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Raymond E. Feist Talks


Occasionally I am going to indulge myself in holding forth on one topic or another, some having to do with the craft of writing, others just opinions on Life, the Universe, and Everything Else.



On The Subject of Politics and Characters . . . .

Long Overdue.

So I told John I'd post something here from time to time, and as life has a habit of doing, it went by. Three years?

Anyway, I promise I'll be a little more timely from now on.

As I write this we're facing an election in the US, and at the moment, it looks to be an interesting one. Can the Democrats actually get a nomination without eating their young in the process and can the survivor beat the Republican nominee, John McCain?

American politics is unique in many respects, and for those reading this that want more insight, there are hundreds of good books on the subject, having been written since, well, since about 1789 when the Constitution of the United States was adopted. So I won't bother to turn this into a clinic on "how it gets done," but rather I'll speak to "why would anyone want the job?"


The answer is power. Some observes have opined that there is no more exclusive and power deliberating body on the planet than the U.S. Senate. Fifty men and women who belong to the world's most exclusive club. They get instant tenure, as each term of office is six years. And the terms are staggered so that at any one time, only one third the senators are running for re-election. The House of Representatives, by contrast, stands for re-election every two years, so those boys and girls are constantly looking over their collective shoulders. Five minutes after taking the current oath of office, they're out looking for contributions for their next re-election campaign.

The President of the United States is considered the single most powerful individual in the world. Even if not that, he's probably the most influential. Given recent occupants of the Oval Office, that is not entirely reassuring. However, there are enough checks and balances in our system that we somehow manage to keep from being totally destroyed by ourselves, though we are willing to learn!

So, looking at the American political landscape you can start thinking that only crazy people run for office, and you might be right, but some are crazy in a pretty pro-social way. We've had bona fide millionaires seek public service, like Nelson Rockefeller and John F. Kennedy, simply because they felt the need to give back.

Which brings me to the question of leadership in fantasy.

Leaders often get short shrift in fantasy, unless they are the stars of the story. They can either be "noble sad king," "out of his element king," or "heroic king" or any other number of cardboard clichés.

My first question as a writer is, "Why does he/she want the job?"

Now, when you're born to it, often the question never gets asked, because the subject of the conversation feels as if there's no choice in the matter. Arutha felt duty thrust upon him as a birthright, and never for once questioned it. He was a complex man, but he approached that one key question without thought. He just did it.

His half-brother Martin, on the other hand, agonized about it at the end of Magician. "Why not Martin?" he asked, as the eldest son. But being his father's son he weighed his own desires versus what was best for the Kingdom that his father loved. In the end he made what he saw as the right choice.

Guy du Bas-Tyra, one of my favorite "villains" was a man who simply was driven by vanity, really, but it was vanity grounded in reality, he was a brilliant general and a talented leader. His ambition wasn't personal as much as he didn't see anyone else around who would be better at the job of King. He and Kaspar of Olasko had a lot in common, though Kaspar was certainly a great deal more ambitious.

When writing leaders one must always start with that question, in my opinion. It's a question that will become more critical as I near the end of The Riftwar Cycle.

Copyright Raymond E. Feist 2008
No reproduction without permission


A writer is constantly faced with a variety of tasks, but one of the most difficult is to look at a character and ask, "Why in hell would he do such a damn fool thing" 

I've written before that one of the problems with evil is that it is, by any reasonable definition, quite mad, and that logic needn't apply. However, you can't break a story down into people who are sane and people who are mad and stay convincing. 

Because one man's madness is another's passion. 

Which brings us to the question of addictions. Additive behavior is just one step over the line from habituated behavior, in my non-scientific opinion. Habits may be difficult to break, but they can be, while addictions are a bitch. I know because I was a smoker from 1964 to 1981. Three packs a day at my worst. 

And I tend to habituation. Most particularly to fine wine, watching football [gridiron for those of you Across the Pond or DownUnder], enduring really old cheesy sword-and-sandal flicks, enjoying as much time as possible with really beautiful young women, and gambling. I don't include spending time with my kids, because that's not a habit, but a privilege. They grow up way too fast and I know they're going to be out on their own all too soon. 

