Narrative core-blimey 2 – Theme

Apologies for the late post, friends – Saturday night was my buck’s party, and after being plied with videogame-themed cocktails for several hours at The Mana Bar, I was left in pretty rough shape on Sunday. Writing, forming coherent thoughts and sitting in one place doing nothing all proved… difficult.

So what were we talking about? Oh, yeah.


When you describe what your narrative is about in terms of theme, you can end up with statements that are vague and non-specific:

  • ‘It’s about how the concept of secret societies have more power than secret societies themselves’
  • ‘It’s about failure and how embracing it can have a power of its own’
  • ‘It’s about the death of the American Dream’
Oh Google Image Search, I wish I could quit you

The thing about those is that they while they’re accurate summations of three of my favourite novels, they tell you pretty much nothing about what happens in those novels or indeed what those novels actually are. (Any guesses?) Which isn’t surprising, because it’s an attempt to describe the core meaning of a narrative, and meaning isn’t concrete. Premise is anchored in tangibles, or at least as tangible as imaginary things can be; if you put a ninja or a Dalek or a ninja Dalek in your story, every reader will agree that that’s what it is. But if your work is based in a theme, that means you’re focusing on subtext instead of text, and everyone reads subtext differently, and the theme you think is strongly evident could be invisible to your readers.

Another notable difference about describing narratives in terms of theme first is that you decouple meaning from plot and character and make it the major element. That seems obvious, but think about what it implies – by putting theme first, you’re saying that that’s the reason people should read the book, and that the plot and characters are (to some extent) less important. And on the whole, people don’t read like that; they enjoy reading books about interesting characters in interesting situations, rather than going to the bookstore and asking the staff if they have any novels about failure. They may, in the end, enjoy a thematically-focused book more than a premise-focused book because the material is more intellectually and emotionally meaningful, but first they’ve got to actually bother reading it. Themes carry weight, but they are blunt hooks.

I think that on the whole theme is tougher to work with than premise, because you write from a premise but towards a theme. With a premise, story elements emerge from the core concept, and then you hook them into the narrative as needed. With a theme, though, your first question is not ‘what could happen in this scene’ but ‘what meaning should this scene have’? That becomes a target that you work towards, but you’ve got to come up with the story elements that communicate that meaning yourself. That can be tough; it’s the number one stumbling block I have with Arcadia, where I have a great set of plans about theme and meaning but often flail about trying to work out what actually happens in each chapter.

And last, of course, a strong theme is really no better promise of a good book than a strong premise. Neither of them guarantees good writing, and there are many turgid or glib literary novels bursting with themes that can’t save them from being shit books. All other things being equal, it’s perhaps fair to say that if you have the skills to communicate a strong theme effectively through your work’s subtext, you’ve probably got the skills to write a good book in the process. If all other things are equal. Which would certainly make my day job of editing maths textbooks a bit easier.

The Verdict

So what should you focus on in your work – theme or premise?


Well, the right answer is the least helpful one – focus on the one that works for you. This isn’t a box you click in Word at the start of the writing process that helpfully throws up a talking paperclip whenever you go off target. When you get struck by inspiration, that almost always comes as either a premise you want to expand or a theme you want to explore. You know what you want to write and what interests you, and trying to go a different direction, while certainly a worthwhile exercise, is something you have to want to do, not something you do because you think you should. Fuck should. Write what excites you and from/towards the place that excites you.

That said… on the whole I tend to come at things a lot from theme. Not just theme; it’s hard to simply decide ‘I want to write about failure’ and then see what comes to mind. Themes tend to come wrapped around a kernal of premise, just as premises often (perhaps not always) are swaddled in sticky filaments of theme. But still, I find it hard to get really interested in an idea until a strong meaning attaches itself, because I prefer to read/write stories that say something underneath the scenes of hot Dalek-on-Dalek action. (And no, I’m not Googling for that, because I’m pretty sure I’d find it.)

But a good theme is hard work to explore, and like I said, I’m finding Arcadia a handful because the premise is vaguer than the meaning it supports. I need to develop that further – because, in the end, the strongest works are those that have both a premise and a theme. It’s the best of both worlds (not getting an image for that either) – concrete elements that embed in the text and put roots into the subtext, with story events interacting with deeper meaning. That’s the narrative Holy Grail for me; an exciting, engaging story that leaves you a tiny bit wiser at the end of it. It’s what Wolfe achieved with The Book of the New Sun, what Marquez did with One Hundred Years of Solitude, what Grant Morrison almost managed to do with The Invisibles – and fuck it, if you’re going to aim high, aim as high as you can, right?

Interestingly, ‘the search for the Holy Grail’ works as both a premise and a theme. Don’t say I never give you anything.

Anyway, that’s enough on that topic for the moment. I hope it was interesting, maybe even useful, although I suspect it wasn’t concrete enough for that. I might come back to this topic another time and see if I can give more definite discussion, maybe workshopping an idea to find both premise and theme to back it up.

Or I might just talk more about Dalek sex. That’ll drive up the pageviews.

Next weekend, though – angry ranty polemic time is back. Save the date.


Narrative core-blimey 1 – Premise

‘So what’s your book about?’

Can there be any other question that awakens so much weary terror in a writer’s heart? Other than perhaps ‘will your writing income be enough to pay the rent this week’?

I know that whenever I’m hit with this I umm and ahh and faddlefapp about, because I find it hard to sum up my stuff in a nice package. Not because I am such a genius that my ideas cannot be boiled down to a form comprehensible to the lowly masses, but more that I am a disorganised and overambitious writer who attempts to stuff too many things into a single narrative and can’t cleanly pick out one to offer as the core to an observer. I usually start blathering about ‘stories about stories’ and ‘the structure loops back into itself’ and ‘metatext metatext metatext’ until people back away with a look of terror on their faces and I can get back to the important business of complaining about comics or something.

But it’s an essential question, not just for a reader but for a writer. Because a narrative needs a reason to be written, over and above ‘it’s a good story’. There are lots of good stories already; why will a reader start reading this one instead of another one? The narrative needs to have a direction, and that direction, that creative and storytelling goal, is what you can offer up when readers / colleagues / judgemental parents ask what this proposed book is about. This is something I struggle with, and perhaps talking about it with you, dear reader, will help me get a better handle on it.

I think that, in almost all cases, writers create narratives from one of two sources – premise or theme. The best of them use both at the same time, but you can still tease them apart and look at them as separate concepts. A work that doesn’t arise from one of these sources… well, doesn’t really have any reason to be written, or to be read.

And yet I’m sure such stories exist. Somewhere.

...yeah, that works as an example.

