Snowed in and Snowed under

Snapshot_20140802_2by Chantal Boudreau

This year, the weather has brought me ample fodder for story concepts. Be it imagined scenarios of the aftermath of a bus crash during an April snowstorm or co-workers sharing ideas of snow monsters taking over the world when winter never goes away (not someone who writes stories herself,) the massive snowfalls we have endured here in late winter/early spring seemed to have inspired some unpleasant icy fantasies.

But that’s the thing about fiction – genre fiction in particular. The stories are found in the unusual, not in the norm. You’ll rarely see a “day in the life of…” kind of tale when exploring the speculative unless it’s presented in such a way to highlight the differences between our mundane existence and the strange alien planet, or the magical fantasy realm or the dystopian future society. Everyday life doesn’t tend to make for an exceptionally interesting story unless there is something exceptionally interesting about the protagonist(s)’s everyday life. Even in literary fiction, characters tend to have their eccentricities and are moving toward some point of self-discovery or self-destruction not just adhering to the status quo.

The entertainment value of a fictional story comes from events that wouldn’t typically happen. They might be used by the author for some sort of social commentary or moral point, something not likely to happen as the result of a protagonist sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs. Whether a character’s involvement is proactive or reactive, the story results from challenges, accidents, ambitions or extremes – something beyond the average.

I’ve been subject to the extraordinary for years, accused of being a weirdness magnet and of knowing everybody everywhere on more than one occasion (because I always seem to bump into acquaintances in the strangest of places.) I think that’s why, unlike some writers, I don’t cringe when people ask “where do your ideas come from?” I’ll gladly tell them. My life has always run so far outside of the norm, even when I’m trying to be just your average old boring accountant/mom, that I can’t escape new story ideas. I see them in my family, my friends, my co-workers, my environment, my goals, my fears and my trials and tribulations. Sometimes they even show up in the floors, doors or walls. With all this plot material building up in my head, if I didn’t write the occasional story, it might just explode.

So despite my unhappy mutterings about the record-breaking snowfall we’ve had this year, it’s really not all that bad. It’s just another one of those unusual experiences I can file away to break out when I need fictional inspiration – as the urge strikes me.

Something to keep me busy the next time I end up snowed in or snowed under.

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A Mother of an Idea

In honour of Mother’s Day, I decided to delve into the topic of mothers…parents in general, actually… in fantasy settings. I addressed the manner in which the parents of adolescent protagonists are often kept out of the storyline in my blog post “Parents – They Get in the Way of Good Fiction” but this is about what happens when a writer reaches that point in a longer running series where they deem it necessary for characters who have been romantically involved to finally start having children of their own.

From what I’ve seen, this is very dangerous territory in which to tread, especially if a writer aims to preserve realism within their fantasy. More than one series has effectively “jumped the shark” by adding children to the mix. You have to consider how children will affect the plot before adding them. Continuing on as if nothing has changed never works, and trying to avoid the obstacles younger offspring pose to progression of the plot has led to some pretty blatantly abused speculative fiction tropes I know that as a reader I don’t usually like to see.

Introducing children brings up a lot of questions modern couples face when deciding if the time is right for them. Should the couple marry if they haven’t already done so? How will the new addition affect character roles and dynamics? How will this impact characters’ health, livelihoods and availability? Will it change how and where they live? If the setting is a static one, like a town or castle, children could be integrated into the story without being overly disruptive, but what about if the story centers on a quest involving a great deal of travel or action? A child isn’t something that can be added to the story as a novelty item and then just swept under the carpet when they become inconvenient…or at least, they shouldn’t be. Plus the pregnancy itself could possibly take one of the characters out of the storyline for the duration, if not permanently.

Whether there has been any consideration with regards to becoming a parent or not, if a writer hasn’t addressed the issue of birth control, which may not be readily available in a fantasy setting, and characters are sexually active, eventually you would anticipate children to be the end result. When some of the young adults in my Fervor series become sexually active with no contraceptives available, they do not do so without consequence. I would expect similar results in novels set in lower tech worlds with no contraception or perhaps with something not consistently reliable.

For example, I have allowed for magical contraceptives in my Masters and Renegades world-building but even those do not always work as expected. Sometimes magic can be manipulated to yield unpredictable results, as my dwarven character in Magic University would attest. Spells can fail or be deactivated. Nothing is perfect.

