Do sociopaths make good villains? In defense of villains, Part II

72536Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) answers a lot of questions writers ask about villains. Again and again, the question comes up of what villains want, why they bother, and what motivates them. A related question is whether a writer should portray villains as doing the right thing from their own perspective. We need villains to make heroes act heroic, but villains themselves are often interesting, sometimes even more, and it’s their perspective that’s so interesting. Most readers and writers are not villains: they care more about cats and puppies than seeing people suffer, and writers and readers tend to be people who like to delve deep into the psyche and experiences of people who are not like them. In this vein, I decided to do some research on sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and criminality to get at these questions in a more thoroughly psychological way (i.e. not just through great works of fiction).

The question of motivation was the first one that occurred to me, and in my reading I first came across Dr. Kent Kiehl’s The Psychopath Whisperer, which largely consists of case studies of violent criminals in maximum security prison. Kiehl is a disciple of Robert Hare, the psychologist who developed the scale most commonly used to assess sociopathy. Kiehl profiles a number of violent criminals whose primary motivation seems to be one of three things:

  1. Avoiding “white picket fence” lifestyles
  2. Money
  3. Rage: momentary irritations that provoke violent crime


None of these seem particularly good villain material, and I rapidly came to the conclusion that sociopathy was not particularly fertile ground for villainy, especially not in an epic fantasy series.  As an example, Kiehl profiles a man who was a petty criminal and never got caught, but one night his girlfriend pissed him off and he beat her to death in the bathtub.  He then wrapped her body in a blanket, put it in the front seat of the car and drove off to dispose of it.  Her disappearance led to certain inconsistencies that quickly pointed the finger at the real killer.  He did one dumb thing after another, including confessing to the police when he thought he was manipulating the detectives.  With good behavior and some manipulation behind bars, he gained parole, but Kiehl saw him again a few years later in the same prison.  He had basically repeated the same crime with a new girlfriend.

That guy would make a terrible villain.  He sounds stupid, for one thing, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about his psychological inner life, nor enough consistent motivation to drive a story.  He’s just a stupid menace.

There is something useful here, however.  Contrast the above Stupid Menace with the case of a non-psychopathic criminal, a guy who developed a drug problem and ended up involved in armed robbery or attempted murder.  That guy wants a normal life, but is plagued by guilt, feels out of control, and has a series of people he really cares about that he has wronged.  This sort of person seemed to me to make a much more interesting character right away.  And then there’s the case of someone who does something very evil, like killing a president, because they believe it is the right thing to do.

Kiehl alternates between journalistic chapters and memoir-mixed-with-case-study, and includes an interesting chapter comparing and contrasting two presidential assassins: John Wilkes Booth with Charles Guiteau.  He goes through the items of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and scores each assassin according to letters and historical accounts of their lives.  A subject can score either 0, 1, or 2 on each item, and they are added up for the final score.  This makes a forty point scale most normal North American men score about 4 on.  Incarcerated men will, on average, score 22, and psychologists consider anyone with a score of 30 or above to be psychopathic, i.e. lacking in conscience. 

Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin

As Kiehl proceeded through the chapter on Booth and Guiteau, a consistent pattern emerged.  Booth again and again scored 0 or 1 on Hare’s items, whereas Guiteau’s life was one full of manipulation, swindling, inconsistency and insincerity.  Guiteau plagiarized, lied on his resume, lied about having a resume, repeatedly asked people for  “investments” that never really happened, and eventually asked President Garfield for a diplomatic post he was in no way qualified for.  Guiteau was of above-average intelligence and was “very charming,” but he was above all arrogant and totally out of touch with the reality of his abilities.  What eventually pushed him to assassinate Garfield was he made himself a laughing stock in Washington, asking for a job beyond his abilities, and Garfield didn’t hesitate to make fun of his arrogance.  Guiteau scored in the ninety-ninth percentile for psychopathy.  Most notable of all, his motive for killing the president was completely selfish, and just revealed how out of touch he was.

