Regarding Sauron: On Ambiguous Characters

J.M. McDermott published his first novel, Last Dragon, in January, 2008 under the Wizards of the Coast Discoveries program. Last Dragon drew immediate praise from both fans and critics for its stylistic prose and unconventional narrative structure. The book went on to make the ‘Editors Choice’ top ten at
Apex Publications published the eBook versions of Last Dragon in June, 2009. In 2011, Apex re-issued the print version.
Prior to the publication of Last Dragon, McDermott was a prolific short fiction and poetry writer. His work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, GUD, Dark Recesses, and more. He maintains an active blog at

Regarding Sauron. I don’t get him. I just don’t. What’s the point of all that power and despair? Control? Evil for its own sake? He’s so powerful all he has to do is sort of hang out in his tower and play with his rings and breed orcs and giant spiders and nobody would bother him if he wasn’t so busy trying to eradicate everything else. What’s the point of Sauron? Evil isn’t supposed to make sense. To the “heroes”, evil is just supposed to be this big, unknowable thing that happens and hurts people and must be stopped. Evil is a cloud of fear. Evil is an unspoken taboo that someone dares act upon, spilling a world of pain and suffering out from the sources of corruption. Because that’s exactly what doesn’t happen in life, by the way, that it must be written about in fiction. In life evil is an moral expression of tribalism, and tribal loyalty. For instance, killing is bad, unless you are killing “the bad guy” in which case, Yippee-ki-yay, Mother Fucker, because the bad guys deserve to die.

All right, so Sauron is explicated and explained elsewhere and he sort of makes sense when you think of him as a tragic hero. To Sauron, he, himself, is the hero of a struggle against the creator’s song of life, towards a self-directed transcendence earned and not handed down from on high. He is a Promethean figure. He is stealing the fire and building the world in his own image. He corrupts the creator’s world, to create his own. That’s heroic, isn’t it? That he is destroying so much life and love in the world is secondary to his own acts of creation that generate new life – orcish life. Plenty of good books explore the dynamic of the epic fantasy race wars from the perspective of the orcs and evil races.

Perspective, though, is key. Who you root for is what makes someone a hero or an anti-hero, or a villain. To a reader, following someone who is boring or predictable is ultimately the only deathblow to your prose. Whether heroic or anti-heroic, we root for the interesting one. I find both extremes trite, honestly. I prefer characters that are more like us in that they are more ambiguous in their life and motivations. Dogsland, a series of books I wrote, attempts to explicate a little upon the idea of good and evil, and the actual ambiguity of them.

Think back to tribalism. Characters have goals. Society has goals for all people inside of society. These opposing goals are neither good nor evil, but they don’t all line up. No society has a clear path of birth to death with exactly each that must be taken, followed by people who thoughtlessly step into those paths. Think about it in your own life. Our society has conflicting goals for us all as different sources of cultural authority impose their goals out in conflict with each other. Example: It may be “good” not to blow your retirement on a trip with your friends to Vegas, but interacting with other people and expressing the social bonds of love and affection are good, too. These two goals are in conflict. Do you blow your retirement in Vegas with your firends, or do you stay home alone and put off pleasure for another day?

In Dogsland, it is “good” not to kill people, but it also “good” to do what the king tells you. Jona is a character of conflict. He serves the king of the day, as a guardsman. By night, he serves the underworld. For both these masters, he is a violent man that does violent things. His human desire for love and peace in this world conflicts with the corruption of his blood. The tension of the conflicting forces in his life happen, for him and for us, as casually as walking down the street. He cannot make sense of the forces, and neither do we. We merely act. We live and act. The choices that come from these actions, that spill us into new tensions and new ways of living, define us as adults and as humans in an ambiguous world that spill forward into patterns we barely understand.

The truly inhuman thing about Sauron is that he understands why he does what he does completely. I think that’s why I don’t understand him, and do not get into his motives. The key to ambiguous characters is that no matter how much they reflect upon themselves, they don’t really know why they make the choices they do. No one does. They are just choices, in the moment of life, made when everything is a mess, and some choices don’t make sense except considering the mess of goals that spill out before us where everyone around us wants something and we have to discover what it is we want.

I don’t know what I want. I want something. That’s what we who are ambiguous say.

