The Best Man/Woman for the Job

I’ve spoken about the antagonist in writing previously, but to those that write, striking the balance in making the protagonist’s personality both challenging and sympathetic is possibly the hardest to achieve.

I realised this when an editor said she found a particular female protagonist of mine ‘annoying’. This is probably one of the most frustrating and ambiguous pieces of feedback a writer can get. It left me with a quandary but also got me thinking – we know we have to provide a hook to the story in order to keep the reader’s attention, but what about our characters? Are we meant to sacrifice the development of a person by the trials they face, or does the readership of today need a quicker fix and a kickass protagonist who immediately explodes off the page? And are there different expectations of male versus female characters? It’s a tough one. I’ll start with women.

kick-ass-film-heroinesIt will of course vary depending on the genre. We expect a gritty, action-packed intro from our female lead in Urban Fantasy. In more thought-provoking literary novels you are, it seems, able to develop your characters throughout, but you will need to hint at their potential from the start. Again, it’s hard to define. Are you allowed to have a lead who takes anti-depressants, or do you sacrifice realism in order to pander to a readership’s prejudices regarding mental health? Tricky. Who are those invisible people out there that comprise your readership anyway? Do female characters have to be glamorous like in the American series and novels, or do we now want more cerebrally challenging characters like Vera Stanhope in the books by Anne Cleeves? Listening to a radio interview with Cleeves, it seems she approached the character of Vera as a protest against the lettuce-guzzling, super-action females expected in so much crime literature and crime dramas. In the TV adaptations of her stories that aspect is treated with a moth catcherdefinite tongue in cheek – the way Vera gives her male colleagues a hard time, turning up her nose at the healthy option sandwich her assistant buys for her, the whiskey in the kitchen. Personally, I’m a little jaded with the drink-problem trope, but it seems we have to avoid anyone who seems too bland and ‘nice’ and the addition of alcoholic addiction is believable and commonplace enough.

Yet there are pitfalls there too. In efforts to make interesting characters, you can fail to make any of the protagonists, female or male, in any way sustainable to the reader. We read to connect, and I’ve read many a review that complained about a book with no sympathetic characters that readers could root for.

‘The Magicians’ by Lev Grossman may be such a book. The teenaged protagonists are your typical seventeen year-olds, sulky, uncaring of anyone else’s feelings, self-serving and often destructive. They are the very worst candidates for having power, yet that is the point Grossman is making. Life unfortunately isn’t like the Harry Potter universe, with all those nice ethics and wish to do good. But reading too much of Grossman’s universe leaves me with a feeling like indigestion. Not all feel the same, so it’s a case of personal taste. The fact is, personal taste is all – but you can’t make everyone happy all the time.

Do some out there expect women to be ‘nicer’ in literature? In reality it has been argued for instance, with a number of famous examples, that courts will mete out tougher sentences in cases of child abuse to a mother than they would to a man. The press similarly will attack women for misdemeanours that would be more commonly expected if it was a man. So in literature, it’s easily acceptable for Ian Fleming to have James Bond coldly hopping in and out of bed with the nearest female, never batting an eyelid as they are cruelly murdered. Do we accept sociopathic behaviour from our female leads? Do some even recognise that behaviour as such from men as they would with women? I remember the shock displayed, particularly by men at the cold calculations of Amy Dunne in ‘Gone Girl’.

Remember the days when the male heroes in books were pleasant on the eye, leapt into join armydanger to save the girl, traded punches honourably with the bad guys while their enemies cheated? Is it even human to be so flawless? I suppose it depends on what you read, the reality you’re exposed to. Young men in the First and Second World Wars were sold an image in books, films, posters and movies that portrayed handsome troubled heroes fighting the good fight against the evil ‘huns’ or Nazis with nobility and bravery. It inspired them to travel into terrible situations. They wanted to be those heroic good guys, whether or not the reality matched the hype that motivated them. Whether or not they themselves did.

So, it seems, we need those we read of to be inspiring, challenging, and perhaps to have a transformative effect on us as we travel with them on their journey, and then they live within us as we continue on ours. We need to make sure they are good company and the sort of companions we need. And if not, they at least have to take us on a journey worth the conflict we feel.

Book Review: ‘Changeling’ by Matt Wesolowski

Changeling cover 3Rating:   5 out of 5 stars

This is the first of my book reviews, a new category on my blog.

What can I say? I gain great enjoyment from reading, it seems to be in my blood. Some books leave you with both strong emotions and thoughts about them afterwards. I suspect ‘Changeling’, released by Orenda Books, will affect the reader longer, it’s that good.