John Wilkes Booth, more notorious, less socioopathic

John Wilkes Booth, on the other hand, was a very different kind of person.  He was kind of a sleaze, but he was very dedicated to doing the right thing.  Booth scored 8.4 on the Hare Scale, definitely average, and there is evidence from many sources he not only genuinely believed he was doing the right thing by assassinating Abraham Lincoln, he was actually able to pull it off.  As opposed to Guiteau, Booth was very well in touch with his own capabilities and those of his conspirators (it’s also worth noting Guiteau didn’t have any conspirators).  In fact, assassinating Lincoln was a scaling down of the original plan, because Booth and his conspirators knew they couldn’t pull off a kidnapping and ransom.  Booth was a very capable man in almost everything he did, and much of that came from realizing his own limitations and setting realistic goals.

These sections of Kiehl’s book seem to suggest

  1. Psychopaths/sociopaths don’t make good villains; and
  2. Villains do think they are doing the right thing.

The criminal sociopaths Kiehl profiles seem to all be losers, i.e. they might make a good show of being charming and clever, but they are too impulsive, too disorganized, and too poorly motivated.  They don’t have over-arching goals, they can’t put together a team, and they miss their targets.  Then when they make mistakes, they do more dumb stuff that gets them into trouble.  Their only redemptive quality (with respect to villainy) is  they are able to do horrible stuff to people.  But horrible stuff done to people is not a good story.

But there’s a problem with this conclusion: most good villains in most good stories do indeed lack a conscience.  Either villainy in the real world is not defined by lack of conscience, but rather impulsivity, or villains really do believe their over-arching goals are more important than caring about who they assassinate.

This brings me to the perspective I hear often online that villains think they’re doing the right thing.  This definitely matches up with John Wilkes Booth.  He was a Confederate conspirator, he genuinely believed in the Confederate cause, and if we’re generally agreed today the Confederacy was wrong, then Booth looks like a good villain who definitely thought he was Right with a capital ‘R’.  

John Wilkes Booth: good villain or bad hero?

There are two things I don’t like about this assertion.  First, it resorts to cultural relativism: we could write the story from Booth’s perspective and make Lincoln the bad guy.  Then Booth believes in what he’s doing, cares deeply for those his actions will affect, and shoots the president, which we all know is wrong.  In the ensuing manhunt, Booth looks like a victim, an oppressed underdog.  Booth is a heartfelt character with a conscience, who wants to save people from the horrible oppressor Lincoln.  I don’t think that book would sell.  It challenges (and not in a good way) our ideals and our cultural values, and manipulates us into empathizing with someone we know was wrong.  Going back to Aristotle, we use character to draw the reader into the plot, and if the plot is wrong, we are using character as a tool for bad ends, i.e. emphasizing an immoral plot.

The second thing I don’t like is the idea that villains always (or even most of the time) think what they’re doing is right.  Clearly Booth did, and by my argument above, I think that would make him a bad villain.  I see people online saying if the villain doesn’t think what he’s doing is right, then he wouldn’t be doing it.  But plenty of people do stuff they know is wrong, and they just don’t care.

So what motivates them?  This is where Stout’s Sociopath Next Door completely changed my mind.  Stout’s picture of sociopathy is completely different from Kiehl, in that she profiles people who are not necessarily violent criminals.  They’re often too smart to get caught, or not interested in crime per se, but in other pursuits that still hurt people.  The defining characteristic is a lack of conscience, all the way down to the way a sociopath’s brain works.  They just don’t care.  They just don’t care about people.  When I was taking my dog to the vet this morning, I was really worried about the sore wrist that’s making her limp, really worried she might be getting old before I’m ready for her to get old, and I felt it in my heart.  A true sociopath doesn’t feel any of that, and the question Stout asks again and again is “What would you do if you had that kind of freedom?”  What if you didn’t have a conscience?  What would you do if you just didn’t give a shit?

Of course this is like asking someone to explain what life would be like as an oak tree.  Most people can’t imagine it, and BANG! we’re back to why people are interested in villains.  Sociopaths, the way Stout characterizes them are good villain material.  They have a few characteristics that go along with their lack of conscience that puts them in a good middle ground, somewhere between John Wilkes Booth and Hannibal Lecter, and they don’t have to be as poorly organized and impulsive as Guiteau.  

