways.
For example, the sense of touch is how we experience pain and pleasure. If I ask you now to imagine being headbutted in the nose then you may wince a little, because you can imagine that pain – not from the look at it, but from how it feels. Now, if I wish I can add another layer to it by describing the acrid taste of blood on the lips, streaming down from the nostrils. I’m pretty sure you have all experienced the same taste of your own blood, so I’m tapping into your own experiences and knowledge here. Even neutral feelings which are neither pleasurable nor painful, such as running a hand over the soft damp moss on an old headstone, are useful at evoking a certain vibe in the reader.
The sense of smell is great for transporting readers back on a wave of nostalgia. All the writer needs to do is mention the taste of Mother’s apple pie and you get this powerful sense that digs up old memories. But they don’t always have to be nice memories, as it can trigger negative memories in your characters. Perhaps your character may smell the sea from his car window and shudder as he recalls the exact same smell on that fateful night 20 years ago. And of course, unpleasant smells are also useful for building that more complete image of a place. A detective may walk into an abandoned house, and your first priority may be to describe the yellowing walls and the sound of the buzzing light bulbs, but why not also mention the smell of sour milk from the old refrigerator?
Taste is somewhere between touch and smell, as it is another sense which evokes either pleasure or misery, but there’s also an element of digging up old memories to it. Cold custard both conjures up an unpleasant taste as well as reminding readers of their old school lunches, which is fascinating because for your older readers that would be an unpleasant taste they recall, yet a fond memory of a time long ago, so it’s a complex reaction. And that’s a good thing! The sense of taste is probably the one that you’ll use the least in fiction writing, but when it is applied correctly it can be the strongest of any sense, especially when it is the taste of another person’s salty, cracked lips.
Correctly applying the full range of senses pulls your writing closer to the experience of real life, and will make your writing much more powerful and immersive to the reader.
I try. Really, I do. I try to separate author from book in all circumstances I can. With this book, I find this hardest of all to do because of who the author is and what he represents, but even when you can successfully put all of that out of mind and simply read the book, it makes no difference anyway, because the book alone is still utter garbage. I am talking about Eragon by Christopher Paolini.
Let's focus on the book first.
So Eragon is the titular character who lives with his uncle and cousin in a remote village. One day while out hunting he stumbles upon an egg which hatches into the dragon Saphira. Eragon is picked up by Brom, a dragon rider of old, who mentors him in the ways of dragon stuff and how he is the key to the downfall of the evil emperor, Galbatorix.
Well, if you're now thinking "well, that just sounds like a derivative of every fantasy story ever with a garnishing of Star Wars to go with it”, then that's one of the main issues I take with Eragon and the subsequent books in the Inheritance series. The entirety of the story is a tired rehash of Star Wars, with a Lord of the Rings-esque setting. And don't think for a second that this is 'inspiration' or 'drawing on influences'. It borders on plagiarism. Listen to this description:
A boy lives with his uncle in the middle of nowhere. His quiet life changes when he happens upon a curious item sent by a captive princess, who knew that the contents within the item was vital to the downfall of the emperor. The boy meets a wise old man, who becomes his mentor in the ways of the old protectors of the realm, a hunted and nearly eradicated group of warriors. The boy's uncle is killed by the enemy in their attempt to locate the curious item. The boy leaves home with the wise old man to learn the old ways and to find his destiny. Along the way, he meets a roguish young man, and together they rescue the princess from the enemy. The wise old man sacrifices himself to ensure their escape.
Now, what did I describe? Star Wars: A New Hope? Or Eragon? Well...both actually. Yes, this accurately describes the opening half of both stories.
To this, you might argue back that that’s an unfair comparison. After all, in a previous Showcase I talked about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and how Star Wars follows in a rich tradition of shared mythology in hero building. Couldn’t Paolini simply be paying homage to George Lucas’ creation in turn?
