Morality and Motivation

#SFWAPRO

Please note, in the following discussion I use the term hero and villain. I’m using it in a non-gendered sense, much like actor is now used. Nothing I’ll be discussing need vary based on gender.

It’s common writing advice to make sure your characters, all of your characters, have a motivation; they need to want something. In some cases this can be as simple as wanting a glass of water because they’re thirsty. This might serve in the short term, or for very minor characters. For the protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain) of your story—assuming they’re people—your story will be better served if they have a deeper motivation driving them, beyond just the scene, but for the overall story. I’ve found establishing the morality of the characters makes this much simpler. It’s also helpful because you have something against which you can judge their actions; does is fit the character, or is it just a means to fit the story?

If you suspect my choice of topic for this post was influenced by current events, you’d be correct. This post isn’t about the principles we proclaim or project to the world, it’s about the true core of who we are, and what we believe is right.

I make no secret of the fact I majored in philosophy in college. As such, I enjoy a good and spirited debate. So long as it’s based on reason and fact. Sure, opinion can be a valid point if what you’re arguing has no objective answer. Chocolate being a superior ice cream flavor over chocolate doesn’t have an objective answer, but you’ll still need a reasoned argument if the debate will have any value. Because I like it, is not a reasoned argument. With that in mind, let’s start this discussion in a manner that would make Socrates proud, let’s define our topic.

A great many people confuse morality and ethics, and use the terms interchangeably. In point of fact, not only are they different, they are in some ways complete opposites. Morality is an internal set of principles you use to determine if something is wrong or right. Ethics are guidelines exerted by an external entity to moderate behavior. You workplace code of conduct for example, or the rules the doctors (and most medical professionals) and lawyers have to abide by. Obviously the two can overlap but they can also be opposed. In those cases a person with either remove themselves from the circumstance those ethics are applied, compromise their morality to fit, fight to have those ethical guidelines changed, or attempt to justify why such guidelines can’t or shouldn’t be applied to them. A prime example of this are the laws of commerce in the U.S. that preclude discrimination based on race, religion, sexuality, or gender (or gender identity). The now famous, or perhaps infamous, case of the wedding cake maker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple was argued on the basis that customized cakes were an artistic expression over a commercial endeavor and as such should be excluded from the commerce guidelines.

Another common misconception is that a person’s morality is an immoveable, unchanging thing. A normal part of life is reexamining our morals and deciding if they still fit what we currently believe. In some cases it is an honest reassessment based on our changing selves and understanding of the world. In others something of greater value causes of us compromise, or abandon all together, some principles. I don’t have to tell you that in the latter example, a great deal of self-delusion and/or justification often follows when questioned on it.

Now that we’ve established a definition of morality, let’s look at some basic schools of moral thought. A discussion on the vast and complicated points of a person’s guiding principles would take far too long for a simple blog post. There are in fact countless books on this. So let’s focus instead on core morality. The roots of the morality tree if you will. In philosophy there are two basic schools of thought in terms of morality; the more complex and nuanced areas of study or almost always based on one of these two schools.

The first is absolutism. This is the idea that there are a set of moral standards to which all people, everywhere, and regardless of cultural or societal acceptance can be held to. The other, as you’d imagine, is the opposite. Relativism is the idea that there are no absolute moral principles and instead, every society (or even individual) must be permitted to determine their own moral guidelines. As such, in relativism anyway, it is inherently immoral to foist your principles/beliefs on anyone else. You can try and persuade them of course, but you can’t hold them to your moral standard.

A lot of people (at least people from western based cultures) would go with absolutism, at first anyway. We tend to believe there is a bedrock morality that can’t, and in fact shouldn’t, ever be compromised. Some will dismiss relativism, until you mention the part about the immorality of pushing your beliefs on another. That often gives people pause, especially Americans, which in the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of. A heavy cultural importance on the idea of individual freedom runs very deep. And make no mistake, it is cultural.

Odds are if you’re from a western (or westernized) country, the choice between these two schools isn’t an obvious one. Yes, of course a person should be allowed to determine and live by their own beliefs, but there are also some things that are just wrong. Abuse of a child is never right, be it sexual, physical, or emotional. Right? Well, if you’ve watched the news lately, you know a great many people feel it can be justified. Understand we’re talking about absolutism here. There is no justification, there is no “yes it’s wrong, but” explaining away. If there are things that are absolutely wrong, then it must be absolute. I could also use murder, but even our laws allow for self-defense. Rape? Well, for me that it is an absolute wrong, but if you spend any time on the internet and social media, you’ll find a sizeable population who feel otherwise. Often, as retaliation for a woman (or other marginalized person who isn’t male) having the audacity to speak their mind, or refuse to accept a predominantly male opinion.

Does that mean then that there are no moral absolutes? By default then the choice would be relativism. Do societies only go on because of some agreed upon tenets of behavior? That’s a good question. In order to answer it, I’ll need to reveal my own moral point of view. You’re of course welcome to challenge it and debate me on it. Understand however, if it isn’t well reasoned and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, I’ll dismiss it as lacking any value to the overall discussion. I expect no less from others in regards to my arguments. I’m sure some people are already prepared to argue against my inclusion of gender identity mentioned above. To briefly digress, I included it not because I’m a gender studies expert, that but because I am not. As such, I defer to the experts in that area of study, the majority of who, through scientific study, have concluded that gender and biological sex aren’t interchangeable, and in fact, gender is much more of a spectrum than a binary classification. Yes, there are dissenters, but those I’ve looked over either started from a conclusion and sought to “prove” it correct, which is not scientific study. Or, they define gender as a social construct and as a member of that society we should adhere to it. By this argument, the very fact our society is starting to accept gender classification makes it self-negating.  Or, it’s simply a philosophical argument, which is fine, except this is something with an objective truth and as such, science wins out. Argue if you like, but gut feelings, just knowing what’s right, or other such arguments will be ignored. If you have scientific studies, feel free to link to them and I’ll look them over. If they turn out to be as I noted above, I’ll dismiss them. If not, I’ll recognize there are valid dissenting conclusions and look forward to further study on the topic.

