From the pen of the Mad Missourian, Benjamin Wheeler, a tome of terror and nightmare beyond your reckoning! IT IS THE NECRONOMICON AESTHETICA. Bound in the twisted and flayed flesh of critics and penned with the blood-tear ink of underpaid and overworked artists, this book will be the end-all and be-all of entertaining fiction analysis. This is not to be an explicit guide to a paint by numbers towards something poor, generic and, Lord forgive me for saying this, derivative. This is a guide to promoting excellence of story telling, to look at, disagree with or consult like a road map where you already know the way, but you want to make sure.
Read ON brave delver of the dark literary arts!
Make sure you aren’t throwing in crazy awesome super powers where everyone has been normies for 3/4ths of the book. Make sure you aren’t calling something steampunk when it’s CLEARLY, CLEARLY dieselpunk. Make sure that, when you edit your book so that it meets your standards, (before sending it to your dread editor) you are not missing things that are objectively bad, because you think that its subjectively good. This is not a book for the unenlightened, the NORMIES. I hope they enjoy it, this is meant for the artists themselves. Read, and grow wise and mad. Very mad indeed.
ABSOLUTE FOUNDATION: This book works under the thesis that some things are objectively good or bad, but some things are subjective to taste. Sporty blond vs. sulky Goth is a matter subjective taste. (But Goths are better. Fight me.) For example, Mary Sues are objectively bad. Tricks can be done, but by the end of the story, deconstructing a Mary Sue means you don’t have a Mary Sue in the first place, or a compelling character. If you have a compelling, growth capable character, they wouldn’t likely be a Mary Sue. An author attempting this might not be capable of the literary slight of hand. Know your limits. Gen Urobutcher is a decent anime writer who pulled it off with Madoka Magica, kinda, but even then, by the end, the whole point was lost to time travel shenanigans.
WARNING: Don’t try to pull off time shenanigans without a clear image of what you want, a cursed spreadsheet, conspiracy flesh-wall and done your research. I.e. read Homestuck and City Beyond Time. This will get its own chapter in the future.
CHAPTER 1: COMMIT OR PERISH, MORTAL
We’ve all been there. The organ music and lighting is just right and your muse has gotten barrels of God’s inspiration sawn-off shotgun. The strange octopoid gods your inbred neighbor worships have gone quiet, no longer screaming about a lost world, and whatever that is that just STARES blinked. You’re ready to write. You sip absinthe and take a hit of your “Stephen King Special”. You put your fingers to the nipple-keys of the horrid hunchback you call “William Twist” and…
DONE! It’s hours later and the blood sun rose and fell, but you have transcribed the dreams of another reality into your loving yet treacherous hunchback for him to prepare for… editing. Yet, as you read it, sipping your water to come down from your hemlock ingestion, you find yourself dissatisfied. Something is not quite there. You’re not quite sure what it is. Something changes around page 204 to 208. Your muse is trying to dance it out. Break dancing, in fact. What does it mean? Who failed?
It’s right here. It looks gooooooddd…. The heroes have to make a choice. Why does the choice feel off? They’re heroes. They need to make a certain choice, to spare someone who does not deserve it as a representation of that thing normies call “Love”. The plot has to make it happen. Well, before you whip William for his failure, consider this. Maybe you didn’t commit to the choice before hand? Maybe, though you thought you foreshadowed and established their morality before, when the choice came, it did not offer the reader catharsis or jaundice as you intended. It’s clear to you, isn’t it? It just was something the heroes did. Admittedly, the Ice Quean was evil and beautiful, and sparing her set her on the road to redemption, making her beautiful inside and out, but did she have it in her before?
Did you commit to that choice? Or, did you merely present it like an undressed steak, a PERFECT medium-rare… but without the seasonings, the wood fire grill or plating? I won’t criticize your word choices. Your descriptions of her soul pass muster. The terrible literary godling, ITUMBO OF NIGHT, is not finding you wanting in any way but one. Your soul feather quivers on the judgement calipers. You did not commit to the redemptive themes you, the dread author, inscribed into the flesh of William Twist.
