Potter (No) More

So I guess there’s more Harry Potter stuff happening. A movie in the works, a play, some short stories on Pottermore about American wizardry.

And I can’t really get into any of it.

Part of it is that I spent the last decade analyzing and re-analyzing the Harry Potter books with my fellow nerds and by myself, for fun. I picked the Wizarding World apart already in a previous post, and I’m done with it as a concept. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Pottermore stories all sound like prequel material, the kind where, yeah, we really do know or can infer all this stuff already.

Moreover, much of the new material is set in America, which feels like pandering. I don’t know who decided that Fantastic Beasts and the new stories should be set in America, but I’d bet that’s a marketing decision, not an authoring one. Harry Potter’s charm is in part that it’s British! That it comes from a place dotted with castles and teapots, and not my own coffee-fueled, sky-scraper-studded land. Countries are not all the same, and JK Rowling’s style of whimsy doesn’t hold up well in an American context.

For instance, the new stories have already upset actual Native Americans. I assume (you assume, we all assume) that Rowling meant to be inclusive. But the fact is that certain Native Americans took offense at Rowling’s appropriation of their mythology, specifically “skinwalkers”.

Now, Harry Potter has always cherry picked from history and mythology, but it has largely been European history and mythology. In America, that’s default, that’s baseline, everyone’s welcome to do whatever they want to European history and mythology. But with Native Americans, their stories are still their own.

In the Wizarding World, there is no religion, no pandemics, no global warming. Racism is replaced by anti-muggle, anti-mudblood, anti-poor, and speciesist sentiments. There is no Al Quaeda, Boko Haram, Daesh, or KKK, just Death Eaters. That works in England, island alone by itself, relatively pure until the last decade or so as darker-skinned immigrants started pouring in to make the food better.

But that kind of whitewashing doesn’t work in the intersectional morass that is America. Well, not without complaint and ridicule by the left.

Me, I don’t mean to complain or ridicule. I’m just checked out of the Potter Club. Oh sure, I’ll probably go to the theme park when I get the chance, and I’ll reread the books someday — they’re good books, they’ll be fun to revisit. But that’s the thing. They’re books, a private conversation between me and Jo. A conversation she ended by saying, “Their adult lives were stable and boring. Don’t try to get more out of me because the story is over, there is no more.”

I want to respect that statement (even if the epilogue that contained it was objectively not good). Although, if Rowling had changed her mind, and Harry Potter and The Cursed Child was going to be an eighth book by Rowling, I would go buy it.

But it’s not. It’s a play by some other guy. Rowling had a hand in it, but it isn’t hers. It’s half fan fiction.

It’s hard to watch this happen to Rowling. While I’ve been privately picking apart her stories, learning this craft of fantasy storytelling from many authors but especially her, the marketers have made her their cow. And all the Potter milk is coming out pasteurized now.

As much as I want to be JK Rowling, get that popular, touch that many lives, maybe it isn’t worth it when others start to write your stories for you.

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Mockingjay’s Flaw (The Limitations of Perspective)

One of the first decisions to make when beginning a writing project is perspective.  Is the main character going to tell the story herself (first person perspective), or will a more or less omniscient narrator take charge (third person perspective)?

Third person has always been my perspective of choice for writing fiction.  I like to stick close to one character, detailing what she sees, hears, and feels, before leaping away to focus on someone else.  George R.R. Martin uses the same technique in his series, A Song of Ice and Fire, as does Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time.  Stephen King uses a variation of it in The Dark Tower; King frequently wanders from character to character mid-chapter, and sometimes skips off to detail some obscure corner of Midworld or fill in a scenic vista in broad strokes for his readers.

It is the style of big, sweeping epics.  You can have characters in two countries, or on two continents if you like.  You can move around a scene or situation, taking it in from different points of view.  You can still have a main character, or avoid identifying one character as the most central or important.

It is also possible to write without ever quite landing on any one character, but this tends to be an antiquated style.  It is used in myths, legends, and the Bible, but not so much in modern literature.

More focused stories can also be told in third person.  The technique is useful for exploring a character or the events he experiences with more insight and wisdom than the character himself has.  Jack London uses this technique in White Fang, an early 20th century speculative fiction novel detailing the life of an Alaskan wolf.

Because London chose to write in third person perspective, the reader gains insight not only into the events of White Fang’s life, but of the greater forces that shape his life.  White Fang may not understand the Alaskan Gold Rush, greed, addiction, or the psychology of abuse, but London does, and so London can elicit greater empathy for his titular wolf with third person perspective than he could if he forced White Fang to somehow speak for himself.

Similarly, the Harry Potter series uses third person.  It’s an interesting choice now, considering the recent surge of popular first-person, Young Adult novels (Twilight, Divergent, The Hunger Games), but I think it was the right one.  Through third person, we get a clearer picture of Harry Potter growing up than we would if he had to tell us about it directly.

