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Posts tagged ‘Michael Moorcock’

Voice as Narrative Lens and Reader Lubricant


While at Readercon a few weeks back, a friend and I had a fascinating discussion about narrative voice, the role it plays in multi-book series, and the effect it has on the reader within and across narrative arcs. I keep coming back to voice here because I think it is perhaps the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolkit. But recently, while reading and re-reading a great many books in other genres (romance and thrillers, in particular) I’ve realized that voice achieves its power and utility by simultaneously fulfilling two very different functions:

Narrative Lens Reader Lubricant
Voice is the lens through which we view the story’s other pieces (e.g. style, structure, plot, setting, theme, characters, etc.). Voice is the lubricant that determines how quickly we invest in what matters to us as readers of a particular story.

What Constitutes Narrative Voice?

To be clear, when I talk about “narrative voice” I actually mean something very technical, at perhaps the most granular level of storytelling: words, sentences, paragraphs. Narrative voice is a way of selecting words and putting them together into sentences, an approach to constructing paragraphs, a “way of speaking” that comes through in the prose.

Lots of writers talk about the “authorial voice” as some quasi-mystical emergent property, and I’m honestly quite uncomfortable with the very concept. At the end of the day, the most basic thing writers have control over is our words. Some authors may choose to write in a consistent narrative voice (it’s often a practical requirement if you’re writing a long-running series), but I believe that should be a choice.

A professional writer should be able to choose the narrative voice to suit a particular story’s creative needs.

For example, compare the narrative voices in Elizabeth Bear’s Dust and Blood and Iron. The same author, excellent storytelling, but two very different narrative voices. Or compare Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné to his Behold the Man. Despite both novels’ creative effectiveness, their narrative voices are completely different. And that is as it should be, considering their different priorities.

Focusing on Story Priorities

What’s a story really made of? At the most reduced level: those letters, words, and sentences. But for most stories, they aren’t the story’s point: They are merely the substrate through which its points get communicated. Those words and sentences combine to create narrative artifacts like character, plot, setting, theme, etc. and to produce reader reactions like tension, excitement, terror, cognitive dissonance, etc.

But here’s the catch:

The priority given to any narrative element is going to differ between individual stories, and differ even more across genres. When people say that science fiction focuses on “plot over character” or that literary fiction focuses on “character over plot”, they may be making sweeping generalizations as wrong as they are right. But at the same time, those sweeping generalizations give us insight into the narrative conventions which apply to a given genre. And the prioritization of narrative elements is one such convention.

Consider, for a moment, the thriller genre. When it comes to narrative elements, I would say that the thriller genre is downright defined by its focus on/prioritization of pacing and tension. In a similar fashion, the romance genre is defined by its focus on/prioritization of interpersonal relationships and inter-character power dynamics. In much of the literary fiction genre, the aesthetics of the voice itself are often the priority/focus.

And in each case, it is the narrative voice which focuses the reader’s unconscious attention, and sets the stage for the story (through its priorities) to affect the reader.

How does the Narrative Lens Focus?

Narrative voice focuses the reader’s attention through its word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph construction.

The words we use establish a tone, carry emotional connotations, or set off unconscious associations. Whatever the narrative voice mentions imbues the mentioned with authority in a very direct sense: if the narrative voice doesn’t mention something, then when reading we will consider it unimportant (except for where it is important, when over time the voice focuses our attention on what hasn’t been mentioned – see Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Wolfe’s Peace).

When we put our words together into clauses and sentences, we give those associations, connotations, and unspoken perceptions direction. We give them a pace, a rhythm, a progression. The consistency of that direction, the timing of its application relative to the story’s events, shapes our perception of the story’s pacing, its tension, its themes, and even its characters.

I’ve written before about the use of simile in noir and hard-boiled crime fiction, and that is precisely the type of vocal focusing which I mean. When used carefully, narrative voice becomes a magnifying glass that intensifies the reader’s focus. However, it doesn’t always intensify that gaze: at times, the narrative voice can become transparent…which itself prioritizes certain facets of the story.

The Use of the Transparent Voice

What do writers like Dan Brown, John Sanford, Daniel Silva, James Paterson (et al), etc. have in common? For one, they all tend to top the bestseller charts writing in the thriller genre. But aesthetically, none of them are known for the quality of their prose. Quite the contrary, in fact: Each has had their prose roundly criticized at one point or another.

And yet, I contend that that their prose is just fine for their purpose and for their story’s priorities: Their narrative voice is transparent because – in their genre and for their stories – the narrative voice should be transparent. If the narrative voice employed Kazuo Ishiguro-esque metaphorical flourishes or John Le Carré-ish neologism, it would occlude both the pacing and events of the plot…which seem to me to be the focus of their stories. For such stories, a transparent narrative is a feature – not a bug.

However, when we look at ostensibly comparable work by Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) or Michael Connelly (The Black Echo), we find a very different narrative strategy. Such authors use a distinctive narrative voice, applying particular vocal techniques to focus our attention on character at the expense of plot. Their narrative voices are more noticeable, but that is because they use their narrative voice to reveal character.

And still other authors – like J.R.R. Tolkien – use voice to focus the reader’s attention on the world and setting.

Our Love Affair with Narrative Voice

And yet, despite the infinite variety of narrative voices we fall in love with voices. In fact, I would argue that we fall in love with narrative voices long before we fall in love with a particular story, or a particular author’s work. And the relationship there is – to a large degree – causal: The story’s narrative voice is what first grabs us, and aligns our mental state with the story’s priorities.

When well handled, the narrative voice primes us to be affected by the story. In this sense, narrative voice lubricates our experience of story.

Reader Lubricant Going In and Coming Out

When we turn to the first page and begin reading, the narrative voice is our first experience of the story. It is through the narrative voice that we begin to understand the characters, the plot, the setting, the themes, and – by an unspoken and unconscious implication – the priorities of the story. It simultaneously sets our expectations and delivers (in the literal sense) the payoff.

Controlling the speed with which this happens is – I think – one of the hardest tricks to learn. In some genres – notably YA, thrillers, romance – the market prefers for the reader’s engagement in the story to be immediate: First sentence, and go! But in other genres – notably literary fiction – there is more room for a gradual build. The vocal techniques that accomplish each are quite different.

