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Tag: Steven Erikson

MisCon 28: World Deconstruction 101

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: World Deconstruction 101
Panel members: Steven Erikson, Rhiannon Held, Ken Scholes
Panel description: You’ve learned all about world building, but what can archaeology and anthropology teach us about deconstructing your world? Should yours be an epic apocalypse or a slow, painful descent into the history books?

RH: Have you ever destroyed worlds in your writing?

SE: In the classics, it takes a long time for things to happen. But civilizations rise and fall. I’m not a fan of civilizations being frozen in development. My stories are about falling civilizations. They always leave scarring on the landscape. Landscapes are malleable. There’s a lot under the feet of the character.

KS: My whole series is post-apocalyptic. Three major cataclysms happen and there are few places that are liveable. My short fiction also has a lot of it. In one story, I wondered what Santa would deliver in a post-apocalyptic world. Bureaucracy may still try to hold on. What if in a magical apocalypse, there was a god that worked like the Old Testament? Or maybe it’s us destroying the world.

RH: I enjoy using far past cultures as a foundation. The imperfect knowledge of the past is intriguing. What is passed down may be from songs, stories and fables. I did that with my werewolf species. What they knew about their origins came from their oral tradition. I’m intrigued about it because I deal with it every day. So what do you think about world deconstruction gone wrong? It bothers me that when a population falls, no one considers that there will actually be more resources available. After the Black Death, the quality of life was actually better. In fiction today, we see people scrabbling for resources even though the resources of seven billion people are still lying around. There’s also the problem of dating a site. A dish might have a pattern dating back to 1915, but it’s still modern if people are still using it. Plastic lasts for thousands of years. It can still be reused. In a post-apocalyptic world, goods can still be reused and repurposed.

SE: I sense that a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is wish fulfillment. You get to shoot everyone and wipe out everything like the Old Testament. Environmentalists wish to return to a hunter-gatherer society. But how can you imagine eight billion people as hunter-gatherers? It’s not sustainable. You have to bring the number of people down with disease or something else. If the infrastructure and technology collapsed, you’ll have starving people. Then they’ll eat everything. In the jungles of Congo, society collapsed and everything was eaten. I don’t think most people think things all the way through.

RH: People don’t consider the knowledge left behind. Everything is written and digitized, but if we lose electricity and the older people die, we lose the knowledge. In one book I read, the characters think, “Oh, we’ll just grow this mold to cure the disease!” You can’t just do that. Where did they get the knowledge? Who survived and what knowledge was passed down?

KS: What’s your preparation for the post-apocalypse?

RH: My family has various skills and we own land on an island.

SE: Uh oh. We live on an island. It’s overdue to fall in the ocean.

RH: But it’s a good barrier to disease. In that situation, you should gain allies as soon as possible to bring skills together.

SE: I think it’s a crapshoot. I’ll think about it when it happens. Maybe it’s cultural. Americans thought this all up.

KS: My military friend has land that’s high ground and defensible. I have a friend who’s an OB-GYN. I have other friends who are nurses, hunters, etc. We’ve got a team. And with my skills, I’m going to raid a music store and become a bard. We’re going to stockpile.

SE: But once you do that, you’ve painted a large target on your back.

KS: Then we’ll get a militia.

Q: My brother would start a cult. He wants to be the head of it. Is hierarchy easier to maintain?

KS: I used to be a preacher, but there is also precedent of a science fiction author creating a religion.

RH: It depends on how many people are with you. With fewer people, it’s more flexible but you run into trouble if you need manpower to build something. With more people, you need infrastructure.

SE: There’s a survival threshold. If there are fewer people to start with, it’s important if someone dies.

Q: In fiction, they think that the military will suddenly disappear. But in real life, there’s a lot of people with military training.

KS: I have a friend who knows many military contacts.

Q: I know a mortician. Morticians have a contingency plan for getting rid of bodies if something catastrophic happens. You can see manuals for this online.

KS: You can also find documents online on what the military will do in case of an apocalypse.

RH: Homo sapiens as a species will survive an apocalypse, but it will only be a fraction of the population. But in fiction, it’s about the relationships.

SE: We wouldn’t be able to survive because we don’t have the knowledge base. But indigenous people will be able to survive.

