Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Reviews 9: Sex, Politics and Heroism

Reviews 9:
Sex, Politics and Heroism 
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Heroism is a topic that fascinates me.  It is the core of the "character arc" technique that is so emphatically insisted upon by film and TV producers.

Heroism is just one possible manifestation of a "character arc" exactly as "romance" is just one manifestation of Relationship as a plot-driver.

These are all complex subjects with many "moving parts" so we've been discussing the components of Sex, Politics and Heroism as individual variables a writer can learn to handle, one at a time, as if they were in fact separate components of story.

We've done a series on Dialogue and on Character, as well as on Theme-Character Integration.  Here are some links to these prior discussions:

which now lists 8 posts on dialogue


Part 7 of Theme-Character Integration is followed by Strong Character Defined Part 2

This can get very abstract if you are trying to master a skill.  What goes on inside your head when a story first bursts into your mind is the obverse of what goes on inside your head when you READ a story written by someone else.

Encoding and Decoding are two processes which which have to have a common source (the code itself).  The code that story tellers have used since the beginning of language is very difficult to discern and to master because we learn it so very young -- maybe age 3 or 4. 

We learn to DECODE stories told to us, to enter the story, become the character, triumph over the bad guys and attain our goal. 

We learn how stories we love somehow reflect (but don't represent or replicate) our actual reality.  We learn the difference between fantasy and reality, usually without being able to articulate that difference (except perhaps as "that's ridiculous" or "you've been watching too many cop shows."

We can tell when someone isn't living in "reality" -- at least not the same reality we live in.  Their motives for action and assumptions behind decisions just don't match up with our own -- so they live in a fantasy world of their own. 

But ENCODING our own perception of reality into a story that others would be able to DECODE into their personal fantasy-realities is a hard-learned skill for most people.

True, some take to story-telling like a duckling takes to water.  But most professional writers have to learn how to reverse the story in their heads into something another person can decode.

Learning that common-code that we all use with such facility is difficult because most people will assert that no such code exists.  It is embedded deep beneath the level of mind where we keep our "culture."  It's unconscious.

Bottom line: that CODE itself is our ART.

It is at this level that we personalize our lives, our world, and our destiny. 

We share so much yet no two of us are alike.

You want to start an argument?  Bring up Politics -- especially this time of year.

Right now, we are seeing Sex, Politics and Heroism writ large all over the news, so it is a grand time to launch into a study of how our everyday reality relates to the art of fiction-writing. 

Code is a symbolic representation of something. In the case of fiction, the something we are encoding so others can enjoy decoding is THE NEWS.

Understanding the news as a form of entertainment, of fantasy, of a world that is not-here, not-mine, a world to enter via the symbolism of video news clips, you can encode those Events in such a way that your readers can decode them and experience delight at a sudden recognition of something they have seen in the news.

This makes reading a novel by you into a treasure hunt.

What journalists call "the narrative" is the tissue of connections among news items that may occur months apart to create another installment in a story.  Follow "the narrative" to find the deep motives, the cultural assumptions, behind the choices of what is "important" (a clue to the mystery) and what is not important.  Important installments advance the narrative, unfold the story, penetrate the mystery, and reveal that treasured diamond. 

This is true of TV News, Magazine news, blogger-news, and novels.

I have 3 authors to discuss today.  I've pointed you to these 3 many times in this blog. 

These are long-running series of novels.  When you notice an illustration of this "ripped from the headlines" technique in such a long-running series, you know that the series is successful, and can assess the viability of News Headlines as source material for themes, characters, and even plots. 

These 3 installments encode our USA election process, making pithy observations about politics, politicians, and qualities of character (especially heroic qualities that certain heroic women find irresistibly sexy) that are sparkling diamonds hidden deep in the code. 

The most political of these sex/heroism examples is Gini Koch's ALIEN COLLECTIVE

It is #9 in this series, released in May, with #10 due out in September 2014.
The ALIEN series straddles the line between Fantasy and Science Fiction where the Aliens (a huge variety of them) has powers usually attributed to Mages etc in Fantasy.

The series focuses on an Alien male, raised in a secret enclave on Earth, and a human female who become allies and then lovers while fighting for their lives and the existence of Earth's civilzation.  Somewhere in there, they marry and have a child, but alien science changes genetics, and the results are "unpredictable."

Meanwhile, the battle becomes public (amidst huge destruction), and the Aliens attain a kind of Diplomatic status within the USA.  By book 9, the aliens have a Representative in Congress -- and he is being pressed to run for Vice President, even though the Aliens still have a lot of secrets humans wouldn't like.