But while voice controls the speed with which we engage with the story, it also affects our propensity for engagement with subsequent stories. In series fiction (particularly in episodic fiction) narrative voice becomes a shorthand for the reader’s mental state.

At the conclusion of Jim Butcher’s Storm Front or Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire, we have associated those respective narrative voices with a set of narrative priorities, an emotional way of feeling. That association then becomes almost Pavlovian in nature: When we pick up Fool Moon or Game of Cages, we recognize the narrative voice and it immediately puts us in a frame-of-mind reminiscent of the previous books.

Figuring Voice Out

I’m still working on figuring narrative voice out. I suspect that I’ll be figuring it out my entire life. It’s somewhat galling for me – as a writer – to have such difficulty finding the words to articulate what I’ve learned about. It’s simultaneously an abstract concept and a very concrete object, and somewhere between those two poles lies the nebulous reality of narrative voice. But with all of the cross-genre reading I’ve been doing over the past couple of years, I have – however – learned one incontrovertible fact:

The best way to understand narrative voice is to read widely, read analytically, across as many different genres as possible. Because narrative voice – and the priorities it focuses our attention on, and the speed with which it engages us – is itself a genre convention.

A Theory of the Hero: Tragic and Anti-tragic Heroes (part 3 of 3)


NOTE: This is the third and final installment in a three-part series on heroic characters. This post will focus on how narrative timing and character choice determines the difference between tragic and anti-tragic heroes. The previous two posts respectively focused on agency, voice, and character sincerity and heroic story archetypes.

This past week I’ve been writing about heroic fiction, particularly focusing on heroic characters and their story archetypes. Every heroic story must take place within a moral universe (i.e. a universe where actions have implicit or explicit consequences). If the story’s setting were not moral, then it would be impossible to demonstrate the character’s heroic nature. But given that moral universe and the character’s heroic nature (which is intrinsically concerned with their value system), what makes some heroes “tragic” and others…not?

Can Tragedy Exist without Heroes?

No. Next question?

Okay, seriously: there are probably as many definitions of tragedy (in fiction) as there are critics. And I suspect that every one of them – from Aristotle to Hegel to Nietzsche – is probably right. But what most fail to point out is the simple fact that tragedy only happens to heroes. When we think of the characters who we would call “tragic”, all feature the same central concern with the hero’s value system. Whether it is Sidney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Moorcock’s Elric, or The Incredible Hulk‘s Bruce Banner: every tragic hero is centrally concerned with moral questions.

While every tragedy involves a heroic story, the converse does not apply. There are many heroic stories which both focus on heroic characters and adhere to the three primary heroic archetypes, but which we would nonetheless be hard pressed to call tragic. Consider Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. Both stories deal with heroic characters, the former applying the aspirational archetype and the latter adhering more to the observational. Yet nevertheless, none of the heroes in either story can rightly be called tragic.

Choice: Making a Tragic Hero through the Exercise of Agency

Both Aristotle and Hegel (in particular) pointed out a key tenet of the tragic story: for tragedy to occur, the hero has to undergo some sort of reversal of fortune. That reversal may be externally mediated, the result of an opposing ethical force (a hero of different values, for example) or it may be an internal reversal (motivated by the hero’s evolving awareness or shifting passions). But in order to evoke catharsis, the hero has to reverse either some aspect of their nature or the trajectory of their experiences. That is exactly what heroic characters do when they transgress against their moral codes.

In heroic storytelling, the events of the plot, the story, and the character’s progression all come together in the hero’s choice of “right” or “wrong”. This choice may be shown baldly (e.g. Luke refusing the Emperor) or it may be concretized through dramatic action (e.g. Sidney Carton’s sacrifice). But if the hero makes the “right” choice (according to their own value system), the cathartic dénoument becomes a breath exhaled, the satisfaction of good triumphing over evil. If the hero makes the “wrong” choice, then we lament hypothetical paths not taken.

Because the hero is defined by his agency (see last Tuesday’s post), much of the tension in heroic stories stems from the question of how that agency gets exercised. Both aspirational and consequential archetypes are centrally concerned with the question of choice, though they derive their tension and their tragedy through entirely different methods.

The Tension of Expectations in Aspirational Storytelling

As they progress, aspirational stories derive their tension from uncertainty as to whether the hero will act in accordance with his moral code or transgress against it. In the moment of climax, when Katniss must choose between Peeta’s life and her own (in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games) or when Valjean holds Javert’s life in his hands, the hero teeters on a knife’s edge. Make one choice, and they stay true to their own ideals. Make the other choice, and they throw those ideals to the wind. And while that moral choice drives tension in the reading experience, it does not determine tragedy.

Consider two very different aspirational heroes: Frodo Baggins and Sidney Carton. From the beginning of Frodo’s story in The Lord of the Rings, we face the question: will Frodo have the strength to destroy the One Ring? As the story progresses, we watch him struggle with the Ring’s influence and triumph (barely and not without hardship) over Sauron and the Ring’s evil. But it is at the last moment, when he is standing above the Crack of Doom – when he is actually in a position to fulfill his quest – that he faces the climactic choice. And he fails. Frodo allows the Ring to corrupt him, and decides not to destroy it. Of course, the world is saved anyway because Gollum (Frodo’s mirror-image) bites Frodo’s finger off and falls into the flame. But regardless of that eucatastrophic moment, at the culmination of Frodo’s aspirational story, he transgresses against his own value system.

Sidney Carton, by contrast, represents an inversion of Frodo Baggins’ story arc. Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, he fails to live up to his own value system. From his story’s beginning, we watch Carton’s self-loathing rise in parallel to his love for Lucie Manette. And it is only at the story’s end, when he chooses to sacrifice himself for Charles Darney, that Carton’s acts finally align with his moral code. At the climax of the story, he chooses to do what is “right” – unlike Frodo, who chose to do what is “wrong”.

Yet despite the opposite trajectories of their respective aspirational stories, both remain tragic heroes. The source of that tragedy rests on an underlying tension between natural human meta-ethics and the consequences represented in the story. As social creatures, we are preconditioned to believe that doing what is right benefits us. While every grown-up would readily admit that life is more complicated than that, deep within our souls there remains a conviction that if we play nice, eat our vegetables, and go to bed early, our lives will be better. Aspirational heroes turn tragic when their experiences invert that expectation.