RH: Ways of getting food will depend on the number of people. If someone has knowledge of farming, it can bring the population up. But if those people die, the lower population will be hunter-gatherers.

SE: A pristine environment depends on location. Prehistoric groups are small. There’s not much up in northern Canada.

Q: There are things that might get misunderstood in the future. Maybe in a thousand years, they might think hoodies were for building tents. How do you interpret the past?

RH: What would archaeologists see from our burial practices? It’s nice because we put dates on our tombstones. But what about the bones? Things rust and rot. Is plastic still there? What would that say about the person?

Q: There would still be pacemakers and cell phones.

RH: They’ll have a sense of our medical technology because they’ll see regrown bones, pins, and fillings. But why would there be drilled teeth?

KS: Obviously, it’s the tooth fairy cult.

Q: In Celtic mythology, there are fairies but there’s also mythologies about war.

SE: You can blend mythologies.

RH: If we have any written materials left, it would be on paper. But that decomposes. They won’t know English. What’s left is what’s carved on monuments like statues.

Q: What about people who are medication dependent, on birth control, etc.?

RH: That’s underrepresented on post-apocalyptic fiction especially since it’s wish fulfillment. The ancient Egyptians used a plant for birth control but they used it too much that it became extinct.

KS: There’s also expiration dates. There will be raids for materials. People will be too busy trying to stay alive to worry about other things.

Q: I heard that if everyone’s still alive after an apocalypse, the canned food would only last for two weeks.

RH: It’s resource stress. There’s not enough for everyone. Then there will be resource wars where they will kill others to take it. In a dystopia with wars, this makes sense. Killing and taking is easier than hunting.

Q: Is that why Central America declined?

SE: It was a fairly rapid fall, but there were ups and downs.

Q: Do you believe in stockpiling? My grandparents are still using stuff they stockpiled for Y2K.

KS: I like to play in the imagination. It’s wish fulfillment, a place to play. It hones down people. There’s a potential for rebirth or to go gently into the night. I write with underpants on my head. I dig into the wasteland of my childhood. In telling these stories, I process the things that happened to me in childhood.

Q: What about repeating history?

SE: It’s our nature. We have short term memories.

RH: When you’re dying, you don’t think ten years ahead.

Q: A lot of apocalyptic fiction seems to be from America. And it has lots of guns. Is it an American fantasy?

KS: I would want every possible tool to stay alive, not just certain tools. Think broadly.

SE: This country has sustained the myth of the frontier. Maybe it’s a return to the frontier. And it ties into notions of liberty.

MisCon 28: Putting the Military in Fiction

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Putting the Military in Fiction
Panel members: Dave Bara, Steven Erikson, James Glass, John Goff (with guest insights from John Dalmas)
Panel description: What is military fiction and how do you write it convincingly? Is a military background necessary? Do the rules change when you’re writing space opera, military fantasy, or other sub-genres?

JGlass: I spent one year in ROTC and it was helpful in writing about a character who was trapped behind enemy lines.

DB: I have no background in the military, but apparently books sell better if they’re called military science fiction rather than space opera. In the future, technology can be so advanced that everything could be automated. So nobody has to go into war unless you’re on the receiving end. Or maybe no one will commit anyone to battle and just use drones and robots instead.

JGlass: But on the ground, there will always be casualties.

JGoff: It’s always necessary on the ground. An equivalent force might not be effective for a village in a third world country.

SE: It would have a canceling out effect if all the machines wipe out each other.

JGoff: Hacking may be less expensive than building new machines.

JGlass: There’s technology for foot soldiers like exoskeletons.

JGoff: The effectiveness of a gatling gun depends on whether it’s used for offensive or defensive sides.

JGlass: There’s a new gun with a packed barrel called a metal storm that’s fired electronically. Speeds are getting incredibly far.

DB: In my favorite movie, Patton, there’s a line: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

JGoff: The other side wins by taking less casualties.

JD: The importance is in winning the peace afterwards. For example, after World War II, we treated the Japanese well and it paid off.

JGlass: I haven’t seen much in science fiction about the post war aftermath. How do you bring it to a good end? It’s not dealt with in science fiction. But it’s in real life.

JGoff: Historically, man has not been able to win the peace. World War II is an exception.

JGlass: Or Alexander the Great. He married the princess.

SE: Alexander the Great was the only successful foreigner in Afghanistan.