I love a creepy read – one of those that gives you shivers, so the aspects of the missing child and the strange occurrences in the mysterious Wentshire Forest, fictionally located on the Cheshire/Wales border drew me in. But things are not so simple in ‘Changeling’, and nothing is quite what it seems.

The book is formed around a podcast called Six Stories, the podcaster Scott King the main narrator as he researches the sad and unsolved disappearance of a seven year old child, Alfie Marsden. He interviews numerous people associated with the case. This is a meandering tale, and it may cause some readers to lose interest if they are only interested in action. If however, you love a psychological puzzle tale that teases the possibilities of supernatural involvement, you will get drawn in as I did, examining the accounts of the interviewees as Scott does, eventually seeing where things add up and things that don’t. I found it fascinating. Being an occasional insomniac, I finished the book in the small hours, and even I imagined I could hear whistles and knocks in my own house by the end.

There is however a deal of misdirection in the tale, as there is with all great mystery stories, so the ending swings round and hits you right in the heart. As with much of the human condition, there is one thing we learn sadly in life – that the monsters we can be unfortunate enough to encounter in life will far exceed those we read of in books.

The subject matter could be treated in a depressing way, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s a true revelation. This is a cleverly woven mystery that demands the reader develops far greater discernment in what is to be believed and how easily we accept peoples’ accounts of events, particularly if the media and majority of others out there do.

It’s not a flawless book and certain of the misdirections (no spoilers here) do perhaps raise other questions that remain unanswered, but I didn’t feel it detracted from the power of the narrative. A really good read that I’d recommend, Matt Wesolowski is a Northern writer to watch with interest in the future and I’ll definitely be searching out more of his books.

The Desert – the Final Frontier in Literature

dunes

I spoke previously about the lure of the forest in literature. Recently, I watched a video about the Burning Man festival located in northwest Nevada. Amidst the light shows, the dancing, art installations, drugs and the slightly bizarre symbolism behind the burning of a giant manlike figure, the camera kept returning to the stark beauty and vastness of the desert. In fact the setting gave an indefinable, added dimension to what would probably have just been a quirky set of entertainments.

It got me thinking about the incidence of the desert as a setting in books, and what it lends to the narrative. The first one I thought about was ‘The English Patient’ by Michael Ondaatje.

cave of swimmers

Though the narrative does not always concentrate on the Patient’s tale, also exploring the other characters and tales of the war, his time in the desert haunts not only the protagonist’s but also the mind of the reader. Katharine’s voice by the campfire, reading Herodotus to him, sheltering from the fury of days’ long sandstorms, the deep, dark mystery of the Cave of the Swimmers, and of course his and Katharine’s steamy affair, intensified by the rawness of their surroundings. The desert comes to define much of Lazslo Almasy’s mindset (his actual name) and, after he is forced to abandon an injured Katharine in the Cave, he becomes like any of the desert wanderers, moving about anonymously, as if on the wind.

 ‘It was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation.’ Like the faceless swimmers in the cave, he too is caught up in a migration he has no power to resist, unable to return to help the woman he loves as the war takes its hold of the desert and the lives of those that live there.

The narrative hinges on their forbidden affair, yet it is the way in which this raw environment frees the usual societal inhibitions that is the causal factor.

That led me on to Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi fantasy Dune. The clue is in the title of course. The planet Dune, also known as Arrakis is an unforgiving desert world – storms that can strip the skin off a body, giant worms that abhor water and devour everything in their path, the savage Fremen, fearsome warriors who worship the worms as the physical form of their god, Shai Hulud.

dune-fremen

Herbert’s world is as detailed and alluring as any desert culture we know of on earth, with an added exotic, interstellar edge. Plus some interestingly inventive drugs, religions and society structures. The world itself needs to be survived rather than lived in, but in its challenges is also seductive, something which has given the book a timeless fascination. Part of us wants to shake off our civilisation, visit Arrakis ourselves, become a part of the Fremens’ and the planet’s uninhibited ferocity.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence is really about the wartime Arabian campaigner’s love affair with the peoples & deserts of the Middle East. Lawrence famously ‘went native’ during his skirmishes with the Turks, fighting alongside the Bedouin and other tribes.

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 ‘For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.’