What do sociopaths want?

Sociopaths, in Stout’s estimation, are mostly motivated by exploiting the difference between them and people with a conscience.  This means they play games with people.  They exploit the caring of others into doing things that will embarrass them, put them at a disadvantage, or prop up the sociopath’s ability to keep doing what they do.  They enjoy manipulating people, often for the thrill of seeing how gullible others are.  This can result in a number of eventualities or profiles Stout relates in fictionalized vignettes (this shows the value of fiction, because the extraordinary psychology of sociopaths often comes across more clearly in tiny interactions). 

One case study is a corporate executive who is sheltered by his corporation because his decisiveness makes them so much money (Harvey Weinstein, perhaps?).  Another is a psychologist who plagiarized her credentials and lives for the thrill of manipulating disadvantaged people, including her patients and her colleagues.  She likes watching them squirm, and no one can detect her lies because anyone she lies to is unreliable, or she is able to blackmail them.  Not all these characters would make good villains, as some of them are lazy and unmotivated, except by rather petty things.

So let’s go back to one of my favorite villains, Shakespeare’s Richard III. I say “Shakespeare’s” because there is very little real evidence the real Richard III was a sociopath, and he did show plenty of evidence of caring for his family and others.  He was also a very skilled warrior, even if he was outmatched at Bosworth Field.  But in the play, Richard knows what he is doing, and he knows it is wrong, and he even spells it out in the opening soliloquy.   He has no taste for celebrating peace (the summer brought by the fair son of York).  In other words, he’s bored.  Stout defines this characteristic in one of her later chapters, and points out when we don’t have a conscience, we don’t care, therefore we don’t have enriching human relationships, and we get bored.  This is exactly what Richard says in his first few lines, and his solution is to play games with people.

Furthermore Richard blames his inability to care and his boredom on his physical deformity, another characteristic of sociopathy.  The ability of sociopaths to defer responsibility is insane.   Shakespeare gets another thing right about sociopaths: they’re ability to charm and to use pity to their advantage.  In Act I, Scene 2, Richard somehow convinces Anne Neville to feel sorry for him.  Richard killed her father and husband, and in Shakespeare’s version of events, Dick also murdered the king she was loyal to!  Throughout the play, even as his administration falls apart around him, he never stops playing games with people, even convincing his brother’s widow Elizabeth  he should marry her daughter, against all kinds of wrongitude.

I’m left with the conclusion that sociopaths indeed make great villains thanks to the advantage they have of consciencelessness.  They do indeed know what they are doing is wrong, and it allows them to play games with people.  And better than all of that, they must be destroyed.  They are the perfect thing to motivate a hero who does have a conscience.  Everybody loves a little moral ambiguity, but ambiguity results from a hero having to make hard moral choices: am I going to use people to defeat the Dark One, even when using people is objectionable to me?  Am I no better than the Dark One for doing so?  Am I doing exactly what the Dark One wants me to?  Probably, but is there any other way to defeat Him? 

In this way we can see a sociopathic villain can definitely have an overarching goal, especially when he has a hero to mess with.  The goal is not just to constantly cause trouble, but to push that hero to further and further ends, and see if he will cosmically mess up.  It further leads to the conclusion that a good ol’ classic villain is not nihilistic.  They do indeed have a good solid motivation: to see people dance.  They get a thrill out of seeing what “poor disadvantaged” (i.e. moral) people will do when faced with a dilemma.  So in a way, readers are the real villains.  Isn’t that what we’re all reading for?  To see what someone of superior character will do in a really tough situation?

Postlude: Scary stuff

About 1 in 25 Americans is sociopathic, and most people will blindly follow orders from someone they consider a legitimate authority (according to Stanley Milgram, and I totally believe him).  The only struggle for the writer (especially the fantasy author) then is to create legitimacy in such a way that a depraved sociopath can lure in well-meaning people to create henchmen or an entire social movement.  Not that all “henchmen” are well-meaning people; they may just be other sociopaths who’ve found someone to follow.  The task for normal people is to watch out for sociopaths who tell us they’ve found the right solutions to things, especially those who seem to really care.  Stout says the “pity play” like in Richard III, Act I, Scene 2 is a dead giveaway, better than anything else.