Now, as you might’ve deduced, I’m a liberal minded person. As such, it might be a surprise to learn that I’m an absolutist. Yes, I can already hear some people grumbling about the “tolerant” only being so in regards to points of view they agree with. It might also be surprise that I will agree with that, and I have no moral confusion on the point; being liberal minded and an absolutist is not mutually exclusive. How? Well, I’m an absolutist because I believe there is one single principle that is absolute, and that all people should be answerable to. Yes, even having a single absolute belief means I’m an absolutist. What is that one thing? It’s simple. I believe every person has the right to live their life how so ever they chose, up until it prevents someone else from living their life however they chose. Thomas Jefferson had a similar mind in terms of ethics.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Which has also been paraphrased as, “the reach of my arm should stop at my neighbor’s nose.” Of course I have can and do have varying opinions on individual actions (by individuals or governments), but I weigh all them against that single principle. It’s important to note here that something being moral (fitting within your moral principles) doesn’t mean it also kind. Likewise, just because something is immoral doesn’t mean it is evil. Not to say you can’t try, as I do, to always be kind, it just means that there is a higher standard which can overrule that desire.

You’re probably starting to see why there are countless books written on this topic. Like much of philosophy, and life, there are rarely easy answers and those we find might well be wrong.

Now, you’ve stayed with me for two and half pages of philosophical waxing, let’s talk about how all this helps in character development.

If you’re going to write compelling characters, they’ll need some motivation for their actions. For that motivation to be believable, it has to be consistent. The exception to this is if something happens that makes them reanalyze their own beliefs and motivations. While you’re free to delve deep and establish a complicated moral grounding for your characters, you rarely need to go that far. I find a get a deeper understanding of my characters and what they believe as the story develops. However, you still need a starting point. I’m sure the idea of developing motivation seems obvious, but I’m also sure we’ve all read stories where this wasn’t done, or not done well. Like much of your character development, these foundational principles don’t need to be obvious, or even stated in your story; your characters don’t all need to make a grand speech as to their values and beliefs. That being said, as the write, YOU damn sure should know what those motivations, values, and beliefs are. You needn’t have an in-depth understanding right away, or even for the entire first draft, but by the time you start revisions you should. It goes without saying that the sooner, and the deeper, you really understand your character, the better. It’s this understanding that will ensure a characters actions (with very, very, few exceptions, and those for good reason) is consistent and within their own morality.

Why is this important? Well you obviously want your readers to find your characters interesting. They don’t have to like them, though I believe there should always be at least one they can relate to and like. They do have to be compelling though. Readers are more likely to forgive a weaker story, or one with issues, if they like or are interested in the character. I’ve rarely heard of a story written so well the reader will keep going even if they find the characters blah. Heroes can’t just be the good person, and the villain can’t just be the bad one. Their motivations/beliefs don’t need to be a twisted web of complexity, but they must not ever be simple “because”. Why did the hero shoot that person? Because they’re a hero and the person they shot was the villain! What else would a hero do? While that’s a perfectly valid answer, it’s not a compelling one. Why did they shoot? Why didn’t they try to stop or subdue the villain without killing them? Why didn’t the hero try to reason with the villain? Or any number of other options? As the writer, you should be able to answer those questions. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to articulate it, though it’s not a bad thing if they can. They should however have a strong enough sense of who the character is that when presented with moral dilemmas, or complicated situation, they hero’s choice will feel correct at the end.

This sort of shallow simplicity does happen for heroes in a story, but it is much more commonly applied to the villains. Why did the villain blow up that building? Because they’re the villain, they’re evil! It’s what villains do. To be fair, being evil can be a legitimate motivation; some people just want to watch the world burn and all that. But apart from being a pretty lazy motivation, it’s only the surface. What is the deeper drive? What is the morality that drives them to be evil? With the exception of sever sociopaths and psychopaths, nearly all villains see themselves as the ones doing the right thing. Remember, something being moral doesn’t means it’s “good” or that it fits with societal normals and ethical standards. Likewise, morality, particularly of the villain, doesn’t need to make sense to you, or even the reader. It must however be consistent, apart from the examples I noted above.

This can be confusing, so let’s take a few villains from popular culture and dig a little deeper.

We’ll start with the Joker, and since the comics have had different artists and writers, which lend itself to inconsistency, we’ll stick with the one from the movies. In the Dark Night movie, the Joker wanted to make people (or possibly just Batman) see that the order and structure of polite society was all a lie. Further, that once people (and by consequence society) were shown that lie, they would devolve into monsters with no care for others. This is actually a very common theme, particularly in dystopian stories. When society and its norms begin to vanish, people will naturally become focused on themselves to the exclusion of others. If it helps them survive, anything is justifiable. The problem, which doesn’t have to matter to the villain in question, is that reality counters this fairly decisively. Whenever there is destruction and/or tragedy, some selfish people emerge, but many more reach out to offer help and aid. In many cases it brings people together much more than it drives them apart. We see this after natural disasters, and even manmade destruction. Some might argue this is only because the overall structure of society remains intact, and provides some comfort even amid the destruction. But for those amid that destruction, have any thought to society beyond what their own experiences. To them, everything is burning, or destroyed. I wonder how many of those amid the destruction, see others suffering or hurt (including total strangers), actually ignore them and trust for someone of something else (society) to help. Some certainly, and some might be unable to help either because of injury or circumstance, but it always seems many more become that someone else. They become the helpers Mister Rogers said to look for. Again, my argument doesn’t discount the validity of the Joker’s motivation and morality (at least to him), it’s simply to show that morality, especially a villain’s, doesn’t need to be grounded in reality.

