The dread god of the machine

On August 6, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, The world of my would-be trilogy has humans, serpent-demons, the sort-of-angelic Aureni, and an omnipresent, basically omnipotent and benign deity, which the Aureni can heal people by praying to.

Book 2 started out as a NaNoWriMo project, and in the name of fast word count I invoked the “A wizard did it” rule and handwaved a lot of stuff. Now I want to turn it into a serious sequel, but the central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to do. (And I don’t want to invoke deus ex machina any more than I can help.)

I’m also somewhat worried about offending people’s religious beliefs (it’s already happened once), but I’m hoping that readers will understand that everybody, including the deity, is fictional.

This from me: I agree that the dread deus ex machina should be avoided! Can you go back into the first book, since it isn’t published yet, and set up conditions that will make your villain’s heinous act possible in another way? Seems to me this is another time for a list of possibilities.

And from Moryah: The villain could harness the deity’s power somehow? Coerce the deity? Coerce an Aureni/some Aureni into doing it, through mind control or bribery or blackmail (would that even work?)? The villain has an object that connects to the deity? The villain coerced an Aureni into creating such an object? If only the deity can do whatever it is you need the villain to do, then logically the villain needs the deity’s power (unless you change things up in the first book, or things in this book). So the question is how the villain can harness the deity’s power – unless there are OTHER ways of obtaining a power of that magnitude. Maybe there’s another deity (like, a light-dark balance good-needs-evil idea, idk). Maybe there’s something that’s not a deity that doesn’t like the deity and would aid your villain in one-upping the deity in power (whether or not your villain is directly striking against the deity/Aureni).Maybe a random portal opens up spontaneously halfway through the book and the villain reaches into it and rummages around and pulls out a recipe for a magic vegan cornbread that when eaten gives the eater a temporary power (read: a power that will wear off once the cornbread is digested) to talk to stars, and instead your villain enslaves the stars and uses them to blackmail the deity, or uses them to perform the act you said only your deity could do.

Back to Melissa Mead: Mm, cornbread. Maybe I should put some cornbread in the story. I know a spot in Book 3 where it might be particularly plausible.   

I wish I could give more context without being spoilery… The basic idea is that the Aureni have the healing touch, and the villain has twisted that around. I can explain that storywise on a small scale, but for the big thing I’m thinking of….

…hey, I may have just caught the tiniest whiff of an idea…!

BTW, I don’t want to get rid of the actual “deus.” (Don’t think I could, actually.) I think the scenes between it and the MC are fun. I just don’t want it acting when the finite characters should.

First off, for those who don’t know, deus ex machina means, literally, god in the machine. The term originated in classical Greek theater, where play conflict was resolved when a contraption bore actors onstage who portrayed the gods and solved all the problems.

The charm of a deus ex machina is that the writer can pile on trouble after trouble without worrying about their resolution, because the gods are going to swoop in at the end and whoosh the difficulties away. I imagine that ancient theatergoers expected this and derived their pleasure from watching the train–or chariot–wreck unroll.

Fairies in most fairy tales as traditionally told operate as dei ex machina. And we who adapt these stories for modern readers struggle against this device to give our human characters agency.

The question about offending readers has come up before, and I’ve written posts about it, which you can find under the category “giving offense.” But I’ll revisit the subject briefly. I worry about this, too, although I tell myself not to. We can’t control our pesky (hah!) readers, who may take offense at story elements we think are completely innocuous. As long as we aren’t intending to give offense–I don’t even want to write that! I don’t want to give offense in my books for kids, but I don’t much care in my poems for adults, who can watch out for themselves, and some of you may be writing for grownups. And I think an argument can be made even in children’s books for being willing to give offense. A writer may want to challenge readers, for example. My guess is that YA author M. T. Anderson wasn’t very concerned about giving offense when he wrote Feed, which is a terrific though disturbing book.