Whatever foundations you laid, you could not preserve the most precious of resources, the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Consider that every read-worthy story has explicit or implicit rules. These rules cannot, not ever, be violated without cost to any tale. Now, one can build up a cache of suspension, so that you can grind on by on the little mistakes we imperfect beings make. It happens. Don’t beat your loyal hunchback over it. Each of the unenlightened starts out with more or less, but finite. If you are writing non-fiction of baseline earth, then everything should work and the suspension of disbelief the audience holds should weather just about anything… except the impossible.
Even miracle stories must have the readers capable of believing in miracles. Writing off-brand Tolkien non-fiction (with original characters, do not steal) has a similar cache built in. Swords, orcs and magic are believable. Spaceships…? Well, I hope you know what you’re doing. Establishing rules for your story and then breaking them never actually happens to good effect. It puts the story and, if you haven’t sold it to ITUMBO OF NIGHT already, your soul in peril If Boromiro (O.C. D.N.S.) pulls out his lightsword forged by Martians that he certainly didn’t have before… But a long sword forged by the dwarves and passed down the family line… you see?
A recent example is a recent Game of Thrones season finale. Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons ETC rescues her men from an ambush flying on her dragons. Now, this wouldn’t be bad in a vacuum. What went wrong is that she flew a distance about as long as South America in, like, fifteen minutes. Previously, the show and books took great lengths to ensure that distances are not violated. It takes a long time to travel from the Stark home to the capitol. It takes Daenerys seasons to get anywhere on Essos. Time and distance mattered… until it didn’t for the dramatic seasonal finish. Fail. It would have been better for her forces to suffer defeat, than violate those rules in place since episode one. But then, that would mean Daenerys would lose something. Even normies on car radio shows were joking about that one.
Another example. The Last Jedi was recently released and its flaws are self evident. The worst of them is that The Last Jedi did not commit to its nihilism. This isn’t a joke. If they had burned the manuscripts, caused Rey to fall in with Kylo Ren and destroyed all the rebels but whoever the Millenium Falcon could preserve… well, it wouldn’t make it a less offensive movie, but it would have made it far far less intolerable. Consider this video.
If it had not flip-flopped. If it had not blinked at the last second and tried for a catharsis and climax that could NOT be supported, then, while it would not have achieved greatness, it would have been an honest movie, and thus, a more worthwhile piece of art.
ITUMBO SPEAKS: Some people liked the movie, others didn’t. Who’s right? Those who didn’t. TLJ does not hold up philosophically. It does not hold up in cinematography. It does not hold up in script. It does not hold up with characters. Those who enjoyed it probably didn’t think critically on it. Bless the unenlightened, but don’t let them dull your arguments. You deserve good, philosophically sound, well written movies. ITUMBO SPEAKS NO MORE.
The failure of both of these media events concern the inability of the writers to commit to the rules or the philosophies of their own stories. It cannot be repeated enough. They played fast and loose with their canon and structure until they broke and ruined whatever they attempted. Anything deviating from your goals, themes or tricks established before, while the reader reads in good faith, can be harmful to your end product. It is a betrayal of your loyal readers, and an offense to heaven, and worse, the demons of literature who foil dreamers in dreams and curse the unworthy with writer’s block.
Consider a multi-chapter sidequest. Stakes have to be established. Did the orcs serving the Ice Quean kidnap the spunky healer love interest? Are there some magical items they need for something else? Did the author just want to have a dungeon crawl? Each of these carries different weight or meaning, but if it is not established WHY they are storming the Dungeon Perilous, when it’s finished, the reader will look back and think, “Why did I read this again? Why did he write it?” Now a reader could be enamored of the characters, the action, the descriptions and so on, but it is not guaranteed. DO NOT RELY ON IT. If there are no stakes to a story, the reader need not read it. There can be no investment without some idea of what needs to happen.