Frodo Baggins does wrong. He fails, and knows it. The fact that his failure is justifiable in no way diminishes the fact that at the last moment, he choked. In our hearts, we expect that a hero who fails and acts evilly should get what’s coming to him. Which is not to be accorded the highest honors of the land, or the love and respect of all the peoples. Yet that is precisely what Frodo gets. He failed: it is only through Gollum’s avarice that the world was saved. If it was up to Frodo, Sauron would have won. Who, really, could ever trust him with something momentous after that? Though he is exactly its opposite, he receives all the accolades of the conquering hero. He does not get what was coming to him.

Sidney Carton, by contrast, rises to the occasion. When it comes down to it, he does his “far, far better thing”. But what does his nobility get him? We want Carton to live. We want him to get the girl, and to find happiness. Instead, he earns himself a short trip to the guillotine.

Carton and Frodo are both tragic heroes because the consequences of their choices stand in direct opposition to our expectations of justice. Carton earns a respect that he never gets to experience. Frodo earns opprobrium that he never has face. This produces a disconnect between our experience and our desires which rests at the heart of aspirational tragedy. We want heroes to get what they deserve. And it becomes tragic when they don’t. Which – not insignificantly – is often how real life works.

Facing the Music: Dealing with the Consequences of a Choice

Consequential tragedy is produced in an entirely different fashion. Aspirational stories start far in advance of the hero’s moral choice, which comes to represent the climax of the story. In consequential stories, the moral choice has either already happened (e.g. most Elric of Melniboné stories) or happens very early in the events of the story (e.g. Shakespeare’s Macbeth).

Macbeth knows that it is wrong to murder Duncan, but he does it anyway. His actions may be inconsistent with his values, yet his value system remains unchanged. By choosing to act against his own moral sense, Macbeth exercises his agency to tragic effect. Macbeth is a loyal soldier scarcely interested in power. The witches dangle the prospect of regency before him, and he makes a morally bankrupt choice. The remainder of the play then deals with the consequences of that fatal decision. In order to maintain his grip on power, Macbeth has to constantly escalate and revisit his choice: the murder of Banquo (and the attempt on Fleance), the slaughtering of MacDuff’s family, etc. Macbeth becomes a tragic hero because his capacity for good gets dragged deep into the mud following his regicide. He knows his acts are evil, and that evil tortures him, but the die is cast and he is locked into his inevitable doom. Of course, the murdering SOB “deserves it” – but he still retains all the nobility of spirit with which he began the play.

Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is in a similar boat. His Faustian bargains with Antioch and the demon-sword Stormbringer represent fundamental transgressions against his value system. The self-loathing that follows becomes the focus for Elric’s tragedy, and even though he wishes to be free of both, his entire saga depicts the gradual destruction of all that he loves at his own hands.

While consequential stories in particular lend themselves to tragic heroes, not all consequential heroes need be tragic. In particular, consequential heroes that are redemptive in nature avoid the trap of tragedy. Consider Jeffrey Ford’s hero Cley (from his amazing Well-Built City trilogy, starting in The Physiognomy). Initially, he is an evil (or at best, ignorant) man. But as the book and series progresses, he recognizes that he is not acting in accordance with his own implicit values, and sets out to seek redemption. His quest for redemption makes him a poignant and bittersweet hero, though one that never falls into the tragedy of his companion Misrix.

All this being said, I do not know if it would be possible to write a consequential story that is neither tragic nor redemptive. Where would the dramatic tension come from, if the character initially makes the “right” choice and no negative consequences follow? Seems like it would be a pretty dull story to me, though I suspect if someone were to pull it off they’d be sitting on an award-winner.

The Tragic versus the Anti-Tragic Hero

Have you ever wondered what the opposite of tragedy is? I sure have, and somehow “comedy” just does not cut it in my book. It has too many connotations of humor or slapstick. The Pevensies in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, and the Brothers Grossbart in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart are all heroic characters. They have agency, the narrative voice is compelling, and their moral values remain consistent throughout their stories. Yet none of them could rightly be considered tragic, nor could any of them be adequately described as comedic.

Which makes me long for something that is the opposite to the tragic hero, something I’ve taken to calling the anti-tragic hero for lack of a better term (yeah, I know…it’s a little ungainly: does anyone have any better suggestions?). Anti-tragic heroes can be found in any of the three heroic archetypes: aspirational (the Pevensies), observational (the Brothers Grossbart), or consequential (Cley). Some may be redemptive (Cley or Edmund Pevensie), but that is not at all necessary (e.g. the Brothers Grossbart or the remaining Pevensies).

The anti-tragic hero can be characterized as getting what we the reader believe they have earned through the exercise of their agency. Anti-tragic heroes generally behave according to the precepts of their value systems. The Pevensies’ values align well with standard Western values for good. The Grossbarts’ align well with standard Western values for bad. Cley – once he begins his redemptive quest – also aligns more with our concept of good. In each of these stories, the anti-tragic hero gets what the reader believes they deserve. The Pevensies, by their right and noble actions, become great kings and queens of Narnia. The Brothers Grossbart end up locked in a tomb – presumably for all time. Cley manages to make peace with his past sins and be reborn. Their fates align with our sense of justice, which may well be different from their own.

The Essence of Heroic Stories: Expectations, Values, and Choice

And this, I think, really distills the heart of what heroes and heroic fiction are all about. At the most basic level, heroic stories are all about values and expectations. When characters’ actions relate to their own value system, they become heroes. They may live up to their own expectations, aspire to the better parts of themselves, or struggle to live with their own choices. But they do so with the degree of drama and moral focus that defines them as heroes. Their actions elicit expectations on our part as readers: we want something good, bad, or ugly to happen to these heroic characters because we believe their actions have earned some measure of response. And the tension between the hero’s actions and their consequences within the story determines whether that hero becomes tragic or anti-tragic.

The Essence of Heroic Fiction

Works Mentioned / Used in this Post

Below is a list of the authors and titles that I found helpful in putting this together. It’s a list of pretty cool and interesting books, and I strongly recommend each and every single on of them for insight into the hero:

Non-fiction Fiction

A Theory of the Hero: Story Archetypes for Heroic Characters (part 2 of 3)


NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series on heroic characters. The previous installment discussed how agency, voice, and sincerity are used to determine heroic characters, while the third installment focuses on narrative timing and the tragic and anti-tragic hero.