On the other hand, I don’t want to encourage people to write stories that, for example, reinforce stereotypes. As a newly old person who just turned seventy, I often cringe at representations of the elderly in the media. How many forty-year-olds can drop down and pop out twenty push-ups, heh? I can, though of diminishing depth after the first ten.

And, of course, I oppose any writing that may incite violence.

But I think we know when we’re crossing a line. Most of us are probably over-cautious and keep the danger zone too far from our writing.

Onto the deity!

Melissa says that the second book’s central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to accomplish. If this is a central premise, we need to take time to set it up.

We can ask ourselves, Under what conditions might this villain be able to do this impossible thing? I haven’t in decades, but I used to read super-hero comic books, and this kind of cosmic shake-up would happen regularly, especially, if I remember right, in Superman. I’d say what I always say: make a list of conditions, and, just saying, there’s no shame in putting a few of Moryah’s ideas on it.

I’m assuming that the villain is defeated in the end, so I don’t think it’s out of bounds for the villain to accomplish this thing if the reader understands how it’s done. I love the idea of a villain wily enough to usurp a deity’s power. I’m thinking of the bible story of Job. I’m not a biblical scholar, but my recollection is that Satan manipulates God into testing Job. If Job loses all his good fortune, Satan says, he will curse God. Game on. God takes away Job’s wealth, health, and, worst of all, his children.

So Satan, a much lesser being, has pushed God into an action He wouldn’t have taken otherwise. And Job, unwittingly, can also spur God to action. His fate hangs on his response to his losses.

I’m thinking also of the very old Ingmar Bergman movie called The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval knight plays a game of chess with Death. Presumably, if he wins, he lives forever. In the movie, the knight loses, which the reader expects, but one can imagine a different story with different results.

Melissa has kind of a David-and-Goliath situation going, with the villain the underdog. There’s fun to be had in playing that out. And if the villain wins, he (she? they? it?) becomes even more scary. Look! He can out-maneuver a god!

Melissa says that this god is omnipresent and omnipotent but doesn’t mention if she (he, etc.?) is omniscient. If she isn’t, the villain can use her ignorance to get the power he wants.

As a pantser, I regularly get myself into this kind of trouble. For me, it’s setting something up without realizing the long-term consequences. One solution, which both Moryah and I have suggested, is to reexamine the conditions that underpin the story, looking for elements we can use to approach the story from a new direction. For example, does the villain have to wield this particular power to do what he needs to? Does he have to do this particular thing, or can some other action bring about the same result?

As I suggested when I first responded to Melissa, she can go into the first book and tweak things to give the villain the power to do whatever has to be done. In a single book, we can go back to an earlier point in our story to make the changes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Set your story in a world where water is limited. Two kingdoms are vying for control of the mighty Nipar River, and each kingdom has a hero/heroine who will do most of the heavy lifting. On the supernatural side, there’s an elf king, a dragon, and a goddess of justice who has limited powers. Each being backs one side or the other, though allegiances may shift. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Pick one or more of Moryah’s ideas and use it in a scene.

∙ Taking off from the fairy tale “Aladdin,” have Aladdin usurp the power of the genie of the lamp and do something only the genie could do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

What about politics?

On July 20, 2013, Elisa wrote, What about politics? I’m a Republican and conservative, and I feel pretty strongly about my beliefs. It’s not like I’ll get all over someone for being Democrat or a socialist (I know and like plenty of them), it’s just that I really believe in what I am. Anyhow, the libraries are SO full of socialist writers, and socialism is getting pretty popular and one of my characters is very conservative. And very opinionated. Even more so than me! And I’m worried that she’ll step on people’s toes and make them mad. It’s not like some writers don’t do that to me, but some people are a lot more sensitive to people who don’t agree with them than I am. I don’t want to change Mahala, because she’s just herself and changing her would make her someone entirely different. She just wouldn’t be my beloved character being different; but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. At the same time, changing Mahala would mean changing my story, and also it would mean that I’m watering down my beliefs. I hate it when other people do that. I don’t want to be a hypocrite by doing it myself. What am I supposed to do?