Q: With the recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan and the guys in vests willing to kill anyone, it’s become asymmetric.

JGoff: Thing is, we’re faced with individuals. We can’t attack everyone. We’re on the defensive. They have the initiative. It’s the same thing in Vietnam. We’re not willing to kill everyone in the room, but they are. That’s when warfare becomes terrorism.

Q: Does it become technology against will?

JGlass: Morality is an issue if you kill everyone. We can win if we throw out morality.

DB: If you have no military background, what’s the best way to learn?

JGlass: With experience, you learn a lot. Also read a lot to see how it’s handled. Use Google. Use lots of sources.

SE: Writers mine their own experience. Hope for some similitude to what you’re writing. For instance, I was once in Manitoba mapping boulder formations but we had problems with bears. We would often lose sight of co-workers so to stay in touch, we would often shout at each other. Once, I accidentally got in between a mother and her cubs. The bear charged and chased me into a lake. I mined that experience in my writing. Once I was drunk and had to piss in the bush. But it turned out it wasn’t a bush. It was a bear and it hit me down while my pants were around my ankles. The absurdity of warfare is implicit. Mine your experience and translate it. In 1983, I was in a helicopter in flames and got dropped in the middle of the jungle in Central America during a civil war. Use whatever you can, the rest is imagination.

JGoff: Don’t get into the minutiae of the background. Use what is needed for the story. In The Black Company, the reader doesn’t get into the minutiae in the background. Instead, you get a sense of what’s there. It’s more about the character.

JD: In conventions, fans want to know how something works, but I don’t know!

JGoff: Schwarzenegger doesn’t know how a machine gun works, but it’s still a good movie. You will always run across such fans.

DB: The brain collects all this data. I needed a name for an energy gun in my story so I just made it up and called it a coil gun. Later, I Googled it and saw that it really is a weapon.

JGlass: I usually look it up. But you can also make things up. If it sounds good, then it works for the story.

Q: What are you trying to show by using the military in your fiction?

JGoff: It makes something interesting to read.

JGlass: You can explore contemporary issues like the morality of war, etc.

SE: A kind of empathy is established if the point of view is the grunt on the ground. It shows them battling helplessness, despair, and fear. Many of us feel it with the surrounding geopolitical situation. It’s universal. It resonates with the reader because it’s about forces that we have no control over.

DB: I wanted to put a character on a military ship because it’s more interesting than tracking orcas. Use military in fiction if you want to give characters infrastructure. It forces them to make moral choices.

JGoff: You can’t tell a story with depth without narrative conflict. Military fiction often makes you question. Often characters go in believing in one side and later they begin to realize that the enemy isn’t faceless. It’s switching perspective in the struggle.

Q: Do military movies say the same thing?

JGlass: They say something about the human condition with all the conflict.

DB: I like bringing up internal conflict. In the Warhammer series, there are too many intense battle scenes. There should be more happening in their heads.

JGoff: If an author is influenced by Vietnam, military fiction gives you an insight of the cultural mindset in the time it’s written.

JD: In the Swedish invasion of Norway, many people died from the weather.

SE: In Cambodia, people marched into the jungle and were never seen again. In the book Blood and Bone, the jungle rots away the entire army. It’s interesting stuff. The King of Wulfar led an army. The king died but the army kept fighting. It became a headless army.

Q: What are your favorite non-fiction resources?

DB: Wikipedia, Tom Clancy.

JGoff: I like large overview books rather than detailed ones. Atlases of world history, depending on what time you’re writing about.

SE: Autobiographies by soldiers.

JGlass: Biographies about Patton, Alexander the Great, etc. Military fiction is tactical. Readers like that because it’s like a game.

MisCon 28: Developing Cultures for Storytellers

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Developing Cultures for Storytellers
Panel members: Steven Erikson, John Goff, Ken Scholes
Panel description: In this panel we’ll learn how to develop unique cultures, economies, art, history, culture, music, language, expletives, etc. to fill your stories with juicy, realistic details. We’ll discuss how culture influences your characters, your world, and its history. Come learn from anthropologists, archaeologists, and writers.

KS: There’s rhythm for believable histories. In my five book series, there’s culture and conflict. In the beginning, the protagonists don’t know there’s another culture. That’s a mystery. All stories have their own world. Even in short fiction, you can’t suspend disbelief if you don’t have a culture.