Anyway, so it’s Premise versus Theme in a steel cage grudge match! Two concepts enter – one concept leaves! Well, actually they both leave, but let’s not muddy the drama with facts.

I was originally going to look at both concepts in the one post, but once I started getting into it the ideas needed more wordcount. So this is part one of a special two-part post, with the second half to come next week.

So okay, let’s talk about premise.

When someone asks you that terrible question, this is what they usually want – the single-sentence high concept for the story. Things like:

  • ‘It’s a western in which the cowboys are all werewolves’
  • ‘It’s an adventure story about a super-smart hero who fights science crime’
  • ‘It’s a thriller where a ninja becomes President in order to stop the Kung Fu Illuminati’

You can see those are all genre-focused premises. That’s a bit heavy-handed on my part, but it’s generally fair to say that genre narratives are usually grounded in a premise, because they generally focus on plot, story and character rather than theme. (Although not all of them, of course.) Things happen in genre stories, and a premise is a package that implies things and the happenings of them. Also, man, I really want to read the book for that last concept.

A strong premise isn’t essential for all forms of writing, although I don’t think it ever really hurts. In some cases, though, it really is essential, and those are when your narrative is in a really competitive field, like TV, film or mainstream comics. The time when you could publish a comic that was just ‘it’s about a superhero who fights crime’ has long gone, and ditto a movie that’s just about a guy who shoots other guys because they’re bad. The premise is the hook that distinguishes your work from all the other bait out there; for all that the DC reboot did wrong (I’ll stop talking about it soon, honest), most of the new titles had solid premises that gave the book a (theoretical) reason to exist.

You would not believe how many 'Ninja Obama' images I found

On the whole, working from a premise is easier because you are writing from it – everything in the narrative emerges from the central concept behind it all, even if it’s a step or two removed from the origin. Which is not to say that it’s not work, of course, but whenever you start to slow down, you can go back and poke the premise until an idea falls from it and then suddenly Obama-Kijuri is fighting not just the Kung Fu Illuminati but also the Gnomes of Shaolin and holy crap this thing just writes itself.

But the hidden danger of writing solely from a premise is that while it’s easy to stay on course, nothing intrinsically connects the strength of the premise to the quality of the writing. By that, I mean that a great premise doesn’t mean a great book; a writer can have a good idea but still lack the skills to write something worth reading. Again, the DC reboot showcases this; it’s littered with titles that have a strong core concept but that are still boring and mediocre. The premise in and of itself isn’t the thing you read; that’s still the words on the page or the images on the screen, and if they suck then the whole thing sucks.

Writing without a strong premise throws up different problems, which I’ll talk about more next week with theme. But in short, it’s what you’d expect – if you don’t have a strong story-focused hook, you can struggle to come up with story events and elements. This is on my mind a lot right now, because at this stage of the draft Arcadia’s premise is… well, it’s there, but it’s not simple and it’s not focused, and it’s making it more difficult than it should be to work out what happens next. I have other tools, but that one is weak, and I need to fix that.

Okay, so that’s enough on that subject. Next week, a look at theme and then an attempt to compare-contrast-synthesise. Or at least to throw around high-falutin’ terms like I know what I’m talking about.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to jot down some ideas about Ninja Gaiden Obama and the House of Flying Republicans. It’s gonna be boss.

story writing

Blah blah blah narrative blah

But it’s not all about kayaks and famous cats around here. Every now and then I remember to work on my writing, and then to write blog posts about writing. It’s like the circle of life.

Looking back over the posts I made about story and character, it struck me that I used the term ‘narrative’ a lot.

In fact, let’s not take my word for it – let’s evaluate the blog-to-date with everyone’s favourite tool for text analysis, Wordle!

I honestly thought FUCK would be much more prominent

Huh. The largest word is ‘like’. Either I’m a Valley Girl or I’m addicted to similes.

Anyway, among the various insights that can be gleaned from that image – including the fact that I mention Batman about as often as I mention the titles of my own ebooks – we can see that ‘narrative’ is one of the most frequent terms, certainly one of the top five. I talk about it a lot.

So what is it? Why use that word instead of something that’s basically synonymous, like ‘plot’ or ‘story’? Well, fairly obviously, because I don’t think those terms are synonymous; I think they’re very different things, or perhaps different levels of a complex and multi-layered thing, and I’d like to take a bit of time tonight to make it clearer about where I’m coming from.

The novelist/academic EM Forster broke down the difference between story and plot like this:

We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’

(Link and further analysis here.)

So a story is a linear set of events, and a plot is the means through which one event leads to the next. It’s not the only definition out there, and it’s not one everyone will agree with (I think it’s a bit simplistic myself), but let’s use it as the starting point for a discussion then.

So what’s narrative? Well, my personal definition – which is idiosyncratic and quite probably technically incorrect, but hey, it’s my blog – is that narrative is the communication of plot; it’s how you tell the story. Or, maybe more precisely, how the audience experiences the story – the interface they use to bring what was in the writer’s head into their heads.

If ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story, and ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot, then this is narrative:

  • Listen, and I will tell you a tale: Once upon a time there was a queen who loved her husband very much, so much that when he died her heart cracked wide in half, like a stone under a mason’s hammer

And so is this:

  • The autopsy revealed a congenital fault in Her Majesty’s lower left ventricle. This was apparently not detected during the routine check-ups she undertook before the King’s assassination. Suggestions that ‘her heart broke’ are obviously ridiculous.

And this:

  • Tomorrow I will die, and next winter I will return as a ghost, and my dear wife will bring all the castle crashing down with the broadsword of her grief, but today I know this not, and she is happy, and Hamlet who has yet to pour poison in my ear is happy, and my good brother is happy, and so am I, for one more day.

A list of events, whether linked by causality or not, isn’t something people read for fun or for knowledge. Narratives take that raw information and bind it up with voice, word choice, pacing, character, humour, pathos, swearwords and whatever else is required to make it something that captivates a reader and makes them care.

(This definition of narrative isn’t synonymous with ‘medium’, although there’s some overlap – the way in which you tell a story can incorporate the medium you use to tell it. But at the same time there’s huge narrative variation within a medium, so we may as well confine discussion to that bit of the diagram for the moment.)

It’s Polaroids all the way down

I can’t think of a better example of narrative versus plot versus story right now than the movie Memento. There’s a linear sequence of events there, as Leonard wanders around doing things almost at random as amnesiac whim takes him. That doesn’t make sense until you look at the plot layer, which explains the events and Leonard’s motivation and reasoning; you can see causality connect the dots back and forth through the sequence. But the narrative layer is where the brilliance of the film exists, the split between two time frames and time directions that throws the linear sequence out the window and makes the viewer do the work of puzzling it out despite the deliberate obfuscation being used. Take that layer out and Memento makes just as much sense – it’s just not anywhere near as interesting. Which is why I’ve always been staggered that the Memento DVD apparently offers viewers the option of reordering the scenes to watch the film in a linear sequence – if you want to watch a less-interesting Guy Pearce movie, eject the disc and watch The Time Machine. Although I guess that’s harder to market as a special feature.

