Grow or die: What happens when a story’s protagonist doesn’t change?

Alexander Dreyman

Alexander Dreymon stars at Uhtred of Bebbanburg in The Last Kingdom. Image courtesy Carnival Film & Television.

Fishermen love a good fish story, especially the one that got away. I was hooked by the BBC America television series The Last Kingdom, but the hook is loosening and I may spit it out. Why? Because the writers made a huge narrative mistake.

Premiering in 2015, The Last Kingdom stars Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a dispossessed Saxon noble who fights, often reluctantly, for a united England envisioned by the ninth century king of Wessex, Alfred the Great. The series is based on novels by Bernard Cornwell, who counts the historical Uhtred as an ancestor.

I’m halfway through season two, but I’m fast losing interest. It’s too bad, because this historical drama dives deep into each of its characters, from the intelligent, fearless warrior Uhtred to the pious, visionary Alfred. Each of the series’ minor characters are multi-dimensional, all fully fleshed by uniformly good performances. With a forceful plot driven by internal court intrigue and external enemies—the Viking raiders that still frighten English children—The Last Kingdom presses all my buttons.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Unfortunately, the series stumbles badly in episode three, when Uhtred returns after an enemy in an allied camp has him seized and sold as a slave. After six months as a galley slave a la Charleton Heston in Ben Hur, Uhtred is broken in body and nearly in spirit.

The protagonist is the biblical Jonah after the whale vomits him out.

Herein lies the rub. One of the great joys of reading and watching fiction is seeing how a character changes over time. How do his experiences within the story change him? What does he learn? This mimics the normal growth of most people; I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago, due in part to my unique experiences as a worker, a husband, a parent, and as a writer. Good fiction compresses this universal process.

In The Last Kingdom, Uhtred goes through a horrific experience as a slave. Up to this point, the character of Uhtred is predictably immature and self-serving. By the time he returns, he has lost virtually all his dignity as a man and a nobleman, feels responsible for the death of a companion, and is nearly handed over to his ultimate enemies, the Danes. His recovery is slow and painful, physically and emotionally. He is the biblical Jonah after the whale vomits him out.

The experience poses fascinating questions, broad and narrow. What happens to your personality when abuse is routine and escape from captivity is out of reach? Will Uhtred understand how his womanizing hurts himself as well as the women he’s lost? Will he see that theft as a way of gaining wealth invites deadly retribution? How does this experience affect his view of life?

The answer: Not at all. A short time after his rescue from the slaver, Uhtred kills the man who orchestrated his betrayal. It’s a murder that shocks everyone, except Uhtred. Even if he hadn’t been sold into slavery, Uhtred might kill his enemy, because that’s what he does. It’s who he is. What’s more, he resumes his former life without offering the audience any reflections on his experience or more importantly, change in his behavior. No reference is made to the experience in succeeding episodes; Uhtred is the same warrior who fears nothing, chafes at his obligations, and acts almost entirely out of self-interest.

It’s hard to believe that a human being could go through six months of degradation without some damage that affects how he lives afterward. It’s a scenario for hopelessness, suggesting humans are forever trapped by their own prejudices and habits, and not even a daily brush with death can alter the course of a life. While one could argue this reflects real life, it makes for a disappointing narrative, because nothing emotionally substantive has changed after 11 episodes. A viewer could almost turn from liking Uhtred to not liking him, and perhaps abandoning him.

I have a few more episodes to go, and the producers could still redeem themselves with Uhtred showing that he is not the same man he was when he lost his family in the early episodes of season one. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure I’ll make the time to see how he fares in season three.

Netflix has yet to announce a season three for The Last Kingdom.

For me, 2017 will be the Year of the Contest

trophies

A few of my writing trophies, layers of dust and all.

I’ve been writing professionally for thirty years, and I’ve tended to see entering contests and competitions as a chore. I’m not sure why, except that I’ve never liked competing against other people, preferring to compete against myself. I like to push myself on and on, to see if I can beat my last personal best. That said, I enjoy winning and the recognition that comes with it. I’ve won a few prizes and have a small shelf of trophies from my journalism days.

2007 was the last year I took home a trophy from a writing competition, when I won a local award for my book on the history of the schooner Wawona. Sometime in the distant past, maybe during the 1980s, I believe I won a short fiction competition based in Oregon, but I can’t find the documentation. I may have imagined it.

I started taking fiction seriously around 2008, when I began work on Carbon Run. I focused almost exclusively on finishing the novel and the subsequent novels, City of Ice and Dreams, and Restoration. I completed the latter manuscript a few weeks ago, and I’ve been focused on writing short stories set in the Carbon Run world, with an eye toward publication in sci-fi magazines as a way to get some visibility, should the novels ever be published.

I enjoy winning and the recognition that comes with it.

In the course of research magazine markets, I ran across fiction contests, both literary and genre-based. In a couple of cases, one or two of my Carbon Run stories seem a perfect fit. Contests these days are much easier to enter. Before email, you had to send in several printed copies of contest entries, which cost time and money. I no longer had the excuse of calling contests a chore, when all you have to do is send an email or upload the entry to a website after filling in an online form.