These novels are practically back-to-back battle scenes, combat scenes, and run-for-your-life scenes, all of which are generated by complex, mysterious, hidden enemies with convoluted conspiracies.  In other words, ripped from the headlines.

Read ALIEN COLLECTIVE during this current election. 

C. J. Cherryh is on Facebook and posts items about current politics, cultural choices, and moral dilemmas.  I KNOW she pays attention to the play of headlines, but digs deeper into the under-currents driving those headlines. 

She has distilled a wide variety of today's World Political Scene -- complete with factions within factions, personality driven "movements" and dynastic considerations fraught with tribal loyalties into the 15th novel in the FOREIGNER series (one of my all-time favorite C. J. Cherryh series.)

FOREIGNER is structured as a series of trilogies, and #15 thus finishes the 5th trilogy, setting up the action for yet another trilogy. It is one ongoing story about one particular character (Bren the translator) and all the humans and native-aliens and aliens-from-another-star that he tries to keep communicating smoothly.

The thematic material is woven from the idea that if we could just communicate, we wouldn't shoot each other so much, maybe. 

In this installment, Bren has to juggle a young alien's desire to have his human friends attend his alien birthday celebration and the adult alien and human political shifts in alliances.  This young alien boy is the son and heir of the ruler of the alien world, and among these aliens (the Atevi) politics is basically done by assassination.

As on Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover world, one must make public and legal declaration of intent to assassinate.  But among the Atevi, civilization rests on the Assassin's Guild and its integrity, for the Assassins both authorize assassinations of leaders and carry out both the legal judgement of guilt and the killing itself.

That is a lot of power for one organization, and it clearly wouldn't work well for humans.

Thing is, maybe because of human presence on the alien's world, the ancient method of trusting the Assassins Guild isn't working.

As with Gini Koch's intricate plots-within-plots, infiltrations, spies, turncoats, etc., the Atevi political world is shuddering under the impact of a traitor in a position of power within the Assassin's Guild.  The Guild is not supposed to have a political agenda.  This lone fellow has been using the Guild's unique power to ram through his personal, anti-human agenda for decades and it is now coming to light.

Hidden agendas "coming to light" (go read up on Saturn transiting the MC of a person's natal chart, and the various transits of Pluto) is a theme etched in high relief in both the ALIEN series and the FOREIGNER series. 

FOREIGNER has less sex, but it is a factor.  Both use procreation and inheretance more than simple sexual attraction to tell the larger story.  Ancestry (and royalty) matters in both these series.  That gives them a Fantasy flavor laced through the serious science.

Now we come to the 26th novel in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Historical Vampire epic, The Count Saint-Germain, titled NIGHT PILGRIMS

This one is set in 13th Century Egypt when Christian pilgrims sought holy spots in remote locations in hopes of healing miracles, or sometimes as penance assigned by clergy for spiritual wrong-doing (or sometimes political mus-calculations).

Yes, a historical vampire novel about political calculations. 

The Count travels with a group of such pilgrims.  It is a story of the unraveling and ferreting out of the past, the secrets, the enemies, and the weaknesses of character in each of the travelers.  Ambushes, ordinary hazards, and the peculiar difficulties of being a Vampire in a sun-drenched landscape spice up the action, which is mostly psychological.

These novels are rich and deep in historical FACT (well, maybe not vampire-facts), but succeed as stories because of the pithy character studies.  The entire series is a bit short on plot -- there isn't that much action -- but the portrayal of the Vampire who is essentially immortal (thousands of years old) seems to me to be the most accurate in literature to date. 

The "plot" fails because St. Germain does not "arc" as a character -- he doesn't change as a result of his experiences.  He acts, yes, often in hand-to-hand combat, in heroic deeds, in taking extraordinary risks for the sake of human strangers, in deep understanding of humans around him, in every way a Hero would act. 

But he doesn't change as a result of the consequences of his actions. 

He passes through History, and though he may be part of the Historic Record we now possess, though he may in fact have affected that record, he is not affected by it.

In this installment, we travel through the wastelands of Egypt, but unravel and penetrate the tangled Religion-Politics interface of Europe.  These Pilgrims are seeking absolution FROM something.  That something is the diamond, the treasure, the reader can seek and find.

So the St. Germain series is a perfect example of the exception that proves the rule -- Hollywood insists characters must ARC (and so do most audiences).  But here is a character who does not arc, and this is the 26th book in this series -- widely reviewed, widely lauded, much beloved, (especially by romance readers), and thus a very successful series. 

If you feel compelled to write a character who does not arc -- study these novels carefully.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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