Darth Vader, especially in A New Hope was pretty much just evil. He did what he did because he was a bad guy, and his boss the emperor was also a bad guy. Yes, he had a redemption in Return of the Jedi (spoiler alert), but let’s focus on the motivation behind his dark deeds. Though it pains me to admit, the prequels, especially Revenge of the Sith, added some depth to his character. Basically, he was angry. He was just so angry! He couldn’t save Padme, and besides she was cheating on him with Obi-Wan. He just loved Padme SO much! He did those dark deeds in the prequels, including murdering a bunch of children, just to get the power to keep her from dying. Yeah, it’s valid, also creepy, really childish, only slightly better than “because evil”, but still valid. Let’s ignore the prequels for now though (I can hear some cheering). In the original trilogy, it appears that Vader is just following the commands of the emperor. He does bad things because he’s told to. Why though? Without a doubt some people are content to follow orders and surrender any responsibility to someone else, even in the face of horrific acts. Those people don’t tend to be second in command of an freaking empire though. Vader has to lead, and good leaders aren’t just mindless followers. And he was a good leader, even considering what we’ll call an issue with blaster marksmanship on the part of the Stormtroopers. Despite years of trying, the rebellion never managed to bring down the empire. He also makes his own choices. The emperor gives him broad commands, but it’s up to Vader to figure out how to achieve them. I think, and I’m likely giving Lucas too much credit here, that Vader wasn’t driven by anger or love, but fear. Still ignoring the prequels, Vader took some serious damage. So much that, to quote Obi-Wan, he’s more machine than man. That kind of trauma leaves scars, and not just physical. I think Vader was driven by a fear of chaos, and the destruction it can bring. His morality was that order must be maintained at any cost. And real order only comes under the heel of a boot. People (or sentient beings) are willful and unpredictable. They do stupid things, and they must be kept in line. Everything he and the emperor do is for the greater good; a phrase responsible for countless pain and suffering. No amount of death, or suffering, is too much to pay. It’s nothing compared to the death and suffering that would come about if order is not maintained. In short, the suffering and/or death of an individual doesn’t matter when put against the preservation of society. Some modern laws in what we would consider progressive/democratic nations are based on this. Granted, it’s rarely carried to such an extreme.

If Vader’s motivation sounds like some political arguments you’ve heard over the years, and even recently, that’s not a coincidence. Fear is a powerful motivator. Now, even if we do consider the prequels (sorry) I’d argue my position is strengthened. Anakin lost his mother, the only family he knew and the only person (before Padme) who showed him kindness. When Palpatine lies about a vision of Padme dying, Anakin gets scared. Unfortunately, that fear drives him to really extreme lengths. When he loses Padme, he’s given up any hope that anything but complete control will serve. I could say that’s why episode IV is called “A New Hope” but that’s a reach even at my most optimistic.

Lastly, let’s look at Voldemort. Some of you might remember I used him in a post about villains and learning their motivations called “Interview with a villain”. This post digs a little deeper and is meant to give a better understanding. Now, no question, Voldemort is a massive dick. However, he does have a valid (if horrific) motivation. It’s one that comes up again and again in history: some people are simply inherently superior to others. Or to paraphrase another abhorrent group’s dogma, the preservation of the superior must be defended at all costs. To Voldemort, muggles and non-pureblood wizards are inferior to purebloods. As are other races such as house elves, centaurs, and the like. More than that though, they are a corrosive, infectious element. If left to their own devices, these “others” will destroy those worthy of power and the society they deserve. This means that the other must be destroyed, or at a minimum, subjugated entirely under their betters. Yep, he’s a bigot with a wand. And like all bigots and hatemongers, fear is the ultimate driver. Not quite the same fear as Vader, but certainly a different shade on the same color wheel. Most bigots will even admit this is their motivation. They’ll claim it’s a fear of losing their values, or culture, or even their very identity. They’ll wrap it in the robes of nobility and justify preemptive horrors in the name of self-defense. Of course it’s just a clever lie. So clever in fact that some actually believe it. The truth is they fear is being oppressed by those they themselves have been oppressing (either overtly or indirectly). They fear the very marginalization and injustice they put upon others, which they also discount. They see those others as empirically less than them. Theirs is a motivation of selfishness. Their morality is often of perversion of my own. Rather than everyone, it’s “I (and those like me) should be free to live however I chose, up until it stops me (or those like me) from living as I choose.” With no need to morally consider anyone not them, or like them, they are free to take any action they see fit. Not only are the complaints and fears of the bigot (in their minds) wholly justified, the complaints of the other (less than) is just petty whining and a refusal to see how good they have it. Voldemort is indeed evil, and being morally and rationally justified (again, to him) makes this brand of evil especially nightmarish, and one we’ve seen throughout history, and even the present.

With all the above in mind, you can see the separation between a hero and a villain usually comes down to few differences, or a combination of all three.

The first difference is a question of who is included in their moral principles. Heroes include and fight for everyone, or rather not just themselves and those like them. Even if they appear to only fight for themselves, ultimately it proves to be a lie. Villains on the other hand fight only for themselves and those like them (racially, culturally, of a similar mind, or any other standard). Villains might ally temporarily with those outside their group, but only if it benefits them and costs them little or nothing. When that changes, the villain will betray that alliance.

