Category Archives: Philosophy of Fiction

Grimm: Season 2

Well, Grimm season two has started that that means that I get to write about the show again. Besides being a fun 45 minutes  per episode of adventure and fighting, there are at least three major good reasons Grimm is a good show.

The show manages the almost impossible distinction between morally complicated good guy/ bad guy dichotomy and the morally ambiguous version of the same thing. Basically, any story can have one of three categories of characters; sometimes it can have some of each too. The first category is the morally straightforward characters, whether good or evil. Iago is morally unambiguous and evil, and also very realistic, Captain America from the recent Avengers is unambiguously good. The second category is the morally ambiguous character. This character is ambiguous not because you do not understand his motivations but the character is ambiguous because the writer/director has swallowed the whole fishing apparatus of moral relativism and does not even realize it. I am a little rust on characters like this, since moral relativistic movies tend to be almost unbearable to watch, but whenever the film or book wants you to ‘understand’ the evil rather than condemn it, it falls into this category. However, Grimm falls into neither of these categories. It rather falls into what I would call the ‘real world’ category. Since the reader can be kept unknowledgeable about enough of what is really going on to make it difficult to tell if a character is trying to do something good or bad, that makes it messy, complicated, and realistic.

About the main character, Detective Burkhardt, we know his motivations and his methods, and he is clearly trying to do good. About the mysterious rulers of the Wesen world we know that they are trying to rule everything to their own evil pleasures. However, about the police captain, we simply do not know. We know he is working against the ‘bad guys’ but we also know his methods seem to indicate him as another bad guy. This messiness also extends to the Grimms who can see and fight the Wesen. Some of them (apparently, we only meet a few) hunt Wesen almost for sport, whether or not they are evil. So, full marks to Grimm for making a complicated messy, but not morally relativistic world.

Another impressive quality of Grimm that it avoids much of the repetitiveness that many TV shows have. For instance, Monk’s murder investigations become wrote and tedious. But for Grimm, which frequently introduces yet another Wesen every episode, it does not get tedious. I credit this to its adherence to the feeling of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and to the fact that the seasons have more than incidental season long plots. I don’t think I can really emphasize enough that in Grimm, we find the real psychological message of fairy tales. As Chesterton says: “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Also strong in Grimm is the soul of this other quote from Chesterton: (The Dragon’s Grandmother, in Tremendous Trifles h/t Jotter Notes)

“Can you not see,” I said, “that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is — what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is — what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

With that I leave you with a recommendation to watch Grimm: good times, good plots, and a sane man in a world gone mad.

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The One Rule that Rules them All

There is one rule of writing fiction that is the key rule, the Pendragon of rules. I will illustrate it with the genre of Historical Fiction, the easiest genre in which to find this rule broken. There are many shades and subtleties that refract from the rule, but it boils down this: Do not lie to your reader! The positive form is equally important: Tell your reader the truth! (Which, of course, is not quite the same thing.)

Taking the example of historical fiction, and the excellent negative example of The Da Vinci Code we start. The Da Vinci Code is perhaps the most egregious example of a filthy, lying, novel. (It piles on the fables another layer of deceit with mostly fraudulent footnotes too, but that is another topic entirely.) Let us consider one major thesis of the ‘history’ that Dan Brown tells his reader.

Remember, the goal of writing a good novel is to never lie to your reader (and to tell the truth). That means especially for historical fiction that the historical narratives and the events around your fictional events are accurate to history. This also means that when building up your knowledge of history you follow the gold standard of believable sources. This is, briefly, that primary sources trump secondary sources which indeed trump tertiary sources, and anything beyond that deserves to be laughed at as a source. Also, sources whose potential bias is known are more valuable than sources of unknown biases. Lastly, when hostile sources and friendly sources agree, and they are both primary in nature, you can be fairly confident that this is the historical truth.