The History of Writing Mystery: Advice from the Greats

Deborah Lacy likes to collect handbags inspired by books and frequents speakeasies. She blogs at Mystery Playground and Criminal Element.

Writing excellent fiction is hard. This is an obvious fact to anyone who has attempted it.  Never fear because help is on the way. Many of the best crime fiction storytellers have left you clues to assist and inspire, if you know where to look. Here are a suggestions from greats in the genre.

“If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it, regardless of whether it has to do with sex, sailors or mounted policemen.” — Dashiell Hammett

The king of the hard-boiled school of fiction, Hammett is best known for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.  His Sam Spade character brought grit and the tough guy back into storytelling in a way that is still imitated today.  His stories didn’t shy away from tough subjects.

“There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of creative work before you can in any way evaluate it.” — Agatha Christie

Christie is not only known for her enduring characters, such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, but also for her intricate plots. Who can forget the precision of And Then There Were None where ten criminals are brought together on an island to be murdered one at a time matching a nursery rhyme? Or the serial killer in the A.B.C. Murders who sends a clue to Poirot before each killing?  If distance helped Christie hone this work, it could easily work for you.

More of Christie’s writing advice as well as details from her life can be found in her uncreatively titled autobiography, An Autobiography.

“Stories are nothing but mystery boxes” — J.J. Abrahms

A few years ago the king of the boffo premise, J.J. Abrahms — creator of Lost, Alias and the latest Star Trek movies — gave a great talk at the TED Conference where he compared storytelling to an unopened box (You can see the entire talk here). Abrahms talked about how once the box is open, the mystery ends and so does the suspense. He keeps an unopened box on his desk as a reminder. This is another way of saying – as you write, ask dramatic questions instead of answering them. Of course, in a traditional mystery readers will want to know the answers in the end.

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.” — Lawrence Block

A Grand Master of Mystery Writes of American, Block is known for his two series: one featuring recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder series and the other featuring gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. He’s won multiple Edgar, Anthony and Shamus awards and has published more than 50 novels and 100 short stories. He’s written five books for writers including Telling Lies for Fun & Profit. Block’s permission to let himself write badly gives way to him writing well and being prolific and has stopped writer’s block from stalling his writing career.

“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.” — Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s masterpiece character, Philip Marlowe was carefully developed in novelettes for the BLACK MASK pulp magazine until he was ready to write his first novel, The Big Sleep.  All of those stories helped Chandler learn how to refine and reduce his work in a way that is still admired today.

(Best selling author of the Lincoln Lawyer and Blood Work, Michael Connolly agrees with this advice on revising.)

Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe character was strongly influenced by Hammett’s Sam Spade, and both have been often imitated. Even the late great Robert B. Parker said he modeled his most popular character, Spenser, after Marlowe. But as Spenser may have sprung from Marlowe, he quickly became his own man as Marlowe was his own.  It’s important as we take lessons from the greats that we use these ideas as a starting point for something new, rather than just copying what has succeeded in the past.

So long, Stan.

You don’t know the things that shape you.

And I mean it. You don’t. They’re so big and so important to you that you have no perspective on them. They’re such a constant presence that you can’t tell them apart from air. You can’t feel them affecting you, influencing you. To you, they’ve always been there, and always will be.

But maybe you get a chance to understand them, when you move away from them. When you grow up, move on, seek to explore. And once you’ve moved on, once you’re wandering a strange new world, you see things and think, “Haven’t I seen this before?” Or you find yourself thinking along a certain process of logic every time, looking at the same things and doing the same things with them.

And you wonder, “Where did that come from? How do I know this? Why do I do this? Why is this so interesting to me?” And you start to think about it.

I stopped reading Ray Bradbury when I went to college. I haven’t really returned to him since then, not in earnest: I started writing, and to write better I felt you had to read things you’d never read before, and expand your horizons.

But the more I write, and the more I think about the things I want to write, the more I find myself returning to Bradbury’s world, to his ideas, to what he wanted things to be like, and what he wanted to warn us about.

It made me proud to hear people say The Troupe felt, in parts, like a Bradbury story. And when they said that, I realized he was who I’d gone to for my next one, one I was still writing, American Elsewhere. I’d been writing in his shadow. I’d sought him out specifically, without even knowing it. I was continuing a conversation I’d been having with his work since I was a child.