This past Tuesday, I wrote about how narrative voice, and a character’s agency and sincerity determine whether they can be considered heroic. But in order for those three components to mean something, they must be embedded within a larger story and then expressed through the plot. Any heroic story – whether Tolkien, Howard, or Nabokov – is principally concerned with the hero’s value system. I see three primary archetypes for a heroic story, and makoto (a character’s sincerity to their own values) is central to each:

Heroic Story Archetype Description
1 Aspirational Will the hero live up to their own values? Or will they fail and transgress against them?
2 Observational How will the hero apply their values within a particular set of circumstances?
3 Consequential How will the hero face the consequences of their choices?

Different Strokes for Different Folks, and Different Stories for Different Heroes

The archetype that applies to a particular hero need not be the archetype that applies to the overall book/film. We talk about books having “a story” but really each hero gets their own story. Some books might have no heroes (Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis), others might have one (Nabokov’s Lolita), or many (I count nine in Les Miserables).

As a quick example to start off, let’s consider Star Wars (the original trilogy, naturally). Han Solo’s journey is entirely different from Luke Skywalker’s: though they share many experiences (though they go through the same plot), the choices, subtext, and meaning is different for each character. Darth Vader likewise has his own story. Luke’s is aspirational: will he stay on the Light Side or go to the Dark? Solo’s story – particularly in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – is observational: how will he apply his values under trying circumstances? And Vader’s story is consequential, focusing on themes of redemption and the consequences of choices he made before the events of the original trilogy. Each of these characters could be the “star” of the trilogy: that Luke’s arc gets the focus merely reflects the creator’s choice.

The hero’s story archetype determines the emotional arc of the story, the subtext that drives us to invest in the characters and keeps us tense. The hero’s value system and their behavior relative to that system determine the story archetype and set us up for the Aristotelian catharsis at the story’s climax.

Aspirational Stories: Portal/Quest Fantasies and Children’s Fiction

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has a great entry on heroes and heroines which outlines a pretty extensive (though not exhaustive) typology of heroes. Looking at this list, however, it is clear that not every type of hero can support an aspirational archetype.

The classic model of an aspirational heroic story is the coming-of-age tale. Since so much of middle-grade and YA fiction is about helping characters negotiate and articulate their value systems, it should come as no surprise that children’s literature is rife with aspirational heroes. Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper in Alexander’s The Book of Three, Garion in Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy, or Wart in White’s The Once and Future King are all great examples of aspirational heroes.

Hidden monarchs, ugly ducklings, changelings, and people who learn better are classic character models for aspirational stories. What is essential to this archetype is an evolution in the character’s choices. Unlike the observational archetype (see below), these characters’ are still struggling with their value systems. The “right” and “wrong” of their story is implied in the text: the reader understands what Taran must do, the reader knows what choices Garion must make, but the character does not. As the plot unfolds, the character gradually catches up to the reader and becomes able to articulate and act on their implicit value system.

Portal/quest fantasies are the most frequent structure for aspirational stories. The plot’s quest becomes the device by which the hero explores and articulates their choice. Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring is inherently tied up in his value system. The crux of his story hinges on the question of whether he will allow himself to be corrupted by the Ring, or whether he will stay true to his values and destroy it. The climax of this archetype is the moment when the hero makes that final choice: when they decide whether they will do right or not. That climax is the moment of maximum tension within the story, and it defines the hero’s success or failure.

One of the most satisfying aspects of aspirational heroes is that they often make the “right” choice. Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, and most heroes in MG/YA fiction all ultimately make a choice that more-or-less aligns with most readers’ moral codes. But that success is not necessary. So long as the hero’s moral code remains unchanging, whether he succeeds or fails to live up to that code has no impact on the story’s resonance. Failure can be just as strong a resonator as success.

For example, Frodo Baggins is a failure. Yes, he remains a hero, but standing over the Crack of Doom, he allows the Ring to corrupt him, and he cannot bring himself to destroy it. Tolkien’s use of eucatastrophe (Gollum’s convenient attack on the invisible Frodo) is the device by which the author wrenches a positive ending out of his principal hero’s failure. This does not weaken the story – in fact, I think it enhances it by adding a tragic dimension to the character of Frodo Baggins. Everything does not work out, certainly not for Frodo. For the rest of his life, Frodo will have to bear the knowledge that at that last desperate moment, he blinked. If Frodo’s story is aspirational, then at the end of the day he fails in his aspiration. Yet his story still resonates.

Observational Archetypes: The Classic Heroic Story

When we use the words “heroic fantasy” most of us automatically think of muscle-bound heroes along the lines of Beowulf, Conan of Cimmeria, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. We think of the stories written by Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Glen Cook, etc. Typically, these are immersive fantasies where the world of the story is assumed as a given. The heroes in question already fully live in their worlds, and their value systems are fully-formed and clearly articulated. However, what sets these stories apart from their aspirational counterparts is that they focus less intensely upon the hero’s moral code.

The climax of an aspirational heroic story hinges upon whether the hero will or will not live up to their values. But in an observational story, the hero will always live up to their values. These values are typically idiosyncratic when compared to those of other characters. Whether we’re dealing with loveable rogues like Han Solo, utter villains like the Brothers Grossbart, or introspective brooders like Elric of Melniboné, the hero’s value system always features some difference to those of the book’s other characters. Reading these characters’ stories, we are less concerned with will they or won’t they stick to their guns, and more concerned with how they will do so.

Observational heroes tend to be what The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls Brave Little Tailors, Duos, or Temporal Adventuresses. Many fairy tale heroes, in particular the “Ivans” of Russian fairy tales or the “Jacks” of the British variety, fall into this camp. So would most of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, where his sword-swinging Cimmerian broods and simmers…but always acts according to his (admittedly sometimes rough) moral values.

The typical observational hero never ages: he or she is almost always portrayed in the prime of their youth, as the story’s momentum hinges upon their ability to act with physical or magical strength. Aspirational heroes and their stories tend to deal earnestly with stark moral black-and-whites. Observational heroes, however, tend to see more shades of grey. For Frodo Baggins or Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper, there is no middle ground: either they do right or they fail. For Conan, or Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, their moral codes and the choices they face are more ambiguous, allowing for compromise.