Have some taste

In which I try to define serious art and alienate Firely and Megadeth fans

My quest as a writer, and to a larger extent as a reviewer, reader, and participant in aesthetic culture, is mostly consumed with figuring out what distinguishes one work from another in terms of a very hard-to-define quality. Whether I am socializing around music, science, or science fiction, there are certain qualities that distinguish one fan from another and the reflection of those qualities in the works that we socialize around. There is some criterion by which I look at music, movies, television shows, short stories, and novels, that reflects its quality better than anything else, yet this criterion is not specifically related to execution of the story or music.  It’s often not a matter of skill, but of choices made by the artist of what to talk about, or what to take seriously.  It’s very hard to place, but I think I have arrived at calling it “taste.”

Definitions drive me crazy. I got really pissed off at my college philosophy teacher (not professor, I think he was a graduate student) because he wouldn’t define evil for me. He wanted to talk about evil all the time, and a large portion of the class focused on evil, but all he would say when I asked him to define evil was “I think we can all agree that Hitler was evil.” Sure, but we couldn’t all agree on whether abortion was evil, which I suppose was why we were still in class and he still had a job. I had just come from declaring a major in mathematics and I wanted rock-hard definitions, but often the most difficult, interesting, or useful criteria are very hard to define and best sought through examples.

But before I get to alienating everyone by pointing out artists who I think have no taste, let me clarify with two rules.

  1. Taste is not subjective. I looked up “what is good taste” on Google (a fount of useful information! #sarcasm) and right away came up with the answer that “it means you have the same taste in music as the person who said you have good taste in music.” That is nonsense. Agreement isn’t the best criterion, but just as we can all agree that Hitler was evil, we can mostly agree that Madonna was superior to Britney Spears. You may not like Lady Gaga, but I’ll bet you agree she is easier to take seriously as an artist than Katy Perry. Taste is related to qualities that are subjective, like preferences with respect to genre and style, but it is not the same as genre or style, or quality of execution. There is bad music in every genre, and there is good music in most. 
  2. Taste is not ethical. Taste is an aesthetic choice, not about right or wrong. I don’t think there’s anything ethically wrong with having bad taste, nor do I think it reflects on a person’s moral character.  If you want to like Firefly, that is up to you (but I probably won’t try to have any serious discussions with you).
  3. There’s a difference between bad taste and in poor taste. Plenty of works are done by people with no taste, but that doesn’t mean they’re offensive. I am artistically offended by Firefly, but it’s not offensive in the sense that sandals with socks are offensive.

Now that I’ve gotten rid of those pesky Firefly devotees, let me give you a more in-depth example of what I mean by taste. And just so you know that this is not about me having good taste, and you liking Phish, I will discuss below why having good taste can be redemptive, and why all artists should therefore strive for it.

I first heard heavy metal music when I was a kid in the eighties, but in 1986 I heard of the sub-genre of speed metal, of which there were two great bands, Metallica and Megadeth (there were two other groups that dominated the genre, Anthrax and Slayer, who I will only briefly mention because I only briefly listened to them). In 1989 I heard what many of you will remember as the watershed moment in the breakout of speed metal from an underground, mostly European subgenre to a mainstream, if still scary, type of music in heavy rotation on MTV.

Metallica’s video for “One” was a huge hit that paved the way for the coming grunge wave two years later, and consider why: subject matter. MTV in 1989 was a wasteland of what we now call “hair metal,” and bad pop music that no one remembers. I mean I really can’t remember any of the pop music, but I remember at least the aesthetic of the hair metal, which no one would consider “metal” today. A few weeks ago I watched Wayne’s World with my boys, and I love that movie, but if you want to remember what music was like before Nirvana and Metallica’s Black Album, watch that movie. It’s totally forgettable, and only a few bands on the soundtrack made it through to 1992.

