Monthly Archives: September 2014


cityContinuing the series of posts on not-so-dark storytelling, I’m now going to deal with a subject that is the antithesis of darkness: optimism. A good story may include circumstances and events that are gruesome and appalling, challenges that seem insurmountable, and problems that cause the readers to shake their heads in grim certainty that they cannot be solved, but they are. Or most of them are. Or at any rate, things work out. Things get better. Good triumphs over evil, and They Live Happily Ever After.

I’ll divide the subject of optimism into two parts, as I did that of heroism, but I think they may both fit into a single post.

Optimism Is Realistic

Let’s start with an observation that, despite the proclamations of cynics, optimism is actually realistic. It’s borne out by the patterns of history and the flow of events up to now. Things haven’t gotten worse, nor have they remained intractably dire. Things have, for the most part, gotten better for most people over most of the world. Here is a partial list of major evils that either no longer happen, or happen rarely compared to the past.

Chattel slavery. There’s still a bit of slavery in the world, but for thousands of years, whole societies were founded on it, from the ancient Roman Empire to 18th and 19th century America. That’s gone. Sure, you’ll hear some people talk about wage slavery, but that’s a metaphor. Capitalism has few critics harsher than I am, but I’d much rather be a wage slave than a real slave.

Institutionalized racism and sexism. All right, we still have racism and sexism around, far too much of both, but in my childhood both of those were institutionalized in law and practice, from Jim Crow to laws against married women owning property to common practices in housing and employment. Most of that, and all of it on an overt level, is gone from the advanced world.

Great-power war. Yes, we still have wars. But they aren’t fought by great powers against each other, and that means the most destructive wars aren’t happening anymore. The last time that kind of thing was going on was 69 years ago (1945). The United States and the Soviet Union had a rivalry and military arms race from 1945 until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. The two powers never once fought an actual war against each other. During the Cold War, conventional wisdom was that it would end eventually in a hot war, because that’s how such rivalries always had ended in the past. It didn’t, and that was so unprecedented as to be miraculous. A combination of nuclear standoff and economic interdependence made great power war unthinkable, and it still does.

These three evils — slavery, institutionalized racism and sexism, and great-power war — are things that were once viewed as part of the human condition, impossible to eliminate. That belief was wrong. Today, fewer people die from violence as a fraction of total deaths than ever before. Famine and epidemic have both declined as well. The general trend is that things have gotten better, and barring a collapse of civilization, we have every reason to expect that they will continue to get better.

Take someone from 500 years in the past, pop him into a time machine to the year 2014, and his first impression on seeing the world of today would be that he had found Utopia. He’d change his mind about that on better acquaintance, one imagines, but he’d certainly conclude that things had improved dramatically. Jump in a time machine and travel 500 years from the future, and you or I would, almost certainly, draw a similar conclusion about the world of the future.

Pessimism is historically counter-factual. Optimism is justified by the facts, past and present.

Optimism Makes a Good Story

A story takes the reader on a journey of the spirit. Through the imagination and the power of the word, a reader faces dangers and challenges, learns and grows, tries, fails, and ultimately succeeds, and is transformed. Into what? Into whatever the story’s protagonists become, following the trajectory of the themes and messages incorporated into the writing.

The experience of reading a story in which things get better and problems are solved, with great difficulty and danger, is uplifting and makes the reader feel good at the end. The harder the problems, the more dreadful the dangers and challenges facing the protagonists, the more satisfying it is when it all works out in the end. The worse the protagonists’ moral and personal shortcomings, the greater the triumph when they are overcome.

Optimism makes for a good story, provided of course that the happy outcome isn’t easily achieved and the obstacles are great and challenging for the characters. The contrast between the depths of trouble and the ultimate triumph is what creates the emotional tension, the wild ride of the spirit, that gives the reader a memorable experience and a smile when the story is finished.

In fact, there’s really only one reason why a reader would be unsatisfied with such a tale, and that’s if the reader’s own cynicism makes it impossible to believe in good outcomes (or to suspend disbelief). If the reader is personally convinced by pessimism, despite the facts of history that tell us pessimism is unrealistic, then an optimistic story can seem like a promise that can’t be fulfilled, an attempt to deceive, to sell the reader a bill of goods.

