The Ultimate Philosopher King

Picard3Jean-Luc Picard is the ultimate philosopher king (but this guy is a close second). The term “philosopher king” is thrown around quite a bit, but let me take you back to its origins. Plato wrote, in Republic:

Until philosophers rule as kings… that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide… cities will have no rest from evils… there can be no happiness, either public or private. (Encylopaedia Britannica)

And then, later:

…[the] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to… the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship. (Wikipedia)

In other words, Plato was saying that a community—or entire civilization—could not flourish or eliminate human vice, until those in power embraced wisdom, science, philosophy… and I think diplomacy probably fits well into that same category.

Well, I’m not sure it’s possible to read that and not think immediately of Gene Roddenberry’s revised Star Trek premise. When he developed The Next Generation in the mid-1980s, he conceived of a future a hundred years further along than Kirk and company, one in which no human vice existed in any form. It’s much more utopian in perspective than the original series, which contained, along with its high-minded notions of equality and diversity and peaceful coexistence, its fair share of fisticuffs. In The Next Generation, there were almost no fisticuffs to be glimpsed. Instead, problems were solved almost universally around a conference table, in long meetings presided over by a true philosopher king, with a crack team of scientists (and even a psychologist advisor) at his right hand.

(The ubiquity of The Next Generation’s endless meetings has been soundly mocked over the years, but I confess that I actually like them. I’ll take a serious philosophical discussion over thrown punches any day—both in real life and in my fiction.)

I think I fell in love with Jean-Luc Picard from the first moment I laid eyes on him. I admire his rationalism, his steadfastness, his urgency, his fairness, and his willingness to dialogue. He doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s okay because he doesn’t solve problems by himself; he surrounds himself with smart, qualified professionals who help him understand things. In one episode, literally moments before his ship is about to explode, as the bridge is shaking apart around him, he looks to his crew and barks, “Suggestions!” There is no crisis too great or urgent for a conference.

Picard can often be seen reading works of high literature; in a world of PADDs and digital technology (or should I say isolinear?), he still holds paper books in his hands. He appreciates art and sculpture. Again and again, he is shown to value theatre. He is a musician himself, and he often listens to opera and classical music. He attends concerts and poetry readings. He is also a scientific man, deeply rooted in history and archaeology. He speaks several languages. And perhaps most of all, he is a peacekeeper, a diplomat who brings opposing sides together and negotiates compromises.

Picard is a man of passions, but he is not governed by passion. In his romantic entanglements, few and far between (and always carefully considered), he is never depicted as falling head over heels. He is not subject to whims. Nor does he use sex or romance as a weapon or tactic.

I’m not sure a character like Picard would be so readily loved or admired anymore in the same way he was in the 80s and 90s. Picard is almost too perfect, too boring in our world of antiheroes and villainous protagonists. He is emotionally stable, and he rarely succumbs to errors in judgment, and when he does he acknowledges them and learns from the experience. All the same, when imbued with Patrick Stewart’s gravitas and intellect, Picard is awfully compelling.

He is the respected leader we all want to follow, a powerful figure when compared to the corrupt politicians and corporate executives we see everywhere in the here and now.

Indeed, he is the philosopher who rules as king, the true pilot who observes the stars and the heavens to preside over his ship. In the midst of near-perfect humanity, Picard shines brightly. As Shakespeare might say, he is the paragon of animals.

Plato would have been proud.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

Success or Death – Making Every Character Count

An interview with Sonia Orin Lyris.

Our theme this month is memorable characters and that makes it a great opportunity to interview Sonia Orin Lyris about her debut novel, THE SEER.

Layout 1In creating the Arunkel Empire, Lyris blends the realities of being a commoner and the ruling classes, the complex politics of the Houses vying for the Palaces attention amidst rebellion, treason, and treachery. It is this world that Amarta the Seer must successfully navigate not only to save her sister and baby nephew, but to realize that as she predicts the future, she can create it.  

Not only has Lyris created a truly memorable world, but there is a ring of truth about her characters which resonates long after the book is done. (Be warned: some mild spoilers are included in the questions and answers below.)