That interface level of writing is what interests me most, both as a writer and a reader. Plot, story, character, place – yes, these are all important. But narrative is the tool (or the interlocking suite of tools) a writer uses to pick up those things and push them partway into the reader’s head – and, if used properly, the reader willingly pulls them in the rest of the way.

…yeah, okay, that’s a pretty weird image. Probably best if I don’t look for an image for that.

So that’s where I’m coming from, and that’s the angle I take pretty much every time I think/talk/write about writing. I hope it makes sense to you.

If it doesn’t, then maybe you have amnesia.


Fifteen minutes of WTF

Folks, it has been a weird goddamn week.

Specifically, it has been a week in which my cat – Graeme Riley, Ace of Cats, whom I have written briefly about in the past – became an internet celebrity, courtesy of a story in last Saturday’s Herald Sun about how he likes to come to the local train station to meet us (and anyone who will pet him) in the evenings. We thought it would be 2-3 paragraphs buried on page 10; it turned out to be 90% of page three.

Page. Three.

Plus there was a story online with photos and video, and it’s here that things exploded, or indeed ‘went viral’ as the hip young things with minimal understanding of biology say. A series of Facebook likes and retweets pushed the story into the wider world, where it got picked up by outlets in Hong Kong, Brazil, Europe and the United States. From the Huffington Post to I Can Haz Cheezburger, everyone’s been talking about the Station Cat this week, and things aren’t slowing down yet.

So it’s been a crash course in the power of social media and high-turnover news cycles to pick up a story and run with it like it was Usain Bolt. That’s been eye-opening, and something I’m still trying to draw meaning from. Plus, of course, we’re hoping to sell postcards and T-shirts of Rockstar Greame Riley, so check out the store if you want one.

Don’t ask, just buy

The other interesting thing is how many people have said that I need to take advantage of the cat’s sudden popularity to improve mine in turn. I should write a children’s book about him, or get my name into the articles about him, or at least put links (and recommendations) on his Facebook page. Every one of his 500 (!) new followers could be buying Hotel Flamingo and Godheads, after all.

And that makes me wonder. Is that true? Is all publicity created equal? Is every opportunity worth pouncing upon? Writers have to be self-marketers, but I’m not convinced that that means you should go all Amway on people’s arses and throw a review copy through every window of opportunity.

I think there’s good publicity that helps you and bad publicity that hurts you, but there’s also orthogonal publicity that just sits there staring at you but never touching you, like a bad date or a creepy uncle. It’s about overlap – is this really an opportunity to find new readers, or will I find that people who like reading news stories about cats don’t have a lot of interest in fiction about weirdness and metatext?

I know that might sound elitist, but this isn’t me saying that I don’t want the wrong kind of people soiling my deathless prose with their filthy uncultured gazes. It’s saying that I don’t think it’s a genuine outreach to people who I think might enjoy my work. It’s clutching at straws and being too fake, like those sales reps who say the customer’s name every few seconds while giving their pitch. Readers can tell when a writer sees them as a market to be exploited, rather than someone who might find some kind of meaning in their work. And that’s not helpful to my career, or indeed Graeme’s.

It’s also interesting to tie this back to Mark Coker of Smashword’s blog post today about how buyers and readers discover ebooks. Recommendation from other readers is the primary method, followed by word-of-mouth from people you trust. Stumbling across a title randomly, say in a blog post or a re-re-retweet or an article about a cat, is way down the list.

And, to be honest, I also can’t help but think about the career of Rita Mae Brown. An author with decades of experience behind her, she was at one time best known as the author of the seminal lesbian coming-of-age novel Rubyfruit Jungle. (And at other times for her poetry, or her political activism or for dating Martina Navratilova.) But that was in the Before Time. Now the Amazon-searching  masses know her best for the series of cozy mystery novels that she co-writes with her cat Sneaky Pie Brown, which are about a cat that solves crimes. I discovered these when I used to work the genre fiction departments of Borders, and they were sobering because they eclipsed everything she had done before, and perhaps since.

I’m not a cozy guy, alright?

I want to be clear here. I respect Brown and her dedication to her craft. I respect the decisions she’s made about her career. I respect the readers who find that her work resonates with them and brings her joy. But there’s a momentum to those decisions that carries a writer and an audience along, and doesn’t allow much room to turn back or even change direction. When you market yourself one way, you may lose the ability to market yourself another way, and right now, when I still have a long way to go, I want to be very careful about the turns I take on the Road to Mega Writing Stardom.

Also, let’s be honest here, I do not want to co-author books with the help of my cat. Not now. Not ever. Not even if he’s more famous than I am.

Although man, he is cute. I’ll give him that.


I have no mouth and I must blog

More and more, a writer without a blog is like a day without sunshine. Actually, that makes no sense, especially considering I live in Melbourne. Where’s a simile that works? Let me check my metaphor banks… like a car without wheels? A fish without gills? Tony Abbott without a hollow rictus of hate plastered to his skull?

Ah, nothing works tonight.

Okay, fuck metaphor. Straight up, though, writers are expected to blog nowadays. Successful books don’t hit shelves (or Kindles) without blogs laying the groundwork, giving the writer a chance to communicate their voice and style to readers and drum up excitement; success, in turn, brings the expectation from readers of keeping those lines of communication open, of the writer showcasing their process, insights and works-in-progress, or just occasionally saying fuck for a cheap pop.

This sounds like I’m gearing up to blog about how blogging sucks. I’m not. But I’ve been talking to some other writers this week about the point and purpose of blogging, and I thought it would be a good blog post, because META META META.

Cleans away the stink of lesser fiction

The prevailing wisdom is that writers must control their brand, or be their own brand, or communicate their brand to their market or something like that. I’ve said that myself in the past, but over the last year or so I’ve come to really dislike all this talk of brands and brand management as something writers should obey or aspire to embody. To be blunt and a bit lefty, ‘branding’ is a trite analogy bleeding in from the consumerist underpinnings of modern society that seeks to reduce everything to the level of a marketable commodity, so that writers, artists and political ideologies are seen as no different to a roll-on deodorant. But we are more than brands; we are people with skills, goals and stories to tell, and we do ourselves no service by attempting to sell ourselves as products.