But where does that leave the author? If there can be no uplifting, positive outcome to the struggle, if things can’t get better, if all hopes, dreams, and aspirations are false, then where is the emotional contrast, the journey from depth and darkness to the illuminated heights, that makes for a gripping tale? It’s not impossible to make this work, but it’s difficult, and in the end the achievement is less memorable and much less satisfying, in this reader’s opinion at least.



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Heroes Part II: The Journey

10034764_sThis posts continues my meandering musing on the subject of heroism and other hopeful topics, especially as it involves fantasy storytelling. Last post dealt with heroes that are not the main protagonists of a story, but supporting characters. I now turn to the other category of hero: those that are the main protagonists of the story.

The protagonist needs to be treated a little differently from the side-character. The protagonist isn’t a Champion, or if he is, then we see through the Champion’s aura of perfection from the beginning. The protagonist is someone we identify with. He or she is flawed, uncertain, and must over time and experience come either to develop the skills and powers needed to meet the story’s challenge, or to believe in himself, or to reform his character to become a hero.  Too perfect, too quickly, and we can’t identify with the protagonist or care about her. That change over the course of the story, in which the protagonist hero emerges into someone who can overcome obstacles and achieve goals, and we share in her growth as a hero and as a person, is the Journey. The Journey is the story, the character’s development and the plot weaving together like strands in a rope.

In the beginning, the protagonist isn’t up to the challenge that we soon learn he must face. One or more things is wrong or inadequate, and over the course of the Journey the problem is corrected, with the final change occurring in the course of meeting the climactic challenge and in its aftermath.

Weakness and Inexperience

The simplest way to chart the protagonist hero’s Journey is to make him weak, unschooled, unskilled, and hopelessly inadequate to defeat the Dark Lord, rule the kingdom, find the hidden magical treasure, rescue the captive princess, tame the flying horse, or whatever else the story’s quest may involve. The Journey, then, involves learning, development, and the acquisition of skills and powers. The protagonist is like Luke Skywalker, barely able to use the Force or wield a light-saber, hopelessly inadequate to face Darth Vader in combat; or like the boy Inigo Montoya, trying to fence with the six-fingered man after his father’s death and receiving scars on his cheeks for his trouble. This is the simplest form of Journey, in which the hero must learn, develop his skills, and face lesser challenges to build his confidence before he faces the big trial.

It’s also perhaps the least engaging and satisfying of the three, and is best used in combination with one or both of the others.

Lack of Confidence

A slightly more nuanced obstacle within the hero is when he doesn’t believe in himself. Raised in unexceptional circumstances, ignorant of her own potential, the hero sees herself as completely ordinary and everyday, a common peasant, an ordinary shop clerk, a simple college student. The main obstacle in the way of the hero accomplishing the great task and completing the Journey is that she doesn’t believe. The Journey, for such a hero, consists of trials that convince her, over time and through much struggle, that she is better, stronger, smarter, wiser than she thought, the right one to slay the enemy, rule the kingdom, or bring about peace in our time.

Moral Failure

The most complicated way to allow for the hero-protagonist to grow is to make him a jerk. There are, of course, a lot of ways to do this. Maybe instead of lack of confidence, he has too much, too soon. Maybe he’s arrogant. Maybe she’s a troubled teenager who pushes everyone away. Maybe he’s a dark wizard and must undergo a crisis of conscience and personal transformation. Maybe he’s a cruel, evil warrior and must confront personal loss to learn mercy. Maybe she has always used and abused others, and must face and overcome the reasons why when she becomes a mother.

Like the growth of skill and power or of self-confidence, a moral transformation is a part of the Journey. In making that transition, the hero-protagonist allows us to make it ourselves vicariously, and to explore what we would do if confronted with a similar task (which in a metaphorical sense we are).

The Sacrifice

In the course of the Journey, the hero must make sacrifices. He or she must give something up in order to secure victory or achieve the goal. Perhaps the hero must die. Perhaps he must accept that he’s not going to marry the woman he adores. Perhaps she must allow someone else to gain the throne or other position she desires. Perhaps she must lose a cherished possession, or even, most tragically of all, accept the death of another person that she loves.

In the course of the Journey, the hero becomes someone who can make this sacrifice, this painful choice in order to save the world (literally or figuratively).

 A Lesson For All of Us

Here’s the thing about the Journey, regardless of exactly how it’s constructed and what path the hero takes. It provides encouragement and inspiration for all of us reading the story, because while we aren’t all destined to defeat the Dark Lord, assume the throne, or solve the mystery of creation, we all have a Journey to make in our own lives, and something we would or should achieve, if we can overcome the obstacles that are in the way — external obstacles and, more importantly, internal ones.