All these habits have one thing in common, a quality that I'll call "peak emotional moments." There are times, for example, when a glass of wine can stun you with unexpected rewards, just as a highly touted wine can disappoint if it's past it's prime or has been stored improperly. Any fan of a professional football team knows the ups and downs, the emotional roller coaster, of watching they succeed or fail. Really bad films can provide unintended hilarity, odd pathos, and occasionally a rare insight into what a storyteller was trying to do as he missed the mark. And entire libraries have been devoted to experiences with beautiful women, approximately half of Western Literature is my rough guess. And the "rush" or "tilt" of gambling has likewise been well documented. 

At what point does habit become addiction I think we can safely assume for this discussion that it's the point where you can't walk away. Denial is a hallmark of the addictive personality, whether it's drugs, alcohol, sex, relationships, shopping, eating, or, I guess, clog dancing. "I can quit whenever I want to; I just don't want to," is a clarion of denial. 

So what's all this got to do with writing 

This is one of "Ray's Axioms," close to Number One (someday I'll put them in an order), and certainly top ten: 

It doesn't matter if what your character does makes sense to the reader, as long as it makes sense to the character. 

What's that mean 

If you haven't seen the wonderful film, The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges' brilliant western retelling of Akira Kurosawa's brilliant Shichinin no Samurai, go out and watch it right now. I'll wait. 

OK, now that you've seen it, remember the scene where Calvera (Eli Wallach) has the drop on Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) and says, "If God had not wanted them sheared, why did he make them sheep," and asks why the Americanos have come to this little town. Vin answers. 

I'll paraphrase, as I can't quote the entire scene, but what he says goes roughly like this: 

There was this time in Texas when I was ridding along and found this fellow lying naked in a bed of cactus. I asked him, "Friend, how'd you get into this state" He looked at me and said, "Well, I was just ridding along and saw this bed of cactus so I just took off my clothes and jumped right in." So I asked him, "Why'd you do that" and he answered, "I don't rightly know, but it seemed like a good idea at the time." 

And there you have it: it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

You character can be the smartest woman in the world, but you can have her be dumber than dirt if what she does at that moment seems like a good idea at the time. Now do you see where addiction starts to play She thinks it's a good idea to go out and be seriously stupid because she's so in love with a bad man she'll do anything in the world to keep him. Or the world's smartest man has to knock over that bank so he can hit the card tables one more time and win back the company pension fund he looted the week before. 

In other words, you have to have compelling reasons for your characters to act, else the reader/viewer will have none of it, and if they don't get what motivates your characters, you'll lose them. 

Really smart people can do really dumb things when they refuse to consider unexpected consequences. "I didn't mean for it to turn out this way," is often a line used in TV cop shows where the otherwise solid citizen is admitting that a little larceny turned into a mass murder because he/she didn't consider one thing or another. 

So what's the common cold got to do with this 

I don't know about you, but when I get sick, I just don't give a spit about much any more. I lie in my bed of pain and just don't care about anything. I was involved in a very messy emotional wrangle with one of the afore mentioned beautiful young ladies over a year ago when I got pneumonia and within two days, she could have caught fire and I didn't care. If you see where this is going, feel free to stop reading. 

A character who has no concern for consequences is the flip side of the addictive personality. Let's talk about the classic revenge rift, the person who "has nothing to lose." Marvel Comic's Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher is an iconic version of that character. His family gets blown away at a picnic and from that point on he starts killing every criminal in the time zone. He's a nifty character because he's not about revenge, though that's his starting point, or about justice. He's about punishment. And he has nothing to lose, because he's already lost everything he holds dear. 

The character with no clear cut motive is as difficult for the reader/viewer as the character who makes dumb choices for no apparent reason, until you demonstrate the character is acting with purpose. The reader/viewer will accept the character has purpose even if you don't explain what it is. You can read a lot of Punisher comics before you discover the backstory of why ol' Frank is blowing away bad guys right, left, and center. 

All characters must have a reason for what they do, even if that reason isn't obvious at first, or doesn't make sense in a first-hand experience way to the reader or viewer. At some point if you have your character doing really strange things, ala Kill Bill: Part I, you better hit at purpose, and as we saw in Kill Bill: Part II, you better deliver on what that purpose is. It might not be my first choice or yours as to what the action is, but you need to make it make sense within an understandable context. 