The seer, Amarta, is introduced as a young child who has a rare talent. Being the child, shes too young to understand it except to know that the things which she sees happen and theyre not pleasant. As she grows into young adulthood she and others pays heavy prices as she tries to evade pursuers who covet her talent. Im curious about starting with such young child, for thats rarely done, and what her talent and her journey mean to you.

As an author, I have a particular responsibility when writing a coming-of-age story, like THE SEER. I have an obligation to neither dumb-down the child Amarta nor to overestimate her abilities.

When the door opens in chapter one, we meet a child who has already had a difficult life, yet she’s been sheltered and is naive in many ways, knowing little of the greater world in which intrigue and treason is occurring. Her visions tell her things she can’t possibly understand yet, but she must try to, if she is to survive.

I wanted Amarta to be a whole person. Even as young as she is, she’s not simple. She has a family she loves. There is loss and pain in her past. She is struggling to understand what she is.

Who would she become, I wanted to know. Who must she become, to be able to take on the great power that she has come to hold?

The story starts with her so young because the challenges these questions raise start early. These challenges are the seeds of her journey.

There are mages in the novel. Mage live long, are capable of many powerful things. When we meet Maris, we quickly learn that there is a great cost to become a mage, paid not only by her parents, but also by her during her training. Unlike most other novels where the wizard or mage talent is taken for granted, you address the cost of becoming a mage as well as the cost, both personal and indebtedness, of taking on a contract.

Yes, mages pay dearly for their power and status. In Maris’s case, her parents paid a price as well.

You know the old adage that great responsibility comes with great power? This is a moral stance that the very powerful must come to understand out of their experience because no one can force them to take it. I wanted to explore the cost of achieving such power, and examine the consequent responsibility.

The contract Maris takes on to undergo the transformation into mage — her apprenticeship contract — is one that typically ends in success or in death. High stakes, over many years. It’s not a pretty business, and Maris’s personal experience of that is very much part of her journey.

At one point in the story, Maris is talking about what it would mean for someone to become a mage. She thinks: “It would break him, rip his world to shreds. Change everything he thought he knew.”

I wanted to know more about her journey. Where had she come from? Where would she go? Would she resolve her bitterness at the cost she had paid?

An interesting parallel exists between the struggles of royalty and the commoner. Im thinking of Cern, the kings daughter who becomes queen because of her betrotheds treachery, and Amarta, the seer. Both have responsibilities due to fate. Both are forced into roles they dont choose and their actions or inactions have profound effects on a kingdom. Yet, their character arcs are so different.

Yes, both Amarta and Cern are both thrust into responsibility without choice, and their arcs are very much about this unchosen power. Cern has every advantage of education and wealth, but she struggles with an isolated and loveless familial existence that shapes her every step toward the throne. Amarta has the very wealth that Cern lacks — family and true loyalty — but lacks the rest.

What they share, perhaps ironically, is that they are both living under dire threat, and neither is safe in the world, except as they learn to make themselves so.

To what lengths would I go to have power? I found myself asking that question because of Innel, a commoner who is raised in the Palaces Cohort group. Hell do anything to please the King, to earn his respect so he can have a chance at marrying the princess Cern. He is, at once, fascinating and terrifying, and this balance is hard to achieve for many writers. Can you share with us how you so deftly managed to create Innel and what is it about him that made you want to write him?

Power is so interesting. The more you have, the more it has you.

As the story opens, we see this forceful, wealthy man show up at the door, intent on lethal answers from Amarta. In chapter two we find out more: who he is, what he’s done. Then the consequences of his earlier actions begin to unroll.

I had to do more than say Innel was ambitious and close to the throne. He had to make sense in the context of his history and culture, all the way back to childhood. We see more about this childhood in “Touchstone”, a tie-in story available for free on the Baen website, where we find out how he and his brother came to the Cohort.

I wanted to go deep into Innel’s journey in the novel because he balances Amarta’s journey. What, I wondered, had happened in his past that drove him to the circumstances of chapter one? What was it like for him to stand so dizzyingly close to such monarchical power?

Again, it’s about making him a whole person, with all the conflicts and convictions that someone in his position might actually have. What is he afraid of? What does he want?