So once children do come along, what then? You could keep them out of the picture until they are older(and with them likely one or both of their parents), try to work them into the story in minor ways or put them at risk (potentially bad parenting at its worst.) Or you could do something a little more extreme. These are my three least favourite speculative fiction tropes for dealing with the situation (although I won’t promise I’m not guilty of using these myself):

1) Supernaturally rapid aging to hasten the child into adolescence or adulthood – I absolutely hate this one and it has been done to death, from fantasy novels where a pregnancy is magically quickened so the child is born within days of conception so mom warrior-woman can get back to her quest as quickly as possible with baby in tow, to the sci-fi TV series baby who miraculously develops into adult over a matter of days or even hours (or in some cases, instantaneously). This trope is almost always accompanied by some sort of hokey explanation for eliminating the offspring inconvenience.

As I mentioned – I’m guilty of applying these under different conditions. I use it in Fervor, in a way, but in that case the children have been in stasis for years and have been kept in an unnaturally young physical form for their real age. The removal of the stasis causes them to develop rapidly to catch up to their actual age, not to surpass it. That, and the children involved are not a plot device for protagonist parents but the actual main characters themselves. Stasis plays into the plot as a whole and is not a means of hastening the characters into adulthood.

2) The child is outrageously precocious for their age – In more than one way the child thinks or behaves like an adult. While this one doesn’t bother me so much with older children who have been forced to fend for themselves or perhaps been trained extensively since birth, like in the movie Hanna…or have been genetically-manipulated to have heightened intelligence or targeted for such traits like Ender… I object to toddlers and preschoolers spouting Yoda-like wisdom without any attempt at explaining why.

3) The child is the extra special, chosen one, focus of a prophecy, destined to change the world, etc, etc (I think you get where I’m going with this) – I understand this approach more than the other two. It’s an excuse for involving children in a story with their parents where it would have been unthinkable otherwise. If the child has a unique or particularly unusual background, forcing them to be inherent to a plot, it makes some sense. It still seems to be more common than it ought to be though. Just how many “Chosen Ones” are there?

Running into one of these tropes seems to be par for the course in speculative fiction involving children. Then you get the stories that go overboard, like a certain series involving sparkly vampires offering up all three in one child(ugh).

Some writers have managed to handle the introduction of children with great forethought and finesse – it can be done. It requires a certain amount of creativity along with the acceptance that there may be sacrifices required and a reorganization of how things are done, just as you would have to do with the arrival of a child in real life. It helps if the writer is a parent themselves, since the experience is eye-opening. Maternal, or paternal, instinct can be a powerful force.

And remember, parents are still people too, including step-parents, foster parents and surrogates. You don’t just cease to exist because you’ve chosen to procreate (or raise someone else’s procreation.) So if the time is right, let your characters get to it.

Cheers to all the moms out there as your special day approaches.

Defining Evil

by Chantal Boudreau

In honour of Halloween, I’m doing another blog spot on the importance of the presentation of evil in a tale and of the nature of villains. Writers face a difficult challenge with the initial conceptualization of the antagonist of their tale: how despicable should they make that villain – on a standalone basis as well as relative to their protagonist, who might be walking a blurry grey line – and how exactly do they plan on defining evil? After all, evil comes in a variety of forms and what might be considered evil by some might not seem so terrible to others. Do you show bias based on your own experiences and cultural background or do you aim for something more universally accepted? It’s an enigma with no clear answer.

I’ve dabbled with different levels of sympathy in my villains, a variety of perspectives and motivations and a wide array of power levels. A weaker villain can still be effective if they are properly insidious and the protagonist is both malleable and corruptible. Iago, for example, doesn’t wield that much power, but he seizes opportunity to exploit Othello’s weaknesses.

An abundantly powerful villain can appear far too overwhelming, and their defeat improbable, unless the protagonist has access to comparable power to counter their efforts. In my “Casualties of War,” the heroes face an avatar with magic and skills far beyond their own. However, the fact that there exists a lack of balance of power as far as Lady Finesse is concerned does not distort the story for a few reasons. The first, and most important, is the fact that she is not the primary evil. She is merely an offshoot of the main plot, someone who toys with the characters for her own sadistic pleasure, the greater evil being the wizards who initiate the trouble the heroes face and those who perpetuate it by refusing to help the victims of that trouble. Those villains are more human and comparable in power to the heroes.

As well, her interference is offset by the influence of divine beings working on the side of good. This returns the conflict to the hands of the mortals who have to fight it out on more down-to-earth terms.

In “Prisoners of Fate,” where the villain has gained access to the combined supernatural powers of their world as well as a demonic one, instead of reducing the villain’s incredible power level, I chose to escalate the protagonists’ power level by means of access to a divine artefact. This way I could leave the villain’s power as originally defined, but still provide balance, enough to allow the possibility that the battle could swing either way.

I think my preference lies with defining my evil as closer to human. A more alien evil is easier to hate, but is harder to relate to. The best struggles are the one that hit closest to home, where while the reader may not agree with what the villain is doing, they can identify with them to some degree and understand where their motivation is coming from – villains like the bullies in my Fervor series and my Snowy Barren Trilogy, or ones like the twins in my yet to be released fourth book in my Masters & Renegades series, “Victims of Circumstance,” as much victims as villains themselves.