There’s a definite parallel between Herbert’s Paul Atreides and T.E. Lawrence. Both are transformed from their privileged backgrounds and forged by the rigours of the desert into legendary hero-icons, it is doubtful any of that could have been be achieved away from that particular environment.

jesus desertPerhaps the earliest instance in literature of the transformative power of the desert has to be the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in the New Testament. It may be one of those seminal moments of all time that is ingrained on our psyche, and could be one factor in explaining the lasting beguilement of the desert in literature. Even those who have no interest in religion do at least know the story, one of the first Messianic tales. The concept of going into the wilderness to find oneself is very familiar through the ages and in the overcrowded, social-media dominated 21st century draws us still. It may in part even motivate the eco-conscious who campaign to preserve such areas on our planet.

There is a touch of the apocalyptic about the desert. It is the end of all things, the wasteland on which great, final battles take place. It is mercurial, a place of elemental fury and hardship, yet conversely a place also of peace, of spiritual contemplation. Perhaps the greatest adversary we may meet there though, is ourselves. It is the perfect canvas for the best of all stories.

 

 

 

 

Good Forest, Bad Forest

It seemed appropriate, with The Wild underway on Wattpad, to explore our literary love/hate relationships with the woods.

From the classic dark forest of the Grimm tales where witches and wolves reside, to the enchanted forests guarded by butterfly-winged fairies, the forest is a metaphor for both the dark side of Nature/ourselves and everything that is nurturing and magical about the natural world. It is a trope we find irresistible. It weaves a spell that lures us towards the log cabin, the woodland adventure park, and of course, millions of Americans into the hunting lifestyle.

lothlorienIt seems also logical that the stories we choose will often wander into the forested realms. In Tolkien’s tales we’re never far from an ancient forest, untouched by the human inhabitants of Middle Earth. His forests are imbued with power, from the soaring mallorns of Lothlorien which never drop their leaves and within which the Elves build their cities, the malevolent willows of Tom Bombadil’s forest, to the tree-shepherd Ents of Fangorn, Tolkien’s forests can pretty much look after themselves. Not for them the woodman’s axe or wildfire damage. The same can be said of C.S. Lewis’s forests in Narnia where everything is basically alive. Both authors seem to be saying, by comparison, that the modern age has reduced the once great forests that covered Britain to nothing more than a dwindling commodity.

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the forest is somewhere for the slaves to hide in and escape the cruelties of their ‘owners’. In Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and other stories, the forest nurtures Mowgli and is imbued with colour and life, as long as he learns to respect it and understand its dangers. Here, the focus rests on the way man has forgotten how to live with Nature. He needs to be taught it like an infant. The dangers are more about our ignorance rather than an inherent evil lurking in Nature. It’s an important distinction.

But we just can’t let go of the dangers either in our choice of story matter, and are enticed time and again to literature that promises the thrill of the creepy, dangerous woods.

Dante’s journey to Hell in Paradise Lost begins in a shadowy forest where he first loses his way. Returning to Tolkien, Mirkwood is a place of confusion and dark peril, inhabited by giant spiders, mysterious, troublesome wood elves and of course, the simmering remnant of Sauron’s malevolence. Within the ancient forest of Hansel and Gretel lives a cannibalistic witch, a man-eating Wolf resides in that of Red Riding Hood and we should not forget Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, a fourteenth century poem that is said to have originated in my home county of Cheshire.gawaine

‘Now,’ quoth Gawaine, ‘it certainly is mysterious here; this oratory is ugly, overgrown with herbs. Well it beseems the wight clad in green here to do his devotions to the devil’s wise.’

To the narrator, the forest, as embodied in the Green Knight, seems both crude and dangerous to the mind of the sophisticated medieval knight. It has been said that the whole poem is a metaphor for the view that the forest must give way to civilisation. Of course, back in medieval times, forests were extensive and must have seemed a limitless resource.

These days, of course, we know how vital forests are. They are the lungs of our planet and without them life on Earth is simply not sustainable. Yet still, big corporations see them only in terms of the money that can be made from them or the land they cover. In ‘The Wild’, I explore the innate intelligence and the hidden side of Nature that demands respect, and which the First Nations seem to grasp much better than the western perception does. Certainly they view it with a more in-depth perspective. I was aiming at so much more than a monster tale. After all, if fracking can cause earthquakes, what further underlying forces could be unleashed by the complex systems that underpin our forests and wild places?

The lure of the wild will remain favourite story matter I suspect. We were once forest dwellers at an early stage in our evolution – perhaps some part of us will always long to return.

