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2.10.14 Interlude: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 4.4: Keeping it Literary: Characterization

2.10.14 Interlude:  An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 4.4: Keeping it Literary: Characterization

Stephen R. Donaldson, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant ("Kevin's Watch" by Blackhawk)

Stephen R. Donaldson, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (“Kevin’s Watch” by Blackhawk)

When I read a book from any genre, characterization is one of the most important literary elements that pulls me into the story, whether I’m reading it or creating it.  Specifically, (1) in how characterization applies to the tale’s protagonists and antagonists, and, (2) in trying (as a male writer) to do as much justice as I can to the roles of women who appear in the tales.

Tolkien, The Parting at the Grey Havens (RotK)

Tolkien, The Parting at the Grey Havens (RotK)

I’ll hold off on the question of male authors writing female characters for the next blog.  To the first issue of characterization, though, the answer to any “literary merit” question is the same one I always asked my students at the end of a class or on a test: “What does this mean to us in the 21st century, anyway?”  For evaluating a written work, historical event, or any subject, what is it that connects us as humans to the author or people in the past?  Not to get too highfalutin,  but — this goes for all literary genres — if you’re going to ask somebody to read your work, you ought to at least take the time to make sure that (1) it’s a well-written and engaging story, and (2) it’s making meaningful observations artistically about the human condition and revealing some universal truths by the conclusion that linger with you after you put the book down.

Tolkien, Frodo in Mount Doom (Elijah Wood)

Tolkien, Frodo in Mount Doom (Elijah Wood)

C.S. Lewis, "The Stone Table" (concept art by Paul Martin)

C.S. Lewis, “The Stone Table” (concept art by Paul Martin)

For my bailiwick of epic fantasy, the authors whom I truly respect have all tended to these criteria in their books.  Do many of you share the same feeling of loss and loneliness that I did upon reading Frodo’s fate at the end of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings?  How about the emotions you felt the first time you read Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the White Queen slays Aslan on the Stone Table?  The surprise and pleasure you felt when reading Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, and came to realize that the females in Arthur’s court were about to become much more than window-dressing or one-dimensional damsels in distress?

J.R.R. Tolkien (2nd Lieutenant in Britain's 11th Battalion, France)

J.R.R. Tolkien (2nd Lieutenant in Britain’s 11th Battalion, France)

Whether it was Tolkien imparting something of the despair that a World War I war veteran felt upon the Great War’s end, the mytho-poetic allegory Lewis achieved in the Christ-like sacrifice of Aslan for Narnia, or Bradley’s wildly needful & successful infusion of females into the epic fantasy genre, I remember as a reader knowing that I was participating in a literary event that would affect me long after I returned the book to its shelf.

Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword

Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword

We’ve all had those “ah-ha” moments, and as I think this through, those epic fantasy works that’ve had a high impact on my reading and writing life are ones where I was truly startled by an encounter with something that struck me simultaneously as familiar and different.  Think you’ve seen everything that could be written about the medieval world and epic fantasy? Check out Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword and your expectations will be blown away. Of course, the novel’s engaging partly because there’s the very medieval-toned story of Scafloc and Valgard; and, yes, there’s a very cool, cursed black sword that Thor shatters, a human raised among elves, and the tragedy of Orm that all play into the story, but what brings me back is the humanity that shines through the sometimes chaotic story of two half-brothers in environments filled with elves, trolls, a witch, and Norse mythology’s Aesir & Jotun.  A similar feeling comes over me when I reread Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga.

Moorcock, "The Death of Cymoril" (by Frank Brunner)

Moorcock, “The Death of Cymoril” (by Frank Brunner)

Likewise, if you believe you’ve read everything there is to be read along “epic fantasy” lines, challenge yourself and conventions by reading some Moorcock and Donaldson.  To the first:  what is it about Moorcock’s  doomed albino prince of Melniboné that compels us to follow his damned path through worlds and an alarmingly high body count, yet still elicits compassion as he destroys his kingdom, kills his true love, Cymoril, and wanders the Multiverse in search of an ever-elusive peace? Likewise, what is it that keeps us reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant when the titular character is an anti-hero who commits unspeakable evil, is so mordantly preoccupied with his leprous condition that he tortures the reader with his “doubt” almost as much as himself, and yet manages to save the world even while being held accountable (even past death) for his sins?  In all of these instance one answer suffices: brilliant characterization.

These are just some of the works in epic fantasy that keep me going and inspire my writing, & I still think that Michael Moorcock synopsized it best when he expressed his critique of the form:

Moorcock, Elric of Melnibone ("Stormbringer" by Michael Whelan)

Moorcock, Elric of Melnibone (“Stormbringer” by Michael Whelan)

In a romance the “real” world of the social novel is reversed; the protagonists are placed in landscapes directly reflecting the inner landscapes of their minds.  A hero might range the terrain of his own psyche, encountering, as other characters, various aspects of himself. It’s perfectly possible, therefore, that a good fantasy story could lead us to greater self-understanding…For me the main fascination of the fantasy story lies in its manipulation of direct subconscious symbols…. Epic fantasy can offer a world of metaphor in which to explore the rich, hidden territories deep within us. [from Moorcock, Wizardry and Wild Romance, p. 20]

So, when readers meet the dramatis personae in my book, The Codex Lacrimae, my humble hope is that they very quickly see that characterization is a foremost priority!

Next time:  Males Writing Female Characters in the Fantasy Genre

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