Category Archives: Brandon M. Lindsay

Plumbing the Depths of Emotion

No matter if you write political thrillers, historical dramas, or speculative fiction, a certain amount of research is required for the reader to buy into your creation. Oftentimes we focus on researching hard facts, bits of information to inform the details that lend an air of credibility to our stories. There is one area of study I think is critical for anyone who writes fiction, but it isn’t something that you can read about in a textbook (at least not in any meaningful way), and that is emotion. More specifically, our own emotions.

Recently I canceled my cable TV subscription and opted to use just Netflix instead. One of the shows it recommended was an anime show called Elfen Lied. It was pretty highly rated and I was in the mood for something different, so I gave it a shot.

I was not prepared. Few artistic works have affected me as much as that show. It’s an uncompromisingly brutal and oftentimes disturbing story of a girl on a quest for redemption and the reclamation of childhood’s lost innocence (warning: I said brutal and I meant it. It’s not for the squeamish or faint of heart). But more important than the darkness of the story is its contrast to the moment it all leads up to, when redemption and forgiveness are achieved, when the veil of suffering is lifted to reveal love and hope. Never was such a destination so hard won, by the main character or by myself. It was devastating yet beautiful. It broke my heart.

Would that my own writing had that effect on people, which got me thinking: how was this able to affect me so? I realized that by introspecting my own emotional reaction to the show, I would able to determine what about it caused that reaction, and thus be able to use what I learned about myself as a tool in my own writing. I’ve done similar things in the past, but that’s been more looking at things that I thought could affect people emotionally, rather than looking at the raw emotions as they occur in myself. It’s always been a roundabout or subconscious approach, never direct.

In a book on fiction writing, I remember the author at multiple points recounting how he couldn’t finish watching a movie or reading a book (or some such) because it was too emotionally intense. I have never understood that. One thing art does well is convey emotion-so wouldn’t we, as writers, want to learn what we can of it? Experience and know the full spectrum of emotion, so that we can then imbue our works with emotional impact? After all, shouldn’t we be willing to suffer for our art?

Emotions are incredibly powerful, perhaps one of the more powerful forces in our lives; they can make our writing powerful, too. Being intimately familiar with them can allow us to implement them. From now on, I’m going to make an effort to embrace each emotional experience as it comes my way so as to better understand it. Hopefully I won’t become a neurotic in the process.

I’m always on the lookout for things that stir the emotions, so if you’ve got something that has done so for you, let us know in the comments! (And don’t mention Disney/Pixar’s Up. I’m already aware of its soul-crushing sadness-making ability)

Self-consistency and Maintaining the Fourth Wall

When many, if not most, readers enter a fictional world, they want to stay there until they’re ready to leave. For us writers, that means having to avoid doing anything that pulls the reader out of our world. Failing in this task may make it difficult for a given reader to buy into our creation. They may set it down and move onto something else. If this happens, we’ve lost them.

Any aspect of storytelling is vulnerable to this. Someone breaking out of character, the introduction of a deus ex machina, and even poor handling of point-of-view are all good ways of infuriating readers, and rightly so: they are violations of an unspoken trust with our readers that the stories we are telling them are self-consistent.

Setting is an aspect of storytelling which is particularly vulnerable to this kind of violation, especially in genres where setting is important, such as in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction (by setting, I mean all things related to world-building, such as culture, dress, geography, the laws of physics or magic, etc.). Read enough reviews in any of those genres and you will see that one of the widest criticisms is that the author described some event that could not or would not have happened in that context, and thus the reader was pulled out of the story. There’s a good reason for why this can be such a problem for a writer: setting, by its very nature, consists of a vast number of interrelated concretes. Consider the difference between a character arc and a city, full of people, buildings, roads, belief systems, cultures, and so on, and you should see what I mean. It’s very possible (and necessary) to track the shape of a particular character’s arc, but far more complicated to track the goings-on of every person and thing in a city. There are many ways we can forget a detail that affects the story later on, and thus cause one of those reader-losing violations.

Of course, simply not knowing how an aspect of your world works can also do this. Many of our readers are smart enough to know that you can’t ride a horse at a gallop while swinging a fifty-pound sword for five hours straight. As most writers should by now know, doing some research solves most of these problems.

But there’s another related issue that can be a little subtler, and it relates purely to a world’s self-consistency. Unless you’re writing an alternate history or time travel yarn, your Imperial Roman soldier isn’t going to call his wife on his cell phone, since cell phones didn’t exist back then. An obvious example, but things get a little trickier when you’re writing in a purely secondary (or, purely imagined) world.

I once wrote an epic fantasy story in which one of my characters was exhausted, and was described as feeling as if he had just run a marathon. While it seemed pretty innocuous to me at the time, someone in my writing group couldn’t buy into it, because the word “marathon” is named for the run of Greek soldier Pheidippides during the Battle of Marathon. And since such an event never occurred in my world, he argued, how would the concept of a marathon in the normal sense even arise?