(I also hate the labelling of everyone working with art/words/symbols as ‘creatives’, like we’re some kind of interchangeable components in an assembly line, but that’s a separate tirade.)

So what, then, is the purpose of all this blogging, if not to sell yourself and promote your work? Well sure, that’s part of it. But more important, I think, is that it’s fun and intellectually engaging. It’s a way to share ideas and communicate your passion about writing. The best writer-bloggers, to my mind, are the ones who blog not just because it’s necessary, or because they want to attract readers, but because they like it – and, just as importantly, they enjoy being entertaining and attention-provoking in the process.

That last part is really important. When talking with some writers about this, a couple of them suggested that blogging could feel false, a hollow act of trying to gain attention, and one that required a kind of self-censorship to control the message you want to put out. It was writer/musician Talie Helene who turned that around to suggest that blogging is a performance – an act, yes, but a genuine one that’s meant to be worthwhile for both the artist and the audience. As for self-censorship, a better way of looking at it is that you don’t try to put everything you’ve done or thought into one performance – you pick and choose, not to control the show, but to make it possible in the first place.

I find that a very powerful place to start thinking about the point and purpose of blogging, and this here blog in particular. I don’t claim to be one of the best bloggers, but yes, I like doing this. I like interacting with people, I like thinking about the process and purpose of writing, and I like sharing ideas with other. I like to entertain; I like to make people laugh, whether through my deathless prose or occasional updates on my famous cat. And I like writing blog posts. Hell, I often like writing blog posts more than writing the stuff I hope people will pay to read.

IT'S A oh forget it

And there, of course, is the trap.

Because in the end, time spent blogging is time not spent writing the stuff you’re actually supposed to be writing. It’s time not spent on Arcadia, or the new e-novella I’ve been contemplating, or the freelance job I’ve got to have finished by this time next week. Time spent blogging can become the illusion of writing, a caffeine-free diet writing that looks like the real thing when you run spellcheck over it, but turns flat and salty on the tongue when when you actually swallow it. With your eyes.

…yeah, I can’t metaphor for shit tonight.

Once again, none of this should be construed as me saying ‘blogging is bad’. I think it’s a really powerful way for writers to connect with readers, not just as artist and audience but as peers and even as people. It’s fun, it’s worthwhile and if you do it right, it communicates the voice of your fiction.

(Which, to be honest, this blog doesn’t do very well. Chuck Wendig and Cam Rogers, to pick two examples, blog very much like they write, but my voice goes all over the place and I don’t know that someone coming in cold to this blog would find much that they could then identify in Hotel Flamingo. But then again, the odds of someone coming in cold like that aren’t all that high. Not yet, anyway.)

When blogging has no heart, it’s just an infomercial. When the heart beats, it’s the acoustic set that sends the audience off to find your albums, not just because the music was good but because they had a damn good time.

Don’t sell a brand. Don’t sell ginzu knives. Don’t sell any damned thing. Perform because you love it. The rest will follow suit.

How about you? As a reader, what does blogging – not just this blog, but any you read – do for you? What do you get out of it? And when does it turn you away?

ebooks publishing writing

Pollyanna Patrick versus the death of publishing

There’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom this week in discussions about the future of the publishing industry, much of which was spurred by a presentation by Ewan Morrison at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in which he said that the industry was doomed and that writing as a profession was doomed along with it.

Wow. Way to bring the mood of the party down, Ewan.

Morrison brings up a lot of interesting points, but he takes a very pessimistic stance in his article. I think he’s done so to get people talking and thinking, and that’s important, but so is maintaining some optimism and some perspective.

Here’s a rebuttal of sorts by writer Lloyd Shepherd, which provides facts and figures to argue that while the publishing industry isn’t what it was, it’s premature to sound the death knell yet. I don’t have that degree of recourse to facts – not that that has ever stopped me – but speaking as a writer, an online self-publisher, and a commissioning editor at a major publishing house (albeit in education rather than fiction), three things in Morrison’s article leap out at me.

Avast, and here are some free Dan Brown books!

Piracy – and look, I say ‘pirate’ rather than ‘file-sharer’ or ‘unauthorised copier’ because it’s shorter and pithier, okay? No value judgement. Anyway, piracy of straight-up fiction is not that big a deal. Pirates focus heavily on sharing electronic media, music, movies and games; they generally don’t care about books, and book readers generally aren’t pirates. Even those publishing arms that are hit harder by piracy, usually fan-media or roleplaying, are seeing data that suggests piracy isn’t hurting them as much as they thought, because many people who torrent scans and PDFs generally wouldn’t have paid for that product anyway; they would have simply gone without. Over in fiction publishing, piracy of things that aren’t mega-bestsellers is minimal, because most pirates don’t want to read/share that stuff, and the people who want to read it are generally happy to pay for it. Maybe books would make more if piracy was impossible, but they wouldn’t make that much more.

The death of the mid-list and the loss of advances – yes, this is true, this is happening. More precisely, it’s been happening since the 1990s; it’s not as new as Morrison implies. Much like in film, publishers are under pressure to produce nothing but blockbusters – they want to publish either JK Rowling or the next JK Rowling, and that gives less room for writers that will never be JK Rowling but will produce good books nonetheless. This has been the case for years, and it sucks, but at the same time it’s not exactly a surprise. And for all the pressure on them to produce high-selling books, most publishers – the people, not the companies – care about good books, and will push to get worthy-but-lower-selling books out there. If anything, it’ll be interesting to see how the success of ebooks affects this – midlist titles are starting to find a larger audience, and the value of establishing writers who continue to sell, but never need to be reprinted, is becoming more obvious.

The race to the bottom for pricing – okay, this is a real concern. Books shouldn’t be priced as low as the market will bear, and 99 cents is too little to charge for a book. But there’s a growing realisation that digital products are priced too low, not just in publishing but in the more commercially powerful world of iPhone apps, and the prices are starting to bounce back. Are there consumers who will balk at paying $4.95 for your ebook when they can get someone else’s ebook for $3.95? Yes. But those are generally not the consumers you want – these are people to whom books are essentially fungible, and often they just want extruded word product to fill up their Kindle. I’ve come across so many people with Kindles who only use them to download free books – and then almost never read them, because it turns out they don’t want to read Moby Dick, they just want to feel like they own the book. Many readers are prepared to pay more sensible prices for books they want to read from authors they respect, and we should see that happen more often within the next couple of years.

(There’s been a good discussion recently of e-book pricing and the .99 cent model over at Terrible Minds; go there to see some more and different takes on the topic.)

This is just what the offices at Penguin look like. Honest.