This ambiguity creates a great degree of space for humor in observational stories. Whether it is Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Conan, or Han Solo, the ambiguity of the hero’s moral code and their situational application offers the opportunity to inject irony and sarcasm into the narrative. This kind of humor tends to be quite infectious, because it perhaps deals with moral choices more accessible to the average reader than those common in high fantasy. The choices our heroes face, while expressed in outlandish fashions, tend to have fewer world-changing or soul-destroying consequences than those found in aspirational stories.

Duos in particular are a common type of observational hero. While I have already mentioned Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, I think a far better set of examples can be found in the mystery genre. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson represent the classic ur-duo, and their stories clearly show the application of Holmes’ rational worldview. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles have a clearly ideosyncratic, “us-against-the-world” value system which they apply consistently. As in so many mysteries, the morality of their philosophy is not the focus of the story: instead, the focus is on how that philosophy is actively applied within the plot.

Generally, heroic stories whose narrative focus is on the action of their plot tend to skew observationally. These are the stories that are more exciting than earnest. Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is a fun exploration of how a set of villainous moral codes can be applied across a variety of trying situations. Super-hero comic books in particular are another great example of this kind of storytelling: the hero’s moral code (remember Truth, Justice and the American Way?) is always a given, but decades of continuity explore how the hero applies that code to all manner of situations.

Consequential Archetypes: Living with Choices

The third and final story archetype for heroic characters returns to deal with the moral choices more earnestly than in most observational stories. Consequential stories focus on the hero’s actions after a moral choice has been made. By its very definition, this archetype tends towards the Aristotelian and the tragic. Typical heroes that fit this mold are the Knight of Doleful Countenance, or the sinner seeking redemption.

Often, the hero’s nobility is established off-screen before the events of the story. We know Macbeth is a noble hero because Duncan, his men at arms, and the sergeant tell us so before we ever meet the thane of Glamis. But Macbeth transgresses against his own moral code by killing his king, and the rest of the play focuses on him living with and facing up to the consequences of his evil act. Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories do something similar, where we first meet Solomon Kane as a puritanical zealot obsessed with meting out stern justice and stamping out whatever he considers evil, regardless of danger. Through the stories’ subtext, we gradually get the sense that Kane’s obsession is redemptive: that by stamping out evil, he may purge his own soul of whatever past sins may stain it. In Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné stories, the hero must live with the guilt of feeding souls to his demon-sword Stormbringer.

Consequential heroes and their stories may be redemptive or tragic. Darth Vader’s is a redemptive story, where he is able to return to the Light by betraying the Emperor. Macbeth or Othello, by contrast, are tragic: no amount of contrition on their part can ever expunge their guilt. Typical of consequential stories is a constant revisiting and escalation of the hero’s original choice: Macbeth is forced to one-up his betrayal of Duncan with the murder of his friend Banquo, followed by the slaughter of MacDuff’s family. Elric has to feed ever more souls to Stormbringer so that he can do what he feels is right.

By their very nature, consequential heroes and their stories are tragic: if aspirational stories end on “and they lived happily/sadly ever after” then consequential stories are what happens in the ever after.

Story versus Story and Mixing Archetypes

Like so many aspects of storytelling, the borders between these archetypes can be blurred. For example, Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné combines aspects of the consequential archetype (the exploration of Elric’s guilt) with the observational (constantly re-visiting his moral choices in new circumstances). It is also possible, though very difficult, for a single hero to progress from an aspirational story, to an observational story, and then to a consequential story. I know of few examples of this kind of progression, but those that do come to mind are almost always some of my favorite stories. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy shows us Theo’s aspirational story in its first book, and then follows the pattern of a consequential story in the second and third.

In Hugo’s Les Miserables, Valjean’s story opens as aspirational, proceeds to observational, and ends as consequential. In Hugo’s case, this masterful progression is strengthened by pitting Valjean’s moral code against opponents who are elsewhere along the archetypal progression. When Valjean’s story is in its aspirational phase, his antagonist Javert is in an observational mode. By the time Valjean has entered the observational phase of his evolution, Javert has “regressed” to the aspirational phase. When Valjean is in the consequential phase of his life, Marius Pontmercy is in the aspirational phase of his.

Hugo is arguably the master of this kind of complex hero construction: reading his works (in particular Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) I suspect that every single hero archetype and every combination of their oppositions, tragic and anti-tragic, can be found. The next installment of this series (on Tuesday) will focus on this aspect of heroic storytelling. In particular, I will focus on how narrative timing affects tragedy in heroic fiction, and on the differences between tragic and anti-tragic heroes.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for the third and final installment which focuses on how narrative timing affects tragedy in heroic fiction, and for a discussion of tragic heroes and anti-tragic heroes.

A Theory of the Hero: Agency, Voice, and Sincerity (part 1 of 3)


For a while now I’ve been chewing on the concept of heroes/heroines, which at first glance looks simple. Say the word “hero” and everyone knows what we mean: we’re (stereotypically) talking about square-jawed men and kick-ass women who stab bad guys in the eyes with icicles, rescue intergalactic princesses, and Do The Right Thing. Heroes are “The Good Guys” that we root for in a story. But fiction – as life – tends to be more complex than that. For every Frodo Baggins we have an Elric of Melniboné. For every Peter Pevensie we have Steerpike. What then constitutes a hero? What makes one character or one story heroic and another not?

NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series of posts. This post is focused on what makes a given character heroic. On Saturday, I’ll post the next chapter, focusing on story archetypes for heroic characters, and the final post on Tuesday will focus on the difference between tragic and anti-tragic heroes.

Why do we need a Theory of the Hero?

If we want some sort of all-encompassing theory of the hero, we need to go beyond Campbell’s monomyth and Propp’s functional formalism. Regardless of how much I love both, a complete theory should be able to encompass both the classically-modeled Frodo Baggins and the monstrous Humbert Humbert.