SE: I recommend that beginning writers find an introductory anthropology textbook. Conflict comes from the clash of cultures. Geography dictates culture and history. Between my ninth and tenth books, I went to Mongolia with a group of Russian anthropologists. I observed the differences in culture between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians are bigger than the people in China. In order to understand why Europeans called them the scourge, you have to know that their diet of dairy and protein made them a bigger people. Understand what effects shape culture. Once we had farming, there was a consequence for not hunting food anymore. People started hunting each other–which became warfare.

KS: Is there any anthropological theory you like?

SE: I like the Neo-Marxist model, without the communism stuff. The hunter gatherers became sedentary and developed pastoral agriculture. Civilization expanded and specialized and increased in complexity. And with the industrial age, it all did damage.

Q: Was Mongolians versus Chinese like Romans versus the Gauls?

SE: Not really. The Romans collectively imposed their rule, but the Gauls (and the Celts) fought as individuals instead.

JG: I work for a licensed property so I build on what was already created. I work on Deadlands which is an alternative history of the American West. In this world, the Civil War grinds to a halt without a resolution and we discover that magic can only be used by certain cultures. This can play up the conflict.

Q: How do you view technology changing culture?

SE: It basically improves methods for people to destroy each other. When I was in Winnipeg, I saw some Lakota and Sioux artifacts and some what if questions became a story idea. What if the Sioux had the power to defeat the U.S. army? They would have still been devoured by the dominant culture.

JG: In the game I’m working on, there is a northern tribe that shuns technology and a southern tribe that embraces technology. In the end, it is the southern tribe that loses its culture. If you can visit a place in real life, you should go.

KS: Experience the world if you can. Stories are everywhere. Go places and experience the people. I went to France for my French publisher and I made friends with just my guitar. I let people tell me their story.

Q: I’m trying to figure out what western ideology that may be inadvertently ingrained in my world building.

SE: Ask yourself what rules you used to create the world. What if magic worked? Then decide if the magic is gender based or learned. Removing sexist language is hard, but consider how you created the world.

KS: I used to be a fundamentalist Baptist minister, but it was a slow path to what I am now as a secular humanist. Old preachers are a culture in themselves.

SE: Cultures are not monolithic. There are cultures within cultures.

JG: I also run into that in gaming. Try to be respectful. Call out the differences so players can build on it.

KS: How do you handle cultural appropriation?

SE: I grew up in Winnipeg which had the largest population of Native Americans in Canada, so I must include them. It would be a disservice to excise them. There are people in our country who live entirely different lives. Stealing myths and transforming them is not good.

Q: What’s your opinion on appropriation of myth?

KS: There’s a lot of stuff I had to unlearn with privilege, etc. So I still have to find my own way. Be respectful, don’t exploit.

JG: As long as you are respectful, then it’s fair game. There are a number of Japanese films that are westerns transposed to Japan. Then Italians transposed those films back into America, becoming the spaghetti western. As we grow closer together in the world, there’s a lot of cross-pollination.

SE: Karagawa does Shakespeare in Japanese.

JG: I don’t like The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves where the culture is only accepted if there’s a white dude in it. It’s not respectful. Marketing underestimates the audience.

SE: I recommend 1491 and 1493 for books on culture.

KS: When I had been a pastor, I saw Dances with Wolves and at the time I thought it was the tribe who redeemed him.

SE: When a white man went native, he got a bounty on his head because he was getting a better life. We carry many biases. What would you think if we replaced fifth century Greeks with the Congolese?

KS: I became pro-choice because of Cider House Rules and pro-gay because of Brokeback Mountain. There’s a fine line between outraged enough and not outraged enough.

Q: Save the Pearls is a novel about white people (pearls) subjected to black people (coals). What do you think of inverting race?

SE: Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book where disease wiped out the European population so the Europeans became slaves.

KS: In The Forever War the protagonist had to adjust when the culture became more gay than straight. It shook me up and made me think.

JG: A friend’s daughter attended a class where they did an exercise like that in order to teach how some people are still treated like second class citizens, but it backfired and made it worse.

Q: If you’re inverting the culture, be careful it’s not too heavy handed. Otherwise it would be more like a photo negative. Look at the point of view of that culture.

JG: Be aware of your biases.