And how far will he go to get it?

Heres the where did you get the idea? question. The hidden city of Kusan where the slave race, the Emendi, live is brilliant. I found myself wanting to visit this tangle of warrens in the hills and to learn their secret language. What inspired you to create this society?

As it happens, you can visit Kusan – or nearly so — because Kusan is based on the underground city at Derinkuyu, Turkey, a subterranean city thousands of years old that descends many levels. The actual city is big enough to house thousands of people, along with their livestock and supplies. Highly defensible, the entrances could be sealed with huge stone doors. It had underground wells of fresh water, ventilation ducts, and an extensive network of rooms and stairs and tunnels. Across its history, the underground city at Derinkuyu many times served as a refuge.

When I heard about this underground city, I knew at once that it was my hidden city, the novel’s Emendi haven. The Emendi were long ago abducted from across the waters, brought back, and forced into slavery. Emendi are blond, and there is a long-standing folktale that the gold of their hair implies pure gold inside their bodies as well. In the face of this story, is dangerous for them to be in the open.

And yet, over many years, some managed to escape. Kusan — the Hidden City — is where they found refuge, and now live, quietly and safely.

But again, we’re talking about real people, with complicated motivations beyond freedom and survival. The Emendi have created their own hidden culture in the subterranean city of Kusan. They have a signing language, one they developed in the halls of their captors, and keep alive so that they never forget where they came from, or forget the family they left behind, who are still enslaved. They have traditions of stealth and caution. They are especially cautious about their oppressors, the Arunkel people, who live above ground all around them.

Want to see what Kusan looks like? Here is a collection of photos of the underground city at Derinkuyu, in Turkey:

http://scribol.com/anthropology-and-history/archaelogy/turkeys-incredible-lost-underground-city/

And one final question: Youve created a world which feels very real and with it a full complement of memorable characters. Do you have any advice on creating memorable characters?

There many ways to create memorable characters. Lots of techniques. The scope of them can be daunting, especially if a writer does not naturally tend toward the character-oriented approach.

But rather than hand over a fish, let me tell you about my pole and bait.

In a story of memorable characters, each character is the protagonist of their own tale. Even the least consequential of them has a past, a family, a culture, just like the flesh-and-blood people around us.

So I ask myself: what does the world look like from their point of view? Where are their joys, their terrors? What do they care about?

I’m not suggesting a writer must describe all that, but do have a feel for it. Just as the people around us have personalities, so do story characters. To get better at understanding this, I recommend studying good examples, such as the flesh-and-blood characters around us.

What makes them tick? What makes them joyful? What pisses them off? How do they explain themselves? What is the story they tell themselves about who they are and what they are doing in the world?

If you listen well, with compassion and curiosity, people will talk plenty. As they do, imagine what they must feel like inside. Step into their shirts and shoes. Wiggle your fingers and toes. How does it feel to be there? What is this person about?

Then do the same with your characters.

A hearty thank you to Sonia Orin Lyris for this interview. For a copy of THE SEER, check with your favorite bookstore or find it online at Baen or Amazon. Gain deeper insight into the Arunkel Empire and the significance of its coinage by reading her guest blog for us titled Will Build Worlds for Spare Change.

author_headshot_m
Sonia Orin Lyris is the author of The Seer (http://bit.ly/seersaga), a high fantasy novel from Baen Books (http://www.baen.com/). Her published fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mainstream, and more, and may be found at lyris.org/fiction . Follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/authorlyris/) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/slyris). You can also read her blog at Noise and Signal.

Dashti of a Thousand Days

DashtiThe Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale is one of my absolute favorites. I’ve spotlighted it before, because of Hale’s amazing prose and ability to turn what might be considered a mundane story into something amazing and beautiful. As in many of Hale’s books, Dashti, our heroine, is from humble circumstances and doesn’t think much of herself. She is also self-sacrificing and loyal. These are traits that are never stated, but portrayed so well and so often that we gain a deep understanding of her character.