I don’t usually write about politics here – or anywhere, except in occasional emails to my Representative or Senators. But something political came up in the new book, Stolen Magic, which is set on the mountainous island of Lahnt, no place on our earth. I’m not giving much away to tell you this (and it does tie in to Elisa’s question):

In this world there are brunkas, short, helpful creatures whose senses are sharper than humans’. High Brunka Marya is in charge of the Oase, where the brunka treasures are kept. One of these is the Replica, a sculpture of the island, which always sits on a pedestal. If it’s taken off the pedestal for a length of time, a volcano starts to bubble. If the Replica is off for long enough, the volcano erupts, and the mountain and everyone on it are destroyed. Marya’s main responsibility is to keep the Replica safe, but she’s very polite and doesn’t use her powerful sense of hearing to eavesdrop on people’s conversations, although some may be plotting to do evil. Masteress Meenore, the dragon detective, thinks she’s foolhardy, to put it mildly.

When I wrote this, I wasn’t thinking about domestic spying in the news in this world. But when I reread it, the connection jumped out. In real life I’m confused about the subject. I certainly don’t want another terrorist attack, but I feel strongly about a person’s right to privacy. Masteress Meenore, however, isn’t confused. IT is sure that preventing a mountain from exploding trumps politeness (privacy). Marya takes the other position, but her voice in my story doesn’t carry the same weight as Meenore’s. He wins the argument.

I’m certainly not going to change ITs opinion because people may see the politics and disagree. I’d have to change ITs character to do that, and, in the second book, it’s too late for that. Plus, I don’t want to. Like Elisa’s Mahala, Masteress Meenore is beloved by me. And I don’t think I have to make the dispute fair. I don’t have to even my story out so that Marya’s position is equally valid. This is a novel, not a playground, for example, where fairness truly is important.

Like Elisa I’ve read and enjoyed books that put forth a political ideology. Ayn Rand’s novels (high school and up) and the science fiction of Robert Heinlein (some are for children, others definitely not) spring to mind. And sometimes, especially with Ayn Rand, I’ve been fascinated by her arguments, although she stacks the deck in their favor as she works out her plots–which I think is a flaw. As for Heinlein’s books, I just get into the plots and don’t care.

But even though I’ve liked tendentious (a great word!) books, what I generally like about them is the plot, the characters, and the voice. Story and strong characters are what count with me. Just as I’m not fond of an obvious moral, I don’t relish having a point of view repeatedly thrust in front of my nose, whether I agree with it or not.

Uh oh. I think I just worried Elisa all over again. Let me be specific. Suppose Mahala is intensely political and sees everything that happens through a current events lens, I’m okay with that if she’s interesting. Let’s imagine that she’s babysitting her little brother Camo when he spills his milk at breakfast, and she says something about dairy subsidies (a subject I know nothing about, if there is a dairy subsidy). Camo asks what a subsicky is. Mahala takes a quarter out of her backpack and puts it in his chubby hand. “Let’s say Mommy and Daddy give you a toy subsidy.” She looks at the ceiling, figuring out how to explain. “That means they would pay you–“ She looks down again and sees his fist in his mouth. Where is the quarter? His fist, when she extracts it from his mouth, is empty. So is his mouth when she persuades him to open it. What does she do next? It will be her fault if anything happens to Camo. Now we’re off into the story. If she thinks about one of her political heroes and how she would act in a crisis and it works out perfectly and the reader has a moral to swallow that’s much bigger than a quarter, I’m not happy. But if her interpretation leads her to do something truly goofy and the story gets complicated, then I’m delighted, especially if Camo survives–since I’m a wimp!

I’ve written other posts about giving offense in stories, so anyone who struggles with this might like to look at the giving offense label on the right. The post of November 11, 2011, is especially on target.

I’ll end with Elisa’s worry about becoming a hypocrite. Art is where we have to be true to ourselves. When we’re tiptoeing around a subject, when we’re being oh-so careful, we are stamping on our creativity, and our ideas are likely to shrivel. Instead, let them rip and roar with power.              

