Posted by M. L. Brennan
There are a lot of great things about cons. The booths, the artists’ alley, meeting new people, the cosplay – but one of my favorite things is being able to see panel discussions (it’s pretty fun to be on them, too). I love seeing the moderator ask a question, and seeing that question get handled by several different authors, each one adding something new and interesting to the conversation, and each following author riff on the answer of the previous author just a bit before bringing out their own point. It can bring up some really interesting insights, and also some extremely unexpected surprises, and it’s a format that I enjoy a lot.
So I was eating breakfast one morning and reflected that it would not only be quite a few months before my next con attendance but that there were authors who I was extremely fond of who I might never get a chance to be on a panel with. (yes, sometimes this is what I think about as I eat breakfast. Don’t judge me!)
And at that point I thought – wait a second. Surely the Internet should be able to solve this, just as I have been promised that it will solve every one of my other problems (most recently the problem of needing to do holiday shopping while also not wanting to change out of my pajamas). Which is how I decided to do my very own micro-panel – and I was fortunately able to convince three excellent fantasy writers to play along. We all came up with two questions for the panel, which we then answered one at a time in a very large group email. It was quite a lot of fun, and there are some really interesting topics and answers, so I hope that it will also be fun to read! We’ve broken the conversation into four portions – so today’s portion will be on this blog, and the later parts will be released every few days on the other authors’ blogs, with links posted in just about every crevice of social media that we have access to.
With no further ado, please join me, Django Wexler, Teresa Frohock, and Leigh Bardugo for Author Chat, Part One.
Q: When you were a kid, what was one movie moment or character that you think had a long-term impact on your writing?
ML Brennan: It was the owl from the animated movie The Secret of NIMH. He had those insanely creepy glowing eyes, there was hanging stuff all through his home, there were freaking *bones* littering the place, he kept eating those moths throughout the conversation, and there was that overhanging threat through the entire scene that he would at any point eat poor Mrs. Frisby, who couldn’t be tinier or more vulnerable compared to him. So the entire scene is on this knife-edge of possibility – will he eat this mouse who has come to see him, or will he give her the information she has asked for? Because at the same time that the owl is presented as this really monstrous and frightening creature (really different than how I was ever used to seeing owls before), he also is really wise and has useful information. It really made an impact on me, because the owl was terrifying, yet important, but at the same time the movie made it really clear that he wasn’t bad – or good. He was the owl, and he had no real affiliation – that he gave Mrs. Frisby the information she asked for wasn’t because he was nice, but because she showed up a useful time of day and he didn’t eat her. And Mrs. Frisby herself knew going in that she might get eaten – she didn’t have any trump card or insurance, she just took a huge risk to get what she needed to help her family. I haven’t seen that movie in probably twenty years at least, but I still really viscerally remember the impact that the owl had on me. (I also remember later, after reading the book, how pissed I was that the movie makes the resolution of the problem involve magic rather than mechanics, but I guess that’s a separate topic)
Also, I found a picture of that owl – guys, tell me that this isn’t the most freaking badass owl that ever appeared in film.
Django Wexler: Man, the Secret of NIMH was a really strange movie – terrifying by modern standards! I remember it scaring the crap out of me when I was little. For some reason there was a period in 70s and 80s when it was considered okay for animated children’s movies to be horrifying or traumatizing.
For my biggest writing influences, I’m going have to go a little astray and look to television instead of movies. In particular, I remember Babylon 5 (which I watched most of when it first aired, and then again on video) really changed my ideas of what TV storytelling, or storytelling in general, could be like. There are bits of that show (Vir’s final “meeting” with Morden, for example, or the fulfillment of Londo’s prophecies) that make it clear how well the arcs were structured in advance, and I was just in love with the idea of this big, deep world-building that slowly builds to the conclusion of an epic arc over the course of many shorter episodes. (There wasn’t much else like it on TV at the time! Things are much better now.) Most of the writing I did at the time was for RPG campaigns, and you can really see the influence if you got back and look at that stuff; my adventure notes are full of gradual revelations of ancient secrets and vague foreshadowing of future dooms.
Teresa Frohock: God, I’m old. My daughter loved The Secret of NIMH. I remember a little about Babylon 5, but I was an adult when that came on. (I remember waiting every week in anticipation of the next episode of the original Battlestar Galactica!)
If I had to pick one movie or story that really influenced me, it would be The Last Unicorn, an animated movie that I saw before I ever read Peter S. Beagle’s work. As an adoptee, the unicorn’s search for others like herself really resonated with me. The whole twist with Schmendrick, who really loved the unicorn and was just a little jealous of Lir and Amalthea, showed me how the subtle interplay of emotions can lead a story just as competently as a lot of action. There was adventure, and laughter, and love, and most importantly, regret. Nothing was sugarcoated and the ending wasn’t happy, but it made such elegant sense that I adored the movie. When I found there was a book, I devoured it.
I think the beauty of that story and the original animated version of The Little Mermaid (where the little mermaid actually turns to seafoam in the end) really taught me that effective storytelling doesn’t have to rely on non-stop action. The true action within a story occurs during the interplay of the characters. Everything else is flash and glitz.
Leigh Bardugo: Do you know what wigged me out the most about The Last Unicorn? Molly Grue’s response to the unicorn—this idea that there was an expiration date on when magic could make a difference in your life.
My pivotal movie moment has to be… Highlander. Yeah, I said it. We had pirated cable and I must have watched it a hundred times. I loved the flashbacks, the fight scenes, Sean Connery in velvet. Looking back, I’m like, “Why no lady immortals?” But at the time, it didn’t occur to me to feel locked out of the story. Of course there were lady immortals, and I was one of them, and I just had to wait on the Quickening. I suppose this is also the time to confess that I’ve cosplayed as the Kurgan. I own a skull helm.