SE: It’s an enormous can of worms with cultural relativism. There are many apologists for horrible things. You have to determine why they’re doing it. If a culture is on the edge of subsistence, they are more conservative. They want to keep the status quo or they’ll starve.

KS: Write with empathy.

MisCon 28: Keeping Track of Story Elements

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Keeping Track of Story Elements
Panel members: Steven Erikson, Rhiannon Held, Ken Scholes, Mark Teppo
Panel description: Steven Erikson wrote one of the biggest, most sprawling fantasy epics out there. How does he do it? What are some of his, and other writers’, tips and tricks for keeping track of all those plot lines, characters, histories, personalities, and quirks? Join us and find out!

KS: What do you think are the elements of story?

SE: Welcome to my nightmare! After ten books, keeping track is a major thing. I’m concerned with the character in crisis. I can take a metaphor and make it real which becomes a comment on the human condition which lies under the surface. Emotional convergence is picked up during the narrative.

RH: I think of continuity details which I need to keep remembering mentally like the arc of the story. I incorporate that into the character so I don’t forget it. It’s not necessarily about eye color and other physical attributes. It can be situations. Was it the first time the character went to the zoo or not? What did they see there? What did they think about the lions?

MT: I tend not to plan a whole lot. I build meta structures with a number of loops to keep track of the book–then I go back and fill in the details. I find a natural rhythm where I don’t have to consciously think about it. For small details, make friends with your copy editor so they can help keep track of them.

KS: There are a lot of things I don’t keep track of in storytelling. I write by ear. The storytelling is internalized. For details in a long series, I reread the books before I start the next. The downside is, if you don’t start in time, you’re fucked. For the rest of you, what would you do differently next based on what you’ve learned?

MT: I write small chunks at a time. So I would just get it down. Don’t do research beforehand. Do the research later for the details.

RH: If I were doing a longer series, I might change my behavior if I find myself plodding. I make a graduated effort. I find a massive series bible at the beginning to be a wasted effort. In revision, anything can change so it can be set up to trip you up later. I also do a lot of rereading. I did it while copyediting the first book while writing the second book.

SE: In the original series, I used years to mark time but I now realize it’s a mistake. The timeline is fucked up. So I don’t mention dates now to avoid cause and effect. I don’t want to be pinned down.

KS: I want to have a world, not an entire bible but more like a map and some ideas, in place before I start on a short story. It’s a good idea to go to that place to live there and see what it’s like but not to deliberately research. If you wander, you can find a story. Sometimes a new place will inspire a story. Fans also help because they read your work. I have a fan/friend who built a glossary for my world and he can tell me details I’ve forgotten. These days, I’d rather go under the knife or write a romance than write another fantasy series. What’s your biggest book mistake?

SE: I had a character who changed gender.

RH: Some of the mistakes were caught during copyediting. But one mistake that made it into the book was that one character said that he was never threatened by a gun, but he was threatened by a gun.

MT: In my first novel, there’s a scene that takes place in Portland at the bookstore Powell’s. In the book, I wrote that the tarot cards were in the rose room. But then I was told that they had moved the cards to the orange room! So I put a note in the back of the book that the location of the cards has changed. However, I think they put the cards back into the rose room now.

KS: I had places that were only mentioned in my first book but never put on the map. The name of one character’s dad changed in different books. There is no such thing as a perfect book. Another author had put Jakarta in the wrong hemisphere. What’s the one question you (the panelists) wished I had asked?

MT: I have a question for Steve. You said you have a last scene in mind before you write?

SE: I just have to get there. Give yourself a lot of room to get caught up. Bring things in for mystery. The key is not to overbuild. Leave room, especially in role playing games.

MT: In an RPG, the GM may drop notes for where the players should go, but the players just go the other direction. It’s spontaneous.

KS: I found that the most useful game was Dungeons and Dragons for planning, interacting with difficult people, budgeting, etc.

Q: Do you have any tricks for keeping track of story elements in shorter fiction?

SE: Take notes.

RH: Have a good memory. It depends on your personality. I don’t recommend a series bible. I like graduated effort. Be aware of your own abilities. What kind of notes do you need? Time is also a factor. Writing it continuously is easier than writing scenes one year apart. Rereading is not a time commitment.

KS: You can hold a short story or novella in your head but not an entire series.

