Monthly Archives: September 2013

Voluntold

So, the Editrix and I and undoubtedly several others have a word for this sort of thing, that thing where someone asks for volunteers, pretends or makes a show of contemplating, and picks you. We call it being voluntold. It happens a lot in rigid structures such as military or police forces, or some kinds of school. Latrines need scrubbed? Congratulations, probie, you’ve been voluntold. Someone needs to go on that scouting mission into known hostile territory? That’s right, you’ve been voluntold. Some idiot needs to pass a series of increasingly ridiculous and difficult trials in order to win the dubious privilege of battling the villain who’s terrorized the known world for the last century? Congratulations! You’ve been voluntold. Here’s your MacGuffin.

I still maintain that if half these protagonists weren’t in a place where their choices consisted of getting thrown in prison by the evil army or scraping a living off the streets because your dead parents left you nothing, most of them would tell their guides where to stick the prophecies that chose them.

The other option you get in a lot of organizations is the reaction of “How nice, you have a problem. Now go fix it.” This crops up only as a reaction, which limits the potentials somewhat. It requires the initial effort of spotting the problem, after all, in order to be tasked with fixing it. But doesn’t that make for a more dynamic beginning? Someone poking holes in the structure that’s been set up around them, then reacting to being told they have to fix it. Not necessarily with belligerent determination, that’s why we have the Refusal of the Call, but reacting nonetheless to a situation set up by their own actions. Admittedly, certain themes and archetypes and structures don’t work well with that sort of beginning, but as a general rule it’s a much more active start to a piece. It involves much more agency, choice, and action on the part of the protagonist. And that’s just one of the problems I have with this Chosen One malarky.

If you know me at all well, you know (and if you don’t, now’s your chance to learn) that much of my thinking on narrative is influenced by Babylon 5. Maybe not determined, so much, but influenced. So here’s where I reference Babylon 5, specifically a line from Marcus Cole. He said,

I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?’ So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.

It’s much the same with being a Chosen One. There’s an outside order of things, something that’s imposed upon people and their actions and consequences, chance becomes thin on the ground. Whether or not that has anything to do with fairness is only tangential; in certain works, fairness becomes dependent on the point of view of the Chosen One. We call this protagonist-centered morality. (And we hates it, precious.) Depending on the skill of the writer, the Chosen One can clear obstacles from their assigned path by making personal choices and taking actions, but a lot of the time obstacles are simply cleared because they are the Chosen One. And the ultimate result is always the same: 

The lesson in the work tells us that the universe is a more friendly place when it’s all geared to work in your favor. When destiny says you are chosen and will fulfill this great promise. It’s part of what makes works with that kind of dynamic and prophecy so appealing. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that all of our suffering, all the bad things that happen to us are simply to prepare us for something grand and important and wonderful in the future? I know I’d like that. I have a couple of really bad choices I made in the past that I’d like to think were destiny’s hand nudging me towards something greater in my future. When you’re the Chosen One, that’s exactly what happens! You’ve been voluntold to struggle through this bad relationship, this mind-numbing trained-monkey-level job, this class you’re failing so that in the future you’ll be a better… whatever. And you can defeat the bad guys and save the day.

But what’s your other option? “How nice, you have a problem, now go fix?” Not only is that putting all of the burden on diagnosing the problem correctly on you, it also conveys the sting of rejection. You ask for help, it’s refused, and it hurts. On the face of it, it’s a lot less friendly than having someone in a deep British-accented voice come down and whisk you off for adventures unknown telling you there’s a grave problem and they need you to fix it. Here’s your MacGuffin.

But that’s essentially the same thing, isn’t it?

When you find the problem, you have some idea at least of where to start. You might not know where the full boundaries of the problem are but you know where to begin looking. If done right, within the story at least, that kind of approach can be shown to confer confidence, authority, ability, after a suitable struggle of course. And this is all assuming the response is tempered by having the actual tools to fix the problem. If you don’t, it becomes futility and the Protestant lie of “You’re not succeeding therefore you’re not working hard enough, you’re wrong.” We’re all familiar with this one, yes? Still, this is fiction. We are the writers, we make the rules. We can give the protagonist a problem to find and then solve. We can give our protagonist the tools to solve it.