In reading Ivan Morris’ excellent The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan over the weekend, something in my brain clicked. I think I might have figured out a secret ingredient that goes into the make-up of any hero, regardless of where they fall on a moral spectrum. Per Morris, heroes are defined at their core by the Japanese concept of makoto, which Morris translates as “sincerity” with connotations of self-contained philosophical sufficiency. In other words, a hero is a hero – regardless of their moral or immoral actions – if they act relative to a consistent moral code.

Hero vs Protagonist: Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other

If you will forgive a brief moment of semantic pedantry, I think it is important to explain that I have never particularly liked the term “protagonist”. Since originating in Greek drama, I think the term has become incredibly muddled and imprecise. Etymologically, it means “chief actor” but a literal definition is too limiting to be functional. There are too many sweeping, epic novels like Hugo’s Les Miserables where identifying a particular chief actor becomes difficult (if not impossible).

Terms like protagonist and antagonist really describe the relationships between characters. The protagonist is opposed by the antagonist. This tells us nothing whatsoever about the characters in question, their value systems, moral codes, or courage. However, describing characters as either heroic or non-heroic does offer insights into their natures. Generally, for good drama in storytelling a hero needs to have an opposition: but a good hero can just as easily be opposed (antagonized) by another hero (the relationship between Hugo’s Jean Val Jean and Javert is a prime example of this type of opposition).

The Hero’s Function: Building Engagement through Agency and Voice

So what does a hero actually do in fiction? Besides saving the day, that is? As I see it, the hero/heroine is there to engage us on an emotional level. The hero draws us in and makes us care, and does so using the agency of their choices and the author’s narrative voice (which may be different from the character‘s voice).

The Hero’s Choices Make Us Respond

Can you imagine a hero with no agency? Would a character who just let stuff happen to them and passively reacted be at all engaging? Probably not. The hero/heroine’s choices determine how they change over the course of the story, giving us insight into their natures. Some heroes (Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you) are little more than two-dimensional symbols, a personification of some philosophical outlook with which we can either agree or disagree. Others are more complex, rounded (in Forster’s sense) characters for whom the nature of their choices actually matters. In each case, the hero’s choices cause some sort of a reaction in us. We may to some extent agree, sympathize, or understand the character’s dilemma and the outcome. Or we may view that choice as antithetical: we may disagree with it so violently that the strength of our dispute resonates just as strongly. Whether the hero strums our heartstrings up or down, the note still sounds. What matters is that the hero’s choices have an impact within the story, on the hero, and on us as readers.

It is this kind of approach that produces some of the most memorable heroes in fiction. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is replete with heroes who have to make choices: first, who will take the burden of the Ring? Then, who will escort the Ring to Mount Doom? Will Frodo actually destroy the ring? Will Aragorn take the throne of Gondor?

These are difficult choices that Tolkien’s heroes must make. Every member of Tolkien’s Fellowship is a hero, and every one of these choices resonates with us to a greater or a lesser extent. For some (Samwise Gamgee in particular) their choices are shown in a generally positive light: they are the classic “good guys” who make the difficult choices that the author (and presumably most readers) view as morally right. Other heroes – in particular Boromir, Gollum, and even Frodo himself – all make at least one morally reprehensible choice, transgressing against their value systems. But it is the uncertainty of their choices and their struggle to make them – for better or worse – that make us engage with the book. Whose breath didn’t catch when Frodo’s simple nobility fails him at the last second? Who doesn’t feel a pang of Bilbo’s pity as the villainous Gollum’s ugly history is slowly exposed? And who isn’t relieved when Aragon finally accepts his responsibility for Gondor?

But just like Gollum, not all heroes need to be good guys. Remember that old saw about every villain being the hero of their own story? Consider Milton’s Paradise Lost, Nabokov’s Lolita or Jesse Bullington’s more-recent The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. These books’ heroes are morally reprehensible villains.

Milton’s Satan is…well, Satan. He’s The Devil. The embodiment of all evil, at least according to the sensibilities of Milton and his contemporaries. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a pedophile, a monster as vile as could possibly be imagined. Yet he still has agency, and his choices – reprehensible as they may be – never fail to provoke a reaction on our parts. Bullington’s grave-robbing Grossbarts, though less compelling than the other two mentioned, generally pull off the same trick. And all three of these monstrous heroes do so using the second tool of hero-construction: the author’s narrative voice.

Narrative Voice as the Sneaky Tool of Understanding

What could make us care about such monsters? We may disagree, sometimes vehemently, with their choices. So why do we continue to follow the story? We care because the author’s narrative voice is beguilingly engaging. Milton’s primary (initial) character – Satan – needs no introduction. We know that he is a monster: The Devil. But Milton’s narrative style makes Satan’s charisma a palpable force, not unlike the serpent’s beguiling silver tongue in the Garden of Eden.

Both Nabokov and Bullington utilize framing devices that unequivocally establish that the heroes in question are evil. But we get drawn into their heads, drawn into their twisted worldviews, by the authors’ compelling rhetorical structure. By the time the monsters perpetrate their evil deeds, it is too late for us. However much their choices may disgust us, at some level the narrator’s slippery words have given us a window into their souls. Through that window, we can catch a glimmer of the monster/hero’s intrinsic nature.

The Hero’s Nature, Moving Targets, and Sincerity

And here we come back to the concept of makoto: if the hero (whether morally laudable or not) fails to evidence sincerity, if they are not true to their underlying nature, then no amount of agency or rhetorical trickery will resonate. At the heart of a hero’s underlying nature lies his moral value system. Whether we agree with this system or not, or to what degree their value system aligns with our culturally-acceptable moral codes, is unimportant. What matters is that the hero’s value system remains immutable throughout the story.

If the hero’s value system changes within a story, then suddenly the hero’s choices lose their meaning. Whether they articulate their system explicitly or not, their values represent an aspirational target for their behavior. Han Solo, Humbert Humbert, or John McClain always know what the “right” action is, according to their own moral codes. And while they may not always live up to their moral codes, those codes do not change. If they did, if the hero’s moral target moves, if their definition of “right” and “wrong” shifts, then suddenly all of their prior choices become meaningless within the confines of the story. It would be like retconning Uncle Ben out of Spider-Man’s origin story.