This is a time of transition, and it’s one where things are happening quickly and the old order is being torn down faster than it can adjust. It’s all very much like Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga – THERE CAME A TIME WHEN THE OLD GODS DIED! – except that we don’t have any villains as cool as Darkseid.

I’m not saying it’s the Golden Age of publishing, because it sure as hell ain’t. But it’s not the End of All Things either. Large established presses will either adapt and survive or sink, but they won’t drag everything under with them. Small and independent presses have the chance to craft something new and be at the forefront of change. And for writers, there are opportunities that there never were before, even if we have to work harder to get money from those opportunities. So less doom and gloom, and more optimism, please.

The New Gods may yet come. If we believe. And keep writing.


Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?

Being a professional editor is a lot like having an acquired brain injury. You know that there was a time when grammar and punctuation errors didn’t bother you, but that time has long passed and you can’t actually comprehend what that felt like any more. Now you live in a dismal prison where the bars are built from noun-verb confusion, and no-one around you understands that you can’t enjoy an item on the dinner menu because the restaurant spelt a plural with an apostrophe and now all the food tastes like cardboard and illiteracy. Eventually the only options for escape are self-trepanation, a shooting spree or gimlets for breakfast.


Anyway, I edit and publish books (mostly maths textbooks) for a living, and it beats digging ditches, so I’m not gonna complain too much. But as a result of my job, and of gaining my editing qualification a few years ago (yeah, bitches, I’m diplomaed up in this motherfucker), I see grammar errors everywhere – not just in manuscripts, but in published works that haven’t had the attention they need.

So, in the hopes that it might help you with your work-in-progress, your university essay or your lonely hearts personal ad, here are a bunch of things that make me wince when I see them.

The Oxford comma: Technically the use of the Oxford or serial comma is not wrong, it’s just that it sucks. If you don’t know what it is (and why would you), it’s the use of a final comma before the conjunction in a list of items – e.g. ‘one, two, three, four, and five’. Attitudes differ on the serial comma, with most English and Australian authorities advising it only be used to avoid confusion when the last item includes a conjunction (‘we offer steak, risotto, and fish and chips), and most American authorities advising it be used every time, because apparently they’ve been huffing paint.

For my part, I loathe it; it has an innate stuffiness in it, like an after-dinner speaker at a Rotary club pausing for effect before dropping his last bon mot, or indeed ordering the last item on the menu. It bleeds energy from the sentence, like a speedbump on a suburban street, and dribbles into the eye like birdshit. I don’t even like to use it to avoid ambiguity; I’d rather rewrite the sentence, or at worst replace the final conjunction with an ampersand to cut out an ‘and’.

You can use it if you want to. I guess. But I’ll judge you.

Other comma errors: But while the Oxford comma comes down to a matter of  taste, there are other uses of the comma that are simply incorrect. People tend to use them like pauses in speech, and while that can work sometimes, it’s really not what the little squiggle is used for. Commas lift and separate, like a push-up bra – they chain clauses together, and they break phrases into clauses. They quantify the elements of the sentence and let you move them around as building blocks. They’re not there to mark where you take a breath, and that’s probably the most common way I see them misused

Broken appositives: The other way is when a writer makes a mistake with an appositive phrase. That’s not when you say ‘well done, mate’; it’s a phrase that further defines another, usually like an aside, and marked out with commas – see how I did it with ‘usually like an aside’ – or dashes (see how I did it just then). Or with parentheses, if you’re Stephen King. Appositives are common, but so are mistakes, the most obvious being not separating them from the other phrase. Witness this classic example:

I helped my uncle, Jack, off a horse.

I helped my uncle jack off a horse.

Subtle, but important. Alternatively, writers start the appositive but don’t finish it, so the initial comma is left dangling and the circle is unclosed. This can create a situation where the definition contradicts itself:

Right: Available online, or in bookstores, for $9.95.

Wrong: Available online, or in bookstores for $9.95.

That creates doubt – is it available online for a different price than it is in bookstores?

(Actually, the commas aren’t needed at all in that first one, but it still works for the sake of example.)

Colons and semicolons: You know, I’m not even going to scratch the surface of how these get misused; I’ll be here all night. As you can see from the previous sentence, semicolons link two interdependent clauses, with more distance than a comma but less than a full stop. They’re tricky, I know, but the key thing is that they’re a bridge between clauses, rather than a spot-weld. They’re not full stops; you can turn a semi-colon into a full stop (as my White Wolf editors used to do, much to my chagrin), but that makes the resulting sentence pair bumpy and bitty. Nor are they commas; don’t use them to separate items in a list, unless each item is a sentence in itself.

Now, consider colons: see how the clause after the mark refers back to the clause before the mark. Colons are one-way gates in a sentence, meant to direct and push the reader into the next clause, without the interdependence of a semicolon. Again, they’re not full stops, they’re not commas, and if you’re putting them into dialogue, you may want to listen to yourself talk.

Ellipsis abuse: Two things. First, an ellipsis is three dots. Not four, or five, or twelve. This isn’t up for debate. Secondly, an ellipsis is a gap, an omission, a trailing off… …or a fade-in from silence. Not a comma, not a full stop, not a separating device; ellipses are the loosest and messiest of connectors, which is why teenagers and bad game-fic writers use them to piggyback seven utterly dissociated things into one paragraph and then claim that that’s how people speak. Which, even if true, doesn’t make it good. Even if your character is stopping, starting and pausing throughout their dialogue, don’t just chain every snippet together with ellipses, or it’ll look like your paragraph has chicken pox.

Gerunds aren’t verbs: And finally, the last thing I see all too frequently is writers confusing verbs with gerunds – that is, verbs with ‘ing’ stapled to the end. Gerunds start life as verbs, sure, but after the transplant surgery when the ing is stitched on and a vestigial letter or two is shaved off, the pink and shivering thing left is a noun, or possibly an adjective depending on how you use it. You shiver, you don’t shivering; you write, you don’t writing. But you are shivering, he is writing; the verb is the quiet, semi-visible is/are/was of identity, not the loud and colourful gerund. And it’s cool to use them, but be aware that a sentence with only a gerund, rather than a verb, is a fragment – and without a strong verb, you’re describing a still image of an action, rather than communicating the action itself.

I could go on about other, increasingly rarefied things like pluperfect forms, conjunctions and participles, but this post is already too long and holy fuck I’m even boring myself at this point.

But here’s the most important thing – fuck all of that if necessary (except for the multi-dot ellipsis; that shit’s just wrong and dumb). Grammar is a tool, punctuation is a tool, and a craftsperson needs to know how to use her tools; she also needs to know when to down tools and change the car tyre with a spork rather than a spatula, because seriously, that would look fucking cool.