It also allowed J.K. Rowling the flexibility to move away from Harry Potter’s direct experience from time to time, broadening her Wizarding World.  In first person, it’s always a bit awkward to take in a bigger picture, or add a second main character to also speak directly to the reader.

Which brings us to first person perspective.  It is the default perspective, the one we use automatically when telling others about our own lives and experiences.  It also has a long literary history, and can be used to great effect.

If you want to get really intimate, first person is the way to go.  Diana Gabaldon writes her Outlander series in first person, with steamy results in her bedroom scenes.  At the same time, because her main character Claire Beauchamp has traveled back in time, she is able to tell the reader about events and places far away from herself, and so Gabaldon’s 18th century world remains much larger than Claire herself.

I also imagine it is the intimacy of first person perspective that drives the popularity of series like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray.  First person is indeed a powerful tool.

First person is also the right choice if you want to deliberately narrow your reader’s worldview.  Mark Twain uses first person in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and so we only become intimate with Twain’s fictive 7th century England as the titular Yankee does, and that serves Twain’s satirical purposes.

Alternately, first person is the only way to write an unreliable narrator.  Whether the narrator is an anti-hero or a straight-up villain, using first person gives that narrator the chance to give his story spin.  In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov turns Humbert Humbert’s tale of manslaughter, kidnapping, and child-rape into a semi-comic romp.  It isn’t until the end when the full horror of what he has done to Lolita hits Humbert Humbert, and therefore the reader.

And that brings us to Mockingjay.

I love Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series.  I devoured these three books.  They are written in first person, which makes sense.  As Katniss Everdeen dreads, we dread.  Her perspective is limited, and so is ours, adding to the tension.  There is a scene in the second book, Catching Fire, where Katniss hears mockingjay birds (which mimic what they hear) screaming, and sounding suspiciously like her mother and sister.  It is possible that the sound has been manufactured — or has the Capital imprisoned and tortured her family?  She can’t know, and neither can we.

But the third book, Mockingjay, is problematic.  As the conflict becomes larger, as civil unrest grows into a civil war, the first person perspective suddenly becomes claustrophobic.  We’re stuck in a bunker with Katniss and her self-pity.  We’re led to believe that her propaganda videos are the most important element in President Coin’s strategy to overthrow the Capital — and that doesn’t make sense.  She’s important, but not that important.  Through Katniss’s vantage, the war is as distant and unreal as the war in Afghanistan has been to anyone without a soldier in the family.

Katniss does eventually put her boots on the ground in the middle of the main conflict, but even then her point of view is too narrow.  A major character dies off-page because Katniss is too busy running for her life to look back.  We do not see major events, we are told about them afterward.  This is deeply unsatisfying for a reader.

The obvious choice for the epic that The Hunger Games becomes by the third book is third person, not first.  Third person would have given Collins room to tell us about more battles, or the real effects of the war on the Capital and the Colonies.  We could have spent more time with Gale, Peeta, Presidents Snow and Coin.  The world would have seem larger, fuller, more complicated, more satisfying, and less sublimated to the vanity of Katniss.

But the first two books would have lost their edge, and the deep empathy created for Katniss.

It is a puzzle.  I don’t know if the books would have been as popular, or as gripping, had they been written in third person.  At the same time, the film adaptation does greatly improve the first half of Mockingjay by taking a more third-person approach with the script, and spending a good chunk of time with Katniss off-screen.

It just goes to show you, the stories you tell will be shaped and made great largely by how you tell them.

On Religion in Fiction

In honor of my cousin Eli’s Bar Mitzvah, this post is going to be about religion.

No, I don’t care what religion (if any) you practice.  But if you’re writing a novel, chances are that at some point you are going to write about religion.  And if you aren’t writing about religion at all, you should be, because religion is a big part of the human experience.  Wherever you fall on the spectrum, from fervently religious to mildly spiritual to militantly atheist, religion touches your life.  The religion of your society is going to affect your thinking, whether you ever set foot in a place of worship or not.

There ARE atheists in foxholes, but they’re going to cry out “Jesus Christ!” or “God!” just like everybody else when the gunfire starts.

To pick on J.K. Rowling a little more, the lack of religion in the Wizarding World puzzled me.  Her wizards and witches remember that the Burning Times happened.  Okay, so what is their relationship to Catholicism or Christianity?  Good, apparently, because they celebrate Christmas.  Alright, so when do they go to church?  Never?  That’s odd.  They do make a big deal over Halloween too, maybe they’re Pagan, or Druidic?  But Pagans and Druids celebrate Yule or Solstice, not Christmas.  Maybe the wizards and witches of Great Britain are all just pointedly secular.  After all, they’re little gods themselves with all that power.  All right, then why are they celebrating Christmas?

