Sow the wind

If you think about it that’s pretty much what authors write about 90% of the time. Stitching the winds together, including the ill-smelling gusts that go with some characters. I like to put gussets for them… oh.

Not sew. Sow. Forgive me. Yes, it’s that too. Either the lead characters, or the antagonists, or both, sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. The story that starts with Dorothy’s parents saying: “Let’s move out of Kansas. Dorothy and Toto would be much safer there” has no Oz.

Of course, just as in real life, the character or the villain can sow a lot of wind before the whirlwind. It’s rather like my first foray into growing our own veggies, when I bought a packet of zucchini seeds. Big packet, lots of seeds… I put about 10 in, because I thought that might mean I’d get maybe 20 zucchini fruits… They hadn’t come up the next day, so I planted another 10. And the next day. And then, deciding they were obviously dud I just planted all the rest. Yes. Well, that was the year I evolved 52 recipes of ways to disguise zucchini…

Now it’s useful in structuring a story to do more than just sow the seeds of chaos and destruction, to see from A to C, and realize that you’re dealing with actions and reactions. To predict just how those actions must spin into reactions. I’m a largely disinterested party as far the US elections, or indeed world politics go. I live very happily on a little island a long, long way away from the rest of the world, and it’s none of it really in my back yard. Of course I know I am affected by it, as are my kids, and friends and family elsewhere. But it is a long way from here. That certain distance I think helps me to see a bigger picture. I was predicting before the US elections that – come what may – society there would start to fracture on partisan lines, and that, come what may, there would be a very substantial number of people that would be angry and responding in social and financial ways. It’s been a one way ‘sowing’ of that whirlwind for a long time now – to the point that I think those who were in power and control thought they could do just precisely what they pleased. Ergo, you have things like the Kelloggs Multinational deciding to punish one of very few pro-Trump news sites by withdrawing their advertising. The news site – one of the very few that actually is growing, hit back by calling a boycott on their products.

Whether the whirlwind the company reap is more than a little dust-devil or not, it marks a change. The more it happens, the more it will happen. And we’ve entered a new age, one in which who your customer is has to start mattering again. For companies – like Kelloggs, or CNN or Tor books for that matter – the WHOLE of your audience matters. You can no longer afford to pander to, or peeve any of them. Any company selling to a broad spectrum of consumers that doesn’t want to lose 40-60% of their market, is going have to learn to be apolitical or lose a huge chunk of income. And no, a well-known company or product cannot just pick up from the side it panders to, to replace those it lost by peeving. There are not enough new customers, and that extra box of special K that Jill bought to make up for Joe’s boycott… Well she won’t be buying another next month and thereafter. There’s only so much laxative you can eat… Joe probably won’t be back. Of course this assumes common sense and hard finance dominate boardrooms, and that government won’t step in and rescue you if they don’t.

There is, logically, a time it doesn’t matter – when you’re a little, relatively unknown to your chosen side – player, so the market is not saturated on that side with your work – then to make a loud noise, to get boycotted by one side can make you noticed and successful with other. When you hear a fashion designer or author sounding off – either they’re really stupid, living in the past when that was still do-able, or feel they are not that well known and could still sell better to their own side. So long as the cake on that side doesn’t have to be split among too many that could be a successful strategy.

So how does this weave into writing a story? Well… the opposite of common sense has to dominate a story. If King Badguy decides to cool things down, and not insist beloved Prince Ancient Rebel’s coat of arms must be chopped off every statue, but that instead he must show some respect for Prince Ancient… you don’t have a story. The problem with this is you risk creating dimwitted villains who are also illogical in their behavior. This is a common problem and one which gets a lot of books TBAR’d. Villians who are stupid, but powerful with all the internal logic of a lesbian demanding that migrants — whose culture and religion prescribes the killing of homosexuals — be welcomed into her country and be enabled to continue in the ways of their root culture, unfettered. That’s fine in reality, but fiction has to make sense.

Which comes down to writing the blind spot into the character. This is actually less hard than you may think – simply because we’re used to them. The kid who’ll drown everything tomato ketchup – but won’t eat a tomato. Uncle so-and-so who is the nicest guy you could meet – except he utterly hates Filipinos. He doesn’t know any, but that doesn’t stop him – and so on. When you look closely there may even be some reason for this blind spot. In fiction one generates that reason. It is a core part of you foreshadowing.

Like the pressure gradients and temperatures that drive that whirlwind it has to be there, or your story will not work. Or worse – you end up with a superhero, and a supervillain and destroying the world.