The hero’s journey is useful here, though it will get its own chapter later, as a sort of map or guidepost. you do not NEED it, though it codifies events and story ideas that are common to nearly all works of art that have some kind of heroism and growth in them. There are spaces where side-questing can happen, but they are different from the darkest hour, metaphorical or literal trip to the underworld (where the hero is tested to see if he is genuine) and the climatic fight or achievement of his goal. To have a side-quest mid-bossfight is likely to be nonsense, unless the boss is specifically designed to allow it. Meeting your dad in the underworld is fine, but only if he has died. If he hasn’t died to your knowledge, and is only assumed, or doesn’t immediately go “Lord Igaram slew me when you left to find the soul gem!” Having someone there the reader doesn’t expect can be a shocker. If it is not easily explainable or reasonable, then it will have the negative shock. The shock of “Wait, if the author doesn’t care enough to make a reasonable dead guy character, why am I caring to read this?” What a perilous balance!
Lets return to our first example. The Ice Quean has seen the light of the five heroes and becomes their sixth ranger to overthrow the real evil, Lord Igaram. We already know Lord Igaram is evil, but we might not understand that redemption is possible. There are many ways to preserve the reader’s suspension of disbelief/enjoyment of the story, but have we set it up yet? Lets create a supposed work, piece by piece, with an eye for justifying her repentance and redemption.
CRITICAL WARNING FOR THE RELIGIOUS: While ‘Salvation’ is a perfectly reasonable excuse for any repentance (UGH, DO GOODERS. DON’T MARRY A FEMALE CENTAUR. DON’T MAKE ABOMINATIONS OF SCIENCE. BRING A DESERT CASSEROLE FOR THE POTLUCK), it does not always translate literally or translate well. The experience is often personal and hard to confer onto the reader who has not experienced it themselves. Even if they have experienced it, it may cause SEVERE, UTTER increase of disbelief as the reader transfers from a pretty good story to a morality play or mid-day Christian Radio Broadcasts (cringe). The God they (we) serve is merciful, but values stories and parables very much. If you would serve Him well, pursue what excellence He gives you. Do not insult Him and His precious children with a sub-par morality play that makes them a laughing stock. The Chronicles of Narnia and LOTR do it perfectly. Ted Dekker and the Left Behind Series DOES NOT. May God correct me if I am wrong, though I fear His correction. I do not criticize their heart, merely their quality to their contemporaries and from whom they descend.
DANCE OF THE MUSES: Let’s cover the story, paying special attention to how, and where, themes of redemption would best suit. The heroes meet up and shenanigans happen in the first few chapters, while the themes are still soft and malleable. Hints at what to come should be foreshadowed. Plotwise, the rightful heir to the throne is captured and the Ice Quean is the main suspect, being a blue-skinned witch and all. Lord Igaram should be mentioned as her subordinate. He’ll be important later. Here is the first gate: The first redemption without death (yet, maybe, death depends on how)
First, have the Hero’s best friend/lancer/whoever be evil or act evil, then redeem himself early in the story, certainly before the half-way point. Maybe he’s a too-cool-to-live big bro who joined the army after a tragic argument with pops. Maybe he had an evil gem brainwashing him and forcing him to fight his best friend for Lord Igaram’s amusement. Maybe she was a dragon knight, but fell in battle and was abandoned by her flight-mates, and became enamored of the hero and his kindness and in conflict with the hero’s Girlfriend (WARNING, LOVE TRIANGLE ALERT). Maybe the hero himself was evil in some way, or from an evil family, and seeks redemption through heroism. These are all possible routes to follow, even sequentially or simultaneously, if carefully done. More importantly, though, it establishes that heroism and redemption are things early on, so the reader is not blindsided by the Ice Quean’s turn to good.
The heroes fight the Ice Quean, who is the visible head of the orcish and snow-wolf army after various objects of power. The heroes may believe that they empower her for an eternal winter.
And there are ways to handle that later on, and not solved before the 1/2 to 3/4ths point of the story. Maybe she is reluctant to actually fight the heroes. Maybe she has a sympathetic back story. Maybe she has a good reason to contest the heroes over the macguffins but she can’t talk about them because she (rightfully) doesn’t trust the young and brash heroes that just showed up yesterday and are murdering her servants. Maybe she’s an Ice Quean because no one ever loved her before, except that one character, for whose sake she would freeze the whole world. You know, loyalty and love. Virtues imply redemption is possible, yet can be melded with the villainy to form something more than just a dark lord. For example, Jadis the White Witch from Narnia was brave in battle, yet evil to the core. In her case, there could be no redemption because her vices, Pride with wrath on the side, did not allow it. It makes her more that merely a witch from a 2d cutout.