Dashti is also a bit of a condescending snob. That seems counterintuitive with everything else I’ve said about her, but that’s part of the beauty of Hale’s complex characterization. Though Dashti thinks little of her beauty or social standing, she inwardly scorns the princess she serves. As the narrator, Dashti’s thoughts reveal her confusion at the princess’ lack of basic survival skills, her mental instability, and her selfishness. This character flaw fits Dashti, makes her more real, and more interesting. As with any good character flaw, Dashti eventually learns to temper it, seeing the world from the princess’ point of view.

What I particularly like about Dashti is her strength. It’s a different kind of strength than we typically read in our fantasy and science fiction novels. With so much emphasis on strong female characters, we sometimes forget that inner strength and be even more definitive than physical prowess. Now, I tend to write a lot of female characters with kick-butt fighting skills, but that’s a two-edged sword. There’s usually a reason they felt it necessary to focus on this aspect of their skill set, and those reasons leave them somewhat damaged. My books focus a great deal on how they create healthy relationships in spite of their emotional scars. In Thousand Days, Dashti doesn’t have this physical prowess or fighting skill. She has some small amount of magic that helps them survive, but her real power lies in her determination. The fact that she will not give up, that she’s willing to do hard things, and that she is so religiously loyal is what eventually saves them all. This is the kind of strength that makes for interesting characters, if not the most flashy.

There are a couple of moments in which I think Hale almost made Dashti a bit too loyal to her princess. There are times when it’s a bit ridiculous that such a strong character would let another woman, no matter how royal, push her around the way the princess does. That is somewhat justified by Dashti’s strong moral and religious dedication, but a woman of her character would probably push back a little more. All in all, those moments are far overshadowed by Dashti’s rich personality and Hale’s ability to get us so emotionally attached to the character that we forgive her every mistake.

I love my kick-butt characters, but sometimes inner strength without physical prowess can make for an even more admirable persona. I strongly recommend reading some of Hale’s books for a look at a more down-to-earth kind of heroine.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. She loves learning new things, vacations, and the color purple. She writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net

When a Gardener Helps Defeat a Dark Lord

Samwise GamgeeWith all the great heroes and villains in the world to choose from, why would I focus on Samwise Gamgee?

Because he’s awesome.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the great fantasy works of all time, and it’s full of larger-than-life characters. We all love the elves, with their grace and beauty. Gandalf is a mystery who captivates our imagination, and Aragorn inspires us with his bravery in the face of evil.

And then there’s Sam.

Samwise GamgeeHe starts the story as a side-kick, and seems content with his role. He’s an often comic character. He’s not very smart, and he knows it. He accepts that his place in the world is not to be the hero, but to be the hero’s cook, assistant, and bodyguard. And yet, he demonstrates in his simple way that heroes are not always the great warriors, with the flashy armor or dazzling magic. Heroes get the job done.

That’s what Sam does, without complaint and without hesitation.

Everyone I’ve talked to loves Sam. I think it’s because we see in him a character we can absolutely relate to. Any one of us could be Sam, and that’s inspiring because Sam represents the best qualities many of us strive to live.

Who is Samwise Gamgee?

Samwise_the_BraveHe is a gardener who love the simple joy of green, growing things.
He loves to eat fine foods and to enjoy life.
He is humble and knows he’s not a great hero, even though he really is.
He’s absolutely loyal.
He’s determined and does not waver.
He knows what’s right, and he’s committed to seeing it done.
He doesn’t let himself get discouraged or depressed or negative
His view of the world is not clouded by shades of gray. He can see dangers that his master willingly overlooks.
He is brave when he needs to be.
He keeps his word and refuses to take the easy way out.

Sam is there to support and assist his master, and when his master falters, to remind him why they must push ahead, despite resistance:

“There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

When given the chance to turn around and go home, he refuses:

“I made a promise! A promise.”

Samwise GamgeeWhen Frodo says, “I’m going to Mordor alone, Sam,”
Sam says, “Of course you are. And I’m coming with you!”

Here’s to the little guys whose simple, unwavering goodness can thwart the evils of the world. After all, Sam is one of the few characters who actually got the girl and lived happily ever after.

We all wish for friends like Sam.
Let’s hope we are that kind of friend.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank MorinA Stone's Throw coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers scifi time travel thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org