With my lame excuse gone, I put together a spreadsheet of likely contests and competitions, especially focused on Carbon Run. Many contests are free or have a relatively low submission fee, between $10 and $30. As long as I maintain spending discipline, I should be able to enter one paid contest a month and as many free contests as I can find.

If I’m lucky, 2017 will be the Year of the Contest for me. I could earn recognition, a small cash prize or two, and most importantly, some street credibility in the speculative fiction and publishing community. Perhaps a win or two might help me push through the wall of indifference among literary agents, or the disinterest (so far; I still have a couple of manuscripts out) of presses, big and small. I’m crossing my fingers. I have nothing to lose.

Have you entered a contest recently? Tell me about it in the comments.

How to cope with criticism without losing your mind

Peanuts criticism cartoonGive someone half a chance, and he’ll criticize you for the smallest thing. People who read my manuscripts criticize the color of a character’s boots, or the choice of “a” over “the.” We give acres of screen space and paper to members of the chattering class who have nothing better to do than to point out our flaws. Critics can win a Pulitzer Prize, for Christ’s sake. Imagine this: Two Pulitzer winners standing on a stage, one the winner of the criticism award, who slammed the novel of the writer standing next to him, having just won the literature prize. Awkward!

The word “critic” implies finger-wagging in the popular culture. A more nuanced definition points out the critic’s role as an objective viewer who offers explanatory analysis. (Or he’s just a finger-wagger with a bigger vocabulary.) In the creative world, we have to put up with critics, and by the same token, reviewers. And in the literary world, criticism has become a pastime, rather than a vocation.

The new writer is especially vulnerable to critics. If the idea of someone criticizing your work terrifies you, here’s some ideas for coping.

It’s Never Personal. Well, almost never. I swear some of my reviewers were out to get me because I transposed two letters of their name or said they were 34 years old instead of 33. Lay off, already! Fortunately, the larger reality is comforting. The vast majority of people who pick nits don’t know you, and so the criticism can’t be personal. That’s especially true on Amazon and other online booksellers. Some critics just feel the need to speak their mind, no matter how empty it is. If you’re lucky enough to have friends and relatives who’ll give you honest feedback about your novel or poem without hurting your feelings, my hat’s off to you. On the other hand, you may have handed them the best passive-aggressive hate tool ever.

They’re Trying to Help. Most critics who offer positive suggestions are either loving friends and family or editors. An editor is a unique type of critic, in that he or she is paid to criticize you, and then must put up with whatever updated drek you send back to him or her for further criticism. I’ve had a few editors who had no idea what they wanted or what they were doing, and these people ought to be registered as instruments of torture.  It’s a joy to find a reader or an editor whose ideas actually improve a story or manuscript in substantive ways. Believe it or not, they’re out there.

Let It Roll Off Your Back. Like water off a duck’s feathers, that is. This is probably the hardest thing for new writers, or practically anyone who has to endure a review of some kind, to internalize. The trick is separating the facts and concrete suggestions from the emotionally charged packaging. We tend to focus on our own hurt feelings, even if the critic tries to let us down easy. For writers, it’s easy to withdraw after a bout of negative feedback. But then you’ll never build those emotional calluses that help us survive future onslaughts. Or you could just do what I do: Imagine that the critic wrote their review without their pants on. It’ll make your day.

How do you cope with criticism? Comment below.

Six rules for writing climate fiction

Stop sign in water

Climate fiction has a few rules to follow.

Writers, especially new writers, are on the lookout for rules that will guarantee, or at least enhance the potential for success in the artistic or commercial marketplace. If you’re interested in writing in the new genre of “climate fiction,” here’s a few boundaries that will help you understand your role as climate storyteller.

1. Climate change is the driving force behind the narrative. The impact of long-term change in the earth’s climate is the single most important factor distinguishing climate fiction from other genres. Put another way, the absence of long-term climate trends would render an otherwise well-constructed story meaningless or confusing. It’s important to remember the difference between weather and climate. Weather happens over a short period of time. Climate happens over a long period of time, e.g., decades or centuries. Stories that depend on a specific weather event, such as a tornado or hurricane, don’t qualify as climate fiction, unless the narrative makes clear that the weather event is closely tied to long-term climate change. For example, the story of Noah’s Ark is not climate fiction, because the Biblical Flood was a single, one-time, divinely caused disaster, not the result of long-term climate trends.

2. Understanding climate change within the story depends on science. Climate fiction is rooted in science fiction; some think of clifi as a sub-genre of scifi. As such, climate fiction works best when the change driving the narrative is based on established science, or at least speculation that stems from science. A writer could base a climate fiction novel or short on the scientific consensus, or on a minority viewpoint. But facts derived via the scientific method are key. A story that posits an impossible effect of climate change is not climate fiction. For example, the 2013 schlock motion picture Sharknado linked a weather event spawning flying sharks to climate change. This is patently impossible, and therefore Sharknado is not climate fiction. Continue reading

Working on a Short

Crab NebulaI’ve taken a small break from the novel to write a short. It’s called “Space Porn” (yep, all the spam filters are going to catch that one) and it’s about a teenaged boy who is more interested in deep space objects that pretty girls.

I’m also brushing up on my editing skills by reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King. I try not to buy too many writing books, but this was money well-spent. Very down to earth and practical. No theory to bog you down and the inevitable preachiness is kept in check.