When you know what you’re doing, you can break the rules, not because you can’t be bothered following them but because you know you can create specific effects by colouring outside the lines. One of the major influences on my writing style was Kathe Koja, whose 1990s horror novels (Bad Brains, Skin, Strange Angels) were a fevered blur of commas, fragments and semi-colons scattered like breadcrumbs across the page; they evoked a desperate energy, a sick momentum that told the reader that things were just too fucked up for her protagonists for the rules of grammar to contain their emotions and their problems.

Such a great, fucked-up book

I mean, hell, I just used the Oxford comma in a line in Arcadia, and I dithered a bit about it, but in the end I kept it because it had a specific effect – the commas overtly chained a string of actions together, the last of which had no connection to the rest; by using a serial comma to add that last element, it drew a connection where none existed and let the reader a little further into the mind of the narrator, who doesn’t draw distinctions between her actions in the same way as the rest of us. Or at least that what I hope it’ll do.

So go nuts. Pull off crazy BMX punctation tricks. Fire ellipses into the eyes of your enemies and steal their wallets as they rub the sand from their sockets. If you can do it, you’re a hero.

If you can’t, though, your editor will eventually be found running naked through the streets with your severed head on a pike. True story. So be careful out there.

character writing

Character (part 3) – Action!

And so at last we come to the end of my essays/diatribes/polemics on character. And there was much rejoicing!

Well, actually I received a number of kind words about the last instalment, so the self-deprecating thing is probably a bit silly. I’ll try to cut back on that.

But yes, this is the last thought that occurred to me way back at Continuum when talking about storytelling and roleplaying. And I think it’s the most important thought, the one that (for me) sums up the core notion of how characters operate in narrative, how they can be used to communicate that narrative to the reader, and what makes a character engaging and interesting rather than just flat and dull. It’s not an original thought, it’s one I’ve seen said many times before, so this is me joining the chorus rather than dropping some knowledge on you out of a clear blue sky – but still, it’s a notion that bears repeating and discussing many times over in different groups.

Here it comes. You ready?

Character is action.

Whew. Glad I finally got that off my chest.

Character is not what you are, what you look like, how you dress or what you think – character (in the sense of fictional characters within a narrative) is what you do. Character is not about nouns, and it’s sure as hell not about adjectives. It’s about verbs.

Now, of course, when I talk about ‘action’, I don’t just mean dudes jumping sideways through a door in slow-motion while firing two guns at once, although goddamn I love shit like that. (Face/Off was on TV last night, and if you don’t like John Woo movies you don’t have a soul.) I mean any kind of situation where the character acts upon her external environment and attempts to change it in some way. The leadup to that action, the process of it, the fallout from it, the internal changes that cause and follow the act… that all embeds character into a narrative and into the head of a reader more than anything else a writer can do.

What’s action in this context? Well, here’s a non-exhaustive list of examples.

I like to imagine that he's shooting the director of 'The Wicker Man'

Making decisions: It can be finally mustering up the courage to hit on a girl in a bar or sacrificing yourself (or someone else) to the Balrog to let the rest of the party escape. The act of making a decision – and then following through with it – is pretty much the most fundamental unit of character-revealing action. A decision has a why and a how, a before and after; it’s the first domino from which a narrative thread cascades.

Making bad decisions: Honestly, there’s little I love more than when characters do the wrong thing, especially when they choose to do it, especially especially when they know it’s the wrong thing but they do it anyway. Our failures do at least as much to define us as our successes, and the consequences of failure usually make for a more gripping narrative.

Engaging in conflict: Decisions and actions can be made without opposition, sure, but they’re not as exciting as actions that put one character in conflict with another. At the end of the scene, someone will get what they want and someone won’t – which means you get to demonstrate what each character wants and what they’ll do (or won’t do) to get it. Win or lose, character pulses out of conflict.

Falling in love: Or falling out of love. Choosing to give a kidney to your brother – or not to. Emotional acts aren’t as obvious and flashy as fight scenes and car chases, but they’re more likely to speak to a reader’s own experiences and desires – and despite being low-key, they’re also more likely to cause direct changes to the behaviour and actions of other characters throughout the narrative. You shoot a guy, he’s out of the story, but if you break his heart he can still be there until the last chapter.

Reacting to situations: There’s a stated truism that proactive characters are better than reactive ones, and there’s a wisdom to that, but nonetheless the way characters react in situations that they don’t control communicates at least as much as the way they operate when they’re in charge. There’s an urgency to scenes where characters are in danger, where they have to act in order to get out of trouble, and perhaps have to do things that aren’t optimal or morally/emotionally comfortable. We are most ourselves when we panic.

Straight-up kicking a motherfucker in the face: And sometimes action really does mean a fight, at least in those narratives where it’s appropriate. (I might have enjoyed Jane Eyre more if it had car chases and karate, but I’m prepared to be in the minority there.) Why you fight, what you fight, how you fight, how you feel before/during/afterwards – these are all incredibly effective, visceral points of character definition. A powerfully-written single-page fight scene will communicate more about your character than ten pages of description and dialogue. This is one reason why superhero comics have endured for 70 years – because they demonstrate characters through action, conflict and cool fight scenes, and that combination can hook almost anyone.

These, on the other hand, are not examples of action:

Dialogue: Yes, talking is an action. But it’s not action that impacts the narrative, so much as it is the mechanism through which one character attempts to act upon another. Dialogue can provide a context for action, and it can accentuate character through voice and mannerism, but that doesn’t do as much to impart character as action. If a character says one thing and does another (or does nothing at all), the reader will base their impression of the character on what they do, not what they say. If you want the character to be a hypocrite, that works – but if you don’t, then actions speak louder than words.

Narration: Narrative voice is dialogue written into the fabric of reality. It’s hugely important to narrative, and it’s something I focus on a lot – but in the end, it’s the character (or the author) talking to the reader and shaping the context of the narrative. You still have to have things happen within that context to impart character, and you still have to marry the voice of the character with their actions.

Backstory: Oh christ, not this again. But I bang on about it for a reason. Actions in the story happen within the current narrative, while actions in the backstory happen outside the narrative. They’re already finished, and telling us about them is another situation where you’re talking to the reader, not demonstrating through action. If your character’s backstory is that he’s a great ninja assassin, but he never flips out in the narrative and kills people, he’s just that guy on the internet who claims to be a martial arts master but is actually a 14-year-old dressed in acne and a dirty Megadeth T-shirt.