So in 1989, music was mostly fluff, and then Metallica came out with a video about a young man who’s had his arms and legs blown off by a landmine and can only communicate by nodding his head in morse code. The video incorporated footage from the film Johnny Got His Gun starring Jason Robards, and was over seven minutes long, something usually reserved for re-airings of “Thriller.” And it was pure speed metal.  “One” is not a power ballad, it’s not even “Fade to Black,” which is a power ballad. “One” builds up to a thundering bridge with heavily-distorted layered power chords over a double bass roll that extends into over three minutes (the length of a typical video at the time) of thrashing guitar solos while we watch the subject of the video begging to die. “Kill me,” he nods. “Please kill me.”

A lot of people took the easiest message, which was anti-war, and I’m not denying that it is, as much of Metallica’s music was broadly anti-war, but not from a liberal/hippy perspective that war is evil because of moral relativism. Metallica wasn’t above moral relativism, but the deeper philosophical issue that they brought up in this video was of a man trapped in his own body: what is communication? What does it mean to relate to another human being? Can you do that without speaking? What would you ask for if you were in that situation? We take it for granted that everyone wants to go on living, but woul dyou want to if you were locked in your body with no way out? I was ten years old, and Metallica–a frickin’ heavy metal band–got me thinking about these questions.

Yes, Metallica, who weren’t above mooning the audience and whose lead singer had “Eet fuk” written on his BC Rich guitar, got young people thinking. They also got me interested in literature, including the Bible. I’m not the only one. I was substitute teaching in Wellesley, Massachussetts a few years back, and the high school put on a production of “Johnny Got His Gun.” Walking back from the auditorium, I heard a couple of teachers saying what a good performance it was.  “Have you read the book?” asked the guy on the right. “No, but I’ve seen that Metallica video” was the response.

Metallica introduces young people to the literary wonders of the Old Testament.

Yes, they were mooning the audience (that was the drummer, of course), and swilling beer, and throwing their hair all over the place, but only the most superficial of fans didn’t ask what those songs were about. Especially with a video like “One” where the meaning was obvious, people were eager to find out more about what the lyrics were about (which can’t be separated effectively from the music as a whole, see below about Megadeth).

Let’s remember this was 1989 and if eighty percent of the people in that crowd weren’t regular church-goers at the time of the concert, they were as little kids. They knew the story of Exodus. In the crowd-participation-focused bridge of “Creeping Death,” when the crowd is shouting “Die! Die! Die! Motherfucker!” even I have faith that most people know what they’re shouting about, and it’s really deep stuff, at the very least it’s something from classic literature. And all of Metallica’s material in the 1980s was of this caliber: they wrote songs about the death penalty, and the rape of lady justice, and suicide, and war, and nuclear war, and drug addiction, and war, H.P. Lovecraft, and insanity, and war, religious hypocrisy, and The Bible (of all things).

And that brings me to “The Four Horsemen,” another Biblically-themed song. As you can guess, it’s about the apocalypse, death, famine, pestilence, and time. And it kicks ass. For those of you who don’t know the story, upon getting a record contract Metallica replaced their lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, the writer of many of the songs on their first album, with Kirk Hammett, who is still with the band after eighty-seven years. Rhythm guitarist James Hetfield took over as the major writer of lyrics and, with drummer Lars Ulrich’s help, gave us all the deep themes I mention above. Before “The Four Horsemen” was rewritten, it was called “The Mechanics,” and it was about … car mechanics. A friend of mine surprised me in high school with an elusive demo of this song before it acquired its Biblical subject matter, and it was incredibly stupid to listen to. The positively dumb subject matter completely eroded the song’s ass-kicking qualities by interrupting the mood with superficial values and immature lyrics. It was no better than AC/DC, when most of us held Metallica to be the artistic equal of Richard Wagner (the composer, not the guitarist). 

This brings me to Megadeth: when Mustaine was fired by Metallica, he quickly formed another band, which was held by many to be second only to Metallica. The reason they were second to Metallica ought to be clear from Megadeth’s poor choices of subject matter. Dave Mustaine had no taste. Let’s take “Wake Up Dead” as an example.

Megadeth: this song is about … what? Wait, is that guy wearing a Metallica T-shirt?