Here are three prompts:

• You were probably expecting this: Tell the story of Camo and his sister and the swallowed quarter. Bring politics into it.

• Your MC is a volunteer for a candidate who supports an issue that is more important to her than any other. She witnesses the candidate acting despicably, corruptly, unethically – but in a way that has nothing to do with your MC’s cause. What does she do? Write a scene or the whole story. Mix it up with complex characters and plot twists and no easy morals.

• In one of my poetry courses we’re starting off with the poems of Emily Dickinson. When we read this one in class, I thought, Wow! This is fantasy! And I thought of the blog. So here’s the poem (numbered, because she didn’t give her poems titles), which is in the public domain for anyone to fool around with, and the challenge is to turn it into a story:

280

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

In case you’re confused, then – is the end of the poem. Dickinson ended a lot of poems ambiguously and with a dash.

Have fun, and save what you write!

When?

I’m announcing, proudly, that I’ve had a poem published in each of these two anthologies: On the Dark Path, An Anthology of Fairy Tale Poetry, and the cancer poetry project 2. The first is probably appropriate for high school and above. My poem, called “Becoming Cinderella,” presents an entirely different version of the story from Ella Enchanted. I love that the fairy tale can accommodate both interpretations. The cancer anthology is also for high school and above, but I think it will be most meaningful if you at least know someone who’s struggled with cancer. My poem, “Because,” is in the “friend” category – I don’t have cancer.

Now for the post. On February 13, 2013, Athira Abraham wrote, I had a question that involved voice. My story might be from the middle ages or 1800s or something like that, but I also wanted to include things that were modern, like a camera, a café (yes, a café, not a bakery) and also events like Valentine’s Day, but I’m not sure how I would express it in the story to myself and the readers. I’m also finding it hard to include religion, like a church, if my story is a fantasy and includes a witch, or a sorceress, because some religions can be against this. How could I express these things in a story without making it sound too complicated?

Several subjects are wrapped up in here. First, time period. The middle ages and the 1800s are vastly different, politically, technologically, culturally, even religiously, and probably more. If we really want to give an impression of a particular period, it’s worth doing a little reading. There are books about the daily life of just about every period. I have two on the middle ages and one on ancient Mesopotamia. I usually read the chapters that have bearing on my story. For example, I’m always interested in food and the home. If we’re writing fantasy, we don’t have to stick slavishly to the information, but it’s helpful to have a general idea. In addition to daily life, it may be useful to google geopolitics for the period just to get a sense of what was going on.
   
And our research pays off delightfully in the details that we come across that inform and enrich our story, details we never would have thought of on our own.

It is possible to write a story that pulls in bits and pieces from all over the time line. Terry Pratchett is a master of this in his Discworld series. If we’re going to do something like that, we need to establish it very early in our story, certainly in the first chapter, so our readers don’t get confused.

If we’re not going to hop all over the historical map, let’s back up to consider why we pick a particular period. The answer doesn’t have to be deep, but, in my opinion, we should have one. Maybe we want a medieval story because we want the action to take place in a castle, and we don’t want to write twenty-first century people who are renovating a twelfth century castle. That’s good enough for me.

Generally, we need a reason for everything! Let’s take the three Athira Abraham mentions: a camera, a café, and Valentine’s day. It’s not good enough, in my opinion again, merely to like these elements. They need to fit into our plot. We can like one of them, say Valentine’s Day and what happens on that day, and decide to build a book around it. That’s fine. But then we need a reason for the café and the camera. Maybe our lovebirds meet at a café and ask a stranger to take a photo of them, and the photo falls into the wrong hands, because one of our MCs has been hiding from her great enemy, the powerful and vicious Earl of Eagleton. Cool!

These three elements may suggest our time period. As I wrote in my comment to Athira Abraham when she posted on the blog, the camera (not the digital camera, not a phone camera) has a pretty long history, and its forerunners go back even further. But in the old days you couldn’t just point and shoot. Taking a photo took time. Look it up.