The second difference is the means they’ll use to achieve their goals. Heroes have lines they won’t cross. If they do, they either become a villain, or work to redeem themselves and make amends for the moral failing. This is often the basis for entire stories on its own. Villains do sometimes have a sense of honor, but it and their moral principles rarely extend beyond themselves, or those they see as their own.

The third difference is a question of offense or defense. Villains go on the offense; they work to impose their morality on others. No one is immune, no one is innocent. You’re either on board, or you’re on the tracks. Heroes tend to be defensive in their morality. While it could be argued they are also imposing their morality on others, it’s always to stop the villain from pushing their morality on an unwilling party, and when that imposition stops, so does the heroes. A hero won’t seek out and stop/kill a bigot just for being a bigot. They might confront the bigot openly, even make them face the societal consequences of bigotry, but they won’t try to stop them. However, when that bigot acts on their bigotry (through violence, subjugation, exclusion, or other means) the hero will get involved.

You might be wondering at this part how anti-heroes fit in all this. Well, anti-heroes are still heroes; they just lack some typical heroic features. They could be cowardly, lack idealism, or use questionable methods. Some would argue they might lack morality, but I’d disagree. Anti-heroes will still have a bedrock set of principles they won’t cross, often times with more vehemence than a typical hero. They might hunt down villains, but it must always be a villain who has done something, or is literally about to do something villainous. An anti-hero will rely on the third difference heavily.

One final important note is that villains don’t have to be, and rarely are, a villain through and through. To have depth, a villain needs to have a human side, possibly even characteristics more in line with a hero. Perhaps they’re kind to animals, or children. Maybe they volunteer at retirement homes, keeping lonely old people company. The key is that this human side must also be consistent with their morality. Don’t worry about it making them less of a villain; Hitler was an animal lover, and that love made him a vegetarian. The most disturbing, and frightening villains aren’t the creatures of nightmares. They aren’t made of evil and dripping darkness. The best villains (in terms of story and character) are those who look like everyone else, who go to the store, who repair a broken toy for a child. Monsters are easy to hate. But when they’re not always monstrous? Likewise, a good hero shouldn’t be perfect. No glint off their teeth when they smile, no gleaming armor. A good hero, a believable hero, a hero people will root for, should have issues they are dealing with. Maybe they’re poor, and even though they’re always on the verge of starving, the do what needs to be done. Or maybe they’re jaded, armor dented and dirty from a life of facing villainy. Maybe they don’t like kittens and puppies? Okay, that last one might be too far.

Imposter syndrome (A Long Hiatus)

#SFWAPRO

I know it’s been a long, long while since I’ve posted anything, aside from posts promoting other authors and the occasional short story anyway. As I mention in my Post “Your Baby is Ugly…Again” my contract with Harper expired, they didn’t offer another, and I started on a new project.

I’d like to say that project is what occupied my time, but it wasn’t.

I’d be willing to bet all of you are aware of Imposter Syndrome, even if you don’t know it by that name. In short, it’s the feeling that an achievement isn’t earned, and as such, you feel like an imposter just waiting to be found out. Now, imposter syndrome isn’t limited to the creative fields, in fact, I’d be surprised if many of you haven’t suffered from it at some point or another in your life. Maybe when you became a new parent, landed a new job or promotion, or just faced some sort of challenge. The more significant the achievement, the more likely it seems imposter syndrome will rear its ugly head, and for any reason it can find.

Perhaps that’s why so many authors, nearly all of those I know, struggle with it. It’s not easy to get there, and oddly, everyone else who achieved it has clearly earned it. Just not you. The most insidious part of imposter syndrome is that successes don’t count, only failure, even just failure to succeed. Very early in my writing career, I met a multi bestselling author (New York Times, USA Today, etc) who has been writing for almost 30 years. He is, by every metric, a success. I told him I was terrified my first book would be my last. He told me he feels the same way after finishing every book. He worries people will finally see he has no talent and his writing career will be over. As you can imagine, that was both reassuring and depressing. It’s good to know you’re not alone in how you feel, not so much to find out those feeling won’t go away.

Here’s another excellent example of how those at any level can suffer from imposter syndrome.

As I’ve said before, when Harper passed over the next book in the American Faerie Tale series, I was exceedingly disappoint, though not entirely surprised. My imposter syndrome had been expecting it, and he relished that rejection like a fine meal. Hoping to keep him at bay, I threw myself into a new project. Everyone I’d told about it said I needed to write it because they wanted to read it right now. So I worked, and wrote, and when it was done I was very happy with it. Honestly, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Which is how it should be, you should always be improving in your craft.

My agent started sending it out, and the initial response was amazing. Nearly everyone it went to wanted to read it. I felt certain it was only a matter of time before I was offered a contract and then I’d be a writer once again, and this time it would be for real.

Why do I say it like that? Well, my path to publication was unconventional. If you’ve read my other posts, you know I had no agent when Harper offered me a deal for my first book, normally a requirement. Instead, I was one of 4500+ people who participated in a, very rare, open submission window open to unagented authors. In the end, I was one of a dozen or so picked for publication. The Stolen even launched Harper’s new imprint, Harper Voyager Impulse, and for a time, the cover was on the header of Harper Voyager’s website (yes, I have a screenshot saved). But none of that mattered to imposter syndrome; I’d only won a contest, I hadn’t earned my way in, so I wasn’t a “real” author. I thought selling this new project would, finally and definitively, prove I was a real author.

Yes, I’m fully aware how ridiculous that sounds. But like phobias, depression, or other dark states of mind, reality has very little, if anything, to do with it.

You can probably guess what happened next.

