Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Avoid Back-Handed Inclusion in Your Book

Inclusion is one of those things that is becoming something of a buzzword in today's author circles. Everyone seems to be falling over each other to add it into their work, and to use it as an additional point in their favor when it comes time to move copies. The idea is pretty sound. If you have a more diverse cast, and you include elements like underrepresented ethnicities, cultures, sexualities, then you are both going to stand out from your competitors, and make your book more appealing to people who want to see that sort of thing.

In addition to, you know, trying to provide visibility for groups, communities, etc. who have traditionally been ignored/underserved in the past. If that sort of thing matters to you.

However, there is a trap that a lot of authors fall into when it comes to attempts to be inclusive. It's something that, after giving it a bit of though, I'm calling back-handed inclusion.

Yes, Sharon, you have non-white characters. But they all appear to be drug-dealers and spousal abusers.
Think of your inclusion like lemons. The goal is to present them in an appealing, well-thought-out way that enhances your dish's overall flavor while giving it a broader appeal. However, back-handed inclusion is when you take the lemons, carefully cut them, then squirt them into the eyes of your target audience before acting mystified that they aren't impressed with your presentation.

A More Concrete Example

A back-handed compliment is when you say something that sounds nice on the surface, but which is rotten once you get under the skin. The traditional, "That dress doesn't make you look nearly so fat!" being one of the more common, barbed examples.

For something that applies to writing, I'll give you an example that concretely illustrates what I'm talking about.

Several years back I met the very talented Lauren Jankowski (author of several books you can find on her Amazon Author Page, and the muscle behind Asexual Artists). I was on a panel with her, and several of the points she made regarding asexuality and how it's treated in fiction got the wheels in my brain turning. A bit of free advice for all the folks out there; when you first start learning about a community you aren't part of and aren't familiar with, take your time. I guarantee the first idea out of your mouth is going to be stupid.

Mine sure as shit was.

Story time!
For those of you who haven't read The Big Bad II, or my story Little Gods, it follows an adventure starring Richard Blackheart, warlock-for-hire. Richard is a bad man, hands-down. He's violent, vindictive, brutish, and fairly amoral. However, I enjoyed writing stories about him, and I wanted to  add something to his concept in the event I published more stories about him.

My thought was to make him an asexual character.

Now, that thought was not a problem in-and-of-itself. As a part of his makeup, it could be a neutral characteristic. One might even argue that, from a marketing perspective, it makes the character more unique in comparison to similar villainous protagonists where toxic and aggressive sexuality is more the norm. However, the issue was that his sexuality was being used as a way to make him more alien to the audience, and to show him as lacking something fundamental that "normal" people would be able to identify with.

If you've ever sat and listened to someone who identifies as asexual, you'd know this attitude of, "there's something wrong with you/you haven't met the right one yet/all people want to do this," is one of the most common (and insulting) refrains they hear.

That is what back-handed inclusion is. It's when your gay male characters become flamboyant jokes, but you still want credit for being more diverse in your casting. It's when your villain is a scheming, long-nosed, greedy parody of Jewish bankers, and you can't figure out why people are mad at you for trying to be more inclusive. Or it's when you tout your strong female lead, but it seems like the book is really about the guy constantly standing next to her that makes all the important decisions, and saves the day in the end.

It is not that you tried to include these characters. It is that you included them poorly, carelessly, or without putting a lot of thought into them that makes an example back-handed inclusion. Which is, in reality, not really inclusion at all.

Better To Be Embarrassed During Editing Than After Publishing

Don't let the potential of screwing up put you off trying to be more inclusive in your work. We all make mistakes, and that goes double for when we're trying to do something we don't have a lot of practice with, or knowledge about. So while your heart might be in the right place, it's still possible that your execution leaves a lot to be desired.

But if you catch those mistakes during your plotting/planning phase, then you can refine them into genuine inclusion and diversity. And if you catch them during editing, you'll save yourself a lot of frustration once your audience gets a look at what you've made.

Hot tip: Exotic is a word used for spices, foods, and fabric... not people.
Do your research. Reach out to people from the communities you're writing about. Do your best to get everything right, and to keep an eye out for when you're saying, "Wow, you don't look nearly so fat in that dress." Because that slap in the face you're going to get won't hurt any less just because you didn't mean to be insulting.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. Hopefully it got some wheels turning! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page where you can check out my books... like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to support my work you can Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Successful Authors Are Persistence Hunters

The deer had run for miles, until it finally collapsed into an exhausted, shuddering heap. The hunters were far away now, and it was out of danger. It had fled time and time again, but now it was sure. They were gone. They had to be gone. It slept, but when it woke they had returned. The strange, dark shapes smelling of death and saltpeter. It could have run again, but it was so tired. It managed to stand, but before it had taken three steps, the guns rang out, and it fell down dead.

