This is a continuation of my occasional series on what I can learn on the craft of writing from reading the stories of accomplished professionals and examining and understanding my reactions.
For an explanation of what I’m attempting in this series, go here.
Michael Corradi’s “The Ghiling Blade”, which appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a story that stayed with me and haunted me for some time after I finished reading it. It was a powerful story taking place in a world that was rich with wonder and amazement. Unfortunately, as it appeared in a print mag, I can’t link you to it (but if you can track down back issues of the magazine for a reasonable price, I’d recommend it just for this story), so after reviewing the story I’ll try to provide a little context about the story before getting to the writing lessons.
So, the review: I absolutely enjoyed this story. Oftentimes, though, when I enjoy a story I can still find some little thing that wasn’t quite right, that didn’t set well with me. That is not the case with “The Ghiling Blade”. I can honestly say that this story was a nearly perfect execution of style, ideas, theme, character, and plot. It surprised and delighted me, and its world has already wormed its way under my skin. It has been quite some time now since I read this story, and I still think back to it, and have already been comparing my ideas and my stories against the sheer wonder this story induced in me. My only caveat to this uncompromisingly positive review relates to the main character’s name, which falls into the trap of the fantasy-cliche-pointless-apostrophe. The only other word of caution: this is a dense story filled to the brim with things fantastical and amazing. The world it portrays is very far from the mundanities of our own reality. If you’re familiar and comfortable with fantasy fiction in general, or with the unusual and the bizarre, this will be a comfortable and exciting read. But if you’re not, there’s a lot to take in and process in this story.
So, that dispenses with that. But what was this story about? Well, for starters, it was a fantasy. There was magic. There were epic battles between the massive armies of powerful nations. There were bizarre and alien gods inhabiting otherworldly temples. For a pretty good run-down of the story, go here. But I shall attempt to put this in my own words, succinctly. The magic of this world is called “Ghili”, and everyone has it, though not all in equal measure. Each person’s ghili is somewhat different, and relates to different aspects of the world, and the person can use that ghili to manipulate things related to that aspect. The protagonist, Dah’nok, has a ghili that relates to bone, and so he can sense and shape bone. But ghili is a limited source, and can be used up, and Dah’nok’s ghili is of mediocre strength and quality.
What this story does is something that I’ve been toying with for several years, but this story does it much better than I had imagined it possible: it tells the story of an ordinary person living in a fantastic world, dealing with the ordinary problems of his ordinary life as they are impacted by the fantasy and magic around him. Dah’nok is a fisherman and by all accounts not even an exceptional fisherman at that. He is a loving husband and father, but he is haunted by a mistake made in his past, and his own dreams of a life of adventure beyond his mundane and ordinary lot. In other words, Dah’nok is a character who resonates very strongly with me, and I can easily see parallels of himself in my own life and vice versa.
What plagues Dah’nok is both metaphysical and personal, both magical and of his own making. A wraith has a hold over his heart: a wraith born of the hubris of his youth when he poured out much of his ghili to make the titular “ghiling blade”. The wraiths of the story border between being a metaphor for underlying psychological conflict within a character and being an actual physical threat. But Dah’nok’s wraith has grown stronger, to the point that it has begun to alter his physical appearance and has strained his relationship with his wife. Shocked by the pain he caused his family, he leaves on a quest to rid himself of his wraith. The solution, he learns, requires him to retrieve his lost ghiling blade and restore the ghili he put into it. But the blade was acquired by the strange god called Obixx, who collects lost things and sells them to magical beings from another dimension who trade in exotic goods.
Dah’nok’s quest takes him across multiple magical dimensions as he pursues the Phalantian traders who would presumably sell his ghiling blade as an exotic knick-knack. Along the way, he encounters some amazing sights and witnesses a terrible, epic battle, until at last he has lost both his blade and himself. Through it all, Dah’nok is a little guy who accomplishes no great deeds, conquers no evil overlords, saves no worlds – right up until the moment he accepts and embraces his own mediocrity. The ending is satisfying and thrilling for all of that.