I know Megadeth tried, with Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying? and so on, but they couldn’t pull it off. Whereas Metallica were accused of being the alcoholic, devil-worshipping aggressive fantasy of post-pubescent boys, Megadeth actually was, and not much more. You could say that Megadeth effected an aesthetic, whereas Metallica’s songs were actually deep, and there’s an element of execution in that: notice how Dave Mustaine doesn’t really sing, he sort of groans and croaks until the next guitar solo. I don’t believe they really mean it, the same way the people on Firefly looked like they were taking part in a big joke. Megadeth did an impression of writing songs about deep topics, and Metallica actually pulled it off. Even when Metallica decided to be a hard rock band instead of a heavy metal band, they were still writing about heavy topics.

And this is the distinguishing characteristic of good taste that I’ve been able to extract so far: art done with good taste touches on themes that are central to the human condition, or it at least asks questions that are relevant to universal human experience. Heavy metal music, to be done in good taste, cannot simply thrash; literature and drama cannot simply be people running for their lives. It has to ask questions or talk about subjects that everyone understands or can think about, and do it in a serious way, even when surrounded by jokes (as on Twin Peaks, even in Shakespeare). It cannot be a joke. Even comedy done in good taste, like Seinfeld, is done in a certain way that is sincere.

Bad literature and drama often tries hard, but doesn’t quite make it. Some don’t even try. I think Game of Thrones tries to have good taste, but it doesn’t. Vikings, with just as much sex and violence, on the other hand, is done in a way that I can take it seriously, and that redeems it.

Another rock band I listened to an awful lot of was The Grateful Dead, who I can’t decide were a good band or not. They were good at times and they really sucked at other times. After reading Phil Lesh’s memoir of the band, it became clear that they were often stressed out, intoxicated, and complacent, not willing to do what they should have done with the band: they made most of their money through touring and weren’t willing to look for other ways to make their income. This may have led to them having more bad nights than other bands, since they simply had more nights. People who toured with them tell me that every third night or so they were amazing, and so listening to tapes of their shows is a little misleading, but what’s clear to me is that through it all, despite all their laziness, they were never artistically lazy. In other words, especially through their songwriting and their choice of songs to play, they redeemed themselves. Even when they were having an off night, they were playing good songs that were approached from the right place.

Robert Jordan is another example: he was at his best in The Great Hunt, The Shadow Rising, and Lord of Chaos, but even at his worst, he didn’t degenerate into just telling stories about magic, or sex, or naked women, although there was a lot of that. His Conan books are not great, his Conan has more to do with Schwarzenegger than Robert E. Howard, but he is still approaching it from a sincere place. Robert Jordan had good taste and it showed.

Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman (Goodreads Review)

Black Sun Rising (The Coldfire Trilogy, #1)Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short version: richly-imagined world, historically important in modern fantasy, and mostly skilled prose, though mixed and sometimes hard to follow.


Black Sun Rising is a book I have looked forward to reading for years, as it’s often found on library shelves and lists of influential or favorite books. The tipping point came when I found the third book of a different trilogy at a local thrift store. C.S. Friedman’s skill was evident from the first word and I found myself stuck, ignoring my kids. Black Sun Rising, likewise, is engaging and drew me in with its inventive and original world. The author is not tentative about revealing the nature of the world: this is a future world colonized by spacefaring humans, and the relationship to earth is clear from the very beginning, in the prologue. You’re clearly dealing with earth cultures and remnants from Earth on a world that works differently, right on page 1. Continue reading “Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman (Goodreads Review)”

How not to piss off your readers, or “Have you driven a Ford lately, Terry Goodkind?”

The rise of social media has given many readers new ways to cross authors off the list.

Recognize this author?  Me, neither.

The internet is great, but it’s a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to authors.  When I was a kid, authors lived in far off worlds whose locations were rarely hinted at by About The Author passages.  If I passed Dan Simmons or C.J. Cherryh on the street when I was growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I never would have known it.  Everyone knows Stephen King lived in Maine (and for a while he lived in Boulder, and set one of his books there), but King is not only a superstar, he’s a down-to-earth guy who most readers find accessible (even if his books aren’t; although sales suggest they are).  One can believe he not only lives in a house, but he coaches Little League.  The details of Arthur C. Clarke’s personal life came out pretty well in his later books, but for most authors, they might have been dead and I wouldn’t have known it.