If you're familiar with persistence hunting (following a much faster animal at a slower pace until you wear it down to the point it can no longer fight or flee, thus becoming easy prey), then you know that humans must look like something out of an 80s slasher movie to the rest of the animal kingdom. No matter how far or how fast you run, no matter how you try to hide, when you open your eyes we're always there. It's like we just came out of thin air, and eventually you just lay down and wait for it all to be over.

Hey... did I tell you I wrote a book?
When it comes to being an author, this kind of hunting model is what you need to embrace. Because you probably won't bring down huge sales in a single burst of brilliance. But if you keep a steady promotional pace, you will find that you're walking down a lot of the competition that started out at a dead run.

What Does Persistence Promotion Look Like?

Persistence promotion (a term I have just now made up, in case anyone's curious) is all about endurance, and the long game. The goal is for you to regularly mention yourself and your work in as many venues as you can, without either making your audience feel inundated, or getting annoying with your promotional efforts.

Hey guys, did I tell you about my book?
For example, when you first release a new book, you've got about two weeks to a month to crow about it. After that, people start to tune out. I'm starting to reach that point with my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife. There was a surge of people who were interested when it first came out earlier this month, but now I need a new spin.

How do you get a new spin? Well there are a lot of different things you can do.

- Tie Your Book Into a Current Event: Whether it's a holiday season, or national fantasy month, or something similar, mention your book in the context of something that's going on right now.

- Reach Out to Reviewers: There are a lot of reviewers out there. Some of them have blogs, some have podcasts, and some have YouTube channels, but most importantly they all have some kind of audience. Contact reviewers using a database like The Indie Book Reviewer's List, and watch as the press trickles in. Try to send at least one message a day, because at the end of the month at least one out of the thirty or so reviewers will give you a shot. Even better, you can share people's reviews of your book, and use that as fresh content to put on your blog, your social media pages, etc. Keep the cycle going.

- Include Links In Other Content: You know how this is a blog entry all about marketing? Well, by using my novel as an example, I slid it in front of everyone reading this. Not only that, but if you look up at the top of this page, you'll see a link straight to My Amazon Author Page. Anyone who comes to this blog gets that put in front of them, too. You can include your buy link in your email signature, put it in your blog closing, and make sure you mention your books when you're on a panel at a convention, or giving an interview. Cross-promote, and you'll get a lot more action.

The most important thing for you to do, though, is to never let your promotion die. Make sure that you do at least one thing a day to try to promote your work. Whether it's mentioning your book in a blog entry, tossing off a quick tweet about it, leaving a comment on a forum that mentions your book, or even sending an email to a reviewer.

Just do one thing a day. It becomes habit forming, and once you've made a habit it's that much easier to maintain.

Set A Reasonable Pace

Promotion is not just hard, it's exhausting. Particularly if you try to do it all at once. But if you just pace yourself, and block a little bit of time every day for it, you'll be surprised at how much ground you can make up. Especially once other people start picking up what you're laying down, and doing at least some of the promotion for you by spreading the word about that book you wrote, and getting everyone hyped for your next release.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it helped some folks out there! For more of my work head over to my Vocal archive, or go to My Amazon Author Page where you'll find books like Crier's Knife, or my steampunk noir collection New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam.

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular supporter. Every little bit helps!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Authors, Every Awful Thing That Happens In Your Book Really Is Your Fault

How many of us remember the dark and gritty decade that was the genre fiction landscape of the 1990s? It was the era where we loved things like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, The Crow, and Warhammer 40,000 without a single ounce of irony. It was when all of our vampires wore floor-length leather trench coats, everyone smoked unfiltered cigs, and no one had happy endings.

And every comic was hand-painted with expended gun powder taken from crime scenes.
We picked up a lot of other habits during that era, though; and like heroin addiction, a lot of them are still clinging. One of those habits is the reflexive need a lot of writers have to inject raw awfulness into their settings and stories because... well, because.

Now, this is your story, and you are more than welcome to tell it with whatever elements you want. If you want to have genocide, sexual assault, brutality, oppression, slavery, and any of a thousand other things on your page then no one can stop you from doing it. However, there is no ducking your responsibility for those things. This is your book, and those elements exist because you decided to make them exist. Full stop, no excuses.

