Writing History, Pt 2

Last week I went kinda gung ho and, by the end of the week, I was kinda worried about my posts being overlong. So when last week’s Friday post started to edge up over the fifteen hundred word mark, I decided to break it in two. If you didn’t read last week’s post, here it is.

Okay, so what does all that have to do with writing fiction? Well, one thing that annoys me about modern world building is how it has a horrible tendency to only present the past from one or two points of view. Usually, there’s a prevailing point of view and an underground, occult (secretive) or subversive point of view. In Marxist terms, a thesis and an antithesis. Usually, the main character uses these two viewpoints to figure out what really happened and uses this new point of view (a synthesis!) to figure out the correct course of action.

Authors have been using this very straightforward literary device to help characters resolve conflict and bring an end to stories for years, and making millions of dollars in the mean time. (Eat your heart out, Marx.)

In addition to being a simple way to assemble your plot, this makes thing easier on your reader as well. After all, having to keep track of too many perspectives can clutter your plot and confuse your reader. It really isn’t the best way to engage and keep a large audience.

The thing is, this approach is also overly simplistic and unrealistic, and the best authors take great pains to avoid it.

Look at Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation. It shows us the young Hari Seldon searching for the history of the Galactic Empire. What he finds instead, more or less, is a history of robots. Some people say they were helpers, some traitors, some think they were never even real, or if they were they obviously weren’t important, because they didn’t survive to the modern day, did they? Piecing it all together is central to understanding the story. Not every story needs to delve so deeply into its history, but if you’re going to make your own you need to at least hint at that level of complexity if verisimilitude is something you value (it doesn’t have to be, of course).

History falls into many chunks: Documents like newspapers, government paperwork and diaries generally form the backbone of history. Rumors, myths and other forms of oral history can be very hard to verify but give a definite picture of what people were thinking and talking about. Cultural context gives us a lens with which to see both documents and rumors through. Outside viewpoints must be balanced against each other as well as the experiences of the people who were there.

As Helix winds through Project Sumter he primarily leaves his mark in documents- paperwork is bureaucracy’s stock in trade and agents of the Project can easily generate a book’s worth of it during a busy week. Circuit, on the other hand, is not in the greatest position to leave incriminating paperwork behind. He leaves a trail in rumors and speculation which is rarely centralized outside of tight-lipped people like Hangman. The marks they leave on their culture, and what people think of them is what makes the story tick.

And even with all that, it’s not the whole picture. I’ve been looking into their history for years, and I don’t think I’ll ever have all of it. That’s the nature of writing history, whether it’s fiction or real. So the next time you take a trip to the halls of antiquity, keep an eye out for all those little hints. Grab them from anywhere you can, and do your best to make sense of them, but don’t ever fall for the trap of thinking you have the whole picture. Because then the story would be over.

And where does that leave us?

Echoes of Granduer

I’ll admit that last week I may have made a poor analogy.

People aren’t metal, you can’t just beat the problems out of them. Life would be much easier if we could. All those incredibly detailed, well thought out schemes for perfecting society might actually have a chance of succeeding. We wonder, if it seems like fixing our problems should be so simple, why is actually doing it so difficult?

More than that, why do we even find ourselves wanting a fix in the first place?

Let me try a different example, one that I think is a little more suited than the metal smith analogy. Picture if you will, an ancient stone castle now abandoned to time. You’ve probably seen pictures of them in England or Europe. Fortunately, you don’t have to have visited them personally to appreciate this analogy, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to come up with it.

Now, there’s not doubting that these buildings are impressive in their own right. Their towers and walls fill us with a sense of the size and accomplishment that just building them must have been for men with only hand tools and human ingenuity.

However, for all the greatness that we see in these buildings, they are still obviously incomplete. The are lacking the rugs and tapestries that warmed the halls, the furniture that made them comfortable and, in many cases, they are even lacking important structural features like walls or a ceiling. They’re not complete, not what they once were.

We are a lot like those castles, I think.

We feel like we should be a great building, safe, comfortable and useful. We see what we once were, and we want to be that again. But the roof is missing, the walls are crumbling and the flagstones are damp and uncomfortable. Clearly, we think, some adjustments need to be made. So we bring in some new carpet and hang some new tapestries, maybe even try to rebuild the walls with whatever is on hand.

Yet, even with a decent understanding of what the castle might have looked like we’re likely to find that, after a few months exposed to the elements, our attempts at repair start to look shabby and moldy. Without the blueprints, without materials of the original quality, we’re not likely to get far.

The conflicts and struggles that come between people, the kinds of conflicts that a writer struggles to portray in a good story, come when people cannot agree what the castle once looked like, how to rebuild it and make it great. Given free will and the need for each person to make their own decisions, that kind of thing may be inevitable.

That doesn’t make it easy or pleasant. And the fire of conflict is, in some ways, much like the heat of the forge. As we struggle over the nature of our castles the petty furnishings we’ve put up burn away and leave only the enduring stone, and we find that, as often as not, we’re back where we started, wondering what it is that will truly endure.

When the heat is on, will what we’ve made really last?

Terminology

Authors tend to eschew the terms “hero” and “villain” for a variety of reasons, some of them technical and some of them emotional. We tend to use the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist”. These terms give us a lot of flexibility. For example, a story can be told from the perspective of a person with no heroic, or even admirable characteristics, someone who we wouldn’t want to call a hero, and we don’t have to change our terminology.

On the other hand, these terms also embody a more realistic perspective. People are not all one thing or the other, and stories need to reflect that. This is what’s called verisimilitude by authors, and it’s so important that we try to include it in every aspect of the story, even in how we talk about that story.

At the same time, authors, just like everyone else, have a problem with antagonists. If you look at them closely, you tend to find that you have a lot in common with them. Sometimes, the antagonist is much more beloved than the protagonist of a story. And we don’t like to call them villains, because who wants to be a villain? Much better to go with terms lacking any kind of moral overtones. Then, there’s no need to loose any sleep over who you sympathize with more.

Now even protagonists who are meant to be heroic tend to have something wrong with them. Once again, that’s verisimilitude. People have issues. And since I am the protagonist I am most familiar with, as I’m sure you are the protagonist you are most familiar with, and I have issues, I expect the protagonists I read about to have issues as well. I suspect you are much the same.

In fact, if you look at it closely, you’ll find that protagonists and antagonists are very similar. They tend to be flawed people driven into conflict with one another by decisions they have made. And sometimes you’ll look at a story and find hero and villain very hard to parse.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled over that. We want people we can understand to be good people, so all kinds of things have been proposed. Morality has been dismissed, good and evil called constructs, and, of course, terms have been changed. The intelligentsia of the modern age have a thousand and one reasons for why you should stop worrying about good and evil and just get on with protagonizing* your own story.

But when we come face to face with life, when it beats us over the head until we’re ready to run screaming for the hills, or at least to mommy, when we’re tired of the grind and we just don’t want to get up any more and we know there has to be something more than this, we find the lie in that stance.

We realize that we don’t want to be protagonists. We want to be heroes.

Everyone wants to be a hero.

And everyone is corrupt. No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to be the heroes we want to be. Are actions are tainted and leave us unsatisfied.

What does it take to get rid of the corruption? In olden times, flawed metal had to be melted down and the slag either burned away or siphoned off in order to be purified. Are we the same? Is it all the melting and pounding worth it?

There’s a heat wave coming. Are we ready?

 

 

*Protagonize (proh – tag – uh– nize)

verb

1 – To present your story in the most philosophically and existentially correct way possible, thus causing unimaginable agony to those reading it. Not recommended for parties.