Or we can not do that. Which is the trickiest approach of all, but sometimes necessary. When I was a child, I learned a lot of things from books, just ask the Editrix who recently took a book tour of a lot of my formative reading. One of the things we can learn from books, more safely from books and with fewer direct hits to the psyche, is how to fail at things. How to approach a problem with what seem to be all the right tools, with the right mindset and all the data, and it doesn’t work. That doesn’t happen to Chosen Ones. But it does happen to us, in real life. And it’s much easier to learn how to cope with that from a character we identify with, empathize with, in a book, than it is to learn it the hard way.

There’s always room for wish fulfillment and escapism. I’m a big fan of it, engaged in a lot of it myself. So I’m not going to tell you there’s no room in fiction for someone special to be voluntold into fixing the world, with all the attendant glory and reward and happily ever after. But I find it disingenuous to make that the dominant narrative, And it’s much more satisfying, for me, personally, to stand at the top of the heap of bodies that I put there out of stubborness of will and the tools I have to hand.

 

Just The Facts, Ma’am: Black Ice

This is the first post I’ve ever made along these lines. It’s hard to describe Black Ice without getting into some serious spoilers, or it feels like that at the start. All the salacious parts are the juicy secrets! I can tell you it’s an anthology, a braided novel, a book of related stories set in the same urban fantasy world. The same city, even. One of those world in an urban microcosm things. I can tell you with a straight face that it does not have werewolves or vampires in it. Nor does it have plucky teenage heroines, or sultry outsider detectives chased after by lustful members of the opposite sex. Or the same sex. Either way.

What does it have? Lordy. It does have a detective protagonist in two stories. It has a plucky heroine, I’ll admit it right now. I like stories with plucky heroines, they remind me of me. It has non-humans, and it does have faeries, I’ll be up front about that right now. Not the super-pretty fine and courtly faeries, though. I’m leaving the politics out of it for now. It has a faerie and her girlfriend, bystanders who get hit and bystanders who punch back, zombies, conspiracies, mysteries, murder, explosions, desperation, friendships, lies, and socks.

I’m not even kidding about the socks.

When I started Black Ice it was a short story. Several years ago I had dived back into the world of noir and pulp in a big way, and thought I would break out the old writing muscles and see how rusty I was at it. And because I’ve been a big fan of urban fantasy since elves drove racecars, well, why not? I told a short story about a necromancer and a detective, but when I was done there were more questions than answers. What were Hellhounds? What did the perpetrators not want anyone to find out? Clearly this needed another story. And another one after that. And then I did other writing challenges, and this world had percolated and grown so much in the back of my mind that, well, why not set these stories there? A magically enforced romantic soul-bond  was the perfect thing for a horror story, and she became my second protagonist, my heroine. Randi Teller, who refused to let her mother or anyone else call her Miranda and who was most comfortable getting her hands dirty in the middle of a crisis.

Other ideas for urban fantasy and supernatural fiction got folded into the world of Black Ice, which picked up the nickname Black Mold for how it kept growing. The faeries developed a mafia. The zombies rejoined ordinary life. By the time Nanowrimo came around again I had enough material for a Nano-novel, the culmination of this first collection, though I knew I’d have stories left over. So this final novella in the Black Ice anthology brings together several characters in the awareness that Something Bad Is Going On, and the leftover material goes into the two books to come, White Lightning and Gray Matters.

What else can I tell you about Black Ice? If I were to shoot it as a movie, I’d get Luc Besson to direct, maybe to collaborate with Timur Bekmambetov. I’d have Guillermo del Toro consult on the designs for the non-human characters with their non-human faces, even some of the non-human homes, though we won’t see those until White Lightning at best. I’ve already talked some about the soundtrack, but for the score maybe Graeme Revell, or Jeff Danna for White Lightning. For casting, well. I’ll leave that to the imagination of the reader. I do have my own ideas, but that’s between me, the Editrix, and my girls. What else can I tell you about Black Ice? I’ll be talking it up here and elsewhere, and if you’ve been reading Gods and Monsters you’ll have a fair idea of what it sounds like, with a bit more cigarette smoke and road coffee. Keep an eye out. Keep a corner of an eye out. I’m sure you’ll see something interesting.