I know that plenty of secular Americans celebrate Christmas.  The culture of Christmas is so overwhelming, my choices are to be an anti-social jerk or celebrate it along with my non-Jewish and generally non-religious friends.  But without a long-standing tradition of Christianity in this country (Christianity being the majority religion), they wouldn’t celebrate Christmas.  They’d have Solstice, or Kwanzaa, or Chanukah, or Festivus, or no big late-December celebration at all.

I understand that JK Rowling likely wanted to keep religion out of her novels.  Religion is a messy thing that certain individuals get very uptight about, and so religion is frequently left entirely out of popular media.  Sometimes that’s appropriate.  Something light or irreverent or especially artsy won’t always be attempting to depict real life.

Except that religion isn’t ever left out, it lurks like an elephant in the room.  The disregard for reality leaves a created world feeling flat.  That works with Looney Tunes, but something as meaningful as Harry Potter is cheapened by avoiding the subject.

If I’ve convinced you that religion is a theme worth including and exploring, the next question is how.

I actually think religion is something that George RR Martin does well.  Martin writes about multiple religions, and also about individuals who are more or less religious.   He frequently has characters participating in religious rites or festivals, making oaths, and taking the names of the gods in vain.  He leaves the true nature of the gods ambiguous.  Characters discuss religion, and are motivated by it.

Ultimately, Martin doesn’t have very nice things to say about religion.  R’hllor seems inclined to give his power to the brutal rather than the beneficent, and that generally holds true for the many gods of Westeros and Essos.  If you’re interested in a more nuanced and even more complete exploration of religion in fiction, I would recommend Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.  The story is set largely within a monastery, and it proves to be a very good vantage for exploring 12th century England.  While there are plenty of scheming, power-hungry clergy and bad guys taking advantage of pardons for their sins, there are also legitimately good priests and monks to be found in Follett’s medieval England.

I would also recommend Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Small Gods.  Here again religion is the main theme of the story, and we see both the good and the bad in it.  But the book retains the light, comic tone that Pratchett uses throughout his Discworld series.  Religion doesn’t have to be so very serious.

Of course, your characters may live in a more modern and secular society, and religion may not be a theme you want to explore all that deeply.  That’s fine too.  Perhaps the best example here is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon.  Several times throughout the film, the titular character lists the few things in life that are really important to him;  “My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.”  I love how, “My church,” is just another thing in that list.  The audience may not spend much time in church with Don Jon, but we don’t need to.  We know he goes regularly, along with his whole family, and that tells us a lot about the character and the world he lives in.

It’s really a matter of what you want to get across.  Merely acknowledge religion, or explore it deeply.  Damn religion, praise it, or fall somewhere in the middle.  But do yourself a favor, and write about it.

Westeros Doesn’t Work

Infrastructure is expensive, and labor ain’t that cheap.  It’s true!  I know.  I’m a property manager.  And through the lens of my experience with infrastructure, a lot of very famous, very wonderful fictive worlds stop making any sense.

Take Westeros.  How can the lords go around torturing and killing every peasant they find while warring, and not expect the whole continent to starve when that next multi-year winter comes?  Never mind who built that damn wheelhouse from Game of Thrones, or what paved road it traveled on.  And just how wide was that river, that every smith in King’s Landing had to work on that boom chain for the Battle of the Blackwater?  Why didn’t they already have a boom chain for security anyway?  Why didn’t they just keep all of Stannis’s ships out of Kings Landing with that chain in the first place?

And there is no way that anyone would or could ever build a 700 foot tall wall of ice stretching hundreds of miles in length.  Ice is water, and topography is not perfectly flat.  Even if the Wall had been built by magic, it would move, melt, crack, crumble, and otherwise topple within one years-long summer of having been built.

But I can’t really blame George R. R. Martin for not knowing how things really work.  He’s never been a property manager, or a contractor, or a handy-man, and clearly, neither have Joss Whedon or J. K. Rowling.  You probably haven’t been either.  So I’d like to share a few things to think about when building your own worlds.

Giant Sewers and Air Ducts.  I don’t know who started this trend, but my best guess is that it’s Victor Hugo’s fault.  If you ever dare the unabridged version of Les Miserables, at some point you’ll find yourself wading through a 50-page essay on the Parisian sewer system.  There is a point to this.  Two of the main characters (Jean Valjean and Marius) escape from a battle through the Parisian sewers.  That means these sewers are big enough for one grown man to carry another grown man through.

19th century Paris really did have a sewer system that roomy, partly because it doubled as both sanitary sewer and storm sewer, and partly because the people who built it were experimenting and had not perfected the art of sewer building.  But nowadays any modern city is going to build two separate sewer systems, the sanitary sewer (connected to sinks, toilets, and such), and the storm sewer (which drains rainwater from city streets during a storm so they don’t flood).  Contents of the sanitary sewer system go through waste treatment before being released into a waterway, while contents of the storm sewer go directly into the nearest river, lake, or ocean.