Neither Humbert Humbert’s or Frodo Baggins’ values change throughout their respective stories. At no point do their concepts of “right” and “wrong” shift. Instead, their actions either eventually align with those (stated or implied) values or transgress against them. The hero’s choices must be mobile – not the yardstick by which they are measured. Whether we agree with them or not, heroic characters maintain a firm and unchanging set of values: they must be “sincere” in their worldview. It is the choices they make relative to that philosophy that affects the drama and resonance of a story, and which makes them heroic.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday for the second installment on plot structures and story archetypes for heroic characters!

REVIEW: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont


Title: Stonewielder: A Novel of the Malazan Empire
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Pub Date: May 10th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Not as dense as Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, but fast-paced and character driven.

I’ve mentioned my appreciation of Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont’s gritty Malazan world before, and over the past several years I have eagerly been following Esslemont’s contributions. With Stonewielder, Esslemont’s third book in the Malazan universe, he artfully balances characterization, forward momentum, and complex plotting mechanics to deliver an accessible and enjoyable read.

From his debut with Night of Knives, Esslemont has faced a difficult challenge. By the time his first book was published in mass-market form (2007), Erikson had already released his seventh (Reaper’s Gale). This meant that Esslemont had a ready audience who would likely snap up his book, but that audience (myself included) had certain expectations.

The first fact that must be stated when describing Esslemont’s work is perhaps the most obvious: Esslemont is not Steven Erikson. The writing styles are different, the plot structures are different, and perhaps most significantly, the pacing is different. However, these differences are not a weakness: in many ways, they make Esslemont’s work more accessible than Erikson’s dense opus. In Night of Knives, Esslemont visibly struggled to get his sea legs. While it was competently executed, there was a tentativeness to his storytelling that had been noticeably absent from Erikson’s work. However, with his second novel – Return of the Crimson Guard, which takes place after the events of Erikson’s The Bonehunters – Esslemont clearly grows more comfortable with his plot structures and the intricate flow of multiple storylines. By the time we read Stonewielder, Esslemont has clearly hit his stride.

Esslemont’s books tell the story of events on the continent of Quon Tali, literally on the other side of the world from the events of Erikson’s ten book series. Despite the distances involved, the authors share a significant number of characters. Esslemont’s books focus on characters who notably left or vanished from Erikson’s books. This was my first area of concern: how often have we seen new hands mess up a beloved franchise by screwing up the characters? Thankfully, Esslemont neatly avoids this trap, perhaps helped by the fact that his books delve deeply into characters who received less focus in Erikson’s books. As a result, he creates characters that become firmly his own, shaped by and for his own plots and writing style.

The integration between Erikson and Esslemont’s plots – particularly Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder is excellent. The events of Esslemont’s books have significant repercussions on Erikson’s, and vice versa. However, Esslemont shows us events which Erikson did not, or a different side of those historic events. Reading both Erikson and Esslemont lets us see their world’s history unfold from multiple perspectives. I like to think of it as reading two books on WWII history: one Russian, and one British. They will describe related events, but the different perspectives, cultural backgrounds, styles, and focus will fundamentally change how the same events are presented. Reading one side of the story can be enjoyable, but reading both provides a richer understanding of the events.

I suspect that read on a standalone basis, the Esslemont books may be easier to follow than Erikson’s. Like Erikson, Esslemont relies on chapter-based POV shifts, but with fewer characters and fewer plot lines it is easier to keep track of what is going on in the story. Stonewielder in particular unfolds in a more linear fashion than Erikson’s typical modus operandi. This focus also helps Esslemont’s pacing, giving the books a certain sense of implacability that draws the reader in. As the stakes rise in Stonewielder, the pacing likewise accelerates which makes the latter half of the book move very quickly.

Avoiding complex metaphysics helps Esslemont accomplish this feat. While he employs – and elucidates – much of the complex magic of the Malazan universe, he steers clear of the more esoteric metaphysical considerations that bogged down some of Erikson’s later books. The focus on characters in action (or avoiding action, at times) keeps Stonewielder close to its gritty, epic adventure roots.

However, readers unfamiliar with Erikson’s books may find it hard to get become grounded in Esslemont’s novels. My preexisting familiarity with the world’s bewildering factions, history, politics, and characters let me hit the ground running with Night of Knives, and smoothly follow Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder. How daunting a fresh reader would find these titles and the unique world they present is difficult for me to judge.

On the whole, Ian C. Esslemont’s Stonewielder is a great addition to the Malazan canon. The plotting, characterization, and pacing are strong, and he continues to apply the excellent world-building characteristic of the Malazan universe. At its heart, Esslemont’s story strikes me as less complicated than Erikson’s. As such, I found it a welcome breath of fresh air coming off of the satisfyingly dense conclusion to Erikson’s series. Those who started reading Esslemont with Night of Knives will be pleased to see that his craft has significantly improved over the last several years.

If you’re a fan of gritty, complex, ambitious epic fantasy then Stonewielder will likely appeal to you. It combines the gritty boots-in-the-mud feel of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, with morally ambiguous eldritch magic like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga, and the evocative world-building of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series (which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Ian C. Esslemont co-created the Malazan world with Erikson).

To flatten the steep learning curve and get some of the characters’ backstory, I strongly recommend starting with Return of the Crimson Guard, or Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. If anyone reading this has instead started with the Esslemont books, I’d be curious to know how you found them. Were you able to get drawn into the world, fill in the blanks of backstory and factions, and generally follow along?

In the meantime, I’m going to be eagerly awaiting the next installment in Esslemont’s series. If his work continues to improve as it has so far, then his series might gain in heft to become more than a side story in the Malazan universe. The seeds are certainly there, and I’m rooting for the series’ continued upward trajectory.

Techniques in Writing Alternate History


For the past several months, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading recent alternate histories and historical fantasies (I’ve reviewed a couple in earlier posts). As a result, I’ve been thinking about how alternate history works, and what techniques apply to the sub-genre.

Divergence as the Elephant in the Room

At some point, all of us wonder about the road not taken. In our private lives, we wonder how life would have turned out if we’d gone to college B rather than college A, if we’d gotten (or kept) a particular job, etc. The same “what if” question gives rise to alternate history, where we try to imagine our world as made different. Whether the portrayal is fairly realistic (as in Harry Turtledove’s Timeline 191) or completely fantastical (e.g. Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy), alternate history gives us the chance to consider what our world would be like in entirely different circumstances. And that’s fun, because it can give us insight into our own world, culture, and history today.

