Tuesday, April 28, 2009

my four walls transformed

A few things:

First, Holly Black rocks my socks. I didn't think I was a very big fan of urban fantasy until I read Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside, all modern treatments of Faerie set in the wonderfully familiar tri-state area. (I actually read Ironside first, but the above order is the correct one.) They are dark, and real, and rough, and they're about Jersey teens getting mixed up with dangerous faeries. (Well, "dangerous" pretty much describes all faeries, in fact.) You definitely don't have to have Jersey roots to enjoy them (I first heard of them on the blog of an Irish writer who adored them), but I did like that extra sense of familiarity. Like in Valiant - the main character, Val, pulled out NJ Transit tickets she'd been carrying around for weeks, and I remembered that I actually still have a ticket between New Brunswick and Hamilton in my wallet.

Anyway, loved these books. They're full of compelling characters who do so many things wrong but you're rooting for them anyway. Valiant did an especially good job of combining the dangers of living on the streets in New York with the dangers of dealing with the realm of Faerie. You've got dysfunctional families, deception, deals with faerie courts, serious drug addiction, and (dare I say it?) a hot troll, all right there in the same book. I finished it last night, and the ending was amazing.

Second, John Brown has interesting things to say about writing groups and reader feedback in general. I've never read any of his work, but I follow his blog because it frequently contains helpful insights about writing. This particular post, in case you don't feel like following the link, talks about how important it is to get feedback based on effect, not a catalog of problems or suggested fixes. He also makes a point about how it can be counterproductive to give the same group of people multiple revisions of things they've already read, because (and I'm paraphrasing here) with each reading they'll become more desensitized to the effect of the work and just notice the mechanics more and more. This makes me question the wisdom of allowing my group of alpha readers to include pretty much everyone who expresses serious interest in reading drafts of my story. But I suppose there are other things I should worry about before that detail - like actually finishing the story.

Third, you guys all lose at the comments game. (Although some of you gave me comments personally and I appreciate that.) And there was so much to argue about in that post... *sigh*. The debates we could have had on the validity of the examples, or the definitions of love and evil... and of everyone who read that post or heard me talk about it, only my mother bothered to try calling me out on the moral problems with portraying love and evil as compatible, as I suggested I might do someday. Of course, I still intend to do it. And I will infer from general comment silence that no one has any examples for me of love and evil coexisting. Right? I mean, you guys wouldn't hold those back if you had them, would you?

Monday, April 20, 2009

"when I say I love you..."

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the portrayal of love and evil in fiction, both written and on the screen. The relationship between the two interests me quite a bit, because they always seem to be in direct opposition to one another. That may seem like a statement of the obvious, but I really do mean directly in opposition – it’s like they’re combatants in their own personal duel. If evil has a mortal enemy, that enemy is love.

Love is constantly found at the root of evil’s destruction. Consider examples from popular culture. Darth Vader turns against the Emperor out of love for his son, and thus is redeemed at the last from the evil within him. Love is what sheltered Harry Potter from Voldemort for years – and love is what causes so many of Voldemort’s followers to turn against him in the end. Snape, Narcissa Malfoy, Regulus Black… each of them loved someone enough to defy their master. And Voldemort himself is the only character in the series who never loved at all, which could be why he didn’t realize that he was pushing his minions past a dangerous line. But that would be a different topic. Back to the point!

Love and evil mix about as well as oil and water, or orange juice and toothpaste. Or a new germ introduced to an indigenous culture. (Bonus points in the comments: what else mixes like love and evil?) That’s why I am fascinated every time I see a villain who loves someone. Love is always a great source of story conflict; it complicates matters even for the very best couples. For villains who love, though, the conflict comes to their very nature. And because that conflict is so ubiquitous, I would really like to see the exception to the rule: a truly evil villain capable of true love, in a scenario where neither love nor evil is diminished by the other. Does such a character exist? Or are love and evil always shown to be mutually exclusive?