This is why I scratch my head when characters hang out in sewers.  Be they the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sunnydale’s vampire population, or the kids from Hocus Pocus, they stand a good chance of getting very wet if it rains.  And most storm sewer lines are not 6 feet in diameter — our property only has 18-inch and 24-inch storm sewers running alongside it.  The sanitary sewer is only 4 inches by comparison, and it empties into a main line that is only 15 inches in diameter.  If you go down just any manhole, you likely won’t be able to journey more than a few feet out of sight of people and the sun.  No one is going to build a 6-foot storm sewer if the engineering calculations don’t require it — it’s too much effort to move all that earth and pour all that concrete.

And while it may not smell good in a storm sewer, it won’t be full of human waste.

Likewise, most air ducts are too small to crawl through.  They do get larger in larger buildings, like skyscrapers, but they’re made out of sheet metal and not designed to support the weight of a human being.  I’d love to see a scene where a hero tries to sneak in or escape through the air vents, and the vent pulls loose from its supports and crashes to the floor.

Basically, neither your heroes nor your villains will get very far if they are doing all their sneaking around within sewers or air ducts.  And no Lizardman or Basilisk is ever going to fit through a 2-inch toilet line (I’m looking at you, The Amazing Spiderman and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

Security Cameras.  Considering that homeless spikes (like bird spikes, but for people) are a thing in England and much of Europe, I doubt that King’s Cross Station isn’t chock full of surveillance cameras.  And since the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter series don’t understand AA batteries, I doubt they’d be on the lookout for cameras pointed at their portal to Platform 9-3/4.

Ergo, the secret Wizarding World won’t stay secret for long.

I actually have a lot of problems with the kludgy interaction between The Muggle World and The Wizarding World in Harry Potter.  How do their healers justify letting muggles suffer from broken bones, cancer, AIDS, or diabetes?  When Death Eaters terrorize muggles, why do none of them end up shot by the police?  Why is a AA battery so much more complicated and inscrutable than the Philosopher’s Stone?

And with the advent of security cameras, not to mention satellite surveillance, how does the Muggle World continue to live in complete ignorance of the Wizarding World?

Remember, if you are writing about magic in “the real world”, especially circa today, you not only have to deal with fixed security cameras and traffic cameras, but also everyone on the street with a smart phone.  Sure, you can brainwash a certain number of people into forgetting some show of arcane power.  But the minute that video of your magic user slinging lightning bolts, flying, or stepping through a magic portal hits YouTube, the whole world will know that magic is real.

Infrastructure is Expensive, and Labor Ain’t That Cheap.  So what about if you’re not writing fantasy in a modern setting?  You may not have to worry about cameras.  Your characters won’t be climbing through any sewers or air ducts, but they will be part of a larger society full of tradesfolk and laborers of every sort.  Whatever humans (or elves, orks, dwarves, hobbits, or kender) have was made by someone.  People will be more specialized in cities, and less so in towns and the countryside.  Many people will be farming, because everyone eats.  All goods will have to be moved somehow, be it by road or waterway, by man power, animal power, or with the harnessed elements of wind and river or ocean current.

Houses are still built with the same concerns in mind: they provide shelter and warmth using tried and true methods and materials.  Air and light will need to circulate in this indoor space — even if your characters are using candles or oil lamps at night, during the day they will have opened their windows or doors.  If chimneys are too advanced, there will be smoke holes in the roof.  There will be a water supply, even if it isn’t piped in.  They will need to be cleanable — those rushes you’ve certainly heard of on lordly floors weren’t just strewn about, but woven into rugs and then replaced when soiled.

And if the world is violent (it probably is), appropriate security measures must be kept in mind.

Everything will be made by hand by the people of your medievalish world; roads, wagons, ships, homes, bridges, castles, wells, clothing, tools, weapons, armor, candles, furniture, musical instruments, cups, and books.  A lot of things quickly become too expensive to have, in terms of labor and materials.  Sewer systems are too costly to be built in most cities, which means you have filth in the streets and dedicated individuals who scrape up that filth and cart it out of the city in the nicer quarters.  Most people will have few outfits to wear.  Most roads will be unpaved.  Most people won’t be able to afford multiple rooms in their homes — i.e. they will be used to having no privacy.

And More…  I certainly have more pet peeves about the way writers handle the infrastructure of their worlds, but I’ll leave them for another post.  Until then, just remember that a lot of effort and thought goes into building a world, real or imaginary.  You can have anything you want in your world — lavishly decorated, multi-roomed, hand-dug hobbit holes for instance.  But you’d better figure out what made the hobbits so very wealthy in the first place.