Returning to Dan Brown, therefore, we investigate his claims that, for instance, the council of Nicaea only excluded the gnostic ‘gospels’ because they undermined the churches authority etc. as well as the related claim that these gnostic ‘gospels’ are of equal or greater value in determining the events of Jesus of Nazareth’s life.  I put these assertions together because they fall to the same criticism. The Council of Nicaea on AD 325 knew quite well what historical scholars know today, that the gnostic ‘gospels’ were written later by at least 100 years than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and were written by people who could never have even met of known Jesus, nor even known people who know him. (Which would constitute a secondary source.) This information means that for all intents and purposes, either Dan Brown did no research, or he lied to his audience, breaking this rule.

(On an interesting side note, he also got the teaching of Gnosticism wrong. Orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Messiah, and that His nature is true God and true man, together.  There are, and were for most of the Church’s history, heresies that taught that Jesus was only a man, which is what Dan Brown claims the Gnostic gospels prove. However the alternate heresy, that Jesus appeared as a man but His essence was only that of God, is actually what Gnostics believed.)

So ultimately, this means that authors must write about what they know, or research and come to know what they wish to write about. If the author wishes a character to go crazy, he needs to know in decent detail, about craziness. The flip side of the coin, the one that tells the author to tell the truth, I describe to some extent in ‘The Right Story told True’ and will likely revisit again as it interests me.

The Harloth-tìrath: and Other Rules of Fantasy

In view of the upcoming third annual novel contest at ACM, I figured I would start a ‘rules for genres’ theme. These things are those things that I find distract the reader and are hallmarks of poor writing. I don’t know how many potential applicants might read this blog, and this post and upcoming posts. However, I will remind those reading that I am a judge for this competition and a mentor for several finalists each year. (Finalists in the competition have a few months to work with an assigned judge to rework their manuscript. Us mentors do not read for grammar, but try to help the author eschew distractions, tighten the story, and make it even more interesting.) And of course, many authors in the library fantasy section are blatant violators of these rules…

Without more introduction, I will plunge right into this post’s topic: Rules for Fantasy. Of course the rules are ‘more like guidelines’ but the higher the number of broken rules and the more egregiously they are flaunted the more likely the book (that you are reading or writing) is not worth the time.  Fiction in general has rules like: Don’t treat your reader like an idiot, they can remember things from page to page. Follow the rules you make. Characters must be true to the personality you gave them, if they change there must be a reason. (Having characters acting or talking out of character is a terrible jolt for the reader.) etc.

Here are three rules for good fantasy: (For instance: The Eyes of the Dragon)

1. No Elves (Or dwarves, or shadow/fire demons …)

In general, as soon as elves appear, the story becomes transparent. Inserting mythical beasts, alternate races of sentient beings, this all has either the campy feel of fan-fiction or the plagiaristic feel of… plagiarism. In general, stories with elves use them to distract from the gaping inanity of the plot or boring meagerness of the characters.

This rule applies even to those stories that do not explicitly have elves. If there is a set of people, or a race of people, who have elvish characteristics, it has almost the same effect. For example, Orson Scott Card (who has some really good works) has a series about Alvin Maker which start with the book Seventh Son. The first book or two are good, but then, all of a sudden, it turns out that the Indian tribes are actually very, very, elf like (in tune with nature, special woodland related powers, odd and profound wisdom… everything except pointy ears.) At that exact moment, the books begin to spiral down and down into ever more vapid displays of cliché.  (And I usually like O.S.C.)

So, in summary, Tolkien used elves because he was brilliant. Everyone else who does so, seems to do it because they lack an imagination of their own. Until such a time when I read a novel (other than Tolkein) with both elves and originality, I will believe this the immutable first rule of fantasy.

2. No invented languages

Unless the author is a philologist, brilliant, and Tolkien, invented languages are just nuisance and pretentions. Tolkien actually invented languages with strict and realistic grammar based off of the ancient languages he was master of like old Norse, old Welsh etc. etc. When reading any other book that has an invented language, it is distracting and unconvincing. It is very like the author thought, ‘well gee… what should I call this? I know… I will call it the klåkkakûla. (K’s are for dwarvish… it’s a convention of bad fantasy.) The same thing in elvish is harloth-tìrath, and in the ancient language of Man: ombundium, and in orcish: zkartzik…. English? you ask. In English it means ‘boring’.