‘The Wild’ continues its serialisation on Wattpad – join and read for free – https://www.wattpad.com/554513775-the-wild-1

 

 

 

 

Sympathy for the Devil

Oh, we do like a good bad guy. Maybe until the 1991 film version of Robin Hood, where Alan Rickman stole the show as the hilariously wicked Sherriff of Nottingham, we never realised how much.

evil cowboyWe may think we root for the heroes in the books and the movies we enjoy, but that contrary part of our imagination also needs an emotional connection to the antagonist. Sure, in simpler times the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys had black hats and those dark-hearted scoundrels had no redeeming qualities at all, true stereotypes. That just doesn’t cut it these days, our entertainment tastes are wider, more sophisticated. Particularly in books, where not only do we travel through physical landscapes in our imaginations, but through the minds and emotions of the characters, we can get the chance to see how our antagonists became the way they are. And when an author can do that, it moves it up into a higher bracket of literature.

Take the novel ‘The Cliff House’ by Amanda Jennings. Where exactly is the antagonist? Is it the snobbery that pervades the actions of the protagonist? Is it the spoilt daughter whom the protagonist worships? Is it simply the fate or death that has shaped, even twisted the protagonist’s world view? The clever twist of course is that it’s the protagonist herself.

enders game book coverTake also ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card, a story, adapted to a novel but more famous possibly for the movie. Another clever reversal where the alien creatures they have been fighting are first perceived as the villains, but at the end of the book we realise that it is humankind, in their willingness to commit genocide and lack of empathy with those unlike themselves who are the true antagonists. Thought-provoking, it is a story that challenges our perception of good and evil, and of our belief that we must always be the the ones with right on our side.

I’m currently serialising my novel The Wild on Wattpad at the moment. The antagonist Forrest Bobrowski seems the stereotypical type we’re used to – willing to do anything to achieve his aims, even to kill to survive. But when you visualise him sitting awkwardly in his rental suit in his interview, when you understand his plan is to impress his ex-wife, get access to his child, all of a sudden we realise he is human, driven by the things we all are.

A writer can do as she or he likes, but if you’re given the amount of power a good book can have, it seems right to try to use it to make a difference, no matter how small. In this world where those in power often end up persuading the masses that certain people and nations are in the wrong, intending to harm us, so they can feel justified in their own aggressive behaviours and language, perhaps writers need to make people look at the world in more depth and alternate perspectives, not in stereotypes.

Word from the author: many apologies for the sometimes rather cheesy adverts WordPress attaches, I guess they have to make a living some way! I am however considering a paid domain in the future, you may be pleased to know.

 

Creative Detoxing

I can remember a friend many years ago who was a musician in South Manchester, who talked about having writer’s block (he wrote lyrics). At the time, his life, he felt, was going nowhere. He lived in a tiny flat, lived on benefits, his music friends were mainly toxic alcoholics and included a pair of black magick practitioners and devotees of Aleister Crowley, all very Led Zeppelin. Nothing made him happy. He was a lovely chap, very talented, but a few years of poverty, disillusionment, disappointment in the human race and living where he did on the outskirts of Manchester, had taken its toll. Eventually, he met a girl, who wasn’t the nymphet he had fantasised about on those many drink-fuelled Manchester summer evenings I recall, but she was a nice, practical person who balanced against his madcap, creative impracticality. They had a baby, and the happiness of fatherhood brought back his creativity.

Of course, many writers find misery makes them creative. Dylan Thomas drank, many gay writers, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and numerous others. lived with the sadness and fear of keeping their secret within a society that disapproved and punished it. Others find contentment works the spell, Daphne Du Maurier claimed she only became truly creative when she came to the beautiful Cornish port of Fowey to live. Whatever one’s creative impetus though, it seems to tend towards either extreme.

Those extremes have often been achieved through drugs. 60s and 70s music and novels were often inspired by such. It was a risky device. We remember the early deaths of Hendrix and Joplin, the addictions of Huxley, Kerouac plus many others. They produced great works, and often paid the price.

These days, the creative detox is apparently the way forward to free up the creative flow. Courses designed to rid you of low self esteem, introduce creative thinking methodology, energising techniques, not being overly self-critical and dispensing with self-imposed rules and barriers. Sounds fun, great to get a sense of belonging to a group setting, no matter how short a time that lasts. Which brings me to the point. Creative people are in a profession that is essentially a lonely one, and that is counter to the human need to belong to the pack. Finding the balance is the trick.