I love to see evil couples in a story. I always want them to last. I don’t want them to win, but I want them to stay true to their love for one another, just so that someone will prove that it’s possible. This hooks me into their relationship right off the bat. I immediately evaluate the couple to see if I think their love is real, or if it's simply a relationship of convenience. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell the difference. I’m still highly amused when I remember the episode of Gargoyles where Xanatos proposes to Fox:

“We’re genetically compatible, highly intelligent, and have the same goals. It makes perfect sense to get married,” says Xanatos, like he’s making a business proposition. In part, he really is. “True,” Fox says, “but what about… love?” And Xanatos says, “I think we love each other, as much as two people such as ourselves are capable of that emotion.”

Beyond the initial reaction (who on earth proposes like that??) I love this scene because of the issue they’re really getting at. Xanatos is admitting that as villains whose goals, motives, and methods are all quite dark, love is not traditionally supposed to be in the picture for them. Like many classic villains – and many classic heroes – Xanatos considers love a weakness. Nevertheless, he and Fox team up in pursuit of the same thing most evil couples are after: an eternal lifetime to spend together, preferably in a position of power. Since they figure that power will naturally follow on the heels of immortality, though, finding a long-term escape from death is the first priority.

That's the goal of the monster in The Mummy, and what provides the foundation for the story. Imhotep’s love for Anck-su-namun is the reason he was killed in the first place, and when he is raised the first thing he does (apart from consuming people to gain strength) is to work on resurrecting her. In the second movie he succeeds in that goal, and the two proceed in their attempt to secure their future together by gaining the power of the Scorpion King.

Spike and Drusilla of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are already immortal, but they do prioritize taking care of each other in turns. Their love, obvious from their first appearance, is all the more intriguing because as vampires they don’t have souls. And yet, in spite of that fundamental lack which one might think guarantees the absence of love, our first introduction to Spike shows us how important taking care of Drusilla is to him. You can see the affection in his expression when he looks at her. As Buffy’s enemy and the leader of the other vampires, he is vicious and ruthless, but he is tender with Drusilla. His primary goal is to protect her and make her strong again so they can rule together. When she does regain her strength and he is injured, she starts taking care of him.

Unfortunately, it all starts to fall apart after that. Drusilla’s attention begins to stray. She ignores Spike in favor of the stronger Angel. Still, Spike’s every thought is for Drusilla. He’s desperate enough to make a deal with his enemy to bring Angel down and get Drusilla away safely. But his best efforts are still not enough, and in the end he can’t hang onto her. She loses interest, is unfaithful, and finally just leaves him.

For villains who love each other, a failed relationship is always portrayed as an inevitability. They’re unfaithful, or double-cross each other, or leave each other to die. Their love is never true enough, because their evil nature doesn’t allow for it. I have yet to see a pair of evil characters whose love is not in some way inferior to the love of the heroes. In the end, they prove to value themselves more than the one they love.

That’s what happened to Imhotep and Anck-su-namun. When their moment of truth arrives, Imhotep selfishly asks Anck-su-namun to risk her life to save him, and instead she abandons him to save herself. This is shown in direct contrast to the heroic couple of the story, Rick and Evy. Rick tells Evy to run, and instead she comes back for him. The funny thing is, I doubt anyone would have blamed Evy for wanting to live. Some might even say it was foolish for her to go back. After all, if she and Rick had both died, their son would have been left an orphan. The fact that she did go back, though, makes Anck-su-namun’s self-preservation seem all the more cowardly.

Honestly, that scene cheapened the whole story for me. Every single action those two had taken previously in the story was for each other. They had already died for each other, and we were never given any reason to suspect they wouldn’t do it again. And yet, in the end, after all they went through together and sacrificed for each other, their love was still not strong enough.

In contrast, Xanatos and Fox pull through together the first time their love is put to the test. In several instances where it would be easier or safer for one to let the other die, or even for one to kill the other, they choose the harder path to keep each other safe. Despite the way they try to dismiss love as the least significant factor in their relationship, they repeatedly demonstrate that they care very deeply for each other.

Here also, though, the show hints at how love could ultimately provide a path out of evil. Our hero, Goliath, chooses to help Xanatos save Fox because he sees hope in the possibility that people like them are even capable of love. While it might not be clear at the time even to Golaith, what he’s really doing is making an investment: if he saves Fox, thus giving Xanatos someone to love, perhaps Xanatos can one day be saved from himself.