The rejections started rolling in, one after the other. Almost without exception they were effusive in their praise. They loved the story and the characters, and felt the writing was really strong…BUT.

But.

That dreaded word, so small, but powerful enough to wipe out all the words, however good, that came before it. Sure, Intellectually I knew, and my agent continually reminded me, that such praise was a good thing. It meant the book was good! They just didn’t know how to sell it, or they’d just signed a book like it, or other entirely valid reasons. Intellectually I knew, logically I knew. But that didn’t matter. The imposter syndrome kept whispering that this just proved I’d been right all along. I wasn’t a real author, I’d just gotten lucky. To be fair, luck plays no small in life, especially when it comes to achieving dreams, but in the end it only gets you so far. My luck, it seemed, had run out.

That’s when imposter syndrome’s friend showed up: depression. I’ve made no secret of my struggles, especially in my youth, with depression. This wasn’t a chronic or persistent depression though, this was acute. We all get depressed sometimes, and if we’re lucky, it’s circumstantial rather than biological. It’s no less valid, but usually easier to overcome. This particular depression didn’t prevent me from getting out of bed, it just made sitting down to write anything seem pointless. So I didn’t write, not much anyway. I worked on short stories, and when I did write it felt good, but actually getting my butt in the chair took effort. As such, this blog and posts for it fell further down my priority list.

What was the point? No one was going to read them anyway, right?

So what changed? Well, the especially observant among you might’ve noticed I haven’t mentioned the title, or much of anything, about this new project so resoundingly rejected. The reason is, there’s some new interest in it. Obviously I can’t say who, but that influx of hope gave me the strength to push imposter syndrome, and his friend, to one side. Nothing may come of this interest, but I decided to put this new found hope to good use and write a blog post.

I chose this topic partly because writing about it, and as such naming it, takes away some of its power. Don’t look at me that way, I’m a fantasy writer, okay? But I also chose it because I know others struggle with it too, and, well, it’s always nice to know you aren’t alone. I’m lucky in having good friends and a group of writer friends in much the same boat as me to offer support. But, for me at least, it’s too easy to dismiss their kindness and encouragement; they’re your friends after all, it’s what they’re supposed to do. Again, recognize this has nothing to do with reality. Your friends, and family, aren’t obligated to blow sunshine up your backside. Sure, sometimes they do it anyway, but even then it’s because they love you, believe in you, and want to help.

That being said, when a stranger offers encourage or support, it can stick better because they have no reason to do it.

So, dear readers, as a stranger, I tell you this: Imposter syndrome, for all his power, is a fucking liar. He is utterly and entirely full of shit. So tell that bastard to fuck right off whenever he shows up and starts whispering. Yeah, I know. It’s soooo much easier said than done. But how about this, I promise to do it if you do? Deal? Make no mistake, we’ll both give in sometimes, and that’s okay. Feel bad. Let the little shit have his moment, then remember that you‘re made of pure, high grade, artisanal, fair trade awesome. You can do the thing! More than that, you earned that achievement, that job, that relationship, that thing! You heard me, you earned it! So don your steel-toe boots, kick imposter syndrome in the balls as hard as you can (repeatedly), tell him to fuck right off, and that Bishop sends his regards.

Guest Author – Auston Habershaw (again)

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Auston, aside from having the most Bond villain name ever, is a fellow Harper Voyager author. If the name sounds familiar, and how can it not? It’s because he’s been here twice before; first to discuss writing a second book, then again to talk guilty pleasures. Quite fittingly, his third visit is for the third installment of his Saga of the Redeemed series, Dead But Once, available today! It’s a really great series, and I can’t recommend it enough.
His post today is about writing in exciting times, which I think is a fair description of the current state of the world.


Writing in Interesting Times

By Auston Habershaw

The truest and most direct answer to the age-old author question “where do you get your ideas” is simply this: from the culture and environment in which I live. We authors are not tuned into some alien frequency; we are not getting divine inspiration in nightly installments. We’re just paying attention in a way other people aren’t. That doesn’t mean we’re brilliant or clever or more perceptive, mind you—it just means we’ve got a cauldron in our heads marked “story ideas” in which we throw a lot of the junk we see and experience on a daily basis. Then, at some point, we make ourselves a stew out of all those random ingredients and, if we’re very lucky and persistent and skilled, a story or a novel or a poem or a play pops out. What pops out is a funhouse mirror reflection of our world around us. It seems crazy and random and strange, but it’s just a bunch of ingredients mixed together that maybe you haven’t tasted in that combination before. Not magic, exactly; more like alchemy.

So, what kind of alchemy happens when the world seems to be crazy all on its own?

I don’t know about you guys, but these last two years have been quite harrowing. Each and every time I turn on the news or look online, new and terrible things seem to be afflicting my country and other countries too. My idea cauldron is chock full of anger and fear and hysteria and riots and death and violence and corruption. So, when the time came to write the third book in my fantasy series (NO GOOD DEED, available in e-book now!), I had a lot of toxicity ready to be thrown in.

I’d always known that the Saga of the Redeemed would wind its way towards popular revolt. My main character, Tyvian, is trying to become a better person (even if he isn’t sure what that means or what that is), and so a discussion of social justice is inevitable. But when I was writing the first books, our problems as a society, while certainly large, at least seemed to be bending in the right direction, however slowly. I genuinely believed the balance of my fellow Americans wanted what I wanted—justice, equality, stability, and happiness for everyone. As I watched Trump shout and scream on stage, cheered on by sign-waving supporters, I began to wonder if I was right. For the first time in my life, I felt uncomfortable being an American. I was uncertain about our future in a way I never had been. I felt like I’d been wrong about us, all this time.