Valentine’s Day goes way, way back, I discovered in my quick peek into Wikipedia, but the traditions evolved. Look it up, too.

Often etymology (word origin) will give you a sense of when something came into existence. According to Dictionary.com, the word café came into English at the end of the eighteenth century, so there probably weren’t cafes before then. If you’re alarmed about how long research will take, this filled about twenty seconds.

Suppose we decide to set our story in the middle ages. Valentine’s Day, in whatever form it took then, works. Cameras and cafes don’t. What to do?

We need some sort of substitute. Maybe for the camera it will be an artist who excels in recording impressions in charcoal on parchment. Or maybe, since this is fantasy, it’s a certain kind of owl that fixes images in its eyes. If you feed it a mouse and say the magic words, the moment you wanted to preserve will appear in the owl’s eyes. For a café, we’ll need to dream up something else, a gathering place of some sort.

Onto religion. We can have witches and sorceresses without mentioning religion – my opinion again. But if we need religion, this is fantasy, and it can be a fantasy religion. We can invent gods, demons, witches, sorcerers, sorceresses, cherubs, half-gods, creatures that are lower than humans in the creation hierarchy, whatever we like, whatever serves our story. The more different our fantasy religion is from actual religions, the less likely we’re to offend anyone. If our main god is in the shape of a dishwasher or, since this may be a medieval fantasy, a pot of porridge or even a unicorn, it’s unlikely to be connected by readers to their beliefs.

But, and I’ve written about this on the blog before, we may offend someone or more than one, and the anger may be for something we entirely did not predict. It may have nothing to do with religion (or it may – the religious aspects of Ever have bothered some readers). Maybe it has to do with the knights’ code of chivalry, which we expected would please everybody. The point is, if we worry about offending people, we may as well stop writing – and speaking, and leaving our bedrooms!

Here are four prompts:

• Put Valentine’s Day, the café, and the camera into a story set 200 years in the future. Each one has changed. Invent what they’ve become and decide how they fit into your tale.

• Research an aspect of life in the middle ages, could be market life, or costume, or cooking. Put your MC in the middle of it and give her an objective and obstacles to fulfilling it. Write the scene.

• Make her a modern girl in this medieval situation. Write the scene again, including her mistakes and her bungling good luck. A book I adore along these lines is Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – funny and exciting.

• In the middle of an escape from the villain, both your MC Mallory and your villain Hamilton wander into a religious ceremony unlike any either of them have known before. Mallory’s goal is survival; Hamilton’s is destruction. But nothing in this religion is as it seems. There are hallucinations, mazes, smoke, weather events, disembodied voices, and whatever other mayhem you want to toss in. Write the scene. If you like, continue and write the story or the novel.

Have fun, and save what you write!

On tiptoe

On July 20, 2011, Jenna Royal wrote, quoting, but I no longer know where the quote came from: “Are there parts that might offend someone? Did you tiptoe around those aspects of the story even without realizing it?”
    How do you handle this situation? It’s something I worry about often enough. The story might need the element, but is it worth the risk of offending someone?

And along similar lines, welliewalks wrote, My question has something to do with Jenna R’s. Most of my characters, especially my MCs(!), are like me, in their skin color and build (white and really thin). I’m afraid that I’ll end up insulting someone- like what if they read my stuff and think “She obviously doesn’t like people of other races or overweight people, because none of her characters are ever those.” Because it’s NOT true (my sister is adopted and 50% of my friends are of different race, from Indian to Chinese). I just use those characteristics because it comes naturally to me and I feel so comfortable with these. Do I need to change things up and use different races and builds? Oh, and I never write anything against the characteristics of build and race.

If you are lucky enough to be widely read, you will offend someone, guaranteed, no matter how hard you try not to. Someone may even be annoyed that your work is too bland, that you seem to take too much trouble not to offend. Some people – I’ll bet you know one or two – look for reasons to be affronted, aren’t satisfied until they find a cause for righteous anger. You will never escape their fault-finding no matter how hard you try.

In Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, Sonora, who talks in sentences soon after she’s born, tells her mother she doesn’t want to be breast fed and calls the practice cannibalism. I got into trouble with a few people for that. In fact, I favor breast feeding or whatever is best for a particular baby, but my character opposed it for herself. In another instance, somebody was mad at me for making Hattie and Olive plump and for giving Hattie thin hair, which surprised me because I have thin hair and I struggled with my weight all through my childhood and into my twenties.

It’s worthy to provoke thought. Ideas change, and you can be the instrument of that change. Some beliefs that are accepted today were on the fringe or even despised in the past. The arts are at the forefront of the growth of a society. Impressionist paintings, beloved today, were derided in the beginning. Same thing for rock music. My husband’s grandfather used to say, “When I’m hearing rock and roll I’m being annoyed.”

Think of racial equality and women’s rights. Important books helped change opinion in both cases. Louisa May Alcott, for instance, showed women (sometimes) as more independent than was widely accepted in her day. Her ideas about education were also very new. Through Black Beauty, Anna Sewell ended the use of the bearing rein or checkrein on horses that had been widespread – and painful. Even the notion in Ella Enchanted that obedience is a curse goes against some people’s and some culture’s convictions.

If you do tiptoe around everything that might be the slightest bit controversial, you risk your originality, and originality is one of the pillars of art (I’m not sure what the other pillars are!). And you may inhibit your voice and even your ability to keep going. So I think you should push through your worries and write what you want or what your story demands. In fact, I think the inner voice of censorship  may just be part of the internal chorus of self-criticism that most of us hear (I do) sometimes when we’re creating.
           
In general, I’m not crazy about preachy books, books that push a point of view, even if it’s a point of view I endorse. I don’t go to fiction to be lectured to. I want a good story. But if, wound into that good story, are snippets of history or surprising facts or an exploration of complex ideas, or all three, I’m triply entertained.

I don’t mean writers should push buttons just to push them. I think I’ve written on the blog that I put the “N-word” in the original manuscript of Dave at Night. The usage was in dialogue and was appropriate for the situation, but I took it out. The book didn’t hinge on the word; I didn’t need it, and it’s hurtful, so it went. I had a little queasy feeling that I was censoring myself, but I think I made the right decision.

welliwalks, I’ve thought about your question in my fairy tale books, which come out of a European tradition. Originally, in the classics like “Snow White” and “Cinderella” the characters would have been white and the readers or listeners would have been too. But in my adaptations there is no Europe. The kingdoms are invented, so I decided people can be light-skinned and dark, and there needn’t be racial disharmony. Some of my characters are light, some dark, but without the usual connotations of race. Skin color is merely a characteristic, like height or hair color and no more significant. One reason for including dark-skinned characters is that I want to be inclusive. I don’t want to raise obstacles that will keep readers from feeling they can enter my stories.

More challenging for me than skin color is height. I’m very short. I like to imagine being tall, so I enjoy writing tall characters, but it’s a stretch (hah!). I suggest you take the challenge of inventing characters whose body type is different from your own. You’ve said you’re thin. You could deliberately write an overweight character and you could decide what attitude your character has about his weight, from untroubled to very troubled. Think about how being thin has affected you and speculate on what the effects would be of being fat. You can decide how heavy this character is, could be a little or a lot. To make yourself comfortable, you could try making this a kind character, someone who won’t mind how you portray him. Or make him female and just like you in every way except for this one thing. It’s often good to push out of the comfort zone.

Here are two prompts:

∙    Take one or more of these widely held ideas–
        talking is good for a relationship;
        people should think before acting;
        selfishness is bad;
        dogs love people–
and examine it from every angle. Then base a story on the opposite of the idea or on a new interpretation of it.

∙    Give a character in a new story or in one already in progress a prominent physical characteristic you’ve never tried before. Let that characteristic affect the character’s behavior. A fabulous example of this is the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. The modern movie adaptation, Roxanne with Steve Martin, is also great.

Have fun, and save what you write!