On the Naming of Characters

Over the weekend, fellow writer and blogger T.S. Bazelli posted to her blog a little piece about her process for naming characters.  I was going to respond to her blog with a comment of my own, but after I’d passed the 200-word mark in my comment, I realized I had a full-fledged blog post of my own on the topic waiting to be written.  And so, I now provide to all of my blog readers my own thoughts and remarks on the trials and travails of naming characters, for the edification of all.

Sometimes names for characters come easily, sometimes they are very hard.  This can be of some concern for me, because of a particular writing penchant of mine: a character is his or her name.  Without a name, I don’t feel connected enough to a character to write definitively or authoritatively about that character.  I can pen vague notes and ideas – but I can’t say for sure who a character is or what he or she will do.  And if I can’t do that, I can’t plot a novel or story – and I sure-as-sugar can’t write it.  This was of particular concern to me last week, as I started to write about the second of two protagonists on my current novel project, “The Book of M”.  Continue reading

Towers of Midnight: Victory Is Mine

I might be the last Wheel of Time fan to finish it, but no matter: I was undaunted.

And at last, I have achieved my victory.  I’ve finished this book (behemoth that it was).

After that, I’m going to take a short hiatus on reading books for a week or two, to focus more on my writing and get myself up to speed.  Then, I’ll probably go back to A Clash of Kings, the second book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.  As I mentioned in comments on my blog: that series is good, but I can’t relate to any of its characters, and as a result despite being very well-written these books just haven’t been terribly compelling for me.  I stopped A Game of Thrones half-way through to read The Gathering Storm, and then I stopped Kings about a third of the way through in favor of Towers.  “The Wheel of Time” just trumps “Ice and Fire” for me.

So, with that bit of preamble out of the way, I’m going to do something I don’t do on my blog: I’m going to go all spoilery on you and commiserate with any Wheel of Time fans who happen across the blog about the ending of The Towers of Midnight.  Don’t worry… it’s all below the cut (you have to click “Read More”), so you won’t see it unless you click through.   I have to do it because… well… the ending of Towers left me with a feeling of “Are you kidding!  You can’t do that!  You’re telling me I have to wait how long for the next book?  I don’t think I can handle this!  The anxiety is killing me!”  You’ve been warned… Continue reading

The Point of No Return

You read, and sometimes enjoy, books.  That’s a given, here.  And so, here’s a question for you:

Have you ever been reading and enjoying a book at your own leisurely pace when you reached a point when the book started to demand your attention?  A point where putting the book down caused you anxiety?  A point where you needed to keep reading?

Not every book has one of these, to be sure, though I’d wager any given writer would pay his or her own weight in gold to bottle that something magical and soak their manuscripts in it.

Well, I reached that point in The Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson last week.  I was probably about a third of the way through the book when I realized I’d reached it.  I’ve now less than a quarter to go.  (I’m so far behind when other “Wheel of Time” fans have already read the book because I was on a major reading hiatus throughout most of Grad School.)

This isn’t a review, and I won’t say what happened, or what’s happening, or anything like that.  If you’ve read it, you recall about what was going on during this part of the book.  If you haven’t, you don’t want to start with Towers, you’ll want to start at the beginning, with The Eye of the World.  Or, if you’re someone who’s read part-way through “The Wheel of Time” series but gave up for some reason or another, then I offer this: pick the books up and start reading again.  Because if you keep going, through whatever it was that made you put the books down, and read through to these latest books, you’ll find it was worth it.  The Gathering Storm was good. Towers, I think, is better (or maybe seems better only because of the recency bias, but whatever, they’re both unquestionably very good).  And the end, the final for-really-true end is in sight.

When this magnum opus is finally complete sometime next year, it will be milestone not easily surpassed.  Flawed in ways that are at times vexing and frustrating, but nonetheless great, a magnificent accomplishment that will not easily be surpassed, even by writers aware of and careful to avoid the flaws.  Continue reading

At the Feet of Masters: The Writing Track at JordanCon 2011 (Part 3 of 3)

Wherein I shall conclude the elucidation of the mysteries revealed unto me whilst attending the Writing Track at JordanCon 2011Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Today’s post will conclude with my thoughts on the last two panels, including the marquee “JordanCon’s Got Talent”, and I’ll wrap up with my main take-away lesson from this whole experience.

Rewriting History

This was the panel that was probably of least interest to me – primarily because I write very little alternate history.  It was still an enjoyable panel – with a fun discussion about whether or not it’s okay to write historically real people in such a way as to portray them very differently than what we understand to be the historical truth of those people.  Can you, for instance, write a story in which Abraham Lincoln is a lying bastard?  Is that any worse than writing a story in which Abraham Lincoln is a Vampire Hunter?  If so, why?

