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It’s complicated

Life generally is. So, strangely enough, are the people living it. Of course some of us are either stupid or lazy or both, or possibly ecstatically happy (as ignorance is bliss) and assume that everything is neat, compartmentalized and no further thinking is necessary. The world is sadly quite well supplied with these, who faithfully believe everything they’re told by those in who are currently in fashion as their guru/dear leader. It can be pure garbage, unsupported by fact or logic, but as long as it involves no thought, and has that guarantee of truth (‘everybody else that I want to be like is saying it’), they will follow narrowly and blindly. Once it was the hallmark of the camp-followers of fascism, now it seems to be really in with the new ‘left’ if you can call them that. Shrug. It’s always been evolution in action, and while the world is a gentler place than it was in history, sooner or later not thinking for yourself is its own reward.

Because things really are complicated. Doctrinaire prescribed ‘thinking’ just doesn’t work all that well, unless you mean ‘well for making you cannon-fodder’.

And the same of course goes for a lot of the characters we write… well unless you’re a vapid parrot. In which case your book will read like was written by a vapid parrot for a vapid parrot audience. It will no doubt have the all the correct ‘collect-the-token selection PC role-players and designated villains, and only suspend disbelief if you’re brain-dead. If that’s you, run along. Nothing for you here. There is a large, and bizarrely (at least from your point of view) rapidly shrinking Traditional sf/fantasy Publishing Industry just for you. Well, you and the all the other indistinguishably unique voices just like yours. Okay, sarcasm off. As you can tell I tried to read something by one of the darlings this last week. The publishers sent her on a tour of Australia, Europe and the East and West Coast of the US, and I believe she won several prizes and awards. Sadly for our hopes of honesty in advertising none were the ‘PC formulaic regurgitation award’, but hey, business as usual. Didn’t sell much, but got a great offer for the next book… Sarcasm really really off. Pinky swear.

This was a response to getting stuck finishing off the last of the latest Heirs books. I’ve tried bribery and it wasn’t enough so I tried punishment. Which worked. ‘tis done, but I have to go back and fix a couple of scenes. Reality: it a good enough, satisfying point to end, with much of what has been either in the dark or developing now in the open… heroes at least in temporary safety, villain exposed and set back. End is probably another 100-150K off. And I’m already 30% over…

One of the big issues with this story was, simply, that the heroes and villains are complicated, in a complicated set-up and with complicated motives. For instance, Lucia has by her view, been cheated of her birth-right. If she’d been male born out of wedlock, she’d have been her father’s heir (there being no legitimate heirs). How unfair! Except… well, she’d murdered her elder sister (who by primogeniture would have been heir). But that’s all wrong! They should have shared. And she was a child when she killed her sister. Yes: true. And she believes, or chooses to believe, it was her sister or herself. Both doing something they were forbidden to do. And then she was raped by her father… who she had bespelled to make him love her – a demand she made of a creature to whom human ‘love’ was alien, and only sex existed, of a father to whom love too was alien… and she, herself only understood it as ‘spoil and indulge me. Give me whatever I want.’ The father was riven with deep shame by it – and he was a conniving, scheming murderer, who had people killed for looking at him wrong (at least in his opinion, which was all that counted to him). And there are reasons why he was like that too (he was crippled or, in modern terms, disabled, and had never been expected to rule or been respected as a possible ruler, before he efficiently poisoned his popular and athletic cousin). There is material reason to feel sorry for all of them. In the PC prescription of roles, even the father would get ‘must get sympathy’ points, and Lucia would have so many she’d be a shoo-in for arch-heroine.

And those were the good guys… depending on your point of view. Kazimir has been the adviser and henchman to a genocidal monster who eats the skin of those who oppose him, skin flayed from the living bodies. He would have his henchmen eat with him. The character’s choice: eat or be next. So he ate. And planned the death of his master, at the hands of another –not because he thought the master evil – the concept was in itself alien to him, but to survive. Had he succeeded, he would have either had to seize power or be torn apart by the rest of the pack, for that was what his society had become. He has no real grasp of love, loyalty (something fear instils, as far as he knew) or caring for anyone else. When he was forced to flee he fled to shelter of a sadist who had sold her soul to the devil for beauty. There too he assisted… and conspired to let her entrap herself in a way that she could be killed by someone else. He feared her and knew her as driven by vanity, but he was not prepared to risk a direct conflict. Instead he planned her death at the hand of others. If it failed, well, too bad, there was nothing to point to him. He is not brave. Or kind. Or forgiving. All of those meant death where he was raised. When he does help someone it is a deceit and he is setting them up to be killed and provide a distraction. He relies on their own greed and self-centeredness (which he understands all too well, and manipulates deliberately, as he has all his life) to do the dirty deed. Only… it’s complicated. In PC points he’s an elderly white male from a wealthy background, and while he gets a few pagan points, he just has to be the villain.