It becomes much more difficult for evil characters to reconcile their love with their nature when the people they love aren’t evil. They may try to hang on to both sides at once for awhile, but eventually they come to realize that they will have to choose between evil and love. Or, alternatively, they might believe that the one they love should forsake goodness.

Lanfear of The Wheel of Time is possibly the most frightening example of the latter, for several reasons: her “love” is more like a stalker’s obsession; the guy she’s obsessed with is the reincarnation of her former lover, and only gradually remembers his previous life; he doesn’t love her; and, given the chance, it would be within her power to force him to turn to evil whether he chooses to or not.

Others are less scary, but still seductive. In Dragonlance there’s Kitiara, who has a history with Tanis and tries to persuade him to join her in serving the evil goddess Takhisis. This is a tempting choice for Tanis, because his love for Kitiara is also real. I could probably write another essay altogether on Tanis’s inner conflict throughout the books, and how Kitiara represents one half of that conflict… it’s an involved subject that I won’t go into here. When Tanis does make his choice, though, Kit has to choose too: does she let him go for the sake of the love they once shared, along with the woman he has chosen over her, or does she kill them both in the service of her Queen?

Kit lets them go, and for that reason she’s probably the most ambiguous of all my examples. It’s pretty clear that she’s chosen evil, but does she also still love Tanis? Lord Soth thinks that she does, in spite of her claim that she only let them go because they don’t matter anymore. She also tells Soth, somewhat vindictively, that Tanis and Laurana will be forever in her debt, and that her memory will be a slow poison to their love.

It’s hard for me to believe that Kitiara is completely unaffected by any lingering feelings for Tanis, but if she is, those feelings are at odds with the evil she serves. Her mercy to Tanis was in defiance of her mistress. Love and evil could never both be at full strength in Kitiara.

Lanfear has a choice to make too, when Rand irrevocably rejects her. The difference here is that we’re already pretty sure what Lanfear is going to choose. With Kitiara there was a chance that some affection might still linger; with Lanfear, it’s uncertain whether she ever felt affection at all. What she feels for Rand is possession, and Lews Therin’s memories indicate that he believes she only ever used him to further her own ambition. So it doesn’t really come as a surprise when she looks coldly at Rand and says, “If you are not mine, then you are dead.” Love and evil never had a chance to coexist in Lanfear, because the love was never really there.

Sometimes it's not romance, but parental love that proves to be the most powerful, as in the complicated case of Demona, another Gargoyles character. Like Kitiara, she was once in love with a hero. When Demona fails to persuade Goliath to join her, however, she has no trouble casting off her love as though it never existed. She wouldn’t hesitate to kill Goliath – in fact, she tries to kill him many times. She makes no concessions to their former love, and seems incapable of any affection at all in the face of her hatred for humankind. Then, she discovers that she has a daughter.

By this point in the show, it’s a pretty well-established fact that Demona is not to be trusted under any circumstances. True to character, she repeatedly manipulates and lies to her daughter in order to achieve her goals, and in doing so loses her trust and any chance of developing a real bond. And yet, when there is real danger, Demona steps in to save Angela. She will not allow anyone to harm her daughter, and she won’t cross the line herself and carry on with a scheme that would harm her.

Children providing redemption for their parents is another frequent theme in the struggle between love and evil (again, I point to Vader). Demona, however, rejects that redemption. It’s clear that she feels something for Angela, whether it's affection or just protectiveness. Whatever she feels, though, it is not enough to stop her from searching for a way to destroy humanity. And since that goal is more important to her than anything else, the possibility of a loving relationship with her daughter disappears. Once again love and evil battled it out, and evil won this round, even if the love exists.

Xanatos and Fox aren’t lost, though, and it’s their son Alexander who causes the real change in them. Shortly after Alexander's birth Goliath and the other gargoyles help Xanatos and Fox to keep their son when others want to take him away – acting, perhaps, on the same impulse that prompted Goliath to help Xanatos before. He certainly had no reason to believe that his help would be appreciated or repaid, but in the end it was. Xanatos provides shelter to the gargoyles just when they need it, and an uneasy alliance is formed that eventually grows into friendship.