Q: Do you compile your notes electronically? If so, how?

SE: Fans have compiled a wiki for my series. I also have thirty boxes of notes. I have no idea what’s in them. You can get away with anything if you have unreliable notes.

RH: I have some electronic notes on Microsoft Word. I hit “control F” to find what I’m looking for. It’s brute force but effective.

MT: I use a pocket notebook for my grocery lists and book notes. I also use Evernote, Dropbox, and Scrivener which is great because my work and my notes are in the same file. I’m very mobile.

KS: I use a tablet of graph paper. I don’t really use electronic notes because I don’t think it’s robust yet. I’m a mix of planner and pantser. J.A. Pitts has a really robust planning strategy using Excel for characters and scenes. I like to plan it like screenwriting. I’m terrified of the commitment of writing a novel, so I break it up. There are scenes for every character and several scenes for each character. I come up with the box and then come up with the story to fill the box. And as a pantser, I only move from one act to another at a time.

Q: What are your suggestions on what to do if you lose or forget your notes?

MT: Make new notes. If you’ve forgotten it, then it’s not worth it. If you remember it, it’s worth enough to keep.

RH: Losing something can be the best thing. When you’re trying to find it, you’re searching for the “awesome” feeling you had when you had the idea and not the idea itself. So maybe it wasn’t that great.

KS: Everything I write, I lose.

SE: I lost the first 100 pages of one book so I decided to push it to later. It happens.

MisCon 28: Anti-Hero, Hero, or Villain?

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Anti-Hero, Hero, or Villain?
Panel members: S. A. Bolich, Steven Erikson, Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass
Panel description: What is an anti-hero? How do anti-heroes differ from standard heroes and villains? Do we still love them even though they’re good and bad? What attracts us to them? Who are some of the best ones in modern culture?

DPF: What is a hero?

SE: I’ve been obsessing about that notion for the past ten books. I play with Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero. I wanted elements of the hero’s journey on the page but I wanted the reader to take the journey. In order for something to be called heroism, it must be witnessed. So in my books, the idea is to write an unwitnessed hero. The reader is the witness, but the reader is also a silent witness. It’s a hard thing to define.

JG: I think a pure hero is someone who is noble and has no flaws. An anti-hero has flaws.

SAB: The hero gets the job done and comes through in a pinch. But he gives up something in the process. For example, Frodo in Lord of the Rings chooses to do the greater good over comfort.

DPF: I’ve read stories growing up of heroes slaying dragons. They sacrifice themselves for strangers. Heroes get the job done but they can also be selfish. They don’t want to do it, but they choose to do so.

JG: The pure hero does it for someone else. He’s selfless.

DPF: But what if you’re only doing it for some people you care about? What about the anti-hero?

JG: An anti-hero has something good in him but is also villainous. The anti-hero has good and dark sides and is more like a real person.

SE: The anti-hero is fundamentally flawed. We need that flaw because it’s a recognition that they’re doing things against their nature. Readers like that. The anti-hero is the most human of these tropes. The heroes and villains are dehumanized because of their extraordinary abilities or actions. You need motivations in villains. There’s no motivation if the heroes can do no wrong.

JG: Villains who are pure evil are one dimensional and boring. A villain believes what he’s doing is right. In writing, you can make the villain or hero change.

SAB: The creepiest villain in Harry Potter was not Voldemort but Dolores Umbridge because she was so awful and human. She thought she was right. Voldemort was one dimensional. In The Man Who Used the Universe (by Alan Dean Foster), the overlord was doing all these awful things, but he was preparing the world to meet an alien threat. Even though he wasn’t good–he was a psychopath–he did it for his own reasons.

DPF: Sometimes the end justifies the means. Hitler didn’t think he was a bad guy. It depends on the point of view. Mercedes Lackey said that “Even evil wizards get up in the middle of the night to eat chocolate chip cookies.” It’s shades of gray. Some people want to protect their family but they don’t care about others. Truth is no excuse for fiction.

JG: How did they get that way? We are what we experience. We are the product of life experiences.

DPF: There are a number of popular not good guys on TV today. What qualities make them sympathetic? You can lose the audience if you let the dog die. How do you decide on a hero or anti-hero’s qualities? Do you consciously play them up?