3. Last rule for now. You cannot give straight off, modern sensibilities to characters in a fantasy world. This rule is even more important for historical fiction, and dystopian fiction. However, in fantasy, it would be generally jarring to meet a sexually liberated communist feminist in a world of swords and patriarchy. Basically, your setting has to feel self-consistent, and if you put your characters into a historical-like setting, the people need to be believable too. This does not mean that the women in your story have to be non-entities, or in the metaphorical kitchen. (Witness Eowyn, and back further, Britomart, and even further to Antigone.) Just let your characters speak in a ‘real’ fashion, without the idioms and platitudes of modern speech.

Now, of course these rules can be broken. And if anyone reading this wants to submit a story that breaks one or two of these rules or whatever, of course that is fine. Just remember that you cannot break these rules in lieu of plot, interesting characters, originality, and conflict.  For those who do submit a novel, semifinalists get good solid feedback, and finalists get rigorous feedback, and winners… well they win.

Update: A negative example just occurred to me. The horribly plagiarist and predictable Eregon books are violators of every rule here, and then some. If you want to know what garbage looks like when transmuted into fiction, they are a prime example.

SciFi and Demographics (Science)

I have been reading Shadow of the Hegemon recently. (Another library book sale buy.) It has reminded me of a very important rule for writing science fiction that seems often overlooked. This relates back to the idea that fiction should be ‘true’ in many ways like human nature, personalities, how nations respond to things, the causes of war etc. Everything having to do with human nature can be known from a study of history, which leads to books in which people behave convincingly as do countries, armies, leaders etc.

Obviously, Orson Scott Card does not make the amateur mistake of breaking the actual first rule ‘Obey your own rules: make your universe self-consistent’. In Shadow of the Hegemon, however, he does break another rule. (For the Julian Delphiki lovers, this is no indictment of the characters in the story J ) The rule Card breaks is this: ‘If you base your story in the real world, it should be… well… believable. Shadow is sometime in the near-ish future… maybe 100-200 years I guess. Every major country today is still extant in the story, there are no new made up ones… etc. So, when predicting major kinds of conflict likely to be stirred up by Achilles (the villain) and deciding upon which countries will be powerful, the author should at least glance at demographic trends and take that into consideration. Otherwise, one ends up creating a book with a surreal feel where Russia ends up splitting world hegemony with China.

See, the birth rate now matters to the world stage 150 years from now. China and Russia at about 1.5 children/woman leave shrinking and aging populations which are only about 50 years away for China, and I believe already occurring for Russia. To add to the problem, China at least has a deficit of women due to sex-selective abortion and the one child policy.

To forecast into the future is always too simplistic. However, considering that not one nation that has tried to raise its birth rate has yet succeeded, and that virtually every major incident imaginable (Civil war, famine, plague, War war… etc) decreases population faster, it is not unreasonable to guess that every nation with a birth rate under 2.0 (2.1 or so is the ‘replacement rate’) is going to undergo either extinction (breaking up into smaller states, getting absorbed by a larger one, or something of the kind) or massive national instability as immigrants take a large percent of the population. This last effect is only mitigated in America where almost everyone is an immigrant population. (And America’s birth rate is one of the few ‘stable’ ones, right around 2.1)  But in Germany, the German identity is ethnic as well as geographic, the same with Russia, Italy, China… etc. I think it is more unreasonable to assume that China and Russia will have power and influence in 2150 like they do now, than to assume that they will either be non-existent as we know them or preoccupied.

Basically, with trends like this, it seems very strange to set the world up to be dominated by two people groups who basically refuse to repopulate themselves. So this comes back to the most important rule of fiction: your story must tell the truth. This takes different forms in different genres, but the key stays the same. Every major element must ring true with the real world to feel true in the story.

All that said, Shadow of the Hegemon has been fun. However, I have not thought that any of Card’s books set in that universe even begin to compare the first Ender’s Game. Also, for a thorough treatment of demographics and how they affect nations, look at ‘How Civilizations Die: And Why Islam is Dying Too’ by David P. Goldman and ‘America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It’ by Mark Steyn. They mostly deal with the demographics of the Islamic World and the Western World, but the ideas and trends apply elsewhere.