How do you let that color your writing? Do you? I don’t want to write a political screed. I don’t want to preach and I don’t want to come off as angry or bitter. I want the people who read my book to enjoy themselves; I’m after the highs and the lows, the oohs and the aahs. I’m not a political science major trying to push my agenda.

But it also has to get in somehow, right? How can it not?

I’ve always been skeptical of revolutions. I don’t like fanatics, no matter what they stand for. The lessons of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution are not lost on me—innocent blood spilled right along with the guilty, horror and atrocity, and then a new order that doesn’t quite live up to its promises, anyway. But, also, aren’t these things needed? Don’t we have to have revolutions once in a while, if the tree of Liberty is to grow? But how do you do that? How can you do it responsibly, without needless bloodshed and violence? Is such a thing possible? If it isn’t, can a revolution, no matter how well-intentioned, be seen as a good thing?

I can’t say I have the answers to these questions, but I have my characters wrestle with them. They wrestle with them with the same anguish and fervent hope that I do in my real life. How does one fix the world without breaking it first? That was what was in my cauldron this time around. I mixed myself a potent brew. It took my six drafts to get right and, like all novels, I probably still got it wrong. But I can’t tell—I’m too close. That’s what I need you for.

Care for a taste?


A brilliant schemer never rests, but for Tyvian Reldamar, he might finally be over his head. The Saga of the Redeemed continues with Dead But Once, Auston Habershaw’s latest fantasy following The Oldest Trick and No Good Deed.

Arch-criminal Tyvian Reldamar has gotten complacent.

For him, he’s reached the pinnacle of all he’s really hoping to achieve: he’s got money, he’s got women (some of which aren’t even trying to kill him), and he’s got his loyal friends and family nearby and safe.

Except…maybe not so safe.

Because this is Eretheria, a city known as much for its genteel aristocracy as for its diabolical scheming. Long without a king, the scions of the ruling families scrabble for control–including levying cruel taxes and drafts on the peasantry in order to wage “polite” wars against each other.

And now, of course, Tyvian is finding himself drawn into it.

With a swashbuckling flare, old fans and new readers alike will be swept up into this world of magic, crime, and political intrigue where life is cheap and justice too expensive.


The entire series is available at any of the links below. Do yourself a favor and check it out!

HarperAmazonB&NGoogleiTunesIndie Bound


(how can you resist this handsome bastard? I know I can’t)

About the Author: Auston Habershaw writes fantasy and science fiction and has had stories published in Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge and other places. His epic fantasy novel series, The Saga of the Redeemed, is published by Harper Voyager and the third installment in the series, Dead But Once, releases on 4/17/18. He lives and works in Boston, MA and spends his days teaching composition and writing to college students. Find him on his website at aahabershaw.com or on Goodreads, Amazon, or on Twitter at @AustonHab.

 

Magic and Secrecy

#SFWPRO

There are a lot of common tropes in urban fantasy. One of the most popular is having the magical world, and those who live in it, keeping themselves hidden from the mundane world. One question I’ve heard asked is, why? Surely if someone with magical/miraculous powers would be welcomed by the world. The mundane world couldn’t possibly pose a real threat to these powerful people, and think of all they could accomplish! There are countless ways to answer: sometimes it’s answered in the work itself, or sometimes it’s obvious; plenty of people still have to hide who they are just because of who they love, for example. But, let’s explore some of the other reasons I’ve heard, and sometimes given.

  1. Suspension of disbelief:

Authors want their stories to feel believable. In stories about mystical creatures and people tossing around magic in our world, the fact we don’t ever see it needs to be explained. The easiest and most common method is to say it’s all a big secret. Sure, there are wizards/sorcerers/witches and all sorts of bizarre creatures, they’re just hiding. The “real” world exists just below the surface, and maybe we’d see it if we stumbled down the right alleyway on the right night. Of course, considering the tone of many urban fantasy stories, that might not end well for us. The problem is that this explanation is incomplete. It might clarify why you don’t see wizards hurling lightning and fire in the subway, it doesn’t explain why they’re hiding.

  1. People who are not-so-nice (super villains and douche-canoes):

In short, if it was known that some people could use magic, it’s exceedingly likely that someone without said abilities would want to use them for purposes less than legal or even kind. There’s a reason super heroes tend to hide their identity. Those who want the power they possess could, and likely would, do terrible things to get access to it, including hurting those you love. In comics it isn’t always portrayed well, often it comes off as condescending to the—almost always—female love interest who needs to be protected from her super-powered beau’s nemesis. But, there is a kernel of truth to this—not the female side, but the risk to loved ones. It’s why the first family has their own protection detail. It isn’t because they’re fragile things needing the defense of someone big and strong. It’s because there are those who would use them to make the president do what they want. For those without access to a security team, or some kind of constant protection detail, the risk to loved ones is something to consider.

  1. People who are normally nice, except…

People, even good people, can do really scary things when they’re scared: ask George Takei about that. In urban fantasy books the percentage of the population with magical abilities is usually very small. I can’t think of any where it’s over five percent of the population. If it suddenly became known, and accepted, that such a small group had amazing powers, it’s safe to say that some people would entirely lose their shit. If we go with five percent, that’s fifteen million people in the US alone. If they all worked together they might present a real threat, but how likely would that kind of cooperation be? Also, by sheer odds, not all of those people would be of the good, law abiding sort. Imagine magical crime sprees, or worse, magical terrorism. How do you think people would react? I’m not saying everyone would freak the hell out, maybe not even a majority, but it would be naïve to think a sizeable number wouldn’t demand something be done. Some, though they’d likely fall outside the “normally nice” demo, would even feel justified taking matters into their own hands. Humanity, sadly, doesn’t have such a good track record when it comes to those who are different; worse when we see them as a threat. Beyond those acting on their own, there would also be an outcry for our leaders to protect us, enough that said leaders would feel obligated to act.