WARNING: Now if you had Lord Igaram brainwash one hero to fight another, it might not be a good way to establish a redemption plot with the Ice Quean. That cheapens redemption. “Well if those two were brainwashed then who isn’t” rather than “Crazy, he used the evil gem to have a fight” Really, she should have her own motivations and desires that guide her to ‘villainy’ rather than something outside coercing her. It softens blows and dilutes messages. A battle in the center of the mind is great. Multiple battles are risky. Again, if the Ice Quean isn’t villainous of her own accord, she isn’t ‘redeemed’ so much as ‘cured’. The same with the best friend, creating resentment before his betrayal gives him agency. A conversation should be had between the hero and his best friend where they hash out their differences like reasonable people. Edmund betrayed his siblings, and while he carries that weight, it is discussed, foreshadowed and, ultimately redeemed from him. (IGNORE LEWIS AT YOUR DIREST PERIL)
For this her motivation, lets say that the reveal is that the Ice Quean is gathering the macguffins for a healing spell to bring the rightful heir, who, in reality, she has been protecting (TRAGIC BACKSTORY), back from near death to life. The world isn’t so much under her spell, as it runs on Fisher King Rules and resonates with her ice powers, rather than famine or storm. Lord Igaram is her faithful “dragon”, but past the halfway point, he’s really trying for something on his lonesome, and uses the Ice Quean’s powers for his own end.
Now, lets talk about why Lord Igaram needs to be there. First, the Ice Quean could be a solo villain, but without some beefy fighters to do her will, it could be a bunch of boring fights with the Ice Quean. Does she have dragon knights? They need a lieutenant as either a recurring or single boss fight or redemption example. Does she have werewolves? There should be a physically distinct or persistent one the audience can remember. Having many werewolves and a king werewolf is good (like Maugrim from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) or having one super-persistent werewolf is also good. However, that points to having the Ice Quean as the final boss. She can be redeemed from final boss status, but the villainy you make her do can harm the attempt. Expecting her care for the true heir to cover everything is optimistic. She burned down the village and killed your dad! She threw the place into eternal winter (and never Christmas). For stakes to exist she has had to do evil. Loss has to happen. Sometimes, lines are crossed and having her fully redeemed without dying or answering for her crimes (by death metaphorical or literal, because that is justice) is not bearable, and may add a sour taste to the reader’s mouth. Igaram draws away the poison.
Now, if death is on the table. She can be mortally wounded by something suitably ironic or heroic and drag herself to the body of the true heir and there soliloquize on her motivations before she dies. With the last of her magic, she could, instead of saving herself, power through and heal the heir. So on, so forth. There’s a lot of great ways to handle it. Write to your goals, but follow the advice here, and make sure the end makes sense.
A character like the Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars or Satan or Morgoth always does work when added into such a mix. Lord Igaram, seeking immortality or whatever (his motivations should be mostly in direct opposition to the heroes but philosophically/metaphorically relevant) through the macguffins helps create a personal foe, while keeping the Ice Quean mysterious and suitably witchy. The trope of witch’s familiar should be in play.
Lets say that 3/5ths to 5/8ths through the story, the Ice Quean’s motivations are revealed and sympathetic as stated. That is a perfect time for Lord Igaram to gank the macguffins and have a ‘final boss’ fight. The Ice Quean gets an opportunity to prove she is fully redeemed. The heroes can get cool power ups and so on. Here’s a great place to reward the reader with undiluted awesome as the Ice Quean’s army of werewolves join with the plucky heroes to assault Lord Igaram’s castle before he completes the demonhead ritual or whatever. This part is actually pretty free to work with until the end.