But I'm Just Being Realistic!

A lot of people use this word to defend their stories, but this term doesn't mean what they think it means. Because as long as you are writing fiction, the creative control is entirely in your hands. The events you are showing your readers happen the way they do because you make them happen. None of this, "Well, my characters have lives of their own!" nonsense. You are Frankenstein, and this monster exists how it does because of the decisions you made.

Which is why you should always triple-check your blueprint.
Again, I'm not saying you can't put brutal, awful, controversial stuff in your stories. I'm primarily a horror writer, for fuck's sake, I know that sometimes a story needs a bit of blood to make the flavor just right. But that's the word you should keep in mind... need. Before you add any element that might lead to gagging, distaste, or anger in someone who reads your story, ask if it needs to be there. Then, once you've determined that it does need to be there, ask how you're going to present that element, and why you are choosing to present it that way.

Give you an example. Take the horror classic I Spit On Your Grave. If you're not familiar with it, the movie is the best-known example of the exploitative rape-revenge film. You take a (usually) female character, we show her experiencing her "fate worse than death" moment (typically at the hands of several men), and then the rest of the story is just her taking her revenge in (from her and the audience's perspective) justifiably brutal ways.

Break that story down to its elements, and examine them.

Does our protagonist have to be raped? Technically not. She needs to experience some kind of transgression against her to justify the level of retribution she's going to so that she doesn't lose her relatability in the eyes of the reader, but it doesn't have to be a sexual assault. There are a lot of different ways that could happen, from people who ruined her life socially (got her expelled from school, fired from her job, destroyed her relationships with her friends and family by spreading lies about what they'd done with her, for example), to people who assaulted and left her for dead (the age-old Western trope we see in films like Hang 'Em High).

Even though there are functional alternatives, the creators chose to have the protagonist be raped. Not only did this event happen, but they chose to present it in such a way that the viewers witness it with their own eyes. Now is that necessary? Not strictly speaking, no. The incident can just as easily happen before we start the film, kept as something of a mystery as we focus instead on the revenge killings. Alternatively we could see the aftermath of the incident, or have the assault implied by the soundtrack, the way the perpetrators walk away straightening their clothes, or just by seeing the protagonist's portrayal of the post-trauma. But the film (and many others like it) have the audience watch the whole thing.

Why? Well, it could be argued that by forcing the audience to bear witness, it deepens their sympathy with our protagonist as they share this intimate trauma. It could also be argued that by seeing what happened, we know for a fact that what she experienced is true. Also, given the exploitative nature of the genre, it could be argued that the combination of nudity and violence would draw audiences who wanted to see the film cross lines typically considered taboo.

Know Your Reasons

Whether you have decided that the evil empire in your sci-fi epic uses chattel slavery in off-world mines (even though is has to be less expensive and more efficient for that work to be done by robots), your protagonist is graphically abused by a partner, or the supporting cast is tortured right in front of your audience, those are decisions you made. Understand why you made them.

Because saying that you felt the graphic nature of this approach would shock the audience, causing them to form a deeper bond with the character is a legitimate reason for something you've done in your story. People may disagree with it, but at least there is a logic behind why you chose to do it. Saying, "that's just the way things were back then," shows that you neither understand that this is a fictional story (and that your choice of acts and the presentation of those acts is not bound by what may or may not have happened "back then"), nor that you are responsible for your decisions as a creator.

If your story touches people, and brings them a rush of emotion when they read it, that's your doing. If that emotion rushing through them is a combination of anger and disgust, well, that's still on you. So before you pull that trigger, ask if that was the best way to execute your story. Because whether you did it for good reasons or bad, because it was what the story demanded or because you didn't stop to question it, the gun is still in your hand. You should know why you did it.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! Hopefully it helps some folks out there who struggle with when to take their tales down dark paths. If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or go to My Amazon Author Page where you can get your hands on books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! And if you'd like to support me directly you can leave me a tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or to become a regular, monthly patron you could head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Any and all help you can give is appreciated!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Looking For Cover Art For Your Book? Try RPG Now!

We all know we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover... but let's be honest, we do. Everything from the quality of the art, to the font choice of the title, to how it all comes together is indicative of skill and investment. If someone has a professional-looking cover, then someone is likely to assume the same level of care and attention to detail was also taken with the story behind that cover.

And if your cover sends a different message? Well, readers pick up on that, too.