The Superman

Take a good look at this man:

This is my model for discussing the superhero. As I have mentioned in passing, I believe that Superman and his ilk actually represent neither the Christian nor democratic* idea of a hero. Let us consider Superman’s traits: strength, x-ray vision, ability to fly etc. all due what amount to be genetic superiority. He is the last of a super race of people from a planet called Krypton. Now, while he uses his powers for ‘Truth, Justice, and the American way’ the mentality of his creators, of his archetype, and also that of Superman/Clark Kent himself is distinctly Nietzschean.

Nietzsche taught ideas like the will to power, that actions are justified by the power of the one committing them. However, the most obvious connection is the Übermensch (Superman). This is the man whose will, whose power is so much above all others that he has the natural right to rule mankind. Well, I really do not intend to discuss Nietzsche more. Suffice it to point out that the combination of Nietzsche and Darwin was horrifying and terrifying in Hitler.

However, Superman, and all other superhero’s of this category, fall easily into the category with Achilles, Siegfried, Aeneas and every pagan hero of legend, and many modern superheros. These characters are strong and powerful by nature of their birth, their parentage, and being ultra-powerful, they are exempt from the moral codes of the normal people around them. Sure Superman fights off villains of super (if odd) villainy, but he also: lies, stalks Lois Lane, turns back time for his own reasons and so forth. These are little compared to what Achilles got away with, but it proves the point that the two fall into the same category.

So, what is the Christian hero like? Well, keeping with comic books so as to limit doctrinal discussion, let us look at Batman.

Ok, now that we have looked at Batman, the us consider his traits. He is human, flawed and does many things wrong. This is a key difference already with Superman. When Superman acts it is assumed to be the right thing, when Batman acts we hold him to human standards. (Which standards we should hold Superman too as well.)  He gets his ‘power’ through determination, training, and his dad’s money. No matter how good of a thing he has done, he avoids the accolades that would come his way. In the most recent movies, (thanks to Christopher Nolen, batman is awesome) Batman is an individual trying to do the right thing. He is an individual with an inordinate amount of training and vast amounts of money, but he acts in such a way as to do the role that he can do, the sacrificial role. In The Dark Knight, while Batman is the one who wins the physical battle against the Joker, Gotham (and specifically Gotham’s criminals) win the moral battle.

So, Superman is a good model of the pagan superhero, and Batman (at least in his recent incarnation) embodies fairly well the Christian hero. As for the others, of course they may fit one place or the other. I have compiled a list that I think might help categorize the heroes of any story into one of these two categories. (Or at least to find which category is the best fit)

 Pagan/ Nietzschean/elitist:

  • Has powers, or abilities based solely on pedigree (genetics)
  • Is less responsible to moral judgment in relation to the increase of his power
  • Disrespect of ‘normal’ people (disregard of laws etc)
  • Whether or not he does the right thing, there is little personal cost
  • Not expected to sacrifice much or anything

Christian/democratic:

  • Has power based on determination and hard work
  • Is held (by author, by readers/ audience) to the same moral standard of everyone else real or fictional
  • Respect for and camaraderie with, eminently average people
  • Does the right thing regardless and in spite of personal cost
  • Sacrifices himself, his goals, his reputation, and his life (in increasing order)

(* For the connection between Christianity and democracy… read some G. K. Chesterton…)

Reality in Fiction

No, this is not a contradiction in terms; not in the slightest. I suppose the root questions are, of course, the difficult ones: ‘what is fiction’ and even harder, ‘what is reality’. The former I believe is answerable, the latter, is something that fiction should try to answer. Starting with the basics, fiction is an art form consisting of a written story that either some parts or all parts are imaginary. The purpose of fiction, like any art (see To Understand Art) is to show some aspect of Truth, e.g. reality.