Really boring actions: Okay, sure, choosing what to wear is a decision, and turning left rather than right in the dungeon is an action. Technically. But if the action in and of itself is not enough to interest the reader, the fact that the character makes it is unlikely to make it any more interesting, or communicate anything meaningful about the character. These kind of innocuous acts and mundane decisions are the packing foam of prose, at best, and just tedious layering of colour at worst.

Thinking, sensing, emoting or being: I got in trouble in a lit class once for saying that a David Malouf novella needed more action. I didn’t mean that it needed more tits and explosions (although that would have helped), but that the narrator spent the whole book watching, thinking, feeling emotions, and then never doing anything about what he saw/thought/felt. This is the trap that bad literary fiction falls into – that it’s all about internal states, but never pushes those internal states onto the external context of the narrative. Which is boring. If your character spends most of their time watching and thinking, but not doing anything based on that knowledge, start again. If most of your sentences use identity verbs like ‘is’ and ‘am’, rather than strong verbs that push the narrative forward, start again. If your character hurts and loves in a vacuum, let them explosively decompress and start again.

Alright. That’s enough of a checklist of dos and donts; I’m starting to feel like Robert McKee up in here.

Let us end, as usual, by referring to Batman to bring the point home.

Is this Batman?

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night.

No, it’s not. It’s half a description; it’s not even the shell of a character. You have to complete it by adding action:

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and fights crime to protect others.

The difference is plain – and so is the fact that if you keep the setup but change the action, you get an entirely different character:

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and robs banks for thrills.

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and spies on women as they shower.

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and pays prostitutes to poop on his chest.

(Batman, I’m really sorry about this. Please forgive me.)

He's disappointed with me. I can tell.

If character is an equation, action is the operation and the equals sign that leads to the result. If character is a Frankenstein monster, action is the lightning that turns it into a roaring monster rather than a collection of hooker parts gathering dust in the lab.

Characters move. Characters change. Characters do things. And when they’re not acting, they’re just a pile of nouns squatting on the page, waiting for a verb to make them live.

Make the nouns dance.


Sorry for not getting a Thursday update in this week, by the way. Stuff crept up on me and took up all my time. Hopefully this extra-long post (1800 words, for fuck’s sake) has made it up to anyone who was let down by my silence.

What shall I talk about next weekend? Not sure, to be honest. But I think it’s time to give this constant banging on about narrative and writing philosophy (and Batman) a short rest and talk about something else for a post or three. Will think it over.

As always, if you’ve got feedback, suggestions, praise, angry rebuttals or recipes for potato qorma, please go crazy in the comments. I need validation, guys.

character writing

Character (part 2) – Pick up the gun

Ah good, you’re back. Some of you, anyway. Sorry about the delay; I was held up first by post-Mexican-banquet indigestion, then by post-platelet-donation disorientation. My life, it is a carnival.

So anyway, last weekend I said that character is secondary to narrative – or, more precisely, that it’s more important that characters exist to convey narrative than it is for narratives exist to convey character.

Let’s now simultaneously reinforce and refute that statement with a linked pair of polemics, drawing once again on our two examples, Batman (the Caped Crusader) and Graeme Riley (the Feline Frottagist).

First, a further riff on last week’s ideas.

The demands of a strong narrative shape character.

Or, less obliquely, that characters can do whatever is required to make an engaging and satisfying narrative, even if it doesn’t seem at first glance to gel with what’s been established for that character so far.

A lot of authors talk about characters writing themselves, and shying away from doing things that they don’t want to do, and books needing to be rewritten to fit their needs. And I get some of that, and will sorta-kinda agree with it later in this post, but the notion that ‘characters write themselves’ is just abject silliness. Leave your manuscript alone for a couple of months, mid-scene, and when you come back to the PC/iPad/notebook, those characters will still be where you left them, no text magically appearing to tell you what they got up to.

What authors mean, of course, is that the character is so well-defined that some actions no longer feel in-character, and in order to continue writing the story, they can’t have the character do what was originally plotted/planned without going against that definition. The character is too strong, the writer too bound by what’s gone before, and the narrative must back up and be rerouted around the mighty sequoia that is the protagonist.

Yeah, I don’t agree with that.

Greg Stolze famously called the gaming version of this the Gamer Nuremberg Defence – ‘but it’s what my character would do!’ It’s a copout in gaming and it’s a copout in writing, because characters are created, not born, and any limitations or constraints on their behaviour are also creations. If your character won’t do that, what you mean is that you don’t want to write your character doing that. And okay, sure, don’t do what you don’t want to do, but don’t blame your character for your decisions – and if your refusal to write your character that way makes the story or narrative weaker, that’s on your head too.

Here’s the truth – any character can do anything, if you want them to. The genius can do something stupid. The good man can cheat and lie. The hardened criminal can reform and find a better purpose. The friendly cat who greets commuters at the train station can steal and sodomise stray laundry. The question is not ‘Will this character do this?’, because that the answer to that lies with the author, not the character – the question is ‘Will this character do this and still remain believable and convincing?’ And okay, the answer to that lies with the author too, but it’s expressed through the character.

Let me demonstrate this further using my greatest area of expertise – Batman. (Sure, I could have finished that degree in physics, but this is way more important.) As we know, Batman hates guns, never uses guns, would sooner die than pick up a gun because his parents were shot dead by a guy with a gun.

It’s ironclad logic: BATMAN = NO GUNS.

So here are some picture of Batman using guns, as published by DC Comics.


If one of the longest-standing, most constantly depicted and defined characters in 20th-and-21st century fiction and pop culture can act against type to make a better narrative, your character can do the same, and so can any other character. Characters are vast, they contain multitudes, and more importantly they’re not real and they do what they’re told/written to do.

And yet.

Let’s turn that statement around and go the other way.

The demands of a strong character shape narrative.

This is the truth of characters ‘writing themselves’ – a strong, engaging character imprints and expresses themselves in everything they do. You can tell characters what to do, and they’ll do it, but the personality and flavour you’ve given will dictate how and why they do that – and, more importantly, how they change after that act and how the narrative changes with them.

Everything has fallout. Everything has consequences. And exploring the ramifications of a character going against type and changing under pressure can provide tense, powerful writing. For a character to go against type/definition does not refute that definition, it throws it into contrast – and the lengths they go to before going against type, the way they finally go about doing so, and the consequences of that action afterwards all shape and define the flow of the narrative.

(And as a callback and aside, this is one of the reasons I dislike backstory – because it can overdefine a character and make it more difficult to change and question that character as the narrative progresses.)

For me, that’s the most gripping way that character and narrative intertwine – the degree to which you can build a narrative from choices, rather than from expectations. Grant Morrison didn’t think ‘Batman hates guns, so he can’t shoot Darkseid with the god-killer bullet’; he thought ‘Batman hates guns, so when he shoots Darkseid with the god-killer bullet it will be even more significant and say even more about the character’. (Well, I’m sure he thought something like that, although he would have thought it in a Scottish accent.)