Trust me, a good cover pays dividends.
If you're going the self-publishing route, though, chances are you don't have a big budget to spend on your cover art. Especially because getting art from a professional artist can run from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on what you want, and who you want it from. So what most authors do is look for stock art. Stock art is a piece that an artist can sell over and over again, giving different people the rights to use it on book covers, magazines, etc. Since the artist is making multiple sales over time, stock art tends to be a lot less expensive than an individually commissioned piece.

That doesn't make it cheap, though.

In fact, if you've been trawling through sites like Shutterstock, you've likely noticed that the license for some of those images can be pretty high. Even worse, some sites are geared toward larger publishers, so you can't just buy the rights to use one image; instead, you have to buy half a dozen that you may not need, or even want, just to get access to the one you care about.

If you're running into many of the same issues I did, might I recommend giving RPG Now a try?

What Is RPG Now?

If you've never been to the site before, RPG Now is a site that hosts independently published roleplaying games. So whether you're looking for a Dungeons and Dragons adventure, or you want a list of merchants on hand for when your players go to buy armor, you can easily find those resources on this site.

However, there are a surprising amount of resources on this site which are there for publishers and designers, rather than for players. Which is why if you type the words "stock art" into the search bar you are immediately hit with a deluge of pictures from kobold warriors, to crumbled ruins, to brave adventurers heading into the wilderness.

Something like this, perhaps?
That's the cover of my recently released fantasy novel Crier's Knife, and in case you're curious that artwork is by a fellow named Jack Holliday. A talented artist, you can find his pieces under J.H. Illustrations (and if you're looking for this picture in particular, you can find it under Standing Stones).

How much did that cost me for beautiful art like this? Well, if you didn't click through to see it yourself, I paid $4 for the rights to use it on my cover. Something that, if you're publishing a book, is probably well within your budget.

Jack is far from the only artist on the site, and there is a lot of art on there. Not only that, but some of it is actually free for you to use (with the proviso that you credit the artist)! While the site definitely caters more toward sci-fi and fantasy (since those are the major markets for roleplaying games), it's worth a browse no matter what genre you're writing in. You never know what you're going to run into!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing installment. Hopefully it helps some folks out there find affordable art that will give their books the extra oomph they need to catch potential readers' eyes. If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive! To stay on top of all my recent releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support my work you can leave me a tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, by becoming a patron over at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or by going to My Amazon Author Page to buy a few of my books! No matter which option you take, every little bit helps.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Understanding The Flat Arc (Because Sometimes Your Characters Don't HAVE To Change)

I'd like to start this entry off with a bit of good news. I recently put out my first novel! Crier's Knife is a sword and sorcery tale, with all the flashing blades and fell magic you'd expect from something in the genre. Our protagonist is Dirk Crier, a mountain boy from a witchbred clan, and one day his grandmother sets him the task of fetching his cousin Teller. Teller has a knack for getting into trouble, but this time he's up to his neck in real darkness; the kind you don't walk out of without leaving a little blood behind you. So Dirk rides out to either bring Teller home, or to make sure his kin has plenty of company on the long road to hell.

Seriously, the first few chapters are free, go read them!
One of the questions people keep asking me about this book is who is my protagonist, and what's his arc? Well, Dirk is a member of the Crier clan who, left to his own devices, would be happy building himself a cabin on the slopes of Ben Morgh to live a fairly quiet life. But when trouble rears its head, it's his job to put it back down again. In short, he's the family's enforcer, and the nasty work tends to end up in his lap.

As to his arc, that got me wondering. Because, you see, most folks only know about the two major types of character arcs; positive character arcs (where a character confronts and overcomes a flaw or fear to succeed and become better) and negative arcs (where a character fails to overcome a flaw or fear, and hurts themselves or others in the process).

There is a third kind of character arc, though, according to Well-Storied; the flat arc. In a flat arc a character's morals and beliefs are challenged, but they hold true to who they are and overcome.

That is a perfect description of Dirk, and the arc he has in Crier's Knife.

"Flat" Is Not Synonymous With "Bad"

Now, there's a big difference between a character being flat, and that character having a flat arc. Because flat characters are dull, boring, and one-dimensional. Characters with flat arcs, on the other hand, are some of the most famous and lauded personas in literature.

Like this guy, for example.
At his core, Batman is a character with hundreds (if not thousands) of flat arc stories. Sherlock Holmes is another character with a lot of flat arcs (this condition is particularly common among detectives and serialized characters, if you keep track). The same can be said of characters like Conan, or Solomon Kane. Sam Spade, Hawk, and even Captain America find themselves with a lot of flat arcs, as well.