SE: I use multiple points of view. Heroism appears in countless forms. I like to see heroism through innocence and in characters that get beat down the most. When I write big convergent scenes with a larger tragedy, they need to be balanced with a gesture of humanity. In one of my books, all the heroes die, but two dogs are saved. That’s the smallest gesture of humanity for the largest tragedy that they’re capable of doing under the circumstances.

JG: I write biographies of the characters, histories of what happened to them. My characters start as anti-heroes because of what happened to them before. How they react is because of what happened to them before. In my book Shanji, the main female character has superpowers, but they’re triggered by her memories.

SAB: I used to write organically but I ended up writing about the same character. So now I’m more organized. I ask myself what is the best and worst in a character? I had a character who was very abrasive because of the things that happened to him, but he was also very loyal. Actions are totally driven by the backstory.

JG: It’s a lot harder to do in a short story. In a novel, you have more space. In a short story, I could only tell how one guy became a child molester in one sentence.

DPF: If someone’s a serial killer or did something horrendous, we need a reason for why they did that. But on the flip side, when they’re on trial, we don’t care why they did it. We want to understand them but not necessarily sympathize. I had a character who was a gambler who got into debt. He did something bad but he convinced himself that it wasn’t so bad. He stopped gambling for a while but then he went back to it. It takes a struggle to break habits which creates interesting tension.

Q: I used to write short stories but now I’m transitioning to longer fiction. I have nice scenes but the parts in between are bland. How do you keep the journey fresh?

JG: Write a good novel like a good short story. Make everything count. If it doesn’t count, cut it out.

DPF: Everything in the story should do two or more things.

SE: You can use transitions to include subtext and foreshadowing. Like Chekhov’s gun, keep piling it up for every transition. Keep a list. You can include it in conversations, settings, etc. These can carry the story far, especially for emotional impact in contrast to action scenes.

DPF: If you don’t have to say that they’re moving from place to place, cut it out.

SE: If you look at the films from the 1940s and 1950s, you see that they’ve included all the scenes from when the character wakes up and brushes his teeth to the time he gets into the cab. Now we skip all those scenes because we’ve been trained. We don’t need all those transitions.

JG: I like how Dan Brown transitions. He puts hooks for the next chapters. He cuts scenes in half. He shortens chapters. In today’s writing, many things can be cut out.

Q: We’ve mostly talked about dealing with the banality of evil, so how come there’s an appeal for more over the top villains like the Joker or BBC Sherlock’s Moriarty?

JG: The Joker adds humor. In the written word, the bizarre becomes interesting. Moriarty is an interesting case because he serves as the perfect foil for Holmes.

SAB: There’s a certain appeal for over-the-top. How much can you stretch it before it becomes too creepy? It’s interesting to explore even though it’s not realistic.

DPF: Even for the Joker, maybe the writer had a backstory for him that we didn’t see for the character motivation. The writer still needs to understand the character even though it isn’t explained to the reader.

SE: You need the hero and the villain. They are two halves of a whole. Batman and Joker. “Every Moby has his Dick.” There are always reasons in fiction even though it’s not true in reality. Where there are supervillains, there are superheroes. They are reflections of each other.

JG: The character of Two-Face used to be good before he changed.

SAB: The villain offers an opportunity for tragedy. Villains are people who could have done better but didn’t. That’s human. There’s a moment that they have to choose; it’s a way to round them out.

Q: How can you prevent the villain from overshadowing the hero? If he does, does the villain become the protagonist?

SE: Sometimes. The notion of the hero is more dangerous than the villain. Lex Luthor is human but Superman is the omnipotent god. Luthor is battling an implacable force.

DPF: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

JG: Even with a protagonist, you can have a strong antagonist. If the antagonist is too strong, maybe you need to change the story.

Q: There’s fantasy with many villains but no heroes. I can’t think of any science fiction like that. Is it a function of genre on how to treat the hero, anti-hero, and villain?

SE: No. They all have goals. It depends on your approach.

DPF: Fantasy has the traditional good versus evil. But now, evil isn’t strictly evil. Hitler, for instance, saw everyone else as villains.

JG: In science fiction, the protagonist doesn’t have to be human. It could be the environment or something else.

SAB: In my Elements series, the protagonists fight against the elements. The elements are the antagonists. You don’t necessarily need an evil overlord in fantasy. Ask yourself, what else can be a threat?