We never really answered the question definitively.  But it was an enjoyable aside.  I sort of came away from this part thinking of alternate histories as “fan fiction for real-world history”…

For my part, I did ask a question in this panel: this time in reference to my story, “PFTETD”.  When I had my first rewritten draft out to readers (all two of them) in early 2010, the feedback I got was strangely consistent: the readers were intrigued by the world I had created.  The world was, basically, real world modern-day but with a certain fantastical element inserted, which element has been with humanity for all of its history.  Sort of the basic premise of half of urban fantasy.  (Although, I don’t consider it an urban fantasy – there’s no “urban” to it, as it takes place in a rural setting – so I call it “contemporary fantasy” instead, meaning it takes place in a contemporary setting.  At least Wikipedia recognizes that as the genre in which Urban Fantasy is contained, but I rarely see reference to it out in the wild.)  What my readers wanted was to see more of this world, and learn more about how this fantastical element has changed the course of human history, making this world simultaneously familiar and different.

Except, the problem was, this was meant to be a short story that had already ballooned to novelette length. Continue reading

JordanCon 2011 – A Pictorial Blow-by-blow

Well, JordanCon was certainly a fun time.  I definitely recommend attending a con to other budding speculative fiction writers – if for no other reason than the fact that you will enjoy yourself!

The jungle in the hotel lobby where JordanCon III was held

The jungle in the hotel lobby where JordanCon III was held

Before I go into detail about what I learned about writing during this convention, I wanted to do a short recap of what I did – complete with pictures!  (Alas, I am in none of the pictures, as I always faced my camera away from myself, not thinking that it would be good to be in them.)

The hotel where JordanCon was held this year was pretty swanky.  As evidence of my assertion I offer a picture of the hotel lobby.  I’ve been in a few very nice hotels before.  None of them have had a jungle in their lobbies.  This is my new measure of what it means to be a swanky hotel.  Obviously, it impressed me enough to warrant taking a picture, and I offer this in lieu of a “view from the hotel room”.

Signing with Brandon Sanderson and Harriet McDougal at JordanCon 2011

Signing with Brandon Sanderson and Harriet McDougal at JordanCon 2011

My first stop on Friday was a signing with author Brandon Sanderson and editor Harriet McDougal.  Brandon Sanderson, as most by now know, is the author chosen to finish highly popular “The Wheel of Time” series that was begun by Robert Jordan but left unfinished by his untimely passing.  Harriet was his editor at Tor Books, and his wife.  Brandon has done a fantastic job with the final volumes in Jordan’s books.  And of course, in part thanks to this assignment and in part thanks to his own talents and skills, Brandon has become one of the Big Names in the field of fantasy fiction – especially Epic Fantasy, of course. Continue reading

Convention, Convocation, Conference & Me

To date, I’ve never been to a con, before.  I always figured, things being what they are, that they’d be a bit out of reach for me: the cost of attendance, travel-time, possibly time off of work as they usually spill over from the weekend on Fridays or Mondays.  Plus, of course, time away from the family.  So, honestly… while I know the potential value of going to conventions (Or does “con” stand for “conference”?  “Convocation”?  Whatever, you know what I mean.) I’d almost written off my ability to go to them, at least in the near-term.  Someday, I figured, I’d go to them, but it wouldn’t be soon.  I hadn’t even mentioned the possibility to Dear Wife.

Well, I’m graduating soon, aren’t I, and it is a time of festivity! 

Still, imagine my surprise when Dear Wife decides to give me, as a gift, attendance at an upcoming convention!  I was so flabbergasted that, well, my excited face didn’t work right.

So, a week from today, I’ll be attending JordanCon, my first convention, ever.  Continue reading

A Writer’s Christmas

Image of The Towers of Midnight

My Shiney new copy of the latest in the Wheel of Time series

Last year after Christmas, I talked about all the wonderful books I got as gifts for Christmas.  Last time I managed to do this within a few days of Christmas… but I was on a blog-free binge for the holidays this year.  Still, I wanted to talk about some of the things I got this year, because they’re very exciting!

Unfortunately, of the four books I got as gifts last year, I only had sufficient free time to read one of them.  And this year, I only got one novel to read for Christmas.  But it’s a doozy.
Get this: Dear Wife knew that The Towers of Midnight, the latest in the ongoing Wheel of Time saga, a book series of which I’ve been a great fan, was coming out a month or two before Christmas.  So I wouldn’t have been surprised to get this book for Christmas – especially considering I’d utterly failed to provide my wife with a viable wish list, this was one of the few things I knew she’d be aware of. 