  1. Douche canoes with power (The Government):

There’s no way some of the worse kind of people wouldn’t get magical abilities. Hell, plenty of urban fantasy stories have these people as the antagonist. When people started dying, the government would have to act; one of its primary purposes is protecting its citizens after all. In democratic nations, it’s possible (however unlikely) that the actions taken wouldn’t be in line with registration, or conscription, but there are a lot of places in the world which aren’t citizen friendly democracies/republics. Even in the best of nations, the reaction is unlikely to be kind and gentle,certainly not at first. For example, there would be some with magical talent who would want to join the military but there is almost no way some sort of conscription/draft wouldn’t be enacted. The argument of course would be that our enemies have supernatural soldiers, we need our own to defend against them! And with these abilities comes a moral obligation to use them for the public good, right? Add to that the near certainty that someone would want to weaponize magic in one way or another. Unfortunately, history is filled with nations, governments, and groups doing terrible things with the best of intentions.

  1. Life would become a massive pain in the ass:

Let’s assume all the above concerns are addressed. Steps are taken to ensure that the magically gifted are protected and their civil liberties aren’t brushed aside for the sake of the greater good. In such a utopia, there would still be more practical concerns. Like insurance for example. Don’t laugh, tossing around fire or lightning could lead to some serious property damage, aside from the person damage. This is particularly relevant when you think of how many stories involve characters having to learn to control (unsuccessfully at first) their newly found talents. What if you didn’t have offensive magics? What if you were, say, a safe and property friendly healer? Surely in that regard the populace would embrace such a person with open arms and celebrate all the good they could do. That’s actually a reasonable assumption (we’ll ignore any kind of malpractice insurance requirements). Assuming a healer was agreeable to using their powers to help others—I think most people would be—consider what their life would become. If their identity or home address were known (and it would), they’d almost certainly have an unending line of people beseeching them for help. Not bad people, but worse, good people: parents with sick children, or those who are just desperate with no other hope. It’d be hard for any decent person to turn them away, but at some point the healer would need to eat, sleep, or just earn money to pay the rent (if they didn’t charge for their services). Even if they did make money at it, it would take a very special person to not be weighed down by such demands on them.

I purposely skipped over the reaction from religious zealots of every stripe. Suffice to say some would see these magic wielding people as saints or angels, others as manifestations from Hell (or its equivalent). And obviously there are countless other reasons, but this gives you a general idea of what writers have to consider. It might seem like overthinking, or that authors just don’t like/trust people (for the record, I actually do like some people). But that’s what writers are supposed to do. We’re supposed to look at the world from the view of our characters and have them react accordingly. These concerns might seem overblown until you’re the one in the proverbial cross-hairs. When the result could be death, internment, or worse, even a remote possibility is one you need to consider very carefully. Would you take the risk if you were the wizard/witch in question?

Who Do You Write For?

#SFWAPro

As writers we often have one eye on our intended audience as we write, even if it isn’t conscious. Like a lot of art, if you ask a writer about his book, either you or he will compare it to something else: “It’s Harry Potter meets A Tale of Two Cities.” Inadvertently, or perhaps quite intentionally, this book’s audience has been identified. It is the very small but dedicated group of readers who enjoy books about child wizards during the turmoil of the French Revolution. Most of us don’t intend such comparisons to define our intended audience, but it happens and permeates what we write. No matter your genre (including literary fiction), odds are you have a set of preconceived notions that go with your selection of an audience.

As a fantasy writer, I tend to take for granted that my readers will know that elves have pointed ears, dwarves are short and bearded, magic spells are cast by wizards, and countless other small things. I’m assuming those readers will have enjoyed other fantasy novels, particularly what is considered the canon (Tolkien especially) and thus have some context. But, our assumptions can cut both ways. Experienced fans of our genre might read in a mystical explanation to something completely mundane. Conversely, the uninitiated might be completely mystified by something that is canon to most fantasy readers. How do we as writers prevent this?

For me, the answer is simple: assume your reader has never picked up a fantasy novel before. That’s right, nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. This has two benefits. The first is that you prevent any confusion or frustration on the part of your reader. The second is that you’ve just opened your book up to countless readers outside your genre. That’s not to imply this is an easy feat. What is easy, is to be so proud of the complex world you’ve created that you can’t wait to show your reader and you inundate her with information. In my post, Too Much Information! Knowing What to Reveal and When I go over the “how” of exposition, so there’s no need to rehash that here. What I will delve into, is the “why.”

Let’s ignore the obvious: you don’t want your reader to be bored by a dissertation before getting to the story. That’s important, of course, but what I want to discuss here is the second reason. I take Ms. Rowling’s lead and assume ignorance on the part of reader: a broader audience. Really, in the end, don’t we as writers want our stories to be read, and enjoyed, by as many people as possible? I certainly do. I’m sure there are those who think of themselves as purists and unless you know the arcane details you’re not “worthy” of reading the story, but that’s not for me. I want my tales to be enjoyed by anyone who picks it up, even if their usual preference is romance, mystery, biographies, printer manuals, math books, cereal boxes, newspapers, well, you get the idea. I believe if you strip out the supernatural aspects of my stories, or replace them with mundane aspects, the plot and characters still hold together. At least, that’s what I strive for. That, and no readers left scratching their heads when they’re done.