Well, no. The thing is, there is no attempt here for Paolini to make the story his or put his own stamp on it. In many ways it’s a direct lift, with perhaps just enough changes to avoid being sued. If you think I’m exaggerating, let’s look at the other work it lifts heavily from: Lord of the Rings. The key romance in LOTR? Aragorn and Arwen. The key romance in Paolini’s series? Eragon and Aryn. Isengard turns to Isenstar. Locations Eriador and Valinor turn to dragon names Eridor and Vanilor. That’s not paying homage, that’s stealing. After all, if he is just paying homage to stories he admires, then why is his name on the cover as the author? Why is there no mention of ‘special thanks’ to those who he looked to? Why is he drawing royalties and claiming this work as purely his own?
So we’ve established that Eragon is a borderline-plagiarised piece of work with not a grain of originality in it’s DNA. That is in of itself bad enough.
But when you take into account Paolini himself and how Eragon came to be published, the well is further poisoned. Paolini, a home-schooled boy, was only 15 when Eragon was published. Wow, you might think! What an accomplishment! What a prodigy! If you’re not thinking that then you may have heard it countless times from others who paraded the fact around like it made Eragon any better.
Nothing could be further from the truth. A bit of digging into the facts of Paolini’s success and it quickly unravels. For example, his parents were rich enough to set up their own publishing company and put their son’s book into print, enough so he could go on tour with it, pushing his tome on hapless children at schools until a traditional publisher snapped it up, sensing a marketing gimmick in their 15-year-old prodigy author. Tell any aspiring author this and it will either make them angry or sad. Paolini bypassed the rite of passage of aspiring authors, or rejection letters, painful editing sessions and suffering any doubt in his work. You can see why the young people who genuinely work hard on their craft and get no attention see Paolini as the antithesis of what a deserving author should be.
Aw shucks, but he was a child prodigy right? Well, look: what we know about child prodigies flies in the face of what we know about Paolini. A prodigy, after all, is one who excels in a field of expertise well before their time. And Paolini is anything but a master of the writing craft. Quite aside from the highly derivative nature of the books, the writing itself is riddled with over description, needless attention to details that freezes the narrative, bizarre actions (eg. people stopping midway through a battle to discuss philosophy). In other words, with all due respect to teenagers, it reads like a 15-year-old wrote it.
And I have heard people exalt Paolini’s prodigy status (even though he is now approaching 30 these days) whilst defending his poaching from other works. That’s a direct contradiction: you can’t have a prodigy who just regurgitates other’s successes. Seriously, ask any 15-year-old to write a book with the story of Star Wars but with a high-fantasy Lord of the Rings theme and you’ll get something remarkably similar to Eragon, I promise you. That’s not the doing of a prodigy, but a light-fingered mimic.
The final line of defense is when people concede that yes, maybe it is a derivate and poorly written story, and maybe Paolini did luck out with having rich parents, but hey, he wrote a book at 15, right? That’s something to admire, isn’t it? Well, sorry, but teenagers writing full-length novels is not that rare. I wrote my first book aged fifteen. And it was terrible! But my I guarantee that there is a 15-year-old out there somewhere who is a genuine prodigy in writing, waiting to be discovered. They just don’t have rich parents who can self publish for them.
Paolini’s Eragon is a patchwork fantasy that rips from other sources and had absolutely no life of it’s own, further soured by the hateful backstory of how the book and the author became a success in the first place. But to all the youngsters out there who are working on finding their own voice and honing their craft fair and square, take heart: success does not equal genius. Quite the opposite, in Paolini’s case.
The intrusive author is an old-fashioned literary device where the narrator (who may or may not be the author itself, but for the sake of simplicity let’s take the narrator and author as one here), steps in and begins lecturing the reader. You’ve all read books that have had a passage that begins with “Dear reader…” or something to that effect.
Now that kind of very direct step-in fell out of favour in the 19th century, and rightly so. It would be like watching a movie where now and then the video stops and the director butts in with some unsolicited commentary. It breaks that immersive hold an otherwise good story should have. If you see any book penned in the 21st century doing this, I strongly suggest you snap that book shut straight away.