It’s okay to write in his shadow. It’s too big to get outside of, really. It falls across so many genres, so much of history. It’s layered in the earth like strata of stone. We carve pieces out of his stories without even knowing it, and stack them up on top of one another. And we work and live with them beside us, unaware they’re in the background. And I think they will be for a long, long time.

So long, Ollie.

So long, Stan.

The Writer’s Toolkit: Almost Everything You Need to get the Story Started

It’s long gone now, lost to some damnable garage sale or other, but my father once had a wooden shoeshine box that sat at the back of the bedroom closet beneath a rack full of awful ties. The box was a real showpiece: furniture-quality American poplar with dovetailed joints and an elevated footrest. As a kid who liked to dig through his parent’s stuff, I’d get the box out from time to time, flip open the brass latch at the front, and play around with the contents.

The shoeshine box held two horsehair shining brushes, a dauber brush, a bottle of cleaning cream, tins of Kiwi brand shoe polish (black and brown), and a soft shining cloth. There was no polishing glove. In all the times I watched my father shine his shoes before going off to work, he’d first pull an old sweat sock over his hand to prevent the dark polish from staining his fingers.

I mention the shoeshine box because I’m a big fan of toolkits. I’m fascinated by the things professionals collect to do their jobs – the stranger the better. Ever see a professional piano builder’s kit? It’s a sexy assortment of lathes, chisels, and auger bits. Have you ever heard of a tobacco smoke enema kit? Oh, they’re very real, I assure you. In the 1800s, they were the indispensable piece of medical equipment for assisting drowning victims – until they were debunked. Once, on a research trip to a medical history library, I got my hands on a Civil War-era surgeon’s battlefield kit. Although most of the implements were of the cutting and sawing variety, everything was stainless steel – still gleaming – and very lightweight. Nasty little cutters. Take an arm here, take a leg there…

Every professional has their toolkit. As writers, we’re no different from the rest. It can be easily assumed that anyone reading the site on a regular basis has stacks of books on every flat surface in their home. But there’s always room for more, eh?

Recently, I was at a conference during which a panel attempted to come up with a list of essential books for any writer to devour before picking up the pen. The panel moderator called it a “writer’s toolkit.” I listened, made notes. I didn’t agree on a number of the titles mentioned – some were irrelevant to my chosen genre, others didn’t interest me. But the mention of the toolkit held my interest. When I returned home to the paperback-and-empty-whiskey-bottle nest I call an office, I walked the stacks and hunted down every title that had been helpful to me in all my efforts. My writer’s toolkit (abridged):

Dialog gives definition to your characters, reveals motivations, aids in setting, and propels the story forward. No two characters should speak alike.

Dialogue (Write Great Fiction Series) by Gloria Kempton

Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella

Characters in fiction should be treated like real, live human beings. With history, motives, and reputation – they are believable and worth caring about to the last page.

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda Edelstein

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Writing Your First Novel is damn difficult work. Ask any professional and they’ll tell you the same. It’s hours and hours of dedication to the craft, but it beats working.

Your First Novel by Rittenberg and Whitcomb

How NOT to Write a Novel by Mittelmark and Newman

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Writing Great Horror is a topic near and dear to my heart. Horror has its own language and rules and pitfalls. Whether a slasher or a morality tale, horror stories are part of a genre that is continually reinventing itself.

On Writing Horror by the Horror Writers Association, Ed. by Mort Castle

The Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll

Writers Workshop of Horror by Michael Knost

Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

Story is the realities, not the mysteries of writing. Story is the essential element to any successful product of the craft. A bad story does not excite readers and turn pages.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

The Hero With 1000 Faces by Joseph Campbell

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias

I’ve always thought that books on writing are invaluable, due to the fact that they are a resource available at any time of day or night. I can’t count how many times I’ve left the bed at three in the morning and picked up one of these books to sit at the kitchen table until I’d worked out some plot turn or character aspect. If nothing more, a writer’s toolkit is a preparation – waiting for that moment when you’re struggling to hammer something together.

In the title, I suggested that this toolkit was almost everything you need to get the story started. Every toolkit is personal. None is ever complete. What is your essential writer’s resource? What books do you lean on in times of trouble? Let us know in the comments section below.