This isn’t about about ‘plot-focused’ versus ‘character-focused’, because those things are inextricably linked. It’s saying that if characters are (among other things) tools used to express narrative, then they are Swiss Army knives, not mallets; they can be used in any number of ways, rather than inflexibly pounding a narrative in only one way, one purpose, one aspect. Strong characters have power; strong characters are maybe the most important element of an engaging narrative. But strong characters are bamboo, not oak trees; they bend under pressure and then snap back, rather than standing firm in the face of story and either tearing in half or stopping the flow dead.

Characters that can change and be changed by the narrative are interesting; characters that have to be preserved, that can’t do the wrong thing, and that don’t allow the writer or reader to explore them through question and contrast are lifeless and bland.

Make your characters dance. The dance is the story; the dancer is how you tell it.

That’s what, ~1100 words on something you could sum up in a paragraph? My work here is done. Next Sunday, the last thought I have on character (for the moment).

And come back in a couple of days to chew the fat on various things and see whether I was talking utter shit when I said I was going to get back to work on Arcadia.

character writing

Character (part 1) – Why do you exist?

And we’re finally back with another polemic!

But first, I’m going to talk about my cat.

I haz a Facebook page too.

This is Graeme Riley, Ace of Cats, AKA Rockstar, AKA Station Cat. He’s about 12 years old, and we inherited him from a previous owner who was a massive douchehat. Graeme is fearless, adventurous and an absolute slut for attention and affection. He hangs out at the local train station during the morning and evening rush hours, whoring himself out for pats and snacks. He likes meat, but not as much as he likes chocolate and ice cream. When he purrs the sound gets caught in his throat and turns into a hack. Last month he took it upon himself to wander to the other side of the suburb, leading to a desperate jog during my day off to collect him from a good Samaritan before he decided to play in traffic some more. He’s the greatest cat in the world, and everyone who’s met him adores him.

He’s also a degenerate sex offender who drags towels, knitted items and underwear into the hallway at 2am and rubs his technically-neutered groin against them while yowling in either ecstasy or self-loathing. Sometimes he drags clothing items through the cat door to ravage them in the yard, or across the street, and then ditch them to be found later or lost forever. The beanie I bought last month vanished less than a week later, and I suspect it is buried in his secret fuckpit to be occasionally dug up and screamingly humped in some kind of feline recreation of The Silence of the Lambs.

I bring up this loveable knitwear-rapist because he’s something of a character, and this is the first of a three-part series about what I see as the role of character in fiction, specifically in prose. A lot of these ideas started percolating in my head during the Continuum panel on RPGs and storytelling, where I often found myself saying that strong characters were more important to the experience of play and story than things like rules or plot.

I still stand by that, but I want to mix it in with one of my weird theoretical absolutes about writing and narrative, which on the face of it contradicts what I just said.

Here’s my position statement, which is bound to raise a few hackles:

Characters should exist to serve a narrative, rather than narratives existing to serve a character.

If you’re scratching your head at that, I’m not surprised, because it’s a concept I’m struggling to articulate clearly, particularly if I don’t want to come off as decrying stuff as Bad Wrong Fun.

Let’s try it this way. Characters are a means, rather than an end, and they’re a means to reaching a strong narrative that draws the reader in. But it’s too easy to fall in love with a character, because they’re interesting and multi-faceted and have so much potential, and to forget the fact that that character needs to be part of a story, to face conflict, to be part of a narrative in order to have any point at all.

Pure logic helps us here, because narratives can exist without characters – science gives us many examples, from the creation of an ecosystem to the death of a star – but characters can’t exist without narratives. Sure, you can come up with a character concept, flesh it out with personality and traits and artwork, but without some kind of way of communicating and demonstrating that character, it doesn’t exist in anyone’s head except the creator’s – and if the only point of that communication is ‘hey, here’s this neat character’, no-one’s going to care. You need a context, you need a story, you need a reason to care; you need a what happens next?, and that comes through a narrative.

To take it back to the beginning, I think that a story about Graeme isn’t as interesting as a story involving Graeme, because one’s an anecdote about a cat, and the other is (or at least might be) a narrative about various things, with breadth and body, and a cat eating ice-cream and molesting cardigans in the centre of that narrative, helping it to move forward. I can tell you that he’s a swell cat, and the people at the train station can tell you he’s a swell cat, but until he gets involved in a story, until there’s a point to me describing his frottage-filled friendliness to you, all you’re going to hear is blah blah blah this cat’s great, and that’s fundamentally not that interesting.

This is also why I can’t generally connect with prequels, and even less with fanfic, because those stories are (almost) all about exploring the character above all else, and have a narrative centred around that, where conflict is reduced and where the circular point of reading about the character is just reading about the character. It’s a narrative that points back at the character as its reason to exist, and for me that’s pointing in the wrong direction.

At this point, anyone who knows me or anything about me is thinking: ‘Hang on, you practically worship the character of Batman, so how can you go around saying characters aren’t important?’ (Which I’m not saying, but it’s an understandable misreading.)

My biggest role model. Probably explains a lot.

Well, I could say that serial superhero comics are a different beast to straight prose, one where characters are often more important that the stories they appear in, and perhaps that’s a problem with that genre/medium mix. But that’s a copout (or at least a subject for another time). Better to say that there’s a reason why Batman’s my favourite character – he appears in a lot of stories that are just goddamn fantastic narratives, with themes and pacing and conflict, in which Batman’s successes have to be fought for and in which there’s more to read than just a dude standing on a gargoyle dressed as Dracula.

And see, here’s the thing. I’m not saying characters aren’t important – they’re vital to making a narrative engaging, maybe more vital than anything else. And that’s their function – to get the reader involved in the story, the movie, the game, to make them care about what happens, to keep them immersed in that narrative until the end. Everything else, including (especially including) being interesting for their own sake, is secondary to that. The presence of a good character doesn’t fix a bad narrative – there is no shortage of bad Batman storiesafter all – but a good narrative can be told even through a bland or under-developed character, because the writer has other tools to hook the reader in, and even to make them care about that shaky character

So really, as far as polemics go, this is pretty mild at base: have a reason for a character to be in a narrative, a reason that makes that narrative stronger and more engaging – because if the character isn’t doing that, then what the hell is she/he there for?

Other than pursuing self-gratification upon unguarded cardigans. For some people that’s an end in itself.

…that’s it for today. Come back next weekend, when I will contradict pretty much everything I just said. Honestly, that’s the plan.