Because, you see, these characters already have The Truth figured out, when it comes to their worlds and stories. They don't need to climb a mountain to talk to a sensei, to uncover their inner strength, or to learn lessons to overcome a challenge. They know what to do, and they do it. So, as readers, we get the satisfaction of fast-forwarding to what many consider the "good part" of a positive story arc. The part when the protagonist has learned their lesson, overcome their flaw, and is ready to rock and roll.

(Also, to head off any quibbles here, characters who are serialized will have different arcs in different stories. It's true that character like Batman have had positive arcs and negative arcs throughout their runs, and those story lines tend to be the memorable ones. By and large, though, the bulk of their story lines are flat arcs, with the exceptions sort of proving the rule.)

There's Nothing Wrong With Holding Steady

I will admit that flat arcs tend to be some of my favorite stories. While I understand the appeal of a positive arc (because personal growth and change to overcome obstacles is motivating and engaging) as well as a negative arc (because, as I've stated in the past, I'm a great lover of the "fuck you" ending), I find that a flat arc is often the most useful for when you already want your character to know who they are, and to have their world figured out. And since flat arc stories tend to create conflicts that fall into the No, You Move category, they can be fun and compelling without the need to do a lot of navel gazing that may not be necessary for your story.

This quote is basically a summation of the flat arc conflict.
So the next time you're writing, remember that it isn't either self-discovery and success, or crashing and burning because you didn't overcome. Sometimes your character just looks at the world, plants their feet, and says, "Bring it on."

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post! Hopefully it engaged some folks out there, and if you're curious what an engaging flat arc would look like stop on in and read the first few chapters of Crier's Knife for free!

If you want to stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, as well as my Amazon Author Page. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi as a tip, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

If You Want To Get Noticed on Social Media, You Need To Interact

Social media is, on the surface, one of the greatest blessings a professional creator could ask for. It costs you nothing to sign up, you can immediately join all kinds of communities, and with zero impact on your marketing budget tell everyone about your latest project. All it takes is starting a conversation, and from that point you've got it made in the shade!

The problem most folks run into, though, is they don't know how to break the ice... or if you're looking for a more accurate visual metaphor, they aren't sure how to kick the anthill.

Hoo boy that's a lot of potential views... now to get the proper wind-up...
The problem most folks run into is that they just toss out a link, and back away. They might even include a short message like, "Hey everyone, I'm super excited because I just dropped a new release! Come check it out?" While there's nothing wrong with that in theory, you're still up on your soap box shouting down at the crowd. What you need to do is step off that box, and have a conversation with folks.

You Get Better Results Talking To People, Rather Than At Them

Think about the posts you make in groups when you aren't trying to get a spotlight on your professional releases. When you're just there to share some info, or to poll other members, or to ask a question or three. Are your posts more casual in tone? Do you include pictures for attention? Most importantly, do you ask questions that other people can see and respond to?

Because you should do all of those things when you're writing a promo post.

You there! What's your favorite horror novel?
While people on the Internet don't traditionally need your permission to share their thoughts and opinions, if you outright invite them to leave comments on the post you made then it's like they're compelled by ancient fey law to say something. Which is precisely what you want them to do.

Here's a perfectly functional example of what I'm talking about:

Hey guys, it's International Cat Day, so I wanted to ask everyone a quick question... who is your favorite fictional cat? Alternatively, what is your favorite book where the protagonist is a cat? Asking because I just finished reading From A Cat's View, which has my hard-boiled feline tale "Stray Cat Strut" in it. While I still love Leo, my Maine Coon enforcer who works the mean streets of New York, this book was full of other great stories. Now I'm in a groove, and I was hoping you could all make some additional suggestions for me!

The tone of this post is extremely casual, which immediately makes it feel less like a sales pitch. Even though I specifically mention a book that I admit I'm a contributing author to. Instead of a commercial, it feels like one of those, "Oh hey, I've been reading this thing that's pretty unique. You heard of anything like it so I could keep going down this rabbit hole for a while?" conversations that happen all the time on social media. Because while the plug for my story and the collection it's in is fairly naked, it has at least some cover in that I'm talking to the people in the group to try to start a conversation.

And every time someone leaves a comment on that post, it gets pushed back to the top of the group. Even if I'm the one leaving a comment in response to something someone else said, which is why I will always reply to someone else's thoughts and suggestions. And every time that post buoys back to the top of the group, that's a chance for more people to see it, and give their input. It's also a chance for spirited debates to start (or flame wars, those are good for business, too), and every time someone stumbles across the post they might click the link to see what book I'm talking about.