And yet the book comes down to chances those characters have and the choices they make in them.

Of course those are complicated…

20 Comments
  1. Suddenly, I see the book tour promotions not so much as a reward for writing an excellent, best-selling book, but as a desperate attempt by the publisher to MAKE the book sell better so as to more strongly push their message/Agenda.

    Kinda like something I said earlier about the studios pushing money-losing movies that help the agenda just by existing. It doesn’t matter if a Michael Moore movie loses or makes money, it sets the conversation. Sicko sells Obamacare.

    So, you have me curious, who was this darling little PC parrot and what was her book?

    March 10, 2014
    • I try to make a point of not naming books I’ve really disliked :-). She fits all the standard requirements, a young social butterfly, writing sort-of China Meiville-esque stuff. Yes, that’s most book tours

      March 10, 2014
  2. Eleanor #

    Looking forward eagerly to the next Heirs book.

    I no longer pay attention to book promotions, reviews in the New York Times, etc. Even Amazon reviews are suspect these days. Most of my best recent reading has come from Sarah’s blog (which I found through you, Dave, so thanks!)

    March 10, 2014
  3. Was that a synopsis of a novel or a root canal? At least now we know where the SFWA gets its pleasant demeanor and atmosphere of amity. And exploding market-share.

    March 10, 2014
    • root canal. Actually it was – from the pc points scoring game POV an assessment of who should be the heroes and who should be the villain in one of my books. Needless (well, I think needless) to say it is more complex than tick the boxes you have to be a hero

      March 10, 2014
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        I’ve been having trouble with figuring out a project in part because I had a weak grasp of the villain. Yesterday was digging, realized ‘this happened and he liked it’, and it is no longer a pressing issue.

        March 10, 2014
  4. I’m starting to wonder if there is a semi-secret checklist certain publishers and editors send to agents, along the lines of: “all manuscripts submitted for consideration must contain three or more of the following: victimized female of color who asserts self worth in the face of the patrimony, creative homosexual male who just wants to get along but faces persecution, environmental abuser corporation or craft master (for fantasy or historical fiction), wise indigenous individual,” and so on. Because at least half of the new books I’ve thumbed through at the library or on the front shelf at the book store recently had cut-out characters representing set groups, rather than complex individuals.

    March 10, 2014
    • Snap. Only I’d say it’s over half now. And those subsets are so ‘uncomplicated’ as to guarantee the roles each will have. The gay wise victimized female of ‘color’ would simply automatically be heroic lead character. Complexities other possibilities need never apply.

      March 10, 2014
  5. Thanks for the review– I was violently ill through most of the description. No wonder I truly dislike the current crop of opium-eaters.

    March 10, 2014
    • Oh dear. That’s Lucia from the current Heirs book, and she is the villain – not as the PC prescription would have her, the heroine. She was born out of wedlock, yes (as a choice of her gold-digging mother), but to considerable affluence and, despite her father having been a very nasty piece of work, there was no reason she should not have been perfectly ordinary, or just mildly nasty. But Lucia is entitlement embodied. She ‘deserves’ to rule Milan. The truth is she doesn’t ‘deserve’ to rule anything. And some fairly horrible things happen to her, some because fear is fear, and children are children, but most of them are in fact self-inflicted injury. Choices she made to get what she believed she was entitled to. And if you look closely at her choices, she was inevitably given the possibility of making something of herself or forcing someone else to do it for her. She believes herself a victim and deserving recompense — but it all comes down to choices. And her character becomes increasingly cruel and vain but does not essentially evolve much from being utterly self-centered and entitled. She has no consideration of other people at all.