"He was just a poor lad abandoned by his parents who had to constantly struggle to survive," is a great back story to tell the tale of a successful industrialist, or a mass murderer, or a crime boss, or a saintly priest. It doesn't have to be something the reader or viewer experienced, but something they get. 

Else your character is lying naked in a bed of cactus and knew it was a bad idea before he jumped.

Copyright Raymond E Feist 2005
No reproduction without permission

On Principle, Morality, Ex-Girlfriends, Kids, and Villains.

Occasionally I am going to indulge myself in holding forth on one topic or another, some having to do with the craft of writing, others just opinions on Life, the Universe, and Everything Else.

This, my first essay for John's web site, is something floating around between the craft of writing and Life It's Own Self. 

Life It's Own Self:

Somewhere in the dawn of time, humans realized certain facts beyond tribal necessity, one of which was, given a choice, getting along with the next tribe was often a better choice than killing them all off and taking their stuff. If they were adept at making stuff you couldn't make, their stuff was valuable (because it was scarce to your tribe), but if you obliterated them, you also lost the source of that stuff. So, you traded some of your stuff for their stuff. So enlightened self-interest was born.

You know what comes next. Romeo and Juliet: a boy from the sheep herding tribe falls for a girl from the fisher folks, and that gives birth to in-laws. Which may explain more than anything else I can think of why people give up on treaties and go to war.

But somewhere along the way someone decides that there are some general principles coming out of all of this that benefit the tribe (and coincidentally, every other tribe) and from that comes all manner of interesting stuff, religion, ethics, morality, and the Boy Scout Oath.

I'm dealing with some issues of personal behavior as I write this. On one hand I'm dealing with the fall out of the recently ex-girlfriend's decision to become an "ex," and while this is hardly a unique experience in my life (counting ex-wife along with girlfriends, must be somewhere over two dozen times in 50+ years), it's the manner in which the deed was done that has caused some issues. On the other hand, I'm trying to teach two children how to be principled, ethical, moral individuals, when every fiber of their being cries out to kill the other tribe and take their stuff. As every parent knows, children are born being selfish little barbarians, and there are many times when mom or dad understands why Tigers eat their young.

The Golden Rule (Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You -- which works pretty well for everyone but masochists) breaks it down into very simple terms: if you don't want people killing you to take your stuff, don't kill other people to take their stuff.

Around us in stark relief and horrifying detail we see countless examples of people who just don't seem to "get it." From the mugger who terrorizes little old ladies for their Social Security Checks to the madmen who fly planes into office buildings, we can witness on the news over and over that lots of people think the Golden Rule applies to everyone else, but them. It's "Do Unto Others As I Would Have You Do." And then there are those who add, "Or I'll Kill You," at the end.

Pretty messed up, if you ask me.

Which now brings me to: 

The Craft of Writing:

Characters can't just do things because the writer wants them to do things. Well, I guess they can, but then that's the sort of book critical readers throw across the room after a while. "I need this guy to be a villain, so I'll have him act villainous." Ya, right. Look, Osma bin Laiden has this in common, with Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun, all the way back to Cain, who argued, "I did it because Pop liked my brother best:" they looked in the mirror and each saw a good guy. The scariest thing about a lunatic like bin Laiden is he really thinks God is on his side. He really thinks of himself as a moral actor. He has priciples and ethics, by his own lights.

What does that tell us That the rationalization of the human mind knows no bounds Sure, but it also tells us that the human psyche is a very convoluted thing at times and that people are capable of all manner of conditional ethics, relative morals, and principles like quicksilver.

So, when writing villains, it's good to know this, because if you don't make that person act as if he/she is the hero of his/her life story, the reader will smell a cardboard character before flipping the third page. I love good moral ambiguity in a story. Look at Hamlet, one of the great stories of all time; here's a guy trying to do the right thing whose "right thing" is mostly self-serving revenge, and look at the mess he makes out of it. He could have bought his mother's story at face, said, "Sorry dad, but I've got finals to cram for," and that would have been that. It also would have been a very short, dull play.

So the point is, make your villain the good guy in his or her own mind. Or make him crazier than a bug in a bass drum. But if you just have them being bad because you need someone to be bad, chuck it in. It won't work. Unless you're doing melodrama and your having him twirl his moustache while tying the heroine to the railroad tracks.

Copyright Raymond E Feist 2003
No reproduction without permission


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