No, while that kind of intrusion has all but disappeared, a more deceptive type of intrusion seems to have taken its place: where the author’s own personal opinions and thoughts are so obvious to the reader that it is just as intrusive and illusion-breaking as just outright addressing the reader.
Let me give you an example: in my most recent Showcase I talked about the terrible Seven Ancient Wonders by Matthew Reilly. One of his prime failings in terms of pure writing craft is how his action is so void of weight and genuine peril that, rather than addressing this problem within the narrative, throws all of his energy into style of the narrative itself: using fully capitalised sentences, overuse of exclamation marks, and the infamous diagrams of rooms to ‘help’ the reader visualize the setting. Through this, Reilly’s penning hand becomes all too blatant: he wants you, dear reader, to know just how intense, exciting and action packed these scenes are.
But that’s the problem. Because Reilly puts his energy into making his own wishes of what he wants the reader to feel clear, you as the reader don’t end up actually feeling the way he wants you, but you just end up with a very clear vision of an author scrambling to manipulate your emotions. And we, like normal rational human beings, despise having our emotions manipulated overtly. It’s the writing equivalent of the aggressive charity hawks on high streets who will try desperately to corner you and ask you loaded questions like “Are you interested in helping the blind?”
Wait a moment, you might be thinking, well how do I get my point across to the reader, then? I want my book to have a certain message, so how do I make that clear without being intrusive?
Well, let me be blunt here: dear writer, not a single reader cares what you think. I’m sorry, but it’s true. If you want readers to listen directly to your voice and share your thoughts and opinions on things, then get into journalism or make a blog. But as a fiction writer, your creation takes front and center stage. You as the writer shouldn’t even make an appearance: you are working backstage to keep things moving. Your only moments where you can indulge your own presence are on the front cover (ie. Your actual name), perhaps a short 100-word bio in the front sleeve, and a special thanks. In the story itself, you should be omnipresent and ambivalent.
Now, to this you could argue that there are great many books out therewhere the author’s intentions were clear. Who here was left in any doubt out Phillip Pullman’s atheism after reading the His Dark Materials trilogy? But if you were to reread any of those books, you will notice that the author never pushed the plot aside Reilly-style and said “this is how I want you to feel”. Get their point across via a character who is a vessel for experiencing whatever the narrator wishes the reader to also experience. In Northern Lights, aka The Golden Compass, Pullman has Lyla experience the dogmatism of religion and belief through her own adventures to the deep north. However, it is done with a lightness of touch: if the reader chooses to just ignore the messages, they can easily do so and simply enjoy the adventure.
Wall-E is also a great example of this. You may recall there being a big debate about whether the movie had an environmental agenda. But both sides of the argument were right there: the messages at no point are forced upon the viewer, because that would be breaking beyond the motivations of the characters and would be exposing the author’s own opinions. Again, it was a case of ‘take it or leave it’: if you wish to glean such messages then you will find a dark movie that poses some pretty dark questions. If not, then you will find a delightful story of two robots falling in love. However, director Andrew Stanton is very careful in making sure that the budding romance between Wall-E and Eve stays central to the story, while everything else revolves around it: after all, it is always story first, messages second.
So, my dear writer, while nobody may care what you think, if you’ve done your job right then they will fall in love with your characters and care about their thoughts. But again, be weary of intruding too much into the story with your own opinions: you are of the real world, and to step in either directly or to put your weight into the style of narration to overtly manipulate emotions from the reader is to break that illusion of the fictional world you have created.
Off the Shelf
Here I share my ideas, musings and advice on the writing process. I also analyse some of my own writing for examples to show how I work.
Here I will show off of some of my favorite good and great stories, gushing lovingly over why I adore them and why you should too. I will also show you the other side of the spectrum: bad examples of stories and what we can learn from them.