Hearing his criticism was a bit of a wake-up call for me, and now I sometimes find myself watching out for the same thing with books that I read (as much as I’d rather just sit back and enjoy them). Of course, in my hierarchy of priorities, I’m going to put a satisfying plot over catching myself using the word “marathon,” but I still keep an eye out for something like that slipping in. Whether or not you’re that meticulous about your world’s etymology, rest assured that some of your readers will be.

* For another interesting post on the topic of word choice, check out the earlier post by Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, if you haven’t already.

Controversy and Consensus

Writing is a solitary business for a number of reasons, but there may be times when you want to collaborate. This blog is one such instance of writerly collaboration. The reasons for coming together to create it are numerous: we all have different things to say and different experiences to share, we can distribute the workload of maintaining such a site so that no one person has to do it all, etc. Doing so has allowed us to create a product that helps each of us individually and (we hope) provides a value to the writing community at large.

However, such a joint venture has some limitations. Our more astute readers will have noticed that a couple of recent posts were taken down from our site. They weren’t taken down for issues of quality or anything like that, but were taken down due to the controversial nature of the posts. They were, in essence, declaring a stance that not all of the blog’s contributors shared on a very sensitive topic.

Now, I’m all for taking a stand on hot-button issues. I have no problem with taking an unpopular position so long as it’s one I happen to believe in. In fact, I have a short political satire that I am purposefully not promoting on the Fictorian Era simply because I don’t want to suggest that any of the other contributors want to be even tangentially associated with it.

Which brings us to the heart of the issue. Each of us is an individual with individual views on a variety of topics. A shared project like our website cannot let each of its contributors express himself fully without potentially alienating some other member. That can be a severe limitation for a group of artists, whose main drive in their work is self-expression. This is something that anyone is going to have to consider before joining a group where the task of creation is shared.

However, while it may limit the scope of what the group can do, it certainly doesn’t limit the individuals comprising the group in any significant way. As I mentioned, I’m still writing my outrageous and inflammatory satire, but I’m just not making any of my fellow Fictorians inadvertently promote something with which they may violently disagree simply by promoting our blog. And at least one of the posts taken down has found a home on the author’s personal website.

Shared projects like this one can certainly have value. They may not be able to stir the pot as much as some people (like me) would like, but that’s not generally their purpose-and if it is, it must be understood by everyone involved from the very beginning. Though it may seem like such projects limit you in some way, keep in mind that you are not losing anything by doing it, but actually giving yourself an additional means of self-expression, narrow though it may seem at times. And if it ever seems to confining, you can always just take your own path and focus on the things that truly matter to you.

What Art Can Do for Us

Oath of the Horatii, by Jacques-Louis David

It happens to everyone; sometimes, life disappoints us. We can do our best to mitigate disappointment, and we can even achieve a great amount of success in that regard, but at some point, something’s going to come up that wrecks our day.

Indeed, it appears to be a rather prevalent issue these days (the reasons for which are beyond the scope of this post, though I assure you, I do have an opinion on the topic), so much that people unquestioningly equate cynicism with realism. If you have any doubts about this, listen to a politician.

But this phenomenon extends beyond our day-to-day lives to the field of art, and in particular, of literature. In fantasy (the genre with which I am the most familiar), there has even sprung a new sub-genre dedicated to cynicism called “gritty fantasy,” comprised of anti-heroes and more anti-heroes. Those who have helped popularize this sub-genre have done so by acclaiming its supposed authenticity of character motivation and general realism amidst a fantasy backdrop.

Some of the authors in this sub-genre are quite good and a few I buy the day their books come out. More often, though, especially on those wrecked days, I’ll have to take a break from this kind of book and read something that I know will end happily ever after. Why? Because I have enough problems of my own, thank you very much, and it just isn’t worth it to wallow in some character’s misery. In a way, I think it’s (somewhat unsurprisingly, given the nature of these books) tragic that this grittier type of story has come to prominence because it probably contributes to the general malaise that people feel.

So what happened to the stories peopled with characters you can cheer for and want to emulate, stories led by heroes who save the day and vanquish evil in the final act? Many of its critics (who currently outnumber its champions) think this type of story is unbelievable and unsophisticated, that its characters aren’t “flawed” enough. It seems this type of story has fallen out of vogue in recent years, though there are still its practitioners and fans, and I doubt that either will go away. At the end of the day, these are always the stories I gravitate toward. These are the stories that remind me that today can be a good day, so long as I do my best.

Some stories show us how the world is. Some show is how it can be, whether good or bad. Still others show us how it ought to be, and give us the inspiration and the emotional fuel we need to make it that way, to become the heroes of our own stories and live the lives that we want to live.

As artists we have a choice. We can either fall in line with the trends of today, and I’m sure many of you will disagree with me and argue that this is the better path (if you do, please comment. I enjoy a good discussion). Or we can show our readers characters who do not yet exist, but can, doing things considered impossible, yet succeeding.

And who knows? We might just end up saving the world by the time the final page is turned.