This is something all of us should strive for. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a book about faeries, or the Founding Fathers of the United States. After all, your readers might not be American or aware of American history. See? There I just assumed the readers of this blog were mostly American. I could’ve deleted that line, but I think it serves to show all of us that we have to strive, constantly, against those sorts of assumptions. Don’t limit yourself, or your work, by not inviting someone in to enjoy it. Be a good host and make your party as inclusive as possible, and ensure each guest is as welcome as possible.

Lessons About Life as a Published Author

Katherine Harbour was one of the author’s discovered during the open submission window Harper Voyager held back in 2013. Her work stuck out so much, she was picked up more than a year before the rest of us, and she certainly earned it. Her Night and Nothing series is truly exceptional and worth picking up, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t usually get into YA.
Not long ago, Katherine posted some of the things she has learned along the way. I wrote something similar last year, and probably will again this year, but she makes some interesting observations. As such, I felt it was worth sharing with all of you. You can read it here, and while you’re there, check out the rest of her site.

What I’ve Learned About Being a Traditionally Published Author

 

 

 

Guest Post: Daniel Potter

I’ve said before that one of the really great things about being an author is meeting other authors. Recently I met Dan Potter (no relation to Harry, I assume) who’s book cover (Off Leash) instantly caught my eye. Then I read the blurb:

Thomas Khatt had his life planned out. Not that it was all going according to plan. Unemployed, mostly broke, and living part-time with a absentee girlfriend, he thought his luck was bound to change soon. But after witnessing a terrible accident, Thomas experiences a very different kind of change, waking up with a tail, tawny fur and a disturbing urge to lick every mote of dust off his four feet! As if that wasn’t enough, magi are tripping all over themselves to auction him off to some pimply-faced apprentice as a familiar.

Armed only with sharp teeth and a sharper tongue, Thomas faces off against a lightning throwing granny, a sexy union recruiter and linoleum flooring as he desperately tries to hold the threads of his old life together. To stay off the leash, he’ll have to take advantage of the chaos caused by the local Archmagus’ death and help the Inquisition solve his murder. A pyromaniac squirrel, religious werewolves, and cat-hating cops all add to the pandemonium as Thomas attempts to become the first Freelance Familiar.

After that we started talking and I found out he’s also a pretty cool guy. As such, I’ve invited him to talk about writing. More specifically to talk about the his two writing weasels. I think there is sage wisdom in his words.


Deciding The Proper Use of Your Two Weasels

My second book has been sent to the editor. After a celebratory bout of buying myself a videogame and playing it till too-late-o’clock, I am confronted with something I haven’t dealt with for awhile: a blank page.  I’m an indie and I know what I should be doing. I need to write the next book in the Freelance Familiar series. I’ve done a bit of research on Las Vegas, the setting of this book, and I already have a title for it: Snake Eyes.

I have plenty of elements and ideas that could be used in the story, but I don’t actually have a clear idea of the story yet.  I have yet to make those decisions.

So I am staring at my metaphorical weasel hut where Bullet Point and Pantser are sleeping and trying to decide which one to wake up.

Pantser is the easy-going one of the pair. If I wake him up we could start immediately. Setting off with my characters, we would walk in the general direction of the ending and merrily wander to our destination while all my characters cling to his ears and whisper directions. The trouble is that Pantser likes to drink and loves the take nips of bad-idea whiskey when I’m not looking. Once he’s soused its wrong-plot-turn city and we end up having to backtrack our way out of dead ends. Even if we stay on track, Pantser loves procrastinating decisions by spending time frolicking in fields of purple navel-gazings and hunting expository mice. In short, relying on Pantser is a recipe for the book taking a long time to write.

Bullet Point is much more on task than his brother, but won’t go anywhere without a map. So we will have to spend a week or two or maybe an entire month making decisions about how to get to the end.  Every character will be given their arcs and told to get in formation. After all that planning, we set off on a writing journey that should be a direct jaunt through the narrative landscape. Then slowly things start to go horribly wrong.  Bullet Point is blind and deaf once his path has been set, so he can’t hear the wailings of a character that decides she doesn’t want to follow the map. Or he’ll blunder straight into narrative obstacles that I missed from my authorial tower. Only after all the characters are screaming bloody murder and weeping over their broken character arcs will I hear them from my perch and call Bullet Point back.  Then we’ll spend another week making a new plan.

Off Leash, my first book was entirely Pantser’s work. It took me about two years to write the first draft, but the work was very intermittent.  Rewrites required nearly two complete drafts and I changed the last third of the book entirely after the beta readers told me the ending needed work. I chucked probably 90-100K words into the trash.  Not exactly an efficient writing exercise.

Marking Territory, which was Bullet Point’s debut, by contrast took me eight and a half months of nearly constant work to finish the first draft, with approximately 60K words being tossed out.  Shorter than Off Leash to be sure, but man was it a constant slog to grind through Bullet Point’s map. He’d constantly get stuck and we’d have to spend weeks trying to figure out where we got it wrong.  Finally, unable to move forward with outlines, I dragged in Pantser to finish the last 20k words and get us all to ending.

Now that I’ve given both weasels a bath and pruned the manuscript, I can say that Marking Territory came out pretty dang good. It’s got a squirrel-piloted mecha, black magic sword, a were-moof, shape changing witches, and it’s all Thomas’ fault.  The process of molding it, however, is a story similar to that of a six-week family vacation in a van that burns oil and leaks coolant.

Unlike cars, each Weasel should get better with use. Still, I’m left with the question of which one to poke with this here stick so we can dig into Thomas’ next adventure.

Off Leash is available on amazon now (only $.99 this week), Marking Territory will be soon.OFF LEASH_cover smallMarkingTerritory_cover
You can also check out Dan at his webpage, here, or follow him on Twitter, here

 

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