“Goliath saved the world,” Xanatos says to another character. “More importantly, he saved my son.” (And once again Xanatos's ego pulls through to give me one of my favorite lines ever.) Xanatos may not be a paragon of virtue, but you can’t fault his family values, and he does cease with the diabolical schemes that Goliath constantly had to stop in the past. Xanatos and Fox remain true to each other and their son through the entire show, perhaps indicating that villains can feel true love, too. Still, even this happy family can’t make the case for love and evil existing in harmony, since by the end they have effectively switched sides.

Such is also the eventual fate of Spike when he falls in love with Buffy. From that point on, his character arc is all about the struggle between love and evil. He is a vampire who loves a vampire slayer. He has no soul, craves blood, and concocts evil schemes, but he also can’t stand to see Buffy in pain, watches her back when she needs it (even when that means killing other vampires), and in some ways understands her even better than her friends do.

Joss Whedon seems to like that kind of character conflict, because it’s also the central theme in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The story plays with our conception of good and evil by giving us a sweet villain for the protagonist and a self-absorbed jerk of a hero for the antagonist. Then we watch Dr. Horrible’s character transform through the show’s forty minutes.

For Dr. Horrible, villainy is a way to change the world. He wants to join the Evil League of Evil and win the prestige he needs to make a difference. However, there are certain lines he is uncomfortable about crossing. The influence of Penny, whom he has secretly loved for a very long time, just might be the only thing that could keep him from crossing those lines. The entire story builds up to demonstrate that there is no room inside of Dr. Horrible for both his evil ambitions and his love for Penny. And I’m not going to say any more than that, because seriously people, if you haven’t watched this yet, go look it up on Youtube or something. You can spare forty minutes to watch something this spectacular.

Spike’s story, on the other hand, takes a few seasons to unfold – and just to warn you, I’m about to give a spoiler for my absolute favorite plot twist in the entire show. The essential conflict is the same for Spike as for Dr. Horrible: either love or evil must win out. For Spike, it’s even more obvious that this is inevitable. Penny is really more of a bystander in Dr. Horrible’s story (albeit an important one), but Buffy is Spike’s natural enemy. By definition, he’s a demon, and her life’s purpose is to slay demons. Something has to give.

For Spike, perhaps more so than any of the previous examples, matters come to a head with a very deliberate choice between evil and love. Spike comes to the conclusion that loving Buffy is more important to him than anything else – and that is a realization that requires certain sacrifices.

So he travels across the world and takes on a torturous series of trials in order to win his soul back.

And here’s the thing: he doesn’t do it because he expects to return and claim Buffy’s love at last. He’s not expecting a magical happy ending. He does it because Buffy deserves to be loved by a man who has a soul, not a man whose very nature is evil. (I could write yet another essay, by the way, entitled Why Spike is a Better Man than Angel, but now is just not the time.) This evil, soulless character had enough capacity for true love to prompt him to do whatever it took to turn his whole nature upside down. To be perfectly frank, in this particular case love kicked evil’s ass.

So, why have I gone on at such excessive length about all these characters? Well, because I love them, and I love their stories, and because I get to talk about what I love on my blog. :) But also because as much as I love them, there is still an empty place in my heart just waiting to be filled by that perfect evil couple: the two villains who are totally committed to each other and to their nefarious schemes. Please tell me – has anyone found them yet? Or am I going to have to write them myself?

not the one you've been waiting for

I've had a request for a post about my trip to the coast this weekend. Well, nice as that trip was, it can't really be described as eventful. I'm afraid there just isn't much to tell. I'll try for something, though.

The worst disadvantage of my vampiric heritage struck again on Saturday: my face has been mildly toasted. It's a really good thing the vampires are so far back in my ancestry, or things would be so much worse. Also, I apparently have very weak ankles. It seems that an extra long walk on wet sand in bare feet can stress my ankle to the point where I end up limping for the next two days. This just proves once again that I don't get nearly enough exercise.

Also, as the afternoon wore on, someone suggested in jest that I write a beach haiku... so I did. Keep in mind that I was very cold at the time.

Beach Haiku

Feet buried in cold sand,
I watch the bright waves roll in.
Let's go inside now.