And that’s the real value of the hero in fiction. He or she gives us a myth to live by, a model of who we can become and what we can aspire to be and achieve. To do that, the Journey must be two things: difficult and successful, the latter even if it’s also tragic. We should look at the hero as depicted in the story and feel a desire — not a selfish desire, but a higher ambition or purpose — to be like that, and to achieve something as fine, requiring as great an effort, and costing as dearly, as the hero does.

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Heroes Part I: The Champion

HeroA while back, I posted on the subject of dark fiction and expressed the hope that our collective obsession with it is coming to an end. One of the defining qualities of dark fiction is the absence of heroes. In a dark story, we find protagonists to identify with, and we care what happens to them if the story is told well, but we don’t admire them. All governments are corrupt, all religious authorities hypocritical, all warriors merciless killers, and at their best even basically decent people find themselves in situations where they have to act like monsters in order to survive or to protect those they care about. Or push comes to shove and all their values of honor and integrity and compassion go out the window in a storm of fury and rage. This is the lesson of the dark side: that under the skin, or when put to the test, we are all depraved horrors.

But of course, that’s not the only (or in my opinion, the best) type of story to tell, and while it expresses a partial truth, there are other truths to be told involving hope, compassion, and the achievement of something better than the ordinary. In a story like that, a special part is played by heroes: people we look up to and admire, people that save the day, people that sacrifice themselves for a greater good, and people who, by imitating their virtues, we use as springboards to make us better people.

A hero can be, but isn’t necessarily, a main protagonist. A protagonist hero has a little different dynamic in the story than one that is not a protagonist. The protagonist is a viewpoint character (whether the story is told in first or third person) and so the reader becomes intimately aware of his or her flaws, limits, and doubts. That doesn’t have to be the case with a non-protagonist (although there’s no particular reason it can’t be), and that means a non-protagonist hero can be (apparently, from the protagonist’s perspective) pure, fearless, invincible, and glorious. All of this means that the non-protagonist hero — let’s call him the Champion — calls for a little different treatment than the protagonist hero.

The Champion

A Champion is someone that the protagonist looks up to. He may be a great warrior, a powerful and wise magician, a cunning thief or spy, a noble and enlightened ruler, a spiritual teacher or leader, the protagonist’s parent or guardian, or really anyone in a position to help, support, advise, or protect the protagonist. During scenes when the protagonist and the Champion interact, the protagonist obtains important lessons on how to be a hero, on right action, and on virtues such as courage and self control. The Champion may also impart important practical skills — magic, use of the Force, how to sword fight, how to fly a space fighter, how to pick locks and scale walls — and serve as a fulcrum for the protagonist’s character development and setting  up the story’s main theme and conflicts.

Having this sort of figure in the story gives the protagonist a model to emulate and someone to believe in, but of course you don’t want the protagonist to be too secure and comfortable. It can’t be possible for the protagonist to rely on the Champion entirely; he must strive with his own efforts, suffer through his crises, and deal with the consequences of his decisions. There are several ways to accomplish this.

The Champion is gone when most needed. One device to put the protagonist on his own is to simply remove the Champion from the picture at a crucial juncture. Perhaps he’s called away for some vital task that takes precedence over helping the protagonist out. Perhaps he’s overcome by truly awful foes and killed or held prisoner. Perhaps the protagonist becomes annoyed with the Champion casting such a long shadow and strikes out on his own without telling anyone.

The foe is too much for the Champion alone. In this variant, the Champion doesn’t really disappear, but the enemy is so powerful or the challenge so great that it’s beyond even the Champion’s awe-inspiring abilities. Unless the protagonist steps up to the plate and applies crucial skills and insights and courage at the right moment, all is lost.

The Champion doesn’t believe the protagonist’s warning. Another way to remove the Champion’s protection is to give him a stubborn streak, a flaw in his character that keeps him from taking the protagonist seriously. The protagonist knows that something is amiss, but the Champion refuses to believe it, and so the protagonist must face the problem without the Champion’s protection and guidance, either because it must be faced now and there is no one around to do it, or because the protagonist wants to prove to the Champion that he’s someone to take seriously.