I thought I’d close with a little excerpt to show what I mean, a glimpse at what makes that evil more tangible and real:

“We have received word that there is another heir. He or she doesn’t travel alone, and they are likely three days, or thereabouts, ahead of us,” Regina informed her mentor.

“That will alter your course of action, but only slightly. You must seek out this third heir, find a way to earn his or her trust, and then eliminate this other heir to make sure that their claim does not supersede your own. If they are of a noble mother, you will likely lose your bid to be monarch of Seaforest.”

“We understand, mistress.”

“Where is Stefano?” the dark lady inquired, her violet eyes glowing with supernatural light.

“He is indisposed at the moment,” the young woman replied, her cheeks flushing slightly.

“You remember what we discussed,” Finesse whispered. “If he becomes too much of a liability, you are to dispose of him. I don’t trust him to do what’s required of him. If he proves to be unreliable, as I suspect he will, he will not serve his purpose. He’ll just get in your way.”

“I know,” Regina replied in a hushed voice, struggling to hide her extreme distaste at this idea. As much as she despised his boorish behaviour and his hedonistic tendencies, he was her twin brother and she still loved him. If push came to shove, however, she would do whatever would be necessary to ensure that their plan was a successful one.

“Report back to me as soon as you have more information on the other heir, and it is safe to do so,” the avatar instructed.

“I will, Lady Finesse.” Regina allowed the image to fade. She glanced back at her brother who was lying spread eagle on the bed, the pillow across his face.

“You can’t keep doing things like this, Stef,” she said softly. “You’ll jeopardize everything that we have worked for. I can’t protect you if she ever decides that you have gone too far.”

He pulled the pillow off his face and sat up, giving her an angry stare.

“I never asked for your protection. I don’t need your protection. You aren’t much more than a silly little girl. What would make you think that I would need you to protect me?”

Happy Halloween everyone!

Flawed to a Fault

By Chantal Boudreau

Those who know me know I think having heroic characters with flaws in my stories is important for realism. It’s not unreasonable to find a beautiful protagonist who is vain, arrogant or promiscuous, a highly intelligent character who is absent-minded, overbearing or socially awkward, or a physically strong character who is overly aggressive or not so bright. Protagonists might be naive or gullible to begin with, or they could be more mercenary than one might expect.

These are all what I would consider minor flaws and for the most part forgivable because of the characters’ more positive, heroic attributes.  But what about serious flaws – the kind a reader might find more difficult to accept in a hero?  I’m not talking someone who likes to pick their nose or lacks acceptable grooming habits and personal hygiene.  I have a hero like that, Shetland, who appears in Magic University and will be returning in the third book in my Masters & Renegades series, Prisoners of Fate.  Most readers really like him, despite his repulsive habits.  I’m talking extreme flaws that would normally be reserved for villains: addictions with real repercussions, mental illnesses that exceed a mild neurosis, or a propensity for violence beyond what is necessary for self-preservation or the preservation of others.

Now in some cases, you might anticipate these types of flaws in the kinds of heroes who straddle that gray line between good and evil.  If your hero is a reformed villain seeking redemption, they might carry some of their old villainous habits with them, like my somewhat reformed bully characters, Royce, in Elevation and Transcendence, or Crag-Climber in The Blood Runs Deep.  I think it’s important, however, to sometimes have these types of severe flaws extend to the ordinary protagonist and I’ll happily explain why.

When you consider the type of stresses the average fantasy hero has to endure, it is entirely unrealistic to think that the basic “good guy” won’t sometimes fold under pressure or break from the strain. We see this happen with real world heroes all the time. Soldiers with PTSD, emergency workers suffering from mental illness, to the point where some of them commit suicide because they can’t cope with the things they have witnessed, people burdened with heavy responsibilities turning to addiction to escape the pressure. It certainly seems reasonable that characters in fantasy stories might react to their stresses in the same way from time to time.

This is why I have made a point to include protagonists in my stories who do exhibit these more extreme flaws. In the sixth book of my Masters & Renegades series (not yet released) I have a protagonist who turns to alcohol when she feels overwhelmed by her responsibilities, I have a character in the fifth book in that same series (also yet to be released) who has a severe mental break when forced into a situation that challenges her to choose between her core beliefs and love and loyalty – she also happens to suffer from anger management and aggression issues – and my character, Fawn, in my Snowy Barrens trilogy has a combined mental and physical breakdown when exhaustion and grief drive her past her breaking point. All of these characters are only human, and I think it’s important to reflect that in their responses to overwhelmingly difficult circumstances.