      Mindaug on the other hand is a man trapped in a situation of no good choices — he is a smallish man in a society where only brute force or magical skill can keep you alive for long. He is very intelligent, so his choice was magic or magic, in a society where he had to carefully balance being useful to the more powerful, but not a threat. He is in his late fifties in a society where 35 would be a good age. In that time he has grown immensely in knowledge and skill, and actually perfectly capable of direct confrontation with some of the monsters-of-people he has been second fiddle to, and the brains for. But he had always operated by guile, by exploiting those he has overcome’s greed, stupidity, and confidence in their own ability. He has no desire for power, or respect or anything much but to live and enjoy keeping his mind entertained. And then he attempts to exploit people who just don’t fit his model – they take his ‘kindness’ as not something to take advantage of, but something to be enormously grateful for. They do not repay him by ripping him off and thus going to the death he planned for them, but by trusting loyalty. So they don’t die, and Mindaug is handed a lesson. And unlike Lucia, he chooses to learn from it. Like many a spy who ended up escaping the Soviet Union to save their own skin from their fellows (not because they liked the West) who, because they knew the nastiness of the other side and now were exposed to the liberty and values of the West, became the staunchest supporters of it, Mindaug changes. Mindaug is not a good man, but gradually grows to do what he did not dare to do for himself, for others. And not for others he worked for who are stronger and he fears, but for those who work for him, are weaker, and love and are loyal to him. Parts of him remain: a life time of scheming and avoiding direct confrontation makes it very hard for him to think otherwise. But he finally is finding people who have no desire to pull him down to pull themselves up, and a lot of other things he finds far more worth defending than people who have had them always. Mindaug, in his twilight years is rather like St Paul ;-/

      March 10, 2014
      • ah– well Mindaug– sounds like the hero in that story in that he changes into a better person …

        March 10, 2014
  6. robfornow #

    Thank God for the commentators. I’ve read a lot of your stuff and since it wasn’t clear that you were reviewing someone stuff and it might be something you had in the works, I was about to disown you I’m already reaching for the brain bleach as it is.

    March 10, 2014
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      You should read the column a while back about him developing a certain character from Heirs into a hero, who you may identify as the ‘villain’ in the what he describes here. Someone who is not prepared for human decency, and may grow as a result of experiencing it.

      Whereas I can see the so called heroes in the article fitting as villains in Heirs cosmology.

      My read is that Dave is making a sarcastic comment on cookie cutter standards for heroes and villains, if he can classify the ones from his latest book as the opposite. Perhaps I’m simply the one too dull to play along.

      I’m more interested in reading the upcoming Heirs now.

      March 10, 2014
      • No, in fact you are the recipient of the ‘comprehend what Dave’s inadequate verbal skills are trying to convey’ prize for today. And yes, it was pinky swear wasn’t it?

        March 10, 2014
        • BobtheRegisterredFool #

          I have that problem all the time it seems.

          I didn’t think it was all that difficult, the initial sarcasm-Now I’m serious-Wait, this time I really am serious, was a fairly solid hint.

          I had help in that I liked the Heirs book, have an okay memory, and managed to catch the column where you explained what you were doing.

          March 10, 2014
  7. Oh gosh, that sounds awful. How do these writers live with themselves. Your review made me actually cringe in genuine disgust.

    March 10, 2014
  8. SheBear #

    Dear Mr. Freer,
    Thank you for further evidence that “when I grow up, I wanna be an Indi Writer”. (Apparitions towards becoming a Baen author exempted, of course.) If your example is truly what Trad Publishers expect, there is no way I could deliver. I don’t wanna read it, much less **write** it!

    March 10, 2014
  9. I couldn’t “write” for anyone but Baen. I can see a character (Hero type) doing “bad things” (for certain values of bad), but not outright evil. As an Empath _and_ protector type, I’ve seen way too much evil. Real evil is not seductive, it is ugly beyond imagining. The mind literally cannot visualize (for more more than a second or two), or remember it. If you want a hierarchy structure, think city level up to International level. Up to lower state level, is seductive, but above that, it can’t mask the ugliness. The truly evil know the ugliness, and are drawn by the immediate satisfaction. They can’t/won’t look past “today.” They also can’t “change” without a major change in attitudes. Think St. Paul level conversion.

    March 10, 2014

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