But that’s not the half of it.  Somehow, Dear Wife was also aware that although the author, Brandon Sanderson, would not be visiting our own neck of the woods any time soon, he would in fact be stopping on book tour near her old stomping ground, where her parents still live.  And so, my Dear, blessed, wonderful Wife somehow convinces her father to stand in line at a bookstore near him for something on the order of two hours to get a copy of this book signed.

And thus it was signed.  To me.  With a message wishing me good luck with my writing.  And I have photographic evidence.  Behold: 

Signed & Personalized Copy of Towers of Midnight

It's signed to me. 🙂

It reads “For Stephen – Keep writing!  You can do it!”  Now, I know that Mr. Sanderson doesn’t know me from Adam, but still, the sentiment was very cool.  And even if Sanderson doesn’t really know me enought to care whether I succeed or fail at writing, the signed book is in its way a wondeful way to motivate me to keep working towards that goal.  

Additional Signatures in my copy of The Towers of Midnight

Harriet and the Mystery Signer, also starring My Thumb!

But wait!  There’s more!  It’s also signed by Harriet McDougal, the widow and editor of series author Robert Jordan, and still a third signature by who I am told is Robert Jordan’s daughter (but I’ve been unable to independently confirm this; in fact my attempts to verify it suggest rather that this signature may belong to Melissa Craib the founder of the Wheel of Time fan community called Tar Valon.net).  A cool gift?  You bet!

Of course, I immediately abandonned other books I’d been slowly working through in my little spare time to dive into this new shiney – knowing, as I did, that with the start of the new (and final) semester coming my reading time would drop to virtually zero very soon.

But Dear Wife wasn’t done with me, yet.  She also knows well that I carry around with me, nearly everywhere that I go, a small notebook in which I record ideas and thougts for stories as the occur to me.  I’ve filled several of these over the years, and the current edition is a spiral-bound Mead Five-Star notebook that’s about a third full.  Apparently, Dear Wife believes that my thoughts are worth more than mere spiral-binding, because her next gift was a fabulous-looking hand-tooled leather-bound journal book featuring an image of the Tree of Life embossed on the cover.  What’s more, this fabulous leather-binding is interchangeable: once the notebook is filled, I can purchase replacement notebooks to slip into the leather cover.  Very soon… I’ll be taking my notes in real style.  As you can see, this thing is a real beauty.

My new, embossed cover leather-bound journal featuring an image of the Tree of Life

Now that's a stylish-looking Notebook!

I’m still contemplating how I want to use this, actually.  My current notebook, as I said, is only a third full.  But I really want to start using this awesome notebook.  Still… I don’t want to leave off in my current notebook with so many pages empty.  That’s not an efficient use of space.  So I’ve toyed with the idea of starting something tangential in this book – like perhaps a narrated history of the world of my long-gestating novel.  Or… I’ll just wait until I fill my current notebook and then make the switch.  I’m just not sure yet.

I also got a couple more book-and-writing related gifts from family that I thought I’d share: one is The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy, a book that’s kind of a mash-up of Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy and Terry Brooks’ The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference – at least if the Amazon description is to be believed.  I perused the table of contents, and it looks to be a rather interesting guidebook.  Many of the suggestions and details are things I’d already thought a lot about (being afflicted, as I am, with Worldbuilder’s disease) but there were some ideas in there that I hadn’t considered noted in the table of contents that I’ll have to peruse more carefully.  Regardless, this is a handsome book that I look forward to delving into (after I get more time to read and write, again, after graduation).  It looks pretty useful, and fun to read, besides.

Finally, I also got another writing book, The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans.  Content-wise, there’s a lot of overlap with the Writer’s Digest guide book.  But this book also includes two features that make it useful in its own right, I think.  The first is a section on the business-side of writing fantasy and science fiction for a living.  It’s not a long section (and probably therefore not a deep section) but I hope to find some useful advice for an aspiring speculative fiction author there.  The second is a short story by R. A. Salvatore, of Drizzt fame.  This story’s not a Drizzt story (I’ve sneaked enough of a peak to know that), and it’s included as an example of something a little more “non-traditional” in the fantasy and science-fiction genres.  Which is kind of a good idea; they say the best way to learn how to write great fantasy and science fiction is to read great fantasy and science fiction.

So, all in all, a very productive, and very writerly Christmas for me.  There’s something in the wind for 2011… I can feel it.