Teresa Frohock: I’d totally forgotten Molly’s idea that magic didn’t last forever. I need to read the book again. There were just so many good things in that novel. 😉
Q: What are your feelings about seriously harming or even killing main characters?
ML Brennan: I think if you take that off the table, you can inhibit yourself. I think it can also become that old Star Trek issue – redshirts might die by the thousands, but you’re never that worried because you know that the A Team is going to get through the episode without a scratch on them. (a situation that I thought was delightfully built on in John Scalzi’s appropriately-titled Redshirts) That’s not to say that books where the main characters get off fairly unscathed throughout are not as good (I’ve enjoyed many books like that, for instance), but some of the books that have surprised and challenged me the most as a reader were the ones that did some serious damage to (or even killed) main characters.
In my series, the books are told from a first-person perspective, so it’s kind of a given that Fort has to live through each book. But when I write, I try my best to keep all options on the table. I might love writing Suzume, Prudence, or Madeline, but I want to keep the possibilities alive that bad things could happen.
What I’ve found most interesting about all of that was that when I was drafting my third book, I was telling the plot to both my agent and my editor. The plot involved the death of a major character – and my agent argued very strenuously against the death. My editor left the decision up to me, but did warn me that readers could react very negatively to the death of a major character. The manuscript is written, but the experience really showed me that it wasn’t just as simple as me making the decision – there was also the publishing aspect, and then the potential fan fallout. So there are really a lot of elements to it. (I actually read somewhere that Charlaine Harris had planned to kill one of her main characters, Bill, in her ninth book, but that the publisher pushed back so hard that she had to back down)
Django Wexler: I definitely agree with the Redshirts problem. If you’re writing a story in which people get hurt and killed a lot, but none of the important cast ever does, then the emotional impact of the fighting is lost. The actions of the main characters lose their meaning and significance – is it really brave to go and fight if you always come out okay, and can you really have a heroic self-sacrifice if some plot device always intervenes at the last moment to keep you alive? Worse, the readers catch on and begin to assume that the main cast will be fine, and any new characters are only there to be killed off for emotional oomph. (This can become a recurring “I will avenge my dead girlfriend/boyfriend/adopted kid/pet canary!” problem. After a while, it becomes clear that joining up with the main character is a deathtrap …)
(Aside: While it’s not the world’s greatest show, this is one thing The Walking Dead TV series gets right – they’re unafraid to off even long-running characters, which invests the show with a real sense of tension. “Contractual immunity” – i.e. the actor has a contract, so the character can’t die – really hurts drama.)
It’s trickier, as ML said, when you’re locked into a particular point of view. I think the secret is to make sure there are plenty of other characters that the protagonist and the reader care about, and to let them get hurt or killed when it would be appropriate and realistic for that to happen. It’s a tricky line to walk – that kind of thing is a powerful emotional tool, but you can’t overuse it or let the reader get the idea that you’re introducing characters JUST so you can kill them later.
Teresa Frohock: I think the trick here is that if that character’s death is part of the story, then yes, I definitely have no problem killing a main character. In the third book of the Katharoi series, I planned the death of some major characters–I mean, it’s a war, for God’s sake. People die in war, even people you like. I’m hoping that the events that lead up the deaths will feel organic and a part of the story.
I can’t tell you how much flack I’ve gotten over killing Father Matthew in Miserere. A few people were righteously angry over the fact that I’d created a likable character, then killed him … hey when you gotta go, you gotta go … seriously, I had no way to keep him from dying. Matthew was doomed from the opening sentence.
Overall though, I don’t believe that readers have a problem with seeing a major character die so long as the death fits the world and the story. Django talked about The Walking Dead and this is an excellent example of killing major characters as part of the story-line. Each time someone dies, the group dynamics take a radical shift. The deaths fit the world and the environment so nothing in the storytelling feels forced or unnatural.
I won’t kill a character for shock value or just to hook the reader into reading a sequel though. I think once I’ve used the death of a major character as a commercial plot device, then I’ve lost the reader’s respect. The same is true if I allow a character to live who should have died (see Father Matthew).
Readers know when they’re being manipulated. It’s not so much that a major character dies, it’s the fact that the readers feel manipulated and cheated.
Leigh Bardugo: I’m glad that you mentioned doing serious harm, because for me, that’s sometimes the more interesting choice. I like to take away the thing that the character believes defines him or her and then see what happens.
As for killing off characters, agreed on all fronts, particularly Teresa’s points re manipulating or cheating the reader. A death is like a declaration of love or any dramatic moment really—it has to feel earned. Even if the death is deliberately arbitrary (Whedon does this a lot—shrapnel! stray bullet! danger is everywhere!), I think the fallout has to be deeply felt. Otherwise, you’re just upping the body count and there’s a good chance the reader will begin to feel brutalized or simply stop caring. I don’t know. It’s easy to talk about these things in the abstract, but I just locked the third book in my trilogy and I worried quite a bit about striking a balance between the reality of war and narrative satisfaction. I still don’t know if I walked the line successfully.
Did you enjoy reading our conversation? Why not read some more – like our books?
Leigh Bardugo: The bestselling Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm can be bought now. The conclusion of the Grisha trilogy, Ruin and Rising will be published June 3, 2014. Learn more at http://www.leighbardugo.com.
Django Wexler: The Thousand Names is in stores now. The second in The Shadow Campaign series, The Shadow Throne will be published July 1, 2014, and Wexler’s middle-grade fantasy The Forbidden Library will be published April 15, 2014. Learn more at http://djangowexler.com/.