Really, we had a wonderful time. It was very relaxing, and the Oregon coast is just beautiful. A few of us walked from the campsite to the beach after dark on Saturday night, and I couldn't believe how many stars I could see. I was really tempted to update Twitter from my phone with a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I decided not to, mostly because I've never actually seen or read it. I've just heard the line often enough to be familiar with it.

Anyway, that was the coast!

Monday, April 13, 2009

not about what is, but what is not

I started off my day in the usual way: by walking into semi-random stores and asking the people inside for a job. Today was a little different from the usual experience, though.

STORE EMPLOYEE: How may I help you?
RUTHANN: I was just wondering if you are hiring?
STORE EMPLOYEE: Yes! Would you like an application?
RUTHANN: ...I am so not used to hearing "yes" to that question.

That scenario was repeated a few times throughout the morning, which, needless to say, was very encouraging. My characters really like it when I can afford food and rent. When I get too distracted their lives stop moving forward, and that makes them unhappy. They're needy like that.

Unfortunately, they're not always very giving in return.

RUTHANN: *writes happily* This is going well!
CHARACTERS: *dig in heels* We are not happy.
RUTHANN: What? But it was going so well!
CHARACTERS: This is not what happens. We don't do that.
RUTHANN: You don't? Well, what do you do?
CHARACTERS: Figure it out!
RUTHANN: The moment you guys cut your puppet strings, I knew this could not end well.

They know better than me, obviously. But they have sharing issues. Clearly I did not raise them well enough.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Name of the Wind

I was a little afraid to try writing this post, because I’m not sure I can adequately explain just how amazing this book is. But I was just reading something online about The Name of the Wind, and suddenly found myself almost tearing up, and not just because I’m a bit overemotional these days. It was because I wish I could write as well and as beautifully as Patrick Rothfuss – which, by the way, is somewhat similar to wishing I could write poetry like T.S. Eliot. (I wish that too, in fact.) That was when I realized I have to at least try to describe this book, because it deserves to be mentioned, especially to people who might then go read it.

Part of the problem is that it defies categorization. How do you tell people about a book that isn’t quite like other books? Yes, it’s a fantasy. One could also call it epic. But it doesn’t conform to the traditional structures one usually finds these days, in fantasy or other literature.

To quote the author: “As far as I can tell, my story is part autobiography, part hero's journey, part epic fantasy, part travelogue, part faerie tale, part coming of age story, part romance, part mystery, part metafictional-nested-story-frame-tale-something-or-other.”

The Name of the Wind is all of those things, but since it is all of them, it is also none of them. How do you predict what’s going to happen when all of those ingredients are thrown together into the same story? Sure, in some ways they can line up, but in many more ways they force each other in directions they wouldn’t ordinarily go. This is part of what makes the story so hard to describe, and also part of what makes it so wonderful. We like to read the traditional story forms, but we also like it when they do things we don’t expect.

Usually, then, when I mention The Name of the Wind and someone asks me what it’s about, I fall back on choosing one of the many things that it is, because that’s faster and less confusing. What I tell people most often, though, is that The Name of the Wind is beautiful.

There just isn’t a better word for it. The story is gripping and fantastic, but the language leaves me awestruck.

I’ve been in awe of books before, for many different reasons. Robert Jordan’s world-building capabilities staggered me. With Melanie Rawn, it’s the characters. (She does characterization so well that once she made me cry for two characters who died just a couple pages after she introduced them.) Usually, though, it takes the highest quality poetry to make me feel the way this book’s prose did.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, that’s no good. If I want poetry I’ll go read poetry. I don’t need it in a novel.” Let me assure you: in this case, you really do. This isn’t a matter of wordy descriptions that detract from the story flow. I’ve read books in which the narrative goes off on so many descriptive tangents that by the time it returns you to the conversation the characters were having, you’ve forgotten that they were talking, let alone what they were talking about. That’s not what Patrick Rothfuss does. These are well-chosen words that never fail to make the story more powerful than it already was.

Beautiful language would not be nearly so impressive if it didn’t go with an amazing story. I’m not going to try to tell you about it here. The blurbs in the link above don’t do it justice. It’s one of those books that you really just need to read for yourself.

Go. Read. I recommend The Name of the Wind with absolutely no reservations.

UPDATE: Locus reviews books better than I do, if you'd like to get some sense of what it's actually about.