Others try to boost their creativity by joining a group, which can work, but groups can have disadvantages too – conflicting personalities, egos, cliques, malice, jealousy, in-fighting, evictions (think of Big Brother). Groups tend to attract two types of writers – those who are looking to publish and those just looking for a social outlet and to express themselves, and those types together can be an oil and water mix. Groups can draw you in, demand your time, can restrict your creativity through a gauntlet of approval criteria, it depends on the group. Some groups can work very well.

For me? Work and home – contrary to the belief we authors are all sitting on hoards of publishing revenue, most have another job. And those household needs – machine breakage, showers that need fixing, garden detritus (especially in Autumn) etcetera, etcetera aren’t going to go away. Nor are the family, who lay their own claims on your time. Modern living has so many labour-saving aspects but they come with their own demands. So a week of planned tasks can leave little time for my writing and by Sunday the guilt and frustration builds. Those ideas and plot twists are bubbling away without any chance of seeing the keyboard.

Leonid_Pasternak_-_The_Passion_of_creation_(1)

That Toxic Build-up

Guilt can be a killer – guilt that you’re ‘living the dream’ while others are stuck in that office rut. Some people can be negative about your choice of life as a wielder of words, happy to share their opinion that you’re wasting your time.

The build-up to the let-down – that you’re not making as much money as hoped, or winning those competitions you’re supposed to, getting those accolades you’re expected to, that you’re not improving, or that your work doesn’t compare favourably. Performance anxiety really affects the creatively minded.

Oh, those insecurities build up for a lonely writer. Result – toxic emotions that actually impede creativity.

Distractions can take the mind off the creative process in a good way, or a bad way. They are my weakness – I often have to research facts for my stories but can get drawn off on unrelated matters! Blog-writing and social media are amongst these – we are told they are necessary for writers in raising one’s profile (not everyone agrees) but the problem is, they are another time-hungry distraction that draw us from the main plan – which is to write.

So, how will you de-tox, free up your creative powers, push aside distractions and impediments? Meditation? A change of scene or trip? Shedding your ‘distraction’ clutter? Doing something unrelated to writing that gives you fulfilment and a much-needed esteem-boost?

Whatever it is, it’s important to recognise that toxic clutter that stops you from achieving your wish or goal.

How Comics Taught Us That Billionaires Are The Good Guys

When I was a young ‘un, my mother introduced me to comics. I guess she said she bought them for me so she could have an excuse to read them herself, but soon I was hooked.

black_pantherThe good guys seemed to come in three categories – aliens with special powers by birth (Superman), those to whom some scientific disaster or experiment had happened (Spiderman, the Flash), or – the billionaires (Batman).

If you were/are an ordinary guy who wanted to fight crime, it stood to reason you’d need a whole lot of cash in order to make that happen. Bruce Wayne spent millions tooling himself up for his mission to clean up Gotham. Tony Stark needed his billions to make his fancy Ironman suit. Topical at the moment, one of the richest is Black Panther. He runs an entire country (yes, all on his own, no help) and owns all of a precious, indestructible substance called Vibranium, which of course comes in very useful for him.

batman&robinThe point here is that comics send out the message, to the young and impressionable in particular, that billionaires are the good guys.  They are making all that money so they can make cool stuff that will be for our benefit and will help them fight crime etc. It’s a message that is oft-repeated, and you know that old adage about how any lie, if repeated enough, becomes perceived as the truth.

Those of us who’ve grown up in this virtual universe, well, those unquestioning minds out there at any rate, carry that belief into our real, everyday lives.

I mean, Elon Musk will spearhead our journeys into space, won’t he?

Jeff Bezos will help writers make money and cut out the need for agents and publishers, won’t he?

Donald Trump will make America great again. Will he? Or will it become a divided country, riddled with environmental and social problems, constantly put in danger by his crazed tweeting, volatile behaviour and insane self-belief?

koch brothersYes, comics comforted us, gave us a belief in righting wrong, made us accepting of strange clothing choices (capes and underpants). But did they also create a generation of people unable to understand that you never ask a rich man how he made his first million, you never contest their wrongdoings legally because they will destroy you, and worst of all, you never open up to them the greatest piggy bank of them all – tax-funded coffers? Because to do so would be to allow someone, whose main guiding principle has always been avarice, to control others’ lives and welfare. You don’t get that rich without being single-minded and somewhat ruthless. More, in fact like the super villains the super heroes were constantly trying to defend us against.

Iron-ManI love comics. I love their colour, their imagination, the drama. But those billionaire good guys and philanthropists – they are really only the stuff of fiction. Unfortunately for some, the line between reality and fiction is a little blurry.