Every click-through to From A Cat's View is, therefore, another chance to make a sale. And even if only one in every ten people who see the post click it, and only one in every ten of those people decide to get a copy, those numbers can get pretty big if the conversation keeps refreshing your post to the top of the page for two or three days on end. Especially if people share the post to keep carrying on that conversation on their own pages.

The point here is that if people see you are genuinely involved in the conversation, then that makes you seem more approachable. You're no longer just some random person tossing out a sales link and trying to get money out of everyone else's wallet. No, you're just like them; a reader, a cat lover, and someone just looking for recommendations. This stops people from seeing you as a billboard (which can be easily tuned-out), and it makes you a part of the community.

It doesn't guarantee that you'll avoid catching flak for self-promotion (even if you're burying the lead), nor will it skyrocket your sales overnight (barring some fantastic luck, anyway). But I can say that if you re-think your post style and content, you'll find that you get a lot more engagement from people if you try to set up a round table discussion than if you get up on your soap box and talk at people instead of to them.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully this helps folks who've been trying to drum up some numbers, but have fallen short.

If you'd like to see more of my work, then you should check out my Vocal archive, or head over to my Amazon author page to Buy My Books! If you want to stay up on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to help support my work you can Buy Me A Ko-Fi to give me a one-time tip, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. Either way you'll have both my eternal gratitude, as well as some free stuff as a thank you for your help!

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Thousand Masks of God (A Writing Trick For Fantasy)

If you're a fan of fantasy, chances are good you've noticed how crowded the field of the divine can be. This can be particularly problematic in this genre because deities are assumed to be real forces in a lot of fantasy stories (particularly when their servants are the ones standing in as heroes or villains, and drawing their power from that divine source), and thus they represent a major force within the world.

There is an old trick regarding the divine, though, that you can use to clean up the field. I call it the Thousand Masks of God.

For who truly knows what the divine is?

What Is That?

The Thousand Masks of God is a simple idea, and it's one you've probably seen before if you're a fan of fantasy. It's the idea that there is only one set of gods (or sometimes only one god), and that these divinities appear to different cultures in different ways. Sometimes this is done on purpose (a divinity that appears as an old, bearded man to one culture, but a young mother to another), and other times it's human error (due to cultural differences, two very different people received two very different interpretations of the same being, and the same event), but the point is that there is actually a small number of divine forces at work in the world no matter how many different gods people think they're worshiping under different names.

Let's take a real-world example. Many cultures have a patriarch god in their pantheons; the Greeks had Zeus, the Norse had Odin, and so on, and so forth. Under the Thousand Masks of God, those patriarchs would all be the same divinity. While each might capture an aspect of him, they are just a hint of the true nature of that god. None are false, but each is only a singular aspect, seen through the lens of that particular culture.

What's The Purpose?

As a writing/world-building tool, this trick offers you a couple of different advantages. First and foremost, it means that you only have a handful of divinities to keep track of in your world's events and struggles. Secondly, it allows you the opportunity to give your characters (and through them your reader) a peek behind the curtain at pivotal, important points in the story (assuming you're going to reveal the true nature of the divine, which is a necessity if you're going to use this setup). Most importantly, though, this trick allows you to hand-wave away multiple pantheons or deities existing when their doctrine expressly says they're the only gods, or the only true gods.

That escape hatch comes in handy if you want to portray something like angels, demons, rakshasa, etc. in a way that seems to run counter to their presented mythology. Because if these beings, and those who control them, are only glimpsed through a mirror darkly, it's not always possible to understand their true motivations. Especially if you throw in Orange and Blue Morality on top of flawed human understanding.

To Be Clear, You Aren't Blowing Any Minds

That's your prose's job.
Every writer discovers the tools of the trade in different ways, and one of the most frustrating experiences you can have is thinking you've discovered something new and unique that's actually been done a thousand times before by writers you've never heard of. This trick is one of those things I thought most writers knew about, but there are always new folks coming into the fold who think this idea is groundbreaking.

Let me be clear, it isn't. Also, if you're concerned with being new, unique, and original, then writing may not be the career for you. Every story has been told before; the best you can do is hope to tell it in a new way that everyone really likes.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. If you liked it, and would like to see other examples of my work, then check out my Vocal archive. Also, don't forget to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to get all of my recent updates and releases. If you'd like to support me you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, become a patron on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly tipper, or you could go to my Amazon author page to Buy My Books!

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