Do extreme flaws have a place in proper protagonists? I believe they do and I hoping I’ll see more of this in my future fantasy reading.

How Dark is Dark Fantasy? Or – Feel the Fear

Being one of the few in the collective who is a horror writer as a well as a fantasy writer, I get very excited around Halloween. October means as much to me as December means to a Christmas fanatic. I wanted this post to offer a Halloween theme, but still focus on my fantasy work. Of course, my darker fantasy work often treads a fine line between fantasy and horror, but sometimes that line blurs and occasionally spills over completely. I’ve written two books I consider cross-genre, both dark fantasy and horror, not firmly one or the other. My dystopian series and my YA trilogy also come awfully close to horror at times, or as my real-life muse would say “Stephen-King-ish”.

For today’s post, with Halloween in mind, I first considered an article that presented my villains, or possibly a montage relating to one particularly heinous villain in my fantasy series. I saw two problems with this. My worst villains, for the most part, are in books I have yet to publish, the Lady Finesse being an exception. Damon Ramorran, the subject in my montage does not appear until the fifth book of my fantasy series, and as of this moment the third book is waiting on a release that is likely to be at least a couple of months down the road. I prefer to talk about work I have that’s already out there in the cold, cruel world.

Secondly, the montage is viciously dark, so heavy that I don’t think it would be appropriate for a fantasy-related posting. We’re not talking someone who doesn’t separate his recycling or leaves the toilet seat up (although he probably does those things too.) This man is evil incarnate – a true monster of the human kind…no supernatural involved. He’s the type of monster who does things that might make even make the stomachs of my toughest readers turn (hint…he collects body parts for fun.).

Instead, I’m going to discuss fear in fantasy. Heroes are often faced with huge challenges and great danger, but we rarely see a hero cringing, screaming like a little girl, or running away to hide. The fact is, if you want realistic characters, most will have something they fear, to the point they may not be willing to face it even if they stand up to other risks. It shouldn’t be unheard of for a protagonist to suffer from a phobia. I can think of two instances of main characters I have who are afflicted in such a way. My character, Dee Aaronsod, introduced in Casualties of War, suffers from a fear of heights. Her fear shows itself first in this instance (it makes an appearance several more times in the series):

While the stairs were wide, they were very winding and had no railing to prevent a fall. Most of the group didn’t find this disconcerting, but Dee pressed herself to the rock wall as she climbed, as far away from the edge as she could manage. Her fear showed clearly on her face and her hands trembled as she slid them across the stone surface.

“And here I was thinking you weren’t scared of anything,” Nolan teased. “You didn’t seem scared of heights when we were climbing the cliffs.”

“That was different,” Dee huffed. “We had ropes to support us if we fell, and I had something to hold onto. I grew up on a farm, and the highest I ever climbed was up to the hay loft.” She gazed at the distance to the bottom of the stairway, and gritted her teeth as she was overtaken by a moment of vertigo.

In an uncharacteristic display of compassion, Nolan offered her his hand. “Something to hold onto,” he said.

Warily, Dee took the offered hand. She relaxed immediately. They continued their climb together.

In my unpublished novel, Elements of Genocide, one main character, Andreyelle, is very much at ease when it comes to heights. Her problem is claustrophobia:

Zane returned his attention to his travelling companions. Valeria was examining the rock there, wearing a frown that looked completely out of place on her typically contented face. Volgis had located one of the lanterns and was trying to figure out exactly how it worked. Andreyelle had not moved from the spot where she had stopped upon their arrival at the base of the stairs and was staring into the depths of the tunnel, trembling. Zane reached over to grab one of the furs that Osiric had referred to, the mantle having been removed from one of the bags during Volgis’s search for the lantern.

“Here,” Zane said, tapping the pearly skinned woman on the shoulder. “This should help.” She glanced at the fur in his hand and shook her head.

“I don’t need it. I’m not cold,” she claimed, her eyes returning to focus on the dark hole.

“Then why are you shaking? You don’t need to be stoic. Once we start descending it will only get…”

Andreyelle interrupted him, taking two very unsteady steps backwards and shaking her head more vigorously this time. Her voice was panicky.

“I can’t go down there. I can’t.”

She had never been in any fully enclosed spaces. Everything in her city was bright and airy. The buildings were built with many windows and were well-lit. All of them had easy access to their rooftops, and Andreyelle had spent the better part of her time out on her windsurfer, by choice. She found herself suddenly possessed by severe claustrophobia, a panic that was trying to strangle the air from her chest.

Working a phobia into a character’s persona is another one of those ways to avoid cookie-cutter protagonists. It also gives you plenty of material to work into the story. Something to think about when it comes to dark fantasy – it only makes sense that somebody might be feeling the fear.