A good work of fiction does not have to try and show all of reality, and answer that exceptionally difficult question ‘what is reality’. Fiction should show the reader some aspect of reality, a facet of the Truth. Like the X-files says, ‘The Truth is out there.’ It is a hallmark of good fiction that it portrays some part of the truth accurately. (See ‘The Right Story Told True‘) Any fiction that succeeds is worth reading.

There, that statement is probably a bit strong for most people. But the fact is that seeing different parts of the truth helps people to see the whole Truth better. For example, if a reader only reads those things that make him comfortable he will never see the discomfort in the world. If this reader also only is exposed to politically correct history he will never find out that in almost every case mankind is terrible and vile. Even ignoring the most devilishly atrocious century in human history (that would be the 20th by the way, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, are the big three.) History is full of evil people committing horrible crimes such as cannibalism, rape, infanticide and so forth. These examples are horrible, in real life as well as in novels, but that does not make them less true. In reality though, people are evil, people have done so many abjectly horrible things that the fact of human nature should not be ignored in fiction. In many ways, the actual atrocities committed by people and governments are so many and so horrible that even the worst fiction is frequently an underplaying of the reality. This is understandable, and even necessary. However, any novel that pretends that people are not bad is lying.

So, the truth can and should be told through fiction. These antagonists and protagonists in the story should be the kind of people they really were in history. The characters should be true to their personalities. The people should talk like people really talk, and the book must follow the rules set out for its world.

The Right Story Told True

There are several different categories of reader; one of these eschews fiction entirely, while the other reads things that are unworthy of being called Fiction. To both these cases, and the unconvinced readers who fall into no category, I attempt to give an apology for the style, for the essence of what fiction ought to be, and how it ought to be judged.

Having been homeschooled through all of high school, I was friends and acquaintances with many different kind of Christian. I discovered a long time ago, that there is a large category of Christian who spurns fiction, some brands only read non-fiction and the Bible, others read only the Bible. Oddly enough, the same type of person exists outside the fundamentalist Christian group. I was a gardener (something that I loved and hated) for a strange old liberal feminist woman in town. When she left town, I had worked for her for four years, and I helped her move. She somewhat superiorly informed me that she only read biographies. The other type of reader is the sort that reads a book for the same reason that they watch a pathetically bad TV show, or go see a movie they know is terrible: they are bored.

To both these types, first those who consider fiction to be ‘all lies’ whether Christian or Atheist, and the second who consider fiction to be a nearly valueless diversion, I hope to provide a case for reading fiction seriously. To make this case, I want to describe the best of what fiction can be: ‘The Right Story Told True’. There are two aspects to a fiction story, whether it is the right story or the wrong story, and whether it is told true or whether it is told false.  Obviously there are four possible stories: The right story told true, the right story told false, the wrong story told true, and the wrong story told false.

The Right Story Told True is an archetype, something against which success is measured, not by its conformity to the goal, but by its nearness to it. Human endeavors are to be judged like horseshoes, the nearer the goal, the better.

The right story on the surface means that the story deals with the right things, those things that all humankind deals with: something that is what people care about. It extends all the way to being a story that calls to people, that shows something beautiful or at least true about the world and the people in it. For instance the right story about Batman is the one where great and heroic sacrifices are made for uncertain results like in ‘The Dark Knight’. The wrong story would be about how Batman stopped crime by buying out the crime bosses, and running the underworld himself.

The story also has to be told true. For instance, V for Vendetta is the right story (a story about courage in the face of systematic oppression, of an idea that is stronger than any man, that people should be held responsible etc.) However, and this is a very big however, the story is told falsely. The villains are certainly villainous, but they are the wrong villains. Wrong because every single tyrannical government that exterminated its own people has been atheistic and communist. This is a fact of modern history. But the facts and the truth is hard, and the lies look really good when the story is right. This extends to the more subtle implications of the plot and even to whether the characters act and think in ways that are true to their characters.

In conclusion, I hope to steer anyone who reads these reviews to those stories that are right and true, and in doing so, perhaps convince those categories of people who avoid or denigrate fiction that, although certainly some of it is garbage, that is an indictment of the author, not the art form. I believe that when reading a story that is right and told true, it is like listening to the loveliest song, and I want other to hear it as well.