How about you… did Santa bring you any wonderful books to read or anything fun and supportive of your writing?

Review: Wheel of Time Books 1 thru 12

So, over the holiday weekend, I finally finished The Gathering Storm, the twelfth book in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan.  I’d mentioned some time ago that when I finish this book, I’d do a review of the series up to this point.  My reasoning for doing a review of the series, and not of just this book, is that by this point fans of the series are likely to know whether or not they want to read the next book, whereas people who’ve never read these books are more likely to want to start from the beginning.  So, a review is of little worth to the former (especially some ten months after the book’s release) and the latter will be more interested to know if the series as a whole is worth investing in.  So, here’s my review: the good, the bad, and the ugly of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

(I will try to keep this review spoiler-light, as it is intended for those who’ve never read the books, but I can’t promise I won’t mistakenly slip one in here or there.) Continue reading

Ten Books That Moved Me

 So, apparently there’s this game going on in the “blogosphere“, started, as I understand it, by Tyler Cowen on the blog “Marginal Revolution“: name the 10 Books that influenced your view of the world.  I first saw this on the blog of T. S. Bazelli, who’s commented here a few times.  So, at first I had a bit of trouble with this.  I didn’t come up with ten, right away.  It took a little thinking about it, but I did come up with ten.  And the list is a little surprising to me: they’re not all fantasy and science fiction novels (in fact, there’s comparatively little science fiction at all, which may make sense considering I’ve read very little sci fi as compared to fantasy), though they almost all are.  Further thought caused me to consider a few others that impact that list – additions I’d make or possibly substitute if I wasn’t going with the first ten influential books I thought of.  So, here they are:
The Book of Three Cover

The Book of Three

  1. The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King.  Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them.  I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before.  Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books.  If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path.  The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory.  The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.

    Picture of an Open Bible

    An Open Book of Scripture

  2. The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché.  The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing.  Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction.  However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time.  What I discovered there was interesting and exciting.  It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before.  Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being?  The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is!  And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits!  What to make of all that?  In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life.  I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her. 

    The Lord of Rings in Hardcover

    The Lord of the Rings in Hardcover

  3. The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course.  These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own.  But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential.  It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so.  But this is about the personal influence these books had on me.  As a writer, this can’t be understated.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing.  I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building.  I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia.  While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task. 

    The Hobbit Cover

    The Cover of "The Hobbit"

  4. The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately.  Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales).  Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it.  As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion.  It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading. 

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

  5. The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books.  And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it).  It was heart-wrenching.  Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series).  Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day. 

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

  6. The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World.  For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series.  These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them).  Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong?  And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing?  In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing. 

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

  7. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title.  These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature).  I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out.  Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them.  In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above).  Can you spell hypocrite?  Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England).  One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books.  I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change.  It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public.  The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”.  But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.  

    The Cover of "1984"

    "1984" with the same cover as used in my High School

  8. 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school.  It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read.  Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now.  Seriously.  I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”?  Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration.  And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency. 

    The cover of "A Wizard of Earthsea"

    The Cover of the same edition of "A Wizard of Earthsea" as was owned by my parents

  9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinLe Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes.  My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books.  Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father.  I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books.  I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read.  Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note. 
     
     

                                                                  

  10.  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list.  Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to.  Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner.  These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction.  And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”.  Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence.  That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face.  Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!  

Honorable Mentions 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: At once instructive, iconic, enduring, and immortal.  Plus, it’s about my favorite time of year!

 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father.  A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day.  This book is beyond being a mere classic.  Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?

 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather).  As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper.  What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.

 The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.

 Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between.  My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question.  Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories. 

 Wikipedia: It’s not a book.  But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins.   (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)

Happy reading!

A Dragon in the East

Yesterday, I started a Genre essay on the topic of Dragons, one of the oldest and most treasured of fantasy genre tropes.  I knew it was a big topic – which is why I put it off for so long (unbeknownst to you, dear reader, I’ve been planning this pair of articles since I started this blog) – and that I would be unable to do it full justice in so short a space.  Even with a second blog post, the topic is pretty big (thus the copious Wikipedia links), so after continuing my discussion of Eastern dragons, I’ll finish this off with a short analysis of the use of dragons in fantasy fiction.

Yesterday, I detailed a mythological image of a powerful force of nature embodied in a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing, snake-tailed creature.  But that frightening image differs markedly from what we see in Eastern and Oriental cultures.