This story definitely left me hungry for more of this world. While a meaty short story – easily a novela in length – it nonetheless begs for a novel-length treatment, and I would happily buy the novel on the strength of this story. (If I could find a website for the author, or an e-mail address, I’d petition him myself.) There are massive warships made from the bones of giant Dragonfish and flying creatures that dwarf the boneships. There are giant interdimensional sea-snails that carry the Phalantian traders through portals across worlds. There are strange insectoid gods that conjure images reminiscent of a Hayao Miyazaki movie. This one story just didn’t satisfy my desire to explore this world and its inhabitants further.
What writing lessons can be learned from this story? I’ve several thoughts, as they relate to characters, plotting, and worldbuilding.
First, the lesson about characters. As I said, this story does something that I’d long been contemplating but couldn’t yet find a way to make work – and it makes it work. And that thing was to enter an amazing, epic fantasy setting and then focus not on someone who is powerful or destined to greatness or involved in the great events of history, but instead on someone ordinary, someone regular. This story does that very well, and it’s how it does it that drives the lesson: what makes an interesting story isn’t the scale of the challenges a character faces, but how the character chooses to face that challenge. The problem the main character faces in “The Ghiling Blade” is one not unlike that which you or I may face – the tension between our relationships with our families (which require us to subordinate ourselves) and the need to self-actualize and pursue the desires and dreams born in our youth. That’s a real, meaningful, and difficult challenge for an ordinary person to face – but it ain’t savin’ the world. It’s an ordinary person problem, but it’s monumental in scale in proportion to the character.
The take-away: find your character’s pain point, at a personal level. Saving the world is all grand and epic, but it’s an impersonal problem. But even an ordinary person’s journey can feel epic when the challenges he or she faces are deeply personal. The second take-away: the character needs to be motivated to action, to meet the challenge they face. Dah’nok overcame his challenge, but the character needn’t be victorious for the story to work, they just need to be motivated to action.
The lesson on plotting is basically the same. Plot follows character, after all, and this story follows that mantra. The main character and the secondary characters act in ways that make sense for who they are, and the plot flows, in part,organically from those characters and in part organically from the conditions of the world. (Since I consider the world to be another character in the story, this makes sense.) The other side of this is how beautifully everything comes together in this story. I think that’s a hard trick to pull, but that’s the challenge of the writer: to find a way to pull the pieces that you have laid out together into a natural, logical, and satisfying conclusion. There are many ways to do this, I think, but that’s the goal.
Finally, there’s the worldbuilding. As I mentioned above, I consider the world of a story to be another character in the story. Plot flows from characters and from their decisions and actions – but it also flows from the world. This story has narrative drive because of the decision Dah’nok makes to try to rid himself of the wraith that plagues him. But the plot exists because the conditions of the world he lives in make that difficult. There is no plot if a character makes a decision and then easily accomplishes the goal they set out to accomplish. The plot occurs when something stands in opposition to the character’s goals. Often, that is another character, but just as often it is some underlying fact about the world that makes accomplishing the goal difficult.
In the case of “The Ghiling Blade”, this comes two-fold. First is the fact that doing something about his problem has no immediate or easy solution for the protagonist. He must seek out help. But secondly there’s the delicious little tidbits of worldbuilding that make things more difficult. Lost things in this world don’t stay where you left them – once lost, they’re physically and temporally unbound in place and time. There are other people across this world acting according to their own desires and natures completely oblivious to the main character, wholly anonymous to him, but whose actions effectively oppose his own goals – not because they actively oppose him, but because he’s completely beneath their notice. There are race and clash tensions that feel real and vital, because they reflect tensions in our own world, and yet they feel wholly alien because they don’t look like direct referents for our own world.
The big worldbuilding lesson, for me, was don’t be afraid to dream big, or in fact to dream at all. This story’s world felt real, both instantly familiar and instantly alien. You never see a dragonfish throughout the whole story, and yet you know what one must look like. The sights and imagery of this story trade on familiar ideas from traditional fantasy and recasts them in bizarre new ways. I don’t quite know how you take all that awesome, throw it in a blender, and see what comes out, but in this case the result was beautiful. I really have to kick up the dreaming big thing, and allow myself to imagine something I’ve never imagined before. Maybe I could approach something that’s as good as “The Ghiling Blade”.