Lord Igaram might not be redeemable. While he certainly had his own fears and motivations concerning mortality, to make the philosophies the author has been talking about work, there has to be something to jar the reader from just going with the flow of “We’re right he’s wrong” He’s wrong. But if he can’t articulate why it hurts any messages. Be bold, yet keep it
If he has a sympathetic backstory (lost family to plague, shell shocked) or a not-sympathetic one (just a jerk, doesn’t want to answer before God for his crimes), he might be incapable of it. Remember, we’ve been setting him up for the length of the book. He shows up, twirls his mustache, backhands your girlfriend and takes the magic object at the last second. For chapters and chapters, you have been implying that he has his own goals and motivations, but somehow sticks to the Ice Quean. Therefore, it’s time for the payoff. He has to fall into the lava maelstrom, or obliterated by some character he abused (Witchy Goth Daughter who’s kinda into the best friend character, say), or just has to face the fact that all men die some day, but it’s all about the faith you have and the good you do. If he doesn’t die, then there might be a conflict. As mentioned before, having a big bad and then not killing them can hurt your climax and catharsis, carefully paid for over the hundreds of pages.
Perhaps Lord Igaram is a weakness to your story, and you don’t want to do what needs to be done. Play with fire, but don’t complain of getting burnt. Also, make sure he’s IN THE STORY AND CHARACTERIZED before his betrayal. The depth you put into the Ice Quean you also need to put into him. Don’t cross the finish line then trip and break your neck on the way to get the gold medal. Either way, do Lord Igaram right. Give him a righteous comeuppance.
LITERARY CRUCIBLE: If he lives then justice isn’t really a thing. Ultimately, if the reader has any sense of Justice, lacking Justice with the book will take them out of it. Without Lord Igaram, the Ice Quean has to bear the brunt of it, and you just gave her a truly moving backstory. Are you writing a tragic or heroic tale? Having Lord Igaram pull an ‘eviller than thou’ dulls that and promotes your goals of not executing the person responsible for healing the true heir (and burning down your village). What would be worst than either of those two would be not having an justice at all. If redemption exists, good and evil, justice and divine (or universal) law also exist. The logic follows that somebody has to pay for breaking those laws and offending justice. What are the consequences if you do not repent? If there are none, there are no reasons to repent. The hero could fight the dragon knightess, rape her, murder her and then rape the dragon she rode in on (and murder it…) and still be morally ‘righteous’ since there are no reasons or consequences for being either good or evil, if they even exist. How many dead babies until he isn’t a hero? If he is not righteous in his supposed rapine and murder, then there are good and evil and then divine law… and so on. The reasoning is circular at a certain scale, but you are containing an essential and immense part of human interaction that every healthily minded man, woman and child has a sense of it. In other words, it is more strange to lack Justice than to have it.
Therefore, to preserve suspension of disbelief, even to the last words, a sacrifice must be made. Whether the Ice Quean metaphorically or literally pays for her crimes, or Lord Igaram perishes in his mad quest for power, something must happen to retroactively justify it all. Even better, you could establish that the minions of the Ice Quean will not accept help even in dire peril, preferring to die than give up their pride. There are a thousand possibilities, but they must be molded to one another in such a way that the melody of plot, climax and so on is maintained for the reader.
Do not flip-flop, observe The Last Jedi. Do not violate your rules, like Game of Thrones. Do not violate the inward drives of your readers.
DO logically construct your characters arcs as naturally and smoothly as can be done. DO have villains who live up to their evil. DO be afraid to violate the reader’s disbelief. DO have someone you trust yet has a different mind than you pre-read it to ensure nothing too offensive lurks like a cancer within.
DO COMMIT TO THE THEMES OF THE BOOK. And do it properly, logically and as smoothly as you can. ITUMBO OF NIGHT COMMANDS IT. Your readers will also appreciate it, even if they can’t articulate it.
Next Chapter Monday: SUMMONING METAPHORICAL DEMONS, A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR THE NOVICE ARCANIST
Check out Sheik of Mars, my new book that’s a love letter to Victorian Fiction, Arabian Nights and fancy swordfights, when it comes out for preorder!
EDIT: William Twist, that loyal hunchback, brought me this video which discusses this subject in context for the recent kino: Infinity War