Continue reading “How not to piss off your readers, or “Have you driven a Ford lately, Terry Goodkind?””

Serious kids’ movies

In which I alienate fans of Labyrinth by arguing that an excellent codpiece by itself doesn’t create the reverence and dread of a real drama.

First the news: I had another hen eaten by a fox on Saturday, so I replaced her with four new birds that I know are female (backstory: a year-and-a-half ago when I got chicks, we accidentally got a Wyandotte rooster, who the kids named R.L. Stine). I have a sequel to Firesage outlined, tentatively called Watermark, and a rough idea for a third book in a trilogy. After some thorough beta reading I have almost got Firesage ready to send to my agent, and I think this one will sell. Despite his wariness that epic fantasy is a “cold genre” I think editors will relate to the primary question of what the main character will do to make a good life for her unborn child. I went to the bookstore the other day to look for comps (and I found some good books), but I always walk away with the feeling that my books are so unique people won’t know what to do with them. I don’t think I have ever read or even heard of a fantasy book that deals with the unique anxieties faced by pregnant women, so I’m hoping that will do it for me (if you have heard of one, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter).

Continue reading “Serious kids’ movies”

Young Adult Protagonists

In which I alienate fans of lawyer books…

Young people: horny, stupid and capable enough to get into major trouble.

First the news: I am about a quarter of the way through editing Firesage. I don’t have much inclination to do anything else because editing is so rewarding. I thought about doing a blog post on my editing procedure, but actually editing is so much more fun, I thought I would share some thoughts on the age of protagonists. I got two more short stories rejected this week, and will post them here soon. If you haven’t read “Talons of the Sun” or “The Lapis Dragon-Tamer” yet, head over to my short fiction page, and stay tuned for more.

The subject came up on Facebook about why so many stories are about people of a particular age, and I have some quick thoughts on this.

Continue reading “Young Adult Protagonists”

Long Novels, Short Stories, and The Seat of My Pants

In which I alienate all of you who’ve published short stories

On Wednesday I finished the 1100-page It by Stephen King, the longest thing I’ve read since Cliver Barker’s Imajica almost two years ago.  I read it in about five weeks with a one-week break during my trip to Paris when I started Deborah A. Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy.  It was interesting to read mainly because it was at the top of my list of books by King that I’ve wanted to read for a long time.  I saw the ABC mini-series when I was a kid, taped it and watched it over and over, and always wanted to read the book.  Twenty seven years later (no joke) I found a paperback of it for $1 at Boskone, and as is always the case with King, I couldn’t put it down.

Of all the excellent aspects of this book, one thing in particular stood out to me as a writer: every side-note, every piece of background, every seemingly insignificant fact, has a central character.  There are passages throughout this book, told in an omniscient voice, as one would tell a ghost story around a campfire, where characters pop into existence only for telling the reader more about the history of Derry, or for the purpose of advancing the story, and nevertheless we learn a lot about that person even though he only lives for a few seconds.  Which characters are central is very clear, never in doubt, but these characters who are not even side characters all have their own lives and histories and connections to different parts of the story.  They are not functionaries, they are not useless page filler, and they are not the two-dimensional oddities of Gravity’s Rainbow. Continue reading “Long Novels, Short Stories, and The Seat of My Pants”

Crunchy Complexity

WoT01_TheEyeOfTheWorldIn which I alienate Robert Jordan fans and Harry Potter fans in one swell foop.

The other night in our writing group at the Fairlee Public Library I read a passage from my novel-in-progress Firesage. I spent a little time building up the world for my fellows, then read the passage. I explained that the sorcerers who are the main characters live in an academy, and a little bit about the scheming that is tearing it apart. I almost forgot to mention that the main character is pregnant. That wasn’t so important for the passage I read, but it’s most of the basis of the conflict in the novel. I didn’t stop and fill in the background as I went along, because the passage was a flashback to a time before the novel begins, when the main character was “discovered” in a different setting than the one I had just explained. Continue reading “Crunchy Complexity”