Because alternate history is so centrally concerned with what sets the imagined reality apart from our current reality, how the timeline diverges must be established very early on. Thinking about it, I’ve spotted a kind of spectrum of divergence in alternate history:

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

On the one hand, we have what I call fulcrum divergences. This method is most commonly found in “realistic” alternate histories, which lack magic, monsters, or really anything that could not exist in the real world. Some event is identified as a fulcrum on which history swings, and when creating the story we have things work out differently.

The best example I can think of for this type of alternate history has to be Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain. In our real history, a Confederate messenger lost General Lee’s plans for the invasion of the North. The Union found the plans, and General McLellan was able to turn the Confederates back at the Battle of Antietam. Turtledove asks “what if the message never fell into Union hands?” and proceeds to create an excellent series of realistic novels that paint a Confederate victory and map out the consequences through World War II. Such “little differences” need not be so minor, however: Philip K. Dick posited a world where the Axis Powers won WWII in his classic The Man in the High Castle, nor need the resulting world be particularly realistic (consider Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, where Darwin discovers DNA). Even fairly fantastical stories like Clay and Susan Griffith’s Vampire Empire series still rely on that one point where history changed. Universal within these stories is that the world’s history follows the familiar path we should all know up to that one key fulcrum moment when it skews Doc Brown-like into an alternate timeline.

The other end of the spectrum are foundational divergences. Typically used in more fantastical alternate histories, foundational divergence occurs so far back in the story’s timeline that its effects percolate through all aspects of the world. The place names, some of the personalities involved may be familiar to us, but they are already skewed relative to our timeline based on events that happened significantly prior to the events of the story.

In Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, or Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command magic has been known and applied within the world for centuries. There is no “point of divergence” with our known history, because instead the impacts of magic diffuse throughout all aspects of society, history, and cultural development. The key difference between such alternate histories and those relying on fulcrum divergence is that all recorded history has to be different from what is known. In these books, the foundational difference (e.g. the presence of magic) occurred or was discovered so far in antiquity that its consequences have percolated throughout the world. As a result, such books can often be enjoyed as secondary-world fantasies.

Between these two poles lie a variety of techniques that authors can use to establish that divergence. Often, authors use a time traveler from our timeline to introduce the divergence. Once in the past, the time traveler proceeds to change (or – sometimes not) the past as we know it.

Excellent examples of this kind of alternate history include books like Eric Flint’s 1632, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Mary Gentle’s First History sequence. In many respects, these books are similar to those that use a fulcrum divergence: in this case, the time traveler becomes the fulcrum. However, they differ significantly in that typically the protagonist (the time traveler) is aware of the divergence or its possibility. This changes the dynamic of the story and significantly alters the reader’s relationship with the hero.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one can have an “alternate history” that completely recasts our known reality, which does not take place in any kind of recognizable version of our history. Here, the events of the book are modeled on actual events in our history, but they are depicted in a completely secondary world.

Turtledove’s World at War series employs this technique, depicting the events of WWII in a completely secondary world. Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World (see my earlier review) similarly (though less historically) models aspects of his world on the American frontier.

Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief in Alternate Histories

The key to constructing an effective alternate history is to keep the reader locked in what Gardner calls the “dream” of the novel. This task is particularly challenging in alternate histories, where the reader knows they are reading something inimical to their pre-existing knowledge of the world. As a result, readers are likely to quickly pounce on perceived flaws, places where the author’s research or techniques fell short. There are several tools that can be used to maintain the reader’s acceptance of the alternate history.

The perspective that the book is written from, and the narrative voice that is employed, are both essential tools to maintain the reader’s disbelief. This is doubly-so if the book is written in first-person, but even when written in third the speech patterns, word choices, and value systems that our narrator employs contribute to the milieu of the era we are depicting. Recently, I read two alternate histories that execute on this aspect perfectly: Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought and Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command (see my earlier reviews here and here, respectively).

In both books, the narrative voice and the dialog employed by the characters rings (at least to my ear) true to the period when the books are set. The words key characters employ, the value systems inherent in their views, the differences in how different characters speak, in both books the quality of voice and dialog help to lock the reader into the alternate history. In At the Queen’s Command, the dialog is strongly reminiscent of other accounts of the late 18th century. As a result, I am able to believe that while there may be magic, I am still reading a story set in the 18th century I am familiar with. The same applies to Dreadnought, which follows a southern Confederate nurse across the frontier.

Nailing the voice like this is partly a question of the writer’s natural ear, but it is also heavily influenced by research. Reading books written in and written about the time period can help provide the “feel” of that time period. And solid research on word use and etymology can help make sure that the dialog is period-appropriate (as Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out recently, people swore differently even one hundred years ago). Research and extensive reading are the keys to nailing this aspect of an alternate history.

But there is a flip side to this coin: When we write alternate histories (or even historical fantasies) there is an understandable temptation to shoe-horn massive amounts of research into the text. After all, not everyone is as familiar with the time period as the author. But this natural tendency has to be handled very delicately because people who enjoy alternate histories are likely those who enjoy history. As a result, they are likely to already have substantial knowledge about history, and thus overloading them with historical information may weaken their engagement with the story.

In historical fantasy, this is a danger that I recently observed in Jasper Kent’s otherwise excellent Twelve. Kent clearly knows the history of 19th century Russia, however in many places he assumes that his readers do not. For some readers, this is likely not a problem. But for those of us who are familiar with that time period, the extensive expository background that Kent provides detracts from the rising action of the story. Striking a balance between that need for background and the forward motion of the story is key to writing any story based in history. When I think about the authors who do this well, they apply the rule of “less is more” and leave the reader to infer whatever background they do not already know. If we have to pick between momentum and background, I say always go for momentum.

Imagining a Different Today

If futuristic science fiction is about imagining a possible tomorrow, then alternate histories are about imagining a possible present. This at once constrains our world-building (to a greater or lesser degree, we have to conform to known history) while providing the opportunity for very focused imagination. When I read excellent alternate histories, I often think that it is much harder to paint a maserpiece by coloring within the lines. But the best authors of alternate history manage to do exactly that.

If you’re looking for fun alternate histories, below is a list of the authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy, from your local bookstore or your library and enjoy:

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