There, the dragon is more serpentine than what we know.  It is four-legged, but rarely if ever depicted with wings (though it can still fly).   It is typically depicted with a mane, and frequently has a jewel or pearl under its chin.  Eastern dragons continue to represent the powers of the weather, rains, floods, waters and rivers.  But the most significant difference from the European conceptualization of dragons is that Eastern dragons completely shed any association with evil or avarice.  In eastern cultures, Dragons are not monsters to be slain, or which terrorize mere mortals.  They are auspicious symbols of good luck, fortune, and Imperial Authority.   At worst dragons are typically as indifferent to humanity as the weather but at best they are benevolent.

But there is still some nuance to this depiction.  Japanese Dragons pull folklore from a variety of sources, both the benevolent Chinese “long” as well as the serpentine, cobra-like Naga of India.  Still considered neither good nor evil, the Naga can bring both rain and fertility or drought and disaster.  One one hand, the line of Japanese emperors is thought to be descended from Dragons, yet on the other the Japanese ancestral god Susanoo is famed for slaying the eight-headed and eight-tailed Yamato-no-Orochi, a dragon to which an elderly couple had been forced to sacrifice seven of their eight children.  Here we see some resonance with the western dragon-slaying tradition. 

But it is particularly interesting that Eastern Dragons share many of the same concepts and ideas as Western Dragons: they are nature spirits and water deities with power over rains, seas, and storms.

In looking at these two dragon traditions, we have a lot to consider in analyzing how dragons are depicted in fantasy fiction.  Historically, in the western literary tradition, Dragons have primarily drawn on the western tradition of the evil, avaricious dragon.  Most famed of these fictional dragons is Tolkien’s Smaug.  Role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons picked up this theme, using dragons as the ultimate adversary for the game’s heroic characters.  The concept was occasionally subverted (especially, as far as I can tell, in children’s literature) in which dragons are merely misunderstood, but the this was the standard way to portray them.

I believe the first major shift in how dragons were portrayed in fiction came with Anne McCaffery‘s “Dragonriders of Pern” series (though I have never read these books), in which dragons become the formidable mounts for heroic characters – a theme picked up in the Eragon books as well as one of my own childhood favorites, the “Dragonlance” series.  In Dragonlance (via Dungeons & Dragons), we were introduced to the idea of  a world with two very different kinds of dragons: some motivated to do good, and some to do evil, and the two distinguishable by their appearance.   The idea seems to borrow heavily from the two different depictions of dragons in real-world mythology.  Today, the ideas spawned by McCaffery and later rebroadcast in Dragonlance and other novels now forms the nucleus of the modern fantasy cliché of the dragon. 

Meanwhile, other stories more directly borrow from the eastern version of the dragon.  The most immediate example I can think of comes not from literature but from film, but Falkor the Luck Dragon, from “The Neverending Story“,  is clearly based on the benevolent Eastern Dragon (I realize my example actually does come from literature but, to be honest, I’ve never read the book; an oversight I’m sure someday to correct).

An interesting trend that I’ve noticed, though this is mostly anecdotal, and I’ve not done a thorough study of the entire fantasy literature repetoire, is that throughout the 80’s and early 90’s dragons were fairly plentiful in fantasy fiction – in worlds like McCaffery’s “Pern” or Weiss & Hickman’s “Dragonlance” and many others.  As I said above, today dragons are not so much in vogue, but they’re not entirely absent from fantasy fiction, either.  Instead, however, they seem to more frequently crop up in stories in which they are remarkable because of their rarity.  My gut tells me that this means something, if it’s true, about the message in current fantasy literature, but I can’t say what this is.

The concepts and themes of the dragon have also been personified in the character of Rand al’Thor in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  Rand is referred to as “the Dragon” in the series, a moniker that suggests both the awesome, destructive power of the western dragon and the benevolent authority of the eastern dragon.  While not an actual dragon, Rand’s title is portrayed by a typical eastern dragon which serves as his sigil.  One of the joys of Jordan’s series is the manner in which it borrows both eastern and western myths and motifs to weave his story at an epic scale, and Rand’s character best exemplifies this dichotomy and duality.  And the best symbol to represent that duality, without question, is a dragon.

The way in which we think about dragons in fiction has changed a lot over the years, particularly as fantasy fiction has opened its doors to take in mythology from sources all across the world, not only from the European traditions and legends, but from Eastern traditions.  The way we view the dragon in fiction will continue to evolve as we borrow ideas and themes from many places, and the potency of this symbol will continue to grow.  These are just a few of the reasons why the image of the dragon is my favorite fantasy trope.  I hope to continue to see dragons take flight in fantasy fiction, written with skill and an eye toward the myriad mythic traditions that give it form.  Happy writing.