Let’s hope reality doesn’t imitate fiction. But if it does, let it not be you who reaps the whirlwind.

52 Comments

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52 responses to “Sow the wind

  1. Draven

    I don’t know if your example of a stupid villain is funny, sad, or ironic….

    or ‘yes’.

  2. Chris Chittleborough

    For everyone else who didn’t know, TBAR stands for Throw Book Across Room.

  3. I see a lot of writers today who don’t even try to understand why an antagonist’s actions would seem both reasonable and proper from the antagonist’s perspective.

    Thus you have cartoon villains who are both stupid and evil–greedy businessmen, for example, who unleash some world-ending horror for no logical reason except that businessmen and bad people and they do bad things.

    One of the few writers who could consistently put himself in his antagonist’s shoes was Michael Crichton. In “Jurassic Park” John Hammond honestly wanted to do good–he envisioned his park as a wonderful toy to share with the world. He simply had a too-simplistic grasp of the implications of the technology he’d funded.

    • Bob

      I dunno: in Crichton’s later books he did a lot of pillorying of straw men.

    • “I see a lot of writers today who don’t even try to understand why an antagonist’s actions would seem both reasonable and proper from the antagonist’s perspective.” Exactly Misha. This.

    • Bob

      I was pretty disappointed in Stephen King’s Under the Dome for a number of reasons, including the quality of the villain. Big Jim Rennie is probably the flattest, most senseless villain I’ve read in a long while. None of his actions made any sense beyond being as big a jerk as possible for the sake of being evil.

  4. Quick comment on political fracturing in the US: Don’t know how you made that determination, but some of us had based on we’ve shoved a penny under the political fuses. That was our regard for the US as a union of nations instead of a monolithic country. Each member state could do it’s own thing up; to a point. Now the attitude that states are provinces is bearing fruit: If states are provinces, then people in New Yawk can dictate matters in Podunk, Mississippi, or as New Yawkers are discovering, Podunk could dictate matters to them. Funny how that works.

    We might see the pennies removed and the fuses get back in, in which case we go back to business as usually, yah-yahing at each other but continent with the idea of “Their state; their business.”

    On blind-spots. I like the monkey fist trap for villains. You know the old story: Put pebbles in a container with an opening so small the money can’t pull his fist out. Then the hunter comes around and captures the monkey, because it won’t let go of the pebbles in his fist. The big motivation of the villain can also blind him and her that this might not be the smartest thing in the world, and make them continue in it after it starts to blow up. Their goal is so important it blinds them to other considerations.

  5. On reality vs. fiction. I was recently describing the Battle of Leipzig to some students interested in military history. I described the destruction of the bridge (that doomed the French Army and Napoleon) as “this has to be history, because no fiction author could write this.” After I finished the story, the agreed – it was too crazy not to be real.

    • There are a bunch of battles where you have to assume that at least one of the sides was commanded by mentally retarded drunks or drug addicts because their actions seem utterly illogical.

      • In a related vein, there’s the cases where the outcome of a battle or campaign turned on amazing luck. Were it fiction some might go throwing the accusation of it being deus ex machina. For examples, look at the lucky (for the Allies) severing of the wires for the explosives planted on the bridge at Remagen, Antietam and Special Order 191, the storms that helped put an end to the Spanish Armada’s plans, and the storms that twice helped thwarted the Mongolian conquest of Japan.

        • FrancisT

          The Mongolians got off lucky IMHO. I cannot think of a terrain less suited to light cavalry than Japan. In fact an alt-hist where the storms were not as immediately disasterous and the Mongols got sucked into a longer term invasion would be fascinating. I could see Japan sucking up a lot of resources that might otherwise have gone into conquests and/or holding territory elsewhere.

          • I’ve been to Japan. The Mongols would have had WONDERFUL time fighting up the roads to Kyoto and Osaka. Until you get to the central plains, light cavalry would be useless, and there was a castle on top of just about every hill.

            • I’m assuming the WONDERFUL is sarcastic. I can’t see them getting much beyond present day Hiroshima personally, if that far.

              The Mongols landed in Hakata in Kyushu. To get to Kyoto they’d have to cross to Shimonoseki in Honshu and then march up past Hiroshima etc. on the Sanyo coast. The internal terrain of (current) Yamaguchi/Shimane/Horoshima and the northern shore (Sanin) means there’s really no way they could get a large mounted force any other way.