The Champion becomes the antagonist. A third, somewhat darker way to remove the Champion is to turn him into an antagonist. This can happen by many different roads. Perhaps the Champion was always corrupt, and the protagonist comes to see this over time and turns against him. Perhaps the problem is higher up, in persons or institutions to whom the Champion has pledged loyalty, and when the protagonist struggles against those persons or institutions the Champion sees the protagonist as a traitor. Perhaps the Champion was grooming the protagonist for some sinister purpose, and the protagonist figures this out. Perhaps the Champion began sincerely, but the habit of power and honor has turned him callous and arrogant.

Whether the Champion becomes the antagonist or just isn’t there when needed, the protagonist has to face the main challenge of the story without that protection and help — maybe even up against it.

A fine line needs to be drawn here, because before that happens the protagonist must learn enough from the Champion, from companions, and from facing lesser challenges that he will be up to the challenge of facing the big threat alone. In all cases, though, the Champion presents for the reader an image of what a hero should be and what we should all strive to become. Even when the Champion turns out to be flawed or becomes an enemy, that very flaw illustrates the ideal, as something the Champion fell short of, requiring the protagonist to do better.

Copyright: Prometeus / 123RF Stock Photo

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Book Review: Quest For the Simurgh by Marva Dasef (Faizah’s Destiny Book One)

QuestSimurghGenre: Young Adult Fantasy (Other World)

Blurb: The village magician, Wafai, has gone missing. His star pupil Faizah thinks he has left a clue for her on a page of the Magicalis Bestialis. With the page open and marked with an X, she believes Wafai is telling them to seek out the Simurgh, the mythical birds who possess all the knowledge of the universe. She convinces her three classmates that they must seek the help of the Simurgh to find their teacher.

She leads the boys on a difficult journey into the mountains in search of the elusive birds. A strange little man becomes their guide. However, they do not know he is a spirit leading them toward a battle between good and evil. Spirits, gods, and demons confront the four friends, who are being set up by the otherworldly forces for a much larger task than finding their teacher. The students were chosen to take sides in the battle which might spell the end of the world: a battle between the demons and the spirits.


Disclaimer: As with most of the books I review, I know the author somewhat on social media.

Quest For the Simurgh is the first volume of Marva Dasef’s YA fantasy series Faizah’s Destiny, in which we are introduced to Faizah and other characters. Faizah is a plucky, spunky heroine introducing a bit of feminist precociousness into a primitive world where it’s not particularly welcome, a not uncommon element in YA fantasy. She’s the daughter of a family that eventually intends to marry her off to someone boring, but in this story she breaks her family ties almost inadvertently and without actually recognizing the deed.

The goal of finding the mysterious Simurgh arises when Faizah and her friend discover their teacher’s disordered house and evidence of his abduction, and an apparent note in one of his books that they interpret as a message from him to seek the Simurgh in order to find the missing Wafai. The kids fall for it, despite holes in their reasoning one could drive a camel caravan through, and a series of arrangements and manipulations follows that lets each of the four escape their families and embark on the quest.

They’re being manipulated themselves, though, and end up caught in a struggle between War and Peace (not exactly Good and Evil as the blurb suggests, but close enough), with the gods maneuvering them into taking sides. The original problems are ultimately resolved, but not before the protagonists wind their way through the divine squaring off.

This book is quite well written, and the quality of the writing drew me in immediately. The characters are also nicely drawn, particularly Faizah herself, who is engaging and easy to identify with. On the basis of superior characterization and writing, Quest For the Simurgh merits four stars.

The one area where I felt it could use improvement is in the plot and story line, which was a bit difficult to follow at times and on occasion broke immersion for me. The protagonists were led on a snipe hunt, essentially, with the gods and the guide they encountered on the road leading them in a completely different direction than they originally intended. That’s not a problem in itself, but there were occasions when any character as intelligent as Faizah should have stopped to say, “Wait a minute. Why are we going this way? We should be going that way instead. What are you up to?” I felt this could have been better constructed so as to give the journey greater verisimilitude and make the fast one pulled by the gods and spirits a bit more believable.

Aside from that, this is a good read for young readers, and the stage is set for sequels, which apparently are in the works. I’ll add that the technical quality is quite high. The book is well edited, the cover is nice, and the blurb succinct and catching. Always nice to see an indie author who does that sort of thing right.

Quest For the Simurgh is available for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle Store and also available in print for $6.99.

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