              However just in Yamaguchi and Hiroshima prefectures I can think of places where the 13th century equivalent of boy scouts with pocket knives could hold a fortified position off against pretty much anything for months if not years and not be particularly worried about being flanked. Admittedly they would have it a bit easier when they got to Okayama but Hyogo (Himeji/Kobe) would slow them down again. And I have no doubt what so ever that the Japanese would have figured out that logistics were key and ambushed one supply convoy after another (or supply ship if the Mongols used them).

              They might have managed to hold Kyushu if the first invasion hadn’t been sunk because Japan had been relatively peaceful for the previous few decades and hence no one had experience in actual battles, let alone battles with large armies. But simply based on the way the Japanese improved their techniques in the 7 years between the two invasions I’m fairly sure that they would have learned enough, fast enough, to make the first invasion fail before it achieved its objectives.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        An interested fourteen year old can lay hands on information that would have not been widely accessible to historical commanders, not that the fourteen year old would necessarily be able to use it. Stress can knock an awful lot of one’s intelligence away, and fear can lead one into delusion.

        • Not to mention the fog of war. And the principle that, while it is better to do any old thing rather than just stand there, you can occasionally do something even worse than freezing.

      • Cornwallis at Yorktown. I didn’t understand that until I went there. On the entire peninsula there is no WORSE place to fort up for evacuation. The river is narrow, within cannon shot on both sides and every area around the town looks DOWN on it. To say nothing of the nice sandy cliffs to the rear.

        • There are a lot of battles that you don’t understand until you get there, and even then some folk don’t have the background for it. (Like our otherwise delightful tour guide at the battle of the wilderness didn’t understand while the order to retreat as individuals was a death sentence for the New York unit.) The only way out of the bowl they had been lured into was a steep slope up. No matter which way they went.

      • TRX

        The history of WWII is one of my hobbies.

        Read too much of that, and after a while intervention from aliens or time travelers looks more believable than some of the decisions the various politicians and commanders made.

      • There was a lady who managed to get the whole battle of Gettysburg mapped as to *visibility* (contour maps and lines of sight and so forth) and went over the battle from Lee’s POV and several of his decisions were a lot more logical when considered from what he knew and what he could see. “Utterly illogical” actions are usually the result of incomplete information.

  6. “he utterly hates Filipinos. He doesn’t know any, but that doesn’t stop him.”

    That’s actually easier. You can hate in the abstract easier than the concrete. Of course, it’s easiest if you have the family story about somebody going to the Phillipenes and having a bad experience, or something like that as backstory.

  7. Bob

    I had to say it:

  8. Bob

    The Lord of the Rings is not only a fantasy masterpiece, it’s one of the most amazing examples of the heroes’ understanding and exploiting the blind spot of a far more powerful villain. Sauron couldn’t conceive that anyone would try to destroy the Ring, or even want to.

  9. Bob

    I once thought Ayn Rand’s portrayals of her villains in Atlas Shrugged were caricatures beyond credibility. Then I took a look around me.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      If anything, she was too restrained. The current crop of SJWs would have her throwing her hands in the air and swearing in Russian.

  10. Rand’s socialists were copied from postWW2 UK socialists, in fair part. Read Correlli Barnett’s history of the UK over the last two centuries for examples. Barnett, it should be noted, thought his country — he was Keeper of the Churchill Papers — was run by idiots.

  11. When I watched Elementary, I knew it the businessman who did the murder. I’ve stopped watching.

    Offices are great places for getting the personality of a bad guy. People do wrong by meaning well, being lazy, being indifferent, telling themselves they mean well but not acting on it, knowing they don’t mean well but convincing others they do, and on and on and on. Especially if someone is senior to you, it’s easy to see all the things she does wrong because you’re the one feeling it. If you think about why, or, better yet, watch for when you agree with her, you can start to get a well-rounded picture of your antagonist.

    Conversely, I’m reading the “pre-quels” to Sharpe’s Rifles, and the g*dawful sargeant Hakeswill is truly wretched and evil. Somehow, despite how much I cannot stand him, he stays just this side of caricature. It seems very hard to have someone be so over-the-top rotten and still credible, but Cornwell manages it.

  12. :: Dignified bearing :: I’ll have you know I’ve only destroyed one world. So far.

  13. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    “That’s fine in reality but fiction has to make sense.” Truer word have never been said. 2016 is proof of that.

  14. TRX

    > The kid who’ll drown everything tomato ketchup
    > – but won’t eat a tomato.

    Poor example. Tomatos and tomato ketchup aren’t the same thing, even though one is made of the other.

    I buy ketchup in the giant size, but I’m allergic enough to raw tomatoes that eating one might send me to the emergency room.